Heavy Thoughts

 

 

I learned that “fat” was a terrible thing for a woman to be when I was six.

My adoptive mother, five-foot-four and somewhat endomorphic, succumbed to that peculiarly eighties obsession with thinness and signed herself up for an intervention at The Diet Center, tiny me in tow. A graphic poster on the wall cautioned against the horror of coating the “normal” female form with fat. The blue, hour-glassy inner part was “OK”; the extraneous yellow layer surrounding it, “not OK.” Brochures and pamphlets packed with colored charts, the only reading material to browse while I waited for her consultations to be over, told me that it was “good” to eat plain dry toast and half grapefruits sans sugar, and “sinful” to eat chocolate.

Snacking between meals was verboten even before the dieting, and meals themselves were often fraught with difficulty due to the intersection of my mother’s rigidity and my stubborn pickiness. A glass of milk, for instance, meant to round out a bowl of oatmeal, had to be poured over the oatmeal to create a sickening gruel, rather than sipped alongside the otherwise-slimy-but-bearable mush. A serving of octopus or beef tongue, despite my horror and regardless of my pleading, was to be finished no matter how many hours it sat getting ever-colder on the plate. First world problems, to be sure, but traumatizing nonetheless.

I began to sneak food: anything I could get my hands on; often hot cocoa powder mixed with maple syrup and chocolate chips: baking items were always on hand, if not real snacks. I ate sugar straight; licked seasoned salt off my palms.

By age ten I had reached my adult height of five-foot-two and had “blossomed” early…. and I was decidedly chubby. Certainly not enormous, but by no means slender. Uncoordinated and the opposite of athletic or graceful, I fell into a shame /no exercise/ever fatter spiral. My best friend’s preschool-aged brother pronounced me “Chumpy Checker” and taunted me daily in a sing-song voice; an older boyfriend mentioned his friend had commented on my “thick thighs.” I was devastated.

My older brother, the epitome of athleticism himself, constantly mocked my plump frame and burgeoning womanliness. I recall the nickname “Hippo” being tossed around among my lithe, blonde cousins, with whom I spent summers on Cape Cod, me swimming in an enormous men’s T-shirt and sweatpants, more often than not.

At my all-girls’ school, where being thin and especially being good at sports was essentially synonymous with being popular, I dreamed of someday, somehow, scoring a goal or hitting a home run or doing anything to earn my peers’ admiration. I believed that if I was just thin, I would be OK. By the time I was thirteen I was dieting constantly, often attending meetings, counting calories, and tracking our half-dry-english-muffin breakfasts as a mother-daughter team (one of our only activities of mutual interest).

I ate myself into obesity during my time as a stay-at-home mom in an unhappy marriage (which I dove into right after high school, convinced that I was lucky that anyone wanted my size-eighteen ass). I drowned the sorrow of my reality in whole batches of Bisquick muffins slathered with butter; in family-sized bags of potato chips eaten alternating with value packs of peanut butter cups.

When I finally left my husband I lost twenty or thirty pounds (along with the additional two hundred thirty or so) almost effortlessly, but still I struggled with hating my body. I straddled the line between “plus” and “regular”-sized and left fitting rooms in tears more often than not. When I found yoga and discovered that there was other exercise I did enjoy (!), I managed to drop down to a societally-respectable size eight, but still I hated my body. Because when you’re short, a size eight is still decidedly chubby by today’s standards (just ask Amy Schumer!).

Never mind that this body brought a beautiful, compassionate young man into the world. Never mind that it’s held friends’ hands in times of darkness and brought love through music to the ears of the dying and joy to the living. Never mind all of its capacity for love and its warmth; this is what I concern myself with, its fatness? Is that really the measure of my worth?

At almost forty, with a grown child; dear friends; fulfilling pursuits; love… can I not learn to stop self-criticizing, to stop believing that somehow life would be better if I were thinner? Can I not learn to love myself no matter my size? Can I learn to forgive those who contributed to this obsession, however unwittingly… most notably, can I forgive myself? Can I teach myself to believe that I am OK even with this subcutaneous layer obstructing the perfection of my hourglass? Would that I could go back to be in that room with that six-year-old to show her on that poster the two parts of a woman’s body that actually matter:

Her mind and her heart.

Learning To Be Good Enough

cenotes

The Yucutan cenotes: one of my happy places.

Whether kin of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon or media-bandwagon-hopping, I am seeing it discussed everywhere lately, from the Times parenting blog to Fast Company. . .  it’s apparently Winter 2015’s “introverts and lumbersexuals”:

Perfectionism.

I wish I could say I am a reformed perfectionist. Unfortunately I am an active perfectionist. I know that it’s “not necessarily a personality trait to aspire to” as Terri Cole points out in last week’s HuffPost Canada article. I am working on it.

A former boss of mine had a sign that read “perfect is the enemy of done.”

This, too, I know (though can any writer or editor ever truly reconcile the two?)

I grew up with a parent who never even asked what my grades were, although diligence in all things was certainly expected. I was the one who felt absolutely crushed at not attaining the A. Truth be told, anything less than A+ is disappointing (which made college’s omission of this option rather tragic for me). Interestingly, I often expect, require, and desire the accolades even if I haven’t worked particularly hard for something. My mother will tell you that this is because everything “came easily to me.” (Which is certainly not true of sports, which I dreamed day and night of being a star in).

Perfectionism creates a deep fear of trying things we might not be good at, or alternatively a deep conviction that we’re just not good enough at what we’re trying. Either condition is ripe for creating crippling anxiety. (And in the case of sports, an additional vicious cycle of inactivity and weight gain).

I can trace some of my perfectionism to having an older brother who was practically worshipped in my family, who was good at literally everything he ever tried. He won a creative writing prize at college with his first short story. His art was entered into shows in school. His poetry was good. As a teenager. In his second language. He was an athletic star in every sport but basketball (he being only five foot three), a talented musician, a brilliant orator and debater.

I am still not sure how I am supposed to live up to that.

Especially, you see, as he died young. And everyone knows that the pedestal grows even higher for those we have lost.

I felt for a long time that since he was my mother’s favorite it would have been so much better were I the one to go. Which is a heavy burden for a child, I suppose. Part of me thought that if I was smart enough and talented enough I could somehow make her as proud and heal some part of that devastating wound. But I rebelled and rejected her, too, perhaps so fearful of not being perfect that I might as well go ahead and be the worst.

When I finally graduated from BU after sixteen years of night school, although I’m not one for gowns and caps and all of that jazz, I was excited to walk across that stage and have them say “magna cum laude.” So my mother could hear it. Two B’s in my entire college career, Ma! At a renowned university! (Where, may I toot my horn, it is apparently harder to get an A than most places!)

The Dean stumbled over my difficult name and missed the honors section of the card, apparently. There was no announcement. My boyfriend, knowing how much I’d been looking forward to my mother hearing the news, turned to her and explained what had happened.

“Well, of course Desiree got honors,” she scoffed.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I cannot identify myself by how excellent my grades are, or how many accolades I get at work for a job well done, right now. I have to find other ways to measure my own success, and perhaps this has given me the freedom to be good enough. I promised myself I would volunteer when I got laid off, and I did, for over a year for a local parks organization I love. I was proud of myself for following through, for doing something meaningful, for working to improve my skills during the lay-off period. Then my boss retired, and I had to spend several weeks caring for my (other) brother who had been in a bad accident and then helping my mother who had her hip replaced, so I resigned. I accomplished what I set out to do, and I will find another organization to donate my efforts to, but it was enough for now.

Even if I haven’t found a new job yet, the right one is out there for me and I will keep looking. I’m not worthless because I don’t have full-time work. I have found my own “worth” again, in being a better mother and sister and daughter and partner, in making music and in writing, and I will find a way to balance those things and cobble together some kind of income. I am learning that I don’t have to be perfect. I can be good enough, which is a much happier place to be.

Grace Me Guide

Several years ago, after a weak moment in Barnes & Noble, I read Eat, Pray, Love. It was obviously a time of great soul-searching, as I then checked out The Artist’s Way and Wild Mind and that one about “morning pages” (?), and started a new journal dedicated to my new principles of self-actualization.

Like most writers, I am sure (and most Virgos, I suspect), there is little I adore more than a fresh, clean, beautiful, unsullied blank book. (Lined, please, because as artistic as I may hope to be, I shall never master the art of writing a straight line across a plain page.) I wonder how many others too, like me, leave the first leaf virgin, always.

This book, I decided (purple leather, made in India, with hot pink edging), would house a journal of the principles I hope to live by, summed up by the phrase on my family crest:

Forbes_aGrace Me Guide.

To me Grace is not a religious concept so much as a way of conducting oneself in the world. To be guided by Grace is to live mindfully and with kindness, and being impelled to fulfill one’s potential. In order to work toward living a life guided by Grace, I set some slightly-less-vague action principles:

Live mindfully: Be present in the moment; eat whole foods and remember to savor; spend time in nature and move the body

Show love: Be a more appreciative partner; keep up with correspondence; make time for friends

Organize: Keep physical clutter to a minimum, which keeps psychic clutter down, too

Create!

. . .And there were three more. Three more, because I would have chosen seven, of course. But I can’t remember them, and when I  later came upon the scarcely-started book, I was so embarrassed to be so far behind on progressing toward the goals that I ripped the section out of the book without looking.

For many years I was headed down a path where fulfilment seemed out of reach, though I longed for a change. A crisis both financial and psychological– losing my job and with it my identity as a hard worker — sent me through two years of self-searching and brainstorming and desperate reading and crippling anxiety and the hopes-dashed rollercoaster, to a point where I believe I am ready to have Grace guide me where I need to be. I need to make music, and write, and make the world a better place even in some small way by giving love, and keep a smaller number of possessions: those that bring me joy. I want to live more simply, with more purpose, and with appreciation for every moment on this beautiful planet with its wonderful creatures.