Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Our endless quest for perfection

I see a lot of people, especially women, online and in real life, who are constantly beating themselves up about their weight or their looks or both. This distresses me because so much of it is completely unnecessary and because it's so mean. Yes, they are being mean to themselves, but it's still being mean. I don't think it helps and I've always suspected it actually makes things worse.

Then, one of the nuggets I read during Fat Talk Free Week said that women who talk negatively about their bodies are less likely to engage in healthy behaviors. So it seems that I was right in my suspicion: Beating ourselves up and striving for an unattainable state of perfection isn't "holding ourselves to high standards" (which is how I used to justify this behavior to myself) and it actually makes it harder to improve!

I think everyone has to be honest with themselves about how much they are willing to do to manage their weight. How much they are willing to exercise. How much they are willing to deprive themselves of treats. How much they are willing to follow the rules. How much they are willing to put up with hunger. Some people are willing to do quite a lot and some people aren't willing to do much at all.

Once you figure out what you are willing to do, then you have to accept the weight this leaves you at.

Self magazine calls this your Happy Weight as opposed to your Ideal Weight. I read about this on their website and the idea of a Happy Weight has intrigued me ever since.

I see it as a balance between eating perfectly to the point where you aren't happy on a day-to-day basis because you are going to bed hungry or passing up dessert every day for months or otherwise torturing yourself by holding yourself to some impossible standard that can't be maintained in the long run even if your weight is at the perfect spot for your body vs. being too easy on yourself to the point where your weight makes you too unhappy and unhealthy.

To not accept it, as so many don't, to constantly be on a "diet" to lose the same 10 pounds over and over ... to me, that's part of the madness I had weight loss surgery to stop.

But then I got down to my goal weight and below and everyone told me how wonderful I was and how much willpower I had and I bought into it for a while until I bounced back. Then I beat myself up that I wasn't able to maintain that lowest weight even though I objectively know I looked better when I put a bit back on and even though I deliberately set out to gain a bunch of muscle.

I think I had this idea in my head that I would magically lose a pound of fat for every pound of muscle I put on. But that didn't happen. I added muscle and the scale went up and I was not happy and defensive.

And, for a while, and even to some extent today, I worry about it like a dog at a bone. Am I just fooling myself that I look better with the extra weight? What's wrong with me that I couldn't maintain that lowest weight? Am I going to gain all my weight back?!

So what I am working on as I approach 3.5 years out is accepting that this is my reality. I still freak out once in a while, but I put my energies into not freaking out and not beating myself up about it and not into "I'm going to lose 10 pounds in a month! I can do it!" and then I lose two (not 10), eat too much at a Christmas party, gain it back, tell myself I'm a disgusting cow with no willpower, and what's wrong with me? And start all over again.

Because all that's "wrong" with me is that I'm not willing to go on a crash diet or never have dessert. I also still can't exercise right now (and, yes, that's mega-frustrating). But even if I could exercise, in the winter I don't do it as much as I could.

That's because I'm not willing to go swimming when it's less than 50°F out (all our pools are outdoors here) or go biking in the pouring down rain. (Those who are reading between the lines will figure out that I am willing to bike in a light drizzle. I realize that makes me a bit crazy, but I kind of like how it feels to bike in a light rain. As long as I don't get too cold.)

So I'm going to gain weight every winter because I'm not willing to do what it takes to not gain. Yes, I could go to the gym more in the winter (and I do, but not enough) and I could eat a lot less (and I do, but not enough).

But I know I won't. I haven't for the past three years. I get slug-like in the winter and gain a bit. Then everything naturally turns around in the Spring because I am willing to go swimming when it's 60°F or higher, I am willing to bike all day Saturday if it's nice out, and I am willing to not have dessert every damn day and several times on the weekend. (Or I would be willing if I didn't have a broken brain.)

I have to accept this and still love myself because gaining ten pounds doesn't make me unlovable or a bad person. Even if I don't lose it in the Spring, I am still a wonderful person.

And so are you!

On the other hand, I'm not going to make excuses either. If I stop waiting 45 min. to drink after eating and don't do protein first and eat a lot of carbs for snacks and that makes my weight go up, then that's something I will put a stop to and not accept. Because I am willing to do those things. I'm also willing to log my food when I'm having trouble getting all my protein in or curbing my calories.

So, if I gain and I don't do those things, that's not me being at a Happy Weight. That's me being lazy and that is worth putting energy into changing.

But it's not worth putting energy into beating myself up. Because putting energy into telling yourself you suck is like burning dollar bills. It's not productive and you'll never get them back.

Which leads to my own set of advice to everyone out there struggling with weight issues:

- be realistic about what you are willing to do

- don't be lazy about stuff you are willing to do

- don't beat yourself up about stuff you aren't willing to do

- love yourself no matter what your weight is because how much force the Earth's gravitational pull has on our bodies (i.e., what the scale says you weigh) has nothing to do with our worth as people

I realize this isn't the traditional pep talk of the sort you'll get from watching a Jillian Michaels video. Maybe it even seems like a cop-out or too easy. But don't be fooled. Following this advice is one of the hardest things you'll ever do.

It's worth it, though, because going through life constantly carping at yourself for not being at your ideal weight, not looking like whatever your mental image of perfection is, not being perfect at everything you do is a misery much worse than the work it takes to learn to love yourself and treat yourself well. Plus, people who love themselves, treat themselves better and that's how you improve. Not by being mean to yourself.

The funny thing about this post is that I set out to write about the next section of my 50 Tips from The Rules of Normal Eating. And completely rebelled against what I saw there. I'll talk more about that next time.
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