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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?

On breaking up with Weight Watchers….

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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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