(This is Part 2 of a three-part series. You don’t have to read Part 1 to get this, but it helps.)
When I first announced that I was losing weight, I got a series of comments and private emails from people in the fat positive movement, either chiding me for betraying the fat positive vision, or concern trolling about how weight loss was going to ruin my physical and psychological health. Somehow, these people believed that incidental weight loss from a “healthy at every size” eating and exercise program would be acceptable, but that a deliberate weight loss program would be physically and mentally toxic… even if my eating and exercise in these two programs were identical in every way. (I know. It doesn’t make sense to me, either — and the research doesn’t back it up. For the record, I do think the fat positive movement has some good and important ideas; I just think they’ve run off the rails with them.) And somehow, they believed that the emotional damage I would incur from conscious weight loss would be so staggering that it would completely outweigh any other considerations… including the emotional damage I’d incur from my bad knee crippling my mobility and cutting off major areas of pleasure, from dancing to fucking to just walking around in the city that I love.
Which I found not only baffling, but offensive.
I’m not going to pretend that I’ve got no neuroses and weird psychological shit associated with weight loss. I’ve become a mild control freak about food, and situations where I can’t control what food is available are somewhat distressing. Ingrid and I spend more time talking about this — venting, strategizing, planning meals, managing emotions — than I’d like anyone to know. Compliments on how good I look now are a seriously mixed blessing: there’s a big part of me that enjoys it, and that can accept praise for the accomplishment as well as for my fit body… but when the compliments are particularly effusive, a part of me angrily thinks, “So what did you think I was before — chopped liver?” Plus I hate how gender-normative losing weight makes me feel: I loved being a fat woman saying “fuck you” to body fascism and rigidly sexist standards of female beauty, and I really don’t love being just another of the hordes of dieting American women. (I avoid the “d” word like the plague, for that exact reason.) And while I feel more connected and present in my body now than I can ever remember feeling in my life, I feel weirdly disconnected with my body of the past… like I was an entirely different person. (Weight loss has also had some interesting effects on my sexuality; overall good, some not so much. But that’s a whole other piece, to come soon.)
But you know what? I had neuroses and weird psychological shit about food and my body before I started losing weight. Some of it’s the same shit; some of it’s different. I fixated on food in a different way back then: using it for comfort, to relieve boredom, to distract myself from feelings I didn’t want to have. Yes, I’m hyper- conscious about my food choices now; when I was fat, I was whatever the opposite of hyper-conscious is, eating reflexively and mechanically and without thinking. (The way Ingrid puts it is, “I never eat mindlessly or joylessly any more” — and that’s true for me as well. I have some weird food neuroses now… but I always eat with consciousness and pleasure. And that was emphatically not true when I was fat.) When I was fat, I was just as fucked up about food at parties as I am now, if not more so: the difference between obsessively deciding which three hors d’oeuvres I’m going to eat, and obsessively making sure I got a taste of every single one, is less great than you might imagine. Social eating is complicated now… but it was complicated then, too, what with feeling self-conscious about what other people thought about how much I was eating, and then piling more onto my plate than I really wanted or needed, out of stupid, self-defeating, “Who cares what they think” defiance.
And I was in serious denial/ cognitive dissonance about how unhappy I was with my body, and how out of touch with it I felt. I’d tell myself that I was fine with how I looked; but I hated, hated, hated seeing pictures of myself. I couldn’t look at party or family photos without cringing… because looking at photos fucked with my cognitive dissonance about how big I really was, and how unhappy I really was about it. And getting dressed to go out was a minefield: I could never predict which evenings I was going to feel okay about how I looked, and which evenings I’d spend ripping through my closet for half an hour, near tears, because nothing I owned was going to make me feel beautiful, or even presentable.
So do I have some neuroses about food and my body now? Yes. Did I have neuroses about food and my body when I was fat? You betcha. And the overall effect of weight loss on my mental health has been enormously positive. I feel more present in my body; just walking around the city makes me feel exuberant and joyful and like I’m bursting out of my skin. I like looking at myself in mirrors. My energy and stamina are high. My libido is making me feel like I’ve been shot out of a cannon.
And very surprisingly, I find that I enjoy food more now. I pay more attention to it; I savor it; I take great relish in the occasional donuts and potato chips; I’m finding new pleasures in roasted vegetables and poached fish and Greek yogurt with warm fruit… and yes, even tofu. (The fact that Ingrid has always been a good cook and is becoming a spectacular one doesn’t hurt.) As Ingrid put it: It’s easier to enjoy your food when you’re not in a state of cognitive dissonance about it. Not to mention the overall effect on my physical health… which has been, as I described above, spectacular. And which can’t be divorced from my mental health.
Now, I can hear the fat-positive advocates already, saying that they don’t support neurotic, unconscious, joyless eating. They advocate being healthy at every size, which includes mental health and a sane relationship with food. Yeah. That’s a beautiful dream. I tried “healthy at every size.” It wasn’t healthy. There is no math in the world that makes a bad knee just as healthy at 200 pounds as it is at 150. And while some people might be capable of maintaining a healthy relationship with food without keeping track of what they eat, I am not one of them. Besides, this idea that eating “naturally” is all we need to do to eat healthy? Total bullshit. Our appetites evolved on the African savannah 100,000 years ago, in an environment of scarcity, and our bodies evolved to eat as much food as is available, whenever it’s available. A strategy that obviously doesn’t work so well in 21st century America. If counting calories and keeping a food diary is what I need to do to keep my diet healthy and stay conscious and sane about how I eat, I fail to see how that’s a bad thing.
There’s an old saying that courage doesn’t mean not having fear — it means not letting fear get in the way. I’m come to feel that way about sanity. Sanity doesn’t mean not having neuroses. It means not letting neuroses get in the way.
And that’s just as true for being sane about food and my body. Food and bodies are fraught, emotional, heavily loaded issues, with feelings that are deeply ingrained by evolution, and feelings that are profoundly twisted by modern Western society. It’s hard for me to imagine ever being completely nonchalant about them. My emotional rollercoaster about food and my body is smoothing out a lot, as time goes on and I get accustomed to my new habits… but I’m always going to have some degree of neuroses about this stuff. And me being me, I’m always going to overthink it. So since I’m going to be neurotic and overthinking about food and my body anyway, I may as well be neurotic and overthinking… and in good health, and basically happy with how I look and feel, and not in a state of denial and cognitive dissonance about it.
I’m not going to be an evangelist about weight loss. I still believe — passionately — that the cost-benefit analysis of weight loss is different for different people, and that while it’s right for me, it isn’t necessarily right for everyone.
What’s more, I know that weight loss is hard, and that for reasons we don’t even come close to understanding, it’s harder for some people than others. Different people have different hunger triggers, different metabolisms, different rates of becoming satiated, etc. And I know that many of the things that are making weight loss easier for me are privileges not everyone has: things like being able to afford a gym membership, and living in a city where fresh, healthy food is widely available, and having a supportive partner who’s going through this process with me. Which, again, makes the cost-benefit analysis different for everybody. The cost is worth it to me… but the cost isn’t the same for me as it is for everyone else.
So I’m not going to evangelize about weight loss. What I am going to evangelize for is:
(a) Doing an honest, non-denialist, reality-based assessment of the costs and benefits of weight loss (including, and especially, the health costs and benefits);
and (b) Pursuing weight loss in a reality-based way if you think it would be right for you.
So to that end, for anyone who’s interested, I want to talk about what exactly I’ve been doing to lose weight — what techniques have been successful, what techniques haven’t been so much, what practical strategies and psychological tricks have made this go smoother.
And if anyone else is dealing with this, I want to hear from you. I know that this process isn’t over: I still have another ten or fifteen pounds to go. And I know that the hardest part is yet to come. Everything I’ve read says that maintaining weight loss is tougher than losing the weight in the first place, and as good as I feel about all this, I’m not willing to call it a success until I’ve not only lost all the weight I want to, but have kept it off for at least a year. This is a work in progress, and it’s not like I have all the answers. I want to let you know what’s working and not working for me… and I want to find out what’s working and not working for you.
So let’s talk specifics. Let’s talk about how to do this.
(Tomorrow: The actual diet. Part 3 of a three-part series.)