The Art of Loving Yourself

(TW for fatphobia and internalized hate)

 

I have a couple of special events coming up this summer and fall, and these days, that seems to send me into a flurry of self-evaluation and determination–once more–to lose that extra twenty pounds or so. Invariably, I decide on some program–be it keto, or Weight Watchers, or what have you, that I can manage for a few days before the reality of my chaotic life comes crashing down.

Between my recent birthday, shopping for a dress to wear to an awards banquet (in which I’m a finalist, so more pressure), and planning to go to the Romance Writer’s Association Conference for the first time at the end of this month, my drive to lose weight before X date is at an all-time high. Especially since I had a recent photo shoot, and the PT for my knee takes place in a room full of mirrors. Both left me depressed at the frumpy middle-aged woman I’ve become.

Growing up, I never had to worry about my weight. In fact, I was so underweight that I could pretty much eat whatever I wanted. My dad referred to me as “a bag of bones and a hank of hair”, which felt like a bit of a nasty gibe. It wasn’t until after he passed that I discovered these were the lyrics to an old song, and meant in affection. Though I didn’t have weight issues, I had self-esteem issues just the same. Wild masses of untamed hair rioted over my head like kudzu growing out of control. Coke-bottle thick lenses in heavy glasses since I was eight years old (and I could never successfully wear contacts). A mouth like a gargoyle with teeth jutting out in all directions. I ended up having eight teeth pulled to make room for them all, but this wasn’t done until I was an adult, so for years, I refused to smile and talked behind my hand.

But I never thought twice about my weight. I didn’t even know what cellulite looked like until I hit my forties.

I was a bright kid, too. I never had to study in high school, and graduated with honors only to discover college was a very different deal altogether. College came as a rude awakening for me when I discovered I could no longer coast my way to A’s based on a good memory and a thirst for reading. I was forced to develop good study habits in order to get my degree. But I didn’t gain the ‘freshman twenty’, nor did I have to change my eating habits. In fact, I never gained an ounce until I became my parents’ caretakers, all while working FT, and caring for my own family. All of the sudden, the increased stress and the decreased physical activity caused my weight to balloon up.  And like the high school honors student, I didn’t have the skill set to deal with the changes.

Not to mention, the information out there was often inaccurate, frequently depended on a level of exercise and deprivation no one can maintain, and completely discounted a society that demands we do more on less time. Yes, I know there are people who successfully manage busy, stressful lives while maintaining good food choices and healthy activity, but face it, many of us are forced to choose between taking care of ourselves and the other demands in our lives. And even though logic dictates you should put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others, that’s not what happens for most women. We’re running around seeing that everyone else in our lives gets their oxygen mask safely in place first before we pass out from lack of O2.

I grew up in a house with a mother who had some very odd ideas about food. She didn’t believe in seasoning, and our meals consisted of a very narrow list of ingredients. It turns out she had acne rosacea, which can be triggered by certain foods and spices. I’ve since developed it as well, which has forced me to eliminate several things from a diet that leaned toward picky in the first place.

I think changing your eating habits is one of the most difficult things anyone can do. Giving up caffeine felt as challenging as how I think giving up heroin or opioids would be–complete with the withdrawal symptoms and the sudden, intense cravings years after you’ve kicked the habit. On a hot summer day, I can walk past a vending machine and visualize putting coins in the unit, hearing the rumble and clunk of the drink hitting the bottom drawer, and picture myself opening an ice-cold Pepsi with condensation running down the side of the can. I can still taste that first sip, even though I haven’t had a Pepsi in over five years now. I have to remind myself caffeine will kill me in order to prevent me from snagging a can. I’m fully convinced one day we’ll discover the soda companies have manipulated the caffeine to make them more addictive, much like the cigarette companies did.

I’ve always thought of myself as a strong person, but recently a torn meniscus has greatly curtailed my ability to do the things I used to do. I feel fragile. Useless. Old.

Worse, I’m pissed with my body for letting me down. I never used to have to think about it. I took it for granted. And now I can’t anymore. I’ve absolutely hated my body for the last five or so years now, and let me tell you, no one should have to live with that toxic energy aimed at them all the time. Not to mention all that hate has been focused on a body still giving me nearly everything I ask of it. I’m embarrassed that I’ve been so ungrateful for so long.

I’m embarrassed that I’ve been just as demanding, unforgiving, and toxic as some of my former bosses and family members when my body has done its best no matter what. I realize that just being able to say I never gave a thought to my weight or health before means I started at a privileged position at the beginning of the race. I’m ashamed I’ve been so angry at so little for so long.

I’ve tried positive affirmations in the past, but always, with each attempt, a snarky inner voice sneered at the things I told myself because I knew they weren’t true. My husband frequently calls me “beautiful” and “gorgeous” and I roll my eyes at him, or snap, “I don’t feel beautiful.”

But all that’s changed now.

A couple of revelations came one by one over the last few weeks, which led to my little epiphany.

  1. I can look at other people who have much higher BMIs than I do, and think how beautiful they are, or how great that cute outfit looks on them. Why can’t I do that with myself? Why am I so unforgiving and unkind to myself?
  2. I wouldn’t treat anyone or anything I care about with the level of animosity I routinely aim at myself. I’d intervene if I saw someone being treated the way I treat myself each and every day. I would not tolerate this level of abuse from anyone I knew, either. It must stop.
  3. The demand for perfection has never helped me achieve any of my goals. I’ve been punishing myself for not being “enough” my entire life and it hasn’t made my life better, either. If anything, it’s held me back. This applies to so much more than meeting society’s rigid (and impossible) standards of beauty. The desire for perfection in everything has hamstrung me from attempting so many things in life. It’s sucked the joy out of the things I have accomplished. Last summer I hiked up into the Cascade Canyon in the Grand Tetons. The scenery was breath-taking. It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip for me. But what I remember most about that day was the photo someone took of me and my husband with the majestic mountains as a backdrop. I was wearing a blue top and shorts and I recall thinking when I saw the photo that I looked like a Giant Blueberry. It came close to spoiling not only the day but the entire trip for me. And yet that body that I disrespect so much carried me up that canyon trail. You’d think I’d give it a little credit for that.
  4. It’s hard for me to view a meal that is packed with veggies, nuts, cheese, and an egg as “bad” or “wrong” because it’s the wrong point count or contains too much fat, or it’s not what my caveman ancestors would have eaten. You should see what I usually eat for lunch! A snack pack such as I’ve described above beats the hell out of a hot dog and a packet of chips. With all my dietary restrictions, I’m going to have to find my own path to a healthier diet. And that’s okay. I might not lose 20 pounds in 2 weeks. I might not lose any weight at all. But if I’m healthier for cutting back on the sugar and carbs, or feel better because I’m not eating the foods that disagree with me or trigger reactions, that’s good enough.
  5. This thread on Courtney Milan’s Twitter account. It made me rethink the whole sneering-as-I-attempt-affirmations thing. Go read it, and take it to heart. So much truth there, including the myth of being ‘lazy’ and the risk of over-exercising, and how changes don’t always lead to weight loss but they lead to better mental health, and that is the best reason for making them. 

So while I’m still stressed about what I’m going to wear to the RWA conference, I’m not going to stress about losing ‘enough weight’ before I go shopping. There isn’t time anyway, and in the end, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is I go and have a great time, hopefully making some new friends and meeting in person friends I know online.

I’ve started thanking my body for giving me its best despite my neglect and abuse, and promising to do better by it.

And this morning, when my husband said, “Hey, Gorgeous”, instead of rolling my eyes, I gave him a hug and said,”Thank you.”

I think I’m finally understanding it when people say one of the great things about getting older is letting go of so many negative thoughts and feelings you believed to be true in the past. It’s very liberating.

 

Wake Up Call No. 457

It’s no secret that I’ve had a staggering amount of loss in the past year. I’ve alluded to it before. If I gave all these losses and traumas to a single character in one of my stories, readers would howl at the unbelievable plot.

Loss of communities and my own sense of identity as I re-brand myself as an author in a new genre with a new pen name. Death of multiple pets and family members. Earlier this week, my brother who’d been battling cancer for some time, lost his fight. Next week, I will be attending my third funeral in a year.

The last conversation I had with him was a good one. He spoke of his plans for his celebration of life service, and visiting with old friends who’d made special trips to see him one more time. How the love of his life was also his best friend, and how he was glad he hadn’t waited to travel and do the things most people do once they retire. I was glad he’d reached a point of peace and acceptance in his world full of pain, but I was struck by one statement in particular.

“I have no regrets.”

I honestly couldn’t say the same. It’s not that I’ve made terrible decisions in my life, but the choices I’ve made have locked me into certain pathways from which I can’t escape. Most of those decisions were based on following a calling and choosing a way of life I thought best suited to my personality, but the reality of it is I’m fried from work commitments. I spend the day putting out other people’s metaphorical fires, and then come home drained and empty, with nothing left to give to my loved ones or to myself personally.

I’ve had some health scares too. I’ve been to the ER twice in the last year, both of which should have served as wake up calls to clean up my diet, to slow down, to take more walks with the dogs, to shut off social media and shut out my fears for my country and the rest of the world. To take a deep breath and calm down.

But the truth is, that’s easier said than done when you’re living off your adrenal glands. When work is so stressful you’ve developed a twitch under your left eye, it’s hard to settle for a salad for lunch when there’s a bowl of Easter candy sitting in the employee lounge. It’s easier to throw the ball in the yard for the puppy for a half hour in the evenings after work than it is to take the dogs for a walk. Get up earlier and exercise? I can barely drag myself out of bed as it is. I wish all mirrors could be banned as I look at myself and note every line, every wrinkle, every roll, and an increasingly visible scalp. An old woman looks back at me, and I don’t recognize her. I am utterly exhausted. I don’t know how to squeeze more out of my day.

And I do have regrets. I hate that I wake up every morning playing a negative soundtrack in my head about how much I hate my job, I hate the way I look, I hate the way I feel, I hate the clutter in my house, I hate the person I’ve become.

Again and again over the last ten years, I’ve said I need to make changes. And each time, I start out meaning to do so, only to let the stresses and demands of my daily life suck me back into grabbing processed food on the run, living off soda and cheese & crackers, starting exercise programs I never complete, and continuing to feel crappy and exhausted. I think for most middle-aged women, the combination of stress plus changing hormones sets us up for all kinds of ‘failure’. We simply can’t stop being the workhorse of the family to take care of ourselves, but we have less reserves than we had when we were twenty.

But we only get so many wake up calls. I’m lucky I’ve had as many as I’ve had, to be honest. I’m extremely fortunate that good genes have left me relatively healthy despite the abuse my body takes at my hands on a daily basis. Given the junk food I eat, it’s a bloody miracle I’m only 20-25 pounds overweight and not more. My heart is healthy, and I’m not pre-diabetic. I still have my gallbladder. While not an athlete, I go hiking and horseback riding. My biggest issues are pain-related, stemming from a lifetime of refusing to respect my body and joints that are severely annoyed with me. There is also the ever-increasing list of foods I can no longer eat because of my skin condition, or digestive issues, or food sensitivities. I’m running out of time to coast on my genes. I have caught a glimpse of my future and it’s a scary place–unless I make changes now.

There are reasons I’m not a fan of some of the more popular and successful diet systems. I have friends who’ve lost tremendous amounts of weight through Weight Watchers, etc. But most of these systems require a degree of tracking that is very triggering for me, coming as I am from a household of people with eating disorders. I’d never really considered myself as having an ED, but I suspect now my extreme pickiness is a form of it. Likewise, only a few days of logging food intake on WW or My Fitness Pal has me running in the opposite direction.

I also have a slew of minor but frustrating issues relating to food: I have a skin condition called acne rosacea that is that is triggered by certain foods. I’ve developed a caffeine sensitivity that has resulted in my having to give up caffeine entirely. I struggle with heartburn and digestive issues. So following a specific diet plan is often an automatic fail for me. I just can’t do it. I have to tailor my meals around what I can eat.

But I think I need some accountability, which is why I will be posting about my journey here. No pictures–I’m neither that brave nor that vain. But I will be logging what I’m doing as a whole on my path toward health–mental, physical, emotional. The Wake Up Call for a Middle-Aged Woman, so to speak. The focus here isn’t going to be on weight loss, though that would be a nice bonus if it occurred. It’s going go be about feeling better: about myself, about my life, about my future.

Because I don’t want to have any more regrets than I already do.