Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Weight Obsession ~ More on my Personal Journey

In today's world, it's difficult to step out of the flow long enough to ask: "Why am I so obsessed with weight?". We've been conditioned by our culture most of our lives to "know" that we simply should have a weight (or size, or image) that we should be, and if we're not there, it only makes sense that we should be working towards it. As it turns out, this initial question is just the spark of what can be an incredibly difficult journey.

On the surface, it's relatively simple to begin compiling reasons that weight shouldn't matter. I know that the diet industry needs me to believe I should be a certain weight in order for them to make a profit. I know that the beauty industry needs me to believe this also, since the weight goals are so unrealistic that they need me to believe that until I get to that weight, I should at least try to make up for it with an effort make my hair/skin/face etc. look better. I know that people can be bigger than society's portrayed ideal body size and be very healthy. And yet, I find that it is a monumental challenge to truly believe these things, and truly accept the logical consequence that this ideal body image truly isn't something that I should believe in any longer.

It only makes sense. I can't even begin to comprehend the billions of dollars that have been spent on the barrage of images that have been pummeled into my head to try to make me embrace the concept of ideal body size. It gets thrown at us in every media form, try as we might to avoid it. It's nearly every actor on television and in movies. It's on nearly every magazine cover. Recently, Elle magazine released a set of 4 covers highlighting women in television. Three of the covers showed their common full-body image of the women, but the fourth, of Mindy Kaling, the only one of the four outside of what society would accept as an exemplary body size, was tightly cropped to a headshot.

Elle of course claims that the fact that Mindy's cover being the only tighter shot was a complete coincidence. (They claim the same about the fact that her cover, the only of a non-caucasian, was the only black and wight cover, but that's a whole different subject.) Mindy Kaling didn't complain about the differences either, making light of the entire thing. Yet when you look at the covers side by side, how can you not have society's message of body weight driven home?

I, personally, have always tried to see the beauty in every person. That's why I've been so ashamed when I have caught myself thinking things like: "My gosh, her face is so gorgeous. Imagine what she'd look like if she lost weight." I'm learning that perhaps I need to forgive myself for that though, because I'm realizing how deeply conditioned this perception is. Besides, I've been a million times harder on myself than anyone in the world.

I was always naturally skinny as a kid and through high school, and in college when I first began gaining weight, I was in complete denial. I will always remember returning a pair of Express jeans, demanding that they must have changed the sizing because there was no way I was getting bigger. I gained weight throughout college and in the following years, up through gaining with my pregnancies. After I had my kids, I told myself: You just have to live with this. While I accepted it, I also was unhappy with it. I thought it was my fate, but a terrible one. At the time, I was very inactive and while we ate a relatively healthy diet, it wasn't great. I finally resolved to get healthier, losing 40 pounds, normalizing to a healthy, plant-based diet, and after a few years, becoming a fitness instructor. As a fitness instructor, keeping my weight low was simple. I worked out 10-14 times a week on a regular basis. Even at a small size though, and having people frequently compliment my weight (though usually in a "I hate you, you're so tiny" way), I constantly analyzed myself and found things to criticize. I often told myself that if I was just more disciplined, I could get even closer to that ideal image. At one point, in preparation for a fitness convention, I added quite a bit of weight training to my routine, and went on a strict diet that included water with hemp powder mixed in as a "snack". I now believe I had crossed a line--gone beyond a normal, healthy diet and active lifestyle to something pretty extreme in an effort to get closer to that "ideal". While that didn't last long, and I did often revel in the strength and slimness of my body, I was never 100% happy, and often thought about setting a new goal on the scale just a little closer to "perfect". The only thing stopping me from setting those goals was a battle between the fear that I wouldn't get there and the belief (which I constantly challenged) that my current size was "good enough".

When I left my fitness instructor job behind, something in me told me that that part of my life was over--that I needed to leave it behind. At the same time, there was a nagging fear in the back of my mind that I would struggle with my weight if I left my 14-hour workout weeks behind. One of my students even voiced this fear for me, telling me that I couldn't stop teaching, because I would "blow up". I've heard this in my head hundreds of times over since. For a while, my weight was relatively steady. I had more time for my own recreational activities and my diet didn't change much. After a while, though, I started dealing with depression and started falling away from my normal healthy eating habits. Winter set in and my daily walks, bike rides, and hikes were brought to a minimum, and the scale (gasp!) started creeping up.

In the beginning, I kept telling myself "It's fine, you're going to move to a normal weight and that's okay." I would quickly follow that up by mentally telling myself "Just don't go past [insert number on scale here] pounds." I did keep passing those marks up though, and every time, I felt more ashamed. I'd tell myself that it was okay to be at X weight, but then I'd hear those inner-demon voices telling me that I was just telling myself that to excuse my laziness. I'd contemplate starting one of the diets or fitness plans that I'd helped others follow, then tell myself that I didn't have to, and again, hear those voices accusing my of "giving up". "If you were stronger..." "If you were more disciplined..." "If you really wanted to set a good example..." (To be clear, I was not hearing literal voices, just battling my own thoughts!) I began dreading people back home finding out that I'd gained weight, thinking they'd be disappointed with me, or realize that all along the only reason I'd been able to keep my small size was working out so much due to being an instructor. I began thinking of my body as "disgusting" and at the same time, dreading my kids developing unhealthy body images due to my own.

It's taken months, but I'm finally finding a balance in my lifestyle and also working to heal not only my own body image but to escape from the paradigm of the "ideal" body image that I know to be false. This is, for me, a journey out of depression as well as one of tearing down the image that has been so deeply impressed in me as a "should". I know clearly that there is a huge variety of sizes at which the human body can be spectacularly healthy, and believe firmly that the tiny body image we're made to idolize is something that we should fully reject. I also know that that knowledge doesn't equal a "cure" to the body shaming and guilt that comes with our culture's obsession with weight. It's a remarkably insidious thing. Even as I begin the healing process, I catch myself looking in the mirror and thinking: "Wow, I actually look good!" as though it is a shock that I could look good a size bigger than I think I should be. A journey indeed. So I continue to move forward on this path and hope that I can help others to start to shed the burdens that we share as a culture, so that we can focus on what truly matters--so that we can start living in the now and loving ourselves, body and spirit, as we are today.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year, New You?

2014 has, and as we herald in the new year, the internet is alive with everything from inspiring quotes to cynical memes to fitness challenges. I am not a big believer in forced "resolutions", but at the same time, I find the new year to be a wonderful opportunity to make a fresh start--to examine life and ponder whether we're on a path that we want to continue on.

This particular year that chance seems especially poignant to me. My life changed completely in 2013. When the last year started, I was celebrating six months of realizing my dream of owning and running a wellness Studio, with a wonderful community that had been built over four years of offering fitness and wellness classes. I worked as a State Director for a network of non-profits in an agency I'd worked with for eight years. I was moving into the second half of our first year of homeschooling. After nine years in our community we had a beautiful permaculture yard we'd built from scratch, and had built a network of friends and a life that we enjoyed. Just a few months into the year, things began shaking up, and by May we learned that we'd be turning things completely upside down. My husband was offered a promotion that would move us six hours away, which meant giving up my job, my Studio, and everything we knew as our home community. The move was quite an adventure. I committed myself to helping the family get adjusted, and while it was, of course, a challenge, everyone settled in beautifully. Now, as we approach six months in our new home and the family has found a rhythm, I've found my mind wandering to explore concepts that I haven't had much time to think about, for sheer distraction from my work and focus on my family. I've been trying to take some time to look around and think about what I want from life--what kind of life I want--something that so often I didn't take time for before, simply because I was in the flow of the life I had and it was easy to stay there.

One of the things that has struck me most, is how easily our perception of what we "want" is shaped by the culture that we live in. I recently watched MissRepresentation, and it sparked a very strong reaction for me that has become an inner fire driving much of my thought process about life and happiness. While the film focuses on the very important subject of gender equality and bias, what I really took away from it is how much we accept the images given to us to shape our perception of "ideal". We believe what we see and hear, not just in the media but all around us. Even if, like myself, we outwardly reject the mainstream messages, at some level, inside, I believe that most of us are holding that perceived ideal. This is true not only of our body size and shape, physical features, and clothing; but our family structure, career goals, homes, and so much more.

Coming from the wellness world, the idea of achieving that physical standard, combined with the overall concept of achieving happiness (so often through that), is what resonates most deeply for me. At one point in my life, having gained quite a bit of weight after college and through my pregnancies, I began dieting and exercising and lost a significant amount of weight. In the following years, I became a fitness instructor, initially thinking that I wanted to help people feel beautiful and confident in their own skin. Very easily, however, a secondary focus, of helping people reach that physical ideal took hold. I held weight loss groups for my students, tracking pounds lost and encouraging calorie counting. I advised people on how to change nutritional profiles, which exercises to focus on, how to achieve their "goal" weight.

Before I continue, let me by clear that I am still, and will always be, a very strong advocate of a healthy lifestyle. I firmly believe that part of living our best life is having a healthy diet and regular physical activity. There are definitely many situations where people need to lose weight to be healthy. I also think that mind-body connection and wellness is critically important. I am not advocating a devil-may-care attitude when it comes to health. I am very passionate about healthy living, I just believe that we need to change the way that we think about it. I've realized is that our image of the "healthy" body has become far too skewed.

While I always encouraged a balanced approach to weight loss, finding food and activity patterns that were sustainable, I believe now that my mistake was in the perception of the end goal. I think about how hard I worked to have an "ideal" body to inspire my students. While I love many types of working out and healthy food, I often pushed myself harder than I wished to to try to get closer to that "ideal". I think of my students who may have been a few sizes larger than they would have liked, but ate incredibly healthy diets and worked out 5 or more times a week--and yet, beat themselves up over the scale's refusal to move, or the size that they just couldn't quite achieve. Looking back, it breaks my heart that my response was to offer new and different ways to challenge the "problem", rather than questioning why that particular goal needed to be achieved. Here I had a beautiful, healthy woman standing in front of me, and while my ultimate goal was to help her recognize that, I now believe I failed by neglecting to question the motivation of their goals, and helping them to shed the perceptions that were leading to those goals. I don't presume that this would have been or ever will be an easy thing to do, but I do believe it is the Right thing.

Now, all of us have our own reasons for our goals and our own motivations. I'm not attempting to suggest that anyone's particular goal, even if it is to reach a particular weight or size, is invalid. What I do want to do is question the motivation behind those goals. Are we creating these goals to make ourselves happy, or because we think we'll be happier if we can more closely match the standard we've been told will bring us happiness? I have a lot more to say about this in the future, but I think I've made my point for the purposes of this first post.

2014 is here. I did my share of mourning my "previous life" as 2013 came to a close, but I recognize 2014 as an opportunity not only to embrace my "new life" but to start deeply changing my way of thinking. This blog represents a fresh start for me: This is my inaugural post as I explore fighting those false ideals that have been drilled into our heads. In the coming weeks, I'll post more about "resolutions" and this mindful work to, in essence, change my mind and perception in order to find a deeper happiness. I hope that in some way, sharing these thoughts will help you to do the same. For now, I encourage you to nurture yourself by shaping resolutions that will not lead to guilt, shame, or pressure. Perhaps you can begin thinking about what goals you would set for yourself if we were all physically invisible! Embrace your inner beauty. Don't doubt its worth. Don't doubt that you're beautiful on the outside too--just as you are. I wish you a 2014 full of looking at what you can do to truly make yourself happy and more whole. I deeply believe that as we each come closer to embracing our authentic selves, we'll make the world a better place. Namaste!