I am an athlete, but most people in our culture today wouldn’t guess that by looking at me.
I am not the image on “fitspiration” memes or ads for health drinks or diet – err…scratch that, I mean lifestyle – ads.
(And really, if you aren’t 20’s to mid-30’s, white skinned or a maybe a black male, you likely don’t see yourself there either. Based on the “fitspiration” and healthy lifestyle ads, those who are in the LGBTQ group, who are people of color, fat or old, just don’t make it to the gym.)
But my story lies in my own experience, and that is that I am an athlete that has gone, in the course of my adulthood, from a being a national competitor in swimming to someone that can’t easily find fitness clothes that fit my body – while eating healthy and exercising. And because of that, I’ve struggled with fitting in, belonging, identity, self-worth, and mostly confusion and bewilderment about what exactly is wrong with me that exercise and diet “don’t work.”
Let’s unpack that a little bit.
“Don’t work.” Work to do what? Clearly, the goal is to LOOK fit and healthy. If it was to BE fit and healthy, there would not be an issue for me, and for many people. (Sort of, more on that later.)
I’ve been taught my whole life that the goal is to avoid being fat, and to instead be skinny/strong/fit/thin/have healthy height weight proportion.
This began for me – my first conscious memory of it – at age 4.
My family had a membership at Aqua Dive, a swim and exercise club in the Lake City district of Seattle. it was a large pool, whirlpool and sauna, and exercise/fitness room a la 1970’s. We went at least once a week to swim. It’s where I learned to swim, where I blew the instructor’s minds with my ability at such a young age, where I participated on the synchronized swimming team, where eventually I first got my lifeguarding certificate and where I taught swimming lessons during high school.
One evening when I was just four my mom and I were sitting on the edge of the pool in the shallow end. I was wearing a new swimsuit that was black with golden ladybugs patterned on it. I remember viscerally my mom putting her arm around me, and with a squeeze, subtly pointing to a very obese woman hauling herself out of the pool up the stairs and over to the water fountain. The woman was wearing a swimsuit with the same fabric as my own. My mom said, “You are NOT going to look like that.”
My mom was not a horrible person. She was kind, funny, enthusiastic and playful. And I’m positive she meant this to be helpful and reassuring.
But I remember my gut sinking, and my breathing checked for a moment…and in that moment I decided a few things. 1) being fat is shameful and bad; 2) my mom would be disappointed in me if I was fat; 3) I was in danger of becoming fat if I wasn’t already and 4) I better prevent that from happening at all costs. That’s a lot for a four-year-old to absorb in a matter of seconds, but there it is. The origin of my battle with my fat. Which, if I look at pictures of me when I was a kid, I didn’t have an issue with anyway. I wasn’t skinny, but I was definitely a normally sized little kid.
And I played like a normal kid of the 70’s: At home I was riding my bike, skateboard, climbing trees, playing tag and walking everywhere. I skied, swung, spun, jumped and danced.
And I swam. I was/am a gifted swimmer, even young. By middle school a prestigious swimming club had scouted and recruited me to be on their synchronized swim team after coming to some of Aqua Dive’s shows. I declined because no way was I interested in three early mornings and every day after school workouts and practices. (The two gold medalists in the 1984 Olympics were from this team, btw, to give an indication of the level of work the athletes put in.)
But the middle school I went to was attached to a community pool, so we had swimming classes as a P.E.
option, and at the end of each quarter we had a meet, with each class competing against each other, and the results broadcasted on closed-circuit TV. I was first in every event I swam in, my best being the 50 freestyle. When I was deciding what high school to go to the coach of our classes really tried to get me to go to the high school he coached at also. I chose a different school though, the one that was typically the city and district champions in swimming and that also had the best drama program.
So high school found me on a team where I was no longer the best swimmer, but was far from the slowest. I made districts once, but never made state. I also was active in the drama program. In drama, I also learned to tap dance as part of the first musical I was in, and spent several hours a day for a few months every spring during rehearsals for the spring musicals, dancing.
I felt fat through all of that. I was sometimes called names, because kids can be cruel, and I wasn’t typically slender. I held myself to the body-shape standards of magazines and ads and came up short. Clothes didn’t fit me easily so when I went shopping it was frustrating and depressing. I felt it was me. I was fat, that’s why nothing fit. It was my fault, and something was wrong with me. Despite being well liked, and having the attention of boys in school, my self-esteem plummeted. I hid it, with cheerfulness and bubbly fake over-confidence. My mom was still determined that I should not get fat, so often reminded me “I didn’t need” something I wanted to eat, and once told me not to wear red as it make me look heavy. (I am still not comfortable wearing red.) Throughout my teen years, I questioned everything I ate or wore, wondering if it would make me fat.
I went on my first formal diet when I was sixteen. Weight watchers did help me lose weight, but eventually I couldn’t stick to cottage cheese and egg pancakes and only carrot sticks for a snack. Seriously, the WW of 1984 was not the same thing as it is today.
That summer I joined a forest trail crew and spent a month in the woods with a team of high school volunteers doing trail work. Hard exercise all day, every day.
I recently saw a picture of me, kneeling in the dirt, face smudged, work shirt and hard hat on…I was not fat. I thought, gazing at the photo, “In my mind, I felt and thought the same things that I do NOW, and NOW I really am fat! I wish I knew then, that I wasn’t.”
After high school I traveled in the UK and some of Europe for six months. And ate. And walked and explored and ate. And walked and ate. But mostly ate. I came home two sizes larger than when I left. I really knew I was fat then, because my doctor began talking about weight loss strategies. Eat less, choose healthier foods, exercise more. It worked, then it all came back on.
In college and I joined the swim team, and my first year was part of the women’s relay that qualified for nationals. That experience is an entirely a different story, but I did that while “fat”.
I know I was, because the second year, my coach said I had a great chance of qualifying for nationals again the second year, because I’d lost weight over the summer.
It went like that. Lose, stop dieting, gain. Join a gym, work out, cut out sugar, count calories, lose, gain it all back plus some. Many of us know this story.
I became a nutrition freak when I became interested in naturopathic medicine and natural healing, and began limiting what I ate and increased my standards of healthy eating as a way to lose weight. Vegetarians and vegans aren’t fat! I’ll do that. And it worked, but I would cave and crave meat or dairy eventually and gain it back plus more.
Only whole grains.
No processed foods.
You name it, I tried any and every combination of eating regimens. And some would “work” and and all would eventually lead to me putting on more weight.
At every top weight (every time was the “highest weight I’d ever been”), I would recommit to cutting calories or tracking something. In my life I did Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Atkins, vegetarianism, veganism, no fat, low carb, low fat, no carb, Grapefruit diet, Fit For Life, Macrobiotic…I know so much about diets and nutrition that it’s mind blowing. I could – and I’m not kidding – probably pass a nutritionists exam for certification.
I decided to seek therapy, and began learning about some of the issues I accumulated in my childhood despite progressive, loving parents. In addition to the insights and work to change patterns of belief and behavior in other areas, I began pulling my body image and self-esteem issues up into the light to examine them, and heal them. Personal growth became a passion and a joy and led me to my career as a therapist. Still…my body image and weight issues continued to be a constant backdrop to my life, even if paled in comparison to my earlier years. I got my degree, met my first husband, and worked happily in a preschool and daycare, and was an active member of an intentional community. I camped and hiked, canoed, and played hard with kids when I got the chance.
During this personal growth period in my 20’s, when I got pregnant, I had, for the first time, a good reason to “get fat” or “gain weight” and I felt beautiful just as I was. I LOVED being pregnant. It was a feeling I’ll never forget. I felt like a goddess and I loved my body, and remember thinking, “I want to feel this way about my body when I’m NOT pregnant.” That became my goal.
I worked harder on self-acceptance (but in the background I was still hoping if I accepted myself it would result in my losing weight.) I changed my language from “being thin” to “being healthy” and was very conscious of instilling in my young daughter the importance of self love, of body acceptance, of fat-is-okay, body shapes. Our family ate very healthy. We rarely had processed foods, avoided dairy and wheat, and ate a lot of veggies.
Who I was, and my happiness in my life, were in spite of feeling “fat,” however. And I continued to try and lose, and would be successful, and then would gain and get bigger. Again and again.
Life stressors happened, more than many people face in a short time. In the span of seven years: Death of my dad, divorce from my husband, beginning a rigorous graduate degree program that had me traveling for a week every month, developing a relationship long distance and moving to Canada to find it was a toxic relationship, death of my nephew, ending of the toxic relationship, my mom’s successions of different cancer battles, leading me to leave my beloved home and coming to live in a town I never wanted to live in to care for her in her final years, and eventually, two years later, her death.
I was depressed. And I ate.
Then I did the HCG diet, and lost a lot of weight, fast. I started running, and found I loved running. I kept that weight off – not all I wanted to lose, but I was happy – for half a year, until I auditioned and landed the lead in a community theater production.I made friends and met my current husband and went out for drinks and for meals, and stopped running when winter hit…and the weight began to creep back on.
The following spring I joined a popular high-intensity functional fitness gym. I absolutely knew that this was the right thing. I would get strong, I was part of an accepting and supportive community all ready to cheer me on, and who only cared about my effort and progress, not about my weight or shape.
Four years doing that, and eating paleo/whole foods, and I had gained body fat, went up two or three sizes, and gained weight: 40 lbs more.
This is when I realized something was wrong with me. I was so frustrated! I can love and accept my body and still feel that something is not right…because as my husband said over and over, “You eat healthier than anyone I know, and you work your butt off. It doesn’t make sense.” It didn’t make sense.
Who exercises like this and eats this healthily and GAINS weight?? Yes, I got stronger. No, the weight gain wasn’t muscle. (So many people still offer that as a hopeful explanation when I share this part of the story. Sorry, no one gains 40lbs AND goes up 13% in body fat and can excuse it as being muscle gain.)
So I stopped that level of fitness. Something wasn’t right. And I was burnt out on trying to figure it out. Instead I began advocating anti-body shaming, beauty at all sizes, fit people come in all sizes, and started truly believing this was my lot in life. No, “strong” is NOT the “new skinny”…no, “real men” don’t “love curves” and Fuck No, it is not “all about dat bass.” All these messages do is shame another body type while trying to gain acceptance for one particular one. It wasn’t good enough for me to advocate for MY body shape only. I didn’t need the media to tell me that being curvy or fat or large was the new strong or sexy or desirable when saying that excluded friends that had naturally very thin, straight bodies. All those messages simply pit women against each other. They are body shaming cloaked in body acceptance. I advocated not comparing at all.
And during all this, I still was active.
I still walked, rode my bike for fun, and did yoga. But even that wasn’t simple.
It took a while to find a yoga studio that didn’t assume I was a beginner just because of my larger body.
It’s very hard to find fitness clothes that fit my size – because fat people don’t exercise, right?
Even my yoga home that I love, currently does not sell yoga fashion in sizes that will fit me.
A year ago I picked up a book called Intuitive Eating. It discusses the science and cultural history to support why Diets Don’t Work. I read it, and immediately committed to never dieting again. It was harming me. It wouldn’t work. It was breaking my metabolism. I gained weight, but this time I was okay with it, because I knew it was better for me than dieting. Something else happened, though. I stopped having “conversations” with myself about food. With permission to eat what I wanted, when I wanted, with no judgement, I learned – over time – to trust myself around eating and food. It was a kind of freedom I’d always wanted, but had been previously out of reach.
The book didn’t offer solutions to the broken metabolism, however, just offered support and advocating trusting that without dieting you’ll “find the right weight/body shape for you,” and the work is in accepting what that was.
That is very hard to do when our society, at every level, says otherwise. Medically, socially, and in the media, we know that fat is not how we are supposed to be.
Still, here I was, a fit person, but fat, doing yoga daily the summer a friend shared about a different book, “The Metabolic Storm” by Dr. Emily Cooper, along with a video of a talk she gave to a group of medical professionals.
Dr. Cooper not only showed, though scientific data, how diets don’t work, how the metabolism breaks down as a result of lifelong dieting, and the health problems that result from that breakdown, but also discussed her work with patients in identifying and treating the metabolism links that were broken. She explained how genetics and environmental toxins and food additives also are factors or reasons for obesity. But not for the reasons we think. Not because it’s genetically your lot in life, or because processed foods are a poor diet. Because those things harm the metabolism and break down the metabolic loop that keeps the body healthy.
She explained enough in the video that I knew I needed to read the book. My friend loaned me her copy and I poured through it. I was shouting out information to my husband with each new piece of information that pointed to my situation. (“Oh my god, honey, listen to this!” and “Oh my god, honey, this makes so much sense!”)
Within a few hours – the time it took me to read the book – I had been shown what had happened to me, physically, due to life long dieting. It explained how an athlete could gain fat (because if the metabolism is broken, the body can read intense exercise as a starvation signal, and hold onto fat stores), and why even though I eat well, I want to eat large portions (when feeling ‘starved’ the body will grow it’s appetite…I learned this is especially why diets are not sustainable, deprivation – physical or psychological – can throw the body into an “eat more and store the fat” mode, for years after a diet. Successive dieting reinforces this breakdown, and leads to diabetes, heart disease and other health problems.
Obesity is not a result of poor diet and lack of exercise.
It is a symptom of what Dr. Cooper calls Metabolic Syndrome.
Let me restate that, because it’s hard to grok: Fat people are not fat because they are lazy or eat too much. They are showing a symptom of THE DIET AND FITNESS INDUSTRY they bought into. And there are other causes too. But being fat is a symptom, not a result.
I believe Fit people who are not fat, probably didn’t go on diets their whole life. They probably have a working metabolism to begin with, and started, or have always exercised and worked out in a way that supported their health and metabolism. I believe some people can make huge lifestyle changes and lose weight, gain muscle and health and feel great. Congratulations! Your metabolism is not fucked up! But for many of us, our metabolism is driving our appetite, which drives us to break the “diet” we’re on, and eat more. And since our metabolism slows down after calorie restriction, we have to eat even less (at a time when our bodies really want us to re-feed ourselves) to not gain it back. In addition, exercise makes us even MORE tired. Imagine someone who’s starving throwing around some barbells and doing box jumps and running a mile as fast as she can…body goes into collapse. Hence the pattern. Hence why I felt I was eating too much, and why I’d take breaks from my fitness regimen and why I’d be DONE for the day after an intense workout.
Dieting over and over = People who become fat. And then when they work out or diet again to lose the fat, it makes the problem WORSE.
I put myself on the waiting list at the Seattle Metabolic Clinic where Dr. Cooper sees patients and does research. The clinic is in Seattle, a three hour drive from where I live, and I am so grateful it is close and accessible to me. I’m lucky.
I was told the waiting list could be a year.
I was called a few months later, a few days after I lost my job. They don’t take insurance, but expect payment up front. I had to save up. The receptionist put me on the “short list” and said to call when I was ready.
Four months later I went in for my first appointment, February, 2017. At my all time highest weight I believe (I stopped weighing myself months ago, but my workout clothes are again not fitting well, and my shirts are feeling tight) because I can feel my belly get in my way, preventing me from being active, exacerbating the plantar fasciitis I suffer from, I do not sleep well and use Benadryl to get a good night’s sleep 2-3x/week, and I have low energy. So last week I took a step to begin, what I now realize, is saving my life.
I had a lot of blood drawn for lab testing, and I peed into a cup. My doctor compassionately took my family medical history, and my history with diet and exercise.
A month later – March 9, 2017, two days ago – I went back for the follow up and results.
I was terrified that nothing would be found. That I would be told, “Whelp…your blood work and urine sample came back showing there is nothing physically to blame for your fatness, it really is just YOU, eating too much.”
But that’s not what happened. First, my doctor believes me that I am a currently inactive athlete. She believes me that I eat well. So when I had my body composition measured in the BodPod (read: Really cool star-trekian machine!) they were not surprised with my high lean mass numbers. At every appointment I will be weighed, but the number is not shared with me. She understands “it’s just a number, part of the information, not all of it.” She told me I’m not the only one. That this problem is common.
I sat while my doctor explained the test results with graphs and graphics, charts and spreadsheets. It was a lot of information to take in.
Results? I indeed have Metabolic Syndrome. Hormones are all out of whack, throwing my glucose into overdrive and causing insulin to work too hard to bring that down. Turns out, I am borderline pre-diabetic, and my cholesterol is high. And did you know there was a test for the LDL particle counts? I didn’t even know what a particle count was, but mine are so high I am at risk of a heart attack. BECAUSE OF DIETING.
I had a heart scan to assess if there is plaque build up in my heart and the results of that will determine if I take a statin drug, or if the treatment for metabolic syndrome will be enough. I have medications to help even out my glucose/insulin ratio, and support my body in calming down the “starvation” signals and increase the “security” signals. All of this likely developed over my lifetime, and the underlying cause of the other issues.
I am being treated for obesity. And the treatment is not “diet and exercise”. In fact, because of my heart issue, until the results come back I have been told NOT to do intense yoga, but only gentle (not hot) yoga…not to do any intense exercise (I’ve been itching to run again, or swing some kettlebells or learn kickboxing, but no. Not yet.)
My only instructions relating to food is eat a macronutrient with every meal. Starchy carb, fat and protein. Three meals and two snacks. She doesn’t want a food journal (“Oh, please don’t log your food!”) or need me to count calories in any way. Particularly I’m told, “Don’t cut out any food groups. Just eat. Understanding that processed foods carry ingredients that exacerbate metabolic disorder, so do your best to choose whole foods.”
Because my glucose is high, she knows I’m eating enough.
Because my lean body mass is significant, I don’t need to worry about strength training right now.
So my journey begins. In a new way. Treatment for Metabolic Syndrome with secondary issues of pre-diabetes and mixed hyperlipedemia. Both of those should resolve with treatment for the metabolism disorder.
I’m told that by my next appointment in early May I likely will have lost weight and my blood work should be showing much different numbers.
I’ll keep you posted.
UPDATE, March 15: Heart scan results showed no plaque build up! YAY!