Crossroad

March 15, 2010

“Deep down, in your heart of hearts, if you are completely honest with yourself and you had unlimited resources, what do you think it would take for you to lose the weight you want to lose?” asked Dr. Vogel.

I was sitting in the office of the third endocrinologist I had visited in as many months, trying to understand why hours and hours of exercise and months and months of dieting hadn’t worked–why I felt faint when I stood up, ached for days after running a mile, and felt like I was living in the body of an 80-year-old woman.

Despite my best efforts, all the frustration and anguish of my unsuccessful 6-month battle to lose weight welled up in my eyes and spilled over in tears of defeat as I replied “I think I would have to exercise 6 hours a day…that would have to be my job. I couldn’t have any stress. It would have to consume my thoughts, my life…” she nodded sympathetically as my voice trailed off and the words I had spoken hit my consciousness. The tears came from the realization that I had increasingly come to believe that this task was impossible.

Surprisingly, Dr. Vogel didn’t try to reassure me. She didn’t tell me I was fine the way I was. She didn’t tell me that I was wrong about the kind of lifestyle I thought I would have to live to lose weight. In fact, she told me the last thing I expected to hear: that my expectations were unrealistic. “Genes are powerful. They’re not everything, but they’re something. If the women in your family are bigger, you’re just going to be bigger. Learn to be happy.”

I had two primary and contradictory reactions to this news: anger and relief. The anger came from being told that this was something I couldn’t do, and that it was out of my control. In 24 years, I’ve never believed that that anything was out of reach, if I was willing to put in the effort. It went against a fundamental principle of my life: hard work = success. The relief part is hard to explain, but I think it stems from this: for the first time in years, someone was looking at me without judgement and telling me that my inability to lose weight wasn’t my fault. I realize now that her words placed me at the fork of a dangerous crossroad…one path leading to complacency and defeat; one leading to freedom and content.

God’s grace led me (albeit somewhat blindly) to take the latter. This blog is my attempt to share my journey down that road and bring as many people with me as I can.

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After being told by my trainer that the most important part of getting in shape was learning to love your body every step of the way, I got in the car and angrily asked myself “I’m so sick of hearing this! What does that even mean?” It took a few weeks of wallowing in self-pity before a pinprick of clarity penetrated the fog of my frustration.

Before you skip over the “love the your body” paragraph, stop. I promise it’s not what you think.

Seriously, what does it mean to love your body? Is it just meaningless psycho-babble/after-school-special? Does it have to be? (ENTER paradigm shift).

If we ever actually said these words and meant them: “I love my body,” what would change about the way we treat it? What messages do our thoughts and actions send to our bodies right now?

The thing I have come to discover is that loving your body is just like loving anything else–it requires as much from you as any other relationship in your life. And what makes those other relationships work? Communication, selflessness, flexibility, time, trust, honesty, humor, forgiveness, and love. In fact, if you don’t work to cultivate a strong relationship between you and your body, you will continually feel disappointed, frustrated, betrayed, helpless, and trapped. (Maybe you already do?) Unlike other relationships, your body isn’t something you can walk away from when things head south. You and your body are “til death do us part”–inextricably linked.

Now, it may seem a little creepy to you that I keep referring you and your body as two distinct things, so I want to clarify what I mean. The mind-body connection is something that has been heavily researched across countless decades and disciplines and yet, despite a few small breakthroughs, mostly trandscends our understanding. I don’t claim to have solved the mystery, but I do know that the mind and the body are importantly connected. They are also importantly separate. They don’t always agree, they don’t always communicate and as they battle for control, your weight, diet, and motivation bounce around like a dysfunctional yo-yo.

To clarify this further, when I say “you” or “your mind,” what I’m referring to are the emotions, knowledge, beliefs, behaviors, and self-talk that you consciously control (even if they sometimes feel out of control). “You” controls the information that comes in to your brain, you control how that information is analyzed, you decide how to feel about it, or what to think about it, and your speech and behaviors are generally the result of that process.

When I say “your body,” I’m referring to your hormones, your metabolism, your bone structure, and all the intricate and beautifully created systems inside you that operate constantly and unconsciously. These internal systems operate consistently and react predictably. While your behaviors can influence the functioning of these systems, you do not have the ability to control how these systems are influenced by your behaviors or why

Here is a scenario that might help to illustrate this difference: if you’re in a good mood and someone at work pays you a compliment, saying “you look great today!” you might be thrilled. If you’re in a bad or insecure mood and someone says “you look great today!” you might think or say “What! Do I normally look like a total slob?” This is “you”–depending on the day or on your mood, you might have drastically different reactions in an identical situation. Your body doesn’t work like this! No matter what day it is, how happy you are, or whether it’s raining outside, drinking tons of water will still make you have to pee and if you’re allergic to peanuts, eating a snickers will still send you into anaphylactic shock. 

Now, wouldn’t it be just be easy if you and your body weren’t forced to deal with one another? Wouldn’t it be great if you could eat that donut without sending your blood sugar into a tailspin, and wouldn’t it be great if your sluggish metabolism didn’t make you feel tired and depressed (and want another donut)?

I went through a period of being really angry that I was forced to cohabitate with this body that I DID NOT get to choose!! I looked around and saw all these other great bodies that would be much easier and less stressful to deal with and I was wistfully jealous. In fact, I thought “maybe I can change my body to be more like that body, which is much, much better than this body that I have.”

Reality check! You can wish and long and hope and nag and mope for something better to come along, but your body is quite literally THE ONE. It’s the only one you get. If you want to live a happy life with your body, like I desperately did, you have to accept the fact that, though your body may not be perfect, it is perfect for you–which is exactly what God believed when he knit you together and gave you life.

Now, just because you accept your body as your body doesn’t mean there aren’t things about it that may need to change. Acceptance is not a free pass to stick with the status quo! You may need to change the foods you put into your body. You may need to start pointing a finger at the mirror inside your head instead of at your metabolism or your thighs. Agree to work together with your body through this process of change, and accept that there will be bumps in the road.

Together, you can get through it. I promise.

Paradigm Shift

April 22, 2010

When the lightbulb started to flicker in my brain, the first thing I began to really understand was how I had been thinking and how it was completely counterintuitive to what I wanted to achieve. I was insidiously sabotaging myself with a whacky (but, I might add, very mainstream) perspective on my body, food, exercise, and weight loss and an unhealthy, mismatched set of priorities. You might say this was how I approached the idea of dieting and fitness at the beginning:

In other words, all of the choices I made, the food I put in my body (or didn’t put in my body), and the bulk of my emotional and physical energy went to holding up this very precarious and very upside-down triangle. The ambiguous concept of “thinness” loomed over everything else and led me into the vicious cycle of diet and weight gain that so many people face. As the top-heavy pyramid inevitably comes crashing down, it leaves us discouraged and scratching our heads. Not surprisingly, as this effort keeps failing over and over and over, all motivation goes out the window and leaves us worse off than where we started.

Now, it would be easy to just flip the pyramid around, roll our eyes, and persist in an unhealthy–now completely jaded–mindset. For me, it took a whole lot more than just knowing my head was in the wrong place to actually change. I think it’s important to understand why I thought this way and, honestly, still struggle not to!

There’s a fair amount of blame to go around for why women, primarily, although some men as well, suffer from deep-seated body issues and insecurities related to weight and shape. Some of that blame belongs to us, which we definitely need to confront, but a lot of it is a result of the way we have been visually conditioned to think throughout childhood and adolescence. Yeah, yeah, yeah, everybody knows models are too thin, air-brushed, anorexic, unhealthy, drug-addicted, 6-feet-tall, generally demonic mutants posing as humans. Well, as we are spewing bitter profanities toward advertisers and fashion designers, in the back of our minds we know and believe that they are today’s standard of beauty and that most of us would kill (ourselves) to look like them. Face it, when was the last time you saw a man drueling over a Dove ad? Not only do we hate them for the unachievable image they beckon us to imitate; we hate them because they make us hate ourselves.

Rather than driving us to punish the advertisers by refusing to buy their products, this hatred drives us to punish ourselves by harshly dieting or skipping meals, by exercising to the point of exhaustion, and then to mercilessly punish ourselves with criticism when these tactics don’t work, or when we fail to keep them up. When lack of food and exercise = punishment, indulging in food and sedation = reward. The result is that we reward ourselves with things that lead us to feel as though we should punish ourselves.

Does this sound twisted? IT IS!! Do I sound mad? I AM!!

Let me summarize the liberating paradigm shift that was prompted by my anger at this illogic: I want to be healthy and I want to be fit because I love my body, not because I hate it.