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Messages (8/30/98)
The Just Hammer (8/30/98)
A Prescription to Live With (8/30/98)
The What of the Who, or Am I? (9/13/98)
Knowing, Understanding, Accepting (12/12/98)
Change and Frustration (12/12/98)

A. Orca's Thoughts and Observations

Musings of an Experienced Dieter


I was standing in line at the grocery store, scanning the covers of magazines and suddenly realized that every single one of the women's magazines on display featured a female who had lost an "amazing" amount of weight. At the same time, I realized I'd noticed the same sameness before; it just didn't hit me the same way. That evening I was watching television and was disgusted by a commercial featuring a bunch of men in a bar mouthing comments meant to satirize the female obsession with weight and body size. I don't remember - if I even noticed - what the commercial was touting. I just remember feeling insulted.

Let's take a look at the messages sent by these two events.

In the case of the magazines, there are two contradictory messages. The one that I saw first was that losing weight isn't a big deal, all of these every day women have been successful at it. Therefore, I must be a slob who is deficient in will power or discipline or just plain lazy. The reverse of that coin is that losing weight is a big deal or all of those magazines wouldn't feature the achievement so prominently. In that case, there must be a large population of large women trying to be less large who might be lured into buying the magazine. Translation - fat people, such as me, are gullible dupes.

So far, I'm a gullible dupe and a lazy slob, deficient in will power and discipline.

Now the commercial. The message I received there was that I, and any other female concerned about weight, is a thing to be mocked. That one commercial managed to trivialize the problem, mock me for being obsessed over this trivial problem, and leave me feeling worthless because of my weight. Quite an accomplishment in less than a minute.

Were these exceptional traumatic experiences? Hardly. I've been hearing similar messages as long as I can remember. Shopping for clothes has always been a torment. "Just look at the cute things you could wear if you just lost some weight." "I guess this will have to do. There isn't much choice at your size."

Even worse has been the feeling that everything I achieve is overwhelmed by weight. "You have such lovely eyes. You could be really attractive if you'd just lose weight." "You're smart. Why can't you apply that to losing weight?" "Of course I'm glad you quit smoking, but couldn't you have done it without gaining so much weight?"

Except for the last, all of those comments came from my mother, most of them repeated several times a year throughout my childhood and adolescence. The last I put in her mouth. I didn't quit smoking until after she died. She would have been delighted that I quit. She would have pointed out that I should have done it years ago, but she would still have been delighted. I just should have been able to do it without gaining more weight.

Please realize that the last few paragraphs DO NOT reflect bitterness, though there may be anger there. I loved my mother, and I know full well that she loved me and was proud of me. She just didn't believe in saying so. There's an old saying, "Praise to the face is disgrace." It could have been coined by one of my mother's ancestors. Both of my parents believed in constructive criticism - praise the good parts, but point our areas for improvement - but Mom seemed to be the one who took the every day critic role. Her concern about my weight came from concern for my well being, both physical and emotional.

Whatever her intentions, I was left with the message that thin is good, fat is bad, and that no matter what I accomplished, my worth was ultimately determined by my weight. The extreme version of that message is that no accomplishment, talent, skill can count on the plus side as long as I'm overweight. Further, overweight is an absolute. One is or one isn't, and I've hardly ever been on the isn't side. I was overweight at 13 when I was 5'2" and 125 pounds. I am overweight at 50, weighing 270 pounds at the same height. I doubt I will ever weigh 125 pounds again, so the situation is pretty hopeless in terms of the old messages.

I have to fight the messages, messages that get reinforced by our society. Thin is still "in," despite increasing recognition that obesity is a complex medical issue. While it remains true that one will lose weight by expending more calories than one takes in, that isn't the complete answer.

The Just Hammer

Was it Nike that used the slogan "Just do it"? Sometimes I feel bludgeoned by "just."

Just do it.
Just say no.
Just limit the fat in your diet.
Just follow this plan.
Just eat/drink/chew our product.
Just do this.
Just do that.

Or, "All you have to do is …."

It seems to me that these justs come from people who (a) never had to do "it," (b) never had any difficulty doing "it," or (c) have short memories.

I remember when I joined a health club several years ago, this size 2 "fitness counselor" showed me how to use the various pieces of equipment. All of her directions began with the word just, contained the word only, or both. As in "Just push the bars with your feet, using your abdominal muscles." Huh? And "You only have to do 2 sets of 15 repetitions." Only would have fit if she'd stopped at 2. This young lady was an aerobics instructor and had been a competitive gymnast from the time she was a toddler. "Just" and "only" fit her perceptions, not mine.

I didn't last long at that health club. There were far more with her perception than mine.

Just don't say just, okay?

A Prescription to Live With

Those of us who've had trouble just doing it, or maintaining what we've just done, need a simple prescription for creating a healthy lifestyle. No, I don't have one yet, but I've thought about the characteristics of a plan I can live with.

        Simple: I don't expect the process of creating a healthy lifestyle to be easy, but if it's complicated, I'll never do it. If I don't just give up, I'll get compulsive about it and quit when I can't do it perfectly.

        Rewarding: The plan needs to have built in rewards. In the beginning, these need to be "won" with relatively small but nontrivial steps. Hopefully progress will become its own reward, but I can't count on that in the early stages.

        Gradual: I'll get overwhelmed if I try to fix everything at once. I do need to maintain a dual front - exercise and eating habits - but I can't concentrate on both at the same time. I need short term goals in both areas, but one area will be primary for a time, then the other. In both areas, I need to start with small steps in short time periods.

        Sustainable: The basis of any plan for creating a healthy lifestyle has to focus on things I can continue to do. I won't swear off chocolate, pastries, or ice cream. I won't turn into a vegetarian or a jock. I am eventually going to eat "forbidden" food and rebel against any exercise regime. If I try saying I won't, I've set myself up for failure. Result - I'll drop the process. Again.

        Self-centered: This is hardly the most obvious characteristic, but I think it's one of the most important. The plan has to be something that can become a part of my existence, something I pursue because I'm worth the effort. I have to be important in the process. My lifestyle, my likes and dislikes, have to be paramount in any plan that I will continue for the rest of my existence.

        Flexible: This is closely related to the previous characteristic, but it comes from a slightly different perspective. Any plan I attempt has to start from the premise that each individual is different. Don't tell me that your plan will work for everyone and anyone. How many plans or programs have You come across that state: "If you follow my program, I guarantee you'll lose weight" or reduce size, or whatever defines success for the program? What that REALLY says is that if you don't succeed, don't blame my program. You didn't do it right. I don't need or want direction form a true believer who has discovered the secret of weight loss. I want a plan, not a set of rules.

        Loving: I've struggled awhile naming this characteristic and I don't think I've got it right even yet. The plan has to take my own self-disgust into account and help me separate worth from weight or size. "You'll love yourself when you're thin" won't work. I need to love myself, or at least like myself, NOW.

        Informative: Knowledge is power. I need to know about nutrition, exercise, and metabolism. I need to be able to evaluate the claims of various programs. For me finding information and grasping concepts is not particularly difficult - using that knowledge is where my challenge lies - but it is critical.

        Supportive: Ultimately, the determination and motivation must come from me. But I won't always be able to cheer myself on. I need people to applaud my successes and to stop me from beating myself up over less than perfect behavior. Not to mention someone to hit me with a two by four when I let the excuses take over.

Okay, time to summarize. I'm looking for a plan that will move me towards a healthy lifestyle. The plan has to address nutrition, exercise, weight, and self-esteem. It must be flexible, taking my needs and desires into account. It must be simple and gradual. The plan needs to incorporate a reward system, an information system, and support system. If it can encompass all of the above, then there's a good chance it will be something I can sustain.

The What of the Who, or Am I?

Who am I?  What am I?  Is there a difference?

According to one of my professors, yes, there is an important difference.  As freshmen, my friends and I heard that opinion more than a few times.  Unfortunately, we may have been too inexperienced to understand his argument.

Dr. Angermeier argued that the who is highly visible but relatively unimportant.  "Who" is primarily a matter of labels.   We are mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters.  We are artists, students, teachers, rebels, conformists.  These who labels define us in relation to others, either through personal relationships with other individuals or by inclusion in some group with supposedly shared characteristics.  Too heavy a reliance on who can lead to stereotypes - You're rich, therefore you're a snob.  You're fat, therefore you're a lazy slob.

The trap is that labels are so convenient.  I can recognize your who from your labels and you can as easily translate my who from my labels.  No great harm done as long as you look at my who from my labels.  Don't paste your labels on my who.  I'll try to be mutually considerate.

The other side of identity is what.  What we are is internal, not so visible, not so easy to name.  First, as soon as you start trying to name the what it starts to become part of the who.  Second, no one defines my what but me.  If I choose to define my what by some relationship or some physical trait, that's my business.  I'll do whatever I want with the what of me.  At the same time, I do not have to accept labels from outside of me to define my what.  I think that was Dr. Angermeier's point:  WHAT belongs solely to the individual.  MY SELF is what I am, no matter who you think I am. 

Knowing, Understanding, Accepting

"This above all else, to thine own self be true."  Good advice when Shakespeare put the words in Hamlet, and still good advice today.  Like much good advice, it's simple on the surface and the dickens to carry out!  Did Shakespeare run into someone like Dr. Angermeier in his youth?  If so, he certainly meant be true to what you are.  But you have to discover the what before you can be true to it.  Most of us start from who we are - the labels of identity we've accumulated over the years.

One easy path would be to set the relationships with individuals (family, friends) to one side.  After all, I am my mother's daughter and aside from saying that I sit on a branch of her family tree, what does that label add to what I am?   Genetics has to be a part of what I am, so I can't dismiss that label so lightly.   Further, what I am must have been influenced by my interactions with my mother.   The debate over nature versus nurture has continued for years because both are strong influences.  Stronger perhaps,  on the who, but still influential for the what. 

I see the first step, then, as deciding which of the who labels truly connect to the what of me now.  I know that I am my mother's daughter, having inherited physical traits from her and having absorbed cultural and emotional bits and pieces from the environment that held her stamp.  I am also my father's daughter, and likewise carry physical traits from him and the cultural and emotional bits and pieces from the environment that held HIS stamp, and the environment that carried the stamp of the two as a couple. 

So.  First step:  Know which of the accumulated who labels are consistent with what you are NOW.

"First" indicates there's more to come, and indeed there is.   Difficult as this first step is, steps two and three are both more difficult and more nebulous.

The second step is understanding how the who labels have helped to shape what I am.  Please note I said "helped to shape."  What I am is not as malleable as a lump of clay that changes to every bump, push, pull, or poke that comes along.  What I am is more than the sum of the external influences felt over the years.  Nevertheless, I acknowledge that the substance of my who labels influenced and influences what I am.

Understanding comes from figuring out the impact each who label has had on my what, and the mechanics of the impact.  The why of the impact is also important to understanding what I am.  Why did one label have more impact than another?

I wrote earlier about messages.  Interpretation is important.   "You're smart.  Why can't you apply that to losing weight."   The message I took in was that "smart" had no value becuase I didn't use it to lose weight.  "You have such lovely eyes.  You could be really attractive if you'd lose weight."  The messages I took in were that I was NOT attractive and that no one would notice my eyes, or any other potentially attractive feature, as long as I was overweight.  Were those the messages my mother MEANT to send?  Maybe not.  Maybe the message she was trying to get across was that I shouldn't let my weight inferfere with the positive traits that were also there.   Perhaps my interpretation was right on target, but came from influences in my mother's life, with little to do with me.

I certainly gathered who labels from these messages.  Did the messages I received influence what I am?  Certainly they influenced my judgement of myself, and that HAD to influence what I am.  Do I have to continue accepting that influence?  No.  What I am at 50 is not what I was at 12, at 20, at 30, or even at 40.  Some of my growth came late, but it did come.

I have one heck of a chore ahead of me.  Go back through all those dusty files of messages, some twisted in interpretation, and figure out how they connect to all the who labels.  Then I need to decide which of the labels truly belong to me.   Those I have to accept, at least for the here and now.  But I don't have to accept labels pasted onto me by others, no matter how well meaning, no matter how close.   Some of those labels have done harm.  The harm will heal, once I discard the labels.  Who I am, here and now, includes the label "fat."  That's an adjective that can be used to describe the physical me.  But labels can be stripped off or ne3w ones pasted over old.

I can change the substance of my who as needed, and, ultimately, only I can define "needed."  That's the third piece.  Accepting what resonates with what I am, changing what does not.  Accepting doesn't necessarily mean liking, but it does preclude disliking.  It seems tremendously important to me now to accept what I am, to come to terms with the pieces that resonate in a way that tell me that piece is simply a part my self and to chip away at those pieces that fracture the harmony of my self.

Change and Frustration

"A healthy mind in a healthy body." There's a little of the chicken and egg quandry in this.  Does the mind have to be healthy before the body can be healthy? Vice versa? One on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; the other Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday; both on Sunday?

I've harped a bit in earlier entries about self-esteem and the need to value myself enough to take the long and difficult project of yet another behavior change. Presumably, my self-esteem will increase as the project moves along. Do I have to take that on faith? Faith is NOT my strong suit.

I think I pretty well know where my strong points are, as well as the weak ones. I tend to hold myself to blame for the weak ones and credit external things for the strong ones (for example, intelligence is hereditary so I can't take credit for that). Still, I've at least begun to understand where the baggage I cart around came from. I haven't found the dump for all of it yet, but I'm looking.  That's all a part of the knowing, understanding, and accepting I talked about in the previous section. 

Change is dynamic.  It's a journey, not a destination; a process, not an event.  Unfortunately, it's a journey on turtle back and a process whose steps are sometimes so minute that a magnifying glass isn't enough to see them.  So yes, I do have to take a good bit on faith.  What's worse, I have to take it on faith IN MYSELF.  Ohmigosh am I in trouble!

The critical change for me is mindset.  I cannot get any where without changing my view of what it is I'm doing and why I'm doing it.  I have to accustom myself to living with change.  I have to accept that changes come in tiny packets that gradually add up.  I have to accept that I am not under any obligation to do this "perfectly" - whatever that may mean.