This is the first year, the year of our Lord 2019, that I have opted not to make a resolution related to eating cleaner, working out more, or losing weight. Even in years past, if I outwardly pretended that I was “over” resolutions or said something along the lines of, “it’s really more about intentions, you know?,” inwardly, I was secretly plotting that THIS year would be the year that I shocked everyone with my svelte body and fit into the cut-off shorts that I have been clinging to since I lost a bunch of weight before my wedding. This would be the year that I ate heaps of vegetables because “my body just really craved a salad today” and bypassed cookies like some sort of saint of sadness and goodness. This would be the year that I found self-discipline, a sense of righteousness, and God, through abstaining from sugar and making healthy choices and laying out my gym clothes the night before.
There has never been a year where it worked. There has never been a year when I have been radically, fundamentally different by the sheer force of my desire.
But that’s not why I’m not trying, actually. There are plenty of things that I still assume will just sort of fall into my lap by virtue of me really wanting them. A large house that is affordable enough to continue living in Boston, proper, for example. It’s just that when it comes to weight loss, I’ve lost the ability to care enough about how my body appears to other people to find the motivation to obsess over losing weight, which is the only way I have been successful in losing weight before – by prioritizing it to the point where I eventually became obsessed with what I ate and I didn’t eat, how far I ran or didn’t run, how I was going to keep the weight off, and what sort of catastrophe would befall me if I didn’t maintain my weight. It took a tremendous amount of energy, and it took a tremendous amount of looking outward, searching the eyes of friends and strangers for approval, for acceptance, for love, for desire, and dreading the day when it didn’t come, when the weight came back.
I haven’t been able to stop thinking about my relationship to my body, and how that intersects with my relationship with men, yes, men, all of them, the entire species, since I wrote about sexual assault a few months ago. And since I got sober, and had a kid, and got stuck in a weird Stranger Things parallel world of depression, and then found some recovery, and integrated some healing, and felt better, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about why I’ve wanted to lose weight, and for whom, and what my motivation has been, and sometimes I’ve wondered how to do it successfully, so that it sticks, so that I am finally satisfied and can live the rest of my life with some sense of peace, and presumably, quinoa.
Here is the deepest secret nobody knows: I found motivation to lose weight because I had internalized the idea, hook, line, and sinker, that it was my responsibility, nay, my DUTY as a woman, to be as conventionally attractive to men as I possibly could be. And I really bought into that for a long time, even when I was actively working not to buy into it, even when I had renounced women’s fashion magazines as being part of the capitalist, consumerist machine of shame and misery, even when I was actively not dating men, actively ignoring them at bars, literally married to a woman – I still took my job to be as conventionally attractive as possible (to men) seriously, my sense of anxiety mounting with each pair of jeans that got a little too snug, each pound of weight that crept back on, each roll of body fat that made itself known as I twisted in the car to buckle my seat belt. Oh no, I would think. I am getting fat. I am gonna get fired from being a woman. Then what will I do?
I gained 30, maybe 40, pounds when my son was born. I didn’t carry him, so I can’t even pretend that I gained weight nobly. Instead what happened was: he was born at 4:45 in the afternoon, we were thrilled and overwhelmed and did the skin to skin thing, marveling at how he didn’t look as much like an alien as we had anticipated, and as soon as the nurses took him away so that my wife could sleep, I walked around the corner to CVS and I bought a bunch of junk food because I had no idea what was going to happen next, and I was terrified, and I didn’t know what else to do, and I wanted to numb, and i wanted to feel better.
I didn’t necessarily want to gain that much weight – who wants to gain that much weight, unless there’s an Oscar involved – but I was aware that it was going to happen. I was aware that with only a year of sobriety under my (burgeoning) belt, and with a long way to go in addressing my emotional, mental, and spiritual state, I was going to need a lot of support and I simply didn’t have that many other coping skills. Turning to food was a conscious decision. It was a steady diet of Lucky Charms, Cheetos, pizza, and lemonade for a few years. I guess if you’ve known me long enough, it didn’t really look all that different than usual.
But it was different, because there was a level of abandonment, and, as it turns out, freedom from obsessing about yourself, accompanied with having a baby. I couldn’t prioritize working out because I was certain that the baby would die without me if I went for a run (despite being utterly useless in his eyes until he was like, 1, as I wasn’t providing food for him), and also because babies don’t sleep and therefore, parents don’t sleep (did you guys know that?), and I don’t know what sort of freaks work out on limited amounts of sleep, but I for one, don’t. And the first few months or year of the baby’s life are sort of a daze and time exists in a completely different way, and you are just doing what you can to put one foot in front of the other, anyway, and no one wants to cook because you are dealing with this existential crisis of never being enough for anyone anymore because you are pulled in a thousand directions, and you are never able to be wholly present in one place anymore, because now you have a kid and your heart is wherever they are, and now you are hoisting around this dread and fear of their untimely death on your back, along with the slow realization that you will have to deal with the significant and devastating loss of your loved ones at some point in your life, and you never really understood how painful that would be until a piece of your soul had some flesh and bones and was a fully formed human that lived outside of you, whom you ultimately, truly, at the very end of the day, have no control over, anyway.
So, yeah, I gained a few pounds that first year.
In the past when I have gained weight – and there have been several dramatic losses, and slow gains, in a cycle, since graduating college – I have figured out a way to direct my energy into resuming a pattern of working out and eating with some sense of awareness. But this time around, when I was at an all time psychological low, due to the stress of having an infant, and working a full-time job that was draining and demanding, and being responsible for staying sober, and trying to combat the all-consuming depression that followed me around the first two years of not drinking, I just couldn’t do it. I could not take on one more job. I could not spare any additional, precious energy to lose weight. I remember half-heartedly coming up with a workout schedule for the week and perusing Pinterest for plant-based recipes with my eyes glazed over. It’s not my job to look good, I remember thinking, as I pinned a recipe that promised I wouldn’t even miss the cheese. It’s not my job to look good for men. And all of the celebrities that I follow on Instagram – that is their job, and they get paid for it. And now I have a million jobs, and only get paid for one, I reasoned. So I closed my laptop, and I just didn’t try.
When you give up on such a narrowly focused goal, the world gets bigger, and you can see more.
I don’t to suggest that I came to this tepid acceptance of my body and weight gain easily. Like anything even minimally difficult in my life, I came to it after digging in my heels, and with much hostility and resentment, and after many therapy sessions berating myself for gaining weight and outlining my plans to lose the weight I’d gained – for good this time! with my therapist. But the truth was, I just wasn’t successful at losing weight steadily, for months, while other things in my life demanded my attention and focus: my kid, sobriety, my marriage, my job. So I accepted defeat because defeat was my reality.
Feminist scholars wonder what women could accomplish if they weren’t coerced into jumping on the gerbil wheel of pursuing and maintaining a contrived image of beauty that requires a constant vigilance to achieve and sustain, if it’s available to us at all. And I wish that I had come to this truce between my body and my mind’s perception of it because I set out on a hero’s journey to bear witness to how much I could accomplish if I cast down the patriarchy’s demands and turned my gaze elsewhere. But the reality is, I was just tired.
Typically, I run 3-4 times a week and practice yoga once a week. During this time of forced recalibration, I stopped working out for about three months. I told my therapist that I hadn’t felt like working out and she told me, in that case, to stop working out. It was liberating and necessary for me, for many different reasons. My exercise boycott couldn’t last forever – I need to workout to keep my mood up and depression at bay, and I have too much aggressive energy coursing through my body that comes out as anger and judgment: I need to expel as much energy as often as possible. But the break helped me create a new relationship with myself, and an understanding that even if I didn’t workout – even if I didn’t try to be pretty or fit – the world would keep spinning, my clients would still have needs, and I could still get up and go to work. I could still exist, and still have worth, and something to give to people, without the endless pursuit of slim life and lithe limbs.
It’s not like I’m exceptionally attractive or get regular positive feedback about my appearance – strangers don’t stop me on the street to compliment me, and honestly, I would feel a tremendous amount of ambivalence if they did; such is the experience of a feminist femme woman, I think. It’s just that I thought I should want to be so attractive that randos would stop me in the street, that I should be so perfectly presented that my worth was immediately and universally agreed upon, that even if my opinions weren’t to your liking or I was too loud or too awkward, or I said the wrong thing, all could be forgiven, because you couldn’t argue that I wasn’t good for something, something meaningful as a woman. And even if I never achieved this sort of global acceptance based on my appearance, at least if I were striving for it, I was playing my part. At least I was working hard. At least I was trying to please men.
Here’s the thing. I don’t like blaming the anamorphous existence of “men” anymore than individual men like being blamed for things. I wish that there could be an easier, more productive person to blame – my mother, for example. But the truth is, the dominant culture creates the narrative for the rest of us to create supportive roles in, and the dominant culture sets our standards of beauty, of success, of failure, and redemption. This goes for gender roles, for white supremacy, for heteronormative, for life in a cisgender world, for all of the ways our understanding of reality has been defined and shaped by the group who, for whatever reason, dominated. And so even though men, women, and gender non-binary folks might perpetuate harmful female beauty standards, and even though some men might actively challenge such stereotypes and promote different ways of being with women (indeed, some of the men in my life are some of the best personal buffers against the patriarchy). the fact remains that the goal for women to be objectively beautiful was created for men, who wanted beautiful objects as a symbol of their masculinity and their success. And we as individuals in the Western world perpetuate these ideas of beauty and expectations of femininity to the degree that we are not actively combating it, because the patriarchy is insidious and gaseous and weaves in and out of our understanding of ourselves and our reality, a sense of violation in its wake, an intruder who maybe didn’t take anything from your home but whose presence in of itself is unsettling, whose threat is constant.
And this might be changing, you might argue. This may not be your personal experience. You might argue that the issues that women face today at the hands of men – murder, kidnapping, rape, political oppression, silencing, etc., etc., etc., – are far more severe than the patriarchal assertion that women are only valuable if they present as a certain physical fantasy, not recognizing that these things are stops on the same continuum of control, the same shimmers of violence. Yet, with the recent backlash over a Gillette commercial which suggests that maybe men could be a little more involved in changing the world for the better, in addition to the American Psychological Association (APA) addressing – for the first time in 127 YEARS, (!!) as this article notes, that men, basically, have some issues, it seems like maybe the patriarchy is just doubling down, that it now has a life of its own, and though shapeless, is fully formed, and will do anything to survive. Sort of like all of the villains in all of the stories in all of the lands for all of time. Though now, there is (thankfully, finally) conversation about how standards of masculinity harm men, how patriarchal notions can limit their ability to be fully functioning, fully feeling human beings, and that the ownership of change is now on them as well, so that women don’t have to bear all of the brunt. As Instagram user Jen Winston (IG handle: girlpowersupply) notes, “I am SO glad we’ve moved on from ‘girls can do anything’ and starting saying ‘men need to do SOMETHING.'”
And so what does this have to do with my own personal story of weight loss? Well, nothing, and also everything. Because now that I have started to disentangle my physical appearance from the expectations and demands of the general malaise of “men as a concept piece”, I don’t know what my motivation to lose weight is anymore. In fact, I feel very ambivalently about losing weight at all. Because I know that my health is not correlated to my weight – my journey with alcoholism and depression has made that crystal clear – and because there are so many other things I want, and now have to, focus on, that aren’t related to eating meat or not eating meat or making smoothies or being Keto Kaelin or paleo or eating only white food or eating macros or microsoft. And though I like to look nice, and I’m a sucker for a clothing sale, I am tired of chasing after a goal that I will never attain. Because the fact of the matter is, when I was thinner than I am now, it wasn’t good enough. When I lost enough weight my senior year of high school that I went from a 10/12 to a size 6, I bought clothes in a size 4 because that would have been an accomplishment. When I looked at photos from my wedding, quite possibly the smallest in frame that I have ever been, all I could see were flaws displayed on my body and shape, that my calves were still sturdy and not lithe, that my dress cut into my back fat. All I could understand, starting at those photos, was that after months of running double-digit miles and eating mostly vegan (and very little at that), I still wasn’t in love with myself. I still wasn’t blown way by my appearance. I still hadn’t transformed into someone who would give me a sense of peace, a sense of pride. This has happened my whole life.
And that isn’t the patriarchy’s fault. I imagine that, knowing all of the damage unearthed by the archeological dig of one’s soul that is commonly known as sobriety, I would have been left utterly disappointed in myself – utterly feeling like never enough – no matter the aspect of myself that I had hoped could be cured by diet and exercise, could be measured in weight. But the fact that my appearance is something that I thought could fix it all – that my worth as a person could be enhanced by the appearance of perfection, and that my demons could be placated by external approval – is something I think many of us have internalized. Just judging by the beauty industry. And now the wellness industry. And um, women who voted for Trump.
The truth of the matter is, for me, whether underweight, or overweight or my ideal weight, the center could not hold. I was never addressing my inner life, the wounded collection of identities calling the shots. I was only responding to what I thought that the outside world demanded of me, what the outside world needed from me in order to be seen.
And so now I have to think about what I want from my body for me. And that is honestly much more difficult than your average Instagram account promoting a fitness program would have you believe. Because I don’t know what I want all the time, and what I want changes, and sometimes I’m not sure what I’m supposed to want. And sure, some of this comes from the arrested development of having an addiction to alcohol (as well as an ADHD diagnosis, and the intimate correlation that exists between the two), but I think it also comes from the complicated relationship between women and desire. Remember the arguments about the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” with people on social media yelling “it’s rapey!” And then other people yelling “it’s feminist!” It was a really interesting perspective to consider, that the woman in the song who is halfheartedly rebuffing the dude’s advances was in fact, interested in him, but bowing to the constraints of her time, when a woman couldn’t assert her desire for physical intimacy because she alone was the gatekeeper to the potential consequences of the isolated encounter. And so it makes me wonder, when I am tripped up over what I want from and for my own body, how my relationship to want and desire has also been subverted, has also not been something I have ever fully owned, exactly like my relationship to my body.
Where all of this leads me is back to myself, often for the first time, observing all of this inner conflict and confusion. And because I have a regular exercise practice, it leads me to thinking about what I eat, and when, and why. It leads me to nurturance and love and sustenance, and how I provide those things to myself and how I provide those things to other. And that, my friends, is a whole nother blog post.