Minus the Negatives: Weight Loss & Positive Reinforcement

Most of us who are trying to lose weight tend to focus on the negatives and what we’re doing wrong.  I believe it comes from too much outside influence.  We all have that family member or ‘friend’ who is only too eager to point out where and how you messed up again.  So naturally, that’s what we look for since our errors have been pointed out repeatedly (and gleefully) by everyone in our lives to whom we turn for guidance.

At the risk of doing it again, that’s wrong!  Seriously, though, while it can be helpful, focusing only on the negatives and the errors is negative reinforcement.  Some of you may remember that I have dogs (I also have a pet blog where I blab about them endlessly!) But I’ve learned a lot from having dogs in my life since forever and one of the most important things I’ve learned is the value of positive reinforcement.

When I started college (back in the ’80’s– aack!), one of my first classes was Intro to Psychology where the professor explained the difference between negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement, and since I had recently gotten my first Yorkie, I decided I would use positive reinforcement to teach him and he learned so fast that I’ve used it with all my dogs.  It’s the only way I teach my pets what I want them to do and not do.  What’s more important is that it’s fostered a sense of trust among us and a natural inclination to listen to each other.

We all know what negative reinforcement is even if we don’t know what it’s called.  It’s where your dog pees on the rug and you shout and spank him and rub his nose in it so he “knows not to do it again!”  I’m pretty sure that’s never worked for anyone I know who has dogs.  It teaches them to hide from you and to be afraid of you.  With positive reinforcement, if I find that one of them peed on the rug, I point at it, tell them “no” in a firm voice and then clean it up.  No shouting or spanking or nose-rubbing.  When we go outside and they do their business where they’re supposed to, I make a big deal about how they’re the best doggies in the whole world ( because they are!) and it encourages them to do it again.  They make the connections: “outside= yay! great doggies! and inside = blah.” Why pee inside and get blah when I can pee on the lawn and be the best puppy in the whole world?  I gotta pee anyway so why not get praised for it?

Some people think that adding negative reinforcement to that increases the connection: “inside = bad spanking but outside = good doggie!”  The problem is that whole ‘teaching them to be afraid of you’ plus dogs (and people) develop a tolerance to scolding and negative treatment.  We learn to deal with it.  Anyone with teenagers know this: no matter how much you yell at your kids for not taking out the trash, they just block it out.  They stop listening, and so do the dogs.

Praise however is a different matter.  When I tell my dogs how great they are, they are always paying attention to that.  They love getting petted and get excited when I tell them how good they are, so they are getting the point: “I did something good and I want to repeat it as often as I can so I can get more hugs and pats and toys.” You would think they would get bored with it, but over the years of using positive reinforcement with my dogs, I have found they respond better to it, learn faster once they make the connections and they seem to pay better attention to me when I talk to them.  They listen and respond to me and I think I pay more attention to what they tell me too.

When it comes to eating better and weight loss, we tend to use the same tools we do for the dogs peeing on the rug: we shout at ourselves, belittle ourselves and do the emotional equivalent to rubbing our nose in the spot.  We had dessert when we went out last night: “I’m sabotaging myself! Why do I keep making the same bad choices? I can’t say no to temptation! I’m never going to lose this weight! What’s wrong with me?” We look at ourselves in the mirror and point out our muffin top, our chubby thighs, our great big butt, and that bra spillover that just makes our arms and chest look awful.  We’re trying to reinforce to ourselves how much weight we need to lose so stop with the desserts, stupid!

Does it really work for anyone? Or does it just make us feel like crappy failures because we ate dessert when we obviously look like an escapee from a Fat Farm? The same thing happens to us that happens when we go bonkers at the dog because he piddled on the rug: we ‘hide’ until we eventually stop listening to it.  When someone asks how we’re doing on our weight loss, we gloss over or omit our recent transgressions and tell them we’re doing “fine” or “okay.”  When someone points out that “maybe you’d do better if you didn’t have dessert or bread or cookies or frappuccinos,” our emotions are all over the place (anger; embarrassment; shame; frustration; hurt) or we’ve been chastised slash reprimanded so often that we don’t hear it anymore, a la teenagers: “yeah yeah yeah, I screwed up again! Whatever!” It doesn’t matter if we are the ones doing it to ourselves or if it’s that alleged friend or even someone who truly cares about us: after awhile, getting our nose rubbed in our screw-ups stops being effective.

What’s worse is that we stop trying!  It’s not that we want to give up; it’s that the constant accrual of screw-ups keeps growing and in the face of the overwhelming ‘failures,’ we simply feel defeated. “I’ve blown my diet four times this week and it’s only Wednesday- like one more screw up is going to matter now!”  This kind of thinking really doesn’t lend itself to success, does it?  Even if we are motivated to ‘win today!’, once that negative thinking creeps in, there goes our motivation! We all know that it’s hard staying motivated because it requires constant stoking like a camp fire: if we aren’t adding fuel to the motivational fire, it goes out, and remembering to keep it hot is work.  We all need motivation from time to time but staying motivated when you and others are always pointing out your failures is even harder, and we have all become experts at de-motivating ourselves that way.

This where positive reinforcement makes everything so much easier: instead of rubbing your nose in your mistake (and it’s only a mistake- not a failure!), how about you praise yourself every time you do something right?: “I had salad today instead of a burger! Yay, me!”; “I made my workout even though I didn’t want to go! Whoo hoo!”; “I said no to Barbara’s cookies at the office! Killing it here!”  It might feel a little weird or downright silly at first if you aren’t used to it, but it starts a trend. Instead of cataloguing what you’ve done wrong, you are keeping tabs on your good decisions and– most importantly– you are making yourself feel good about that list! This has the opposite effect of that negative list: if I’ve done so great on all of these situations, I can easily do it on this one! It builds confidence instead of tearing it down.  When someone asks “how are you doing on your diet?” you can give specific examples of how well you are doing: “I’m eating tons of healthy veggies and haven’t had a cookie in three weeks!” It makes it easier to say no to temptation because, heck, you’ve been saying no for over a month! Even if there is a mistake, not pointing out your muffin top and rubbing your nose in the one mistake lets you get over it and move on to the next success: “I can say no next time since I’m in the habit of saying no.” And should you make a serious decision to have dessert to celebrate a special occasion, it’s easier to remind yourself “I didn’t give in to temptation because I chose to have the cake.”

Positive reinforcement gives you another reason to make the right choice: not only are you doing something healthy for your body and your weight loss, your celebrating your wins gives you a reason to feel good about yourself– period!  Remember my dogs? Praising them for listening when I tell them no or for sitting still in the car encourages them to do it over and over again.  They get to go more places because they behave themselves plus they get the big bonus of being the best doggies in the world!  When you make the right choices for your health and weight loss, not only do you feel and look better physically, but your confidence gets a big bonus as well: “Score! I killed it today on my diet! Yay, me!” The bonuses add up and are more powerful motivators than rubbing your nose in the screw-ups: who wants constant reminders of our mistakes when we can focus on our growing list of wins? If winning yesterday makes you feel awesome, how hard is it to stay motivated to win again today? Not hard! “I’m on a roll!” vs. “How can I not screw up today?”

Most of us aren’t used to positive reinforcement.  All those Negative Nancys and Neds like to poo-poo it as “feel-good fluff.” They give you the unimpressed eye-roll when you congratulate yourself on having the veggies instead of the fries: “like those veggies make a real difference!”  However these are the same people who will nag you forever about that candy bar you had on the way home, as if that candy bar is going to add thirty pounds on you! (Knowing you feel good about your choices and your progress also allows you to poo-poo their negative comments.)  When you feel good about yourself, it’s easier to make good choices and stay motivated, because you are literally your own cheering section.  Instead of working to overcome the obstacles you are creating for yourself, you are giving yourself a leg up on the ladder to success. Whoo hoo! Yay, you!

 

Laughter, Fear & Weight Loss: Taking a Stand

Humans are bit of a paradox: we like to think we stand out as individuals in a crowd, but at the same time, we don’t want to stand out too much. We don’t like to think we are just ordinary but then we don’t want to be “that weirdo” either.

This is especially true when it comes to our weight: being as plump or chubby as everyone else is okay, but being really big? Not okay.  This idea of being too far outside the norm becomes a real problem just at a time when we think we’d be getting over it. I’m talking about going to the gym.

We’ve either started losing weight or we’ve made the decision to be more active so we head to the gym, and once we’re there, we realize it’s full of athletic, toned sweaty people in tight fitting clothes who know what they are doing.  Our first thought: “holy sh**! what did I sign up for?” It’s bad enough not being familiar with the gym itself, where things are, and how to use the equipment, but we’re also aware that we look a lot different from everyone else.  Now when we fumble with the equipment or get lost trying to find the weight room, it’s obvious that we’re chubbos who’ve never been in a gym before! This is pretty much why Planet Fitness’s slogans are “No Gymtimidation” and “The Judgment Free Zone.” They’re marketing to all the chubby gym newbies who are scared of sticking out!  (Planet Fitness was the first gym I joined, although their motto had nothing to do with my reasons: they were cheap and they were close to my house.  The gym I belong to now (In-Shape) is also close, though twice as much but it’s got a pool. If Planet Fitness had had a pool, I would still be there!)

There’s really not much you can do about learning how to use the equipment and where things are in your gym except experience and asking for help when you need it. The more you are there, the more you do, the more at home it becomes.  In this respect, everyone at one time or another was new to your gym and was wandering through the locker room looking for the showers or the towel bin.  It’s that being so much bigger, so ‘out of shape,’ that makes us feel even more self-conscious. It feels like everyone is looking at us and laughing.

As I mentioned before, I had been a Planet Fitness member and had gotten relatively comfortable with the treadmill, but when my doctor and physical therapist recommended a pool for me, I moved to In-Shape (the therapist’s suggestion). So about the time I was feeling pretty comfortable with my old gym, I had to start all over with new one, and on top of that, I had to wear a swimsuit in a public area, where everyone could see me!

It’s bad enough feeling like an idiot trying to figure out where everything is in the gym and then feeling like a fat lazy blob when you walk in and now you’ve got to wear a swimsuit so all your chubby parts and muffin top are visible to anyone who walks by the big glass walls of the pool. Ugh! Talk about torture! Isn’t this one of the top five nightmares that terrify most people?

In all honesty, being unfamiliar with the equipment bothers me the most.  I’m afraid of breaking equipment or injuring myself because I am doing the move incorrectly. As for wearing a swimsuit in public or a tank top or shorts? Not a problem! I remember years ago, I went by a weight loss company (something like Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers) to check it out and the ‘counselor’ asked me if I wore shorts or tank tops in public. I remember telling her yes and being a little confused: “am I not supposed to wear them because of my weight?” She appeared equally confused because at the time I was easily about 375+ and apparently people “my weight” normally don’t wear revealing clothes in public out of fear of ridicule and embarrassment.

What this counselor didn’t know was that when I walked into her office sometime in the late 1990’s, I had already spent a lifetime being laughed at in public.  I went to a private grade school full of thin affluent white/ Anglo kids with ‘normal’ names like Jimmy, Molly, Kathy and Scott.  I, by contrast, was a poor overweight Mexican girl with a weird first name! In fact, outside of being overweight since grammar school, my name was the biggest target: Koren. (It really didn’t help that the teachers and administrators couldn’t spell or pronounce it either!)  Since childhood, I’ve been Karen, Koran, Korean, Korine and Koreen until the boys in the class finally settled on Korndog.  The teachers were completely aware of this appalling nickname bestowed upon me, but since it was the poor fat Mexican kid with the name no one could spell or pronounce– meh! whaddaya gonna do?

As I said, the teachers and administrators were completely unconcerned and neither my sister nor I mentioned this humiliation to my parents who would probably have raised a huge embarrassing stink with the principal (whose son was in my class and one of the offenders) so it went on for several years. My choices were either let the nickname bother me or go on with my life. In this day and age, this would be called bullying and harassment, neither of which would be tolerated at the school for fear of a lawsuit, but in the late 1970’s & early ’80’s, bullying and harassment were a part of every day life in grade school.  It’s just the way it was!

So when I walked into that weight loss center, I was pretty much over the whole ‘fear of being laughed at,’ at least for my weight. Being laughed at for doing something stupid was– and still is– a much bigger fear, and in these days of names like Jaeden, Brookline, Hadley and Genesis for little girls, having a different name at my age just puts me ahead of the curve!  The idea of changing what I wear so I won’t ‘look fat’ was a total non-starter.

All of us who are overweight know you can’t hide obesity.  Yes, you can wear clothes that minimize the pudgy parts and hold in that muffin top.  You can wear colors, patterns and designs that are more flattering and I think we should, because the better you feel about yourself,  the more confident you are.  Feeling bad about yourself because you are overweight is not a requirement for obesity or weight loss!

The problem is that’s what happens when you slink around the gym trying to be invisible!  When you try to hide how you look or that you’re uncomfortable in the weight room or you wear baggy t-shirts and shorts into the pool to hide your belly and thighs, you are shaming yourself.  You are telling everyone who sees you that you are not proud of yourself or that you are ashamed to be at the gym.  When I first started using the pool, the swimsuit I had was a tankini: shorts and a long tank-style top.  I had gotten it at Target in the plus size department and all they had were tankinis, so I had two of them.  Once those wore out, I went online and bought a regular two-piece with shorts and a bikini top– NOT a tankini!  Yes, they hide the muffin top and some of the pudgy thighs but overall, they get in the way of the workout! So when I walk out of the locker room headed to the pool area, going right by the weights and the sauna and the steam room and tanning beds, everyone can see me in my two piece: there’s the muffin belly, the saggy skin on my legs, thighs, bingo wings and my great big butt.  I don’t wrap my towel around myself on the way to the pool (on the way back, hell yes! It’s cold in that hallway!) I’m there to get some exercise and have some fun, just like everyone else in my class and everyone else in the gym.

Having been a regular at gyms for a while now, I’ve noticed a few things: those toned athletic young people are just about out-numbered by the older chubby less-toned members.  For every shirtless young guy in shorts is an older guy with a belly, age spots and cut off sweats.  For every tanned young woman with sculpted arms and legs is an older grey haired woman with chubby thighs and a double chin. No one points at anyone else and most members are happy to help someone new by pointing out the locker room or how to use the equipment. I admit the first time I walked into a gym, I was nervous. I didn’t know where anything was or how anything worked, and it took a little time before I got comfortable with everything.  Being nervous is okay but being afraid isn’t.  If you let your fear of being laughed at dictate what you do and where you go, you will have a very narrow and lonely life. Being overweight isn’t a crime any more than being poor, Mexican or having a different first name. Being afraid of being laughed at or being ashamed of who you are has no place in the gym or in our lives.  I learned that in grade school.

Fearlessly Being You: Weight Loss & Liking Who You Are

I am sure we are all familiar with the self-help mantras “you have to love yourself before anyone else can love you,” and the ever-popular Serenity Prayer. I accept that these mantras have merit, but they’re a little too mainstream for me.  I much prefer the somewhat quirky “wherever you go, there you are!”  I feel it not only speaks to where you are in life, but who you are as well.

One of the newer podcasts I’ve been listening to is The Wellness Force podcast with Josh Trent and while I’m still not sure he’s going to fit with my lifestyle, one of the recent podcasts he had was with professional volleyball player Kelly Claes who used an expression that really resonated with me: “fearlessly authentic.”  The inspirational quote app that I use updated earlier this year and now allows me to create tags for my favorite quotes and the first tag I created is “#fearless.”  Simply put: sometimes you need to be fearless to get where you want to go!

Most of us start out life with our parents setting our goals and aspirations.  This is pretty normal: as a kid, you really don’t know what’s what so you look to your parents for guidance and somewhere along the line, you realize you don’t want to be a doctor or a teacher but an artist or a baseball player or an engineer.  You start finding yourself and finding your own way.  Again, this is pretty normal.

But when you’re a kid and you’re overweight, you face some different obstacles. Most parents either believe ‘it’s a phase’ and you’ll ‘grow out of it’ or they start trying to guide you out of it. Sometimes their guidance is encouraging you to be more active, play sports or eat healthier foods.  Sometimes, it’s humiliation and recrimination. Even if they don’t mean to do it, sometimes it feels like their love and acceptance hinges on how much you do or don’t weigh. They may not ever say it, but we feel their disappointment and disapproval of our weight and from those unspoken feelings, we begin to feel that we are simply inadequate, lacking and a failure.

Growing up is hard enough without feeling like you are a failure as a person. While this post is about weight loss and obesity, it happens to kids for all kinds of things: not being pretty enough; not being a good enough athlete; not being smart enough.  Parents don’t mean to do it, but they place their own expectations on their children and when they fall short of those expectations, the child internalizes the disappointment as being their own personal failure. When it comes to weight loss, it can lead to a lifetime eating disorder, among other things. Generally children who feel inadequate either begin to crave their parents’ approval or they go the opposite direction. (Guess which way I went!)

For me as an overweight child, I was constantly being told “if only you lost weight, [insert good thing here].”  If I lost weight, I’d have boys lining up at my door.  If I lost weight, I could wear all the pretty clothes.  If I lost weight, I could have a whole new wardrobe.  Basically, if I lost weight, I’d be perfect.

Except I didn’t lose weight.  I stayed obese and after years of failing to win my mom’s approval (she was the most critical), I eventually gave up trying to get something I was so obviously never going to get.  (While my dad wasn’t exactly happy with my weight either, he was more focused on other goals such as college and a career.) This is where I learned to be fearless when it came to being me.

What I mean by “fearless” is that I simply stopped apologizing for being obese and not being perfect. It also means that I accepted myself for the person I was at that time and not who I was going to be at some time in the future.  This is paramount because until we accept who we are right now, we’ll always be stuck putting off our lives until some future time ‘when we’re thinner.’ While you’re probably thinking that’s a no-brainer, this idea sometimes gets internalized with the “I’m not good enough” mentality and before you realize it, it’s part of who we are.  Unfortunately, it’s usually the part that holds us back from living the life we want.

One of the constants on My 600 lb Life is patients saying how they need to have surgery so “I can get my life back” or “start living my life.”  Many of them probably never considered that their lives don’t have to be on hold because of their weight.

Obviously there are a lot of issues behind their compulsive overeating but I think a portion of it comes from that ‘waiting to be perfect’ mentality. They can’t move forward because they believe there is something wrong with the person they are right now. Being morbidly obese- and especially super morbidly obese- is a fact of life that has to be dealt with but when you put your life on hold until you are ‘fixed,’ it can mean waiting forever. Most of are familiar with the ‘perfect outfit’ in our closet that we can’t wear until we lose 20 lbs or so, and we hang onto it until it’s no longer in style and we have to give it away without ever wearing it… and we replace it with another perfect outfit we’ll never wear. Imagine that’s your life: always waiting for it to ‘start’ until you’ve got no time left.

Wherever- and whoever- you are is all you’ve got. There were a lot of times I was rejected because of my weight. I was told I wouldn’t advance or be successful in some jobs because of my weight, that guys wouldn’t find me attractive because of my weight, that my weight was always going to hold me back from doing things I wanted to do. Some of these statements were and still are true.

But I’ve lived all my adult life obese, mostly around 375 lbs. Once I learned to stop apologizing for being fat and imperfect and fearlessly live my life on my terms, my weight took a backseat to the rest of my life. Yes, there were times it got in the way and there were a lot of times I wished I were thinner. FYI: I also wished I were taller, too! But for most of my life I refused to let my weight make me miserable.

When my weight did finally become a problem I had to deal with, it still took a backseat to an even bigger problem, mainly my depression over The Job From Hell. That job seriously made me hate my life and who I’d become and it wasn’t until I dealt with that as well as the mental and emotional fallout from that job that I was able to deal with my weight. When I learned to like myself again, it gave me the strength to take advantage of new and unexpected opportunities which led to some serious weight loss.

Even though I’ve lost nearly 170 lbs, most of the world still considers me obese. There are a lot of family members who would be happier if I lost another 100 lbs. I’m still eating healthy and I’m still being as active as I can be, but my weight doesn’t define me anymore now than it did when I was 375. I am still more than just the number on the scale. For most of my life, I liked and accepted myself for the person I was, and I like who I am now. The difference is that now I’m 170 lbs lighter. It was my acceptance of myself that gave me the strength to grow and succeed and make the necessary changes. My acceptance of who I am gives me the courage to live fearlessly and do what’s right for me instead of following advice that doesn’t work for me, whether it’s for weight loss or anything else. If I hadn’t had the strength and courage to live fearlessly, I’d never have tried the Paleo diet; I’d never have gone to a gym or tried water aerobics; I’d never have joined My Fitness Pal, or started blogging, and I’d likely never have lost the weight I’ve lost. Liking myself, accepting myself and trusting myself has allowed me to continue growing into someone I like better who is happier and healthier than she used to be. But weight loss isn’t what’s made me happier and healthier: it’s the byproduct of learning to like myself again.

Sometimes we think we know where we’re going. We all have an idea of where we want to be but a lot of times, that’s not where we end up. That’s why I like that quirky mantra so much: “wherever you go, there you are!” And if you don’t like where you are, have the courage to go somewhere else!

Weighty Issues: Judgment, Obesity and Life & Death

One of the constant refrains on My 600 lb Life is Dr. Nowzaradan’s warning to patients that they don’t realize how close to death they truly are.  Unfortunately, I’ve seen a few other programs dealing with super morbidly obese patients who didn’t have the chance to make it to surgery or the surgery came too late. I know probably better than most how difficult it is to struggle with obesity all your life and the dangers that come with it.  For those who’ve never had weight problems, it probably seems like the obese are just lazy or gluttonous and while they don’t believe we are deserving of sympathy or help, they do believe we are deserving of their disgust and derision.

I can understand how some people never think of a box of donuts or a bag of chips as dangerous. Personally, I’ve never thought of a case of beer as being something dangerous to me, but to other people in my family, it might as well be a rattlesnake: if you don’t watch out, it can bite you! For those who’ve never struggled with their weight, they don’t understand how someone can eat a whole loaf of garlic bread at one meal any more than I can understand how someone can drink a whole case of beer in a couple of hours (or less). But just like people can drink themselves to death, people can eat themselves to death.  Obesity, like alcoholism, can kill you in more than a few ways.

The most obvious way obesity kills you is that your weight is just too much stress on your body.  Your heart and lungs are simply crushed by your weight: your body is too big for your heart to keep the blood flowing to all your organs and extremities, and as for your lungs, not only are they struggling to keep up with the oxygen demands for your body, but they are having to fight the weight of your chest each time you take a breath.  And that’s the situation if you have no other health problems related to your weight! There’s a host of health problems that come with obesity, including type 2 diabetes, congestive heart failure, kidney (renal) failure, sleep apnea, high blood pressure (hypertension) and fatty liver disease just to name a few.  Those are the ones that can kill you, but there are a lot more than just make your life utterly miserable, such as lymphedema, skin ulcerations, cellulitis, asthma and gout. FYI: some of these can kill you too if you don’t keep them under control.

Obviously not-being-obese is a big step towards staying healthy. Of course there are plenty of skinny people who have serious health problems but when you weigh double (or triple) what you are supposed to weigh, you have a lot less wiggle room when it comes to your health.  Getting an infection that might be mild to someone with normal weight can be fatal when you weigh 500 lbs.

For most of us, we scoff at the idea that we will ever be anywhere close to 500 lbs.  Even while we may admit that we ‘might be overweight,’ we never think that we’ll be as big as ‘those people.’  I was reminded today of the frog analogy.  Most of us are familiar with it: you drop a frog in boiling water and it jumps right out, but if you put the frog in cold water and slowly turn up the heat, the frog will get cooked alive. (As a frog lover, I totally hate that analogy!) Whether it’s true or not, this is what happens to most of us when it comes to our weight. We start out a few pounds overweight and don’t think much of it; then we end up getting kind of plump and start thinking we should fix this; and then we’re suddenly shopping in the plus size department and start to get really concerned (maybe we even start dieting), and before we know it we are really-without-a-doubt FAT and now we start freaking out.  We don’t give much thought to the fact that food is everywhere. It’s cheap and easy to get and we often eat without even thinking about it.  How many of us have finished off a bag of chips or most if not all of a box of cookies without realizing it? It’s not that we’re gluttons– the cookies were just there and available and we weren’t paying attention!

This is what overeating is like for most people: too much pizza out with friends; scarfing a whole bag/ box of something while binge-watching a favorite show; or too many holiday treats.  But for some of us, overeating has way more in common with alcoholism: it’s become an addiction.  There are more than a few ‘experts’ that protest the idea of a ‘food addiction,’ but for the patient, it’s irrelevant.  They need to find a way to control their eating so they can lose the weight before it kills them! Does this sound over-dramatic? Believe me, it’s not.

People overeat for a variety of reasons.  For some of them, it’s a comfort mechanism: eating something they enjoy makes them feel safe and happy for a little while.  For others, it’s a way of controlling their body or their situation: it takes away feelings of helplessness. I am sure there are other reasons and for many super morbidly obese people, they may not know why they overeat.  The point is that when your weight is approaching a quarter ton, your first goal is to get control of the weight and worry about the whys and wherefores later. It’s basic damage control. Why you are overeating isn’t going to matter much if you’re dead.  Unfortunately, this is where most of us hit the brick wall: we know we need help but we don’t know how to get it.

I had a cousin who died from obesity.  He was in his early forties and weighed over 600 lbs.  Like all those patients on My 600 lb Life, he fought obesity all his life.  I remember him being about 18 years old and having high blood pressure. He was probably about 200 lbs then and his mom was screaming at him for eating potato chips and yelling at her husband for not hiding them from their son. He tried everything to lose weight, including joining the Army.  He was probably his thinnest ever once he got out of boot camp, but the weight came back and his health problems worsened: kidneys, diabetes, heart and liver issues. Although bariatric surgery at his weight was still highly risky, his doctor laid it out for him: either he takes the risks with surgery or he gives up and dies from his weight.  He risked the surgery and died on the table, leaving behind a wife and a son.

In my small high school, I was the second heaviest person in the school (that’s including the football players).  The heaviest person in high school was my friend Jennifer.  We were in the same grade and we took a lot of the same classes. She made a lot of her own clothes because it was hard finding anything that fit (this was the early 80’s). After graduating, Jennifer lost a lot of weight. In fact, I didn’t recognize her when I first saw her because she was ‘normal weight’ and looked so different. I confess I was completely jealous because I still weighed the same, around 200-250.  After college, she gained the weight back like so many of us do and this time she decided to try bariatric surgery.  She didn’t die in surgery like my cousin, but there was a complication with the anesthesia and she spent the last year of her life in a persistent vegetative state before dying of pneumonia.  She would have been 37.

My aunt was someone else who was always unhappy with her weight.  Unlike my cousin or my friend, my aunt (my dad’s sister in law) never approached 500 lbs or even 250.  My aunt’s weight hovered around the 200 lb mark but for her, it might as well have been 500 lbs. She hated being overweight and tried diet after diet. I tried a lot of them with her, mainly because I outweighed her by about 100 lbs.  She wanted to lose weight and lose it fast so she also opted for the gastric bypass. She was in and out of the hospital in no time at all and the weight seemed to melt off her.  She was over the moon! Until she started having issues with keeping food down.  Her weight went from slender to emaciated and she didn’t have the strength to walk or even stand up.  One of the complications with bariatric surgery that gets swept under the rug is anorexia. If eating a little bit of food leads to quick weight loss, eating even less food or no food leads to faster weight loss! For those patients who use food and their weight to control others or their surroundings, this is especially dangerous. For my aunt, I think it was just that she had always wanted to be thin so badly all her life and by the time her weight loss became a problem, the physical problems involved with anorexia had taken over. They were simply too much for her to overcome and sadly a few weeks after attending Jennifer’s funeral, I went to my aunt’s.  She was fifty-one.

The point of this post isn’t “bariatric surgery will kill you.” For a most bariatric patients, the surgery is literally life-saving. The point is I remember my cousin as being compassionate and funny and a warm-hearted young man.  I remember Jennifer as being a gifted artist, great with children and so giving of herself.  My aunt was also artistic, quick-witted, with a wicked sense of humor and a wonderful grandmother.  These are the people I knew and they are missed, but for the stranger on the street they were just fat.  They were neither gluttonous or lazy.  They were in fact some of the most industrious people I knew. Obesity is a serious medical problem but it gets overlooked because of snap judgments: “She wouldn’t weigh so much if she kept her hand out of the cookies!”; “He’d be thinner if he got off his butt and worked more!”

What is tragically ironic to me is that Jennifer, my aunt and my cousin all died while trying to help themselves while so many of the obese are stymied by their situation.  They know they need help, but other than ‘a diet’ they don’t know what to do or how to help themselves.  Unfortunately, many of their family members don’t know how to help them or believe their weight is the result of their own gluttony, laziness or greed (I remember my mom’s sister screaming at her son). Because it’s seen as “something they did to themselves,” it’s not seen for the real danger that it is. The obese are lumped in with drug addicts and alcoholics: “it’s their own fault!”  These are diseases of lifestyle, which nowadays include conditions like diabetes, but no one gets judged for having type 2 diabetes. Blame is a sad excuse for lack of compassion and a sadder excuse for letting someone die.

 

 

 

 

The Weight of Self-Worth

A friend of mine on MFP (My Fitness Pal) recently posted about “Plus Size Day.” Apparently it’s a day to celebrate being “plus-sized.”  In his post, he mentioned a parade full of larger people and how the news snippets were full of larger women making nasty comments about skinny people.  He concluded his post about how this day is to promote being the best You you can be, whatever your size, and he voiced his own concerns that maybe the best You doesn’t carry an extra 100 lbs.

While I realize he was just putting his opinion out there, this is the attitude I have lived with all my life. I’ve been overweight all my life and I’ve heard all the comments, from sad & pitying, to nasty & snide, to the passive aggressive- all of them.  Most of them now I just ignore: ignorant people will continue to be ignorant no matter what I tell them, but occasionally, they still make me mad. I understand why some of those larger women are angry: like me, they’ve spent their entire lives being told there is something wrong with them; they are somehow broken/ substandard/ a failure; or they are just flat out ugly. They don’t meet some arbitrary social standard of what is ‘pretty’ or ‘acceptable.’

People might think that thin has always been pretty but there was a time when plump and curvy was the standard for pretty.  Having curves, wide hips and an ample bosom meant you were prime for bearing children and survival.  Thin meant poverty, possible miscarriage and malnutrition.  When the most important thing a woman could bring to a marriage was her ability to produce offspring, choosing thin meant betting long odds, whereas plump was almost a sure thing. (For men, plump meant being a successful  provider.)

Obviously those days are long past, but the idea of beauty being relative hasn’t changed.  Every February, the media is full of biologists’ reports about the ‘biological recipe for attraction,’ and how some physical attributes or gestures cue us on a biological or subconscious level that someone is a potential mate or is attracted to us.  Whatever science and biology may dictate, attractiveness is still defined by the individual.  We still bring our own personal values to the table, and these include our values about ourselves.

In one respect those old platitudes are correct: if we don’t value and respect ourselves, no one else will either.  When we look at ourselves and see someone who is disgusting, unworthy, ugly, stupid or hopeless, it shows.  We communicate those ideas and attitudes to others, and worse yet, they are reflected back to us by them and over time, those beliefs become firmly entrenched in our psyche.  We are unworthy and unlovable and we have nothing of value to offer anyone else.  Whether those ideas start in ourselves and come back to us or come from outside and become part of us is irrelevant.  If we believe it, it becomes our truth. 

This is what I and almost every overweight person has been told for as long as they have been overweight.  Most of you reading this have been on the receiving end of a lot of free advice about how to lose weight; unsolicited attempts at ‘motivating’ you to lose weight; plenty of incentives to be thinner; and more than a few nasty comments about being a glutton, including the not-so-subtle implications that gluttony is a mortal sin and my being fat is sending me to Hell (thank you, Catholic school!) As a kid, I got them all the free and supposedly helpful advice about how to ‘fix’ what’s wrong with me; what I didn’t get was the idea that I’m fine just the way I am. When I was a kid, I probably carried an extra 20 lbs through middle school but the more people tried to ‘fix’ me, the more weight I gained, so by the time I hit high school, I was probably close to 200 lbs if not there already, and I kept slowly gaining weight. By the time I hit college, I was definitely over 250 and heading towards 300.

And the bigger I got, the more I heard about how flawed and unacceptable I was. My mom (the chief proponent of this attitude) pretty much gave up on me at that point.  Whatever was wrong with me, she wasn’t going to waste her time trying to fix me.  But I still got lots of criticism from the rest of society, because by then, I wasn’t just ‘plump and curvy’; I was certifiably FAT! I was the definition of ugly; of lazy; of gluttony. I had no redeeming values at all, because I was defined by my weight.  Whatever my mind or spirit might have to offer is completely negated by my fat body.

This idea that who I am is defined by how much weight I carry and what I look like eventually completely p*ssed me off.  Someone else was determining my value based entirely on what he or she saw, rather than who I actually was.  I was repeatedly being told by my professors and administrators and -yes, the same society that was condemning me- that it is flat out wrong to judge someone by their ethnicity, sexuality, religion, or physical capabilities, but it’s totally okay to call me a loser because of my weight! How stupid is that? Everyone is to be judged on the content of their character, except for that fat chick over there- she’s worthless because she weighs 300 lbs.

This is why I stopped listening to other people’s opinions of me and my weight.  It’s why when my mom decided to try and ‘fix’ me again (after my sister stopped talking to her), I pretty much ignored her attempts.  I would come home and find diet books left on my doorstep followed by a voicemail asking if I got the book she left: I just stacked them in a corner, and over the years, the stack got taller and taller, and dustier and dustier.  While I realize that part of her motivation was my slowly declining health, her attempts at ‘fixing’ me were accompanied by more of the same dangling incentives: I’d have all the guys I wanted; she’d buy me a brand new wardrobe; I’d be ‘gorgeous.’  Because obviously, I wasn’t attractive to anyone at my weight! (FYI: I didn’t tell her about my boyfriends because they sure didn’t share her attitude!)

I can’t lie and say I didn’t want to lose weight despite ignoring my mom’s and everyone else’s criticisms.  My desire to lose weight came not from thinking of myself as worthless, but instead came from my growing inability to do the things I wanted to do.  It’s hard to walk around and be active when you’re carrying 400 lbs.  The pain in my knees had more to do with my desire to be thinner than anything my mom had to tell me. I didn’t want to walk with a cane or end up diabetic or have to sleep with an oxygen mask because my independence was far more important to me than the opinions of strangers. While I wasn’t happy being 400 lbs, I did my best not to allow it to dictate my life any more than I allowed other’s opinions of me to do so either.  I lived my life the way I wanted to live my life.  I became the best Me I could be, whatever my size.  For the most part, I am still that same person: I do what I want, say what I want and think what I want. The only difference is that now I weigh 185 lbs less. I am the best Me I can be, despite carrying that “extra 100 lbs” my friend mentioned in his post.  Although I am still losing weight, it’s not so that I can hit my “ideal weight” or some arbitrary “goal weight” set by some doctor or BMI chart; it’s because I value my independence.  I like being able to do all the things I want to do, and I like trying new things.  Being thinner and healthier has added more valuable activities and abilities to my life, but at the same time, I also know that I am still obese. That “extra 100 lbs” is still there and strangers still judge me by my weight.  And you know what? I still don’t care. Who I am is not what I weigh, nor am I defined by what other people think of me.

Perspective: Seeing the Elephant in the Room

One of the best things about being an eminently employable English major is that I come across a lot of different literature from many different cultures.  One of my favorites is “The Blind Men and the Elephant.”  It’s an Indian parable about perspectives found in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain texts, so all we really know about its origins is that it is ancient.  The story goes that six blind men learn that an elephant was brought to their village and having not experienced one before, they go to “see” the animal with their hands.  Each man touches a different part of the elephant and comes away with a different viewpoint than the others.  One feels the tusk and determines that an elephant is like a spear; another feels its tail and concludes it looks like a rope; another feels the ear and thinks it looks like a fan; another feels its leg and says it looks like a tree trunk; one feels its side and believes an elephant is like a wall; and the last touches its trunk and believes the elephant is like a snake.  From there, the story varies with the text but the point is that each is seeing only one part and one perspective of the elephant. In order to really determine what an elephant looks like, they need to see the whole creature or at least compare their findings, because each of them is correct about the part that they touched, but none of them is correct in what an elephant truly looks like.

Perspective is massively important when it comes to weight loss, health and fitness, and it’s where so many of us get in trouble.  It’s easy to lose weight if you don’t care about being healthy, and the same is true about fitness. Most of us think in terms of “losing weight” or “getting fit,” but neither of those are important if we don’t think in terms of Being Healthy (the whole elephant.)  When I was in college, I had a roommate who was also overweight.  We really commiserated over it because we both liked a lot of the same foods and we both tried being vegetarian and both of us ended up gaining weight.  I ran into her a few years after she moved out (both of us were in the pharmacy line, FYI) and I didn’t recognize her because she had lost so much weight.  Unfortunately, it was due to Type I diabetes.  Her pancreas had stopped functioning and now she was insulin dependent. She had to check her blood sugar several times a day and inject insulin before every meal to control her blood sugar. I remember her telling me she had always dreamed of losing weight, but this was not how she thought it would happen.  She was over a hundred pounds thinner than she had been when she lived with me but she certainly was not healthy.  Even worse, she was pregnant with her second child which put both her life and her baby’s at risk!

When we approach weight loss or fitness, we can’t just focus on the one aspect that we want to prioritize, otherwise we lose sight of the whole elephant. “Being thin” or “being muscular” is of no importance if you aren’t healthy also.  Some of you know that I lost an aunt in 2003 due to complications from anorexia.  She’d had a gastric bypass, which in my opinion she did not need as she barely weighed 200 lbs, but the end result was that she stopped eating, which is not an uncommon side effect of the bypass.  Ultimately, she ended up collapsing, catching an infection and dying. She was the same age as I am now, and while I’m not exactly young anymore, I have a lot to look forward to and so did she. But she had also always dreamed of being thin, and for months prior to her death, family members had been begging her to see a doctor, because it was so painfully obvious that she was not healthy or happy.  Unfortunately, no one could help her.

Some of us do the same thing with exercise: we lose sight of our overall health, which is what really matters.  We’ve all heard the stories of people who over-exercise, or eat and then work out super hard to burn off all the calories they ate.  Some of us try to “out exercise” a bad diet, but most nutritionists and doctors will tell you that 90% of weight loss comes through your food choices and the remaining 10% is your activity. Basically, you can exercise until your arms fall off but if you’re eating donuts and drinking Pepsi every morning for breakfast, you’re not going to be accomplishing much!

Most of us are in a hurry to reach our goals- I know I am! But over-training and starving ourselves isn’t the way to “get cut” and/ or “get thin.”  Drastically cutting calories and working out really really hard are stressors on the body, so our body goes into conservation mode if we stick with these practices for a long time.  We will probably lose some weight and maybe build some muscle at first, but the longer we stick with it, the more the body begins to conserve its fat stores.  This looks like it might be a famine or some kind of catastrophe: basically a lot of hard work and not a lot of calories coming in.  The body’s first priority is survival: nothing else matters if it (i.e. YOU) don’t survive another day, so it takes steps to make sure you last as long as possible.  This is why Biggest Loser ‘winners’ end up gaining weight eating 1000 calories a day: their bodies have slowed their metabolisms so much after a prolonged period of starvation and hard exercise (i.e. the tv show), that now any calories coming in over the subsistence level gets stored! The body is trying to protect itself against another catastrophe where it (the ‘winner’) drastically lost weight.

Obviously, that is not a healthy situation to be in.  I really want to lose a lot of weight and I’d really like to have more muscles, especially as I’m getting older.  I don’t want to be the helpless old lady (with the zillion cats!) but I also know that it’s going to take some time to lose weight and gain muscle in a healthy way.  That means growing long term healthy habits like eating for nutrition without starving myself and being more active without over-training or injuring myself.  Both of those mean that it’s going to take some time, since my body and metabolism are going to make slow healthy adaptations to my new lifestyle.  I need to keep my eye on the ultimate goal of Being Healthy rather than my chosen perspective of Being Thin.  As I’ve learned the hard way, being thin doesn’t count for much if you’re too sick to enjoy it.

You Are More Than Just Your Body!

I was listening to yet another podcast today and some of the things the guest mentioned  really irritated me.  It’s a viewpoint that I hear now and then, and each time it really makes me what to stand up and shout at someone: it’s the idea that women are emotional over how their bodies look because they are most often judged by their appearance.  As I said, this point of view really lights my fuse because it’s a freaking stereotype! Of course, that does not mean that it isn’t true: a lot of women get very emotional over gaining weight and all people are often judged on their appearance.  This entire idea that women are generally ashamed and emotional over their appearance is one of the few things that makes me angry, and frankly, I am pretty slow to anger.

This whole stereotype confused me for a long time while I was growing up.  I have been told all my life that I am an atypical female. (In our gender-fluid modern culture, I should clarify that I was born and remain a heterosexual female.) Maybe because I was mostly raised by my dad, I have been told that I lack certain ‘female’ mannerisms (like primping and flirting); that I tend to shop like a man (I go to the store, buy what I came for and leave), and that I approach problems like a man (offer a solution rather than commiserating).  I’ve read a few essays on the way men and women communicate and think (my favorites are by Deborah Tannen) and I have come to the conclusion that I have a male-oriented outlook about a lot of things.  This means that when men get confused or irritated when their wives/ girlfriends cry “my butt is huge!,” I am just as confused and irritated as they are: “so, what am I supposed to do about it? You’re the one who keeps buying the chocolate cake/ pasta/ frappucinos.” I don’t mean to sound callous, because I have also looked in the mirror and said the same thing: “damn, my butt is ginormous!!” but usually it’s without the wail of “this happened to me against my will.”  When I acknowledge my butt/ thighs/ ankles/ whatever is fat/ huge/ not looking the way I would like it to look, it’s usually accompanied by irritation at myself, because I am the reason it doesn’t look the way I want.  I don’t want someone to tell me what isn’t true- that my butt is not ginormous when I can clearly see that it is- but a few good ideas about how to make it smaller might be appreciated!  Of course, this is not what most women want; they want to be reassured they are still worthy of being loved, because for some women, their self-worth is wrapped up in a small butt and other assorted body parts.

For most of my life, my own self-assessments regarding body size were also accompanied by feelings of helplessness, disappointment and more than a little confusion.  Why wasn’t I able to make the changes that I wanted to make?  In most cases, it’s simply because it was hard work, but even when I did do the work, I didn’t get the results I wanted (I’m still blaming those 11 daily servings of ‘healthy whole carbs aka grains’ the USDA advised me to eat but whatever…!) I mostly missed the whole emotional stigma of being seen as ugly or unattractive by the rest of society, most likely because I have been overweight almost all my life. The constant criticism grew to be just more background noise in a sea of noise constantly telling me how I didn’t measure up to what ‘society’ says women should be. I wasn’t ‘girlish enough’; I made guys feel inadequate by being smarter than they were; I was too independent.  Geez! How dare I base my feelings of self-worth on my independence, intelligence and judgment! I was lucky: these were the things that were valued in my family. My dad never said he was disappointed my sister and I weren’t boys: he took us camping, shooting and fishing just the same. Nor did he encourage us to be “girly.” He did encourage us to read, make our own choices and do what we believed is the right thing to do.  Most of the women in my family are strong, opinionated and independent, even my maternal grandmother, who was not one of my favorite people. The men in my family treat them as equals, and although there were some traditional roles that were respected, it was never about ‘the women not being equal.’ No one in my family was judged on what they looked like, whether it was genetic (shortness and glasses run in my family) or whether it was about their weight (we have all sizes): any judgments were made on their choices.  If you chose to party all night and blow off your midterms, you really screwed up and they would let you know it! Being overweight, wearing glasses, being 4’10”, losing your hair, or being tall and thin- it was just a fact of life! You are who you are!

So whenever I hear people complaining about how ugly they look, how overweight they are, how some body part doesn’t look the way it’s “supposed to look,” I get pretty irritated.  I believe it perpetuates the idea that we all need to fit into stereotypical roles and if we don’t fit, we get dinged for it.  Somehow, we screwed up and we should be ashamed of ourselves.  I think it’s a little funny that if we don’t feel ashamed for not fitting it, we should be ashamed of not being ashamed! More evidence of our ongoing shortcomings! I was reminded not too long ago that most people don’t like being made to feel different or be made fun of.  Kind of obvious, but when being different is your way of life, you tend to forget that others are sensitive to it.  In one way, it’s made me pretty stubborn and independent, and in some ways it’s made me callous and insensitive to others.  While I’m pretty sure ‘independent’ is good, I’m not so sure about the others.

We are ultimately a combination of our choices, our genetics and our environment.  We are born with certain dents, and we collect more either through our own decisions and those life dishes out.  I don’t know anyone who has turned out the way they thought they would when they were kids.  We can either cry over the bumps and lumps or we can keep going despite or because of them.  Yes, I have a ginormous butt and I can either cry about it, do something about it, or learn to live with it.  Right now, I am doing something about it, and while I am, I choose not to cry over it.  Not too long ago, I paused to look at my reflection at the gym before I got in the pool and I realized my saggy skin is really looking saggier than usual.  Periodically my mom asks me when am I going to talk to my doctor about it.  Usually my answer is “I don’t know.”  I still wear short sleeves and tank tops and shorts despite the saggy skin.  I worked hard for those wrinkles and I am not about to let someone else’s opinion deter me! (This is where ‘stubborn’ is good!)

I think we all need to meet somewhere in the middle ground: I can certainly work on being more sensitive and less stubborn, and I think those who are too concerned about their self-image can work on being a little more independent and self-reliant.  We can all benefit by being more concerned about others’ feelings and having more confidence in ourselves.  We are more than the physical body we see in the mirror, and the people who love us do so despite our failings, physical and otherwise.  None of us are perfect, physically, mentally or spiritually.  We can all stand some improvement.  It’s how we grow and remembering that our own bodies are as imperfect as everyone else’s might make us a little more caring and empathetic when someone else is feeling the sting of being different.

 

 

You Can’t Choose For Them But You Can Choose to Respect Their Choice

This is a topic that is close to my heart, because it stabs right through! I was watching a rerun on My 600 Life: it was a follow-up episode and the patient was doing fairly well, having lost about 200 lbs. The problem now was her 23 yr old daughter’s weight, which was around 300 lbs.  The patient (Charity) was desperate to keep her daughter (Charlie) “from going through what I went through” and was essentially hounding her to lose weight.  I have been that daughter.  For more years than I care to think about, I have listened endlessly to all kinds of threats, inducements, plain old bribes, suggestions subtle and not at all subtle about my weight.  I know the mother’s behavior stems from her love and desire to protect her daughter, but the girl is now an adult and the best way to show that love is to respect her daughter’s decisions, even if she thinks they are the wrong decisions.  It’s okay to disagree with her and be respectful about it, but constant criticism is only going to drive a wedge between them.  Think about it: let’s substitute ‘boyfriend/ girlfriend’ for ‘weight.’  How many of you have listened to a parent complain about the person you are dating/ involved with? How much fun was it seeing your parent when you had to listen to them talk badly about someone you love? How long was it before you limited your exposure to your parent and/ or tuned them out as soon as they started complaining about your boyfriend/ girlfriend?: “You wouldn’t have to do XYZ if Bobby had more ambition.” “If Jolene dressed a little better she’d probably get a better job.”

I am sure Charity thinks she is doing what moms are supposed to do and look out for their children. She no doubt thinks she’s ‘guiding’ Charlie, but Charlie has already told her that when she criticizes her weight or her eating habits, it hurts her feelings (frankly, that’s more than I could ever tell my mom!)  So, Charity does the ‘next best thing’: when they show up at Dr. Nowzaradan’s office, Charity tells him to tell Charlie she needs to lose weight! (One of those not-at-all-subtle suggestions!) What Charity does not realize is that she is not helping her daughter any more than the constant criticism and humiliation at the hands of others helped Charity to lose weight herself! As someone who has been in Charlie’s shoes, I can tell you that all Charity is doing is making Charlie feel more inadequate and more like a failure or disappointment.  There is the ‘constant qualifier’ to her self-esteem and worth as a person: ‘you’d be such a pretty girl if only you weighed less“; “you could do XYZ if you didn’t weigh so much“; etc.  In other words: “you’re just not good enough because you’re too fat.”  I am sure that this is not what Charity believes just as I am sure this is not the message she wants to send to her daughter, but this is the message she is sending her daughter when she criticizes her weight and her eating habits: you are screwing up!

People eat for a variety of reasons and two of the biggest are emotional solace and simple control.  We hear a lot about people ‘eating their emotions’ because they are either feeling something they don’t know how to deal with or they don’t want to deal with, so they distract themselves by eating something that makes them feel good, or they want to celebrate by making the good feelings last longer, so they eat something to reinforce those positive feelings.  The end result is usually obesity: ‘I can’t handle my emotions.’

Control is another reason: pretty much the ultimate control over your own body is what you eat.  Remember how little kids will refuse to eat?  They are exercising control over their situation in the only way they can.  This can end up as an eating disorder, usually anorexia.  Sadly, this is how my grandmother died: as her health deteriorated and there were fewer things she could on her own, she chose to eat less and less.  Despite being hospitalized and having the doctor (and others) flat out tell her that she would die if she didn’t eat, she refused to eat.  The flip side of self-starvation is obviously obesity: ‘I am in control of what I eat and I am choosing to eat!‘ The irony is that the more you choose to eat or not eat, the less control you have over your situation.  As my grandmother grew weaker, there were fewer and fewer things she could do, until she finally ended up in a hospital where she died.  The same is true for the super morbidly obese: the more they eat, the bigger they become, the less mobile they are, the less they can do until finally they are bedridden and dependent on someone else bringing them the food they still demand because their ability to eat as much as they want is still under their control as they learn to manipulate their enablers.

In a situation like Charlie’s, the more disapproval she senses from her mother, the more likely she is to eat her emotions: she feels bad that her mom is unhappy with her, and her mom makes her feel bad about herself, so she eats to feel better, and then feels guilty that she ate or that she ate the ‘wrong thing,’ so she eats something else to feel better.  I think for Charity growing up, she ate for control (I know I did): her childhood was chaotic and scary and eating was something she had control over, so she ate as much as she could to make herself feel safe and secure (it was kind of the same for me).  When everything is chaos and disorder, you control what you can, even if it’s just a bag of potato chips.  The point is that having used food for solace and control in her own life, Charity should realize that her nagging behavior is not supporting Charlie.  Unfortunately, like most of us, Charity is too close to the issue to be objective.

It’s hard to say what I would do in a similar situation: I’ve been morbidly obese like Charity (technically I still am) and I grew up being hounded over my weight like Charlie.  Obviously since my weight remained a problem, one thing I am absolutely sure of is that hounding someone is guaranteed not to succeed.  Constant nagging only alienates those involved and in most cases adds to the stress which triggers the ‘offending behavior,’ whether it’s smoking or eating (my mom hounded one of her boyfriends about smoking with the same results!) There’s that old expression: “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” You also can’t push him down the road you think he should be on.  All you can do is try to lead him, and leading by example works a whole lot better than bullying or humiliation.

When it comes to other family members, whatever they choose to eat is their own choice.  There are few things more personal than what you choose to put in your body.  My sister was vegetarian for many years and while it’s not my choice, it was hers and I respected that when we went out to eat.  My dad eats the Standard American Diet, and when he was recovering from an illness recently, I bought groceries for him.  It would have been easy for me to buy him what I think he should be eating (my mom would have) but I bought things he likes, although I did buy the healthiest versions of them that I could.  I could have filled his bags with organic produce and meats and left out the breads and processed foods he likes, but that’s what I choose to eat for myself. Having been the recipient of “healthy” groceries chosen by my mom, based on whatever “doc of the day” said was healthy, instead of being grateful, I was more hurt and annoyed than anything else.  I confess, when I shopped for him, I leaned a little more heavily on the fruits and vegetables he likes rather than the stuff in cans or boxes, but they were all things he enjoys.  His grocery bags looked way different than mine do and that’s the point: we all choose different things for ourselves.  You may not like what someone else chooses to eat: you might think it’s bad for them; that they are eating all wrong; that they need to ‘fix’ whatever in their diet, but the fact remains that it’s their life, their body, their food and their choice. We need to respect one another’s choices as we expect them to respect ours.

Do you know what has helped me the most in my weight loss? Other people respecting my food choices.  My mom disagreed with my choice to eat Paleo (at least until the “doc of the day” gave it his thumbs up) and just like before, I tuned it out. The rest of my family was kind of interested in it, or at least they faked it for my sake, and they encouraged me to make better choices by respecting my different way of eating.  Now if I eat something that ‘isn’t Paleo,’ they tease me about it but won’t tell me that not to eat it.  Being supportive doesn’t mean being critical; it means respecting someone else’s decision.  If Charity really wants to be supportive with Charlie, she can do it by inviting her to share her healthy meals, setting a good example and letting Charlie decide for herself.  After all, what is more encouraging that being around someone who is happy, healthy and is holding the door open for you to join her?

 

 

 

 

What You Look Like is NOT Who You Are

I recently had a discussion with my mom about self-confidence.  I admit that I have little patience for people who are too concerned about what other people think of them.  In some ways, I am probably too unconcerned about others’ opinions of me. Part of this is I think my own denseness and part of it no doubt comes from the constant teasing from my classmates when I was in grade school.  I was ridiculed on a fairly regular basis for being: 1) Mexican; 2) poor; and 3) fat.  I actually didn’t start gaining weight until I was about 7th grade, so most of my grade school years, there was nothing I could do about being a poor Mexican (not as kid anyway) and after years of listening to the put-downs, I just started ignoring them.

At my workouts I see quite a few women (usually) who wear t-shirts and shorts to get in the pool or they insist on wearing a tankini or swim skirt because they don’t want to show their bellies or their upper thighs.  They want to be covered as much as possible.  I admit, the first swim suit I had was a tankini, but that was mainly because the only suits they had at the store were tankinis. The ones I’ve bought online are two pieces: a bralette with a high waisted swim short.  Those are the suits I like best (the tankini was really annoying). I’ve had a couple people make remarks about how I’m trying to flirt with the guys going in and out of the sauna (just friendly teasing) and a few other comments about how it looks like I’ve lost a ‘lot of weight’ after no doubt noticing my saggy skin.

The saggy skin was what really started this conversation with my mom.  I made a comment that my legs are starting to look like the patients on TLC’s Skin Tight and she asked me if I was close enough to my goal weight to have skin surgery. She commented that I will probably need at least two surgeries, one on my legs and one on my chest, torso and arms, which will include a breast lift. Honestly, I am in no rush to have surgery of any kind and I am not nearly close enough to consider surgery.  (I still have about 100 lbs to go!) and I told her, after she mentioned it a few times, that I will not be having my breasts done under any circumstances.

Many of the patients on Skin Tight are practically traumatized by their saggy skin. There are some (mainly guys) who are more concerned about the inconvenience it causes and the risk of infection more than their appearance. Many of the patients are extremely self-conscious about their appearance, describing themselves with words like ‘freak’ and ‘monster’ and I think my mom is a little confused that I am not much concerned about how I look at all.

Vanity and appearance are important to my mom, and she does not understand that it isn’t important to me. Beyond looking neat and clean, I don’t spend a whole lot of time on my appearance.  I’ve been told by more than a couple men that I’m not ‘girly’ enough and that it’s ‘not attractive.’ My vanity is pretty much confined to my hair: I like it long, but even then, I don’t spend a lot of time styling it.  When I was 16, I had one gray hair on the back of my head. It was very noticeable because the rest of my hair was very dark and my mom kept insisting that I pluck it out, which I didn’t.  As I grew older, I started getting a little bit of gray around my temples and face and she started making comments about coloring my hair.  I did color my hair a few times, but that was more of a lark trying different colors and not related to ‘hiding the gray.’  I commented to one of my stylists that I kind of missed my gray hair and he quipped “no worries, your friends are back!”

My point here is that what I look like has never been tied to my sense of self or self-esteem.  Maybe it was all that teasing in school (and life in general) that led to my being thick-skinned (and maybe a little dense), but who I am is not what I look like and it never has been and never will be.  This is the point of a lot of books, movies and plays: who you are is the person inside and the outside covering is just the vehicle for moving that person around.  Some of us are cute little Fiats and Minis and some of us are giant F-150’s and SUVs.  The only difference is that we are fairly limited in our body choices: there are some things we can change and some we can’t.  The problems happen when people start obsessing over things they can’t change about themselves.  Do I wish I were taller? Yeah, being short is kind of a pain.  Do I worry about it? Not really- I can’t change it.  Even things I did lament over as a kid (I wanted blue eyes like my dad), I grew out of them.  Now if I want blue eyes or any other color, all I have to do is buy the colored contacts.  I can have different eye colors each day (or two different colors if I want!) but I don’t.  It’s too much trouble and I know my eyes are brown.

I don’t mean to tell you that what you look like doesn’t matter.  Taking pride in your appearance is a good thing; I believe it speaks to our self-confidence. I think liking how you look is a good thing, but when you are more concerned about what others think of your appearance than your own feelings, I think that isn’t a good thing.  I’m not talking about your spouse or significant other: I mean strangers or coworkers and people who are not so important to you.  As long as you are happy with your appearance, then what other people think is pretty much irrelevant, but the bottom line is that our appearance will change over time, “by chance or Nature’s changing course untrimm’d.” We need to be more concerned with how we feel about ourselves than what others think of us.  Having self-confidence and being secure in ourselves is more attractive than our hair style, color  or anything else about how we look.  We spend too much time and effort trying to impress others with our appearance when what really matters is what’s inside. Everything else fades with time, whether we want it to or not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Carrot or The Stick: Positive v Negative Reinforcement

The simple approach to reinforcement is either the carrot or the stick. You can lure the donkey forward with a carrot or you can try forcing it to move by hitting it with a stick. Maybe these approaches work on donkeys (doubt it!) but the fact is: you are not a donkey!

I am very familiar with positive reinforcement.  When I was freshman in college, my Intro to Pysch teacher covered it and what I thought interesting is the idea that even though negative reinforcement gets all the attention, studies show positive reinforcement is much more effective.  As a result, I went home and started using it on my dog (education in action!)  Over the years, pretty much all my dogs have been trained with positive reinforcement.  My basic approach: every time my dog (or cat) does something I want them to repeat, I give them praise and affection.  He asks to go out to pee, he’s a good boy.  He sits calmly on my lap, he’s a good boy.  The cat uses her scratch post instead of the sofa, good kitty!  When I was out of town last year, my mom babysat my dog and when she told me he was playing chase with her dog, I told her to tell him he’s a good boy.  She called back and said after she told him “good boy,” he was more enthusiastic about playing with her dog.  I told her that’s the point: once he knows he’s doing something that pleases me (and is also fun), he has more incentive to keep doing it!  That’s what positive reinforcement is supposed to do: the action becomes pleasurable because you are rewarded for it so you have much more incentive to keep doing it. 

Negative reinforcement is the opposite, of course: the pup wets on the rug and you scold and spank him. As far as pups go, it’s not really effective because the pup usually doesn’t make the connection between wetting on the rug at 10:30 a.m., you coming home at 6 and seeing it and scolding him.  As far as he’s concerned, he was happy to see you come home and you’re mad at him for being happy to see you.  This is why the positive reinforcement works better for potty-training: he goes out, pees on the lawn, and he’s a good boy.  He has incentive to wet all over the lawn because as long as he does, he’s a good boy.

But, again, you aren’t a puppy.  How does positive reinforcement work on people, and why isn’t negative reinforcement effective?  You would think associating donuts with bad feelings would make you avoid donuts much more than associating happy feelings with broccoli or exercise.  The difference is that while negative reinforcement is better at getting you to change behavior, it’s the positive reinforcement that keeps you exercising and eating the broccoli.

One of the best ways to get started changing and keeping a new habit is to use a combination of both positive and negative reinforcement.  With my dog, when he does something I want him to repeat, he’s the greatest puppy in the world (which he loves to hear) and when he does something I don’t want him to repeat, I tell him no firmly but without a lot of fuss and leave it alone.  He’s trained by now to look for the praise and he’s focused on doing things that earn him praise and, since the wrong behavior didn’t earn it, he’s moved on to something else.  For example, let’s look at workouts.  If you schedule an appointment with a trainer and if you get charged for missing that workout, that’s incentive to keep the workout (negative reinforcement), but if you are constantly praised and encouraged for your progress while at your workout, that’s also incentive to keep the appointment (positive reinforcement).  So that combination works pretty well: you don’t want to pay for a service you aren’t getting, but at the same time, each time you go, you see that you’re lifting more weight, doing more lunges and your trainer is praising your progress by telling you know how far you’ve come.  You have more incentive to keep going because you can see the benefit; if you didn’t see any benefit or the trainer wasn’t enthusiastic about your progress, eventually you would stop booking appointments to avoid the cancellation fees.  This is what happens when people make nasty comments to you about eating fast food: you don’t stop eating fast food, you just stop eating it with those people.  You avoid the negativity by changing your behavior but not necessarily changing the bad behavior.  Your goal becomes avoiding the negative result, not avoiding the negative behavior.

Most of us are frustrated because we are trying very hard to make positive changes in our behavior to improve our health but the problem is that most of us do it with negative reinforcement.  We can be our own worst enemies.  We eat a candy bar and we berate ourselves like we threw a kitten under a bus! We skip our workout and we’re the laziest, most unworthy person in the world.  We use the stick to beat ourselves over the head about how we aren’t eating healthy, we aren’t working out, we keep eating all the cookies, cupcakes and potato chips and we believe that if we keep beating ourselves, we’ll eventually change.  If our bodies showed the emotional abuse we heap on ourselves, we’d look like we were hit by a semi.  We look at ourselves in the mirror and abuse ourselves: “I’m so ugly it’s a wonder my spouse hasn’t left me.  I look like a monster.  I can’t believe how fat I am!  I’m too far gone to save.”  Any of this sound familiar?  It breaks my heart when friends post things like this online: “I got on the scale, saw I went up two pounds and couldn’t stop crying.”

This is not productive.  This is not healthy, or helpful, and your weight has nothing to do with your worth as a person. Stop beating yourself with the stick! You aren’t a donkey and it doesn’t work! If you want to change your behavior, you need to use a combination of positive and negative reinforcement with a BIG emphasis on the positive!

It’s always best to make this process as simple as possible: 1) Write out your objective simply and specifically; 2) Associate a ‘negative’ with avoiding the behavior; and 3) Associate a ‘positive’ with completing the task.

Let’s say the most important change you want to make this year is to eat more healthy foods.  Write out a simple specific objective, such as “I want to eat at least two servings of vegetables each day.”  That’s specific and it’s a change in the right direction.  So let’s say that each time you finish a day without two servings of vegetables, you put $5 in the Veggie Jar and at the end of the month or week, you give the money to your kids, you donate the money to a charity, or you use it to buy veggies- whatever- as long as the money is not going to you!  You are charging yourself for not changing the behavior!  As a positive reinforcement, let’s say that for each day you finish with two or more servings of vegetables, you get to take $5 out of the Veggie Jar, or you, your kids/ spouse put $5 in your Healthy Habit Jar and that money goes to you for a non-food treat, like a movie, a manicure, or something else you were wanting.  Don’t overlook the power of praise and encouragement either!  Remember when you were in grade school and every time you got an A on a math quiz, the teacher put a gold star on the wall chart next to your name?  You really wanted to get the A, not so you would be good at math but so that you would have as many stars as possible (and maybe beat out some of the kids you didn’t like) You can still do the same thing.  On a calendar, give yourself a gold star for each day that you hit your goals ( 2 + servings of veggies; a workout; 8 glasses of water, whatever your goal is for that month!) Looking at a calendar filling up with stars is really very encouraging.  It’s a sign of your continuing improvement there on the wall for everyone to see. Just looking at it makes you feel good about yourself and your progress. (Looking in the mirror and seeing your body getting fitter or smaller is also very encouraging.)  The calendar also has a little bit of the negative impetus as well: a calendar with only a few stars on it shows that you are not focusing on your objectives and frankly, it stings a little.  It also has the “instant gratification” effect:  the more you hit your objectives, the sooner the calendar starts filling up with stars.  “I hit my goal- another star for me! That’s three this week already! Yay, me!”

Does it seem a little  silly?  You roll your eyes, and tell yourself that you aren’t twelve years old and a chart full of stars is childish.  It worked when you were twelve because frankly it made you feel good. It reinforced your positive attitude towards hitting your objectives, whether it’s making healthy lifestyle changes or getting an A in math.  You can choose whatever positive visual reinforcement works for you but making things too complicated tends to defeat the purpose.  Seeing the days of accomplishment stack up, whether it’s stars on a calendar or money in a jar, the goal is to encourage yourself to make positive changes. Just the acknowledgement of your achievements can be emotionally uplifting and associating the positive feelings with completing the task should not be underestimated. Back to my dog, there are times when I’m very busy and he’s sitting off to the side watching me. I’m not angry, just busy, but as soon as I look up at him and say his name, he ‘smiles’ and wags his tail.  Just acknowledging him makes him happy.  Yes, you are not a dog, but you are not too far from that proud twelve year old who just got another star on the Arithmetic Aces Chart either. Don’t be ashamed to flaunt your successes- you earned those stars!