Lost: a physical self-identity

"Exhibit 1: I dropped 20 lbs in 2.5 months"

That's quoted from an earlier post, and believe me, you don't want to try it. One of the things that has been really hard about this whole experience is the extremely fast weight loss. It was a huge struggle mentally and emotionally, and did very little to help me get better physically, since stress sets off my symptoms. And people, let me tell you, losing weight this quickly is not fun - it's stressful. All my life, I've heard those silly commercials for "lose 10 pounds in 2 weeks" or something ridiculous like that. My tip for the day: don't do it.

When I started this diet, I started slimming down a bit after a couple of weeks. And this totally made sense to me - I wasn't eating all of those sweets from the bakery or the candy aisle at the store. I cut down my fat intake, and almost eliminated my sugar intake. I ate more fresh foods - veggies and fruit - and more whole grains. You know, all of that good stuff. Naturally I should slim down a bit. I was actually looking forward to that part of the diet. There was always that 10 lbs I kept strategically hidden that I really wanted to lose... It was exciting - to see the real-time effects of this diet. Look at a new me forming in the mirror each morning.

Sometime in June, I dropped down to a size 4 in jeans. And I was thrilled! A size 4??? I've never been a size 4 in my life! Exciting? Yes. Fun to look at this new profile in the mirror? Totally. I felt like I was emitting this new energy that made me feel like I was glowing. I went to my 5-year college reunion in June feeling amazing about myself and the way I looked. I went to dance events feeling terrific and energized. It was a fantastic feeling!

And then, it didn't stop. I kept dropping pounds. A week would go by and I'd see less of me in the mirror than I did the week before. I felt like an ice sculpture in the middle of August. It's really hard to explain how this feels if you've never been through it. I felt confused, afraid, anxious - but mixed with that was a bit of joy, and a huge desire to like the smaller version of me.

But most of all...
Panic. I was so afraid I'd keep losing weight. I'd already lost so much already. Every visit to the doctor I'd brace myself for the new reading on the scale...and wince. I kept telling myself that it was the diet, that I'd have to bottom out at some point, that I wouldn't keep losing weight forever. But I'm a data analyst, and so the way my brain works is to trust the data in front of me: and all data collected said it was gonna keep going. What would happen if I didn't stop losing weight? I couldn't get that thin... I ate all the time!

I actually started getting annoyed when people told me I looked fabulous. The silent reaction in my head usually was something like: "What do they know?" or "They obviously don't know that I'm afraid I'm gonna disappear..." or "What, really, did I look all that bad before?" Unfair reactions - which is why I tried hard to just give a simple thank you to those compliments, as they were meant. But all of those reactions were functions of that panic.

I mentioned I think like a data analyst; go from what I see in the data in front of me. Here are some data points for you:

April 2008: 145 lbs
[A little too much for my taste, but I didn't think I looked bad.]
end of June 2008: 125 lbs

Shopping was a chore - I didn't have anything to wear from my closet, but buying more clothing meant acknowledging this new body I was trapped inside. It might have been easier had I chosen to lose this much weight - but it wasn't me, it was me following doctor's orders. I even took a trip to Victoria Secret for a refitting. [Yep, they shrank, too.] One thing I can promise you is 100% truth: losing weight is expensive. And no one ever tells you that part. You get caught up in the actual weight loss, and later realize that, um, you don't have anything to wear anymore. Argh.

The panic ended on June 30, 2008 when I went to the doctor's for another check-in. And the scale reading said I'd gained 7 lbs. Wait, what???

Let me say it again - since it was the most exhilarating news I'd had in weeks: I gained 7 lbs! Hooray! I wasn't going to disappear after all! This isn't to say I was suddenly happy with all of the weight loss, but at least I wasn't constantly afraid that I was never going to reach the end of it all.

The unfortunate thing is that this is not the end of the story. After that weight gain, I went and lost that 7 lbs, perhaps even as much as 10 lbs before gaining something back again. This was a slow time for doctor's appointments for me, and I refuse to own a scale at home, so the losses are guestimates, but let me tell you the story of how I knew I'd once again lost a significant amount of weight:

One day this past July, I went to Express to buy a couple more pair of size 4s, since up to that point I'd only bought 2 pair of pants and I really needed a few more pair to vary my wardrobe just a bit. I grabbed about 4-5 different styles, and made my way into a fitting room. It didn't even occur to me that I might need something smaller. And every pair I tried on fell funny - like they were all too big or something. But, that couldn't be. I was a size 4 now, right? I needed the 3-way - check the butt fit. That's always the best way to tell whether a pair of pants is working on you or not.

As I stood in front of the 3-way mirror, a fitting room attendant came up and asked if I needed help at all. I told her, in a very confused and perplexed voice, that I wasn't sure these fit me, but that I'd bought a size 4 here only a few weeks ago. She took a look at the size and said, "Oh honey, no. You need a size 2." And she checked the other styles I had in my fitting room, then ran off and collected a size 2 in everything. I trudged back to my dressing room, in a state of utter bewilderment, reciting her words over and over in my head. "You need a size 2." What?! But I was a size 4 less than a month ago! I'm not a size 2. I'm not, I'm not, I'm NOT!

The girl came back with those size 2s. And I tried them on, almost out of obedience, because I certainly was no longer excited to be shopping for more size 4s. It honestly took me a couple of minutes to walk out to the 3-way mirror in those size 2s. Okay Nina, deep breath. Here we go... I looked at every angle, I did the butt check. It all fit so well - no, it fit too well. Repeat with all of the other styles. I couldn't believe it. And so, with a feeling somewhere in between surprise and defeat, I bought 2 pair and left the store.

What did all of this feel like? I talked about the fear, the panic, the exhilaration. But in the aftermath, what was life like for me?

A struggle to redefine my physical self-identity.

I had to retrain myself with a whole new set of identity labels. And it made me so mad - I didn't ask to, I didn't choose to. But I was left with a fraction of my physical self and only time to try and process it all - the weight loss, the image now facing me in the mirror.

Now, you may say it's not exactly healthy to live under a set of identity labels. And you're probably right. But, personal self-image is all about self-labels. How do you view yourself? How do you think you look from another's perspective? How do you want people to see you? If you sat down and thought about it, you've got your own set of labels that you apply to yourself in your mind's eye. And looking in the mirror affirms those labels. But that all falls apart when the mirror shows you something different that what you expect to see.

The other thing I kept feeling was guilt. I know what you're thinking: What? Guilt? About what??? But really, there was a lot of guilt. I felt guilty talking about this with a lot of people because they'd look at me like I was crazy. That "stop complaining, look at how thin you are now, I wish I was that thin" look. Or that "how can you complain about being thin, I'd kill to lose that much weight" look. I've always been a very vocal person when trying to muddle through an experience before I've fully processed it. But it felt like I couldn't talk about it with hardly anyone. I felt guilty that I wasn't happy about losing all of this weight. [Crazy? Perhaps, but the mind is a complicated entity...]

I feel like it's common knowledge that gaining weight is a mental stressor, because you see more of yourself in the mirror and you feel helpless to stop it. Guess what? The same thing applies to the opposite end. Losing weight without meaning to took the control out of my hands. I felt completely helpless to stop it. I looked in the mirror and mentally pleaded with it to pop up a "just kidding" sign and show me the "real me" - i.e. the one I expected to see. Not a good way to start each day - a make-believe fight with my mirror every morning, trying to make it give me a bigger image of myself to satisfy what my brain told me I should see.

It took me a good month to really start to appreciate what I saw in that mirror. To step through the process of figuring out what this new image meant to me in my own head and in my interaction with the world around me.

Today, for what it's worth, I'm happy to report that I'm still at a stable weight, and that I smile at myself in the mirror again each morning. I finally realized that the best way to deal with all of these changes was to accept them and see where that takes me. Start smiling at myself in the mirror - and eventually I'll believe it's a good thing. It's amazing how little tricks like that can affect the way I think and feel.

This experience has taught me a lot about myself, a lot of which I'm still not able to voice in words. But I can say that the thing I'm most proud of throughout this experience: I learned that I'm not a quitter. I realized that the one choice I always did have was to quit the diet and make the weight loss all stop. Unhealthy as that choice may be, it was mine to make if I wanted to. But that's just it. I found out that deep down inside, this is what I wanted. It was my body's way of screaming at me what I didn't realize on my own: I want to have a healthier lifestyle. This new physical identity is part of that, the diet is another part. Sometimes I'm amazed at how smart my body is compared with the rather idiotic brain that tells me what I think about that body.

1 comment:

  1. I hope you don't continue to feel guilty about not being pleased with the extremity of your experience. Any drastic change (and 20 pounds certainly counts) is going to be a shock, and you should feel comfortable discussing this radical change with those around you.
    A friend of mine in high school had a metabolism problem that left her very thin, for which she got a lot of flack. I think we're all old enough, now, to know when someone's burden is genuine, and sympathize rather than criticize.
    A couple of other things:
    1) You didn't look bad before.
    2) You don't look unhealthy now. Looks, of course, can be deceiving, but from the outside it doesn't look like you're disappearing. I'm glad you've found a balancing point with your body and are coming to terms with it in a new way. Keep it up.