I worked as a science writer at an outlet funded by, and completely obsessed with, clicks. So I’m going to write about the thing that makes people click: how I lost 40 pounds, and also my job as a science writer.
I had not tried to lose any weight between May 2018 and today, I read no nutrition books, nor counted calories. A big reason I didn’t bother trying to lose weight was that, as a science journalist, I never thought I could get a handle on the information, and misinformation, around weight loss. Certainly not enough to succeed in shedding pounds without sacrificing health and sanity. I saw that the science around weight loss/nutrition was inconsistent, complex, daunting, biased, and often funded by industry or activist groups. And I knew well that the news about nutrition that reached readers’ eyes was strained through a certain filter. I didn’t have the time or motivation to obsess over finding which nutrition facts were actually true when I was already pretty preoccupied with my career.
My career, oh, so glamorous, my dream job, in many ways. Being a good science writer was far and a way the thing I cared about most. Living in the big city, writing for a household-name publication, communicating science for the world was what I had always wanted. People trusted us to tell them the truth about all sorts of natural and technological concepts. And as people trust us, with our big, weight-bearing name, they are sure to make decisions based on what we write. Journalists, then, have an important responsibility to the truth, otherwise we will lead people astray.
And that is why, at this glamorous dream job — not really— I tried as hard as I could to avoid covering anything about nutrition and weight loss. I simply did not think that it could be done responsibly by someone tasked with writing five articles a day for $39,000 a year in Lower Manhattan, with no actual training in nutrition. Still, I was made to, because of the pressure and financial incentives to get views. The editors, click-hungry, attached inaccurate headlines to my articles, assuming that would generate views. (Does it, though, in the long run? No one could answer that for me.) I eventually became too emotionally exhausted to fight them on it.
Almost every staff writer I met at this job wanted 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 three to five articles required per day, we simply couldn’t write them in a way that was up to the standards of science journalism. So, in many cases, we just wrote them poorly.
I wanted to improve what the public knew about science. But I wasn’t helping. I was hurting.
I wasn’t on a mountaintop when I had my watershed moment, which sucks because I actually spend time on mountaintops. I think I was looking for a sign and maybe just accepted one as it came. I was just scrolling through Tumblr on yet another quiet, ramen-filled night in my windowless living room when I saw a music video. The film was on sunny Venice Beach, and the character in the video was smiling and dancing and roller skating.
I thought, that guy’s happy.
I could be happy.
I re-examined what I was doing with my emotional energy. My playlists had been populated with melancholy laments and rage. All I cared about was improving the journalism of a company that was never going to care back. I wasn’t going outside or skating or making friends or producing worthwhile content. But I should have been.
Instead of being a job, I wanted to be a person with a job.
I wanted to be excited sometimes, in the office and out of the office. I started working 8 hours a day instead of 9 or more. I biked to and from work, listening to the song in the Venice Beach music video and corny tunes about sunshine, took a day off to get sunburned Coney Island, made friends outside the office, rekindled some hobbies. Even at work I was different; I wrote a science stylebook (warning readers of the perils of nutrition studies, among other things,) I tried to help the interns, helped with some news videos, and did some magazine pieces.
One day, the editor in chief came to my desk. “Lonely Island” as I had called it, as the other nine desks in the row had been vacated when, over the past six months, every other person on my team quit.
“When you’re done with the magazine piece, I need you to go back to writing for the web,” she told me. “That’s what you were hired to do.”
“OK,” I said. “But I have three pieces for the magazine.”
She paused and turned, seemingly unsure. And then I was faced with the reality of what my job description actually was. It wasn’t to do good journalism and help people. It was to write “for the web:” shorthand, I figured, for fast, high-volume, low-quality content. The editor was ushering me back to the content mines when I had strayed. But then, I found myself hesitating at the mouth of the cave.
It’s dark in there, I thought, looking into the abyss.
So, I hesitated every day when given the one-hour-per-article assignments, trudging through them carefully and turning in well below five-per-day.
It was fair, then, that they let me go.
On the Light Side
Of course there are challenges to living the freelance journalism life, and it sucks that I can’t really afford new clothes when I’m swimming in all my old ones. But looking back, I’m surprised I didn’t realize how much worse it was to work at a company that expects you to do bad work. I had thought the darkness was just something to endure or harness, physical and mental health be damned.
In May, before the turning point, I was a size 16, and I had been that size for a large portion of my time at the job. But now I’m rocking size 7–8. And I can’t really measure how much better my life is now: I have a social life, I relax, I ride my bike and roller skate, and I’m freelancing. Not once in my freelance career have I written anything of which I was ashamed.
So, this story is really about mental health and how a shitty job can make you an even shittier person. So, why did I frame this as a story about weight loss?
I just hoped you would click.