Dear Lily June,
I regularly read you this children’s story called “Cookies” from a larger collection. In it, two friends, Frog and Toad, whip up batches and batches of the baked goods, but once they start eating them, they find they can’t stop. The cookies are just too delicious; Frog and Toad are powerless to resist.
In order to exercise willpower (defined by Frog as “trying hard not to do something you really want to do”), they try putting the cookies in a box. When Toad points out that they could still open the box to eat the cookies, Frog ties a string around it. When Toad points out they could cut the string then open the box to eat the cookies, Frog climbs up a ladder and hides the tied-up box on a high shelf. When Toad points out that they could climb the ladder, cut the string, open the box and eat the cookies, Frog takes the cookies outside.
He calls out for the birds, who come flying in from all directions to eat the two friends’ dessert. Toad remarks sadly that they don’t have a single cookie left, and Frog responds cheerfully, “Yes, but we have lots and lots of willpower.”
It’s at that moment that I fall in love anew every time with Toad. Dryly, confidently, he says to his friend about willpower, “You may keep it all, Frog. I am going home to bake a cake.”
It’s around this time every year, as the temperature starts getting a little crisper, the nights a little longer, that the hankerings set in. Yes, your mother is that stereotypical avid consumer of all things pumpkin-flavored (pumpkin bread, pumpkin bars, pumpkin tea, pumpkin coffee, pumpkin blood, pumpkin oxygen), but before the main Graze-Off sets in, the season is still always kicked off in the same way it used to be for me as a kid: With an entire box of Cheez-Its and a gallon of apple cider.
It is the only snack my dad, post-divorce, would consistently “make,” and we’d park on the couch for the only activity, post-divorce, we’d consistently do together: watching the Steelers. I might as well have been invisible for six days a week, but on Sunday, my dad saw me and bought the small, cheap snack I’d ask for, invariably. Love was a bowl of neon-toxic orange squares between us. Even in the years we were estranged, eating that snack, for me, shrank the literal and emotional distance metaphorically and momentarily.
You have to be a particular kind of eater to plow through entire boxes of high calorie, high sodium snack carbs in single sittings, not chewing so much as treating your throat like the high-power suction hose of a vacuum cleaner. You have to have a void inside you you’re trying to fill, a bottomless box crammed with memories of eating, like a series of snapshots all taken at the dining room or the kitchen or even the TV table. My relationship to food is as complex as my relationship to my family: necessary for life, but often full of empty calories.
I put the impetus to stop my gluttony on my husband, your father. I hand him the box, mid feeding frenzy, and plead, “Here. Take this away from me.” That he doesn’t do an adequate job (not, for instance, loading it into a rocket ship, having it launched to one of Jupiter’s lesser moons, digging through the moon’s surface to create its first underground bunker, placing the box of Cheez-Its deep within it, hanging it upside down from its barcode like Harry Houdini by his feet, wrapped in chains and all, then filling the inner chamber up with concrete before going ahead and blowing up the moon just for good measure) is, Lily June, the reason your mother isn’t skinny.
Things work a little better if I use the string to tie my own hands.
I walk through the grocery store with a running mental ban on all the things I shouldn’t eat. (I’m in far wiser company.) The list, with IC, is exhaustive and ridiculous if you’re trying to lose weight. Because so many healthy foods are highly acidic (tomatoes and coffee and lemon and oranges and any berries and onions and soybeans and tofu and artificial sweeteners and many additives or preservatives and chocolate and wine and any spice or seasoning that’s at all tasty), I got practiced at relegating myself mostly to the bakery.
Fresh-baked plain bagels and plain whipped cream cheese tend not to, for some reason, trigger pain flares in me, but they’re the quickest way to turn my a waistline into a wasteland. I used to joke that I was on a medically-imposed high carb diet until a doctor snapped back at me that she could tell, because it was causing me to look a “little doughy.”
These days, I try to mostly avoid white breads (and I give thanks that I no longer live in the South where you were expected to use pieces of Sunbeam like edible napkins), but the damage seems to have been done permanently. And the truth is, the stress of not eating certain comfort foods (oh pizzas and pastas and cookies, how I love thee) backs up in me and adds ten pounds worth of frown lines to my face anyway.
So back to the cutting board.
When I really get depressed about how my abdomen seems to sag like an octogenarian’s elbow (as I am now), I try to recommit myself to the walking life. I devote the hour of my lunch break each day (the only hour of my day that belongs entirely to me) to charging up and over and around campus, taking the stairs of parking garages, barreling through each university building, getting lost in the neighborhoods where frat houses spring up like labyrinth shrubbery, and I walk until it hurts. Literally.
I hope you never get to where I am with my weight, Lily, not because I would love any part of you any less (and God help the person who says you’d be more beautiful if you lose some weight, as they’ll have to answer to my every pound), but because obesity aches. When I walk, I waddle a little, as if I were still pregnant. It’s because, if I plant my feet firmly, I risk the landmines of sciatic electricity. My knees creak and pop like old doors, and my feet sting like my shoes were made of jellyfish from the strain of the extra weight landing on them.
I drink water like some people breathe in order to keep from dehydrating on these excursions (and I sweat like I’m melting butter), but too much water sitting in my bladder for too long (roughly more than a teaspoon for more than a minute) can exacerbate my IC, meaning that either I have to drink and “hold it” strategically, or I have to accept that failing to hydrate properly can lead to headaches.
Recently, I’ve been climbing this ladder over and over (for a month now), hoping to see even the slightest encouragement (a modest loss of a pound a day might keep me going), but so far, nothing. If anything, when I look in the mirror, I feel like I’m actually gaining. And yes, Lily, muscle weighs more than fat, but I’m doing this without measurements, so all I have to go by is my visual gauge (which isn’t, admittedly, all that accurate, strapped into self-loathing goggles and all).
I refuse, though, to step on a scale, because at the start of this journey, in no way will knowing that number help me. I refuse to shell out money for a phone with apps or products like a FitBit because this isn’t just a trend to me. It’s, hopefully, a reboot of my entire life.
And while I’m starting over, I don’t want to put myself in competition with anyone, least of all my past selves. And I don’t want to become tunnel-visioned to the number of steps I’m taking currently, so much so that I lose sight of the trees I’m passing under, and whether their leaves have started changing. I want to be able to stop my painful waddle temporarily to look up through them, seeing their branches reach to somewhere higher, without panicking that my step count went down on account of my submitting to silly things like spiritual awe at a natural wonder.
Deep down, I know I need to stop subconsciously thinking of exercise as the punishment I dole out to myself for letting my body get as big as it is. I’ve read far better women than I talk about how they react (or refuse to) when the others comment on their weight. One of these bloggers makes an analogy I love–that others’ negativity is like a suitcase they hand you that you have the right to (at least in your imagination) hand right back and say, “No thanks. This isn’t for (or even, really, about) me.”
The other argues, at one point, that even those who would shout positive encouragement about weight loss to a woman running are vaguely insulting, implying that the only “good fatty” is one trying to be thin.
The trouble is, there’s no one to point the finger at here but me. The only one (at least that I’m not oblivious to) mocking and shaming and nitpicking and nagging me is the bully in my own mind. I wouldn’t be this judgmental with anyone but myself. And yet, inside my head sits the anorexic I used to be, and she’s become a mean girl. When I start to feel better about my own reflection, she snarkily inquires, “Oh, so you think you’re not ugly? Not a fatty? Can you count those chins again for me?” The fierce feminist in me would strangle her to death with a linguine noodle if I would just let myself buy one already.
The truth is, I will never be able to eat like my mother, a woman aptly named for a bird and whom I remember, pre-divorce, constantly excusing herself from the dinner table while her family was still eating, claiming she had already finished (the taste of sauce she sampled while cooking it must have been enough for her). I will never be able to exercise like my father, sequestering himself for hours a day in a gym to chisel his features into a firmer body at sixty than I have in my thirties. They have always been (and will always be) thinner than me. And it doesn’t seem to make either of them inherently happier.
It’s not just a matter of exercising willpower over the foods that taunt me. I do need to cut back on processed crap, if only because that stuff is guaranteed (like everything else created these days) to kill me. But it’s more a matter of cutting out the processed commentary I keep running, the one feminism has taught me to put on mute, but not shut off the subtitles to entirely. Instead of shedding pounds, I need to shed the idea of my ideal body. I need to accept what is. I need to either redefine what I call “beauty” or just ditch the pursuit entirely. You might inherit my larger genes. But you do not have to inherit my negativity, Lily.
Before you get old enough to understand this weight war waging in me, I need like Frog, to be inventive in my ways to change my lifestyle, making it healthier. But I also, like Toad, need to just enjoy what I want every now and again. It’s called having your cake and not endlessly critiquing yourself in your mind for eating it, too. That, to me, wouldn’t be willpower. It would be real power.
- By Lars Aronsson. This photo was taken during the joint Wikipedia photo/OpenStreetMap mapping weekend in Växjö., CC SA 1.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1243970
- PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22069665