Saturday, September 06, 2008

hard post to write.

Gah, this is very long. And very personal. But I'm not going to cut it; you can skim or skip if you want, this is partly therapy for myself.

This is kind of a hard post to write. This is very much "my stuff" and it may come across as kind of whiny. And some people who haven't "been there" might not totally understand. But this is something that has been percolating in my head for a while, and came to the surface last week, because of an incident that happened while I was working out:

I need to work on being nicer to myself. I actually have, at times, a kind of dysfunctional relationship with myself (if that's even possible). Like the absent parent who buys elaborate toys for their child, when what the child really wants is love and attention, I will buy myself books and craft supplies and such...and then drive myself so hard at work that by Friday afternoon I'm kind of glassy-eyed at my desk, but still berating myself to do more.

But even more than that: I also need to work on being nicer to myself re: the exercise/BMI thing. I tend to get VERY paranoid about my weight...moreso now because of the rumored "Wellness Initiative." One day last week I was actually screaming at myself (well, in my head; I didn't have enough breath to actually DO it) while I was working out because I felt like I wasn't moving fast enough. I believe I used the phrase "fat slug." And "Fat slob" and "ugly" and "repulsive" and all the horrible words that a person shouldn't use on anyone.

And OK, because I'm generally a let-it-all-hang-out type here: I really do have problems with this. I think part of it is all the societal stuff. I quit reading the fashion mags more than 10 years ago because I came to recognize that looking at models who possessed a genetic legacy for body-size very different from my own, and that these models were being presented as the IDEAL, was not good for my psyche.

But what is almost worse these days are all the news scare-stories. You know the ones: "OH NOES if you are 15 pounds over your ideal weight you are going to die SO soon!"

And because I'm fundamentally a rule follower - a person who wants to please the Powers That Be even at times when it's in contradiction with what I see as reality - I get really wrought up about this. Because, well, I'm considerably more than 15 pounds over the "ideal" weight (whether you look at the BMI charts or the old actuarial tables). And yeah, yeah, I know: I have a big frame. I have shoulders like the linebackers of 30 years ago. I have a large rib cage. (I know because I can feel it.) And I'm fairly muscular thanks to 15 years of working out nearly daily on a cross-country ski exerciser.

But that doesn't matter sometimes with the drumbeat of "OH NOES OBESITY" scare stories. It's kind of's kind of like "IT," for those of you who've read "A Wrinkle in Time." It's always there, kind of under the surface, kind of an undercurrent. It kind of worms its way into my mind and takes up residence there whether I want it or not. And you have to actively work to resist it, sometimes with every fiber of your being.

(And before someone drops a comment recommending Weight Watchers or TOPS or one of the other diet plans: been there, done that. I did the "write everything down that you eat" plan. I did the "have no food other than 100% healthful food in the house" bit. And as for the "oh, just give up one sugared pop a day" or "just don't eat at fast food joints - I drink NO pop. If I ever eat fast food it's as a rare treat (less than once a month) because the waffle fries at Chick-fil-a? Are really kind of good. But it's a rare treat. My diet is actually pretty healthy. True, I may like sweets a bit more than is good for me but I do try to limit my intake. And I have philosophical objections to never eating a cookie or even bread again in the name of MAYBE getting down to a size 10 or something).

But anyway. The whole insidious message - which seems to imply that I am only a few ticks away from needing one of those carts to get around at the wal-mart, that suggests I am on the brink of Type II's hard for me to avoid it.

(And the thing that makes me wonder: if I, as an adult and fairly secure woman, and one of - if I do say so myself - higher than average intelligence - can get bamboozled into believing she's defective because of media hype, what of the prepubescent girls? I hope they really don't hear those "if you are 10 pounds over this number, your chances of dying from some horrible disease go up x percent...oh, and no man will ever love you either" stories)

But the thing is: the media hype and my objective reality don't seem to mesh.

If I told you what I weight - and I'm not gonna, I can't do that just yet, I'm not comfortable - a lot of people might seriously think (because women tend to lowball their weights so much in this culture) that I WOULD be riding one of those carts around in the wal-mart, and I would have to be shopping at a "special" store ("Mr. Paul's, the Tentmaker"?)

But the objective truth of my life? I have to restrain myself to keep from elbowing past people at the wal-mart because I walk faster - even at a somewhat relaxed pace - than 80% of the people around me. (Even in class - even on field trips, I'm the first one into the forest or to the middle of the prairie. Even though the students are 20 years younger than I am and mostly considerably slimmer).

And as for clothing? Size 14 in some things, 16 in others. Not that huge, at least not by "average American" standards. I could take a 12 in some things if I were in to the tight look, but I'm not. (Though I have heard of fashion designers reacting to being asked to design clothing for over-size-12 women as if you had asked them to go and roll naked in dog feces.)

And the media hype would suggest that I'm weak and flabby and can't do much.

And in my reality? I regularly lift 40 pound bags of soil, sand, whatever. I've carried buckets of soil that probably weighed 50 pounds (and the main problem with that for me was that the handle cut into my hand). I can get down on my hands and knees to fix stuff. (Last night I had to build a "critter excluder" out of hardware cloth - something pushed out and broke the old cover I had up over the crawl space, and raccoons or something were getting under my house. So I waited until the sounds of whatever critter was under there indicated it had left, and went out, crawled in behind my pecan tree, in the tiny space next to my air conditioning unit, and cut a piece of hardware cloth with tinsnips to the right size, and then used my handy staple gun to staple it on (thank goodness the person who built this place framed out the crawlspace with wood around the concrete of the foundation so I had something to staple into). (And yeah, I was kind of "Sarah Palin would be proud of me!" when I was done. Well, she probably would have been prouder had I SHOT the critter, but it's illegal to fire guns within the city limits...)

And you know? I kind of want to go to the people doing all the obesity scare stories and go "Look at me. I'm fat. And I did this thing. I'm not as disabled as you seem to think I am."

But...and it's hard for me to explain this to people who haven't been fat...there's a sort of cognitive dissonance that comes. On the one hand, there are ALL these stories in the media that induce a certain paranoia...stories that (let's be honest) make me feel like I am DEFECTIVE because of my size, and DEFECTIVE because I don't seem to want to do any of the "simple" things that it apparently takes to lose weight. (Again, the whole cutting-out-pop thing. When people suggest that it infuriates me. The beverages I consume in a day: two glasses of skim milk. One six ounce glass of orange juice. A bunch of water. Perhaps a cup of hot tea, usually without milk or sugar. Which of those should I cut, and how should I replace the nutrients that comes from it?)

I don't like feeling defective.

Because, part of it is: it contradicts my objective experience. Yes, I am fat. But I have also walked 10 miles in a day without negative effects the next day. Or spent several hours doing strenuous yardwork. Or carried lots of heavy items. I don't get out of breath easily (at least not when the relative humidity is below 90%, and that's an asthma thing, not a fat thing). I get less worn out working in the field than students 20 years my junior.

And another contradiction: we all hear "fat people die soon." My grandmother (who died about 20 years ago at 92) and my aunt (who passed recently at 90) were both fat like me. Fat in the same way as I am, I mean. And they made it to pretty ripe old ages. And my grandma was the one who had her grandkids getting after her for going up to fix her porch roof when she was in her late 70s. (My aunt was as active as she could be but had had both legs broken in a car accident when she was younger, and one had been badly set.) So I come from a line of fat, long-lived women. Fat, long-lived women who pretty much ate what they wanted. Who would have considered the "Cabbage Soup" diet to be something you ate only if you were too poor to have anything else. And given what the media say, fat and long-lived aren't supposed to be things that go together.

The other thing is the whole "U R DEFECTIVE" meme so contradicts what I have been taught at my church. A very simplistic version? There used to be a sign up in the Youth Group room that said: "I know I must be OK because God doesn't make junk."

There is a reason I am the size I am, and I do not think it is purely because my mother let me occasionally eat a Twinkie when I was young.

The other thing is that a lot of the whole "fat people are defective" idea is aesthetic - that some people don't like looking at bigger bodies, and so they think that shaming, and teasing, and belittling is the way to either get those bigger bodies to get smaller, or to stay out of their viewspace.

And that's probably where my drill-sergeant-like screaming at myself the other day came from. (Seriously, I was going as hard as I could. It was one of our typical mornings - high humidity - and I was pushing hard at 5.5 miles per hour. But I was angry with myself because I couldn't break 6.) And yelling at myself isn't going to make me get smaller. I did complete the workout, but I spent the rest of the day feeling crummy and low. And I think it's because I started out the day by insulting myself. And I ought not to do that. (I also seem to have pulled a shoulder muscle by pushing too hard. It's not bad enough to scale back on working out but I have been having to ice it a little.)

Part of it is I think our definition of beauty is narrower than it perhaps once was. And women are 'told' that they should conform to that definition however they can...whether by surgery or extreme dieting or makeup or whatever.

Oh, here's a little something:

This is sort of an unrelated thing (but really isn't). I cried the first couple times I watched that. Why? Because there are a number of women on there who look a little bit like me. Look much more like me than the women gracing the covers of magazines these days. I don't know if it's the rounder faces or what...but I can look at Botticelli's Venus and almost see a sister there.

For years, back when I was reading the fashion mags, there were times when I literally felt like I was a different species from the women modeling in them. Because I look so different from the typical model, at least the late 80s "Glamazon" and the early 90s "Waif Chic". And it does lead to a certain...I don't know, dissatisfaction. Or sadness. Or something. Maybe women with stronger self-esteem look at the models and snort and go, "Shyeah, they're freaks" but I (when I was in my 20s and still pretty insecure) looked at them and felt like the freak myself.

Which is why I love and cherish that little YouTube bit I've posted...a lot of the women, particularly the ones earlier on in the clip (from the beginning of the 500 year span) look a lot more like me...I feel like I belong to the same species as them...and then I realize that at some point in time, someone considered those women to be beautiful and worthy of painting...and it kind of makes me take a deeper breath and pull my shoulders back.

So I don't know. I probably am giving the people who speak disparagingly of women who aren't coat-hanger slim too much space in my head. And I'm probably reading too much into badly-reported medical studies where the "increased risk" that is so bruited is actually something like 2%.

But it's such a hard thing not to fall for! Even someone like me, and I'm pretty strong and I'm pretty good at calling B.S. on other things when I sense something is B.S....I can't quite break through on this. I get hung up. I don't know why. But I do want to be nicer to myself. I do not want to go through life looking at my thighs and going "why are you so big? I hate you" or looking at my face and wondering why my genetic combination makes me more of a pudding-face than Kate Moss or Kate Winslet or whoever the hell is currently popular.

I want to love my outside as much as I love my inside. But it's hard. Part of it is that our culture makes it hard, and part of it is that I have made it hard on myself.


red fish said...

Thanks for that heart-felt post. So many of us women struggle with the same body image issues, which is crazy. We are smart women who can roll our eyes and scoff at so much that society tells us should be important but isn't, but somehow with the body image issue, it is different. We KNOW that God makes us beautiful the way we are, but getting that from our head to our heart is so hard. I'm with you sister.

I'm blessed to not be overweight. I'm the same height, weight, dress size and bra size as Marilyn Monroe. My head and my friends and my husband say I look fine. Still, I struggle with the same self-talk that you do. The desktop on my computer was Marilyn Monroe for a long time to remind me that there is nothing wrong with my body. It’s our society that is so wrong. Looking at the women in art is a great perspective. Thanks for the You Tube. Where did we go wrong between Marilyn and waif chick? Maybe you need to put an old classic work of art on your desktop to remind you that you are beautiful. (You are!)

I realized one day that nearly all of my close friends are overweight. It hadn't occurred to me until one day when I was praying for a friend about to have bariatric surgery. I prayed she wouldn't have the complications that another of my friends had with her bariatric surgery. The funny thing is, I don't think of my friends as fat. It's not that I don't see them for who they are, but I only think about it to the extent that they do. If they share their struggles with their weight, or their diets, I encourage them and support them. If a friend doesn’t mention her weight, I don’t think about it. My friend Wendi says that is extremely rare, but I wonder. I wonder if we are all so caught up in destructive self-talk thinking that we are horrible, while everyone else thinks we are fine, that is only they who are horrible, and terrible and FAT.

I’ve seen pictures of you on Ravelry to admire your knitting projects, and never thought of you as overweight. My first reaction to this blogpost was jealousy. I wish I had the discipline to exercise. I wish I had your strength and endurance. Why can’t we be as generous to ourselves as we are to others?

I’ve had three longstanding prejudices that I have to fight against: Muslim men, French men, and pretty, thin women who dress well. I didn’t realize the last one until one day I wondered why the current pastor’s wife is the first pastor’s wife in my adult life I am not friends with. I haven’t reached out to her at all. I usually have a soft spot for pastor’s wives, but this one intimidated me. I realized that it was because she was thin and dressed fashionably. I think it stems back to junior high. The thin girls who dressed fashionably (Ralph Lauren polos with the collars turned up) were the ones that were mean to me. Someone once said that our self-image is developed in junior high. How scary is that?

Sorry to commandeer your comments. You struck a nerve, and you are definitely not alone.


Maggie May said...

Red Fish is are not alone, Ricki. I wish I had some words of wisdom for you...for all of us, but all I can offer is comfort that other people out there share your struggle.

I stuggle with the same issues, and frankly, you are in much better shape than I.

I am lucky in that I don't seem to let it bother me too often. Once in awhile, the insecurity cannot help but rear its ugly head, and the health fears, well they are the only things that really get into my head. I don't know what to do to fix the problem, however. I wish I had some answers.

Anyway, thanks fopr sharing such a personal struggle. It makes me sad to think of you beating yourself up. You have so many gifts...intelligence, humor, kindness, compassion. I wish we could make these things be "enough." They should be, after all.

Kate P said...

I think you hit on it exactly right. Lest you think you are complaining or whining--not at all! And you are not alone. I don't know how we ended up programmed to compare ourselves, and it is especially hard for me when I have a younger sister who has never struggled with her weight (or at least was spurred to keep herself thin because she saw my failures most of my life). I'm short, not a size two, and (sorry in advance to those who might be offended) not blond! But I'm just about the healthiest, best shape I've ever been in, and I can do awesome things in yoga class. It took a long time for me to see myself the way other people see me. It still surprises me when people say I "look nice today," or when there just might be a guy checking me out when I'm out running errands.

There used to be a magazine published in the late '90s called MODE that featured "plus-sized" fashion, models, etc. I liked it because (a) I was heavy at the time, (b) it wasn't telling readers what was wrong with them, and (c) the fashion and makeup artistry was amazing--for any magazine at the time. One time I brought it into the office where I was working, to show a co-worker, and one of the attorneys I worked for saw the model on the cover and he said, "Wow!" He was about average height/weight, but his wife was tall (and expecting a baby at the time, I think). That meant a lot--it meant I wasn't crazy. Those women in the magazine *were* beautiful. And there are people who can see it.

So I agree with you about treating yourself with kindness, and with Red fish about positive self-talk. Wear your favorite outfits. Decide you are worth getting that great outfit tailored so you can wear what you like, all the time. Do healthy stuff, but enjoy life, too. And if anybody knows the secret to ending the "compare-a-thon," let me know!