Thursday, December 31, 2009

My new year's resolution: no more resolutions

New Year's Eve Ball, 1978, New York Times

190 pounds
It's New Year's Eve, and the world is alive with enthusiastic revelers and booming fireworks. I love New Year's Eve because of the energy and the hope it brings.

But one of the things I don't like about bringing in the new year is all the focus on resolutions and losing weight. It's almost impossible to think about new year's resolutions without thinking about how happy or unhappy we are with our bodies, and I feel like at this time of year, we focus more on our flaws—specifically what we want to improve—rather than our assets, and honestly, that breaks my heart.

For years, I have made numerous resolutions about my weight and my body. I even made resolutions on my birthday some years.

When I was looking through some old memorabilia recently, I found a list of resolutions from my 25th birthday, one of which was my resolution to get to 140 pounds.

140 pounds!!

What kind of crack was I smoking?!

I weighed 150 at the time and really hadn't weighed less than that since high school, so why did I think I had any chance of getting below that number? And, more importantly, why on Earth wasn't I happy at 150 pounds?!!!!

That's 40 whole pounds less than I weigh now. I can't even imagine weighing 150 pounds now. Nor can I imagine what I would do to weigh that little. I'd probably sell my soul to the devil to have my old body back. So why oh why couldn't I appreciate it when I had it?

I think the answer is simple: because we live in a society that teaches us that we always have to be thinner or better or smarter or happier. It's never enough to be just who we are now. I'm not saying I'm opposed to self-improvement, but I don't think it can be achieved until self-appreciation is also achieved, which is almost impossible if we're always focusing on what's wrong with us and resolving to change.

So rather than make a list of resolutions I won't keep and that will make me feel bad for weeks to come, I'm going to resolve this year not to make any more resolutions. To be happy with what I have and what I am. Right here and right now.

I hope that all of you can do the same, and I wish you all a very happy new year—see you on the other side!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

All I want for Christmas . . .

190 pounds
A few days after my "These Kids Today" post, I followed up on my promise to talk to my nieces about body image after my older niece made some slightly inappropriate comments about my body.

I waited until we had a few moments alone—when the girls were changing into their pajamas on Christmas Eve—and then told them that even though I was bigger than their mommy that didn't mean I wasn't pretty.

(It was easy for me to say these words to them at this point in my life, but when I said them, I was still well aware how far I've come from the person I used to be, the person who couldn't see herself as remotely attractive, much less pretty, especially when compared to my super fit and adorable blonde sister.)

Immediately, the girls jumped in.

"You are SO pretty," they said, repeating themselves over and over in case I didn't believe them: "You are! You are!"

But I did believe them.

Not just because I have more self-esteem than I've ever had, but because the two of them routinely compliment the way I look. Yes, they had made some inappropriate comments about my size a few days before, but those comments were the exception rather than the rule, which was another reason I wanted to use those remarks to start a larger discussion about women's bodies while I had the chance—for all I knew, they would never say anything like that to me again.

"But I want you to understand that size doesn't have anything to do with beauty," I explained. "Bigger woman can be just as beautiful as smaller women."

"Of course, they can!" the girls both agreed without hesitation.

I could see that this was going to be an easy sell, so I decided to go further, explaining to them in detail how genes work and how our body size is determined more by our parents than by our eating and exercise habits. Of course, little kids never miss an opportunity to use any new situation or experience as a way to get even more information, and it wasn't long before they were asking me if I thought their genes would give them big breasts. I stepped around that minefield as carefully as I could and told them they'd probably look just like their mommy when they grew up, and that seemed to satisfy them.

I also took the opportunity to tell them what I thought of the word "fat"—that it's a word that is normally used in a mean way, so they shouldn't use it. They were nodding and seemed to understand, but I wasn't entirely sure they were still with me.

If I had any doubts about the effectiveness of our talk, they were erased the next day—which just happened to be Christmas—when someone used the word "fat," and my older niece jumped up from her chair and said, "That's a bad word! You shouldn't say that."

I can honestly say that it was one of the best Christmas presents I have ever received.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Season of Indulgence

190 pounds
It's Christmas Eve, and I just finished spending a long night with my family. We did the usual stuff—got dressed up, went to church, ate a big dinner and some holiday cookies, played games, opened our first gifts. It was an average American Christmas in that sense.

But one thing about the night made me feel a little better about our society's normally extreme attitude about the way we eat.

My aunt brought several decadent appetizers including an amazing pepper jelly, which she served over cream cheese with Ritz crackers. Let me repeat that . . . served OVER CREAM CHEESE WITH RITZ CRACKERS.

Calories galore.

When she first got it out, we all thought it was too rich and heavy for us to finish before dinner, but as it turned out, we sat around the coffee table noshing on it until there was nothing left but a few smears of orange jelly around the outside of the plate.

It was that good.

And when I said something about how I probably shouldn't be eating so much, my normally disciplined aunt said, "Who cares? It's Christmas."

I had expected someone to agree with me—especially since both my aunt and my sister are exercise nuts and very thin—but instead my aunt reinforced what I already believed: that sometimes we just have to let ourselves go.

And it hit me while we were scraping the serving plate clean that holidays are the one time Americans allow themselves to eat what we want. Whether it's Christmas or the 4th of July, we let ourselves give into our most indulgent cravings on special occasions and for at least a short time don't think about how they will affect our waist size or the number on the scale, something Americans almost never do the rest of the year.

Despite all the warnings about gaining weight over the holidays, I'm a firm believer in the importance of indulgence, as I've discussed before. Yes, on average people gain up to a pound during the holidays and those pounds add up as time goes on if they are not lost later in the year, but I believe that if we allowed ourselves to indulge all year—and not just during the holidays—we would have less desire to do so on the big days and would be able to do so in moderation. I know it may sound like an oxymoron to promote moderate indulgence, but I do think it's possible. Because I believe if we allow ourselves decadent foods throughout the year, we are less likely to go completely overboard with them during the holidays.

So, on the one hand, I'm thrilled that Americans let themselves go a little bit over the holidays and consider it a welcome change from the country's obsession with dieting that monopolizes the rest of the year, but on the other hand, I wish we would all learn to give ourselves more latitude all year long rather than just a few days a year.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

These Kids Today

190 pounds
Like almost everyone on the planet, I'm spending the holidays with family. Dave and I always come to Florida in December to see my parents, and this year—for the first time ever—my sister and her family are here too.

My sister has two girls, and I absolutely adore both of them, which means I'm thrilled to get some time with them over the holidays.

But sometimes I worry about them.

Today we took my two nieces out for the day, and at one point, my older niece pointed to my middle and said, "You have a big stomach."

I tried to explain that my "big stomach" was a result of my recent surgery, but she was having none of it.

"You look like you're pregnant," she said with a small laugh.

Though many women with fibroids do look pregnant, I really don't, but I do look bloated, and as the daughter of two of the fittest people I know, I could understand why she might make that mistake. So I tried to explain.

The girls already knew that I had my uterus—or as they call it, my "baby holder"—taken out, so I went from there: "I look pregnant because my uterus used to have a whole bunch of tumors in it that stretched my stomach out the same way it would if I had a baby."

"Oh," my niece said. "Okay."

And just to clarify, I added: "It'll probably go back to normal by next summer."

You might be thinking that it was unnecessary for me to go into so much detail with my nine-year-old niece, but I saw this as a "teachable" moment (as much as I hate that overused term): I wanted them to understand that a big tummy does not necessarily have anything to do with being overweight or being unattractive and that they shouldn't assume it does.

And I was glad that I used that moment when I had it because it was only a few hours later when my niece told me that I look twenty years older than my thirty-six-year-old sister (her mother) because I am bigger than she is.

The old me would have been gutted by this comment, but it honestly didn't hurt my feelings. Still, it did bother me on a soci0political level, especially since I know she was also thinking that my sister is also prettier because she's smaller.

Since we were sitting with the whole family when she said it, I decided to discuss the issue with her more later and simply told my niece that size has nothing to do with age. But tomorrow I fully intend to talk to her about her implied connection between size and beauty.

Again, you may think that I should keep my mouth shut or just let it go as kid talk, but I fully believe that if we don't teach the young women in our lives—be they daughters, granddaughters, or nieces—to expand their notion of what kind of women are attractive, then we'll still be talking about these same issues twenty years from now.

No, my niece will never have to worry about her own body image—her genes guarantee that—but she will affect how other women see themselves, and I refuse to sit by and let her continue to go through life with such a narrow definition of beauty.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

From one extreme to another

189 pounds
I've been lucky enough to see two movies this week—Precious and Brothers.

If you haven't heard, Precious is about a teenage girl (a Golden Globe-nominated performance by Gabby Sidibe) who is the victim of sexual, physical, and verbal abuse at the hands of her parents.

And Brothers is about a Marine (Tobey Maguire, also in a Golden Globe-nominated performance) coming home from Afghanistan after being presumed dead for months. In the wake of what they believe to be his death, his widow (played by Natalie Portman) and his brother (Jake Gyllenhall) form a close bond.

Both movies are outstanding, and I recommend them to everyone.

But what I want to talk about is the way these characters look.

At the beginning of Brothers, Maguire's character looks like a normal Marine—muscular and fit. But after spending months as a prisoner of war in Afghanistan, he returns home literally as gaunt and drawn as someone in a concentration camp, which was incredibly disturbing to see.

Not only does Maguire's character come home with a new body, he also comes home with post-traumatic stress disorder and some seriously disturbing issues because of what happened in Afghanistan. As a result, it is nearly impossible for him to be affectionate or intimate with his family. His character—malnourished to the point of being emaciated—looks like the walking dead, and when he lashes out at his confused and frightened children, it's hard not to dislike him despite what he's been through.

On the other end of the spectrum is Precious. Sidibe's portrayal of the movie's titular character is the exact opposite of Maguire's. Yes, like his character, Precious is haunted by a prolonged traumatic experience, but rather than become emaciated as a result of the abuse she suffers, Precious becomes obese. (A transformation which occurs before the movie begins and which the viewer only witnesses when the film flashes back to pictures from her childhood.)

But despite the abuse Precious has suffered, she has not turned into a monster who lashes out at everyone in her path. Instead, unlike Maguire's character, she is warm and giving, always looking for an opportunity for connection rather than shunning it the way he does. As a result, Precious is able to find others to help her deal with her issues in a way that Maguire's character is not.

In other words, the obese character is likeable, and the gaunt character is not.

I suppose this isn't really completely surprising given that overweight people have long been cast as the clown or the funny sidekick. Still, Precious is the MAIN character of the film, the protagonist.

And she's morbidly obese.

And everyone she meets adores her.

And the audience routes for her.

Did I mention she's severely obese?

So I can't help but wonder then if this depiction signals some kind of shift in our society. One of the goals of Precious, the movie, is to demonstrate that Precious, the character, is much more than a number on the scale, much more than her BMI. These things do not define her, nor do they determine how much people like or accept her. In fact, they have almost nothing to do with her interaction with others.

Before Precious, overweight people were a punchline, something to laugh at. But writer Sapphire and director Lee Daniels have given us a fully-drawn, complex character who just happens to be obese.

This raises the question, is it possible that our society is becoming more accepting of different kinds of body shapes? Are we finally learning that a small waistline does not determine a person's self-worth?

The answers to these questions must be yes because there is no way that their depiction of Precious—and Jim Sheridan's depiction of Maguire's Marine—doesn't demonstrate a change in our thinking. No, it seems obvious that with Precious, a clear shift has occurred. We are becoming a more tolerant society. We are accepting the fact that people—likeable people, interesting people—come in all shapes and sizes.

And I all can say is it's about freaking time!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Sibling Rivalry

189 pounds
Dave and I went to dinner tonight with my mother and her sister. The two of them are very close even though they are thirteen years apart in age and don't initially appear to look much alike. But when you really study them, it eventually becomes clear that they share many of the same features—they both have small brown eyes, a tiny upturned nose, and a thin, delicate mouth.

One of the reasons that it's hard to see these similarities is because my mother and aunt have completely different body shapes—my mother is short and squat, and her sister is long and lean. My aunt also wears her hair in a trendy hairstyle and dons age-appropriate but hip clothing. From a distance, she could easily pass for someone in her thirties and forties even though she's in her mid-fifties, and she is—by anyone's definition—very attractive.

As a child, my aunt was a bit of a nerd—wearing cat's eye glasses and looking awkward in her own skin. On the other hand, my mother, a former cheerleader and homecoming attendant, was a head-turning carbon copy of Jackie O in her day. Though she still retains some of that beauty, my mom now looks more like a grandmother than anything else—she wears her hair in a short permed style and has a penchant for tops decorated with flowers. So in some ways, the two of them have traded places—now my aunt is the one who is turning heads, and my mother is the one who feels uncomfortable in her body.

As a result of their differences, my mother often compliments her younger sister on everything—her clothes, her hair, her makeup, and of course, her body. And being the good niece, I also compliment her. I want my aunt (and everyone) to feel good about herself and know how attractive she looks. Which is why I told her how great she looked tonight.

But when I said so, my mother's response caught me completely off guard. She said, "Well, she works out every day!" as if this were the only explanation for my aunt's trim figure.

"I work out every day too," I said to my mother defensively, but based on her response, it was clear that she didn't get my point.

"But Vicki works out really hard," she added. My mother's implication was clear: If I worked out as hard as my aunt, I would be that thin too. And hand in hand with that implication was another one: if I'm not as thin as my aunt, then I'm not trying hard enough.

I'm sure it will be no surprise for me to tell you that I was having none of it: "I work out hard too!" I insisted. "When I lived in Cincinnati, I worked out two hours every day for an entire year, but during that whole time, I never lost any weight."

"That's true," my mother said. "There are other factors involved." Finally, my mother had figured out what I was trying to say, and why her original comment could easily be construed as misleading, even offensive.

But I don't blame my mother for the misunderstanding. I blame society. We are all taught—through the constant stream of advertisements for the latest fad diet and gym memberships—that if we are willing to discipline ourselves, then we can lose weight. And not just lose weight, but be thin. Model thin.

In reality, there are many people who are genetically designed to be bigger than the kind of women we glorify in our society. No matter how much they diet. No matter how much they exercise. And the implication that a woman is bigger or curvier because of her own lack of discipline is, quite simply, offensive. It may even be dangerous. Because it sends the message that if we are not model thin, then it is because we are not trying, we are not good. That message really frightens me, and it's one I will forever try to dispel—both here on the blog and every time I have dinner with people like my mother and my hot cougar of an aunt.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Picture perfect

189 pounds
I turned a corner yesterday—I started, albeit briefly, feeling like a normal person for the first time since my surgery almost two weeks ago. Like any completely insane person, my immediate response was to try and conquer absolutely everything on my to do list. I spent the day at work, and when I came home, I cleaned, cooked dinner, did laundry, started a new book, answered email messages, surfed the internet, and put up holiday decorations. I had felt so bad and been inactive for so long that I had an insatiable desire to do as much as possible in the few hours I had to myself.

And while I was looking for our ceramic Christmas tree in the garage, I came across some old photos, and like most people, as soon as I found one, I couldn't stop looking for more. Before I knew what had happened, I'd spent a good part of the night flipping through old pictures and memorabilia. Not such a bad way to pass an evening, but unfortunately it sent me down a slippery slope.

Because when I came across a picture of myself in my late twenties—a time when I weighed around 150 pounds—all I could think was, why can't I look like that now? And then my next thought was, maybe I should try harder to lose weight, maybe I've got it all wrong. . . maybe I should try to diet or starve myself. Or maybe I should give up soda for a whole year. I heard once that if you stop drinking soda for a year, you can lose thirty pounds. Could that be true?

And as soon as I allowed those thoughts to creep in, another even more disturbing one arrived: My God, I sound just like my parents. I sound like my mom planning her next diet or my dad the year he gave up french fries. Is it possible that I'm turning into my parents?

And that's when it hit me that my response to the picture in my hand was completely dysfunctional and unhealthy.

I don't really believe I can give up soda for a year and lose thirty pounds. So why on earth did those thoughts sneak into my head? Probably because I'm human, and it's only human to create unrealistic fantasies about our lives. But it still bugged me. Here I am writing this blog about not dieting, but I still find myself susceptible to flights of fancy about cutting calories to the bare minimum and being as thin as I was over ten years ago.

When I lived in Cincinnati in my early thirties, I had a friend around the same age who was practically haunted by a picture of herself from when she was eighteen. It was a nude picture, but it was done tastefully, and you couldn't see any of her private parts. It was all stomach, arms, and legs. But she was completely and totally obsessed with the concave stomach, toned arms, and lean legs of her youth. And this was the case even though she had gained only about ten pounds since then. Whenever she would bring up the photo and how much she was dying to get her old body back, I would get really irritated. I would think, my God, doesn't she understand that she'll never be eighteen again? and wonder why she simply could not accept herself the way she was.

And, as most of you know, that's really what this blog is about—accepting ourselves the way we are. The truth is that even though I had a very average desire last night to look as thin as I did when I was younger, I have also accepted myself the way I am today. I don't dislike the way I look now. In fact, I like the way I look, and I really do feel happy with the image I see in the mirror. And that's another way I've changed since that picture was taken—I feel good about myself now (something I was frighteningly incapable of doing when that old picture was taken). But at the same time, I do long for aspects of the younger me. I guess I want the best of both worlds—I want to accept myself the way I am now, and I want to have the body I had back then too. I have to reiterate—it's not that I dislike the body I have now. It's that I wish I had appreciated what I had back then. And maybe I do wish I had another chance in that body. Oh, how I would appreciate it! Oh, how I would take care of it! I would be like Michelangelo and his ceiling: I would tend to every last detail.

I'm not really sure what all this means—that I'm human? That I'm capable of having the same fantasies I dislike so much in others? I guess all I know for sure is that I can't let these fantasies consume me or dictate my choices. Sure, it's okay to have these thoughts from time to time, but if I let them take over my life, I am no better off than that friend who was in love with the image of her eighteen-year-old self. And, to be honest, I don't think I could get up in the morning if I didn't love my thirty-nine-year-old self a whole lot more than the unsure and insecure person I was at eighteen.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Cheaters never prosper

189 pounds
My weight has dropped dramatically since I had surgery ten days ago. Over the weekend, I hit a low of 187 and now I'm at 189. To be honest, I was reluctant to post that number here and actually hoped that when I got on the scale this morning it would be more than it was yesterday (which it was).

Why was I reluctant to post my current weight?

Because it feels like I'm cheating.

I'm not losing weight because I'm exercising, eating right, and living a healthy lifestyle. I'm losing weight because for the past ten days I've been eating far less than normal.

Last week, in fact, I was probably taking in less than 1000 calories a day, which is very unhealthy and clearly the cause of my weight loss. The ONLY reason I did it was because I was too sick from surgery to eat very much, and I spent most of my days sleeping anyway. And when I started eating closer to a regular amount of food again last Friday, my weight started to creep back up from its low of 187.

Sure, I'm pleased that my weight is under 190 pounds for the first time in over two years, but it's hard to be happy about something that it doesn't feel like I've really earned. (I suppose this is how steroid-loving baseball players feel after they hit a home run or break a new record.)

And I also worry that my sudden weight loss sends the wrong message. I really believe that the way I've lost weight—by cutting my calories to an unhealthy level—is not only dangerous but also ineffective since it will cause my metabolism to slow and ultimately cause my body to not be as healthy as it was before surgery. And that's why my real fear is that now that my body has gone more than a week and a half without eating a normal amount of food I will gain a boatload of weight once I start eating like the regular old me again.

So even though it's exciting to see the number at the top of this page lower than it's ever been before, I hope that none of you will imitate the behavior that has gotten me to this point. (Unless, of course, you also have to undergo a medical procedure that will leave you unable to eat normally because of the painful and disruptive recovery period that always follow surgery . . trust me, it's not worth it.)

And if, in the weeks to come, my weight goes back over 190 pounds, please don't judge me for it! It's going to be hard to get back in shape after this is all over, but eventually I'll do it.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Life on the disabled list

192 pounds
As I said in my last post, I had surgery this past Saturday, and I've been laid up since then recovering. I haven't done much of anything this week but sleep and try to avoid taking more pain pills, and the result is that I find myself feeling pretty lethargic and . . . wait for it . . .

. . . completely jonesing for a few good minutes of exercise.

Except for the eighteen-month hiatus from June 2007-February 2008 that led to my recent weight gain, I've been committed to exercising almost every day for coming up on eleven years now. Sometimes that means twenty minutes after work and sometimes that means three hours on weekends, but mostly I come it at around a sixty-minute workout each day. That is, until my surgery on Saturday.

I'm not going to lie . . . there are many, many, many, many days when I don't want to exercise at all. I want to sit my butt down on the sofa and watch re-runs of Glee or Mad Men until I dream about chain-smoking adulterers doing song and dance routines in my sleep. In fact, sometimes I have to practically force myself to put on my running shoes and jog bra, and when things get really bad, my normally mellow husband has to give me a falsely cheery pep talk and reminder about our life goals.

It's not that I don't like to exercise. I always love the endorphins that kick in afterwards and make me feel as giddy as a teenager who's just engaged in a heavy, sweaty, after-school makeout session, but sometimes it's just had to motivate, you know?

But over the past two or three days I have been thinking about how much I love it while I am exercising too. I love it because of the physical rush but also because of the mental one: because I feel more confident and fulfilled both during and after the workout.

So while I've been sitting on the sofa this week and watching re-runs of Glee day-in and day-out with my mom—who's here to help me recover (Thanks, Mom!)—I find myself longing to exercise as much as I normal long for a big, fat cheeseburger. And I promise that once I'm well enough to exercise again—hopefully next week or the week after that at the latest—I will fully appreciate how lucky I am to be able to do it.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Molly the Brave

192 pounds
My illness finally got the better of me, and I had to have surgery this weekend. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I had a number of fibroid tumors in my uterus, and they were causing major problems with my health. So after months of kicking and screaming, I finally gave in and let them operate, taking out the fibroids and my uterus this past Saturday during a three-hour laparoscopic procedure.

I've been laid up since then—not exercising or eating whole foods (or much of anything for that matter), just trying to recover. I'm still in a lot of pain and expect to be for a few more days at least. As it turns out, a co-worker had surgery the weekend before I did, the father of a good friend of mine is having surgery tomorrow, and the father of another friend who was only in his fifties died last week—somewhat suddenly and well before his time.

So all of this—surgery, hospitals, illness, even death—has been in my head lately, swirling around and making me think about what's important. And when I realized it was time to sit down and write this blog post, it suddenly became very clear what is not important—what's not important is how much we weigh, what's not important is a little bit of fat around our middle. And what is important is feeling good about ourselves today—how we live our lives and how we feel about our bodies.

Not tomorrow.

Not after we lose ten pounds.


I was originally supposed to have this surgery back in June of 2008, but I chickened out because, to put it simply, I was afraid of dying.

I'm still afraid of dying, but for some reason, I was able to go through with the procedure this time despite my fears. I still have lots of unfinished business—a memoir to complete, a novel to sell, pounds to lose, not to mention papers to grade—but for some reason, I was okay with leaving these things undone, something I wasn't okay with eighteen months ago.

So what was different this time?

I think it's honestly how I feel about myself and my life. I now feel as if I really have accepted myself and my life the way it is—unfinished, undone, a work in progress.