More Confessions of a Body Positivity Failure

CW: Weight Loss, Diet Talk, Exercise Talk

Since last June. I’ve been swimming two or three times a week, having been fortunate enough to have found a community pool and then a rec center that are welcoming of people of all sizes, shapes, ages, and abilities. I’ve also made an effort to bring some more awareness to what I eat and how I eat it: whether I’m eating out of boredom or some other emotional reason and whether I’m eating what my body wants me to eat or just putting anything in that will serve for the next meal. I’ve done both these things because I didn’t feel good in my body, being largely sedentary and eating whatever, and I haven’t followed either an exercise program or a diet with any militancy. Still,  find that I’ve lost about twenty pounds and I’m in a smaller pair of jeans.

I’m deeply conflicted about these things, especially the food part, and I was before I started doing it.

I feel better. Days when I swim, I notice some elevation of my mood, although not a lot, and it may be due to the simple fact that I’ve gotten out of the house and done something rather than sitting on my ass bored and alone all day instead of any release of endorphins. I’m glad I’m back in my smaller pair of jeans, because I missed wearing them and they fit better than any other jeans I’ve had, and the manufacturer doesn’t make that style any more.

Still, I’m deeply conflicted about what I’m doing and why.

At our last session when I brought this up, my therapist asked me, “If you feel better in your body, what’s the problem?” I told her I felt like I’d betrayed my principles, and worse, betrayed my friends, some of whom are fat activists.

Maybe I’ve done what I needed to do for myself. But the truth is, I don’t believe in weight loss. I don’t believe there are right and wrong ways to eat or good and bad foods, or any of that. And I see myself falling onto the trap of feeling virtuous when I motivate myself to make a vegetable stir fry instead of sticking a frozen pot pie in the oven because it would be easier. Sure, my body often enjoys eating the stir fry and responds with a cry of “Yay, vegetables!” But maybe it would enjoy the pot pie just as much for other reasons. I like being able to wear the smaller jeans again, but isn’t the discontinuation of that style another sign of fat oppression? I don’t like to ignore that, but at the same time, I want clothes that fit and wearing ill-fitting jeans makes me upset and depressed. And I supposed to endure that for the sake of fighting oppression?

I also feel virtuous when I go to the rec center and swim. As I said, I don’t get a lot out of the activity for its own sake, and often the feeling that I really should go is all that gets me out the door and on the road. (It was easier during the summer, when the pool was outside and there was lot of sun, and it was hot out.)

I ask myself a lot, “Why am I doing these things if they go against what I really feel and believe in?” And those feelings of virtue have a lot to do with it, which I hate. They’re the antithesis of being fat positive, which I strive to be–and fail at miserably, it seems.

Maybe these questions wouldn’t trouble me so much if I weren’t so depressed just in general. I know they didn’t bother me much in the summer, when my mood was better. But with the seasonal shift, I’ve become more and more listless and uncaring. I have no internal motivation to do anything. Nothing feels good for its own sake; nothing interests me. When I do go to the pool, it’s not because I look forward to swimming. It’s because I feel I should go, or at best because I recognize that I’ll feel marginally better going than I would if I don’t, because sitting at home with no interests and nothing to draw my attention is bad for me. And with every “should,” there’s a corresponding “Why?” Going to the pool presents its own obstacles: It’s far away, and it’s cold, and I don’t actively enjoy it–in fact, I find swimming rather pointless and boring. So why do it? Eating better is hard when I don’t feel like cooking. Even making the weekly grocery list and doing the shopping can be torturous. I’d rather do things that are easy, most days. So why pursue a healthier diet? especially when I recognize that “Health” is relative and there’s no obligation to be “healthy” anyway, or to attempt to manipulate my body either for health or size reasons? Why do anything at all, except to be “good?” Which I’ve already said is something I don’t believe in as far as food control or exercise.

My therapist suggested I write this blog post. I was initially loath to do it, because I know the subject matter can be triggering to those around me.  But I decided to go ahead and do it, because the topic preys on my mind and because–again–it’s better than sitting around doing nothing. I don’t feel I’ve expressed myself very well, and I have no answers to the questions that keep bothering me. Maybe other people do.

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Dysphoria

I didn’t plan to write this post on National Coming Out Day. I didn’t plan to write it at all. But I have thoughts, and you know where that leads me.

After I published the post “Ugly,” a dear friend–one I’ve known a long time, who may know me better than anyone–mentioned that the feelings I expressed are similar to those experienced by many LGBTQ+ and trans folk before coming out and/or transitioning, and that coming out and/or transitioning sometimes helps (although not always). Thinking about that, it seemed to me I’ve been attempting to come out for a while; I just don’t know what as. I’m not gay. I’m not trans. I don’t know what I am. My friend suggested Otherkin, but I have my qualms about that term for various reasons. My husband sometimes says, “You’re not human; you’re Fae.” I don’t know how serious he is, or how I feel about that, either.

Once, many years ago, when discussing social problems with a friend, I pointed out that as a white male he can expect certain things from the world. He replied, “I’m not white.” I pointed to his very pale skin and mentioned his European ancestry. He said, “I’m not white. I grew up poor in a ghetto in Detroit. All my friends were Black. I listened to Black music. That’s my culture.” We argued back and forth for a time, and eventually I conceded: he doesn’t consider himself white. I don’t think that means that he never got any of the privileges that come with white skin in our world, but I understand the internal experience. I know it’s taboo and people of color really, really object to the idea for an overwhelming number of valid reasons, but most of the time I don’t feel white, either. It doesn’t mean I don’t benefit from my whiteness in myriad ways, but it’s another thing that makes it hard to find a place to be.

The idea of my experiencing a similar dysphoria to LGBTQ+ folk interests me, though. It shines a light on many of my body issues. One thing I’ve returned to over and over again in the last years as I’ve put on so much weight is this: I don’t dislike my body because it’s fat. I dislike it because it doesn’t feel like it’s mine. I started out hating myself for being fat, and that continued until very recently. But it’s no longer the case, except tangentially. The more of my body there is, the more I feel it’s not the one I’m supposed to have. I think this is one of the things that makes it so hard for me to find any love for my body or practice any form of body positivity.

Trouble is, I haven’t a clue what body I am supposed to have. My therapist asked me about this several sessions ago. I stammered, at a loss for words–a highly unusual state for me. Finally I pulled out my phone and showed her a meme I’d saved. “This is what I look like inside my head.”

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She asked why, what struck me about this picture. Again, I couldn’t answer, except to say, “She looks strong.” I don’t know what this means, either.

I am not physically strong. Once I could claim a great deal of physical endurance, if not muscle strength. Now, I can’t even claim that. And of course, there are many deceptively simple answers to building endurance and muscle strength. But in our culture, they all play into modes of thought I don’t want in my life. I don’t like many physical activities for their own sake. Forcing myself to do them is more harmful than helpful. Going to the gym and trying to engage in circuit lifting for two weeks triggered a month of PTSD flashbacks. How do I make myself do something I hate without hating myself? How do I make a change in my body without saying the body I have is wrong? How can a person be present in the moment and still believe in a future where things are different? It doesn’t help that I have no models. As in the meme above, every time I see a picture that “looks like me,” it doesn’t really look like me, because I’m fat and my body isn’t built along the lines currently considered photo-worthy.

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, and I don’t know what to do with these thoughts. I just had to write them down, because for a moment something seemed clear.

A Twisted Relationship Part III: Discipline

My dad was a big man who suffered from various kinds of chronic pain most of his life. When he was a teen, he was bedridden almost a year with some genetic disorder that appears from time to time in adolescent males. I don’t know how to spell it, so I haven’t been able to look it up. Otto Shleggerer’s Disease? Auto-Schlegerer Disease? That’s phonetic, but neither have turned up any Google results, so I remain in the dark. He had bad knees, and arthritis, and from what I know now I suspect he also had sciatica. At least, he had some kind of pinched nerve in his back that caused incredible pain. He complained a lot about his “damned left leg.” I may have inherited a little of this. I have a weird numb place in my left leg that seems attributable to a pinched nerve. So far, it hasn’t caused me pain, thank the gods.

Anyway. Every time he consulted a doctor, the doctor told him to lose weight, because if he weren’t so big he wouldn’t be in pain. So my dad would go on one diet or another. Sometimes he lost a few pounds. Inevitably, he’d give up. I’d come upon him in the kitchen at odd hours, “evening off” the pan of brownies or picking at the leftover Thanksgiving turkey. And because I didn’t know what I know now, I despised him for what I saw as a lack of mental discipline. I thought, “Geez, dad, the doctor told you what to do if you don’t want to be in pain; why don’t you just buckle down and do it?” And I hated it all the more when he complained about his physical ailments, because I thought suffering them or not was under his control.

Now, as I struggle with my own metabolic problems, which sometimes cause me to feel like I’m starving to death an hour after eating a full meal, I wonder if he was just hungry.

I vowed not to be like my dad. When I wanted to lose weight, I’d do it, come hell or high water. Never mind physical discomfort, or lack of interest in exercise, or anything else standing in my way. I’d put my will to it, and I’d do it. I wouldn’t give anyone an excuse to despise my lack of discipline. I wouldn’t claim to want a thing and do the opposite of everything necessary to achieving it.

Unfortunately, this attitude, combined with certain other factors, led directly to my becoming anorexic. When losing weight didn’t lead to, for example, a reduction in the amount of bullying I suffered or being able to attract a boyfriend, I decided I wasn’t disciplined enough and hadn’t lost enough weight. So I restricted my food intake and increased my exercise level more and more. And before long, I reached a point where I literally wasn’t in control, though not in the way I feared. I knew my obsessions were killing me (probably long before anyone else did), and I could not stop. When I became bulimic, I couldn’t stop that, either. I kept telling myself, “Just put your mind to it!” But my mind had no influence. Eating disorders are funny like that; I expect all compulsions are. I experienced something similar when I engaged in self harm through cutting. There’s a period before an episode when you’re trying to resist. But the longer you resist, the more anxious you become and the stronger the compulsion gets. It builds to a point where you can’t think of anything else; you just want to get it over with so you can go back to some semblance of normality. So you give in, eat the bag of cookies or vomit or whatever, and then there’s this kind of relief, almost like you’ve had an orgasm. Until the compulsion hits again.

As I wrote that, it struck me how similar this sounds to the classic cycle of violence: A period of tension-building, followed by a violent episode, followed by relaxation of tension and remorse. I think they’re the same, only in relationship violence the compulsion is focused on the other partner and in eating disorders you’re driven to be violent toward yourself. I wonder if anyone else has thought of it this way, and if not looking at it this way is a reason perpetrators of domestic violence have such a high rate of recidivism.

Given my history, I have a complicated relationship with the concept of discipline, which often translates in my head to “forcing yourself to do something you really don’t want to do because ‘not wanting to’ isn’t a valid excuse.” Some of this my mother instilled in me. Inevitably when I expressed a lack of interest in doing one thing or another, she responded with, “Well, you could if you wanted to.” Which is problematic in and of itself; it dismisses lack of desire as a reason not to participate in an activity and at the same time implies that lacking interest is itself a flaw, while also promoting the completely irrational idea that the only obstacle to accomplishing anything at all is not wanting to badly enough. By that reasoning, people living in poverty have no excuse because surely if they really wanted to they could be rich, and making accommodations for the disabled is wrong-headed because if they really wanted to they’d succeed on the terms of the able-bodied.

A lot of cultures seem to place an inordinate value on the ideas of discipline and self-control. We admire asceticism. In a benign form, discipline counsels moderation; “Nothing in Excess” (Greek, μηδὲν ἄγαν) was inscribed over Apollo’s temple at Delphi, and the advice was repeated by philosophers like Socrates and Plato. Personally, I think a little excess at times is healthy, but for the most part (and leaving aside questions of “who gets to define excess?”) I don’t have a problem with the idea. However, taken to extremes, discipline can be harmful, as well as easily exploited. We’ve all heard stories of abused children whose parents claim they were “just trying to instill discipline.” Some religious sects encourage mortification of the flesh, even to self-flagellation (and in groups where this is the norm, the tool for administering blows is often known as “the discipline.”)

Speaking as a Pagan, I do see some of the reason behind these practices. On a purely practical level, if you mean to embark on a long period of meditation, a vision quest, or other observance, it’s good to be able to ignore hunger and other bodily discomforts. Another truth is, asceticism promotes an out of the ordinary state of consciousness, wherein one can better access wisdom and information not apparent from or on the physical plane. Self-inflicted (or other-inflicted) pain can act as a catalyst to a shamanic experience. Pagans often share food after a Circle not only to be social, but to aid in returning from magical consciousness. Eating and drinking is one of the best ways to ground and recenter.

The problem lies not in the practice itself, but in the fact that discipline is seen as morally superior to the lack of it. I could write an entire different essay on why this came to be the case. It would include things like religions and philosophies of transcendence, which favor the upper classes, superseding religions of immanence, which tend to spread power more evenly, and the way religions of transcendence privilege things of the spirit over those of the flesh as a way to reinforce oppressive systems. But, as I said, that’s another post. *winks* The result is that the ability to endure unpleasantness has become a good in and of itself, rather than a temporary means to a particular end.

So what does this have to do with my eating disorder, my relationship to my body, and fat phobia in general? Short answer particular to me: It makes it really easy for me to beat myself up and get stuck in a loop of bad thoughts. Although I have, at various points in my life, been highly capable of doing things I find personally unpleasant to achieve an end, I still see myself as lacking in discipline, especially as regards my body. It goes back to the prevalent mythology that some body sizes are bad, even harmful, and altering the shape of one’s body into one better and less harmful is a matter of simple math, calories in vs. calories out. This is a view that people cling to despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Even medical professionals, who should know that multiple factors affect body size, promote it. When combined with the idea that self-control is morally superior to lack thereof, it perpetuates stigma. After all, people think, much as I thought of my father, if you know the equation, what stands in the way of working it? Nothing but your determination and will. And the idea that those of us who don’t fall into a narrow definition of physical acceptability–and worse, don’t or won’t work to get there–are in total control of factors like how our metabolisms process food and how much activity our bodies require to effect change excuses all kinds of stigma, from public fat shaming to financial penalty.

In our culture, fat symbolizes laziness and excess. Any student of history should know this was not always the case; fat once signified prosperity and the ability to withstand periods of famine. In a country where most people have enough to eat and a significant portion of wealth is inherited, prosperity is tied less to hard work and more to the concept of leisure (much in the same way middle class people like to have lawns surrounding their houses, because a large area of uncultivated ground shows you don’t have to grow your own food). For those to whom it doesn’t come naturally, maintaining a small body size implies you have both the time and resource to devote to it: Joining a gym, hiring a personal trainer, shopping for and preparing the appropriate food or having it delivered. Where celebrities, whose jobs may depend on their looks and who are actually paid to maintain an image, are the equivalent of royalty, it’s easy to dismiss the difficulties of the poor, the overworked, those living in food deserts, and those who simply aren’t interested in spending every moment of spare time in an effort to make their bodies comply with and idealized concept of health and normality. Far easier to condemn them for lack of discipline than challenge the prevailing wisdom.

I suffer a good deal of guilt over my lack of discipline. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I wish my body were different. I wish I didn’t get hungry as much as I do, or that someone could at least explain to me why this is the case. I wish it didn’t seem to take me three times the physical activity to achieve half the results others seem to. I wish my lower arms didn’t flap in the breeze and my belly weren’t so large and my back didn’t have obvious rolls. And, of course, I always have that little voice in the back of my head asking, “If you really care about those things, why don’t you get up off your fat ass and do something about it?” It’s a question I have a hard time answering, but I think a lot of it has to do with the role of discipline as a measure of worth.

When my friend offered me a free gym membership, I thought a long time before taking her up on it. I decided, from a completely rational place (or so I thought at the time), that I could try it without attaching some weird agenda to it. I thought, “Twice a week is okay. I can do that. It isn’t unreasonable.” I set goals unrelated to weight and body size; the first was, “I want to be able to walk to the gym, do a circuit, and walk home without wanting to die.” I kept the commitment for two or three weeks, and then I got sick, and I got triggered. I started telling myself, “There, that’s over, and you don’t have to do it again for three days.” Which begged the question, “If I have to console myself with the idea of not going to the gym, why am I going to the gym at all?” I didn’t have an answer. I slept badly one night before a scheduled gym session, and decided to postpone it, just one day. I castigated myself for weakness, and lack of dedication. I fell into a spiral of guilt and justification: “You know sometimes you have to do things you find unpleasant to achieve goals,” to “But I really don’t fell well! Besides, I don’t get any immediate reward for doing it, and I have no guarantee it’ll change anything.” to “Well, then, stop complaining about your body because you obviously aren’t willing to do the work.” Over and over. It’s a cycle I’m all too familiar with from my anorexic days, and I don’t want any part of it now.

On social media, a day doesn’t go by when I don’t see one friend or another engaged in this same kind of self torture. “OMG, look how gross my body has become, I can’t believe I’m in such bad shape, I need to stop being lazy and get back to…” The treadmill, the gym, the Zumba class. Whatever. And I have no problem with a true desire to get into better physical condition (although the definition of this eludes me; it seems ever-changing). I don’t have a problem with people who really like to exercise, who’ve been ill and unable, or gotten out of their routine for one reason or another. Some people find it uplifting. For some people, the daily walk is their favorite personal time. I am not one of those people; if I ever was, I can’t remember it. My relationship with exercise is too loaded, with gym class bullying, with the toxicity of my eating disorder, with the politics of the dance world. I don’t like that all forms of movement are overwhelmingly emotionally painful, but there it is.

I just wish people would stop with the self hate in the name of discipline. Shaming yourself into doing something never is good, no matter what the result. But as long as society promotes self-discipline as a moral imperative, I fear that wish will go ungranted.

Part One Here

Part Two Here

 

 

A Twisted Relationship, Part II: Desire

When I saw my therapist last, we talked, among other things, about forms of movement I might engage in given my lack of motivation and poor health and stamina. She suggested T’ai Chi. I admitted I’d considered it, and had thought about getting a DVD. She said, “I bet the library has some.” I said I hadn’t thought of that–which was true; I always forget the library has DVDs. I said I’d look into it.

That part wasn’t true. I knew it wasn’t true when I said it. I have no intention of looking into it.

For those following along at home, yes; I intend to bring this up next session. My twisted relationship to diet and exercise is an ongoing theme, something I very much want to explore. Or, I want it as much as I’m capable of wanting anything. But therapy is tricky. It isn’t linear. Things come up in the moment, and things may have happened since you last met that take a while to process. And I have a lot of thoughts I need to put down, and I meant to write this post anyway. So.

It’s hard to describe my experience of desire. Except at rare intervals, it’s not something I really feel. The closest I get is a kind of vague interest, followed by a shrug. Or the idea that I should be concerned about this thing, except, in my heart, I’m not. I barely remember what desire feels like. I remember that I have experienced it in the past. I remember wanting my husband, enough to proposition him in a Wendy’s even though I was seeing someone else. I remember, long before I met my husband, when I was trying to get over a break-up, asking myself, “What’s something you’ve always wanted for yourself but have never done?”–the question that led me to enroll in dance classes at the community college. But I don’t remember the sensation of wanting. Instead of desire, I feel pain and fear.

There are a lot of reasons for this. When I was a kid, my personal desires were coded as selfish, for example. When I expressed a desire for something, I was often told, “Oh, you don’t want that,” along with a list of all the reasons I couldn’t possibly. Or I was told not to want what I wanted because someone else didn’t want it, or someone else would have to take trouble over it. Desire was reserved for the adults in my life: Go to church because your father wants it; excel at school because it’s what we want for you; go to THIS school because our fears are more important than your desire to get away from a toxic environment. Desires about my own body were dismissed or ridiculed. “You’re too young to care about that; you look stupid that way; why should you care about having the kind of sweater the other girls have?”

But I think, most of all, I’ve just experienced too much disappointment and I’m worn out. I’ve never actually fulfilled a desire, not the way I envisioned, at least. Or maybe, the ones I’ve managed to fulfill haven’t changed anything. The path doesn’t lead where I think it’s going to. And some of this is normal. You marry a man, it’s never what you think, but the marriage still has value. Or it doesn’t, and you fix it or compromise or move on. But some of it isn’t what I think is the regular course of life. Shouldn’t you be able to map out a path and follow it somewhere you intend to go without random weirdos putting up irrelevant roadblocks? Some people seem to manage this. I never can. I plan out my course for the New World, make sure all my navigation instruments are working, plunge ahead, and next thing I’m not even sailing; my boat has vanished and I’m fighting Martians or something. Like applying to a Master’s program in Dance Therapy, being interviewed by two people from a completely different department, who asked about my spirituality (since I mentioned its importance in my personal essay), then derailed all my attempts to answer my questions with “We’re not interested in that,” and ultimately told me I wasn’t mature enough for grad school and I should go away and get more “life experience.”

So then I try to reconcile telling myself things like, “Well, maybe it was better I didn’t pursue that anyway” for this, that, and the other reasons, and try to find a new path. But the same thing always happens. Maybe I’m a shlemazel by nature, or maybe it’s just life, or, I don’t know. What I know is, pursuing any kind of goal is difficult when you have no real hope of achieving it.

Anyway, my inability to feel true desire or passion for anything is problematic, both personally and in relating to others. When I don’t feel things, they become unreal to me. They exist in a theoretical realm, so far removed from primary stimuli and comfort they may as well be mythical. So I want and don’t want. This, as I kind of said above, makes self-motivation almost a moot point. Also, talking about desire with others is difficult, because they understand it to mean something other than what I understand it to mean. I assume that to others “wanting” something has some kind of feeling attached to it, which it doesn’t have for me. So I often have to answer questions like, “If you want to be in better shape, why don’t you do what you need to get in better shape?” And any response I make is interpreted as an excuse to be lazy, or recalcitrance, or something of the kind.

My last psychiatrist was especially bad about this. Actually, the entire psychiatric profession is pretty bad about this. For all that they’re allegedly treating mental illness, practitioners have a serious disconnect when it comes to what that means. So they say things like “You know what it takes to lose weight; if you want to lose weight just do it!”I have a HUGE problem with “just do it” rhetoric in general. I mean, we all know how “Just Say No” to drugs, to sex, worked out. “Just Do It” erases real obstacles like mental state, physical ability, marginalization. It presupposes that we have control over all those things, and failure to “Just Do” is due to a lack of will. Or of true desire. If you don’t get what you want, you must not really want it. It’s an attitude that allows people to shame those in poverty for not working hard enough to get out. For not wanting to change badly enough. It excuses the cruelty of not offering people the help and empathy they need with the idea that if you don’t jump through the proper hoops, you’re too comfortable. It requires people always to sink lower to prove they need help, and however low you go, it’s never low enough. I despise it.

(Related: Another thing that’s happened a lot in my interactions with mental health practitioners–and I wish I could think of a specific example, but I only remember my reaction to it–is, they’ll make some off-the-wall suggestion, like, “Have you thought about such-and-so?” And when I tell them I don’t really care about that, they say, “Well, if you don’t care, you might as well try it as not!” Like they’re trying to prove some weird point. And it makes me want to strangle them while banging their heads against the wall, screaming, “Not being able to care about something does not equate to being okay with it one way or the other!”)

There’s a mindset among adherents of certain types of spirituality that passion is an obstacle to be overcome. Passion leads to action, which leads to an accumulation of karmic points, which prevents one from attaining enlightenment (those are layman’s terms). This is based on an understanding that enlightenment is a dissolution of self into the All, and your passions, with their resulting actions, anchor one in the Wheel of Samsara, so one has to incarnate over and over until one achieves the proper level of detachment. It follows very handily upon the first “Noble Truth” that All Life is Suffering, from which one might understandably want to avoid.

I don’t buy it. I don’t believe all life is suffering (unless you use the archaic definition of “suffering” as “allowing,” in which case life would be allowing things to happen as they happen while maintaining some amount of detachment). I don’t believe passion and desire are bad things, and I think they have as much place in the human experience as any emotion. I think without passion there’s no motivation and no cause to challenge oppressive systems. I think without desire, there’s no impulse to change one’s self. That being said, I do understand how culture and society can instill one with desires that don’t benefit anyone but those in power, and it’s hard to separate those from the true desires of the heart.

11755516_491618064334370_5643494184422161174_nThe Tumblr screencap above popped up in my Facebook feed recently. It resonated not only because I’ve struggled with depression since I was seven or so, but also because I’ve fought just as long to be allowed to want what I want, to like what I like. The two are inextricably bound for me, because if you don’t know what you want, how can you know who you are? And the depression itself occludes all the sense of wanting things, and diminishes the ability to imagine joyful outcomes. Everything turns into a wasted landscape of pointless drudgery for little or no reward.

As I try to confront the lasting damage having an eating disorder has done to me, I’m recognizing more and more how few of my actions over the course of my life have sprung from a true desire to do them, and how many from a need to be “right” in other people’s eyes. Be thinner, be more conventionally attractive, be active, be involved. It all boils down to trying to gain approval by being something I’m not instead of learning to be okay with the person I am. Even when I went back to college to finish my BA, my choice of major was less about me than about appearances. Yes, I loved dancing when I studied it. And I thought at the time earning my degree would improve my life–though now I wonder how much of that was due to societal expectation and the idea that a person of my class background and intelligence should have a college degree. But I also thought, “Given the state of professional dance, I am not the ‘right’ type to be just a dancer, and going into Dance Therapy will keep me active (because we’re all supposed to be active, and especially large people are supposed to be active).” I wasn’t happy in California, but I did have a pretty good life with a decent job. I wonder sometimes if maybe I should have just stayed and taken dance classes at the community college and worked in the shoe store. Maybe that would have been more honest.

When I started writing this post, I felt genuinely bad about the fact that I don’t like exercise. I don’t like moving much, not anymore. Over the past few weeks, I’ve gone through a significant depressive episode. It started with this guilt, but recently I’ve thought maybe the trigger was that I once again pushed myself to do something I did not want to do–in this case, going to the local gym. It sets me into a downward spiral, for I genuinely would like the body of someone who goes to the gym, but engaging in movement is too loaded and upsets me. And that causes me to beat myself up for a lot of different reasons.

I still have layers upon layers of shit to deal with. I hope, at the bottom, I’ll find the passions I’ve lost. I’m afraid there’s nothing but emptiness.

Part One Here

 

 

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A Twisted Relationship: Part I, Doctors

When my mood dipped into this latest low on Sunday night, I thought the news of the local clinic closing had triggered it. Since then, I’ve heard a great number of my connections are having an especially hard time this week, both with physical and mental illness. So, it may be something in the air. Something cosmic. For me, the clinic closing is still a factor. Let me explain:

I’m fat. (This is all the explanation many of you will need.) My family comes in two types, fat and not fat. I got the fat genes. I’ve been fat, more or less, most of my life, from the time my pediatrician first said “chubby” and I understood what he meant. For the last twenty-four years, I’ve been a patient at our rural medical clinic, which has been staffed with doctors who don’t care that I’m fat. Yes, they weigh me on every visit (I understand you can request they not do this), and no one has ever made an issue of it unless I’ve brought it up first. Which I have done from time to time. I don’t like being fat. I have spent an inordinate amount of time in my life struggling not to be fat, partially because it doesn’t feel good to me, but probably mostly because I got the message early on that fat is the worst thing I could be. I wonder sometimes how I’d relate to my body size if I’d never got that message, but that’s neither here nor there. Every time I stop trying not to be fat because I recognize on an intellectual level that the message is bullshit and body modification through weight loss requires me to engage in activities that I don’t enjoy almost to the exclusion of everything else, I end up displeased with the result.

Going to the doctor is problematic for fat people. (If you’re fat, you no doubt already know this.) Many, many doctors are as fatphobic and have bought into as many myths about the relationship between fat and health as those not in the medical community. In fact, when studies show that body size is not nearly the determiner of health many believe, they dismiss the studies. They call such findings “The Obesity Paradox.” They cannot accept it’s not a paradox; they’re just wrong.

When I was in a college dance program, engaged in vigorous movement 4-6 hours a day, at a weight of 180 lbs, one doctor told me I had to be lying about my diet and exercise habits because “if you really moved that much, you wouldn’t be so fat.” A friend of mine has spent over a year in intense pain because a series of doctors told her it was caused by “excess belly fat” and she needed to lose weight. She finally found a specialist to order scans, which found a number of issues completely unrelated to weight. But when the scans got back to her regular doctor, they claimed they “couldn’t see anything.” Because of the way her insurance works, she needs a new referral every time she needs to go to the specialist, but her doctor won’t give her one even though the specialist diagnosed her. A close friend of mine died of ovarian cancer because doctors said her pain was about her fat until it reached stage IV. I could go on, but you get the idea. In my opinion, if there’s any relationship between fat and health, it’s more likely to be that fat people are so reluctant to go to doctors and be shamed and/or ignored that they put off checking out symptoms until they can’t bear them anymore. So I’ve counted myself extremely lucky to have doctors who treated me like a person rather than a sack of lard the last 20+ years.

And now that clinic is closing. Their last remaining doctor is staying in the area, but he’s going to be working in Surface Creek, which is about 30 miles away. I’m not attached to this doctor (though he was the one to diagnose my gallbladder), and, due to unreliable access to transportation as well as being unable to predict when a migraine so bad I need a medical intervention is going to hit, I’d prefer not to have to travel 30 miles. I might as well go to the ER in that case; it’s about the same mileage. The hospital runs a family practice with a woman doctor in the next town over, just 10 miles. I’ve decided to go there.

I’m scared. After 20 years of compassionate doctors who don’t make a deal about my size one way or another, I’m scared this one will. I didn’t grow up here, so things may be different in the younger crowd, but there are a lot of confident fat people in this part of Colorado. Size doesn’t seem to be much of an issue, but maybe for this doctor it will be. Maybe the hospital running the clinic has an agenda around the “War on Obesity.” And yeah, I’m at a point in my life where I can give a doctor who focuses on my size a piece of my mind, but I don’t want to have to do that. I want to be able to go and have a physical like a “regular” person. Most of all, I really don’t want to have to explain my difficult relationship with diet and exercise. That’s what this post was supposed to be about. I didn’t expect to take 1000 words to explain doctors’ treatment of fat people.

The thing is, I’m not healthy right now. As I mentioned in a previous post, I have spent the bulk of the last six years not moving. This came shortly after my last foray into weight loss, when I got sick of myself and joined Weight Watchers for a couple years. I followed the menus; I counted points and exercised daily. I lost weight…at first. I never achieved my “goal weight” (which in retrospect I think would have been much too low a weight for my frame), and after a while I started having trouble not gaining weight even on the weight loss program.  Shortly thereafter, I went through the “this is bullshit” phase. I was tired of doing exercise I didn’t enjoy. I have never enjoyed exercise for its own sake, and it’s even more problematic now for reasons I’ll get to later. I don’t mind walking to get somewhere, but in my small town, there’s nowhere to go. The loop downtown and back is about a mile. Besides that, everything is out and back, which bores me. And I don’t often have a reason to go downtown. I was also tired of regulating my food intake, of modifying recipes to make them more “healthy,” of pretending the food was good and satisfying. Some of them were, and some of them were downright disgusting; I’d be lying if I said otherwise. I dunno, for people who eat a lot of “junk” food WW might be a guide to healthier menus, but I never have eaten lots of chips or drunk lots of soda and whatnot. So I didn’t have much to change nutrition-wise in the first place. Anyway, I’m not on board with labeling food “good” and “bad.” The body wants what the body wants, and sometimes it wants chips and ice cream, and fat people are allowed to have them. You don’t have to earn the right to eat anything by being thin.

I have become quite fat and less healthy than I’ve ever been (excepting when I was dying of anorexia, which I’ll also be going into later). Going for a two- or three-mile walk on the spur of the moment didn’t used to be an issue for me. Now, I get tired after a couple blocks, and in a half a mile I have to sit down and rest. Due to chronic sinusitis (and maybe my increased weight; I’m not ruling it out), I’ve developed asthma. I have two different inhalers, and I have to use oxygen at night, which I hate. I have myriad gastrointestinal problems no one can diagnose.  I don’t feel good about any of this, and I think being fitter would be to my benefit.

Therein lies the problem, and it’s also linked to my current depressive state. A few weeks ago, after the blog post I linked above, a kind woman I know offered me a free membership at the local gym. I think she may be the co-owner, or is on amiable terms with the owner, who’s an ex. And I thought about it, and decided I’d give it a try. We met and she guided me through the machines, none of which were unfamiliar; I’ve done a little lifting long ago, and it’s not rocket science. The gym itself is entirely unpretentious. It used to be a laundromat, 800 square feet or so packed with equipment and surrounded by cinder block walls. I’ve only ever seen three other people there. No one poses or makes comments. They come in, do what they came to do, and leave. Utilitarian.

So I thought, “This is okay. I can do this. I can commit to twice a week.” My mood was in an upswing then. And I did do it twice a week for a couple weeks, and then my mom died, which threw me off. I went back to it for a week, and then this low hit. I haven’t been to the gym all week. I’ve stayed at home, being mainly sedentary. I haven’t even wanted to work in the garden. And it bothers me. In my head. In my mind. I believe I should be bothered by the fact I haven’t gone to the gym all week, so I am, if that makes sense. My body and emotions don’t give a flying fuck; they would like to stay in and watch TV, thank you very much. Meanwhile, my brain is giving me all these messages about being a lazy fat person, and “just pushing through the resistance,” and “you have to be disciplined about it,” and similar bullshit, which does not make my depressive state any better, I can tell you.

Now, a lot of people might, at this point, be saying, “Well, if you feel bad about not going to the gym, just go to the gym; what’s the big deal?” Or, “If you’re depressed because you haven’t gone to the gym, then why don’t you go to the gym,” which is essentially the same thing. And both of them, as well as being completely dismissive, totally miss the point. I’m not depressed because I don’t go to the gym. I’m experiencing a depressive episode, during which I literally am unable to go to the gym, and furthermore, I’m berating myself for my inability to do so. The fact that I have so little control over and so little say in what I am and am not capable of on any given day adds to the depression. You wouldn’t tell a person with two broken legs who felt bad about not being able to go to the gym just to suck it up and go anyway. It probably wouldn’t even come up, because broken legs, however inconvenient, are temporary (more or less), and that person would not be likely to have my same issues with physical activity in the first place.

For me, physical activity is a punishment. I don’t think it always was so. I remember playing on the monkey bars as a kid, learning to Skin-the-Cat and all. I remember learning to ice skate and liking it. I used to hang out with the middle school gym teacher when my mom stayed late at work, and swing back and forth on the rings like a monkey. It was when competition came into it, and I wasn’t good at it in the right way, that it became abhorrent. It’s not any strange coincidence that around the same time kids really started laying on the fat shame. Fat + bad at sports + being bullied for both = hating sports. Later, at the beginnings of my anorexic period, the self punishment through exercise escalated. When I felt bad or something bad happened, well, it happened because I was fat. In fact, I deserved it because I was fat. If I exercised more, if I weren’t so lazy, I wouldn’t be fat and would no longer deserve these bad things, so they wouldn’t happen. I would do endless sit-ups chanting “fat bitch” to myself. Of course, getting thinner didn’t take away the bad things or make bad stuff stop happening. So I decided I must not be thin enough and must not be exercising enough. I did it more, and more, and more. Even when I had mono. Even when I grew so weak I could hardly climb the stairs from the cellar where my stationary cycle lived to the first floor.

The treatment for eating disorders at this time was less than stellar. Right now, I even question calling them “eating” disorders, because SO much else in involved. No one cared much beyond making sure I cleaned my plate at every meal and restricting my activity level. No one delved into what this syndrome was all about; what I know, I’ve pieced together for myself, from my own experiences and those of others like me. No one ever taught me to have a healthy relationship with exercise. They barely touched on having a healthy relationship with food. They didn’t look into why certain personality traits and mental predispositions manifested in an overwhelming, morbid fear of growing fat. My psychiatrist at the time once told me, “You don’t have to worry about getting fat; people with this disorder never get fat.” If my 67-lb self saw my 250-lb self, she’d give up on the spot.

On top of all that, not forcing myself to exercise to death was such a vast relief, I can’t even describe it. Being given permission to stop, to sit down and be quiet, for an overachieving girl with demanding parents and a lot of expectations on her, it was like a drug rush. It still kind of is, to be honest. It’s the best self care I know. Exercise never feels like self care, even though I know in my head that it probably is at this point in my life.

It’s hard trying to explain this to medical professionals. The last time I was seen at the clinic, the PA, whom I actually quite like, was concerned about my cholesterol. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to tell him I had higher cholesterol when I was dancing, but oh well. He asked if I exercised. I tried to explain it to him. I told him I was depressed. He said, “Exercise will help with that!” which is not always true. I told him exercise is a punishment, that I used it when I was anorexic to punish myself for being fat. He said, “But if you were anorexic, you didn’t need to punish yourself, because you weren’t fat.” Something like that. I dunno; I let it go. Most medical professionals simply do not get that, for some of us, it will never feel good to exercise. I’ve heard story after story of people saying, “I used to hate exercise, but now I love it! I’m going to run a marathon!” and virtually none like mine. Yes, I used to walk at least three miles a day “for my health.” It never felt good. I hated it more and more every day. Why in the world would I want to continue with an activity I hate?

I want to be healthy. To be healthy, I CANNOT focus on weight loss. It frustrates me because I’m fairly certain that a certain amount of activity on a regular basis is necessary to physical health, and I can’t count on doing anything regularly. I also have to take it nice and slow, do what I can, when I can, and explore new ways of relating to my body. If I tell my new doctor this, will she hear me? It’s twisted enough in my own head.

Part Two: Desire

 

War on Multiple Fronts

CW: Body Image, Diet & Exercise, Possible Sizeism & Healthism, Body Dysphoria

Disclaimer: I’m writing this post in the hopes of clarifying and untangling very personal issues. I’m writing it in WordPress because I think and express better through the keyboard, to an imagined audience, and also because, as always, my experience might resonate with others. You are not obliged to read.

flute 1Today, Facebook Memories showed me this picture from six years ago, and it raised a lot of issues for me.

I remember the photo shoot. A few months previously, I had gone through one of my most manic periods, during which I completed two manuscripts. I was just beginning to go public with my Caitlin Ross Series and explore self publishing avenues. The shoot was ideas for a sample cover of She Moved Through the Fair.

It was a cold, grey, rainy day. Later, I would attend a New Moon ritual. I intended to wear this dress, but while I was sitting down, my cat Luna peed on the trailing skirt, so I had to change.

I cannot wear that dress now. I’m too fat. Both things make me sad.

July 2015These pictures were taken a little less than a year ago. We were on the way to an event at a tattoo studio in Grand Junction. When I posted them, people commented things like “You look adorable!” and “Beautiful!”

I can see only my large, shapeless arms, my saggy knees. My giant waist and hips. The tiny feet holding up all my bulk, and the way they have flattened and roll in at the ankles.

My reaction is actually a little less extreme than it was at the time. I’m beginning to see that maybe some things about me look okay. Maybe.

This is always the way it goes for me, when I see pictures of myself. The closer I am to the day they were taken, the worse I look to myself. Later, I see maybe it’s not so bad. Years later, I may even see a kind of beauty.

kele fluteThis picture is from fifteen years ago, give or take. Probably a bit more. At the time, I hated it, as I hate all pictures of me at the time. Now I look at it and think, “Why? What made me see this smiling young woman as horrible and disgusting?” Now I look at it and feel nostalgia for that person. For that shape. At the same time, I remember the self-loathing, because the self-loathing never leaves. It infects every present moment. It sabotages every attempt to find acceptance, let alone self love.

At the center of my being, a Greek chorus chants over and over: “Not good enough. Never good enough.” Not just in my body, but in everything. My body is often where the struggle plays out, though.

I’m so tired.

I can point to a lot of intellectual reasons why “Not good enough” is the central theme of my life. Being born into a family that had serious issues with women’s worth and women’s identities and the bodies of people born female. Being targeted as Other for the first half of my life, beginning at a very young age. I can point to those things, but they have no impact on a visceral level. Maybe because it started before I can remember, maybe because the messages came along with a mental illness no one wanted to acknowledge and no one had any idea how to treat–a mental illness I still have trouble believing in, too many days–in my gut I believe the problem isn’t with my family’s sexism or society’s attitudes towards those who don’t fit within narrow definitions of “acceptable,” but with me. Me in particular. My being. There is something wrong with me that can’t be fixed, because fixing it would negate everything I am. This is what I believe.

Or something like that. It’s all very confusing. When I think I have a grip on it, it slithers away, like silk, like sand. Truth is nebulous, hard to pin down.

It’s hard to write this without crying. And yet, it’s also easy. A couple of times so far, I’ve felt tears constrict my throat. Just when I notice them, they slither away, too. Like some wizard has placed a “Don’t See Me” charm on the pain at my core. I touch it, and it’s somewhere else. I notice it, then forget a moment later. I get this must be some kind of defense mechanism. I survive; I get on. I swallow the razor blades and the hopelessness and the burden and the “I can’t do this any more,” and keep going, living with the things I don’t believe I can live with. Probably if I saw that thing behind the spell clear, I wouldn’t be able to.

I meant to write about body issues in particular, and I’ve already veered from the point. I’m so far off course, I don’t know how to get back. That’s the defense mechanism at work again, I suppose. Issues link to other issues, again and again, and before I know it, I’m somewhere else. Somewhere safer, if not exactly safe.

I’ve addressed body issues on this blog before, from time to time. I’ve written about my eating disorder and about body positivity, and about other things. Not much. Not as much as I’ve written about writing, or mental illness. Writing about body issues is apparently a huge challenge for me.

Several times over the course of our relationship, my husband has told me I have a stronger body-mind connection than anyone he’s ever known. We’re about to mark our 20th wedding anniversary, and we were together four years before we got married. This makes him the person I’ve had the longest and most consistent relationship with in my entire life, so I guess he’d know. And it’s true, I think, that I have a particularly strong connection between body and mind. Stress makes me physically ill. Negative emotions manifest in migraines, and digestive complaints, and muscles that set like cement. Mental illness comes out in my body. Which is one reason, maybe the main one, that I developed life-threatening anorexia in high school. One day, everything drained out of me. I’d had a lot of ups and downs before, but until a particular incident (which isn’t important except to my therapist), they were passionate ups and downs. Then passion went away. I was empty and small. Not long after, my body followed suit.

And here, the threads become very tangled. Would my mental illness have taken the form it did if I hadn’t heard all my life that I was fat and disgusting, unlovable and worthless? I don’t know. How much of that was internalized attitudes about size and how much was simply feeling I should be punished for existing in a body at all? I don’t know that, either. And how much of feeling I should be punished for existing in a body was tied to my existing in a woman’s body? Beats me. I do know my inner voice berated me for being a “fat cow” because the idea of worthlessness and the idea of fatness were inextricably linked in my mind. I do know I lashed out at both worthlessness and fatness with extreme diet restrictions and extreme exercise patterns, to the point where, now, considering any diet adjustments or any patterned exercise triggers feelings of being punished.

This is where I meant this blog post to go.

I don’t like my body right now. Trying for years and years to practice some form of body positivity has made no impact whatsoever on this. At the same time, I have never liked my body. Maybe back in the dim and distant past that I don’t remember clearly I did. I think it more likely that I had no opinion then, and when I learned to have feelings towards my body at all, the only feeling I learned was loathing, which became ever more extreme as time went on. It’s still there. Mostly, I try not to feel it, because feeling it is debilitating. I don’t know how to deal with this or overcome it. When I was anorexic and other times I’ve pursued active body modification, I’ve thought being a smaller size would make a difference. It doesn’t. I learned that thirty-plus years ago, and yet, I go back to it again and again. I still hate myself no matter what size my body is.

People who promote body positivity often say “start small.” Start with acknowledging and appreciating the things your body does for you. It breathes. The heart beats. It digests your food, all without your asking or trying. In my case, it carries me from room to room. I can walk. I can stand or sit without aid. My body grows flawless skin and beautiful hair. I don’t have joint troubles, or an immune disorder, or any of the purely physical impairments a person of my age might have cause to expect, that other people my age suffer.

(Now I am crying.)

And none of those things matter. “Not good enough.”

I want–and please note, even the word “want” is problematic for me; it’s another feeling/experience the “Don’t See Me” charm obscures–I want to fit in that green dress again. I want to be able to get my blue, embroidered sun dress over my boobs. After a walk or a couple hours in the garden, I want not to hurt because my muscle tone is so bad. I want to be able to dance more than half a song without getting out of breath and having to sit down. I want my husband to say “You’re a beautiful woman,” and not, “You’re a beautiful round woman.”

I fear all this makes me Not Good Enough at body positivity.

I’m almost totally sedentary right now. I have been since around the time that initial picture was taken. For a while, on my last determined skirmish with body modification through weight loss, I forced myself to make exercise a priority. I walked three miles six days a week and I did an hour of Pilates most days (I’m sure I’ve referred to this before). Now I rarely move. Only recently, since my latest med adjustment, has leaving the house for an hour of gardening ceased to be accompanied by innumerable mental contortions: Can I do this? Do I want this? Am I forcing myself? Is it safe? What’s the point? ad infinitum. Right around the time my last medication manager suggested we try Pristiq and it started working, I just stopped moving. (This may have happened before then, around the time I was last hospitalized.) I’d been following Weight Watchers and dropped almost 50 lbs. It started coming back before I ever achieved the fabled “goal weight,” and I couldn’t track food in the hospital, so I stopped. Then I started eating more. Then I stopped moving except to get up from the couch to pee.

I’m so tired.

How much is Bipolar Disorder and Depression? How much is laziness? Yes, I think of myself as a lazy fat person. I think, “If you just made it a point to move…” But moving for its own sake hasn’t been fun for me since I was seven years old; it’s always a duty. Something I make myself participate in to be less worthless. Even when I was studying dance, yes, I loved dancing, but I also loved the idea of myself as “someone who moves regularly.” I never, ever enjoyed those three-mile walks, and never came to that magic place where exercise transforms from a burdensome commitment to something you look forward to as part of your day. On a regular basis, I cried doing it. How do I participate in joyful movement no matter what size I am when movement isn’t joyful? When it’s acutely emotionally loaded and painful? When I don’t believe there’s anything on the other side of that pain but more pain, and more, and more? Maybe the momentary comfort of sitting on the couch surfing the ‘net on my phone is the best I get.

You know, I believe we opt into the lives we incarnate in. More and more these days I think, “Why the hell did I opt into this mess?” Why did I pick, or at least not refuse, a life so hard, where nothing ever turns out the way I want and I always have to settle for “The best I can get?”

As far as my body issues go, I feel like I’m constantly fighting a war on multiple fronts. I go back and forth between them, never winning more than a skirmish, and never with time to breathe. As soon as I have one under control, shit flares up at another. Try to shape myself to be more what I want to be, maybe succeed for a time,. Then all the restrictions and so called “lifestyle changes” begin to wear on me, and I think, “Hey, body size and weight have no bearing on my personal worth, so eat a goddamned hot fudge sundae and sit down for a change!” Relax into my body and try to accept myself in my natural state, and in a few months none of my clothes fit. Clothes that aren’t simply rags to cover my nakedness, but symbols of my identity. I can’t win. There’s no decisive victory.

I want to wear that green lace dress again, so badly. I want to sit still and watch serial genre on Netflix. I don’t know how to find any kind of resolution.

ADDENDUM: I posted this comment on a Facebook thread, and it seems like I should add it here:

“If you’ll forgive my gooey therapy-speak, I think my core wounding (ugh, that just sounds so pretentious and gross) is around worth and the right to exist, and the fatphobia and sexism got piled on top of that. Both have made it difficult to get to the real issue. And the real issue is awful and painful to acknowledge because of all the gaslighting I experienced around it. So any kind of positivity becomes impossible for me, because I lack any sense of myself as valuable, though I believe in the inherent worth of everything on an intellectual level.

And I think this is a place I was trying to get to in the post, but didn’t.”

Loving the Body You Have

This past Fourth of July weekend, I bought a couple of cute, lace-trimmed mini skirts from a vendor in the park.

“I’m working at loving the body I have,” I told my friend. “Because I think at this point, barring a miracle, this body is the one I’m going to have for the foreseeable future.”

No more than two minutes later, I saw some photos my husband had taken earlier in the day. “Oh, gods, my flabby arms! My sagging boobs! My fat knees! I look terrible! You can’t show these to ANYONE!”

Not a great job of body love, there. In all honesty, I’m not sure loving this body is a goal I can achieve. I have too much dissonance about it. Years ago, I told an old friend, “I can look at a person of any shape, size, or gender and see beauty, but I can’t see it in myself. My body doesn’t match my internal reality.” I’ve said the same thing to others, before and since.

A few weeks ago, I read this article about body dysphoria in trans* individuals. Though I’m not trans* or even queer, a lot of it resonated with me, especially the part about wanting and/or needing body modifications to feel more at home in the body you were born into. It seems like most of my life, throughout the ups and downs of weight and shape, through the eating disorders and exercise programs, I’ve been trying in vain to make my body present me to the world as the person I am inside. The person I know I am, have always known I am. Somehow, I’m not able to do this. There are complications I can’t wrap my head around, complications that go beyond “fat” or “thin” or long or short hair, or the presence or absence of secondary sex characteristics.

A lot of the time, I get along all right with my body. I even like it. It does specific things I value. It’s flexible and it has a lot of endurance. It moves well. My skin is good, and even though I’m over fifty I don’t have any wrinkles or suffer any of the physical distress other women my age do. No arthritis, no random aches and pains. Other times, my body and I don’t get along as well. I get migraines and I struggle with insomnia. Sometimes I don’t process food the right way, and I experience starvation-level hunger half an hour after eating a full meal. And yes, I’m well aware that in this paragraph I have disassociated from the positive things I’ve mentioned about my body (statements like “It’s flexible”) and owned the negative things (“I get migraines”). Both the negative and the positive are things that are familiar and comfortable to me, but none of them actually touch my internal sense of identity. This presents me with a quandary: A consistent factor of every migraine is the idea that “This isn’t me,” but that I am enduring some weird penance imposed on me from an outside source. At the same time, a good yoga session or the sight of my unwrinkled face doesn’t reinforce my experience of selfhood, either. In a real sense, nothing touches that inner “me” at all. At least, nothing I can control.

Sometimes the inviolability of my inner self seems like a good thing. I can bop along, minding my own business, and the judgments of the outside world pass me by without leaving a mark. But then, for some reason I can’t determine, some random remark or encounter gets through and stabs me in the heart. Maybe I see a cute dress that doesn’t come in my size, or the size I think is mine barely wraps around my thigh. Or the cut of a piece of clothing doesn’t suit my shape when I really want it to, because I think that particular piece of clothing expresses something about my inner reality. Or someone makes a nasty remark. Or I see a picture of my knees, and they don’t look like the knees I should have, not at all.

Any of those things might lead me to the mantra: “I’m worthless because I’m fat; I will never find love because I’m fat; etcetera.” But over the years I’ve learned that this mantra, the words of it, don’t express the actuality of what I feel. The reality is, I feel powerless to present my true being to the world and have it seen and acknowledged. The shape and size of my body limit my options of physical expression, and societal attitudes towards bodies–any bodies, but especially fat bodies, especially fat women’s bodies–limit my value in the eyes of those around me. Those eyes are my mirror, and, seeing myself reflected with contempt, I believe my internal self is contemptible.

Or something like that. Whatever, I experience a constant dissonance between the inner knowledge of myself as a valuable person and the outer reality of myself as negligible. How do I continue to believe the former without positive feedback? How do I disentangle myself of the latter when the message is everywhere?

Trying to avoid the negative messages, I limit myself further. I want to be seen, but I have an intense fear of it as well. Out of fear, I cut myself off from activities I once enjoyed–or maybe didn’t exactly enjoy, but participated in without a second thought. I used to walk downtown every day to check the mail, maybe visit the library. It was part of my routine. These days, the idea of leaving the house on my own is frightening. Someone might see me. Someone might judge. If I go for a walk because I want to stretch my legs or get some air, someone might impose on my space with a thumbs up for the “good fatty” who is dragging her offensive body up the road in the hopes it will become less offensive. I know I shouldn’t pay attention to the opinions of strangers, or even those of acquaintances. I shouldn’t “let them get to me.” They say more about those other people than they do about me. But the fact is, I FEEL those opinions deeply. Knowing they don’t make a difference to the person I am inside doesn’t keep them from hurting. As I once told my therapist, “When people throw tomatoes at you, it doesn’t matter whether those tomatoes grew in your garden or not. You get pulp on you all the same.” When people throw their baggage or express their social conditioning to me in negative ways, my own efforts at overcoming messages about my body and my worth make little difference. That stuff sticks, and it takes a long while to wash it off. Especially when I have to field a new batch of those messages every day, simply by interacting with people who have not spent the last 30-odd years looking at the culture of fat and body phobia.

I’m not a femme woman. I don’t know if this really goes here, but it’s something I’ve thought about on and off for years, and I wanted to put it somewhere. Presenting as femme makes it easier to be fat, to be a fat woman; it’s like, at least you’ve made some effort to conform to the standards of feminine appearance, so you get marginally less grief for being fat. I used to be so envious of my effortlessly femme friend, Heather, in her bustiers and heels; my personal style privileges comfort over line and freedom of movement over chic. When I don a femme outfit, it never looks right and it doesn’t last long. I’m the one who smears her badly-applied eyeliner all over her face within minutes of leaving the house. As much as I love beautiful clothes, whenever I wear them I feel as if I’ve engaged in a bizarre role play or game of dress up. They don’t feel natural to me. And this means that most of the time when I go out in public, I do not go out as myself. I don outfits like armor, and wear the clothes of somebody more acceptable, easier on the eye.

The time in my life when my inner self and my outer matched up best was my last two years in college, as a dance major. We all ran around in sweatpants and tights and ripped up T-shirts all the time, because those were the uniforms of our trade. When we got dressed up, it was inevitably for a performance. Even going to a party was a performance. I was the largest person in my class at 50 lbs less than my current size, and it did weigh on me (pun halfway intended). I considered myself less attractive, and thus less valuable, than the others in my class. But I was so different from most of them in so many ways that it wasn’t as much of an issue as it has been at other times. And anyway, I was comfortable. I didn’t have to wear a suit that didn’t fit, day in and day out.

It’s somewhat better since I got a couple pair of jeans that fit. After I put on 40+ lbs a few years ago–due to a number of factors, including changes in medication and health problems and just being tired of driving my body to conform to a shape it couldn’t naturally sustain–I didn’t own jeans for a long time. Being able to put on a pair of jeans and a decent shirt often makes the difference for me between going out and hiding at home. A woman of my size in sweatpants or leggings, who puts her comfort before her looks, runs the risk of ending up on the pages of “People of Walmart” or some other fat-shaming or classist web site. This is something I’m aware of every time I leave the house.

Speaking in general terms, comfort and beauty only go hand in hand for the thin. The more you have a body that conforms to societal standards of attractiveness, the fewer contortions you’re required to do. A person, a woman, with an acceptably svelte form, or the acceptable level of curviness, can wear her workout gear to the store or forgo makeup and dresses in favor of T-shirts, jeans, and clean skin, and still be considered attractive. For fat people, this is not the case. The bigger you are, the more effort you have to put into your appearance in order to prevent people from pointing and laughing. The more formal you have to be. The more you have to other yourself in order to be seen as you are. This is a conundrum.

I’m trying to let all that go. A few weeks ago, I suggested to my husband that we go to the beach; we hadn’t since moving to our current home. Swimming in the lake, I realized how many things I haven’t done out of body shame. How much I missed playing in the sand, smelling the water. That’s when I made the decision–again, for I’ve made the same decision over and over during the course of my life–to work on loving the body I have. Not to avoid the beach because of the way my thighs bulge, or to decline buying the cute mini skirts because of the shape of my knees. In a way it’s easier in my current location than it would be elsewhere, because there’s far less body shaming in rural areas than in urban. I see people of all sizes doing all kinds of things every day, in public no less! But in another way, it’s just as hard as it’s ever been. There’s always the chance of seeing a picture, a reflection, that reminds me of the difference between how I see myself and the way the world sees me, with all its agenda and baggage.

Right now, the best I can do is ignore the dissonance. Some day, I hope to dance.