Friday, July 19, 2013

I Am Jan

There's a post I keep wanting to write but never do because it's too personal for this blog and because I'd end up dragging someone else through the mud. Recently a friend shared the article, "When Your Mother Says She's Fat," and there's one part that essentially says all you need to know about my own story. It brings me to tears every time I read it or even think about it.

‘‘Jesus, Jan,’’ I overheard him say to you. ‘‘It’s not that hard. Energy in versus energy out. If you want to lose weight you just have to eat less.’’

That night at dinner I watched you implement Dad’s ‘‘Energy In, Energy Out: Jesus, Jan, Just Eat Less’’ weight-loss cure. You served up chow mein for dinner. Everyone else’s food was on a dinner plate except yours. You served your chow mein on a tiny bread-and-butter plate.

As you sat in front of that pathetic scoop of mince, silent tears streamed down your face. I said nothing. Not even when your shoulders started heaving from your distress. We all ate our dinner in silence. Nobody comforted you. Nobody told you to stop being ridiculous and get a proper plate. Nobody told you that you were already loved and already good enough. Your achievements and your worth—as a teacher of children with special needs and a devoted mother of three of your own—paled into insignificance when compared with the centimeters you couldn’t lose from your waist.

I see myself in Jan, but her story is also not about me. It's about all of us--all the Jans with tiny plates and silent tears as well as those who are complicit in allowing worthy people to be reduced to a number on a scale or a dress size.

It starts with the overreaching idea that Jan must lose weight in order to be attractive or happy and that her value is determined by her size. The belief that she has extra weight is socially constructed and accepted. If Jan's accomplishments, kindness, or career were valued more than her body size, we wouldn't be having this discussion.

Then, it's "You're not only fat but also stupid because you can't figure out how to feed yourself correctly." In other words, fat people are dumb and/or lazy because staying trim is so simple. This belief accuses fat people of not being able to figure this out for themselves and of not being able to execute the necessary actions based on that knowledge.

I mean, it really is simple isn't it? After all, anyone can just subtract the exact number of calories they burn throughout the day from the exact number of calories they take in throughout the day. For that, all someone needs to know is their resting metabolic rate, additional calories burned during structured exercise as well as unstructured exercise like cleaning the house or playing with children, additional calories burned post-exercise, genetic predisposition, all medical conditions or emotional states that affect metabolism, and how all of these factors change daily. Jesus, Jan. It's not that hard. 

But Jan listens to her partner's advice, despite its oversimplification and cruelty. She takes it upon herself to act. She controls what she can; she eats less.

Then comes a breaking point. The silent tears. Even a woman in distress can't make noise, can't disturb others, and certainly can't expect sympathy or concern. Why not? Because this is Jan's problem. She brought it on herself. In this story, there's no room for other possibilities.

And what are those tears about anyway? Jan might have been thinking and feeling lots of things: Why do I have to eat this way? Why can't I just lose this weight? What's wrong with me? This is ridiculous. This isn't fair. I don't know what to do. 

But I can say with certainty that it comes down to this: Loneliness. This is a lonely place to be. She sits with the people she loves most, yet she can't ask them for understanding. At best, they ignore her struggle, and at worst, they participate in it by blaming and insulting her. The people she takes care of don't take care of her. She is alone.

So, here I sit with my own tears. Jan, I'm sorry you had to go through this. You deserved better.

Now, at age 33, after probably 20 years of a tumultuous relationship with my body, I work hard to not be Jan, to not beat myself up. I also try to surround myself with supportive people. I've simplified my life in an effort to get to what's most important, but when it comes to looking at myself in the mirror every day, I have a hard time saying, "This isn't the most important thing in my life." It's true, though. I'm much more than that. We all are.

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