There was a time in my life when I would weigh myself every day. I would on the scale each morning with hopes of a number popping up that was smaller than the number from the day prior, and whatever that number was would determine how I felt about and treated myself that day. I placed the scale in my bathroom outside of the shower so I could not forget. Because like brushing my teeth and bathing, I saw it as a necessity.
My fixation with the scale began in high school. At 16 years old, I bore a heftier set of thighs and a heavier frame than most of the other girls at school. I hated that I didn’t fit into Abercrombie jeans and cute tank tops. Even more, I hated hiding my body behind blouse-y tee shirts and jackets. I desperately wanted to lose weight. And after one particularly grueling and humiliating incident, I would have done anything to shed the pounds..
It was a dewy summer day in the Florida town where I grew up, and I was standing in the a la carte lunch line in my school’s cafeteria. As I awaited my turn to choose a bag of chips to pair with a sandwich, a group of several girls with perfectly developed and toned teenage figures dressed in name brands I could never afford and blue jeans I could never fit into, stood ahead of me whispering and giggling. The line moved along and the girls grabbed packages of cheese crackers and granola bars and I grabbed a bag of Doritos. One of the girls looked back at me and quickly turned away upon catching my eye. I heard more whispers. And then one of them turn toward me.
“Ummm…” she began, glaring at me and my chips. My heart began to beat in such a fury I was sure every thump was audible as a fist banging on a door.
“You probably shouldn’t be eating those. Don’t you, like, count calories or anything?” She said in a voice not much unlike “Cher” from Clueless. Just a lot snottier. (To put it nicely).
I didn’t know what to say. I was humiliated. With no confidence or courage to come to my own defense, I actually answered her question.
“No, I don’t do that.”
“Obviously! Ha-ha-ha-ha!” She laughed. And her friends followed suit.
I turned into a puddle. I was humiliated and ashamed.
I threw my lunch away that day and didn’t eat. Then once I was home and “safe” inside my bedroom, I binged on chocolate ice cream and Ritz Bitz to numb the pain and the shame.
If those girls had considered the type of home life I had they would have known that I was well aware of my unhealthy size. Because if it wasn’t coming from school, it was coming from home. I had an alcoholic step-dad who took pleasure in “mooing” at me like I was a cow or calling me degrading, vulgar names when he was wasted, which was most days of the week.
That shaming insult from the girl in the cafeteria coupled with the verbal abuse at home caused me to start buying into my own shaming thoughts. The “I’m fat” reel started repeating itself in my head, and rather than motivate me to change, these thoughts only drove my hand further down into the bag of Cheetos I would hide in my closet in an attempt to self-medicate, until every last orange-dusted cheese doodle was gone.
For the rest of my time in high school I chained myself to restrictive yo-yo diet programs, including an all-broth liquid diet in which for six days out of the week I could only have chicken broth and then on the seventh day, I could eat whatever I wanted. And when that seventh day came (if I made it without cheating which probably only happened once) I would eat until I physically could not eat anymore. Whole boxes of cereal, foot-long subs with all the fix-ins and cookies and chips on the side, entire packages of Chips Ahoy — I ate until I couldn’t feel anything but the food anymore. And like an alcoholic who relapses and goes on a three day-long bender, the “hangover” I felt the next day was absolute hell.
Internal fat-shaming became a way of punishing myself, believing it to be the “tough love” I needed to whip myself into shape. But in fact, all this did was further sabotage every effort I made to lose weight.
I went away to college after high school and for the first time in my life, I felt free. Free from my step-dad’s abuse and the four walls of the high school cafeteria that housed the taunts that ate away at my self-worth. I could finally take control of my weight and get healthy. And I could think of no sweeter revenge against those who had humiliated me.
So I threw out the scale and vowed to stop weighing myself. I also vowed to eat healthy and exercise. I started going to therapy on campus, too, for help with my body image and internal weight-shaming. And though my thoughts were not perfect and I still struggled with self-degradation at my own hand, I found the strength to fight back rather than believe the ugly lies.
I was 20 years-old at the time and in a little over a year, I went from a size 22 to a size 8. It was the hardest work I have ever had to do but I did it the right way and looked forward to the rewards I would reap, chief among them being: finally being seen for more than my size.
But I was wrong.
The reactions I received from people were mixed. Many people applauded and praised me. But there were some who questioned me and suspected I had an eating disorder. This baffled and blind-sided me. When I tried to defend myself I was dismissed and met with the response of: I’m just worried about you, that’s all. Hearing this from my mother or my doctor or my best friend would have been one thing. But hearing this from random people who never tried to forge some sort of friendship when I was overweight was another. And most of the time that is where this came from which made me think: Really? You’re just worried about me? That’s funny, because you showed no worry for me when I was binge-eating and had very few friends. Would have been nice to have known you cared then.
There is a difference between genuine concern, and baiting questions disguised as genuine concern. And it was never hard for me to spot the difference.
Other phrases I became accustomed to hearing when I lost weight (and the responses I should have given at the time):
What are you a size zero now? (Nope. Size “6.” What size are you? Oh, too invasive a question? Doesn’t feel good, does it?)
You’re so skinny. Do you ever eat? (No I don’t. I starve myself all day long. Isn’t that sad? That’s what you wanted to hear, right?)
You’re too tall to be that skinny. (Oh, thank you for reminding me! I almost forgot about that. How dare I be so tall!)
Shedding almost ninety pounds made me feel confident in the body that for years I loathed and mistreated. And I wanted to show off that confidence. I wanted the reward of acceptance. But acceptance should not have to be seen as a reward. Acceptance is something we all deserve and should never be denied someone based on how they look. Yet all too frequently, it is.
I felt like I couldn’t win. If I was overweight I was ignored, shunned, and pitied and if I was thin, there were people who questioned and scrutinized me for my thinness. It is likely that that was only the case because the transformation was drastic and maybe too hard for some to believe. But that didn’t make it okay. If you are concerned that someone may have an eating disorder, find a gentle way to approach the issue. And establish some level of trust, first. Otherwise, you may be inadvertently feeding into their struggles with their body image and/ or food. And that damage is hard to undo.
I can not tell you how painful it felt to be laughed at by kids in the cafeteria in school for being overweight. Or how worthless I felt when my step-dad compared me to a whale. And then after losing the weight in college, how frustrating it was to be asked if I had an eating disorder. Or whether I started using cocaine. (Yes, I was really asked if that’s how I lost weight). This frustrated me because it felt like a blow to all of my hard work. Instead of being recognized for doing something incredibly difficult and laborious, I was branded by some as having gotten that way by starving myself.
I am 26 now and finally at a place where I feel comfortable talking about this stuff. It’s not easy. Being “too big” and then “too thin” is not an experience many people endure — it’s typically one or the other. But for those like me who have experienced being called both, it is a cruel and unusual beast.
When I was overweight I wanted to be seen for more than my size, but after working to repair the confidence that years of weight-shaming damaged, I now realize I can not control how people see me or what they see me for. The lens through which I am reflected to others is a lens that was fashioned after the circumstances of their own life and perhaps, their own battle with self-worth. That’s not something I can control.
Weight shaming of any kind is dangerous. It hurts. It leaves invisible scars and can bruise an ego beyond repair. And because we live in a society in which eating disorders and obesity are largely misunderstood, stigmatized, and ignored as serious mental health conditions or potential precursors to one, the language we use when addressing them is key. Furthermore, our preconceived notions and personal judgments about the nature of these disorders must be left out of the conversation. If someone has an eating disorder, that disorder is about them and their experience and may be too complex for even the sufferer to understand, which means it is not a subject for casual conversation or fodder for jokes.
Looking back on that day in high school when I was teased by the girl in the lunch-line, I might have taken the suspension from school as a consequence for punching her right in the nose. And then shoving my sandwich in her face for good measure. But for her and anyone else who ever shamed me for my weight, whether it was for being too fat or too skinny, I think I have chosen a better kind of revenge: not caring anymore.
Because at the end of the day my health is what matters most, and being healthy is and should always be the goal. The definition of beauty does not include a single-digit dress size. Or any size for that matter. That’s because beauty is not defined by what you choose to eat for lunch. It is defined by the person on the inside. And that person has an appetite that calls for more than just food, but for love, self-care, and confidence.
For a long time I felt that I couldn’t win. But when I look in the mirror and see how far I have come from being the sixteen year old who was laughed at in her high school cafeteria to who I am now, I feel pretty victorious. And that victory belongs to me, for who I am and always will behind the food on my plate and apart from the number blinking back at me on a scale.
Beauty shouldn’t be about changing yourself to achieve an ideal or be more socially acceptable. Real beauty, the interesting, truly pleasing kind, is about honoring the beauty within you and without you. It’s about knowing that someone else’s definition of pretty has no hold over you.
― Golda Poretsky
Just another busy week over here, doing my best to juggle and manage it all without going loco — always a challenge, but not always a bad thing. Sometimes I thank God for the busy days just as I would for the slow, easy ones. The busy days (busy without crisis or bad things happening that require extensive damage control, of course) help me to be thankful for a full life. I am employed, have a vehicle, health care, doctors I can visit when I’m sick, a debit card with money on it so I can buy coffee and toilet paper at eleven o’ clock at night as I did yesterday, and a good, humble, and goofy man who would lay down his life for me, and a couple of the best girl friends in the world whom I certainly don’t deserve, but who adore me, as I do them, anyway. Oh, and Fruity Pebbles and Lucky Charms were on sale at the store this weekend and I have two unopened boxes begging to get inside my belly on top of my refrigerator. I can’t wait.
So for today, on this ho-hum Tuesday, I give thanks for these things. For they are my sustenance and sanity when everything else seems like it’s falling apart. Yes, even the Fruity Pebbles.
For those of you who are interested or have been following the very recent development of “The POP Project,” don’t be shy…find me on Instagram @thepopproject and follow the account for updates and cool pictures and pass the word along to your friends! Also, right now I am hosting a fun giveaway for the first five people to post a photo with the hashtag #thepopproject I will randomly select one winner whom I will mail a copy of a stellar book by one of my favorite writers and thinkers — Augusten Burroughs. The book is called This Is How and it is an honest and extraordinary read. So if you like free stuff and want to be a part of the POP project, make it happen. I will also re-post (with permission) all photos uploaded by users in these first few weeks. I’m excited about this, can ya tell?
For the remainder of your Tuesday, here are some great, mind-gripping quotes about life and writing (for fellow writers out there, or whomever).
Have a beautiful day, friends.
We have the right, and the obligation, to tell old stories in our own ways, because they are our stories.
- Neil Gaiman
A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.
- Richard Bach
Our greatest fear should not be fear of failure but of succeeding at things that don’t really matter.
- Francis Chan
The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity.
- Amelia Earhart
Inspiration usually comes during work, rather than before it.
- Madeline L’Engle
Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.
- Hannah Arendt
We have some happy days and some unhappy days, some great loves and barren spaces. We have this life, this instantaneous blossoming. Will I ever learn not to choose among its moments, will I ever learn to walk both its hollow and hilly lands?
- Ellen Gilchrist, Starcarbon
I was one negative thought away from tumbling down the rabbit hole of equal parts self-pity and self-loathing yesterday morning. All I needed was that one final nudge to trip me up and I would have been well on my way to pouting by myself in a dark hole in the dirt, refusing to move or try and stand up to see the sun again.
It all started the day before around five o’ clock. I was at my desk at work and felt like there was just not enough time for me to do everything I needed to do. I had pressing deadlines and appointments to prepare for and a long list of phone calls and e-mails to respond to and had felt like I had literally exhausted every last ounce of energy I could muster. I had nothing left to give. And yet, the demands persisted, regardless of how much or little I had to offer in response. That is how life works sometimes — the demands don’t stop even after we’ve done all we can and either what we’ve done hasn’t been good enough or new demands replace the ones we’ve met. Whether it be relationships, work, parenthood, self-care, mental health or any random combination of these things — the demands of life are as constant as they are complex. And there are moments when all it takes is that one nudge, that one demand that we can’t meet, to send us spiraling downward in a free-fall toward despair, resentment, and feeling like we just can’t do it anymore.
That’s where I found myself yesterday. And where I stayed until Friday morning. These are the kinds of feelings and moments of adulthood I don’t feel we are ever warned about or coached in coping with until we grow up and are thrown into it. It’s kind of like a parent who wants to teach their kid how to swim and decides it’s best to just throw them head-first into the deep end of a swimming pool to see how they react. Adulthood is like that parent sometimes. It throws us into the deep end of the real-world that our childhoods shielded us from and says “okay, now swim!” And we flounder and flail around, splashing and struggling to stay afloat, unsure of what we’ve just been thrown into but desperate to prove that we can do it — that we, too, can swim.
In light of my less-than-stellar state of mental health yesterday morning, I decided to get in the car and go for a drive and look for something beautiful in nature, or not, and snap a picture of it for Instagram. This may sound kind of silly and superfluous and I understand why. After all, some might suggest divorcing ourselves from our smart phones for a period of time to achieve a better state of mind. However, as a voice and advocate of mental health for both myself and others, I see how necessary it is to have coping skills in place to deal with the dark moments when they come. Because every day, it is not a matter of “if” these moments will happen upon us — it is a matter of when. Whether it is sadness, anxiety, depression, loneliness, anger, or self-hate, having a plan in place for dealing with these emotions is crucial. But it can’t be just any old plan. It must be practical and doable in the moment, and somewhat attractive to the senses and easy to execute, with an instantaneous and palpable return. For these reasons, I can think of no better medium than that of social media, specifically, Instagram. I am a big fan and regular, enthusiastic user of Instagram. I love snapping photos of big, pillow-y cupcakes with pretty frosting, and the brilliant, blood orange sunsets of summer, and my pug, Wallace, in all of his bug-eyed, wrinkly-faced glory. And the more subtle details of everyday like a cup of hot tea or a new haircut. That’s fun, too. But I have never thought of using the social media outlet as a way to get outside of my head in a vulnerable, anxious moment, and channel my negative feelings into the act of seeking and sharing beauty in the form of a picture.
In other words, I have never set out to find a snapshot of something to share on Instagram for the purpose of mental health and coping with uncomfortable feelings. But after I did so on Friday morning, I felt better. I felt some relief. No, it didn’t cure me of anything or make me feel like I could run a marathon or give a motivational speech, but it got me through the moment.
Sometimes it is getting through the moment that matters most. And when it comes to mental illness, it is a game-changer. How we cope with the symptoms that accompany illnesses such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, or eating disorders, to name a few, is one of the most important pieces to the process of recovery. Because when unhealthy and destructive coping skills take the wheel, we become our own worst enemy and poor gasoline into an already roaring fire, expecting the flames to burn less.
This is the picture I took:
Caption: “the wild blue yonder.”
It’s not an exceptional photograph. It is organic and simple and the kind of shot most people could get with with their iPhone if they pointed it toward a clean, blue sky on a late morning in spring. But to me, it represents the vastness of life outside of myself. It illustrates how humongous the universe is and how much there is to see, explore, taste, and know about the “wild blue yonder” of the earth and it’s inhabitants. And it reminds me that though I may sometimes struggle and grow weary, weak, and want to cash in my chips and call it a day, there is so much going on outside of myself. There is so much beauty to behold and that beauty is sometimes most beautiful when we ourselves feel the most ugly. Seeking out that beauty with intention, however, requires discipline. Like somebody who is trying to lose weight — when they find themselves in a vulnerable moment and they feel weak and ready to cave in to a sweet craving, sometimes the best thing is to find a healthy distraction until the craving passes. That’s my point here — seeking out a healthy distraction, namely, something aesthetically appealing to take a picture of, when we feel overtaken by negativity in the mind.
I have resolved to do this for myself. And I will call it the “POP Project” (The “Power Of a Picture” = POP). Each photo that I take as a part of this project will be accompanied with the hashtag: #POPproject, and depending on context, will include a small blurb about what I was feeling (i.e. sad, hurt, confused, rejected) when I took the picture and what the image represents to me. With time and exposure I hope that others will catch on and join me in taking this step toward offering solutions and tools for those who suffer from a mental health condition. We are in this fight together, after all. The fight to understand our illnesses, cope with them, and find our own path to recovery and healing. For both the days like I had yesterday when I am one negative thought away from tumbling down the rabbit hole and for the days when I do tumble down inside, feeling helpless and hopeless inside my own head. Perhaps this act of exploring and seeking and capturing beauty, and playing around with different angles and filters, will become a way to hoist myself up out of the darkness so that I can more clearly see the sun. And all the beauty that I would have missed had I stayed down in the dirt.
So this is reality, I thought. It’s hot and bare and permanent, it’s broken and chipped and huge, it will last forever, even in ruins, it will make you speechless.
- Susanna Kaysen, Cambridge
I was yelled at by a woman in Spanish while standing outside of my apartment in a towel last Friday night. Yes, you read that correctly - a towel - and it was not because I had just come from the pool. It was a bath towel. And besides that and a head of sopping wet hair and the heartbeat and wide eyes of someone who may have just seen Big Foot on their back patio, I was naked.
Here is how that happened:
Enter the scene – it is a cool, clear Friday night and I have no big plans for the evening outside of dawdling around the apartment singing REO Speedwagon and maybe venturing out to the McDonald’s drive-thru for a strawberry milkshake to pair with an episode (or five) of House of Cards. My husband had left before I was home from work to see a movie with friends. This meant the apartment was quiet and the night was my own. After a long and tired workweek, quiet and solitude sounded as delicious as the aforementioned strawberry milkshake. So I settled in for just that.
I heated up a bowl of minestrone soup in the microwave and watched it bubble and warm while skimming Twitter on my phone. My pug, Wallace, sat at my feet and stared up at me like a starving, sad little toddler hoping I would drop part of my dinner on the floor.
I toasted two slices of sourdough bread and plopped down on the couch to feast. (I give myself permission to eat on the couch when it’s the weekend. Or just whenever I want to). Mid-way through my meal the typical solo-Friday-night-at-home dialogue commenced in my head:
What should I do tonight? I should probably do something productive. Or something cool and sophisticated like drink wine and eat stinky cheese and write about how it makes me feel. Or I could make something. Like a pie or a jewelry box. How does you make a jewelry box? Dumb idea. Let’s see what everyone on Instagram is doing.
(Five minutes into Instagram surfing…)
My life is boring. Everyone is having fun but me. I want dessert.
I did my dishes and poured some kibble into Wallace’s bowl and resented the fact that there were no sweets in our kitchen. Unless Fig Newtons count. And we all know they don’t. I began to fantasize about the strawberry milkshake I promised myself but realized that before I left my apartment to go anywhere, I needed to take a shower.
So I shampooed my hair and scrubbed my body clean while singing along with the “Beyonce Radio” Pandora station. (‘Cause conditioning your hair is much more fun when you’ve got “Irreplaceable“ blasting.)
Once I was done I dried off and checked my phone after hearing a buzz. I had draped the towel I had just used over the shower rod because I was alone and it was a Friday and what better time to wear your birthday suit? Then I reached for my toothbrush.
And just like that…BOOM!
The world was coming to an end. I was sure of it.
Beneath my feet the bathroom floor was swaying back and forth like a carnival ride and every item in my bathroom began to rattle and shake in ways that are not normal. It took me about an eighth of a second for me to process that the flower vase in front of me was shaking violently in it’s place, as if being exorcised for demons.
Then I started to scream. And I mean – really scream, like one of the kids in Jurassic Park during the kitchen scene when they’re running from the velociraptors – that’s what it sounded like.
My thoughts in that moment:
THIS IS IT MY LIFE IS OVER I AM GOING TO DIE!
AN ASTEROID HAS HIT THE EARTH AND I’LL NEVER SEE MY MOTHER OR MY HUSBAND OR ANOTHER EPISODE OF HOUSE OF CARDS EVER AGAIN!
NO ITS THE RAPTURE! THE RAPTURE IS HAPPENING! WHAT IF JESUS FORGOT ME?!? ITS BECAUSE I CUSSED AT THAT OLD MAN WHO STOLE MY PARKING SPOT AT WORK TODAY AND NEVER TOLD GOD I’M SORRY!
HOLY *%#$ EARTHQUAKE! IT’S THE BIG ONE!
About six seconds had passed and in panic mode I grabbed my towel and wrapped it around my body and ran from my bathroom through the living room where two picture frames and a vase with flowers had fallen to the ground. The walls and ground beneath me were shaking as if some giant, Godzilla-kid picked up my apartment and decided to shake it for fun.
Next thing I knew, I was outside. By the time I could process that an earthquake had happened, it was over. And I was standing outside where half of my neighbors were also standing. Except I was in a towel. Everybody else was dressed.
My hands were shaking and the fact that I was not dressed did not hit me until my body registered that it was cold. Scared and confused about whether this was the Apocalypse, I turned to my neighbor who was outside her front door with her hand over her chest and said: is it over?
Now, for the sake of context, it should be stated that I have only been through one earthquake (that I actually felt) since I have lived in California. And that was a 3.2 or something and it lasted maybe five seconds. Nothing broke, no pictures fell off the walls, there were no vases being exorcised for demons in the bathroom, and I didn’t think the rapture was happening. This earthquake, however, was a 5.1 and lasted for twenty seconds that felt like twenty minutes.
I am not used to this stuff. I hail from the South and was raised in Florida where adverse weather conditions are frequent, expected, and sometimes, celebrated. (Hurricane party, anyone?) I can handle torrential downpours and lightning and hail and in the event of a strong enough hurricane, being without power for a couple of days. But this whole earthquake business? Not so much. I have yet to “get used to” the reality that at any given moment the earth’s shifting plates might cause the crust to break, or “quake,” and everything could be destroyed in seconds because of it.
This is why I turned to my neighbor for comfort. Though being dressed at the time would have been preferable.
She did not answer me at first. So I asked her again: is it over?
No answer. I thought she was ignoring me or being rude just because so I looked away and turned to go back inside. But as soon as my hand touched the door-knob, she started to yell.
I would tell you what she said but I don’t know. I don’t speak Spanish. What I can tell you is that she was very animated and theatrical with her hand gestures and did not have a kind look on her face while she spouted off words that I did not understand. Then her door opened and a little girl walked out. She looked about seven or eight years old. Upon noticing me, in a towel, the woman drew the girl close to her and started yelling at me again. At this point, I cowered back inside. I did not know what I had done or said wrong. Maybe she was yelling at me for not being dressed. Or maybe she just doesn’t like me because there was one time Wallace pooped in her lawn and I forgot to pick it up.
I’ll never really know.
Once inside, I surveyed the damage. It wasn’t horrible – just a few broken knick-knacks and a terrified pug curled up in his bed. I texted my husband to make sure he was okay and finally put on some clothes.
Did that really just happen? I thought.
Yes. That happened.
I had survived my first “big” earthquake. No, I did not do the things you are supposed to do like NOT RUN OUTSIDE IN A TOWEL. But I survived.
And so my quiet Friday night of solitude hadn’t played out the way I had planned. But I grabbed my purse and hopped in the car and headed to McDonald’s. Because at the end of the day, it will take more than an earthquake, public humiliation, and being angrily yelled at in Spanish to stop me from getting a strawberry milkshake when I want one.
And that’s just that.