31 July 2013

The Weight of the Matter

[Many thanks to Kasey Edwards, whose post on the website Role Reboot "When Your Mother Says She's Fat", got me thinking and largely inspired this post.]

I'm going to take a big leap here into some dangerous territory. I'm going to talk about weight. This is dangerous territory because we live in a society that pervasively demonizes heavy people, calling them gluttons, lazy, lacking in self-control, or what-have-you. I don't want to admit to you that I am overweight. No one wants to be judged by the way they look; it's the content of our character that matters, right? Wrong. Fat people are judged every single day, in every way, even by the most well-meaning of us. (Just yesterday, an otherwise kind and gentle friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook of some overweight strangers at the beach and complained that they were ruining her view of the ocean. All her friends, except probably me, thought this was hysterically funny. I thought it was sad. Those poor people probably run a soup kitchen or adopt orphans or work for social justice or do something else amazing, and they will be immortalized forever as the butt of some stranger's ugly joke.)

I never weighed more or less than I wanted to when I was growing up. I ate what was put in front of me, I did what kids do (riding bikes, climbing trees, running around), and I never gave my weight a second thought. I learned in school about metabolism. If you take in the same number of calories that you burn every day, you will never have a weight problem. If you increase your food intake and decrease your exercise, you will gain weight, and vice versa. This was a universally-accepted formula, backed up by all kinds of medical research. It was taught to all of us as scientific fact.

Then, like many women, I found my weight creeping up after I had children. Having children did not suddenly make me a voracious eater or keep me from getting any exercise. To the contrary, having children affected my eating habits for the better. I followed all the nutritional advice my doctor gave me during pregnancy and afterwards. I avoided junk, empty calories, and unnecessary sweets, and I focused on lean proteins and whole grains. As for exercise, there is absolutely no workout like the workout one gets chasing around three children who are not quite four years apart. But still, that small number on the scale, the one I'd gotten used to seeing, became elusive.

Once the kids were in school for most of the day, I worked diligently to get the excess weight off. I kept it off for a while. But after I turned 40, it started coming back, and no amount of dieting and exercise seemed to make even the slightest difference. I knocked myself out over it. I joined a gym and hired a personal trainer, getting up at 5 every morning so I could burn 800 calories on the elliptical machine before work. I swam laps on my lunch hour. I followed Weight Watchers to the letter. Years went by without sweets or desserts. My kids had pizza; I had a salad. I chose carefully, even between good and bad fruits, and starchy and non-starchy vegetables. (Back in those days, Weight Watchers assigned a high value to bananas, calling them more fattening than other fruits. So I eschewed bananas for years, thinking for sure that if I was good, I would also become skinny. The two were synonymous, right?)

But I never got skinny, and I never felt good. My weight didn't budge. At least it didn't budge downward. All I got was a huge gym bill and a herniated disc in my neck from lifting too-heavy weights at my trainer's insistence.

When I express concern about my weight, friends are quick to suggest all kinds of remedies. The South Beach Diet! Yoga! Yoga in a really hot room full of sweaty people! Mountain climbing! Dust off your bike! Swim more! Walk more! Train for a 5K! Stop eating bread! Stop eating pasta! Stop eating rice! Stop eating!

Do I have to endure judgment and stares for the rest of my life, every time I eat a mouthful of rice or steal a cookie? What kind of way is that to live?

I have friends who work out obsessively. They run marathons and post about their times and distances on Facebook for everyone to admire. They hire babysitters so they can spend the larger part of their day at the gym. They bike ten miles to work and back every day and spend their lunch hours jogging around the block. They lift kettlebells and take punishing boot-camp classes. All to avoid the stigma that comes with being overweight.

The thing that's really tragic about this is not that I myself am constantly struggling with it, but the fact that my daughters are learning something from observing all this. They are learning that carrying around extra pounds is bad. It's naughty. It is the result of bad behavior, a contemptible lifestyle, or a complete lack of self-control. They could be the smartest, most talented, most beautiful-on-the-inside people on earth, but unless they control their weight, they are worthless, ugly, invisible.

There is nothing wrong with pursuing good nutrition and with trying to be active and healthy. No one should take more than his or her share, and focusing on the quality of the food we consume is a very good habit. But when we judge and shame ourselves and others based on body types and body shapes, we are teaching our children to do the same.

It's time to teach ourselves, and our children, a new lesson. The pounds you carry on your frame do not make you a good person or a bad person. Food is food, and exercise is exercise. Neither carries with it any sort of built-in morality. To paraphrase a famous saying, it is not what goes into your mouth that makes you evil; it is what goes on in your heart.

I'd like to teach my daughters to focus on what is going on in their hearts, and in the hearts of others. How about you?


Rev. K.T. said...

Thank you so much. I just heard from a friend who is at her lowest weight ever (a size 14) who said that her hours at work were cut because she was too fat. It's not like she's a dancer or anything, she's a waitress. How can we stop this judgment? As a woman, I judge myself harsher than any doctor or any nutritionist ever would. So why must the world offer its opinion on my weight? My girls are both beautiful girls who workout regularly and eat well for their age. I'm all for supporting them in their healthy endeavors, but after they gain the freshmen 15 or after they gain baby weight, how can I help them learn that they are still beautiful if I have trouble accepting my own beauty?

Justine Levine said...

Wow. I couldn't agree more.

Except that I do struggle with food. For me, food and exercise are tied to perfection and control. It's not healthy, and it's one of the reasons I'm in therapy. "If only I ate less, weighed less, was skinnier, etc." ... "I'd be more perfect." Except, of course, that I can never be perfect. So up and down I go, like a yo-yo.

I have a daughter now. She is beautiful, and I tell her that often, especially when she says "like my shoes? like my dress?" ... I always make a point of telling her that yes I like those, but most of all I love her smile, her words and questions, her smart brain, her hugs.

At some point, she will figure out that I struggle with the external stuff. I hope I can figure it out better before she does. Because I want her to be healthy, and strong, and know that beauty isn't something you can measure in pounds.