What a Shame

Shame is a deep, debilitating emotion, with complex roots. Its cousins are guilt, humiliation, demoralization, degradation and remorse.  “Healing from Shame Associated with Traumatic Events” by Dr. Angie Panos

I know what you’re thinking (or at least, what I would be thinking) – no blog post that begins with that quote can be anything but heavy and depressing. You may be right, but hear me out before you decide.

I was flipping through the television channels on Memorial Day, and happened upon an Oprah rerun. It turned out to be an episode where she interviewed celebrities who have lost weight in the public eye: Valerie Bertinelli, Marie Osmond, and Star Jones. As you know if you’ve been following my progress (and I use that term with irony), I’ve been so stuck between 216 and 220 pounds that I will seek inspiration and encouragement from any source purporting to have insight into weightloss. I missed most of the interview with Valerie, but Marie Osmond shared a story about overhearing a producer say, when she was around 9 years old, “This family (the Osmonds) is great. Now if they would just lose the fat sister.” Really? Later, when starring in her brother-sister variety show, she weighed 110 pounds. One day, she was taken into the parking lot and told that the show would be cancelled if she didn’t lose weight – so she dropped to 98 pounds.  Pretty sure Donny didn’t weigh the teen male equivalent of 98 pounds, but that’s beside the point.

The second half of the show focused on Star Jones. Specifically, quite a bit of the interview was about her famous refusal to talk about or cop to the fact that she had weight-loss surgery.  Thinking of the controversy that erupted at the time, I remember feeling disdainful of her unwillingness to “come clean”. Her explanation: she was ashamed that she couldn’t deal with her food addiction and/or lose the weight on her own. She had the surgery, she successfully changed her lifestyle accordingly, but she was still too full of shame to share her story.

As these women shared the deep emotional scars that come from internalizing the hurtful judgements of others, I couldn’t help but think about the shame so many of my friends have carried. On one occasion, a beautiful friend was sharing photos from her childhood with me, and said something along the lines of, “Look at me! I was a dirty, grubby, unkempt fat kid!” But when I looked at the photos, that isn’t what I saw at all. First, she was dirty in the way kids playing outside on a summer day are dirty. Second, she wasn’t even chubby in the photos, much less fat. She was smiling, and her cheeks were big and round from smiling. But fat? No way. I asked her about it, and she said, “Everybody” told her she was fat as a kid. I put my finger over her face in the photo and said, “Look at that kid. Does she look fat to you?” The answer, of course, was no. But she had thought of herself as a naturally fat person her entire life.

What a shame.

Its a shame that children are so psychologically undefended, that the messages we receive at a young age get internalized and create negative cycles of self-defeating behavior. What a shame that external approval is so important to us that, even as adults, the trash-talkers can hurt us. And what a shame that our cultural standards are basically impossible for the majority of us to meet. What a shame. We can say that, and we can leave it there, allowing the same cycles to repeat themselves in a thousand other lives. Or we can do things differently.

I, for one, am ready to do something different. Here are some things I believe I can do, beginning right now:

  • There’s a little voice in my head that says people who have weight-loss surgery “took the easy way out”. I can stop judging people’s difficult choices, and I can find it in my heart to offer support and encouragement to anyone who struggles to be their best self.
  • I’ve always thought that it was fine for me to bad-mouth celebrities. To say things about them that I would never say about people I actually know – its a way to let off steam, to be catty sometimes without actually hurting anyone (and celebrities ask for it, anyway, right?). And the truth is, they’ll never know what I’ve said about them. But the people around me will – and they may hear my criticism as being generalizable…even to them.
  • In my professional life, I have an opportunity to work with young men and women in an educational role. I can use both intentional programming and teachable moments to help them think critically about the messages we unconsciously send every day, both individually and collectively, which have the effect of harming others.
  • And I can stop being ashamed of myself. When I step on the scale. When I go into the fitting room at stores. When someone really looks at my body and not just my face, I can be proud of who I am this moment (as opposed to crossing my arms to hide my midsection pouf).

What a shame it would be to keep hurting ourselves and others in unthinking ways. What would it feel like to live in a world of acceptance? There’s only one way to find out – we have to create that world in our own lives, in our own hearts.

A Wednesday Evening Letter to Readers

Dear Readers:

Tonight, I am fantasizing about installing railings beside my toilet.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself! Earlier today, I spent some time working on a very serious reflection which I originally intended to publish as my lone Thursday blog post. However, the evening’s activities and associated thoughts have caused me to reconsider. I’ve decided to post this letter as a “bonus” Thursday post. No worries if you don’t read them both at once – take your time!

Right now, I want to tell you that, in addition to installing railings beside my toilet, I am wishing for some kind of topical application which will ease the chafing I am experiencing…someplace it would not be polite to mention too specifically. While we’re at it, some medicinal whiskey to assist the Motrin IB in deadening the pain would also be welcome.

What, you may well ask, have I done to myself? Well, the entire thing began a couple of months ago when my friend and colleague, Sarah Botkin (that’s B-O-T-K-I-N) innocently asked my thoughts about sponsoring a university group to do a one-day ride on the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI). The day she was considering, July 29, the group rides from Grinell, Iowa to Coralville, Iowa – the closest stop to Cedar Rapids on this year’s trek. Mileage for the day: 75 miles.

I immediately fixated on the date. July 29, a Friday. Also, the day immediately after Thursday, July 28 – my 50th birthday. Bells began ringing in my head, and visions of ushering in my second half century with what, for me, would be a physical feat of spectacular proportions. I could also envision my own celebratory mood as, that weekend, I partied in celebration of both my birthday and my legendary ride. It was a compelling vision.

So, I’m signed up. I’ve received confirmation that my registration and payment have been received. I’ve ordered my MMU/Mustangs/RAGBRAI commemorative bike jersey. If you’ve never worn a bike jersey, let me just say that they are flattering on very fit men (think Lance Armstrong). Less so on 50-year-old formerly morbidly obese women with upper arm flab. I figured that ordering, and agreeing to wear, said jersey was at least half the journey toward successful completion of this goal.

Then, suddenly, it was June 1 and I had been on a bike exactly twice. So, its sad but true – I panicked. Tonight, I was finally free to take a long ride with B-O-T-K-I-N. We left at 5:20 p.m. from my house, and headed south on the Cedar Valley Nature Trail, a multi-use trail that wends its way through downtown Cedar Rapids, the Czech Village, around Mt. Trashmore (the ginormous landfill), and out into the country – all the way to the small town of Ely. On my first bike ride of the spring, I had followed the trail in this same direction. About 7.5 miles, for a round-trip mileage of 15. It was a respectable first outing, and I was happy.

Tonight, I was determined to stretch. To push myself. My trainer at the gym recently told me that she had read somewhere that people almost never push themselves too hard physically. They probably had a fancy-schmancy psychological name for it, but I like to call it a “healthy fear of injury” – which I decided to set aside tonight in order to get busy training for RAGBRAI Day.

Three hours and 26 miles later, I pulled into my driveway, so slowly I almost wasn’t able to work my bike out of the wide tire groove worn in the asphalt. I dismounted. Well, I tried. But the muscles in both of my legs were shaking so badly that I needed assistance to keep the bike, and me, from toppling over. My entire body was shaking in such a strange fashion that I began to laugh. It resembled hysteria. In fact, Botkin asked, in all seriousness, “You’re not going to have an attack or anything are you?”

My knees are sore, so much so that getting up and down from the low toilet in my bathroom prompted the thought of railings to take the strain off them. But there’s a difference between being sore and being incapacitated. This thought, when it occurs to me, makes even the chafing less bothersome. In fact, I feel exhausted but keyed up suddenly. I pushed my physical limits – something I’ve been wary of my whole adult life. Ok, if I’m being truthful, its something I’ve always emphatically said, “Hell-to-the-NO” to. And I survived. In fact, I can see myself doing it again.

So, the purpose of this letter is to make the following intentions known:

  1. I will be riding RAGBRAI on July 29. 75 miles, baby!
  2. I will be celebrating my joy in life that entire weekend. Because the next 50 years are going to be amazing!
I hope you’ll join in the fun – the more the merrier!
Your friend,
Jenifer