In the Middle of Things

My friend Jennifer recently asked when I was going to update this blog again, and the answer I had at the time was, "Unknown, because I'm not certain what I have to say?"

Everything in my head pertaining to fitness and health is kind of a big scribble right now.  And rather than hide and say nothing, I'm going to try to unpack it.  It's going to be messy.  But it's where I'm at, and the truth, they tell me, is powerful.

So here it goes: I'm struggling with post-partum body issues.  I thought that I'd made my peace with my post-partum shape, but as it turns out, that was more a surface-level peace, because clothes shopping was really triggering, along with the gym, and seeing pictures of myself, and on and on.  I was okay as long as I didn't think about it.  But that can't really work long-term.

The culturally expected thing to do about that is to try to lose weight and get in shape.  Before I dismissed that entirely, I wanted to do a deep dive into what that might look like.

I thought about going Paleo again, because I'd had success with it in the past.  For a moment, I even considered Keto, because the results reported by friends have been crazy.  But my partner's friend is having to do a very low-carb diet in order to reverse his diagnosis of Type II diabetes, and after watching him do it, my partner reported back that it takes a whole lot of planning, energy, and willpower -- to do the research on what foods you can eat, read labels, ask lots of questions about ingredients, and default to the safe things at restaurants.

I think that back in 2012-2013 I had that kind of time and energy.  I was also skating 3x per week and didn't have much else going on other than that.  I didn't have a kid.  I had a lot of time.  I don't have those things now.  It's worth noting that I do meal plan and prep on the weekends, and I've been pretty good at making plant-forward, healthy breakfasts and lunches this year.  I feel good about that.  But taking it to the next level, committing to another Whole30, or Keto, or even a pretty primal set-up takes a lot of resources -- resources I don't have at the moment.

The reason I don't have those resources is that I'm working on a pretty big project right now, and I've shelved nearly everything else in order to work on it.  I'm also a working parent with a very clever, sweet, feisty two year old.  So time and energy and effort are limited.  I'm lucky if I can get to CrossFit two times a week at this point.

That's the other part of it, by the way: I don't have a lot of time for exercise right now either.  I used to make it to CrossFit at least 3x per week.  I'm struggling to do that now with the daycare schedule.  The times don't line up quite right, and every time I have to leave CrossFit early, I feel really shitty about it.  It seems rude?  I don't know.  Everyone is super understanding at the gym, but I feel terrible about it. 

And then I have to rush through traffic to get to my kid on time, because the gym is further from her daycare than my work is.  So my compromise has been to work out at work's exercise room on Wednesdays when I have to pick her up.  I'm lucky enough to have a partner who retrieves kiddo on Mondays and Fridays, so I can hit CrossFit then, and that will have to be good enough for now. 

I feel like a huge traitor for even having these feelings at all.  I've worked so hard to be body positive, to make peace with my body as it exists, right now.  A lot of the time, I feel pretty okay about it.  But the weight I've gained around my middle from having a baby has literally changed my shape.  I used to be more of an hourglass, and now I'm more of an apple. 

I know that this is part of the wild changes of life, of pregnancy and childbirth, of being a mama.  I know that my body will never be the same, and I wouldn't want it to be, because I have her, and she is everything.

MamaKiddo.jpg

Still, it would really help if clothes fit better/differently, and if gaining the weight hadn't shifted me solidly into plus size clothes.  I think being on the edge of straight sizes can be challenging in this very particular way: because it feels like straight size clothes should be in reach.  But they're just out of reach.  And you think, oh hey, if I dieted, maybe all that would be accessible to me.

I'm not trying at all to equate that mental gymnastics with the very real oppression and discrimination fat people face every day.  I recognize the thin privilege I do have in being a big size 14/small size 16.  I still have access to a lot of things that larger people do not.  And maybe it's stupid to even care about this at all.

But there's still that horrible small whispering voice in the back of my head, saying "If only.  If only."

Body Dysmorphia, Eating Disorders, and Grief

It’s been a pretty rough time in my life.  I’ve experienced a lot of loss.  It’s affected my body in a very real way too.  The result is that there’s been a big hormonal soup to swim through, and of course, I gained some weight because of the pregnancy and massive stress event afterwards.  For a lot of reasons, I’m having a hard time with the extra weight.

For one thing, so much of what’s happened to me has been out of my control.  Bad things have happened to my body, and I’ve had no say whatsoever – from cervical insufficiency and pregnancy loss, to invasive perinatal physical exams that I didn’t really want and were very unpleasant.  And now, about 10 extra pounds I’m not comfortable with.

I’m afraid that pregnancy moved my set point up.  I don’t know if it did or not.  I just know that I feel heavier and weaker than I used to.  There’s fat accumulated on parts that once were more lean.  It’s difficult to not feel like I’ve failed.

When a lot of shit hits you at once, it’s natural to want to find a coping mechanism to carry you through the really rough times.  Sometimes those coping mechanisms serve you – activities like meditation, observation, writing, napping, sexing, nourishing yourself, sitting in a hot tub with a bunch of your hippie friends… those can all help you process and move through the loss.

Confession Time:
But there came a point for me where I was so unhappy with myself, so guilty and angry at my body for causing the loss (even though I know I’m not supposed to think that way), for gaining weight, for being a body going through pregnancy and miscarriage, basically, that I had the thought:

I should just stop eating. I should have an eating disorder. It would cause this discomfort with my body to end.

And for a couple days, I tried it.  

I know!  So unlike me.  But grief does shitty things to you.  For about a week I restricted my calories and tried to eat as little as possible.  I felt anxious and sad, but also light and buzzy.  It felt good to have control over something, when I had so little control over my body the last few months.

However, whenever I go through a bad pattern of thinking, there’s always a voice that speaks up and questions what I’m doing.  My inner spirit knows better than to do this to myself.  

Plus, it’s unlikely to work anyway.  Most people that lose weight can’t keep it off, and I know from past experience that this is definitely true for me.  

Pregnancy probably moved my set point up some, and there’s not much I can do about that.  Medical research suggests that it’s pretty hard to move it back down, because it’s not in our biological interest.  As it turns out, there’s a reason for that: somewhat overweight people have more longevity than normal or thin people.  Doctors just don’t want to believe it because thin privilege is so ingrained in our culture.

So if being a little chubby actually increases my longevity, and doesn’t affect my overall health (because people who lose weight are actually at the same risk for stroke, heart attack, and death as they were before, why do I care?  Because of the relentless body shaming society does on people who aren’t thin.

Well, fuck it.

I have gone through too much to care about what society says.  My body has been on a bigger journey than what I can control through diet and exercise.  There’s hormonal fluctuation going on, some pretty big cortisol releases from all the damn stress of significant loss, pressure at work, and major life change, and a lot of recovery and healing.  My body cannot be reduced to my weight, my appearance, or the measuring tape.

So I am going to find a better coping mechanism.  It’s my head that’s the problem, not my damn cellulite.  

Here’s what that looks like: focusing on behaviors, not outcomes.

My plan is to get back to my normal routine of lifting heavy 3x a week, 3 days of cardio or yoga/mobility, and a rest day, more if I need them.  Also, to plan and prep nourishing food that I am actually jazzed about for breakfast and lunch, and take more of an active role in dinner planning.  To sleep 8 hours a night.  And to figure out some self-care routines, like meditation, writing, and regular massage.  With those habits in place, I’ll have a shot at feeling my best, maintaining my health, and maybe making some gains at the gym.

Even if my set point is higher and I can’t lose weight or be the size I was before, that doesn’t mean I can’t be healthy or take good care of myself.  My goals of what looks like success will change, but that’s actually probably a good thing, because I need to redefine what I want – to actually enjoy my damn life.

Life is fleeting.  I see that even more clearly now.  Do I really want to spend it locked in a mental battle?  To be fighting and fearing my own body forever?  Nope.

Behaviors, not outcomes.  Health, not weight.  Peace, not disorder.  Enjoyment, not regret.

Maya Kern ( source ) Body Dysmorphia, Eating Disorders, and Grief - superbalancedlife.com

Maya Kern (source)
Body Dysmorphia, Eating Disorders, and Grief - superbalancedlife.com


When Clothes Don't Fit

Clothes not fitting is one of my biggest body dysmorphia triggers.  When something is too tight or uncomfortable, I always default to assuming that it's my fault - that I have, horror of horrors, gained weight.

In our society, there's not much worse than gaining weight.  Tabloids, women's magazines (is there much difference, honestly?), and years of Cathy comics are devoted to shaming women for the ebb and flow of their bodies.  There is an ungodly amount of body policing in the western world, and honestly, maybe everywhere.  Your body is your outward manifestation of yourself.  It's visible, and easy to analyze, which then makes it easy to judge. 

I'll go into why that's effing horrible later, but for now, let's just say that it's a rampant, disgusting problem that affects us all.

So naturally, when something doesn't fit me, I end up in a tailspin of self-imposed body shaming, because I assume that everyone will notice and judge me.  Is that sensible?  Will people really notice?  Perhaps.  But do I really give a shit if someone notices that I'm a bit more curvy or rotund this holiday season?  Maybe a little, but I should care even less.

Look, ladies' bodies change a lot.  They change over seasons, over menstrual cycles, due to pregnancies, and age, and hormones, and stress, and a lot of other stuff.  Expecting us all to maintain our teenage selves is just, well, it's appalling, ridiculous bullshit is what that is.

We grow up.  We get muscles.  We lose weight when we get ill or try a new eating plan or breastfeed, or get so busy we forget to eat.  We gain weight before our cycles, when we go on or off birth control, when we have babies, or because hell, it's Christmas and I like cookies. 

Does any weight gain or loss have any bearing on who we are as people?  Hell no.  Is weight gain/loss a moral imperative?  No.  As much as we try to police it because it's in the best interest of capitalism to do so, your weight has nothing to do with your worth as a person.  And given that it changes so much, it seems futile to get fixated on one weight, decide that that's the weight you need to be or you've "failed", and get all butt-hurt when the scale doesn't line up with your ideals.

When clothes don't fit - it could be because your guns are ripped. - Super Balanced Life

When clothes don't fit - it could be because your guns are ripped. - Super Balanced Life

My arms have always been a bit of a trigger area for me.  They've never been thin ballerina arms.  I am a short, compact, stocky person, who has always tended toward strength and density, rather than the popular lanky and uber-flexible yoga type. 

When I was a teenager, my mother encouraged me to not wear tank tops, but instead to cover them up in flowy sleeves.  As a result, I always thought there was something "wrong" with my arms.  When I started going to CrossFit though, my arms packed on some serious muscle.  My biceps, triceps, and shoulders are a lot more defined these days, given a calf injury that caused me to focus solely on upper body for 2 months.  I'm stoked - I love being this strong.

However, when I put on the vintage polka-dot secretary blouse you see above, my arms no longer fit comfortably in the sleeves.  It's not quite a sausage-casing, but you can see how the sleeve is tight around the bicep and billowing up around the shoulder and elbow.  Not really the look I was going for.

This time, though, instead of wringing my hands and immediately eliminating all carbs, alcohol, and fun from my diet, I just shrugged and decided that my guns were just too epic to fit the dainty proportions of vintage clothes.

Oh well.

Because I am more than just a blouse.  My accomplishments should not be undermined by a piece of clothing.  So it doesn't fit?  So what.  There are other clothes. 

We are not our clothes.  We are not our size, or our weight, or our measurements, or any other damn number.  We are complex, strong, fully realized people.  We are made of our accomplishments, our failures, our dreams.  We are comprised of many small moments, of memories, of those we love, and those we have lost.  We are so much more important than numbers.

So if you do one kind thing for yourself today, try to ignore the numbers.  At least for a little bit.  You are so much more than that.

Treatment Plan for Negative Body Image Triggers

Hoo!  That was a long-ass title, wasn't it?  I was thinking about this topic today because I accidentally stepped on the scale this morning.  I'm not in the habit of weighing myself, but my scale actually came out of hiding behind the trashcan in the bathroom this morning as I was shuffling some things around, and I decide to hop on for the hell of it.

It goes without saying that this was a bad idea.

The number was at a place I find a little shocking.  I'd expected it to be high, after my week in South Carolina, but I was still a little taken aback.  And even though I consider weight an abstract concept, and that numbers mean very little, it still was kind of a gut punch.

A few weeks ago, the amazing Josey linked to this fantastic article from Beauty Redefined: Not Picture Perfect? Bounce Back from a Body Image Blow.  It's worth reading the whole thing, but if you don't want to do that, no worries - I'm going to break it down for you in a series I'm starting today.

The article deals with body shame resulting from seeing unflattering photos, the same kind of shame I experienced today when looking at the scale.  With pictures, it's even worse because, thanks to social media, everyone can see them.

In a world where girls learn from childhood to monitor their appearance at all times, and where public identities are carefully crafted online at every waking moment, a picture speaks more words than ever.
— Beauty Redefined

I've experienced this shame many times finding unflattering pictures of me that have been tagged on Facebook.  It happened a lot when I played roller derby, because sport photos capture a lot of candid moments  -  I was too busy playing the game to pose.  The most recent example, however, happened when photos of our CrossFit Prom were posted online.

I'd bought this faux satin dress at Community Thrift for like 8 bucks, and I was stoked to wear it.  I'd neglected to realize that shiny fabric looks voluminous under a flash, and that an empire waist can make you look 4 months pregnant without trying too hard.  And when the photos were posted, I was pretty disappointed. 

Here's one of me with my bestie Lacy from Super Strength Health:

BFF 4-EVA!

BFF 4-EVA!

When I saw this, I was immediately thrown down the rabbit hole of chagrin and embarrassment.  How could I have worn that?  Didn't I know ho that made me look?  The dress looks mad bunchy in the back and is kind of wrinkly and ill-fitting. And I look so short and squat.  Ew.

I felt similarly when I got on the scale this morning.  How could I have let it get this bad?

In both cases, I knew better than to get stuck in the shame spiral for long.  I know that my worth as a person and my attractiveness isn't defined by one badly-lit picture.  But how to get out of this horrible head space?

Beauty Redefined thinks that resilience may be the answer:

Resilience theory describes opportunities to call upon resilient traits as “disruptions,” which are experiences that shake us out of our comfort zones and allow us to change in positive or negative ways. Disruptions are occurrences that cause us to feel self-doubt, hurt, fear, or loss. They can be anything from unkind words from a stranger, to a pregnancy, an invitation to go swimming, weight loss/gain, or even the super lame inconvenience of being tagged in a photo you can’t stand. Disruptions are big and small and different for everyone, but the emotions you feel from them lead to opportunities to begin the process of changing.

The trick is to make sure that these changes are positive, and to make sure we utilize resilience to get over these disruptions.

Stay tuned for more on how to do that from my perspective.  There are a lot of tools and tricks we can use to feel better when we have a disruption.

And in the meantime?  This is a shot from the CrossFit Prom that I feel no shame about.

Boom.

Boom.

Step 1: Compassion

Then and Now, Part 2

First off: an exercise.

Let's look at these photos side by side shall we:

2013

2013

And:

2014

2014

What differences do you see?

I'm wondering if you see what I see.  As you may have guessed, these are from 2013 & 2014 respectively.  This week, I dressed in the exact same outfit I did last year to see if my body dysmorphia and my perception that last year I was way thinner and prettier could be challenged by side-by-side photos.

Here's the differences as I see them:

  • My face looks a little rounder this year.  Though, that could be that I'm angled a little more to the side in the first photo (I learned this trick to make my jawline look more defined. I have a really round face, which is why you'll see me angle it in photos.)
  • My stomach isn't as flat.  Could be that I'm carrying more weight in my stomach this year, or that I'm leaning forward a little more in the second photo.
  • My arms look bigger.  That is definitely a thing.  My arms are way stronger this year.

What do you notice?

The biggest thing I noticed is that the differences aren't nearly as extreme as I thought.  I really did believe that they would be vast, that I would look totally different this year.  But I don't, not a ton.

Here's the breakdown of how my body has changed:
Weight: up 12.5 lbs
Inches: down 5.1 inches

So even though I weigh more, my overall size is down.  Mind-boggling, isn't it?

And what's even more funny is that certain parts of my body have shrunk while other parts have gotten bigger, and I don't care.  I like that my shoulders and arms are getting bigger.  My neck, hips, and calves have stayed the same, my waist has been on a downward trend, my bust and thighs seem to change with my cycle.  It's interesting to watch, but it doesn't have the sting it once did.  Measurement day for Precision Nutrition used to make me really anxious, but I've skipped the last couple altogether, because I am not a number.  I am more complex than that.

Don't even get me started on how inaccurate most measurements are anyway, given our cyclical lady changes and the subjective nature of human data collection.  I've given up on calipers and scales altogether.  I include my own measurements here to prove to myself with hard data that my flawed perception of my body ballooning up because I'm not rigorously exercising and restrictively eating  is false. 

My body has changed, certainly.  I can see that I'm not quite as angular as I was in 2013.  That's cool.  If I want to do another Whole30 and be strict Paleo again, I can.  If I want to do intense cardio and CrossFit 6x a week again, while restrictively eating, I can.  It's just - that's not my goal right now.  I don't want to dedicate my life to the temple of svelteness right now.  And that's a more than acceptable choice.

But I did this exercise to show myself that I am acceptable when not eating restrictively and goose stepping through my self-enforced boot camp.  In fact, I think I look pretty rad, especially for having been injured for 3 weeks, eating comfort food because of lady times, and being off my normal meditation and yoga practice.

What's more, this way of being feels like a breath of fresh air.  It feels sustainable.  I get to ask myself every day, "What will nourish me most?" and then do it.  It feels like spring, and sunshine, and a deep, full breath.  It feels badass.

Then and Now

Today I was getting a little frustrated with what I perceive as my "backsliding" this year.  This time last year, I'd completed a Whole30 and a Whole14, participated in the CrossFit Open, and felt pretty slim and fit.  Here's what I looked like then:

May, 2013

May, 2013

What you don't see in this picture is that I was totally stuck in the extreme mentality of feast vs. famine.  I'd do a Whole30/14, and then indulge afterwards.  I'd feel guilty I wasn't able to stick with such extreme restriction - if you are unfamiliar, the Whole30 only allows you to eat vegetables, fruit, meat, nuts, and fats - and I'd go back on, only to repeat the cycle again.

What seems so obvious to me now is that what I was doing wasn't working.  It wasn't sustainable.  The cycle drove me crazy and made me feel bad about myself for not being able to be "perfect" all the time.

So then I decided to do the Precision Nutrition Lean Eating Program, to help me stop with the cyclical disorder eating.  And it sort of worked -- by having a longer window of time to look at these patterns, I realized a couple of things:

  1. Real, sustainable change comes over very long periods of time.  I always thought this was bullshit, but it's totally true.  When we are in the pain of low self-esteem and body dysmorphia, we want change to come right away.  We need to fix it. Right now.  But real change takes a long time to happen.  The weight I lost on Whole30?  It came back.  But the muscle I put on in the last 2 years of CrossFit hasn't gone away.  And my changed body composition has stuck around, even though I've been injured the last two weeks and not eating my best.
  2. Small habits have a better chance of being successful.  Truly.  If I only have to do one thing, I'm more likely to do it.  What became so overwhelming about PN was that you start with just one habit at a time, fine, and then add incrementally, and while that works pretty well for awhile, eventually I felt a bit suffocated by all the things I was expected to do each day.
  3. Diets are diets.  Even with PN.  There's this secret, which is that to effect real change -- like the dramatic kind you see on marketing brochures -- you have to thoroughly and dramatically change your life and habits.  To be a new person, you have to become one.  Sounds simplistic, but I didn't get it.  I kept looking for a happy medium, but I wasn't willing to accept that to get a really different body, I would have to commit to a kind of restriction and scrutiny that I'd never experienced before.  More on this later.

I've been defining success as who I was last year, but in thinking about it, that place wasn't so great.  Sure, I was probably a bit lighter and leaner, but I wasn't as strong.  I was hella injured with a shoulder impingement, and I could hardly lift a bare barbell in a strict press.  Just 33 lbs, and I was yelping in pain.  Whereas this year, I PRed my strict press at around ~60 lbs, I do believe.  And I can nearly do a full push-up with perfect form -- another goal that felt way out of my league last year.

I was also ill at least every other month in 2013.  Sounds crazy, but I had multiple colds, the flu, and a nasty bout of strep throat.  Coincidence?  I don't think so.  I think crazy binge/restrict cycles can really tax the body and sap it of strength and immunity.  And remember too that I was going to CrossFit 2-3x per week, and playing competitive roller derby, so 2-3 skating practices a week.  I spent a lot of 2013 tired, sore, and sick.

So was I trimmer?  Yes.  But was I fitter?  Up for debate.

Body Dysmorphia

This is a hard post to start.  Since puberty, I've struggled with body dysmorphia.  I don't think I'm uncommon -- many of my female friends have a horse in this exhausting race.  But to keep things focused, I'm going to talk about my own struggle.

The emotions I most closely associate with body dysmorphia are fear, hypersensitivity, and fatigue.  I'm constantly nervous about being "outed" as a fat lady, and every curve, roll, wrinkle, or scar becomes a huge trigger, and I fixate on it to the exclusion of nearly anything else until something distracts me, or I get so tired, I have to let it go.

It feels horrible.

looking down

I'm certain that hormones have a big role to play.  I notice that around ovulation, the anxiety and preoccupation dissipates, but then right after, there's a big hormonal dip, and it starts to weasel its way back in.

I've also noticed that it's worse if I'm off my game -- if I haven't slept enough, or ate well, or exercised enough.  If those things are off, all my feelings about my body flare up.

It's also, really, all about me.  Most other people can't see what I fixate on, unless they're stuck in their own cave of insecurity and want to bring me down to make themselves feel better.  But the people around me mostly tell me I'm crazy and that I'm strong, and lovely, and smart.  It's nice to have that affirming feedback, but sometimes it has the opposite effect -- it makes me distrust them, because it feels like it should be so obvious that I'm fat, short, and dumpy, and their unwillingness to feed my disease and help me fix it using some really restrictive diet or exercise plan is a betrayal.

And that's sad.  And unproductive.  And pretty damn shitty for them, when they're being so nice to me.

So, I've decided to try to address the core issue: my body dysmorphia and low self-esteem.  If I could accept that my baseline body is just fine, my general happiness would be more stable. Further, I could make greater gains at the gym and with my body, because positive reinforcement for making life changes works better than negative reinforcement.  I think the dieting industry proves that.  Self-flagellation only works in the beginning.  Accepting my inherent wholeness and ability to change seems like it would get me further than the exhausting cycle of feast vs. famine, indulgence and punishment, I've been engaging in for years.

Today, I downloaded Gala Darling's Pep Talk for Dark Days. I'm hoping it will get me through today's funk.  I also signed up for her Radical Self Love Bible School.  It's a 3-month course where she sends you journal prompts to create an art journal that serves as a personal guide book to self-love.  Since I've made mixed media art journals for years, this seems right up my alley.  We'll see if it helps.

I'm also reading Nourishing Wisdom, by Marc David.  From a review:

One of the traps which many of us fall into when we become aware of the relationship between nutrition and health is that we establish a set of dietary rules according to which we label foods as either "good" or "bad." Once a certain food has been assigned to the "bad" category, we might even become critical of ourselves and others for desiring or eating that food. The more zealous we are in our conviction that we have found the one right way of eating, the more limited we become in our understanding of food and our interaction with it.
This title sets out to dispel the myth that there could ever be a standard dietary system guaranteed to meet everyone's nutritional requirements. The author, a nutritional psychologist, approaches his mission from a truly holistic perspective. Rather than proposing yet another ideal diet based on the perfect composition of specific nutrients, he explores the multidimensional dynamics of nourishment, reaching far beyond the purely scientific and chemical aspects of nutrition.

I'm hoping it will help me break out of the "good" vs. "bad" food mentality I return to when I'm triggered, and allow me to understand my food choices from a holistic perspective, as part of a much larger picture of a full life.

So that's what I'm starting with.  If you're on a similar journey, won't you share with us what you're working with to help you shed negative self-esteem and adopt a more kickass attitude?