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.

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