body image

In my head the flesh seems thicker

It’s not a secret I’ve had issues with body image for a long time. And it’s always difficult to post about them because really, it’s such a spectacular waste of mental energy. Not wasting time is one of the driving forces in my life, and it’s unsettling when I find myself making a choice that doesn’t line up with my values, yet at the same time, I don’t seem to be able to help it. Something that’s left me more than a little disconcerted as of late is my weight: last year, I’d posted about the fact that I was probably considered medically underweight, and that gaining a few pounds might actually be a good thing – yet I was struggling with the idea of becoming bigger because being thin was something that people had complimented me on my whole life. And when you have abundant issues with how you look, the thought of letting go of the one positive thing isn’t something that sits easily. 

In the spring, most of you know that I went through some pretty major life stress, and in the preceding and subsequent few months, in a terribly unhealthy coping mechanism, I basically stopped eating. I remember feeling such a loss of control in terms of life events and emotions that I tried to take it back in the form of something I could control: my weight. If the world insisted on spinning around me, the one thing I could keep a hold on was what I put into my body, and as frightfully unhealthy as that sounds, I think it’s a pretty typical psychological response. Emotional eating isn’t uncommon; people have a tendency to go to either one of the two extremes, and as a result of something nasty hitting the proverbial fan, I found myself embarking upon an inadvertent hunger strike. 

But I didn’t like it. I didn’t like feeling lost, I didn’t like feeling panicked, and I didn’t like feeling hungry. And when you acknowledge the fact that there’s a giant discrepancy between where you are and where you want to be, it’s enough to cause even the most stubborn of us to take action, and it wasn’t long before I was setting about making an action plan to move ahead with life in full force. I found myself a new apartment within a couple of weeks, started spending time with incredibly wonderful people, focused my mental energy on things within my control along with the positives of the situation (as Beyonce so aptly said, I “found the good in goodbye”), and set about moving forward. When I got to my new place, unpacked the bathroom scale, stepped on it and saw I was at 100 lbs, the gravity of how unhealthy my month of avoiding food had been really hit home. So I went grocery shopping. 

Now, one of the things that goes along with living completely solo is the need to budget – something I hadn’t had to do too strictly in a very long time. I’ve always shared accommodation with other people, and subsequently my bills for rent and food had always been a fraction of what they’d be if I lived alone, leaving enough wiggle room for the odd Friday night takeaway, bottle of wine, concert ticket or new piece of clothing. I’d also been able to make big dents in paying off my debt – something I’ve been picking away at for as long as I can remember, and that I was on track to have tackled completely by the end of 2011. Fast-forward to the new now, however, and things aren’t quite so flexible. My rent is exactly half my monthly income, which leaves the other half to cover food, bills, transportation and other miscellany, leaving a float of less than $60 per week for things like entertainment and debt payments. Which is quite the adjustment. I wonder how people do it, but then I realise that most people live with others. I want to eat healthily, but on such a tight budget I’ve found myself eating what’s cheap, and not much other than pasta, pizza and pop tarts. And though I’ve been able to just about manage financially, I’ve definitely put on a large chunk of weight in the last month. And it’s unsettling.  

Friends tell me I look healthier – that before, they thought I looked “borderline eating disorder”; that before, I was the skinniest person they’d ever met, or that you could see my collarbones protruding from across the table. Now my clothes are definitely feeling tighter than usual (uncomfortably so; several pairs of work trousers are now actually unwearable), and I find myself shelving the tank tops and skinny jeans, instead opting for flowy clothing that camouflages the body.  (The silver lining, I suppose, is that a tiny bit of the weight has gone straight to the bust, which is nothing for a former A-cup to complain about!)  But though people say I look good, healthy, and that they can’t see where the pounds could have possibly gone, I feel bad knowing I got to my so-called “healthy weight” on a Diet for Poor People. I don’t want to continue eating unhealthily, but I can’t afford things like fresh greens and fish every other night like I used to. I’ve been buying KD, microwave pizza and sacks of oatmeal so I can have enough for other expenses, and though my BMI is now considered in the normal range, I feel awful knowing I got it there so unhealthily.

So what do I do? The end definitely doesn’t feel like the means were justified in the slightest, and though I know I’m sitting at a weight that’s probably way better for me than it has been in a long time, I want to know I’m staying there healthily. But how do you do it when your budget is tighter than the locks on an Azkaban prison cell? I feel gross, I feel huge, I feel superficial, and I’m feeling really unsettled about it. I was going to end this post by asking for tips, but then I read something very aptly timed indeed over at Suzy’s blog:

…i’m noticing a lot lately how that stuff–the words and the looks and the notes–can live inside of your head for a long time. they can glob together into an angry giant, feed off your memories, knock your good sense out and take over the steering wheel.  i was talking this over with a friend the other day, and confessing to her that i still think about these things too much and that i still see myself as that annoying, clumsy, horribly ugly girl from frontier, and she said something great.

she said, “i think, at some point you just need to get over it.”

and at that moment i was all snarky and thought, “yeahokwhatever.” because i’m not really sure how you just get over something that has been driving your brain around like a demented chauffeur for 17 years. but i wandered around inside of that thought for a while and realized that that’s really the only thing i can do. i’ve forgiven, i’ve realized that most of these things came from kids who didn’t know better and were probably even more insecure than i was, but i just wasn’t sure what i was supposed to do about the leftover sinking feeling that maybe they were right. you know, the part where you look in the mirror and go, “yep.” and you can’t see anything except the ears, the teeth, the hair, the whatever else they told you was wrong with you.

the answer: just get over it. look in the mirror and see what’s actually there–not what you’ve been told is there for years and years. and realize that no matter what’s there, it’s ok because that’s not the most important thing anyway. 

and THEN i realized that the same basic principle applies to every kind of pity party. i’m so guilty of pity partying.  i kind of think we’re a society that loves pity parties. we love wallowing. we focus on how we’ve been wronged and we let past hurts of all sizes and strengths grow like weeds in our brains. how useless and ugly. fact is: you’re fine. you’ll be ok. i don’t mean it didn’t hurt, i don’t mean it, whatever “it” was didn’t suck. but it’s over now and you have two options: stay here, or move on. let it drown you or get out of the water.

I don’t think any words could’ve been more appropriate. It’s the same sentiment as I tried to express last time we spoke: if you don’t like something, change it. Don’t just sit there whining. So I’m going to make a Proper Budget, and a Proper Schedule. Actually factor in things like vegetables and fish, and make a conscious effort to avoid so many carbs. Eliminate things that add up over time, like the Starbucks every day with milk and four sugars. Give myself an extra ten minutes in the morning to make a healthy lunch rather than pick up KD to go or a couple of Bagelfuls. Leave my debit card at home, so I can’t pick up unhealthy snacks over the lunch hour. Actually take my two coffee breaks, and walk a few blocks around downtown instead of sitting at my desk working through them. Dig out those dreadful Hip Hop Abs DVDs and schedule them in, instead of coming home and sitting straight back down at the computer to read blogs. I want to be a healthy weight, and maybe that means losing a little bit – not enough to get back down to an unhealthy 100 lbs, but enough to make me feel comfortable in my own skin. Small steps add up to big changes, right? 

Have you ever had to make a drastic change in diet and budget? What helps you stay on track with your eating habits, and how do you budget a limited income and stay healthy?

* Lyrics from the only food attitude-related song I could find, and it’s a great one.

Are Genetics Holding You Back?

Over the last few years, I’ve become ever more interested in the world of psychology – how our minds work, how personality types determine our social functioning, and the reasons behind why a comment made to one person may get laughed off, and made to another may cause them to break down in tears. I’ve been spellbound by the behaviours of introverts and extraverts, and lap up anything I can get my hands on that leads to a better comprehension of myself, and of the world around me. More knowledge leads to more understanding, which leads to more confidence, right? Throughout childhood and adolescence, I didn’t understand why people did the things they did, and my natural reaction was one of opposition. I’d like to think that now, halfway to thirty, with a bit of education as my weapon, I can face the world a little more prepared, understand actions a little better – and deal with situations in a much more adult way. 

But for all the studying and human understanding in the world, there will always be something that lies beyond the realm of our control: our genetic makeup, and how the world reacts to it. It’s no secret I have issues with body image. It’s no secret that the majority of people do. My problem is that I it’s something I can’t control. With relationships, personal struggles, fears or inner monologues – everyone can consciously make a choice to deal with things differently as the situation requires. We even do it subconsciously every day – we’ll leave the office wishing our boss a delightful evening, in our button-up shirts and pencil skirts, only to get home, change into pyjamas, and start cursing like a sailor, because our target audience is different. We act differently depending on who we’re with so we can best fulfill the image we want the other person to have of us. But what happens when it’s something you can’t control?  

For my entire adult life, I’ve encountered one situation repeatedly: Based on how I look, people think I’m far younger than I actually am, and consequently react according to their preconceptions. I don’t get taken seriously. I’m almost a decade over the legal drinking age and get ID carded every time. In my early twenties, I worked a reception job, and had people come in asking if I was “the boss’s daughter”, thinking I was on work experience through  high school while someone else ran the show. A couple of years later in a similar position, I even had someone refuse to deal with me “because I didn’t look old enough”, and actually request someone who was “at least forty” – who gave them the exact same information I already had.  In facilitating workshops, or teaching classes, I have the hardest time because all my students are older than me – but an even harder one because I have to fight their initial impression that I can’t possibly be old enough to be a) in a position of authority, and b) know what the heck I’m talking about. It’s been my biggest roadblock my entire professional life: looking like I’m younger than a high school grad makes people not take me seriously.

I try to look more “adult” in the workplace. Where others are in baggy jumpers, I wear blazers. Where others are in palazzo pants, I’m in pencil skirts. Where half my colleagues can shop at Giant Tiger across the street and still get taken seriously, I make regular stops in my overdraft spending money on business staples that will hopefully give the impression that I’m just as much a professional as anyone else. A couple of years ago, I took over a Coordinator position for someone going on maternity leave – and though continuing the position identically, my title somehow converted to “Assistant.” Why? Because you have to appear older to qualify for a more impressive job title? I keep my hair long and dark, because with it up or short, I look even younger. Once recently, my supervisor caught me reapplying red lip colour. “Are you wearing lipstick?” she asked, in a manner reminiscent of a mother catching her child for the first time with a face full of her blusher and blue eye shadow. This past Friday, a government official was on a tour of our office, at the end of which she took the time to ask how I was in this position, because I “barely looked fifteen.” On our honeymoon, when booking a spa day, several members of staff actually asked me how old I was. What, because I looked like a child that couldn’t possibly have got a trip to an adults-only resort on my own? I’m sure no other guest was asked their age on that resort, just as I’m sure it wouldn’t even be mentioned if another member of staff were reapplying their makeup. 

Perhaps this is one of the reasons I write, and I encourage real-life people to read my blog, too. It feels like if someone can see I actually do have something intelligent to say, or an adult opinion worth reading, then somehow they’ll take me more seriously. It’s almost like I want my writing, and what’s inside to make the first impression, because the reaction to the phsyical one isn’t what I want it to be. People always laugh, and tell me I’ll “be thankful for it when I’m forty”, but what about now? What about the CV full of job titles that don’t accurately describe the responsibilities I have, or the lower salary I’m paid because I appear younger than my colleagues?  What about the years of having to work twice as hard to earn people’s respect, just because I look like I’m fresh out of high school? For years, studies have shown that women are paid less than men. I’m certain the same goes for those within the same sex who differ based on how “mature” they look, too. A growing body of research also supports the notion that physical appearance is directly correlated to job success, and managers are basing hiring decisions somewhat on how somebody looks – and not just in the outfit department. Women are being fired for being overweight, underweight, not attractive enough, not mature looking enough, and even too attractive and “distracting” to other members of staff. Perfectly qualified people in their mid-twenties are being overlooked because they look younger, and therefore less qualified, for jobs they can do just as well as – if not better than someone twice their age. But of course, nobody admits this is going on. Nobody wants to admit that important decisions affecting the course of somebody’s life can be based on something so frivolous as physical appearance.

So what’s a late bloomer to do? I can’t control the fact that I’m short or small any more than I can control people’s reactions to my genetic makeup. I can buy all the business suits, high heels and push-up bras in the world, but it’s not going to change the fact that underneath it all, my face is a traitor to my age, experience and intelligence. How do I get people to see me for what I really am, and not what I appear to be on the surface? How does what’s inside emerge victorious in the realm of the first impression?

The Weighting Game

Remember last year, when I realised I’d lost all my sick days at work rather quickly, and that when I get ill, I get hardcore ill, and started fretting I was going to get fired? My hypothesis was that because I was theoretically underweight (and my BMI was low), my immune system was pretty much a giant wuss. Fast-forward to now. Sweet and I have been on a major health overhaul for the last few weeks – we’ve both been exercising more, and have switched our eating habits to eating five or six little meals and snacks throughout the day instead of three heftier ones. I’ve heard for years this is way better health-wise. Now I just have to clear the piles of greeting cards off the treadmill and start working jogging back into my routine (it was brought to my attention recently that my wedding was three months ago, and my physical activity had plummeted to basically zero since saying “I do”), and I’ll be set!

Last week, though, I noticed an unexpected side-effect of the new diet: I’d put on six pounds. Before the wedding, people were eternally telling me to eat something, asking if I was deliberately losing weight, and pretty much hinting I was borderline anorexic (NOT true in the slightest). Yet crazily, it was something I was proud of. I was proud to be skinny because though I have huge body-image issues (don’t we all?), unlike the shape of my nose this was something over which I had some control. I never snacked, I drank nothing but water, I refused to order puddings, and I’d never eat anything past seven PM. Enter the new diet, where I’m suddenly taking granola bars, fruit snacks, crackers, cheese and yoghurt along with my lunch to work, snacking every few hours and thinking I need to invest in some sort of lunch briefcase – and I wonder why I’m surprised to have put on weight. My first reaction was one of despair: all of a sudden my skinny jeans were feeling uncomfortable, the scale slapped me in the face, and my first instinct was to wail like a giant baby. Sweet immediately reassured me, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of discontent – I wanted to get healthy, but I didn’t want to put on weight. Catch 22. Deep down, I know that when my BMI is 18.3 and all sources point to that being unhealthy, that gaining weight healthily is a good thing – but I can’t seem to feel comfortable doing it. Does that mean I value physical appearance over physical wellbeing? Does that mean I’m a terribly shallow human being? I hope not, but I feel incredibly uncomfortable not being comfortable that maybe I’m actually reaching my “healthy weight”, and I don’t know how to change my thought patterns.

Last year when I was thinking about this sort of thing, I felt like a giant hypocrite putting any energy at all into thinking such negative things. I wrote: I’m 104 lbs right now and I still feel like a whale after I eat a big meal. But I don’t skip meals or throw up or anything. I’m just naturally small framed and consequently the slightest bulge stands out a mile.  To me – and so, in my head, to everyone else as well. I just want to be able to overcome it – all of it, not to be seen as attractive by other people, but to feel confident in myself so I’m not held back so much, so I don’t shy away from people so much, scared of what they might be thinking.  I want to be able to be comfortable and confident. I want to be able to contribute to the world and this seems to be the one destination to which I can’t see a clear path. Six months later, I still feel like a hypocrite, advocating for stepping outside your comfort zone and challenging yourself to grow, to be a better person, to make a difference in the world when I’m guilty of spending my time thinking about something so shallow.

But maybe I just needed to read this post from the wise and beautiful Hannah Katy, which landed at the top of my Reader just seconds ago as I was about to wrap this post up. The Universe does work in interesting ways. Maybe I need to take a leaf from her book, and decide that if I, too, “had two extra hours to my every day, I would surely dedicate the 120 minutes to tracking down a scholar who could point out to me just where women started missing parts and cutting themselves off at the knees. Where it began… Where he believes it might end… Where we learned verbs like “comparing,” “despising,” and “sizing.”  And started using our adjectives to belittle our bodies and devalue our worth.”

Maybe I just need to listen to this incredible girl who I’ve not had the good fortune of meeting face-to-face, but who never fails to pull me back to what’s really important in life. Who never ceases to help me by sweeping my negative thoughts out onto the street and replacing them with the ones that deserve to be in the spotlight.  I really do value health and wellbeing, and I really do make an effort to eat and live well. I know that to live where I do, surrounded by the people I am, to have a home and a  job and a working body I am incredibly, incredibly lucky. But how do you become comfortable with being a bit bigger healthier in a world that’s encouraged you to feel blessed to be skinny your whole life? I’ve scoured the Internet for “healthy BMI” sites, and they are full of tips on losing weight – but it’s hard to find any information at all on gaining weight in order to be healthy – and feeling okay doing it. I realise reading this back, how frightfully superficial this all sounds  (and that this is probably anonymous troll-bait territory), but I’ve always told you I’ll write honestly, and I can’t pretend it’s not something I’m thinking about right now. I hope you’ll forgive me, and that soon, my thoughts can be more in line with what they should be.