Posted on November 14th, 2011 | Filed under Challenges, Community, Congregation, Featured, Interfaith, Intra-Faith, Leadership, Learning, Philosophy, Popular Culture, Social Issues, Uncategorized
Tagged with Belief, Body, care, community, consumer culture, Creation, dating, Death, earth, ethics, Faith, Formation, Gender, God, hatred, Heaven, Hope, Humanism, identity, Judaism, judgment, love, morality, nourishing, Peace, planet, questioning, Questions, Religion, Self, seminary, tolerance, transformation, Violence, war, weight, women
The very word is heavy, overweighted. Weight on my plate. Weight in my gut. Weight in my heart. Weight of the world. Heavy, heavy, heavy...it’s such a bad word. It’s something none of us want to be. We are all eager to divest ourselves of heaviness. We want to defy gravity and float up to heaven. We don't want to be chained to this earth and its weighty, worrisome ways.
In my twenties I was a big girl. I loved my big, lush, firm body, even as I hated it. I liked being substantial, being full and firm, being beautiful in an unconventional and nonconforming way, having a personality that forced people to reconsider their inculcated notions about weight, their equation of weight with sloth and greed and laziness and worthlessness. I also liked taking up space on the planet because it proved my existence to myself. If it is all I have, and it shrinks, what will happen? Will I fly off the earth? Will I be able to walk between raindrops without getting wet? Will someone fat-phobic fall in love with me once my slenderness confirms my worth, and then leave me if I gain it back? Who am I underneath all this body? What if I’m nobody at all?
I look at my life today and compare it to my life five years ago. I am still shocked by the difference. In 2006 I was a profoundly miserable, overweight atheist with constant soul sickness. In 2011 I am 80 pounds lighter, lighter in body and spirit, armed with an MDiv from Union Theological Seminary and loving the PhD program in Religion at Boston University. Do I think there’s a link between weight and spirituality? You betcha. My burden was an asphyxiating spiritual malady that was constantly compounded and reinforced by fatphobia everywhere I went. Everywhere I looked. From the mirror to magazines to the horrors of dating in New York City, my “unconventional beauty,” as polite people phrased it, was bombarded by constant messages that I was inferior, greedy, undisciplined, and unattractive. Thus this stationary stone gathered much moss.
I used to be a resolution machine. More than that, I was pretty good at getting my goals met. I based my self-worth on what I was achieving, so it was very important that I over-achieve. In high school I was determined to break a 6-minute mile and get into Stanford, and I did it. In college I was determined to run a marathon and learn how to write music, and I did it. After college I moved to New York and wanted to put out some great albums, tour the country and play my songs, and get some national press recognition...and I did it.
Then what happened? I had a very sedentary relationship and a devastating breakup. I started smoking. I had crappy jobs, meaningless one-night stands, played hardly any shows, and gave up on myself. I got really sad and then I imploded emotionally, directing all my frustration and disappointment inward. Day after day, month after month, year after year...I barely pulled myself through my obligations, waiting for things to magically improve. Waiting for the perfect guy, the perfect diet, the perfect job, the perfect salary, the perfect record deal, the perfect time for everything to perfectly change. I was comfort-eating, stress-eating, anger-eating, late-night-eating, social anxiety-eating, giant portion-eating, sweets-eating, insomnia-eating, movie-eating, pot-eating, lethargy-eating, “I deserve it”-eating, “f**k the man”-eating, Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday-eating...and ad infinitum-eating. Eating was all I was achieving, and I knew how pathetic this was. I didn’t have much to hang any sense of worth on.
I think a lot about the difference between realism and idealism; I really don't like it when people relate to the world in terms of how it should be instead of the way it is. It’s important to me to have a grip on reality. And in the real world, in New York City, in the entertainment industry, everywhere, people equate being overweight with being lazy, stupid, selfish, and gluttonous. Being overweight is largely regarded as a moral deficiency, consciously or not. As a plus-size woman I was judged and ignored, and I was constantly subject to skepticism and unwelcome advice. From myself, my family, my friends, my employers: the dismissals unbounded. So I also knew that this extra weight, even if it was a physical expression of my psychic pain, was also compounding my woes by limiting my efficacy in the world. But this just made me angrier and more anxious. So I subsisted on cheddar cheese and Nutella. My exercise attempts dwindled to the occasional run or yoga class, and the sessions became shorter and farther in between. I procrastinated, convinced that I would fail at anything I tried in the body/health area.
Finally, my bottom hit bottom after I tumbled down a flight of stairs and crushed some key body parts and landed on a surgical table. The anesthesiologist warned me that I was pre-diabetic, which made sense, because I had been engaging in a Chocolate/Cheese dietary dialectic for years. I stood in my room at 4am that night after having consumed pastries, chocolate chips, and raw packets of hot chocolate sugar, and I had this thought: DIABETES. Just that big word: DIABETES. I even saw the word, blinking red like a neon sign. DIABETES.
I suddenly knew I had to change everything, forever, and never look back.
Suddenly, my life asserted itself. Suddenly and deeply, I knew that I have one chance at having a body that functions properly. Just one. And I was ruining it and driving myself into a condition that would require me to inject insulin into my veins on a daily basis. This was utterly unacceptable.
So suddenly, I changed everything, forever, and never looked back. The fact that I was able to do this after years of yearning miserably for it is an inexplicable mystery. It is a radiant mystery that demands that I stay open to the notion of grace. Life reared up in me, despite me, and said I Will Be Lived. I had no choice but to get out of the way.
How do you rewrite your habit matrix so it is constructive instead of destructive? How do you reroute your neural peptide pathways to reach for a phone, a magazine or a bubble bath instead of a jar of Nutella? I did not have these skills. But I’m Jewish. I respond to rules. I respond to structure and I know how to find freedom in discipline, so I am not enslaved by my passions and impulses. I’d spent a decade in the throes of my own desperate impulses, my own despairing attempt to fulfill myself via instant gratification. Time for change.
So I got very structured and made four rules:
I came up with names for my plan: Project Fatgirl Slim and Operation Overhaul.
I made a list of things that are really, really tough about being a bigger lady so I could remember why I was doing this:
So there were lots of compelling reasons to get healthier, most of which was to reroute the super unkind monologue issued by my false self. I had to figure out how to love myself. I talked a lot to my body, telling her that she is doing a great job and telling her that I am enjoying getting to know her again and take care of her and stretch her a lot. I said to my body, “Good job! I'm really proud of you for being brave and trying hard to move more! I'm totally here for you! Trust me, I'm not going anywhere without you. I need you to live, and I want to live, so I need you to be healthy and engaged. We do this both together or not at all. Bye! Talk to ya later! Byeeee! MWAH!”
In about a month after I started engaging self-care for the first time with fierce and steely commitment, I had lost 20 pounds and three inches around my waist, and I just kept going. Something was working. Love was working. About a year later, I was 80 pounds lighter and an unbelievable foot-and-a-half shorter around the waist. To say nothing of the lightness of my heart.
How did it work?
For me, a huge element around this was self-forgiveness and moving on when things didn't go as planned. Sometimes, in solitude, my psyche unfurled in many ferocious directions. It got ugly, sometimes. When this happens I try to talk the mean voice down.
MEAN VOICE: You are gonna gain it all back.
THE REAL ME: Excuse me, how? I’m walking here and there, bein’ all nice up on myself, running and hiking and doing yoga and stretching, eating things recently unearthed. Shut your pie hole.
MEAN VOICE: Everybody thinks you’re so loudmouthed. Your personality is too strong. You always say what you think and step on everyone’s toes with your big opinions.
THE REAL ME: I pay attention to people. I think I am doing okay. All I can do is be who I am and think about how I come across and be intentional and practice Right Speech...and trust them to tell me if they are pissed.
MEAN VOICE: You’re still a pudgesicle. Look at that blobby tummy. Look at those haunches. Look at that flabtastic ass, the jiggleberry hips. Your inner thighs kiss each other all day long.
THE REAL ME: Hey now. Yeah, I have a ways to go, it’s true. But I just gotta do what I’ve been doing. I look strong when I run past windows; I flex my arm in the mirror and there’s a little contour. Besides, I gotta start somewhere. Otherwise what will I be proud of when I improve? Gotta give myself something to look back on.
MEAN VOICE: No one will ever love you again.
THE REAL ME: Well...maybe not. But I will. I will try to. I’ve got this and that to be proud of. I have a pulchritudinous vocabulary. I have very shapely kneecaps. I play an E-minor chord expertly. I love all that stuff. I’ve got even more stuff to love. And even more love. So hey! Stuff it!
MEAN VOICE: (Herewith stuffed. Piehole shuts. Exeunt.)
I started to trust the change, like it wasn’t this freaky phase that could dissolve any second I had a bad day, or too much caffeine, or I disappoint myself in this or that way. I engaged Rule #4, breaking the rules aplenty, and then I engaged Rules 1, 2, and 3 just as much. I gently set aside my false self’s convictions about scarcity and to focus more on abundance. I have everything I need in this world, I really do. I am giveth this day my daily bread, and also some butter and tea and fruit, to boot, and also awesome friends for sharing it. I don't need to eat everything in front of me: it's not going away. I don't have to date every man that looks at me: it's not my last chance. I don't have to be crazy hardcore and overexercise and starve myself: this is about self-nourishing and sustainability. Focusing on the abundance of this planet, this life, this universe, and knowing that I'm a whole person with a lot of resources for transformation and strength already in place. My friend Emily said to me that she doesn't feel I changed that year, but rather that I became more like MYSELF. I agree with that. Welcome back, Jenn. I was lost under a lot of literal and figurative layers for about a decade there.
I struggled with the way my new body was received by colleagues. People said, “How much weight did you lose?” “You're half the size you were!” “You are small!” “Where did you go?” I know the way they react says more about their own relationship with weight gain or loss than it does about me. I set an intention to just say “thank you” when I am complimented, because I knew the remark was intended as a compliment. But somehow saying “thank you,” and taking weight loss comments as compliments, feels to me like disparaging people who haven't taken off weight. It feels like I'm buying into that societal BS that being thinner means you're a better, worthier, more loveable, smarter, more inspiring, self-disciplined person. I super-disagree with our culture's inverse correlation of body weight and personal worth. The less I weigh, the more worthy I am...that is what we're fed. This leaves SUCH a bad taste in your mouth; what are you gonna do about it? Uhhhh...eat a Twinkie, that’s what.
But the reality is...I’m so much happier. I have so much more energy. I'm so much more confident and self-reliant and excited about life. I feel GREAT when I'm running. I'm feeling pretty cute. I fit into cute boots and cute little dresses and badass punky skinny jeans. I'm not living in this constant state of anguish and self-justification. I'm much kinder to myself. I feel profoundly connected to my body. I feel deeply grateful for the gifts of this year, and the gift of being able to recognize and receive them.
I realized that what I did this year was put all of my energy into enjoying my own life. That doesn't mean feeling great all the time...but it does mean working hard, taking pleasure in progress, being gentle and loving with myself, and...realizing that, if I am committed to never incurring my own demise, then I am also behooved to assemble an existence that I can enjoy and be fully present and healthy for.
I do not want this essay to be construed in any way as an endorsement of anything but health and holistic well-being. These qualities do not necessarily equate to being slender. There is such a thing as body-type. For example, I am now a height-weight proportional, super-muscular, bad-ass, stocky Katherine Hepburn type who can probably kill you with my bare hands (if I weren’t an advocate of non-violence). I don’t look slender at all, but I am strong and healthy.
I also do not want this essay to be an indictment of women who have not had epiphanies and experienced weight loss comparable to mine. This is my accounting of all of the factors that made carrying my psychic burdens around on my waistline finally unsustainable, and all of the tricks I had to play on myself to make change. Mohammed had to move the mountain, and it took a lot of love and foxy cleverness. Sometimes it was easy, because my plan was really loving and realistic about my personality defects, but sometimes it was really excruciating. I am a very willful person, and my habits asserted themselves with alacrity. Night after night I had to assert my choice for life instead of letting food be the layer between my spirit and the harsh world. Crazily enough, when I stopped defending myself from the world with food, the world didn’t seem so offensive. The enemy was the weapon itself, not the thing I thought I was fighting.
Sometimes I want to stuff my face like the old days so I can feel grounded with heaviness, so I can lose myself in the fleeting joys of sweetness. But I try to calm down and shake off my scarcity complex and remember that I can eat whenever I want to, that I live into the ineffable blessing of abundance, being an American who can buy watermelon year-round, being an urbanite who can walk into any deli and buy an orange and some avocado salad, being born into an active and healthy family that takes great pleasure in healthful nourishment and outdoor exertion. So I have a lot of factors on my side. I'm still getting used to being satisfied after one bowl, or one apple, or a few almonds; I'm still getting used to not feeling excoriated by hunger and panicking. I’m still getting used to the fact that oranges and long autumn walks are also really pleasurable.
The best thing about going through profound difficulties and getting to the other side is that I can relate to other people in their struggles. After a while people started to ask me how I lost weight, and I told them about my four rules. I told them about how it's important to fall off the beam every now and then so you don't have a sense of deprivation. I told them they have to be patient and forgive themselves for their imperfections, because they have to find out what works for them. Sometimes I tell them that I wanted to make a change for years, but I wasn't ready. For whatever reason, I had to hit bottom real hard, over and over and over, before I could make a change. My bottom finally got deeper faster than I could lower my standards, and I received the gift of desperation with no escape at the bottom of the hole. I didn’t just need a new hole with some new tunnels and windows. I needed to learn to walk around the hole and not fall in all the time.
I'm in this life all the way till however it ends. And I have choices to make. As Carlos Castaneda said, “You either make yourself miserable or you make yourself strong. The amount of work is the same.” Notice he didn’t say happy; he said strong. He said resilient; he said balanced. After a lifetime of substituting indulgence for joy, I had to relearn how to eat resiliently and how to think about myself joyfully, taking my inner wild-child by the sticky hand and holding her through all the pained tantrums. I had to get stronger than her; I had to realize I always was stronger than her and always will be.
I am so far away from being perfect, but that’s what Rule #4 is for, and I keep getting back on the horse. I continue to be slovenly with certain tasks, like, RECYCLING. I do my best, but you know, sometimes it’s just one more thing to do, and I’m really busy. I hate spending precious minutes washing out cans and cartons and flattening boxes and tying them with twine and looking for recycling labels. It’s not easy, being Green. See—I’m still a selfish, selfish person.
But I sure do love her.
This photo was found on Creative Commons and was taken by a person whose nickname is "bandita," as featured on Flickr.
Jenn Lindsay is a PhD student in Boston University's Division of Religious and Theological Studies, where she studies how religion affects personal relationships, particularly interreligious relationships. She earned her Masters Degree at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where her program focus was Interfaith Relations and she served as co-chair of the Interfaith Caucus and the student senate Minister of Fun. She hails from San Diego and worked for a decade in New York City as an independent musician and filmmaker.