I've mentioned this in the past, but I've been doing a lot of reading lately. Fat blogs, feminist blogs (which I am: face it, fat IS a feminist issue), eating disorder blogs (God bless The Disordered Times
), weightlifting blogs, books on mindfulness meditation, that sort of thing. The gorgeous thing about broadening one's reading base and looking at new things is that one ends up with some of those awesome moments where you read something that takes everything you've thought and turns it ass-over-teakettle. It's the swoopy, falling, soaring sensation of being on a roller coaster or being caught up in a tornado: gravity, or other things which you took to be universal constants, is suddenly in question. I've had a few of those moments this week.
It all comes back to control. Control is a common thread on fat blogs, causing celebration when we manage it and causing horror and depression when we don't. A great many of us have high standards for ourselves and describe ourselves as perfectionists. There's a general tendency for us to get hung up on numbers and accomplishments and discipline, and to beat the bloody hell out of ourselves when we fall short. That's going to be a bit of a problem in any arena, really, but combine that with the Diet & Scale type of plan that Weight Watchers personifies, the type of plan in which at the end of the day the thing that we're the most hung up on isn't something we have any direct control over
, and it's no fucking wonder that a very small percentage of people graduate into a normal, active, healthy lifestyle, while most of us end up either gaining all the weight back, getting ourselves an eating disorder, or both.
I've just ordered the book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body
, and I suspect I'm going to have a lot more to say on the subject after I read it. Quite a lot more. But right now, I keep going back to the fact that during the two periods in my life where I was clinically depressed, I functioned extremely well. In some ways, I functioned better than my "everyday" self. During my college depressive period, I was a straight-A student, a star in the choir, a leading lady on the stage, a hell of a writer; during my latest depressive period-- well, you can go back and check it out because the whole damn thing is documented right here. If you're looking for it, you'll see that I was a maniac, obsessed with details, determined to perfect myself. I was making all the right food and exercising like mad and getting involved in things and being the perfect wife. In both cases, I was a basket case behind the scenes, and only a big external force (the end of college the first time, Hurricane Katrina the second) brought my drive to miserable perfection to a jarring halt. I achieved in spite of being depressed, because one of the big things driving me into depression was the same thing that drove me to succeed
It's a horrifying realization. When one has a tendency toward viewing the world in black and white, as I often do, the obvious conclusion is that I can either choose to be a lazy, happy loser, or a driven, miserable achiever. Given that I have been taught that achievement is more important than personal happiness, the very idea of chosing personal happiness gives me an automatic sense of shame. The thing is, it's a false dichotomy, based on some very flawed ideas.
At the risk of talking too damn much about mindfulness meditation again (I occasionally suffer from Hey, I Have A New Thing And Think It Is So Awesome, Everyone Should Do It, Too syndrome, known to the rest of the world as "the zeal of a recent convert"), I had one of those world-shaking paradym-flipping moments while reading one of the FAQs for such. The question is basically "I can't control my thoughts when I'm meditating! How do I fix this?" and the answer is "Everyone's like that. That's how brains work. Your thoughts aren't something to fix or control: they're something to observe and be aware of. They're just thoughts. You're fine. Relax. If you forget what you're doing, come back to doing it when you remember, and don't kick yourself."
I don't know when the correct answer to anything that I've gotten into was "control doesn't matter; you're fine as you are, learn what that is and enjoy it." Yeowza. That's just... that's... wow.
Here's what I'm thinking lately: I'm never going to be perfect. I'm always going to be wandery, and forgetful, and have a limit to how many projects I can juggle at once. I'm never going to get everything done on time. I'm never going to always get eight hours of sleep per night. I'm never going to be able to be everything to everybody; I love so much different stuff that I'll invariably end up half-assing everything, occasionally going whole-hog on one thing while ignoring everything else. I will cause misunderstandings. I will misunderstand others. I will occasionally fuck things up in a spectacular manner. I am very probably never going to fit into my wedding dress again. I am absolutely never going to look like that fitness model. There are some clothes that will never, ever look good on me, no matter how awesome they look on other people. I will occasionally forget to clean the cats' litterbox and they will pee on the bathmat and I will probably step on it as I'm getting out of the tub. (Yes, this has happened more than once.) I will squabble with my Hub over ridiculously stupid things. I will probably be directly responsible for a lot of mental issues in my future children. Sometimes I will be the one who passes supremely smelly gas in the elevator.
This is all fine. The fact of the matter is that I yam what I yam, and I'm delightful and frustrating in equal measures, the way every human being is.
Life, I'm concluding these days, is like paddling around on a river. (Yes, okay, this is on my mind a lot, I can't help it, I am REALLY looking forward to our new hobby.) There's a certain amount that you can control via paddling. There's also currents, and waves, and occasional assholes who pay no attention and cause you to have to veer way, way out of your way to keep from capsizing, and the wake from powerboats going too fast, and you can't control any of that stuff, ya just deal with it as best you can, and plan to get wet and/or occasionally fall out of the boat and really, you're never going to get places as fast as you think you will. It's just how things work.
I do want to be thin; I think, though, I want that in ways that are not healthy for me. I think that I tend to equate it with beauty, and with self-control (and hence with being a Good Girl, sigh), and with being a person that doesn't have any problems. Obviously all this is bullshit, and it's surprising that the problems I developed as a result of my balls-out drive for 120 pounds didn't actually cause me to immediately think "Hrm, I can't see living like this being any kind of a good thing." It exacerbated a lot of my issues: belief in a formula for success (and any deviation from the formula being horrible and bad and thus evidence that I was weak and awful), belief in a perfect ideal self that I'd get to if I just worked hard enough (which, really? what the fuck was I smoking?), and worst of all, belief that I would feel better, I would feel good, if I was thin.
I did not feel better when I was thin. I felt shitty. I was five pounds above my perfect goal, and I kept thinking that if I could get there, it would all be okay, and all the shitty parts would stop. Going right along with this was the fabled golden land of Maintenance, which-- seriously, folks, it's just more of the same calorie-counting obsessiveness, just with a slightly more lenient number. If I could just do [fill in the blank], I would feel better.
I fully believed that if I didn't feel good at the moment, that was okay because it was goading me toward being thin. It was okay to hate where I was right now, because it drove me to achieve. Here's the thing, though: if I don't have the ability to feel good about myself and be generally happy right now, as I am, there's no chance in hell that I'll have that ability at any other weight, or through any achievements of any other kind.
Again, I don't mean to get wacky with the HIHANTATIISAESDIT Syndrome, but there's a phrase that is used repeatedly in one of my books: There is more that is right with you than is wrong with you. I keep repeating that to myself these days. Even at my worst, there's a remarkable amount of stuff that I get right: I drive on the correct side of the street, I can locomote, I can type, I can use the phone, I continue to be able to access the majority of the words in my vocabulary at any given time. Whatever it is that I've fucked up, no matter how important it is, it isn't everything. It can't be.
Self-esteem is not to be found through self-control. Self-esteem is something that comes out of love for yourself as you are, not love for what you can or might accomplish, not love for what you've already done. Self-esteem doesn't give a damn about who you might be under the very best of circumstances or if you try your very best; self-esteem is love for yourself as you fail, and as you achieve, and as you stagnate, and at all times and in all situations. It is not something that you get "only if you deserve it". You deserve it now, as you are. You deserve love now, as you are, from yourself and from others; at your very worst moment in life and if you have completely failed, you will still deserve love from yourself and from others. You are worthy. Not what you do, not what you're making of yourself: YOU.
I don't know how to convince anybody of that; I don't know how to convince myself of that. Success and hard work (through which success will come) are positively worshipped in this culture, in a very individualist manner, and while there's nothing bad about working hard and succeeding, there's a weird thing that goes that goes along with it, in which achieving an end result (or even just having it) means that you are worthy, and deserving, not only of having that success but of being lauded and praised for your success.
Hard work is assumed to be inherent to the process. Worth is measured by possessing the end result. So that means that if you're rich, you obviously worked for it and you obviously deserve it; if you're thin, you obviously worked for it and you obviously deserve it; if you're successful in business or in entertainment or whatever, you obviously worked for it and obviously deserve it.
Leaving aside the fact that a) success does not always follow hard work and b) people who succeed are not inherently worthy of such (I think the phrase I'm looking for, here, is "born on third base and thinks he hit a home run"), the major problem that comes from our national religion of success is that those who don't succeed don't deserve to succeed. Unsuccessful people are somehow inferior, and deserve to be looked down on. If you're fat, that's your fault. If you're poor, that's your fault. If you're unsuccessful, it's your fault. And not only is it your fault, it also indicates that you're fundamentally fucked up because if you weren't inferior or unworthy you would have figured out how to get your shit together and become thin, or rich, or successful, because isn't that what everybody wants?
And the thing is, I don't think that everyone actually wants to be thin, or rich, or successful; I think what we actually want is to feel worthy, and in this culture, if you don't have an inherent sense of worth, the only way to have people believe you're worthy is to prove it. To be rich, to be famous, to be thin, to be pretty, to be successful, to be powerful. To drive yourself to the top.
There's such a wealth of success in this country, though, that we seem to be giving ourselves a success-disorder that mimics eating disorders. It's not enough to be well-off; you must be AWESOMELY rich. It's not enough to be pretty; you have to be flawless. It's not enough to be thin; you have to have a flat tummy and protruding collarbones. (Again: ARGH.) It's not enough to be famous; you have to be even MORE famous. And since there's a reality check in place-- really, not everyone can be at the top of every pile, it just doesn't work that way-- we fake it: fake our own beauty with makeup and photoshopping and plastic surgery, fake our own financial success by buying "proof" on credit, fake our own power by spending a lot of time being a talking head who puts down other people. It's this whole anxious culture of complete bullshit, populated by anxious people who are all trying desperately to prove that they're worthy of taking up space.
And the thing is, we are worthy of taking up space, we are worthy of being loved, we are worthy of experiencing joy and contentment. Money and fame and power and beauty and thinness don't buy love, or joy, or contentment; we all know that, but it's so easy to turn around and look at ourselves and think, "I'm miserable because I'm fat, and I'm fat because I eat so much/don't exercise enough, so if I worked harder and had more self-control, I'd be happy." Sadly, no.
I don't know what brings joy, or love, or confidence, or self-esteem, but I do know that being thin isn't it. Immersing myself in anything in the hopes of ignoring myself isn't it, either-- and I've tried this with everything under the sun in the past thirty years, except for illegal drugs, and that's just dumb luck because I never happened to know anyone who'd hook me up. Tried it with food, tried it with books, tried it with work, tried it with alcohol, tried it with school, tried it with performing, tried it with relationships, and with food, and food, and food. Didn't work. So the only thing I haven't really tried is to stop and listen to myself, and stop treating my own thoughts and my own feelings as something so fucking frightening that I don't dare accept that they exist. To stop treating my body as something so horrible and frightening that I could only deal with it by ignoring it or by trying to control it and force it into a new shape. To just stop, and to just be who I am, and accept that this is who I am.
I'm not entirely certain that I can succeed at this, and I'm not sure if it's something that would work, anyway-- but I've tried the other stuff, and know for a fact that they don't work. So, essentially: fuck control. I have a life.
Cut for length-- click to read more.