Monday, May 30, 2011

The Hardest Thing I've Ever Done (pt. 2)

I mentioned in the previous post that part of what I've been doing concurrent with my weight loss is expanding my boundaries - getting out more, working more, getting more things done, etc. I've been attempting to do this relatively gradually, and I have the luxury of doing so because my husband bears the burden of making enough money for us to live while my income for the last six years has been largely supplemental. Note that this is not as inequitable as it seems. For about 10 years, my income was the main one and his was supplemental. There was a time when he was a part-time worker and part-time "househusband" and I was the breadwinner, until I broke under the weight of my body and depression.

When I quit my full-time job in a state of what I'm sure would have been diagnosed as clinical depression, my husband has been supporting me in multiple ways. He not only economically supports me, but he mentally and physically did so. When I was at my heaviest and in great back pain, he'd not only make the money, but he also would go grocery shopping to spare me and spend his limited free time emotionally supporting me. I was, in many ways, an invalid he looked after emotionally. He patiently dealt with me as I ate myself deeper into disability, knowing that I couldn't change until I was "ready" and knowing that I might never be "ready", but loving me all the same and therefore doing what he needed to do.

In the last two years, as I've experienced improved health, mobility, and emotional states, there has been a slow change in the dynamic between my husband and I. We're both happy that we can go out and do things together again (as we once did very long ago), and I'm relieved that he no longer needs to do things like grocery shopping for me on top of his large workload. I'm also pleased to be contributing more to our household income, which will eventually result in his reduced working hours and more freedom for him (he chooses for the time being to work longer hours to improve our nest egg).

However, as I mentioned in my previous post, I'm not emotionally whole by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I'm often on the edge of depression, despair, and simply feeling overwhelmed by the array of changes and shift in my identity. The steady push forward is at a pace I can just barely manage, but I think it's important to keep pushing ahead in order to be the person I want to be. However, this is a lot like running a marathon at just the edge of my endurance. Occasionally, I find that I've pushed myself too hard, and I have to stop and catch my breath.

The main problem is that emotionally this is harder to detect than it is physically. You don't know you've exceeded your capacity until you're depressed or have some sort of breakdown. This means I'm often in a state where I'm on the edge, and I need his support more than ever. Unfortunately, my husband sees someone who is getting much, much better and who requires less support than before, and reacts by giving me less unconsciously. Also, it is possible that (equally unconsciously), he's weary of looking after me and ready to move on to pursuing his own interests more now that the burden seems to be lifting.

The problem has been for us that I need less physical support and as much or more emotional support as my "success" continues. I've said before that I believe that people who have destructive relationships with food (relationships which result in reduced health or quality of life and are powerless to change them) have a mental health problem, or, at the very least, their eating issues are part of a manifestation of underlying issues. No one simply "likes food" to the extent of gaining up to nearly 400 lbs. without something deeper behind it. That's like "liking sex" to the point of never getting up off your back. There's something deeper there.

Getting back to the point though, as I've "gotten better" superficially, I've struggled as much (or more) psychologically, but I've gotten less support from my husband. This isn't because he doesn't want to be there for me, but because he has other interests he wants to pursue and cannot see any impediment to doing so. I also initially saw no reason for him not to do such things, but as time has gone on, we've had arguments and I've suffered because of the extent to which he wants to do them. It's taken awhile to figure out that my body changing hasn't changed my mind's need.

I'm not the woman he had to listen to crying because people were cruel to her every time she left the house and every little errand brought a world of horrible back pain. Now, I'm the woman who doesn't know who the hell she is, what she is capable of, and who becomes sad at the drop of a hat for reasons she is sometimes not sure of. I'm the woman who finds that the old compass she used to navigate life doesn't work anymore and is constantly having to create a make-shift one as she is a work in progress and doesn't know how far she can go or what direction she should head in. I'm psychologically lost, and am figuring out where I'm going and where I can manage. Unfortunately, I'm often going further than I should or into places which are not good for me.

So, I find that I need more support, but I'm getting less and my poor husband is in the middle of it. The truth is that he is my only constant. He's the only point in life for me which hasn't changed at all and I rely on him not only to give me strength, but to be a tether in what is a constant emotional storm. I don't know who I am in relationship to pretty much everything else in life, but I know who I am when I'm with him. When he's not there for me, especially in times of difficulty, I feel like a pile of broken pieces.

Given the reasonable need for my husband to have autonomy and do the things he wants to do in the face of my no longer disabled life, but my need to have more support, we've had many fights about when and how he needs to attend to my needs. I feel bad about being needy, and he feels frustrated by the inconsistency of the situation. For him, the guideposts keep moving and he's not sure what he can do without causing me to suffer and what he can't. This has made a difficult situation even worse, and it has been playing out for over a year now and stretching both of us emotionally to the limit.

Recently, I told him that if he regarded my situation as a physical illness rather than a mental one, we wouldn't be struggling so hard. Since my problems are psychological, he unconsciously believes it's okay to walk away from my neediness. If I had a herniated disc and couldn't get out of bed, he'd come home and cook meals for me without question or protest. He'd understand the need and make the sacrifice. With my broken psyche, it's easier just to "let me go hungry" while he goes out and fulfills his own psychological needs.

My husband has said that "empathy goes out the window when ones own interests are at stake", and he is right about that. It's been very hard for him to realize that his empathy for me may have been less than 100% because of this very thing. Don't get me wrong about my husband because he has sacrificed a great deal in my interests during much of our lives together. He's unconditionally loving, kind, generous, supportive, and I worship him because he is so psychologically whole and incredible, but he's dealing with a wife with psychological problems and even he, with his near saint-like capacity to be patient and caring, can't work it all out immediately (hard as he has tried).

I've tried and tried to suppress my needs, to deny my issues, and to be "better" faster for him, but the bottom line is that this isn't a road with short-cuts. No matter how desperately I don't want to be so needy, I can't change it. I've tried. I haven't beaten myself up when I've eaten more, but I've mentally thrashed myself over this. I want more than anything to give my husband the autonomy he might want to just live without having to attend to my psychological problems. There are times when I'd rather go back to weighing nearly 400 lbs. than continue to impose this burden on him. My guilt and anguish over how much changing me has placed a burden on him is so overwhelming at times that I'd rather I went back to my other kind of suffering than to inflict this difficulty on him.

Fortunately (or unfortunately), there is no going back now. It isn't the thing I'm meant to do and I know there is a better place that I'll be at psychologically in the future, but I'm not there yet and I need him to hold my hand tightly for awhile longer.

The Hardest Thing I've Ever Done

A lot of people say that losing weight is one of the hardest things they've ever done. For me, having lost weight is one of the hardest things I've ever done. Nearly two years after starting to make changes in my life, I'm finding that the psychological issues continue to create difficulty in my life. Being aware of the possibility of those changes, and even anticipating them and trying to adjust for them, hasn't made them any easier. It's like knowing your leg is going to be broken doesn't make it any less painful nor heal any faster.

Part of the reason that the changes have been so profound for me is that, as a person who has been morbidly obese for nearly her entire life, the way I operate in the world and the way the world has operated (often against me) represents a lifetime of conditioning. I not only react as if I still weighed close to 400 lbs., but I have the mental composition of someone who is accustomed to living a life in accord with that. What that really means continues to reveal itself to me, and it's very hard.

One of the biggest issues that I have is that of having different expectations of myself which often place stress on me. I can work more, because I'm now more employable and I don't have excruciating back pain. I also have more stamina, and can get more done at home and work. Instead of defining myself as someone with limits, I see myself as close to "normal". However, if you have lived most of your life with particular limits, it's hard to know now where the line is drawn. No one has limitless stamina or energy either mentally or physically, and since I have changed, I have to step forward to find my new boundaries. This may sound simple (stop when you're tired or overwhelmed), but life is not so tidy in practice.

As I've been remapping my identity and changing my life in accord with my weight loss, I've been pushing the boundaries little by little and expanding my life to incorporate the types of things other people have done all of their lives without a second thought. I go into stores I avoided before because of narrow aisles. I walk without fear of crippling pain or excessive social censure (though I still get some of that). I went to work outside of my home. I'm going to attend a social function with my husband next weekend, something which I would have been too embarrassed by my body size to do before and wouldn't have considered even if I didn't have bad back pain.

It all sounds very simple when I type it out like that, but the mental journey to who I was to who I am trying to become has been very hard. Even when I willingly do the things I do and even enjoy them, it's still hard psychologically. I may not perceive it, but it grinds me down and puts stress on me. I often feel as if I've broken apart the "me" that was 380 lbs. but had a way of functioning emotionally as a super obese person for so many years and have been putting her back together into a more functional manner.

The problem is that not all of the pieces are in place yet, and sometimes some aspect that is lacking leaves me depressed, stressed, or feeling that I don't know who I am. This incomplete picture is a constant source of difficulty, because I sometimes build some aspect up only to find it's not working and have to tear it back down and figure out what to build again. Even when I superficially appear to be doing well, I feel like I'm drowning on some level. Even successful change or negotiation of a new challenge can leave me exhausted and depressed. On a psychological level, the "new me" isn't "better" than the old me. She's just different and that adjusting is hard after a lifetime of "the old me".

All of these analogies sound abstract, so I will try to give a more concrete example. The first day of work at my (now less new) part-time job was exhausting even though I only worked for about 3 hours. The last time I worked at this job, I worked for about 6 hours. In the previous post, I mentioned that the clients can choose who they deal with and that is why. New employees are unknown so they only get the people who are indifferent to who they work with. Through time, more people know me and I get more work so the hours increase.

Even though I work more hours now, I'm less tired because I'm adjusting. The thing I'm adjusting to isn't longer hours per se, though that is a part of it. What I'm working with is the idea of me being a person who has a commitment that can't easily be broken, goes out in public and deals with people in a professional environment, dresses for such rather than wearing any old clean casual clothes, has to adhere to a schedule other than her own, and who is treated close to being just "normal". It's my whole self-image that is making a shift, not merely my hours.

This all comes coupled with ongoing dealings with issues I've had which changed when I decided to lose weight - dealing with being hungry, dealing with more activity despite having pain, etc. While restricting myself in the former regard and pushing myself in the latter are not as hard as they once were, it is quite a change from before when I could eat what I want when I wanted and not have to endure the physical discomfort of hunger day-in and day-out or to push myself to walk everyday despite pain. There's also the loss of easy pleasure. I still would like to eat more for the mere enjoyment of good tasting food. I don't even want to eat big portions, but I'd like to be eating more variety on a given day, but I can't if I want to keep losing weight. I often feel like every joy in my life has to be struggled for and that nothing positive ever comes easily. The effort nullifies the value of the pleasure I receive. It's like work. The old me didn't have to suffer in these ways, but the new me knows that a paradigm shift must be pushed ahead on if I want to be a different person physically and emotionally.

In many ways, I've traded one sort of suffering for another. It's not all "I'm so happy that I weigh so much less" or that my quality of life is so much better. My quality of life is better in many ways, but not all, not by a long shot. People think "quality of life" is objective and can be measured by things like how superficially attractive you are, how active you can be, how wealthy you are, etc. This is how people succeed yet find themselves in the depths of despair and even become suicidal. Quality of life is measured internally and there are people who may appear to be complete failures with limits who are quite happy overall. My external life is better than it has been in quite some time. My internal life is often a shattered mess.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Up In Arms

There's a lovely woman out there who has been blogging about losing weight for quite some time and she recently started talking about an issue that is now also a matter of some concern for me. This woman is so well-known that once you know the topic, you'll know who she is if you're even marginally involved in weight loss blogging reading. The issue is flabby upper arms. Yes, I know, it sounds small and silly in the scheme of things, and it is definitely something I never considered until recently when I finally gave in and bought new shirts.

I bought the shirts on-line without the ability to try them on, and when they arrived, the sleeves were shorter than I expected. Since I bought them to work in during the hot summer months, the way in which I appear in them is more than trivial. I have to make a positive impression, and my upper arms, which are amply revealed in the new shirts, look like this:

Bear in mind that I've been doing modest arm toning exercises for well over a year. You can see the definition of a much thinner arm with some muscle tone within the sack of saggy, wrinkly flesh that my upper arm is. This hasn't happened because I haven't done any work on my body. It has happened because that skin is stretched out and has lost elasticity and isn't going back. I'd have to build up professional body builder level muscles to take up the slack, and that really wouldn't be any better.

While it is possible that it could retract a little bit through time, I'm not holding my breath. I've lost weight slowly over the last two years so this isn't the side effect of rapid weight loss. The soft flabby part has relatively little body fat in it. It's largely just skin with some shrunken adipose tissue. It's so flimsy that I can practically fold it around my arm like a thick blanket. No amount of effort is going to change how my upper arms look and I have to accept that.

I've written before that many people lose weight and expect to come out the other side looking toned and gorgeous, and that that is completely unrealistic no matter how hard you work unless you are young, lucky, and haven't been very heavy for very long. The picture above is the reality of weight loss for many women.

So, the question is, "what of it?" I'm not embarrassed by my arms, nor necessarily afraid to show them in public when I'm out living my usual daily life. People can gawk and stare all they like. They can whisper about my big, floppy, wrinkly upper arms. I'm not happy about this, but I am used to it. People still stare at my belly (which also has impressive hang despite being quite a bit smaller).

However, in a professional setting where I have to "sell" myself and present an appearance which makes being with me appealing to people, I have to cover this up. The bottom line isn't how I feel about my arms, but rather how they do. If it makes them uncomfortable, even if their feelings are shallow and indicating a lack of maturity and tolerance, it is irrelevant to this question. I can crow bodily acceptance all I want, and maybe even decide to love my big, floppy arms (which I don't, I'm resigned and indifferent to them), but it won't change the fact that others aren't going to subscribe to my thinking and it will affect how I'm perceived at work and possibly reduce my earning potential (the "customer/client" can choose who he or she deals with without giving a reason).

As much of my body as you'll probably ever see. You can see how my upper body looks pretty much to be of a normal weight, which makes those arms quite a contrasting shocker. And, yes, I intentionally blurred what was on the T-shirt as it might give too much away.

So, I've got a bunch of short-sleeved shirts that are inappropriate for my work and I'm making the best of it by buying the sort of jackets and sweaters which don't hold in much in the way of body heat but do cover my arms. Anyone who is paying attention will still see how big they are, but they won't see how stretched out and flimsy the flesh is. Considering how little of my face and upper body betray my true weight, this is all for the better.

I once made a list of good and bad reasons to lose weight, and listed "appearance" as a dual-edge sword reason. In terms of longevity of maintaining your losses, beauty is really a hard one because there are always going to be things you can't overcome which short-circuit your ability to become "beautiful", and my arms are ample illustration of that. Short of plastic surgery, they're never going to look good no matter what I do, and I can live with that because beauty was never one of my motivations.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

I gave in

My husband and I were walking with a friend one day and the topic of my weight loss, which she had witnessed part of the progression of, was raised either by me or my husband. She asked me if I was going to go on a big shopping spree for new clothes when I reached my goal weight. My reply was that I would not, and in fact that I have zero interest in clothes. At some point, I would grudgingly need to buy new things, but I was resisting as much as possible. My husband said that was one of the many reasons he loved me.

As some of my long-time readers may know, I have been reluctant to buy new clothes during my weight loss. This isn't about appearance for me, but there are some facts that have to be faced. One is that I've lost half of my starting weight and close to 200 lbs. It's reaching the point where I can no longer take in my old clothes and have them come close to fitting and that I can no longer wear my husband's discards. When this started, I was so much bigger than him that I wore his cast off "big" shirts. Now, the shirts that were too big on him are also too big on me. We wear a similar shirt size, but the shoulders and neck are far too big on me to wear.

About two weeks ago, mainly due to my new part-time job, I gave in and started to buy new things. Note that this is a joyless endeavor for me. Mainly, I reluctantly bought the cheapest summer shirts I could find on a web site I've patronized before. I measured myself to get the size and found that I am in the range of their "1X" size, which is 16W-18W. However, these shirts are by no means a close fit. They're a generous fit, but not voluminous.

One of the things I'm really not enjoying about weight loss is the entry back into sizing issues. Before, it was easy just to buy the biggest size available and hope it stretched to fit if it didn't actually fit well. Generally, the "3X" size would work, though not always with the best possible fit. I didn't have to worry about how I looked because getting something big enough to drape over my flesh was my only concern. Now that I'm working, I also have to think about how I look.

It's a very strange feeling considering my appearance again. I feel uncomfortable with the very notion of showing concern for looks. I want to buy the plainest clothes possible, but am finding that with my limited options, I have to assemble things a bit better than that. The shirts I bought have short sleeves, and some are too short for my comfort. They reveal my incredibly flabby batwings in all of their deflated glory, so I had to find a light covering to hide this flesh which is so loose that it can fold over on itself. The somewhat girly light jacket I bought is too frilly for my usual shoes, so I had to go buy sandals for women instead of my usual tennis shoes and Birkenstocks.

I feel like I'm in an ever growing spiral whereby putting my toe into worrying about what I wear requires me to keep branching out to other things. From shirts, to light sweaters, to pants, to shoes, and to makeup. It feels like there's no end to it and I'm not happy about it at all. I may look better to others, but I really don't feel any better. In fact, I feel shallow and somewhat goofy.

The bottom line is that I feel like a fraud and this is directly related to my sense that I was utterly asexual and incapable of being female as long as I was "huge". I so suppressed any notion or nature of femininity because of my size that I feel like I'm putting lipstick on a pig when I put on what I see as "girly" clothes (not really, but after years of T-shirts, plain stretch pants, and unisex shoes, this is what it feels like).

It's not me, or at least it doesn't feel like me. "Me" is a person who lives in her head, not through a mirror, but I can't help but act in accord with the fact that other people are now encountering me in a more formal setting and my appearance must reflect what is appropriate. I wonder if people can see my acute sense that I'm putting on something which I don't belong in. Can they see I'm a big, fat phony? I don't look "right" when I'm a girl. I'm just a sexless blob and I'm afraid they can see the truth.

I realize this is an identity issue which I need to work on. It's the next step on the path away from the image slapped upon me as a super obese person in the past. I may feel "wrong" in women's clothes, but that doesn't mean others look at me and see anything strange. When I go out the door in those clothes, I try to adopt an attitude which says that I can "sell" this look on myself, and that it works. I'm a woman, and no one is going to question my right to look like one. Considering that I have all the requisite female body parts, this is a lot harder to deeply accept than it should be, but I'll get there.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

One of Us

This is a post I wrote almost a year ago about diet culture but decided not to post because I was concerned that it would offend people who felt they were being included in the types of people I'm writing about. I was also worried about generating negative attention and that's not what this blog is all about. However, I was motivated to bring it back out after reading about an invasion of privacy on another person's blog, which I believe is the action of people who I describe in this post. That is, people who believe so strongly in the rightness of their way that they will interfere with another person's life, even if that person is essentially a stranger.

Before you read it, keep in mind that I'm not talking about an individual, but about a mindset portrayed by groups of individuals which I feel is destructive. If you think I'm pointing a finger at you, you're almost certainly the one pointing at yourself. I don't know "you", or, if I do, I don't know enough about "you" to include you in this group. If this post makes you uncomfortable, you may be seeing some truth about yourself that I personally am absolutely incapable of seeing.


In the movie “Freaks”, there is a disturbing scene where a “normal” woman comes into their group of pinheads and little people and they accept her as their own and start chanting “one of us, one of us, gooble, gobble.” This scene is perhaps better known by the fact that it was used in an early episode of the Simpsons. Sometimes, the dieting culture, reminds me of this scene.

Early on in my efforts to lose weight, I turned to weight loss support forums for “support”. I learned pretty quickly that those who reshaped themselves to fit into the mold that was “accepted” and who roughly came from the same place as the members were supported. Those that did not, were hammered away at until they forced themselves to fit in or simply ran away. It was a tribe that I wasn't welcome in, because my experiences and perspective were too different from the core of the diet culture.

The interesting thing about following people who just “join” the diet culture is that you can see the earnestness and desire to fit in. The sense that they will lose weight and succeed if they follow the successful herd is so strong it is palpable. They want to cast off all that they were and become what these other people are, because that will give them what they desperately seek. Those who are incapable of abandoning enough of themselves to follow all of the guidelines and rules of a particular sect of the diet cult consider themselves to have failed to do the right thing, not that perhaps the rigidity of the tribe does not suit their particular needs.

Lip service is given to the idea that all weight loss processes are individual and that we each need to find what works for us, but the deeper waters stir with the idea that failure is the result of not doing what I do (and what I do is "right" because I have lost weight and that makes me an authority and valid judge). When someone expresses frustration, the diet vultures are quick to move in and pick the choices of that party apart in a feeding frenzy of, at times constructive, and at other times judgmental, criticism. The message isn't that you haven't found what works for you. The message is that you aren't doing what works for us.

One reason that I approach things slowly and psychologically is that I also have my biases in regards to what I believe works. My biases are also informed by what is effective for me. My strongest bias is the absolute and unwavering belief that psychological elements always play a role in our relationship with food. I reject the notion out of hand that overeating is never anything more than unrestrained indulgence in the joys of eating. I also reject the idea that it is about character flaws that need to be whipped into shape with discipline. All character flaws stem from psychological wells in my opinion, and they can be drained or filled using therapeutic methods and the perceived "flaws" can be addressed to lesser or greater extents.

I can empathize with the bias of others, because I have my bias as well. The point at which I lose empathy though is when people become fanatical to the point where they insist their bias is an absolute reality. One of the things that I have difficulty with is the assertion that thinness solves all problems and that merely attaining the goal of a certain body shape will transform your life for the better as long as that shape is maintained.

Do I think life is better in many ways at a lower weight? Of course. However, a lot of that is steeped in the loss of negatives, not the attainment of positives. If your life is empty and your identity incomplete, losing weight will not change that. If your life is full of meaning and your weight was impeding your ability to take full advantage of it, then this will change.

The thing I reject is that thinness is the ultimate goal and an answer to all problems. I think the that goal should be to no longer be defined by a negative body image, developing a body that you feel good in, and building a relationship with food which places it in its proper context in your life (which may not be the same context as I want it placed in my life).

The goal for me is not to be an exercising machine or to define myself by healthy food choices. I've already spent much of my life being defined by my body and food choices and don't want to simply be the same person in a more socially acceptable body. That is not being whole. That is being just as damaged in a way which is sanctioned, probably feels better physically, and is considered admirable by society. I no more want to define myself by my food choices than I would like to do so by the amount of money in my bank account or the color of sofa I choose. “Normal”, that is psychologically healthy people, don't define themselves by their food options or exercise habits.

Many people find my viewpoint not only weird, but actively offensive and destructive. They believe that what I'm saying is unsupportive of people who want to lose weight. Frankly, from all outward appearances, they cannot see anything wrong with continuing to focus intently on BMIs, exercise habits, and food choices. In essence, they can see nothing wrong with being a part of this tribe and want everyone to be one of them in order to be just as happy as they are. In fact, they think this is the path to joy, and can't see how anyone would think otherwise.

This type of thinking is actually so close to fundamentalist religious thinking that it scares me a little. The deity involved is thinness. The daily “prayer habits” are exercise and eating vegetables and lean protein. The rituals are weighing oneself, checking body mass index numbers, and counting minutes on hamster-wheel-like machines. If you subscribe to the religion, and turn yourself over to thinness, you will be happy.

While I certainly do not care what other people do with their lives and their time as long as they aren't hurting anyone else, I feel uncomfortable with the zealotry I sometimes witness. There is a type of “recruiting” going on where people say, “let me help fix your life by guiding you to thinness”. There is an undercurrent of disapproval or knee-jerk recommending that is put out there for people who aren't doing all of the daily meditations properly. I can't tell you the number of times that someone writes about being tempted by a cookie in the office and successfully resisting, a psychological triumph greater than the avoidance of cookie calories, and the response is not just “good for you,” it is also, “now go throw the cookie away.” The members of the cult of thinness don't care about mental advancement. They care about following the rules. Good members don't allow “bad” food to exist in their presence. It isn't part of their gospel.

As I've mentioned before, I live in a culture of thin people. These people adore food. In fact, there are so many television programs devoted to it that show people lavishly enjoying food that it borders on pornography. This culture has a far healthier relationship with food than Americans, and it has nothing to do with exercise clubs, BMIs, or living in a home devoid of treats. It has to do with food and exercise occupying a psychologically healthy context in their existence. These things do not define them. They are defined by far richer aspects of their lives.

Sometimes I wonder if the reason the culture I currently reside in has a better relationship with food is that they are homogenous rather than diverse and feel a strong sense of identity from their broader culture. Americans, being highly individualized, struggle to work out who they are in a sea of diversity. We don't know who we are, so we cast about to redefine ourselves. Since we are from a consumerist culture, we tend to attach ourselves to that which we can buy. We associate ourselves with visible choices rather than with who we are inside. Frankly, we don't seem to know who we are inside so we define ourselves as a fan of a type of music, a follower of a particular religion, or by our pursuit of “healthy” habits.

Deep down, we're just following a tribe that gives us definition for a time and we still don't really know who the hell we are. The bigger that tribe is, the better we feel about our choice of identity. The more people who join the group, the stronger sense we have that the identity it gives us is a “good” one and therefore it makes us “good”. The more people who become “one of us, ” the easier it becomes to love ourselves and be happier with who we are.

Considering those emotional investments, is it any wonder that people have a strongly vested interest in making sure others live the same lifestyle as they do. Refusing to be one of them means rejecting them, not merely rejecting their habits. It's not that you personally make them uncomfortable or that they deeply care about your success, but rather that your rejection of their lifestyle choices makes them uncomfortable with themselves and uncertain about the path they are treading. 

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Normalizing back the other way

The next stage in the evolution of my relationship with food may be surprising to some, but I guess my entire approach has been relatively atypical all along. When most women who are trying to lose weight get to a lower weight, as I am now in the high 180's, they start to restrict their consumption more. For me, I have decided that it is time to add more calories back in once or twice a week.

There are several reasons why I'm going to do this. The first one is that I'm fully aware that even at about 2000 calories with a moderate activity level, I would continue to lose weight at a very slow pace. I have no fear that eating a little more occasionally is going to eliminate my progress. In fact, and this leads to the second reason, I think it will improve or at the very least not retard my progress because adjusting to eating more should ensure that I don't experience metabolic slowdown. I've always been inconsistent with my calories because I'd eat more when I was very, very hungry, but now I'm planning to be "slack" rather than waiting for the hunger to determine those days. This mainly entails not putting up with being hungry quite so often.

Note that a reason that is not on the list is that I'm finding it hard to continue or that I want to enjoy food I couldn't enjoy before. I enjoy all types of food now so this isn't going to change much aside from allowing for the occasional latte, an extra bit of fruit, or a slightly higher calorie meal on occasion. I'm in no way chafing at the bit to break out of my eating habits. I'm actually pretty satisfied with how I eat both nutritionally and in terms of food pleasure. I'm just responding in part to the situation I experienced last month when eating more improved my loss rate, not harmed it. I think my body is changing and this is what it is ready for.

The final reason that I'm doing this is that I'm about 40 lbs. away from my goal weight at which point I will change my eating to so-called "maintenance". That's when you eat to keep your current weight rather than continue to lose. When I get there, I want to already have habits in place that will be "normal" or routine for me for the rest of my life. A day or two a week now of this type of eating can only help me understand what that relationship will be like, though frankly, I don't think it'll be appreciably different from what I'm doing now considering that I've never been a severely restrictive "dieter".

For many people, I'm sure that 40 lbs. seems like I'm miles and miles away from "goal" and that this change is premature, but the road for me has been 230 lbs. long. I've lost 190 lbs. already, so 40 is pretty close to the end from where I sit. Additionally, though I'd like to reach my goal by spring of 2012, it will not be the end of the world if I've "only" lost another 20 lbs. instead of 40. I've got time, and my body deserves gentle transitions rather than severe changes. It's already done a lot of work for me over the last nearly two years. In the end, I believe this is going to be healthier and more productive, and time will tell if I'm right or wrong.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

I don't want to want what I want

A very good HAES (health at every size) blogger recently said that we should give ourselves permission to eat whatever we want in the quantity we want to eat it in. This blogger is a nutritionist, and definitely knows more about the science of food than the likes of me. That being said, I'm pretty sure that I know more about the psychology of it than the likes of her.

Strange as it may sound, considering that I'm practicing restriction of my intake in order to lose weight, I agree with her. Only by eating whatever we want in the quantity we want can we place food in its proper and healthy place in our lives. By denying ourselves anything, we enhance its value and become more preoccupied with it. Humans tend to ruminate more on what is missing and at the heart of their desires than those things that they can have any time and in abundance.

My approach, which has seen me nibbling chocolate almost every single day, has always been to not place anything out of bounds for the aforementioned reason. Though this point is not addressed by this truly excellent blogger, I would guess that the place at which we might disagree is where we accept our "wants" as being ones that are conducive to our own happiness and well-being. The problem isn't eating as much as you want of whatever you want, it's "the wants" themselves that need to be dealt with.

All of my life, there have been things I have wanted which I could not have. One of those things was a guy I was in love with for over a decade who did not return my affections. Another was a lot of money. Yet another was a certain type of job. In the first case, had I gotten the guy I wanted, I would not have been happy, in retrospect, our characters would have been like gasoline and fire. I didn't know that I would want the type of man I got, but when he came along, I found that I not only wanted him, but needed him.

In regards to the type of job that I "wanted", I eventually got it. I wanted an office job which allowed me to work quietly and spend a lot of time in the peace of my own mind rather than the type of work which required me to be constantly engaged with other people in face-to-face situations. I found the latter exhausting and just wanted to escape that sort of job. I was so relieved when I got my "dream job", but it turned out that that work lead me down a path which ended in severe depression, loneliness, and substantial weight gain.

My point is that what we want isn't always what we need, nor is it necessarily what makes us happy. At one time, I wanted nothing more than to eat and eat and eat tasty food without having to pay a price in weight gain. I wanted to be one of those magical people who never gains weight despite eating all sorts of high calorie foods. I can't say what my life would be like is I were one of those people, but it's not something I can acquire anyway.

The thing that needs adjusting isn't the amount or type of food that we eat. The shape of the "want" is what needs to be changed. It's no problem now eating whatever I want in whatever quantity I want because I've psychologically changed such that the quantity I want is a bite or two of chocolate once or twice a day. I really don't want more than that, but I used to. Oh, how I used to want so much more!

My approach all along has been working on the shape of the "want" such that my desire scaled back to match what was within boundaries which were conducive to my health, both mental and physical. This was very hard, both physically and psychologically, because both my body and my mind were distorted by years of abuse of food. And, make no mistake, if your eating habits are making you sick (again, either mentally or physically), then you are abusing food. However, if you can work with your wants such that they are molded to promote a happy, healthy, and constructive life, you will be much more satisfied than if you simply accept your desires as they are.

One of the things I have come to realize is that, as Americans, we embrace and even celebrate our out-size desires. We applaud people who are capable of lives of excess without consequence, and gleefully trot out our schaudenfreude when they do so to their detriment. We wish to be them in the first case, and are happy at their downfall because we know it would be ours as well if we catered to our excessive appetites.

The answer to our problems with food does not lie in cramming our lifestyle into slots, holes, pegs, and routines which have a "healthy living" stamp of approval. It's not about eating vegetables, lean meat, and exercising or giving up all of the food which judgmental people have decided are "bad". The solution comes from addressing what we want, because we want too much, too often, and too badly. After dealing with the desires, the rest will sort itself out.

There are all sorts of books telling you what a specific group of people do in order to remain trim. They're full of details which you're supposed to be guided by which will then lead you to some magical state of satisfaction, health and beauty. The problem with those bits of advice is that they aren't what you want. They are what the people who the book is about desire. You can't follow in their footsteps because you want something else.

These differences in "want" are why the French and Japanese aren't fat. They aren't nibbling on a tiny cookie and wishing they could eat the whole bag. They aren't eating a chocolate croissant for breakfast and wishing they could chase it with a big pizza lunch. They're not fighting their desires because they don't have giant outsize desires and conflicted feelings about eating a damn piece of chocolate. Their desires are just different.

The solution is not to follow their specific actions, but to adjust your big, American desires. Stop beating yourself up about what you want and work on wanting differently. That doesn't mean living an ascetic life or never having an ice cream cone again. It does mean finding a good balance between pleasure and nutrition such that you get both in the right amounts for your particular physiology. And, no, it's not easy, because this is about psychology and changing your head is never simple. It is, however, a way to eat whatever you want, whenever you want in whatever quantity you want and still be at peace with your choices.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

More than one type of hunger

Last month, my eating was more inconsistent over a long period of time than it has been in quite some time. There were far more days closer to 2000 calories than 1500-1600 (my general goal) and definitely some days that may have been around 2500. Three days ago, I told my husband that I'd been more inconsistent than I would prefer to be and that I would like him to assist me by asking me one question about how well I did each day.

This isn't about accountability so much as putting one small action in place which places my eating habits back in the forefront of both of our minds. If I weren't trying to still actively lose weight, my habits in the last month wouldn't have been of concern for me as I don't think that they would have been conducive to weight gain. That was three days ago and I've been where I want to be for the last 2 days (this is the third day and is not yet over).

Like everyone who is working on weight issues, after a period of time when I haven't been doing what I prefer to do, I wasn't keen at the idea of weighing myself. Since I'm not big into weighing myself anyway (and only do it monthly), I put it off for about a week and finally decided to weigh myself today. Five weeks ago, I weighed 199. Today, after a month of spotty adherence to my calorie goal posts, I weigh about 187 lbs. Note that my scale is very poor quality. I got 4 readings - one was 189 lbs. and the next three were 186 lbs. The "consequence" of eating a little more was that I lost about 12 or 13 lbs. over 5 weeks, a more than satisfactory rate, particularly in my current weight range.

It's important to take something away from this experience and that is that calorie counting is not the end all and be all of weight loss, and particularly that high levels of deprivation and intense exercise are not required. I walked no more or less over the last 5 weeks, but I ate more. I didn't eat more because I was "slipping", though I frankly was worried that was the case. I ate more because I was so hungry, much hungrier than I'd been in a long time.

It's my feeling that this intense hunger was a message from my body telling me to fuel up a bit more. It was, in essence, a panic response and I wonder if I had bucked up and stuck to my guns if I might not be in some sort of metabolic slowdown at this point or dropping into a starvation mode-induced plateau. I can't know since I ate more for awhile and didn't stall. Maybe I was just really lucky compared to other people.

One thing I've realized is that not all hunger is the same. The hunger that I tolerate when I have a craving isn't the same as that which is brought on by an empty stomach or even trying to put off eating a bit longer so I can have a proper meal. The hunger I feel when my body is saying "enough is enough, I need to be fully fueled for awhile" isn't the same as everyday hunger. Learning the difference between these types of things is very helpful in knowing when to eat more and when to just put up with being hungry, but it's not an easy thing to learn, especially when you have a personal history which makes it hard for you to trust yourself with food.

Right now, I'm trying to build the perceptual tools to distinguish between these types of hunger and to build trust in myself. This is probably something that comes naturally to people who have not struggled with lifelong weight issues, but it is new to me. I've spent my whole life trampling all over my biological and psychological eating cues such that both my mind and my body operated in a state of confusion. I've worked out a lot of the mind parts, and now have to work on listening to the quiet voice of my body.

Since I've spent so much time not having that voice, it's speaking the equivalent of a new language to me and it's going to take time to learn it. The important thing is to recognize that it is there and can guide me if I can learn how to heed it. Nothing would delight me more than to be able to do that (listen to my body's cues) rather than rely are artificial constructs (like calorie counting) to control my food intake. To whatever extent I can leave rigidity behind and rely on nature, I'll be happy, but I'm not there yet.


It's worth noting, as a progress note, that I have now lost 50% of my body weight since around mid-June 2009. I am, literally, half of what I once was. Also, for the first time in a very long time, I weigh less than my husband.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

What a carrot can never be

It may appear rather anachronistic in this day and age, but I like to cook. No, really, I enjoy the entire process and view it as a creative endeavor which mixes the science of cooking with the almost infinite variability of food mixtures. Baking is, in my opinion, the only effective alchemy humans can ever hope to achieve. You take disparate parts, mix them in the proper proportions, and the result in no way resembles the structure of the components, and in some cases doesn't even strongly resemble the tastes of the component parts.

Enjoying cooking is extremely helpful if you're trying to eat differently. I recently went to a chain restaurant that is famous in the U.S. for its tacky decor and often overly friendly staff. I hadn't been to this sort of place in decades, literally. The food, which I assume must be popular among some patrons or there wouldn't be branches of this place worldwide, was horrible. It was too greasy and salty and the nutritional balance of dishes was very poor. I guess that it'd be great for kids, who actively dislike fruit and vegetables, and college kids who are trying to eat away a hangover, but all I could think was how I was paying for someone else to serve me an inferior meal. It's not that I'm the greatest cook in the world, mind you, but I can do better than what was offered to me by leaps and bounds.

One thing many people say about the (dreadfully named) "lifestyle change" is that your tastes change after you start eating certain foods. You grow accustomed to whatever it is that you have been eating through time and lose your taste for things you once adored. This is why people from different cultures love certain foods that people from other cultures find disgusting. Generally speaking, this is true, and I'm sure accounts for my distaste about the taste of the type of food I was served at that restaurant. However, many people who become utterly absorbed in restricting their intake try to sell you the notion that one day you'll find a carrot as desirable as a bowl of ice cream. Scratch that... they try to sell you on the idea that you'll prefer the carrot over the ice cream. The only way that will happen if you're so lactose intolerant that you'll become violently ill with one nibble of cold, creamy heaven.

Much as I'd like to embrace the idea that one day I'll look at a piece of chocolate and say, "nah, I don't like it anymore", I know better. I may not want that chocolate to soothe my emotions anymore, but my mouth still knows heavenly sensory pleasures. You can lie to yourself, but you can't lie to your taste buds. They've developed desires and your desire to play head games to convince yourself not to like something aren't going to overwrite the results of evolution.

Don't get me wrong, I love a good carrot. In fact, a really fresh moist raw carrot is sweet and tasty and can't be beat when you're in the mood for a crunchy vegetable fix, but it's not the same as a well-made chocolate truffle or a homemade snickerdoodle cookie. It really is "apples and oranges".

You do lose your taste for certain kinds of food when you change your eating habits. You just don't lose your taste for giant categories of dish types. That is, you may not enjoy the easy to make frozen vegetables swimming in fake butter anymore, but you may enjoy perfectly al dente steamed vegetables with a light coating of real butter. You may not desire Chee-tos like you used to, but you may really savor gourmet parmesan crisps. Tastes change, but they don't tend to put you in a place where you want to abandon all desserts, salty treats, or good fats.

For me, I've lost my taste for almost all convenience foods now - frozen and canned prepared food is just disgusting to me now. I can't eat powdered or canned soup after having spent two years developing recipes for homemade versions. I used to like them, but not anymore. Once you've immersed yourself in eating food which lacks the preservatives, excess salt, and fake ingredients, you find it hard to go back. This is generally a good thing for your health, but not so for your free time, and possibly not for your wallet considering you can get a can of tomato soup for a quarter in some places, but it's going to cost you more than that to buy all of the vegetables to do it yourself.

So, I have found that my food tastes have changed through time, but not in the way food zealots often say. I still love desserts and salty snacks. I still love well-made baked goods and crispy skin on a well-cooked piece of chicken (oh, love that skin, but don't eat it). Mainly, I've just become fussier about these things such that I've just got to do all of the work myself. It makes me wish I had a bigger freezer.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

"Corrective" Action

Reading back over some of my techniques for altering my relationship with food, I sometimes wonder if it sounds fairly disordered and bizarre. Teaching myself to be hungry and live with it, developing a technique for eating tiny amounts of treats and being happy with 2 or 3 bites, and now, I've started to practice eating much more slowly. In fact, my current project is to eat my breakfast by waiting 5 minutes between bites.

To someone who hasn't spent the vast majority of their entire lives between 300 and 400 lbs., this may all seem obsessive and overly regimented rather than behavior meant to "normalize" my eating. It's important to keep in mind that "normal" is highly subjective, but also that over a lifetime, my dealings with food have been a couple of standard deviations away from the mean. In other words, these measures wouldn't be necessary if I was a little closer to doing what people with a healthy relationship with food are already doing.

My choices are akin to a compulsive hand-washer who washes his hands 100 times a day reducing the number of times he washes his hands slowly through time. It's not about cultivating abnormality, but normality, though sometimes I wonder if it comes across as quite the opposite.

Rigid exercises in waiting to eat, purposeful tasting, etc. are part of behavior modification techniques that I've been increasingly putting in place for myself. When I start such plans, I have to pay attention to the clock, portion sizes, etc. This purposeful effort is the only way to re-set the way I deal with food. Through time, my behavior more naturally falls into the sorts of patterns which assist in eating more modest portions and doing so more slowly and mindfully. The rigid structure falls away as the mind and body conform to the new patterns after having learned them through time using external constructs.

Those who don't have the same issues as me may find the rules I put in place for myself ridiculous and possibly even scary. However, this isn't about boxing myself into extremely restrictive behavior or limiting my enjoyment of food. It's about correcting life-long unrestricted behavior and prolonging the experience of enjoying food.

Recently, I decided to eat my breakfast (usually a homemade sugar-free muffin) by waiting five minutes between bites because I feel that I have a tendency to "rush through it" even though I'm eating mindfully. My husband eats the same food in the same quantity as me, but it takes him up to an hour sometimes. He is very casual about it.

Mind you, he often eats much later at night than me and in greater quantity as he's not trying to lose a lot of weight, so he isn't waking up as hungry as me. However, eating fast when you're hungry doesn't improve satiety. It just tends to increase the chances of eating more. Eating slowly gives the body a chance to recognize the food biologically as well as psychologically. There is no benefit in taking 5 minutes to eat my muffin as compared to 30 minutes. In fact, there are only drawbacks.

Eventually, I'm hoping this forced pattern will lead to my eating more slowly at every meal without any sort of external construct. There is no downside to this change in behavior. I'll be eating the same amount of food as before, but just savoring it over a longer period of time.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Rights Denied

Recently, I was pondering how eating disorders are born. Part of the reason for this is my own experience, but another reason was that I saw documentary which showed women who suffered from anorexia and bulimia. Watching these women operate around food, one couldn't help but see that they consistently denied their right to eat, and when they granted themselves the right to enjoy food, they denied themselves the right to be nourished by it and vomited it back up.

I also have been having several days in a row in which I have been incredibly hungry and denying myself the right to feel sated. I finally relented and did something I do occasionally, and just ate. In fact, I ate too much. That is to say that I ate more than necessary to feel sated. I wonder if I did that because of a pent up need to allow myself to do what I wanted to do, rather than simply to be "full" for a change. At any rate, at the end, I didn't beat myself up or anything because that's not what I do. I just get back on the horse the next day and all is fine. Everybody eats a little too much on occasion. I have that right, too, don't I? Well, apparently not... if I'm fat, I don't have the right to eat to maintain my weight, let alone to ever eat beyond my caloric requirements. This would make my thinking pattern not altogether different from that of anorexic women. They also do not feel they should eat more than necessary. They just set the bar very low for what they feel is required.

I was thinking about the pattern that many women (and sometimes men) experience in which they start to question their right to eat. That moment starts with some sort of notion that their body is inadequate and would be less so if they didn't eat. This is a message that goes beyond personal desire to be a different body type. It's something which is reinforced by family, media and society on the whole. If you're fat, you don't have the right to eat certain foods. In fact, they'd rather you simply fasted until you shed all of your unsightly weight. The people who glance with disgust into your shopping cart, the ones who snort with derision when you eat at a fast food place, and those who walk up to you when you're having an ice cream cone and tell you that you really shouldn't be eating that are letting you know in no uncertain terms that you don't have the basic right to eat whatever you want.

For fat people, this curtailing of rights expands through time. You not only don't have the right to eat what other people eat, but you also don't have the right to wear certain types of clothes. You should cover the shamefulness of your bulbous body with dark, billowy fabrics. Cover your batwings and rounded calves. Don't accentuate those chubby ankles, and, for God's sake, don't wear horizontal stripes.

You're also told that you don't have the right to be loved like people who are not fat, and that you only deserve lesser partners. The partners that choose you (because, you know, you certainly have no choice since you're fat and nobody wants you) must be lacking in some way themselves if they would "settle" for a fat partner.

We don't have the right to be lazy. This is something I have had an issue with all of my life. I'm "not allowed" to spend a day lazing around in front of the T.V. I have to prove I'm not your typical "lazy fat ass" by running myself ragged everyday. I only allow myself to rest when ill or injured, and even then I complain the entire time because I don't like being "down". I've completely forgotten how to enjoy doing nothing because I have no right to let go and do nothing.

Frankly, many people would like to deny you the right to even appear  in public. You are so abhorrent to their sensibilities, that they would prefer to deny you autonomy, if only they could. While they can't do it legally, they can shame and ridicule you to the point where you will choose to deny yourself the right to be in public and hide in your home to the extent humanly possible.

The worst part of all of this is that it is all too easy to internalize the idea that as a fat person you don't have the right to enjoy food, be loved, dress attractively, or to be in public. You deny yourself those rights and as you do so, you devalue yourself as a person. You accept that your size renders you sub-human and passively comply with the wishes of those who detest you.

I've been a victim of this all of my life, and sometimes had the strength to act in defiance of such notions, but often have felt beaten down by them. Only recently have I realized what rights I've denied myself because I've found myself in a position to grant them again to myself. I'm still fat, but not hugely so, and I'm starting to feel that I have the right to be seen, eat good food, and be loved. I have the right to eat when I'm hungry. The fact that I have to offer myself special dispensation for that says a lot about how the people around me have shaped my sense of self, and my sense of my rights and value as a human being.

The fact that people would reinforce the notion that I don't deserve these same rights as other human beings based merely on body size makes me angry, but that anger really has no place to go. I know that nothing is going to change and that I am powerless to do anything about the oppressive nature of people's views toward and actions against people who are overweight. The only thing I can do is remember, understand, and never deny myself these rights again.