How do you be a fat-positive feminist who’s losing weight?
Don’t worry. This isn’t going to turn into a diet blog. I’d rather hit myself on the hand with hammers. But this thing has been happening with me: it’s kind of a big effing deal for me, and I think it may be of interest to my readers. So although I’m finding myself with an uncharacteristic reluctance to talk about something this personal, I’ve decided to take the plunge.
I am, as anyone who knows me or has seen photos of me knows, fat. I have been fat for a long time, and have been more or less okay with it for a long time. My attitude towards my fatness has largely been shaped by the feminist fat-positive movement: I wasn’t going to make myself miserable trying to force my body into the mainstream image of ideal female beauty, and I was instead going to work on being as healthy as I could be — eating well, exercising, reducing stress, etc. — at the weight that I already was.
But a few months ago, my bad knee started getting worse. I’ve had a bad knee for a long time (I blew it out doing the polka and it’s never been the same since); but as bad knees go, it wasn’t that bad. I had to be careful getting in and out of cars; I had bad days when I had to rest it; I had to quit doing the polka. No big deal. I can live a rich, full life being careful getting in and out of cars and not doing the polka.
But a few months ago, it started getting worse. Like, having trouble climbing hills and stairs worse.
That was not okay. I live in San Francisco. I need to be able to climb hills and stairs. And I know about knees. They don’t get better. I could see the writing on the wall: I knew that if I didn’t take action, my mobility would just get worse and worse with time. I could easily lose more than just stairs and hills. I could lose dancing. Fucking. Long walks. Walking at all.
Short of surgery, there’s really only one thing you can do for a bad knee that I wasn’t already doing.
And that’s to lose weight.
How do you be a fat-positive feminist who’s losing weight?
It’s really hard not to feel like a traitor about this. When I reach a benchmark in my weight loss and get all excited and proud, or when someone compliments me on how good I look now and I get a little self-esteem-boosting thrill, it’s hard not to feel like a traitor to my feminist roots, and to the fat women who fought so hard to liberate me from the rigid and narrow social constructs of female beauty.
And even apart from feeling like a traitor, there are about eighty million emotional traps along the way: traps that threaten to upend years of hard mental health work spent learning to love myself the way I am.
For starters: I know that weight loss typically fails about 90% of the time. So far this weight loss thing is working; but I’ve only been at it for a couple of months, and I know that in the long run, it could easily fail. And if this fails, then I get to feel like… well, like a failure. I get to be back at Square One, with my bad knee and everything — but without the emotional supports I built up during my “Fuck You, Body Fascists” anti- dieting years.
But if I’m one of the 10% that succeeds… well, then I feel like an idiot for having whined about it for so long, and for not having done this sooner. (I’m already feeling like that now. In a purely practical sense, this has been easier than I’d thought it would be, and so now I’m feeling like a jackass for having insisted all these years that it was all but impossible.)
And if I am successful, the last thing in the world I want to do is get all smug and judgmental about how easy it was and how if I can do it, anyone can. If there’s anything I hate, it’s when people who’ve lost weight (or never gained it) get smug and judgmental about how if they can do it, anyone can. (I’m looking at you, Dan Savage.) That is a huge, ugly trap, and it’s one I’m desperate to avoid.
Plus, it’s so hard to let go of thinking that food and the appetite for it should be “natural.” I mean, it’s food. It’s one of the oldest, deepest instincts we have. (Reproducing and escaping from predators also leap to mind.) The fact that I can’t just “eat naturally,” the fact that I have to pay careful, conscious attention to everything I eat and when… it’s hard not to see that as a failure of character.
And as much as I want my weight loss to purely be about my health, the reality is that, now that I’m in the process, it’s become more about my appearance than I’d like. I really don’t want that: I find it politically troubling and emotionally toxic, and I think in the long run it’ll undermine what I’m trying to do. But it’s hard. As much as I like to think of myself as a free-spirited, convention- defying rebel, the reality is that I’m a social animal, and social animals care about what other animals think of them. And since I’m non-monogamous, I have to be aware of the realities of the sexual economy… and the reality of the sexual economy is that I’ll almost certainly get more action and attention as I lose weight. I dearly wish I didn’t care about that, but I do.
In case you’re curious: So far, I’ve been successful. As of this writing, I’ve lost 20 pounds in two and a half months. And in case you’re curious, I don’t have any great secret to my so-far success. Counting calories; keeping a food diary; regular exercise; patience. Absurdly simple in theory. In practice, it’s been a fucking minefield, especially at the beginning: crying fits in grocery store parking lots, heavy conversations with family and friends, planning that at times borders on obsessive compulsive, a painful and complicated emotional dance every time I have dinner with friends or eat out, and way more processing with Ingrid than I ever wanted to have to go through. (And I don’t even get to call this a success yet. 90% of people who lose weight gain it back within a year; so until I’ve lost all the weight I want and have kept it off for a year, I don’t get to relax and think of this as a win. And to some extent, I’ll never get to completely relax: I’ll probably have to do some form of calorie- counting and weight management for the rest of my life.)
But it is getting easier with time, as I get more and more used to my new eating habits. It’s getting physically easier: for the first week or two, 1800 calories a day just didn’t make me feel full, and I was cranky on good days and despairing on bad ones. Now 1800 calories feels like plenty, as my body has adjusted its sense of how much food is enough. And it’s gotten easier mentally as well, as I’ve found some strategies — emotional, psychological, practical strategies — that so far have helped.
It’s helped to remember that my appetites and instincts about food evolved about 100,000 years ago on the African savannah, in an environment of scarcity. The taste for sweets and fats; the tendency to gorge when I’m hungry; the impulse to keep on eating even after I’ve had enough; the triggers that make me hungry when I see or smell food… that’s not weakness or moral failure. That’s millions of years of evolution at work: evolution that hasn’t had time to catch up with the modern American food landscape. And as a rationalist and a skeptic, in the same way that I’m not going to let myself believe in deities just because evolution has wired my brain to see patterns and intentions even where none exist, I’m not going to let myself eat three brownies at a party just because evolution has wired my brain to think I might starve to death if I don’t.
It’s helped for me to think of this as a political issue. It helps to remember that the multinational food corporations have spent decades carefully studying the abovementioned evolutionary food triggers, so they can manipulate me into buying and eating way more food than is good for me. It helps to think of weight loss, not as giving in to the mainstream cultural standards of female beauty, but as sending a big “Fuck You” to the purveyors of quadruple- patty hamburgers and Chocolate Chip Pancakes & Sausage on a Stick.
It’s helped for me to remember that my other “natural” impulses aren’t so natural, either. It’s worked for me to remember that as a non-monogamist, I have to think carefully about who to have sex with and when; that as a city dweller, I have to think consciously about whether I’m genuinely in danger or am just being paranoid (or conversely, whether I’m genuinely safe or am just being oblivious). Food is no different. It’s “natural” for humans to be rational animals, and to think about our choices instead of just reacting.
Doing this with Ingrid has been a huge help. Being able to support each other, encourage each other, plan meals together, share strategies, vent… it’s been invaluable. I don’t know if the people studying weight loss have looked at whether it’s more effective to do it with a partner or friend… but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.
Keeping a food diary has helped enormously. It helps in the obvious way: that’s how I keep track of my calories. But more than that, it helps me be more mindful and present about how I eat. I’m a lot less likely to run to the corner and get a Snickers bar if I know I have to write it in my journal. (If you have an iPhone, btw, there’s a wicked cool calorie- counting app called LoseIt. I can’t tell you how much easier it’s made this process. If you don’t, though, not to worry: the Interweb has made calorie- counting a relative breeze.)
It helps to think of this as a permanent lifestyle change. It’s hard, but it helps. If I think of this as something I’ll just have to do once and will then be finished with… well, that wouldn’t just make this harder to sustain in the long run. It’d also make it harder in the short run: easier to blow it off for a day, and then another day, since all I’d be doing is postponing my “final” goal by a day or two. Thinking of this as “This is just how I eat now” makes it easier to keep it up.
It helped a lot to get a sane calorie count from my medical provider that took into account how much exercise I get. (As much as I love my little LoseIt iPhone app, if I’d have gotten my daily calorie count from that, it would have been way too low… since the gizmo apparently assumes that anyone using their program is about as active as a recently- fed boa constrictor.)
It helps to avoid using moral language about weight loss: to avoid thinking of “cheating” on my diet, “forbidden” foods, etc. It’s hard enough to not eat the things I’m trying not to eat, without making them seem more attractive because they’re naughty and wicked.
It helps to eat real food… and to avoid “diet” food like the plague. No diet shakes, no power bars, no lowfat cardboard cookies from the industrialized food industry. Fruit, vegetables, bread, meat, rice, beans… that sort of thing. I don’t even eat lowfat cheese. I’d rather just eat regular cheese, and eat less of it.
It helps to eat slowly. Partly because it gives the “fullness” trigger in my brain time to catch up with my stomach… but partly because I get more pleasure from my food, and don’t feel deprived. And it helps to eat smaller meals more frequently: since I never get all that hungry, I can make smarter and more conscious choices about what to eat.
It helps to measure my food, as much as I can. For calorie counting, it’s pretty much essential. My instincts about what constituted a cup of soup or a teaspoon of butter were way, way off. I don’t whip out the cup measure when I eat out, obviously… but I almost always do it at home, and since I’ve been doing it, my estimates on portion size when I do eat out have gotten a lot better.
It’s helped to break down my ultimate long-term goal into smaller, more manageable goals. When my health care provider told me I should lose 60 pounds to be at my maximum good health, I just about gave up in despair right then. Instead, I decided to fuck that noise, I was simply going to lose 20 pounds… and then I’d see how I felt, and how hard it was, and whether I wanted to continue or stay put. I am now shooting for another 20 pounds… and when that’s gone, I’ll once again re-evaluate and decide whether or not I want to keep going, and how far.
It’s helped to make incremental, non-drastic changes in my eating and my exercise. I think this is what trips up a lot of people who are trying to lose weight: they want to become health- obsessed gym bunnies overnight, and when that’s too hard, they give up. It helped instead to add one workout a week to what I was already doing… and then, when I got used to that, to add one more.
And on a related topic: It’s helped to be aware that weight loss can happen in fits and starts: there are natural fluctuations, with some weeks where I lose a lot and others where I don’t or even gain a little. One of my big hysterical grocery-store crying fits came early on in my program, during a week where I gained weight… and it took Ingrid forever to convince me that this didn’t necessarily mean I was doing something wrong, or that I had to make an already difficult weight-loss program even more strenuous. But she was right. It makes much more sense to keep my focus on the big picture, the overall arc. If I gain half a pound a week three weeks in a row, then I might decide that I need to step things up. But if I gain half a pound one week, I’m not going to decide that what I’m doing isn’t working. I’m just going to stick with it.
It’s helped for me to find exercise that I love doing. I am now doing bicep curls with 20 lb. dumbbells. I feel like a fucking Amazon goddess. Weightlifting rules.
It’s helped for me to do some sort of exercise almost every day. It’s not just that I burn more calories that way. It’s that it makes exercise into a normal part of my daily life: not a special thing I do a couple times a week and can blow off if I’m not in the mood, but an everyday routine like brushing my teeth.
When I’m not in the mood to exercise, it helps to remember that I never, ever, ever have been sorry that I worked out. Ever. No matter how crummy I felt when I started, I have always felt better afterwards.
Going to the gym helps. It’s not absolutely necessary; if you can’t afford a gym membership, you can get good exercise without one. But for me, the gym has been a lifesaver. The thing about the gym is it takes minimal willpower. All I need is the willpower to get in the car and get my ass to the gym. Once I’m there, of course I’m going to work out. I mean, what else am I going to do?
But it’s also helped to have some exercise equipment at home. Nothing fancy or expensive: some dumbbells, a stability ball, a resistance band, a mat. Having exercise equipment at home means I can easily do at least a little exercise every day, even if I can’t get to the gym. And that’s helped turn it into a regular part of my daily life, like brushing my teeth.
It’s helped to get a trainer. (Hi, Marta! We love you.)
It’s helped for me to to find healthy foods that I love. (Summer fruit season has made this so much easier: I can eat peaches and cherries and strawberries for months and never get tired of them.)
And it’s helped to not be a purist: to eat the occasional cheeseburger, the occasional barbecued ribs, the occasional donut. I have to budget my day’s calories for it (or else budget for the occasional day when I don’t worry about it). But thinking, “I can never have another donut again as long as I live” would make this intolerable. Thinking, “I can have a donut today if I have a light dinner” makes this do-able. An entertaining challenge, even. Like my food for the day is a puzzle, and I’m trying to get all the pieces to fit together.
Finally, more than anything else, it helps me to remember my knee. It helps to notice how much better my knee already feels now that I’ve lost the 20 pounds: to notice that I’m climbing stairs and hills again, with little or no problem. It helps to think of how much better my knee will feel when I lose another 20, and then another. It helps to pick up the 20 lb. dumbbells at the gym and think about how rough it would be on my knees to walk around carrying them all day… and how much better it would feel to set them down. It helps to think that I might even be able to do the polka again someday. And when I start thinking that this weight loss thing isn’t that big a deal and I can have that ice cream if I want it, it helps to imagine my old age, and to think about whether I want to be spending it dancing, walking in the woods, exploring new cities, on my knees committing unspeakable sexual acts… or sitting on a sofa watching TV and waiting to die.
There’s something Ingrid has said about this, something that’s really stuck with me. She’s pointed out that if I were diabetic or something, and I was told I had to change my eating habits in order to stay alive… I’d do it. I might gripe about it, but I’d manage, and I’d even find a way to enjoy it if I could.
Well, the reality isn’t that far off. I have a choice between a good shot at a healthy, active, pleasurable middle and old age… and a long, steady decline into a vicious circle of inactivity and ill health. I am, as the old ’80s T-shirts used to say, choosing life.
So that’s what’s working for me. If you’re doing this as well: What’s working for you?
Important note: I am most emphatically NOT looking for diet tips. Anyone who offers diet tips will be banned from this blog. I am only partially kidding. I already know the mechanics of what I need to do: count calories, keep a food journal, exercise regularly, be patient. Rocket science.
What I’m looking for is psychological tips. Ways of walking through the emotional minefield. Ways of framing this that make it more sustainable. Ways of answering the question:
How do you be a fat-positive feminist who’s losing weight?
And for that matter, how do you be a fat-positive skeptic?
(To be completed in tomorrow’s post.)