I drag the bathroom scale into the kitchen. No way am I going to fit if I try to stand on it where it normally waits, tucked in a corner. I tap it with my boot. I’m impatient to step on and see how high the number is today. I gasp with incredulity. One hundred and eighty-one pounds! I’ve never had a weigh-in this high in my entire life! I call out to my husband; I have to tell him right away. This is what it’s like to feel proud and excited about a high weigh-in.
I may have cheated a little. It’s possible that I have chosen to weigh myself at the end of the day, after a large dinner, fully dressed, and wearing my new mountaineering bots. Oh, and maybe my fully packed expedition backpack.
Once upon a time, I was obese and chronically ill. The idea that I might one day look forward to climbing a mountainside while carrying forty or fifty pounds of equipment would have been more than a cruel joke; it would have been inconceivable.
Now I’m actually a little disappointed to weigh less than I thought I would. I want to show off my Herculean strength with impressive numbers indicating how heavy a pack I can carry. Since I’m traveling with my husband instead of my various backpacking friends, he insists on carrying the tent, the mess kit, the stove, and the first aid kit. Just because he’s twice my size he thinks he should hog all the cool stuff.
Once upon a time, I used to carry a thirty-five pound backpack everywhere I went. It was me. It was myself I had to carry. Every step I took, every stair I climbed, every minute of the day, I had to do it under the strain of this extra weight.
In fact, due to my body composition, what I had was probably at least fifty pounds of fat, some of which made way for at least fifteen pounds of muscle.
I’m strong now and I love it. I can put on my pack, pick up my husband’s with one arm, and walk across camp with ninety pounds of gear. My knees don’t even hurt.
We’re getting older now, as is everyone, and we like it when we see other backpackers a generation older than us. They’re our role models. We realize anew on every trip that if we want to continue to do this into our eighties or better, we can’t quit. We can’t ever quit.
When I’m thirty-five or forty or fifty pounds overweight these days, it’s my luggage. It’s a giant black canvas duffel bag filled with a backpack, two-man tent, sleeping bag, air mattress, pillow, space blanket, four changes of clothes, two sets of thermal underwear, three jackets, solar charger, gloves, hat, scarf, towel, pocket knife, head lamp, lantern, stove, mess kit, water filter, trekking poles, and even a folding chair. In other words, cool stuff I chose carefully, stuff I wouldn’t want to leave behind. That’s the difference. I got fat by accident and I didn’t enjoy it. My metaphorical backpack is one I felt stuck with. My actual backpack I can take off or put on whenever I want.
I decided to start running again. What 'again' means is that I had to quit 2.5 years ago due to an ankle injury. It took approximately a million years longer than I thought it would to wear an ankle brace, rest it, go to physical therapy, ice it for 20 minutes at a time, eat buckets of anti-inflammatories, work with a personal trainer, and finally discover the magic of shiatsu massage. Other stupid things happened, from ripping my knee open to losing a toenail on a hiking trip. Now I'm about to turn 42 and thinking more and more about how long I can refer to myself as a "marathon runner" if I'm not actively running. Sort of like whether I can think of myself as "young" anymore, or whether I could think of myself as "employed" if I don't have a job. What am I, really? What is the nature of the universe?? How old is the ocean???
Having left a bunch of skin in the sand, and probably a bunch of sand in my skin, I am now a part of the ocean and the ocean is a part of me. Think of that the next time you accidentally ingest seawater.
I had it all planned out. I bought an app called Tides that is sort of like Dark Sky's cousin who lives in Hawaii. It has all the stuff I've learned to obsess about as a distance runner: the projected high and low temperature, chance of rain, cloud cover, wind speed... and also the phase of the moon and tide charts. I never knew until I started playing with this app that the tides are different every single day. Not in a predictable manner like sunrise and sunset, either. WHAT SORCERY IS THIS? I cannot for the life of me understand how someone could predict the tides in advance. It is seriously messing with my mind. I asked my husband to explain it to me, which he could, since he is an aerospace engineer and he has a master's degree in this kind of thing. I still don't get it. The more I think about the moon hanging out there in space and moving water next to my apartment, the more it wigs me out. I try to ignore all of that and just treat it like a cool wristwatch I got in Diagon Alley. Low tide: 10:24 AM. All righty, then, sandy beach, I'm coming atcha.
I read about a dozen articles on running in sand while I was planning this whole escapade. That's how I roll. I was reading marathon books before I could finish a 5k. It turns out that the main trick is to run at low tide, because otherwise you wind up running on a slant, with one leg uphill and the other leg downhill. This is exhausting and not all that great on your knees or ankles. The books all say to run on the nice hard-packed wet sand, because the dry sand slides out from under your feet. Got it. Run on the wet sand where it's flat near the waterline. I can do this!
I knew to expect that running on sand is more tiring. That was sort of the point. My mission in life is to develop more grit, which, what could be more perfect for being gritty than something that is literally gritty? I set out to do demoralizing, dirty, and exhausting things now and then so that I'm better able to handle terrible things like putting my laundry away. I have an affinity for sand; when I was working on losing my weight, I would go on extended rants about how I would do WHATEVER IT TAKES! IT'S COMING OFF!!! I'LL WRAP MYSELF IN BARBED WIRE! I'LL EAT SAND IF I HAVE TO! Then I would go on the elliptical for 90 minutes and think about curly fries. I lost the last 25 pounds, and I didn't have to eat sand after all.
Given a choice, though, eating a little sand is probably easier than trying to slog through it while the tide is coming in.
The thing about tide charts is that they are probably intuitive to people who are familiar with the beach, but maybe not so much to people who are not. If there's one thing I'm good at, it's ignoring the obvious. I had this idea that low tide would mean the ocean went out for a lunch break, and I could have my run and be back home before it flipped the 'OPEN' sign over and unlocked the door. What I didn't realize, because I grew up 90 miles from the ocean and only visited for a few hours once a year, was that low tide is the minute the tide starts rushing back in.
I actually made it a few yards before the waves started lapping over my feet.
A few minutes later, it was coming in up to my knees. I started angling up toward the dry sand.
Running in sand with the ocean on top of it is nothing like hard-packed sand, which I figured would be a lot like pavement. It's not even like running on mud, which is quite nice until you start to skate sideways on it. Running underwater in sand is more like running in... pudding. Like, pudding with minced pistachios in it.
I started doing high-knees, which is great for the hip flexors, but quite tiring for a brief intro run. The sand kept slipping and sliding under me, and my feet would plunge in ankle-deep. I could feel the abrasive pull of the sand roughing up my skin. Then I came to the section where all the pebbles and shells wash up.
By the time I made it to the jetty, I was trashed. My heart was pounding and I had a stitch in my side. I checked my Watch.
POINT FOUR SEVEN? THAT'S NOT EVEN HALF A MILE!
I stood there and collected myself, by which I mean that I waited until my chest quit heaving and I was no longer thinking about flopping over like a sea lion. I watched a young woman on a surfboard, wearing nothing but a bikini and a long-sleeved t-shirt, and I thought, "If my butt looked like that for one single day, I could take over the world." I thought about how fit I would have to be to stand up on a surfboard. Then I watched a grinning man of my own age blunder out of the water in a swimming cap and a tiny Speedo patterned with the California flag, the sort of swimsuit a woman of his size would never dream of wearing in public. I thought randomly of body image and self-acceptance and strength and aging and bucket lists and fitness goals. I recalled that I had already run farther than I did on my very first day, aged 35, and how proud I would have been to have made it nearly half a mile without stopping.
I turned around and "ran" back to where I started. According to my stats, I ran about a 15-minute mile pace, which is a tiny bit faster than my walking pace. Ahem. I also burned... 89 calories. So much for that protein bar I ate to fuel my run, coming in at 270 calories. Another way to put this is that my energy needs were completely covered by my morning oatmeal, and that if I were making an attempt at weight loss, I would have been better off skipping both the run and the glorified candy bar. Fortunately, my goals are simply to rebuild my fitness level and to avoid gaining back the 35 pounds it took me so much effort to lose. These are things I know how to do.
I'll just wear socks and shoes and stay on the pavement. Running on the beach is a beautiful fantasy I can use to threaten myself if I ever have a lazy day. Better hit that sidewalk or you're running on sand tomorrow!
Glory days, they'll pass you by. My husband and I are middle-aged empty nesters now. He used to play football. Like the majority of former football players, he is not in the physical condition of a professional athlete, and neither are any of the other guys from his team. Even though my husband hasn't played football in many years, he still identifies as A Football Player in some ways, and A Hockey Player as well. I haven't ridden a bicycle so much as one wheel length in several years, yet I still identify as A Bicycle Commuter. It gets into you. The only trouble is when the image no longer matches the reality. The biggest pitfall of the athletic identity is when it masks the truth, convincing us that we still have something even as it is slipping away.
I ran a marathon. I ran a marathon in October 2014, which you probably already know, because I talk about it all the time. It was a defining moment in my life. Since then, I have barely run a cumulative four miles, although you'd never know it to hear me talk. I still plan to run "fifty for fifty," completing a fifty-mile ultra-marathon for my fiftieth birthday. That birthday is getting closer every day. I don't have a training plan. Right now, my plan looks like it will work out about as well as my 1997 plan to fit in my grandmother's wedding dress for my first wedding. I decided I would fit in the dress and made no further plans. Result: hire tailor to add five inches of panels to expand waistline of gown. I could very well have a waistline five inches wider by my fiftieth birthday. Perhaps much wider still. These things "happen" when there is no plan to avoid them.
Attempts at athletic prowess are worth it, if for no other reason than their ability to humble us and put our fragile egos in place. Learning the limitations of the body and enduring pain to expand those limits is an excellent spiritual battleground. Lo, we are but mortal. Almost any athletic discipline can burn the arrogance out of a person if it is strenuous enough. (An exception might be posing strenuously in front of a mirror). If you have ever worked a muscle to the point of failure, you know what I mean. You say, "Leg, I command thee, move forward." Leg replies, "Nuh-uh." You say, "Attend me now, lowly limb, move ye thence!" Leg says, "I ain't doing it." You realize that if you are going to step over this shower threshold, you are physically going to have to grasp your own thigh and lift your foot the extra inch needed. Experiencing muscle mutiny is a little taste of how things could be if we just start to slack off and quit trying. Use it or lose it.
What I've learned is that I'm only as good as the workout I've done within the last 24 hours. Not tomorrow's workout or last week's workout, and certainly not the workout I did three years ago. I'm guaranteed to think of myself as weighing my lowest weight (before breakfast, stark naked), eating my healthiest day of food choices ever, and having the most strength, speed, and visible muscle definition I ever had. I'm also likely to think of myself as having the best grasp of punctuation and the best potato salad recipe, although that last thought is simply objective fact. It's testable. It's testable in the same exact way that my strength, speed, agility, and body composition are testable. What I'm probably going to find when I test them will be hard for my conscious mind and my poor little ego to accept.
I tried to do a pull-up the other day in the gym. I compromised by doing lat pulls, because guess what? I couldn't pull up an inch, much less clear the bar. Any more. This is something I was good at when I was training for my first (and so far, only) adventure race. I'll probably also find that I can only run a mile without getting a stitch in my side and that I'm about 30% slower now. Of course, if I continue to do what I've been doing, and avoid testing my abilities, I can retain my athletic identity and continue to believe that I am in peak training condition.
Why do I even care? Can't I just continue to think of myself as intellectually superior and have total contempt and disdain for the athletes of the world, as I used to do? Well, no, not really, not any more. Now that I know how much discipline and sacrifice are involved, now that I know a little about everything that Spartan rigor has to offer, I can't help but respect the effort. Also, I have a firm personal conviction that my food intake, body composition, and physical conditioning are directly related to my past issues with thyroid disease, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, migraine, and night terrors. Why on EARTH would I want any of that back? Better the pain that I can control, better the pain that benefits me in greater strength, than the unpredictable pain that lays me flat and breaks my spirit.
I prefer my life when I can do functional things with less effort. Strength training makes it easier for me to carry laundry and groceries, to open jars and windows, to put my own luggage in the overhead bin. Running makes me mellow and cheerful. Overall physical fitness makes it easier to do the things I love to do, like travel to places with tons of stairs or high-elevation viewpoints. Fit Me is Fun Me.
My identity now is aligned more with self-honesty. Nobody cares but me. Not even my doctor cares all that much whether I suffer or overcome. Nobody else wakes up in my body or lives my life but me myself. Present Me and Future Me. I try to see myself less as "Athletic Person" than as "Person who recognizes weakness, strategizes, and works hard to make tomorrow better than today." Also, Person Who Eats Hills for Breakfast.
If there's a report card, I want to get an A on it. My ego needs this. The teacher's pet inside me can't accept anything less. I really want the approval of my dental hygienist, for example. Maybe I'm not good at anything else, but "my home care is excellent!" Yay! I feel the same way about getting lab work done. When my blood work results come in, I rush to compare them to the normal range and congratulate myself when everything is on target. This is what it's like to open those results and feel relieved and proud.
I realize fully and well that having good health is a luxury and a privilege. My mom couldn't bring me home from the hospital for three days after I was born because I had infant jaundice. I had a thyroid nodule at age 23 that was so big, I couldn't speak while lying on my back. They thought it was cancer. I had a respiratory infection for my college graduation, age 28, and it took my lung capacity down to 52%. Have you ever coughed up blood? I have. This is by no means a complete list of every scary or mysterious health problem I have ever had. My laundry list of health issues is the primary reason why I am so obsessed with being as healthy as possible.
Also, for the majority of my life between 18 and 30, I had no health insurance. That includes the coughing up blood, and the time I had to go to the emergency room and wound up being sent to collections for an amount under forty dollars. Health is cheaper.
Everyone thinks everything is genetic these days. By 'genetic,' we mean that "it was my fate to be born into a cursed family and nothing I ever do will ever affect anything in any way." We decide that we have no power or control. Thus, anything that goes wrong with our health is the will of the gods. Saying otherwise is a deep and dire insult, judging and criticizing others for things they can't help. Okay. Who comes from a pure and perfect genetic heritage in which nobody has any health issues thought to be hereditary? Not me!
Diabetes. Heart disease. Alzheimer's. Arthritis. Glaucoma. Cancer. Good times, yay. Let's throw in 'died of brain aneurysm' just to keep things interesting. I can wave the family banner of genetic tendencies just as hard and just as high as anyone else. This is the second reason why I pay so much attention to my health.
The third reason is that it pays off. Being healthy is its own reward. It is seriously awesome in every way.
Why not gloat a bit about it? I'm doing what very few people of my age (42 in July) have managed to do. I'm maintaining satisfactory health metrics without the use of pharmaceuticals. This is the result of tons of research on my part. This includes reading hundreds of articles and dozens of books on health, nutrition, and fitness; wearing health devices like a pedometer or a sports watch; tracking my health metrics with a food log, exercise log, and sleep log; learning to identify, cook, and eat dozens of vegetables I never tasted as a child; and pushing my physical abilities to the limit for years on end. I WORKED for this. My nice lovely lab results come from figuring out how to do it, and then doing it, meal after meal after meal and day after day.
I have had bone fractures and severe muscle strain and sprains and a dislocated hip and a dislocated rib and impacted wisdom teeth and nerve damage and chronic pain and fatigue and migraine and some wacky medical mysteries, including pavor nocturnus. Sometimes unfortunate stuff really does happen, and much of the time, doctors have no real idea of what went wrong or how to fix it. The bulk of my positive health results have come from my own persistent experimentation on myself, refusing to accept "just deal with it" as a valid medical response. I've learned that physical therapy, sleep, and nutritional inputs can do more than most people realize.
I haven't met my new doctor yet; I chose her out of a directory based on location, availability, and her photo and credentials. I don't know anything about her personal style or academic focus in medical school. What I do know is that the kind of health advice I get from a doctor depends a great deal on how I present myself at my visits. I want to walk in demonstrating that I am that teacher's pet, A+ student who will take vigorous notes and follow advice scrupulously. I want my doctor, whoever she may be, to feel that I am committed to taking care of myself and learning as much as I can. When I'm a "good patient" and "cooperative" it makes me seem more worth the time to give a doctor's full focus and attention. I say, "I really try to take care of myself, and whenever I learn about something positive I can do for my health, I add it in to my routine."
The last physician I had for a long period of time started taking health advice from me. She took up triathlon and made a point of telling me that I had inspired her to do it.
I have, in the past, felt helpless and confused and deeply sad about my health. I have had incredible frustration with dismissive doctors, and white-knuckled rage when I later learned something that helped me when a doctor said it wouldn't. (For instance, saying there was nothing I could do about my thyroid disease, which cost me years of ill health. Thanks for nothing, Dr. C). I have cried tears into my ears from the grief and powerlessness of having no idea what to do about a health problem. I feel younger and more energetic in my forties than I did in my twenties, almost entirely because of health issues I didn't understand at the time. I can say with certitude that my fixation with my physical health has paid off over the years. To me, if I had to choose between feeling healthy and fit or being a millionaire, well, naturally I'd choose all three, but having a strong body feels like a million dollars. Maybe ten million.
I don't let my A+ lab work get too much to my head. I look forward and ask my Future Self what I will want for myself ten years from now. The answer is more muscle and more bone density. I'd like to be a little stronger in ten years than I am today. That will come from giving myself the gift of more physical activity and more nutritional support. I do these things so that I can feel better today and tomorrow, and also so that Old Me will maintain mobility and independence as long as possible. We're in this for the long haul and until they make a full body transplant, I'm stuck doing it in the body I have.
My clients have weird things in common. I've worked with single people and with families, with pre-kindergarten kids and retirees, with bachelors and parents, PhDs and people with various mental health conditions. What they all tend to have in common are the tendency to put fruit stickers on their fridge, collections of old magazines, scattered coins... and the belief that they will die prematurely. They all think that. (Well, except the little kids). They're pessimists, and they think that dying young is the saddest thing that can happen to them. The real pessimism, though, is that they'll live to a ripe old age and that they will outlive their savings.
How long are you going to live?
No, I'm serious. What's your best guess as to the age you will be when you die? You knew this post was going to be dark when you started reading, so stay with me, here. Write down your number.
Mine is 96, but I'm pretty sure that if I get that far, I'll keep on keepin' on and shoot for centenarian. Why not?
Understand that this is not an optimistic thought for me. I know something you do not know. I know the balance in my retirement account. Right now I think I have enough to retire for... one year. Maybe two if I can spend part of it hiding in my brother's garage while he's at work. I hope he's not reading this or he'll change the code on his security alarm. Dang it. I hope my backpacking tent lasts that long. Sorry, I got distracted there. Back to planning for old age.
Well, my first plan is not to be old.
If that doesn't work, well, then, I'll just keep working. Never mind the fact that almost nobody actually pulls this off. Usually, our health fails us and we just can't hold down a job anymore. There's also no guarantee that we'll be able to get and keep jobs that pay enough to make our nut. My grandmother worked until she was 75, because her company loved her and she enjoyed her job. But then she got Alzheimer's. The gap between 75 and 86 was something I won't discuss here. Just say that I know it can happen to me and I know it's expensive. An expensive eleven years of being unable to operate a microwave safely, much less drive to work, much less actually work. Don't plan on it.
How's that for pessimism?
Unfortunately, I'm a health nut. I had the lack of foresight to never start smoking. I don't drink, either; it just gives me the spins and makes my mouth sour. Oh, and also I don't drink coffee. I ran a marathon two years ago. I'm at the healthy weight for my height. I eat more than the recommended number of servings of fruits and vegetables every day. I drink green juice because (shh) I actually like it. Do you have any idea how dumb all this is? My great-grandmother lived to be 75, and she smoked until her last day. Just imagine how much she would have had to save if she never smoked! My family tree on both sides is almost entirely made up of people who lived to a ripe old age, people who ate red meat and smoked cigars and drank hard liquor and didn't have seat belts and inhaled asbestos and all that fun stuff.
When my grandmother was born, life expectancy for women was 56. Her mother lived longer than that, so she probably assumed that she would also make it into her early 60s. My grandparents were frugal savers and they had multiple streams of retirement income set up. I am positive it never once crossed their minds that Nana would live to be 86. THIRTY YEARS longer than the average life expectancy at the time of her birth. We don't think it's possible.
We just don't think we'll live to be that old. We have no connection to Future Self. Old Me is a complete stranger to whom I will bequeath dirty dishes, bills, and wads of crumpled receipts. You're welcome. Now, I have two neighbors within fifty yards who are over 90 years old. My grandmother-in-law lived to be 96. It's just not that uncommon anymore. It would be nice to think of it in a cool way, that we'll be here to see so many amazing technological advances, to read more books by our favorite authors and hear new albums by our favorite musicians. Ah, but pessimistically, what will really happen is that we'll spend all our time grumbling about our aches and pains and trying to remember whether we took our pills.
Seriously, I hope everyone reading this lives a long and full life. If you have the misfortune for that to happen to you, I hope you had the good sense to save money and make sure you can take care of yourself. Remember that number I asked you to write down at the beginning of this post, which you absolutely did not do even though I made a big fuss over it? Take that non-existent number you refused to imagine. Now add fifteen years to it.
There's the real pessimism for you. I think I'll live 31 years past what I think of as retirement age, and I'll need to save enough money for that, but in reality, it might be 46 years. I'm only 41 now, so that's completely unimaginable. To try to sum it up, all I can do is to imagine my scariest and saddest day of being young and broke, but then try to add in my most tired feeling on top of it. This is why I prefer optimism. I prefer the idea that I'll be a lively old spitfire, writing my memoirs on safari somewhere. I'll pull out my gold Future Phone and call Present Me all the time, demanding that I save more money.
Skepticism is the natural and appropriate reaction to a proposed change. Critical thinking skills for the win! Alas, it seems that there is a curious relationship between skepticism and success. What is straightforward and obvious to one person (go to the gym, buy groceries once a week) can be convoluted and complex to someone else who has spent more time thinking about it. We succumb to analysis paralysis because we really can't believe things could be that simple. We want proof before we commit. Perhaps more importantly, we just can't identify with ourselves as Version 2.0.
Nope. That's just not me. This is just how I roll.
A really common talking point I hear from people who are no further than a 2 on the Readiness Scale is that "I'll still be the same person." This feels important. It's not so much that we love Current Self so very much, because often we don't. It's the feeling of supreme contempt and annoyance toward Those People. Those uppity, snooty, snobby, irritating darn people who are daring to live my dream. I kind of feel this way about people who are good at wrapping gifts. I once played a game at a holiday party that involved wrapping presents one-handed with a partner, and I swear it looked better than what I normally do with two hands. What kind of person would I have to be to show up with perfect packages? Someone with weird priorities? I am sure, though, that if I did wrap pretty gift boxes I wouldn't think it was all that big a deal. Would I "still be the same person"?
Physical transformation is the biggest change of all. It's much different from other major changes like going back to school or changing socioeconomic status. At least when you have more education or more money, you still look basically the same when you look in the mirror. Physical change can be so dramatic that you sincerely don't recognize your own reflection at times.
Physical change isn't always about weight loss. Obviously, it could include scar tissue or health issues. Sometimes it's as trivial as a new hairstyle. When weight loss is the proposed change, it feels somehow more voluntary than a new hair color, and yet emotionally heavier in many ways than adjusting to a new health status. There's just something about deciding to lose weight or "get in shape" that feels like capitulating, like giving in or giving up. I know I felt that way at first.
I considered thin, fashionable, conventionally attractive women to be bimbos. That, and probably also "mean girls." I considered jocks and athletes to be dumb. I thought the whole thing was a tool of the advertising cabal to convince us to spend vast amounts of money on the weight loss and beauty industries. I was too smart to fall for any of that.
The thing about skepticism is that we tend to be swayed by empirical evidence. Certain trends get harder and harder to ignore. The data start to pile up. In my case, that builds curiosity. At a certain point, I have to find out for myself. What does this button do? How does that work? What happens next? I made a decision to experiment on myself and change my body, just because at that point I needed to know for myself what it was like.
What I found was that all my assumptions about what goes on in the minds of people who look a certain way were completely unfounded. Almost everything about the way I experience the world radically changed. I started to see things in the context of how much physical energy I had, things like how much I wanted to socialize or how willing I was to initiate and follow through on projects. I started sleeping better, and my food cravings changed. Now I wonder why I wanted to stay "the same person" so much, because "the new me" is so much more fun to be.
Ultimately, what we realize when we start to develop a growth mindset is that we are never stuck. We can try out different things, see how we like them, and then go back to default if we prefer it. We're only committed if we feel committed. We can change our schedules, we can redecorate and get makeovers, we can test out new recipes, and, of course, we can reshape our bodies. Then we can go back and do it all over again. It's not like teleporting onto a new planet. It's not like a tattoo, although people usually have a much easier time emotionally with the permanent commitment of a tattoo than they do with the temporary changes of weight loss and strength training.
It's weird, but true, that we can cheerfully, creatively play around with almost every aspect of our physical appearance except actual body image. Hair cut, style, and color! Manicure! Tattoos and piercings! Clothes, shoes, jewelry, and accessories! An infinite variety, sure to elicit compliments galore from everyone who digs that particular look. Change your proportion of muscle to body fat, however, and all bets are off. Perhaps this is why I have it backwards; I find exercise is for hedonists and that beauty treatments are exhausting, where most people seem to feel the opposite. It takes time before a new habit becomes a part of your identity, whether that's straightening your hair or straightening your posture.
What if changing your body image was really as simple and transitory as getting a new haircut? What if you just looked different every few years? What if it turned out to be really interesting and absorbing to go through that process of physical change? What if it was a lot like the mental effort and inherent fascination of reading a long series of novels? Changing your body can be just as separate from your core identity as reading a book or wearing a particular color of shirt can be. Maybe you like it, maybe you don't, but it's worth a try. You can always go back.
It takes a photograph for a lot of us. Now and then, we are surprised by our own reflections where we didn't expect to see them, like in a plate glass window. Usually, though, it's a photograph, because they're everywhere now. People are constantly demanding group photos. I need PROOF that we had lunch together! Hold still! We have that many more opportunities to see ourselves how others see us, or, in other words, the way we actually look.
The graying hair. The slouchy posture. The pinched and crabby facial expressions. The body.
There are no full-length mirrors in our current house. Our last two houses had mirrored closet doors, so a full-length reflection was unavoidable in both the bedroom and my office. That was a coincidence. Now, like most people, when we look at ourselves, we see ourselves from the chest up, in the bathroom medicine cabinet. This is a setup that allows for maximum mental fadeout. I can avoid ever thinking about or wondering about how I look from the collarbone on down. If I wear baggy enough clothes, a lot can happen to my body outside of my conscious awareness.
Believe it or not, this can go all sorts of different directions. One thing that happens to everyone is simple aging. No matter our build, things happen to our skin. Medical things. A problem with pretending we don't exist below the brain is that we may not notice things that turn up on this, the largest organ of the body. Focus and awareness pay off. What we love and accept, we notice, and what we notice, we care for. We must love the skin we're in, literally if not figuratively.
To me, 'body' and 'body image' are totally neutral terms. They seem to be culturally loaded right now, though. I can tell you that my dog's body image is that of a much larger dog, probably triple the size he is. My parrot's body image is a glamorous one of iridescent feathers, flirty eyelashes, and the scaliest toes possible. She kisses her reflection in the mirror, while, to my knowledge, the dog has never noticed his. Imagine what it would be like if you thought your own reflection was utterly adorable. Imagine if you were genuinely oblivious to it.
Physical changes can happen a lot faster than our mental image has time to adjust and accept. Some examples of this would be forgetting that you're wearing a costume and then catching a glimpse of yourself, or noticing your new sunburn about an hour before it starts to hurt. Perhaps more interesting is what happens when you Finally Reach Your Goal Weight.
A few years ago, I made the decision to perform an experiment and reduce my body weight until I reached the "healthy weight for my height." I had no idea whether I would like it or not, and I hadn't committed to stay at that size. I just wanted to feel what it was like. I wanted to find out for myself. I did it, and I liked it, but a lot of really confusing things happened. I couldn't find clothes in my size. My bra size radically changed. Then I ran a marathon and even my SHOE SIZE changed! I wound up having to get rid of all the shoes I had bought before the marathon, because even the shape of my foot is different now. I eventually figured out where I could buy clothes that would stay on my new runner's hips, with some challenges. It took me about two years to be able to hold up a garment and tell at a glance whether it would fit or not. In my mind, I was still a size 12 for many years after I got smaller (and also the stretch of time when I was bigger).
I live in my head a lot. I don't particularly think about my body; I feel restless, or there's something I want to do, or something I want to look at, and so I get up and move. It's like I'm driving my eyes and brain around to distract them when they get bored. During the moments when I am bathing, or dressing myself, or exercising, I'm me. I look like myself. Oh, hello, me, how am me today? I don't really feel any different than I did when I wore any of the previous seven clothing sizes that I have worn for at least a year each. It tends to be when I see myself in a mirror or a photograph that I realize, Oh yeah! I remember now. I look different.
I notice it more when I stand next to someone else.
That's the problem with body image. It's a pernicious form of social comparison. On the one hand, we compare ourselves with others who look different from us, and someone winds up on the losing end of the comparison. Whether it's yourself or your body image opponent says a little bit about your general mood and attitude toward life. On the other hand, we compare ourselves with those who look the same as us, and we are then satisfied that all is well. We can relax and quit noticing. The problems start to come in when we notice our friends being hospitalized one after another. Once we pass the age of forty, we can't pretend anymore. Things happen to the body.
Aging in reverse is weird. It's confusing. It tends to bother people. Show up with visible muscle or improved posture, and suddenly everyone else seems to have lost the game. Guess what? Nothing physical is inevitable. Body image tends to come with a complete package of learned helplessness, resentment, and pessimism. Personally, I was often told I had "birthin' hips." Nobody says that anymore, possibly because I'm a crone now and I've demonstrated that I did not, in fact, have "birthing" anything. Probably, though, because I wear a size XXS. What I do have is visibly more energy, health, strength, vitality, muscle tone, and agility than I had half a lifetime ago. Plus slightly more gray hair. The older I get, the more my physical appearance says things about me. My body announces certain proclivities. People can actually make accurate judgments about some of my behaviors just by looking at me. This will become more true with every decade that goes by.
The surest sign that someone's body image has not yet caught up with reality is the baggy workout t-shirt. Mine were all size Medium, old shirts, some of which had been too tight for a while there. Then suddenly they were flappy. They started to become physical obstacles for exercise purposes. They didn't want to stay in place during inverted yoga postures. I finally understood why athletic people insist on wearing fitted workout clothes. They fit the body. That requires an awareness of our physical outlines that we may never have had before.
We might as well practice accepting that our bodies change with time, because they do. The only thing is that they can change in far more ways than we realize. There are plenty of octogenarians who discover their inner jocks for the first time when they reach an advanced age. It isn't out of our reach. Whether it is better to let our outsides match our insides, or vice versa, is an interesting puzzle. How much do our inner pictures of ourselves reflect struggle, acceptance, or triumph? What would we wish our external selves to reveal?
I lost 35 pounds and kept it off. There are people out there who find this more impressive and interesting than if I told them I'd won a Pulitzer. There are also a lot of people who become spitting mad when the topic of weight loss comes up. Body image is a minefield. That's not an inappropriate metaphor because plenty of people die due to their poor body image. Of course, far more people die due to poor lifestyle choices, which they won't examine due to their fury over the cultural conversation about body image. I'm out of the game. I do what I want. I do what I want in all situations. I work for myself, and I work toward my own goals. If you don't like the way I look, deal with it. The way I look is none of your business, just as the way you look is none of my business. Now that that's settled, let's proceed.
Obesity is an American thing. I've been to nine countries on four continents so far, and the more I travel, the more it stands out. In everywhere except the US, you get half the amount of food for twice the price as what we get here. Overeating and eating "food" that isn't really food is affordable for everyone here. In fact, when you're poor, junk food is the default. It takes strong determination, networking, and a lot of knowledge to eat well on a low income. Come to think of it, that's a good topic for another day. Things I Wish I Knew Could be Done With Food Stamps.
Weight loss is different for men in our culture than it is for women. A higher percentage of American men are overweight, 70 percent of males compared to 58 percent of females. That's partly due to a masculine gender norm that BIG is good. My husband says that men don't want to wear a size Small anything, much less an Extra-Small or, heaven forfend, an XXS. He and I both went to school during a time when all the money went to boys' athletics, and girls were deliberately excluded. Athletes in many sports routinely manipulate their physiques, trading tips on how to gain or lose weight on a deadline. The goals are always to get the qualifications to play and to perform well, not appearance. When men and boys are shamed about their bodies, it's usually about being small or about their head or body hair. Many men joke casually about their midriffs. My husband's doctor patted him on the belly and said, "You could lose some weight." I would be stone-cold astonished to hear of a doctor doing that to a female patient. Nobody tells men who want to lose weight to "be careful." We think the attempt to lose weight is okay for men, but that it will drive women insane.
I've overheard two conversations in which the person was outraged that a doctor told them they were obese. One was a man and the other was a woman. The man could easily have lost 50 pounds; the woman could easily have lost 100. Both parties were surrounded by friends who expressed shock and anger. "How dare he!" "You're not fat!" This was clearly a topic of intense interest to everyone who heard it. From my perspective, this is what a train wreck looks like. I go to the doctor to get an informed, educated, professional opinion. If I have a broken bone, I need to know and I need to get it treated right away. If I have an infection, I want antibiotics. I don't get offended that the doctor insulted my bone for not looking right, or treated me contemptuously by claiming that I'm contagious. My health is not a matter of body image. If a licensed physician were to tell me that I met an internationally recognized clinical standard for anything, I would pay close attention. I would ask what to do next. I would follow up. I would research it on my own time to make sure I was taking maximum effective action. To me, ignoring medical consensus on obesity is precisely the same as being anti-vaxx. It's part of the Death of Expertise. I have no qualifications or credentials other than a history degree, so I can't reasonably see myself as an authority. I'm good at research, but that's it. I'm always looking for new medical journal articles and nutrition and fitness paradigm shifts, but I'm not going to try to debunk consensus. Especially not if it works for me.
I finally decided to try being the "healthy weight for my height" out of curiosity. I knew the number and I had forcefully rejected it in the past. I am 5'4" and the healthy weight for my height is 120 pounds, according to multiple sources. I thought that sounded sickeningly thin. My mental image of myself at that weight was garish and alarming. I thought I would look like the proverbial stick insect. I understood, though, that the statistics I was looking at were based on hundreds of millions of people. I also knew that I'm quite capable of gaining a pound a day, and that weight gain if necessary would not be a problem for me. If I hit 120 pounds and felt wrong, I would be back in my comfort zone within days. What I discovered was that I felt better than I ever had in my life, and that I looked perfectly ordinary. I am the exact same height and weight as Betty Grable, and I've never heard of anyone accusing her of anorexia or body dysmorphia. I'm not thin, I'm vintage!
I went on a diet. It worked. "Diets don't work" when you're committed to your default lifestyle. If you eat bagels, you're going to go back to eating bagels after your diet is over, and you're going to gain the weight back. Remember, I labeled this post as 'contrarian.' After losing a hundred pounds between us, my husband and I talk amongst ourselves about Fat People Food. There are entire aisles in grocery stores that we never go down. There are entire restaurant chains where we won't eat a single item, because ewww. There is almost nothing in the Standard American Diet that either of us will eat. Dairy products, for one. Cheese consumption in the US has more than tripled since 1970. Question that. It matches up pretty well with the upward national trend in body weight. As a general rule, I don't eat anything I could buy at a gas station. I don't eat fast food, I don't eat in the car unless I absolutely have to, I don't drink anything carbonated, I don't drink alcohol or coffee, I don't eat any artificial sweeteners, and I don't eat out of vending machines.
I live to eat. I love to cook. If I feel like it, I'll eat half a bag of tater tots, or two slices of pie, or a bag of candy - and that happens maybe once a year. I'll eat with my hands. I'll talk with my mouth full. I lick my fingers. My niece told me off once. "Don't lick your hands, Aunt Jessica, or you'll get germs!" I have few compunctions about what I eat, when, where, or who's watching. That's because I know what I'm doing. I behave in a way that is consistent with what I want out of life. I have learned that being the "correct" size makes my life easier. I don't feel better. I feel AMAZING. I feel sometimes like a wild gazelle that wants to run toward the horizon and never stop. My body is an amazing gift. I like how I look and I like how I feel. Most people who are about to turn 42 can't say that. Not only can I climb a rope, I can still sit on the floor and stand up again without holding onto anything.
I have battled chronic illness. That wasn't motivating for me in terms of physical change. I just believed that it was fate, that I was stuck that way, and that it might be unfortunate, but it was my lot in life. I wanted no part of anyone's advice. My doctor said nothing I could do would affect my thyroid disease and textbooks said that fibromyalgia made me exercise-intolerant. I only started having success at feeling better purely by accident. It took years of stumbling across things that worked before I truly believed that I had power over my conditions. When I have talked to other ill people about fibromyalgia, or thyroid nodules, or migraine, they are not interested, any more than people are interested in hearing that I lost weight by eating massive amounts of cruciferous vegetables. Information is not motivation.
I have no trouble maintaining my physique because I'm internally convinced that it's the best way for me to live. I've tried the alternatives. I've been poor and rich, and I like rich better. I've been obese, overweight, average, and athletic, and I like athletic the best. I didn't want to turn into an old lady and never know what it was like to feel strong. I'm too stubborn to let public opinion hold me back. I'm not "supposed" to wear a size zero or to claim that diets work. It's cruel or something. Not as cruel as Type II diabetes, heart disease, stroke, or Alzheimer's. I'm not a young girl anymore. I built my self-esteem on grit and self-respect. I'm entitled to do with my body whatever I darn well please. Until you can demonstrate that you're fitter, stronger, faster, more agile, and more energetic than I am, you can reserve your criticism quota for some other annoying thing I'm doing. I lost weight and it works for me.
When I was fat, I didn't think I was fat. I thought I was average to thin. I did not think my health issues were connected in any way to my size, my habits, or what I ate. I thought I ate a healthy diet. I thought my health problems were fate, and that everything else in my life stemmed from that, rather than the reverse. I thought I was doing pretty well, considering my family tree in general. I had always been told that I had "birthin' hips" and so, if I had a big butt, it was the fault of my skeleton. Darn you, bones, always getting me into trouble!
Now that I'm thin, nobody believes I was ever heavier. I tell them I lost 35 pounds, and the reaction is almost like reading off a script. "I can't picture that at all." "I don't see it." The skeletal structure is the same, but nobody says I have "birthin' hips" anymore.
Now that I'm healthy, I see everything differently. I see that I ate what I would now consider a dessert 3-5 times a day. I see that I ate more sugar than vegetables. I see that I was deficient in key micronutrients over a period of decades. I see that fixing my diet fixed my parasomnia disorder and my migraines, and that the excess weight was simply one more symptom. Now that I'm a marathon runner, I see my thyroid disease in a different context, as something that could have been managed through activity level. I can feel it now, when I haven't been able to work out for a while, and I start feeling chilly and lethargic again. Yes, the migraines, the thyroid disease, and the parasomnia disorder came from genetic tendencies, but that does not mean they are fixed, irreversible traits. It simply means I have those underlying traits instead of something else, and thus my focus should be on managing them instead of something else. Isn't it weird, though (she said ironically), that making one change fixed several problems at once??
I bought into a mindset that I now recognize in many people. I didn't think I was fat, statistics be damned, and that's because almost everyone I knew was bigger than me. I thought that any suggestion that women should be a certain size was fundamentally misogynist, part of a marketing conspiracy to brainwash women into hating their bodies and buying more clothes and cosmetics. I thought I was the size I was due to family legacy and health problems. I thought weight loss required hours at the gym. I thought every time I ate something healthy, it somehow canceled out anything else I ate, like eating a quarter cup of broccoli would erase a can of cola. It's like matter and anti-matter! I thought thinking about weight loss would lead directly to neurotic body image problems, and that it was a foolish distraction from intellectual matters. The gym was for people who weren't smart enough to read a book. I didn't know anyone who could be described as an athlete. I figured I was doing just fine, so why change?
Now I think that obesity is a natural consequence of the Standard American Lifestyle. I think that what is really bad for women's body image is not feeling strong and physically capable, that contemporary body image dogma overlaps perfectly with pre-feminist Victorian ideals of passivity and exaggerated curves. I consider myself an athlete, which I NEVER thought I would say, and the athletes I have met tend to be smarter and more interesting overall. Athletes are certainly better informed about nutrition and physiology than the average layperson. As I have learned more about health and fitness, it has become easier to BE fit and healthy. I talked myself into it first, and started seeing results afterward. I now want to find out just how much I can do, just what exciting new horizons of performance I can coax out of myself, how awesome and trend-setting I can be as an elderly lady.
When I think about the habits I had when I was fat, it makes me want to stamp my foot. Oh, Past Self, you stubborn little ninny!
Some things change and some things don't change. I read more than I ever did, only now some of it is on the elliptical and some of it is via headphones. Some of my reading material is skewed toward medical journal articles. I eat as much as I ever did, only now I cook more of it myself and more of it is skewed toward vegetables. I don't think as much about body image, because I have nothing to prove and nothing to gain from that kind of conversation. I don't really get sick anymore and I am pain-free as a general rule. In many ways, I look and feel younger than I did 15 years ago. It's hard to look back and recognize that my Past Self would have been mentally locked down against anything I had to say about what I have learned.
I didn't think my body mattered because I identified with my head. I was like a floating speech balloon or thought bubble in a comic strip. Or the operator of a giant mecha-robot. I drove my body like a car... kind of a junker car, but an impersonal vehicle nonetheless. Most of the time, I didn't pay attention to my body at all, unless I was in pain or had a physical need I couldn't ignore. I sat perfectly still for long periods, often until my foot fell asleep, and I would swing between mindless snacking and going too long between meals. If I'd treated a child the way I treated myself, I would have been in big trouble. I just didn't think my behavior had anything to do with my physical self.
I still don't think much about my activity level or my diet, because now I know what to do. I know how to cook basic meals that take half an hour and meet my nutritional needs. I have an inner sense of when I need to get up and move around. I have several types of workouts that interest me, and I can do them while reading or letting my mind wander. I don't give much thought to my physical needs, not because I'm pretending I don't have any, but because I know how to meet them with a simple routine. I still don't think I'm fat, only now this belief meets scientific consensus.
I prefer my body the way it is now, and I'd rather be 40 than 20 if it meant the twenty-year-old I actually was. Being strong and active satisfies my mind. Physical vigor allows me to do unusually interesting things. I still do what I did before, in terms of academic pursuits and pleasure reading, and I've added more. Now I can hike up to a Neolithic cave site instead of reading about it. I can spend hours walking around a museum or archaeological site and not get too tired or collapse with a migraine. Now my body can keep up with my mind.
"Lose weight" is not just the most commonly failed New Year's Resolution. It's probably the single biggest reason that people don't believe in resolutions, period. I can speak to this. I lost 35 pounds and kept it off. That's a lot for a 5'4" person! I've maintained my goal weight for three years. Before I lost my weight, I probably believed every possible wrong thought about weight gain and weight loss. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Usually, when I lost any weight at all, it was by accident. Given my experience, my opinion is that most people fail at weight loss because we set the stakes too high. Try to do too much, on too tight a deadline, without knowing exactly what you're doing, and failure is guaranteed.
Guaranteed failure can be reassuring because we can shrug it off. Oh well, I tried. We can even try something else and then say, I'VE TRIED EVERYTHING AND NOTHING WORKED!
I say, just lose three pounds. Three is plenty, and I'll tell you why.
Three pounds is the difference between pants that won't zip, and pants that will zip.
Three pounds is the difference between tight and comfortable.
Three pounds is the difference between not being able to use your pants pockets, and being able to put your phone in them.
Three pounds is just enough to maybe start noticing a difference in knee pain, ankle pain, foot pain, or back pain.
Three pounds is just enough to prove that hey, it is actually possible to lose weight.
Three pounds is enough to reverse the tendency to gain weight without noticing it, and bring focus and attention to your body. Not gaining for a year is a victory.
Three pounds over a year is a quarter-pound a month.
Three pounds is manageable enough that, if you feel stymied and that this is an impossible goal, it's a solid indicator that your real issue is trusting in your own self-efficacy. Do you believe you have the power to make any meaningful change in your life?
Three pounds is enough that, if you do it every year, then you'll be down thirty pounds in ten years. Think of yourself as ten years older and ask whether Future You would appreciate this. (I know that if I'd asked 19-year-old me if I would want to be 35 pounds heavier at 29, plus chronically ill, single, and lonely, Younger Me would have burst into tears).
What would it take to lose three pounds? It starts with writing down your starting weight. This can be regarded as exactly like looking at your credit card balance if you are worried about money. Knowing the truth can feel panicky. Knowing the truth can make you want to berate yourself and call yourself a loser or various other horrible names. It is what it is, though. Reality is easier to live with when we acknowledge it. I would say we should all feel excited about high starting numbers and super-unflattering Before photos, because they'll be all the more impressive when we put them up next to our After photos. But nobody realizes that until later. I don't even have any pictures of me from my top weight.
First there's the initial weigh-in. Then there are follow-up weigh-ins. Then there is an ongoing plan to keep tabs on it and preserve that victory. At Curves, they weigh in on the same day every month. At Weight Watchers, they weigh in every week. I weigh in every day, unless I'm on vacation and don't have access to a scale. I bought a scale for $25 and I'm still using it a decade later.
Keeping a resolution or reaching a goal requires some kind of reminder system. The default is to make commitments and then gradually forget about them. The more people in your social circle who are not goal-setters, the more likely that is. Many people will actively sabotage someone else's goal, I guess because they have nothing better to do. Losing three pounds, though, is a small enough goal that you can keep it to yourself and they might not even notice. It can be private. Just schedule a reminder in your phone to weigh in on a predictable basis.
Three pounds is a small enough amount that making any one change will probably work. Stop eating bagels. Don't carry cash at work so you won't buy things from vending machines. Switch to a smaller size of drink. Change your evening snack from cheese and crackers to something else. Quit buying food when you stop for gas. Don't eat in your car. Don't eat on the couch. Eat a half-cup of vegetables at dinner every night. Something. If it comes from a gas station or a bakery, or it involves booze, sugar, or cheese, you're probably on the right track. Pick one change and remind yourself, the goal is three measly pounds.
Lose three pounds. If you don't like it, you can always gain it back. You don't even have to tell anyone. Losing three pounds doesn't require changing your self-image or changing what other people think of you, either. Try it and see if you like it.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.