May 19—Little did Liz Davis know when she first started her own sometimes painful, sometimes slow and often frustrating effort to change her body, mind and spirit that she would end up leading a small movement.
The Seattle native lost 200 pounds — shrinking from 400 pounds and a size 28 to a healthy size 12 — more than 10 years ago using the lowest tech, least expensive and most accessible tool she could find: her feet.
As she walked routinely through the Central District neighborhood where she was born and raised, she became a well-known figure and an inspiration to people who watched as she slowly slimmed down.
As her body changed, her consciousness did, too, and she realized she wanted to help other people understand that simple, common sense and inexpensive changes could lay the groundwork for permanent health improvements.
As she invited others to join her walks, they became impromptu community coaching sessions.
“I wanted to give something to people who couldn’t necessarily afford to go to the gym, or who didn’t want to go because they were too self-conscious about their bodies. I wanted them to know they could literally save their own lives,” Davis said.
Her friend, Jo-Nathan Thomas, a social-service specialist who had just lost 60 pounds himself when he and Davis met at the University of Washington, said, “She is doing incredible work in the community.
“She’s helping bring affordable health awareness and exercise to the masses. Once she found the courage to act, she saw that she began to overcome her struggles, inside and out. At the same time, she became aware of the epidemic of health issues in the black and brown communities, and she developed a passion for educating and encouraging people.”
Her passion for helping others was nourished by her sister, Michelle Hawkins, who worked at the Garfield Community Center, and Hawkins’ trainer, Willie Austin, a former University of Washington football player and powerlifting champion who started the nonprofit Austin Foundation.
Hawkins and Austin used to go to health fairs and festivals where Austin would lay out fitness equipment, demonstrate how to use it and invite others to try.
They both told Davis, who at that point had just lost her first 60 pounds, she needed to tell her story.
“Willie asked me to tell folks at the health fair how I lost the weight,” she said. “He said it would encourage people who were obese to know that I had done it.”
“They gave me the bug for helping people,” said Davis about her sister and Austin, who have both since passed on.
So she has created a number of platforms, including a one-woman show that tells of her transformation from “fat Liz to healthy Liz.”
She runs several websites and Facebook pages — Walkable CD, DeFlora Walks — has created a get-started workshop that was funded by a small city grant and printed pamphlets of tips and tools. She began to sell herbal skin products, and she established a Community Walk through the neighborhood she calls “Africatown” — the Central District.
The walk, typically held during the more temperate months, usually starts at a local park where old and new participants gather around Davis, who usually carries an African flag and sometimes has green and white balloons.
Depending on how many people show up, their interests and abilities, she might lead them on a few laps around the park’s track or set off on an hourlong hike that starts with a neighborhood hill. She might teach folks calisthenics or how to do a proper squat.
And all the time, she’s quizzing people on their motivations and using that information to spur folks on.
“Do it so you can be a healthy grandma,” she might say to a woman struggling to finish a few push-ups.
In April, Davis held her first community walk of the year, which — although bad weather kept her usual contingent of attendees away — was still a triumph.
Because Davis, 48, had knee-replacement surgery and developed a herniated disc in her lower back at the end of last year, her winter was filled with physical-therapy appointments, pain and setbacks.
She could have gotten bummed out and given up, she said, had she not redirected her thinking with the help of her numerous mentors, prayer and meditation.
“Once I stopped feeling sorry for myself and started realizing that this is a new chapter and a new challenge that I get the privilege of working through, things began to get easier,” she said. “Now I want people to see that I struggle, slip and fall, but I get up work through the challenges and keep going.”
Davis spent her first few years in Yesler Terrace, where she lived with her 11 siblings and their single mother.
She learned early, she said, that severe poverty can create situations in which children who are not even of school age have to subconsciously perform a cost-benefit analysis with their lives.
What can a child do, for example, if there is sexual molestation in the family by a trusted provider?
“Often, the child learns to keep quiet so that there is milk in the refrigerator,” Davis said. “That’s real life, unfortunately.”
But the perceived short-term advantages turned into long-term liabilities for Davis, who grew up feeling hurt, abandoned, unwanted and disconnected from herself.
A star athlete and good student, Davis was accepted at the University of Washington but chose to leave when her siblings’ addictions to alcohol and drugs threatened her family’s already fragile foundation, she said.
“I was trying to be there for my family,” Davis said. “There was a lot of dysfunction, addiction and even crime, and my mother could not deal with it alone.”
One night after a difficult showdown with a sister, Davis called a man 16-years her senior, who had worked as a custodian at the school she attended.
She thought of him as a father figure, a godfather, a mentor, even a friend, but he had other ideas, she said. He assured her mother that he would take Davis to his house for a chance to cool down, but once there, he threatened Davis and told her to get upstairs and into his bed or else.
It was at that moment, she said, that her spirit collapsed.
Her faith in herself — the thing that had kept her working for opportunities, that made her believe that justice could be achieved and that ordinary people had a chance for happiness — also died, Davis said.
“I completely gave up,” she said. “I finally accepted the message I had been learning since I was a child — that I have to give in to people and give them what they want in order to be safe,” she said.
Regardless of what she tried to tell herself, however, her unhappiness, insecurities and fear exploded, and she began to use food for comfort, for distraction, for an endorphin high.
“Food was really the only thing I had control over in my life,” she said, “though I did not realize that until later.”
A key moment
At 400 pounds and not yet 30 years old, she had a litany of health problems. Her doctor told her she had high blood pressure and was at risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Her joints were damaged and she was going in monthly to have fluid and blood drained from her damaged knees.
But she didn’t heed the warnings until she saw a video of herself after her son’s birth.
“I honestly could not see how huge I was until I watched that video,” she said.
In March 1999, she was involved in a car collision that left her with nerve damage and partial paralysis.
That, and the image of herself in the video, made her realize that it had been a long time since she had valued her life. The next time she prayed, she heard God telling her to “start wanting to live.”
With that, she found the courage to begin doing the things she knew she was supposed to do, including making an appointment to see a therapist for some of the deep issues she knew held her captive.
“That’s a key moment because there is a big difference between knowing what you are supposed to do and choosing to actually do it,” Davis said.
It didn’t happen overnight, but she began her journey toward health, starting with “baby steps.”
Building a strategy
Her first walks were only a half a block long and incredibly painful, but she persevered, and over several months, she slowly began to add distance, building up to a half-mile, then a mile until she could walk for several hours.
She pored over everything she could read about getting fit and strong, sought advice from fit friends, experts and coaches, and began to assemble, through trial and error, a plan that worked for her.
For example, two of her steepest battles involved drinking water and cooking, things she does not love doing.
To solve the water dilemma, she collected some beautiful colored Mason jars and glasses, stocked a few fresh and dried herbs and fruits and set a Sharpie within easy reach.
She read that ginger aids digestion, reduces inflammation and builds the immune system. So on a day she’s feeling physically low, she might start her morning by grabbing a mug, filling it with water, dropping a nice, fat piece of dried ginger in it and writing an affirmation such as “Health and Happiness” on it and then enjoying her “Sexy Water.”
It took Davis two years to lose 200 pounds, and she still struggles, even after a decade of keeping the weight off. She has never overcome her dislike of salads or plain water.
She has since been invited to conduct workshops and perform and speak at community centers where she talks about the secrets that made her sick, her decision to confront her fears and improve her health and the nitty-gritty of how she did it.
“She’s successful at motivating people because she’s been there,” said her friend Jo-Nathan Thomas. “She knows the pitfalls and how hard it is to get out, but she’s the light at the end of the tunnel. She’s the person at the finish line, waving you on, cheering, saying, ‘Come on! Come on! You can do it.’”
Davis, who is the community outreach coordinator for the R.O.A.R. Farm Stand, says the payoff for her comes when she helps people find their reason for wanting to be healthy, be it children, grandchildren or a job they love.
“This isn’t about vanity or someone else’s idea of beauty,” she said. “At the very core of it, the way we take care of ourselves impacts how well we can take care of others. I want to use my life and my success to show people that they, too, can grab some courage and change their lives.”