Biology

a science journalist loses weight



Weight loss is probably my least favorite thing to talk about, but I’m going to do just that for a minute, to share my thoughts on science journalism and, for a change, a little bit of a personal story. Because I know people love reading about getting thin.

A week or so ago (mid-February) I tried on a pair of shorts with a tag saying “L.” They fit great. I walked out of the dressing room to show Mom, and she said “good, now you know what size you are. Seven.” It turned out I was looking at the tag upside-down.

This was baffling to me; I never would have bothered to try on a size seven. I didn’t even know if Large would be big enough. Recently my pants were size 14-16.

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(Left: May 16, 2018. Right: Feb 11, 2019)

I had not tried to lose any weight between May and February, I read no nutrition books or count calories. I didn’t really care to; I was healthy. The only thing that annoyed me is that it was getting hard to find clothes in the varieties I wanted. But, no biggie.

A big reason I didn’t bother trying to lose weight was that, as a science journalist, I saw that the science around weight loss/nutrition was inconsistent, complex, daunting, biased, and often funded by industry or activist groups. I figured I would never get through the reeds and truly understand how to lose weight without obsessing over it. Didn’t have the time or motivation for that when I was already pretty preoccupied with my career.

Still, as much as I tried to duck out of covering nutrition, I had to write about it sometimes. On a particularly melancholy day when I was too tired to argue anymore, I had to pump out a story called “How Cinnamon Helps You Burn Fat and Lose Weight.” TBH it pains me to link to it. But weight loss stories got traffic, and simple headlines saying “this one thing will you thin” would work wonders, wonders for click generation.

And that further illustrates the point that researching weight loss is a pain. Not only is the science shakey, but in many cases science journalists aren’t able to explain the nuances of the study and filter out the bad ones. We want to do good reporting, with multiple sources, investigations into funding, fact-checking, and other important steps that would ensure that an article is as accurate as possible. But at my job we were asked to write five 400-word articles per day, among other things, so who has time for all that? (Full disclosure, I usually didn’t meet the 5-per-day goal.) Plus, we didn’t select stories for balanced, important reporting, we selected them based on what we thought people would click on.

There no way could we write that many articles well. So, in many cases, we wrote them poorly. And I, a science journalist, found that I didn’t know when to trust science journalism. So, in many cases, I didn’t. (Note: I don’t want to imply that you should never trust science journalism; some places are more rigorous than others.)

When your career is such a big part of your identity, it’s not fun to be forced to do mediocre work, and I felt a little jaded about the industry itself. Also hopeful, though, that I could make it better. But before it gets better, I worried about putting out information that could be spread throughout the internet when I didn’t have time to be absolutely sure. Or that the next #fakenewsweek tag on Twitter would target me and damage my career trajectory–my self. Or that I would generally damage the public perception of science journalism, or lead people to think things that weren’t true, and make decisions based on oversimplified/false statements. It got dark. I got darker.

So. Well. Eventually I ran low on nihilism, and on May 28 I had sort of an epiphany. I wasn’t on a mountaintop, I was just looking at a happy video on Tumblr, with sunshine and roller skating in it. I somewhat suddenly found that I wanted to be more than a job, and I wanted to be excited and satisfied and walk in the sun. I socialized with more people. I started working 8 hours a day instead of 9 or more. I biked to and from work, listening to happy music, and took a day off to get sunburned at the beach, made new friends, rekindled some hobbies. Even at work I was different; I wrote a science stylebook, tried to help the interns, helped with some videos, and did some magazine pieces.

I also found that the new me really couldn’t go back to the content mines for long periods of time. I resisted writing articles with one-hour deadlines, hesitating at the mouth of the cave. It’s dark in there.

The bosses, click-hungry, uh, I figured they didn’t like that. Technically I can’t be sure of/trust what they say their reasoning was, but it’s reasonable to assume that they were responding to my lack of high-volume content generation when they let me go.

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That was July 18. I don’t have a scale so I don’t know how much weight I lost in that time, but my clothes didn’t fit anymore which kind of sucked because I wasn’t sure if I was in a financial position to buy more (luckily I can sew a bit). I do think I look better, but like I said, I didn’t care enough to keep track of my weight. 

I also can’t use a scale measure how much better my life is right now, but….so much. I’m freelancing and working on a book proposal, and somehow I have more money than when I was at a staff job. What’s more is that there’s more to me than the job; I have time for skating and seeing my family and like, whatever, it’s hard to put your personal life on a CV.

To me, an important thrust of this story is about the intersection of jobs and mental health. That was the real transformation. So why did I frame it as a story about weight loss?

Well, I know people love reading about getting thin.

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