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!

 

Going to the Gym: High School Revisited

One of the most intimidating experiences for most of us is walking into the gym for the first time. Is there any other experience that can send you right back to high school faster? You walk in and right away, it feels like everyone is looking at you. Since you’re new at the gym, you’re probably not going to be feeling secure with the equipment or with your work out. In short, you’re that awkward geeky freshman again surrounded by cool confident seniors who know what’s what.

As your parents and counselors reminded you back then, even seniors were freshmen once! But telling yourself that is one thing and being confident in new surroundings is something else. It’s seems like a silly thing: “it feels awkward! I feel dorky! I don’t know what I’m doing!” But this is one of the biggest obstacles people have when it comes to going to the gym. Because we feel awkward and uncomfortable, we make excuses to avoid it, so we pay for the membership and don’t go. We mean to go, but we keep coming up with reasons to avoid the awkwardness. Not only are we wasting our money, we’re wasting opportunities to improve our health. Why? Because we don’t want to be embarrassed! The awkwardness is robbing us of our money and our chance to be healthier.

We’ve coined a new word for this awkward feeling: gymtimidation. It’s actually part of the slogan for Planet Fitness (No Gymtimidation).  I used to belong to PF and it was a very comfortable atmosphere. Most of the people I saw in my local PF were a little out of shape and wearing old sweats (much more my speed). If it weren’t for the fact that it had no pool, I would probably still be a member and I wasn’t as circumspect when I chose my new gym. The atmosphere was less important than my biggest concern: it had a pool. I was willing to put up with the gymtimidation but I started noticing a few things about the people I see at my current gym (In-Shape City), and honestly, they’re kind of amusing. Just like in high school, a lot of the people are more interested in how they look and who’s looking at them than they are in actually working out. Is fixing your hair really what you’re worried about before you exercise? Other than making sure my hair is pulled back and out of my way, I don’t care what it looks like. Ditto makeup. I definitely don’t reapply anything before getting in the pool or using the equipment.  I’m going to be wet and/ or sweaty: do I really want my eye shadow, eyeliner, makeup, etc running down my face?

There are a lot of men and women who spend a lot of time sitting around at the gym, focused on their phones and there are a lot of people who spend a lot of time making sure their workout clothes are stylish, neat and showing off their best atributes. They look more like they spent time getting ready for a date rather than getting ready to exercise and they seem to wander around the gym a lot not-exercising. (I can see a lot from the pool!)

I’m not being judgemental: they pay for their membership so they can use the gym however they want. But you can see the ones who come to work out: they may also have “cool” workout clothes, but they are the ones actually using the equipment and they are the ones who leave (or head for the locker room) looking rumpled and sweaty, usually wiping their face with a towel.  They are the ones moving from station to station in the circuit training or waiting for my water aerobics class to finish so they can swim their laps.  They are the ones who aren’t looking around to see who’s looking at them: they’re looking for the next piece of equipment they are going to use!  They are focused on their fitness, not everyone else. One of the best t-shirts I saw at the gym was on a young woman helping out a friend use a piece of equipment; it said “Gym hair don’t care.”  That phrase seemed to sum up her and her friend’s attitude: they didn’t care who was looking at them.

This is the attitude we need to work on if we do feel awkward at the gym.  We’ve paid our dues (literally) and we are just as entitled to use the facility as anyone else. Confidence, like everything else, gets better with practice.  If you aren’t confident with the equipment, ask one of the trainers to show it to you. You pay for their services and it’s to their advantage that you use the equipment safely.  Especially since the more you use it, the more you come, the longer you stay a member and the more you refer others to their gym.  (Being an unhelpful unfriendly place is not going to boost their ratings on Yelp!)  So, if you have a question, ask someone.  Most gyms have a website (or an app) so spend a little time both at the gym and online.  Classes have their pros and cons.  There’s not a lot of individual attention from the instructor, but then you also have the opportunity to blend in with the crowd.  Sometimes watching others can boost your confidence: you can get some pointers on how the exercises are done and there’s usually a little reassurance that you aren’t the only ‘newbie’ in the class.  If you are doing circuit training or another individual workout, it may be helpful to make note of the times when the gym is less crowded so there’s less competition for the equipment and fewer of those non-exercisers who might want to giggle at your rumpled sweats.

Clothing is also something to consider.  While it’s nice to have workout clothes that match (I’ve got a couple of outfits that do), the most important thing is that you’re comfortable.  You need to be able to move freely and hopefully, the clothes breathe so you can cool down and not get overheated.  My outfits match because I bought the tops and pants at the same time so, why not get a matching set?  They breathe and fit well- not too tight but not too loose so I trip.  When I leave my water aerobics class, I merely put on some dry clothes over my bathing suit since I live nearby and would rather shower at home. The clothes I put on are an old t shirt with a frayed collar and an old pair of sweats that have a safety pin permanently attached because they are too big for me now.  Now that it’s colder, I also put on a worn out hoodie with a hole in one sleeve.  As you can see, I don’t care that I don’t look cool (or maybe look a little homeless) because I’m there to get in my workout and go home.  I don’t hang around the gym to see who’s looking at me or who I might be ‘looking at.’ Unless I’m chatting with a friend from my class, I get in the pool, do my workout and then go home.  I would never work out in my old pool cover-ups because they don’t fit well enough for that but that is the only reason. I don’t want my worn out t shirt or sweats getting caught in the equipment which is why I invested in some work out clothes.

You remember when you were in high school and your parents told you that you need to learn to stand up for yourself? Ditto what mom and dad said! You own that gym. You are a paying member and the staff are your staff, so don’t be afraid to ask for help or ask questions. One of the issues that comes up occasionally in my water aerobics class is non participants trying to use the pool when class is in session.  Sometimes this is a problem because our class can be a bit large and sometimes we use the entire pool.  Our trainer is not shy about telling people who are getting in our way of working out that they need to exit the pool area until class is over at 6:30 p.m. But on at least one occasion, we had a less confident (code for b*tchy) trainer subbing in and the group of young people in the corner, while staying out of our way, were getting so loud we couldn’t hear the trainer’s instructions.  After she had to repeat herself louder and hearing others grumbling about the loud kids, the teacher in me took over and in my loudest ‘teacher voice,’ I told the kids to “keep it down over there!” and they did.  I wasn’t embarrassed about it (I was more embarrassed for our sub who was not much older than the kids).  It’s my time they were messing with.  I pay to use the gym and take this class so, knock it off, guys!

The same holds for the trainer.  It is not unusual to have a substitute trainer for our class and one of the most recent trainers was an enthusiastic young woman who was very fit and very strong.  (By the end of the session, most of us were dying to ask her when she left the Corps or if she was still a reservist!) Generally, most of us like having the occasional sub since it gives us an opportunity to try something a little different, but some of the exercises she wanted us to do were frankly out of our league.  One of them was a ‘pool-side plank’ in which we swim to the side and hoist ourselves out of the pool and hold ourselves there for 20-30 seconds.  It doesn’t sound like a long time or a difficult move, but as one of my classmates mumbled “if I could do that, I wouldn’t be in this class!” It was only one of the exercises our class had trouble with, and we were not shy about letting her know what we couldn’t do and what we were willing to try.  Most of us in this class are retired and have been doing these classes for a few years (I’m still considered a bit of a newbie).  Being shy about voicing our opinions is a rarity for us.

Thinking back to when we were those awkward scared to death freshmen, did we ever stop to consider just how those seniors grew to be so cool and confident? (I know I didn’t!)  It came through practice and familiarity.  By the end of their freshman year, they knew which teachers were hard-nosed, which could be snowed, where the best tables were in the cafeteria and where to sit in the auditorium if you didn’t want to be seen.  In short, they learned the ins and outs of the school because they were there everyday.  Unlike going to the gym, school is not exactly optional (if you want an education, at least) and it’s in showing up regularly that we learn how to use the equipment, when the gym is super-crowded and which trainers are the most helpful.  We have to put in the hours to become the ‘cool seniors’ and like being a freshman, there might be a little bit of growing pains.  The trick really is in the attitude. If your focus is on how you don’t fit in and you worry more about the cool kids liking you rather than just being yourself and working on getting good grades, you are going to have a tough time in high school.  It’s a little awkward at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty easy. Just like high school, you can make friends and develop healthy habits that will last you a lifetime (and no one will give you a wedgie in the locker room!)

A Letter from the Dark Side: Weighing Nearly 450 lbs.

Many of you know I’m a rabid fan of My 600lb Life on TLC but you may not know why. Yes, it’s a great ongoing reinforcement for me, but in order to be on the show, patients have to weigh a minimum of 500 lbs. In June 2014, I weighed in at 438. I think that’s the highest I ever weighed, but since I never weighed at home and avoided doctors as much as possible, I’m making an educated guess. I never looked at the scale when I got weighed at the doctor; I had to look up that number in my records. But judging by the way I felt physically, I’m pretty sure that was my highest weight.

When you watch the show, you listen to the patients talking about the pain of standing, walking, moving around; how difficult even the easiest everyday activities are; how hopeless and overwhelming everything feels. My mom (a retired RN) watches the show also and I usually get a text from her during the show saying something to the effect of “just wire her mouth shut!!” usually while the patient is talking about her physical difficulties. My mom has no empathy for these patients and I don’t think she understands why I’ll repeatedly watch the reruns. It’s because they were me and I was them. I was the chubby kid, the pudgy teen, the obese adult. My weight was a slow steady relentless gain throughout my life. I spent most of my twenties in the two hundreds, most of my thirties in the three hundreds and by my forties I was fighting to stay out of the four hundreds: a fight I lost in my late forties. When I was 48, I was the highest weight I had ever been. Most of my adult life I was between 370-385. (If any of you have seen My Big Fat Fabulous Life with Whitney Way Thore, I was her size.) I didn’t like being that big, but it had become “comfortable” and by that I mean, there weren’t a lot of things I wanted to do that I couldn’t do but I had gotten pretty good at judging my limits. I could get around pretty good, but I knew when to stop and how to take shortcuts to “maximize my mobility.” I took several trips to Disneyland (one of my favorite places) and my strategy was to hit the rides I could fit on (that was my reality) and when my friends went on rides I couldn’t get on, I’d wait someplace with all our stuff while they rode the rides. I was a convenient meeting place. They didn’t push me to do more because crossing the park was hard on my knees, back and feet. It was a big effort for me to walk any extended distance: I was carrying 375 lbs.

When Dr. Now’s patients talk about the pain of standing and walking, I know that pain. My weight ruined my knees: I have moderate to severe arthritis in both of them (my right is worse than my left). My large lower abdomen (my panniculus) put quite a strain on my back so just standing hurt my knees, my back and my feet. Maneuvering around the house or office or anywhere was usually a challenge since I was twice the size of a normal sized person. Fitting in chairs with arms or cars was always hit or miss since they’re not made for someone the size of two people. I was often afraid of breaking chairs (toilet seats included) and there were a lot of times I wasn’t able to wear the seatbelt in a friend’s car (they were nice enough to not comment).  In college, I was too big for some desks and I had to use the “disabled” desk made for students in wheelchairs.  In auditorium classrooms, I had to sit next to an empty seat, since the little foldover desktop would not lay flat enough across my stomach for me to write on it: I had to use the one next to me.  Getting up from any chair or seated position was always a strain on my knees, back, and hips, (lifting the equivalent of at least two adults) but staying seated for a long period of time was another source of pain on my low back.  My weight even affected my sleep: I had apnea because my weight was essentially beginning to smother me.

Clothing and shoes were another challenge.  It’s extremely dispiriting to realize that the blouse that fits you is big enough to double as a king size pillow case or that when your slacks are folded in half, they are the same size at those for normal sized people.  It’s even more embarrassing when you’re shopping and people think your slacks (folded on the store hanger) are a skirt. When you lay out your clothes for the day and your shirt is the size of a small throw, it’s pretty demoralizing. I know my nightgowns/ nightshirts were that size. I’m guessing a skirt would be that size but I never wore skirts or dresses because getting the slips, nylons and camisoles were next to impossible in my size. Let’s not even discuss lingerie! Shoes are a lot of fun because while there are some stores that normally carry double-wide shoes, when you need triple E, you almost always have to order them.  Getting shoes a size larger doesn’t help much because your foot just gets wider, not longer.

My mom doesn’t mean to be callous when she makes comments about wiring the patient’s jaws shut (I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt here), because she doesn’t understand how insidious the weight gain is. It’s like quicksand: you know you need to get out, but you don’t know how to extricate yourself. Fighting it just seems to make it worse and cause you to sink faster but doing nothing doesn’t get you out either; you just keep slowly sinking. You try making small improvements, but while they may seem to help, it feels like you’re bailing out the Titanic with a teaspoon: it’s working but the improvements are infinitesimal compared to the sheer magnitude of the problem.

I tried diets but dieting seemed to make the problem worse since it was the “fighting the quicksand” scenario: limiting my calories slowed my metabolism so when I gave up the diet (infinitesimal progress), I gained back more weight pretty rapidly. (In all honesty, I didn’t try a lot of diets because I knew they didn’t work, but at the same time, I was desperate to try something! Unfortunately with most of the diets, the more I limited the food, the slower my metabolism became, so I’d have to limit my food even more, á la The Biggest Loser ‘winners.’  I did try some of the “food subscription diets” where you buy the pre-packaged diet foods and eat according to their plans.  Generally those plans & foods worked for me, but even while I was losing weight on them, I kept asking myself “so what happens when I stop eating their food?” That was an easy call: I gained weight again because their “meal plans” hadn’t taught me anything.  The idea behind most of them seemed to be to eat their food until I reached my goal weight and then they’re going to teach me how to stay there.  I never got there because- again- it limited my calories and slowed my metabolism.  I simply had too much weight to lose.

One of the first questions Dr. Now asks his patients is “how did you get to this weight?”  For most of my adult life, the answer is simple: I ate as much as I wanted of whatever I wanted whenever I wanted.  Sometimes I will tease others (and my pets) with the phrase “I want! I want! I want!”  I know how that feels: gimme what I want NOW!! It’s easy to ignore the consequences, and frankly that’s what I did for most of those years when I weighed 370+.  But it wasn’t like I woke up one morning and “wow! how did I get so big?! yesterday I was only 150!” It’s that insidious weight gain I mentioned earlier.  Part of it I can blame on the explosion of cheap processed foods: they are easily metabolized, full of calories and actually designed to make you keep eating more.  The fact that most of my generation and those that followed have problems with obesity and type 2 diabetes backs this up.  But most of us who grew up eating these cheap processed foods do not get to weigh 400+ lbs, though sadly there are a lot more of us than before. A lot of the blame has to be placed at my door.  I didn’t want to be active (I was never good at running or sports) and I spent a lot of my time with sedentary pursuits (reading, writing, watching tv, etc).  It was an amazingly awful combination: the more I ate, the bigger I got, the less I wanted to move so the more I sat and hey, how about another bag of cheese puffs? I tend to give myself credit for not hitting the 400s until I was over forty years old, but I was definitely on track to hit the 500s in my fifties (I noticed the numbers were paralleling each other and it was a frightening realization!) It’s along the same lines as giving yourself credit for breaking the chair but not falling through the floor: “well, the disaster could have been a whole lot worse!” Either way there is nothing good about weighing what I weighed.

It’s a hard situation to confront when you are that large and steadily gaining weight.  The solution seems simple: just go on a diet! But when those diets are based on calories in vs calories out, they don’t work.  All it does is wreck your metabolism and leave you constantly hungry, so you are not only miserably famished all the time, eventually your metabolism settles at your current calorie intake and you stop losing weight.  So while you may have lost some weight, you are right on track to gain it all right back, unless you drop your calories further.  I read in an article last September that one of The Biggest Loser ‘winners’ has to keep his calories under 800 per day in order not to gain the weight back.  To translate that into food, 800 calories is approximately 24 ounces of plain grilled chicken breast or 1.77 Starbucks Grande Mochas with 2% milk and whipped cream.  Sounds filling, doesn’t it?  So when you weigh over 350 lbs, are still gaining weight no matter what you seem to try, it feels pretty hopeless. Somehow, you walked right into this quicksand and now you can’t get out. You try making healthy changes: eating less and exercising more (again calories in vs calories out) and for a while it works, and then when it seems to stop, you try something else, but again, bailing out the Titanic with a teaspoon. It’s easy to see why people like me, Whitney and Dr. Now’s patients just accept that “I’m the fat one in the family!” Defeat with dignity seems better than the constant failing and disappointment. A phrase from The Simpsons would often pop into my head: “Can’t win- don’t try!” I was just destined to be fat so I might as well accept it.

Except it was killing me in so many painful ways. There was the physical pain that comes with lugging around two full sized adults on a body built for one.  There was the constant ‘helpful’ comments from family and the stares and ridicule of strangers always wearing on your spirit.  You feel embarrassed, helpless, inadequate and stupid almost every day, always asking yourself “how the hell did this happen to me?!” You are angry at yourself, at everyone in your family who tries to ‘help’ (because although they mean well, all they are really doing is reminding you of what a screw up you are), and you’re angry at all the jerks in the world who make rude comments about ‘fat chicks’ and other overweight people. It’s physically and emotionally draining to fight the weight and it’s physically and emotionally draining just living with it and all the limitations that it carries. I know in my case, the only way I found to fight it is to keep living my life as best I could.  It seemed as close to defeat with dignity as I could get. I had resolved to do as much as I could as long as I could, much the way I believe Whitney Thore has come to terms with her weight: try not to let it get in the way.

It’s a hard life, and I wish I could give everyone the keys to the secret passage out of it, but there are no easy solutions. For some, bariatric surgery is the best solution.  My mom used to try bribing me to get it done but I have never had any interest in getting my insides remodeled, although if I had reached 500, I think I would have seriously reconsidered. For others, radically changing their eating habits works, or weight loss medications or other devices (they have a permanent stomach pump now). Most- if not all- of these solutions sound a little desperate, but when you weigh in that neighborhood, desperate is exactly what you are! For me, the solution was radically changing my eating habits: I went from a diet that was 80% simple carbs to a diet that is 35% protein, 35% fat and 30% complex carbs. I now eat as few simple carbs as possible (fruit is as simple as it gets most days). It’s not as drastic a change as getting your gastrointestinal tract rearranged, but it sure wasn’t an easy transition to make.  I’m just happy and relieved that it worked and that it allows to me to live a lifestyle that is still normal and satisfying, both mentally, physically and spiritually. I have finally found my way to a happy place after a very long and desperate sojourn on the dark side.

 

Motivation: Surprising Yourself & Pushing the Envelope

How many times have you watched someone doing something and said to yourself: “I could never do that in a million years!” This is one of those instances where ignorance is truly bliss, because if you don’t know that you can’t do it, you’ll probably try, and who knows- maybe you really can do it!  I used to think about this a lot with my cat Belle.  She was a tall big boned green eyed calico who was a rescue from a local vet. Some high school kids brought her in as a kitten when they heard her crying in a dumpster.  She’d been hit by a car and just tossed in like trash, and as a result she lost a back leg.  When I brought her home the week after Thanksgiving, she still had the stitches from the amputation, and after taking a couple of days to get used to me, my house and my dogs, she promptly scaled the pet-gate and the Christmas tree.  She got into everything she could, because no one told her she couldn’t. (She was also the vicious “attack cat” whenever anyone came to the house- my four-legged cat hides under the bed!)

She was not the first “disabled” cat our family has had.  When we were in college, we had Mowgli who was blind.  One eye was opaque due to scarring from an infection and the other had to be removed (same infection).  She also climbed everywhere (including the NordicTrac) and got into every bag we had, every closet and under everywhere she would fit: “Be careful with that! Mowgli’s probably in it!” and she was!  She didn’t know she was blind and couldn’t do everything “normal” cats could.  Like Belle, no one had ever told her she couldn’t, so she did whatever she wanted.

You’d think people would have more sense than our pets, but I think we are in danger of convincing ourselves there are things we can’t do, either from fear of failure or embarrassment.  We think we can’t so we don’t even try and as a result, we end up being right: we cannot do it (whatever “it” is).  The task does not defeat us: we defeat ourselves!  “We have met the enemy and they are us!”

I have a bit of a reputation for trying almost anything. It’s not because I’m some kind of super confident and self assured person (oh so not me!); it’s because of a couple of things that happened my senior year in high school.  One of them I’ve mentioned on this blog before: at our final exam, one of my teachers, Sister Patrice (yes, I went to Catholic high school) gave every senior a paper butterfly with a positive trait she had noticed about them and mine said “open minded.”  Part of my “I’ll try anything” mindset comes from that.  I’ve tried hard not to lose it over the years and I think it’s done me good.

The second thing that taught me to try even though failure looked imminent was my senior PE final: we had to run two miles (8 times around the track).  We didn’t have to beat a time; we just had to finish.  I was the second fattest girl in my class (in the whole school FYI) and after she announced what the final was (we got a week or so to train for it), the teacher, Coach Betty, told me that I and the other girl, Jennifer, were exempt from running, obviously because of our weight.  I don’t think Jennifer ran the track (she was exempt from PE altogether), but the thought of being “the only one who didn’t run” in my period was far more mortifying than failure, so I changed into my shorts and sneakers and ran with the rest of them.  On the day of the final, I was the last lone runner on the track, but I finished all 8 laps.  I was panting, could hardly breathe and could hardly walk back to the locker room, but I’ll never forget the smile on Coach Betty’s face.  She was so proud of me.  She said “you knew you could do it!”  Actually I didn’t, but to give up without trying was way more embarrassing than falling flat on my face.  If I failed, at least I made a good attempt and all I had to do was keep running.  I figured it’d be less embarrassing to pass out on the track trying to do it than not to run at all.

In much the same way that we can overestimate ourselves, we also underestimate our abilities.  Before we even try, we think we’ll fail and that fear of failure and the accompanying embarrassment is overwhelming.  We’re afraid of being laughed at, being humiliated, having everyone staring and making comments. We love being the center of attention when we do something right and we hate being the butt of the jokes when we screw up.  But in most cases it’s only the fear itself that is the only boogeyman we’ve got to watch out for. Many times, the failure itself, if it actually happens, is seen as mostly a bump in the road by everyone else.  You tried, you failed, you move on and so does everyone else.  You are the only one who makes a big deal out of it. You are afraid of the fear of looking foolish, and once you accept that everyone looks foolish at one time or another, it’s no big deal.

Sometimes not knowing that you can’t do something leaves you open to the possibilities; it’s almost like knowing that you can’t keeps you from doing it. Case in point: in 2003, I shattered my left wrist.  My hand was actually pushed into my arm about an inch- it was like my wrist was gone.  The break was so bad the doctor told me he’d never seen a wrist look like that. The word he used to describe my metacarpals (the bones in my wrist) was “gravel.”  I ended up having a plate put in with five screws to secure it to whatever wasn’t broken.  I was in a cast for six weeks and ended up spending about 10 weeks in physical therapy.  If any of you have ever had PT, you know they evaluate you when you first show up and then they do it again when you finish to measure your improvement.  When I started, I could not touch my fingers to my palm, let alone bend my wrist.  It was frozen solid and frankly it scared me more than a little.  So, let’s just say I was motivated.

When I left PT, they did their final evaluation and I had approximately 90% of my hand/ wrist function back.  I could pick up fine objects like pins and ball bearings, and I could move my wrist forward, backward and twist it around.  Pretty much the only thing I could not do was press my palm against a flat surface like a table or a wall because it hurt and I could feel the screws in my bones.  The other thing I could not do is carry a bag with a strap across the incision/ scar (like women do with a purse), because again I feel the screws biting into my bones.  So, overall, I was pretty happy, and so was the therapist.  She told me that they had estimated I would only regain about 70% of my wrist function because of the break and the surgery.  I was shocked: no one had told me the prognosis was so grim (they didn’t think it was grim but I sure as h*ll did)!  I often wonder if my knowing would have made a difference.

I’ve always been one of those people who tries things even though failure looks imminent, and those two events in my life (three actually) really reassured me that I wasn’t wrong to try. (This is code for “I’m no longer afraid of looking like a doofus!”) By contrast, my friend G. was the exact opposite.  She was my sister’s roommate when my sis moved back to the valley, and she was working as an administrative assistant in an office but what she really wanted to do was be a nurse.  When my sister asked her why she didn’t apply to nursing school, she immediately came up with “reasons”: she wasn’t smart enough; it was too hard; her family told her she couldn’t do it; all kinds of reasons why she would fail.  It reminds me of an episode on the The Simpsons where Homer gives Bart some “fatherly” advice and Bart replies:”Can’t win, don’t try! Got it!” This was G.’s thinking completely: don’t even try it because you won’t make it.  My sister and I both told her if the worst you can do is fail and you’ve already accepted that, where’s the harm in trying?  Eventually, she applied to nursing school and now she’s an RN.

The point I’m trying to make is that you need to keep an open mind about whatever it is you are considering.  Sometimes, we surprise ourselves with what we can do! I recently started taking a weekly aerobics class.  This is a different class than my water aerobics because- yup! no pool!  It’s only a half hour but it feels like a lot more work and it also involves getting on the floor to do some stretches and exercises.  There are some wrestling mats that we use, and frankly I was more than a little concerned, since my knees are not the best.  I tried crawling under a desk a few weeks ago at the office and the pain on my arthritic knees was extreme and getting back up was seriously in doubt.  I was hoping I could do at least half of the workout and to my shock, I was able to do the whole thing, even on the mats.  I could get up and get down, if not smoothly, at least without too much trouble!  One of the instructors makes a point each time of telling me how good I am doing in the class.  I am by far the largest person in the class and probably the least mobile, but I show up each week, when some of the others don’t (there were four of us one week, including the two instructors!) He’s always glad to see me show up and keep trying, and even though I have no intentions of not showing up, it’s nice that he is so encouraging (besides keeping up with my activity, I also paid for the class and I don’t get a rebate for missed classes!)  The positive feedback makes me feel good, which is no doubt why he does it.  The class only runs for two months before the break for the holidays (it’s at the local community college) and I can tell already that I’m going to miss it when it’s over, and I will probably sign up for another one in the Spring semester.

That’s pretty good for someone who was doubtful she would be able to keep up with the half hour workout! That’s pretty much my point: if I had been too scared to take the class, I would never have known what I could do, and I would have stayed right where I was.  Six weeks into the class (again only half an hour each week), I can already see my progress.  The exercises are less of a struggle, I’m stronger and more flexible and I feel more confident each time I show up.  I’m also less tired and less sore the following day.  This is what I have gained by pushing myself just a little past my comfort zone.  I admit, it was a little uncomfortable thinking that I wouldn’t be able to get up off the floor and it would be embarrassing.  It was a little scary (rather more than a little actually) thinking that I’d have to sit out more than a few of the exercises because I wasn’t flexible enough or fit enough to do them.  I thought of The Simpsons episode again: “Can’t win, don’t try!” I thought about Belle, sitting in the kitchen doorway hissing at my dad, “the stranger in her house.”  Yeah, a 12 lb three-legged cat is sooo intimidating! But there she was, defending her territory regardless.  Ultimately, what was I scared of? Looking foolish in front of strangers because I dared to try improving myself?  I was reminded recently of a speech called “The Man in the Arena” [excerpted from “Citizenship in A Republic”] by Teddy Roosevelt (Elizabeth Benton read it on a recent Primal Potential podcast): “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena … who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…” It felt a lot like it did when I was in high school, running those laps: I didn’t know if I was going to make it or not, but if I was going to fail, it wasn’t going to be because I never tried!  Keep daring greatly, and you might surprise yourself by succeeding!

 

 

 

 

 

Identity Crisis: Losing Yourself in the Process & the Fear of Success

Obviously, I was desperate to lose weight.  I had been trying to do that for most of my adult life and had failed utterly and completely.  When I finally stumbled into the right process for me (Paleo living), I was beyond estatic!  I was so happy that I was FINALLY losing weight and it wasn’t coming back and I was not totally miserable in the process! I just wanted to tell everyone: this is working for me!! (LOL- it’s one of the reasons I started this blog!)

I have been at this nearly two years now (I count January 2015 as my ‘start date’) and I have lost about 165 lbs (164.4).  That’s about an average size adult human. I used to look at my total weight loss and tell myself “that’s a toddler” or “that’s a kid” and lately it was “that’s about a whole person.”  At first it was a little funny, thinking I was carrying those extra forty pounds around like someone would carry their child, and then the higher the number the more it was a little frightening thinking I had been carrying so much extra weight on my enitre body.  As it climbed higher into the 100’s, I would think about how my knees and my back and feet would hurt and I’d realize it was the same as carrying around another person with me 24/7.  I’ve heard pregnant women complain about how heavy the baby is and how awkward it can be to move around, and the average woman gains only 25-30 lbs when pregnant.  For someone who was not overweight before, it’s still a lot of weight and it’s mostly located in one awkward area of the body.  I was carrying so much more than that all over my body and it was not a temporary condition! Worse, I kept gaining weight. Before I finally lost weight, I was carrying the equivalent of two large men around all the time (I weighed 438 lbs and I’m 5’4″). I knew I needed to lose weight and that I was unhealthy, but at the same time, the discomfort from my weight gain had been slow and insidious.  I’ve heard it said that if you throw a frog in a pot of boiling water, it’ll jump right out, but if you put it in a pot of cold water and slowly increase the heat, the frog will stay there and die ( someone please save the frog! no cooking frogs please!).  I was the frog: I had been gaining at a relatively slow but steady rate and the discomfort slowly increased but like the frog, I was not paying a whole lot of attention. On one level, I knew this was killing me, but it wasn’t killing me so fast that I felt I needed to do something about it. It wasn’t until my health became so bad due to other factors that I was finally motivated to make changes that ultimately led to my losing weight.

Now I’m a little over the halfway mark to my goal weight (150 lbs). At some point, in the rather near future now, I’m going to have to talk to my doctor about getting some of my loose skin removed, although I would prefer to wait as long as possible.  The problem with loose skin isn’t so much that it’s unattractive as it can become a source of infection.  It folds up on itself and rubs in places where it’s not supposed to be and these wounds can easily become infected.  Mine is not that bad yet, but it’s getting there, especially on my legs.  Knowing me it will probably come down to which is the bigger pain in the butt: the loose skin or the surgery?  When the answer is the loose skin, I’ll probably call my doctor.  The bad part about that is that I have a high tolerance for irritation, so I’m hoping I don’t get an infection before I finally decide to go get cut up.

There have been a lot of physical changes these past two years.  The loose skin is only one change and maybe the most noticeable. My body is literally shrinking in on itself. Parts of me are sagging that never did before and it’s a little uncomfortable at times having to deal with that.  I swim a couple days a week, so I am used to seeing myself in the gym mirror in my swimsuit looking like a deflated balloon (even more so since I’ve gone to a smaller two piece). I feel my bones more prominently and there’s a lot less pain in my back, knees and feet. Moving is a lot easier and so is sleeping.  My clothes are hanging on me now and even my shoes fit better. Shoes I could barely fit in two years ago now fit well with a little extra room to tighten them up. My younger and smaller sister has started giving me her old clothes (she’s also lost weight) and I was rather shocked when I got dressed this morning and I put on a shirt that I didn’t think would fit, but it fit just fine.  I really didn’t think I’d lost that much weight.

That statement seems to be at the crux of my current mindset. I am in denial regarding how much weight I’ve lost and how much smaller I seem to be getting.  At first, it was kind of fun thinking I actually need to buy smaller clothes.  I don’t ever recall a time in my life when I was complaining that all my clothes are too big and I need smaller sizes.  I have a couple of shirts that feel like I’m wrapped in a sail and the free t-shirt I got when I joined my gym (even though I got the bigger size) is now my nightshirt since it comes down so far on me.  I recently ordered new swimsuits online and a couple days after I submitted my order, I realized maybe I should have ordered a size down (I was getting in the pool- go figure).  The reason I needed new swimsuits is that the ones I have are starting to slip off in the water. (The new ones fit just fine!) Back in August, as I noticed how my pants flap and a lot of them now have safety pins and binder clips keeping them up, I figured I’d wait until October to buy some new ones.  Now October is here and I’m telling myself, as even the “good fitting pants” now need a binder clip, maybe I should wait until the new year.  I keep telling myself that I haven’t lost “that much weight” and these 3X pants still fit too well for me to think about moving down to 2X.  The size 24 shirts still fit nice enough that moving down to 22 is “probably not a good idea.”  That worked until this morning when the shirt I put on is one of my sister’s 2x hand-me-downs and it fits better than my old sail-size 24s.

The physical changes and the denial about the overall weight loss are only one part of the problem.  I’m pretty used to the saggy skin and not too concerned about it, and while the baggy clothes are becoming more of a problem (buying new clothes has always been so depressing!) The bigger ‘problem’ is that I’m changing in ways I never thought about and while you wouldn’t think it would be something that upsets me, it really does bother me more than a little.  Whenever I notice it, there is always a feeling of disquiet in me, because it feels like I am losing who I am.

Fear of Success

And I think that is exactly what is happening: the person I used to be, the person I am familiar with, is no longer entirely there.  There has always been a lot of attention given the fear of failure and how to get over that, but not so much to fear of success.  Some people have never heard of it and automatically dismiss it as one of those psycho-babble ideas: “Really?? You’re afraid of succeeding?? Of winning?? Of completing what you set out to do??”  Ask any athlete who has won Wimbledon for example: how much pressure is there to win next year, and the year after?  Ask Tiger Woods after he won the Masters: any pressure there, Tiger?? Once you do what you set out to do, there is enormous pressure to keep winning.  You don’t just “win and leave”: you are expected to keep performing at the same level! A band puts out a fabulous album: automatically, critics put out the idea that the next one might not be as good.  An actor wins the Oscar: the next film is automatically compared to the “Oscar-winning performance.”  While everyone is familiar with the price of failure, there is a hidden cost to winning as well.

With weight loss, it’s pretty straightforward: “she lost the weight, yeah, but can she keep it off?” Anyone who has lost weight knows the mantras: “don’t gain. don’t eat. don’t gain. don’t eat.”  It’s usually followed by the dreaded daily self-interrogation: “are my pants getting tight? why doesn’t my bra/ shirt/ socks fit as loose as they used to? does my face look fat?!” When it comes to weight loss & keeping it off, most battle-scarred veterans are used to the war never ending; we don’t “win”- we just keep fighting.  People tell us the greater the battle, the greater the glory, and they leave off the part about defending that win.  I remember how devastating it felt when I gained back the 40 lbs I had lost on NutriSystem, and then I gained more back as well.  (Haven’t we all been there?)  It’s salt in the wound honestly.  It’s like the weight is dancing on your grave: “yeah, you thought you’d ditched me but now I’m back and I’m bigger and stronger than ever!! bwahahaha!”

It’s not enough to succeed in losing weight and getting fitter; you have to maintain that fitness.  This is where so many people just pack it in and go home, usually because the changes they made to lose the weight were not permanent lifestyle changes.  They monitored what they ate long enough and consistently enough to lose X amount of pounds, but once it’s gone, they go back to the way they ate before which led to the gain of X amount of pounds. This is the “revolving door dieting mentality” that keeps the weight loss industry flourishing. For anyone to keep winning the “weight loss war,” we must make permanent life style changes: we keep making healthy food choices; we stay active; going to the gym and/ or walking daily are now normal habits and eating unhealthy foods are the exception rather than the rule.  It’s not so much that our habits need to change as much as we ourselves need to change.

This is where I find myself: I am changing into someone else and that is causing a little bit of an identity crisis (‘little bit’- eye roll!!)  I find I am experiencing some anxiety when I find myself not falling into my regular old habits.  This is actually a good thing because my regular old habits were the habits that led to my being 438 lbs.  I know what the old me would have done (bought at least two pieces of Safeway carrot cake!) and the new ‘transitional’ me would have looked at the cake, wanted it and walked away from it, but this new healthier me is not even noticing the carrot cake and walks right by without even looking (she’s looking at the eggs of all things!), and when I find myself doing things like not paying attention to things that formerly were important (either as ‘bad for me treats’ or ‘things to be resisted’), I feel a little bit of anxiety, because I don’t know who this person is, and worse yet, I don’t know what her pitfalls are.  The old me was pretty easy: carrot cake, pasta, bagels, cookies and yeah, yogurt, cheese and anything with cream sauce.  The me I thought I was (the transitional me) is a little harder but still a known quantity: bacon, broccoli, salads, chicken and Epic bars.  This new person? So far I know she’s not into carrot cake, apple fritters, chips and cheese toast.  Beyond that, she’s still pretty nebulous.  I get to find out what her strengths and weaknesses are.  I’m not even really sure what she looks like, but apparently, she’s thinner than I am and getting thinner.

I am also having anxiety when I find I’ve lost weight.  (What the hell is THAT all about?!?) I have to admit, this would make me laugh if it didn’t cause so much disquiet in me.  I am actually stressing about LOSING weight and  NOT having a problem resisting the carrot cake kryptonite!! I used to wish for problems like these, so now- wish granted! Frankly, it’s all part of the ongoing transition to someone healthier, fitter and hopefully, happier than the person I used to be.  Yes, there is anxiety involved now with not only learning the new healthier habits but maintaining them and the weight loss as well as finding new strengths and probably the weaknesses as well.  I am becoming someone new and it’s a little hard letting go of the person I used to be.  For so long, she was the devil I knew, even though she was 370+ lbs for more than ten years, wearing size 4x pants and size 24/26 shirts, and could hardly walk from one end of the mall to the other. When I looked in the mirror, I saw someone I recognized even if I didn’t like her very much.  For many months now, when I look in the mirror, I saw someone who surprised me and who still surprises me.  Honestly, I don’t handle surprises very well, but I’m getting used to them.  I suppose I’d better.  This new person looks like she’s making herself at home.