I Am That Girl Now

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Self-esteem vs. diet-esteem

The more time I spend roaming around the weight-loss blogs, the more I see the same things coming out, over and over again. As a group, we seem to be more willing to dedicate ourselves to the idea of "fixing" ourselves than to the idea of loving ourselves. The diet becomes more important than we are. Which is fine as long as things cooperate, but bodies aren't predictable and life tends to happen in spite of our plans. We start to obsess about what we're doing wrong and what we could do better.

Once upon a time I tried to explain this to my therapist, tried to explain how, more than anything else, the weight-loss thing catapulted me into a place where I was very vulnerable to depression. I didn't really have the words, and she hasn't done the weight-loss thing herself and doesn't know the craziness that starts to happen, particularly in a group situation. When everyone acts the same way, you don't notice what's missing, and the problem with gathering together a whole hell of a lot of insecure women battling their bodies is that while we're working to re-enforce each others' positive habits and support each other through the "bad" spots, we're re-enforcing a big negative thing, too, without even noticing it.

Personally speaking, I got a big boost in self-esteem when I started losing weight. Well, I thought it was self-esteem. I felt better about my body, I felt more confident, proud of my accomplishments. I enjoyed the compliments, I enjoyed wearing the smaller sizes of clothes, I enjoyed being able to run. And it started to take over my life, because this was the part of my life that I felt best about, not because I enjoyed it the most, but because I felt the most confident in it. If there was a problem with the diet, or with the exercise, that became my top priority: nothing else could possibly matter as much as getting my weight to start going down again. And during my rough patches, I felt horrible because didn't have that diet-tied self-esteem, and I had no self-esteem about anything else.

I thought I'd developed self-esteem, but what I'd developed was diet-esteem. I was proud of myself within the diet, but when that got taken away, I had nothing else to fall back on. If you go back through the archives here, you can probably see the pattern-- once I got on maintenance, I lost that sense of accomplishment and diet-esteem and frantically cast around for something else that would get me back into that magical diet-esteem place. A new diet! A new cookbook! A new workout DVD! More steps on the pedometer! And eventually I couldn't keep pushing hard enough to achieve as much as I had during the first heady year of the diet, and I couldn't keep the diet-esteem going, and I had nothing. Total collapse.

What comes first, a lack of self-esteem or extra weight? Chicken or the egg? I think that there's an innate level of self-esteem that we all have, maybe from childhood, and depending on our body chemistry and our upbringing and personality, that innate level can be anywhere from 5 to 10 on a 1-10 scale. Add a "shame factor" like extra weight or abuse or disabilities or deviations from the community norm: that's like subtracting a point or two from your place on the scale. Strong support from friends and family can add back some of those points (sometimes even all of them), but seriously, if you're at a 5 or 6 to begin with, and you add a shame factor or two, it can just be devistating. The lower on the scale you go, the more you're in real danger for self-destructive and self-endangering behaviors like addiction and abusive relationships and so forth. Food can be a self-destructive behavior at the same time that it's a source of comfort, and the resulting weight becomes a shame factor... which subtracts more self-esteem points, which makes you more self-destructive and comfort-seeking, and voila! vicious cycle.

While losing weight can restore the points taken away by the fatness "shame factor", it doesn't change the underlying, innate self-esteem level, or restore points taken away by any other shame factor. Weight is not the whole story, for so, so many of us. Self-esteem is a much bigger part of it.

The problem with diet-esteem isn't just that it's totally dependent on keeping up your dedication to the diet, it's also that diet-esteem is like a drug that you start to get used to, and you start to need bigger doses to get the same high as before. It's like a shark, and if it doesn't keep moving forward, it dies, and if you don't have self-esteem-- real self-esteem-- built in behind it, you've got a problem.

Here's the test: if you are to the point where you shy away from things that would make you feel better about yourself because you fear that it would endanger your diet or your weight, then you're putting your diet before yourself. I did it, for two whole years, and I'm trying to get over it now. To be perfectly honest, it's not as fast or as obvious as the crazed diet and exercise things I was doing before, but it's a lot easier to handle the ups and downs of living healthy when I love myself gain or lose, rather than having it tied to my weight-control actions.

Love yourselves, darlings. Love yourselves fat or thin or in-between, active or lazy or in-between, dining out or dining in, on the treadmill or on the couch, sleeping and waking, sick or well, dirty or clean, accomplished or not. Be kind to yourselves, be compassionate, be sweet. Think of someone that you love. Think of all their faults. Examine the picture you have in your head of what they're like. Then transpose that onto yourself, as though you were someone else, whose faults are sometimes exasperating and sometimes endearing, who has many amazing things about them that make you wish you were them ('cause, hey, you are!).

For the longest time, I was trying to love myself by eradicating my faults to make myself qualify for love. Thing is, those faults are part of me. They're exasperating, for myself as well as for other people, but it doesn't mean that they can't love me and it doesn't mean that I can't love me, either. I'm a big bundle of contradictions, I may never be crazy successful or famous or look like a movie star or be a brilliant speaker or smarter than smart, I'll probably continue bumbling through life forgetting to dust for six months at a time and occasionally putting my foot in my mouth, I'll probably manage to fart in front of elected officials again, I'll continue to start things that never get finished and bite off more than I can chew, I'll forget to RSVP and give stupid excuses for avoiding social occasions that I don't really want to go to, I'll continue to blurt out evil little truths when I'm drunk, I'll neglect the catbox, I'll rant on politics even when I'm not sure what I'm talking about, I'll do my I-am-the-cosmos routine and piss people off, I'll spontaneously buy products that I don't need, I'll shamelessly exploit my cute-and-innocent reputation in order to get out of binds, I'll put off doing work until the last minute, and I'll undoubtedly continue to be easily distracted by details and sidebars and things that are shiny.

On the other hand, I laugh loud and often, I'm a big sucker for cats, I write pretty well, I do some pretty good meta analysis, I'm patient with kids, I love my husband like crazy, I'm (overly) ambitious, I'm usually pretty good-humored, I'm optimistic, I'm cute, I'm smart, I try hard, I'm interested in almost everything (the question is how long I can concentrate on it!), I write well, I have occasional bad-ass moments of insight, I try tons of new things in spite of my fears, I bounce back when I fall down, I'm brave, I'm occasionally witty, I can learn, I can change, I can adapt, I can admit that I'm wrong (when I am), I have vast stores of compassion available when I remember to use it, I know how to make homemade egg noodles, I'm stronger and stronger-willed than I often give myself credit for, I'm creative to the point of not only being outside the box, but having forgotten that a box ever existed, and for a woman with as little attention span as I have, I manage to be pretty organized nonetheless.

I am who I am, and there are good things and bad things about that. But hey, my Hub loves me, not bits and pieces of me, and so does my family and my friends, and y'all seem to generally like me okay, too. If I were someone else, I'd be friends with me, and love me for all the lovely wacky weirdness that I encompass, so what the hell, why not love myself that way?

Having that picture in my mind doesn't mean I am going to be nice to me by feeding myself an entire chocolate cake. Really, it just makes it so that I don't need to so much, 'cause I'm pretty good with just hanging out with myself. Ahhhh.


  • What a great post! You've nailed something there. I get really worried reading some blogs where it appears that the weight loss has much more riding on it than just, say, health. Yes, it CAN give oodles of self esteem, but if it's the only thing someone's clinging to, maybe it's time to take a step back and reassess some other factors. Have you found anything to fill the gap? I could gush, and tell you that your writing is fantastic and enough to fill any diet-esteem shaped void, but that would be far too fawning ;)

    By Anonymous einalem, at 11:36 AM  

  • This was a great post, but I have to put in my contradictory two cents: we're writing about weight loss. These aren't hobby blogs or family blogs or music blogs, they're weight loss blogs. So it's easy to mistake that narrow focus as being an unhealthy obsession. Because I don't write much about my family, my job, my husband, my volunteer job, etc., doesn't mean those things don't exist or that they aren't an important part of my self-esteem. I'm not arguing with your main thesis, which is as always well-thought out and well-written, but I'm saying you can only deduce so much from other people's blogs. We're seeing just a tiny sliver of the person.

    By Blogger M@rla, at 6:00 AM  

  • you rule the school, megalicious. this was a brilliant post. so much to think about it!

    By Anonymous dietgirl, at 6:04 AM  

  • This was an incredibly insightful and beautifully written post as always.

    I just thought I'd point out one thing you might not have noticed. While you listed your faults straight-out, bare bones, very honest, you qualified many of your strengths and talents. You don't write "pretty well"--you write very well. You don't do "pretty good" analysis--you do wonderfully insightful and brilliant analysis.

    Just so you know. Don't worry about being modest. We all think you're fantastic so it's beyond cool that you're learning to acknowledge that as well.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:42 AM  

  • A-freakin-men. I wasn't able to move on (and get moving) until I accepted my fluffy self.

    Your writing is incredible, thanks for sharing so much with us!

    By Blogger Angel, at 12:14 AM  

  • Came in via diet-girl and wanted to say thanks for a great post. I do have diet-esteem and whilst I am building on that all out self acceptance I realise now that I still have some work to do. Your words will sit with me for a while. Thanks.

    Hope you have a great week :D

    By Blogger M, at 2:42 AM  

  • Thank you for an absolutely great post! It is just brilliant!
    It really gave words to issues I have been thinking a lot about myself.
    Thank you.

    By Blogger Monkey, at 2:02 PM  

  • Yes. I have been experiencing a strange bout of low self-esteem and body hatred lately and it seems to have coincided with a decision to drop an additional 15 pounds. I've lot over 70(net) so far, but I'm still 30 pounds away from a 'healthy' body weight. It's taken several year to get to this point, but the new goal is so scary that I've fallen down a rabbit hole of self-loathing that has nothing to do with my body.

    By Anonymous Nikhila, at 4:51 PM  

  • Wonderfully expressed. I've lost 180 pounds over the past 20 years (sadly, this loss was in three cycles of 60 pounds lost, 70 pounds gained!) I think a great deal of the reason that I haven't been able to get control of this cycle has been because I've been dieting, as you put it, "to love myself by eradicating my faults to make myself qualify for love." I think that I'm at a place now where I love the me that resides in this body and hopefully I'll find that this time I'll get to a place, weight-wise, that I can manage in a healthy way. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:48 PM  

  • Beautiful. I'm printing it out right now to carry around with and read during boring lectures to remind myself to remember myself.


    By Blogger Meem, at 9:57 AM  

  • Thanks for the words.

    By Blogger Urban Chick, at 6:16 PM  

  • This comment has been removed by the author.

    By Blogger Rosemary Shanahan, at 6:50 AM  

  • I know this is a fairly old post but I found it really helpful to read - I've been worrying about this subject a bit lately to be honest - whether I'm going to be able to maintain my current feelings of wellness and positivity "after I get there" with the weightloss. I think everybody loves transformations - the thrill of the new body, being able to buy smaller clothes etc, but after a while, the makeover becomes old news, and it's so easy to slip back into old habits (I know, I've done it!)

    You summed up everything perfectly - I think dieting does become a crutch to lean on in a lot of people's lives - like, once you've lost the weight your life will be perfect... that's why it's so important to focus on much more than just the food vs. the fat.

    Thanks again for your great post, now I've found your blog I will be checking back more often :)

    By Blogger Rosemary Shanahan, at 6:55 AM  

  • WOW! Incredible! Thank you for answering the questions about my food issues that have been swimming around in my head for the past week. Thank you for your insight and openness and willigness to share it with the world!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:28 PM  

  • By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:43 PM  

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