Tuesday, July 20, 2010

You Aren't What You Eat

One day a week, most weeks, I do a complete cleaning of my apartment. I try to get laundry done, clean the bathroom, vacuum, dust, wash any of the crustier-looking bits of the kitchen, and weed out objects or areas that are looking a bit overgrown with stuff that should move on to another area or the trash bin. This takes a considerable amount of time and energy, but I am happy when I am done.

Every week, I do this because living in a clean apartment (at least until the end of the week when it is a bit less so) is a nicer experience than living in a dirty one. I'm not a clean freak, nor obsessive about organization, though I am more organized than many people. My improved feeling is a reflection of the sense of living in a nicer environment which in turn makes me more comfortable being in that space, not as a result of any sense of being a "good housekeeper" who keeps a nice home. My actions in this regard do not reflect on my character or status as a person. My home does not carry such power in my life. I don't feel "proud" of what I do.

I was reading a post over at A Merry Life about feeling guilty about eating things which are considered verboten either by people trying to lose weight or fat people. As many already know, I eat a little of what people might call "junk" every day; it's not much, just a few bites of chocolate, a cup of sugar-free cocoa, a small ice cream bar, or a serving of pretzels. It's usually 100-200 calories per day at most. Sometimes it's under 50 calories. It's all part of the day's calorie total and it's a small moment of sensory pleasure in a sea of instrumental eating. I do not feel guilty about eating such things now.

When I was out of control with my eating, I felt guilt all of the time about eating "bad" foods. I realize now that the guilt was a manifestation of shame, and that shame was rooted in my internalizing the idea that eating such foods was a reflection of a deeper character weakness. If I were strong, if I were emotionally well, if, if, if... I wouldn't eat those kinds of things to give me pleasure. The real problem wasn't the pleasure. It was the out of control nature of what I was doing.

Getting back to the point about guilt, as I pondered Mary's post, I realized that in addition to not feeling guilt about how I eat, I also do not feel pride. I am happy that I'm in control and losing weight. Make no doubt about that, but that happiness does not bloom into any sense of being "proud" of myself. Just like I'm happier living in my nice clean apartment than a dirty one, I'm happier living in a lighter, stronger body. However, I don't see what I am doing in any way as a deeper reflection of my character. It's not that I don't think my character is a good, strong one, but rather that food quantities and choices to me have nothing to do with who I am now. They used to, but only because society drummed that message into me and I had fully integrated it into my estimation of myself. Ironically, that message in turn made it all the harder to gain the control I desperately needed.

What I realized is that pride and guilt are two sides of the sword when it comes to being a person with disordered eating. Feeling either of these things is empowering food to define you in a way which almost certainly is not healthy for you in the long run. What is more, it increases the chances that you will also start to externalize the sense that food choices and quantities define others and will start to judge others by what they eat which is saddling others with the very thing which contributes to your problem.

I will be frank and say that I am proud of the contents of this blog and the way in which I have used behavioral and psychological conditioning to help me achieve my goals. Those things are a reflection of my knowledge, intellect, wisdom, insight and maturity. All of these things are aspects of my character which I actively cultivate and work hard to grow in my daily life. My food choices may now reflect that growth, but they are not the source of it, nor is the sum of those choices evidence of my superiority or value.

I would encourage anyone who is attempting to adjust their relationship with food or any other aspect in their life to consider the role of both pride and guilt carefully in their lives. Should we be proud of things like eating vegetables, fruit, and lean meat all day rather than indulging in a square of chocolate? Is that really where we want to be deriving our sense of worth or status from? Is that the well from which we want to draw self-esteem? If so, then every bite we put in our mouths is going to be followed by an act of self-judgment. What a horrible state to have to live in!

I'm not suggesting that people not be proud of achieving their goals. In fact, what I'm saying is far from that. I'm saying that we should find our pride in the personal growth that has to come along first and then allows us to start making those choices. This may seem a fine separation, but I believe it is an important one. It gives you power over yourself and places your actions in review, not food.

Don't be proud of your salad eating. Be proud of your ability to change yourself into a person who is capable of making a choice which is more nutritious rather than a more gratifying one. Don't feel guilty for having a scoop of ice cream. Try to understand why you chose that ice cream and to place it in context for your day's eating. If it fits your calorie guidelines, be glad that you had the control to stop at one scoop. Be proud that you have grown that sort of control in yourself. If it put you over the top calorically, consider your planning skills in light of your needs to consume something for pleasure. Then be proud that you have grown enough to not be emotional and can be rational for something as trivial as a less than perfect food choice.

What is the point of this sort of fine discrimination and disconnecting of food from your estimation of yourself? The point is to not see food choices as a reflection of you or a source of good or bad feelings but to see your actions and character as a reflection of you. You are not what you eat on a spiritual or psychological level, only on a physical one, so don't link your psyche to food choices.


Lindsay said...

I love this post. There's so much more to gaining control of your weight than just food and exercise. It's much more psychological than that. Like you, I have the occasional "treat" that many would probably shun from their diet. That's just it though...I'm not on a diet. I am changing the way that i view food and make decisions about what to consume. Thus far, I have stayed within my calorie budget when treating myself, but I'm sure that situations will arise when I will splurge. When I do, I will remember your words about not feeling guilty. I am not what I eat :-)

NewMe said...

This is a very interesting post.

For me, it brings to mind two words that I absolutely abhor and that seem to be rampant in the weight loss world: "on plan". When you're on plan, you're perfect, you're doing everything right, you're irreproachable. You're a fat person who has gone over to the right side, you are battling the evil that lurks in all fat people.

When you eat something that is "off plan", no matter how small, you are confirming that you are bad and that you are a fat person who is out of control...because we all know that ALL fat people are simply people who have no self-control, lazy pigs who stuff themselves all day long.

This standard of perfection applies in particular to women, who are held to an infinitely higher standard than men.

I think you are very wise to incorporate a "treat", even if it's tiny, into your daily diet. You are recognizing your humanity, your love of things that are joyful, because let's face it, a piece of chocolate is a joyful thing (while bingeing on a whole chocolate cake is a profoundly sad thing).

As much as I intellectually want to celebrate all foods while giving precedence to healthy foods in reasonable portions, I too find it all too easy to fall into the perfection trap where "bad" and "good" foods are in constant combat, like angels and devils.

I have written a lot of drafts of posts about the perfection trap, but actually posted very few. Here is one, for your reading pleasure: http://newme-freshstart.blogspot.com/2009/12/perils-of-tightrope-walking.html You might be interested to know that the blogger in question has closed down her blog: she couldn't be perfect forever.

Just a few reflexions, helter skelter.

screaming fatgirl said...

Hi, Lindsay, and thank you for your comment and for reading!

I think that changing ones approach overall really is the way to go, but it is hard. This is not only because breaking routines (both physically and psychologically) and emotional attachments is hard, but also because of the strong impulse of people who are trying to lose weight to go "all or nothing". They're either "all good" or "all bad", and that sort of absolutism doesn't serve them well.

I hope you succeed, and that what I have said helps you. :-)

screaming fatgirl said...

Hi, NewMe, and thank you for commenting, as always, and thank you for the link. I'll be sure to check it out. I always enjoy your thoughts. :-)

I think "on plan" is jargon which has taken on a bad connotation. I even talk about plans, though "my plan" is to essentially "normalize" rather than "radicalize" my eating - that is, take my eating habits from the volume and frequency that cause me to be overweight to a quantity and frequency that cause me to achieve a healthy weight.

I've never been about the denial thing because it failed me before, and I do believe that it increases the chances that any future "indulgence" will result in a loss of control. I wanted to eat like "normal" people seem to - enjoy everything, but not gain weight from it. Finding out how to do that and training myself (both biologically and psychologically) has been the trick. I eat anything I want, just not as much or as often as I might have chosen to by default a year ago.

This doesn't work for everyone, but it does make "being on plan" (which I can understand why you hate the jargon) rather easy for me. The only way to be "off-plan" is to eat too many calories. In a given day though, I'm rather elastic about it. I try to hit 1500. Sometimes go a little over, sometimes go a little under, and occasionally go nearer to 2000, but that's really not a big deal.

When "the end" comes, I'll just start eating whatever number of calories helps me maintain the desired weight (I'm guessing it'll be 1800-2200). It isn't even going to be much of a change from what I do now, but I sure will be glad not to have to forfeit a piece of fruit or a handful of pretzels just for the luxury of having a latte on a given day. :-p

I agree with you completely about keeping the joy in food. I think it's what we humans are meant to be like. I don't think I can regard food as this sterile, utilitarian thing like some people do to lose weight. If it works for them, then that's okay. We all give up certain pleasures in life for the betterment of ourselves, but giving it up when it comes to food is often a pretty tough one.

Miz said...

such a well written post as was Marys (love mary).

I could rant and hijack your post with my comment :) but I wont.

the short version is that for me finally getting to the place of eating what my body asks for (and body not my mind. that too a few stumbles) has completely vanquished any guilt or "power" food has in my life.


AngryFatWoman said...

Right on. We're in a decision by decision, moment by moment, internal and external struggle. I'm much too hard on myself if I make one bad move, which means guilt far out weighs pride. The better way to be, I think, would be to be proud of the good moves and understanding of the "bad" ... though I'm hesitating over that word.

This is a wonderfully insightful post. Thank you for putting in out there. I'm sure I'll be thinking about it for a long time to come.