On February 11, Scott Schroeder fell. He’d eaten at a McDonald’s for supper and gorged himself on a Big Mac, fries, regular Coke, and a dollar chicken sandwich. And though he managed to pull out of the trenches the next morning, he fell from grace later that day when he stopped at a Taco Bell and ate two soft tacos, a bean burrito, and a chicken soft taco. By this point I had been reading his blog, The Hungry Addict, for about a week and this was my first time witnessing his cracked resolve — and the guilt-ridden honesty needed to document this failure.
“This is the hardest transformation I have ever known,” he wrote. “I struggle with the decisions about food every damn day. Weakness. Guilt. Have I smashed down the project that I worked so hard to build.” Schroeder signed the post the same as he always does, “Hungry.”
In a world where New Year’s weight loss resolutions routinely fall by the wayside, a growing legion of dieters like Schroeder have found their resolve within the blogosphere, documenting their daily successes and failures for a sometimes-anonymous audience.
The outpouring of comments for this particular Hungry Addict post indicated that there are quite a few people out there who not only follow but have an emotional stake in Schroeder’s plight. “Hang in there, man,” one person wrote. “We’re all pulling for you. I think it’s awesome that you’re taking the reins and doing something to change your life.”
Schroeder launched The Hungry Addict six weeks ago, one month after he received a coronary artery scan and a letter from a cardiologist telling him that he had calcium deposits in two of the larger vessels of his heart. The letter said that if the 36-year-old didn’t soon make an aggressive radical change, then within five years he was at risk of having an “acute cardiac event.” For the first month he was in shock and didn’t do anything, and it was during this period that he learned of a blog run by a colleague at the hospital where he works.
“I was just kind of watching him do some things one day and asked him about [his blog],” Shroeder said. “And he told me it was free and showed me a few things about it, and then I started my own blog and it became another addiction for me. I’m an addict, so I just jump from one to the other.”
Diet bloggers use their blogs and the community support built around them to not only record the progress of their health and fitness goals but also to examine the cultural and psychological stigmas of poor health and how they fell as far as they did. And often they find that it’s the constant cheerleaders populating their comments sections — providing a mixture of tough love and gentle coaxing — that allow them to fight the cravings and pitfalls along the way.
“The interesting thing is even though you don’t know these readers, you feel accountable to them,” Schroeder told me. “They know your personal life, they see pictures of your hideous body on the internet that you’ve pretty much opened everybody to see…There are confessionals there. If I’ve fallen, I’m not going to bulls*** the readers. I want them to know that I’m human and I make mistakes. I eat poorly. I make bad decisions about food still. Although some people read the blog for entertainment value, I’m not just putting fluff in there. This is who I am and I’m trying to be as real as possible.”
In fact many of these bloggers will say that brutal honesty is necessary for the diet blogging to work — after all, most will post shirtless, unflattering pictures of themselves, exposing every physical insecurity for the world to see. “I don’t think that it’s like a Weight Watchers meeting, where you go in and everyone circles around and they clap for you,” Schroeder said. “It’s more raw than that. I don’t pretend to be in that class of people.”
Building a Support Network
Several of these diet and fitness bloggers I contacted had no idea where the flurry of commenters came from or why they decided to descend on these particular blogs, piping in on daily posts to issue their words of encouragement. Schroeder said that word just kind of spread throughout the hospital where he works. Though some of his readers include his colleagues and even his personal trainer, he said that he has regular readers all over the globe, from Australia to London.
Though Laura Nicholson has never actually met any of the commenters who populate her blog, Life of L, she told me she considers some of the women on there to be among her best friends; she has corresponded with many of them for years.
“It actually started with a book,” she said. “I read ‘Passing for Thin,’ by Frances Kuffel. She had lost almost 200 pounds and had written a wonderful memoir about it, and Amazon — this was back at the end of 2006 — sent out emails to anyone who had bought the book from them saying that Frances was starting a blog on Amazon, and would you like to join. And so I logged on and I just read what she was posting on the Amazon blog, and there were other people like me who had read the book, and we commented every day. Frances would post on a regular basis, and then we would write and support each other just from the comments.”
By the time Nicholson decided to launch her own blog she weighed 210 pounds, and she began seriously posting around the same time she joined LA Fitness in early 2007. She said she had tried probably 15 diets in the span of a decade, but this time the community support on the blog — offered by many of the same women she met on that original Amazon blog — enabled her to stay resolute.
“I’ve known these women for two and a half years and I’ve never met any of them in person, but they’re some of my best friends,” she said. “It’s really bizarre.”
Since she began blogging regularly, Nicholson has managed to lose more than 55 pounds and so far has kept the weight off. During this time, her blog network has expanded and she follows and comments on blogs written by women and men much like her, offering her own words of comfort and support when they struggle to maintain their lifestyle changes.
“Those are usually the posts that get the most comments,” she explained. “People might read your blog every day, but they might not stop to comment because it takes a little longer. But on the days when I’m at my lowest, I always get the most support. I don’t think I ever spill my guts face to face like I do on my blog. It’s that anonymity in a way…You can still write on blogs what you can’t say out loud to someone face to face.”
Face to Face
But not all fitness bloggers interact only online. Several of the bloggers Joel McKenna corresponds with on his swimming blog, The 17th Man, have come up and introduced themselves to him at U.S. Masters swim meets. “People have hunted me down at swim meets and said, ‘Oh my God, I read you all the time.’ And I’ve met some people and we sit together and chat about our events. And I’ve had people take pictures of me and send them to me by email.”
McKenna, like the others I spoke with, had fallen out of shape and put on weight in his 30s before deciding to make a radical life change. After a few unsuccessful stints at the gym he returned to swimming, and his initial posts on his blog were simply recountings of his daily workouts. But the posts soon expanded beyond that, allowing him to write down and analyze his work ethic and the different strategies he used to cut down on his race time.
“Then I would get a random comment every now and then saying, ‘Oh I it hate when that happens,’ or ‘I do that same thing,’ and then I realized the commenter had a blog and so I would go to their blog and comment,” he said. “And it went from one person to another, and then it grew to a group of six or eight who comment and email to each other about our races.”
But whether these bloggers meet their community face to face or the commenters remain anonymous, everyone I spoke to stressed the importance of honesty in their work, saying it is the humanity with all its strengths and weaknesses that draw these people to read.
“People don’t want to read a bunch of fluff up here, about how great I’m doing,” Schroeder said. “I could do that, I could manipulate my posts to make it seem like I’m spot on the program. But what people enjoy hearing, they want you to be brutally honest. They want you to say today was a really [crappy] day, and this is where I went wrong, and then they want you to climb back onto that horse.”
Simon Owens is a former newspaper journalist and an associate editor for MediaShift. He currently works as an online analyst for New Media Strategies. You can read more of his writing at his blog or contact him at simon[.]bloggasm [at] gmail.com.