It happened again just the other day. I got into a conversation with someone I had known socially for some time, a physically fit person who often talks about nutrition and healthy living. She shared that she had been diagnosed with a serious illness and that her doctor had told her there was nothing she could do about it through lifestyle modification. She wasn't any more impressed with this prognosis than I was when I got mine, and she set about it proving it wrong. In her case, it was an autoimmune disorder that can result in weight gain, fatigue, and joint pain, and the only known treatment is a lifetime on medication. Strange that, years later, nobody would guess she had ever been ill.
My radar is always pinging for stories of this nature, and I run across them all the time. Mine was an endocrine disorder. The story I just told involved an autoimmune disorder. Recently, I reviewed Shawn Stevenson's book Sleep Smarter, in which he shares how he reversed his degenerative disk disease. My husband had two herniated disks in his spine, and they healed. My brother broke his back in three places, and not only did his spine heal, but he goes snowboarding like nothing ever happened. These are not conditions like the common cold; these are serious problems. They would have been, anyway, decades in the past. They might still be, for the ordinary sort of person who accepts lame, textbook advice from a conventional physician.
Now, I believe in Western medicine. I'm vaccinated for everything I can be, I get the flu shot, and I'll look forward to more vaccinations as they are developed. If I'm prescribed antibiotics, I take them as directed. I go to the doctor when I have to. That, though, tends to be when I need a rubber stamp on a referral to a specialist. My most recent doctor is no good for much else. When I had my first appointment with her, I told her about my history with overcoming fibromyalgia, and she told me that I must have been misdiagnosed, because "people don't get better from fibromyalgia." She believed this because her own sister-in-law has it. I hope the sister-in-law isn't her patient. I also wonder about a medical training system that teaches physicians to brush off anecdotal reports from patients who healed, rather than enrolling them in some kind of study. Examine me! I'm right here and I'm willing!
One of the biggest issues with the ongoing professional development of physicians is that they spend their days with ill and injured people. Healthy, fit, active people only go to a doctor when there is an immediate need. Therefore, there's no feedback loop of information from people who are succeeding in being well. It's common sense for a doctor to say, Well, this is what tends to happen and doing this for the majority of patients tends to work out okay. It would not be common sense for a doctor to say, This illness derives from the patient's comfort zone, so dramatic lifestyle change will probably be necessary to beat this thing. It doesn't even seem to be common sense for a doctor to say LET'S BEAT THIS THING!
Another issue is that people in the medical field tend to be over-scheduled, exhausted, and burned out. They don't necessarily have time to keep up on the cutting edge of new research. If there were no educational requirements for them to learn anything about nutrition, for example, why and when would they pick up extracurricular information on their own? If they themselves are not models of peak health and fitness, can they really teach their patients how to live this way? I've had precisely one doctor who was anywhere near my fitness level, and she told me I inspired her to train for a triathlon. My dental hygienist told me I inspired her to ride her bike to work. My health professionals take health advice from me, and that's either a great thing or a complete travesty.
The point of all this is that it is UNSCIENTIFIC to tell patients that their conditions are incurable. It is UNSCIENTIFIC to rule out nutrition or physical activity as even remote, fringe possibilities. The real question that should be raised is why anyone would deviate from a diet complete in all necessary micronutrients, and why anyone would remain sedentary for the majority of each day. There is a vast gulf between what research tells us about health, and what our doctors communicate to us. When my doctor condescendingly patted me on the shoulder and told me not to bother with lifestyle modifications, he instead should have encouraged me to do my own research and take detailed notes. I was only twenty-two at the time, and he could even have encouraged me to pursue a career in the health sciences. Instead, what I get from conversations with medical professionals about my remarkable recovery is skepticism and pushback. I'm not supposed to exist, so they act as if I don't.
My advice to anyone who "has a diagnosis" of any kind is to question it. If a doctor told you that what you have is unresponsive to lifestyle modifications, get a new doctor. Certainly nobody can stop you from tracking your own health data and reading as much new research as possible. I'm talking about actual peer-reviewed journal articles, not blogs, although blogs can be included if the blogger can demonstrate results with your specific issue. I accidentally cured myself of fibromyalgia and thyroid disease, but it was published research that led to reversing my problems with insomnia, night terrors, and restless leg syndrome. I also relied on published research to reach a healthy weight. I follow Alzheimer's research because I have had relatives die of that disease, and I believe I can mitigate my risks. I've made a regular habit of reading about new medical research for the last twenty years, and it's paid off abundantly.
The biggest difference between healthy people and chronically ill people, in my experience, is that healthy people refuse to accept a diagnosis as the final answer. We won't tolerate being ill any longer than we must. We never stop looking for more information. We do the utmost to take care of ourselves, eating, exercising, and sleeping as well as we know how. I've met a couple of people who claim they have "never been sick a day in their lives," but almost all of the fit, healthy people in my acquaintance have successfully overcome at least one major health condition. Whether these are supposedly genetic conditions, injuries, or lifestyle illnesses, there is always something one can do besides feel helpless and hopeless. Even if I got a diagnosis (and a second and third opinion) claiming I would die tomorrow, I'd still do everything I could to be the best possible patient and research subject. I need to feel that my pain and suffering matter in some way, that my experience can be used to further research and to help others with the same condition. Being ill doesn't have to mean being a victim. Being told I'm ill doesn't have to mean it's true, or that it stays true.
Procrastination means worry. There are all kinds of things I could be doing today that are irrelevant to my interests. I could be learning to play the tuba; I’d make new friends and have an exciting new way to troll people who annoy me. It’s not on my agenda though. If I wanted to learn both guitar and piano, and I chose guitar, would I then be procrastinating on playing piano? No. Almost every possible activity, conversation, or consumer item is irrelevant to my life in this moment. The only way I can have a meaningful or happy life is to consciously set intentions, choose specific acts, and focus on one purpose at a time. This is where it can help to distinguish rational and irrational procrastination.
Economists can’t account for procrastination. Why do it? (In some cultures, people don’t really procrastinate, just as some cultures don’t have clutter problems). If I’ve decided that a particular action is the most valuable way to spend my time and the most important thing I could be doing, why on earth would I not do it? There are two reasons. 1. Anxiety and 2. Discounting. In the first case, we are paralyzed. We feel uncertain about what to do or what might happen, and the longer we remain in indecision, the more fraught the act becomes with potential unanticipated ramifications. In the second case, we miscalculate how valuable an action would be, how much effort might be involved, or how long it will take us to complete the action. We weigh what we’re doing right now against the benefit of doing the Most Important Thing, and we decide we’re better off saving That Thing for later. When we’re wrong, it’s a result of inaccurate discounting. We guessed wrong. Our estimates were off.
I procrastinated on something stupid once. I tell this story all the time because it still mystifies me. What on earth was I thinking? I had a weird problem with this constant tickle in my throat. I couldn’t speak when I lay on my back. My chiropractor told me that my thyroid gland was visibly enlarged and I needed to see a doctor right away. I had just had my annual physical two months before, but I went back. My doctor diagnosed a goiter and said it hadn’t been there at my previous appointment. Whatever it was, it was moving fast, and I needed to see an endocrinologist. She told me I needed to get it scanned, which I did, though swallowing radioactive iodine is not a cheerful thing to do. The scan came back with a scary nodule that could well be cancerous. Next step: biopsy. Needle biopsy.
What did I do? I went to the public library and read two books on the thyroid, cover to cover. I finally made the biopsy appointment 14 months later.
As it turns out, people do this kind of stupid thing all the time. Anyone in the health profession will tell you that patient compliance is one of the toughest clinical issues. We don’t fill our prescriptions, we don’t take our medications as directed, we don’t change our dressings, we don’t do our physical therapy, we don’t come to appointments, we use limbs we were ordered to rest, and we certainly, certainly don’t make the lifestyle changes that could save our lives or keep us out of the surgical theater. Probably our feeble human brains (speaking for myself here) aren’t fully capable of understanding future threats in the same way we might understand the attack of a predator. I’m convinced that a certain portion of us (again speaking for myself) would stand stock-still and scream rather than take any evasive action, even in that primal scenario.
Taking care of our health and saving for retirement are the two most commonly procrastinated acts. We just don’t identify with Future Self. We have trouble imagining Future Self: Tomorrow, much less Future Self: Next Year or Future Self: Age 73. It seems more rational to worry about Present Self: Wants Cookie while trying to deal with Past Self’s mess of postponed chores and unpaid bills. Gee, Past Self, thanks for the dirty sink, you lazy slob.
This is where clutter intersects with procrastination. It’s perfectly rational to put aside unimportant things in favor of more urgent concerns. Sorting junk mail should not be a thing in the first place. Why is it opt-out instead of opt-in? (Answer: lobbyists). Maybe we will need that stuff later. Discounting comes in when we don’t realize how much it costs us to maintain a storage unit, or the fact that it takes 40% more work to clean a cluttered house. I used to have a storage unit, and I no longer own a single item that I paid to store. Even at $20 a month for several years, I could have flown to Paris for a week. There are 168 hours in a week, and I know I’ve spent that long sorting, stacking, and searching through all that clutter. Yeah, so, instead of the week in Paris I sat around sorting old junk I paid to store. Fun.
One day I decided that I didn’t want my story to be about chronic procrastination. Around 20% of us fall into this category. We run around with unfinished projects, unsorted clutter, calls we don’t want to make, email we don’t want to read, mail we don’t want to open, gifts and cards we haven’t sent, and invitations to events we don’t want to attend. We can’t take any time for strategic thinking because we’re continually preoccupied. We feel like failures. We feel like losers. We’re always late and leaking papers. I wanted to be the opposite of whatever I was.
What’s the opposite of ‘loser’? It turns out there are infinite varieties of success. I chose health and became an athlete. I chose love and became a wife. I chose minimalism and got organized. I chose a profession and became a writer. I still struggle so much with punctuality that I simply arranged my life in a way that rarely requires me to be in a specific place at a specific time. If you want to be my friend, drop by any time, but let’s not make it about a designated individual minute. Far be it from me to stress you out. Like I said, I’m still working on it. I need to choose contributions I know are within my capabilities. Anything else is either a stretch goal or a non-starter.
This is where rational procrastination comes in. I’m learning that everything works better when I focus on doing only one thing at a time. When I went back to school and finished my degree, that was what I did. I lived in a different city and I missed a lot of family gatherings, parties, and events. When I decided to get fit, that was what I did. I went to the gym at least five days a week, often for 90 minutes at a time, although I didn’t miss much because I read the same books on the elliptical that I would have read on my couch. When I decided to lose weight, I let go of the idea that it was going to happen through exercise (because it doesn’t), and for three depressing months I “missed” a lot of “treats” and snacks. When I chose minimalism, I spent a lot of time sorting and discarding stuff and missed a lot of leisure activities. I closed the loop. I got the degree and resumed an ordinary schedule. I reached my goal weight and raised the bar for my daily activity level. I created a streamlined space and more mental clarity. Each time, I derailed my routine for concentrated periods, emerging with a “new normal.” I put aside a lot of activities I would normally do, procrastinating on them until I finished something specific.
The key to minimalism is this rational procrastination. Almost every possibility is recognized as a distraction or non-starter. For instance, I have ideas for three different series of books. I can only write one at a time. I want to complete a triathlon, and that means swim, bike, run, in that order. If I want to train for that event, I have to choose all the other activities I won’t be doing all season. I prioritize longevity, and that includes earning and saving money as well as strengthening my body. Specific savings goals mean I have to choose not to buy an infinite amount of attractive things and experiences I might really, really desire. Not buying all the soda, cookies, frozen desserts, and snacks I used to use to keep myself fat has freed up a not insignificant amount I can save for the future. I let go of crafting, and that freed up space, time, and money. Instead of cross stitch, knitting, and crochet, I write, and I pay rent on a smaller house.
I procrastinate every day. Maybe I’ll get around to binge-watching TV one day, but not today. Maybe I’ll get around to playing Candy Crush or Angry Birds one day, but not today. Maybe I’ll find the secret to perfect hair one day, but not today. I’m curious about all these limited edition flavors of Oreos, and maybe I’ll taste them, but not today. I can put it off for tomorrow. I can read the comments tomorrow, I can argue about politics tomorrow, I can gossip tomorrow, I can complain tomorrow. Today, I’m going to do specific things. I’m going to put away my laundry. I already worked out and I already sorted my mail. Maybe if it’s still warm enough I’ll take my pets outside and sit on the porch. I’m going to floss my teeth. Anything I can think of that will set Future Self up with a better starting point, I’ll do that, today. Anything else can wait.
This body is temporary. I was born into a physical human body that will only be around for a measly few decades, twelve at the most. Nobody has lived to 130 yet, or if they have, nobody documented it. This body I have has certain limits. It can only endure a certain range of temperatures. It can only spend a limited time underwater without specialized equipment. It can only thrive on a limited range of foods, not including bark or pebbles. This body has joints that can only withstand a certain range of motion; its knees don’t want to bend backward. This body has bones that can only tolerate a limited force of impact or pressure. This body can be stopped in its tracks simply by inhaling or ingesting the wrong substance. The body I have won’t last forever, it can’t do everything, and in one way or another it’s inferior to every other animal on the face of the earth. No flight capability, no prehensile tail, no ability to see into the infrared or ultraviolet spectrum, no echolocation, no gills. Still, it’s mine. The body I have is the body I have.
This body has given me some trouble over the years. In my early twenties, I was diagnosed with thyroid disease and fibromyalgia. I had my first migraine at 22, and that became a regular feature of my life for the next fifteen years. There have been other problems: weird moles that had to be biopsied, impacted wisdom teeth, sprains and strains and skinned knees and second-degree sunburns. I’ve walked into stinging nettle and had a fire ant crawl up my pants. At these times, I often wish I were a floating consciousness with no body at all. Why can’t I be me without having to inhabit this inconvenient meat puppet?
The truth is that without the body I have, I would really freak people out. I need a human form to be able to hug people, hold hands, dance, and eat my favorite meals. The body I have makes it possible to participate in conversations. I can see and hear and taste and detect odors, which, alas, isn’t always such a bonus. I have the physical power to intervene, for instance the several times I have chased a toddler who was about to run full-speed into danger. As a floating ghostie I wouldn’t be able to do any of that.
The body I have is a useful vehicle. It’s “me” in almost every important way. It’s what my friends and loved ones recognize when they see me. My physical health, as it turns out, is almost completely responsible for my moods and attitude. When I eat poorly and lapse into sedentary behaviors, I become bored and sullen. The consequences of my less-than-optimal choices rebound and affect everyone I encounter, from those closest to me to the most briefly glimpsed strangers who happen to see my scowling countenance. It turns out that I look really angry when I’m in pain. Treating this human vessel respectfully, feeding it within the range that is biologically appropriate for humans, moving it the required amount, makes me much more pleasant to deal with. It also makes it easier for me to enjoy living in this world for the few decades that I will be here.
When I was ill, I blamed the body I have for all my problems. I didn’t understand that I could impact any of these health issues through my behavior or choices. I didn’t realize I had a choice. I wouldn’t have believed it if someone told me I did. I would have felt that that was a very unsympathetic, even cruel, thing to say. Only after I experienced it did I start to believe that whatever my body is doing on any given day is a snapshot, one frame out of a mind-bendingly long movie. It should be more intuitive than it is, but a body that begins as a single cell, is born into a tiny infant, and then grows continually for two decades is designed for constant change. Why is it so easy to fall into the trap of thinking we are stuck with whatever physical state we are experiencing at one moment on the timeline?
I needed to experience change in this body that I have before I could truly believe it was possible. First the change, then the belief. I could never have taken it on faith from someone else. Now, I see examples of other people who have changed their bodies in adulthood on a daily basis. It’s just like when you buy a new car and then start seeing that make and model everywhere you go. Vehicle, vehicle, same thing. Tens of thousands of people have reversed health conditions, gotten off medication, and/or lost hundreds of pounds. For mysterious reasons, those of us who still have physical issues never believe that we could be a part of this group. Other hominids may be able to change their bodies, but not us. We’re special, special in a bad way. We have been punished by fate and genetics to suffer and have a bad body! We accept this dire sentence, carved into stone by unfeeling deities. We can’t spend more than a couple of days half-heartedly dabbling at one change or another, never enough to convince us that it just might work if we kept going. We think a body must continue as it is, the only changes possible being negative changes. The body I have can sicken and gain weight, but it can’t heal or return to a lean, thriving form, even as I see cuts and scrapes return to quality new skin on a routine basis. Other people who experience healing and increased health must have better bodies than the one that I have.
The body that I have can do amazing things. It remembers to breathe and keep its heart, lungs, and blood moving even when I sleep. It recovers from illness and injury. Every time I have tested it to find out what else it can do, it rises to the occasion and meets the challenge. I’m 40, probably at the halfway mark of my life (if I haven’t passed it already), yet I am still continuing to discover new capabilities. I continue to grow extra muscle and become faster, stronger, and more agile. It feels as though I am aging in reverse. Despite my history of chronic illness, I have started to be satisfied, even impressed, with the body I have.
I’ll give you my version of the Four Noble Truths in a nutshell.
I was lucky. Enough parts of my life fell apart at the same time that I figured it had to be more than coincidence. I must have been basing my world on some false principles or incorrect ideas. I spent hours every day writing in my journal, going back over what went wrong, figuring out my contribution to my own problems, and imagining something better.
What went wrong? I developed a very painful repetitive stress injury that left me unable to do buttons or hold a cup. So that sucked. (Nearly two decades later, I still drop things a lot and hold my teacup in my left hand; the positive is that I can write and use chopsticks with either hand now). The painful RSI led to losing my job with the non-profit that I loved. That in turn led to my first husband asking for a divorce. That led to his opening a letter from the IRS, addressed to me, and withholding it until after the deadline had passed, just to mess with me. In rapid succession, I wound up in constant pain, with no money, no marriage, a pending workers comp lawsuit (apart from the two separate issues of the IRS thing and the divorce), and friends who were “choosing not to take sides.” The physical therapy burned holes in my skin. My fibromyalgia had nothing to do with any of this, but it was still a daily issue. Let’s just say that I had a lot to work on.
What I decided, in the hundreds of pages of intensive journaling I did during this period, was that I needed to change what I could. I needed to be as accountable as possible, and I needed to be WIDE OPEN to feedback and constructive criticism. Any clues I could get from anyone else, I needed to hear them, I needed to take them in, and I needed to keep them coming. I wasn’t doing too well by letting my ego and my sense of cleverness run things.
The other thing I needed to do was to be organized and persistent. Now, I would call that being a CLOSER. Always Be Closing. My journaling shifted to a running recap of issues I was trying to resolve and actions I had taken toward resolving them. My first success was with the IRS issue. Someone else’s income had been reported under my social security number, and I had a tax bill for over $8000 for money I hadn’t earned. I was so scared to make that call, because the letter my ex had kept said that I hadn’t contested the claim in time. I picked up the phone, explained why I hadn’t called sooner, and found that the agent was completely gracious. “This happens all the time.” (!!!) I was able to track down the W-2 of the person who actually had earned that higher salary and mail in a copy, and my case was closed. (What I would have done if this hadn’t been a coworker, who was willing to share her personal financial information, still is not clear to me). The downside of inaction would have been so bad that I knew I had to move forward.
During the course of my recovery from the disaster of my divorce, I learned something important. When you have to get up, you can. My pain from fibromyalgia was so bad at that time that I sometimes needed help to sit up in bed in the morning. Or I thought I did. When there’s nobody around to help, it’s surprising what you find out you can do. I learned that my pain was worst first thing in the morning, and that once I got up and started moving around, it was easier. I was eating barely enough to get by, and I lost 30 pounds in a few months. My pain went away for a few years. This should have been my first clue that excess body weight made my pain worse, but of course I ignored it and regained the weight as soon as I could afford to.
I kept up the habit of journaling whenever my stress level hit a certain point. I used my journals to work through the process of applying to the university. I used my journals to figure out additional ways to earn money. I used my journals to work out a schedule to pay off my consumer debt. I used my journals to work through a few romantic relationships, figuring out what worked and what didn’t work. I checked out dozens of self-help books from the public library and meticulously worked through all the exercises. I was trying to get to the bottom of why my life had quit working and what I was doing that other people weren’t, or vice versa.
Gradually, I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t start with my default as the baseline. I had to figure out a universal baseline and plan my behavior around that, even if it had nothing to do with the way I wanted to behave. Perhaps especially if the universal baseline had nothing to do with what I was doing. I figured there was a way to find a suitable career and advance in it. I figured there was a way to plan a budget. I figured there was a healthy way of eating and exercising. I figured there was a way to get to know someone and build a relationship without any of the misunderstandings of my first marriage. I decided I would learn what successful people did and copy them. If it worked for them, it might work for me, and if not, well, what I was doing on my own wasn’t working, either. I would keep researching and experimenting until I found an answer I could live with.
I was right about the accountability. That’s probably the single most important piece of advice I could give anyone. No matter what, it’s up to us to handle what comes our way, no matter whose fault it was. The IRS bill wasn’t my fault, but it was still my problem. Whatever caused my divorce, it was still mine to process and use for information. For whatever reason I developed fibromyalgia (spraining my back in an accident), it was my problem to try to manage. Nobody else could do it for me.
I was right about getting organized. It’s valuable in its own right. When my life was at its hardest, at least I had some semblance of a plan. Sometimes I would just make up things to try. In those days before Google, we had to figure out more for ourselves. It was harder but it taught me to be more resourceful and inventive. It also taught me that mental clarity is high on the list of great traits.
I was right that you can get up even when you think you can’t. I learned a deep and mystical secret, which is that grit and fortitude are there for the asking. Navy SEAL training teaches that most people quit when they’re at 40% of their physical capacity. I think I’ve made it to about 80% of what I can do. Anyone who suffers chronic pain, if you’re reading this, HEY, you’re not dead yet. You’re not even unconscious. You’re not even dizzy, or you wouldn’t be reading. You have more in you than you think you do. The SAME PAIN that we feel in a chair or on a bed, we can tolerate in other ways and other situations. Trying to rest and endure only leads to more pain, to another day just like the first. What I learned from training for a marathon is that DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) is pretty much exactly the same intensity as fibromyalgia pain. The pain I have endured in physical therapy was slightly worse than any pain I’ve ever pushed through at the gym. I bought myself my current level of strength and fitness by using the pain tolerance I developed through being chronically ill. I stopped feeling trapped by learned helplessness. I stopped reading the articles that talked about how difficult fibromyalgia is to treat. I tried telling my current doctor about my success story, and she told me I must have been misdiagnosed, because “people with fibromyalgia don’t get better.” That’s why nobody knows we can get better – because when we walk in and share our experience, the medical establishment ignores us. They used to tell me it wasn’t a real disease, until pharmaceuticals were developed to treat it, and now they say it’s real but there’s no cure. I say differently.
I beat poverty. I beat chronic pain and fatigue and became a marathon runner. I beat thyroid disease and (unintentionally, cluelessly) shrank my own thyroid nodule. I beat obesity. I beat pavor nocturnus. I beat migraine. I beat divorce and found love again; despite the odds, we’ve been together more than three times as long as my first marriage lasted. I beat the IRS. I beat the market and broke even in the crash of 2008. I could easily still be broke, single, fat, and in pain every day. Nothing was going to fall from the sky and make me better. Dissatisfaction meditation helped me figure out tiny pieces of my problems and take baby steps forward. I tried to make my life 1% better as often as I could. Where I am now, it’s hard to find anything to feel dissatisfied about. It gets better. It gets better, but only when we imagine how it can be better.
There is a lot of “common knowledge” floating around in the collective unconscious that I think is wrong. We take in this received wisdom and swallow it whole, without subjecting it to serious scrutiny. Part of the discipline of inquiry involves asking, “Is this true? How can I prove or disprove it?” The concept of the “set point” is one of those ideas that I have examined and found oversimplified and subjective. The idea is that each of us is somehow genetically programmed to be at a certain shape and size, and no matter what we do, our bodies will revert to it, like when the top of my pantyhose keeps rolling down. A “set point” is a classic example of a fixed mindset, and it applies to other areas of life besides body image.
I used to believe I just had the body I had. I “knew” I “only ate health food.” I also “knew” I “couldn’t exercise” because I had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I felt that I had suffered misfortunes, such as growing a thyroid nodule, and that certain things happened to me that made me a special snowflake. What worked for other people wasn’t going to work for me. I “knew” things wouldn’t work without actually trying them out. That was my ‘set point’ – a mental one. I was mentally stuck in Park and I didn’t even know I had gears I could shift.
Over time, I stumbled along, accidentally shifting variables and getting different results. It took longer than it could have, but I eventually learned that I could change my diet, that I could change my body composition, that I did have at least a certain amount of control over my level of chronic pain or fatigue.
The ‘set point’ of my body now is completely different than it was 5 years ago, 10 years ago, or 17 years ago. My mental and emotional ‘set points’ are also distinctly different.
Seventeen years ago, I didn’t know how much I weighed. I didn’t know what clothing size I wore. I wore baggy, loose dresses with no waistband. I didn’t own a scale. When I planned my wedding with my first husband, I received my grandmother’s wedding dress, and it wouldn’t button. I decided I would lose weight so the dress would fit. (Current Me could probably put that dress on without the alterations). I had no plan. I think I thought that making the decision would make the weight vanish somehow. I didn’t change what I ate, at all, and I didn’t even imagine a workout program. Needless to say, I didn’t lose weight, and I wound up having to pay a seamstress to add 5 inches of panels in the waist. My ‘set point’ was vague and undefined, totally lacking information or any way to track metrics. I also lacked a real career plan. I was just going along to get along.
Ten years ago, I started learning about how to lose weight. I was flat broke and hating it, and there was a weight loss contest at my work that involved a potential cash payout. I WAS GOING TO GET THAT MONEY NO MATTER WHAT. Almost everyone in the contest was male, and men have an extremely different approach to weight loss than women do. They tend to look at it more mechanically, as in, “I’m going to lose some weight, so I’d better cut back on the beer and hot wings for a while.” They would mock each other and try to sabotage each other’s progress by buying donuts and leaving them on their competitors’ desks. I saw all that as Reindeer Games and kept my eyes on the prize. In two years and three rounds of the contest, I won over $200. My new ‘set point’ was that of an experimenter, treating my body as a test subject and seeing that it could change with different inputs. I realized I knew almost nothing about physical fitness, and that learning more could be valuable in my life. This was shortly after I got my degree and my driver’s license and started taking my career planning very seriously.
Five years ago, I started distance running. The first time I went out, I couldn’t make it around the block without stopping to walk, and I had to lie on the floor afterward. Not even a third of a mile! I saw that my inner persistence, determination, grit, and sheer stubbornness could take me places that my lack of athletic history could not. Four years later, I ran a marathon. My new set point became that of a champion – a slow one, but a champion nevertheless. When I set a goal, I know I will eventually reach that goal, even if it takes me years, because I NEVER QUIT. I might fail a bunch of times along the way, but I’ll never give up! At this time, I also began looking at my vocation and career in a radically new way.
When I look back at myself at different ages, I shake my head at how resistant I was to new information. I didn’t want to hear it. I could have had the same conversations, read the same materials, watched the same documentaries, and not gotten anything out of it, because I was stuck at a certain level. In my life, it’s only been when I decided maybe I didn’t know as much as I thought I did that I was able to make any progress at all.
Physically, a “set point” is the result of a certain package of eating habits and activity level. Yes, my body will tend to level out at a certain shape and size once I have adjusted to whatever change I have made. When I joined Curves, I lost 17 inches in the first month – but months later, I had lost only one pound, because I refused to consider any dietary changes and the 30-minute circuit training workout could only have so much effect on me. I’ve learned from keeping a food log every day for two years that the difference between Snack A and Snack B can be a 4-lb difference on the scale after just a couple of weeks. A body trained with 30 minutes of walking three days a week is going to look visibly different a year later than a body trained with 90 minutes of running three days a week. Walk into a gym and watch the crowds coming out of the different classes. It’s easy to see that the water aerobics group is at a totally different set point than the Pilates or spin class groups. These aren’t genetic things, they are behavior package things.
It’s the same with other areas of life, such as relationships, finances, and home environments. One person will tolerate raised voices, and another person won’t, and as a result, one person will be stuck at a relationship set point that the other person would find unacceptable. One person will settle for an income level that another person will not, and as a result, one person will have financial problems that the other person won’t. One person will manage to ignore mold, stacks of greasy dishes, and piles of smelly laundry that another person could barely imagine, and as a result, one will live in squalor and the other will not. Our ‘set points’ are what we are willing to live with, to put up with from day to day. Usually, we have no idea that another level is possible.
I sometimes visualize this as different floors or storeys in a building. Imagine an apartment building. In the basement lives an unemployed person who is clinically depressed, in debt, behind on rent and bills, and surrounded by trash, dishes, and laundry. On the first floor is a broke college student, struggling with many of the same issues as the tenant in the basement apartment, but working hard for something better. On the second floor is a single person with a full-time job, gradually paying off debt and following a fitness plan. On the third floor is a couple with careers and a retirement plan. In the penthouse apartment is a wealthy entrepreneur with a fantastic view, signing up for an ultramarathon. They all have the same address, but they’re at different stages of life, and they have distinct mindsets and sets of behaviors. There is no particular reason why the tenant in the basement apartment couldn’t bump into the penthouse dweller and have a life-altering conversation one day.
If I woke up tomorrow in the body I had when I was 29, I would burst into tears. If I woke up in my first apartment, I’d probably cry then too. The difference is that now I expect different things out of life, and I know how to go about getting them. “If I only knew then what I know now…” There is no amount of weight I could gain that I would keep, because I already know how awful it felt to live in that body, and I also know what changes to make to get the body I live in now. There is no amount of mess or disorganization that would phase me, because I now know how to organize it all. If I had to wash every article of clothing and linens in the house, I’d be done in two days, and if I had to wash every dish, I’d be done in two hours. There is no way I will ever be in a relationship as bad as my first marriage, because I know to ask more questions now, and I’ll never accept certain types of mistreatment. I’ll never be poor again, because I know how to get a job that pays enough to live comfortably. I’m at a particular set point in life, but I know there is nothing permanent about it. Disaster may come my way, but it wouldn’t be the first time, and I know that whenever I hit the ground, I don’t just land on my feet, I bounce.
The big question is how many higher levels there are. I know the first step in rising up a level of set point is to recognize that the current set point is nothing more than a comfort zone. I am where I am because I behave in certain ways, accept certain things but not others, and have a certain finite amount of information. As I learn more and adjust my behaviors, I can rise, in the same way that a hot air balloon will rise when some sandbags are tossed over the side. Letting go of self-limiting beliefs and behaviors will automatically create a lift. Learning other approaches to common problems and adjusting our behaviors in positive ways can lead to upper levels we didn’t realize ever existed.
I’m not losing weight anymore. Diet industry, die in a fire, and I don’t say that lightly.
Of course, I don’t have any weight TO lose anymore. I used to be obese. Now I’m at the actuarially endorsed “healthy weight for my height.” My BMI is 21 and I’m at 22% body fat. I wear a size zero. I’m 40, but men turn their heads when I walk by in a bikini. I ran a marathon. I could probably run 5 miles barefoot right now if I wanted. I’m stronger and more physically fit than I was at 15 or 25. That’s important to me, because I spent so many years battling one chronic illness or another. In my life, excess body fat and physical pain go together, like a right hand and a left hand.
I did not go on a brand-name diet. I did not try meal substitution shakes, bars, powders, pills, teas, juices, smoothies, coffee with butter, Paleo, gluten-free, cleanses, or whatever else the $20 billion diet industry is constantly trying to sell us. (Compare to $30 billion for the self-storage industry; this is why I talk about clutter more than I do about health and fitness). I did not eat extra protein or fewer carbohydrates or even track my macros. What I did do was to use a scale, a measuring tape, and the MyFitnessPal app. I followed the app’s recommended calorie intake and logged everything I ate for three months. Then I kept going, not because I needed to lose more weight, but because I wanted to track my micronutrient consumption. My food log could one day be a valuable source of information if I need medical attention for some complicated health problem. (Like my cancer scare or the time I got a bald patch). I learned how much, and what, I could eat to maintain my new physique.
I did not lose the weight at the gym. I didn’t even GO to a gym, and I haven’t stepped foot in one in years. Over the past two decades, I have had several gym memberships, been an avid bicycle commuter, taken dance, yoga, self-defense, water aerobics, and other exercise classes several days a week, and trained for a marathon. (In between years-long periods of illness when I did nothing at all). Working out is great fun and it feels good, once you get through the first three awful weeks of pain and Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. Working out has about zero to do with weight loss. I gained 8 lbs while I trained for my marathon because I kept cramming my little chipmunk cheeks with cookies, trail mix, and stacks of waffles. Diet for short-term weight loss, work out for long-term maintenance and pleasure.
I love my body, but I have a lot of anger about weight loss. It goes in two opposite directions. On the one hand, there’s the stupid diet industry that tricks people out of their money and makes them feel defeated, hopeless, and like they lack “willpower” or “motivation.” On the other hand, there are all the defensive fat people who can’t pass up an opportunity to naysay every person who tries to lose weight, fit-shame anyone who’s Not Fat Enough (an actual acronym some acquaintances use), and spend their time trying to debunk or discredit peer-reviewed clinical studies. From time to time, I am fit-shamed by someone who didn’t know me when I was fat. I explain that I used to be obese, that I had thyroid disease and a cancer scare and fibromyalgia and migraines and a parasomnia disorder (and I can keep going if you’re interested). “Oh,” they say. Nobody has ever apologized for the fit-shaming, for calling me a bitch or telling me to F off. I suppose it’s assumed that I understand, because “real” thin women deserve such treatment, and I was simply collateral damage.
I’m also mad because the process is completely different for men than it is for women. My husband used to weigh 305 pounds, and he was still over 270 when we met. He taught me everything I know about weight loss. He taught me to track metrics, and he’s even helped me set up mathematical models to figure out patterns. We’ve lost 100 pounds between us, and most of it, we lost as colleagues, partners, and gym buddies. BUT. Every step of the way has been different. People constantly told me to “be careful.” Nobody said it to him. A shop clerk pantomimed vomiting, suggesting I must be bulimic to wear the size I do. “Um, I’m a marathoner,” I replied, horrified to my core. I tried to make myself vomit once, when I was 12 and accidentally ate a bug, but I couldn’t do it even then. I don’t hate my body. I’m also sane. Does anyone understand how rude it is to joke around or hint that someone is mentally ill? Men who decide to lose weight don’t get lectured by their friends about body image and anorexia and fashion and celebrity obsession. My man is “big.” He’s been a football player, a lumberjack, and a hockey player. He doesn’t get told to “be careful” – even when he’s sharpening a chainsaw or lighting stuff on fire. He’s strong enough to lose weight if he wants, to “train” – but women aren’t strong enough to be strong. I’m supposed to be passive, curvy, and feminine, not active, muscular, and sweaty.
I’ve had a foot in both worlds. Incontrovertibly, being fit is better than being unfit. It’s useful and convenient and it’s far more physically comfortable. The comparison is precisely the same as having money vs. being poor and in debt. Why would anyone ever go back? At 22% body fat, why would I want to be 35% body fat again? It’s not something I would set about to do on purpose, in the same way that I would not set about accruing $20,000 of debt. Weight gain is basically something that “just happens,” and we accept it, in the same way that debt tends to “just happen.” The same way that health problems tend to “just happen.” The same way that clutter “just happens.” Fitness levels like mine don’t happen by accident. It’s intentional, the way I do most things in my life intentionally.
We don’t know what we don’t know. I never knew I could be as strong as I am now. When I asked doctors what I could do differently, they replied, “I don’t know what to tell you.” There weren’t any athletes in my family. I didn’t really know any fit people. I assumed that the thin people I saw just came that way, in the same way that jays are blue and sparrows are brown. I shut down a few conversations over the years, suggesting that I try losing weight or going to the gym, because what I had been told about thyroid disease and fibromyalgia said that I couldn’t do either. I’ve heard other people say that it is “physically impossible” for them to lose weight, and in my mind, it wasn’t even a question. I just was the way I was. Past Self never would have believed a word I have to say about health, fitness, or weight loss. “Past Self, being fit feels like being a millionaire.” “F Off, Future Self.”
This is what I think. I think it’s a thousand times easier to change your body than to change your body image. I think the sense of disappointment and dissatisfaction we often feel toward our bodies comes from a feeling of being physically off in some way. Maybe it’s being constantly sleep-deprived or dehydrated, having imbalanced gut flora, a micronutrient deficiency, overloading our organs with too much sugar, too many calories, too many food additives, straining joints from excess body weight, relying on pharmaceuticals to deal with the side effects of our biologically inappropriate diets. If a single one of those factors applies, why blame that off feeling on magazine photos? There is no way to objectively quantify how someone will feel when beholding a fashion model of any size or appearance. We can objectively quantify what we eat and analyze a wide range of health metrics with laboratory tests. Given our society’s mortality statistics and reliance on prescription drugs, anyone under 35 should take this under consideration. Anyone over 35 already knows that the older we get, the more we start to suffer the side effects of our lifestyle preferences.
I stopped losing weight. I made a decision. “I tried being fat but I had to quit.” Nothing about being “curvy” worked for me. I chose a path, an uphill and muddy path. I shook off everything holding me back, from ignorant doctors to inherited family beliefs to expectations of appropriate female behavior to food preferences. I quit drinking soda and eating breakfast cereal. I paid attention to my habits and became more aware of my body. I quit planning my vacations around what restaurants to try. I quit insisting on ordering two appetizers and a dessert. Very little remains the same in what I eat, where I eat, how often I eat, or how much I eat. I divorced Past Self and Past Self’s destructive, short-sighted habits. I made a radical change. I decided that I wouldn’t be fat anymore, that I would be at least a little stronger every year. Two years in, I’ve maintained that. I only wish I’d known to try it sooner.
Sweat is dripping out of my hair. I’m hidden from prying eyes in the back bedroom of a ranch house that has seen better days. Now would not be a good time to call. You see, I’ve just performed an exorcism. On myself. On my treadmill.
There are various moods that take hold of me from time to time. Some of them are mildly amusing, such as when I talk to myself in research mode or start singing mock opera lyrics when I’m trying to resolve an argument. “What… does it mean to youuuu… when my mouth is moving and sounds are coming oouuuutttt?” Most of my moods are disagreeable, to others, but also to me. I don’t want to hang out with myself. One of these moods is “the snit.” This is when I feel irritable, like there is a stress hormone saturating my body. (This is probably true, and it’s probably cortisol). The snit is nobody’s fault, but if I don’t steer clear of other humans, some of it may splatter on them like hot grease. Another disagreeable mood is the way I feel on a cloudy day, when I’ve burned through too much unstructured time and started to feel listless and bored. Too much sitting tends to make me headachy, and thus, grouchy.
One of the biggest surprises of my life was learning that exercise is a reliable mood elevator. It always works. It works in the rain, it works when I’m sleep deprived, and it’s even worked when I started out with a headache. I have gone to the gym so tired I could barely put one foot in front of the other, and emerged after a full cardio workout feeling like a million bucks. When I work out strenuously several days a week, my resting mood is about a 9 out of 10. This is why cranky people hate athletes. We’re so cheerful you want to kill us all. It’s like we’re having better sex (true) or enjoying how we look in workout clothes (probably false) or like being fit actually feels that much better (true). The trouble is that it’s easy to adjust to this super-excellent feeling. Then, if anything happens and you can’t work out for a few weeks or months, you start reverting to your baseline mood. It’s like the last third of Flowers for Algernon.
Experiencing this spectrum of baseline moods is a sort of metaphysical puzzle. Which of these is the real me? Is it true what they say, that the runner’s high is just like any other drug? (One of the most absurd fallacies ever). In a sense, it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that I know which behavior packages result in which states of being. If I can choose between chronic pain and fatigue with misery, acceptance with fortitude, or happiness with enthusiasm, then I can make an informed choice. I can realize that it is a choice, that I have a choice. I didn’t consciously choose chronic pain or illness, but I do choose when I am blissed out.
I don’t enjoy being in a snit. I don’t enjoy feeling crabby or cranky or irritable. I don’t enjoy that restless, mopey, cabin-fever feeling. I lived alone for years, and I didn’t enjoy those feelings when I was by myself. Now I’m married, and I have to multiply my emotional environment by someone else’s. A snit is no longer just a snit; it’s a 2x snit, or more if we have guests. Negative moods become more costly, to myself and to others. I’d rather not… inflict myself on other people. The prospect is even more unnerving when I consider that other people are just as entitled to their own snits as I am to mine. It becomes a scenario of exponential growth.
“Normal me” has a baseline mood of about 7 out of 10, while Workout Me hits a 9. Past Self of the fibromyalgia, four-day migraines, and thyroid disease lived at around a 4. At that time, I thought perky people were dumb and annoying. Honestly, I feel like becoming an athlete has made me smarter. I sleep better, and it may be nothing more than that. I can definitely attest to improved concentration sustained over longer periods. I’m better organized and more productive, measured by projects completed. I’ve become someone whom my own Past Self would totally hate. All I can do is look back at her and ask, “So, how’s that working out for you?” I’ve exorcised that dissatisfied, jealous, irritable, sarcastic version of myself, jettisoned in the same way I’ve eliminated my credit debt and cleared my clutter. I have everything she ever wanted, which of course is why I would annoy her so much.
The best thing about a treadmill exorcism is that it only takes 30 minutes. Walk in feeling bad, walk out feeling fantastic! The endorphins are great and the natural analgesic effect is even better. The time and effort involved are pretty minimal. I went to the garage and cut out a board to put across the arms, so I can prop up a book or my laptop. Sometimes I watch true crime shows or skim Facebook. Usually I read a library book. In other words, I do exactly the same things I would have been doing if I were lounging around on the couch. The only discernible difference to me is that doing the treadmill barefoot makes your feet all black, so I have to wear shoes. Better to tie on my shoes, though, than to be in such a snit that I want to throw them at someone.
BS per square inch is more highly concentrated in the field of diet, nutrition, and weight loss than anywhere else, and I’m including multi-level marketing and trance mediums on the list. Nobody knows anything. It’s so bad that people have stopped believing it’s possible to live a healthy lifestyle and started believing that it’s natural to need pharmaceuticals and medical appliances to survive. I know more people who need CPAP machines to breathe at night than I do people who can run 5 miles. Add in all the people I know who have had open-heart surgery or who have an insulin pump, and I know more people in the intervention group than I do who can run one mile. Humanity is planning our first mission to Mars, and we can’t figure out how to keep people using their own lungs? It’s terrifying. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Our culture is funny. People are often more impressed by someone who has lost a lot of weight and kept it off than they are by someone who has a patent or who has published an article in an academic journal. Of course, we also like to choose our political leaders based on whether it would be fun to drink a beer with them, which is bonkers, because surely our president has more to do than to lounge around in a tavern, although I’ll make an exception for Grover Cleveland. In short, we’ve started thinking that losing weight is harder than anything else, for two reasons:
1. Almost everyone in our culture is overweight;
2. Misinformation is so common that accurate information is a statistical anomaly.
I’m a Unicorn-American. I lost my weight even though I had a low-functioning thyroid gland and chronic fatigue. I ran a marathon even though I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I’m too small for a size zero in all but, like, three stores. I’m 40 and I’d rather share selfies of my abs than my face. Nothing I have read in the past several years about body image or healthy lifestyles makes any sense to me whatsoever. First I’m going to review all the trends and truisms I see and completely ignore. Then I’m going to share what I actually do; the things that work for my thyroid disease/chronic pain/chronic fatigue/migraineur/sleep-disordered middle-aged self.
That’s not real. It’s natural to gain weight as you get older. I’ll never be thin. Having children makes you fat. I’m fat because I have an injury that keeps me from going to the gym. The only way to lose weight is the way I did it; I lost 40 pounds; I should do that again because of course I’ve gained it all back and then some. MACRONUTRIENTS! Specific individual foods with maaggggical powers! Juicing! Smoothies! Packets of powders! Bars! Shakes! Foods nobody knew about before the great 20th Century Obesity Epidemic, because that makes perfect sense! Abdominal exercisers! Anything whatsoever sold on INFOMERCIALS! Plastic wrap for your abs! PILLS! SO MANY PILLS! Motivational posters! Calorie-burning shoe soles! Caffeinated skin creams!
[Full disclosure: I actually have tried acupuncture and homeopathy, though not for weight loss, but I did once buy a $35 cellulite cream, because yeah, my thighs totally needed to absorb more substances… ]
Okay. I lost 35 pounds. This is what I did.
1. Googled “healthy weight for my height.” Tried to get other reputable opinions from other websites. Accepted there might be more science behind the number that came up than there was in my current method, which was NO SCIENCE. Committed to test-drive myself at that weight, at least temporarily.
2. Googled how much water someone of my height/weight should drink. Trained myself to drink it.
3. Kept a meticulous food log. Measured and weighed everything. SCIENCE!
4. Strictly limited calories – cut by about 30% for three months.
5. Weighed in every day. Took regular stats with a tape measure. (chest, waist, hips, thighs, biceps) DATA!
6. Reached my goal with a full, nuanced understanding of my previous ineffective eating habits.
7. Kept doing steps 2, 3, and 5.
8. Got rid of my fat clothes.
Note that there is no step for exercise. That is because exercise has nothing to do with weight loss! Stop thinking that! You don’t ever have to go to a gym if you don’t want to. The research is pretty clear: diet for the short term, exercise for the long term. Most of my weight was lost while I sat around on the couch, feeling sorry for myself and crying because I couldn’t have a chimichanga until next month. Then I trained for a marathon and gained back 8 pounds because I kept eating so many vanilla fig bars. Then I lost it again while sitting on the couch and icing my ankle. (Wait! I know! My IKEA couch is actually a MAGICAL WEIGHT LOSS MACHINE! You can make an appointment to sit on it for just three monthly installments of only $1999.99).
I don’t “juice.” I have a smoothie maybe once or twice a year, if my mom makes me one. Under no circumstances have I ever given a care about tracking macronutrients. It’s been debunked. What I do track is MICROnutrients. Fiber, people! I eat wheat, corn, and soy whenever I want. I don’t take any medications other than birth control (which people think causes weight gain, just like thyroid disease, so go figure). I take a B-12 supplement, but you should know that taking a daily multi-vitamin has been linked to greater mortality from all causes. Vitamins (see above under micronutrients) should come from food, not a jar.
I don’t do crunches. I haven’t had a gym membership for five years. I’ve never worked with a personal trainer, although I plan to one day. I have muscles but I’m super lazy. Every now and then I decide I’ll do planks, and I do one for about a minute, and then that’s it for the next several months. The reason I have visible muscle definition is that I’m down to 22% body fat. I don’t lift anything heavier than a laundry basket. I haven’t even done pull-ups for several months because I got tennis elbow from my phone. I walk about .8 miles to the coffee shop where I write, maybe 2-3 days a week. Exercise is something I do as a treat, or when I’m angry or frustrated about something that makes me too restless to stay in the house. Exercise is a means to an end: the ability to carry a backpack and hike into the backcountry; local transportation; ability to “play hard” on vacation; a giant F.U. to the endocrine gland that tried to kill me and made my hair fall out. You hear that, thyroid? Yeah, I said it.
To be fair, there are things I do that may make a difference besides just eating a consistent volume of food at consistent times of day. I sleep 8 hours a night, more if I can get away with it. I don’t drink sweet drinks – not juice, not soda, not diet soda, nada – and I also don’t drink coffee or alcohol. I don’t eat sugars in general. I don’t eat 95% of what you would find in a typical grocery store bakery, including bread, bagels, muffins, croissants, cookies, pies, cakes, donuts, brownies, or whatever. I also don’t eat crackers, breakfast cereal, frozen desserts, or snack foods in general. I don’t eat junk food or fast food. I might eat chips or fries at most once a month. I don’t generally eat grains, especially not pasta or white rice, unless I’m in training, but I do eat a large baked potato with lunch every day. I eat wheat bread, but only from three specific brands. I eat as much fruit as I want, whenever I want. It’s not “carbs” – how oversimplified and misleading! – but rather, over-processed industrial foods. I’m not a strict personality – if I want candy, I’ll eat it – I’ve just lost my taste for these foods. They make me feel weird when I eat them, which I sometimes do, just often enough to remind myself why I don’t eat them every day. Once I realized that I ate more desserts by volume than I did vegetables, I felt foolish and started ramping up my cruciferous vegetable consumption. To this I attribute my overall state of health, sound digestion, “young skin,” and ability to sleep well. Gut flora. Worth considering. Also take note of magnesium deficiency, its prevalence, and its symptoms. As a final note, I eat a plant-based diet. I think most people would do well to be as skeptical of dairy products as they are of grain products. I haven’t eaten dairy products since 1997, and it seems unfair not to mention it.
Don’t believe anything I’ve said. I have no credentials, and that matters! The only thing I can offer is anecdotal evidence. I lost a bunch of weight and reversed my health problems, and now I’ve maintained my bikini bod for a year and a half. It’s possible I’m making false correlations and attributing my results to the wrong inputs. It’s not possible I’m some kind of genetic anomaly, since I was at least as fat and ill and sedentary as anyone else for my first 35 years, and my family tree has no athletes that I know of. All I can say is that I believe it’s possible for everyone to be lean and fit, as long as we don’t follow the Standard American Diet or live the Standard American Lifestyle. Anyone can make lifestyle experiments, track data, and chart a trend line. What have you got to lose?
I think it’s pretty clear I ain’t no size two, ‘cause when I shake it shake it, my pants start falling off. I’m a nerdy, middle-aged suburban woman who wears sub-zero clothing. In my world, that ought to mean clothes that keep me warm in the winter. Au contraire, mes amis. Let me tell you what it’s like.
What I want out of the fashion industry is pretty straightforward. Call it business casual. I want flat shoes, natural-waist pants, knee-length skirts, shorts that cover my entire caboose, and tops that cover my entire bra. I prefer that it be assumed I am in the practice of wearing undergarments, without displaying them for all to see. I’m not a bluestocking. As far as I’m concerned, public nudity is a-okay, as long as it’s intentional. Which my accidental flashing of my entire naked breast in a restaurant the other day most assuredly was not. I have a young friend who is probably engaging in ritual self-mutilation at this very moment, in a feeble attempt to bleach the sight of my sundress malfunction from his mind. (The label says Size 1, by the way). My narrow shoulders cannot accommodate loose straps any more than my flat marathon runner’s butt can hold up a loose waistband. All those signs reading PULL UP YOUR PANTS? I know they’re aimed at me.
Despite what most people would guess, my body image is quite good. I won a lengthy battle with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease, and every day I appreciate my strength and energy level with full force. I like having visible muscle definition. I have never been “skinny” and I am definitely not “naturally lean.” I’m just… small. But not small enough. I’m at least two inches too tall to wear petites, with a long waist, long arms, narrow shoulders, short legs, big thighs, and more bust than fashion designers expect. Put it this way. For the first time in my life, I look better naked than I do dressed. Nothing fits me.
You think I’m exaggerating? Let me Google some size charts for you.
Target: size 0/2 bottoms. Waist 26-26.5. Hip 36-37.
Sears: size 0. Waist 25 ½. Hip 35. (Same as KMart)
JCPenney: size 0. Waist 25 ½. Hip 35 ½.
Walmart: starts at size 2. Waist 24 ½. Hip 35.
LL Bean: starts at size 4.
Costco: starts at size 8.
My measurements are 34-27-34. According to the size charts, I should be able to fit in a 0 at Ann Taylor (see above photo), the Gap, and Old Navy, and a 00 at Banana Republic. In practice, those size 0’s are too loose. I tried on several size 0 garments at the Banana Republic store yesterday that were too big, and a very sweet employee directed me to the website, where I found… five styles of pants. Period. They don’t carry a 00 in the store, and I guess it’s not a big seller online either. Most 00 stuff is designed for truly skinny body types, not for athletes with bulky hamstrings, adult hips, and a BMI of 20.
There is a dividing line between extra-small clothing and average-size clothing that is at least as vivid as the scene change from sepia to Technicolor in The Wizard of Oz. The women’s section has everything I want: modest, classic clothes that cover my stretch marks. Their “XS” is equivalent to about a size 6. The extra-small section (see H&M, Forever 21, Macy’s, and Nordstrom) currently has biscuit-bottom shorts, racer-back baggy tank tops, miniskirts, “pants” that were called “leggings” in my day, beachwear, and a broad spectrum of completely transparent tops, mysterious cutouts, and distressed denim. Good luck finding a single item that would be suitable on an airplane or in a nice restaurant, much less anything that would meet any office dress code. I can choose between “teen character actor” or trying to duct-tape age-appropriate garments onto my body. Which I’ve considered. But this is a hot climate, yo. That gives all new meaning to the concept of “tacky outfits.”
Caring friends have advised me to wear children’s clothes (because Dora the Explorer has a new business casual line) or men’s clothes (because there are so many more men who are 5’4” and weigh 120 pounds – problem solved!). Really, though, nobody gives a flying leap about my problem. I Googled “size zero” and found a Wikipedia article that indicates a 3” range in clothes labeled “size zero,” explicates “criticism” and “movement against size zero,” and then stops without indexing places one might purchase said clothing. The remaining first-page results are all about a size-zero woman who got liposuction, except for one article about size inflation called “Congratulations! You are a size zero!” I looked up “size zero fashion” on Pinterest. Much to my astonishment, what popped up was “curvy” and “plus-sized,” with a certain amount of disparagement for small women. “Does anyone really look like this?” and “Anorexia is a disease it is NOT a fashion statement”. You think people body-shame you? Evidently my clothing size gives people the right to assume I’m mentally ill.
I have just as much right to buy clothes that fit as anyone else. But capitalism is failing me. There is no market for the products I want to buy; therefore, they don’t exist. I’ve been online, and I’ve only found one brand of underpants that fit me. Even on Amazon, I’m off the bottom of the size chart for almost everything. I used a tape measure, ordered a sundress that should have fit, and the smocking… didn’t stretch. My options at this point are to keep returning most of my online orders, make my own clothes, pay for someone else to do it, or wear vintage. (I’m the same height and weight as Betty Grable, although Grable’s hips were an inch bigger and I’m bigger by 4” in the waist, 3” in the thigh, 2” in the calf, and ¾” in the ankle. Nobody seems to think she had an eating disorder, even with that tiny waist and those slender legs). My long-suffering husband, who has been my companion in clothes shopping over the last decade, is threatening to take me to London, where I would be a size 6. In other parts of the world, my build is perfectly normal and average. My “size zero” issues aren’t just a First World Problem – they’re almost exclusively an American problem. Correction: a Unicorn-American problem.
I used to believe that fitness came from two sources: Good genes or exercise. I also believed that people only played team sports because they weren’t smart enough to do anything else, and that people only went to the gym if they were vain. I believed that I personally couldn’t go to the gym, even if I wanted to (which I didn’t), because I had fibromyalgia, and all the books and doctors and research agreed that FM patients are exercise-intolerant. Therefore, I was the size I was, that was how it was going to be, the medical establishment backed me up, case closed. Density = destiny.
Now, I’ve lived the following combinations:
Fat, ill, and sedentary
Fat, somewhat okay, and active
Fit, healthy, and active
Lean, healthy, and sedentary
[But I have never been thin and ill].
I haven’t been to the gym in five years. I ran a marathon last fall, but all I’ve done throughout 2015 is walk short distances and do some light yoga and physical therapy. The majority of days this year, I haven’t even done those things; I’ve sat on my patoot holding an ice pack. I weigh slightly less now than I did during the months I was running 30 miles a week. I’m in the same clothing size that I was before, during, and after marathon training. It’s clear to me that weight, size, and body fat are all the result of food intake, based on the data from my food log. I’ve been careful to track my diet and activity level since January 2014.
I know I don’t have “superior genes” leading to a “naturally lean” physique. If that were true, it wouldn’t have taken me until age 39 to become lean and fit. Also, there would be more lean people in my family tree. (Not going there, but we have photo albums dating back to the tintype era). Then there’s the issue of the thyroid disease I suffered in my early 20’s. I had a thyroid nodule, and my hormone levels were at the extreme low end of “normal.” All the objective, measurable data indicate that my “set point” [snort] is “curvy.” I have “birthin’ hips.” Or at least I did. Now I’m a little bitty sub-zero and people tell me, “I can’t picture you ever being fat.” And, “You were obese?!”
Let’s look at some data. Here is my progress chart from MyFitnessPal for the week of 8/9/2015 – 8/15/2015. I weighed the same on Saturday the 15th as I did on Sunday the 9th. My weight was the same within 2/10ths of a pound all week, with the exception of Friday the 14th. What happened?
Here is a screen shot of part of the activity data from my Apple Watch. We see that I won three separate activity awards. I walked almost 6 miles. I doubled my target movement/calorie-burn goal and exceeded my exercise goal by 50%. Although the data don’t show it, I also climbed about 8 flights of stairs that day. I worked out SO MUCH – why did my weight go up a POUND AND A HALF the next day? Ugh. That’s so unfair.
Last, here is a screenshot of the data from the Health app. It shows dietary calories and weight. We see that my calorie consumption spiked on the 13th, my weight spiked on the 14th, my calorie consumption dropped on the 14th, and my weight went back to normal on the 15th. On the low-calorie day, I skipped my afternoon snack and had cabbage instead of a potato with my usual lunch. What may be more interesting is the high-calorie day: I met a friend for lunch, and I got the smaller size of the “brown rice and vegetables” plate. I had a lemonade, but no refills, I had a Frappucino with soy milk and no whipped cream, and I had one cookie. Sounds reasonable? The lunch was over 800 calories and the cookie was nearly 400. Counting the Frappy, my caloric needs for the day were met even if I had skipped both breakfast and dinner. Which I didn’t.
That’s just one day, granted. I have 20 months of data, though, and they support this trend. No matter how much I exercise, if I eat more, I weigh more. That includes days I ran 17 miles. My heaviest weigh-in in six months was the day after I ran my marathon (26.2 miles).
This is what happened. I spent three months on strict calorie restriction. I tracked everything I ate, and all my exercise, with meticulous attention. I figured out why I tended to gain weight, which was a combination of several behaviors. I quit those behaviors and found a daily routine that ended the problem. I eat the same breakfast, lunch, and snack almost every day. I’m careful to eat the recommended daily allowance of micronutrients, via food rather than jars of pills. I love exercise, but the lifestyle I live now seems to work regardless of whether I exercise for months on end, or sit on my caboose for months on end instead.
Believe my words or don’t. My personal experience has been that no doctor or health professional has ever once mentioned my weight, my body fat level, my food intake, or my fitness-related activities. They certainly never have tested my blood for nutrient levels. It’s pretty straightforward to collect these data for yourself. There are various free web-based and smartphone apps to track food intake, or you can use a library book or $6 paperback. If your phone doesn’t already have a pedometer, you can get one at Target for $12, and/or a scale that estimates body fat for about $25. You may already have a tape measure, measuring spoons, and measuring cups. I’d say “there’s only one way to find out,” but actually there are many ways. Whatever data you collect, record them every day and then watch the trend line.
Numbers are just numbers. Data are just data. There are no moral components to this. When my weight fluctuated between overweight and obese and back to overweight, my stress level fluctuated a lot, too. It was a relief to me to get some objective measurements, analyze the trends, and realize that it was within my power to influence these trends. I never realized that I had a choice, because getting fat was something that “just happened” to me. I became fat and unhealthy as an accidental result of factors I didn’t understand. I became lean and fit due to research, experimentation, focus, and applied effort. As it turns out, it’s a lot easier to stay this way than it would be to revert back to my former state. That’s what I want for everyone: an easier life.
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.