Saturday, June 5, 2010

Redefinition

There is a woman, who I’ll call “Emily”. Every day, Emily gets up, prepares for work and goes to her car. As she approaches her car, her neighbor calls out to her and says, “good morning, Emily… how are you?” Emily says, “I’m fine.” The neighbor says, “you look tired, take care.” When Emily gets to work, her coworkers say, “hello Emily, you look tired.” Every day, Emily finds that this experience repeats itself. This happens not for a week or a month or a year, but for years. Every day, she is “Emily” and she is tired. Eventually, Emily no longer responds to “how are you?” queries with “fine,” but with “I’m tired.”

After several years of this type of exchange, people suddenly stop greeting Emily at all. When she approaches her car, her neighbor doesn’t say, “hello Emily,” but doesn’t seem to recognize her at all. Her coworkers don’t greet her either. Emily feels uncomfortable because of this because she is so accustomed to people acknowledging her and even saying that she looks tired. No one speaks her name anymore. She sometimes finds herself walking up to coworkers and saying, "do I look tired today?" She has grown so used to this definition that she now seeks affirmation of this reality.

I think we can all relate to the idea that someone who is greeted everyday would feel disconcerted if suddenly people stopped acknowledging them. This is easy to understand. Imagine that instead of being greeted as “Emily” and being told she looks tired, we consider someone who is greeted as “worthless fat person” and is told, “you’re too fat”. Day-in and day-out, you are treated as “worthless fat person” and told overtly or covertly that your weight is too much for society to tolerate without censure. It may seem that this is the sort of attention that one would not want, but years and years of being acknowledged in this fashion by multitudes of people isn’t mere abuse, it is externally imposed “definition”.

I have been pondering the feelings I have been having as I have been losing weight, and how it is not easier despite my weight loss success. When I say that, I am not referring to the mechanics of the process because that actually has gotten easier (but not easy). I’m talking about the mental aspects. The reason that it is harder is that the more weight I lose, the more of myself that I lose.

While it may seem logical or rational that I would be happy to abandon a negative definition of self that has been imposed upon me by others for most of my life, it doesn’t really work that way. Just as “Emily” has always been defined as “Emily”, suddenly having no definition or recognition of who you are is going to be uncomfortable. When you start to lose weight to an appreciable extent, you don’t find that you have simply lost a painful and hurtful definition of who and what you are, but you have lost a profound and deep definition of self. The emptiness created by this loss is beyond disconcerting. It is gutting.

I have come to realize that, as a lifelong fat person, I have developed a powerful sense that I am defined by others. I have a very weak internal definition of self and tend to determine my self-worth and identity through my husband, my friends, my family, and random strangers who react to me. This is really the inevitable outcome of being the center of unwanted attention and judgment. It is rather similar to being famous, or should I say “infamous.” Strangers feel they know something about you and have the right to invade your privacy by speaking with you or interacting with you about something intimate to your life (your weight, your eating habits, your lifestyle).

We all know about the self-destructive behavior of people who were once child stars who outgrow their fame. They are also suffering from the same sort of external definition of self that a lifelong fat person is. Most of them never had the chance to build an internal definition of who and what they are just as I did not. They were defined by fame and some character they portrayed. I have been defined by my fat.

I think one of the reasons that people regain weight is that this emptiness is terrifying. You go from being the center of negative attention to being essentially a nobody. People used to pay attention to you all of the time, and now they don’t even notice you. Going outside of your home and being fat enough to draw attention defined you, and whether it was a happy definition or not isn’t the issue. Many people may think that they have other strong components to their identity, but most of them are internally imposed and not as strong. I may tell myself that I am a creative being, a writer, a wife, a counselor, etc., but I am so accustomed to the idea that others control my definition of self that I have not strongly internalized these at as deep a level as I have the idea that I am “worthless fat person.” No amount of effort to convince myself otherwise is going to change that fact. Asserting that I am a strong, capable person who is worthwhile and intelligent comes as a mere effort to fill my emptiness with platitudes. The psyche cannot be fooled with mere affirmations.

A lot of us expect that the end of the weight loss path will bring about a new and better definition of self, but I think that it creates a hole in our identity. We don’t fill that hole with food, but we may decide to refill ourselves with food in order to regain that old sense of self that was externally affirmed and recognized. Just as child stars may commit crimes to get the attention they once had as famous actors, bad attention is better than none at all when you’re so accustomed to having attention and being externally defined.

Many of the people who experience long-term weight loss success tend to be people who focus excessively on being “good” or who become relative fitness freaks. These are people who have taken on a new identity through their weight loss efforts. They are, ironically, still as defined by their bodies and food as ever before. They simply have a different definition that is dependent on new habits which don't contribute to being overweight.

This sort of redefining of self as being rigidly good in my life habits or exercising like a fiend is simply not for me. It is too high energy and too strict, and I'm too old and fragile to become a female Jack Lalanne. I want to slowly build better internal definition based on my unique qualities as a person. I won’t pretend that I know exactly how to go about this process, but I know how to start, and that’s by recognizing everything that I have just said as part of my life and being aware of the potential to fall back into old habits or to seek overzealous new ones.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

From time to time I feel like I'm betraying myself (betraying my fat "identity") by changing my life and deciding to be less fat. I haven't thought this out completely.

It took me a long time to feel good about myself, and even then I still felt bad about my size when speaking before groups or participating in large discussions at school. The nursing profession has taken some hits in the past few years because of the downturn in the economy. Hospitals have tightened up on hiring, laid off people, and grown more select about their public image...of course, being a business, health care is all about image, the image of health. (Not to mention the illusion of perpetual youth.) ARGH.

Difficult to change myself on the outside without feeling, at least during introspective moments, as if I am playing right into the hands of the monster. At other times, I convince myself I can be more subversive and helpful to others by adopting an appearance that does not draw attention...which means being a smaller size.

But in the end, these personal changes can't be mostly about external definitions or appearances. I must recognize and acknowledge to my core the benefits, to me, of my efforts. I feel the improvement in my functioning and my increasing enjoyment of movement, for instance, and I don't want to forget the price that comes with eating more. I want to keep loving myself as the fatter person I was, while loving myself as the person who is making different choices now.

Have I mentioned I love your blog? :)

Thanks for another searching post that helps me connect...with all of me.

-Rebecca

screaming fatgirl said...

Hi, Rebecca, and thanks for your kind words (as always). It really does please me that you find value in what I write. :-)

Several months ago, I also had a sense of betraying my ideals by losing weight. That is, I know a person's value is determined by who they are, not what they look like. I embrace this absolutely and wholeheartedly. If I truly believe my value lies in character, soul, heart, or whatever words one wishes to define the essence of personality, then how can I not betray my values by focusing on my body?

In the end, we both know the answer lies at least in part in what you have said. Careers are undermined by excess weight. People think we are stupid and out of control. Also, people prefer to hire those who are perceived as more beautiful, and fat and beauty go together in the rarest of cases when it comes to widespread perceptions of what is attractive.

The way I have reconciled my values with the changes is through understanding that I must not think less of myself for being overweight and KNOWING that I don't think less of other people because they are overweight. My values are exercised when I direct my attention toward others. This is where it is important to be the type of person I want to be.

And, as you said, it is undeniable that losing weight makes movement easier. Anyone who says otherwise is lying to themselves. Hauling a lighter body around is always easier. There's a reason you don't see fat runners or gymnasts at the Olympics or in any sort of speed-based competition.

Part of what I realized is that I'm no less "me" when I'm fat than when I'm thin, but I'll also be no less "me" when I'm thinner than when I'm fatter. If my weight does not define me, then it cannot define me at ANY weight. That being said, my weight *has* defined me for so long that it is going to continue to be a struggle to find a better, truer definition, but I'm working on it! ;-)

justjuliebean said...

I am becoming a strange sort of fitness freak. I'm never going to "be good", mostly because I don't subscribe to that concept, but I'll exercise, eat mostly healthy. I'll be a health nut who smokes weed and eats pepperoni pizza with lots of veggies on whole wheat crust. I'm not interested in purity, I am just trying to find a lifestyle that fits. There are lots of people who go to my gym with tattoos, piercings, dreads, interesting hair, etc. And people of all sizes, colors, ages, shapes. I don't know if they are fitness freaks or not, I'm just glad they're there.

screaming fatgirl said...

Hi, justjuliebean, and thanks for taking the time to come by and read and comment.

I think that being a "freak" (not the best term, mind you, but I used it) about it depends on how you regard it. A person can go to the gym everyday of their lives and not be what I'd dub a "fitness freak" provided that they did it because it made them feel good about themselves and their body and that was their motivation.

I think that when the gym visits control your life or you experience anxiety at missing them is when it starts to become an issue. People who work out and push themselves when they are sick are injured for instance, or people who castigate themselves or deride their characters for missing a day (or fear that missing a session will make them become overweight or unfit) have what I'd consider a problem.

Exercise (like food) is good, but only so long as it serves you well. No one outside of the person doing whatever they're doing can judge what is constructive and destructive because it's not only subjective, but highly personal. Again, this applies to food as well. Regular consumption of chocolate may serve me well since it makes it easier to control my eating otherwise, but it may not serve another person at all because they might lose control and binge. Exercise is the same way. Your regular gym work may serve you well, but with my physical pain issues, any attempt to do a work out routine (even a light one) would just be me fighting my pain in the service of losing weight.

Jenny said...

You left a very insightful comment on my blog Get Up, Bambi! (www.getupbambi.blogspot.com) earlier this month (when this post was written) and I didn't notice it until just now (I don't normally get comments)!

I can see that you have taken a great deal of time and effort to construct and analyze your ideas behind your sense of self and personal identity. I can relate to some of your experience, but have had a different reaction to my weight.

At nearly 300 lbs., my weight was certainly noticeable and clearly labeled me in public. But unlike the "Emily" in your story, I was shunned by society, not overwhelmed by it. Unlike Emily's constant tired comments, I was never approached by a stranger or friend about my weight, not once. No one (except for my mother, who would say it with tact and concern) ever once mentioned my weight, not even as a joke or as an implication. I've never asked someone if I looked fat in an outfit before. I did not receive or search out comments about my weight. Now as a thinner person, I receive comments often about my weight loss. Suddenly, I went from being invisible to store clerks and available men to more present and socially viable. I've noticed people tend to be more friendly toward me and help me in stores. I clearly have the opposite problem you have encountered.

I also want to redefine myself as a thinner person but I don't miss the "fat me" for a second. I don't want back into that skin (pun intended) for one more day, and I certainly won't eat my way back due to fear of social changes or a loss of self. I don't believe I'm losing a part of myself that wasn't ready to be shed--instead of seeing it in a negative light, I often view my weight loss as an opportunity to become the person I was meant to be. So redefining for me means attempting to live the life I've dreamed of for so long and being able to move and trust my body like I never have.

I'll be honest: the social pressures of being invisible, or worse, considered matronly, sexless or not a viable option for a romantic partner are immense. I look forward to relieving myself of that particular burden. I've never once considered that I would be betraying my old "fat self" by becoming thinner. I betrayed myself by becoming so fat. I'm ready for a change and my time has come.

Thank you so much for posting on my blog and offering your opinion and experience. I am grateful there is such a forum for such widely separated people to communicate about intimate details of our lives. I'll be checking back in with your site often.

screaming fatgirl said...

Jenny: I think you may have misunderstood the point of this post. It is, in a nutshell, that we don't get a new definition merely by being thin and we lose the old definition, negative as it is, by losing weight. This emptiness creates anxiety, and can cause people to backslide. Unless one endeavors to build a new identity concurrent with changes in weight, there is a risk of this emptiness.

If you are building a new sense of self along with your weight loss, you are not at great risk. It's only those who think that thinness alone will transform them and who do not go to efforts to build a sense of self which is not related to their bodies who are at risk.

My main point is not that you'll miss your fat identity, but rather than even a bad identity is better than nothing at all. Since I read your blog, I can say that you really aren't that far along. The crises that people sometimes face may not have hit you yet. Depending on your starting weight, you may not have such an issue until you are down about 75-100 lbs. Or, since you are young and still in school (meaning you are already in an activity which causes you to have a concrete identity), you simply may not have one at all.

There will come a point where you are appreciably different, but still not thin enough to stop being invisible. This is where the identity issue is likely to start hitting you. You'll be in an in-between state - no longer regarded with hostility, but also not yet receiving positive attention. You'll not only be invisible, but you won't have a strong sense of who you are. Perhaps you won't experience this, but it is a possibility for all of us who have been fat enough to be the center of unwanted attention.

Good luck to you, and thank you for taking the time to read and comment!

Jenny said...

Thank you kindly for responding to my comment! You're certainly right that I misread your post; I took it in an entirely different light. You're also right that I am new to this process (at 40 lbs. lost) and though I notice myself changing, as of yet it is only a glimmer of something on the horizon: I may feel different--stronger and more confident, better able to make decisions--but during times of stress I slip into old patterns of thought and behavior. It is an interesting, rather difficult process of becoming a self-efficacious adult and losing large amounts of weight at the same time. My perception is colored, at best. I certainly hope not to have offended you.

I look forward to reading more of your posts!

screaming fatgirl said...

Hi, again, Jenny, and absolutely no offense! This is an imperfect medium at the best of times. It's certainly easy to misunderstand intent. It's also easy for me to misrepresent myself unintentionally.

The process is always different for each person. If you have the patience to check my archives, you'll see that I lost a great deal of weight when I was your age. In fact, I probably went from around 300 lbs. to about 180. It was a lot easier for me then, but it didn't really open up many doors. Maybe I never got thin enough for it to matter, but I thought I knew who I was then, and I really didn't. That's not to say that you don't, but just that it's all rather a tricky and highly individualized experience.

That being said, one thing I think we all need to be caution about is concluding that "thin" is an identity. I think that those who are constantly besieged by strangers for being fat start to feel that "fat" is an identity, and a bad one at that. Therefore, "thin" is an identity, and a good one. But, it's not. Being thin merely sets off the absence of the negative identity. It just leaves a vacuum for many people who expected more. This is something I'm trying to be very aware of for myself. It may not have the same effect on others, but I have read articles and blogs about people who have a lot of trouble because they defined themselves through their bodies and a new body didn't change their lives.