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.
News flash: Not everyone has to eat the same thing. It helps to understand this before anyone in the household sets out to make dietary changes of any kind. Changing what you eat is hard enough. Adding power struggles between household members can only make it harder. When you decide that you want to take ownership of your body and make positive changes, this will immediately change the power dynamic. Others around you will get nervous and try to restore equilibrium by pushing back and trying to making you quit. It is known. Plan around them. This is also true if you're the one who wants snacks and someone else is trying to change. The only rules are the rules that work for everyone concerned.
Power struggles come in every variety. You can have a power struggle about who goes to bed when, who gets to use which bathroom for how long at what time of day, who unloads the dishwasher, who cleans up cat barf, who gets to spend how much money on what, and on and on. You can make every single thing a power struggle every day if you like. If you have children, you can have power struggles with them about whether the left shoe goes on the left or right foot, whether you can wear the same outfit after it technically no longer fits, or how many times to reread the same storybook. A popular child-oriented power struggle is whether one needs to eat any foods that contain insoluble dietary fiber or micronutrients, or whether one can simply get rickets or pellagra instead. Look at the snacks/diet plan spectrum as a non-binary, non-zero-sum choice in the context of power struggles in general.
Non-binary means there are more than two options. Non-zero-sum means there can be multiple winners. For example, if I wear a t-shirt, everyone else can also wear a t-shirt, or a sweater, or a T-Rex costume, or whatever. It only becomes an issue if I'm trying to enforce a dorky dress code on a family photo.
That's the thing about food intake. In our culture, apparently anything other than 24/7 cheese-covered deep-fried super-sized buffet is preachy and body-shaming.
There is food everywhere. If you haven't noticed yet, you're going to. Vending machines! Candy bowls! Free breadsticks and chips and salsa! Ice cream trucks! Restaurant delivery! All-night drive-thru! You can get pizza delivery by drone on two continents already. I anticipate 3D-printed food on demand, just like Star Trek, in only a few years. Before we know it, we're going to be accosted by little R2-D2-type robots trying to give us free samples and take our orders for third breakfast, second lunch, and eighthsnack. Drones can fly through our windows and drop food bundles straight down our funnels, directly into the esophagus. It'll be great.
Things changed for me when I realized how deep my scarcity mindset went around food. I had spent at least four minutes chasing a single pumpkin seed around my plate, trying to get it on my fork. I froze. I asked my husband, "How long have I been doing this?" He said, "As long as I've known you." I had this rule somewhere in my psyche that I had to absorb every single molecule of food that had been served to me. I sat with this feeling. I taught myself that because I have 24-hour access to all foods known, I can relax. I will not starve. In fact, if I got anywhere within 40 pounds of starving, a committee would chase me down, wearing matching hats that read GIRL, EAT A SANDWICH, and would in fact force-feed me sandwiches until I reached the new zaftig ideal. I don't have to have food in my mouth during every waking moment, and it turns out my dentist agrees.
I lost 35 pounds, and I haven't had a migraine in over three years. I'm never going back.
My husband has struggled with his weight all his life. His top weight was 305. He taught me everything I know about weight loss, and the irony of this is that we're never trying to lose weight at the same time. I've learned that to support him when he's on a mission, I simply can't eat certain things in front of him, or store them where he will see them. When I was training for my marathon and he was cutting calories, I had: first and second breakfast, first and second lunch, afternoon snack, Frappy Hour, and of course my fanny pack o' fig bars and trail mix for the run itself. I had a secret container of Birthday Cake Oreos hidden in my office. I bought Nutter Butters because he doesn't like them. (Neither do I, but COOKIES). We ate a sensible dinner together after he got home, and if I wanted late-night snacks, I would just stuff them in my pocket when he wasn't looking and "go for a walk." I do everything I can to be courteous and supportive around his eating plans, just as I would for any of his other plans.
A strategy that was helpful for me, when I was untraining myself from EATING ALL THE THINGS, was to remember the grossness of some former coworkers. People be touching the snacks. There was this one guy my husband referred to as "Mister Poopy Hands" because he had seen him walk out of the restroom many times without ever going near the sinks. I never ate out of communal office bowls ever again. If there's something I want to not eat, I just picture that particular dude scrabbling around in the bowl or working in the kitchen. Bleah.
The truth is that nobody is responsible for what goes into my mouth but me. I just make a decision and then the decision is made. If I'm going to eat cake for breakfast, so be it, the Word has been spoken. If I decide to trim the four pounds I gained over Thanksgiving weekend, so be it, the Word has been spoken. If I struggle and resist Past Self's policy choices, I can give myself R. Lee Ermey-style coaching or I can wear a thick rubber band around my wrist and snap myself. I can remind myself that I'll be at my goal in a few more days. What I can do for anyone other than myself is significantly more limited.
Good luck ever trying to change anyone else's eating habits. Good luck ever trying to change anything about anyone. The very fact that your intention has become obvious sabotages any chance of a positive result. Assuming the mantle of Nutritional Gatekeeper is nuanced and complicated. It does tend to work on children, though, because they don't have money, they can't drive, and they generally can't cook, either. What your kids eat, if you have children, IS entirely up to you. Just because they demand nutrient-free foods does not mean you have to provide them.
Scarcity mindset will poison your best attempts, whether for yourself or others. Put joy back into your life, there and in other areas. More good stuff. More music, more color, more nature, more laughing, more making of things rather than consuming of things, more hugging, more fascination. If food is the highlight of your day, then you have a devastatingly boring life. Find a way to make your life more interesting and pleasure-filled overall. This may have a ripple effect on the people closest to you, changing the power dynamic, or it may not. What you eat can't really be about what everyone else eats. Do what works for you, and it will work for you.
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.
I bought $20 worth of Thin Mints from some Girl Scouts. It's true. I did it, even though I was a Camp Fire Girl. Then I ate an entire box of the chocolatey minty wafer cookies in a week. I'm not ashamed! It's more than just a cookie; it's a charitable and educational event. Right?? That's why, ounce for ounce, they cost a lot more than store-bought cookies, and a mega-lot more than homemade cookies. I have to remind myself that I'm not literally eating money, I'm only metaphorically eating money.
The first time I successfully lost a bunch of weight, it was because I was flat freaking broke. I mean, so broke I had to go to the Laundromat and ask people if they could spare some lint so at least I would have something in my pocket. My major goal at that time of my life was to convert money into food as quickly as I could. The connection between the two goes a lot farther for me than the realization that so many foods are coin-shaped. (Pizzas, donuts, potato chips, burgers, most cookies, banana slices, OMG MIND BLOWN)
When I was in college, my stated goal was to get a job that paid well enough that I could eat every meal in a restaurant. I basically did that when we were on our honeymoon, and that is why this is no longer a goal for me. I can gain a full clothing size in under two weeks. I've done it at least twice. If there was a TV show about me, it would be called 'Biggest Gainer.' I can basically look at a picture menu and gain three pounds. I sometimes wish I were ten inches taller, so I could eat more, although if that actually worked I'd be a redwood tree by now. The result of my love affair with cookies and restaurant food has been a cost of thousands of dollars in fitness equipment, gym memberships, race fees, gym clothes, running shoes, and a stint with a personal trainer, not to mention the various health issues.
When we're trying to get out of debt and move toward financial stability, much less financial freedom, we can't ignore the issue of what we spend on food. There is an extremely interesting relationship between food and finance that is very reflective of our attitudes toward scarcity and abundance.
I am in a place of financial comfort now where I can afford basically any food I want, anywhere, at any time. I could pick up my phone and have a wide range of steamy goodness at my front door within twenty minutes. What has been instructive to me is that I no longer eat the vast majority of 'comfort foods' I used to love. I lost interest. I used to stand at the vending machine in my office longer than most people stand in front of the Mona Lisa when they visit the Louvre. The beautiful mystery that is food packaging! I calculated recently that I spent at least $300 a year on vending machine snacks at a time when I really could have used that money for other things, like a new winter coat. I also could have had triple the calories for the same price by buying healthier foods at the grocery store, or I could have acknowledged my habits and gotten the same snacks in bulk at Costco. At the time, I was framing this habit as a not-habit, as a one-time splurge multiplied many times, as a "treat."
A "treat" is a band-aid on a disappointing life.
My real issues were an unfulfilling job, an unsuitable relationship, a conflicted relationship with my body image and physical health, an objectionable commute, and a climate that almost never suited me. No bag of vending machine snacks or pro-social cookies was going to help with that.
Health food is expensive. Well, yes and no. I will never stop pointing out that a bunch of organic kale costs the same as a modestly-sized bag of chips from the convenience store. A five-pound bag of potatoes costs the same as a Big Mac. At least some of the cost of healthier groceries can easily be offset by changing our purchasing habits. Vending machines and convenience stores are expensive! I've been to the discount grocery store, the one where they have half-off frozen foods, and discovered that it's still significantly cheaper to buy bulk goods and cook from scratch. That process can feel like such a depressing, exhausted, onerous chore from a position of scarcity, though! Cooking in a tiny, scuzzy, outdated kitchen with dubious pot handles, dull knives, and poor lighting. Bleah. There's a reason why upscale homes always have ginormous foofoo kitchens.
When I was poor, I hated to cook. I was tired, I worked on my feet a lot, I commuted on the bus, and when I got home I was wiped out. I didn't understand the connection between my dietary habits, my energy level, and my quality of sleep. Now that I have nice pans, a vast spice cabinet, and a dishwasher, I love cooking. We can our own produce, soup stock, jam, and pickles. It's really weird that I have probably triple the energy as a middle-aged person than I did in my twenties. This is definitely linked to the optimism that comes with prosperity. I suspect this works both ways, although I can't go back in time to prove it.
It helps to reframe the way we think about treats. Is it really a treat if I feel physically icky the next day, like when I overdo it at a buffet restaurant? Is it really a treat if I've been trying to get off medication? Is it really a treat if I feel like my weight is out of control and I hate the way I look and feel? THIS IS NOT ME is not a treat kind of a feeling. Does what I've been doing lately fit with my vision of Future Me in a thriving career and a super-awesome personal environment? Are my habits leading toward greater abundance and fun, or am I trading my future for momentary pleasure? Would I feed my pets the way I feed myself?
That one tends to stop me in my tracks. I would never let my beautiful fluff-babies eat the amount of sugar that I do. If someone tried to feed my parrot a cookie, I would slap it right out of their hand. Meanwhile [crams stack of cookies in mouth].
What would a happy person do? There is this idea that impulsive decisions and living for the now are the happier choice, but only young people really believe this. Once we pass the age of thirty, we start to feel it more. Yeah, I used to love to party and stay up late, but then I got tired. Domestic contentment is an abiding form of happiness, one that is reliable. When you can be happy on an average day at home, in full acceptance of your current situation, then you've won the game. Part of this domestic happiness includes financial stability and part of it includes the elusive sensation of "loving the skin you're in." It's much easier to appreciate these feelings when you've attained them after years of not feeling either. Believe that these feelings of peace and satisfaction truly exist and that they are possible.
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.
New Year's is coming. This, as far as I'm concerned, is the most wonderful time of the year. There's just that big red-and-green speed bump to get over. I've already written my New Year's Resolutions because I couldn't help myself. As with every year, one of my areas of focus is physical fitness. It was that way when I was obese and out of shape and had no idea what I was doing. It was that way when I was fumbling around, trying to learn how to think and act and live like an athlete. It's that way now, when I'm confident about my strength and abilities and ab definition. My goals and resolutions about my body have been different over the years, but the one thing that has stayed the same is that I've always taken my physical needs seriously.
One way to know that there is a hidden source of power in your life is when you find yourself acting like a defense lawyer about it. Whatever you're defending is something you know you've outgrown in yourself. Imagine being an adult and trying to wear your baby shoes. Not happening. Why would anyone want to hang on to past versions of oneself from younger, more immature ages? Simply move in the direction of the resistance. The power that will be unleashed is like the eruption of a subglacial volcano.
For some of us, the resistance will be found around an expired personal relationship. For others, it will be around a safe but annoying job. For others, it will be around a substance addiction, and bless you if that's you. Enough of that now, it's time to live. For most of us, the resistance will be around body image. It's an American problem. Two-thirds of women and almost three-quarters of men in the US are overweight. I've traveled over four continents now, in nine countries, and the one thing that's clear is that everyone can always spot the Americans. There's something different about the way we do things here, and we can have a lot of discussions about what that might be. The upshot is that what has happened to us is not genetic, it's not fate, it's not a natural result of aging, and it has nothing to do with becoming a parent. That means that it is within our sphere of influence. What we resist persists, so desist and feel blissed.
(I just made that up!)
I chose to start running because it was the worst thing I could think of. I had an ulterior motive, which was to encourage my husband to work out, and I knew I would get his attention by doing something extreme. I asked him to help me. He would do anything to help me, of course, and when I couldn't even make it 1/3 of a mile, it was clear just how much I needed him. (Not sure if it would have occurred to him that I wouldn't "need" him in that way if I simply stayed on the couch with my head in a book). I didn't love running but I did love my man. I knew I had the grit to sacrifice my own comfort if I thought it would benefit him. The joke was on me, because I fell in love with running, and I didn't even make it four years before I finished a marathon.
Then I took two years off while recuperating from a series of sports-related injuries.
Now I'm getting up to speed again. I have the mentality of a marathon runner and the cardio endurance of a beginner. I went out last week and managed to make it barely over a mile. I got a stitch in my side. I was pleasantly surprised with my pace, but saddened that I probably couldn't even make it through a 5k right now, even if my family was watching. During marathon training, I never bothered with a distance shorter than four miles. I ran at least four to six miles even in 90 F heat. It's tough on the ego to feel like you're struggling to handle something which in the past wouldn't have been worth the effort of lacing your shoes.
As a grown-up, I realize that I need to respect my limits. This is part of why a middle-aged person can always out-distance people in their teens and twenties. Kids have no idea how to pace themselves. They'll sprint as hard as they can until they have to walk, then start sprinting again, and then fall back. I've been passed by people half my age dozens of times, only to pass them again and leave them behind by the halfway point. Meanwhile, I'm getting left in the dust by someone twice my age. I've seen octogenarians crush me running up a steep hill, unfortunately more than once. I love it, though. It gives me something to look forward to. One day I'll be a little old babushka thumbing my nose at all those forty-year-olds trudging behind me.
Choosing a body-related goal means including the beginner level. If we're trying to get back a fitness level we had in the past, it also means including things we might find boring or embarrassing. It's hard on the old pride. It's hard to tip over in yoga and it's hard to have the instructor come and work out next to you in step aerobics because you keep getting on the wrong foot. It's hard being stuck behind an eight-year-old child in a 5k. (Sharing all my secrets here). Just like any game, though, the challenge rounds are more interesting. That's why we play. The resistance that we beat when we reshape our bodies is the same resistance that holds us back in every other part of life. We have to remind ourselves why we're doing it: A better life for Future Self while we're still young and strong enough to make it happen.
We finished our ten-day juice fast. The experience was different than I thought it would be. It was easier to do, and we also didn't lose as much weight as I expected.
I lost three pounds and my husband lost six. This makes sense, because we were eating the same meals and he weighs twice as much as me. (I am short and I have a small frame). I didn't really have any weight to lose, and it wasn't my intention, but there was nothing exactly frightening about three pounds. It's the difference between tight pants and comfy pants.
As to pants, it works like this:
**0 to **3 pounds: comfy.
**4 to **6: fits.
**7 to **8: have to wrestle them on.
**9: do not fit no matter how hard I try.
Most people could get dramatic wardrobe results by dropping two or three pounds. It's enough of a difference to bring old favorites back into circulation. It's definitely enough to make tight clothes more comfortable. At this time of year, what matters to me is that it makes it possible for me to wear thermal underwear under my pants and still be able to button them.
Back to the juice.
The big drawbacks to juicing are that it's expensive, messy, and time-consuming. Anyone who has an attachment issue to washing dishes or cooking is going to struggle committing to a juicing program. We were constantly washing knives and cutting boards and emptying out the compost bucket. We also wound up going to the store three times as often, because we were going through fruit and bags of kale much faster than we had anticipated. Juicing turns into your major hobby during the days you're doing it.
The benefits, though, were better than anticipated. I found that I slept better and slept more. My husband cut his caffeine consumption by about half. We couldn't manage all the meals on the plan, because it was simply too much food, and we didn't need it. (This would probably be different for someone with a lot of weight to lose). I found that my energy level was higher than normal, and that I was getting more done. Using the blender started to feel easy and natural.
In particular, the plan included "hot water with lemon" first thing in the morning. A lot of people swear by this, but it always sounded depressing and gross to me. I was picturing a cup of hot water with a tiny trickle of lemon juice in it. In reality, the juice of a whole lemon in hot water is more like warm lemonade. I love it. It didn't occur to me until I'd been drinking it for a week, but I'm certain not to get scurvy! It makes me wonder whether all this extra vitamin C will affect whether I get a cold this winter or not.
Now that we're done, I plan to keep making juice in the morning. I'll just eat normal meals the rest of the day. We're in the fortunate position that our rental house came with productive fruit trees, and we have more citrus fruit than two people can handle. That includes tangerines, grapefruits, and of course lemons.
I have a historic tendency to gain weight rapidly when I travel. That includes family visits as well as backpacking trips and foreign travel. It's really frustrating. The first time I went overseas, I couldn't button my pants by the time I went home. Most people aren't tuned in to this, but life is easier and cheaper when you stay in one consistent clothing size. You don't have to store several sizes worth of clothes in case of weight fluctuation, and you don't have to buy new things when your old stuff gets too small. Now that I know that juice fasting is an acceptable way to drop three pounds, I'll definitely try it again if my pants start getting tight again.
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.