Thursday, January 24, 2013

Beyond Maintenance

Next month I will celebrate my five-year anniversary of maintaining a 100-pound weight loss. It seems like it was just yesterday and yet a lifetime ago. I honestly expected that maintenance would be hard, but I had no idea just how difficult the road beyond would be when the scale hit that magic number, my “goal weight.” For to lose 100 pounds and maintain that loss is not a grand victory in an epic battle, as the world would have you believe. Instead, it is thousands upon thousands of infinitesimal skirmishes, fought and won second by second every day. Or fought and lost second by second every day. The experience of staying lean, it seems, is not unlike being pecked to death by ducks.

I think it’s also a particularly female experience. I’m sure men worry about their weight too, but I don’t think they reach the level of crazy that women do – and I have certainly known crazy when it comes to my weight, both at times when I was lighter and at times when I was heavier. I remember that when my husband first started developing a paunch in his forties, rather than seeing it as a tragedy (as I saw the unwanted flabbiness on my own physique), he joked that his newfound belly was his “power source.” I do not believe that any woman would ever be so self-accepting. The women I know (including me) agonize over every tiny imperfection in our appearance. We berate ourselves for having real, lived-in bodies. We obsess over every small indulgence (chocolate!) and mostly have resigned ourselves to a perpetual state of defectiveness.

Lately though, a little voice in my head has been nagging me, posing a question that I would prefer not to confront. It asks: what could I do in the world, what could I have done already in fact, if weight were not the overriding narrative in my life? What would my life be like if I were not trapped in this endless do loop of diet success and diet failure, defining and judging myself by the size of my dress rather than the size of my impact on the world? Why have I accepted a lifelong preoccupation with a number on a scale when I could have been preoccupied with learning and doing and making the world a better place?

Perhaps I’m being overly dramatic. But then this is what goes on in my head. The last five years have been an emotional rollercoaster and I’m ready now for some solid ground. I’ve decided that the task for the next five years is to figure out how to live a healthy life (which includes a healthy weight), while also living a life that is about so much more than obsessing over health and weight.

I’m not sure exactly what this means, but I think living in the question is often better than finding the answer anyway.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

An Ode to Slow Food

My resolution for the new year is to slow things down a bit. That may sound a strange thing for an American to say. After all, don’t we love to compete with each other for who is the busiest and most stressed out? Isn’t “24/7” a badge of honor (even though very few of us actually work anything even close to “24/7”)? And aren’t resolutions supposed to be about doing more, better? Be that as it may, I am determined to decelerate.

One area I’m going to focus on is meal time. There are far too many days when I cram food down my throat as fast as I can so I can get to the next item on the To-Do list. My average breakfast lasts about three minutes, gulped as quickly as possible so I can get out the door to work. Lunch is an all-too-short hour packed with exercise and errands in addition to eating – that is when I’m able to take a lunch break. By the time dinner comes around, I’m often too tired to cook, not because I’ve been worked to the bone, but because my job is hectic and disjointed. So I mindlessly microwave something and eat in front of the tube, before starting the end-of-the-day ritual of getting ready for the next day, preparing the next breakfast and lunch that I will very nearly inhale. It’s an incredibly unsatisfying way to eat. Is it any wonder that I find myself struggling with chocolate cravings in the evening?

We are told that a calorie is a calorie and that weight maintenance is nothing more than the management of calories in/calories out. If you buy this, then a Lean Cuisine lunch at your desk is no different than soup and a sandwich with a friend at a sidewalk café. But they are worlds apart. The first is a matter of utility; the second is enjoying life.

I find myself longing for the experience of a leisurely meal, sitting across a table from another person, nibbling between breaks in the conversation. I fantasize about hours spent gabbing, having friendly arguments over politics, listening to tales of everyday triumph and tragedy, all the while crunching on a salad between sips of iced tea, or savoring a biscotti with a cup of coffee. In this way of being, large quantities of food are not required. What is required is quality, and not so much the quality of the food as the quality of the experience and the relationship. This seems a more civilized way to eat, something far removed from mere nutrition.

We often talk about our bodies as if they were machines and food the fuel, to be monitored and measured and optimized. In that paradigm, you get lectured by your doctor for eating the “wrong” things, right before he gives you a prescription for the latest appetite suppressant. But what if the body is not a machine at all? What if it is a gift to be lovingly nurtured? In that paradigm, you eat foods that bring health and energy, in an enjoyable atmosphere with people you care about. In that scenario, the only prescription you need is permission to take your time.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Happy New Year from Inner Fat Girl!

Tis the season for resolutions and you know what one of the most popular of those is, don’t you? To lose weight of course! This is the cue for all of those ads for popular weight-loss programs, like Nutrisystem, Jenny Craig and the like. The specifics of each system may be slightly different, but there is a sameness to the ads that is striking. Always we see a jubilant, newly slender person, vowing that they will never be that old, fat self ever again. New Year, New You! Right?


This is the big lie of weight loss, that once you lose a lot of weight, you become a “new” person. In American-speak, “new” generally means “better.” So, we who have managed to drop some tonnage are encouraged to think of ourselves as improved versions our former selves. We are changed in some fundamental way that makes weight regain impossible. Yet, the statistics show the exact opposite outcome. The vast majority of people who lose a large amount of weight regain all of it (and maybe more) within a year or two. And then the cycle starts all over again, with a new resolution.

Here is what I’ve experienced since reaching my goal weight five years ago:

Your old, fat self never goes away. Never. It is said that there is nothing certain in life but death and taxes. Whoever said this never met my Inner Fat Girl. Inner Fat Girl is indestructible, much like the way roaches are immune to nuclear radiation. Even if She has been kept at bay for five years, She is always in ready position, poised to strike. The only way to defeat Inner Fat Girl is through eternal vigilance.

I know what you’re going to say. Eternal vigilance? Are you nuts? That sounds too hard. Well, you know what? It is hard. And ironically, admitting that it’s hard makes it easier. Another reason it’s easier than you think is because you don’t have to confront Inner Fat Girl head on. You see, Inner Fat Girl is quite sure of Herself, which makes Her vulnerable to attack from the side. You can change one small habit to be healthier, maybe have an apple with lunch instead of chips. Or decide to start taking a ten minute walk every day. Over time, the small things add up and Inner Fat Girl will be too busy to notice, focused as She is with admiring Her own image in the mirror.

The key is to never allow yourself to be lulled into false complacency. Or worse, false pride. The moment you begin to think of yourself as a permanently thin person is the moment you are most vulnerable to regain. Inner Fat Girl will be a permanent companion for the rest of your life and you should be glad of that because She will keep you honest in your efforts to be as healthy as you can be.

There is also something else that disturbs me about this idea of becoming a “new” (read: “better”) person when you lose weight. It implies that there is something wrong with the heavier person you are now. In my view, what is really wrong is our food culture, one that glorifies and celebrates excess consumption, then turns around and blames those who suffer the health consequences.

Here’s a resolution for the New Year: Learn to love your “old,” “unimproved” self and vow to do one new and healthier thing every day. Inner Fat Girl won’t thank you, but She’s like that.

Happy New Year!