Friday, August 28, 2009

Dear Abby...

Hello friends.

First, let me apologize for the radio silence of late. I’ve spent a long week tending to the home front, including (but not limited to) a bizarre and painful eye injury that my 14 year old son brought home from school Monday afternoon, and between visits to the ER, the pediatrician, the opthamologist, and the pharmacy frankly there just wasn’t enough energy left for me to tend to my blog. Or the laundry. Or the lawn. Or my hair, even. This little patch of the web is rarely far from my mind, though, and even in the midst of the chaos of the last several days I found myself knee deep in topical material.

As we sat in the various waiting rooms with little else to do than look around at the other people waiting there with us, it struck me just how very aware I am of the fat-content of any room I enter. I’m forever scanning the area, sizing up my obesity in relation to those around me. How much more room am I taking up than the man sitting on the other side of aisle? How much more comfortable am I than the woman struggling just to fit into the chair three seats away? How much area on this bench does my ass take up and how much space does that correspond to on the empty bench directly across from me? It’s an endless game of proximity and relativity and I’ve been playing it for as long as I can remember.

This is how I noticed a little girl I’ll call Lauren (because that’s what her Mom called her so I assume it’s her name--and because I doubt that her fundamental right to privacy is impinged upon by my mentioning her first name to the tens of readers who stop by my little patch of cyberspace) and while I don’t usually spend copious amounts of time intently watching little girls in public places, on that day I did. She was a lovely little thing, about 10 years old I’d guess with thick dark hair pulled up in a ponytail secured at the back of her perfect little head by a pink ribbon. Her blue eyes sparkled against her creamy complexion, and her white tank top covered her slim tummy where a pair of pretty plaid shorts peeked out from beneath the hem and below that her long, coltish little girl legs that seemed to go for miles before terminating in sparkly pink flip flops. As she flitted around first sitting, then standing, then pacing, then flopping back down in her chair (which, for the record, could have seated three of her comfortably, yet still didn’t leave me enough room to wedge my purse in next to me even with the aid of a handful of Crisco and a shoehorn) I found myself transfixed by just how…normal…she was.

I grew up fat. There is photographic evidence of a perfectly normal looking little girl who has my eyes and freckles and dimples all over my parents house, but after about the age of 5 ‘normal’ moved out and ‘fat’ took up residence, and it’s been squatting on my land ever since. I have no memories of those lean years, and to me it seems as though the fat has always been a part of me. I’ve always been bigger than anyone I know, and I’ve never been unaware of that fact. I’ve spent my life watching little girls just like Lauren. I’ve looked on with fascinated wonder at how easily they move through the world, how they were slim and lithe where I was broad and bulky, at how the clothes they wore certainly didn’t look like anything that came with the words “pretty plus” on the label. I used to watch them for clues about what it was that they knew that I didn’t, trying to decipher the whispered secrets of skinny girls that I just couldn’t hear no matter how hard I listened. I watched them live their lives in perfect little bodies that they seemed to take for granted, all the while living mine in one that I could never, even for a moment, forget about. I watched them and longed for what they had. I wanted to be like them, even when they made it clear that I never would. All these years later, I’m still watching.

Lauren was clearly getting exasperated with all the waiting she was being made to endure, and with a level of drama that only little girls can sustain for any length of time, she sighed her impatience to her Mother who responded by telling her it wouldn’t be much longer. Lauren rolled her eyes and asked “Well, can we at least still go to Dairy Queen after?” When her mother said that they probably wouldn’t, Lauren asked “Why not?” to which her mother replied (and I quote):

“Because you don’t want to get fat like Abby in your class, do you?”

Lauren thought for a minute, shook her head, and said “No way.”

And that’s when the nurse called her name…and they were gone.

And in that moment, I felt like I was 10 years old again. I don’t know Abby, but I sure feel like I do. I wonder if she watches Lauren too, if she wishes that she looked more like her. I wonder if she knows that she’s the warning that her classmates’ mothers use to discourage their daughters from eating ice cream. I wonder how many times in the last 30 years the name “Sara” has been uttered in similar cautionary tales. I wonder if Lauren knows how lucky she is in her own skin, if she has it in her to be kind to Abby despite just how much she doesn’t want to be fat like her. But mostly, I wonder if Abby is OK.

Dear Abby,

Where ever you are, whoever you are, you’re not alone.


Friday, August 21, 2009

No Jury on Earth...

...would convict her. At least not one that I was on.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Let's give 'em something to talk about...

Yesterday on his wildly popular weight loss blog, “Jack Sh*t Gettin’ Fit” posted an open letter to a morbidly obese couple that he ran into a few times while on vacation last week. The author has a big following, and I find his posts are often good for a laugh, or a sigh, or a kick in the pants. This particular post was an interesting read. Angry, passionate and well written, it was filled with blunt observations about the eating habits of the couple and as well as some uncharitable assumptions about other aspects of their lives and the effect of those things on their children. It certainly sparked some lively conversation.

Among the responses, it would seem that most people were a member of one of two distinct factions:

1. That was awesome and you’re my hero!


2. That was hateful and you should be ashamed of yourself.

And me? I guess I fall somewhere in the middle. The truth is that I know exactly where angry diatribes like that one come from, and I also know how much validity there was in the content. It can be really, really hard to watch other people making the same mistakes that you’re ashamed to have on your own resume—especially when you’ve finally found something that’s helping you rise above those old habits, when you’re pretty sure that you’ve finally made progress toward beating your own demons and you wish that everyone else would wake the hell up and get with the program already. Hubris is a natural consequence of success, and the feeling of power that comes with control is a force to be reckoned with.

When I read Jack’s letter, I admit that I understood where he was coming from, that I nodded my head as he called out the trappings of obesity and how it affects those closest to us and that what is touted as a personal lifestyle choice is often anything but. But I also admit that I found some of what he said cruel and spiteful, and that while the subject matter didn’t give me pause, the spirit in which it was conveyed did. Maybe I felt so conflicted because I saw myself all over that letter.

I saw myself in the anger it conveyed, in the calling out of truth without remorse. I saw myself in the disgust over the choices the couple made, in the confidence in the choices I was now making and how much better off my life was as a result. But I also saw myself in the faces of the couple he wrote about, in each movement from plate to mouth, in the way it feels to have others scrutinizing your choices, in the assumptions that others make about you behind your back, or right to your chubby face. I’ve seen those scenes play out from every seat in the house, and I’ll be damned if I can pick which one had the clearest view.

One of the very best (and most frustrating) gifts that this ongoing weight loss journey has had in its hands for me is a heaping helping of humility. I’ve felt the almost cosmic power of unshakeable self-control, and I’ve felt the despair that comes with losing my grasp on it. I know that very often the behavior that I find the most objectionable in others is usually what I can barely stand to look at in the mirror. Jack’s open letter to that couple brings home to me just how powerful both feelings are, but it also cautions me not to forget that “they” aren’t the only ones out there judging us by our actions, but that “we” are ever watchful as well.

I’m glad that he posted that letter, and I’m glad that I read it. I believe that breaking the silence that surrounds obesity is key in the fight against it, and that when it’s easier to talk about the fat it’s easier to fight it. And people sure are talking…

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

How Low Can You Go?

WARNING: There’s a silent killer on the loose. Preying on fat girls all over the world, it whispers to them, affirming their darkest fears and convincing them that their deepest insecurities are all 100% valid and that no matter how they try to improve their lives none of it matters because at the end of the day it doesn’t change the fact that they’re just…not…worth…the work. Despite efforts to banish this murderous beast, it can’t be stopped. The media writes about it, experts raise their voices against it, but in the end it’s proven itself such a powerful foe that it can stop those it haunts their tracks. What is this foul force, you ask? I’ll tell you, but you have to promise to keep your wits about you. I’ll say it’s name, but you MUST NOT SCREAM. It is…

Low Self-Esteem.

Wait…where are you going? Why aren’t you shaking uncontrollably and nearly weeping? Where’s all the wailing and gnashing of teeth, huh? I just told you the number one cause of all weight related suffering as reported by millions of people in countless chat rooms and weight loss blogs and you can’t even muster up an appropriately terrified or sullen expression in return? Aren’t you scared of it at all?

Hmm. Me neither. Try as I might, I just can’t figure out what all the self-esteem fuss is about. Which is odd, given the almost reverent tone that is so often attached to discussions about the relative level of it each of us possesses and how that impacts many of our decisions, both food-related and otherwise. We’ve come to believe that having it in abundance is necessary for success in this world, and that not having enough of it is the reason for so many of our failures. If we just had a little more of it, we might believe that all the hard work it takes to achieve our goals was really worth the effort. If the world was nicer to us, we’d like ourselves more and if we just liked ourselves more, then we’d believe that we deserved the best life has to offer. We could have better, richer, fuller lives…but tragically, our Low Self-Esteem just won’t allow that to happen.

Forgive me, brothers and sisters, but I just drew the bullshit card from the deck—and I’m throwing it down on the table.

Just what is self-esteem anyway, how did ours get so low, and where do we get ourselves some more of it? After some intensive research (consisting of five minutes of googling) I’ve found that the concept itself is pretty simple. According to Merriam-Webster, self-esteem is defined as ”a confidence and satisfaction with one’s self”. At face value, it’s a wonder that everyone on earth isn’t bitching and moaning about not having it. None of us are confident all of the time, and only the most tiresome among us is consistently 100% satisfied with themselves and their lives. But amongst Fat America, self-esteem levels seem to be much lower than the norm. And the truth is that I understand why.

Make no mistake; it’s tough to be fat in this world. There are days when it takes all your energy to simply exist in a society that doesn’t understand you, often openly reviles you, and certainly isn’t built to handle you. In a world that reduces our weight to the result of a character flaw, I can see why so many of us lack confidence in ourselves, and how every failure we’ve had in managing our obesity chips away at what is left. I believe that, for many of us, it can erode away our self-esteem and leave us feeling less powerful than we are.

But I also believe that we often use our lack of self-esteem less as a reason for our honest and earned weight loss failings than we do as an excuse for not really trying at all. It’s one thing to genuinely suffer from a deeply wounded sense of self-esteem, and another all together to repeatedly call out that same phenomenon as our Achilles heel. In my mind, it’s the classic Catch-22: People who are truly crazy don’t know they’re crazy--and it seems to me that people who suffer from cripplingly low self-esteem generally don’t walk around talking about just how low their self-esteem is.

I understand self-loathing. I understand moments of self-hatred. I even understand reaching out within our unique weight loss community for reassurance that our darkest moments don’t define us, for someone to tell us that the worst we see in ourselves isn’t the core of who we are. I’ve been there, and I am so grateful for this community and the mirror that I’ve found within it. But I sometimes think that because we’re so willing to offer up bravos and affirmations touting our intrinsic beauty and goodness to each other in the name of building up our confidence that it can sometimes be counter productive. It’s a way to artificially fill up our self-esteem meters with kittens and rainbows and warm fuzzy intangibles instead of recognizing that it’s called SELF-esteem for a reason. It’s not something we’re born with a bank of as our birthright or that other people can give us, but something that we have to work for. We earn it each time we make a choice that honors our goals, and each time we pick ourselves up after we stumble. And the more we earn, the less willing we are to give it away to the next person who wants to take it from us.

Motivational speaker Ron Brown said something at a dinner I attended a few years ago that’s stuck with me ever since. Looking into the audience he pointed to someone near the stage and said “If I come over there and knock you out of your chair, that’s on me. But if I come back tomorrow, and you’re still rolling around on the floor, that’s on YOU.” There’s only so much good that we can do by standing around and telling each other that we’re good enough, and strong enough, and pretty enough, and talented enough to get up off the floor when we’re ready to…but sooner or later we have to quit rolling around and get back in the chair, even if it means that no one tells us what a great job of sitting back down we did.

Let’s continue to build each other up, to offer a hand to those who need it—but remember that affirmation is a partnership: One of us offers a hand, the other one reaches up and takes it. Let’s encourage each other to look within ourselves for what we want so desperately to believe—that the hard work is worth it. And so are we.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Let Them Eat Cake...

There's a piece of cake in my trashcan.

Ok, ok. There's most of a piece of cake in my trashcan. Like seven-eighths of a piece. Or maybe three-fourths. Definitely two-thirds of one, anyway. At least.

I didn't set out to have cake for breakfast. I was perfectly content to go about assembling my old standby meal of yogurt topped with fresh sliced strawberries sprinkled with Fiber One cereal. But as I was heading back to fill my coffee cup, a coworker announced that there was leftover cake by the coffee bar--and not just ANY cake, but leftover WEDDING cake (And seriously, is there any cake more delectable in the whole world than white wedding cake with white icing? Call me a pastry purist, but I say a definitive no!). I walked over to it, sniffed the air and took in it's heavenly scent, and then told a coworker who was busy cutting a piece for herself that I'd pass, but I'd have one later if I still wanted it. To which she replied by taking a bite of the cake and making yummy noises and saying that I really should eat a piece now because it was crazy delicious.

She had me at "Yum".

So I cut myself a small piece (and by "small" I actually mean "of diminutive size" and not "small compared to, say, a concrete block or a baby rhinoceros"), took it back to my desk, took one bite, and then set it off to the side. As that first bite melted in my mouth, my eyes rolled into the back of my head and for a moment I forgot that it was 8:10 AM and I was eating two day old dessert from a party I wasn't invited to and just reveled in the cakey-goodness. I took a sip of coffee (to cleanse my palate, of course) and then lifted another bite to lips and thought..."Hmm. Well, this is OK I guess." Bite number three settled itself on my tongue and I found myself thinking "The frosting's a little too grainy, and the cake is moist but not terribly flavorful..." and in the seconds before my fork descended to scoop up bite number four my brain completed a complicated formula that compared flavor payoff to caloric content, and I found myself laying the fork down, picking up the plate, and tossing the rest of the cake into the aforementioned trashcan.

It's still sitting there as I type this, completely in tact (less the three bites I forked out it) where it slipped off the paper plate as I tossed it in there and came to rest on the bottom right hand side of the bin liner. Nary a crumb out of place, it lies next to a banana peel, a kleenex, about ten used sticky notes, and an empty blueberry yogurt container that were all tossed it after it as the morning progressed. I know all of this because out of the corner of my eye I can see it at the bottom of the trash can, the little red rosebud perched in the center of the creamy white icing that was spread over moist white cake as it looks up at me like an angry, unblinking eye. It's been staring at me ALL DAY.

It wasn’t that great tasting, it wasn’t so tempting that I couldn’t bear to throw it away several hours ago, and it currently has a sticky note that says “stop loss” with three exclamation points on it embedded in the bottom corner of it’s frosting…and yet there’s a part of me that wants to reach down, grab it, and shove that creamy fist full of trashcan cake right into my mouth. “But Sara, it’s in the TRASH,” you’ll argue, “and that’s just GROSS!” Yeah, well, you’re right—but sadly the mere fact that a food has a current status of garbage isn’t always enough to dissuade me from thinking about eating it (or actually doing so, for that matter). Sometimes I wish that my particular brand of crazy wasn’t of the variety that had me arm wrestling with discarded confections all day, and that there were often more impressive victories to report than “Today I didn’t pick the cake I threw away this morning out of the trashcan and eat it 7 hours later!”

But for the record, I didn’t.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Paging Mr. Power, Mr. Will Power...

I was talking to my Mom the other day, and she was lamenting (as she is wont to do) the state of her current weight and the plans that she had to send that number into decline. As we rehashed the finer (and familiar) points of calorie intake and physical activity, I thought to myself that if the Department of Homeland Security came across snippets of our conversation out of context in one of their now totally constitutional and not at all invasive phone sweeps, they might mistake us for knowledgeable nutrition and weight loss professionals instead of just a fat girl and her mom who could stand to lose a few pounds herself. After all, we talk a very good game—full of strategies and buzzwords and clear and concise plans for putting that know-how into action. Mom remarked, not for the first time I might add, that she knows exactly what she needs to do…so why doesn’t she just do it already?

Well gee, Mom. Isn’t that the sixty four thousand dollar question?

I bet if you asked any group of overweight people how to lose weight that 99% of them would be able to write you a 1,000 word essay filled with factual information and conventional wisdom on the subject without having to crack a book or pen even a single footnote. While there may be that 1% of the obese population who just recently woke up one morning and realized for the first time that they might indeed have a bit of a weight problem, most members of Fat America aren’t on their maiden weight loss voyage once they’ve reached adulthood. The concepts traditionally involved in weight loss are painfully simple: Eat Less + Move More = A Smaller Ass. I know this. YOU know this. And yet most of us can’t seem to stick to that formula for any meaningful length of time. What is wrong with us that we can’t do what we know we should? How can we see so clearly what needs to be done, but turn around and make choices that are in direct opposition to our goals? Where, we wonder, is our willpower?

It seems that some scientists are wondering the same thing, and it turns out that they’re starting to figure this whole willpower thing out.

I read a fascinating article in Psychological Science about the science behind self-regulation and the concept of willpower. You see, I subscribe to several scientific medical publications and peruse them frequently for light reading material to amuse myself when I have a moment of free time between Mensa meetings or while using the bathroom. Or I might have heard about the article on the radio this morning and then googled it. I forget which. The article states that in a world where lack of willpower & self-regulation is at the root of many societal problems (obesity, addiction, consumer debt, violence, infidelity, crime, etc.), the science of willpower has become a priority for scientific study.

Over the years, many psychologists and biologists (and neurologists, oh my!) have been working to learn about the various ways that human beings regulate their behavior. Self-discipline is one of the hallmarks of humanity, and the ability to make choices that defer immediate gratification in favor of the promise of a future payoff is one of the central characteristics that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. And yet most of us have trouble in some area of our life with regulating ourselves as much as we’d like to, or as much as we think we should. And when we find that we can’t rein ourselves in, we blame our lack of willpower for the failing.

In the weight loss world willpower a precious commodity, something that we long to have a good supply of, but too often seem to lack completely. We envy in it in others, we ask each other how we can get more of it (like we’re secretly hoping that someone knows the name of a guy who hangs out in back of the local Burger King and sells it out of the trunk of his car or something), and lament how we once had it in our hands it but it slipped through our grasp. We admire the people who have it in abundance, and we kick ourselves for letting ours fade away. And no matter how much of it we have, we always want more.

According to scientists, willpower is a lot like a muscle. We can choose to flex it, but it takes effort to exercise it—and just like any muscle that’s not used to being used regularly, it gets sore. Each individual seems to have a finite amount of it to use at any one time, and each successive situation that requires us to call up on our willpower can tire that muscle out. As I read this theory of willpower as muscle, it seemed to make a lot of sense to me. I know that, for me, my ability to control my behavior with food seems to be directly related to how much control I feel I have over the rest of my life. When my world is in balance and things are going swimmingly I have no problem calling upon my willpower to turn down a high calorie delicacy that doesn’t fit into my plan because I know that doing so will only keep me further from my goals. But if my world is in chaos, if I’ve already had to talk myself out of listing my child on Craig’s List under “Free Teenager, You Haul him away, you make my day!”, or had to stop myself from yelling at the jerk in the Jetta who cut me off on the expressway that morning, resisted the urge to tell a frustrating coworker exactly where they can put that last minute emergency request of theirs, and had to pry the third smallest piece of a set of hand painted nesting dolls that my parents brought me from their trip to Russia a few years ago out of a 70 pound Labrador Retriever’s jaws…then my ability to turn down an offer of “Hey, let’s go out for Mexican!” in favor of grilled chicken breasts, steamed broccoli and whole wheat cous cous is severely impaired. My willpower is no longer a shapely and taut muscle to flex for the world, but is sad and limp like a dunked cruller. (Mmmmm. Dunked Crullers.)

But if willpower is like a muscle, the big question is: Can we strengthen it through exercise? Interestingly enough, the answer seems to be yes. We can work it like any other muscle to make it stronger and more efficient for use in the future. Those of us with food issues can do exercises like tracking our food intake (Yep—turns out there’s a method to all that much lamented food journaling stuff they keep telling us is key to our weight loss success), through practicing our responses to difficult situations (Visualization, not just for hippies anymore!) and by repeated use of willpower in lower stress environments (that whole “fake it ‘till you make it” shtick might not be just an annoying catch phrase after all). And some studies also suggest that merely observing other people exercising self control helps us to make better choices in our own lives. (This means I can count catching up on my favorite weight loss bloggers' adventures each day as exercise. Hooray!)

It encourages me to think about willpower not as a trait that I just don’t have, but as a tool that I can develop. My willpower muscle might be flabby and lack tone, but I’m working to strengthen it, to move it and shake it and give it definition so that I’m no longer ashamed of how weak it is, but confident enough to show it off to the world. I think I can make that happen.

And then I’m going to do the same thing with my butt…