Lies and love letters to ourselves
Reader alert. This story has a pivot. Probably not where you think I might be going with this. I hope you come along for the full ride.
New Zealand in 1984 was a charming place. Back then you could still get your milk delivered by young men pushing clinking carts. If you were late with your glass empties and your change, you would hear the tinkling of the full-to-the-brim bottles, hurtle out the door to the small wooden house on the sidewalk just before he got there, and place your empties inside with your money. The milkman would graciously exchange them with your full bottles, each with a soft aluminum cap to reveal the contents: green for skim, plain silver for pasteurized but not homogenized full milk, red for full cream so dense it had to be teased out with a knife, and so on.
Before I landed in that beautiful country I’d never had milk in my tea. I came to love it, especially full cream. My various roommates and I would compete for who got the first pour out of the silver bottle, for cream does indeed rise. That first pour out of the silver top delivered the richest milk for your cuppa.
And boy did I put on the pounds. I was already about 140–150 when I landed. I got in the habit of eating tea with biscuits, especially the Arnott’s versions covered with real milk chocolate. I fell in love with Tim Tams, still one of my arch enemies today.
And boy did I put on the pounds. Lots more of them.
Throughout 1984–1987, I traveled all over New Zealand. Stayed at many homes and hostels. Rarely did I ever see a full-length mirror. The damage I was doing to my hips and overall body was masked to a point. I wore pants with an elastic waist, so there was no tell-tale pulling at the button or zipper to warn me to back off the Jaffa ice cream (chocolate and orange) and all the other densely caloric treats I consumed with abandon.
Like a lot of folks.
By the time I’d made my way to Australia in 1984 I was topping 205 lbs. The extra weight hurt. I knew. In that way that we deny the truth of what we’re doing to ourselves, I was living in a bubble. I still ran, but running for me was no way to get lighter. I’d always had a terrible battle with food and I was in the grip of eating disorders.
As plenty can attest, you can still be bulimic and obese.
And like so many who are on vacation, I would soothe myself by saying that it’s just a treat. It’s just for now. I’ll take care of this later.
Lots of us are doing that right now in quarantine.
Later becomes another pound or two or five. Ten. Until I was the one making cracks in the sidewalk when I ran, not Father Time and Mother Nature.
I hated myself, of course. Every bite I took of the delicious fish and chips, every donut, every package of Tim Tams, consumed in its entirety. I was thirty-one and expanding fast. I felt horrible, felt ill a lot, and was carrying way too much for my bird-bone frame.
One morning I woke up early in my Elsternwick home, a tiny burb southeast of Melbourne along the Nepean Highway in Australia. I padded into the front room where there was a rare full-length mirror.
As I gazed at my expanding hips, the waistline that was bulging over my pants, I recall with great clarity forming this singular thought:
“Women over thirty just get fat.”
I no longer remember the precise order of what happened next. It was a Saturday morning. I also remember that the next thought, or series of thoughts, ran like this:
How dare you stand in front of thousands of people as a motivational speaker and you won’t even control your own urges?
How DARE you tell others how to live when you won’t take care of yourself?
I had been working as a speaker for some pretty big conferences. So, yeah. This stung. Truth often does. Hit me with all the force of a lightning bolt.
We’re fucking DONE with that lie.
By the time the standard Saturday morning knock came on my door, usually around 8 am, I was dressed to run. Charlie, the Aussie triathlete who lived down the street, was regular as rain.
Usually, I hid. He knew it. This time I swung the door wide, which happily was wider than my hips, grinned at his surprised face and said, before he could,
We ran eight miles, five more than my usual. Not as hard as I’d thought it might be.
The next morning he was back, this time pointing at the twelve-speed bike which sat forlornly on my porch.
Wan’ me t’teach ya howta roide thet boike? He asked in his broad Outback accent.
Twenty-three miles later I couldn’t walk. I was hooked.
But Charlie wasn’t done. He marched into my kitchen. While I watched, he tossed out all the complex carbs, cookies, donuts and cleaned out my fridge. We donated the food. Then we had a life-changing discussion about language.
He pointed out that my habit of barking at myself every morning (you fat ugly bitch. Pig. Etc.) was a prime setup for a day of damaging behavior. Self-hate and punishment. Change your self-talk, change your life, he said.
Bit by bit, I did.
About a year later, I was down more than eighty pounds. That was 33 years ago. I’m still down eighty pounds. That story is what starts my book Wordfood: How We Feed or Starve our Relationships, which I would pen in 2010. That’s my love letter to Charlie, who changed my life for the rest of my life.
Each of us harbors a story, a meme, a belief (lots of them, actually) which guides our behavior. For me, the idea that women just get fat past thirty had to have come from somewhere. It’s a lie, but I had bought into it. Worse, it excused my overeating, and it also excused putting off being more responsible about my body until…later, and then never. I used that belief to justify being irresponsible about my self-care.
I still battled eating disorders, believing the lie that we will always and forever be in their grip. That was the next Big Lie that I challenged. Won. Took me a lot longer, but I’m done with them. A decade now.
However being thinner didn’t suddenly change my life. Changing the internal conversation did. Big difference. I found a weight that worked for my frame, but I’d have put every single ounce and then some right back on had I not changed the messaging. I’d already done plenty of times.
The more I’ve examined what I say to myself, the more I see how my life has been shaped by lies and misinformation. Whether that’s from my parents or school bullies (you’re fat, dumb and ugly!) or what I have said to myself after multiple rapes and assaults (you’re fuckable but not lovable). Those lies, repeated often enough, become truths. Repeat bullshit enough and people will think it’s prime rib. Preachers and pastors and politicians and PR people (so many pricks in that list, but I digress) all spout lies that people inhale as absolute truths. Lies that ruin lives. Yours, mine, our kids’ lives.
Just like I believed.
Given the abundance of messaging about aging to which we are all subjected, is there any real surprise that so many of us buy into bullshit that you’re old at forty, you slow down after fifty, and somehow after sixty you wake up the next morning sans vagina and clitoris and are riddled with dementia? This is how society treats older women. All of us for that matter. I constantly see these lies reinforced on platforms like Medium and Facebook.
Like those articles written by thirty-somethings to their 70-or 80- year old selves, talking about how they’re “sitting in a rocking chair.” Dear god, sister. Talking about drinking the Koolaid. If you believe that’s your future, you’ve just self-determined to deteriorate swiftly. You just gave up.
These are just as ugly as all the lies about obesity, that it’s all their fault, they’re lazy and ignorant and don’t care about their bodies. When I was heavy I worked my ass off just as hard as I do now. I just ate badly. The changes I made are no guarantee they will work for anyone else, but I had to face the lies I carried.
Too many in the medical community and society at large love those lies if for no other reason than it gives people a place to point rather than at themselves and lies they believe and propagate. That you can’t be a top-notch athlete if you’re big. That you can’t…well. That’s why America’s Biggest Loser, the most obvious display of fat-hate and body-shaming, continues to air, and air our collective grievances against those who are obese.
I struggle to understand how this is much different from burning women at the stake for the crime of being old and female and past child-bearing, and worse, widowed. But we ever like our targets.
Now, before anyone accuses me of saying, which I have not, that all you have to do is use self-talk to get thin, kindly. Nowhere have I said such a thing. Nowhere have I intimated such a thing. Partly because it’s a fundamental lie to believe that being thin is such a great thing, and also because it’s just one more bullshit lie that incites people to riot over nothing. That is, other that how we have allowed people to manipulate us to believe that being thin is all that matters.
In case you missed this article the first few times I published the link, please see:
You do NOT have to believe anything of the sort. Which is why I surround myself with immensely powerful, intense, engaged, smart, physically fit people of ALL ages, of ALL cultures, of ALL backgrounds, of ALL sizes. Every single one of them challenges some kind of lie or meme or mis-truth that we are fed. Their truths, the way they live, erase the lies.
Here’s another one of my favorite lie-breakers about aging:
And another about size and athletics:
Charlie’s gift to me, delivered at the ripe old age of 31, was a bellwether for the rest of my life. I didn’t see him much after I started riding thirty-plus miles a day. I didn’t see him again at all when I doubled my efforts at the gym. I wonder at times if he’s still a triathlete.
I came back to the States in 1987. I’m not without beliefs and lies inside me, many of which are embedded through cultural conditioning. I limit advertising’s reach into my life. I limit my phone time and what can touch my consciousness. It’s hard.
What’s harder is exorcising the bullshit once it takes root, for we get invested in being right about our bullshit beliefs. Beliefs that limit, harm and hamstring us, our kids, our families, our communities and our countries.
When I hear people who say they hate their bodies or their faces because they are aging or they have body dysmorphia, which I suffered for decades, all I know is that none of us was born with such beliefs. None of us started life this way. We had to be trained. Makes women very complacent when we are so distracted by age, weight, grey hair, sexiness. The lot. When we compete with each other and tear each other down over things that are ultimately meaningless.
Men too, but with different messages.
While some may be born psychotic, we have to learn hate, racism, self-hate, prejudice. We have to acquire our beliefs.
Any kind of freedom that you and I gain from self-imposed prisons begins with questioning the source. Who benefits when we believe?
Who says that we’re old at thirty, forty, fifty, sixty?
That you can’t be sexy or pretty or handsome if you’re not thin? Or young? Really?
Who says you can’t be fit at any age, or if you’re big? Or disabled?
Who says? the pundits?
Who are they? How do they gain when we believe the bullshit? When we get shamed into not loving what and who we are right here and now, we can easily be- and are- manipulated into terrible anxiety about what’s wrong with us. And spend every cent we have trying to fix what is just fine in the first place.
Any damned fool so-called “expert” can be bought off to publish complete and utter PAP about how sugar is good for you. Please see The Case Against Sugar, by Gary Taubes. You can buy off and trot out any damned fool to spout whatever serves your purpose, if it serves to get people to buy your product your lotion, your potion. Please see Goop, with Gwyeth Paltrow.
Speaking as a woman, and speaking specifically as an aging woman, this comes into play in particular with our medical community. I have worked like the devil to create a cadre of providers who are my partners (all women, mostly, and a few very smart Millennial men) who don’t make asinine assumptions about me based solely on my age and gender. They too are as subject to the stupidity of oft-repeated bullshit as are the rest of us.
My fellow Illumination writer Rosennab just this morning penned this piece on Aging:
The beliefs we carry in this culture about aging are largely false. There are truths, which is that the body will age. How fast depends on how hard we work, how willing we are to care for ourselves, how well we eat and whether or not we have a purpose and feel valued. Sarcopenia, which is age-related muscle loss is real. There is also plenty of scientific FACT about how regular exercise slows sarcopenia down to the nth degree, depending on your oomph.
I am the poster child for such truth, as is Rosenna, and our mutual shero, Guinness Record holder Earnestine Shepard, who never picked up a weight until she was nearly 60, and Dr. Josefina Monasterio, and all the heroes and sheroes at my gym and on the trails and in the water and on the running tracks.
Our attitudes about aging are the love letters we send our cells, as Rosenna discusses in her article. The way we look, feel and engage in life are the body’s love letters back to us.
Rosenna speaks to the limited knowledge that even the best practitioners may have: she was told to stop running because of her age, and because she had asthma. Instead, she learned how to breathe better.
She still runs. We love ourselves, our bodies love us back. The body talks to us all the time, we just don’t always listen, or know how. My version of fit isn’t yours.
That’s why it’s such a sacred journey to find out when we feel our best, not necessarily how we look based on someone else’s impossible standards.
As a culture, we all too often limit, demean, downplay, ignore and deny the language of the body, which is one way that our souls speak to us of illness, of heartbreak, of mental pain, and of hope. The body is our barometer. We rarely take our own temperature, as it were, and when we do, we have no idea how to respond to our own truth when we listen through the lies that tell us we’re hysterical.
What do you believe that is costing you your life? Your options? Your quality of life? New friends?
Do you spout that old lie that you’re too old for….(what, sex, exercise, a new skill, an adventure? Who the hell said that? When did you give away your power?)
What kinds of bullshit beliefs do you spout without ever questioning where they came from?
Centuries ago, people believed that animals couldn’t feel pain, so they were operated on while alive, without anesthesia.
Same thing happened to Blacks, and Black women slaves, experimented on without anesthesia to produce modern-day gynecological devices and procedures. Of course they didn’t feel pain. They were of course animals. Such vicious, ignorant beliefs have crippled us, our progress and our fundamental humanity through the ages.
We are still crippled, or else the laws concerning women’s bodies wouldn’t be passing at warp speed, robbing us of our agency.
Men are equally crippled, taught that vulnerability and emotions make them weak. Robbing them of their agency.
Many beliefs that are fed us cost us hope, treasure, happiness, joy, and years of productive life while enriching the coffers of those who promote those beliefs. That certain people or ethnic groups or religions are evil, that they are subhuman, that women are worthless once they lose their youth, it goes on and on and on.
Sells a lot of weapons, sells a lot of products and procedures. But it doesn’t improve lives.
When are you going to challenge those beliefs and write your own love letters to yourself, your body, your future, your soul?
Next time you look in the mirror and are about to fire yourself a nasty dart, kindly ask yourself where on earth that lie came from.
My favorite challenges:
Does this belief serve my highest purpose?
Does this belief limit or expand me?
Does this belief hurt me or someone else?
Does this belief reflect my true values or was it imposed upon me?
Who makes money off this belief at my expense?
If your closely-held beliefs limit, hurt, diminish, demean, restrict, hurt or damage yourself or others, or both, perhaps it’s time to rewrite your beliefs based on your real value as human. Not on your wallet’s value to a corporation, or your subjugation to an unfriendly force.
You can choose what to believe. I choose to believe what adds value to my work, my humanity, my gifts, and my path. And I challenge those messages that serve to try to undermine, take my treasure, my talents and my personal power away.
I hope you do, too.