Stop shaming people: it doesn’t work as a motivational tool and, overall, it makes a person’s life worse. Shame will never motivate anyone. Shame is one of the most painful emotions there is, according to a psychologist friend of mine. Most people who have been shamed will do anything, including abuse food (overeating, bingeing, purging, starving, and the like) to make the shame stop as soon as possible.
As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shelli Johnson, a wellness entrepreneur, weight-loss expert and coach, author, and founder of Start Where You Are Weight Loss®.
At her heaviest, Shelli weighed 304 pounds and wore a size 26. For over twenty years, she was a yo-yo dieter with two eating disorders, bulimia and compulsive overeating. She lost the weight naturally and now she weighs roughly 130 pounds and wears a size 2. She has kept the weight off for 9 years and counting. She’s also been free of all eating disorders for over a decade.
Shelli’s book, Start Where You Are Weight Loss®, details in easy-to-understand steps the process she went through to lose the weight and maintain that loss.
Shelli is currently featured on the front page of the Half Their Size section on People.com. She was also featured on 3 separate covers of PEOPLE magazine’s Half Their Size in 2020. She has also been featured in PEOPLE TV, FOX TV, National Public Radio, The Charlotte Observer, among others.\
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I was overweight starting at about 6 years old. I began dieting around age 10. By age 11, I was incredibly self-conscious about my body and ashamed of the way I looked. That’s also about when I turned on myself, pinching at the fat on my body and calling myself names in the mirror. By the time I was 13 years old, I ended up with two eating disorders, binge eating and bulimia*. By the time I was 16 years old, I weighed over 200 pounds.
*Binge eating is when you eat extremely large quantities of food in a short amount of time. Bulimia is when you binge eat then purge by either self-induced vomiting, excessive exercising, and/or misusing laxatives or diuretics.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?
Really young, maybe five years old: The Rescuers. That’s the first book I remember reading over and over again. I’d get to the end, close the back cover, take a breath, then I’d crack open the front cover and start reading it again. That’s when I knew I loved stories and I started writing my own.
The Long Walk by Richard Bachman (a.k.a. Stephen King). I found that book underneath a bed in a cabin in Maine when I was twelve. I stayed up the whole night, reading in the top bunk with a flashlight until I finished the story. That’s when I knew I wanted to be a professional writer (especially a novelist) for a living so I started studying the craft of writing.
A Separate Peace by John Knowles. The first adult book I read more than once, doing the same thing I did when I was a kid — finishing it, taking a breath, then cracking open the front cover again. That book helped me realize what kind of stories I wanted to tell and I started writing historical fiction.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
Well, it wasn’t funny nor even interesting per se. It was, however, one of the best lessons I ever got even though it made my life a lot more difficult at the time.
I got presented with an opportunity and needed to make a decision.
My intuition was saying this:
- Don’t do this.
- This is not a good idea.
- This will get you further from where you want to be.
But my head was saying this:
- It’ll be a good opportunity.
- It could help you get other opportunities.
- It’ll be okay.
The opportunity was shiny and promising. I truly wanted it to work out like I had envisioned it in my head. I did a list of pros and cons, writing down every pro I could think of no matter how tangentially related. I scribbled down a few cons. I did my best to convince myself it was a great idea. I got busy working toward that opportunity and did my best to drown out the hollering voice of my intuition. I was sure, totally sure, it was going to work out.
And so I ignored my intuition and listened to my head and plowed forward.
As you can imagine, it didn’t turn out well. It cost me time, money, energy, focus, and other resources. It turned out to be a huge mistake that took a toll on me mentally and emotionally too. It was a mistake that could’ve been avoided had I just listened to my intuition, which knew it was a bad idea from the get-go.
All that to say: trust your intuition every single time. Yes. Every. Single. Time. It will never steer you wrong.
Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?
Obesity is at epidemic levels worldwide according to the World Health Organization. Studies have shown that the vast majority of people who go on diets of any kind gain all the weight back within 5 years. Hope is also in short supply as studies have shown that more and more people have given up trying to lose weight at all.
But there absolutely is an answer that works.
For over 20 years, I was a yo-yo dieter, losing the weight only to gain it all back plus more. I tried everything to lose weight, no matter how detrimental it was to my health and well-being, but nothing ever worked long-term. At my heaviest, I weighed 304 pounds, had a Body Mass Index (BMI) of nearly 46 (which got me labeled as morbidly obese), and wore a size 26.
Finally one day, in exasperation, I wrote in my journal: if it’s not about food, then what is it?
That question started my final weight-loss journey. I did some deep introspection as to why I was using food in a way it was never intended to be used. That introspection — the answer to the question, if it’s not about food, then what is it? — eventually became a book I wrote called, Start Where You Are Weight Loss®.
I believe, from having lived it, that weight loss has very little to do with food choices and mostly to do with healing your mindset about food. Mindset is what my book aims to help you heal.
I lost the weight naturally without dieting, surgery, pills, disordered eating, expensive health products/interventions, or anything along those lines. I’ve kept it off for 9 years and counting.
I just listened to my body and let it be my guide, eating only when I was hungry then stopping when I was comfortably full.
That’s how I started and that’s what I do today to maintain the weight loss. I don’t have any restrictions on food except if I’m allergic to it. I eat whatever I want without judgment. That’s what I needed to do to heal myself and my relationship with food.
Women have said that my approach to weight loss has: given them hope, helped them address and heal their relationship with food and with themselves, lose weight without dieting, given them faith they can reach their goals, helped them stop abusing themselves with food, set them free, among others.
My book teaches people how to have long-term weight loss so they can improve their health, live longer and more-fulfilling lives in a body that feels comfortable to them, and heal their relationship both with food and with themselves.
Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
Memoir sections comprise about 10% of the book. Here’s one of those sections because it illustrates quite clearly how people turn on themselves. Shaming yourself is absolutely one of the most damaging things you can do to yourself and also a major reason that people continue behaviors with food that don’t serve them in any way (like overeating, bingeing, purging, starving, etc.)
THE MIRROR ON the back of the bedroom door isn’t wide enough for me to see all of myself at once. Naked, I spin in a circle like the ballerina in a music box. I angle my body, frown at each sliver of reflection. A belly that pooches out. Thick thighs that rub together. I pinch my inner thigh so hard I wince. I frown. I slap my behind, watch it jiggle. I frown again. Red indents at the waistband of my underwear. I snap the elastic. I frown for a third time. Two stretch marks snake up along my hip. I pinch a roll of fat hard enough to leave red marks. I give another frown. Double chin. Round face with cheeks that make me think of the gerbil at school, the way it looks when it gets done hoarding its food. Sad eyes behind oversized glasses. I frown so hard that the muscles of my face hurt.
Out loud, I say: “Fat.”
Then I say,“Ugly.”
I twirl again, pinching here and there, frowning.
After I spin in a complete circle, meeting my eyes once again, I say, “You are fat and ugly.”
I say it over and over: fat, ugly, fat, ugly, fatuglyfatuglyfatuglyfatugly.
It’s the first time I turn on myself, chipping away at my own self-esteem.
I am eleven years old.
What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?
I was standing in front of the refrigerator one day, deciding whether or not I was going to binge. I had already lost 100 pounds. But I still had so far to go to reach my goal of wearing a size 6. I wanted to ease my frustration and shame over the fact that I wasn’t where I wanted to be right at that moment.
Then I got the call (as an insistent voice in my head) to write a book and teach others in easy-to-understand steps how they could eat what they want, lose weight, and keep it off. The book is called Start Where You Are Weight Loss® because I realized I needed to stop wishing I was somewhere in the past or in the future and instead to just start right where I was.
That idea has now grown from a book into a website (startwhereyouareweightloss.com), YouTube channel, coaching business, and I’m currently working on an online course.
Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
One of my clients told me that my book “literally changed her life.” She’d been yo-yo dieting* on-and-off and battling her weight for nearly 40 years. She told me that after reading Start Where You Are Weight Loss®, she was finally free from struggling with food and being obsessed with food for the first time in her life. She told me she now has hope for a better life for her future.
*Yo-yo dieting or weight cycling is when you lose the weight then gain it all back again, often gaining more weight than when you started.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
1. Stop calling obesity a disease. I know many medical professionals and organizations have deemed obesity a disease. Having lived through morbid obesity (a BMI of 46), I don’t believe obesity is a disease at all; I believe it’s a choice. In order to overcome obesity, a person must acknowledge that it was his/her choices that got them to where they find themselves today. Calling obesity a disease takes that personal responsibility away from people and instead puts the responsibility on the “disease” over which the person likely has no control. I can tell you, without a doubt, you have full control over what foods you choose to put in your body and how much and when.
2. Stop shaming people: it doesn’t work as a motivational tool and, overall, it makes a person’s life worse. Shame will never motivate anyone. Shame is one of the most painful emotions there is, according to a psychologist friend of mine. Most people who have been shamed will do anything, including abuse food (overeating, bingeing, purging, starving, and the like) to make the shame stop as soon as possible.
3. Stop dieting, just stop. I spent over 20 years on what I call the diet-go-round®, jumping from one diet to another, and never found one that worked long-term. Stop especially restrictive dieting, where you cut out foods or entire food groups. Dieting and especially restrictive dieting leads to obsessive thoughts about food and a damaged relationship with food. Dieting is also a major factor in the development of eating disorders.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
To me leadership is serving people by showing them a way that works then helping them to make their own path.
I’m a big believer that in order to be successful at weight loss (and pretty much everything else too), you need to find what works for you and do that. I believe leaders should have that same approach: guiding people in a direction that will get them where they ultimately want to be but letting them have the freedom to decide the best way for them to get there.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me about successful weight-loss when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Know your strong reason why.
Your strong reason why is a declaration to yourself of why what you’re doing deeply matters to you. Your strong reason why is a guide to help keep you on the path you want to be on. It’s also an anchor to keep you steady when life becomes a storm around you. It’s the reason behind why you do what you do, and it’s only for you. That means it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks of your reason why, because you’re doing what you do for you and you alone. You need to know your strong reason why: I mean really know it deep down in your bones and take it to heart and repeat it to yourself as needed.
When I started my final weight-loss journey, I wrote down exactly why losing the weight and keeping it off deeply mattered to me. I wrote that I would be healthier and fit into pretty clothes and feel comfortable in my own body. I also wrote that I wanted freedom and peace and to pursue my passions without the weight holding me back. Having that strong reason why has been instrumental in my ability to keep going, to reach the goals I set for myself, to continue growing, and to reach for bigger and better things.
Knowing my strong reason why has also made decision making a lot easier. It’s really helped me focus on what matters to me and in which direction I want to be headed. So if something comes up and it doesn’t align with my strong reason why, then it’s a no. In the same way, if it does align or at least intrigues me that it might, then it’s a yes. In that way, my reason why keeps me focused on the path I want to be on so I can keep moving forward.
2. Realize you’re going to face opposition.
You need to prepare for that opposition NOW so it doesn’t derail you later.
You’re going to meet people who may feel threatened by you and what you’re doing. They may feel intimidated by you. They may tell you that what you want is ridiculous or your goals are unattainable or that you aren’t capable of doing what you say you want to do. They will likely take shots at you in an attempt to make you smaller and less threatening in their eyes. I believe that usually has something to do with you reaching for your goals while they sit around not reaching for theirs. No matter the reason, all that strife isn’t about you. That’s about them. It has nothing — I repeat nothing — to do with you. So don’t take it into your heart at all. Don’t dim your light at all. Stand in your truth no matter what.
I have met people who told me I’d never lose the weight and keep it off because weight loss is the hardest thing in the world. Some people said there’s no way to lose weight naturally without dieting and struggle. Others said that I needed to accept an overweight body that felt uncomfortable to me because that’s just who I was. Still others told me I didn’t have what it took to lose over half my body weight. Sometimes, I even told myself that. Here’s the truth: none of those things said by others or even what I said to myself was true. None of them. Here’s another truth: all of those things were opposition.
You need to decide NOW how you’ll handle those situations, because they will come. What will you do if someone, even someone you may care about or love deeply, thinks your goals aren’t worthwhile? What will you do if someone doesn’t agree with your assessment of your life? What will you do if someone tells you that you aren’t capable of achieving what you want? What will you do if someone actively rallies against you? Will you stand in your truth and let your light and your message shine bright? Or will you agree with them and slink back into the shadows and stay quiet?
There will be a choice to be made. That’s not a matter of if but of when. Do yourself a kindness and make that choice now while you are calm and can think rationally, make that choice now when you’re not in an emotionally-charged moment. Then remember the choice you made for when that moment of opposition comes.
3. Do the work because it matters deeply to you.
Do yourself a kindness and don’t worry about the outcome and don’t focus on the numbers.
I used to worry about the outcome and if what I was doing was really going to work. I’d get myself all worked up about it, telling myself stories about a future that hadn’t happened yet, mostly focusing on what might go wrong. All that did was add all kinds of stress to my life that didn’t need to be there. Worry doesn’t serve you at all. It just expends your time, energy, and focus on a fruitless pursuit because all the worry in the world won’t change the outcome one bit.
I used to gauge my success solely on a number. I’m here to tell you that focusing exclusively on the numbers doesn’t serve you either. By looking solely on the numbers, including my goal weight or a clothing size or any other number or statistic, I made my focus very narrow. What that did is confine my vision for my life into a number instead of expand it into how I felt in my body or how I felt about my life, which are the most important things.
Instead of worrying about the outcome or focusing on the numbers, just make sure that what you’re doing deeply matters to you. That way, it’ll be fulfilling work to you no matter what the outcome or the numbers. The second thing you need to do is make a commitment to yourself to start it and see it through all the way to the end. That means you need to finish and put your work out in the world.
Honestly, the only thing you have complete control over is the actions you take. Looking at your life that way will alleviate stress and bring joy back into your work again. I know that because that’s what happened for me when I started focusing on doing things that deeply mattered to me while letting go of the outcome and the numbers.
4. Know that the temptation to quit will come.
You need to prepare for that temptation NOW so it doesn’t derail you later.
This goes back to number one and knowingyour strong reason why. You need to let that strong reason why be your focus and pull you along and be a light in the darkness, showing you the way out. You need that strong reason why to hang onto.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to quit, and not just with weight loss either. It took me two years to lose 174 pounds naturally. Two years in which I dealt with setbacks and challenges and obstacles and self-doubt and the list goes on. Two years of facing my emotions when I didn’t want to and not using food as a crutch when that would’ve been so much easier and having life come at me hard some days with no one to fall back on but myself and on this list goes too. I’ve maintained that weight loss for 9 years now, and every day I have to choose to keep going and not give up on myself and quit.
You really do need to decide, right now (even before you start), what you’re going to do when the temptation to quit comes. Make no mistake, that temptation will come; it’s not a matter of if but of when. And if you’re not ready with a solid reason as to why what you’re doing deeply matters to you when that temptation comes, then you’ll likely get derailed and you may even end up quitting. It’ll be much better for you to decide now, while you’re calm and thinking rationally, what you’ll do when an emotionally-charged situation comes around. Then remember that choice when the temptation to quit comes.
And always remember: quitting will never get you to where you want to be.
5. Take to heart that this is about saving your own life.
This isn’t about anybody else; this is only about you. You need to be your sole motivation. Period.
Any other motivation will eventually let you down, I assure you that’s true. Why? Because people are fallible and make mistakes. They aren’t always there when you need them. They push your most painful buttons. They leave your life. You need to be your sole motivation because the only person you can 100% count on is you. You have to be the rock you lean on and the strong foundation on which you build your life. And you are absolutely capable of being those things for yourself, I assure you that’s true too.
I used to make others my motivation — because my friend wanted me to, because my doctor said it would be a good idea, because my kids needed a healthy mom, and on the list went. I also used to let those same others be the excuse I gave when I inevitably gave up on myself and quit. Those excuses went something like this — that friend left my life, my doctor didn’t react the way I thought he should, my kids gave me a hard time and weren’t grateful, and on that excuse list went too.
When you are your sole motivation, the only one you’re responsible for is you. The only one you’re accountable to is yourself. And the only one you hurt by giving up on yourself and quitting is you.
Know this: your worth and value are innate — that means you were born with them and nobody can ever take them away from you. You are worth being the only reason that you do what you do. So you write down your strong reason why and focus on that. And you remember two other things: first, wanting anything for your life is reason enough to pursue it, and second, you are reason enough to have what you most want for your life.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Theodore Roosevelt once said: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
There are always going to be people who don’t like you no matter what you do. I once read that it’s something like 10% of people will dislike you. Do yourself a kindness and don’t make them your focus.
This quote is on my desk because every piece of writing I’ve ever produced has gotten criticized at some point. Many of those criticisms came from people who have no experience with writing a book. It takes a lot of courage to sit down for weeks or months or often years to finish a piece of work. It takes a tremendous amount of bravery to open yourself up and be vulnerable and share parts of yourself in that work And make no mistake, whenever you write anything, a piece of you goes into it. It takes the most daring of all to then publish that work and let others read what you’ve written.
Judgment is easy; understanding is harder.
The critics are the ones who judge, and they don’t count.
You, who are showing up and doing the work and honoring yourself in the process, are the only one who counts. Remember that when you decide whether the risk is worth taking to put yourself out in the world. It is worth it. You are worth it because you’re the one who counts.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I chose her because her work on shame and vulnerability resonates with me.
You can’t be a great leader unless you can open yourself up, risk letting others see the real you, and lead from a place of authenticity. Likewise, you can’t be true to yourself unless you use your own voice, risk following your true passions, and show up in the world as your real self. All of that takes vulnerability.
It’s been my experience that shame is what keeps people from being vulnerable. Shame is what says there is something wrong with you and you shouldn’t be who you are. And in that way, it’s shame that causes people to start hiding their true selves and creating a facade to keep themselves safe and moving through their lives as a figment of their imagination. Shame, I believe, is a major reason that people, myself once included, lead unfulfilling lives.
And Brené’s work shows people how to overcome shame, be vulnerable, and create the life they want for themselves.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!