Thin is a prison built by my grandmother (and maybe yours too)

My grandmother weighs 77 pounds now. My mother says this is considered stable since she’s no longer losing weight rapidly and because people can live on very little food as long as they don’t get dehydrated. Mom says Grandmom still drinks enough water, so her eating habits _ or non-eating habits _ aren’t an immediate threat. And, Mom says, it’s not like Grandmom is hungry. The nurses and aides give her full meals, but she just pushes the food around on her plate. “She was always concerned about being thin,” my mom said recently. “Maybe it’s come back on her now.” On her, I thought. On  you, on me, on my cousins. We all strive to be thin. I think the first time I went on a diet was when I was about 12. I have vague memories of my mom being on a diet and packing my lunch to match her lunch, so I was on a diet too. I don’t remember it lasting long, but it must have made a powerful impression because by my junior year of high school, I was skipping lunch and challenging myself to see how long I could go each day before eating. When I started to shake, I’d eat a Nutty Bar. Not that I was fat. I was 5-foot and 96 pounds in the winter, less in warm weather when I could run regularly. I thought of myself as chunky though because I had had a sudden growth spurt in fifth and sixth grade that gave me hips and breasts before many of my classmates. Height-wise, I went from being the shortest in my class in fourth grade to middle-of-the-pack in fifth grade. By seventh grade, most of the other girls had caught up, and I was back to being short. But I still had those hips and breasts, so I wasn’t thin _ at least not compared to some of my bean-pole classmates. I ran for years to stay thin. Then, in my early 30s, I got busy and depressed with a stressful job, house renovations and deteriorating marriage. I gained 20 pounds in a year, or maybe a year and a half. I’m not sure. It felt like I just woke up fat one day, and actually, I didn’t think of myself as fat until my grandmother told me I was. I was getting into a car with my mom, my grandmother, an aunt and a cousin, and my grandmother said something about me sitting in the back because “you’re the biggest one.” It was like a slap in the face. When I got home from that trip, I went on an immediate diet. I used Weight Watchers‘ online program to lose 18 pounds in six months. I went from 119 pounds to 101 and vowed I’d never be bigger than a size 4 again. (And actually, with the vanity sizing most designers engage in now, my 4 is a 2, but that’s another issue.) Weight Watchers gets you to lose weight by essentially doing three things: cutting calories, eating more fiber and eating less fat. It turns out, the only thing really crucial to losing weight is cutting calories. But, I have to hand it to Weight Watchers _ eating less fat and more fiber cured most of the stomach and digestive problems I’d been having. Less than a year after I lost the weight, my marriage fell apart. I started losing weight again, this time without trying to. I got down to 94 pounds, and a friend took me aside, told me I looked sick and recommended a therapist. Six months later, I was less angry, less anxious and 98 pounds. Flash forward about another six months: I met G., and he took me out to dinner a lot. After eight months of eating some of Wisconsin’s best food, and there’s a lot of good food in Wisconsin, I was at 101. My jeans felt tight, and I decided action was needed. Weight Watchers wouldn’t take me back because I didn’t need to lose more than 5 pounds, so I found another program, Truly, I love this program. It appeals to every overly-tidy, control-obsessed cell in my body. It works like this: You enter everything you eat into an online spreadsheet, and it tells you how many calories you have left to eat that day to lose .2 pounds a week, .5 pounds a week or maintain your weight. You also can put in how much you exercise, how much water you drank, how much water you want to drink and other information. It charts it all, and doing that every day made me feel powerful and secure in a way that probably means I need more therapy. Still, I lost 3 pounds and have been hovering around 98 since then. Along the way, I also found out that I was eating way more salt than I realized and sometimes was eating less fat than I should. I do tend to go to extremes. The best thing My Food Diary did for me was teach me to balance my diet by giving me feedback on its nutritional content. I was thinking about this recently while making sweet potato biscuits. I am now on what I privately call the Michael Pollan diet. He has written and spoken extensively about the fact that almost any native diet produces less diabetes, heart disease and other health problems than the modern American diet. He attributes this to the fact that much of our food is heavily processed and essentially says that if we want to be healthy, we should stop eating Twinkies, McDonald’s and other processed items that will kill us faster than they’ll decay. He has a number of tips for healthy eating, but the few I’ve taken to heart are:

  • Eat anything you want as long as you cook it.
  • Eat in moderation.
  • Eat mainly fruits and vegetables.
  • Try not to buy any food with more than five ingredients in it.

This last one is harder than you’d think. I had to go through an entire supermarket shelf to find peanut butter that was made with only peanuts and salt. Anyway, I was making sweet potato biscuits, and I needed to grease the cookie sheet before baking them. Normally, I would use Pam, but the last time I used Pam, I couldn’t get the pan clean. G. tried to clean it too, but he couldn’t get the residue off. “It’s grease,” he said. He went out to the barn, got a degreaser that he uses when working on the truck or one of the tractors and used that to get most of the residue off. But some just stuck. “Can you imagine how it’s sticking to your arteries?” he said. And just like that, I went back to using Crisco. It meets another Pollan criteria: Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. (Think of Go-GURT, it probably looks more like toothpaste than yogurt to our grandparents.) My grandmother used Crisco. But then I think, knowing my grandmother, she probably would have opted for Pam if she’d thought about it because it has no calories. And then I think it makes me angry that I am mentally debating whether it’s better to cut calories by consuming something G. wouldn’t use on auto parts or to risk gaining weight. And then I think, I don’t want to be 90 years old, 77 pounds and slowly starving myself to death. I’m using Crisco.


One response to “Thin is a prison built by my grandmother (and maybe yours too)

  1. What an interesting and wonderful post, when talking about your weight and you refer to how you “got fat” it always strikes me because even if you were to gain 20/30 lbs now to me that wouldn’t qualify you as fat. But I do understand it’s about being comfortable in your own skin. After having my first I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin until April, it took me forever to lose my baby weight.

    I gotta admit that I am afraid about struggling to lose the weight after No. 2 is born, but I’ve already crafted a plan and trying to be determined not to be fat again. My limit isn’t a size 4, but I feel good at a size 6.

    It sucks that we put such pressures on ourselves, but it’s what we do. Yours is from your grandmother, mine is from myself and somewhat from my mom, though she criticizes me when I’m “too thin” to when I’m “too fat.” With her it’s less about size and more about being unhappy with everything, but that’s another story for another time. 🙂

    Keep up the blogging, you’ve got a great thing going.

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