Wednesday, July 15, 2015

the principal suffering of human beings, or: croissant hangover blues

“I’d come to squander an appalling proportion of my mental time on empty vows to cut down to one meal a day, or on fruitless self-castigation over a second stuffed pepper at lunch. Surely on some unconscious, high-frequency level other people could hear the squeal of this humiliating hamster wheel in my head, a piercing shrill that emitted from every other woman I passed in the aisles of Hy-Vee.”

--from Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

I never think of really smart, self-actualized women—whether fat, skinny or in-between—as dieting, but Shriver’s novel about consumption and excess in various forms (I think; I’m only on page 28) suggests that maybe she’s not a total stranger to the endeavor.

I spent my teens and early twenties bingeing and dieting, plummeting to 107 pounds for a brief period and becoming the fattest cheerleader on the squad for a much longer one. Then I came out, and within a year my eating habits were the best they’d been since childhood.

Halloween during my brief flirtation with anorexia. I was so excited for the one night I allowed myself candy. (Thanks to Bonnie, lower left, my best Facebook historian friend, for this pic and the one below.)
So I assumed that my body issues had to do with self-hatred and low-level depression, and were therefore a thing of the past.

But the past five and a half months have easily been among the happiest of my life if not the happiest. So why have I gained like ten pounds? (And is there anything more embarrassing than baby weight when you adopted?) Why did I stand next to the pastry table at yesterday’s staff meeting, pounding almond croissants from Homeboy Bakery while Shirley talked about our educational outcomes?

I tell myself that I’m still well within my BMI. But just because you don’t have liver damage yet doesn’t mean you’re not an alcoholic, y’know?

Hiding my stomach behind my pompoms.
Now I look at my bingeing years with some revisionism: Yes, I was wrestling with (or working hard to deny) my sexuality between the ages of twelve and twenty-two. But I was also taking hard classes, getting almost straight A’s, going to cheer practice after school, navigating the social minefield that is high school and practicing abominable study and sleep habits. College was more of the same—just sub out “newspaper” for “cheer” and subtract forced interactions with the popular kids.

Maybe I was just tired.

Peak chub during my first year at CalArts. Where are pompoms when you need them? (Photo by Suzanne Danziger.)
As happy as I am right now—I, who was/am suspicious of that very word—I am also exhausted. I have a miraculously “easy” kid, but there is really no underestimating the 24-hour-ness of parenting. Throw in a job, a serious hobby (that would be writing, that thing I still occasionally do), a marriage and a genetic predisposition toward addictive behavior, and you have me chasing my pastry binge with birthday cake, a grilled cheese sandwich, cereal and chocolate.

I’m putting this out there partly for cheap reasons: I love fresh starts, and I want today to mark the start of my Would I Let My Kid Eat That? non-diet diet, in which I try to become a good food role model to Dash now that he’s on the cusp of solid food.

I’m also putting it out there because I’m thoroughly ashamed of the hamster wheel in my head—of how loud and shouty it is even when I have so many better things to think about. And I would like to try to be done with shame.

We are at an anti-shame moment in our culture, in which we frequently call out (i.e. shame) people for shaming others. Slut-shaming, breastfeeding-shaming, whatever. It is a lazy endeavor, but the impulse toward being who we are and being okay with that is a good one.

Today Fr. Greg said: “The principal suffering of human beings is shame and disgrace, and it prevents us from feeling joy. I don’t know how to get beyond it except to be tender with each other.”

That seems like a good place to start, whether your shame is that you set off a stink bomb (literally) in the Homeboy bathroom like the kid in Fr. Greg’s story, or you bought stretchy big-size pants at Target yesterday like the woman in, um, my story. Or maybe you got schooled by someone you thought was a good friend, or lied to get out of a co-worker’s husband’s funeral, or had a one-night stand when you swore you wouldn’t, or committed a felony or five.

Oh LiLo. Oh humanity.
A long time ago, I had an epiphany about the uselessness of shame. I was thinking about Lindsay Lohan (like I said, a long time ago) and I imagined her talking to her therapist. She wouldn’t stop passing out in front of paparazzi lenses by realizing “Oh, I’m a sloppy drunken floozy”; she would stop once she realized that she’d been treated like shit by her parents and that she deserved love. Until that point, I really thought that self-improvement started with self-flagellation. If you could just realize how awful you were!

My short stories at the time were usually about spoiled rich girls getting their comeuppance at the hands of a Dust Bowl heroine or a (cringe) magical negro-type. I know. I’m ashamed! But also not. You write, you live, you learn.

So yeah, I would like to lose about fifteen pounds. I would like to eat more vegetables and not let my exhaustion get the best of me. But in the meantime I would like to rock my big Target pants, because while I want to model a fondness for carrots, I want to model self-compassion too.

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