What Being Pregnant Taught Me about Thin Privilege

pregnancy2

When I was pregnant, I finally got thin. I don’t mean I stopped eating, lost weight, or made it into some perfect-size jeans. I’m talking about the kind of thin I used to dream about—a mythical thinness in which doors open, permission is granted, you are seen, you are appreciated. For some people, feeling entitled to one’s own body is not an issue. They do not question their right to exist as they are. This is a great privilege. It is sometimes called “thin privilege,” although that term is quite sticky (and this post really isn’t about unsticking it).

For myriad and often incomprehensible reasons, being comfortable in my own skin has been a problem. As a young person I struggled with an eating disorder and various body-image issues. I believed—deeply, superficially, subconsciously, and consciously—that thin people had better lives. I believed I was fat. And I believed fat was bad and fat was the source of all my problems. I dreamed of a thin future. In that future, I imagined people appreciating my body. I imagined walking into a store and fitting into lots of stylish clothes. I imagined feeling physically and emotionally comfortable in my body. In an effort to feel that kind of freedom, I tortured my body and psyche—depriving (“dieting”), bingeing, working out based on what I’d eaten, punishing myself when I didn’t live up to impossible expectations, being terrified of myself, not trusting myself.

When I was pregnant, I finally got a taste of freedom from these issues. Here are some things I experienced with a huge belly that I used to think could only come with a really small one:

  1. People (strangers and friends) complimented my appearance and/or smiled when they saw me.
  2. I got compared to famous people (who were pregnant). “OMG, you look just like [someone beautiful and respected]!”
  3. I walked into (maternity) stores and could find almost all of the styles in my size. And they were “flattering” to my shape. They were made for me!
  4. I loved the shape of my body.
  5. I loved to touch my belly and show it off. I thought it looked really cool and beautiful.
  6. People encouraged me to eat whatever I wanted.
  7. I practiced gentle nutrition (eating a variety of whole foods that felt good to me) without feeling guilty for exploring odd cravings.
  8. Food felt like an exciting adventure, rather than a tortured game of self-deprivation, self-discipline, and arithmetic.
  9. People (health care professionals, strangers, and friends) encouraged me to move my body in ways that felt good to me and to stop before overdoing it. They encouraged me to respect how I was feeling more than respecting a number on the scale.
  10. I felt confident that my body—especially my middle—was beautiful and worth celebrating.
  11. I was curious about myself and enjoyed taking care of me.
  12. I felt just right.
  13. Most importantly, I trusted my own decisions about my body. I felt a deep respect for what it was doing, and I knew that I was the expert on what it was feeling. I listened to advice from others (books, midwives, doulas, friends, family, the internet), and took some, but not all, of it. I made informed decisions about my body that were right for me.

I know this is not the experience all pregnant women have, but I think there are aspects of this experience we can all strive for.

I’m not talking so much about giving and receiving compliments, which are, in fact, judgments (albeit positive ones). I’m talking about respecting ourselves and each other. Even if you don’t believe human bodies are miraculous, you must grant that they are amazingly complex. This perfectly choreographed dance of molecules that gives us consciousness deserves better than simplistic advice and harsh judgments (from external or internal sources). We all deserve “thin privilege.” We all deserve to be treated as if we are entitled to the bodies we inhabit. I’m trying to treat my body (and others’ bodies) with this kind of respect. I don’t always succeed, but this is what radical (self-)love looks like to me.

I welcome comments, but not judgments—about me, my body, fatness, thinness, or really, anything. If you think your comment might be interpreted as judgy, keep it to yourself. This post is not a request for help; it is an invitation to embrace radical self-love and radical love for others. If trolls arrive, they’ll be sent back to their bridges.

I Started Reading a Book

mayday

I’ve spent almost a year away from this blog. I can say it was because I have a toddler who didn’t start sleeping through the night until a few months ago. I can say it was because I make words at a computer for my job, and I don’t have many left over for blogging. I can say it was because I felt exposed and awkward after posting something to this blog before.

All that is true, but the truest reason for this absence was much more complicated. I started this blog with the idea that it would be about self-improvement, about the joys of being an autodidact, about dreams and goals and motivation and the beauty and ethereality and emotions that get us through it all. But shortly after beginning this project, I started reading a book.

As a bibliophile and romantic, I’ve often been swayed by the written word. The assuming and hokey intro of this book I started reading purported to define the soul. I was not yet swayed.

Nevertheless, as I kept reading, I found my inner world interrupted, besieged. Ideas that seemed true as water to me suddenly became hollow. One of them was the idea that self-improvement is a worthwhile activity. This book claimed that my self didn’t need improving and that the whole notion of self-improvement was a ruse used by my inner critic to get me to engage in judgmental warfare.

soulwithoutshame

Byron Brown’s Soul Without Shame is a self-help book. It’s not classy. It’s not high-brow. It’s not low-brow enough to become high-brow kitsch. It’s not even close to the “best” book I’ve read in the last year. It’s just some wisdom, to take or leave. If I’d read it 6 years ago, I may not have made it past the introduction. As it is, I still haven’t even finished the book! I’ve found so much to process in the first half that I keep rereading sections and letting them simmer for weeks at a time. I wouldn’t even recommend this book, necessarily. I think it can be amazingly profound for someone who’s already spent a lot of time thinking about her inner life and/or going to therapy.

Anyway, all that’s to say that I’ve spent this year breaking up with some of my idea commitments and forming new ones. I’m not exactly sure what I have to share with you anymore, but I still vehemently believe that writing makes for better thoughts. So maybe I’ll do some writing here and see what happens.

Today, I’ll leave you with this: an essay from a guy who left the internet for a year and returned today, full of wisdom and regrets.

Dear Mommy,

You were right. Thank you notes are always a good idea. You don’t need a recipe to make good soup. Giving birth really hurts. A lot.

I’ve known you for almost thirty years, and you’ve been right for most of them. Maybe that’s why I always call you when I want a second opinion. Or maybe it’s because you’ve become what you said you would never try to be: my best friend.

I know it’s probably inappropriate, but it’s true nonetheless.

Thanks for being a good mother, a great best friend, and the rightest mommy for me.

And thanks especially for your remarkable joie de vivre, which has lent enthusiasm to all my self-improvement projects over the years. If you hadn’t been so proud to me and so glad to me, I’m sure I wouldn’t know how to over-stimulate a certain small person.

Love,
Katie

For the Love of Failing


I’d like to be good at something. I mean really fantastically amazingly sublimely good at something.

I’m not really sure what that something is, though. I should mention that I’m already quite proficient at a lot of things–sleeping, eating, doing my job, cooking, reading, watching rom coms. But sometimes I have an urge to be utterly brilliant at something else. A something that will make me feel bigger than a drop in the ocean (like maybe I could be a whole cupful). Or a something that will “contribute to society.” Or a something that just makes my brain feel all buzzy and juicy.

I could, of course, psychoanalyze this urge, pinpoint the underlying insecurities that motivate it, and work on loving myself just the way I am. (And I have and I do and I will. And I, officially, recommend it.)

But for the space of this post, I’d rather just go with that initial desire. I’m officially giving myself permission to wallow in unreality and daydreams and fantasies and little sparks of ideas that seem like they could expand into massive fireworks-type schemes.

But the question is, how do I find the Thing? (I can’t help thinking of Michael Jackson singing “It’s your thing, girl, do whatcha wanna do-ooo!”) Obviously, I could start with something I’m already kind of good at.

The problem is, I often equate aptitude with potential, imagining that each person is born with a finite amount for a given task. But the root of aptitude is, of course, apt. As in, I’m apt to do this or that (i.e., I’m apt to watch a whole season of Gilmore Girls in one weekend. Just an example. I’m not saying I actually do that….often). Aptitude implies interest more than potential. (Thanks to my boss, John Hinchey, for this observation.)

In a March 2012 interview with T Hetzel on the radio show Living Writers, poet Lizzie Hutton said, “I enjoy so much practicing writing poetry.”

Malcolm Gladwell would probably say that’s what makes Hutton such a good poet. He argues, in his very interesting and fun-to-read book Outliers, that people who are really really good at something (aka geniuses) are not just naturals. They’re the people who have practiced the most. In fact, they actually like to practice, and they do a heck of a lot of practicing. Like 10,000 hours worth. To give you an idea of how much time that is, think about this: if you spent 40 hours a week doing your thing, and you only took 2 weeks of vacation and sick leave, you’d accumulate 2,000 hours a year. That’s also known as a full-time job (at least in the U.S.). Basically, to become really really good at something, you have to like practicing it, and you have to do it all the time.

Peter Bregman points out in his not-quite-as-fun-to-read-but-also-quite-interesting book 18 minutes that practicing something and being good at something are two very different things. When you practice something, he says, you mostly fail at it. The example he uses is doing a handstand: if you want to do a handstand, you have to fail at doing a handstand. You have to fail over and over and over again. And to make that task interesting and worthwhile (and palatable), you have to like failing.

So, I guess the question becomes, what do I like failing at?

What about you? What’s your most fun fail?

Time’s a Wastin’

wastin' time

You know that feeling you get when you have a major creative breakthrough? That brain-giddy sensation that washes over you and makes you feel alive, excited, eager, itchy, and wonderfully inspired? Yeah, well, that’s not what this post is about.

It’s about the not-so-great, hunker-down rigor it takes to get to one of those ah ha moments. As Picasso said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.”

Or Edison: “Genius: one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

Or Einstein: “Work is the only thing that gives substance to life.”

And I’m sure countless other old (dead) dudes had lots to say about the value of hard work.

We don’t really know where breakthroughs come from, but we know we have to work really hard to have one. As Jonah Lehrer puts it in his book Imagine, “Before there can be a breakthrough, there has to be a block.”
Here’s Flash Rosenberg’s lovely video illustration inspired by Imagine **:

IMAGINE: How Creativity Works from Flash Rosenberg on Vimeo.

What can we do (besides really hard work) that will encourage inspiration to strike?

When I was in high school, I went to a summer camp where they taught us how to be bleeding-heart, liberal free-thinkers. I took a class there with this gangly, nerdy, French-speaking brainiac with floppy dark hair and endearing glasses. I think his name was Andy. I know many of the students were absolutely smitten with him. The only things I recall from his class were that we would spend hours looking at one short passage, we read something by Marguerite Duras, he explained “The Sublime” in a way that made it totally incomprehensible yet intriguing (rather sublime, actually), and he used the phrase (borrowed or his, I don’t know) “a profound waste of time.”

This phrase has stuck in my mind for the last decade or so. It’s such a human thing to waste time. You don’t see inefficiency very much in nature. But that very human tendency–to slack off, to daydream, to wander, to doodle–often gets badgered out of us. The irony is, wasting time makes us far more productive–at least in the realm of creativity.

Julia Cameron hints at this in The Artist’s Way (which, incidentally, I’ve never finished***). She recommends going on an artist date–an adventure you take by yourself to let your inner artist child be free…or some such hippie phrase. And while the aesthetic may be rather dated and reeking of New Age spirituality (and a hint of patchouli), the practice is a recipe for eureka moments. The artist date is not going to the museum or taking a daylong workshop on watercolor techniques. It’s a waste of time. It’s going to a flea market, or getting on the swings at the park, or coloring in a coloring book. It’s a big, fat, profound waste of time.

The big eureka! tends to happen when you’re doing something totally unrelated to whatever problem you’ve been working on. As the video above mentions, Archimedes had his moment in the bath. Isaac Newton, under an apple tree.

You want to get to ah ha? Do something more ha ha.

Or even uh uh, uh oh, or oh no.

**I came by this video friend Sally Day (thanks, Sal!). Don’t you think Flash Rosenberg is the greatest name? I so hope it’s real. Also, disclaimer: I have not read this book (but I would like to).

***Life lesson: Finishing books is overrated.

Fits and Starts

How do you eat an elephant?

One bite at a time, of course.

But what if the thought of eating an elephant is really abhorrent? What if I don’t want to consume an animal that buries its dead and can communicate with its friends who are miles away?** What if I think that’s pretty much the worst metaphor for finishing a project that I’ve ever heard?

What do you have when you’re done eating an elephant? A whale of a stomachache, that’s for sure. And, well, nothing. The point of finishing is to get something, right? A medal, prestige, a degree, a new painting, an empty closet, peace of mind. It’s the end point that keeps you taking one more bite of that stinking carcass, right?

I used to call myself a passive perfectionist. I had such a strong desire to get it just perfect that I would put off all projects until I was so close to deadline that perfectionism wasn’t a possibility. At that point, I could set aside perfectionism for “just get it the heck done already!” It wasn’t the most efficient way to work, and it pretty much guaranteed that I never turned in a perfect or near-perfect (or even best-effort) term paper. But I graduated! From high school. And college. And graduate school.

Passive perfectionism (i.e. procrastination followed by frenzied efficiency) is a fine strategy for meeting deadlines. But it’s a terrible strategy for self-improvement. With self-improvement there are no meaningful deadlines. Sure, I can impose one on myself, but what happens if I miss it? An internal wagging finger and maybe a little self-loathing. Nothing I can’t handle. I’m not going to lose my job or get an F.

If I follow through at all on personal projects that don’t mean much to anyone else, I do it in fits and starts: I throw a fit, and I start again. Example:

FIT: “Holy crap, it’s been 2 weeks since I’ve written my first blog post, and I haven’t posted anything since! 14 days is like a millennium in Internet time! I must be the worst blogger in the world! No one will read anything I ever write again! I’m lazy! I suck! I’m George Costanza! I’m bad bad bad bad BAD!”

(re)START: Maybe I’ll just hit PUBLISH on this post and see what happens.

How do you follow through? I could seriously use some help on this one.

**They can seriously do this! Read this book if you want proof.

A Gratitude Adjustment

This is a note about feelings, specifically how to get rid of ones you don’t want. Thinking about feelings reminds me of being a teen. Probably because adolescence is a sea of emotions, right? There are these moments of turbulence so intense you forget there ever was serenity. With jellyfish-like encounters of beauty and pain. With hyperbolic highs you can surf with glee until you wipeout unexpectedly and end up in a messy lump on the shore with barely enough cognizance to dread the next wave. With storms that shake you to your soul and disorient you to the point that you can’t control your embarrassing outbursts (or embarrassing extended metaphors).

As a teen, I was always feeling raw and gooey and gross. Like sea urchin sushi (I couldn’t resist, but seriously, no more ocean metaphors. I promise. Sort of.)

“You need an attitude adjustment.” That was my mom’s catchphrase when I was growing up. Whenever I heard “attitude adjustment,” my inner voice would rave like a demon, spouting all kinds of profanities that I would never dare voice aloud. “Attitude adjustment” implied that my perspective was wrong, my feelings were wrong. At least, that’s what I thought back then. When I knew everything (obviously). And felt everything keenly.

Now that I’m an adult and know significantly less about everything (obviously), I’ve finally learned the value of adjusting my attitude (thanks, Mommy!). It’s useful for all sorts of things–keeping a job, keeping a spouse, keeping your sanity.

In my opinion, unless you’re trying to foist it onto to someone else, your perspective  is neither right nor wrong. Or, in the much more succinct and immortal wisdom of The Dude, “That’s just, like, your opinion, man.” It is what it is–like perspective in a drawing. Depending on where you place yourself, you can create any number of pictures with what’s before you. Each position will be limited, only able to capture part of the image, just one version of the truth. But each version is valid–even the version that zeroes in on one tiny leaf of one tree in a massive forest. In my opinion, emotions are never wrong. They’re just vantage points for looking at life.

Well, not “just.” Emotions are also a lot of other things. Take, for instance, the perspectives of 2 therapists:

My partner–a psychologist–used to say feelings are weather. You can’t control feelings. They just have to pass in their own time. A past therapist of mine–an enthusiastic Asian-American woman with a thick accent and a gift for metaphors–once told me feelings were like wild horses, and thoughts and emotions were like reins. I suspect that’s the most succinct and poetic a definition of cognitive behavioral therapy one could find.

Though I’m a big fan of the metaphor (English majors, represent!), I’ve got problems with both of these. I’m far too impatient to wait on the weather. And I happen to think wild horses are beautiful and fierce and should run free through the country and the desert and a schoolgirl’s notebook.

For me, feelings are a lot more like food. Anger is mayonnaise–a little goes a long way. Most of the time, I want nothing to do with it. Incandescent happiness is a truffle–rare, rich, nourishing, and worth everything you did to get it. Gratitude is a leafy green. If you try to force it down, it will taste bitter and you’ll resent it.

By this token, changing your feelings would be as easy as picking up a sandwich at the co-op. If you were suffering from depression, you’d just go on a diet. And obviously, diets always work. And making the right food choices is always simple, convenient, cheap, and fun.

My point is, navigating that sea of emotions is not about control. If you try to make it bend to your will, it will take you under. The only way to know when to sail is to watch for the signs. Well, now I’m back to the weather metaphor. Damn, some images are hard to escape. Let me try to dig myself out:

I’ll acknowledge that the weather metaphor is useful. It’s a reminder to observe. Obviously, if you go out in the rain without an umbrella or a raincoat, you’re going to get wet. But the weather metaphor breaks down when you start talking about how to change your feelings. To change the weather, you’d need an awful lot of magic, a meaningful one-on-one with god, or a few decades of industrial waste. But to change your feelings, you just need your mind. And a little space for observation.

So here are some practical guidelines for changing a feeling (warning: this is where I get all bossy and use lots of 2nd person to tell you exactly what to do…as if I haven’t already been doing this):

1. When you notice you’re feeling something that you don’t want to be feeling, seize that observational impulse. Hey, you noticed something! Last time I checked, noticing is not a feeling. So when you’re noticing, you’re not fully caught up in the feeling.

2. See if you can stretch out that noticing moment.

3. Can you stretch it long enough to create a space big enough for you and your emotion? A space big enough that you can step to the side of what you feel and say, “Hi, blind rage. I see you there, all worked up and foaming at the mouth.”

4. If you’ve made this much space, you can squeeze in another question: Do I want to feel this way?

5. Sometimes the answer is yes. Accept it and revel in the moment. Sometimes you want McDonald’s fries, and no amount of kale is going to satisfy that craving. The only way to get over it is to have some. You have permission. Enjoy!

6. When the answer is no, consider a gratitude adjustment. Find something to appreciate–even if it’s just appreciating your awesome dialogical brain for being able to have this weird conversation about your feelings.

7. Savor the flavor. When you really taste it, you realize that, more often than not, the greens taste better than the fries. They leave you feeling awake instead of groggy, with a pleasant grassy taste in your mouth instead of a salt-sore tongue that all of a sudden desperately needs a coke.

 

Some thoughts on gratitude from other writers, thinkers, and buttheads:

 

Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world. -John Milton

Gratitude is the sign of noble souls. -Aesop

The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude. -Friedrich Nietzsche

Gratitude is a sickness suffered by dogs. -Joseph Stalin