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Open Letter to Joni Mitchell, Day 3: Think First, Lose Weight Later

Copyright 2015 Carrie Holbo Photography

I know I’m being a show-off but believe me, if you had a photo session with Carrie Holbo Photography, you’d want to show off all your photos too! (www.carrieholbophotography.com)

Whenever I become unsatisfied with my life, the first thing I think is, “Oh, I need to lose weight.” Though intellectually I know that losing weight changes very little on the inside (I was still grappling with abandonment and trust and al my usual issues even when I dieted to my thinnest), starting Weight Watchers breeds great optimism in me. My motto becomes, “If this hard thing is possible, then surely all the other hard things are possible. I’m realizing that I’ve allowed losing weight to become shorthand for—or a shortcut to—fixing whatever ails my life. The problem with this is, of course, that I don’t really stop to ask myself the hard questions that I need to ask in order to move in a different direction. I’m so full of optimism that life just feels better. Optimism trumps dissatisfaction every single time.

Not to mention that I become so consumed in the action of doing one thing—losing weight—that I don’t spend much time thinking about other things: my job, my writing career, my love life. Sure, there may be progress in those areas, but it’s not from any active striving on my part. I just let myself keep drifting along, albeit with the gift I’ve mentioned before of being able to spot an opportunity when it drifts by me. Weight loss becomes not a means to an end; it becomes instead a giant distraction. In the same way that being consumed with managing the size and shape of my body shrunk who I was down to only my body, I also allowed my life-related troubleshooting to shrink down to one tool: weight loss.

I am feeling lost right now, as I find myself in middle-age returning to the same crossroads again and again—should I change jobs? do I want a partner or am I an out and proud spinster? how do I grow the audience for my writing?—because I’ve taken away from myself the one tool that I’d so carefully honed over the last few decades. I quit Weight Watchers forever. I threw the scale down the garbage chute. I have the number of a nutritionist, but I refuse to call her. Weight loss is not a bad thing for someone who’s clinically obese, as I am. But it’s dawning on me—slowly and painfully—that this time around, if I want to lose weight, I will actually have to do the much harder work first. I’ll have to think my way deeply into the questions I usually use a weight loss program to avoid. I’ll have to feel the feelings that make me want to avoid those questions in the first place: shame, guilt, disappointment, anger. I’ll have to wrestle with impostor syndrome. And define success for myself in a way that has nothing to do with the size of my pants.

I would like to end this with some really upbeat message about how I’m feeling empowered blah blah blah. The real ending, however, is this: I’m going to go throw on some clothes and head to the theater to see Wonder Woman and eat popcorn with butter and drink a Coke. And not think about this anymore today. But tomorrow? Well, that could be the start of something, couldn’t it?

Open Letter to Joni Mitchell, Day 2: Body of Work

Copyright 2015 Carrie Holbo Photography

Photo by Carrie Holbo Photography http://www.carrieholbophotography.com

In my nuclear family, the body was not something to be celebrated. It was not a marvel or a wonder. It was not a beloved house or a blessed one. I learned that bodies were to be hidden. Or punished—by you or yourself or by others. Bodies were always in want of improvement and chastisement. They were rarely enough as they were. And they were not just an aspect of who you were, they were everything about you. They told the story of your laziness, your unintelligence. They whispered the secret that you were the kind of girl to let a boy get you into trouble. They were too loud, too big, too much.

Bodies were the landscape on which you endured your punishment: a slap in the face for forgetting to come home from a sleepover in time for your piano lessons. Welts left by a belt across your behind for some infraction it turned out later that you hadn’t committed at all. My body was at times marked by the tines of a swizzle stick, the curved bowl of a pot spoon. My sister and I would spend long minutes pre-punishment, hidden in our shared closet, hitting each other to test out which belt hurt the least. (I didn’t understand geometry then; that it was better to be hit by a broad belt than a thin one.)

Later, when I’d grown too old for spankings, my body became merely a disappointment. My father, I think, wanted most of all a pretty daughter. No one with an outcropping of an ass like mine, whose genetics gave me thickened ankles and fat thighs as pre-existing conditions could, of course, be seen as anything as fat, despite my narrow waist, my small breasts, my small, sloping shoulders.

My mother wanted a daughter who didn’t remind her of sex. She made me drape my body in long skirts—at church, during high school—shaming me into sobs when I came home from college one summer audaciously wearing shorts that showed my curves. They didn’t cling; they skimmed, but still my body was a sin I didn’t know I was committing.

I was very smart. I had a beautiful singing voice and was becoming a talented writer. But I was short. But I was fat.

A friend told me once, years later, after I’d gained weight and dieted and gained weight and dieted and gained weight and dieted, and gained weight again, that I moved gracefully. We were at a writing retreat, and were doing some sort of movement exercise that would, the theory went, eventually yield poems. I had never thought of myself as graceful, not someone as big as I was, who stayed “big as I was” even when I wasn’t. In grade school, a classmate had told me I walked like a duck, and that’s who I was, the girl with the awkward body, what Trinidadians call obzuky—out of place, awkwardly wrong. How could there be grace in this body with its legs once likened to tree trunks by a boy who presumably liked me? I mean, can there be grace in a body like mine no understanding of how to be—or to stay—just enough?

A Latina physical therapist told me once, as we were working on fixing the knees I had somehow mysteriously wrecked, that she liked my culo and wished she had one like mine. Mine? My very fat ass?!? I walked out of therapy that afternoon knowing something of what it must be like to feel beautiful. Not because of an outfit or a hairstyle or even a sparkling personality, but that kind of beautiful that comes from sitting squarely in your body, inhabiting every square inch of it, joyfully, unabashedly, unashamed.

I don’t remember what that feels like now. Though that’s the story I’d rather tell, how that one conversation changed me forever. I want to write my body a happy ending, and I want to stop writing about my body. I want my body to become a neutral space.

I threw my scale down the trash chute last fall and vowed not to do Weight Watchers ever again! I felt so bold. So empowered! So free!

Now, I feel disappointed. I feel shame when I look in the mirror sometimes that here we are again, and I’m confused that that shame is no longer enough to get me to diet again. I question whether I obsess about my fatness because it’s comfortable to do so, and it’s what I’m used to. Is “why can’t you lose weight?” what hangs in the closet where we used to keep the belts?

I can make peace with my body for hours at a time, like yesterday when I was wearing leggings so soft and so pretty that I didn’t really care that you could see my multiple levels of tummy. And, to tell the truth, when I’m naked, peering at myself in the mirror like a voyeur, my body doesn’t read like an unsexy blob, but rather like a beautiful and mysterious landscape, maybe somewhere in the British Isles, where there are rolling hills and verdant valleys, and people purposefully set out to go striding through those undulations because who knows what joy will be found there?

Writing About My Body, Day 9

Nine Thoughts About my Body

1. Maybe I’m going about it all wrong. Maybe I should be trying to live fully in the curves and lumps, folds and flab of this body. What if I should stop trying to be less than? What if it is this fullness of flesh that makes the rest–intelligence, humor, compassion, kindness–possible?

2. Which part of me is the part you can’t possibly love? Or like? Or whisper your desire to? What part of me should I cut off to be the right shape and size for you to love?

3. No one loves a person’s thinness, do they?

4. They say the average size of the American woman is a size 14. I have always read that statistic as if I should be that woman. It’s impossible to believe that I’m not just any woman. This body right now is my average. The body I inevitably shape-shift back to. It is the thin me that is not average, that is abnormal.

5. No one doesn’t love a person because of their fatness, do they?

6. Yesterday I probably weighed 230 pounds. Yesterday I walked down the street and felt beautiful. You might say you don’t believe either is true. Which statement is it worse for you to not believe?

7. Fat and failure are assonant. Fat and failure are not synonymous. Fat and failure are relative. I need to claim my meaning not yours.

8. It is possible that I fear not what you think of my ownership of this body but what might happen if I truly owned this body? If I poked and prodded and probed it for what it could do. If I could no longer pretend this body means the same thing as impossible.

9. Is my body smarter than I am? Is it impossible for me to be thin outside because I’m not thin inside? I mean because I’m fecund. Because I’m always in bloom. Is this fat the only way my body knows to show me who I truly am?

Writing About My Body, Day 8

These days it’s hard to beat back the shame. After working really hard to lose weight–again–I’ve gained back not all, but pretty darn close to all the weight. Again.

This time I was pretty sure I’d figured it out: I’m a person of worth. I matter. I’m beautiful. I’m beloved by many. I’m not that defenseless kid who didn’t have any way to comfort herself except for with food. I can self talk my way out of overeating. I can self talk my way into exercising. What I feel on the inside is powerful and positive enough to inform and affect how I look on the outside. Cake really doesn’t solve anything.

Which is all true. Sometimes. Just not enough days in a row to make a lasting difference.

Many people in my life have seen me go up and down numerous times since I first walked into a Weight Watchers meeting somewhere in Downtown Crossing, Boston circa 1990. I’m fairly certain that for most of them, the number on the scale is the least of the things they consider important about me. Still, I can’t help but wonder–how many times can a person fail at weight loss without having that sheen of failure glint from everything she touches?

I know I’m possibly being melodramatic. But I’m not sure what other words to put around the enormity of this latest failure. How to accurately reflect that part of the reason I’m struggling in my long-awaited voice lessons is because I have to stare at myself in the mirror while I sing.

It’s not exactly that I don’t like what I see in the mirror. It feels more complicated than that. I like my long (currently blonde) hair. I like that my fingers and toes are always manicured. I love that I pluck my brows myself now and I’ve learned (finally) how to wear blush. I love that I spend way too much money in Ulta because I truly enjoy playing with makeup each day, how it is sort of a costume, not for hiding my face, but for saying something about who I want to be that day. Who I want to be in this life.

Still, the mirror reflects my shame. I think it’s not even shame about being a certain number on the scale. It’s shame about being that certain number AGAIN. It’s shame about not being able to stick the landing though this last time I lost weight was almost entirely about figuring out ways to maintain as I know that’s where I always stumble.

What I have learned about myself over the past 18 months is that I can do the hard things. Perhaps that’s something I should have already known or that you’ve known all along but… So maintaining isn’t a hard thing. It’s a ____________________ thing.

I’m the woman with the answers. The idea generator. The woman with a plan. The problem solver. The fixer.

I’m the woman who doesn’t know how to fill in the blank.

And I don’t know how to just let go of that desire to lose weight either even though I imagine part of the issue is exactly that holding on.

What I do know is that I walked away from this project for so many days because I didn’t want to write about shame. I didn’t want to write about being fat again. I didn’t want your sympathy or advice. I don’t want your sympathy or your advice. I don’t want you to tell me I’m beautiful. I don’t want you to tell me about your friend or sister or cousin who had a really hard time keeping weight off and then tried X. I don’t want you to ask me if I’ve considered surgery or not eating after a certain hour or Jenny Craig? I think maybe I just want you to tell me it’s okay to be average. To be the same as the thousands of people who’ve walked this road as many times or even more than I have only to end up at the same place again. Maybe I want you to tell me it’s okay to feel ashamed. We all feel it about something or the other. Maybe I want you to tell me I don’t always have to try and find the silver lining or the happy ending. Maybe I just want you to give me a nice piece of cake.

On breaking up with Weight Watchers….

photo of author

Editor’s Note: This post is transcribed almost directly from a “morning pages” journal entry so please forgive its lack of polish. I gave myself a writing prompt for the morning’s entry: “Why do you think you won’t sustain your weight loss without Weight Watchers even though you haven’t really been doing it? Why do you think you will succeed?”

Scale says 199 but I think I’m better than that inches-wise because my pj bottoms are dragging the floor. At the same time I feel sexy and confident in my body, it’s hard not to worry that I’m not losing anything. It’s smart that I stopped Weight Watchers. I was spending the money but not counting points or tracking. I’m nervous that I’ll be 50 pounds heavier again. I mean that’s what always happened when I went off the program before.

But I believe there is much that is different about this time. For one thing, when I went off program before—or should I say when I quit before—I was already way off program in terms of eating and boozing. This time I’m more balanced. I had strawberry shortcake yesterday but I also had fish and salad for dinner. I’m not exercising every single day but I am being more consistent. My mindset is one of focusing on healthier eating, which doesn’t mean no desserts or no alcohol but it does mean I’ve let go of having bread every morning for breakfast, I continue to not have sugar in my coffee, and I’m working on being mindful about my desserts. I’m more mindful of the difference between snacks and treats, and I love kale!

The most important difference is, I think, my attitude toward myself. I loved being skinny in the past when I was down 60 or 70 pounds. I loved the way I looked, the clothing size I could fit into, the compliments. But that was all superficial stuff. I don’t believe there was any change on my insides. I had changed my behaviors but not my attitudes [toward myself] so I was already halfway back to being 250 or thereabouts again. I was getting tons of validation for my physical achievements, but I still didn’t believe I was worth much. I still couldn’t get a boyfriend, my parents still didn’t love me, blah blah blah.

What’s different about this time—I feel my chest tightening and my arms tingling even as I write this—is that I’m engaged in an ongoing conversation about what I’m worth. The physical changes are nice, but what’s important is my attitude toward myself. I’m seeing past all the ways I wasn’t valued in the past to the woman I actually am—not perfect, but smart, kind, imaginative, creative, generous, and supportive, with a killer smile.

This time it’s not about working and trusting the program, it’s about trusting myself. I was always so unnerved by the fact of being an overeater for life, which is why I’d need Weight Watchers for life. But that’s bullshit. I do think that Geneen Roth* is right: if we stop to realize that our ways of dealing with pain, fatigue, boredom, etc. are outmoded, that they’re left over from childhood when we had no other defenses, then we can stop turning to them.

If I stopped sleeping** all the time to avoid my life, I can certainly stop eating my way out of it, too. It’s interesting that as I write this, my inner critic keeps resurrecting all the ways it thinks I’ve already failed: “But you had two bowls of cereal at Fran’s house—Lucky Charms! But you’re going to that event with Jillian on Saturday that is all about eating! But you had dessert yesterday when you said you weren’t going to and you had dessert with Joyce on Saturday! But you’ve been using your credit cards a lot even though you’re trying to get out of debt; if you’re doing that, how can you possibly keep yourself from regaining all the weight.”

I weigh myself every morning, just to give myself an (objective) reality check. My critic tries to weigh in too. “See, you’re up a pound; you’re going to gain it all back!” And even though I stay around the same weight within a five-pound range, my critic’s not happy It’s interesting how much I resist myself. I had said I wanted to get to a certain weight and then maintain for a while. And even though I’m doing exactly that—something I haven’t previously been able to accomplish—my critic isn’t satisfied.

There’s also another thing that’s different now. I’m willing to do it in stages. Even if I’m in the 190s for the next six months, there’s nothing that says I can’t push through anouther ten pounds next spring if that’s what I want to do. Our new office building will have a gym and I’m fairly certain I will exercise more consistently at a higher rate because of the convenience. I’ll stay an extra hour at work gladly if I can go downstairs and work out in the middle of the day rather than in the wee hours [of the morning] or when I’m super tired. I’ll also have a cohort of friends who belong to the same gym.

Notice I emphasized “want” in the last paragraph, and I think that’s the most important piece—along with self worth—that I’ve been working on. We all carry around a lot of “shoulds” and when shoulds stay undone, they produce guilt. And carrying all that guilt saps all our energy away from things like eating kale and taking a walk. We spend all of our time inventing ways to punish ourselves for our failures to attend to the “I should” list. A want is a different thing entirely. Wants have more flexibility and they seem to not have the built-in guilt factor if we don’t do them. But because it’s a want, a desire, we try a little harder to get it done. Going after a desire is so much more fulfilling—and fun—than a mere task.

If we truly value ourselves, we want those things that truly support and nourish us. We want that exercise to help us feel strong. We want that serving of vegetables because we feel full but light….

My inner critic just said, “Just because you wrote all that down it doesn’t mean you won’t fail. It’s not like you haven’t had epiphanies before, you know?”

But this isn’t an epiphany. It’s not an “aha!” moment or bolt-out-of-the-sky idea. It’s something I’ve known all along; I just didn’t realize I knew it. It’s a remembering, or, perhaps, a recognition. Whatever you call it, it’s real change, and Miss Critic can fuss and fume all she wants but I’m not going backwards or living in fear that this won’t work. As Geneen Roth wrote—I’m not broken. I’ve just finally chosen to recognize my wholeness, and, believe me, that radically changes things!

*I just finished Geneen Roth’s Women, Food, and God. Her idea of God is a bit wonky, but reading her book helped me articulate some of the wisdom that I think was already making itself known inside me.

**I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that I never knew that the fact that I slept away half of my childhood was a sign of depression. Sigh…

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