Fitness Fridays: Koi Eley On Losing Nearly 160 Pounds But Still Seeing Herself As Big — “I’m Still 400 Pounds In My Head”
When Koi Eley decided to embark on her weight-loss journey, there were no starts and stops. There was no, “I’ll get back on the wagon later.” For the 39-year-old Southern California native turned Memphis transplant, it was a life-or-death matter. So when she went ahead, started losing weight after finding herself at 402 pounds, and then signed up to have weight-loss surgery, there was no going back, only moving forward.
“I treat it like it’s life or death, so when I made the decision to undergo a [vertical sleeve gastrectomy], I also made the decision to change my relationship to food; to change my relationship with people; to change my relationship with fitness,” she said over the phone. “While I did have surgery, that is just simply one of the tools I have used for my weight loss. I am in the gym five to six days a week. I meal prep every Sunday. I don’t put it in my mouth if it didn’t come out of my kitchen [laughs]. Like, I just completely made a change.”
Her change has been an inspiring one, and it’s why three years after deciding to turn her life around, a year after having surgery and overall, losing nearly 160 pounds, she’s gained quite the following. Her more than 11,000 followers on Instagram DM her and pick her brain for advice to figure out how they too can get on track and stay on track. For their benefit, and yours, we interviewed Eley about her journey, including what caused her to gravitate so strongly to food as a child, doing not only the physical but also emotional work to be successful in her weight loss, and how even though her body has changed, she’s still trying to get her brain to stop seeing herself as what she used to look like.
MadameNoire: Tell me about your life before your fitness and wellness journey began. Was weight always an issue for you or was there a life event or anything that occurred that could have possibly caused you to put on weight?
Koi Eley: Unfortunately, weight was always an issue for me. I remember being aware that I was larger than other kids around the age of 6 or 7. I remember hearing my father having a conversation with a family friend who had a daughter that was the same age, and they were talking about the fact that I was fatter than her. That was the first time that I was aware of the fact that I was bigger than other kids my age. Just to be completely forthcoming, I am a victim of sexual trauma. I think that kind of exacerbated the problem. I started being sexually abused when I was 6 and I was sexually abused from the time I was 6 to the time I was 10. Probably in those four years, I gained 50 pounds. By the time I was 10, I was almost 200 pounds.
Were you being abused by someone close or like a family friend?
It was my mother’s ex-husband, my stepfather.
Oh, wow. Do you mind if I ask if and when you told her?
I did not tell my parents until after the abuse ended. I told my parents when I was around 12 or 13. Just like a lot of parents, they had their own history of trauma. Both my mother and my father have a history of trauma, and they really didn’t know how to help me. They didn’t help me because they didn’t know how to help me. So there was a lot of shame associated with the abuse, which just made food become more of a friend. I was never a really social child. I was always really, really intelligent and did well academically, but struggled with the social aspects of childhood because I was a sexualized child. A lot of things that children my age were interested in, I just wasn’t because I was aware of other things, so I spent a lot of time by myself. Food really was my best friend. And my stepfather, who was abusing me, would buy me cookies and buy me chips and buy me candy. It started this really unhealthy cycle from a really young age.
So you would say that you became an emotional eater?
Absolutely. Food was my friend. When I was happy I ate, when I was sad I ate, when I was bored I ate, if my feelings were hurt, I ate.
So with that in mind, you said on your page that as you ate your body grew and became a prison. When did you realize it was turning into that?
I would say the first time I really felt my body was a prison was when I was in the 11th grade. It was the first time I heard a boy — he was in the same grade as me and he was actually interested in me. When I turned him down, that was the first time a guy said, “Well f–k you with your fat a–.” It was like, wait a minute, but you just liked me five minutes ago! That was the first time I realized that my body could be used against me. Up until that point, I knew that I was fat, but I didn’t know that it was a crime for me to be fat. I realized, oh this is a really big deal.
Presently, you are turning 40 next month. That incident occurred back in high school. With that being said, what was the catalyst that drove you to do something about your weight and when did that occur?
I think for me personally, I had to do the internal work first. I had to start with fixing the things that were going on inside of me. What I mean by that is, I had a lot of psychological scars from just dealing with a tumultuous childhood; sexual abuse and abandonment issues with my mother because my mother suffered with substance abuse. I lived between my biological father and stepmother and my paternal grandmother. While I loved them all, they all had really unhealthy habits. A lot of times, I was around people who were psychologically abusing me — my grandmother would tell me, my mom should have had an abortion when she was pregnant with me. Just a lot of psychological abuse. I had to deal with the psychological issues. I learned how to love Koi, and accept Koi, and that’s when I became really aware that it was time for me to work on the outside. For me, the catalyst was loving myself internally and needing that to be represented in my physical body.
How many years ago would you say that decision was made?
This is going on my third year.
What was required of you to be able to be approved for a vertical sleeve gastrectomy?
Here’s another thing that’s very different about my story than a lot of people: I paid out of pocket. My insurance company actually did not cover it, so I paid for it. That’s another reason I take my journey so seriously, because this is not a game, this is something I did to save my life.
So it wasn’t like on the shows where people get the gastric bypasses and they are required to lose a certain amount of weight first?
What they’re doing is they’re trying to get their insurance company to approve them. I didn’t need any insurance approval because my insurance company doesn’t cover it. I didn’t have to meet any of those qualifications. Your doctor or surgeon always wants you to be in a position where you are healthy enough to undergo surgery. I have a cardiac arrhythmia so I did have to be seen by a cardiologist and do a full cardiac workup. They actually had me on some medication to stabilize my heart rate for a little while, maybe like 60 days. Once my heart was stabilized, since I was paying cash, I was able to have my procedure once I cut the check [laughs].
Gotcha! So no weight loss was necessary beforehand?
It wasn’t needed, but I did lose 25 pounds just on my own. It wasn’t a requirement. The insurance companies are what requires those things, not the surgeons.
What year did you have the surgery?
I’m actually only one year post-op. I had my surgery May 7, 2018.
What kinds of foods are you eating now?
I do high protein, low carbs. So I basically eat protein and vegetables. I do allow myself to have carbohydrates sporadically or in moderation. When I say moderation, for instance, I made a pasta dish the other day and I literally only had one ounce in the dish. This is the thing: You can retrain your eyes and you can retrain your brain. People oftentimes eat with their eyes, so if you think about it, if you go to an event and they’re serving food, it’s an obnoxious amount of food on your plate. Nobody needs that much food, but because we want it to look pretty and we want it to look appealing, we just put all of this stuff on our plate, and then we feel obligated to eat it, right? So what I do is, I have containers that are all three ounces. I don’t eat out of any container that’s not three ounces. I weigh all of my foods before I put them in the containers. My surgeon told me that my sleeve is 3.5 ounces, so I do not consume more than 3.5 ounces. Ever. I don’t care if I feel like I still have room to eat. Once my 3.5 ounces are up, I’m done eating.
What kind of exercise are you doing now that you’re in the gym so often?
I do cardio three to four days a week and it’s usually the Arc Trainer because that’s one of my favorite things. I either do the Arc Trainer of the StairMaster. Sometimes I’ll get on the elliptical. I also do a lot of strength training: Hip abduction, hip adduction, torso extension, legs — I basically run the gamut. I’m actually about to get into weight lifting.
On your page, you also shared that it’s important to take pictures of yourself to monitor your progress. Can you explain how doing so helps you on your journey?
I will tell you that when you don’t get positive reinforcement, when you don’t have people that tell you that you matter and that you’re important, and that you’re worthy and that you’re beautiful, you don’t think that those things are true of you. I have been overweight since I was 6, so I had to be the funny friend because no one was interested in me and if they were, they were interested in me in secret. They weren’t interested in me in front of their friends. I have two sisters who are very thin, so I was never complimented about my appearance as a child. I honestly can not remember a time before six months ago where people genuinely complimented me on my appearance. I’ll tell you as a person who has a master degree and who is a therapist, that may seem shallow, but it’s very important. It’s important for people to feel that they are valuable, like they are attractive, like they are worthy because when you don’t, then you’re more likely to allow others to mistreat you because you don’t understand your worth and your value. I know for a fact that I’ve not had very many healthy relationships because I wasn’t healthy. So another aspect of this journey is that I’m not dating, I’m dating myself [laughs]. I’m dating myself and I post pictures of myself because I’m trying to show myself how valuable I am and how worthy I am. Regardless of what anyone else says, I love Koi, I value Koi, Koi is worthy of being loved. It needs to start with me.
That’s so true. Also, I wanted to ask you, how has everything changed since this dramatic weight loss?
I would say that one of the most challenging aspects has been how other people receive you. I was always the fat girl, so people didn’t pay attention to me. Now, I’m kind of curvy and shapely, and a lot of people give me attention. I don’t know what to do with it because it’s new to me. Even something as simple as being in a market, reaching for something on a bottom shelf and having guys make lewd comments about my behind, it’s very off-putting because it’s not something I’m accustomed to. I also feel like people kind of put their insecurities on you. I’ll give you an example: Of course, I have more guys interested in me now, but what they do is they say stuff like, “Oh I know you have 1,000 guys in your DMs.” I don’t really know how to respond to that because what they’re doing is projecting their insecurities on me. I’m still 400 pounds in my head, so I don’t know what to do with it. Even though I may look a lot better, I’m still working on who the new Koi is. I’ve made the physical changes, but the brain hasn’t quite caught up with the number on the scale, if that makes sense.
It makes perfect sense. Lastly, I wanted to ask, what you would say to other women struggling to stay on track? I know you said on your page, many times, that you fired your excuses. How can others do that?
It’s imperative that you surround yourself with people who love you enough to tell you the truth. Oftentimes, we surround ourselves with people who have the same excuses that we do because what that does is, that validates our excuses. So set a goal for yourself, and if your goal is to lose 20 pounds, then ask yourself, what am I willing to do to lose 20 pounds? If your answer is, I’m not willing to do anything, then you really don’t want to lose 20 pounds. Oftentimes, people want results, but they don’t want the work. You have to set realistic goals for yourself, you need to figure out what it’s going to require and then you need to write it down. That’s one of the biggest things I think people need to do. Write down your goals and then write down how you’re going to accomplish them. As you’re doing it, check it off and then set a new goal. I do a lot of goal-setting. In my iPad I have all of these notes where I’m saying, I’m going to do this by this date. For instance, my new goal is preparing myself for skin removal surgery because that’s going to be the next phase that I’m going to go through after losing almost 200 pounds, and by that point, I will have lost 200 pounds, so I will have lots of excess skin. For me, setting goals and taking the steps to move forward is important. Also, I have to go back to the point of surrounding yourself with people who are doing what you think you want to do. If you want to lose weight and all of your friends are eating fried chicken and pizza, you’re probably not going to be successful.