I still vividly remember my first diet. I was maybe twelve years old, and my parents, concerned that I was growing a bit chunky, told me that if I lost ten pounds they’d buy me a coveted pair of rollerblades.
That’s right. If I lost ten pounds, they would buy me a form of exercise. I’m not really sure what my parents were thinking. I have wonderful, loving, caring parents, but I’m pretty convinced they dropped the ball on this one. Regardless of the sense of their decision, it worked, at least for the moment. I lost the ten pounds in about two weeks (oh, to have the metabolism of an adolescent!) and was rewarded with a pair of sparkly blue rollerblades. Of course, as soon as I had my skates, I stopped dieting and continued growing and went back to just the way I was before.
Thus began many, many years of yo-yo dieting. I would start to feel self-conscious about my flab, diet down until I felt better, then go back to my old habits. I have no idea how many pounds I have lost and gained in the intervening years, but I’m sure the number is astronomical. I tried it all. I went through Jenny Craig, strength training, elliptical machines, step aerobics, spinning classes, kickboxing, pilates, calorie counting, cutting out various food groups… who knows what else. I’m a dieting expert. I know everything there is to know about dieting. I read dieting articles in magazines and online and scoff at how elementary their “revolutionary” claims appear to me. I can rattle off the caloric values of various foods like an elementary school kid rattles off multiplication tables. I have always felt vaguely pathetic for not being able to maintain that “desirable” weight. It has never helped that, at five foot ten, I am constantly having people tell me how, at my height, I could be a model, if only…
The thing is, though, that I’ve never been happy when I’m dieting. My fragile self-esteem is easily crushed by a weight plateau or, worse, a gained pound. I’ve never felt good in my body in any long-term or sustainable way, and I’ve never been able to identify a way to live my life as a combination of thin, healthy, and happy. I can lose weight, but I hate exercising, I hate dieting, and I can’t maintain it. I like food and curling up on the couch way too much for that. I never wanted to admit it, but I finally have: losing weight makes me miserable. It makes me cranky and irritable and touchy and emotional, and my sense of self-worth has become so tied in with my pants size that the two seem to exist almost symbiotically.
That is, until about a year ago. A year ago, my life kind of fell to bits. I had been suffering on and off for years with bouts of depression and anxiety attacks. I didn’t want to get up in the morning, and I spent most of my evenings lump-like on the couch in front of the television. I was filled with self loathing over my increasing waist line, but I couldn’t quite care enough to do anything about it. To make matters worse, my parents announced that, after nearly 40 years of marriage, they would be getting a divorce, my mother would be moving out, and a new woman would be moving in. I was devastated. I was a pizza-and-ice-cream disposal bin. My pants grew uncomfortably tight and my self-loathing grew uncomfortably powerful.
I can’t quite explain what happened. It seems ridiculous to say that I simply woke up one day and decided that I’d had enough, but that’s kind of what it felt like. One day I was lying on the couch with a pint of cookie dough and the next I was taking a gulp of air, dialing the phone, and setting up an appointment with a therapist. I was just so darn sick of myself and my own misery. I couldn’t stand to be miserable anymore, to continue hating myself, and, more importantly, to continue allowing my life to slip me by without putting up any sort of fight.
The therapist was actually pretty awful. However, what therapy did was give me 45 minutes a week where I was forced to sit and talk about what was bothering me. So, as my therapist sat and allowed her eyelids to droop (true story, I’m convinced she fell asleep a few times as I was pouring my guts out), I did my best to heal myself. I dug into the reasons why my self-esteem was so fragile, all of the times my frail balance had been shattered, all of the ways in which I believed myself to be inadequate and unworthy and incapable. I blogged it, I journalled it, I cried through it. I began to feel stronger, more capable, and less afraid.
I wish I could say that through all of this I learned to measure my self-worth by something other than pounds on a scale, but that wouldn’t be true. What it did give me, though, was the confidence to try something new. Something I thought I’d never be able to do. Something I thought was completely out of reach for a chubby lifelong non-athlete nerd like me.
I tried running once when I was in college. It was a disaster. I won’t go into the details, but suffice it to say that I remained convinced that running was just simply not a part of my genetic makeup. However, I had a restless dog who needed exercise and a changing sense of my place in the world, so I looked online for a couch to 5k program, laced on a pair of running shoes, and went out and ran for exactly one minute. That’s right. One minute. Not a mile; a minute. It was excruciating, but somehow, as I watched the seconds tick down on my timer, I was filled with this unbelievable sense of accomplishment. It may have only been a minute, but I was running. By the end of that first interval cycle, I was literally in tears at the sense I had that an internal wall had somehow, finally, been broken down.
I kept up the running, and while I never quite made it to a 5k, it still gave me the boost I needed. About a month later, my husband came home one day interested in trying out a local rock climbing gym, and asked me if I would come with him. He fully expected me to say no. I was pretty well-practiced at saying no to pretty much anything and everything, and I was (and am) famously terrified of heights. We were both shocked when I said yes, and we were even more shocked when I fell in love with climbing. For the first time ever in my entire life, I felt strong. I felt powerful. I felt capable. I felt like superwoman. After a lifetime of telling myself I was too fat and lazy and pathetic to do anything interesting, there I was hanging thirty feet up in the air, balancing on a “rock” chip maybe an inch across. I realized that athletes are made, not born, and that my long-held belief that I couldn’t be an athlete because I wasn’t “meant to” was just plain bullshit.
If my life were a fairy tale, that would be the end of it, and I would have overcome all of my insecurities, never dieted or weighed myself again, never binge-eaten out of emotional overload again, and never again cried because of how fat and ugly I felt. That, of course, is not how life works. I’m still insecure sometimes, and I still cry, and I still overindulge in junk food on a bad day and then feel crappy about it afterwards. However, I’m also still climbing at least once or twice a week, and I’m so freaking proud of myself and how far I’ve come. I’m twenty-eight, so when you do the math, it’s been about sixteen years since that first fateful foray into dieting. That means I’ve spent more than half of my life hating myself and feeling like a pathetic loser because I can’t keep off the pounds. That’s way too much misery, and as I drift closer and closer to my thirtieth birthday I become more and more determined to never again let the scale determine my sense of self-worth or to allow myself to feel that I deserve anything less than a life fully lived. I don’t weigh myself anymore, I don’t count calories, and I don’t log my workouts. I think of it as activity now, not exercise, and I focus on how I feel in my body instead of what I see on the scale. I refuse to ever eat another pre-packaged diet food again, and focus instead on fresh, local produce and foods that make me feel good. A couple of weeks ago, I even bought myself two shiny new bikinis. Screw tummy flab. I’m sexy just the way I am.
This has been a long battle for me and the fight is far from over. The difference is that now I know for sure that I have the power and strength to win. We are all so incredible; if only we could get out of the way and let ourselves be as amazing as we are meant to be.