Archive for December, 2012

Dresses: Old and New

Dresses: Old and New

On this, the last day of the year, I would like to share another awesome thing. It seems like an appropriate way to close out the old year and welcome in a new one.

There’s a dress store in Silver Lake that I adore. Matrushka has funky, lovely, cool dresses all designed and made by the shop’s owner. The first time I wandered in there with a friend, I wanted to buy all of the beautifully patterned, flatteringly cut dresses in the store. Unfortunately, I couldn’t fit into any of them. I’d never gone into the store on my own because I knew nothing in a boutique store featuring sizes S, M and L would be large enough for me. When I was there with my friend, I resigned myself to admiring the dresses and giving advice while she tried things on.

But the store won my eternal devotion when the saleswoman mentioned that they could make any of their dresses to fit – all they needed were my measurements. Even though I was plus-sized, even though I wasn’t the kind of girl who got to shop in cute neighborhood boutiques, in this instance, in this store, I could shop, and I could have an awesome dress. Anyone who has ever been too large for all the clothes in a store – or in many stores – knows how isolating and marginalizing it feels. Wandering among racks, looking at clothes I know not to bother trying on, while my friends shop with intention has always made me feel awkward and overly self-aware, each piece of clothing reinforcing to me how much I don’t fit in (literally) because of my size.

I had my places I shopped – stores that catered to plus-size women – but it was thrilling to find that I could participate at a regular store. That I could be normal – sort of, almost. I had to get measured and order the dress and come back for it. But I could participate too, and even though I still felt self-conscious, it meant so much to me. And I wore that dress all the time.

It’s way too big on me now (even though I still have it), but I hadn’t gone back to Matrushka until today, when I was in my old neighborhood with another friend. We went in the store, and it was the same but totally different …because I could shop off the rack. All those beautiful dresses? I could try them on. And you know what else I could try on? Everything on the sale rack. I didn’t have to worry about what looked biggest, or what could be altered. I just had to find my size and try it on.

It felt not quite real to step out of the dressing room and see myself in the mirror wearing a dress at a place I never imagined myself being able to shop. I felt different from how I’d felt before, but also the same. Like two people standing in the same space. A newer version of me looking back from the mirror, but still the same woman with all the same feelings and memories. Sometimes I wonder why it should be so satisfying and mean so much to me to buy smaller clothes, when I am still the same essential being. Why should clothing at all, much less its size, matter in the scheme of greater things?

I think it’s because of what is actually different. To change how I looked on the outside, I had to change who I was on the inside in how I behaved. I had to start showing up for myself. Not just saying I wanted a different life, but meaning it, proving it by actions taken over and over again, each day, on my own behalf. Eating well and exercising is all about caring for myself, taking the time to prioritize myself and demonstrate, through action, how much I value my own self. The slowly accumulated, massive value of those many repeated actions is not something I could have ever anticipated or imagined. It is the substance of the change, the foundation that makes the whole edifice of a new me permanent and solid.

So of course, I am thrilled by it. Any time I see evidence of it, any time I see myself. It reminds me of how much I’m capable of, that I didn’t know I was capable of, how much power and potential I have. And it’s really fun to see all of that in a dress.


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So here’s a thing that happened…

Remember all those cookies I ate on Christmas? I was expecting those to have a somewhat negative impact on the ole scale when I got back to Los Angeles.

It wasn’t just the cookies either (or the cake). I ate wheat and corn the whole time I was gone. My family practically subsisted on tamales during my visit. (Seriously, we had them four times in three days including twice on Christmas Eve.) I might have consumed some cheese. I definitely drank half a glass of wine. And while I did exercise, I managed to get in four days a week instead of my usual six to seven. It wasn’t horrible, particularly not for a holiday week and a vacation week; but it was clearly way out of line with how I’ve been living. And since my habit of coloring only the littlest bit outside of that line has kept me from losing any real amount of weight in the last six months, I figured these liberal transgressions would really make me pay.

Except that they didn’t.

I stepped on the scale my first morning back home, and I had gone down two pounds. Or one pound. It actually depended on when I stepped on the scale. (There is clearly something wrong with my scale, which is a relatively new, high-quality digital scale; but my weight shouldn’t fluctuate by a full pound up and then down and then up again in a matter of minutes.) Regardless though, it’s lower. Whether it’s one or two pounds or somewhere in the middle, the scale trended down, and that was not what I was expecting.

I do not know why that happened. I do not have answers. What I understand is that, to lose weight, I eat very clean, healthy food and exercise vigorously and consistently. I don’t know how an “eat some cookies and tamales and skip the gym” plan fits in as a weight-loss technique. I mean, obviously, it doesn’t. Obviously, if I were to continue on that path (which I am already not doing), I would start gaining weight instead of losing it. There is no miracle tamale diet.

Here are the only theories I/my friends have come up with:
1. Metabolism confusion – Something about how my body is so used to not having crap food and excess calories that when it suddenly got those things, it got all confused, which revved up my metabolism. This sounds like the kind of pseudo-science featured in half the women’s magazines and diet plans of the world, and it’s certainly not backed up by anything so research-oriented as even a simple google search. But it sounds kind of good? Maybe?

2. Anxiety as cardio – I am afraid of flying, and I did it twice over the holiday to get to and from Texas. My phobia has gotten so bad that I started having panic attacks almost two days in advance of the flight out, and for both flights, I was shaking visibly for the first hour or so of the trip. This level of anxiety and the panic attacks that go with it cause so much physical stress for me that it seems possible that that stress could also burn calories. Maybe…?!

3. Anxiety as diet – On those days when I was so nervous about flying (about four in all), the anxiety suppressed my appetite, and I really couldn’t eat – which maybe made up for the days I ate more?

4. Dumb, happy luck?

5. Magic diet tamales?

I don’t know, clearly. But I am grateful. And now that I am back home and in my routine, I am also firmly back on the wagon of healthy choices. Because really, a cookie here and a few lazy days there isn’t what kills you, it’s making those things a pattern, the rule instead of the exception, that does. I plan on keeping them the exception.

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On Christmas night, after the gifts had been opened, dinner cooked and eaten, time shared with family, and my parents had left to take my brother to the airport, I sat down alone in the kitchen and I ate cookies.

I ate more regular, sugar and butter filled cookies in 15 minutes than I had eaten in the entire previous year. Three times as many at least. Maybe more like six times. Because I really do not eat cookies anymore. I’d maybe had two so far this year – maybe? And then I had about 10. They were small and homemade, and not overly sweet. But they were very clearly still cookies. Cookies that I ate with a vengeance.

Why did I do that?
Because they were there.
And because I don’t like being told what to do.
And because eating is a way I cope with emotional stress.

So point #1: They were there. I mean… this is why you don’t keep cookies in the house. This is why we shouldn’t surround ourselves with unhealthy food. Because if it’s not there, we won’t eat it. And this is why the holidays are so dangerous. Because the treats – all the delicious, unhealthy treats – are everywhere. The month of December is like an exercise in will power and decision fatigue for me. How many times can I face a temptation and say no? Very many times. But – as studies show – it gets harder as I go. Having the treats just lying around, practically begging to be eaten, adds to this challenge. This situation alone is one I have become much better at managing (see Thanksgiving). It was in concert with the other two issues that my real troubles began.

Point/Issue #2: I don’t like being told what to do. I grew up with a very strict father. There were right and wrong ways to do everything, and I spent my childhood and teenage years using my best people-pleasing instincts to figure out all the right things and do them, appropriately, like a good girl, so I would not get in trouble. In doing so, I skipped the rebellious teenager phase. But everyone needs to rebel at some point, so as an adult, I became verrrrry resistant to being told what to do. Particularly concerning food. Because often, food was the way I rebelled. I ate what I wasn’t supposed to, and I ate it all the time. And I sure as fuck didn’t need anyone to tell me about it! How I was doing it or, more pointedly, how I should not be doing it. And as it turns out, many folks feel pretty free to tell overweight people how they should be eating differently. Which is… not cool. And was really not cool with me.

I have made the choice now to eat healthy food in reasonable portions. It is my decision not to consume sugar, butter and a number of other unhealthy foods. And I have done pretty damn well with it. So, if I should choose to make an exception in how I eat – if I should say, choose to eat a cookie on Christmas – I feel like 1. that was always my own goddamn business and 2. at any rate, at this point, I’ve pretty well proven that I can handle it thanks. I know my family means well and that they are just trying to support me. But. When they say, in the exact same tone they always have said, “You don’t need to eat that” I. see. red.

I’ve never been one for confrontation though. I’m much more partial to quietly getting even. So if my brother tells me I don’t need to eat something or my father says “Uh-uh, Jennie!” like I’m the family pet trying to steal scraps from the table, I am not going to yell, “I DO WHAT I WANT!” and then do what I want. But I’m going to think it. And I’m going to bide my time, and eventually… I’m going to do exactly what the fuck I want.

This is probably how I gained a significant portion of my weight. Lots of fuck-you eating. I’m pretty much over it now though because I finally, finally after oh-so-many years have come to understand that the only person the fuck-you eating really hurts is me. Which is why I still needed the third factor to take me to the cookies.

Point/Issue/Factor #3: Coping with Emotional Stress. We all know the holidays can be stressful. Travel, families, shopping in horrid malls. It’s always a lot, even when it’s also lovely and fun. But this year, there’s something else I’ve been contending with: big change. I’m getting married in a few months. And even though I haven’t been a child in my parents’ home for years, and in those years, many things have changed, marriage creates a delineating line in a way other transitions don’t. My parents are my family, of course, but now I will also be starting my own family. I may not always go to my parents’ home for Christmas. When I do, I will have my spouse with me. It’s all very exciting and wonderful, of course, but there is also loss there. It may have been a long time since I was physically my parents’ little girl, but part of me will always feel like I am.

Life changes, always, I know, but it’s still hard for me sometimes, even when it’s good change. So when I found myself sitting alone in the house I grew up in, looking around at the decorations I have seen every year, knowing how much time has passed, how it will keep passing, and how the way things have been will pass on too, well… it was a lot. And the cookies were right there. An old habit and not a good one, but a comfort still. So I ate them. I ate the cookies. And maybe some cake too.

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I forgot that there were still people who hadn’t seen me since I lost weight. I remembered this morning when my parents’ housekeeper, Armandina, came over to drop off about a thousand dozen tamales.

It’s Christmas Eve Day in Houston, Texas. It’s sunny and temperate, and we have a lot of tamales in our house now because, every year, my family has friends over on Christmas Eve for tamales and chili, which means every year, my mom orders about twice as many tamales as we need from Armandina (who has a side business making and selling tamales, clearly), who then brings us those tamales plus a couple dozen extra as a Christmas gift.

I was excited to see Armandina when she arrived. She’s worked for my parents since I was in high school, so I’ve known her for a very long time; and I always enjoy catching up with her. Plus, she’s never met my fiance, so I was all eager to introduce him.

But before I could do that, she held me out from the hug I’d just given her and spun me around, saying “Mira, mira.” Look at how much I’d changed, look at how good I looked, look at this! I was caught off guard and was flustered and also totally flattered.

I’m getting used to the difference in how I look. Which is good because that means it’s becoming my new normal. But it’s also good to be reminded of how significant the change is and how it is a big deal. It’s nice to be noticed and appreciated.

When I was overweight, I used to think that people wouldn’t like getting complimented on losing weight because telling them how good they looked would imply they hadn’t looked good before, and I didn’t want anyone thinking they were somehow inherently better just because they were thinner. What I have learned from personal experience is that, actually, it’s just nice to have all of my hard work noticed and appreciated. I have sweat for this change; I have put my back into it. I’ve worked hard for something I’m proud of, and I’m happy to accept the compliment.

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One of the things I think about a lot is why it worked/is working this time. Because it has not worked many, many times before. In fact, I cannot count (because I cannot remember) all the times I have made a new start at becoming a healthier weight.

I’ve been obsessed with losing weight since I was a seventh grader, when I mistook going through puberty for becoming a hideous fat person. I was not overweight at all, but I thought I was. I know this to be true because I have a journal entry in which I record my intentions to lose 20 pounds so I can go from a gross and massive 112 pounds to a lean and respectable 92 pounds (please note the heavy sarcasm there). Despite thinking I was fat for all of high school, I was never actually overweight until I went away to college and gained the ole Freshman 15 (cough…20) just like so many others. The summer after my freshman year was also my first experience with dieting: I joined Weight Watchers with my mom because she suggested it.

I was embarrassed to do it – because it meant admitting what I had always known: that I was fat and hideous and unlovable (and yes, my brain made those ridiculous jumps in logic – sometimes still does). I was also the only person in the room under 30. The effort didn’t really work. I lost 5 pounds, which I gained back plus 20 once I returned to college. It was the beginning of a long series of “try and fail” cycles.

I’ve been through so many of those cycles that I’ve had a clear logical understanding of what one does to lose weight (eat less, eat better food, exercise more) for years now. But for years, it didn’t translate into anything actually changing. And I so badly wanted to find that thing – that diet plan, that mental shift, whatever it might be – that would help me finally, truly make a change and not just pretend around it.

The truth is that I still don’t know completely what made this time different. I suspect that the answer is similar to a lot of answers on this journey: there is no quick fix. There may not be a quick answer to “This is how you change your life.” I had been desperate to find that real shift for a couple of years before it happened, and I think that was part of it: the mental preparation. Changing your life in a real way is no joke. It involves actual – wait for it – change. Which is one thing to talk about and think about, but it’s another thing altogether to live it each and every day. I had to be really ready to make that shift, to let go of old ways and embrace (even if fussily) new ones; I needed to have real, bone-deep reasons for doing it. “I want to be thin” was always just a surface reason, and even though I was obsessed with the idea, it never spoke to what is true for me, what really matters.

It was only when I started wanting the change for my true self, for my health and wellness, yes, but also because it spoke to the truth of who I am, that I found the path to make the change. And then I was very fortunate to get a long, honest letter from a dear friend. She showed me an opening – a window to change – and scary as it was, I jumped through it. I had to be ready to make the jump because, obviously, there were a lot more steps after that first big one.

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Sickness and Eating

So after a week of glorious conformity to a strict and thoughtful regiment that did not include wheat or corn, I got sick. The two events are unrelated. I got sick because I was around sick people and because I was stressed out by everything I needed to and had not accomplished (still have not accomplished) in advance of the holidays. But once I was sick, it was a lot harder to remember what to eat and what not to eat.


I am not a good sick person. I do not keep a stiff upper lip or carry on through the pain. I whine; I moan; I crawl into bed. As my immune system shuts down, so do most of my other systems – including my ability to answer questions nicely, or make decisions of any kind. Stephen experienced this phenomenon on Sunday when we stopped at Whole Foods to get me some cold-fighting remedies and pick up something to take to a dinner party. When I asked him if we should take flowers, he said, “I don’t know,” which my sick brain interpreted to mean “I hate your stupid idea!” This was, of course, not what he meant. But in the face of uncertainty, with snot clogging all my nasal cavities, I completely broke down. We resolved the situation – and took flowers – but really, when I’m sick, I do better when I’m not taxed. At all.

Which can make food challenging. In the past, my standard operating procedure for sickness was to buy rainbow sherbert – a sick-time comfort food from childhood – and eat as much of it as I saw fit. Nothing numbs a sore throat like a tub of tri-colored sherbert. And it’s sweet deliciousness is a good distraction from all the unpleasant sick feelings. Orange juice was another staple because, you know: Vitamin C. Also soup.

Pretty much all I’m left with now is the soup.

I have comforted myself with food for so long that when I need extra comforting, it’s hard to remember that a tub of frozen dessert – or a cookie or a chocolate bar or anything really that feels soothing and satisfying – is not the answer. Obviously, I know sherbert is out of the question now. Even juice, I have mostly replaced with hot tea. But I still have my ways. While spending all day in my pajamas, shuffling around and trailing Kleenex, I found myself looking for comfort food, whatever version of it still remained, and when I found what I was looking for, I didn’t have the same will-power to remind myself of important truths like “You don’t need a second Kind bar” or “That’s probably enough dried fruit for today.”

So I ate a lot of dried apple pieces and Kind bars. It’s not the worst thing in the world I can do, but as my daily food logs reflect, it’s also not the best, most calorie-conscious thing I could do. And I know calories aren’t the be-all-end-all. In fact, I lost a lot of weight without counting them at all. But now, it seems I have hit the point where just eating healthy, whole foods is not enough. Now, it matters how much of them I eat. Because it is still possible to eat too much of a good thing. I’m pretty sure dried apples stop being a good thing pretty quickly – like well before I finished the full bag of them.

At least I still stayed away from the wheat and the corn though.

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“For I have known them all already, known them all.” – T.S. Elliot

This is not my first rodeo. Obviously. I have struggled with my weight for my entire adult life, since I was a teenager really. It’s been almost two decades, and if there’s a diet that’s not totally whacked out, I have probably tried it. For example…

Jenny Craig: I had one good week (the first one) in which I lost four pounds, and then I spent the next two months trying to make myself eat frozen, pre-packaged meals three times a day, every day and failing at it. Because it was frozen, pre-made, pre-packaged meals. And sure the food tasted good, but it was food in a box. Over and over again. And that’s not how we’re meant to live. Food comes from the ground and from animals. Food is something we share over a table with friends and family. Food is something we cut on wood boards and cook in ovens. It’s not something we microwave and eat alone. At least it shouldn’t be.

Slim-fast: I don’t even know if that shit exists anymore, but I did it waaaay back in my early twenties when I was desperately trying to lose weight to be a bridesmaid in my cousin’s wedding. The shakes were pretty disgusting, and I was hungry all the damn time. It made me miserable. Miserable! But I didn’t want to be the fat bridesmaid, so for three weeks, I guzzled disgusting shakes and bitched and muttered and moaned all day, and practically killed the one real meal I got in my eagerness to eat it. I lost a few pounds. I gained them back in the days leading up to the wedding. I was the fat (or fatter) bridesmaid, and I had a fucking brilliant time.

The Fat-Flush Plan: Yeah, that shit lasted two miserable days for me. I started it on a holiday weekend, and by Monday, I was so miserable and carb deprived that I was too dizzy to get up from my couch. And I couldn’t imagine that was a reasonable way to live, so I said, “fuck it” and ate some goddamn rice.

The Cabbage Soup Diet: See the Fat Flush Plan above because the experience was almost identical. Fortunately, it only took trying ridiculous crap twice to remember that it was a bad idea. Except for…

The Master Cleanse: A very California episode for me. A good friend convinced me that it would purify me, rid me of my toxic addictions to sugar. She said that after three days, she didn’t even miss food; she just felt light and strong and like she finally was in control of her cravings. I was so convinced of the revolutionary effect this diet would have on me, that I committed to five days of spicy lemonade before I even started. And I was stubborn enough to stick to it. I said I’d do it and I’d be damned if I didn’t. Even though I knew within twenty-four hours that it was ridiculous. Yes, I did lose eight pounds in five days; no, it was not worth it. I was pissy and bitchy and hungry all the goddamn time. The desire for food never went away; the hunger never went away. I got so goddamn sick of spicy lemonade. And when I finally got to eat real food again, the simplest lentil soup felt like a revelation. The benefit of the Master Cleanse was great for me in an entirely unexpected way: it confirmed for me that food is a gorgeous necessity, a beautiful element of life. Yes, I abused it, but there were ways not to abuse it, and that’s what I had to find because it was a part of life, and a gift.

And finally, the venerable Weight Watchers: I did it four different times. It’s definitely my favorite of all the diet programs I have tried for being the most reasonable and the most likely to work. But it didn’t work for me. I appreciate what it does, how it helps people learn portion control and how to balance what kinds of food to eat. That’s why I kept trying it. Each time I thought, “Surely this time! This time I’ll do it right!” But each time, I did what I always did: attempt to game the system. For the first week or two, I’d diligently count my points, be reasonable, be healthy. But slowly, that idea that I could have anything if I just counted it crept in, and the next thing I knew I was eating 10 cookies and one frozen entree for a day and deeming it fine because I counted it. Usually, that resulted in me “cheating” for that day because I would eventually get hungry despite having eaten over a thousand calories worth of cookies, so I’d go over my limit. I went over my limit all the time. And the more I tried to game the system with low-fat dessert and treat options, the worse it got. Six Weight Watcher ice cream sandwiches in a day? Why the fuck not? It’s just 900 calories! As good as I think Weight Watchers can be for a lot of people, it wasn’t good for me. Because it was about adhering to a plan and following a system, and like so many things with rules, I wanted to rebel against them. And did.

So what was left? For awhile, I thought: nothing. Failure. Just living with it. Pretending I didn’t care. But I did care. I wanted something better for myself. And even while I was eating like I’d given up ever making meaningful change, I was still thinking about change, reading about it, and, in my own slow way, preparing for it. Because what none of the diets or fads had ever done – or ever would do – was teach me how to change my life.

Which is ultimately what I had to do. There was no quick fix, no magic solution. Or there was, but it wasn’t quick and it wasn’t magic. I had to decide to change for myself – not to be thin and pretty in keeping with societal beauty norms, not to fulfill an image of what I perceived others wanted me to be. I had to get to the place where caring for myself was what mattered most, where I was willing to do the emotional and spiritual work, as well as the physical. I had to learn how to have a healthy relationship with food, to enjoy it without emotional attachment, to understand the difference between what is real and nourishing and what is crap, to use that knowledge to make good choices that feed me well and give me life-sustaining energy. And to be willing to keep learning it all, every day.

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