Sunday, August 8, 2010

Another Word for "Blame"

Several weeks ago, I was returning from an errand which I dutifully walked to instead of riding a bicycle so that I could get some extra exercise in. About a minute before I got home, I caught the tip of my sandal on some rough and uneven pavement and fell hard. My palms were scraped badly and bloody. My knees were scratched up and sporting large black and blue marks. I cut my forehead and chin and my nose was bleeding inside and bruised outside. My glasses were broken.

If someone said that this fall was my fault, how would that sound? I chose to walk instead of ride a bike. I chose to walk over that particular area of the sidewalk. I chose the shoes I wore. I chose to live in the city I live in. I chose to wear shorts so my knees were exposed and I wasn't wearing gloves or a face mask to protect myself. I chose to wear glasses instead of contact lenses which would not have been broken. Is it fair to say that it is my fault that I fell and got hurt so much because of my choices?

I offer this story not only because it is true, but as an imperfect analogy for something which troubles me, and that is the use of the word "responsibility" when it comes to weight loss. I call this imperfect because it is a backwards situation compared to the real thing that I want to discuss. However, what I want my dear readers to focus on is the fact that there was an unforeseen or unpredictable outcome to a sequence of choices that were made. No one would say I was responsible for my fall due to those choices. It came upon me, and those choices did affect the outcome, but does that make it my "fault"?

I read a lot of people talk about "taking responsibility" for their weight, and on the surface, that is certainly a mature and agreeable sounding thing. However, I would say that this is looking at the moment one has tripped rather than all of the things that lead up to the problem. Though it can be said that we "choose" to eat whatever we eat, this is a very simplistic manner in which to view people's relationships with food. There are a great many choices that we didn't have which lead up to the moments we chose to overeat. I cannot speak for others, but (among other things) I didn't choose:
  • To grow up with a mother who overfed me on high fat and white carbohydrates.
  • To grow up with a completely distorted understanding of portion sizes and nutrition and therefore to view it as the norm.
  • To be tormented by my peers out of the joys of sports and exercise.
  • To grow up poor and exposed to very little in the way of fresh fruit and vegetables.
  • To be given food instead of love because neither of my parents were comfortable with their positive emotions.
  • To be tortured by my peers such that comfort came from something destructive.
  • To be in this body that was built by my parents' choices and income rather than a healthy one with better biological responses.
  • I didn't choose to grow up around emotionally volatile people, one of whom was an alcoholic and role-modeled addictive behavior.
  • I didn't choose to be biologically prone to addictive behavior or obesity (everyone in my family is very overweight).
  • I didn't choose to be verbally abused if my behavior was not perfect and therefore susceptible to certain limited options for coping with what was happening to me before I was an adult.

Just as I did not know that I was going to fall when I took that step, I did not know that there were a multitude of issues leading up to my food habits. I couldn't choose them both because I was not in control of my life during my formative years and because I didn't know that an eating disorder would be the outcome of the things that happened in my life.

Up until this past year, I knew my problems and I knew some of the reasons, but I didn't know how to fix them. I knew I ate too much. I knew I was fat. I didn't know how to stop myself because the truth was until I understood a great many things, I couldn't make a choice. Responsibility requires control. It requires the ability to make a choice. I had none. I couldn't stop overeating anymore than I could make it rain of my own volition up until I gained some insight. It was like I had two ends of a rope that I had to tie together to start solving my problem, but they didn't quite meet and I had no idea how to bring them together.

People who talk about being "responsible" for what you eat act as though the moment that you place the food in your mouth is a choice in isolation. It is not. That moment is shaped by all of the things that came before which you couldn't control. People who use the word "responsibility" in this way are not interested in anything other than judgment and blame. They bully themselves into better eating habits and want to bully you, too. Their motive isn't to be nasty or unkind. They don't have insight into themselves and think this is what will "work" for them, and they can "motivate" others by pushing them similarly. In the end, this "works" for some people, but more than a handful of them come out the other side rather angry, bitter, and rigid because, while they have managed to pen up their hungry horses, they're still attacking the stall trying to get out and run free.

The bottom line is that we can change, and we can "take responsibility" for what we eat, but we can't if we ignore all of the things that we didn't choose which lead up to our food habits. If we only attempt to deal with the moment of the fall rather than the events that lead up to it, we're doomed to fall again and again. Pushing people or trying to make them feel bad because they can't stop eating certain foods does not help them. It's not about shoving responsibility on them so that they can be "blamed" for being fat, it's about understanding. Only after we understand can we gain the power to have a choice rather than have it made for us by every circumstance that lead up to it.

It's my belief that everyone who has an issue with overeating which they struggle to conquer is to some degree like a puppet on strings. Some of them are tethered to their problems with just a few fragile sewing threads which they can tug at and break free. Some of us, however, are attached with a multitude of steel cables that we struggle with very hard to break free of. Some people can't break free no matter how hard they try. The past is our puppet master, and no amount of talk about "responsibility" is going to change that. Changing that requires insight and a difficult (and perhaps long) therapeutic process.


NewMe said...

Another brilliant, insightful post. Thank you.

Today, I wrote a much shorter, what I'd like to think is complementary post to yours that is set to appear in a few hours. I hope you enjoy it.

screaming fatgirl said...

Thank you, NewMe. I really appreciate your kind words!

I'm also looking forward to your post showing up in my RSS Feed! :-)

re said...

This is one of the very few blogs (perhaps only) concerning weight where I come away from it feeling understood and bettered by the content as opposed to ashamed or guilted for not making as much progress as the next blogger. I appreciate your words (as do my friends whom I frequently forward posts to). :)

screaming fatgirl said...

Thank you so much for saying that, re. Sometimes I feel like I have little to offer others and write boring psycho-babble. I think many people prefer the types of blogs with daily weigh-ins, diet plans, etc.

It really makes me feel good to know that you find what I say helpful and I appreciate that you took the time to comment immensely.

RedPanda said...

I wanted to say "another brilliant, insightful post" - but NewMe has already beaten me to it. ;-)

I always feel I learn a bit about myself from your posts, and (you've probably already guessed this) I could have written much of your 10-point summary of your upbringing and learned relationship with food. Over the last few years I have stopped being angry with myself for becoming obese, but you have crystallised the process so well.

And nah, I think your blog is far more interesting than the kind with daily weigh-ins, diet plans and so forth.

screaming fatgirl said...

Thank you, RedPanda. That really does mean a lot to me, and I'm glad that you can understand where I'm coming from, but less pleased that you have been where I have been in life.

NewMe said...

With few exceptions, I can no longer read the myriad weight loss bloggers who minutely note every morsel of food that has passed their lips and meticulously noted how many calories they "believe" they have burned. (I say "believe" because exercise machines are generally calibrated for a 150-pound man--certainly not for a woman of any weight. They therefore totally miscalculate the number of calories burned. Usually, the figures they yield are totally inflated.)

Your blog stands out for being truly intelligent, interesting and thought-provoking. It is one of my "must reads".

screaming fatgirl said...

Thank you, NewMe for your gracious compliments. It really is such a wonderful affirmation of what I do. I really appreciate it, and I enjoy your blog very much as well!

I read a variety of blogs because I think there is something hiding behind a lot of people's actions and choices. There is some empathy for me to gain or a perspective to understand. I like my way, of course, because it suits me, but I want to be able to inhabit the realities others live in as well.

One thing you see is that some people end up being "dysfunctionally functional". That is, they live a certain lifestyle and hold themselves up to a standard which is not good for their overall well-being, particularly when they "fail", but which helps them to function better on the whole in their lives and to feel better about themselves. They're still resting their self-esteem squarely on their appearance, but I think that is an understandable outlook given that society evaluates women based mainly on their capacity to fulfill the desires and wishes of men. I know that sounds pessimistic, but the bottom line is that women who are older or less attractive have no value because men do not value them. Women want to be valued. They can't live outside of the values their culture imposes on them so they try to enhance their value in the only way they know how.

As an older woman who is married, it's easy for me to say, "I don't care about my appearance" as I'm beyond many of the concerns of youth that revolve around beauty. However, I can empathize with women who obsess over details and worry about their looks. Their concerns, even when they appear for all the world to be dysfunctional and damaging, are understandable to me. I want to understand all aspects as well as I can, including those which don't synchronize with my outlook.

However, I can very much see why you can't read those blogs. Sometimes, it's difficult to read them without banging your head on the keyboard, sighing in exasperation, or wanting to write a comment that shakes people and says, "don't you know what you're doing to yourself!" When I feel such things, I I try to be mindful of the aspect of "readiness". Some people aren't in a place where the broader messages can be received or accepted. I endeavor not to force such things on anyone, but to offer support when I can, insight when possible, and silent sympathy when all else fails. I do this not because I am a stellar human being (as I believe we all understand and empathize with the pain people who struggle with body image are in), but because this is a part of my intellectual curiosity and possible future study and profession.

Your comments always make me think, and I really appreciate that!