Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Weight of Weight

I am a human being over eleven years old, and I live in the United States of America, which means that I think about my weight. I can’t help it (despite my little peach-colored pill), and after a year of starting posts about this topic and never finishing them, I’ve decided, it’s time.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a general rule against sharing personal stories about weight, diets, or workout regimens. But like any good rule, I believe there are exceptions and I’m hoping that this entry is one of them.

* * *

Let’s start with numbers since numbers are easy and since they likely quell some curiosity. This morning, I weighed 147 pounds. About eleven months ago, I weighed 20 pounds less than that and when I delivered Teddy, I weighed 53 pounds more. We good so far?

OK, now for some background to those numbers.

As a senior in high school, I was deeply loyal to my schoolwork and the sports that I played. I had a family, a best friend, a boyfriend, and a life that I loved. I ate frosting out of the container when I made a cake, batches of mozzarella sticks with Brianne, and countless slices of Papa Gino's pizza at team dinners. And I didn't feel guilty about any of it. I knew who I was in my small New England suburb and I was proud of that person. When I left for college, I felt excited, eager, and blessed.

When I arrived at Bowdoin, I still felt the same way. I missed my family but I wasn’t ever really homesick. At the same time, something unexpected happened.

When the honeymoon of orientation was over, I started to feel lost; not lost so much in terms of what to do but lost in terms of how I valued myself while I was doing it.

In Canton, I had been an above-average basketball player, swimmer, and gymnast. At Bowdoin, I was way below average at the first two, and gymnastics didn’t even exist. In Canton, I wandered from class to class with the smartest kids in the school, but at Bowdoin, I was surrounded by students (like Brian) who were the valedictorian of their high school class and I definitely hadn't earned that top spot. All of the sudden, I felt average, really average, and despite that now, average sounds wonderful, at the time, I hated that feeling. It felt boring and empty; snobby and insecure; complex, and yet so very simple.

A very ironic thing added to my pain – before I left for college, I got my hair cut short, basically to the hairdo that I (unintentionally) have now. At the time I sat in my hairdresser’s chair in August 1998, I wanted something new and different, but as soon as I got to Bowdoin and realized that I was new and my haircut was different, I regretted that decision. To be honest, I didn’t regret it in any conscious way; I never stared in the mirror and thought to myself, I wish my hair were long again. But I just didn’t feel right with short hair and deep down, I hoped that when it grew back, I’d be confident and happy again.

In search of that confidence and that happiness that I had somehow lost, I started to exercise. A lot. No matter the time of day or the weather or how much my knees hurt, I ran, swam, cross country skied, or stepped up and down on the StairMaster. Today, that all sounds fun (except maybe the StairMaster part) but it wasn't fun at the time. It was absolutely exhausting -- both for my body and for my mind. Unfortunately, however, I had no idea how to get either of them to rest. My mind had become a calculator for calories consumed and calories burned and despite that it was constantly doing math, no one ever knew.

In all honesty, my obsession with my weight wasn't about what other people thought. In fact, it wasn't even really about the number on a scale, either, and I rarely, if ever, weighed myself. My anxiety was really about what I thought about how I looked, how I felt in a new place, what I could (or could not) control.

At the time, 15 years ago, I never stopped and wrote about myself in the way I do now. But I did sometimes write poetry and often, my poems were based on feelings that I understood from personal experience. Maybe they weren't precisely my own feelings, but they were close. This was one of those poems that I wrote way back then:

Naked body
that I dread
screaming voices
in my head
numbers, mirrors
haunting me
suffocating misery

Second, minutes,
hours pass
screaming voices
still harass
secret pain
and misery
every moment
haunting me

Naked body
that I hate
before the mirror
life can wait
while the voices
scream my name
I drown in shame

Days and months
and years go by
naked body
wonders why
in the dark,
the snow, the rain
forced to feel
the endless pain

Naked body
wants to rest
screaming voices
still detest
before the mirror
waist and thighs
battle cries

Naked body
that I dread
screaming voices
want me dead
But now is when
I must decide
to quell the voices
deep inside
or else allow
the pain to win
to take my life
to make me thin.

Looking back on this poem is similar to looking back on August 8th of last year – it's like watching a thunderstorm storm in the distance after it's passed...oddly enough, it looks sort of beautiful...maybe mostly because it's passed.

Gradually, for several reasons, I grew out of obsessing about my weight. It wasn't so much that I solved the problem directly, but rather, that I found things that took priority over it -- Brian, my teaching job, law school, my kids. Over the years, I found peace with something that had previously tortured me and I was proud of that.

If you’d have asked me on August 7, 2012 about my feelings on my weight, I would have told you that I was satisfied with it. But deep down, I'd have been pleased to lose 10 or 15 pounds...a few from those extra handles above my hips, a few more from my C-section pouch, some from the flabbiness under my arms, and a bit from my inner thighs. Then, I’d feel great.

It turns out that there's a really quick way for me to lose 10 pounds, or hell, to lose 20...a cancer diagnosis. Despite that I’m that rare person who can eat meals through a bout of the flu, on August 8, 2012, I lost my appetite and I lost it bad.

I was literally so nauseous with worry that the thought of most foods made me want to throw up. It didn’t help that most calls from the doctors with additional news on my diagnosis came around dinner time, and after those, sitting up straight felt like a chore, and scooping food into my mouth felt damn near impossible.

I didn’t notice the weight loss at first; it was the least of my worries. But soon, I became concerned. I weighed myself and saw that I had lost ten pounds. I thought the cancer had started to kill me.

So I started to change the food that I was able to eat. While that deadly tumor was still in me, I decided to eat only the healthiest foods and pray that they would do everything possible to stop a single cancer cell from escaping from my breast. My life became mustard instead of mayo and cauliflower instead of ice cream. It wasn’t painful, but rather, something that I could control amidst a storm of things that I couldn't.

Prior to my double mastectomy, I was generally frightened to exercise so I really didn't. Crazily (and with absolutely zero supporting science), I thought that exercise could propel a cancer cell from the invasive tumor and nothing was worth that.

It turns out, however, that even without exercise, eating healthy foods really does cause weight loss because I continued to drop; five, seven, ten more pounds. Despite that I had some control that I craved, I was terrified that I was withering away. Sadly, the madness of Hollywood helped me, as I distinctly remember telling myself, Angelina Jolie is alive and she's way thinner than me. But still, I knew that I was not built to look like Angelina Jolie or to look the way that I looked. I was supposed to be bigger than that, healthier than that.

At one point just before chemo, I met with a nutritionist at Dana-Farber. She was lovely and she gave me some useful information. But the most important thing that I took away from our meeting was that she would help me if eating continued to be such a challenge. There are ways we can get you to gain weight even if you’re having trouble eating, she told me. I felt some peace.

In the end, as my worry about dying from cancer (and the related nausea) receded, my appetite returned. I’d guess that today I weigh exactly what I weighed on August 8th of last year. And if you want to know what I think about my weight right now...what I really feel about it...I feel great. 

* * *

I’m still human, still over eleven years old, and still living in the U.S.A., so obviously, I still think about my weight. But now, I think about it so, so much less. When I do, I have pretty healthy thoughts and I really, really appreciate them.

This change in me is not, however, all because of cancer (or because of writing). I had grown far away from the girl who wrote that poem long before cancer. Still, some tiny parts of her toxicity lingered in me. Maybe while the chemo worked on any cancer that remained in my system, it also wiped out any of that girl's toxic leftovers because I honestly don't feel it anymore. Here's what I do feel. 

I feel like I have finally learned what my body is supposed to look like when it's in a healthy state. I'm supposed to have some extra handles above my hips, some flabbiness under my arms, and inner thighs that remain untoned. These aren't things I should fight against or wish away. They're how things are supposed to be, maybe not for Angelina Jolie or for Victoria's Secret models, but for me.

I recently read an article in the newspaper about some number of teenage (and even pre-teen) girls who are taking pictures of their inner thighs and sharing them through social media. The most desired photos are sent by one who is thin enough that her inner thighs don't touch when she stands with her legs together. It makes me sick to think that girls are doing this, worrying about this, trying to change something that's not supposed to be changed.

I also know that there's not much that someone can say to help a person who is battling weight issues. Yes, I think a good therapist could be key, but a family member, friend, or blogger is probably not going to make much of a lasting difference. The process of learning to value, care for, and protect the body we were given is a long and complicated one.

Nevertheless, I want to assert my wishes for my own kids. I hope that they enjoy frosting out of the container when they make a cake, batches of mozzarella sticks with their best friends, and countless slices of Papa Gino's pizza at their team dinners. I hope they learn, as soon as possible, what their body is supposed to look like when it's healthy and I hope that they never do anything to try to change that shape. I hope they exercise and generally eat well because it feels good and because it will make them stronger. I hope they look in the mirror and see a person they are proud of (but not too proud of), and that they don't just see hips, arms, or inner thighs.

Finally, I hope, so very deeply, that my kids know that I believe they are the most beautiful people in the world. Because I really do. Whatever their weight. 

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