Quite some time ago, I decided that there were certain aspects to my basic character that I did not like. I didn’t dislike them because other people disapproved of them or felt they were objectionable. Though that would certainly be true, I disliked them because these traits and tendencies tended to decrease my quality of life in very palpable ways.
In particular, I had (and still have to some extent) problems with temper and anxiety. I would become very angry at my husband and harass him for an extended period of time over some small thing that he did or did not do. I would become incensed and ruminate on some social injustice or rude behavior directed my way. My feelings in such cases were a raging forest fire that had to burn itself out through time and, sometimes, explosive catharsis.
In terms of anxiety, I would often fixate on a fear (sometimes a quite reasonable one) and keep myself awake at night obsessing on the worst possible outcome of a situation. I would take the tiniest grain of worry and spin it into a big web of difficulty and stress. Reality rarely matched my tapestry of suffering and difficulty, but I would repeatedly lose sleep and tie myself in knots worrying about something I couldn’t control.
At some point in time, perhaps 15 years ago, perhaps less, I decided that this was not the way I wanted to live my life both in terms of how I felt and how I made my husband feel. As most people are well aware, basic character traits and responses are very, very difficult to change, but I not only wanted to change, but I needed to do so. My misery at my behavior and mental patterns was profound and I initially had no idea where to start to change without suppressing something that seemed uncontrollably fierce and in need of expression.
As I had outbursts and spun worry webs that brought me so close to the brink of insanity that I thought I’d rather be dead than continue to suffer the way I had been, I started to tell myself that I simply had to stop the thought and temper train before it crashed at the end of the line. Each time, I found myself in a state of misery and frustration, I tried to pull myself out of it before I wore myself out. Mainly, this involved a mental process where I told myself that I simply had to “stop”. When I ruminated endlessly on some potentially horrible outcome, I would remind myself of similar situations and the fact that the worst outcome didn’t occur. Indeed, I reminded myself that I rarely experienced any negative result at all. At the early stages of this process, I would tell myself to “stop” (literally) and then my mind would invariably drift back into the fretting groove and I’d have to say “stop” again and again to pull it back out of that groove. Sometimes, I'd be ruminating on the same topic within moments of instructing myself to "stop". The more I did this, the faster the process became. The more I pulled myself out of that process, the less often I fell into that well-worn temper and worry groove.
I think our lifestyle and mental processes are dictated by the equivalent of a well-worn mental (as in neuro-chemcial) pathway, and we only reluctantly pull ourselves away from that path. In many ways, it is the choice to walk down the hill and into the same rut than to walk up the hill where there is a better path. We will always be drawn down into the easy, familiar manner and it’s very hard to make our way out. This applies to all areas of life, including food and lifestyle.
I was reading a blog post recently about the fantasy of being thin, which trots out the idea (again) that “diets don’t work.” The truth is that diets work just fine. The thing that doesn’t work is people making permanent lifestyle changes that allow them to maintain or continue the losses they have experienced during the period when they are "on a diet". Many change too much too quickly, eat in too Spartan a fashion (which is unsustainable and makes them resent their sacrifices), focus on the mechanics over the results (being a “good girl”), or take an “all or nothing approach” which is self-defeating. This is not something that people can really be blamed for (and they really shouldn't be), as I think we naturally gravitate back to the lifestyle that we have always led because that is the familiar groove, and we are often served biologically or psychologically by our choices. We may be able to force ourselves out of that familiar lifestyle rut for a short while, but invariably we drift back to where our mental processes are most comfortable.
The main problem with diet changes is that they are too focused upon the mechanical rather than on the mental or the “big picture” of life. People need to understand their tendencies and how to alter them slowly and through time. Since I had already succeeded in slowly (and with great difficulty) steering myself away from very strongly ingrained life-long destructive thought patterns and impulses, I already had experience with a process of altering my character and behavior on a fairly fundamental level and I have confidence that I will be able to maintain the lifestyle changes I’ve put into practice over the past year indefinitely. I've done this work before, just in a different area.
I also have experience with the inconsistency of this type of process. That is, sometimes I succeeded and sometimes I failed to control my temper and worrying. Sometimes, I fail miserably (though this is very, very rare these days - maybe once or twice a year I'll have a meltdown), but I keep at it and on the whole have succeeded. I am a much calmer and more at peace person than I once was, and it’s not because I simply gave up and accepted myself as a hothead who couldn’t help but worry all of the time. Many people simply play the "Popeye" card ("I y'am what I 'yam") and use it to justify (to themselves, they don't need to do so to anyone else) not changing even when their behavior hurts themselves or those around them.
In many ways, I wonder if many people in the fat acceptance movement have essentially thrown in the towel and given up on themselves. Of course, that is their option, but to tar anyone who hasn’t done so as somehow buying into a social agenda which is critical of all but ideal body weights or a thinness fantasy that punishes fatness is rather unfair. We are not all driven by the same forces when it comes to personal change, and just as a fat person doesn’t have to justify remaining fat, one who chooses to lose weight does not have to justify doing so. I am not losing weight because I think being thin (I actually don't think I'll be "thin", just a lot less fat) will magically transform my life. Frankly, other than my weight, my life is pretty good and doesn't need transformation.
I am losing weight for the same reason that I labored to alter my temper and fretfulness; this is an aspect of my life which is bringing me misery and I'm sick of suffering on multiple levels. And yes, one is social stigma. If fat acceptance advocates want to see that as a point of condemnation for me, they are free to do so. However, I have to live in the real world and get a different job in the future in a world which judges people by weight. Believing that your acceptance of your body at a large size will translate into societal acceptance is just as much "magical thinking" as thinking that being thin will solve all of your problems. No amount of wishing will change the reality that there is widespread prejudice against fat people and we can't change anyone's thinking but our own.
I think those who want to change their relationship with food have to deal with it as a process. Your mind and body want to maintain what was always so, and the only way to change that for good is to curb your impulses and deal with your desires and needs through time. It’s a battle that has to be fought and lost or won again and again. Too many people look at “diets” as a one-off deal. They eat differently, exercise more, and then they are thin and “normal” and can live a "normal" life. For most people who are fat, particularly those like me who have been fat all of their lives, it is never going to stop being a fight against your natural impulses. Eventually, the battles will become fewer and further between, and you will find them easier to win.
"Diets" work the same way medication for chronic conditions do. If you continue to take medication, you can control the symptoms or disease. If you stop, you will become ill and suffer symptoms. If you continue to eat like a person of a certain weight, you will continue to be a person of a certain weight. It isn't easy to alter your life to eat less food than you might prefer by default (just like I may have preferred by default to get angry or worry) every single day of your life, but it does work. Making the change is a mental process that you have to keep at until it becomes closer to second nature. Whether or not you choose to make that change and fight that fight is simply personal, and shouldn't be judged by anyone whether that decision is to remain fat or to lose weight.