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November 1, 2008

Heavy stuff, man

Recently something really confusing happened.

It started out just fine. I got contacted by a reporter from a major women's magazine who told me she was doing a story about women (plural) who had given up dieting for their New Year's Resolutions. She'd read some of what I've written in the past on this and wanted to ask a few questions for her story, and that was fine with me. I've already covered most of that in public anyway (and you can read those columns here and here and here.) Interview requests like that are pretty commonplace -- a reporter is doing a story and sees something I wrote about the subject, they email me, I answer a few questions and they give brief mention to the book in the article. The reporter gets a story deadline met with good quotes and I get a book blurb. Win-win.

This particular reporter emailed me some questions, I answered and we were done. But then it all started to change. The reporter had more questions -- and her editor now wanted the story to focus just on me, and they wanted a photo shoot and all of this and suddenly the story was no longer about many women who decided to give up dieting as a New Year's Resolution, suddenly now it was about me and "body confidence" and ... I'm just not there yet. I'm still figuring this all out as I go! I'm not anybody's role model for body confidence. The story I originally agreed to help with turned into something else altogether. Suddenly it was all about my weight and the way I look and I became very uncomfortable with that kind of spotlight.

The reason I gave up on dieting is because it made me crazy. I was in a relationship with food that wasn't working, it was totally screwed up, and I was unhealthy and exhausted and I just could not go on one more diet. I knew I needed to make some serious changes in my lifestyle but I could not diet again. All I knew for sure was that I was recently divorced, alone, overweight, unhealthy and miserable and I made a life-shifting decision to get a handle on my insanity. I wanted to be healthy and strong for ME. I wanted to feel good. I'd been feeling bad for so long I didn't even remember what feeling good was like!

That's when I decided I would never diet again. Ever. Even if I had to stay heavy my whole life I was going to deal with it and figure out how to treat myself healthfully and with the same care I would give to a loved one no matter what I weighed. I'd spent most of my life waiting to be happy until I reached X size or X weight .... that had to stop. I've written about all that stuff before, none of that has changed.

It takes time to undo a lifetime of habits. It takes time to develop trust in yourself. I didn't even know what to eat those first few months -- I had been on a diet so long that I didn't even know what healthy food was! I only knew food as the enemy -- whatever it was, I shouldn't be eating it. In a twisted way, dieting makes you think food is bad and if you can just stop eating you'll be in top form. At that time I knew all about points and calories and carbs, but I had no idea what nutrients my body needed. I had never paid attention to how food made my body feel, only to the numbers on the scale (or, conversely, when I fell off-plan as I always did, I would carefully avoid the scale.) To un-do a lifetime of diet mentality I had to learn new stuff and learn to stop my crazy either-or dieting mindset -- you're either "good" or "bad" but never in-between! On-plan or failing miserable! Being healthy or falling off the wagon!

But there is no wagon. It all goes into the same body, this "good" and "bad" food. It's just food, it isn't the enemy. God it's taken me forever to work all this out. It's hard. If you have never struggled with your weight I might as well be talking to you about particle physics right now. But if you've ever been there, well, you know. You might even understand the dread and panic I felt at having a large national magazine turn a big spotlight on my body size.

I was happy to talk to a reporter about my no-dieting decision in the context of health and sanity and breaking out of the diet-binge cycle. However I was not at all prepared to be held up as some model of undieting, a body-confident woman! I'm not that woman. It felt like a lie. There were other things, too. I am not going to use my body to sell anything, but especially not my book. And above all of that, I don't want people scrutinizing my body's shape and size to decide if I have succeeded or failed in their opinion. The whole point of stepping outside my diet mentality was to stop evaluating my self worth based on the size of my ass.

Because I have finally learned this ONE thing for sure -- my self worth has nothing at all to do with the size of my ass! And neither does yours! A photo focuses only on the exterior and not on the inside stuff. Anyone can lose weight, believe me, but figuring out what your messy stuff is, figuring out how to live and breathe all on your own terms and trust that you will stop eating if you don't have a diet plan -- that's much harder than counting calories. It's risky. There might be REALLY MESSY STUFF inside you. You might not be a size six, ever. You might not trust yourself at first. But it was worth it to me to get messy and figure it out because thirty years of dieting did not fix my problems and something had to change.

I knew people would see my picture and think I failed, yet again, because I am not super skinny. And yet I am healthier and saner right now than I have ever been in my life. I eat really nutritious food, I'm learning to cook, I exercise, I quit smoking. I drink in moderation, I pack my own lunch, I take vitamins. These things sound so small but for me they are HUGE HUGE accomplishments! I don't care what other people think of my little successes, and I don't want diet tips from other people or scrutiny about my body. I didn't make these changes for other people, I did it for ME because I am worth living healthy. And my definition of healthy is not the same as someone else's. Weight and size and food are personal subjects and each person gets to decide what works best for them. But I'm not naive, I know what happens when it all gets reduced to a single snapshot. That kind of scrutiny is not healthy for me, not right now. Not ever.

So anyway, I agonized over that article for weeks and when there wasn't any more time to wait, I had to make a decision and then I just knew. I knew where the boundary was: I was happy to answer the reporter's final questions but I would not be sitting for a full-body photo shoot for anyone. Any story that requires a "ful-length image of the body" of the author is not the story for me. That is not who I am.

As soon as I said it out loud I felt enormous relief wash over me. Relief was followed rather quickly by that old familiar feeling of being a bad person letting everyone down -- letting down the nice reporter, the nice magazine people just trying to do their jobs, my rockstar publicist who had to run interference for me in the end, the five million (!!) possible readers I would miss out on to promote my book. But it was the right thing for me to do. Relief, but what a mess.

And my publicist Kim really was a rockstar. She understood before I even explained it. I knew it was risky to give up the opportunity to be featured in that magazine but it felt wrong, it felt too exposed, it felt like something I just wasn't ready to do. I couldn't let myself be reduced down to a single picture, not when it's all so private and personal and sensitive for me. My weight is not a photo op -- it's a lifetime of struggle. Kim explained it to the reporter, told her I was happy to participate in the interview but not ready to be a feature model, sorry, thank you, so sorry.

The magazine canceled the whole story.

All of this stuff, it's still new to me. I'm just a normal person living a normal flawed deeply weird and goofy life. I'm not used to having a spotlight shine anywhere near me, so I don't always know where it's OK to draw the lines. I've learned some of it through trial-and-error here on this website, and I have big areas of my life that are off-limits for content (I'll be the first to caution you that if your personal life becomes your content then you will eventually have no personal life.) It's important to protect your own privacy because we all need that space, we all need to keep parts of ourselves private and safe. And it really is OK to answer all a reporter's questions up and until the line of questioning becomes uncomfortable to you. It's OK to say no, even if it is awkward. Even if you feel a little bad for having to say no (of course it feels bad when you first start to say no -- it takes a long time to un-do all that smile and act nice training we get as young girls.)

While it's flattering and fun to have someone want to do interviews, it's also clear to me now that there is a fine line between promoting your work and selling out. But where is that line? How can you know until you brush up against it? I wanted those five million magazine readers to see the cover of my book! But this whole approach didn't feel right. Pick me apart for my writing, my comma splices, my crappy typing, my thinking, my corny self-helpy lovin' cat-hair-covered personality, but don't scrutinize my body and sum me up with a picture. I am not that girl.

This is all new, uncharted territory. I'm so grateful for the opportunities. And I'm aware that the missteps are bigger now, the chances riskier. The trickiest thing about all this is knowing there are people -- maybe even people on your own team -- who think you're crazy to pass up any kind of opportunity. But they aren't the girl in the picture. They aren't the ones who have to pass the check-out lane in the supermarket with their body on display. And how could I really live my own life if I were still saying yes when I want to say no?

So in conclusion: it was awkward, I did not handle it perfectly, I had mixed feelings, but I made a decision I felt was right for me and the world kept spinning on its axis. No one came to my house to repossess my cute shoes, no one called me to tell me I was a bad person, the cats still like me, my friends still talk to me, I still love writing and will do it forever even if no one ever buys another copy of my book. The magazine story got canceled, the world kept breathing, and I'm still here and I'm learning as I go.

It's OK, I'll take it.

Posted by laurie at November 1, 2008 9:25 AM