Over the past two years, Kayla Hurley has lost nearly 200 pounds. It’s not something she’d ever intended to be famous for, but within days of posting her story to Imgur, Hurley was everywhere. She was hailed as an honest voice for those who have lost large amounts of weight and those who long to.
The reason that Hurley’s story is so captivating isn’t because she looks like a completely different person, but because she’s fighting the stereotypes of the weight-loss narrative. She’s not The Biggest Loser or The Swan. No TV coach has helped her slim down and then plied her with cash and prizes. Instead, Hurley’s speaking out about both sides of the weight loss journey. On one hand, she’s happier and healthier than she’s ever been, on the other, she’s struggling with some painful challenges no “fat to fabulous” story ever tells.
Hurley is 24, and she says she was obese all throughout high school — gaining weight until age 22 when she hit a turning point at an amusement park. She and her family had gone to Busch Gardens to celebrate her little brother’s birthday. Humiliation struck when her brother wanted to ride a rollercoaster and Hurley found herself unable to fit on the ride.
“I was getting on and I couldn’t fit into the seatbelt,” Hurley says. An attendant hurried over, ready to help her get settled so that the ride could begin.
“He starts trying to shove this thing down and make it click. There’s a whole bunch of people waiting and then eventually he’s just like, ‘Ma’am I can’t shut it. You’ve got to get off,’” Hurley remembers. “I had to get off in front of all these people and my little brother had to go with my mom and dad. It was just horribly embarrassing. I thought, “You know what? Something has to change.”
“The worst part,” she adds, “was feeling everyone’s eyes on me. Like they were thinking ‘Who’s holding up the roller coaster? Who is it?’”
It’s not like Hurley hadn’t tried to lose weight before: she’d been on Atkins, Weight Watchers, and even Herbalife. At one point, she’d sent in an audition to The Biggest Loser hoping that it would make an impact, but she wasn’t chosen for the show. Then, a friend told her that she could lose weight if she just stopped eating things that were white. No potatoes, no bread, no grains of any kind.
The process was difficult, but Hurley was ready to make a life change. Soon, she’d lost 20 pounds and her doctor approached her with the option weight loss surgery. Hurley hadn’t been eligible due to her weight before, but now she had a big decision on her hands.
“I was hesitant because it’s a big operation,” Hurley says. She doesn’t recommend that anyone make the choice lightly. That’s partly because of the risks that come with surgery and partly because, as Hurley points out, nothing about weight loss surgery is like what you’d see on a major TV network.
“You automatically expect the weight to just fall off, right?” Hurley asks. “It just doesn’t work like that and the first couple of months after surgery, I actually ended up gaining weight. I was upset about it because I got this operation, I went through all this crap, and I was like, ‘Why isn’t it just coming off?'”
The missing element, it turns out, was exercise. After another talk with the same friend who’d suggested the pre-surgery diet, Hurley began going to the gym, something she calls “the bane of her existence.” Now, she goes to the gym twice a day, four times a week. She spins in the morning and does weight training at night. It’s become a comfortable pattern for her, but Hurley remembers her first steps into the gym as scary and uncertain.
“I’d see really fit people in the gym and think, ‘I’m this 355 pound girl trying to go to the gym. What am I doing with my life?’” Hurley says.
That’s when she discovered spinning. “Spin class is dark, so nobody could see you dying in the seat next to them, that was the best part about it, and it’s a high intensity cardio workout.”
The rest is history. Well, not exactly. Because even after the weight loss surgery, even after the exercising, Hurley still had to struggle to get the weight off. In fact, according to Hurley, while the operation was an important part of her journey, she also says that it felt like it made the weight loss ten times harder, not a thousand times easier as many might expect
“Not only did I have to deal with the operation and the actual physical pain,” Hurley says, “but the first six months were just me vomiting. It was horrendous. Learning what you can and can’t eat again… it’s like learning to eat all over again.” Sometimes it felt like there was no rhyme or reason to anything. Hurley had been to the classes, she’d gone to mandatory counseling, and she knew what foods to avoid. But the pamphlets she’d been given hadn’t prepared her for the fact that she would no longer know her body and what it could and couldn’t handle.
“I couldn’t eat any type of chicken or eggs for at least a year and a half,” Hurley says. “It would just come right back up.” Her body is still unpredictable. “Even two years later, I don’t have a list of foods I can and can’t eat because my body will one day be like ‘yeah this is fine eat all the chicken you want.’ The next day you put a tiny piece of chicken in me and it says ‘no we’re not going to do this.’”
Exercise is still the main thing that keeps Hurley going strong. Nutrition is key, she says, but adds that if you’re not moving, you’re not burning calories. In order to make weight loss meaningful, you have to spin, jog, jump rope, or just walk in order to keep the weight loss going and to maintain the results you’ve already achieved. It’s a journey, not a destination, and one that comes with some big bumps in the road. For Hurley, like for many other people who have lots a great deal of weight, the biggest surprise is loose skin — which weighs between 15 and 20 pounds.
“I could probably cover a baby in it,” Hurley says.
If the subject of loose skin is a surprise, it’s because many people don’t talk about it. Hurley says that being overweight is difficult, so when someone finally sheds the pounds, they don’t want to let others know that they may still look or feel unattractive. And because there’s so much emphasis placed on losing the weight, it may feel wrong or negative to come out and say “Hey, it’s not over yet! There’s still so much more to do.”
Because these same people have spent so much time being “down on themselves” they are less likely to come out and admit that the weight loss didn’t cure everything.
That’s one of the main reasons that Hurley decided to open up about her struggles. The post that went viral for her, the one in which she documented her battle with the skin, wasn’t her first. The first time, she’d only posted about losing the weight, but then the questions started. People started sending her messages saying that they were afraid to lose weight because they were afraid they’d have loose skin, too. Hurley can’t lie that it’s a problem — hygiene is especially important when parts of you that were once filled out now have spaces and crevasses — but she says that she’d take “yards and yards and yards and yards” of loose skin over being unhealthy.
Because for Hurley, the weight loss wasn’t just about a smaller dress size or a comfortable ride on a roller coaster. It was a complete life change, one that she needed to make in order to feel her best. Before, she says, she felt uncomfortable going out because she was self-conscious of how others would react to her size. She refers herself to being a potato in a group of gorgeous friends. Now, she’s on the other side, cajoling her friends into a night out of fun, even if they may be feeling less jovial than she is. That’s because she doesn’t feel tired anymore. Now that she’s eating right and working out, she has more energy than ever before.
“Even if I’m just sitting down I feel so much better. You don’t realize how shitty you feel because you’re constantly feeling shitty, but once you start feeling better you realize just how shitty you used to feel. I’m a certified nurse’s assistant for residents with Alzheimer’s and dementia. I would walk around and do my job and before I would even lift anybody I’d be sweating, even when the air conditioner was on. I would sweat doing nothing. Just pour buckets, and buckets, and buckets.
“I barely used to be able to walk down the street without getting tired,” Hurley says, “and now I clock in at four miles a day. When I first started out I’d run for like five minutes, not even, and then I’d walk for 30. Now I can go for five miles at a steady jog. It’s incredible.”
Hurley’s last struggle? Surgery to remove the loose skin from her body. She’s comfortable with who she is and isn’t answering to anyone else when it comes to treating her body in the best way she can, but Hurley says that keeping the loose skin isn’t just a matter of cosmetics, it’s a necessity. Aside from hygiene issues, she also suffers from lower back pain — which her doctor believes comes from the loose skin weighing her down.
There’s one unfortunate development: this surgery isn’t covered. Because it’s seen only as cosmetic, Hurley must pay $20,000 to have her loose skin removed. And while she doesn’t like asking for help, she was convinced to start a crowd funding account to get her to her goal once she hit The Huffington Post, The Daily Mail, and even news sources in Belgium where the story of her success, she says, has taken off in a big way.
Even though Hurley is having her 15 minutes now, she’s not planning on quitting her fitness plan anytime soon. Nor is she going to stop telling people what it’s really like to lose nearly 200 pounds. It’s hard sometimes, of course, but her side of the story is also an important one.
Though not all the attention lobbed her way has been positive — there’s always someone willing to cast aspersions and say cruel things — Hurley says there’s one comment that really encapsulates what this experience in healthy honesty has been about: “One of the comments on Imgur,” she says, “read ‘good on you for showing this side of weight loss and not just posing in a push-up bra pretending to have kept your boobs.’ That struck me as funny.”