Lately, I've been going to the gym. Not because I have some focused plan to get healthy and lose weight. Though I do hope to get healthy and losing weight is great since I'd love to go shopping for clothes at a store like a smaller-sized person. I go every morning and I usually spend around 2 hours there. Soon it'll be 3 as my workouts will continue to expand. I can't do much right now compared to some. My lifting isn't so great and it takes me 30 minutes to swim a half-mile, but that's okay.
I go to the gym because I like to go to the gym. I go to the gym because I am fascinated by the physicality and possibility of the human body. I go to the gym because even though I was always a very active child, I was humiliated and mocked, told again and again that I was too fat, too disgusting, and when I tried to play organized sports, tried to participate in PE, I simply could not keep up. Slow and clumsy and fat, I quickly decided that physical activity was not for me. That I hated it. I could not separate the physical exertion from the endless horror and humiliation that was PE and recess. A horror and humiliation that the teachers were either blind to or as helpless as I was to correct.
I go to the gym because I met a man who showed me that it didn't have to be that way. He literally changed my life when he said, "You're an athlete. Forget about all the shit you went through and don't worry about how you got to where you are today. You're an athlete and your body knows it."
I go to the gym because it's my daily adult recess. Recess I never got to enjoy as a child. I cannot stress the importance of that enough. It's a complete reversal of the very mindset that kept me homebound, anxious, overweight, and self-conscious for so many years. See, going to the gym is not about losing weight. It's about healing my body from years and years of psychological and physical damage--some was external and some was internal and getting to where I am now has been very difficult, sometimes painful, sometimes scary, but it's a constant journey.
My sister posted this picture on facebook last night.
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Yes, that's me and a difference between fifteen months. The responses from friends and family were very kind and complimentary, but every single one of them completely missed the point. They look at me and they see somebody with "great determination" and wonderful "self-control" and "Will-power" and they wished they could "work as hard" as me.
But I'm not working. I'm not using "will power" to starve myself--I'm not even remotely dieting! I eat what I want and I eat when I'm hungry and I don't give a fuck what anybody says about my habits (Everybody has an opinion about what would work "best" and after listening to those opinions for years I realized "Wait a sec. Why am I listening to them when it's my body I need to pay attention to?").
I'm healing and I'm losing weight in the process because my weight gain was a direct result of a complex problem...I was very ill and now I'm convalescing.
So join me under the squiggly for my story...
My weight gain was not a simple matter of calories=fat. I would be surprised if anybody really had that simple story because the concept of calories in=weight gain is a myth, a misunderstanding of how the body works.
Sometimes an effort is made to acknowledge that "morbidly obese" people have an underlying mental or emotional issues that causes them to "overeat", but that goes back to the same calories=fat mentality that's governed our lives and health policy for the past several decades. But books like Health at Every Size and Why We Get Fat (And What We Can Do About It both go to great lengths to demonstrate that our model of "reduce calories and lose weight" is not correct, even if it feels it must be, and in fact fails to recognize how truly complicated and splendid the human body is. It is not a simple machine, where only one variable (the amount of energy you consume) controls the outcome of the situation (how much fat you have on your body).
Wouldn't it be splendid if that were the case? Wouldn't it be amazing if we could all genuinely reduce calories and like magic lose excess pounds and then keep it off (recent studies show that essentially no dieter loses weight and keeps it off)
It's a simple, childlike dream that lacks imagination or any real world support, yet we are so keenly invested in it as a culture. It's a marketing ploy designed to make money. It's a scare tactic. Think about what "personal responsibility" is code for when Republicans use that phrase, and consider how that same notion is used as a weapon against anybody who is not the "perfect' or "ideal" weight. "It is your body," all the experts say, "and so you must be the responsible one." But your body is made up of a million tiny parts all working in (more or less) perfect harmony and if anything disrupts that balance than it could throw the entire system out of whack.
The calories in=weight gain model doesn't account for those other factors that could throw things off. And that reflects my reality since I was a child. My parents were quite poor and food was strictly regulated to the point that I still have a hard time letting go of old habits (Very Bad Things would happen to the child who ate Dad's Leftovers, and so leftovers still go bad in my fridge even though they are mine). Due to the circumstances of my childhood, the food I did have access to was almost always fresh (we killed our own chickens, hunted game, grew gardens) and I never, ever, EVER ate fastfood. EVER. It simply did not happen. I wasn't given much junk food, though my grandmother did give us small treats every day (a fun-sized snickers and a can of Shasta). In hindsight, I grew up on the sort of diet that Michelle Obama is advocating now, and yet I weighed 80 pounds in Kindergarten. By fifth grade I was over 120.
I kept getting bigger and bigger, though I was always a smart girl and I could see that I ate less than my peers. I knew because I saw their home lunches. A few times I even went to their houses. The rules were so relaxed! And there was so much to choose from!
When I was 16 I was probably around 170. I felt huge. I felt so amazingly disgustingly huge that I can't even remember for sure what my weight was because it all blurs together in my head. I also had a car and a job, and so I indulged in all the junk food that my mother would never let me eat before. I won't lie and say that didn't have a huge hand in how things went, because it did. Unfortunately for me, I was already blinded to the reality of my body at that point, viewing it through a lens created by the people around me.
As you can probably tell from my description, my upbringing was a hotbed for food-related issues because not only did the kids at school remind me how disgustingly fat I was at all times, but my family got in on it as well. My mother constantly chastised me and put me on diets, even though she always had control over my food anyway! I lived 5 miles from the nearest store and I had no money, it wasn't like I was sneaking away to buy food for myself and gorge on it when I was 12! My dad yelled at me because I didn't exercise more. I spent most of my young life outside, being active, playing, exploring the 20 acres we lived on--but mostly I liked to read. And besides, I was fat, clumsy and slow, remember?
When I was 15, I was enrolled in a dietary class at the local hospital. It was me and maybe a dozen overweight men and women about 20-40 years older than me. During the week we'd have to write down everything we ate, count all the calories, and came back to report to the rest of the class. I wanted to lose weight because I wanted to play volleyball in high school. So I dutifully filled out my charts and counted my calories and did my weigh-ins...I consistently was the one with "right amount" of calories and the fewest things on my list (because we had no food at home to spare! Side note: When my boyfriend moved in with my family he lost 80 pounds in 3 months because he was eating portion sizes I grew up eating. Can you imagine how that made me feel? My regular food was his diet and yet I kept gaining and gaining). I never lost any weight in that class. It was a pointless waste of time that made me feel even worse about myself because I bought in to the notion that it had to be all my fault. It was my weight...who else would be at fault?
The weight gain continued and continued. Nothing I could do to stop it. Not that I could really see it. In my eyes, I've always looked the same and that was always "morbidly obese".
In 2004, when I was 21, I decided to try Atkins because I was going to Italy for 3 weeks and I was so out of shape that I thought the trip would literally kill me. I would risk my life for Rome, but I thought I should try to at least change things around. Clearly restricting calories was not going to do me any good, so maybe restricting carbs would? It really genuinely changed my life. For the first time, I had control over my body.
For the first time in my life I could make a decision and then see a very real, positive consequence of that decision. I'm not talking about losing weight specifically, I'm talking about finally having a logical cause and effect that made sense, that I could follow. When I spent my life counting calories, that never happened. I genuinely believed it never could happen.
Even so, it was years before I broke myself away completely from the concepts of diets. This last year, I have eaten more fast food than at any other point of my life. The hypothetical Fast Food Consumption chart would spike so wildly that you would be forced to conclude I gained weight!
In fact, I've lost weight. Consistently and gradually.
So it must be the gym, right?
Well, no. See, most people don't burn more calories than they eat at the gym, even when that is the only goal. Both books I referenced above spell out the science, but what it comes down to is that an increase of physical activity does not have a major influence on weight loss. Because "calories in-calories out" model is completely skewed and inaccurate.
Besides, though I am more active, I'm far from dedicated. There have been weeks when I simply didn't do anything for whatever reason.
I don't think it's the gym. And I don't think it's food. I think it's finding what the fuck is throwing your body out of whack. My killer and the killer I share with millions? Stress. My body was in a constant state of arousal associated with stress from the time I was a child. My parents could snap at any minute and throw one of us or each other into a wall. Every day at school was a fresh hell as I was the go-to target for everybody from bullies who wouldn't stop until I cried to my own friends who "affectionately" referred to me as "Beached Whale.". I was under tremendous pressure to succeed, to be the best and smartest and work hard. I didn't sleep at night. I developed insomnia at a very, very young age and when I finally gave in to pure exhaustion, I had nightmares. Every night for fifteen years, I had extremely vivid, terror inducing nightmares that I could recall in perfect detail the morning after. The dark feelings of those nights would stay with me during the day.
When I was 18, I graduated High school, got married, moved to So Cal, and started my new adult life. Day One was worrying about money and it never stopped. Not for a single second. Every minute of every waking hour (which was around 21 since I still wasn't sleeping) was devoted to worrying about money, and then I'd worry about school. There was no break, no big promotion or good news. My husband had a decent job and for awhile we could keep our heads above water, but little things snowball. Hell, even when we were covering the bills and surviving, all I did was worry about money. In hindsight, I can't believe how much of my life was dedicated to worrying about money. And school. And driving in the traffic. And every other goddamned thing. Because I also suffer from very acute depression and I probably have an anxiety disorder and that was simply My Life since I could remember.
Stress does funny things to a body. A body under pressure is not operating at optimal levels. The heart rate is constantly elevated (I always had high blood pressure, and in early 2011 it reached hyper-tension status at 155/95). In that state, hormones are released to encourage fat, since clearly if you're feeling this terrible about things you are either 1)about to be eaten yourself or 2)about to enter a serious food shortage. I always felt like I was under attack. I was always afraid.
I kept gaining weight. I went on and off Atkins, depending on if I could afford it (both $$ and time wise). The first time I tried Atkins and stopped, my lowest weight was 290 (down from 330). In Fall 2010, I was up to 370, pre-diabetic, with hyper tension and I was fucking terrified. I had only just turned 28, I didn't want to be a walking death trap. My feet always hurt. My back always hurt. I started feeling numb in my arms all the time, and I had symptoms of repetitive stress injury that made typing for more than a few minutes at a time impossible. The pain my arms, wrists, and fingers was constant, exquisite. My feet would swell up to grotesque sizes every night, unless I kept them elevated. I was in pain every single minute and it was so gradual that I didn't even realize it was taking over my life until I moved and acted like a woman 50 years older than me. My jaw would get so tight in the morning that I would need a good 30 minutes of massage, heating pads, and ice packs in order to even move it, and another 30 to pop it into place (I have TMJ)--a full hour before I could even open my mouth enough to brush my teeth. My achilles tendon was strained for no reason, forcing me to wear a walking cast for over a month, and yeah, that was so fucking painful I wanted to cut my foot off. It was also probably related to my weight.
I never left the house. My depression was so severe at this point, my financial problems growing so much that I could barely bring myself to shuffle from the bed to the couch and nothing could coax me from the house. No fun activity was worth it.
I was so miserable I knew something had to change.
I started walking. The first night, I went around the block (1/4 mile, SLC has huge city blocks) and it took me twenty minutes and I hated it. But fuck me, I didn't want to die and I had to do something. So I went out for my walk every single day for 3 months until I was up to 5-6 miles at a time...I used the time to sort through the thoughts that would usually keep me awake at night, I made plans, I talked myself through the pain I was feeling. My inches decreased.
After fifteen years of knowing damned well I was Depressed, I went to the doctor and got on meds. The difference was immediate and profound (though sadly it led to very severe writer's block. Not good for my career, but probably good for my health in the long run).
I asked people for help. The friend I mentioned above? He is the most amazing person I know, and I literally approached him and asked him to be my friend, asked him to show me how to be a part of the world, asked him to mentor me and help me. And he rose to the challenge.
I just let go. I stopped worrying about everything. It was like my brain finally fucking snapped from the pressure and I was allowed a respite (or the meds kicked in). My problems did not go away (and my financial problems are actually quite crippling at the moment), but I found some amazing moments and places for happiness. For once I just stopped. I didn't force myself to write 10,000 words a day anymore, I didn't separate myself from my family, I made an effort to make friends, I put the computer away and discovered a love for cooking.
I found a way to treat and beat my insomnia.
One day, I found myself naked with my aforementioned friend. Not in a sexual way, but in a way that sometimes buddies find themselves in some state of undress (or maybe that's just normal for him and I?). He was so beautiful that I broke down in tears and asked if he was disgusted with me. I'll never forget the way he looked me in the eyes and addressed the real questions, the ones I couldn't voice. He didn't give me the "We're all beautiful in our own ways" bullshit answer. For the first time in my life, I realized the weight on my frame was not a reflection of who I was as a human being, but the acquired pollution of a life I didn't want anymore.
He thinks I'm beautiful and hell, I've started to believe him.
The nightmares stopped and haven't returned for awhile. I got a sleep apnea machine which also immediately helped.
I realized my two main relationships were unhealthy and needed to change or end. Or rather, I needed to change. I may have lost my husband and my best friend forever, and I'm very ambivalent about that--or maybe not forever. Maybe we can reform our relationships as I learn to be confident and love myself and not be completely dependent on them for every single positive emotional response in my life. One co-dependent relationship is exhausting--two was killing me.
The weight started falling off of me in a truly alarming rate. Well, I found it more exciting than alarming. I could eat more or less anything and I would still shrink. I took pictures every week for a few months and the difference was astounding.
So...what does all of this have to do with my family's response? With life in general? Just this.
The worst of my weight gain and loss is over. It's past me now. I can keep up with my buddy at the gym and I can barely remember when I couldn't keep up with him (he works out at the gym for 5-6 hours a time, and if I want to spend time with him, then I'm there for 5-6 hours too). If the scale never moves again, I won't mind. I'm extremely healthy. My blood pressure is holding right where it should be. My feet never swell, and my chronic pain in my neck, shoulders, back, and arms is 90% gone (closer to 100% when I swim every day). My jaw never pops out of my place or becomes locked closed and the chronic pain in below my ear, the constant headache, is gone. I can stand for several hours at time without feeling like I'm going to die. I bike 5 miles, walk 1 mile, and swim 1/2 mile every day as my "base workout" with weight training and water aerobics and other things on top of that.
But to you, the average observer, and people at the gym, and even my own friends and family, I am still the fat girl. Two or three times a week, a perfect stranger will walk up to me and say something they think is encouraging but only comes across as staggeringly condescending. "Keep up the good work!" "You did a really good job today!" "I'm so impressed with your determination!" My favorite was, "You'll be a pretty girl when you lose some weight." The comments all sound positive and sweet but as progressives I'm sure you're aware of the "Soft bigotry of lowered expectations."
They just see a fat girl trying to lose weight at the gym. Because surely, my weight is the sum total of my life, my one priority. Surely, I am struggling to fit into the perfect ideal.
I don't want to accept their compliments and encouragement. It means nothing to me. The photos are only satisfying because I see a return to health that was literally stolen from me. I never recognized and appreciated my health when I had it before because I bought into their view--fat, clumsy, disgusting, lazy. It's a lens that quite frankly, I'm still struggling to shatter completely. The outsider's view that never saw me as a unique person, but only a combination of stereotypes and prejudices, and that point of view is still trying to shoehorn me into a box I don't belong in and do not want any part of. 300 pounds may be grotesque to some but I'm hitting it on the way back down and I think it feels fabulous. And maybe 280 will feel better. And maybe 200 will be Nirvana. Or maybe I'll plateau around 295 and stay there forever and ever because that's where my body found balance. I won't be stressing over it.
We have an "obesity epidemic" in this country and to hear most people tell it, it's because Americans are over-indulged over-eating pigs who can't put a fork down until their massively over-sized plates are empty. But here's my theory based on this whole long story that if you read this far, I tip my hat to you.
1) People are very, deeply unhappy. It's a deep malaise that has infested and infected the culture. This doesn't mean people eat more necessarily, but it does mean that whatever they do eat will stick around for a very long time, as their bodies do what is necessary in times of "fight or flight." And I don't mean because the economy is shit and times are hard. I think this goes even deeper than that. I think this phenomenon is just dying for a broad sociological study that takes obesity from the realm of the purely personal into the realm of culture and society. I think we all share a responsibility for each person, and the negative, hurtful comments directed regularly towards larger-sized people helps reinforce this poison.
2) People are starving. Literally. We think of starving people as the ones who completely lack food and are nothing but skins and bones. I once read somebody dismissively ask "Have you ever seen a starving fat person?" Well, yeah. There are many overweight people who lack nutrition, many more who have bought into the notion of "dieting" and choose to starve themselves on a regular, ritualistic basis, causing themselves untold mental and physical harm. Their bodies do not get the nutrients necessary to function properly because as a culture, we don't value good nutrition. The very obsession with "calories in-calories out" is proof enough of that. So whatever they do eat is instantly stored as fat. Insulin plays a major factor in the storage of fat, and subsequently, insulin is usually the reason fat is not released or "burned" but continues to linger, especially around the waist. It also causes an increase in Type 2 Diabetes. But try to suggest to somebody that the answer to good health is to actually eat more and all hell will break lose.
3) The food industry has totally fucked any concept we have of what good nutrition is. Children are becoming increasingly obese because parents do not have consistent access to healthy food, and after watching a few documentaries on the food industry, I can't help but feel that's by design.
Why are we killing ourselves? Why are we paying for the right in some cases?
What's will power? What's determination? Why should they be so impressed because they mistakenly assume I'm starving myself? And why on earth would that be a goal they'd celebrate and encourage? "Congratulations on starving yourself!" is ridiculous on its face, and yet, it's the common, expected, offered response. Why should I accept their praise as though I did something to earn praise beside finally live my life in a way that isn't plagued by fear and anxiety? They'll never congratulate me for those changes...because they never knew about those changes. Because, for them, I was the fat girl who lacked will-power and determination, not a person suffering and chained to a mindset that actively hurt me every single day.
It never occurred to them that I was seriously ill and that my illness was not chronic over-eating.
And I'm afraid that as a culture we're not going to wake up to what's staring at us in the face. We'll cling to the ridiculous (yet profitable) notion that our bodies are machines rather that complex organisms that constantly respond and adjust to internal and external stimuli...and it will kill us.
8:12 PM PT: Thank you rescue rangers for adding my diary to the community spotlight. I'm very honored!
Wed Jul 11, 2012 at 12:04 PM PT: I just want to thank everybody for the amazing comments, the tips and recs, and the awesome discussion that has emerged between all you brilliant and interesting people. It's been a great experience for me thus far and I want to thank everybody for being respectful even when disagreements cropped up--this is a truly rare and precious thing on the Internet but not in this community and it's why I'm so happy to be a member here. I may not reply to every comment, but I have read, considered and appreciated every comment.