Friday, February 13, 2009

The Other F-Word

It seems that Jessica has committed the unthinkable faux pas, she's gotten fat. To compound her transgression, she wore "mom jeans" in public. Sorry, I should have warned you that I was about to drop that shocker on you. Those of you with sensitive psyches may want to skip the next sentence. Jessica performed in a skort at her most recent concert (skort= a cross between a skirt and shorts, we used to call them culottes). According to The Dish Rag, Jessica's skort is enough to make Mr. Blackwell roll over in his fashionista grave.

I'm left with a serious dilemma. According to the headlines, Jessica Simpson is fat, disgusting, and without any fashion sense. I decided to compare a picture of me to Jessica and clearly, I'm not fit to leave my house. If Jessica is fat and repulsive, then I need to shutter my windows and spare the world from the sight of me.

I was reading one of my favorite blogs recently, The F-Word, and ran across a post about a 2008 study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. According to the study's findings, weight discrimination is more prevalent than discrimination based on sexual orientation, nationality or ethnicity, physical disability, and religious beliefs. I hope that a lot of money wasn't spent on this study; any fat person could have shared this info without the expense of a study.

I've been fat since I was five. There is a photograph of me at age four, leaning against the family Buick, a lean little girl with braids. I don't remember her. My kindergarten picture shows me at age five as a round face little girl with a round body. Growing up fat is a series of rejections, of not fitting in with the group. I was never athletic, when it was time to choose teams at recess, I was always the last one picked. Eventually, I just took my book and went off to some quiet spot. It is far better to choose not to participate rather than not to be chosen.

Whenever I see a fat child, I immediately want to befriend that child. I feel the same way about fat adults. By the way, I prefer the word fat. Obese sounds slimy, like some type of oily discharge. Overweight has never made sense to me. Over whose weight? Big-boned is just a euphemism. Fat is a simple, descriptive adjective. I'm a fat person.

I was around eight years old the first time I went on a diet. It lasted about a day, but the pattern was set, for the next 40 years, I was either on a diet, about to start a diet, or having my last meal before starting a serious diet. When I look back at pictures of me in my teens, I realize that I was fat but not grotesquely so. I just felt as if I was grotesque. The most insidious thing about loathing your appearance is that you lose all objectivity about your appearance. When you look in the mirror, all that you see reflected is the rejection that you feel every day, and rejection isn't pretty.

I became what the medical profession labels morbidly obese by the time I was in my late 20s. Years of dieting, losing 20 pounds, then regaining 30, took its toll. By 1998, at the age of 43, I weighed 440 pounds. I don't have pictures of myself at that weight. There must be a few, but for the most part I avoided being in front of a camera; I was the one who was always taking the pictures. It was the best way to avoid being in the pictures.

I didn't know exactly how much I weighed until I was hospitalized in January 1998 for congestive heart failure further complicated by atrial fibrillation (an erratic heart rhythm). In spite of my fear of dying, and my intellectual understanding that my weight severely lessened my chances of surviving my cardiac problems, I couldn't deal with all the reasons that I ate and the emptiness that I was trying to fill with food. I wish that I could say that I had a revelation and understood the psychology of why I was a compulsive over-eater but there was no self-realization. However, in 2002, my doctor told me that I had Type 2 diabetes. I knew that one of the complications of diabetes if it wasn't brought under control was amputation. I became obsessed with having my legs amputated. Everything that I read confirmed that if I lost five percent of my body weight that my diabetes would improve. I wasn't ill enough to take insulin and I didn't want to get to that point because in my mind, insulin use equalled amputation.

This doesn't really make sense to me, but amputation of my legs scared me more than dying. Maybe we all have that one thing that we fear most. I didn't go on a diet, I just stopped binging on food. I didn't think of myself as dieting. For a long time, I didn't realize that I had lost any weight. I still had issues, but I didn't try to resolve them by stuffing myself with food.

My sister's husband, Bob, snapped a picture of me one day. The next time that I visited, Rhonda told me that I needed to look at the picture. I saw a woman who sort of looked like me but with part of her missing. Rhonda also banned me from wearing the flowing dashiki cut top that I was wearing in the picture, and told me, "Go buy some clothes that fit."

In about 18 months, I lost 160 pounds. I've kept it off for a little more than two years. However, I haven't conquered my weight issues. I'm not quite 5' 4" tall, and I still weigh 280 pounds. My diabetes is under control and I just seem to maintain this weight. I think that I skipped the step of really dealing with the myriad reasons that I have sought comfort in food since I was a child and that's why I've stopped this journey. I suspect that there is some pay off that I get from holding on to my excess weight, but I've learned some things and made peace with others.

This society is obsessed with weight. It's a rare woman that I know who isn't convinced that she needs to lose weight. What else would we think, after all Jessica Simpson is fat, so clearly the rest of us must be in need of weight loss. Of course, tomorrow's headlines will be about some young starlet who suddenly looks too thin. Maybe it's not weight that we are obsessed with, but appearance. Yet we all repeat the same lines to each generation, "It's character that counts. Beauty is only skin deep. It's who you are on the inside that matters." Nice platitudes, but do we really mean them?

It's taken me a lifetime, but I know that fat really is just an adjective, a descriptive term and not a summation of character. I think that my impulse to loose weight because my excess weight was literally killing me was a practical approach to solving a problem. I think that all of those diets, living off of bananas, eating cabbage soup, three-day fasts (there are those of you who know exactly what I'm talking about), were a manifestation of self-loathing that was far from emotionally healthy.

I'm still working on eating healthy and getting in some exercise. I'm also looking inwardly, trying to understand what voids are still there that I need to fill. I don't know Jessica Simpson personally, but I hope that she knows that it's okay for her to use the other f-word, and tell all of her critics, "Fuck off."

Sunday, February 1, 2009

In Search of Self and a Little Stocking Wrecking

The North Carolina State Legislature is back in session (as of January 12, 2009) and my time is no longer my own. I'm not complaining, well not seriously bitching, because I like my work and my co-workers. Besides, in the current economic crisis, I feel fortunate to have a job.

There are so many things that I want to write about but this entire weekend has slipped away like a wisp of smoke on a summer breeze. As usual, I've spread myself far too thin, agreeing to take on tasks without taking a personal inventory as to whether or not I have the time, energy, or inclination to complete the task. I'm on the board for a nonprofit organization that opposes the death penalty, an issue that I fully support. However, I've also committed to working with another small nonprofit in administering a dropout prevention grant. I wrote the grant a year ago and the organization was awarded $82,000 to run a pilot dropout prevention program for one year. The only problem is that the director of the program is very skilled at working with children but she has no skills in administration and management of the business aspects of the grant. When I agreed to write the grant, I thought that was going to be my primary role--to write it. I support the efforts to lower the dropout rate, so now I find myself taking on more and more responsibility.

I have a need to be needed that has caused me to become overextended once again. I've been doing this my entire life. I swim out way too far from shore and then I realize that not only do I not like to swim, I'm drowning.

One of my resolutions for 2009 is to be honest, to tell my truths in a way that I haven't done before. I'm not certain if it's a by product of being the oldest child or just a quirk of my own personality, but I have always found it difficult to share who I am with anyone. I've gone through life hiding pieces of myself, carefully making certain that no one has a complete picture.

I think that I am afraid that if anyone knows me, really knows me, they won't like what they see. My life has been rooms of darkness with the occasional period of light. There is no need to worry about me. I am able to write this because my mind is clearer than it has ever been and I'm choosing to live in the light. I'm done with hiding.

I don't have any big secrets; I haven't murdered anyone or robbed the 7-Eleven. I've just led a life of half-truths. I've created a persona for every occasion and sometimes, even I can't tell who is the authentic Sheria.

My time in California was therapeutic. I was relaxed and happy. No one expected anything of me and simply accepted what I had to give. I laughed a lot, slept well, and didn't worry about what expectations others had of me. I want to feel that way all the time.

I realize that I've got to peel back the layers that I've been using to protect myself. I have to be willing to disappoint others, because I can't be everything to everyone, and no one should expect it of me, least of all me, --especially me. I want to be happy.

Over the years, I've mastered the illusion of happiness; sometimes I even fool myself. I insist that I like being busy, the thrill of the work, the excitement of deadlines. There is some truth in that, but I also get bone-weary tired of the responsibilities that I take on, professionally and personally. I want to be irresponsible sometimes. There's a Joni Mitchell song lyric that goes, "I want to be strong, I want to laugh along//I want to belong to the living. //Alive, alive, I want to get up and jive. //I want to wreck my stockings in some juke box dive." I've often felt that Joni was writing my life in her songs.

I don't know where this journey will take me, but I plan to write about it here from time to time. I'll leave you with a poem by Stevie Smith that has always spoken to me.

Not Waving But Drowning
by Stevie Smith

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.