24 September 2010

On deciding to just be this size

When I was thirteen or fourteen, Seventeen magazine ran a diet article. Half of the article was, "How to eat if you're too skinny" (you got to have milkshakes every day!); the other half, "How to eat if you're too fat" (oh, who remembers; it was the late 80s, so I'm sure it involved lots of celery). So I asked my mom, "am I too skinny or too fat?" I hoped she'd say I was too skinny, so I could have the milkshakes. But I suspected I was too fat, and doomed to celery.

Imagine my surprise--and incredulity--when she said, "I think you're just the right size." This was an option for which Seventeen had simply not prepared me. I was sure she was just being nice: it couldn't possibly be that I honestly didn't need to lose weight.

I have had maybe two years in my adult life where I was free from that feeling. In my late 20s, I did several months' worth of Weight Watchers, and reached the lowest weight I'd ever been as an adult. I could wear all kinds of clothes I'd never felt comfortable in before: miniskirts! sleeveless tops! shirts tucked in!! I got cold much more easily, and couldn't hold my whiskey nearly as well, but who cared? For the first time in my life, I was taking jeans I thought would fit into dressing rooms, and then having to ask for a smaller size! I was THIN! I had mastered life!

Of course, life went on. I got a boyfriend, and instead of living on Weight Watchers meals at home, I was going out for dinner a lot--and not always ordering a salad, and sometimes sharing a starter. I started going to grad school in addition to working full-time, which cut down on gym-going time as it upped whiskey-drinking time. I got married and started cooking more; I moved to a country with amazing, calorific treats like steak-and-ale pie and chicken tikka masala and sticky toffee pudding. I ate real ice cream again, and realized that Skinny Cow just didn't cut it.

So for the past few years, I've been back to that old feeling, that I should really lose ten pounds. Except now it's compounded with guilt that I gained them to begin with. I have failed in my responsibility--to my husband, to myself, to the legions of people who have to look at me every day as I go about my business--to be the thin person I've proven I can be.

Because that's what women are supposed to do, right? Because otherwise we're "letting ourselves go," and it's our own fault if our partner leaves or we lose out on a promotion or we get sick with something chronic.

I finally started to snap out of this a couple of months or so ago, when I pulled on a pair of old khakis that I wear around the house. I had the traditional self-flagellation moment as I buttoned them, because they fit around my waist, and not around my hips the way they did a few years ago. And then I had a laughing moment at the very mid-90s styling of this particular pair of trousers, which are designed to fit at, not below, the waist and which feature billowing pleats in the front and taper to an end just at the ankle. And then I thought, holy shit, I'm 35 and I can still wear trousers I bought when I was 21.

Maybe--just maybe--the smallest I've ever been isn't the size I'm meant to be, as an adult. Maybe I'm actually supposed to be the size I've been for most of my adult life.

It was the start of a serious think.

That think--fueled by lots of reading, to which I'll link down below, rather than try to cleverly fit it all in the body of the post--continued right into the belly-dancing class at my gym, and learning how to shimmy correctly (hint: it's not about the boobs), and a second sudden flash of insight:

The only thing my skinny body could do that my heavier body can't, is wear smaller clothes.

That body wasn't a better dancer.
It wasn't a better writer.
It wasn't a more creative teacher.
It didn't sing any more beautifully.
It couldn't walk any farther.
It wasn't a more effective leader.
It wasn't any better at picking up new skills (like belly-dancing, or golf).

Even if I were to someday put on those mid-90s khakis and find they wouldn't button, all that would mean was that I had outgrown a pair of pants. It wouldn't take anything away from who I am and what I can do.

So, now I have to learn a whole new way of thinking. I try not to step on the scale, because sometimes I do that and the number makes me feel bad, even though all my clothes still fit and I'm dripping with sweat and high on endorphins from my workout. I'm trying to start to think about my food and activity choices in terms of "what will help me stay healthy?" rather than "what will help me fit back into my smallest LBD?" And I have to make myself remember: I hadn't mastered life when I lost weight. I had just fixed one thing that had been bugging me.

Most of all, I've had to give up on what Kate Harding calls The Fantasy of Being Thin (oh, look, there's a link after all). I have to keep pounding the message into my own brain: there is nothing I want to do that requires being thin. After all (another link, coming up!), Jennifer Hudson won an Oscar and a Grammy before she lost weight.

And you know what? Losing weight was time and effort-consuming. I love my life, but I haven't exactly achieved everything I want to in it. Why would I want to distract myself from the goals that matter to me, by directing energy towards a goal that won't help me achieve them?

Further Reading:
More on the Jennifer Hudson Weight Watchers Ad
Shapely Prose FAQ
The problem with modern diet advice
More problems with modern diet advice
You Don't Have to be Pretty
Already Pretty Reality Check


  1. Sing it sister! A blessing of getting older is being more comfortable in our own skin. And this is such a finely written post, it should be in a magazine. Seventeen maybe? xo Léna

  2. Loving every bit of this - the ideas, the execution, and the conclusion. Loving it even more because I think we are psychic-ly in tune - I had the same, yet not so eloquently put, thought this morning as I was looking in the mirror in my sister's childhood bedroom.

    When I was in high school, I never looked in this mirror, because I didn't care enough to (and because I couldn't walk around in her room without stepping on a pile of clothes/books/keys/unidentified matter). On college breaks, I looked in this mirror probably 5 times an hour, thinking (more) weight would magically drop off in minutes - at this point I cared way too much, and was never happy with what I saw. This morning, when I walked in there looking for something (there's still alot of stuff in there, but now mostly belonging to her kiddos) I caught a glimpse of myself. And I thought - not 'I look thinner', but I look healthy.

    It's a great feeling.

  3. You guys made me teary! Glad you liked the post!