When I was but a wee lass, at the dewey age of sweet sixteen, I went to see my doctor. Nothing was the matter, I was perfectly healthy, I just needed to get a physical for my driver’s license. The exam was moving along just fine until I got onto the scale. At 5’4″, I weighed in at 136 pounds, a result that yielded an unsurprised yawn from me. With the exception of that one zany summer when I decided that subsisting on a single sleeve of Saltines per week was a good idea, my post-pubescent weight had hovered steadily around the 140 mark, and I was pretty sure I looked fine.*
I was very active. My family was piss-poor so there was no computer or video game system to sit around on. I walked or rode my bike everywhere, hiked, swam. I even lifted weights and regularly did stupidly self-choreographed aerobic routines to the tune of Paula Abdul, more often than I like to admit. I had a firm grasp of the USDA nutrition guidelines and even engaged in a little Paleo-style Intermittent Fasting by way of never eating breakfast. This had less to do with a rabid obsession with cutting edge fitness fads and more to do with waking up about ten minutes before the bus came. But I digress.
So I hop off the scale, ready to wow Doc with my 20/20 peepers on the eye exam, but oh no, he has something to say about my weight. He directs my attention to some archaic monstrosity, a government height and weight chart. According to the paper and print hanging on his wall, (made in 1973 by some dumbass who never laid eyes on me) I was overweight. A total lard ass. Doc pointed that out, and said only “Now, you don’t want to end up as fat as your mother, do you?”
To be brief, I sorta think my doctor should lose his license to practice medicine for having made that remark. Not only did he tell an obviously healthy, size 7 wearing, 16 year old girl that she was gunning for obesity, but he failed to follow up his critique with any constructive advice. When I told him that I didn’t eat much junk food and that I was very active, he simply shrugged his shoulders, said I needed to try harder, and moved on. Way to plant the seed, buddy.
The following nine months saw me go from a healthy size 7 to a pallid-hued, called-down-to-the-high-school-guidance-office-over-rapid-weight-loss, size 0-clad kind of gal. My peers thought I was sick, barfing up everything I ate, or on an orgy of drugs, and I’ll tell you what, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. After reflecting long and hard on the fact that I was apparently a behemoth and yet practiced healthier habits than many of my skinnier peers, I realized that drastic measures were called for to get any real results.
One night, after dining on Goldfish crackers, a thought occurred to me: I could just get rid of it. I knew I had eaten because I was genuinely hungry, but obviously my body was conspiring to turn me into a blimp. Why not just toss my crackers instead of letting them go through the nasty absorption process that could only lead to disaster? So I did. It was strange, it felt like such a lie, a cheat. But it also felt cool, like getting away with something big: it was a revelation.
I found myself a barf buddy and we’d stuff ourselves to the gills at the China Buffet, then we’d take turns calling Ralph on the big white phone, hiding all the evidence of nutrition to be had from our small intestines. Nothing to see here, villi! It was sort of hilarious in its depravity, and boy, was I getting thin. I have no doubt that had I gone back to see my doctor after I had whittled myself down to a shadow of myself, he would have approved. While I had gone from a size seven to a belted size zero, I had lost a mere thirteen pounds. Who the hell gets called down to the guidance office for a measly thirteen pounds?! And who only drops thirteen pounds from seven months of straight purging plus over-exercise?
At my lowest, I weighed in at about 123 pounds, which is, if memory serves, just about the target weight for my height, maybe even on the high end of it. My body really did not want to let go of that weight. What was happening was I was effectively flushing all my muscle down the toilet along with my Lo Mein. Really, there is no way for me to ever go under 130 pounds without chiseling away at my muscle and dramatically changing the way I look. C’mon, I’m just beefy! Didn’t my doctor ever meet someone who was sturdy? Dense? Built like a brick shit house, as the hicks at my local bar like to tell me? Well maybe he didn’t realize that this is just who I am and it’s fine, but I eventually did.
One fine spring day I woke up and decided it was time to stop playing Lifetime movie protagonist and time to regain a little sanity. I decided that I was going to let my innards get back to the work of collecting and dispersing nutrients and let the chips fall where they may. If my doctor or some guy or the culture at large branded me a fatass, fuck ‘em. So I enlisted the support of a grounded, sympathetic friend and hammered out a plan for recovery. Recover I did, and I can proudly report that up-chucking has been re-relegated to its natural place in my psyche: gross, yucky, something to be avoided. Hey, that might not sound like a triumph to all the normal folk out there, but it is.
I’d say the lesson here is to forget the scale and the charts. One size just does not fit all, and it’s thinking like that that has driven so many of us to extremes just to be able to squeeze ourselves into boxes we were never intended to fit in, anyway. Did my doctor take into account that I have big, heavy, muscular arms? Is being able to beat half the boys you go to school with at arm wrestling really a health liability? Did he do blood work to see if my weight was adversely affecting my sugar, my lipids, my cholesterol? Did he ask me how I feel, did he consider that three other women in my family, all of whom he treated, were of a stockier build as well and that perhaps it’s just my genetic destiny to not be slight? Damnit, he never even asked me how fast I could run a mile! Shoot, I ran it just that week in gym class, and as a non-competitive athlete, I’d say it was pretty good!*
Nope. All he did was compare a number on a scale to a number on a chart. Not exactly a comprehensive approach, and it isn’t whenever you jump on the scale in your bathroom and bemoan your numbers, either. Forget the scale. It knows nothing. It doesn’t forgive for hormonal fluctuations, doesn’t care that you’ve got big birthin’ hips, and baby, it just doesn’t know you.
So where exactly did we get the idea that the worst thing we could possibly be is “overweight” according to an impersonal, imaginary measure? Oh, because the medical community came up with some chart? These are the same guys who told us to load up on margarine and use leeches for blood letting, right? Doctor’s don’t know everything. You know more about you than they do, if you just pay attention and trust yourself. Your doctor is certainly a valuable tool for your wellness chest, but he’s just parroting whatever the latest in current medicine was the last time he was paying attention.
My god, I look back at pictures of myself from before I became bulimic and I can’t fathom thinking I was fat. And I can’t imagine any adult, much less a doctor of good conscience saying so either, but he did. And what a waste of time and of life thinking you have to fit an impersonal mold will lead to. To have to obsessively count calories in, and calories out, to view everything as either an opportunity to lose weight or gain it, and every gain something that must be paid for by an act of attrition on the treadmill. When did we start glorifying weight loss as an example of virtue, in any extreme and for no necessary reason? Why are formerly healthy looking women praised in the press for getting their collarbone to jut out, their face to lose all softness, for meticulously documenting everything they eat?
This is obsession, this is a state of dis-ease, not health. Remember back in the 90’s when we all collectively clucked over Fiona Apple and Calista Flockhart, imploring them in our prayers to please for the love of god eat a sandwich? Compare a picture of Fiona Apple from 1998 to Keira Knightly, Giuliana Rancic or even Jennifer Aniston today. These women are held up as health and beauty icons, and they are skeletal! Positively lollipop headed. They make old school Fiona Apple look average. Giuliana Rancic even has her own health and fitness website that people take seriously called FitFabFun, but if you want to get the inside scoop on the disease she’s peddling as health advice, check out Giuliana Rancic’s diet plan. It’s no wonder her hairline is receding. No offense, Giules.
Why are we like this? Could it be that as a society we are guilt-ridden over the excesses of our lifestyle, and in response revere the most disciplined, the least indulgent among us? Is Mary-Kate Olson’s visible rib cage the single perfect rose of an otherwise gluttonous and gratuitous culture? Eating disorders and obsessions are certainly maladies of affluence. No one in the developing world is busy plugging the calorie content of their U.N rations into the fitness app on their phone, and you can bet there are a few billion people in the world who think you need a lobotomy rather than applause when you throw out half the food on your plate. And though I wasn’t around back then, I would venture to say that no human being ever got the idea to worry about eating and exercise, beyond what their natural instincts and inclinations led them to, until we had enough food and enough time and enough un-natural stress in our lives to sit around and get neurotic about it.
So I have a suggestion. How about instead of worrying about how to make up for the “damage” done at the holiday table, instead of comparing ourselves to some dipshit ideal dreamt up by fashion designers or bureaucrats or even our parents…why not trust ourselves? Is the body really so stupid that it doesn’t have the foggiest idea what it needs? When you’re tired and hungry, the answer is not to sweat through a spinning class and down a green juice. You wouldn’t put a child or even your dog through that kind of torture, because you know it isn’t good for them. Then why do it to yourself? Is it for drama, approval, a sense of control and accomplishment? Is that a healthy way to live?
I know this may sound crazy, but I propose eating what you want when you feel like it and making sure your life is active enough that you don’t have to jump on the gerbil wheel in order to get some exercise. I propose getting enough sleep and enough love and enough adventure. I propose greeting your reflection in the mirror with acceptance and joy, not with disgust, fear, or shame.
And if you’re doing all that and still someone tells you you could stand to lose a few, tell ‘em yeah, I could stand to lose you, pal. If someone gives you the universally accepted compliment of “Oh, you’ve lost weight!” why not shock the hell out of them and reply with dismay “Oh seriously? That’s the last thing I want to do!” You won’t believe the bewildered looks you’ll get. Let’s shake up the paradigm, people! Question your perceptions of health and beauty. Cause others to question theirs, too. Flip conventional wisdom on its head and take a look at things from a different perspective. It’s good medicine, I promise.
By the way, I have a new doctor now. Says I’m healthy as a horse, thinks I look great.
* Judge for yourself. That’s not Ginger Spice, that’s just me dressed as her for a high school dance. As you’ve probably already guessed, most people mistook me for Shamu.
* 6:42. High five me!