Saturday, May 16, 2015

On diets and health food and feminism and power

This sticker is on the scale in the nurse's office at work,
where I weight in weekly for a weight loss challenge.
 It's coming up on one year since I publicly declared my mission to get healthier, and I wanted to check in and talk about all the icky sticky things: weight loss, dieting, donuts, and the way it all links in with being a feminist and keeping my own sense of worth.  Some of you are already squirming in your seats, and I'm with you.  This is not a simple intersection of ideas.

As a human in a human body, I struggle a lot with weight.  I know that it is harder for my body to lose weight than other humans.  Partially because of my genes, partially because I've literally spent my entire life gaining and losing weight, and as a result, have a really weird relationship with food and exercise. It is straightforward for me to tell people that I love them or complete a degree program or make time for things that are important to me.  It is not straightforward for me to lose weight, no matter how simple the formula.

I've overloaded my brain with information.  I've done Weight Watchers, I've counted calories (my entire adult life, starting around age 15), I've tried high protein and low carb.  I've done the 21-day-fix, made shakes, skipped meals. I've taken kickboxing, tried running, joined Curves, gone to classes, lifted weights.  I've tried to eat no sugar, I've tried to eat no meat. I've had SO MANY fresh starts that I even laugh at myself now when I say "starting on Monday!"  I've joined endless weight loss challenges.  I've made promises to myself. I've lost 20-30 pounds at a time.  I've gained it all back.  I know some of you are shaking your heads. I'm typing out the story of half the population.

So it was a huge relief when I really started identifying myself as a feminist, reading empowering manifestos about defining your own self worth and breaking free from the restraints of a corrupt society.  It's obvious to me that girls and women are judged too heavily (and more than their male counterparts) on their physical appearance.  Watch Kristen Schaal discuss the "dadbods" celebration in this perfect Daily Show piece.  Further evidence?  I was recently in a room of mostly women at a breakfast meeting.  A visiting male commented on our lovely spread of bagels and fruit and followed it up with "You'll have a beautiful weekend to go work off all these calories!"  I was instantly annoyed.  Would he have said that to a room of mostly men?  I highly doubt it.

For awhile, I was getting a kick out of it.  Hollywood starlets saying "eat the damn cupcake!" and we all applaud, and I want to applaud that sentiment!  It sounds good, feels good, tastes good!  I am able to dress my overweight body in adorable clothes, put on red lipstick and feel pretty no matter my size.  I have had people hit on me at every weight (and I've run the gambit in my adult life). I've had days where I felt powerful & lovely and days where I've felt gross & icky regardless of the number on the scale.  I'm past being completely ruled by I weigh.

AND YET. 

I sometimes get winded walking up the stairs.  My blood sugar is MUCH better than it was at this time last year, but it is not completely stable.  When I let healthy habits slip (particularly moving my body and chugging water), I feel like Monster Ashlie and get extremely grumpy/mildly depressed. I have weight loss goals and I really want to reach them and sometimes that makes me feel like I'm living a double life.  Female-solidarity-down-with-diets-don't-let-the-magazine-tell-you-you're-not-beautiful Ashlie who will NOT eat a carrot when what she really wants is a piece of cake, and Jesus-you're-so-close-to-that-first-milestone-so-put-down-the-chips Ashlie, who breaks foods into "good" and "bad" categories as a knee jerk reaction.  Pass the carrots.


This piece about a dieting feminist really resonated with me.  I loved the honesty about how weight loss was about both health and appearance. I thought it was funny that it was peppered with ads for articles about the workout plans of swimsuit models (Thanks Elle.com).  At the end, when the feminist was proud of her weight loss, albeit secretly, I was happy for her.  It made me think a lot.  


I've decided it comes down to choice and language.  If I'm trying to lose weight because I want to be healthy and strong and what I consider to be my best self, I think that still falls into the "girl power" camp I want to be in.  I can honestly say that being on course to lose weight is something that makes me feel good, and when I use the "damn the man, your beauty standards can't keep me from ordering a third double-mocha syrup drink!" excuse, it's usually to justify a decision that I honestly don't think is best for me.*  For the record, I never feel guilty when going out to the dairy bar for ice cream, and I think it's because  it's a conscious choice, because I realize that I will never be on a eating plan that doesn't make room for that.  The knowledge keeps me from overeating ice cream.  Because I'm comfortable that it will always be there.

Language is also HUGE. When I say I'm going to the gym or going for a run and Milo asks why, I tell him it's because I want to be stronger.  I never speak disparagingly about myself in front of my children, students, or friends.  Not to my husband.  Rarely even to myself.  I have trained myself away from being the butt of my own jokes, and I have cut completely mean comments about my looks.  This doesn't mean I pretend I'm not overweight or I ignore the size of my clothes.  I can comfortably admit that I'm planning a tattoo that is large because my upper arm is large and I want to the proportions to be appropriate so it looks right. It should be okay to say "I'm big" the same way I would say "I'm short."  

That's where I am these days.  Trying to love myself at every size, make choices that are thoughtful and goal-oriented, and use loving, supportive language about...everything.  No good foods, no bad foods, no "I'm not allowed to" at lunch time.  I recently went back and reread this love letter I wrote to my body after having Elliott.  Our bodies are RIDICULOUS, doing miracles like creating children and running marathons and holding hands and kissing- WHO INVENTED KISSING- and being the vehicle for these big, beautiful brains that are making up songs and jokes and lullabies and grocery lists and telling little ears where babies come from.  Our bodies.  They come from these awesome bodies.

If you take anything away from this, just be reminded that you do have a choice, and you reflect it in your language.  Doing what's best isn't always fun, but try to find something that clicks for you- a recipe, an activity, a solid comeback for any body-negative comments you might be exposed to- and hang on to it.  And tell me what you think: can diets be empowering? Do you have an awesome comeback for crappy negative comments? Where do you fall in the tricky place of balancing body love and body management?

Please just love yourself.

*These are the choices that are best for me, made after talking to doctors and evaluating what feels good on MY body and for in MY life.  This is not a license to fat shame, to use health as a reason to judge others.  There are healthy people of every size.  Unless you're a doctor, you're not a doctor, so you don't get to tell other people how to eat/dress/exercise/ live.  Ever.

Further reading:
Jes from The Militant Baker is a body advocate and her blog is empowering.
Victoria from The Disaster Poodle wrote about diet culture- on point.
Mara Glatzel wrote about holding the framework and self care as self love.

Image credits: tape sticker by ModernGirlBlitz, Weigh Beauty, Wonder Woman

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