Haven’t done a blog post in a while, but it’s been on my mind quite a bit. Much has happened over the last several weeks, some of which will become blog posts as I figure out what I want to write about and what is better left unsaid while moving on.
Today is a very long post. It’s a story about body issues and our cultural expectations. It's my story.
When I started 7th grade, at age 12, I was already 5’ 9’ tall, towering over almost everyone in our school. For an awkward, and painfully shy kid, this feeling of standing out in a crowd was terrible. Add to it the fact that I only weighed 110 pounds then, and I looked like this giant skeleton walking around campus. We won’t go into the other teen issues of beauty products, hair, acne, clothes, etc., right now. Suffice it to say I was not thrilled with my appearance, but there was little I could do about it then.
I ate everything I could stuff in. The more fattening, the better. Overstuffing myself at every meal. Snacking like crazy between meals. Trying to gain just 10 pounds so that I didn’t look so emaciated, since my appearance drew such ugly comments from other kids.
Nothing worked. My metabolism was apparently too high and I burned off all that excess food. My weight remained the same, my appearance continued to draw comments.
Fast forward a few years into high school. I had moved far beyond painfully shy at school, but was a completely different kid at my church youth group. While still a bit shy there, the love extended to me by my church family allowed me to be more of myself and enjoy time with friends. These kids didn’t make ugly comments about my weight, height and appearance. They simply loved me.
By my senior year, I had gained that longed for 10 pounds, but, unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to really matter much to my appearance. However, with the level of encouragement and love given by the youth group, not to mention the spiritual changes in me, I blossomed into a much more outgoing and happy person. I was still one of the tallest kids around, and one of the skinniest, but I was happier inside and more able to cope.
Over time, health issues and a more sedentary job combined to add another 10 pounds by the time I was 26. If you’re keeping track and doing math, that puts me at 130 pounds and still 5’ 9”. Still quite thin, but more healthy appearing on a simple visual level.
This was the first time that someone actually commented to me that I was “not going to look good in my jeans if I kept eating so much and gaining weight”.
The person who made the comment blithely went about her day, never knowing what she had set off inside my head. Her comment was really about a level of amazement at how much I could eat, although phrased very poorly. And her timing sucked as I had just left my husband, starting the process of a divorce.
Yes, at 130 pounds, wearing a size 8 or 10, what I heard was “wow, you’re fat now and no man will ever think you are attractive.”
What? Really? Fat?
You see, my sister WAS the fat kid in school. She got all the other ugly comments for being the overweight kid. The minute I heard that comment, all I saw was my sweet sister’s much bigger body in place of mine. My head screamed at me all of the comments she had received.
And I stopped eating.
Oh, I blamed it on the stress of the divorce. Folks accepted that reason. In just a couple months, I’d dropped that 20 pounds, back into a size 5-7, and felt much better about how I looked.
Then came the concerned comments about how thin I was getting.
Can you sense my internal level of confusion about my body?
My head got really messed up on how I viewed my body. I didn’t know what to do. I loved food, always have, but was afraid to eat because I didn’t want to be fat. I was also afraid to avoid food because I didn’t want to become anorexic. After all, Karen Carpenter had recently died from anorexia. I didn’t want to die, I just wanted to look right for everyone.
Confusion reigned on how this body really looked. Was I fat? Or was I skinny? The messages that I received from others and from my own confused self were so mixed up that I stopped looking at myself in the mirror. All I could see was the fact my tummy was not concave anymore, but flat across the hipbones, so therefore I was fat.
Yep, flat across the hipbones made me fat. And I wanted to look right for everyone. Did you notice that I didn’t want to look right for me? Did you notice I didn’t care if I was healthy?
When I married the Man, I weighed 115. I’d started eating again, but was incredibly careful about it. In fact, I only ate in front of people. That way, I could monitor how much I was eating by using them as a gauge. If someone made a comment about how much I was eating, I could then “become full” with just a couple more bites. Not eating by myself, or eating only a very little when alone, allowed me to keep my weight down in that range where I would not receive comments about being fat. Since I knew how to ignore comments about being skinny, this seemed to be working for me.
At least I told myself that it was working.
After we settled into married life, I got lax about food. After all, he was here for more than 1 meal a day, and I do love to cook, so I had no choice but to eat. I gained a little weight, but that was okay. And I continued to snack at my desk. All day. I gained a little more weight, but it was fine. And my health issues, 8 surgeries in just a few years, combined with sedentary work added into the mix. All day stress eating became the new normal for me.
I gained quite a lot of weigh over time, hitting 185 pounds.
I’m still that 5’ 9” tall person, and can carry extra weight without folks realizing quite how much I’m carrying, but 185 is actually overweight by 16 pounds. The height/weight charts all say the healthy range for this height is 135 - 169 pounds. At 185, and needing to buy a size 14-16, I was really unhappy about it, but figured it was just late-30’s, moving into 40’s-normal and what I’d be forever.
And then I fell down the stairs at work.
When the paramedics came, they thought I’d broken my back. Backboard, neck brace, onto the gurney, and with a loud, “oomph”, 3 men lifting me into the ambulance. Yes, 3 men. At the ER, during the exam and diagnosis of badly bruised back, I overheard the doctor mention that I was a “mildly obese woman”.
Not broken, but obese on top of injured.
Ouch and OMG… he said the obese word about me.
I mean really, I just thought I was fat.
In my head, I saw myself as if I weighed twice what I did. My body ached from the fall. My emotions were battered even more from the label of obese. For a few weeks, I cried most nights after work, with an internal dialog that allowed the critical voice to hammer home that I was the biggest whale ever.
And then the Man quietly asked if I wanted to do something to make myself feel better.
Ever so carefully, and with the gentlest of loving tones, he suggested that I go to a single Weight Watchers meeting. If I hated it, or was not comfortable in any way, I never had to go back. But if it seemed a good fit, maybe it would help me to feel better about myself.
Ended up that I joined Weight Watchers. I lost 50 pounds. (if you’re still doing math, that’s down to 135) I felt pretty good about how I looked and felt much more confident. I kept it off, or most of it, for several years.
Did you notice that I felt “pretty good” and not great?
Why didn’t I feel great that I was at the bottom end of the healthy weight range for my height?
And then the number on the scale started creeping up. I ignored it. After all, midlife, late-40’s, and menopause will combine to change the body a little, right? Add in that I’d come into my own in my love of cooking and food, learning to enjoy wine and cooking with it. A restaurant owner’s daughter, I gloried in really good foods. Not to mention the high stress levels in all areas of life. Work stress, family stress, stress with my best friend, stress everywhere. I ate more and more, consoling myself with food, which in turn showed up on the scale and in my emotions.
When I hit 170 pounds, I saw the fat woman had come back. It made me sick to see myself in the mirror, but I could not seem to do anything about it. Oh, I might drop a pound or two, but then put them back on immediately.
When I turned 50, I had hoped to be back into a healthy weight range, but my weight kept climbing as I kept eating. I kept cooking and eating great foods, my high stress levels continued. No end in sight, in fact some of them increased as we cared for my precious father-in-law for 6 months during his terminal illness. The number on the scale climbed to 190, my highest ever. My head screamed “obese!!!” I hated my body. Then, at the same time that my father-in-law died, other stresses ratcheted up and my family stress skyrocketed. I tried to cope, but really lost any ability to do so.
While this blog post is not about depression, it does need to be mentioned in this story. Spiraling into depression was not pretty. It took me a while to admit it to anyone. Months, almost a year. Then, it took me months to seek help from my doctor and a good therapist.
One of the bad things about depression, for me anyway, is that I stop eating when I hit the lowest level. Stress makes me overeat, depression makes me stop eating. Completely.
When I hit that point, last year, I ate less in a week than a normal, healthy person would eat for half a day. This went on for about 3 weeks. Much concern from the Man, my doctor, my therapist and the couple friends who were aware of the depression. I dropped 10-12 pounds in that short time from simply not eating. While I needed to lose some weight, I needed to do it in a proper and healthy way. This wasn’t it.
Doc had a “come to Jesus” talk with me about eating and exercise and depression. How these things work and work together to lift the mood. My counselor backed it all up at our next session. Somehow, what was said penetrated. I started both eating a little and exercising each morning.
I’m not going into the swearing at the elliptical I did. I hate exercise with a passion, but this isn’t about hating exercise. It’s about doing the work needed despite the hate to do it.
As I worked on my issues in my counseling sessions, I began to eat more normally. I realized that I could actually begin to eat less at any one sitting, and stop eating when I was actually full - long before the overstuffed feeling showed up.
At a healthier pace, the number on the scale kept moving downward. By Christmas, I’d lost 35 pounds and was feeling much better about myself because I’d been doing it right, doing the work of getting my body healthy in healthy ways.
Oh, crud, that stuff all the doctors have said for years about eating less and exercising was working! And no, I have not admitted that to my doc yet!
Did you notice the reason that I felt better about myself? For once it wasn’t about what other folks were thinking, seeing saying. It was because I was doing it right. Me. Working to get healthy.
Yes, everyone has noticed the weight loss. There were many comments about how thin I was getting. All of them were positive, encouraging me that I looked great and healthy.
At the beginning, all I could hear of those comments was that I had been so fat. I couldn’t hear the compliments, all I could hear was that I needed to keep going because I was still fat.
If you’re still with me, doing the math, I weigh 155 at this point. I’m down to a size 8, sometimes 10. Well within the healthy weight range for my height. Why did I still see myself as that obese woman?
In my head, while I felt better about myself, I still wasn’t done with losing weight. Still had the critical voice whispering “fat” inside my head. Could not see myself properly yet. Could not hear those compliments quite properly. I dropped some more weight, bottoming out at my current weight of 142, and a size 6. If you’re still doing the math, that is a loss of 48 pounds.
In counseling, we talked about and worked through some of the body issues I had, silencing that critical voice. I’m seeing my body in a completely different light. While I still struggle with some body issues, I don’t give that critical voice credence. I don’t hear it saying the words, “you’re fat”.
I can actually see in my own mirror that I am a thin woman who has worked hard to get her body healthier.
Wow, did I just say that? Me, a thin woman?
Yes, me, thin. Yes, me, healthier.
And then… Friday.
On Friday, someone asked if I was going to continue to lose so that I could hit the 50 pounds lost mark. I told them that the number wasn’t important to me. I am done with being in weight loss mode, and am now content to be in maintain mode. It surprised me that the person seemed disappointed in me for “giving up” at 48 pounds lost.
Wait, giving up? What? Are you telling me I’m still fat? Just because I didn’t shoot for an additional 2 pounds that would make a round number of 50?
I say a resounding NO.
I’m not fat because of that 2 pounds. I’m not a quitter. I do not have to have a certain number lost or on my scale in order to validate my body image. I don’t accept someone else’s disappointment as my own. I am getting healthy.
Did you notice that I said I was content? Did you notice I said no?
I suspect there will be folks who look at the numbers on my journey up and down the scale and dismiss me as one more skinny girl who thought she was fat in order to gain attention. After all, my number never topped 200, which seems to be the OMG number for our culture.
Remember back at the beginning of this journey, I was that shy, awkward kid who never wanted attention. I never looked like the culturally accepted beauty who had the right measurements. I bought into the lies that I was too thin, or not thin enough.
I could not see myself as others did. Or as I truly was.
But I learned to do so.
…may there be mercy and contentment, seeing ourselves as we truly are.