A collection of short fiction and poetry with ties to Japan, The Melancholy of Mechagirl is CMV’s latest short works collection. Previously published works, such as the Locus Award-winning (and Hugo-nominated!) novella Silently and Very Fast and the titular piece (originally appearing in Mythic Delirium) appear alongside new pieces featuring Valente’s trademark fusion of the wonderful and the grotesque. You can find The Melancholy of Mechagirl wherever books are sold, including the following online retailers:
Last time on TL;DR Theater, I talked about all the junk that led up to August 2011 and beginning the long process of losing the equivalent of the luggage I checked on my trip to Australia from my frame. Well, I didn’t lose it. It’s not like I misplaced it and I’m looking behind the couch cushions for a vaguely Cat-shaped 90 pound dustbunny. It was far more often mysterious to me where I’d gotten all that to begin with than where it all went to once I was done with it or it was done with me. It did not, more’s the pity, get up and totter adorably off to the mothership like the Adipose on Doctor Who–an episode that always felt far more uncomfortable to me on account of the bafflingly unspoken fact that most everyone I knew would glad chug alien larvae if it meant being skinny than the using of humans as EZ-Bake Ovens. Losing weight was not an accident; it was deliberate and painstaking and difficult As a certain Wyvern would say: that’s not losing it, that’s leaving it.
These days I’m in that phase where a lot of people haven’t seen me in awhile or have only seen photos and thus aren’t used to my looking the way I do now. It is not yet the new normal. So I end up talking about it quite a bit. And the question I always get asked, in one form or another (but mostly this one) is: What’s your secret?
I always look apologetic. I know, being a veteran of Diets What Read Like Magic Spells, what they want to hear. That the pounds just fell off when I started doing X, where X is something solid and pointable-to, whether something reasonable and repeatable or something radical and so crazy it just might work: cutting out carbs or gluten or sugar or Fill in the Blank Celebrity Endorsed Meal Plan or running marathons or pilates or eating nothing but lilies plucked under the light of a crescent moon–but I could have as many as I wanted and I never felt deprived!
The thing is: there is no secret.
There’s not even One True Technique that I could point to and say: THAT. That is why this time it worked when I failed so miserably all the other times. Slap a barcode on it and start shipping nationwide. It was a lot of different things, some dietary, some behavioral, some psychological. Some came from me and some came from others. And it’s all very specific to me and might not work at all for anyone else–so before I start counting off the circus funbag of actionable items, allow me to repeat that I am not giving advice, I am not telling you what to do or claiming that any of what I did is the way, the truth, and the life. There is plenty of judgmental I Was Once Fat Like You evangelism online and I am allergic to the pulpit. If I’m trying to squeeze into my empathy hat, I might say it’s natural, I guess, to some extent, for people who have spent much of their lives as physical beings thinking they’re worthless and lazy, to come out on the other side of significant weight loss with the attitude that if they (a worthless, lazy person) can do it, anyone can, it’s not like it’s hard, because worthless, lazy people can’t accomplish hard things. Thus, anyone who doesn’t lose weight must just not care. Those people must not want to try. Those people must be so much more worthless and lazy, so much as to be utterly beneath contempt.
Yeah. The Empathy Hat doesn’t really fit that well after a decade and change of hearing this sort of thing online and off, only without the Empathy Hat or even a skinny, decorative Self-Awareness Scarf. Seriously, if people could stop bleating online about how simple it is and how all you need to do is care and put forth a little effort and chanting Calories In, Calories Out God Fat People Are Dumb I’m Totes Glad I’m Not One while toasting each other in comment sections like Victorian industrialists chortling in their clubs over how simply gauche one finds the poor, Cecil, why, I’m quite sure I read a highly scientifical study that discovered fat people’s brains are 80% cake, Ye Olde Lolle!
So I don’t have a secret to share. I have what worked for me. I am a beautiful and unique snowflake of bad habits and psychological ick and several chins. It took 18 months. I didn’t start out with all of these tools in my belt. I started out pretty blind, with only what extremely dubious lessons I’d learned from the diets of varying logic and patterns set down in my early twenties.
It shouldn’t surprise you, then, that the first bit of the tale is a screeching false start.
In August 2011, I decided that now, right now, I would really lose it this time I swear to every god with a tummy that fell over his or her loincloth. So I did what I usually do, which is to decide that since low-carb worked for me at age 21, it is the only thing that ever will. I started off trying the Harcombe Diet, which is an Australian thing that would have you do that standard low-carb foxtrot but also eat your weight in yogurt because intestinal flora. Honestly, if a diet didn’t have a name or proper noun in front of it I didn’t know what to do with it. I should have distrusted anything with fonts and color schemes that look like a middle-schoolers diary, in retrospect. I picked a goal weight, more or less out of thin air: 160 pounds. A little above what I weighed the last time I could bear to look at photos of myself. It honestly felt like a mythical number, it had little meaning other than the ritual of the thing. You declare a goal weight because that’s what you do. It was mostly just a thing to fail to achieve, in my head.
It’s important to note here that the other major change in my habits was that, after several conventions in a row wherein the traditional sojourn out for ice cream at a fancy shop made me double over in pain, a dim thought appeared in my thick skull that I might be lactose intolerant. Growing up Christian Scientist means that it takes longer, sometimes, for such connections to get made, because you grow up in an environment where no one admits to illness. I still remember explaining patiently to someone that it’s not that I’m allergic to lemongrass, it’s just that whenever I taste it or smell it I feel sick and my lips tingle and my throat gets tight. I just don’t like it, is all. Why are you laughing at me?
So anyway, I cut out dairy. Which was in itself a long process, figuring out just how intolerant and what I can and can’t have. Many people can still have yogurt, which is why a diet that was like 50% yogurt seemed like it would work. It actually turns out that the amount of dairy I can have is basically none, I’m not only intolerant but allergic, so Lactaid doesn’t help. I can slip in some hard/aged cheeses once in awhile, but that’s about it.
As those who have tried dieting may know, any change in your diet will have some effect, however minor. Ten pounds came off fairly easily and quickly. But when you’re as heavy as I was (250 pounds), ten pounds ain’t nothing but breakfast, you’d never notice it. I knew that the first ten are always easy, so I couldn’t really even consider myself making progress until I’d lost more than that.
But I didn’t. I just couldn’t seem to lose any more than that. I was utterly miserable shoveling yogurt into my face (I don’t even like yogurt that much and I understand now that my whole body was waging a Return of the Living Dairy Product war on my guts and there could be no winners. And eating basically just meat and greens and veggies was doing its usual number on my mood, which is to say I basically slouched around the house like Buffy in her caveman episode. Meat bad. Cat pretty?
So I decided to change tacks and just start tracking calories with one of those new fangled iphone apps. I can’t remember which one I was using at first. I figured 1200 calories was a thing I had heard dieting people say (SCIENCE) so that was a good calorie limit. I punched in the numbers and gratefully started eating bread again.
And nothing happened. I still couldn’t lose any more than that first ten pounds. By this time it was getting into October and I was frustrated to tears. I was trying so hard. Somewhere in my head I thought I should be losing weight the way I had when I was taking those “herbal” supplements I got off a telephone pole advertisement: a pound or two every couple of days. But nothing, nothing and I had been so careful.
At this point I tweeted for advice and I’ll tell you right now, Tobias Buckell is the person who turned it around for me. (If you don’t read his books, you should.) He IM’d me and explained that his own medical issues meant he had to lose weight but couldn’t take the strain at exercise, so he’d become awesome at hacking diet. We talked for quite awhile and he explained that at my weight, 1200 calories was an insanely low number to be working with and probably wouldn’t be effective. My body would hold on to every last pound on account of the terrible famine of 2011. He told me to download an app called LoseIt! and let it calculate what I needed for me, and then just eat that. If I wanted a jelly donut in the morning, fine, just keep the whole day under that number. Don’t deprive myself, just record everything.
LoseIt! suggested a daily calorie intake of a little over 1600 calories.
Now that may seem like simple stuff, but to me a diet had always had to be something radical, hardcore, painful. If I wasn’t suffering, then I wasn’t serious about the process. I always put whatever self-worth I had left into how much I could deny myself, because that, in my head, was the measure of the likelihood of success. It was like some kind of fucked up idea of sympathetic magic. If I could punish myself enough, I’d get what I wanted.
Toby checked up on me every week for awhile. It was one of the kindest things anyone’s done for me, and I’ll be forever grateful. Armed with his advice (and I’m really shorthanding it here, he taught me a ton) I gave myself the following parameters:
Track everything: LoseIt! (though I would not now recommend this as an app–it didn’t evolve with the tech and I use MyNetDiary now, which is fantastic, and lets you track water and sleep and nutrients and a lot of other stuff as well) allows you to log all your food and exercise and will automatically add anything you burn to your daily allowance. I had to be honest, and I had to put everything into the system. And the fact of having a smartphone where it was so easy to input the information was a huge help–it’s not like I am ever without my phone, for I am a child of technology.
No dairy: And not yogurt either. Or cheese of any kind. I was aware that I could have hard cheese but given that I was still having reactions to all kinds of things it seemed better to just cut it out entirely. And funny thing, not having dairy cuts you out, automatically, of a whole lot of things: cheeseburgers, pizza, any dessert menu (seriously you can make a dessert without dairy I SWEAR), creamy sauces and soups.
No eating out: I decided that I’d stop eating out unless it was a business meal. All the effort and energy I put into wanting food and eating it, I’d put into preparing it. I grew vegetables in my garden and baked and cooked elaborate, high-committment meals. At home I can control what goes in, I can be sure it’s actual Plants and Animals That Used to Be Alive and not I Can’t Believe It’s Not Food industrial product. I would remember that part of the magic of food is in making it. I’d take delight in local everything and homemade awesomeness. If I was craving something bad for me, I had to make it myself, from scratch. If I didn’t know how to cook it, I’d learn. I know very, very well that this is a little easier for me as I live on an island with two restaurants, neither of which are so amazing they represent much of a temptation, and going to one of the restaurants in town required a boat ride that provided plenty of time to consider whether I actually wanted that sandwich at Duckfat or not. (The name of that wonderful place should tell you exactly how doctor-approved it is.) It’s also easier because I work at home, I can take the time (and expense) to cook everything from scratch. It’s not a luxury everyone has. But there’s no point in having a luxury if you’re not even really using it. So I’d use the hell out of it. Which leads to–
Think hard about everything I eat: I decided that I would try to be as mindful as possible about what I was eating, a revelation that came from reading the Fat Nutritionist. Whatever I was eating, I’d ask myself whether that specific thing was what I wanted to be eating in that specific moment, or whether I was eating because I was sad or bored or it was the time of day when humans traditionally eat or because it was a social gathering so there’s food out and no one who grew up poor can ever turn down free food. I could have anything I wanted if I was absolutely positive that it was what I deeply, genuinely wanted in that moment. And if I stayed within my daily calorie count–which basically meant portion control. Eat whatever, but only some. I would apply all that love of food that was a profound part of my nature, all that conviction that treating food as fuel alone is just as disordered an attitude as overeating and a miserable way to go through life and I’d actually commit to that idea: I wouldn’t eat anything I didn’t really, really want to eat.
I would weigh myself every day: And here’s one that I’m wary about sharing. This is an absolutely terrible idea for a whole lot of people. You’re meant to weigh yourself once a week, every few days at max. And for people with disordered relationships to their weight, weighing yourself every day can be a quick road to breakdown town. I chose to do this knowing that it might even be a terrible idea for me. But I’d ignored the scale for so many years and it had left me totally unaware of my own body. I did it knowing it’s pretty bad for your brain. My reasoning was a little strange, but bear with me.
NOW IS THE TIME WHEN WE DISCOVER THINGS ABOUT CAT. I’m an obsessive counter. My particular brand of OCD manifests itself numerically, and it is a Conan of a beast. What is good in life? Knowing how many steps are in every staircase and counting my own breaths! Oddly enough, knitting has been an enormous balm for me. Knitting is counting and knots, after all, and holding my position in a pattern, rows, stitches, repeats, takes up the place in my head that used to instantly tally up the number of tiles on any given floor. But my obsession with numbers, while eased somewhat, never goes away. So I figured, Self, I figured, why not put your crazy to work for you? If you’re going to obsess about numbers anyway, let’s just give in to that and let it take over for awhile. Go ahead, weight yourself constantly and look at your calorie counting app a million times a day. It’ll either get less interesting or you’ll learn something from it, but trying to scrupulously avoid obsessing about numbers will only make your vampire brain double down. Go ahead, treat yourself. Count everything.
And that was what I started out with. Those rules and a friend who cared enough to check up on me on the regular.
And it worked. Not like a miracle. Not easily. Not even quickly. Through the entirety of the process I never managed to lose much more than more than five pounds a month. That ended up being terribly frustrating as my I’m Losing Weight! expectations were set during the era of buying speed at Wal-Mart so long as it was called Metabolife. I always felt like I should be doing more, faster, better. I’d see people post their Success Stories online and it would seem to have happened so fast for them. I couldn’t even escape the dread twin demons of Compare and Contrast when I was demonstrably making progress. Some Lady on the Internet lost 100 pounds in a year. If I can’t, I must be a failure like I always was. Lather, rinse, repeat, the brain is a wonderful place, isn’t it?
But I did break through the ten pound barrier that had plagued me. I started going to hot yoga regularly (though I’ll fess up, I did not stick with that nearly as much as I should have. The exercise portion of my diet and exercise plan often, often fell by the wayside and I am no kind of poster child for that side of the business). I wasn’t perfect. I had days where I broke down and ate way too much. But those days were almost exclusively at conventions or on the road, where it’s so much harder to control things. At home, it wasn’t a misery to stick with what I’d planned out. Much. It was somewhere around eight months that I realized I would very likely be able to get to 160 if I just didn’t stop what I was doing. It would happen, I just had to wait.
For the first several weeks, because I had been restricting my calories so much, it was almost freeing to have to fill 1600 a day. I was still hungry sometimes. I was never as good about drinking as much water as I needed to as I could have been. But it was possible. The first few months were a huge adjustment, both terms of my stomach growing accustomed to a new definition of full and in terms of my psychology, which still wanted to panic and boredom eat and take short breaks to hate myself.
And I had to realize a hard truth. I’d always kind of said to myself that I didn’t really eat more than other people, I just had a slow metabolism or something, or I’d gained weight way back when and hadn’t lost it but it wasn’t that I was eating a ton now. Having never done a diet where I had to record everything that fastidiously, I had never had the numbers in front of me. I’d never just counted up the calories.
And the truth is, I was eating a lot. (This was true for me. Not for everyone.) There wasn’t any way to ignore that if I was eating pretty close to my hunger/comfort limits at 1600 a day, I had not exactly been the frugal gourmet before. I learned a lot about just how many calories are in Things, which I had really never given much thought to. My diets had always been about eating a Particular Thing, not about the energy contained in That Thing. But it was plain as the app in front of my face–if bacon and egg and an english muffin was just under 400 calories, then the breakfast sandwich at the cafe plus a pastry was probably almost 800 calories I had started a whole lot of days with in the past. SOBERING SHIT, I TELL YOU WHAT.
And for awhile, that basically made me feel like a manatee whose flippers were self-delusion and whose blubber was the blubber of bad choices. I didn’t have anything to protect my psyche from guilt, not the idea that it had all been rogue birth control or that my body just didn’t do things right. My brain just went full bastard on me, convinced that now was an awesome time to embrace that I was clearly a pig and a glutton and what do you know, my outsides did match my inside.
And so when I backslid and cheated on my diet? I cheated with other diets.
I’d decide that it was time to go on juice fasts or other ill-concieved Proceed Directly to Hell Do Not Pass Go anguish rallies. And I’d fail because I was hungry like the womby girl in Slither and sometimes crushed applecelerycarrotmush is not going to cut it.
But slowly, I evened out. I clung to the idea of how much I loved food. Of only eating something I really wanted to put in my mouth right then. Of being mindful about food. Of taking pleasure in it, but listening to my body, which knows a lot more about what it needs than my brain, which mostly knows about how to tear itself into tiny pieces.
It sounds facile when you put it like that. Because no process is anything but I did something and I kept doing it for a long time. And I feel a little strange about the fact that counting calories ended up working for me in a way nothing else did–except that I think the psychological stuff that went along with plinking things into an app was as big a factor. I feel guilty because I don’t have a secret.
And one day a couple of weeks before I left for Australia, I got on the scale and it said 160. No trumpets blared, no confetti rained down. It was just looking back at me in glowing blue numerals.
Now, I’m still not what our beloved culture would consider skinny. And I’m not really done. I picked 160 out of thin air, an abstract goal that I had no expectation of achieving, and thus had no real attachment to Cat’s Body. I’m pretty happy with how I look right now. I’d like to regain some muscle mass and lose a little bit more, now that I can look at myself and evaluate what I actually want to look like. What my body wants to weigh. What is maintainable. But that 70% of my brain capacity is no longer taken up with hating my physical self. It’s nice, to have that back. I may not keep it off. That’s the mountain on the other side of weight loss. Maintenance is just as hard. I never get to have an uncomplicated relationship with food.
I have a lot more complicated thoughts and reactions and scrunched up faces on the other side of 90 pounds, but this is quite long enough, so I’ll save that, and pictures, for part 3…
So as not to bury the lede, and so that if you find this sort of thing triggery or simply boring, you can skip right along, let me cut to the title card: I have lost 90 pounds (about 41 kg) over the last 18 months. I’ve gone from a size 18, creeping up on 20 to a size 6 creeping down on 4, if the black alchemical demonology of American women’s clothes sizing is a thing you can parse.
It’s weird. It’s surreal. It still seems impossible, even though I was, obviously, there the whole time and I did it on purpose. I’m gonna talk about it. With gusto.
This is going to be a series of not-short posts (it’s a pretty major thing in my life, I feel like I can take some space to ruminate like a boss) concerning how and why I did it, what the effects on my health and my life have been, and my thoughts on what it all means, both to me personally and in the funky social primateworld at large. I intend to be quite forthright and open about my own history, habits, body, psyche, and numbers–all things not spoken of in company. Because everyone can judge you for your body, but no one wants to hear what you go through on account of it. I’m doing this because I think it’s important, if I’m going to talk about this thing at all (and I’m going to try super hard not to call it a “journey” or a “transformation” or any of that diet blog jazz), to be plain and unashamed of either my former self or my current one, and none of it embarrasses me–we all own a body. It’s useful for me to write out all this stuff for myself, but obviously I’m doing it online because I want to discuss it with other, not myself, people. So to further that discussion I’m not going to be coy.
That said, I am exquisitely, painfully aware that this is not a value-neutral topic. I have done my own time reading blog posts by my friends detailing their fitness or weight loss or even just the cute clothes they bought and feeling deep shame, self-hatred, and a weird melange of envy, resignation, a frantic marshaling of resources to still feel like I was ok, and a renewed conviction that I was the ugliest beast to walk the earth.
I do not want to make anyone feel this way by talking about
my journey my transformation how I spent my summer vacation. I am acutely, personally aware of not only the privilege of body conforming but, to my mind even more pervasive an pernicious, the privilege of pretty. IT IS SOME COMPLEX SHIT YOU GUYS. I’ve been thinking about it for, like, half my life. And even more pressingly in the years since I turned into a person who gets their photograph taken on the frequent, whose face is public property and represents not just me but my work.
I’m going to talk about all of that. It is not separable from the story of how anyone changes their body in the current cultural climate. This isn’t a thinspiration rally. It’s a stock-taking of where I am and where I want to be, where I’ve been and how I got from there to here, with here being a constantly-fluctating state. It’s not about success or a victory lap or spitting on the body I had before. On the other hand, I am glad and proud that I did what I did. Dude, it was hard. COMPLEX. WARNING: XXX HARDCORE PSYCHO-CONFESSIONAL ACTION INCOMING.
So given all that, we gotta have some ground rules going in.
1. If you find these kinds of posts upsetting and damaging, for whatever reason, please, please just don’t read it.
You have the power to just click away and not feel bad or spend the afternoon having tea with self-loathing. It won’t hurt my feelings and hell, there may not even be anything new or useful in here. That’s the risk of any personal blogging. I didn’t post about the process over the last 18 months for precisely the reason that body stuff is so fraught and so hard and so triggery for so many people. So you fully have my permission to just carry on as though I never posted about it–and if you have a history of eating disorders, maybe you should. It’s cool, I swear. Nobody else’s body should have the power to harm the way you see your own. If you have trouble with that, and fuck, I know I do, don’t give me that power. Keep it for yourself.
2. When I get to the part about how I lost weight, there is a giant flashing neon sign over every word and that sign says: These Things Worked for Me But They May Not Work For You, Some May Even Be Terrible Ideas For You, Because Everyone Is Different And If This Crap Were Universal or Easy How Would An Entire Industry Revolve Around Making Us Feel Bad About It?
And I’m going to get into my own history pretty seriously before I start telling you what app I used and all that. Because I could just say I tried a whole bunch of diets in the past but none really worked til now but then I’d just sound like a diet infomercial and there is an actual place in actual hell where you just have to watch those on a loop for all eternity. I said I was taking stock. That means opening up boxes in the back room and seeing what’s there. THIS IS ME WE’RE TALKING ABOUT, YOU KNOW IT’S GONNA GET ALL INTIMATE UP IN HERE.
3. This is not, and I will not let it become, about fat-shaming.
I say that because in telling you how I thought of myself through most of my adult life, I’m going to say some gross stuff. The world is SUPER EFFECTIVE at making fat people, particularly fat women, feel like utter slime about their bodies and I internalized a fire hose stream of that liquid crap over the course of my life. I’m slowly getting better about how I treat myself–it takes longer than losing weight to right that, actually. But there is a world of difference between I felt deep shame because I was fat and being fat is shameful. Mainly, the first one is a true fact and the second one is bullshit. So when I talk about my broken brain, it’s to say: my brain was broken, and if you feel like this sometimes, well, reading that someone else does too doesn’t make you right, but maybe it makes you feel less alone.
4. There will be no nonsense in the comments on the subjects of how terrible fat people are and how superior not-fat people are.
Pretty simple. I will kill that noise with an axe.
Ok. For those of you still here, let’s get this thing off the ground already. Imma tell it like a story, because that’s what I do. And that means AWKWARD FRONTLOADED EXPOSITION, YO.
A Brief History of My Human Suit
NEWS AT 11 YOUNG WOMAN HAS SOME ISSUES WITH HER BODY AND FOOD.
Let me try to arrange them for you in a tasteful bouquet.
I was a thin child in a family of athletic people who became a thin (but not athletic because apparently where I have the bookish nerd gene all my siblings have the awesomely competent at sports gene) teenager. I wouldn’t say I had the worst upbringing ever in terms of food. My stepmother (who has never been anything but a tiny, tiny woman; even her handwriting is thin and small) was always strictly Americana–not a lot of fresh or fancy stuff, but canned and frozen veggies everywhere, balanced meals, packed lunches, lots of casseroles and baked chicken and an unfortunate taste for Butter Buds and margarine and other artificially stuff but seriously no worse than anyone ever had growing up in the 80s. I was, however, brought up Christian Scientist, and boy howdy will that do a number on your ideas about your body. CS teaches that you don’t have one, see. Matter is mortal error–we are all perfect mind and this world is an illusion so no doctors because anything that’s wrong can be fixed with your mind because that’s all you are. (Step 3 is definitely profit. I seriously challenge you to have anything to do with that faith and come out with a normal relationship to either food or sex.)
My mother swung the other way. If she were a worse person she’d be a total food hipster–she was all organic and local and natural as mud before it was cool or even particularly easy to do that. There was a lot of carob, is what I’m saying, and I will go to my grave insisting that carob tastes not of chocolate or treats but a fallen world and your parents’ lies.
My brother John and I took over the household cooking when I was 13 and he was 8, as Mom was deep in her PhD program and we were interested and it beat almost any other chore we might get stuck with instead. We taught each other how to cook through trial and error and about a million cookbooks. (This was the Pre-Internet Universe) I still remember that our toaster broke at some point and we couldn’t afford a new one, so we adapted. I think our adaptation says a lot about who John and I are as people and our relationship to food: our afterschool snack became whatever spelt or quinoa or unicorn-pelt bagels we had on hand, split in half and pan-fried, with caramelized onions on top.
John is now quite a successful chef.
The point is, I love food, always have, always will. I am not a professional chef, clearly, but I am a damn fine cook and I pride myself on my ability to make more or less anything fantastically. I don’t think that’s boasting. The only thing I’ve been doing as long as I’ve been making overly-complicated meals is writing. You get pretty ok at things you do for a decade and a half.
Bear with me, I promise this is important.
So my attitude toward eating has always been, and remains, the opposite of the food is fuel meme that so many people espouse to my eternal bafflement. Food is pleasure and social interaction and caretaking and not a little bit of magic. In college I used to throw Stone Soup parties to feed my friends who lived on pizza and Coke: everyone bring an ingredient and I will mother you for the night. We have to eat to live, why not make it a joy and an art and an experience?
I fully admit that this isn’t an attitude that will universally lead to rock-hard abs and catwalks. That in particular never bothered me–but it’s easy to not get bothered when you’re sixteen, 100 pounds with clothes on, and blissfully unaware of the calorie content of anything you choose to eat. It is, however, among all the assumptions and beliefs and needs I was willing to alter or give up to lose weight, one I utterly refused to abandon.
Some of this is hard to write and to fess up to. I’m going to try to keep this personal rather than general–no generic “you”s, because good lord, I don’t know your life. But I suspect I am not alone in that I had a lot of ways of thinking about my weight that involved it not being about food per se, that involved it not being entirely my fault. Or my fault at all. Some of them were even true. For example–I first gained a significant amount of weight around age 17 when I went on Depo-Provera. (That’s a birth control shot, in case it just looks like medical word salad.)
Up until then I had been a pretty, bone-thin girl, an active dancer and actress. The picture of an ingenue. I didn’t have an eating disorder and I didn’t hate my body beyond having no breasts at all and shorter than everyone else in my family. I was a giant poetry-scribbling barefoot long-haired theatre dork with a feminist mother who taught me not to care what other people thought of my body. So far so good.
I really don’t know if Depo has been refined at all since but back then everyone I knew who got on it had terrible health issues. I had to sign a waiver saying I understood that I might gain some weight (the form said 5-10 pounds) before they would even prescribe it! I figured I could stand to gain ten pounds. Instead, I gained 40 in about three months. I had blood-red stretch marks all over my body, and having never been anything but tiny, I honestly thought I was dying. I went to the doctor for stretch marks because I was convinced they were a fatal disease.
So that sucked. And shortly after that, I moved in with my then-boyfriend, future-husband and his parents, and all those body issues I didn’t have came crashing down in the form of those parents’ opinions on the decline of my physique. At 5’4 I now weighed 140 pounds and that was apparently sufficient to trigger deep concern, fad diets that “we’d all go on together” (Oh Herbalife, how I hate you) and lectures on my health and attractiveness. Weight Watchers Points Are Your God Now. My ex-husband had his own crippling self-image problems and fully admitted years later that he’d been waiting through our whole relationship for me to go back to the way I was when we met. When I was 15. My high school sweetheart, who turned out not to be such a sweetheart when we broke up, smugly quipped, when he saw me post weight gain, that “now her outsides match her inside.” This is but a small sampling of the cargo of judgment that came sailing my way in the Good Ship We Just Want You to Be Healthy.
I got the message. 140 pounds was unforgivably obese. Not only obese, but that number contained some coded information about who I was as a person, and if I wasn’t at a good weight, I simply wasn’t a good person. I seized on the image of myself at 15 as the True Image of Me. That was what I looked like. That was who I was. A good girl. A happy girl. A thin girl. If you’ve been reading this blog for a long time, you may remember my posting not a few times about that cognitive dissonance.
Some people might have had the mental wherewithal to turn that into the mysterious magical OHHHH YEEEEAAAAH fruit punch called “motivation” but I am not those people. For all my ignorance of body-hatred, my fairy-tale level broken childhood left me with no defenses at all when it came (and comes) to love offered and withheld. Eventually I went off Depo, but I ate my feels FOREVER, abandoning even the pretense of food as joy and art and just eating Jack in the Box because it made me feel better and I was broke anyway so that’s what I could afford.
And for a long time I just blamed it all on birth control. I lost some weight when I switched to the pill, but the pill ain’t so hot for your body either and I was, as previously reported, eating for two: me and my sadness.
But I actually did lose a goodly amount of the weight at one point. My self-loathing reached a peak when I started college at UC San Diego, Home of the Perfect Blond California Co-Ed and State of the Art Fitness Facility In Lieu of Adequate Student Housing. I went to a dance class and weighed myself in the locker room (I’d started avoiding scales) and saw that I’d hit 202 pounds. It was crushing, that number. Keep it in mind for later. I was 21. Over the course of about 10 months I lost 47 pounds and at 155 was a size 8 and pretty damned happy there. The rush of success and the constant praise of anyone who saw me losing weight temporarily bounced me back into the innocence of my Pre-Body-Loathing Adamic Garden.
How did I do it then? Well, it was the year 2000/2001. Cast back your mind. Taking all bets!
LOOK HERE, LADIES AND GENTS, WE HAVE A WINNER! THE WHEEL OF POOR LIFE CHOICES LANDS ON ATKINS AND PSEUDO-EPHEDRINE!
Oh, yeah. Those were the days! And this was before Atkins became so popular that you could get low-carb stuff anywhere you looked. I didn’t even know it was called Atkins at first. I actually took a damn number off of one of those 30 Pounds In 30 Days! fliers stapled to a telephone pole on campus. First of all, I know those things look sketchy, but DUDE THEY ARE SUPER SKETCHY. I was given directions to a guy’s condo. I took my ex-boyfriend/husband/boyband for backup. I was given a list of low-glycemic foods, a brochure about how Carbs Are Satan and Have Poisoned the Soul of Civilization With Evil, instructions to call a number and report my stats every three days on account of how they were conducting Srs Bsns Klinikal Trialz, and a 30-day supply of “supplements.” At the end of 30 days I could come back and get more.
Well, I was 21 and I hated myself and I’d had to sit through worse from Herbalife salesmen, who also would like you to take a range of horse pills with dubious ingredients. Plus fancy science words! Seemed legit!
Well, it worked. At the time I was like IT WORKS BECAUSE OF MAH DISCIPLINE AND AWESOMENESS. And I did stick religiously to the no-carb thing, even when it meant literally sitting at an empty cafeteria table crying because there was nothing I could eat. But mainly, mainly, I think it probably worked because those pills were pseudo-ephedrine/stone cold speed. I say this because since the FDA got all party pooper on that particular “herbal” supplement, I have not been able to lose a significant amount of weight on low-carb diets. More on that anon.
So what happened? What usually happens when you lose weight through a fad diet and pills. I moved to Scotland and ate all the fried things and gained it all back. Whatever role the birth control had in Original Recipe Weight Gain, the second one was all on me. I leveled up my cooking and I lived with a guy who said food is fuel with his mouth and McDonalds tastes like love with his soul and I didn’t pay attention or own a scale because I figured I had Lost the Weight and therefore I Was Done. Results: predictable.
For the rest of my twenties and into my thirties, I went through the So-Classic-It-Wears-A-Toga cycle of “I am a pig and it’ll never change and I’m worthless anyway so why bother trying” through to “I’m going to do X crash diet and that’ll fix it and this time I won’t fill my soul with meat pies and I’ll be True Me again.”
Essentially, if you can think of a LOSE WEIGHT NOW diet that seems both scientifically and morally dubious, I’ve done it. Those “Hollywood” juice fasts that taste like passionfruit, aspartame, and nihilism? So many times. Master Cleanse (the “cleanse” means poop)? Sure, only it’s so gross I only made it two days. Blood Type? Mostly Yogurt? Everything Has Acai In It Because Reasons? South Beach? Warrior Diet? All Fruit? Pay Per View Lose Weight By Breathing Fast for 10 Minutes a Day? OH YES SIR SEND ME THOSE TAPES 2 EZ PAYMENTS.
And because it’s how I’d done it before and there was so much blather about how carbs are an invention of the Uggo-Industrial Establishment and THEY ARE COMING FOR YOUR CHILDREN I kept coming back to Atkins and its fell sisters. But it made me so miserable. Just cranky and angry all the time, and exhausted, and unsatisfied. And not even really losing much weight. Turns out sparklejitter pseudo-ephedrine REALLY HELPS OUT with losing weight fast and set me up to think I’d always be making significant progress every three days. And I wasn’t. So I’d give up. All those diets were so restrictive that I would just break down crying after a few weeks and give up. I mean, the breathing one was cool. But not what you call “effective” or “not a hilarious scam.”
I didn’t do the thing where you just drink passionhorror juice and not exercise, either. Though, looking back, I really, really seem to have had a problem with late night television, impulse control, and OUR REVOLUTIONARY SYSTEM WILL TURN YOUR LIFE AROUND tapes. When I recall mistily Exercise Regimens I Have Known, I see VHS tapes. VHS tapes everywhere. Tae Bo, Abs of Steel, the Goddess Workout, Jane Fonda On a Trampoline, Pilates At Home, Ab Roller…ah, my old friends! Wii Fit, I haven’t forgotten you!
I did, while living in Japan, manage to turn it around a little. I was 24 and alone more or less all the time as boyband (now full-fledged husband) was at sea for the vast majority of our time there, and at some point I was all I have nothing but time. I should just flip out and do whatever one of the million and four Designed For Dudes, By Dudes workout books in his office tells me and then when he gets back I’ll be pretty again and Everything Will Be Fixed.
And by Everything I meant not just my body but my whole life because they were the same in my head. Indivisible, with humiliation and vicious cycles for all.
The book in question was Body for Life. It remains one of the worst-written diet/lifestyle/exercise books I’ve ever read. It’s very meathead hoo-rah beefcaaaaake. It promised, as they all do, 12 weeks from obesity to rippled muscle deity, and while, to my credit, I knew that was crap, I did think the severity of the system would deliver–and it did. I only lost about 12 pounds over 12 weeks, but I put on a lot of muscle and lost something like 20 inches total and I was considerably stronger. Went from a size 16 to a 12–pretty respectable. Plus I felt all badass with my weight lifting. While I went through my workout every day I started watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVDs for the first time and I’m not gonna pretend like I didn’t get cheerful when considering whether I could take on a vampire.
There was no chance I was going to stick with the diet after 12 weeks, though, no matter how many times the book said it was a “lifestyle change” and not a diet and should become a Way of Life. A Way of Life that involved buying a bimonthly truck full of their supplements and meal replacement bars and shakes which tasted like powdered ovaltine DEATH. And on top of that, it was the epitome of “food is fuel.” There was absolutely no concern for how anything tasted–dry spices were allowed, but no salt, no oil, no condiments but mustard. You’re gonna eat undressed steaks and plain baked potatoes (I don’t even like baked potatoes) veggies with ONE of your six daily meals (for moral fiber, I guess) and an infinite number of egg whites. To add insult to injury, it intended to make up for that by encouraging you to use margarine, salt substitutes, fat free and sugar free products of dubious space origin, all manner of artificial substances that are almost, but not quite, entirely unlike food. Everything tasted terrible all the time. I felt good because I was strong and much healthier, but I was deeply unhappy because I felt like I’d excised an entire sense from my life and replaced it with dust and shadows. (On the other hand, I could have as much dust as I liked.)
So Body for Life was pretty much destined to be Body for As Long As I Can Stand It for me, and it was. I came back to America and got a divorce and got together with Dmitri and I was happy, so much happier than I had been, and he didn’t judge me or think I was anything less than beautiful, he wasn’t waiting for me to be “willowy” again, and I let myself relax, really relax about it for a few years. I sort of just accepted that I was fat, but still had a pretty enough face and that was just how it was. Maybe I had a slow metabolism. Nothing was wrong with my thyroid and I had low blood pressure and no health issues, so this was just my body and I would live in it. I’d been struggling with it for so long it just didn’t seem possible that anything would really change and I just had to look on the bright side. I had a great rack (finally!) and awesome hair and nice eyes. I was loved, and my career was going well. I was cooking like a fiend because I was happy and I was making a new home. Writing is, of course, a solidly Sitting Down lifestyle, and my particular brand of Getting Books Done involves just not noticing that I have a body for several weeks and putting anything it wants in it to keep going. So I slalomed between homecooking domestic Strega Nona and a high-performance ice cream-to-literature conversion engine. And yet, it was a peaceful time in the part of my head that controls berating myself.
But it crept back up. All of it, eventually. I never escaped the poisonous idea that that image of myself at 15 was the Right One and I was failing by being so immensely Other Than That. I loathed having my picture taken or seeing any photos of any part of me (thanks, Facebook tags!). I got married and even on my wedding day I spent half the time internally beating myself up about how big I was. I was ashamed to go home and see my family, none of whom ever seemed to struggle with more than a spare 10 pounds or so. (And some of my family never said a word, and some did say words.) Shopping for clothes was agony. I avoided full length mirrors; I tried to ignore the fact that I existed from the neck down. I felt embarrassed every time someone met me who I’d only known online, or anyone who had read my books but never seen me. I was always convinced they were disappointed. That they secretly thought less of me. That is not a good mindset for an up and coming author, I tell you what. Conventions were often torture. There was no article of clothing I could buy that didn’t make me feel like an ogre. Just the shame I felt at being seen in public looking the way I did was a constant pain. And oh, that lovely Wiscon-past when that woman took secret pictures of all of us fatties and posted them to 4chan with color commentary! GOOD TIMES.
I was still loved. My career was still going well. But to be perfectly honest, 70% of my brain processes were pretty much taken up with feeling like shit because of how I looked. That’s how bad it was in my insides. Comparing myself to others. Promising myself that I’d change. Losing hope that I ever could. That constant voice that whispers in your ear that no one really likes you or could ever be attracted to you, they just feel sorry for you because you’re ugly. It was exhausting. The bandwidth it took up in my head was staggering. (This is not meant to be a valentine box where you can tell me I was always beautiful in the comments. I realize that my self-image was seriously bent. That’s kind of the thing about body-image issues. You can’t see yourself, you can only hear your worst thoughts.)
I’d go through phases of trying to piece together something from my two successes–work out all the time but screw that Eat This Margarinotato And Love It diet. Try to run–hated running with a fiery, all-consuming passion. More low-carb attempts. Didn’t really help and I couldn’t stick with it anyway due to getting the meat-sads after a week. But it turns out that if you don’t change your diet you’ll just get strong underneath the fat–and I know that’s a good thing, but it didn’t help me to not cringe every time I saw myself in the mirror. If I ever did manage to make progress, I’d then go on tour or hit the convention season hard or have another book to power through and it would all unravel.
And I do live on the internet. I read all the blogs that talked about accepting your body at any size and I believed (and still do) every word of it–but not for myself. Other people are beautiful at any size. Other people should embrace their bodies and feel no shame and to hell with anyone who says different. Other people are gorgeous and happy and fat at the same time and other people are awesome.
But not me. I hated every inch of my body and I could fully hold the conflicting ideas in my head that a. being fat isn’t a failure and it doesn’t mean you’re not beautiful and if you’re healthy that’s all that matters and b. I am disgusting because I am fat and I deserve nothing ever goodnight.
That’s some ugly shit to say. There’s a certain acceptable narrative of weight loss that goes: I just wanted to get healthy, it wasn’t about conforming to beauty ideals, I loved my body then and I love it now, I only did it for my health or to build strength and no other reason. It’s not about how you look, it’s never about how you look. No, no, no, of course not. People who care about that sort of thing are shallow, even though how you look is literally the battleground on which a very specific cultural war is being constantly fought. I always thought, with a bitter frown: Buddy and/or Lady, if it wasn’t about how you looked, why did you post before and after pictures?
And yeah, getting healthier was a thing for me. But I also reached a breaking point of cognitive dissonance and self-flagellation and that was a thing, too. I don’t feel like I can be honest about it if I don’t say that you know what? I was spending all day every day running a constant background program of iamtheabsoluteworst.exe and that wasn’t about my inability to run a 9 minute mile, that was about how I looked. Which feeling is absolutely informed by my whole history and everything anyone ever said to me about my weight and the whole of our culture that says a woman looks this way and if you don’t you are invisible and had best act like it also no fatties lol. I tried to not give a shit how I looked. I was and am smart and capable and funny and I know stuff about stuff and I had a partner who loved me and it shouldn’t matter and I tried to brute-force it into not mattering for years. I succeeded for whole days at a time. But I am steeped in my culture and you guys it is stupid hard not to give a shit how you look when so much is predicated upon it around here.
These are bad things to think. Let me be straight about that. It ain’t right. This is how culture talks when it’s so deep in your head you mistake it for your own, authentic voice. We’ve had some cowboys in here. It’s taken a lot of time and talking to even get my head on as straight as it is about it now. I lay it all out because the only way to purge this stuff personally and at large is to talk about it and every post I ever read where someone lost a lot of weight made it sound like everything was awesome then and it’s awesome now and we always lived in awesometown all the awesometime with our awesomepuppies being awesome together. It just made me feel worse because really, if the rule was you had to love yourself before you can make a change? I was never going to make that change. I wasn’t the kind of mentally balanced, self-accepting, devil may care diva that achieved total body transformation and then said they never cared what anyone thought like an Oscar winner saying it’s not about the accolades. That river of awfulness was the internal monologue I had on infinite repeat and it was absolute acid to my psyche. I got to a point where I simply couldn’t hear anything else and apply it to me personally. Acceptance was for other people. Better people. Literally anyone else I know. I would look at my friends who were plus size, some bigger than me, and I thought they were hot and amazing and I’d bash my heart in for not being more like them. I wish I had been a better person and not just constantly chewed my soul to bits over it, but I wasn’t. I just wasn’t. I’d read the Fat Nutritionist and think: yeah, but she weighs less than me. Look how pretty she is. It’s all fine for her but I’m still scum. AWESOME. SLOW CLAP FOR CAT’S BRAIN.
And that brings us up to 18 months ago. And the funny thing is, it’s not even that I hated myself into a frenzy and flipped out and took ahold of my fate and full speed ahead. I was relatively at peace with it for once–at peace for me, which meant that I figured I’d just always be fat and obviously that meant I was lesser and bad and fundamentally unlovable, but I’ll just have to keep on being lesser and bad and fundamentally unlovable so yay I guess. A couple of months before I started this particular
journey transformation slouching toward Bethlehem I even went through my closet and threw out all (minus two or three items which I thought I might cut up and make into something else) the stuff I’d been holding onto on the assumption that some day it would fit. It wouldn’t, and GOD I was just being a gross cliche by keeping them.
August, 2011 and I’d hit 250 pounds, though I didn’t know it yet, because I had made the decision years back not to own a scale, as numbers just made me feel like dirt and I’d know by clothes not fitting right or fitting better how things were going. (Oh, Rocky, that trick never works.) So far beyond the 202 that had crushed me so much in college. So far from the 140 at which I was first told my body was completely unacceptable I couldn’t see it with a time-traveling telescope. And I had absolutely zero faith or hope that I was actually going to be able to do anything meaningful this time at bat, either.
It was the Wrongness Cherry on top of the giant sundae of all the things I’d been Wrong About.
To Be Continued…
A dream from last night ever-so-slightly too long for Twitter:
Queen Elizabeth had died and a young princess was being crowned Queen Anne. She was certainly not a princess that actually exists in real life. Long, lovely black hair that she wore down for the occasion, swept over her shoulder and flowing down the front of her white dress, obscuring all the medals and sash. She had thin silver crown. I was a flutist playing in the orchestra for the coronation.
Anne started crying in the middle of her coronation speech. A crowd of ministers with pelican heads rushed to console her and guide her away from the crowds. We had to stop playing and wait for her to return. But she didn’t.
Ages went by. We finally started playing just to entertain everyone, anything we could think of. Then no one could think of another song and we all got up and started dancing with our instruments and each other on the floor of Westminster Cathedral until the flute section all turned into crows and flew up to roost on the buttresses. Anne was hiding up there, too. Her black hair flowed under her gown to become big black wings.
And then: alarm clock.
I’m thrilled to announce the cover and existence of my next collection of short fiction: The Melancholy of Mechagirl, from VIZ media, and my awesome editor nihilistic_kid.
This is a unique collection–while Ventriloquism was a general collection of everything ever, Mechagirl brings together all my Japanese-themed short fiction. That turns out to be rather a lot. Some, or perhaps even most of you, know that I lived in Japan for several years and the experience had a profound effect on my work. I’m very excited to have all of it in one place, and with such an amazing cover and team behind it. I mean seriously, just look at that cover!
It’ll be out in July and is available for pre-order now. There’s also a brand new novelette called Ink, Water, Milk in it, along with some other rare, out of print, or new pieces. It’ll also be simultaneously published in Japanese, which is very exciting for me.
Now, there’s an elephant in the room, and even if you don’t see it, I do, so I’m going to go poke it in the trunk.
Yes, this is a collection of fiction about Japan written by a white woman. Yes, that white woman lived in Japan because of the US Navy and her ex-husband being an officer in said organization and that is not a value-free situation. Culturally, it is quite, quite fraught. And when VIZ first approached me concerning this project, their first from a non-Japanese author, I didn’t know what to think, whether it was the right thing to do. I have always tried (and it’s not even close to my place to say if I’ve succeeded) to write about Japan with respect and quality and sensitivity to the fact that I am obviously and forever an outsider. Nevertheless, it was a period in my life that had a profound and indelible effect on me, and in writing about it I have always been trying to integrate and interrogate my own experience, both from within and without, without being overly kind to myself and my culpability or overly romantic or unforgivably ignorant or bullheaded concerning Japanese culture. That is always an iterative process. You circle the thing itself endlessly and never quite arrive at it. I could not have helped writing about Japan, it was always only a question of how I wrote about it, and I hope, I hope I have done well.
And ultimately, what decided me was that a Japanese publisher thought I did at least well enough to ask for this collection and put their weight behind it. And if I wrote these stories to begin with, I should be willing to stand by them as a body of work. This is a very personal book, full of feels, as the kids say these days. It is not a book that purports to speak for Japanese culture in any way, but one which speaks for its author, for a span of ten years of circling Japan and never reaching it, and a single woman’s relationship with a nation not her own, but one which, very occasionally, sat down to tea with her.
Here’s hoping you enjoy it. (And stay tuned for another collection post shortly! My new general collection, The Bread We Eat in Dreams, is coming out in December!)