Okay backstory: I have struggled with weight since childhood, no doubt made worse by the present societal pressures. I have been obese, morbidly obese, and just plain overweight over the years through various periods of gaining and losing weight. But also, I have insulin resistance, which is really important to monitor, and to try to keep healthy the best thing to do is lose weight. How do I keep trying to be healthy without turning it personal and make myself feel fat?
Also, I don't just want to lose weight for health. I want to fit in, be treated equally, get paid a fair wage (as much as I can as a woman, hah!) find clothes easier, and fit into the seats of roller coasters. I don't want my life to be limited by my size. How am I supposed to accept myself as I am, when I know I want, and need, to change?
Oh, my friend. Reading your letter, I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if 68% of Americans suddenly cried out in unison: I am struggling with my weight. Healthy people come in many sizes, shapes, and flavors, but there are a hell of a lot of us right there with you, wanting to feel okay where we are now and also wanting something different in the future.
There’s so much that comes into play here — body image, grit, health, genetics, media, sex, family, fashion, and most especially the well-worn tracks of destructive thoughts laid down in our very own minds. It’s a veritable bouillabaisse of craziness, so overwhelming that sometimes it seems simpler to take a big step back from the whole thing, just to avoid awakening the body feelings Balrog inside.
But taking that step back is a big risk in itself, right? Because it can quickly devolve into neglect. This is how people end up saying things like, "I don't know how I got this heavy; I didn't realize it was happening." I’ve done it myself — it’s almost like you go to sleep, and you think about other stuff instead. Until one day when you wake up and freak right the fuck out.
Our entire culture is freaking right the fuck out, in fact. An epidemic of stories about the obesity epidemic! Cookie Monster rapping about vegetables! Fat cats and skinny dogs, lying down together! The message is Way Too Many People Weigh Way Too Much And That’s A Problem. But I’m not sure that’s accurate. I think it’s more a symptom of what happens when a couple of powerful forces come together.
First, the world is currently overflowing with more mind-bendingly salty sweet awesome disgusting food than has ever been witnessed before in human history. This food we have is positively diabolical in its deliciousness! Engineered to be extra irresistible! Of course it is hard to resist! We are not used to it!
Second, the way we live leaves us feeling thin and stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread. In between work and laundry and trying to have some fun, we barely have time to sleep, let alone confront the Balrog. Unconsciously, we’re led into a life of further unconsciousness, distracted and hurried and often on auto-pilot. It takes a strong will to snap out of it.
Our Western corporatocracy being what it is, the mind-bending food is probably not going to disappear anytime soon. But that still leaves us the second part of the equation to work with. We can focus harder. We can pay more attention. We can become more conscious.
In fact, this is exactly how you be less crazy while changing your body — you reframe the goal from something mechanical like losing weight to something more fundamental, like developing the ability to pay attention to what’s happening in your body without having a cow about it. You stay awake not just for a few months until you hit a certain number on the scale, but as an ongoing practice.
When you pay close attention with as much objectivity and kindness as you can muster, you can see what’s really happening and act rationally on that evidence. You can be reasonable and loving and logical with yourself instead of bouncing back and forth between unconsciousness and freak-outs. You gain the ability to say “Body, you are amazing!” AND “That’s enough ice cream for now.” Because both things are important, and leaving either of them out means trouble.
In addition to paying attention, you also need to see yourself as someone who’s worth paying attention to. As you are right now. You are going to be putting a lot of effort into this project, and you won't be able to sustain it if you feel like some kind of jerk. No, if you want to succeed, you have to get 100% on your own side from the get-go, and the best way I know to do that is this: construct a story about your life that positions you as an imperfect but lovable adventurer — someone you want to root for! — who’s boldly going someplace she hasn’t been before.
Because that is exactly what you are! A beloved heroine in the midst of a rollicking good tale full of scrapes and jokes and lessons learned! So make your story thrilling — make it one you can’t put down, one you can’t help being excited about, one that fills your heart so full you want to throw your head back and ROAR.
I know it seems goofy, but this story you tell yourself is serious business. And it’s precious, because it sets up how you experience everything else in your life.
Like, if you say stuff like “There is something inherently wrong with me and that’s why I can’t have what I want” or “I am but a pawn in the cold dance of chemicals we call life,” well, that shuts things down pretty thoroughly, right? It may be accurate to acknowledge that you have certain disadvantages, or that certain cultural systems are working against you, but you can’t stop there. That place is like a windowless room at the top of a lonely tower. It leaves you absolutely nowhere to go.
But if you see yourself as a lionhearted adventurer on a mission, suddenly you have access to whole new realms of focus and motivation and freedom. If the path brings you to a monster, you don’t sit there gloomily waiting to be eaten. Nor do you kvetch about how someone else came by this way yesterday and there was no monster so WTF. You have no interest in those distractions — you got adventuring to do! So you dig deep. You marshall your resources and you figure out how to get past or around or through. If your first solution doesn’t cut it, you try something else. And you keep trying things till you find something that gets you moving again.
This experimental, experiential attitude is a crucial ingredient in the formula, because you are going to come across a lot of mysteries on your trek, and you’ll need to have a curious mindset to suss them out. We are talking about weight, after all, and that makes the whole thing extra fraught — in about 30 seconds you can whip yourself into a self-destructive tizzy that can take weeks to recover from. So try your best not to do that. Step lightly. When things don’t work out the way you want them to, be interested in what is actually happening rather than upset about what isn’t. This will help you not fall apart as you discover what combination of stuff works for your particular body.
And when you come to a scary part in the story — which you will, whether it’s a giant spider or just the marshy pits of your own mutinous mind — take heart from the fact that you can’t possibly have a great story without great scary parts. All the best heroines have them! Just keep going!
You can even prepare yourself now. What kind of obstacles you are likely to encounter? Well-meaning relatives who make you feel shitty? Emotional peaks and valleys? Cyclical tenacity deficiency? Have a think and come up with some tactics for dealing with them so they’ll be less likely to knock you off course.
You sound like a smart and self-aware person, and you have TONS of tools at your disposal — mind, muscles, emotions, objectivity, intuition, imagination, community. Use them all. Analyze and strategize and optimize to find out what makes your body hum and purr. Get excited to see how the story unfolds. Pay attention. Don’t go to sleep.
Most important, remember to root for your own sweet self as heartily as you ever did for anyone in any book you ever loved. It’s up to you to construct the narrative that explains what the moments of your life add up to … might as well make it the best damn story about a lady realizing her own worth and power that was ever told.
Be Less Crazy About Your Body is a website, and a 50-page, $2.99 book. Do you ever feel kind of crazy about something and you know it's crazy and you want to stop but you're not sure how? Ask Megan anything.