Tuesday, October 19, 2010

My Dirty Little Secret

My best friend recently told me about an article she read in Self magazine that claims 75% of women “eat, think and behave abnormally around food.” The moment I heard that quote was the first time I even considered that there might be a lot of women out there like me - women who aren’t quite “normal” about food but aren’t severely disordered eaters either. Floating somewhere in between the two classifications meant my relationship with food was a sizeable source of stress and depression from the age of ten right on through my early twenties. I had no idea there was anyone else out there hiding the same kind of skeletons (or Fruit Roll-Ups) in their closets.

I grew up knowing I was fat and knowing it was my own damn fault. Not having the willpower to lose weight and win a war with what I thought should have been an insignificant demon became increasingly shameful. When you’re 10 and you’re the only kid to weigh more than your teacher, you naturally assume you’re the only one who’s having a secret love affair with Twix bars. So you eat them when no one’s around and you don’t openly discuss how much you look forward to your date with those crunchy cookie-candy delights after school. As an adolescent with a freakishly large chest (mostly attributed to being overweight,) you don’t ask the girls at your sleepover if they worry about being too fat as they pull your bra out of the freezer. When you’re a teenager and you don’t see any of your 100 pound friends eating big bowls of ice cream after dinner, you’re pretty sure you’re the only gal in the group who has a hard time fighting the urge to eat a gallon of mint chip at a time. You don’t talk about how hard it is to love everything a girl like you shouldn’t have and definitely doesn’t need during 90210 commercial breaks. Before you know it, you’re 25 and you think you’ve changed until you realize you’re too uncomfortable to eat that second cookie in front of the love of your life, so you wait until he gets into the shower go back for one more.

When I moved out to California at the age of 23, I had managed to wildly complicate one of the few things in life that can and should be beautifully simple. By that time, I had long since decided it was beyond pathetic to toil over my relationship with food. I knew people would pay to trade real ailments or far bigger mountains for my silly little molehill. I knew I was smarter and better than waging war against myself over and over again. I knew I ultimately would have the make the choice to be kinder to myself and my body. By 23, I still couldn’t ever do that for more than a month or two at a time. There were often glimpses of hope throughout college, mostly thanks to a shockingly accepting group of women, but then it seemed to be only a matter of time before I slipped back into old habits. As a grown woman, that inability to change was just another thing to feel guilty about and another reason to keep most of what I was going through to myself. It was embarrassing enough to be so caught up in weight, body image and food issues, but being so utterly predictable was terribly shameful to me. The more ashamed I was, the more I tried to control myself. The more I tried to control myself, the more I lost control. The more I lost control, the more I felt I needed to punish myself for it. The longer I was wrapped up in this cycle, the more I kept the details to myself.

When I met B and fell in love with him, for the first time in my life I started thinking about someday being a wife and mother. I wanted to be able to build a happy, balanced life with him; I knew if I was ever going to do that, I needed to do some re-building of my own. I went back to a therapist and started educating myself about ways to reframe my relationship with food and change my patterns of thinking. As the cliché saying goes, I started focusing more on the solutions and less on the problems. I realize now that as a child, I spent too much time feeling sorry for myself. When I was a teenager, I didn’t try hard enough with diet or exercise. And once a young woman, I didn’t fight like I meant it. Falling in love left little room for self-indulgence and self-pity. B’s passion for life left little time for lethargy. A man like him makes you want to fight harder for a lot of things.

I’ve spent the past 5 years of my life learning to see food as a source of nutrition, life and joy. Some days are easier than others. Most days are a bit of a challenge to some degree, because slipping into old habits in the face of stress, sadness or pressure is easy. I’ve broadened my horizons and learned to love different kinds of foods for different reasons. I allow myself a little something sweet every day, but try to stick with fruit or “guilt free” options during the week. I’ve come to appreciate the beautiful colors, textures and smells of a farmers market or kitchen counter covered with fresh and healthy ingredients waiting to be chopped, sliced and combined. I’ve found joy in creating something delicious and nourishing for my B with my own hands and a little creativity.

I’m still very apprehensive of eating too much and gaining weight though. I eat as many vegetables as I can every day, because it’s the one food group I enjoy and feel no guilt for consuming. I have a tough time stepping out of my comfort zone – which is characterized by a pretty controlled diet and some “get out of jail free cards” on the weekends. I probably pay too much attention to proper serving sizes, nutrient density, replacement options and health benefits. I have to remind myself not to put excessive thought or time into ensuring meals are well balanced with lean protein, vegetables, whole grains and vitamins and minerals. I often count calories in my head or on a sticky pad. I don’t stress as much as I used to about too many nights out at San Francisco’s wonderful restaurants- but I shoot for small portions of everything and even then, dining out seldom goes unpunished. (I add extra workouts into my already pretty rigorous routine for pizza, cheeseburgers, decadent deserts.) I often check menus online to identify healthy choices ahead of time too. I still catch myself saving up for things like vacations or Thanksgiving (banking.) I don’t like being put into situations where I have little to no healthy choices (French prix fix, weddings, company parties,) and dread being put into situations where I LOVE all the unhealthy choices (anytime cupcakes or champagne refills are free flowing.) I still feel a little self-conscious admitting the aforementioned, because as far as I have come in 5 years, it’s clearly not quite far enough.

When I look around at dinner parties, in restaurants, at work – women of all shapes and sizes seem to be so casual about making meal choices and enjoying what’s put in front of them. I’ve never noticed friends looking anxiously at menus for guilt-free options or taking pause to tally calories consumed plus approximate calories in a menu selection. I’ve never seen the same disappointed expressions on my sisters’ faces after they’ve eaten a few too many bites of that chocolate cake. I’ve always doubted my colleagues dread business lunches at steak houses because they’re anticipating necessary counteraction to a heavy meal. So you tell me. Are there a lot of women out there like me?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Identity Crisis

A few months ago, a friend and mentor asked why I don’t use my name or have any pictures of myself on my blog. I explained that doing so would make me feel too exposed; that I don’t like the idea of revealing too many of those everyday personal details, because I don’t like the idea of developing a persona that can be picked apart. If I share my stories and struggles without revealing who I am, I am insulated by anonymity.

He challenged me to think about it from another angle. He explained that people need to see a writer who writes about “real life” as a “real person.” If they can’t do that, they can’t easily connect with the author or truly identify with her. He asked me to consider that my messages might not be as powerful or helpful when delivered by an anonymous woman.

This past weekend, I was reminded of conversation when a friend was complimenting my blog and applauded me for having the courage to “put myself out there.”

As soon as he spoke of courage, I realized remaining anonymous and telling hardly anyone about my blog is far from courageous. If anything - in light of the fact that I challenge women to be more honest, transparent, and forthcoming - I’m being a bit hypocritical.

So, who am I?

  • I am a writer.
  • I am a strong woman.
  • I am a weak woman.
  • I am a good sister, daughter, friend and lover. I wonder sometimes if I am tough enough to be a good mother.
  • I was born in Ireland, raised in Connecticut, went to college in Boston and now live in San Francisco.
  • I am 28 years old.
  • I put too much thought and energy into everything I do.
  • One of my absolute favorite things to do is read in bed next to B when he’s reading something funny, the room dimly lit by lamps, dark brown curtains drawn with the breeze poking through, down covers pulled up under my chin, bed shaking occasionally from his guttural chuckles. His laugh makes me warm.
  • I can be judgmental and a harsh critic and I’m selectively compassionate – but I work on those faults every day.
  • I operate at 90 mph for months at a time until I’ve got nothing left and then crash and operate on autopilot for a few days.
  • My idea of a perfect (dream) daily routine: wake up after 8 hours of sleep, eat some steel cut oatmeal in my sunny living room while reading the newspaper or catching up with family over the phone, head off to a vinyasa yoga or Bar Method class, stop at the farmers market on the way home, write and work on my website for 6 hours, experiment with a new recipe with B or try a new restaurant with friends, write for a few more hours, finish the day with some quality time with B.
  • People are what make me feel whole, fulfilled. I think life is all about the people you share it with. I get to share mine with a wonderful man who has a huge heart; two amazing sisters; very loving parents; a kind, accepting best friend, and some very remarkable people from my childhood, college years and life in San Francisco.
  • Exercise is what keeps me sane. I start to go a little crazy if I don’t work out at least 4 times/week. I cry more; lose my temper more and I’m not nearly as nice or patient. And I’m not that patient to begin with.
  • My hair is naturally a mousy, dirty blond on top and fades to a darker mousy brown on bottom. I get blond highlights every 6-8 weeks.
  • I love candy. It makes me happy. Until I swallow it.
  • I have exceedingly high expectations of myself. I have similarly unrealistic expectations of my partner, my colleagues and my friends, which can be unfair and unreasonable.
  • If I don’t remind myself of who I am and what I’m made of, I start to feel like I’m not smart/thin/well dressed/disciplined/athletic/classy enough in new environments and/or certain social circles.
  • When I close my eyes and think of what makes me happy, I picture laughing. Laughing with B, my sisters, my friends, my buddies at work, my uncles B and K…Just laughing.
  • I don’t care much for modern art, minimalist design or post modern architecture. I suppose I’m too much of a romantic, too complicated emotionally to appreciate the simplicity in those things. I like to see struggle, triumph, energy, heart and soul when I look at a painting/sculpture/building.
  • I hate feeling like the fat kind in gym class when I can’t do something (physical) as well as the people I’m with. It happens a lot.
  • I’m not athletic or coordinated by any means, but I am flexible, strong and in the best shape of my life.
  • I miss my Dad a lot.
  • I love music so much – classical, jazz, blues, indie rock, classic rock, etc. I think music gives meaning to otherwise mostly vapid film and television.
  • I will start playing the piano again. I played for years as a child and quit as a teenager. My father promised me I would regret quitting. He was very right, as usual.
  • I also want to learn to play slide guitar. I will learn to play slide guitar.
  • I would like to start singing in a choir again.
  • I don’t have a good singing voice.
  • I don’t regret much in life, but one of my biggest regrets is failing to recognize the value in a close relationship with my older sister earlier on in life. She brings so much to my life now - I wonder what strength we could have brought each other as we grew into teenagers and women, had we had each other’s company and counsel then.
  • I enjoy being alone, as long as it is on my own terms. I want to choose when, where and why I am alone - otherwise I find solitude unsettling. 
  • If I could hold still long enough, I would read for at least an hour a day.
  • I want to learn to sail. I love sailboats. They look like music on water to me. 
  • I adore traveling. B loves to travel too. We’ll go on sabbatical and travel around the US and Europe someday, hopefully soon.
  • I would love to experience agritourism in Italy.
  • I never buy things full price and I try not to spend money on things that aren’t well made and wont last. The more I understand how financially draining having a house, car, family and well balanced social life is, the harder time I have spending money on myself.
  • I can’t get enough of big, floppy, dopey dogs. I especially like ones with very big heads. I think it’s funny when animals have extremities that are entirely out of proportion.
  • I want a Smart car. Only because I know I would laugh every time I got in or out of it.
  • I’ve lived in a city since I was 18. It’s hard for me to imagine a life outside of the city, unless it was on a vineyard in northern Sonoma County, or a ranch in Montana or Colorado. But someone else has to feed the animals at 5 am.
  • I am always sore. To me, a good therapeutic massage is priceless.
  • I prefer feeling hungry over feeling full. I am downright uncomfortable when I am too full.
  • I don’t currently read any newspapers. Not one. Not online, not in print. Very shameful.
  • I love maps. Somehow, my geography is still pathetic.
  • I would have a bunny with floppy ears, if bunnies didn’t poop everywhere.
  • I buy 90% of my clothes and everyday jewelry at J. Crew. Yes, I am that boring.
  • I wish I had a chef to prepare my fruits and vegetables every day. It takes a long time to inspect, wash, chop and prepare as many as I try to eat.
  • If I think I need to change something, I work on it. And I change it. Even if it takes me 10 years.
  • I have no desire to go to Las Vegas – I think there are a million better ways to spend the kind of money you inevitably spend there.
  • I love pizza and ice cream, but preferably on the weekends so I don’t feel guilty.
  • I loved James Frey’s books and I think Oprah was too hard on him. She’s a liar if she claims she has never embellished the truth or passed something off for something it wasn’t.
  • I tend not to enjoy highly acclaimed films – the kind you’re “supposed” to love. I still see them all sooner or later. Because I’m “supposed” to.
  • I’m slowly learning to be a good cook. I’ve always been an excellent baker. My forte is scraping the bowl.
  • On average, I do 5-7 things at once while at work, and 3-5 at once while at home.
  • I spend too much time at the farmers market. I love the colors and smells and energy of the place.
  • I like really bad TV. We’re talking the old 90210, the new 90210 and Keeping up with the Kardashians. Yeah, that’s right. I make time for that, but I don’t read the newspapers. Shameful.
  • My favorite places in the world are the Belizean cayes, Tuscany, Eastern Australia and San Francisco.