Tuesday, February 25, 2014

#LoveYourSelfie: Why I Tweeted My Naked Face to the Today Show



This week, the Today Show kicked off a segment called “Love Your Selfie.” The point: Even though “selfies” are ubiquitous – even the president and the Pope have been caught snapping them in the last year – most of us dislike the way we look in photographs … to the point, even, of being extremely, even cruelly, critical of ourselves.

So the Today Show hosts kicked off the promotion yesterday by taking off their makeup –- a pretty brave thing, especially under stage lights –- and talking about what they like and dislike about their appearances. I know they’re famous and all, but their words were sort of poignant; Al Roker spoke of his well-known weight battles. Savannah Guthrie said she had spent most of her life hating being taller than everyone else. And Natalie Morales acknowledged the way giving birth had altered her body.

At the end of the segment, the hosts invited viewers to take makeup-less selfies of themselves, then tweet the photos using the hashtag #LoveYourSelfie. Thousands of people did, and I was one of them.

But not before I almost had a heart attack, figuratively speaking. You see, my selfie horrified me so much that I almost didn’t tweet it. But then I realized that my feelings were, in fact, the point of the segment, and I took a deep breath and sent the photo.

And all of a sudden, I was back in sixth grade with glasses, braces and bad skin. I felt embarrassed about foisting my naked, 51-year-old face on the unsuspecting masses, and I almost felt as if I were going to cry.

And then I felt very un-evolved, and almost ashamed. And I forced myself to think back to where and how those feelings took root.

In my family of origin, looks were downplayed. Of course we always looked appropriate and presentable, and at times -– usually during growth spurts and after visits to the dermatologist -– I actually looked sort of cute. But the message was always loud and clear: Don’t worry about being attractive. Just be smart.

That I could handle, little spelling champ that I was; I loved books and was at home in the solitude they provided. So I focused on being smart … but I also yearned so badly to be pretty and popular, to feather my hair like Olivia Newton John’s and to be noticed by a boy. Any boy, but preferably one taller than I was.

So while my head was in my books, my eyes were glancing sideways at my middle-school classmates … at Monica with her golden hair and Mary with her effortless athletic grace, at Julie with her blemish-free toffee-colored skin and knee socks that stayed up perfectly. None of them had muffin-tops or breasts that had appeared too early; none of them sported hips or angry patches of eczema on their elbows.

I continued to look around, then turned my critical gaze inward. As a result, despite the healthy messages I was receiving from the adults in my life, I told myself I was a freak, and I began to hate my looks, my body, and, to some degree, myself.

And as the years wore on, that self-hate manifested itself in a lot of ugly ways: After a breakup with a truly nice boy in high school, I set my sights on a series of inappropriate guys who initially made me feel good about myself, then eventually reaffirmed my self-loathing. With notable exceptions (my husbands somehow being two of them, thankfully), that pattern repeated until the years between my two marriages, when a truly damaging relationship finally awakened me to what I was doing to myself.

Things didn’t turn around immediately; I worked hard to focus on the good in my life, most notably my children, my extended family, and my work. And gradually, as I matured, I began to wonder why on Earth I had been so hard on myself, and why I had so often been willing to settle for so little. Without getting too philosophical, I have a perfectionistic, overachieving personality, and I had never felt my looks measured up to my expectations of them. I come from a long line of tiny, pretty women. I was the square peg, and that hurt.

It's all about self-esteem, for all of us. Always has been; always will be.

A year ago next month, I somehow found the time to be right for shaking off all those destructive feelings. I wish I could tie the moment to something big, but I can’t. It was a Friday morning in March, and I knew I was ready to make a change. It was that simple.

And here I am 11 months later and 65 pounds lighter, with legs strong from miles and miles of running and the beginnings of muscles in my upper arms. As I shed the layers, I shed the feelings that had kept me wrapped in those layers. And now, most days, I feel confident and capable. But at other times, that sixth-grade girl will reappear, as she did after I took the selfie you see at the top of this page.

“You look old and drawn and ugly,” that girl told me before I sent the photo. “People will see that and say, ‘Yeah, she’s lost weight, but she’s ruined her looks.’ You’re going to be ridiculed and embarrassed. Retract the photo.”

But I didn’t, and I won’t. I’ve lived for 51 years, nine more than my mother was allowed. And with a few notable exceptions, I’ve made the most of that time. My experiences have grayed my hair, loosened and sagged my skin, and left blemish marks on my forehead; I have a surgical scar on my neck and a gap in the back of my mouth that’s waiting for a bridge or implant. My natural complexion is rather sallow; I don’t have long eyelashes anymore, and I plucked my eyebrows too thin long ago and now they don’t match.

But that’s all OK. Here I am; take a good look. This is what a naked-faced 51 looks like. With any luck, I’ll be given nine more years, or even 19 or 29 or 39. And I like to think if I’m given that time, I’ll navigate it with aplomb, because being smart has, in fact, given me the tools to like myself, inside and outside.

Are you used to wearing makeup? Take it off and really look at yourself. Then tweet your beautiful, naked face to #LoveYourSelfie. I’m not sure why, but I’m glad I did.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Coming into the light: I'm a binge-eater. How about you?







So last night, I was lamenting to Kevin that I had eaten an entire (huge) bowl of popcorn earlier in the day. Yes, it was air-popped, I told him … but still, I certainly hadn’t needed the entire bowl.

“So next time, don’t eat the whole bowl,” he responded. “Just eat a little bit.”

Oh, OK, Kev! Thanks! Why didn’t I think of that?

Sigh.

Last year, I lost 65 pounds. Since November, I’ve been working on maintaining my new weight. According to the scale, all is well. But this process is difficult.

Food and I have a relationship fraught with unease. I’ve struggled with my weight my whole life, dating back to fifth grade, when I weighed in at 140 pounds (my current “small” weight, oddly enough) and my pediatrician encouraged me to stop eating Hostess Suzi’Qs and get more exercise (what!?). As much as I wanted to be smaller, I wasn’t willing to do the work, and with few exceptions (growth spurts, mostly), I remained heavier than most.

I tended to carry my weight pretty well, so few people guessed I was as heavy as I was, but when I showed up at Weight Watchers last March, I tipped the scales at 206.4 pounds on a 5’4” frame. I had high cholesterol and high blood pressure, and I was facing the prospect of my third joint replacement. (My family has small bones, and mine – and my joints, surely – were struggling to carry all that poundage.)

So I put my nose to the grindstone and lost the weight; I’m competitive, so losing it really wasn’t hard. The goal was to see the number decrease every week, and if you give me a goal, I’ll reach it; I ate healthy food, exercised, and relied on the support of my Weight Watchers group and leader and my family, and the weight fell off. I’m not kidding; it was really that easy. I was ready. I was 50 years old and was happy to be 50, but I wasn’t willing to be 50, matronly and invisible. So I made a change, and for a while, I was on top of the world.

But now … now is just really hard.

You’d think it wouldn’t be. I’ve gone from a size 16-18 to an 8-10; I’ve never been this fit, at least not since I can remember. I run at least 21 miles a week. I have leg muscles. I lift weights. I feel great.  I’ve changed the way I look at many foods; healthy foods fuel me and allow me to do what I want and need to do.

Mostly.

Food also calls to me from the pantry. The Oreos call most often, followed by the Jif peanut butter. I’m not the only person who lives in my house, so all our food is not “clean”; my husband and stepson shouldn’t have to get rid of their treats simply because the foods are problematic for me. And truly, they weren’t a problem while I was losing the weight. But now, at my goal, as a “Lifetime” Weight Watchers member, I have to fight the urge to stand in the pantry and stuff cookies in my mouth.

What the heck?

If there’s one thing I believe about weight loss and weight control, it’s that we have to change our behaviors around food; to do that, we have to understand why we eat the way we do. Like many people, I eat for comfort, and I eat out of boredom. When I’m happy, I want to eat; when I’m sad, I want to eat more. And I want sugar, and I want carbs; I want soft, sweet deliciousness.

I could get overly philosophical about this; I lost my mom when I was 4, so maybe I’m trying to fill a hole. Maybe I’m eating to ease pain and regret from a failed first marriage and its aftermath, or maybe I’m trying to avoid dealing with the fact even though I’m quite a ways into midlife, I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up.

But, whatever. Just whatever. We all have pain; we all have regrets and problems and gaping emotional holes. I don’t believe in crutches; we live what we live, we experience what we experience, and it’s up to us to learn and move on.

My underlying issue is this: For whatever reason, I feel a degree of shame around eating; I see “bad” food and become that fifth-grade girl who wants to eat it, but knows she shouldn’t because she wants to be cute and tiny like her friends. So I have to fight the demon-on-my-shoulder thought process that tells me, “If no one sees you eat it, or if you eat it really, really fast, it doesn’t count.” 

Ergo, I’m hiding in the pantry eating cookies, or I’m shoveling popcorn in my mouth at warp speed. Fortunately, I’ve never been anorexic or bulimic, but I get why some people are; I binge, but I don’t purge; I just allow my food issues to make me feel guilty and awful for a while.

“This chick needs therapy,” you’re saying. Truly, I love therapy, and I think we all need to take advantage of opportunities to work out the kinks. But I’ve been there, done that, and I know what I need to do. So I’m writing about it, because that helps me. I’m also learning to help others lose weight in the form of training to be a Weight Watchers leader; although I’m not “cured,” no one is, and I’m pretty good at finding the compassion for others that I wish I could show myself. Helping people who are trying to lose weight also helps me eat less and view good, “clean” foods more positively.

My personality is obsessive but not addictive; I’ve never dealt with alcohol or drug dependency. But like people who are addicted to those substances, I subscribe to a “one day at a time” philosophy. I can’t tell you I won’t eat an Oreo today, but I can tell you I’ll run at least 3.5 miles, do at least three sets of weights, drink a gallon of water, and try my darnedest to eat foods that are good for me. Unlike many people, I can’t eat just one cookie or one piece of pizza; I wish I could, but it’s not in my makeup.  So I use the tools I’ve been given in the last year to work around my cravings.

“I’m a work in progress” is a overused phrase, but it resonates with me. What also resonates is this: the need to love myself as much as I love so many other people, as cheesy as that sounds. It’s hard, but I’ll get there. In the meantime, if you find me in the pantry every now and again, pull me out, into the light. That’s what I’m trying to do here … maybe bring someone else into the light, and tell her it’s OK to struggle this way. If that’s you, I’d love to hear how you’ve made positive changes.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Not sure how this happened, but I don't have any friends.



So it struck me the other day that I don’t have any friends.

OK, that’s a little melodramatic, I guess. But I can say quite honestly that compared with my life a few years ago, my life now is decidedly quieter, and I’m missing the people who once made it so rich.

My sister, a therapist, says for most of us, the majority of friends tend to be situational: Our friends are the people with whom we go to school, or with whom we work. Later, they’re the people whose kids go to school or are on sports teams with our kids.

That makes sense; we spend time with those people. We have common interests, and the friendships tend to last as long as we have those interests in common. And my kids are grown now, so my stage in life limits my options.

There are exceptions, of course. Before we reached an impasse a few months ago, I had a friend – a best friend, I guess you’d say – and our relationship had persisted through moves and job changes and family crises. But there had been issues, and I had swallowed my feelings about a few things, and finally I couldn’t swallow them anymore. After a very direct conversation, we mutually agreed, without saying as much, to part ways. And as sad as that was, it was a healthy decision that needed to be made.

There are a few others exceptions: a couple of women who live in other cities, one with whom I’ve been friends since high school, and another who has been a loyal friend since my days as a lowly newspaper intern. I know each of them would offer me comfort and support at a moment’s notice, but it’s not as if I can call either of them up and suggest a trip to the mall. And I do have a long-time friend who doesn’t live far away, but is busy and prefers to spend her free time with her husband.

I know I’m not the only person in this situation. By this point in life, most of us have collected an assortment of acquaintances; like many others, I can’t go to the store without running into several people I know. But would I call any of those people to share a problem or a joy? Nope. We say, “We should get together sometime,” but we know that probably won’t happen.

And I love my social-media friends; that’s a whole other category, because when I’m on Facebook, I feel the warmth and support of real friendships. The problem is: Many of them, again, aren’t local. And others are people I’d like to be “real” friends with, but I can’t just inject myself into their lives.

What is this phenomenon? As my sister says, it’s probably situational. But I think there might be something else at work.

My life looks like this: I work full-time and freelance on the side. Within a couple of months, I’m going to start leading a Weight Watchers meeting every week. I have a husband, two grown children, three grown stepchildren and a teenage stepson, and a 2-year-old step-granddaughter. I have an extended family and a dog. I work out, I travel a little for work, and I try to stay on top of a bunch of reading (and often fail miserably).

So at the end of the day, I’m tired. Face it: I’m not 20. I spent years and years working at one job all day, then going to cover meetings and write stories for another, so I’m happy to go home after work. I’m also not much of a partier; this tends to limit me socially, as so many activities seem to revolve around drinking. (To be clear: This isn’t a judgment call; I just don’t enjoy the taste of alcohol or the way it makes me feel.)

And I think many of us are in the same boat. Our lives are full, and we’re tired. On a Friday night, going to bed early can sound a whole lot more appealing than going out for a beer. So our social lives take a back seat, and our relationships with people outside of our families suffer.

There’s also something else that’s a little harder to address: Many of us, when we get to a certain point in life, have fully formed our ideas about the world we live in; we’re not on the fence about politics or religion or social issues, and we’re not shy about sharing our opinions. True friendships can be difficult with people who have strong opinions that directly oppose ours. Those relationships are not impossible, and I don’t for a minute think everyone should believe the way I do. But friendships shouldn’t be fraught with arguments about ideals we hold dear; it’s just too hard.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m unbelievably fortunate, and I count my blessings daily. My adult children seem to enjoy spending time with me, and I treasure those relationships above all others. I’m married to a man who makes me laugh; he works hard and also feels tired much of the time, so he’s fine with staying home. And as I’ve focused on my health the past year, I’ve met some wonderful new people with whom I’m spending a little time each week. Those budding friendships give me hope.

But I feel a pang as I watch my daughter live her life and I see how dear her female friends are to her, especially as she begins to plan her wedding. And I think back to the first time I was married; I had seven bridesmaids because I couldn’t possibly have excluded any of the important women in my life.

And I look around now, and those relationships – and those voices, and that laughter – are just not here anymore.  And while my life is by no means empty, there’s a void.

I know and believe the saying, “To have a friend, be a friend.” I know friendships don’t just happen, and I know I haven’t worked on them. So the onus is on me to change things. But have I forgotten how? It’s not as if I can just show up on someone’s doorstep with my Barbies or “Mystery Date” game.

Be warned, then: If you know me well enough to say “hi” to me in the grocery store, I may call you up and ask you do go to the mall. If you humor me and go, I promise not to write any more whiny blog posts.