Sunday, January 4, 2015

Everybody I Love Is Imperfect: Some Words on Fat-Shaming for 2015

NOTE: I don't know how to write this post. So many people are doing it better than I can, but I feel like I need to add my voice to the chorus. We need to be louder. 

It's the start of a new year AKA the onslaught of weight-loss talk. Despite increased body-positive pushback to all the negative fat-talk, the pressure to be thinner prevails--new year, same story. Too many women think the most important contribution they can make in 2015 is to weigh less, to take up less space in the world. 

I used to resolve to lose weight every year too. Starting in high school through most of my 20s, I thought of myself as being too fat. I used all the terminology of the day: "I don't want to lose weight. I just want to lose fat! I just want to be healthy!" I ran, I lifted, I swam, I hung out in Shape Magazine's discussion forums, I tried diet pills, I weighed myself every day, I talked about weight loss with friends, I criticized aloud what I ate and how I looked, I sometimes drank water to make my hunger less intense, and I coveted other women's bodies. As a footnote to my 20s, I earned two degrees, made good money while finishing grad school, met some wonderful friends, and became a college professor. But who cares about all that when there's belly fat to be lost? 

You know that trope where the woman asks her male partner, "Does this dress make me look fat?" The joke is that the poor guy has no way to answer that. The woman in this scene clearly believes she looks fat or is fat, and there's nothing the guy can say to get out of it. We believe that this guy loves his partner and probably doesn't think about her as fat or skinny, but no matter how he answers, she'll believe the worst about herself but blame him for it. That poor guy. Women are crazy. 

All right, just stop right there. Here's what's crazy: That woman is normal. I'm normal. I don't have a disorder. I'm not crazy. I'm just a woman existing in our culture today who succumbed to the intense pressure to believe that the number on a scale was what she was worth. Maybe more accurately, I have the same disorder everyone else has.

In 2006, I turned a corner. I looked back and saw that nothing I'd been doing had gotten me to the body I wanted. So, instead of fighting, I let go. I decided that food and exercise should be enjoyable. Gradually, over the next few years, I stopped my daily weigh-ins and internal monologues of self-critique in front of the mirror. No more magazines or comparing myself to other women. It took effort (it still does). The current is strong and swimming upstream is difficult, but I shed a lot of the hate I had for myself and started living my life on my terms. 

If we are to believe confidence is a woman's greatest characteristic, the trait that men find most attractive, I should have been at my most attractive. And, in fact, a part of me did feel that way. I felt for the first time that I deserved to be loved and appreciated for who I was. 

At the same time, my then-husband/now-ex looked at my transformation with disdain. He used to tell me that he liked my sense of independence, but when I rid myself of that particular baggage, he resented me for it.

Remember that poor guy tragically caught in the does-this-dress-make-me-look-fat trap? The belief that it's women who are projecting innate low self-esteem issues is so deep-seated that I can't even write my own damned story without feeling like I must provide evidence that I wasn't just imagining my partner's disgust. But I'm not going to. I'm already airing a lot of private and painful memories. It wasn't a secret that he wasn't interested in me physically anymore, and it wasn't a secret why: I didn't look the way he wanted me to, and in his words, he couldn't help what he was attracted to.

My body had changed. After all, several years had passed since we first met, and because I'm a living, breathing organism, my physical and emotional experiences affected my body over time. My change in appearance wasn't the real issue, though. I hadn't actually changed that much and I had never looked like his ideal, but what did change is that I had stopped killing myself trying to be someone else. He liked me better when I was spending two hours a day at the gym and ogling other women's bodies the way he did. He liked me better when I hated my body.

I desperately wanted to believe I was projecting onto him because if that were true, once he saw my increased confidence, he'd love me more. Easy! But the more I paid attention to being smarter, kinder, and more successful in my career, the less he loved me and the more he tried to make me feel like I was terrible for not being hot enough for him. 

Yet I still can't simply call him a shit person because, like me, he wasn't suffering from a disorder. He wasn't an anomaly, an isolated case of bad human behavior. He was normal. Plenty of his friends and family members, if they'd known our more intimate details, would have supported him. I know this because one of his friends on Facebook decried some Playtex bra commercial, saying that women wouldn't need a more comfortable bra strap if they'd just lose weight (that was a woman, by the way). I also know this because his father went to see the movie Precious thinking it was a story about a fat girl losing weight and walked out of the theater. Because a fat girl can't have a story worth watching that doesn't involve weight loss.

I feel like I got out of a cult, a world so upside down that sanity looks like madness.

Today, I'm not the least bit sad that the marriage ended, but I am sad that I wasted so much time and energy. I'm sad that I let someone try to keep me down. 

Don't get me wrong; when I say it saddens me, I don't mean that the women making these resolutions for the year are sad. I totally get why that happens. I'm sad that as a culture, we've accepted a lot of harmful ideas like women intrinsically hate their bodies and body size reflects value as a human being. Words like "healthy" have been turned in a big, fat lie. 

I was made to feel ugly and unworthy, and although I'm sure people will think, "You don't know what it really means to be fat in our society," that's the point. Fat-shaming doesn't have anything to do with an objective definition of fat. That's because fat-shaming isn't about fat being an actual problem. It's about control. A woman who doesn't feel bad about herself won't rush to the store to buy the latest clothing style, makeup, or pill to make her prettier. A woman who doesn't feel bad about herself won't surround herself with people who try to minimize her. A woman who doesn't feel bad about herself will work to change the world. Scary, right? 

To hell with this cult.

I haven't mastered this whole body image thing, but I am far gentler with myself. I've realized that everyone I aspire to be more like is imperfect, so I'm in good company. It's an ongoing process, though, and the pressure to be thinner or at least to hate myself for not being thinner is still present. I'm not there yet, but I refuse to buy into these lies, and I refuse to be silent and ashamed about this part of my personal history. I promise to be more body positive in the years to come. I promise to push back. I promise to call out fat-shaming when I see it. I promise to expose the lies. I promise I will continue to be loud for all of our sakes. 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

My Word for 2015: Rhythm

Normally, I take this opportunity to check in with this past year's resolutions, but, as I acknowledged when I wrote them, I made some changes in 2014 that threw me off.

I set out in 2014 to focus on my daily habits, the process of doing whatever I put my mind to. The idea was that whatever came my way--a new job, a move, or neither of those things--little moments of joy, progress, or accomplishment would see me through. But in reality, I was just keeping my head above water. The first 4-5 months of the year, I was job hunting and depressed and anxious about that. The summer was a whirlwind of preparing to move, saying goodbye to friends, and wondering what was in store. And these past few months have just been exhausting. I don't feel like I had many opportunities to sit back and enjoy my own life this year.

I don't want a repeat of a year like that. Inspired by Susannah Conway and One Word 365, my word for 2015 is rhythm.

Rhythm, to me, is primarily about the senses and what feels right. I want to pay more attention to how I'm feeling and act on whatever I believe will help me feel better. Rhythm is also about consistency, patterns, and measures. In other words, I want to develop a better sense of timing and stick to the routines and habits that work best. I want my days and weeks to have a rhythm to them, and I want to measure out my time better so I can fit everything in without being a train wreck.

In addition to planning ahead better (something I always need work on), I have some ideas for developing a better rhythm to get me started early in the year:
  • grade 90 minutes a day, 5 days a week
  • go to the gym 3 times a week
  • 15-minute yoga sessions
  • read/write before bed
  • early morning productivity
My needs very well might change throughout the year; I just hope to adapt to those rhythms instead of falling apart (which is what I usually do when my routines change). 

I also have some ideas for new approaches to old things like keeping a journal and lesson planning for my classes. If I want to know what works best and what feels right for me, I have to try something new once in a while, right? Plus, it's fun. 

Here's to feeling good and accomplishing a ton in 2015. Happy New Year, all. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Fall Back

I keep starting posts and not finishing them. Eventually, I just delete them. I'm still here, you might say, but invisible.

The new job has taken quite a toll on me these past months. I'm trying to be gentle and forgiving with myself, but the transition has not been smooth. We're just a few weeks away from the end of the semester, and I feel like I never got into a rhythm. It's not that I'm unhappy with this new position; it's just come as a surprise how difficult the adjustment has been. In fact, I think the problem is that I've been trying to adjust and to do what's expected when I should just trust my experience. Next semester will be better.

Among this already trying time, last month, I lost my grandmother, my last living grandparent. My husband and I drove up to Washington for the funeral service this past weekend. The trip was exhausting. It too was not exactly smooth either, but at least I got to spend some time with family and visit my home state again. I'm homesick and wishing I knew my grandmother better. I don't believe in an afterlife (or, I don't expect one anyway), but when I saw a photo one of my cousins posted online of my grandparents together at their 70th wedding anniversary, somehow I knew they were together again, if only because that's what she believed. It gave me some comfort knowing that.

In happier news, the husband and I celebrated our first year of marriage last month. Time has flown by. Also, recently, some friends invited us to go with them to Yosemite. It was our first time going, and we were able to snap some shots of the beautiful fall weather. Actually, the weather has finally cooled off here in Turlock, and we've even gotten some rain. The leaves on the trees here are turning colors and it's nice being able to note the passage of time.

I hope you're all staying warm out there (or enjoying cooling off like I am). Be good, everyone. I'll be back soon.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Growing Pains + Culture Shock

A few weeks ago, I wrote an email to a friend and expressed that I was feeling frustrated at my new job because I couldn't do what I normally do with my classes. It occurred to me then that I was experiencing a kind of culture shock. 

Culture shock is usually categorized into three basic phases: excitement, frustration, and acceptance. Commonly, being in a new place is exciting at first, and you want to experience everything. Then, as you try to live your normal life, you feel frustrated because you can't do the things you're accustomed to doing. Everything is a challenge. At some point, though, you develop new routines and accept the new environment. 

I'm somewhere between frustration and acceptance. 

Things aren't so different, really, but I haven't been successful in the areas I can usually count on, which is killing my confidence and not making me want to do my job. The students are different. My coworkers are different. The physical environment is different. It's like being in an alternate universe where everything looks basically the same, but at every turn, I'm confronted with something new I have to adapt to.

What's puzzling is how effortless my previous transitions seem by comparison. But that's the problem; enough time has passed that I don't remember how difficult it was. At every college where I've worked, my first semester was pretty awkward and filled with lots of failed attempts. I got better the more I taught and learned who the students were and what they needed from me. 

Another friend who also just started a new teaching job has reported to me that she's not having a good time with her position either. Although our situations are different, when I heard us both expressing uncertainty about our futures, I saw that we both probably needed to give ourselves more time to adjust.

In other words, I've experienced similar growing pains in the past. And they are growing pains. Every experience is an opportunity to learn and grow. The stakes are higher now because the expectations are higher, but that's a good thing. When I've found myself waxing poetic about my last job (you know, the part-time teaching job with no benefits that left me scrounging for additional work), I just have to remember that this will pass with time, and I have to believe in myself.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Quads of Steel: Biking to Work

Since moving to Turlock, I've noticed a distinct difference in culture compared to what you see on the coast. It's probably always that way. Coasts have traditionally been the first to encounter new products, industries, people, and ideas. It's just surprising what a noticeable difference a 2-hour drive still makes today.

For example, in Monterey, there's no styrofoam or plastic bags (with some exceptions). Here, almost every single restaurant we've tried uses styrofoam for their to-go boxes, and we've had to specify multiple times to cashiers not to use plastic bags (we bring our own bags, but they're trigger-happy).

I was beginning to think that I was going to have to lead a one-woman charge into 21st century environmentalism in this town, but since I've started work, I've found some like-minded folks and feel better. I learned, for example, that the head librarian doesn't own a car and bikes everywhere, and two other faculty members I've met are bike enthusiasts. When I heard all of this, I felt validated because I too wanted to bike to work or at least give it a good try. 

I've biked twice so far (classes started Thursday last week), and I think it's something I can keep up at least until I start losing daylight and warmth in the mornings. However, it hasn't been a totally smooth ride.

First, my biggest concern beforehand was the sweat and bad hair factor. Remember the episode of The Office where Jim rides his bike to work? That was a very real concern for me. I bring a change of shirt, and I get to work at least 25 minutes before I have to see anybody, so I can cool down, catch my breath, and freshen up. People overestimate how much they sweat, how stinky they are, and how much other people notice. A few feet of distance usually makes a little body odor go unnoticed, but I really haven't felt gross or unclean. My hair gets a little disheveled from the helmet, but I'm not the first faculty member to be slightly disheveled; at least I have a good reason for it. 

My bigger concern has turned out to be my route. Here's a Google map of the area I'm traveling in with the bike routes highlighted in green (the solid lines are dedicated bike lanes and the dotted green lines are "recommended" roads for cyclists even if they don't have lanes).

There's a lot of green here, which looks promising, but let's look a little closer:

In trying to figure out a safe, smooth, and efficient ride for myself, I've had to get creative. Would I rather travel on a low-traffic but bumpy road with no bike lane or a smoother, wide road that takes me out of my way? Should I risk riding on a high-traffic main street with a gap in the bike lane or snake my way through residential streets with lots of turns, traffic lights, and four-way stops? I'm going to try a new route next time, one that includes fewer turns than my residential route but busier streets with fragmented bike lanes. 

The easier answer? Drive.

Of course I'm choosing to ride my bike. It's not a necessity. But having my car just sit in a parking lot all day isn't a good exercise in utility. If I drive it to work, my husband goes without a car for the day. If he drops me off and picks me up, then it ends up being more driving, and it's less convenient for both of us.

If I choose to bike, it gives us more freedom. There are very real inconveniences and safety concerns, but the tradeoff for my creative planning is that I never have to worry about parking, I don't feel like I need additional exercise for the day, I arrive feeling energized, I get fresh air, and I have some me time while riding.* 

We've been talking about getting a second car so that we both can come and go, but obviously buying, insuring, and maintaining two vehicles is a big expense. Even if we can afford it, there's a freedom in saying no to that and a unity in discussing our schedules and options. By refusing to believe that every person who can drive needs to drive, I'm exercising a powerful component to living my life on my terms. That's freedom.

All right, so cycling to work is pretty great. But here's a little secret: I don't actually enjoy riding my bike very much. I'm not a very competent cyclist, and bike riding makes me nervous. If given the choice, I'd rather walk. But my commute is a little far to walk considering how early my classes start. I say this because I want others to know that it's normal to be scared, especially if you're riding with traffic and relying on humans to not run you over or abruptly open their car door while parked on the street. 

In the end, though, I do it despite my fear because it's something I believe in. If I want to see more solid green lines on that Google map, I have to use the lanes that are there. I have to support other cyclists and future cyclists. I have to be a good role model to my students and not only tell them to push past their own boundaries but also show them what that looks like. I have to not only dream of a greener community but also participate in making that happen. It's not a one-woman charge, but one woman can certainly do her part. 

*The Energy Project has researched the effects of having a transitional activity after work. For example, someone coming home from a stressful day of work benefits from a walk around the neighborhood before jumping into family duties at home. I find that transitions are good before work as well, and having a walking or biking commute helps me transition between work and personal life.