(This story is also featured on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/chewing-fat-self-images-heavy-impact-kathleen-gill?trk=prof-post)
A year ago, I succumbed to the Gym Dragon. Roughly three times a week, I pay my tithes by working out for an hour or two, lifting weights and riding a recumbent bike.
I didn’t start a committed exercise regimen for superficial reasons, not primarily, at least. I injured my L5-S1 disc around two years ago and, as a result, I feel constant pain throughout the left side of my back. Having done three rounds of physical therapy in the past four years, twice for this issue, I found the most effective routine any therapist set up for me was the vigorous and extensive one that pushed me to my limits (in terms of energy, not pain). Considering the variety of exercises I needed to continually perform in order to succeed, a gym membership just made sense. A gymnasium would have the proper equipment, space and external motivation I needed to heal. Of course, I’ve been broke for years, so money was my primary deterrent. However, when I was at an animal fundraising event last year, and got to spin a wheel to get a deal for a membership with the Rochester Athletic Club, I finally gave in.
My doctor had told me that I would only stop being in pain once I lost a considerable amount of weight, so that has been a major goal I tiptoe towards every time I work out. Lifestyle changes paired with constant mindfulness are part of that deal, of course, but the Swole Lord hasn’t taken me over yet.
Some people do treat the gym like sacred ground, and exercise to those folks can be a religious experience. Fortunately, since this is a women’s gym, there tends to be more support and compassion and less competition or showboating. Though I have heard some stupid, stupid comments from people all over the age spectrum and get ticked off when I see one of the spoiled college kids just sitting on the machines, texting, pretending to do a set every 5-10 minutes. (There is only so much room and so many machines, you’d think courtesy and efficiency would be common sense.) I’m just looking to reduce pain, get in shape (“round” only takes you so far), maybe have another outlet, and possibly even help reduce my depression some days. These goals are not met every single time, and it is unrealistic to expect them to be. What keeps me going, ultimately, is my need to heal. Chronic pain can be incredibly limiting and debilitating, making your problems worse and even triggering depression. Funny how mental health ties in with exercise so much, isn’t it? Well, the body and mind are intimately linked, which brings me to the heart of what I want to discuss.
I read an inspiring article by Buzzfeed’s Isaac Fitzgerald during Body Positivity Week. Fitzgerald’s raw and uninhibited story about growing up with some extra chunk, and the psychological effects poor self image can have on you throughout your life hit me uncomfortably close to home. When I was 14 through 15, I was crash dieting, bordering on anorexia so I could fit in and be considered pretty to my classmates. Of course, like Fitzgerald, I never felt beautiful inside. To the people like us, here is another story I hope you relate to, and the lessons I hope to pass on to you, so you can make better choices than I did. Mostly, to love yourself and get help from people who know what they’re doing and understand what you’re going through.
Since I was 8, I have struggled with my weight. There is definitely an issue of control that is intimately tied in with ones eating habits. I was miserable at school until I went to college, always being a misfit or new kid, so the slight joy and instant gratification I got from eating or drinking sweets was nothing to be taken lightly. Level of physical activity often shifted, too, depending on where we were living and how many hours of Nintendo/Sega/Playstation I could squeeze in every week. I never liked sports and am introverted. Again, I never really had many friends, and was often reserved, since I had an issue articulating the letter “r” until I was 10 and my voice matured, so any escape or outlet I could find, I leapt on. I had gone to three preschools and three elementary schools (my parents divorced when I was 7 or 8, so we moved a few times and never had a ton of money while we were with Mom), so any consistency and pleasure I could find were rare alcoves of peace for me.
The worst I ever got was during high school.
By age 15, I was down to 130 pounds, maybe less. Now, that may sound like an average weight, but I’m 5’8”, with shoulders and hips that can attest to my big boned-ness, and was still not “overweight” when I was at 180 during senior year, as my doctor reassured me, with slight concern in her eyes when I voiced my fear. (The lesson here: BMI is not right. Age, muscle mass, bone structure, sex and a variety of other factors determine if you’re healthy. At best, the Body Mass Index is an overgeneralized ballpark figure meant to help you get to a healthier weight.)
Depression and anxiety reared their ugly heads through all of this, since I was still mourning my father’s death and poorly adjusting to life back with my mother. Mom had already been locked involuntarily in mental health inpatient several times due to late onset schizophrenia. She had been forced to live with her abusive father and domineering, tactless stepmother. Stability, security and support were gone from all of our lives after Dad died, and we were just trying to navigate through the broken pieces. After my sister left for college, and the jerk wads at Oswego High School called me fat and ugly and said there was something wrong with me within earshot one too many times, I sought control over my unstable, miserable life. I had no real guidance, no support system, no one to really talk to who actually got what I was going through. Actually, to be honest, I still feel like that the majority of the time.
For the longest time, we were taught to keep hush hush about Mom’s illness, and suppress everything so as not to upset her and make her feel guilty. I think I internalized that lesson with Dad’s death, and it took my sister sitting me down, with her arms around mine, and telling me, “You didn’t mourn when Dad died. That is what this is.” Yeah, it was the unhealthiest thing to not talk about anything that mattered, Dad’s death or Mom’s illness. Everything was kept so tightly inside that I had severe anxiety in school, and until senior year, I was quiet because I felt like I would burst into tears if I had to say anything. Having a teacher who repeatedly got up in my face and told me to speak in class never helped, either, and I deeply resented her for doing that. When I started opening up about everything, it was like coming out. Though it made all my peers feel awkward and uncomfortable and no one could relate to what I had been through and I still felt ostracized, revealing the truth took a massive weight off my shoulders.
My nails were brittle, my energy was low and, as with most teens, my moods went through rapid cycles of high highs and low lows throughout the day. My outsides, thin and pale, matched my insides: frail, damaged, just wanting to be accepted.
It got to the point where my sister threatened to force feed me Crisco if I lost any more weight.
Eventually, I think I just got hungry again. Plus, as an honors student, I had tons of homework and little sleep, so weight gain was inevitable, particularly after I ended up on a cocktail of medications senior year. That was when I had finally gone to see a psychiatrist, and hadn’t yet learned that they tend to drug you up to your eyelids for every feeling you have, which wasn’t helped by my combo of PTSD-like issues from Mom’s latest psychotic break and the med students’ disease I “contracted” after learning about schizophrenia and mental illnesses in AP Psych. But THAT story is an extensive one we’ll have to save for another day.
The worst part of the skinny days was: I felt prettiest when I was hungry. It was a means of control over myself and my life, a way to fit in. Now, any rational adult knows that thinking along the lines of, I don’t want to be healthy, I want to be skinny, is like saying “I don’t want to be smart, I want to be stupid.” Logic and rationality in high school, however, are sparse. Even smart kids do stupid shit.
For years, my self-esteem, self-image and body image were abysmal. When I was 18 or freshly 19, I reveled when an ugly creeper in Sarasota, Florida told me I was beautiful. I bashfully smiled. No guy had ever said anything like that to me before. Of course, the situation quickly escalated to his following me as I walked, then holding my hand and trying to move his hand to the small of my back and onto my butt. Fortunately, he didn’t follow me when I ducked into the Kmart I was heading to. Foolish me could have had something very bad happened to her.
Looking back on those times, there are several things I wish I could go back and tell myself. Likewise, with health and exercise, there things I have to keep telling myself.
Your weight, your height and your shape do not determine your value. Comments like, “She’d be hot without glasses,” or, “She looks thin from the side,” or, the best one, “She’s still fat!” screamed from afar by a jealous, awkwardly triangular bimbo, never reinforce that fact, though. There are a lot of things I would like to change about myself, inside and out. Though, I have accepted certain aspects of myself. I am big boned; I have curves and wider hips. These are not undesirable traits. In fact, a lot of men like strong, tall, intelligent and independent woman. I wouldn’t want to be with someone who wants me meek and subservient. Furthermore, curves and proportions, from an evolutionary standpoint, are desirable traits, because they suggest that you are healthy and a good mate to start a family with.
But being fat? Verboten.
Here’s the truth: skinny does not equal healthy or even attractive. You can be a scrawny kid inhaling Cheetos and gulping down Mountain Dew while playing video games 12 hours a day, every day and have a heart attack at 25, or you can be a little bit bulky but active, eat fairly healthy and be considered a model of health internally. Everyone is different, and the only constant is the benefit of being good to your body.
Small, gradual changes made over time are much more likely to be maintained than rapid weight loss or muscle gain. That’s how exercise, lifestyle changes and weight loss works, when done effectively. As gym teachers used to tell us insecure teens, when you go on a crash diet, severely reducing your food intake, your body will actually gain weight when you start to eat again, I think to 1.5 times of what you weighed before you started dieting, because, when your body is deprived of food, it naturally stores fat and carbs and sugars and calories as energy. (The silver lining is that, if you need to start going to the gym to lose weight, your body is full of power just waiting to be tapped into.) You slow your metabolism by depriving your body of sustenance, too. You could even end up with weak bones and be in frequent pain later in life.
Though muscle is denser than fat, being more muscular actually revs up your metabolism and allows you to shed more fat than dieting or basic cardio. However, if you push yourself too hard while working out your body actually burns muscle, so stay in your target heart rate. Weight lifting should be in your routine, but you want to do cardio a few times a week along with weights to help boost your endurance and keep your high-strung, caffeine-addled heart healthy.
Also, carbs are good for giving you energy before exercising, not all fat in food is created equally, and sugar and carbs turn to fat, so low fat food isn’t always the best answer. Protein helps build muscle, so fish, beans and Greek yogurt all work well (though can get expensive). Stress, meds, sleep deprivation, hormonal changes and genetics all effect weight, and you do weigh different amounts throughout the day, so, if you insist on weighing yourself frequently, do it at the same time of day. Measure success by increase in strength and endurance, not primarily by weight lost. Muscle is denser than fat so it is possible to gain weight before losing some, especially if you’re just working with a few vanity pounds. Healthy trumps skinny every time. Exercise can boost your mood, but work out so you can eat a burger or candy bar, not in addition to constantly avoiding anything with fat or calories.
I have to keep reminding myself that food is primarily fuel. It takes effort and mindfulness to be disciplined and accountable, to consider how much time I have to exercise in order to eat a certain item without gaining weight. When I feel like Lieutenant Lardo, I try to work out or at least go for a walk. And, yes, not all foods are created equal, as anyone who has ever read a listicle knows. Some foods are healthier than others, and there are some major ones to eat and others to avoid. But then, there are horrible days when I eat my misery and am bloated with discontent. Vanilla custard with hot fudge, brownies, malted milk balls and whipped cream, all paired with a pickle was my most recent overindulgence (turns out, the ice-cream-and-pickles combo IS delicious), and these human moments turn cheat day into a month of repentance for those with addictive or obsessive personalities.
As I said in the beginning of this post, I’ve been going to the gym for about a year now. I’m definitely stronger and more muscular. I can actually see the contours of my oblique muscles when I look in the mirror, and find myself ogling them on occasionally. But I am still fat, and I will have a lot of extra skin in the end. The most frustrating part of all this is that my back is still in some amount of pain constantly, despite NSAIDs, nerve meds, lifestyle and dietary changes. (You can take my lattes and desserts when you pry them from my cold, dead hands. A few extra hours at the gym are much easier than severely limiting the wonderful flavors of life.)
The pain still exists, and some days are much worse than others. But I am noticeably stronger and have better endurance. I can bounce around for a couple of hours at the various charity and community events I take part in, and I can leg press 320 pounds, whereas I went to the hospital this past Christmas because I was immobilized, screaming and crying from the pain (that would be a 10/10 in terms of pain, for those of you keeping track at home). I still have stiff areas, rolls of fat, weak body points, muscle knots, reduced range of motion and mobility some days. Think of how Dr. Gregory House limps – that’s me on a bad day, due to the sciatica. I am, ever so slowly, healing, but I have such a long way to go. And, I admit, that fact can be incredibly discouraging some days.
The gym is not meant to be a place where you go to punish your body for its imperfections, or be the where people gather to improve their young and pretty façades, as dictated by society. I’m working to heal, physically, emotionally, even spiritually. It’s an endurance run.
One underlying problem still remains, though. I rarely consider myself beautiful. I am often paranoid about what others say or think of me, and feel self-conscious about how I look or how I’m presenting myself far too often. Once learned, these insecurities are always there in one form or another; they just morph in design and degree.
Eating an extra piece of cake once in a while will not make you ugly, but I can guarantee that thinking poorly of yourself all of the time will prevent you from being beautiful.