Friday, July 1, 2011

Day 98: Mirror vs. Scale - Part 2

Okay, so yesterday, in Scale vs. Mirror, Part 1,  I started writing about the complicated relationship between feminism, weight loss, and... me.  The topic came up because two of the items on my 4-Month Bridal Beauty: Countdown to Gorgeous Challenge ask me to (1) pay attention to "bad food habits," and (2) "set a weight-loss goal and meet it before [my] dress fittings begin."  I promised to share "the whole story," even though it's been difficult to write about.  (Before proceeding, I'd like to stop here to pointedly thank Autumn Whitefield-Madrano at The-Beheld, and Jennifer Berger at About-Face, and numerous friends, for their support and feedback on my decision to tackle this topic!) So... here it is. 

The brief version: I'm a recovered anorexic, I'm a feminist, and I'm on a diet.  

The longer version:

Chapter 1 - I Used to Have Anorexia
I'm a recovered anorexic.  Because of this, I REALLY know how horrible things can get when one starts obsessing about "bad foods" and setting (and re-setting, and re-setting) weight-loss goals.  Not only did my my eating disorder make me miserable while in the throes of it, but I have lasting health issues (osteopenia and mild kidney damage) that may eventually shorten or lessen the quality of my life.  This makes me angry and sad, though I try not to beat myself up about it.
That said, recovering from my eating disorder (Almost 10 years ago now... Fist Pump!) made me a feminist (or, at least, a more focused one).  While battling for my sanity and health, I became increasingly pissed off at the THIN=BEAUTIFUL*GOOD cultural environment we live in.  Our culture's valorization of thinness caused well-meaning friends and family to compliment me on my rapid weight-loss, literally up until the weeks that I entered treatment.  Even after entering treatment, some people didn't think I was skinny enough to be "really" anorexic, which was... unhelpful to recovery.  (Worse, my appearance-obsessed-and-awful boyfriend at the time hinted that it would be great if I could recover from my eating disorder without gaining any weight, "since you're not, like, scary-thin."  Ugh!)  In the end, I got better, got angrier (dumped the jerk), and ultimately re-arranged my life so that I could stay healthy and continue fighting-the-good-fight as my career.  Happy ending, no?

Chapter 2:  Fact - Feminism Hates Dieting.
So now I'm a professional feminist.  If you didn't know this already, feminists typically view dieting - and, particularly, the diet industry - as an exceedingly evil expression of patriarchy.  (For more on this topic, check out this phenomenal reading list from the About-Face website)  

Ever since Susie Orbach wrote the epic self-help book Fat is a Feminist Issue, scholars have been emphatically asserting that dieting is not good for women as individuals, or to women as a group.  As someone who studies the harmful effects of our culture's beauty standards - particularly those related to body size - I agree with this.  Considering over 95% of diets FAIL, weight loss obsessions can logically be seen as a 95% pointless and painful drain on women's energy and emotional happiness, not to mention our wallets.  Add to this the fact that a lot of "diets" actually put our health at risk (Phen-Fen anyone?  No?  How about liposuction? Semi-starvation? Disordered eating?), and it's easy to become radically anti-diet.  Hence, "RIOTS, NOT DIETS!" has become a rallying cheer for many (including that cute "feminist kitteh." Meow!).

Another way to view dieting from the feminist perspective, is to consider the concept of a "patriarchal bargain."  The best definition for this term that I've found is from this blog essay from Sociological Images:
A patriarchal bargain is a decision to accept gender rules that disadvantage women in exchange for whatever power one can wrest from the system.  It is an individual strategy designed to manipulate the system to one's best advantage, but one that leaves the system itself intact.
Dieting is a type of "patriarchal bargain."  By strategically losing weight, we accept the THIN=BEAUTIFUL*GOOD equation (which, BTW, implies FAT=UGLY*BAD), and propel ourselves into positions of greater social advantage.  On an individual level, claiming "thin privilege" feels empowering.  (Recall, Oprah Winfrey - arguably the MOST powerful woman in the world - has described "going to the gym when I really prefer wine and chips" as her "greatest accomplishment"  Ugh.)  Yet, these THINpowered feelings should be understood quite literally, as they depend upon a system of inequality in which power/privilege/respect are denied to others on the basis of these standards.  And that, my friends, sucks.

Chapter 3: I'm On a Diet.
Given my personal background and political commitments, you'd think I'd have an easy time giving The Knot a big fat (sorry, PHAT) middle finger, and then confidently going along on my way.  Yet, it isn't so easy. Given the patriarchal bargain of weight-loss, being radically anti-diet as a political stance doesn't always fit so easily as a personal stance. Because we live in a society that so horribly punishes women for being "fat," even the most dedicated and body-positive feminists, like Eve Ensler  and Naomi Wolf, report struggles with their own body image.  The threat of becoming a martyr for this cause, (i.e., by gaining - or not losing - weight and, thus, giving up our "thin-privilege") is terrifying to many, myself included.  As Esther Rothblum so plaintively stated in the title of her chapter of the (highly recommended) book Feminist Perspectives on Eating Disorders"I'll Die for the Revolution But Don't Ask Me Not to Diet."  I know the feeling.  

And then there's one more little excruciating personal detail.... In the past 18 months I've gained a (subjectively) uncomfortable amount of weight by treating my body like crap.  

How does this happen?  Well, I've been struggling with clinical depression for the last year-and-a-half. (Depressing, I know! Sorry!) In a nod to my past food issues, I've been using food to help deal with my emotions.  It's wonderful that I didn't fall back into extreme food restriction, but .... drinking a few glasses of wine most evenings as a "reward" for getting through the day, mindlessly eating a disproportionate amount of chocolate, baked goods, potato chips, or other high-fat carbs because I crave the serotonin hit, and not-exercising-even-though-I-know-it-would-help-me-feel-better-because-shit-I'm-not-showering-every-day-either-and-I-know-that-would-help-me-feel-better-too...  (deep breath) well, these things aren't so great either.  So, yeah, I've gained some weight, and... it wasn't exactly in a personal experiment in radical feminist revolt against evil patriarchal body norms.  

So now what am I supposed to do?

Step 1: Shun Mirrors for 1 Year. 
10 years ago, if I had gained enough weight to feel uncomfortable in 90% of my wardrobe (which includes A LOT of clothes, BTW), I probably would have gone on an extreme diet, and it would have been bad.  This time, I still couldn't help but do something totally extreme: I decided to shun mirrors for a year.  Yes, you read that correctly: my decision to start this project was motivated by feeling fat (specifically, feeling fat while wearing a wedding dress).  I hated seeing photos of myself, was saying mean things to myself in the mirror, and wanted to lose weight, urgently.  I wanted to be a skinny bride.  My body insecurities were was reaching a dangerous peak, and it scared me.  Was I on the verge of a relapse?  Something blissfully self-protective kicked in, and so I decided to do something extreme, but in a vastly more body-positive direction.

Step 2: Revamp Eating and Exercise Habits to be Healthfully Moderate.  (And Hope Some Weight-loss Follows.) 
Stepping away from the mirror was important and helpful.  It forced forced me to challenge a lot of my assumptions about how much my physical appearance impacts my daily life and close relationships (FYI, some, but not as much as we think).  Not looking in the mirror also gave me a temporary reprieve from my weight-gain woes, because I was able to ignore the problem for a few more months.  Yet, stepping away from the mirror has not been the same as stepping off of the scale.  In fact, after a few weeks without mirrors I became paranoid that I might be rapidly gaining weight without realizing it, and I actually began to to weigh myself more frequently than before (indeed, I had gained a few more pounds, but not the panic-inducing number I'd imagined).  

At this point, with Michael's encouragement (he doesn't like depressed/grumpy/unshowered Kjerstin very much), I checked in with my therapist about the situation. (She's amazing, and I've trusted her calm support and guidance for my past 5 years at UCLA)  We decided that, in addition to trying an anti-depressant - given my carb-binging, lack or exercise, & weight-misery - it was time for me to set some realistic (i.e., therapist-approved) goals for food and activity, and then keep track of these things to make sure I follow through.  

Want to know the craziest part?  We decided the best way for me to do this would be for me to use the WeightWatchers PointsPlus program, online.  Yeah, WeightWatchers.  I know.  Weird.  I'm cringing as I write this (or, rewrite it, since I've just erased and then written it again. Several times.)  WeightWatchers Corporation is arguably at the top of the diet industry hierarchy, which makes it kind of a feminist villain, if there is such a thing.  And now I'm paying them $18/month!  (Eek!) But, in truth, this program is the best fit for me, given my history and the available options: (a) it encourages eating a wide variety of foods (i.e., no "bad foods"), (b) it specifies a strict-but-reasonable "minimum" amount of food I must eat each day (very important, since I have gone "too far, too fast" in the past), (c) it actively discourages rapid weight-loss, and (d) has online tools I can use to track food and exercise.  Per my therapist, I'm not allowed to go to meetings because I can't really trust a group of random dieters to give me appropriate support/advice in my unique situation.  (Getting gold star stickers, applause, and group-high-fives for losing weight is not kosher for recovery.

Original image found here.
Speaking of weight-loss, in the spirit of the "Health at Every Size" movement (which stresses healthful behaviors but rejects the idea that there is a universal "healthy weight"), I'm going to try to judge my "success" based on my behaviors, NOT by the number on my scale.  The goal is for me to consciously re-engage in healthful eating habits and joyful activity, and then to accept my body size and shape wherever it settles, even if that place isn't my "dream body".  As much as I'm still tempted to "get skinny," I know I can live with this, and (more importantly) I know my body can live through it.

And so, yes, despite being a recovered anorexic and a feminist, I'm on a flippin diet, and I hope that it will cause me to lose a little weight.

As ambivalent as I've felt about telling everybody about this stuff here (so personal, so public!), I feel 100% certain that it's the right thing for me to do right now.  (FYI, for those of you who are interested, another great blog essay on the topic of feminists-on-a-diet can be found here, at Beauty Schooled.  Thanks to Autumn at The-Beheld for directing me to it!)

As a final note, even though this blog centers on the topic of body image, I'm not writing a weight-loss-blog, or even an eating-disorder-recovery-blog.  Thus, I’m not planning to report details on my eating or exercise habits, as they relate to weight-loss.  There won’t be any calorie talk, and don't expect to read smug descriptions of how I manage resist certain foods (and especially don't expect to read self-hating talk when I don’t!).  I'm won't share what my “goal weight” is, or even whether or not I reach it.  These things will be an ongoing conversation I have with my therapist…. but not here.  Not only is the issue a bit too personal (even this post makes me feel really vulnerable), but I also know that this type of information can be triggering for any of you who struggle with disordered eating.  

And so this marks is the end of "the whole story."  Thank you for reading this far.  Can I pleeeaase check off those damned items from The Knot's B.B.C.T.G. list now?  (Check. Check.)

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  1. Whoa, all of this context makes me feel a little sheepish about the comment I left on the last post. It is a more complex issue than I initially thought--though the goal remains feeling good in our bodies.

  2. Kjerstin, I so much appreciate your bold, articulate and honest approach to this topic. This is exactly the kind of talking-to I needed! You're inspiring me to not only feel better about my body, but also to feel less guilty about my 'non-feminist' moments of hating the size of my jeans, the numbers on my scale, or my unbroken addiction to carbs for breakfast. Treating ourselves well CAN involve both healthy habits and unconditional self-love (I hope!).

    Thanks for being courageous and entertaining. You're going to rock sociology's (old-fashioned, all-white, orthopedic) socks off in the next few years!

  3. This was a courageous post. I identified with it and was touched by it. My only comment relates to dieting as an evil. There may be social standards that reward thinness, and dieting may feed into those standards, but there is a much more important reason to eat less and maintain a healthy weight - it improves how your body and metabolism function. As a consequence it reduces disease risks and improves the quality of your life. In other words, you should not feel conflicted about being a feminist that improves how she eats. They are only incompatable if the goal is to be skinny rather than healthy. Eat less so that you feel better - not worse, exercise more so that your body can avoid disease - not be more prone to it. Listen to your body. If you have trouble doing so (something I have trouble with) I highly encourage you to practice mindfulness (one of the most empirically supported cognitive therapies available - and one of the simplest). Then try mindful eating. It is clinically proven to help people with weight loss without ever telling you what to eat.

  4. The book list you provided a link to is excellent! Hats off to About Face for the important work they do! And thank you Kjerstin for sharing your experience and perspective on feminism, eating disorders, and the diet industry. It is indeed very complicated.

  5. Thanks a lot for this article, it was fascinating and touching. Good luck with everything and so many congratulations for finding such an awesome way to re-think your relationship with food and body norms!

  6. Thanks to all who commented on this post. I'm just getting back to things today, (moving to a new place this weekend!). Here are some more directed responses:

    Terri - Oh gosh, don't worry about your comment on my last post. It was 100% on target and I am ALWAYS grateful for feedback. I have really appreciated your thoughts over the past few weeks. Yes, the context is a bit more complex than I previewed, but the basic question has remained the same, as have the goals (to live a healthful life in line with my values).

    Harmony! Your comment warmed my heart. It is so awesome to know that there are others - particularly women who I like and admire - who struggle with these same questions. I do hope I can make an impact on sociology-land, but in the meantime this blog has been great! :)

    Anonymous #1: Thank you for the tip about mindful eating, as well as for reminding us that healthful eating and activity help us to live well-lived (and long-lived!) lives. It is still frustrating to feel like "healthy eating" overlaps with "skinny eating" in many ways, and I have to watch myself to make sure I don't use one as an excuse for the other! Mindful eating, or intuitive eating, is such a simple concept, yet so tricky in our culture, which bombards us with crazy food advertising, expensive produce vs. cheap junk food, and deceptive labeling (yesterday I almost bought a "ZERO high fructose corn syrup" product, before realizing that the 2nd ingredient was "corn syrup". bleh). One more comment though.... intuitive eating sometimes causes people to lose weight, but it also can lead to weight-gain (depending on where your body is and what it wants!). As an ED-recoverer I have experienced both at different times, but try to have respect for the process.

    Anonymous 2: YES, About-Face has a fantastic reading list, thanks to numerous unpaid-yet-still-passionate college interns who have put the list together over the past few years. I use it myself. Also, thank you for the encouraging words.

    Kathryn: I'm so glad to hear that this post was meaningful to you! I hope to see more of you as the project continues!

  7. so, remember when we did the san diego half marathon in 2007. we walked a bit more than we'd hoped. 13.1 miles was indeed an ambitious goal after lots of summer traveling - me in africa and you in europe. but we'd done halves before. we got a nice picture at mile 6. it's still on my mantle. we totally rocked it. you even sprinted out the end and beat me. (grr!) we'd run more than 13 miles, and it wasn't even 10 am. and you said that made you feel good because no matter how little training we'd done, we'd done 13 miles in less than 2 and a half hours and therefore, we were in plenty good shape. period.

    why don't you find a 5K, a 10K, even a half up in the bay. you like these things, remember. and even better, diet not required. do it! i know you can! then show off your medal at the wedding. :)

  8. ps. when we both get time (ha!) i think a paper on title 9 and the marathon movement is in order.

  9. Kjerstin, please don't apologize for depression. It took me a hell of a long time to properly see it as a disease instead of something I could fix if I just stopped being lazy. Even after five months on an anti-depressant, I still struggle with that concept. But I don't apologize for it; it's just how I am, it's a part of me, and those who care understand.

  10. Geekgrrl - thanks so much for your kind words on this topic. Depression continues to surprise me with the way it lingers, even now that I'm getting "better". I agree that those who care do understand, but it's still hard sometimes. My preference is to be upfront and unapologetic about it, but sometimes I'm too depressed to deal with depression and in those cases I just kind of slouch around and try to get myself to do bits of work at a time! :P

  11. Tara - YES, we should totally sign up for another road race. That was a lot of fun for me, Good for the body, good for self-esteem, and whaddaya know.... exercise is great for depression!

  12. Just remember "Diet" isn't a bad or nauty word. Everyone has a diet. It is the foods we eat every day. Stay focused. And remember that everyone deserves treats once in a while. From a person that has my own mental illness. There is nothing to be ashamed or feel bad about. Society has determined that people with depression and other mental illnesses are wrong just like women over a size 6. And THAT is wrong. There is nothing, NOTHING for which you need to appologize for. You just need to take care of yourself. I have to take medication every day and I will have to for the rest of my life. It took a long time for me to accept this, and accept that It was a disease. I have to take meds like a diabetic does. The end. I am no different. Neither are you.

  13. Thank you for this Kjerstin. You're not perfect and that's amazing, you're making me think and I like it....a lot.

  14. Kjerstin, I am in love with this blog and especially this entry. When I read this, particularily the drinking a few glasses of wine and not showering part, I could have sworn you wrote down the thoughts in my head. I am also a bride to be, suffering from depression with a past of eating disorders (yes, plural) and it is SO liberating to see someone make something so private public for other women to read. I truly admire your courage and strength! Thank you for writing all of this, I will continue to read your blog until the end!

  15. Thank you for being so open and honest about all this. You are really brave, and I can't tell you how glad I am that I've found this blog.

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