Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Resentment and Futility

In the previous post, the Fat Grump made a comment about us being accountable to ourselves that got me thinking about accountability and weight loss. It made me remember something which hadn't occurred to me for awhile because I'm not someone who dieted very much in my past relative to other people with my weight issues and of my age. I've probably made two successful, serious efforts and no more than 5 very half-hearted efforts that lasted mere weeks in the past 20 or so years.

One thing I do recall from the half-hearted efforts is that I always felt a sense of rebellion about the restrictions that I put on myself. I felt as if someone were forcing me to do something that I didn't really want to do. I resented it, and felt angry about what I had to give up. I would pine for the foods I couldn't have and make comments to my husband about what I was missing, particularly around special days or holidays. I was mad at "someone" for "making me" do this thing, even though no one was forcing me to do it.

If we are losing weight for our own benefit and are only accountable to ourselves, why would there be this sense of fighting the process or rebelling against some unknown entity? I haven't felt this way during the entire 15 or so months that I've been losing weight this time, and it is interesting to consider why I felt that way before, and why I don't feel this way now. The main reason that I've come up with is that my motivation this time is urgent and based on an imminent and major change. My sense that something qualitatively in my life absolutely must change in a meaningful way is far stronger.

In the past, my motivation was mainly to "look better" and "be healthier", but with no real directed purpose. The truth was though that I never had any true sense that anything I did would improve my health and I also didn't believe I could lose enough weight to matter. In fact, there were times when I felt that no matter what I did, I would not lose weight. I felt that my body betrayed me at every turn (and it certainly has seemed like it has been doing so since elementary school), and no matter what I did, it wouldn't improve. Since I had no faith in any sort of meaningful improvement, it was hard to surrender the pleasures and copious comforts of food.

Because I had no confidence in any actual improvement in my appearance or health, I think that I felt that I was going through the motions to lose weight in order to accommodate society's desire that I weigh less. The thing that I was rebelling against was the imposition of the values of others on my lifestyle. I wasn't not eating as I preferred for my benefit because I was sure I would not benefit, but for the vague all-encompassing desire of society that I fit in according to what it sanctioned. This was why I had resentment and rebelled against my own choices.

It's important to keep in mind that I sincerely did not believe that I could lose weight and that I would not experience health improvements. This was something which I felt because I saw people all around me eating more and worse than me, and not getting fat. It seemed like no matter how healthily I ate, I didn't lose weight, and every time I tried to do any meaningful structured exercise, I would get injured and be in even more pain than I was already in (and I have been in considerable pain for years, especially from my back). Since I lost a lot of weight in college mainly through exercise and healthy eating choices, I felt that failure to lose weight using that same pattern meant that I could not lose weight anymore.

It may seem odd that anyone would reach such conclusions, but the truth is that this was a reality that I fully inhabited, and, honestly, I was still living in it when I started trying to lose weight this time. The difference this time was that it was so important to me to succeed that I was willing to push ahead and try whether I truly believed it was going to work this time or not. When I first started making changes, I frequently expressed pessimism to my husband that my efforts would have any effect. He kept reassuring me that results would inevitably come (they "had to"), but I didn't believe it. You reach a point where you'll act on faith if your desire for a result is strong enough, and that's how I started out this time.

The interesting thing about weight loss is that it is one of the few endeavors in life outside of attending mandatory schooling that we feel forced to do and resent. Just like a child who has to get up early and get on the bus, we pout and sulk at having to do something that needs to be done and is ultimately beneficial, but we can't really see the value in it now. As adults who are trying to lose weight, it is as if we aren't fully cognizant of the idea that this is something we are choosing to do for our own benefit. We tell ourselves this, but we don't apply ourselves as if that were the case and do not react emotionally as if this were something being done of our own volition.

I've pondered why there is sometimes this sense of resentment and futility when we are only accountable to ourselves in regards to weight loss, and I have some thoughts:

1. Our bodies do not respond in accord with our actions.

This is something which resonates with me strongly, and it is a natural feeling for anyone. You can eat perfectly, exercise regularly and still get sick. There are people who are glowing examples of a perfect lifestyle who get cancer, and we all have caught colds, gotten stomachaches, headaches, and other minor illnesses despite our stellar efforts. If we feel that our actions are not going to be rewarded with an appropriate bodily response, we are less likely to make serious changes. It's one of the reasons people who plateau during their weight loss get discouraged. They apply effort, and get no result. This contributes to a sense of futility and makes it harder to remain motivated.

How many times have you read a fat acceptance blogger say that they feel that, short of extremely radical options, they will never lose weight? I can understand how they feel. Even though I have lost 140 lbs. so far, I still have days when I feel like my body will simply choose one day to stop responding to my efforts and I'll freeze at a weight which I am dissatisfied with. Even with a long track record of my body responding to my actions, I have somewhat shaky confidence that it will continue to happen.

2. We have an irrational relationship with food.

Food isn't just "fuel". I apologize to those who feel they need to minimize its impact on them in order to stick to their "food plans", but it is undeniable that we have an emotional, social, and cultural relationship with it and we are not machines that consume energy, but beings with minds and emotions. It's the same with our relationship with sex, which is not merely a biological compulsion that is used for purposes of procreation. You can try to bully, brainwash, or intellectually convince yourself that food is nothing more than fuel, but the broader reality is that it's much more than that. When you take away something which people have an emotional relationship with, particularly one in which they are offered simple and basic pleasure, there will be resentment and anger. Even if you are the one denying yourself, you are going to feel deprived.

3. We have a basic, primal need for food gratification.

What is one of the biggest reasons that babies start screaming for attention? They want food. Being denied food when you want it sets off a very strong negative primal response. This is something you were born to think and feel. It's part of a survival instinct. Such a basic urge, coupled with our emotional connection to food, is very hard to simply rationalize away. Just as celibacy or abstinence from all sexual gratification is hard to rationalize away, our screaming desire for food is hard to simply abandon.

4. Instant and concrete gratification vs. greatly delayed and abstract gratification.

The biggest sense of resentment that I felt about changing my eating in my past attempts to lose weight were based on the sense that I was surrendering something real that I needed now for something that was imaginary, elusive, and of dubious value to me personally in the future. There was a strong sense that I was giving up something important for nothing. This contributed both to a sense of futility and anger. It was like paying for car insurance when I didn't have a car. I just couldn't see the point.

I'm sure there are other reasons, and that they are personalized, but I think it's worth exploring these feelings because it is so common for people to feel anger about their diets. It's not only that they resent being penned up in the restrictions of their own voluntarily adhered-to food plans, but they get angry at others who are not in a similar state of self-denial. I think if we really understand the roots of these feelings, and accept that they are natural, we can start to dissipate some of the sense of resentment and futility that come along with "dieting".


Lanie Painie said...

Interesting post. Very insightful!

I still stick with the "food is fuel" mentality, but that doesn't mean that it is fuel ONLY.

I didn't even realize food was fun until I started dating my husband. We had plenty of food around the house, including candy and baked goods, chips and ice cream. There wasn't a great variety of produce either. I always resented meal time because I had to stop what I was doing which was always more fun than sitting down with the whole family.

Plus, my mom isn't a very good cook.

screaming fatgirl said...

Hi, Lanie, and thank you for commenting.

I'm currently living in a culture full of thin people who adore food. I think that it has changed my outlook about it. You don't have to be fat to love food, you just have to be careful about how much you eat. Also, in this culture, they are unabashed about loving food of all types. The women do not shy away from talking about loving chocolate, ice cream, cake, cookies, etc. There is little in the way of food guilt, and I think it's something which is worth emulating and has role modeled the idea that food isn't the enemy, and should be regarded as immensely pleasurable.

My guess is that food culture, and the use of food to enhance an experience, is one of the earliest developments in human cultures. Feasts after a good hunt, or as a part of important events in life almost certainly predate human civilization. Only now that food is so bountiful that we can have it at a moments notice have we started to view it as something which needs to be relegated to the "necessity" category.

Incidentally, my mother was (and still is) a horrible cook, but that didn't stop me in any way from getting fat. :-p

Anonymous said...

So much of this post hits home for me that I don't know how to respond, although I've given the topic A LOT of analysis. You see, I've had several instances that I thought were succesful weight loss and maintainance attempts(kept massive amounts off for extended time periods), but which then turned out to be yet additional *pre-regains*. Sigh.

I've finally come to think of this whole effort as akin to quitting smoking or excessive drinking, both of which were problems for me in the past, and both of which required numerous attempts to quit before I *actually quit for good*. Obviously I can't predict the future, but I feel very confident partly because of the YEARS between those problems and now. Also, the negative effects from those behaviors are very stark in my mind. The negative effects from overeating are now also stark (frightening), but the past instance of regaining, after significant successes, really threw me, psychologically.

Each regain, however, followed severe traumas in my life. (And each trauma was much worse than a job loss or house robbery or car crash, to give you a better perspective.) Of course I couldn't foresee those tragedies, and I sought therapy each time.

So, I suppose I have learned to associate maintenance with tragedy and trauma. This messes with my confidence level. I'm going to have to do more thinking about all this. And maybe even revisit my favorite psychologist from years ago, or one of her collegues.

Thank you for a thoughtful and inspiring post, once again! I hope you will put all these posts into book form someday, or use your knowledge, insight, and empathy to counsel people who struggle with these complex and varied issues related to weight loss and disordered eating.

Sincerely, Rebecca

Erica Marie said...

Heyy, I tagged you in a questions game post! Can't wait to see your answers♥

Christie* said...

Sometimes I feel like you are in my head! This is ridiculously true currently for me.

I have been overweight my whole entire life. I have never tried to diet because I didn't want to be someone who tries, loses, and then gains it all back. It was easier to "accept" that I loved food and would be this size because of that.

I think I eat generally well, but I allow myself to indulge. And when I indulge, I over indulge. A lot of it is mindless and/or emotionally driven. Could I be satisfied with one cookie? Yes, but that means I'm *restricting* myself from having more. I'm adult enough to make the decision, and no one should condemn me because I want two. Vicious cycle!

The only time I ever truly lost weight was because I was having digestion problems (it took about a year to find out it was my gallbladder) and couldn't eat anything without feeling sick. So I slowly ate less and less and restricted my fat intake (per doctor's orders). I ended up losing around 30 pounds without "trying". During my "forced" diet, I still ate A cookie, still had A PIECE of chocolate, still had A pancake, and lost weight. Even though I know weight loss is possible, proof that I will gain my weight back (which I have over the past three years since surgery) is just another notch toward the futility of the whole thing.

Thankfully I have a blog I can come to and realize I'm not alone, I'm not crazy to feel the way I feel, and changes can be made if I just take it piece by piece, day by day. Thank you.