Saying Goodbye to the Parasites in Our Lives

This is Plankton. He’s my intestinal parasite.

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…it’s not REALLY Plankton from Spongebob Squarepants, but this is how I picture the recently diagnosed parasitic infection in my digestive system–a tiny little bastard who’s always scheming to pull one over on everybody. He’s a dick, and I’m tired of the way he’s been treating me, but I’m also a little afraid to say goodbye to him.

I’ve hinted at my digestive-problems-of-mysterious origin in a few posts before. I’ve always had some food sensitivities since at least high school, but they got noticeably worse right after Christmas last year. I lost a total of 14 pounds in about 2-3 months, which on my 5’3″ petite frame was a lot. I’ve gained back about 6 pounds, and this is hard to admit…I’m not entirely happy about it.

Plankton’s taking up residence in my body was apparently one last f–k you from 2016, a year I think we can all agree was just awful for everyone. He made me sick, he ruined my appetite (and sometimes my entire day), and he was a constant unpleasant presence in my life.

He was also my enabler. I LOVED losing weight. I LOVED seeing the numbers get lower and lower on the scale every morning. I LOVED that sometimes all I ate for dinner was very carefully counted out Saltines and a little bit of hummus because I was too sick to eat anything else. Plankton tapped into my almost-but-not-quite-yet resolved issues around body image and disordered eating. He knew just what buttons to push to make me want to hang onto him a little longer.

Plankton knew I was having a pretty glum start to 2017 (job instability and a dark bout of loneliness), so he made himself a point of focus that I could cling to. Other parts of my life were unhappy, so if I could control and monitor my weight, at least I had some tiny bit of stability. (Yes, I recognize the irony in that statement) Sometimes even without the symptoms I restricted what I ate to see if I could get the numbers even lower. I wanted someone to notice my weight loss and ask if something was wrong. No one noticed other than my parents, who only see me every few months. I kept my secrets to myself.

So Plankton and I learned to live with each other. I tried to avoid foods that would trigger his wrath, but later in the year I let myself indulge and kind of enjoyed the fact that some “problem” was letting me eat whatever I wanted while keeping the weight off. We were a team, albeit dysfunctional. I waited nine months until seeking help from a doctor.

I knew I had a problem that was beyond just “food sensitivity” for months, but the seriousness of it finally hit me during a brief conversation with my mother. She told me how “drawn” I looked earlier in the year when I was at my lowest weight.

“So you’re saying I looked…thin?” I responded, half-jokingly but secretly, shamefully pleased. But seriously, what if this was worse than just lactose intolerance? What if I had IBS? Hell, what if I had colon cancer? Next thing I knew I was crying in the shower thinking about how as a self-loathing teenager I’d wished for a serious illness that would make me lose weight. It was a relief (and admittedly, kind of cool) to find out my problem was treatable.

Now it’s time to say goodbye to Plankton in the form of antibiotics. My original food sensitivities won’t go away, but if all goes as planned I won’t have the constant issues my clingy friend brought to the table, no pun intended. I’ll kind of miss him. He kept me skinny. He helped me fit into a cute little black skirt that I was going to get rid of because it was at one time too tight. I don’t want to go back to my pre-Christmas weight. What will I do without him?

Do you have parasites in your life you need to get rid of? They could be other people, habits, activities, perhaps even your own thought patterns. We can be in parasitic relationships that we know are making us sick, but we’re having a hard time seeking help. Are your parasites enabling you to stay stuck in a mental or physical place you don’t want to be but fear you can’t leave? Are they telling you that you must accept an unpleasant situation because you don’t deserve better? What is draining your energy and sapping your soul? Who (or what) do you need to let go of for good?

It’s time to let go of what no longer serves us and be brave enough to face the world alone. It’s time to be free.

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So I’m Eating Meat Again: A Cautionary Tale of the Rules We Place on Ourselves

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So I was vegetarian for a while. And for a while it worked…until it didn’t, or rather, I didn’t. This isn’t going to be one of those posts that tries to debunk the value of a vegetarian diet (sorry, carnivores, I know you love to find those stories online). I think they’re great and work quite well. I was the issue, not the tenets of a vegetarian diet.

My problem wasn’t that I suddenly became anemic or suddenly found myself spending inordinate amounts of time in my city’s hipster neighborhood. Rather, putting myself on a vegetarian diet triggered me back into restrictive/disordered eating patterns that I’ve had off and on since my teens. I’ve hinted at disordered eating and body image problems in other blog posts. I understand why those behaviors manifested in that way, I’m satisfied with my self-analysis, and I choose not to share it here.  Maybe in my book. 😉

Anyway, once I cut out meat, it was just too tempting to see where I could cut back further if not food types then at least the overall amount of food I was eating. I’d already lost a few pounds at the beginning of this year, mostly due to some still-unexplained gastrointestinal problems (Yes, I’m finally seeking treatment, which makes my mom happy). I was also struggling with some personal situations, and I chose to cope with that by restriction and controlling my weight.

O my brothers, you have no idea how the dopamine coursed through my little brain when I saw the numbers drop with the flattening of my waist and the growing looseness of my trousers. (I pretended not to notice the loss of muscle tone). Why, this was working even better than I imagined! I used my newly found vegetarianism to restrict even further. I’d found the perfect cover. Besides, I’ve never looked like someone with an eating disorder. No one would ever know.

This wasn’t a case of orthorexia, though. I wasn’t focused on “eating clean” or raw or only fresh produce or whatever. I just liked rules around eating. I’m a very organized person, which has served me quite well in the workplace, but rules and restriction and control taken to an extreme can be damaging. And since I made the rules I could carry them out in any way I saw fit.

By the end of my vegetarian experiment I was subsisting on junk food and very carefully counted out Saltines, which the latter, in my defense, were the only things my irritable stomach could tolerate sometimes. (In fact, today I had to settle on Saltines and plain Ramen noodles for dinner because my stomach decided once again to ruin my day.) My weight dropped to 110 pounds and occasionally below, which delighted that still lingering ED part of my brain, but the rational part figured I needed to nip that problem in the bud and go back to letting me eat pretty much whatever I wanted.

I realized I had a problem around April when I noticed that I was perfectly fine eating mashed potatoes and cake served at a commemorative banquet, but I sanctimoniously pawned off the steak and salmon that was also served. Granted, I would have axed the salmon anyway because I don’t eat fish at all (GROSS!!), but was I doing myself any favors by gobbling up potatoes and cake? It wasn’t even the nutritional deficiency or even the hypocrisy of my choice that got to me. It was my realization that I had very easily fallen prey to old patterns of control, frantic rationalization of unhealthy choices, and destructive self-consciousness that pushed me to release the rules I had placed on myself.

What rules and restrictions are keeping you in an unhealthy state of mind or body? Let’s step away from food for a moment. These rules could manifest in thoughts, behaviors, beliefs, or actions and may be your first line of defense against whatever is troubling you. You may place them upon any area of your life or in any relationship. Are you trying to be “perfect” so your partner will love you? (As if their love hinged on that). Are these rules created so you can live up to the expectations you created and projected onto someone else? Is it working?….you sure about that?

But are those rules ultimately serving you in the long term? Are you waiting for that magical person, situation, or thing to happen and only then allow yourself to be happy? Are you coping with a problem by punishing or controlling yourself? Do the rules soothe you in some way? Can you perhaps find that comfort in something else? Can you love and be gentle with yourself the way you are with other people you care about…would you at least consider it?

In late spring I started eating meat again along with a number of other foods. I let myself indulge. I gained a few pounds, but I attribute that more to dining out with friends and slacking off at the gym than adding meat back into my diet. I still think factory farming is horrible, and I do try to make mindful purchases of meat products. I just know I did the right thing for what my mind and body needed.

The thing about not restricting is that I don’t want to pig out on really…anything. Many people who restrict food or diet are afraid that giving up their rules means giving up hope of giving their bodies what they truly need. That hasn’t been the case. That Whataburger meal I promised myself over Labor Day weekend was awesome, and I don’t feel like having another one for a while. I also made a pork roast with homemade gnocchi and marinara sauce over that same holiday weekend. I put a lot of love and effort into the meal, an homage to my Italian heritage, and I was satisfied with a small amount (plus my body doesn’t like digesting pork so that’s an occasional thing anyway). I made the meal because I wanted to introduce a friend to my family’s traditions, not to “reward” myself for a workout or promise myself I’d eat carbs just this one time as a “cheat day.”

If you need more examples, how about these: I had a bag of Cheetos in a basket on top of my fridge that I completely forgot about, and I was annoyed that I still had a box of Pop-Tarts to finish after several weeks of seeing them on my kitchen counter. I would have been obsessing over those silly trigger foods back in my worst disordered eating days. The fact that I didn’t is a small but distinct point of progress for me.

Now I don’t think about food as much, and adding meat back into my diet helped kick-start a more balanced approach to how I chose to nourish myself. If I wanted to eat crappy food, I did, and I learned how to listen to what my body wanted. My body still gets mad and reacts unpleasantly to certain foods, and hopefully with the help of a doctor I can figure out what to avoid. My body likes fries and chocolate, but guess what? It also more often than not likes fresh fruit and vegetables, no guilt tripping necessary. I just wasn’t listening.

I’m still not where I thought I was at the end of last year, although I’m in a much better place than I was many years ago. I don’t know how long it will take me to break old habits or if I’ll ever be able to entirely, and I’m okay with that. I like being a few pounds lighter than I was a year ago. I like that a skirt that used to be too tight now fits just right.  I’m not getting rid of my digital scale that I step on just about every morning. I’m going to continue exercising because I like it, not to punish myself for imagined sins. Swimming, ballet barre, and taekwondo are fun! Moving my body has always been a joy rather than a chore for me, and lately my body is telling me it wants more so I’m listening.

I also know what will ultimately serve me best is a shift in focus away from judging myself by how I look (and how I foolishly assume other people are judging me by that) and how I choose to nourish myself. I look forward to the time when I give little to no judgement to what I’m eating. Being that self-centered all the time is exhausting.

It’s time to break some rules.

Black Belts Can’t Have Eating Disorders, Right? I Mean, That’s Just Silly…

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Maybe I can cinch this belt just a little bit tighter…

114.8

That was the number blinking up at me from my digital scale at 8:57 PM a week or so ago after three hours of taekwondo training. I smiled. It was exactly one pound less than it was at 5:21 AM that morning. Ahh. At least I had that.

Then I ate a small meal, sat on my bed and cried for a while, and took some medicine to help me sleep. That’s been happening more often lately. My weight had nothing to do with my mood (other than giving me a little boost), but I’ll get to that later.

So I guess I have to eat (ha ha, no pun intended) my words a bit. A few months ago I wrote this big manifesto about how I was finally over the disordered eating and body image problems that had plagued me since I was thirteen years old. I stopped restricting calories, ate whatever and whenever I felt like it, and got back into cooking traditional Italian dishes. I was really proud of myself.

Then some strange gastrointestinal problems hit me around Christmas and lasted up until…hmm…about this time last week. I had to follow a healthier, more whole foods diet and cut out junk food. I love junk food but eventually lost interest in it other than an occasional taste. Some days I simply couldn’t eat because I felt too sick. I lost seven pounds, and oh my God, you guys, it was like the hit of a drug. Seven pounds doesn’t sound like much, but I’m 5’3” and small to begin with, so it’s noticeable. I look leaner, and my clothes fit better. I’ve been this weight before, and I was fine. I LOVE being smaller. I LOVE the way my clothes fit. Those dropping numbers on the scale were emotional cocaine. I was triggered, y’all.

I can get addicted to things very easily, and weight loss is one of them. I like seeing the “trouble areas” get leaner. I like seeing the muscle tone peek out around my triceps and the ripples on my upper back. I like that I recently had to buy a smaller size pair of jeans than I’d been used to. I like that my tight lycra stretch pants I always wear to the gym are just a wee bit looser than usual.

It’s not like I don’t eat. Here’s a typical day for me: bowl of cereal with banana and raspberries and maybe half a peanut butter sandwich for breakfast. Tortellini with vegetables for lunch and a spicy chickpea and tahini wrap for dinner. I just hate feeling full. I wonder if I should have had half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead of a whole sandwich after class tonight. Maybe I should just eat a protein bar after taekwondo practice, especially on my late nights. Or maybe…

Let’s get something straight. I don’t binge, and I don’t purge. You guys, I eat, I swear…but maybe, just maybe, I could get the number a little lower. Just for fun. Just to see if I could do it. Just to have a low baseline so I could put weight back on. That’s okay, right?

To me it’s not that big of a deal. I’m not “skinny.” I have curves and muscles. Skinny girls look like prepubescent boys. I’m fine. I’m still flabby in one area so I HAVE to sacrifice everything else to make that part thinner, right? I have it in my head that I’m deceptively thin: I look tiny and fit from the outside but up close it’s a different story. Who is going to be attracted to me if they find out my secret? Am I right? (Then again I’ve never had any complaints other than that one time you can read about here.)

And it’s not like I’ve ever had a full-blown eating disorder. Well, there was this one time in high school where I exercised excessively for one summer. I mean, it stopped my period for three months, and I barely slept, but I was fine. I scaled back once I got into my senior year of high school. I started eating more, but I just exercised a lot and never really “purged,” so that shouldn’t count, right? If I’m ever vomiting it’s either because I’m drunk, have food poisoning, or have a very rare stomach flu. I won’t throw up perfectly good food.

And I guess I’ve kinda had a mini version of anorexia over the years, like that one time I got down to 108 pounds right before I started taekwondo…but I mean, it didn’t cause any lasting damage, and I didn’t think I was THAT thin. I didn’t have heart palpitations or get that fine layer of hair all over my body. My face was haggard, my clothes were baggy, and coworkers asked me if I was sick (of course I lied and said I was fine)…but my stomach still wasn’t flat and I still had cellulite on my thighs, so it doesn’t count, right? You can’t be “skinny” with a tummy and cellulite. Why didn’t they see what I saw? AMIRIGHT?? I can’t even do anorexia properly. Food is just too good.

I don’t have an eating disorder; I have disordered eating (it’s different) and some lingering body image problems. That’s all. I mean, it’s just this one problem area I can’t get rid of, so it’s okay for me to continue losing weight, right?

Obviously I am in a state of denial.

Those of you who have been reading my blog know I’ve written about strength, confidence, and loving yourself. Was I bullshitting all of you to mask my own insecurities? No, not really. Whatever I’ve written has made perfect sense at the time. I believe all of that, but obviously I just can’t allow myself to truly feel that way.

I know damn well this current period of restricting really doesn’t have anything to do with controlling my weight. Clamping onto my recent weight loss that originally was unintentional and now intentionally trying to stay thinner is my way of coping, just like it always has been throughout my life. There is something deeper emotionally and mentally going on, and I’m using my body as a way to gain control of the situation.

I’ve identified what’s bothering me, but I won’t share that here. I won’t even share it with the people I’m closest to. I have to keep up my responsible, high-energy, high-achieving front because there is absolutely no one to pick up the slack if I fall down and have to give in to what’s troubling me for a while. There never has been, and I don’t trust anyone to fill that role. If you ask me if I’m fine, I’ll say “Yes,” so don’t bother.

I’m taking a huge risk by admitting this here. What will my coworkers think? What will the parents of the taekwondo students I teach think? What will the people closest to me think when they find out I’ve been keeping these feelings from them? I want somebody to tell me I’m okay, but I’m too afraid to ask and be vulnerable. This blog post may seem like a big ole cry for help, but I won’t accept it. I have to keep handling this alone.

This begs the question: Am I a person with an eating disorder who happens to do martial arts or am I a martial artist who happens to have an eating disorder?

I got curious about sports and body image/eating disorders. We typically associate those problems with body conscious activities like gymnastics, ballet, cheerleading, and sports with weight classes such as wrestling. Surely a martial artist, whose practice is based on the tenets of confidence and self-respect, wouldn’t be capable of succumbing to the tempting, lying, hate-spewing devil of food restriction and excessive exercise. Right?

Yeah, they do that too. Some of them anyway.

Dangerous practices of cutting weight are well-known in certain martial arts arenas, such as professional MMA fighters, so I didn’t want to focus on that. I’m more interested in the everyday martial artist, the people who have jobs, school, or family obligations, and practice martial arts as a very enjoyable past time.

The problem was I kept running into dead ends. I used to do medical research for a living, so trust me, I dug. Research was either tied to professional athletes, or the studies on perfectionism and athletes was more generic rather than focused on a specific sport.

So what does the lack of evidence mean? Am I the only martial artist who has body hangups? Where are the other stories of struggle? Am I a bad black belt because I’m insecure and don’t always appreciate my badass black belt body? Am I setting a bad example for other martial artists? Some days I don’t feel like I deserve my black belt, and not just because of my body hangups. This makes me question whether I can handle it or not. Should I even be testing for second dan this fall if I can’t get my shit together?

Okay you guys, don’t worry, I won’t REALLY starve myself, but if I didn’t have sports to keep me honest I might very well go over the deep end. Here are all the reasons why I’m fine, no really, I am:
(1) Food is hella delicious, and I like to cook
(2) I need fuel for swimming and taekwondo, which are two very demanding sports
(3) I need good cardiovascular health to hold up during cardio drills and sparring
(4) I don’t want to lose the badass muscle tone I’ve built up over the years doing taekwondo and leg-blasting physical therapy exercises
(5) I need strong bones to keep me intact when I slam into other people…or get slammed into the floor
(6) This anorexic bullshit is for white emo teenage girls, so that’s not really what I’m doing, amiright? I’m too old to have this problem.
(7) I’m too responsible to totally ruin my life, as tempting as that is sometimes.

Look, it’s not really about weight. Most days I’m good, feeling happy and upbeat and enjoying my work and personal life, but there’s an underlying darkness. I’m keeping myself extra busy so I don’t have to face the emptiness, loneliness, and restlessness I’ve been feeling for the past few months…. But on the plus side my weight was down to 114.2 the morning after my previously mentioned weigh-in. At least I have that.

The game continues. I’m fine, really. Besides, black belts are too strong for these types of problems…right?

How Eating a Bunch of Carbs Helped Me Stop Hating My Body

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Foundation of the old school food pyramid, yo! But really, who ever got 6-11 servings in a day? Eleven servings??

After twenty-five years of disordered eating and a poor body image I think I can finally, ultimately, safely say…I’m over it…for the most part, anyway. I’ve had a few false starts before, but something would trigger me, and I’d go right back to restricting or overeating, obsessively weighing myself, and glaring at my reflection with dismay as I pawed at my flabbier (and much despised) body parts and somehow hoping something had changed overnight.

I got pretty stressed out this year, as did everyone else since we all know 2016 has been a shitstorm. When I get stressed out, I turn inward and become more self-destructive. Anger and anxiety about what was going on around me morphed into self-loathing and hyper-criticism. I turned to comfort foods and would then punish myself with restriction. I hadn’t forgiven myself for putting on a few pounds since my black belt test last fall. I further isolated myself so I could spend more time at the gym but got antsy and depressed when I missed a workout. I told no one. There was no point. No one has ever believed me when I complained about my body, and many have been annoyed and flippant with me on the subject, so I learned long ago to deal with this problem alone.

At one point I was finally so tired I couldn’t take it anymore and willed myself to be grateful instead of hateful. I’m too old to still be dealing with this crap. I’m an adult with a job and a mortgage. I will turn forty in a few short years. Why am I still wasting my time and energy on something that has haunted me since I was thirteen years old? Why am I letting it ruin my life? I turned to sports to help boost my body confidence.

Every time my eyes (or thoughts) drifted to the parts I didn’t like I would remind myself of how badass my body was: Look at you doing box jumps like a ninja! You just swam 1.5 miles and you still aren’t tired! You can do more push-ups than the teenage boys in taekwondo class, Black Belt! You are standing on your toes and doing leg lifts in ballet barre class like a boss, and look at how strong and graceful you are! You. Kick. Ass. If I can do all those things despite my soft middle or cellulite-studded thighs then I must be doing something right.

I realize I may be using my athleticism as a crutch. Taekwondo has helped immensely in improving my confidence and overall happiness level, but it’s not a magic bullet. If I weren’t fit or had sports as an outlet I’m not sure I could just be with my body and accept it. I don’t know if I could love myself in a larger body, and I have thoroughly convinced myself that no one else would either. I try to remind myself that when I am sick or injured or just plain really old I’ll probably give anything to have back the body I have right now. (Whatever, I’mma still be kicking ass at ninety.)

Body acceptance (or lack thereof) aside, there’s nothing wrong with exercise and in fact, in my opinion, exercise is crucial to staying healthy mentally and physically. Bodies are meant to move whether it’s running a marathon or simply walking. Movement keeps the body healthy and functioning. I’m at the point where I don’t exercise to try to lose weight anymore. I just happen to like it, and I really do prefer exercise over shopping, watching TV, or other activities. That endorphin high can’t be beat. I have fun when I work out, and I only do sports that I enjoy. I’d still swim, do taekwondo, and go to my ballet barre class if there were no health benefits. To me exercising is like recess for grownups, whether it comes from a healthy mental motivation or not.

Appreciating my body for its athleticism helped me, but what really gave me the final push was, of all things, a Mario Puzo novel. During the Thanksgiving break I read a copy of “The Fortunate Pilgrim,” a story of a family of Italian immigrants living in New York in the late 1920s. I had picked it up out of curiosity after hearing director Francis Ford Coppola mention it in an interview. Coppola worked with Puzo to adapt his most famous novel “The Godfather” into the movie we know and love today.

I was especially interested in the book because my maternal great-grandparents came to the United States from southern Italy around the turn of the 20th century. I’ve always been curious about their experience and thought Puzo’s novel might give me a little insight into what their daily lives in America might have been like.

“The Fortunate Pilgrim” wasn’t the easiest book to read. It had a good storyline, but the dialogue was very stilted. Chapters were bloated with sentences like, “Today you are not going to your beautiful school!” or “He gave us our bread. He protected us all when no one but Zia Louche would even spit on our doorstep.” Who talks like that? What’s with the formality? Was it because English was their second language? Imagine if the entire “Godfather” movie was filled with stiff lines like, “And you come to me on this, the day of my daughter’s wedding, to ask of me a favor.” No…just…no. And if I had to read one more sentence about a man having to earn his “bread.” Ugh.

Cardboard-y dialogue aside, what really caught my attention was the food. The main characters were poor so they ate simple but hearty fare: homemade pasta, eggs, beans, leafy greens, freshly grated cheese, a cherished piece of fruit, bread slathered with olive oil and vinegar. I wanted that food. I craved it. That’s typically how I cook anyway, meaning, I can make marinara sauce in my sleep but I still don’t know my way around a good stir fry or platter of enchiladas, nor do I care to try. I cook everything in olive oil. I’ve been known to toss an egg or a half can of beans in a bowl of pasta and call it lunch. Hell, I even put olive oil on my SKIN at night. So I decided to eschew peanut butter sandwiches, frozen food, and my weekly pan of boring roasted vegetables for something a little closer to home.

Gnocchi to the Rescue

The Tuesday after Thanksgiving I spent over an hour at home preparing potato gnocchi after I got home from work. I hadn’t made gnocchi in years, and when I had made it I usually took short cuts like substituting a blob of ricotta cheese for the potatoes. This time I went old school. I had peeled, boiled, and mashed the potatoes a day or two before, and when I was ready to make the dough I plopped an egg into the center of the potatoes, added a cup of flour, and got to work. Eventually I got into a meditative rhythm kneading the dough, rolling it into ropes, and rolling the individual pieces with my finger, just like my grandma (daughter of the aforementioned immigrants) had taught me to do. I didn’t have the TV on for background noise. I didn’t even listen to the radio. I was completely in the moment. Just me and my gnocchi. I was very proud of my work.

After my gnocchi triumph I began to incorporate simple but delicious Italian-inspired food into my daily meals: fettuccine with butter and hot peppers, farfalle with asparagus and olives, fresh fennel and escarole with oil and vinegar for my side salads, small squares of fresh pecorino and mozzarella cheese nestled in my refrigerator. If I was in a hurry to make my lunch for work I would boil a cup of quick-cooking brown rice pasta and toss in sun dried tomatoes, oily roasted red peppers, and artichoke hearts. I excitedly dug into my Mario Battali cookbooks and frequently updated my half-Italian mom on what I was making. After Christmas I plan on making lasagna with homemade marinara sauce, and for New Year’s I’ll make (or attempt to anyway) ravioli al uovo, or ravioli with egg….yuummm.

Something about being away from my daily routine during the Thanksgiving break kick started something in me. I just ate when I was hungry and didn’t put much thought into food other than when I was daydreaming about a recipe I wanted to try. Sometimes I used whole wheat or alternative grain pasta, but much of it has been the good old-fashioned white flour kind. It’s not like I ate big ridiculous Olive Garden-sized bowls of pasta covered in obscene amounts of piping hot cheese. The more love, care, work, and pride I put into my meals made me slow down, appreciate, and feel satiated with the food in front of me, even in smaller portions.

I let myself eat sweets when I felt like it–turns out I didn’t feel like it all the time. I kept a stash of peanut butter crackers in my drawer at work when I needed a snack, and I’m still making my way through the package. I didn’t save up for a “cheat day” that would inevitably morph into a “cheat weekend.” I stopped cringing and feeling resentful when I felt full. I just ate, no strings or meanings attached. I envy people who have always eaten that way.

And what do you know…I stopped glaring at myself or frantically looking for a minuscule change in the mirror every time I passed by. I continued with my fun playtime sports, ate my pasta, and enjoyed them both immensely. To my surprise (and bewilderment) I noticed I was looking leaner, and after a few weeks of hiding the scale in my closet, I discovered I even lost a few pounds. I realized that I just wanted to be happy, and wasting my time obsessing over my body and all its made-up flaws was going to hold me back even further. I don’t care anymore. I can’t care anymore.

I’m not out of the woods yet. The void of body image troubles has been filled by the realization that a sense of contentment and optimism I’d had for a while has been sneakily replaced by an overall sense of unease, emptiness, and unhappiness, as I’ve hinted at in some of my other blog posts. Or maybe my mind is just whirling like an endless roulette wheel, looking for something to criticize or hate, and it’s panicking that the opportunity is dwindling. It’s not quite sure what to do with this newfound freedom.

Either way, I’m glad to have this weight (no pun intended) off my shoulders.

Embracing the Squishy: Body Confidence One Day at a Time

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There are parts of me that are bony. There are parts of me that are muscular. There are parts of me that are squishy. Often these parts are right up next to each other, which I think gives me an odd appearance (big sculpted and kinda bony shoulder, delicate wrist, soft batwing tricep hanging from a hard bicep), but it’s probably a lot closer to being “normal” than my perfectionist tendencies allow me to believe.

I tend to isolate my body parts. I thank genetics for the bony parts, take pride in the muscular parts, and admonish the squishy parts. I forget that these bony, muscular, and squishy parts all work in harmony to help me do really cool stuff like chop an onion, drive a car, swim laps, and beat other people up. Unfortunately it can be a little more difficult in today’s society to appreciate the squishy alongside the bony and the muscular.

Similar to the end-of-year holiday eating guilt trip, we are all being bombarded with the ads, messages, promises, and media-induced panic to get our bodies “ready” for the summer. What it really means is, “You don’t look good enough to wear a bathing suit yet, and holy crap, it’s June!!” Almost every week at the barre class at my gym, the instructor reminds us that summer is almost here, so we’d better squeeze our glutes and “zip up” our cores. Everyone is going on cleanses and amping up their workouts.

Of course the one place I don’t feel a barrage of mixed messages about body confidence is in taekwondo class. I don’t have time to think about whether my waistband feels too tight or if my butt looks big in my dobok. I’m too busy learning, practicing, fighting, coaching, and generally trying to not get hit in the face. Even if my waistband feels tight, um, there’s a f-cking black belt around it, so I’m doing just fine without washboard abs, thankyouverymuch.

Taekwondo reminds me of how powerful my body is. One night in class we were working on jumps. Sometimes for “fun,” we’ll drag out a thick mat, and two people will stand on either side holding a spare belt between them. Depending on the size, age, and rank of the student, the belt could be held anywhere between two and five feet off the ground. The student then takes a running start, leaps off the ground, tucks their legs in close to their body, and ideally clears the belt and lands softly and safely on the other side. The holders always keep the belt soft with slack in case the student doesn’t quite make it over. It’s meant to be used as practice for flying kicks, but usually ends up being more of a source of entertainment as the giggles (and applause) get louder and the gentle teasing increases.

I was knocking it out of the park. It probably helped that (1) I had done this drill many times before and (2) I was working on jumps in physical therapy earlier that day. I leapt over the belt with no problem and room to spare. There’s always a little rush of fear and adrenaline when I hoist myself off the ground, but I’ve learned to power through it and trust my awesome body to get the job done. I was proud of what my injured, aging body could accomplish.

That night as I undressed at home I caught my eye in the mirror, and my gaze inadvertently went straight to the squishy parts. Out of habit my mind turned to the inner critic that had dragged me down the dark road of disordered eating and body hatred for decades:
How can you work out all the time and still look like THAT?
Once a man figures out you’re not as skinny as you appear he’s going to reject you.
Are you really going to wear a two piece bathing suit at the pool this summer? Perhaps you should rethink that.
Why are you flabby? It’s not like you’ve had children and can justify it. You’re not allowed to look like that. [Sorry if I’ve offended any mothers. I’m just repeating what my mean-spirited mind said.]
I think you’d better skip your post-workout snack.

It took me a moment to remember that just thirty minutes ago my body, squishy parts, bulging lumbar disc, aching hips, irritated hamstring, and all, were helping me fight hard and fly through the air as if I were light as a feather.

“F_ck you! I look GOOD!” I said aloud to my inner critic.

I’m starting to believe that a little bit more every day. I’m still learning to love the squishy parts as much as I love the muscular parts. I still glance in the mirror anxiously to make sure the shadows under my cheekbones carve dark hollows into my face. I still count the bones of my sternum when I wear a low cut shirt. My hand still flies to the squishy parts, patting them down in hopes that they’ve shrunk. I’m surprised when I see how thin I look in photos. And then I remember that this body, every single piece of it, earned me my black belt.

Today, on a hot, humid, rainy Sunday, I bought not one but two bikinis. One is leopard print and the other has thick pop art colors and black lines. They weren’t my first two pieces, but there’s always that little voice that asks, “Should I??” My teenage and twenty something selves would be mortified at the thought of exposing my squishy parts. But the only thing I could think today when I was trying on the suits in a multi-mirrored dressing room was, “Damn, black belt, you look GOOD.”

As I write this I’m lying on a heating pad, feeling sorry for myself about my aching back and looking out the window at storm clouds. I certainly won’t be putting these bathing suits to use today or any time soon since there is more rain in the forecast. But it’s nice to know they’re waiting in a drawer for me. It’s nice to know that I’ve stood up to societal pressure to be perfect, and even more so, I was happy that I was beating back my slowly dying habit of harsh self-criticism. It’s nice to know that I’m starting, one day at a time, to embrace the squishy.

Getting Fat Shamed as a Size Four

liar

I love you…just kidding.

“I liked you better skinnier.”

It was a bright spring morning, and my boyfriend and I were relaxing at home before I had to go to a work event. I jumped off the couch and stared slack-jawed at him.

“You’ve changed so much since we started dating. You’ve gained weight,” he whined as he stretched out like a sleepy lion. Then he tilted his head, widened his dark brown eyes with a look of betrayal and said in what I had come to secretly call his Snob Voice:
“I feel deceived. Did you…sell me a bill of goods?”

Let’s see if this makes sense. Apparently in his mind I had purposefully lost a lot of weight while I was on the dating market in order to snag a man.  Then once I was in a relationship I gained it back (again, on purpose). Yeah, that was my evil plan all along; it was all about tricking him. Logical, no?

I was too stunned to think straight and immediately went into defending myself. I should have said something funny like, “Well, I liked you better when you had more hair and a job!” or “I liked you better when you got the hell out of my house five minutes ago!” but by that time in the relationship I was so desperate for his approval and terrified of his criticism that I felt stuck. Every other week or so he would threaten to pick up and move out of state for a job, or he would point out ominously how “incompatible” we were. Loving him made me a nervous wreck. I couldn’t take another criticism, especially about something as sensitive as my body.

“I was sick when you met me!” I pleaded. “I wasn’t eating, and I was drinking too much! I was so unhappy! I looked terrible! People kept asking me what was wrong! I needed to gain weight and get healthy again. I’ve told you about this before. Why can’t you understand? ” Sadly I felt like I had to apologize for myself rather than the other way around. Panicked, my thoughts went to debating over whether I should start starving myself again.

He turned up his perfect little nose and looked away from me. With angry tears in my eyes I drove to my work event and pouted silently the entire time. I was burning with hatred for him. By the way, I was 116 pounds and a size four petite at the time of this incident.

Later that day we tentatively made our peace with each other, but the issue never really resolved itself. By the time we broke up, which just happened to be a week after my bo dan test, it had been buried under a pile of other irreconcilable differences. It was just as well that I made the last six months of my journey to black belt alone. 

Here’s the real deal: When I had met him at my “skinnier” size I was several pounds lighter and in the throes of food restriction, alcohol abuse, and a severe bout of depression. I was thin and haggard to the point that my family and coworkers began to notice. I looked brittle and sunken. My skin was sallow, there were dark circles under my eyes, and my clothes hung from my bones. Of course I lied to everyone that I was fine. Tricking a man into dating me in all my skeletal, miserable glory was not really top of mind.

Once I began taekwondo training my priorities dramatically shifted. I had something wholesome and positive to focus on, something to look forward to every other day, and people who cared about me without judgment. I was doing something just for me, not to make myself seem better in some other person’s eyes. I was no longer punishing myself by punishing my body. I began to see myself as a strong athlete and food as necessary fuel. In all I probably only gained around 7-8 pounds, and much of it was muscle…okay, some of it. A few weeks after I began training I met the boyfriend, and we started dating. We were off to a good start, but my body image and eating issues didn’t go away.

He told me every day of our relationship that I was beautiful and that he loved me, but the pressure to stay thin was on me from the beginning. Early into our relationship he’d admitted he preferred the waif body type—flat chests and slim hips, thin spaghetti-like arms and soft shoulders. He bragged that most of his previous girlfriends were from Europe and would starve themselves other than eating one indulgent meal per day. He was originally from South America, so the stereotype that Latin men appreciate a woman with curves fell…well…flat, for lack of a better word.

I remember feeling stressed during the first week or two of seeing him. I had just started to get my health back thanks to taekwondo, and then I found myself wondering if  I would need to continue my unhealthy starvation habits to remain attractive to him. He once casually mentioned that during the summer he usually skipped dinner to cut weight and get lean, hearkening back to his weight-dropping habits as a high school and collegiate wrestler. He would often remind me (in the midst of telling me how beautiful I was) that he was dating against type since I was (1) American and (2) a little rounder than his typical pencil-thin paramours. He noticed the bulky muscle I put on from taekwondo before I did.

While I was ultimately the one who chose to let his comments get under my skin (well at least THAT part of me is thin), no woman, regardless of size or looks, deserves a cruel dismissal and strange accusation from someone who supposedly loves her. I’ve had disordered eating and body image problems since my teens, so my anxiety around weight existed long before this guy entered the picture. I’m not sure if I will ever totally overcome them, so if someone makes a comment about my looks it really messes with my head.

Disordered eating and body image problems aside, I just couldn’t understand why he would say something so hateful when I thought I was quite healthy.  I’m small, proportional, and look both feminine and strong. My waist is the same size it was in high school. These days my “walking around weight” hovers between 118 and 120 pounds, which is probably WAY too fat for the ex’s standards, but it’s a much leaner version of the 120-pound version of myself that I was in my mid-twenties. The last time I checked I was at 18% body fat, which is healthy for a woman in her late thirties. In short, I look pretty damn good. So why the criticism?

And come on, who doesn’t put on a little bit of “happy weight” into a new relationship? Sunday night pizza and a movie was our THING! Our big treat was going to the SAM’s snack bar to get Nathan’s hot dogs! I didn’t become Munchkin-sized Jabba the Hutt on my own!

A reader who knows me personally recently asked me why I stayed in that situation while at the same time my blog posts were pointing to all the epiphanies and confidence breakthroughs I was having thanks to taekwondo. How could I be such a badass in the dojang while at home I was submissive and sensitive? My immediate defensive response was: don’t judge me the way he did (he LOVED to look for loopholes between my blog versus how I was in “real life”). We can have insights and ideas that take longer to implement due to our hard-wired habits and history….meaning stuff that makes sense in our heads may have a 10 second (or 10 year) delay to show up in our actions.

My second response was: you don’t know how it feels to be in that situation unless you are in it. As dysfunctional as our relationship was, we really did love each other. While it’s true I let myself be bullied for too long, I did start to gain more confidence and self-assurance, even if it was in small increments. Taekwondo was my lighthouse during all of this. Slowly I was growing stronger and more able to be fully independent without looking to a relationship as a crutch. If I didn’t have taekwondo I’m sure I would have stayed in my self-destructive patterns for much longer.

Even though that was a terrible thing for the ex to say, I don’t want to play the victim and blame him for everything. Mr. Fat Shamer wasn’t all bad, and neither was I all good. Complicated feelings make it very difficult to leave a complicated situation. There were some very nice qualities about him and our relationship. …well, other than the whole “bill of goods” thing. Really? Who talks like that? “Bill of goods?” Is it the nineteenth century? “You, sir, have sold me a bill of goods! I slap you with my glove and challenge you to a gentlemen’s duel!”

Should I have handled things differently? Yes, but by now any regrets I have around that relationship have faded to a fuzzy washed-out hue, and indifference feels better than anger.

The ex used to say that one can only grow in relationships. I disagree since much of my growth has happened during periods of solitude, and I continue to grow and change in my chosen state of singlehood, but there’s some truth to it. Whether they’re a blessing or a lesson, the people in our lives can stretch us beyond our comfort zones.

I’m okay now. I look good and more importantly, I feel good.

While I have absolutely no interest in dating any time soon or perhaps ever (read why in this post), I know that I’m strong and confident enough to value myself over the approval of whatever man crosses my path in the future. I finally love myself, so I don’t need to look for love elsewhere. I know now that I can stand up for myself the way I do in in the dojang and in the boardroom. So if a man ever tells me my ass is too big, I’ll reply like the Big Bad Wolf:

“The better to kick yours with, my dear.”

Tae Kwon Dough

cartman karate

This is karate, but you get my point. Cartman still kicks ass even with all that pie in his belly.

You know what the best part about taekwondo is?

Your training pants double as your fat pants.

I spent the week of Thanksgiving eating my weight in food at my parents’ house. It all started with a pumpkin donut at the airport Dunkin Donuts the Saturday before Thanksgiving, plus a free drink coupon from Southwest Airlines, and it went downhill from there. I spent the week before that convalescing (i.e., pouting at home) due to a severe back injury. I’m feeling a little more like Steven Segal than Bruce Lee these days.

So, I haven’t been moving around as much for the past few weeks. I’d probably built in a buffer from all the exercise I normally do and my regular boring diet of brown rice, vegetables, fruit, eggs, and protein bars. I’m not too concerned about it though. As I mentioned in my last post, life and food are meant to be enjoyed, especially during the holidays.

Thanks to a few taekwondo, physical therapy, and swimming sessions and a low-carb, high protein Mediterranean diet (but no fish, gross) I’m back to my pre-Thanksgiving weight. Not a big deal, right?

Unfortunately for the next two or three months, weight, food, and exercise are going to be top of mind for many people, and not in a mature, healthy way. Americans are going to be obsessing about what they eat, what they look like, and how they supposedly don’t measure up to all the beautiful (albeit manufactured) people around them.

All the magazines will have guilt-laden, naggy guides on how to stay in shape during the holidays, and afterwards they’ll pummel us with suggestions for cleaning up the indulgent messes we’ve made of ourselves. I won’t be able to find parking at my gym during January and February thanks to the influx of people with good intentions and, well…good intentions. (I’m not hating on the New Years Resolution gym-goers. I start and stop plenty of things because I get burned out or lose interest or whatever else causes me to stop. It happens to all of us in different ways.)

As someone with former eating and body image problems, those articles make me laugh. It seems like such small potatoes, excuse the pun. I wasted YEARS obsessing over my body and hating myself and the way I looked to the point of being suicidal. I still try to exhibit control over my body and what I eat, and I know I’m always going to have those tendencies (e.g., I’m a size four and panic when I’m puffy with water weight), but I’ve pretty much overcome the worst of it. I’d rather read about how to improve my emotional and spiritual health or how to help others, or hell, just something about shoes than freak out over my slightly and temporarily fatter ass.

I’m not saying there shouldn’t be helpful information about nutrition and exercise this time of year. This country more than any other needs it. I just wish it weren’t so laden with self-consciousness and guilt.

Please please please, do not beat yourselves up over eating an extra cookie or piece of pie this holiday season. It’s so not worth it. Enjoy the cookie. And then do what I do and beat other people up instead.