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Catherine writing

I Feel Good

This is a post that I've wanted to write for weeks now. It's a complicated issue for me, for quite a few reasons.

I think I've written here before about certain people in my life, mainly female relatives on my mother's side, who only seem to know how to talk to me about my appearance. When I visit and they say, "Wow, you've lost weight," and I haven't been trying to do so and I don't know for sure that I really have, then it just makes me think that either they have this vision of me as a giant fattie and have been pleasantly surprised by the reality, or that they just think that's what I want to hear. When I came back from my year living in England, MA in hand, having lived on the cheap, walked everywhere, and eaten a lot of student food, all my aunts and grandmother talked about was my weight. That was my biggest achievement in their eyes, never mind living abroad or getting a Master's degree.

I know that these women do not understand my intellectual pursuits. That's not me being condescending: they simply don't get what I'm studying or why. I'm okay with that. I'm not okay with my body displacing my intellect in our infrequent interactions.

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There's an assumption that all any woman wants to hear is that she's lost weight. I don't. Losing weight is often not intentional: it's a byproduct of stress or illness or becoming so neurotic about food and the enjoyment of eating that you pay way too much attention to what you put in your mouth. Is weight loss truly an achievement? Something to compliment someone on? Reaching goals is an achievement. Becoming fit and healthy is an achievement. Working hard is worth a compliment. The shape of my body, largely determined by genetics? Not so much.

And there's always that implication: you look good now that you've lost weight. You look good because you've lost weight. Congratulations, you're just a little bit closer to an arbitrary ideal that you'll probably never fully attain nor be able to maintain.

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I joined the gym because it was absolutely about time. It was time to make a long-term investment in my health and wellbeing. Nearly a year ago my sister was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. When I went to the doctor to have my blood sugar tested, I was told that I didn't have diabetes but would almost certainly develop it if I did not make major changes. I was scared for about two weeks and stopped eating chocolate, but it didn't stick. Then my sister's diagnosis was changed to type 1, a diagnosis far worse for her but holding less genetic risk to me. And yet, both our grandmothers have type 2, and related conditions run in the family. It was time.

I'm not sick right now, but I've not been well for a long time. There are almost infinite reasons why: depression, chronic sinusitis, some mysterious kind of allergies, the stress of the PhD, living away from my family in this polluted city. Taking care of myself and being a motherfucking adult is hard. I claimed to walk to uni and go to dance classes, but more often than not I was catching the bus and skipping dancing to work or go have lunch with my boyfriend. It wasn't enough.

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I've been going to the gym every weekday for three weeks now. I usually go in the morning, after the before-work rush, and then on to uni afterwards. I have more energy. I'm sleeping better. I can concentrate on my work.

At the same time, I've made a proper effort to eat better, not least because my metabolism has woken up with a start. I bought a low GI cookbook, and every single recipe has been delicious. I'm all over the protein. I most noticed the difference this week when I went out to dinner with my visiting grandparents three times, each time to the buffet with surprise!potato in almost every dish. Too many carbs, and wow, did it tire me out.

My grandmother, of course, said I'd lost weight and asked how much. I don't know, and I don't care. I want to get my waist measurement down, and I'm doing strength as well as cardio to tone up. I just trust that the weight will follow. I feel happy and healthy, and that's all that matters. Not that I wasn't happy with my body before, as I was, if perhaps for the unfeminist reason that I have a boyfriend who loves it and is not shy about telling me so. He's also very supportive of me going to the gym, and doing whatever's necessary to stay happy and healthy.

I'm turning into one of them, I think. You know. The gym junkies. I could spend all day telling you about my strength program and how much I can leg press and how many minutes I did on the bike today. There's a certain kind of health that can turn into self-obsession, or just another form of narcissism. I don't want to go that far. Do you know how many calories are in a banana smoothie? No, me neither. Thank goodness.

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I don't know how I'll handle the inevitable comments about my weight as I continue to work out. Perhaps I'll just smile politely and turn the conversation around to how good I feel. My friends at uni certainly seem to get it, as I'm often told I look good when I've arrived at uni, freshly showered after a workout. The best compliment I've had, albeit reported to me secondhand, is that I've been "glowing". That best describes this, really. I'm glowing, because I feel good. That is absolutely all that matters to me, now and always.

Comments

I started getting those comments aged nine or ten, from school dinner ladies and the serving girl in the chip shop... I'd had a very round face and tummy since age six (early forecasts of my condition, though we didn't know it), and when I started to actually get ill the weight loss was perceived as a good thing by almost everyone except for my mother.

I feel like comments about appearance should be about building someone up, but this business of "have you lost weight?"... it's like it's some kind of awful present we, women, were given, and nobody wants it but we have to keep regifting it because that's how we've been conditioned to interact and bestow signs of liking/approval.

And even when it's not meant as "hurrah! you now conform to female visual standards!", there's still the other aspect you highlight: that a woman's appearance (not mind) is the foremost thing about her. I can only imagine how frustrating that situation with your relatives must be on many levels, especially when the thing really worth celebrating here is that you're increasing your wellbeing and happiness. I'm so glad for you. <3
It just smacks of a woman's importance being in her marriageability and therefore her appearance, doesn't it? Such a frustrating attitude when so many of us don't need marriage for financial independence anymore. I do agree with the premise of The Beauty Myth, that the focus on women's appearances is a way of controlling and demeaning us to offset the independence we have gained.

I suppose you might even get the opposite of "have you lost weight?", i.e. "you're too skinny, you need to put on weight", which must be frustrating on a whole other level.