Category: Liking Yourself

For the rest of us.

Just a heads-up, in this post I reveal specific details of how I eat and exercise.

I wrote this post several months ago, but didn’t post it. Here it is now.

break50

I don’t usually talk too much about how or what I eat, because I’m uncomfortable with the often performative, status-grubbing nature of doing so on the internet. I also don’t want to give the impression that the way I eat is the only right way to eat, or that anyone should compare what they do with what I do, because there is no such thing as one, true way to eat.

But it seems like people may have gotten the wrong idea about how I actually live and eat, to the point where I now joke with my husband in the grocery store that I am required by law to only purchase foods packed in syrup.

I am not a fan of stereotype-busting, either, because it seems to throw people under the bus. So that is not what this post is about. Rather, this post is about my lived experience and the reality of my relationship with food. This is what is true for me about eating and exercise. I want to be able to write about that openly.

So: it’s come to my attention that I’ve become a person who eats 5-8 fruits and vegetables a day and who exercises, on purpose, almost daily.

I feel zero angst about either of those things.

The snack food I eat, at this point, is mainly with my clients. I enjoy it, but it’s not as compelling as I remember it once being. Sometimes I’ll have a bigger treat, but not as often as I did when I was preoccupied with those foods (chips, brownies, ice cream, chocolates) because they were “forbidden.” For the most part, I fall within the serving guidelines recommended by Canada’s Food Guide — and not entirely on purpose, but not entirely by accident, either.

I don’t choose to limit myself to a certain ceiling, but I do try to ensure I reach my minimums, and in doing so, I mostly stick to the ceiling without trying. (If that makes sense.) Ellyn Satter calls this “add on, don’t take away” nutrition. It works for me. I eat in a way that I think is pretty moderate. It does not look like a diet — my weight is stable, I eat the amount of energy my hunger and fullness cues lead me to eat, I use fat and sugar in things, and I am afraid of neither cheese nor carbs.

But it also is not the free-for-all that many people assume.

I’m not particularly fussed about seeking out fancy food, though I like it when I have it, and I’m not a perfectionist about eating or exercise — not by a long shot. I used to be. I used to be so rigid about my eating and exercise that it made my life miserable with constant hunger and constant soreness and a constant, sinister euphoria. I believe that the way I got here, to this place where I can eat nourishing food in a way that is satisfying, with zero pressure or angst, was through permission and structure.

This is really, really hard for many people to believe or understand. They believe that permission can only result in a free-fall into endless binge eating, and that structure can only mean very rigid, restrained rules about eating that feel burdensome and unnatural. (Naturally, most of them also believe that the latter is the Right way to eat, the former is Wrong.)

People also seem to believe that, if fat people aren’t being told their weight is bad, and being threatened with ostracization and disease and death, they will have no motivation to care for their health. I am living proof that this is not true. Maybe some people need threats to motivate them, but I rejected the idea that I had to lose weight or else well over a decade ago. I am perhaps lucky that I did this at a young enough age that I was able to take time to fumble around and find my way with eating and movement – not an easy task in a culture that is increasingly disordered about both of these things.

Now that I’m 35, doing things to feel good on a daily basis, that also happen to reduce my long-term risk, are salient rewards for me. I care about my health, and I’m convinced it’s because I learned to care about myself, rather than to denigrate myself. I’m convinced it’s because I refused to internalize the stigma that wants me to believe I am less-than, a burden on society, an eyesore, an unattractive nuisance; because I learned that my body belongs to me, that I don’t owe my looks or my health to anyone else, and that my body is my home.

I’m also convinced it’s because I gave myself permission to eat food, while supporting myself with structured meals and snacks. Eventually, I moved from having random snack food for lunch to having meals that incorporated multiple food groups. Then I started adding on more fruits and vegetables because I learned to like them more, and noticed that they made me feel good.

I also started playing around with exercise — first, as basic transportation to work, which took all notions of choice or resentment out of the equation. Then, as fun things I voluntarily chose to do, like snorkeling, and underwater headstands, and finding the secret beach, because they were fun and made life worth living. When old, disordered thoughts cropped up (and they did, reader), I noticed them, labelled them crap, and refocused on having fun. Finally, I’ve learned to incorporate movement as a basic part of my daily maintenance. My daily walking recess makes me stronger and gives me that wonderful sweaty, heart-pounding, lung-stretching, slight-muscle-burning sensation that I used to find so uncomfortable, but now crave.

Maybe the permissive, autonomy-building approach doesn’t work for everyone, but those of us for whom paternalism and coercion don’t work deserve to have healthy, peaceful relationships with food and movement, too.

That’s who this blog is for. That’s who my whole life’s work is for: the rest of us.

break50

Proof of life in comments.

When health is not on your side.

This post is part of the crowdfunding campaign for my dietetic internship. It is not intended to replace advice from a doctor or other health care practitioner. It represents my opinion alone and not any organization of which I am a member.

break50

Dear Michelle,

How can one achieve Health at Every Size if they don’t have health on their side?

-D.

Hi D.,

This question has a lot to do with how we define health, and also how we define Health at Every Size.

In our culture, we tend to look at health as a state or a place we can get to, a finish line to be crossed, and once you’re there, you’re finished. As you say, we look at it like an achievement.

By this definition, if you have good cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9, and no notable illnesses or conditions, then you’ve achieved health. Congratulations. Pick up your trophy.

And we tend to speak of Health at Every Size with similar rigidity — as using a particular approach (intuitive eating and exercise) to achieve a very similar trophy, minus the BMI requirement.

This definition of health excludes anyone with a health condition. There are lots of people in the world dealing with chronic conditions or disabilities, probably more than aren’t. Effectively sending the message that they’ve already “failed” at health, and no matter what effort they put in, they can never be healthy, is deeply discouraging.

I’ve heard people argue that defining health in exclusionary terms is the only way we can motivate people to care for their health. I disagree. I think that casting health in such a meritocratic, neoliberal way is deeply destructive and invokes healthism as well as ableism. I believe that people can be more effectively, and more ethically, motivated through compassion and acceptance, combined with the desire for positive change.

An exclusionary definition of health discourages the most vulnerable people — the people who actually stand to benefit the most from getting help or making positive changes — from caring for themselves at all. They may think, “Why bother? I’ll never be healthy anyway, so what’s the point?” Such a definition of health is oppressive. It’s also incorrect.

The reality is that health is not an achievement. It’s something you already have, and it looks a bit different for every person. Health is a dynamic resource that each person carries with them, in some form, through their entire life.

Here’s how Dietitians of Canada defines health:

“Health is a basic resource for everyday living. It is the extent to which one can realize aspirations, satisfy needs, and change or cope with the environment.”

The definition of Health at Every Size is also quite flexible and allows for individual needs and different health conditions, while also taking into account social and political barriers to health. Even people with diseases or health conditions — and that is likely to be all of us, at some point — can live with good health, provided we cope well, care for ourselves, and find meaning in our lives.

If you’re caring for yourself without using weight loss as a proxy for health, the bottleneck through which you funnel all your efforts, or the primary source of meaning in your life, then you are using the Health at Every Size approach.

By coping well and caring for yourself, in whatever way works best for your unique habitus and challenges, and by living a life that matters to you, you are also cultivating the health that is already yours.

Your friendly neighbourhood plague rat.

French version of this post here, courtesy Stéphanie Potin-Grevrend.

break50

I like to go on walks. I live in a good neighbourhood for it, near the beach.

During the summer, I spent a fair bit of time swimming at the beach. I have a lot of anxiety about going outside at all, thanks to about twenty years of sexual harassment and fat bashing from strangers, so it took me a couple of summers of living here to work up to that point. (And I still got exhorted to consider polyamory by some dude on the boardwalk. This world is just one big ambivalent boner, sometimes.)

I got a swimsuit that covers me nearly head-to-toe. I practiced going down to the water on my own and putting my toes in, and then walking back home. Then I practiced going down to the water and wading around and then walking home. Finally, one day I cannonballed into the lake from a pier, and this summer I went swimming several times and really enjoyed myself.

I was aware, the entire time, that the people around me (it’s crowded) were very likely judging me. Or at least, some of them were. Maybe some of them pitied me, maybe some of them thought I was “inspiring” for being a fat lady exercising in public (maybe I was on a Weight Loss Journey ™ !) Probably some of them just thought I was gross, disliked having to see my fat body in tight swimwear, and wished I had stayed at home under a blanket. Such is life.

It is painful to know that people make judgments like this, and that they sometimes directly tell me all about it (WOOOO FAT BITCH!!!), but ultimately I have decided it is none of my business until they make it my business. And despite being an oversensitive sadface whinybaby, I work hard to fight against the impulses that tell me to just stay home forever, or at least until everyone else has been killed in the coming zombie apocalypse.

(No shit, sometimes I fantasize about a world where I am blissfully, peacefully alone, and can walk down the street without anyone looking at me or thinking anything about me; where my body and my time are not subject to the whims of strangers. I watched the first twenty minutes of 28 Days Later with morbidly rapt attention.)

Now that the weather has cooled and the fall colours are out, there’s no more lake swimming to be had, but plenty of lovely walking to do. I have a complicated relationship with exercise, due to a history of overdoing it and hurting myself, but since I work from home now, I have to be extra mindful of making the effort to get out.

I make that effort as often as I can, because it makes my legs feel awesome, because my knees get cranky if I sit around for a couple of days in a row, and because I love the slight burn and tingle in my lungs and heart from going up a really good hill. I love having an excuse to listen to loud, obscene music through eardrum-killing headphones, and to be as close as I can get to blissful aloneness. I love coming home and peeling off my sweater and letting the sweat dry and feeling the happy warmth in my chest while I drink delicious cold water.

But when I stood up to go for a walk on Tuesday, I hesitated more than usual. The conversation of last week – about how fat people need to be shamed and harassed for their own good – came back to me. I was hyper aware that, if I went out, people would be judging me, pitying me, or wondering if they should speak up and point out to me, for my own good, that I am fat.

I went out anyway. Almost the entire time, I felt like a plague rat. I felt that people would look at me and assume I was diseased, and shudder and move away. And even though I was doing something ostensibly good for my health, this understanding and awareness that people find me gross did not make it easier or more rewarding to care for my health.

The emotional risk of being fat in public makes it tempting to not care for yourself by going out and getting some fresh air and walking around like you deserve to be in this world. The emotional risk of being fat in public makes it safer to stay home in your dinky, 90-year old city apartment with creaky floors and a tiny living room in which it is not fun for you, or for your downstairs neighbours, to exercise.

Eventually, though, I got home and enjoyed the lovely feeling of having moved my body in a way that wasn’t punishing. I took this picture and reminded myself, once again, that I deserve to exist and to take care of myself in the ways I deem most appropriate. And that, even though people will question me and judge me, they are wrong. They are on the wrong side of history, and until the sea change happens that will show just how ridiculous our culture was for stigmatizing people based on appearance, I need to survive.

I went out again the next day, and I’ll go again today. It’s stupid that it has to be an act of rebellion, but for now, in this world, that’s exactly what it is.

Since this is a post about my personal experience, either play nice or don’t play. Suggestions of noisy music are welcome.

Feeling fat.

When my job (and my whole living situation) changed a little while back, I was thrown into body image crises I hadn’t experienced since my early 20s – hating the way I look. Feeling bad about my eating. Zero interest in moving my body. Weight gain.

It is tempting, always so tempting, to rely on the panacea of dieting (or whatever term you like to give to intentional weight loss attempts) to fix these problems. Because, at least in the short term, it can. And when you’re feeling horrible RIGHT NOW, naturally, a quick fix is incredibly attractive.

Here’s how I deal with that urge: I allow myself to have these feelings.

I am not a Body Image Superhero, despite being a Health at Every Size and fat acceptance activist. I go through many more good times than bad, thanks to HAES and FA – but I still live in this culture, and I get all the same messages everyone else does about how I’m yucky and gross and no one will ever want to have sex with me, ever.

My body image is, and likely always will be, a work in progress.

As part of that process, I rely on a Body Image Crisis Algorithm – a sort of Socratic series of questions I ask myself to get to the root of, and solutions to, the crisis. Let’s begin.

So, what’s going on under the hood, beneath disliking my weight or “feeling fat”? What does that really mean?

It means feeling shitty about myself. Feeling undesirable. Not liking the way I look. Feeling socially anxious. Feeling like I am not welcome, and do not belong in this world. Sometimes, it’s feeling physically unfit, and like my eating is very disorganized and chaotic.

Has losing weight in the past helped any of these things?

No, actually. I did like certain things about how I looked when I was losing weight, but it also made me feel weirdly disconnected from my body, and I kept holding myself to higher and higher standards of how I should look. It’s also never helped to make my eating or exercise more healthy and enjoyable for the long-term, and actually caused some disordered stuff there.

Even if it did, or could, help these feelings, is losing weight likely to be a permanent fix?

No. We all know that. The failure rate is somewhere between 80-98% after five years. And given my body’s apparent propensity to gain weight, and given how triggering I find the barest hint of possible food restriction, I seriously doubt I would be one of the lucky ones.

Are there more direct ways of dealing with these problems?

Well, yes. There are body image exercises I can do. There are social anxiety exercises I can do. There are practical, immediate things I can do to help my eating, like eating my meals and snacks on time, offering myself a variety of foods at each meal and snack, and giving myself permission to eat what I want, and NOT to eat what I don’t want. And I have actually been doing that, and I have been feeling a lot better about eating.

[Ed: eating is complicated for me because, ironically, as part of my job I eat strange foods at strange times of the day with my clients. Which makes structure, the part of eating competence that I especially rely on to feel sane around food, uniquely difficult.]

If I’m concerned about weight gain, I can go get a physical – I already know what the factors are that likely have influenced my weight (new medications, major life changes like moving and changing jobs, episodes of depression.) I already know that my blood pressure and blood sugar are good.

What about not feeling welcome in the world?

This one is trickier. It goes to a somewhat philosophical place.

Well, first of all, when you see someone as fat or fatter than yourself, do you feel like they shouldn’t exist?

No, of course not. But then, I’m not a total asshole.

Do you believe most people are total assholes?

It’s tempting sometimes, but actually? No. However, I do know that appearance-based prejudices of all kinds are quite widespread.

That’s true. Maybe prejudiced people don’t welcome you in the world. Does that mean, objectively, that you don’t belong here?

No. I think I belong here. I think I have the right to exist, as I am, and to go about my daily life.

Do you require a welcome from all people in the world in order to live your life?

It’d be nice, but no. I don’t actually require that to live my life.

And is your body objectively wrong in any sense?

No. There is no objective “wrong” when it comes to bodies – it’s mostly a cultural judgment.

Is there a purpose fulfilled even by bodies that are considered outside the norm, or culturally “wrong”?

Yes. “Wrong” bodies add diversity to the population, and even to the sum of human knowledge. They house people who are awesome and valuable in their own right. Even “wrong” bodies allow people to exist in the world and live their lives.

So, could it possibly be argued that the mere fact of a body’s existence may render it objectively “right”?

I guess you could argue that. The cultural tradition is to say that man is made in God’s image.

Do you think there is some truth in that, even from a secular perspective?

Yes. Because I believe in the intrinsic value of all life.

Even yours?

Even mine.

A love affair with gravity.

for K.

Since I started doing this crazy accept-my-body thing eleven years ago, there has been a series of ups and downs with my own body image. I go through good times, I go through bad times. Sometimes really, really bad times. Over the years, the good times get longer and the bad times get shorter.

What doesn’t change, though, is the amount of pressure on me — on all of us — to look a certain way. To be feminine, to be light-skinned, to have smooth hair, to fit into straight-sized clothes.

As you get fatter, gravity doesn’t get weaker or kinder. It stays the same. Your body is more subject to it, in fact, because apparently the earth is a fat admirer, and wants to keep you as close as possible. As this happens, as the scale creeps up to numbers a previous version of you would have fainted at, you have two choices: to attempt to loosen the bonds of gravity, and Earth’s apparent amorousness, by making yourself smaller — or to use gravity to your advantage, to get stronger, strong enough to carry your weight happily through the world.

History has taught me that I’m not very good at getting smaller, but that my strength? It is awesome. And it can grow.

As one gets bigger, or even just as one becomes more aware of the sickness of the body-obsessed culture, the pressure increases. It drags on you, eventually to the ground, the point of crisis, the valley of decision.

Do I lay here and starve until I am light enough that gravity rescinds its uncomfortable obsession? Then get up and walk fearfully away, knowing I am weakened against the next time it drags me down? Or do I allow myself to rest briefly, then begin to move any muscle I can feel: an arm, a leg, an eyelid — working continually against the pressure, until I’m strong enough to stand the fuck up, under my own power, and walk toward the things I want?

The things the world says it won’t give to me unless I am white, thin, and wearing makeup? The things that I am now strong enough to take for myself, any way I want them?

Each time I’m dragged down, I’m stronger and quicker at pulling myself to my feet.

Gravity doesn’t go away. I get better at remaining upright.