Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Losing It: Clothes

Before I begin, let me acknowledge the well-known and widely-held attitude that it is profoundly irritating when people complain about something "good" that is happening to them. For instance, "I got this new job with great pay and great benefits. Man, do I hate filling out HR paperwork! I mean, form after form. And everything in triplicate." OR, "I am in love! It's wonderful. He/she is the best thing that has ever happened to me. I am EXHAUSTED. We can't spend a moment apart, but that means I can't get ANY sleep." OR, "I just won the Nobel Prize. But now I have to spend my Saturday night at home writing a lecture and then I have to fly to Sweden. SWEDEN! Do you know how many connecting flights that entails?!"

The reason that we tend not to enjoy these sort of complaints is that it is hard, on the receiving end, not to see them as bragging, with thin (so thin as not to be believable) attempts to mitigate the bragging by showing the "downside" of the speaker's boon.

Or maybe I am just cynical?

The reason that I raise the issue is that this post might smack of that to some of you. But I want to make two disclaimers. 1) As I have already said elsewhere, I have honestly mixed emotions about this process. And the extent to which I see losing weight, for me, as a "good thing" is definitely unknown. 2) What I am about to discuss is truly irritating. And it brings up several important issues about clothing and bodies.

So, here goes. NOTHING FITS. I put something on in the morning--something that fit the last time I wore it--maybe a couple of weeks ago. Or worse yet--something that I just bought two months ago. Then I go out into the world. And inevitably, by the end of the day, it has been pointed out to me (most often either by my mother or by the observant eight year old) that I absolutely cannot wear that piece of clothing again. Last week I wore a pair of pants and later realized that I could put both my arms down between my hips and the pants, while inside them. (That means that I fit in the pants, but so did both of my forearms.) WHAT?! How did that even happen?

I have a perpetual heap of Goodwill offerings next to my door. It gets bigger weekly. I find it unsettling to not know what will fit and what will not. The space around me gets bigger, and the space inside me gets smaller. There are some benefits. I feel lighter. It is like deciding to get a lot of hair cut off all at once. The stylist hands you a mirror at the end of the haircut so you can look at yourself and says, "how does it feel?" It feels like lightheadedness. You go to shake it out, and you shake too vigorously for what you have left. You go to run your fingers through it, and you find yourself feeling for ends that are no longer there. This feeling is simultaneously exhilarating and destabilizing. (And if you think that the analogy doesn't work: I woke up a few mornings ago with an itch in my lower back region. I reached for it sleepily and ended up overreaching. Seriously. I couldn't figure out where my lower back had gone for a few confused tenths of a second.) I also have developed a waist. A noticeable one. I don't mind that. In fact, I may even enjoy it, even though it leads to a fairly constant need to hitch things up.

The clothing turnover reveals something interesting about my weight story. Two things have struck me. First, my Goodwill pile, increasingly, is full of clothing that I have owned (and have worn) for a long, long time. Many of them for ten years. Second, the two boxes of clothing that I have been plundering as I've outshrunk (? is there a term for the opposite of outgrown? And if I give these clothes to someone are they hand-me-ups?) others, are full of things that I've never actually worn. Things that, often, still have tags attached.

I think a lot of women have "fat clothes" and "thin clothes" in their closets. My impression is that most of these women have actually been able to wear both, and keep them in the closet with the idea that their weight may continue to fluctuate. I also have "fat clothes" and "thin clothes". But they are different. The "fat clothes" are my clothes. The ones that I wear all the time. The ones that I see myself continuing to wear. I don't really expect them to get too big or too small for me. I may get rid of things--but if I do it is because I am tired of them, or they wear out, or I decide that I never really liked them that much to begin with.

But the "thin clothes". What about them? Most of them are things that I bought KNOWING that they wouldn't fit. But, usually, they are things that I fell so in love with, or felt were such a great deal, that I couldn't pass them up. They are, more than anything else, in my closet because I felt that I needed to buy them, not because I ever really expected to wear them. Sound crazy? It should. Because it is. As I have begun wearing pieces out of these boxes, I have realized that I never expected to wear them. They aren't so much reflections of hope of being able to fit into them as reflections of an inability to pass up shopping opportunities.

MYTH NUMBER THREE: Fat people all try to lose weight. Those that are still fat have tried and failed multiple times. My attitudes about the fat/thin clothes probably make more sense if they are read though the lens of a non-dieter. Before my illness, in my adult life, I have only ever lost a significant amount of weight on two occasions. I went away to college and, instead of gaining the Freshman 15, I dropped about 25. But this wasn't a concerted effort. In fact, I think I ate more that first term of college than I remember eating in any one period of time in my life. But I was miserable on the little suburban campus and I didn't have a car, so to get away I had to walk. And I did that a lot. Everyday. I walked miles and miles a day. I also lived on the third floor of the door (with no elevator), so I was constantly climbing stairs.

The second time was a few years ago. Again, I was pretty miserable. In my desire to be less miserable I saw a nutritionist (who told me to start eating breakfast--but that is for another post) and I started running. I probably lost about 25 or thirty pounds then.

In between those two events (fifteen years apart), I made no real attempt to lose any weight. I gained some, but it was pretty slow, all things considered. My attitude has always been this: It may look bad to everyone else that I am fat, but it would look worse to try and fail, publicly, over and over again. I understood, from a very tender age, the concept of the yo-yo diet. I also accepted that real weight loss (the kind when people don't gain it back) does require a "lifestyle change" and a real commitment. If I am being really honest, I also knew that I just didn't have it in me. And until I did, I didn't want to pretend that I did.

I had the following exchange with one of my close friends after she read my first two posts here:

Friend: Do you know what you have done?
Me: What do you mean?
Friend: You have to do it now.
Me: Do it?
Friend: You have to lose the weight. You have proclaimed it. You referred to your "journey."
Me: Yes. I know.
Friend: And you have to do this too (pointing to the computer). You have to write. You have to keep up with this blog.
Me: Yeah. I know that too.

That's kind of the point. Getting sick made the decision for me. It forced a lifestyle change. It has forced a change in my attitude about my weight. I'm not sure why this did when other things (relationships, desire to have children, my own unhappiness with my appearance) didn't. But something has changed. And there is a need, signaled in part by the existence of this blog, for me to declare it.

That pile of Goodwill clothes--some of which I have owned for a third of my life--will go this week, before surgery. That is also a kind of declaration. And tags will come off of other clothes, like the skirt I'm wearing today that is three sizes smaller than anything I was wearing two months ago, and I will wear them as a declaration too.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

It's Just a Word

When I started this blog, I anticipated some resistance to (or at least commentary about) my liberal use of the word "fat". One friend, reading the first two posts across from me at a booth at a bar, winced every time she read it. (She winced at other things as well.) Another friend wrote me a long, solicited, and thoughtful email. At one point she referred to "untraditional bodies" and then clarified: I refuse to use the word "fat" or "plus sized" for many reasons. "Full" or "thick" don't help either. I haven't found a word that works for me, but you get the point.

I do. I think that most people who are or have been overweight struggle with terminology. I have a really hard time with the word "obese." To me, the word sounds oily. Greasy. Dripping with fat. But I am very aware that this is a purely personal association. I think that some people PREFER this term, simply for the fact that it is clinical, and therefore less comparative or judgemental.

I thought long and hard about how to refer to my body in this blog. I decided on "fat" for the following reasons: 1) it is direct. Three letters. One of the first words that many of us learn to read in English (literally, for me. The readers that I learned literacy from centered their stories on "Nat the fat cat"). It is also NOT euphemistic. It is honest. 2) it makes people uncomfortable. Partially because it IS direct. But also because it is 3) political. The word--the idea--of fat is a contested one in our world. What is it? Is it good or bad? If it is bad, at what point does it become bad? To what extent is fat-ness private and to what extent is it public? (These are all questions that I am interested in taking on--I am thinking of the First Lady's decision to make "childhood obesity" her pet project, or Kevin Smith's widely reported tiff with Southwest Airlines.) If my project here is to discuss weight in an unflinching and honest way, I don't think that I can do so without using this word.

But I also think that it is important to query the word itself. I start with the Oxford English Dictionary definition. 2a states, Of animals or human beings, their limbs, etc. In well-fed condition, plump, well supplied with fat. If there is a connotation here, it is a positive one. The definition implies plenty. Enough-ness. Satiety. These things are desirable and attractive. And then things get complicated. 2b: In unfavorable sense: overcharged with fat, corpulent, obese. There is a line of demarcation. "Enough" becomes "too much." Fat now implies taking up too much space. Or too many resources. We are told that this is seen as "unfavorable." Lurking behind both of these definitions is the idea of comparison. In definition 2e: Of larger size than is usual; large in comparison with others of the same species. Here, the idea of comparison is foregrounded.

The comparative element confuses the issue. There are no actual standards for "fat." Recently, an 8 year old who I spend a lot of time with was making a point to me. He said something about the fact that I was fat. Then he stopped (because, I happen to know, his parents have told him privately that it is impolite to say that someone is fat directly to him or her. But he also knows, because I have been open about my weight with him, that I don't react as if it is impolite) and said, That's ok, right? Because you know that you are fat? I mean, you know that you are not normal. I agreed, for the sake of the conversation. But I could quibble with this point. I can buy clothes off the rack. I fit into cars and airplane seats (even on Southwest flights). I don't break chairs or toilet seats. In that sense, I DO, it seems to me, fit somewhere on the spectrum of normal. Further, I am not always, or even usually, the largest person in the room. The OED disappoints in this last definition because the definition relies on vague and subjective terms. Large in what way? What is "usual"? How do we understand the word "species"?

I have already written about myself as an elementary-aged child. I was certainly "larger" than almost all my fellow fourth-graders, both in terms of height and weight. (Boys and girls. But I was definitely the tallest and biggest girl.) But I wasn't fat. I think that I was always in the 90+ percentile for height and weight as a child. But I still wasn't fat. I developed faster and earlier than most of the other girls. But I also STOPPED developing earlier than they did.

My recent experiences with hiking would support the idea that I am easily larger than the species of "hikers." (In fact, I'm definitely the largest hiker I've seen in the last week.) But I am downright tiny when compared to the majority of the species of "Wal-Mart shoppers." (And don't give me a bunch of crap about this being stereotypical or prejudiced. There is definitely an overabundance of heavy people at Wal-Mart.)

Eating disorders feed on the slippage afforded by comparison and lack of standards. In a group of anorexic girls, the one who weighs 98 pounds may, in fact, be the "largest" of her species. But she still isn't fat.

Even my friend's use of the term "untraditional body" implies comparison. My body may be "untraditional" because of my weight. But someone who is 4 foot 10 is also untraditional. As is someone who is 7 feet. Or someone who is missing a limb.

There is a second complication with regard to these definitions. The OED acknowledges, at least to some degree, the role of association and connotation in defining the term "fat". I became curious about that. So I looked up other simple adjectives that describe comparative size. Thin, definition 1c: Having little flesh; lean, spare, not fat or plump. Short, definition 2a: Low in stature: opposed to tall. Tall, definition 6a: Of a person: High of stature: of more than average height. Usually appreciative.

Only the definition of "tall" comments on judgement and connotation. Still, it seems to me that this is a more neutral statement than what is provided for "fat."

So why does the term "fat" seem to be so much more complicated and contested than the simple adjectives of relative size in its same class? I don't totally know how to answer that question. But I have one thought. More than the other terms in that class, fat is often associated with other, distinctly negative, descriptors. (Sure, there is "tall, dark and handsome", but that only relates to a small class of tall men. And I suppose that we may tend to associate short--again mostly men--with the Napoleonic complex. But again, this is a limited association.) Consider this list:

Fat and slow.
Fat and lazy.
Fat and disgusting.
Fat and unattractive.
Fat and sweaty.
Fat and smelly.
Fat and unhealthy.

(To be fair, there is also "fat and jolly" but this is a description that is mostly attached to Santa Claus and self-destructive male comedians.)

If I had to guess, my friend who winced at my use of the term fat was not thinking of it as the opposite of thin. My guess is that the word carries with it, for her, all of the other negative words and images above. And I think that is true for most of us. It is hard to divorce the word from those associations and stereotypes.

But, as much as possible, I want to define myself as a "fat girl" in the most neutral way possible. To define myself in comparison to people who are not fat. I also want to use this word in order to explore some of the baggage that comes with it--baggage that often is based on myth or misinformation. When I call myself "fat" I am not tacitly accepting that I am slow, lazy, disgusting, unattractive, sweaty, smelly or unhealthy. Or jolly, for that matter. These descriptions need to be accepted or rejected on their own merit rather than as part of an associative package deal.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Adventures: Hike Week

This is hike week. Don't get out your calendars or google it. It is just hike week for me. The surgery to fix my innards will occur in just a little over two weeks, cutting my summer a little short. So I find myself with just under three weeks of summer left, and very little enjoyment of the outdoors had. Hike week is my first attempt at remedying that situation.

Do I really care about enjoying the outdoors? Well. That is complicated. It is not the thing that I am most interested in spending my leisure time experiencing. And yet . . . there is enough of the "out-Dorsey" culture embedded in my complicated psyche, and enough of a true appreciation for the amazing natural beauty of the PacNW, that I feel deep guilt every November when I realize that another year has passed without my having made much of an attempt to enjoy what is right outside my door. Add that to the inevitable guilt I feel for every day I do not exercise, and it seems a much better idea to just get at it.

I started hike week with a trip to Forest Park yesterday (the largest wooded city park in the U.S.--over 5000 acres located in NW Portland). I chose the Wild Cherry-Alder Loop for my first route. According to my guidebook, this hike is 4.9 miles, climbs to a total elevation of 450 feet and is considered "easy." Hmm. Not easy enough, as it turns out. What the guidebook fails to mention is that almost the entire elevation must be scaled in a half mile section of the loop, early on. The guidebook describes this part of the hike as an ascent characterized by "gentle switchbacks." Um. Absolutely not. There are mostly steep uphill sections, broken up with long, slightly less steep switchbacks at random intervals.

I thought I was going to die.

I had to stop often during this section of the hike. And it got me started thinking about why I don't hike more often. Or why I haven't traditionally liked hiking much in the past. The truth is sort of horrible. It isn't that I don't like nature (because, really, how can anyone not want to spend a couple of hours surrounded by quiet, deep green that smells like blackberries--at the lower elevations--and licorice up higher?). It isn't that I'm too lazy either. Or that I'm somehow afraid of anything I might find in the woods. The truth is--I'm embarrassed. I find hiking, like I find most forms of exercise, really humiliating. However, somehow hiking is worse. Maybe because it is "just walking" and so shouldn't be as hard. Or maybe because it is social in a different way than an exercise class or a group sport (and more social than swimming or running). But I could tell you many stories about being on hikes that made me feel deeply, deeply ashamed.

I don't care about getting dirty. Or red-faced. Or sweaty. But I care a lot about how hard it is to breathe. I care a lot about the fact that I have to stop to catch my breath. When I am doing this with someone else it feels awful. I feel weak. I feel exposed. I imagine what the person I am with is thinking: She is pathetic. She is so weak. How could she let herself get THAT out of shape? Even when I am alone, I dread passing someone on the trail. I walk as quickly as I can past strangers, shoring up just enough breath to say hello, no matter what it costs me, so that they might not notice how out of breath I am, how slowly I am moving.

Myth Number Two: Fat people have no pride. I have recently spent a lot of time with someone who is very, very athletic and fit. She makes comments, rather often, about people's appearances when they are out and about. When she makes these comments to me, they are usually about makeup or hair or clothing. But I have noticed that these comments are very often directed at overweight people. She asks, "don't people have any pride in the way that they look?" She means, "aren't fat people embarrassed to walk around being fat?" Yes. They are. Or many of them are. I am. But I am also aware of the fact that I have to leave the house. I have to interact with other people. In order to do that, I have to find a way to NOT be so self-conscious about the way that I look that I can't function. And so I buy cute glasses and colorful knee socks and smile and make eye contact and I pray that it distracts everyone from my weight (knowing deep down that it doesn't--that it can't). And I try to look confident--as if it is all part of my plan--the style, the attitude, the weight.

You may be wondering what this has to do with hiking. Here's the thing: I spend so much of my time trying to make it seem like I don't have a problem. Like there is nothing wrong with me. Like my weight doesn't cause me physical or psychological discomfort or challenges. And, in many ways, in terms of the day-to-day, I'm able to perpetuate that myth--if only to myself. But hiking exposes me completely. I physically cannot keep the narrative going. It is obvious to me and to whoever I am with that I am struggling--and that it is a direct consequence of my weight.

No matter how nice the day--no matter how beautiful the view--no matter how good the company--it is hard for me to be up for that kind of humiliation.

This week is about getting out and making the most of my short summer. And it is about getting in some fitness before I'm stuck in recovery. And it is also about doing something that is really hard and trying to come to terms with my limitations in a public kind of way.

I noticed a lot of things while I was at Forest Park--the banana slugs. The Oregon Grape plants heavy with fruit. The smell of the forest. The vole burrows. But I also noticed that I was the only overweight person I saw in the two hours I was there. Ultimately, I have to feel good about the fact that I was there. And that I hiked the whole 4.9 miles. And, that, while I had to stop and catch my breath from time to time, I didn't STOP.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Welcome and Explanation

I have thought of myself as "the fat girl" since I was five. About seven or eight years ago I found a picture of myself, wearing a plaid short romper, leaning against a rock in early evening sun. It was taken when I was about ten. My twenty-five year old self stared at that picture for a long, long time and then cried for a long, long time. What I saw was a very pretty girl. Tall. Very long legs. On the verge of looking more womanly than girly. But she was not fat.

I was shocked. Honestly shocked. By that picture. Looking back, I recognize that this was the moment that I started to become much more critical and analytical about this part of my identity. It was the moment, too, that I started becoming much more open to the idea of talking about my weight with other people. For most of my life, the topic had been very clearly off limits to my family (with the exception of my mother. but you know moms. they often ignore those arbitrary boundaries.) and to my friends, and definitely to my romantic partners. In the last eight years, I've begun having a lot more conversations. I saw a nutritionist. I saw a therapist. I talked to friends whom I trusted. I have even let the topic be more clearly on the table with people that I date.

What I found was that the people around me filled in the bubble of silence about my weight with their own text. They created content out of their assumptions. Further, I began to realize that it was not only the people close to me who were creating narratives for me. It is something that a lot of the world does when they encounter someone who is overweight. This has been an upsetting realization. I want to have more control over my own narratives. I want to be understood on my own terms and not just understood through someone else's (mostly uninformed) assumptions.

This is part of the inspiration, and justification, for this blog. The other part is this: recently I have been ill. I can be fixed, but it is going to take surgery. My illness affects my stomach and my eating habits. The illness itself, and the fact that I am getting ready for surgery, has created a perfect storm for weight loss. I have already lost somewhere over twenty five pounds (since I started tracking it--I may have lost more before the beginning of May, but twenty five since then). After surgery I am likely to lose at least that much in about six weeks. And after that? After that I will need to continue to lose weight because, although it is unlikely that my weight caused my condition, it can cause the condition to reoccur.

As I have been going through this, people have begun to notice the changes in my body. Most people assume that I am happy about losing weight. As a result, they feel encouraged to make comments about 1) how good I am looking. Or 2) how happy I must be. Or 3) how it must be nice that my condition has the up side of causing a weight loss. These people are very well intentioned. They are also completely misguided.

Myth Number One: The desire of all fat people, whether they will admit it or not, is to be thin.

The conversations I've had with people over the years, and the material reality of becoming not fat has made me believe that I need to address the myths--the uninformed narratives--that surround weight in a more head on way. Otherwise, I am very afraid that as I become not fat, I will also become very, very angry and bitter. So the purpose here, on a personal level, is both to document what is going on with me and my body, and to give me an outlet to talk about the issues that arise (and some of the issues that I've dealt with throughout my life that I haven't really had a chance to discuss). As far as the goal for my readers: well. Some of you may read because you love me and want to understand me better. Some of you may read because you relate. And some of you may read to have your assumptions challenged.

What you can expect here: I will tell you some personal stories. And I will keep you loosely updated on my "journey" (wow. I hate that term). But I also want to talk about some of the myths about fat people, as I see them. And about the role of the fat person in our culture. And about topics that relate--things like dieting, dating, exercise, clothes shopping and health. I want to look at as many facets of fat-ness, with as much honesty as possible.

And it is a myth that all fat people most want to be thin. From the outset, you should know that I have very mixed feelings about becoming not fat. It is hard to think about giving up the "fat girl" part of my identity.

What I most want is not to be thin. What I most want is for it not to matter. Not to matter to my employers, to my family, to my friends, to strangers on the street, and for it not to matter to anyone who loves me.

Thank you for reading. I hope to see some of you back again.