Monday, December 24, 2012

Prejudice, in all its forms

When I lived abroad, people tended to make a lot of assumptions about me based on their generalizations or stereotypes about foreigners from America. I figured when I returned to the U.S., this would stop. However, it turned out that people are still making assumptions based on generalizations or stereotypes, they are just doing so with a different set of them.

Several weeks ago, I met an new acquaintance of my husband's at a coffee shop for the first time. At the early stage of our conversation, we were discussing size differences in beverages. The country I used to live in did not offer "venti" size drinks, but it did offer "short" ones. This talk about everything being bigger, including the spaces around the tables, in the U.S. prompted this new acquaintance to mention how large the people in America were. Clearly, she was referring to weight.

As a way of handling this somewhat derogatory remark, I mentioned that I felt American weight issues were largely linked to acculturation. We are acclimated to larger portions and find them natural and normal. My husband also pointed to his drink and said that it cost a mere 20 cents more to go from a large to a venti so you are economically encouraged to have more. We proceeded to discuss how the cost of food products is largely wrapped up in marketing, packaging, and sales and that the cost of the actual food you are consuming is such a small percentage that there is much more profit in getting you to fork over an extra dime or quarter for more food because of this.

This new acquaintance, who I actually really like and I was not offended by what she said at all, in large part because she accepted what I said about food and culture with a thoughtful mindset rather than a defensive one, made assumptions about me based on how she saw me as I am now. I'm fat, for sure, but she's also a little overweight. She was looking at me as a "normal fat" rather than an "abnormal fat" and had no idea that she was talking to someone who used to weigh 380 lbs. and who has lived most of her adult life over 300. If she had known, my guess is she never would have casually remarked about how large Americans are to me within the first 3 minutes of having met me.

It isn't only about weight that I've found people are reaching conclusions about me. My sister-in-law has had several conversations with me in which she's has taken to "educating" me about a variety of things which she has no experience with and that I have, shall we say, copious experience with. The absurdity of her telling me what it is like for people to grow up with an alcoholic parent, in poverty, or to be around seriously mentally ill was hysterically ridiculous.

It's as if she just can't hold the thoughts in her mind that I grew up incredibly poor, surrounded by dysfunction, worked with seriously mentally ill people, and with an alcoholic father when she looks at me. She simply can't reconcile whatever image she holds of the present me with a person who lived that life and takes to talking to me as if I were an idiot who can't possibly understand or empathize with the difficulties of the people she is talking about. I've literally had to repeat each of these points at least 3 times during various discussions to make her understand that I'm not some middle class entitled person (which, ironically, she is) who has landed on these shores after an exciting and privileged life abroad. I've worked hard, suffered greatly, and came from absolutely nothing.

The intransigence of the stereotypes and generalizations people form about another person based on present day limited knowledge is something I find very frustrating, especially since people instantly believe my life was an easy one. They see me as middle class economically (even though currently I have no income at all), educated, and out of touch with the difficulties of minorities and the poor. The idea of "white privilege" is all around me and people speak as if I have no idea what it is like to be a minority and to experience prejudice. They assume I don't know what it is like to be judged on sight, rejected based on skin color, or have doors closed to me based on ethnicity.

 I spent 23 years being gawked at, insulted, talked about, turned away, and having my opportunities severely limited because I was in a country where more than 99% of the people were not like me. I think I do have some idea what it is like to be part of a minority. What is more, I spent about 20 years of my life at home in America being marginalized because of my weight. I have always been part of an oppressed minority, at least up until now. But, people don't see that, and won't even believe it when I tell them, because they cannot break out of the thought box their generalizations about me lock them in.

I find that I was less frustrated by the prejudices I experienced abroad than the preconceived notions I experience back home. Part of the reason for that is that my former home abroad is not a country in which people are educated about prejudice and how not to act on it. Part of it is that I disconnected emotionally from those people as a survival mechanism and could do so because they saw me as outside and I could see myself that way. Here, the perceived inclusion is stifling because I'm in an individualistic culture which is fiercely intent on pigeonholing me as something other than an individual. Even when I assert clearly that I am not what people perceive me to be, they push back or refuse to see who I truly am in favor of their notions.

One of the sources of my depression has been a deep disappointment and frustration at how I am perceived and how I did not expect to have this sort of thing happen. While I did not expect people to look at me and assume I used to be much more overweight, I did expect them to at least be open-minded to the fact that I can't be sized up with little more than a look. People used to think I was a lazy, donut-scoffing pig before based merely on my looks. Now, they think I'm some easy-living, entitled, spoiled middle-aged white lady. Perhaps I was naive in thinking that losing weight would change the way people reach conclusions based on appearances. The cursory judgement didn't end. The conclusions people tend to reach just changed, and they're not really for the better in my experiences. They still diminish me. They still serve to elevate others at my expense. They still are shallow and self-serving.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Holding My Ground

I've been away from this blog for a long time because of the emotional difficulties involved in making certain transitions to the changes in my life since leaving the Asian country I had been living on for over two decades. The bottom line is that I've been depressed and sliding deeper into it for quite some time. The issues that lead to that depression are complex, and actually have only a little to do with weight, weight loss, or my relationship with food.

This blog isn't really a place for me to talk about other aspects of my life, including depression, but there are parts of it which fit the motif. Mind you, I know my readers would be more than happy to listen if I'd like to talk, and I may yet go into some elements of this depression which are not related to food or weight. The one thing about it that I can and will say is that people often believe that depression is about sadness. It is, but the greater part of it is more than that. Depression is a thief. It steals your energy, your ability to experience joy, and your resilience. During the last few months, my ability to cope, experience pleasure, be productive, and endure any hardship have been eroded by depression. I haven't blogged because I've been barely coping with what I have to do. I didn't have to blog, so I didn't.

Things are slowly getting better. Circumstances have actually not changed, but a turning point was reached in certain aspects of my life where I decided that I had to yank myself mentally out of the downward spiral I was in and start rebuilding mentally or I'd never climb out of the hole I was being dragged into. That is not to say this is a complete process at this point, but I pulled myself out by sheer force of will and a realization of the long-term cost if I did not  break the cycle I was in. I keep resisting being dragged back down. I am not always successful, but I am finding enough success to keep trying.

Before I go on, it is imperative that I say that I don't believe that people can overcome depression by will or by "snapping out of it". I am/was depressed due to circumstances and not due to innate biochemistry. I do believe that certain techniques can slowly help a person re-write their biochemical nature, but not if the roots of it are genetic. My case is unique, as am I. If anyone takes a message of pulling oneself up by ones own bootstraps from this post, then there has been a misinterpretation of my intent. What I've suffered is hard, and what I'm doing to deal with it is difficult, but it is not something I think just anyone can do. We all live in our own skins and within our own unique set of circumstances. 

The process by which I'm dealing with my depression and the situation surrounding it is not at all different from the "rewiring" that I did to help change my relationship with food. The biggest difference is that the results are absolutely faster because I haven't spent as many years building to this state as I spent getting to 380 lbs. It's a lot easier to overcome a few years or months of biochemical changes brought on by difficult experiences than to rewire decades of them.

Getting to the aspects which concern this blog, I wanted to speak of how this has impacted my eating/weight. My weight remains stable. I'm still not thin, of course, but I've been maintaining my 200 lb. loss without calorie counting, restriction, or extreme exercises. I have not found myself compelled to eat compulsively to deal with my feelings. Sometimes I have actively wished that that would still be effective for me, but I have undone the connection that says that eating will make me feel better. I remember that it might make me feel bad enough to forget how miserable I am emotionally, but I have not turned to that. The cognitive "rewiring" I did has served me well in this regard.

What no amount of mental conditioning can do, however, is take away the fact that, as a force which drains you resolve and resilience, depression makes it far harder to deal with additional difficulties. That is, I've found it harder to spend time being hungry or to resist eating impulsively rather than to simply wait for meals. While this has not had an impact on my weight maintenance, it has certainly hindered more loss as well as made my overall diet "noisier" than it should be. By that, I mean that I've been inclined to snack more and less healthily, though absolutely there is no issue with quantity.

I don't mention these things to deal with this punitively. Trust me when I say that I'm not beating myself up over eating 3 tiny pieces of candy a day instead of one. I mention this here merely because I want to say that my depression has had this particular impact on my eating. It dampens impulse control. It undermines the ability to endure discomfort, even routine hunger which is normal between meals for most people. It is a factor, though it hasn't been a highly destructive one for me.

In an odd way, this depression has revealed a certain triumph for me. My biggest fear upon returning "home" has been that I would re-gain the weight I'd lost as I dealt with the hardships of being here. I gained a lot of weight last time I made a move from my East coast home to my husband's West coast home because of the stress and emotional upheaval it brought. This time, it did not happen despite even greater difficulties that had to be faced. I attribute this to the mental groundwork I laid to change my approach to food as well as my increased awareness. My husband's support and cooperation are also a part of this. If he had invalidated my pain this time as he had done nearly two and a half decades ago when I made the initial move, I don't know where I'd be this time. Fortunately, his eyes are open this time and he has been a lot better about making the changes necessary to validate my concerns as well as be supportive.

It has been a hard road coming home, and I'm nowhere near riding out the bumps. This post is just checking in to let my kind readers know where I am and what has happened. I hope to tell more when I have greater energy, but, for now, I'm holding my ground.