the transformation narrative
I have long believed in the power of storytelling. The one reason I blog and read blogs is because I crave stories. I feel them rising to the tip of my tongue before I can stop myself sometimes, and the next think you know, you've been trapped in my office with me regaling you about the one time I met someone famous and told him I'd never heard of his band and then months later realized he was one of the guys in 'N Sync or The Backstreet Boys. Even now, I can't remember. I do know that he was not Justin Timberlake, so that's something.
I am enamored with story. I read incessently, absorb blurbs, and pieces of conversations I overhear in Starbucks or the hallway. I imagine.
I studied narrative as part of my comprehensive exams during grad school, and so I can tell you about the theories that attempt to explain why we say what we say when we say it, and why story is such a powerful connecting point. I wrote my thesis in poetry, which pretty much revolves around the same themes and so I feel as I often do when I think about my own story, about what it means to tell it.
Of course, so many stories make up my life. And there are many ways to frame them and make sense of them, tracing my roots, thinking about where I came from, trying to understand why I think the way I do or sound the way I do, why I am adventurous with food and travel and a little bit scared of thunderstorms and a lot scared of rodents.
The one narrative I've been telling lately, though I perhaps was not always as aware of it as I am now, is the transformation narrative, or the story of my journey to being more healthy, or the story of my weight loss. I know, I was just talking about this a few days ago, but I promise this is going somewhere.
The transformation narrative is familiar. We see it on TV shows like The Biggest Loser and Extreme Makeover Weight Loss Edition, sometimes we read about it in newspapers or magazines. "I have gone through an experience that changed me and here is that story", is a typical framework for such narrative. I was this and now I am that. The problem of the weight loss transformation narrative, however, and something with which I am currently struggling is how do you honor the "before you?" It's easy, I think, to ignore her or worse, villainize her in some way, which is how some people reconcile the variance between who they were and who they are/are becoming.
I'm not willing to wholeheartedly reject the person I was, despite the fact that I look at old pictures and feel very disconnected from the woman who looks back at me. Disconnected, I think because I search for similarities in our faces. I see the same freckles and scars and eyes but it feels so different from the face I see in the mirror now. Trying to navigate these feelings is challenging because even at my heaviest I did not feel uncomfortable in my skin. I did not dislike the person I was, so the disconnect I feel is odd to me, and troubling.
While I never struggled with my weight, because it never really factored into my feelings about who I was. I knew, however, that I was playing a dangerous game with my health. My blood pressure was getting dangerously high. I was at risk for heart disease and sleep disorders. I was having serious breathing problems and terrible headaches. And yet, the first step I took toward change was on a whim. I did not think I was going to change my life. I thought, "hmm, I haven't a soft drink about a week. I wonder how long I can go without drinking it?" It was May 1, 2012 and I was sitting in my office at a university where a few weeks, later I would no longer work. I had not yet accepted another job and I wasn't thinking at all about my health.
The changes snowballed from there as I realized I could make other small changes. To save money, we started cooking at home and in June joined the new gym that opened near our house. When I lost 10 pounds in a few weeks, I just kept going. And when I moved to Ohio, I started trying new classes like circuit training and yoga, I went to the gym a lot and I kept the routine of eating healthier options.
Then I started running. I tried new recipes and lost the weight I'd gained over the holidays, which I tried to not beat myself up about. And I just kept doing the things I knew were better for my body: exercise, the food pyramid, water, rest.
I want to be very careful about the way I tell my story. All too often there is a weight loss narrative where weight loss=happiness and such a narrative is not only false but also dangerous.
So, let me be clear, am I happy that I have lost 80 pounds as of today? Yes. I am happy because my hard work is paying off. I am happy because my blood pressure is in a good range, because I am no longer at risk for about a dozen health-related illnesses. I am happy I can run over 3 miles, that I can walk upstairs and to my car without breathing heavily. I am happy I quit drinking soft drinks. I am happy that I can do things I wasn't able to do last year. I am happy that I can chase my niece around the yard and go on hikes and that I WANT to be outside. I am happy that I like photos of myself these days and find myself wondering if I like my hair this long instead of analyzing my body and lamenting how puffy my face looks.
Meeting the challenges that paying attention to and honoring my body required, make me feel strong. I feel like I can set new goals like running a half-marathon. I am able to be more present in my work and in my relationships and I just plain feel better as a human being.
My friend, Sandy, mentioned a light in my eyes that she sees when I share photos on Instagram. I think that light is my muchness. I no longer feel held back by my body and my health choices. I am more self-assured, more willing to take risks, more willing to volunteer my time, to lead discussion groups and reach out to people whose expertise I seek.
So when I say that I feel like a different person, I think I mean, I feel like my better self. I feel like I am closer to a version of my best self, which of course I will continue to strive toward. I don't mean that I dislike the woman in the photos I see from a year ago. I admit some photos make me sad because I can see the unhappiness in me, but those feelings stemmed from a lot of places, least of which was probably my weight.
Mostly when I look back, I am proud.
Because it took a year to get here, to this point. I want to celebrate that without discounting where I've been or who I've been.
I don't know of quick fixes or easy ways to get healthy. What I know, what my transformation narrative is about, is commitment, perserverance, and the support system of people I have cheering for me, encouraging me, telling me that I can accomplish anything. And they have always believed in me. It's now that I'm beginning to accept that what they say is true that I'm able to do things like confidently sign up for a half-marathon in November. Though if you hear me talk about it, you'll hear my apprehension.
All of this is to say that I think there are ways to be thoughtful about transformation narratives and I take seriously the telling of my story, especially this one.
I share these photos of my physical transformation because I am proud of the work I've put in so far. I don't share these photos to denigrate myself as I was or to make any kind of comment on my body then. I don't know what the picture of health looks like but I think I'm getting closer to it. I want to celebrate the changes I've made. If I inspire readers then that's great because I know it's hard to think about changing your life. And while I appreciate that my clothes fit differently, I appreciate more that I am able to be more active than I ever imagined I could. It is hard not to fall into the separation of then and now, to honor that smiling woman in June's photo just as much as the photo I took today. But I am trying.