A Work in Progress.

So many thoughts in my head…I’m just gonna toss ’em out there.

The other day, a friend of mine commented on social media about how she’s so schizophrenic (my word, because I can’t remember hers) when self-image is concerned. With each outfit, she looks in the mirror and says to herself, I look okay in this, or I look like a cow in this, or this makes my hips look huge, or whatever. What I got from that was that self-image is often a moment-to-moment thing, depending on how you see yourself, and your clothing or hair or accessories can make all the difference.

Let me just say that this woman is a natural beauty with a lovely figure. I would go so far as to call her stunning. She can walk in the room and attract everyone’s attention without even trying. To hear her expressing insecurity about her own looks is unbelievable to a person like me, but I know she’s sincere and not looking for compliments. She’s humble and she’s beautiful on the inside, too. Unfortunately, the beauty we see when we look at her is not what she sees in the mirror. I suspect this is true for most of us.

But I didn’t always know that. As a fat girl, I envied the girls who didn’t have to try — the girls who looked good in anything they wore, whose hair and makeup were always perfect, and who seemed to have it all figured out. I wanted to be like that, but I knew it was out of reach for me and unrealistic, so I accepted my lot. My pretty friends all seemed to have their various insecurities, but I couldn’t figure out why, because to me, they had it all. They had no reason to complain. I could only imagine how great they must have felt when they admired themselves in their mirrors.

Now I’m a 50 year old WLS post-op. It took me a lifetime to figure out that we all have our own body issues. No matter what the mirror says, no matter what our best friend says, no matter what our loved ones say, we can’t see the good. We launch into the litany of the bad:  bad complexion, skinny arms, saggy chest, eyes too close together, ears too big, whatever. Or maybe we just focus on the receding (and greying) hairline and dark circles, as if they negate everything else. In our own eyes, we’re reduced to the sum of our pathetic parts.

So the men and women I admire for their poise, their beauty, and their confidence are privately just as neurotic and self-critical as I am. (Well, I think there are degrees of neuroses, so anywhere in the neighborhood is fine.) Why would I dismiss their self-assessments as baseless, but believe my own? Why did I make it about me and discount them? I don’t own any exclusive to bad self-esteem, and other people aren’t immune to it because they have good hair or good looks.

What strikes me more often as I get older is that we’re all so much more alike than we are different. Oh, our outsides are all different, but our insides are so similar. We’re all a little bit crazy and a little bit anxious. We love and laugh and grieve and work and sing and fight and dance and raise children or maybe animals. We all carry baggage and burdens. We hope that our frail lifetimes will not be in vain, and we all worry that we aren’t good enough. And instead of celebrating and standing in awe of the multifaceted, three-dimensional individuals we are, we demean ourselves for entirely superficial reasons…no matter who we are.

What keeps coming back to me are some words from my friend Jon, who used to get angry with me whenever I’d call myself a klutz or a dork or fat or stupid or whatever. His rebukes went something like this: When you put yourself down and criticize yourself, you are insulting those who love you by demeaning the object of their affection. How offensive! What gives you that right?

What, indeed?

You don’t have to be a fat person to have insecurities.

You just have to be a person.

 

 

Still a work in progress,

Stuck

 

 photo credit www.freestock.ca

 

Skirting the Issues.

The things we hate about ourselves aren’t more real than things we like about ourselves.
– Ellen Goodman

To accept ourselves as we are means to value our imperfections as much as our perfections.
– Sandra Bierig

 

So I wore a skirt to work today. 

This is significant because honestly, I can’t remember the last time I did that.  I have worked in an office environment for many years, but my go-to office wear has always been jeans and a sweater.  My rule of thumb was concealment: the baggier something was, the more I could hide beneath it.  Plus, if I gained weight, the clothes would still fit – up to a point, of course.  I stayed away from anything that was form-fitting.  Nothing fit properly, anyway. 

But now that I am losing weight, my body shape is changing, and I’m starting to look differently at myself.  I want to change the dowdy self-image I’ve had and replace it with a more stylish, confident version of myself.  I want my inside to match my outside.  So I’ve been trying to be more open to colors and styles I would never have chosen for myself in the past.  I imagine my sister Missy perched on my shoulder, encouraging me.  She always had a good eye for what would look good on me and was behind many of the most-complimented outfits I’ve ever worn.  I know she would have loved to help dress me now.

Shopping has always been uncomfortable, almost torturous, for me, but it’s a necessary evil.  I’m digging around in thrift stores and wearing friends’ hand-me-downs while my body shrinks.  I have shopped so long in the plus-size racks that I automatically go there; it isn’t until I’ve pushed a few hangers around that I realize I’m in the wrong spot.  But these smaller sizes throw me for a loop – I am convinced they won’t fit. 

Case in point: my friend just gave me some clothes; among them was a pair of jeans two sizes smaller than what I’d been wearing.  A few days later, she asked if I’d tried them on.  I admitted I hadn’t, because I wasn’t down to that size yet.  She assured me that yes, they’d fit — plus, they were stretchy.  So I agreed to try them on.  That night, I held the jeans in front of me.  The waist looked impossibly small and the legs looked way too narrow for my thighs.  They would never fit

Here goes nothing. 

As you may have guessed, they fit.  Perfectly.  I could not believe it!  I showed Mr. Stuck, and he told me they looked great and fit me well.  How can that be?  There is such a disconnect between what my brain sees and what is reality.  I can see that I have a long way to go before my thinking reflects the real me. 

Because I know that my brain still sees me at my largest and most unattractive, I must consciously battle against that perception.  I have to challenge myself.  What does this have to do with wearing a skirt today?  Plenty.  I rarely wear skirts because 1) I hate pantyhose, and 2) I hate my legs.  But I told myself that when I’m at the thrift store, if I see something I think is attractive, I will consider it, even if I’m sure it’s still too small for me…even if it’s a skirt or a dress.  (My favorite thing about thrift stores is buying six items for what one would cost in a normal department store.)  I now have a handful of skirts and dresses I’m willing to try.  Not all at once, though.  I’m still a tomboy at heart.

Baby steps.

But for all my good intent, it still took some mental persuasion to talk myself into wearing a skirt to work.  The mental negativity started: So much for fading into the background.  Who are you trying to impress?  A skirt?  You?  With those legs?  At least you’re behind a desk all day.  I told Mr. Stuck that I was thinking about wearing a skirt to work, and he was all for it.  It’s a long skirt, so I didn’t have to worry about my legs showing or about wearing pantyhose (yay!); but it also doesn’t have pockets (boo!).   That was nearly a deal breaker – I normally carry a wallet, not a purse.  I’d have to carry a purse if I wanted to wear a skirt.  Sigh.  Okay.  I dug out an old purse, dusted it off, and put my wallet and keys inside.  No excuses left.

This morning I pulled on the casual, navy skirt and light blue sweater.  I turned and looked at myself sideways in the mirror.  The skirt really accentuated my slimmer figure.  This time, instead of automatically voicing the negative, I chose to admire how I looked. 

Wow. Look how far I’ve come.

I put a smile on my face, squared my shoulders, grabbed my purse and walked out the door.

 

 

photo credit Orin Zebest

No Apologies.

Is ‘fat’ really the worst thing a human being can be? Is ‘fat’ worse than ‘vindictive’, ‘jealous’, ‘shallow’, ‘vain’, ‘boring’ or ‘cruel’? Not to me.
– J.K. Rowling

So, as an important part of building the new, healthier us, Mr. Stuck and I go to a  monthly weight loss surgery (WLS) support group.  Normally there are 15-20 people there for the two-hour meeting; they range from those who are learning about WLS options to pre-op and post-op patients.  We’ve been going for over a year, and we really enjoy it.  It is run by a bariatrics R.N., Connie, who is also a couple of years post-op.  (I highly recommend to anyone considering WLS that they find a group and go.  You learn so much.)

We arrived a few minutes into the meeting, while people were introducing themselves around the circle.  We took our seats and listened until our turn came.  We gave our names and a brief update (surgery type, surgery date, how we were doing).  I noticed there were a few new faces tonight, but I didn’t see Cindy, my “surgery sister.”  (She and I had realized just before our surgeries that we were scheduled for the same day, so we connected in that way, dubbing ourselves “surgery sisters” for fun.)  She is a lovely, vibrant woman who seems to lead a busy, stressful life.  I liked her from the start.

A few minutes later, Cindy arrived.  She made her way to a chair, and I noticed how refreshed she looked.  Even though she was dressed casually, in a yoga-style jacket and pants, she was made up and looked very nice.  She had a smile on her face and a light in her eyes.  I was glad to see her.

When it was Cindy’s time to talk, she took a deep breath.  She apologized for being late, but said she was doing well, 6 weeks post-op like me.  She said she had discovered something, and she wanted to ask the rest of us about it: self-esteem.

She said she had been thinking about how heartbreakingly sad it is to, as she put it, “apologize yourself out of life.”  She said, “I spent all these years apologizing — for everything — and smoothing things over.  I swallowed it all; food, shame, anger, hurt.  I pushed it down.  I made it go away.  But I’m done.  I’m not apologizing anymore.  I’m not sorry, and I’m not rude, but I’m done.  Now, it’s about me.  It feels crazy as I adjust to this new body and new life.  Am I hungry or not?  What do I want to do?  I feel powerful!  I feel joyful!  I feel blessed.  And I want everyone to feel that way.”

She asked around.  “Did you feel it, too?  Did you find it?”  She continued, choking back emotion.  “I thought I was a good person.  I am a good person.  I thought I had it good — I thought my self-esteem was fine.  I’d get up, clean — but I didn’t know.  I didn’t know!  I can’t tell you how different it feels from thinking you have self-esteem to really having it.  You can tell people about self-esteem and self-image all day, but the reality is, you can’t.  They won’t know.  They have to live it.”

I listened to Cindy as the words rushed out of her mouth unbridled.  Everyone was understanding and respectful, even as she talked much longer.  “Why don’t we think we are worthy?  Why don’t we see ourselves as equal to everyone else?  Why do we have to apologize for being who we are, living our lives, and taking up space?  Why do we convince ourselves we don’t deserve to be happy?  We have just as much right to be happy as anyone else.  We DO deserve to be happy.  We are worth it!”

With that, she sat back, still very emotional.  One of the ladies got up, walked over to Cindy and gave her a hug.  Connie pointed to one of the new faces and asked him to introduce himself to the group.  He told us he was a couple years post gastric band surgery.  As he told his story, another regular, Merele, arrived.  She looked a bit flustered.  When it was her turn to speak, she said, “I am so thankful for you all.  You have no idea how much it helps me to be here.  You are all family.”

Merele went on to say that she was several months post-op; the ‘honeymoon period’ of having no appetite was over and it was difficult for her.  She said she was really struggling with that.  Merele, like Cindy, was very emotional as she shared how she is finally giving herself permission to be happy.  She said, “I have stopped worrying about other people.  It’s okay for them to have their meals, but I can’t pay attention to that.  This is my new life.  This is ME!  I had to make this huge change, and it’s for the better, but it’s scary.  I have to make my own choices, and I choose to live.  I don’t want to die inside as well as outside.”  Merele also got a hug.

As I listened to these ladies, I took notes.  No apologies.  Choosing happiness.  Change can be scary.  Struggles.  Joy.  Self-worth.  Cindy  said, “I’m 60 years old, and I should have known this when I was 40.  My daughter is 30.  I want her to be happy, too.”

 ***

So many lessons in life.  I am no more of an expert than anyone else is.  Do I have self-esteem?  Not really, but I can feel a spark of change in how I view myself.  But I also feel that I have wasted a lot of time, and I feel guilty about that.

I wasted my sons’ youth as their obese mother who was unable to wrestle on the floor with them or run footraces across the yard.  Subsequent injuries and illness made everything worse physically, and my self-image sank, as well.  Pretty soon, I was referring to myself as dowdy and dumpy, and all the negative voices in my head became reality.  I was a slob. I was tired and lazy.  I felt helpless.  I was unable to change my situation.  I was unhappy.  I was depressed.  I felt guilty because I wasn’t better, thinner, prettier, more fun, younger, in better shape, smarter, whatever.  And as we all know, that cycle of negative self-fulfillment just rolls along.  Overeating>Guilt>Depression>Overeating>Guilt>Depression.

I have been slender for short periods of time after stringent dieting and self-denial. Each time I felt a rush of confidence in my new look, enjoying the compliments and approval.  But each time that confidence was hollow, and fear hid in its shadow.  I was always afraid — that I would gain the weight back (I always did), and that I was a failure.  I saw that people who had never looked at me twice were now friendly to me, and that just underscored it.  No matter what kind of a person I was inside, whether I was smart or funny or kind, it meant nothing if I wasn’t worth looking at.  That is what they taught me.

So then I would feel phony.  And angry.  The fat that had always been my armor, my permission to be a mouthy smart-ass, was gone, and I’d wish it back.  ‘Life was easier fat,’  I’d tell myself.  I didn’t have unwanted attention from random men.  I didn’t get the catty looks and competition from women.  I wasn’t viewed as a threat, I guess.  I didn’t have to care about my looks, because nobody was looking, anyway.  And then it became easier to tell myself I wasn’t worth it.  I couldn’t do it — it was too hard.  I had failed again.  You see, I pretended to have confidence, but I didn’t really have it, and as soon as the doubt crept in, it was easy to cave.

Getting your head straight after weight loss is tough, and it’s a constant struggle.  The old you vs. the new you.  The negative vs. the positive.  Excuses vs. reason.  Old habits vs. new choices.  Apologies vs. confidence.  It’s a daily fight, because surgery doesn’t change your head or your heart.  As you adjust to the new reality and the possibilities surgery has given you, you still fight the hurtful words in your head when you look in the mirror.

But you’ve got to remember you’re winning this time.  No apologies.

photo credit cod_gabriel