The complex intersection of health, fitness and self-image

I never felt particularly pretty or slim when I was growing up. I always felt like I was a little chubby. When I was about 11 or 12 I actually went on a diet, and at this point I don’t feel I can accurately recall whose idea it was: mine or my mother’s. I cut out sweets, mainly, and ate a little less. My younger sister was taller and slimmer than I and just somehow charismatic and attractive, and I always felt kind of dumpy next to her. When we went on family vacations on occasion, such as the one we made to Florida (Disney World and Daytona Beach) when I was 17, my 15-year-old sister is the one who snagged the attention and admiring looks of the guys. I was just there and along for the ride. It wasn’t until a little later that I came to feel that I was attractive.

My father also had a bad habit of commenting on people’s looks. I adored my dad, and his death in October 2009 was devastating to me, but he did have his quirks and plenty of imperfections, and this obsession with judging others’ outward appearance was one of those. I finally told him the year before he died that it was time he stopped making comments about how people looked. It surely contributed to my constant worry about my own appearance. One of Dad’s infamously terrible remarks happened when I was somewhere around 12 or 13 years old, and we were all listening to music in our living room. My mother was dancing around the room, and my dad observed that she looked like “one of the dancing hippos from ‘Fantasia.'” Silence. I knew it was a bad idea to compare my mom to a hippo, even if it was a very cute animated one, and my mom to this day will sometimes remark about how much it hurt her.

My dad had gotten overweight when he was in his mid-20s and decided to do something about it, so he went on a diet and started running. After that, he stayed super-trim and always exercised and ate healthy foods, even obsessively so. I am sure that his own experience feeling overweight contributed to how he saw things, or the other way around, or both, but it certainly affected my self-image.

We always ate fairly healthy foods when I was growing up, with my mom making homemade wheat bread and putting wheat in every baked good she made. We ate vegetables and fruits in reasonable quantities, and rarely had soda or ate out. So we took care of ourselves pretty well. I never was an athlete, but I did start running my freshman year at college because I was “forced” to in a required fitness class I took my first semester. I dedicated myself to doing it and then just never stopped. Over the past 23 years, I’ve always gone to the gym to work out or gone running or walking, and I’ve only had a hiatus of a year or so total over that time, I think. I just enjoy the feeling of having a good workout, and for a long time, it helped me stay reasonably trim.

At college, too, I didn’t have a car, and my campus was large, so I did a LOT of walking. I could eat all I wanted at my cafeteria and have ice cream galore (I am a fool for ice cream), and with all that exercise, I probably lost a few pounds when I went off to college, rather than gained any. I actually felt pretty good about how I looked, and I felt confident in my attractiveness to all the members of the opposite sex I had the opportunity to meet at that large school.

When I married, graduated college, and got a desk job, however, I quickly put on 20 to 30 pounds. I wasn’t pleased with that and I started eating lower-fat foods and lost a little of it. But I still had most of that extra weight when I got pregnant the first time. After putting on almost 40 pounds with that pregnancy, I left the hospital just under 200 pounds and was shocked at how I looked in the mirror. That was all I needed to limit my calorie intake (I started counting calories for the first time in my life, and I kept it to 1800 since I was nursing), and I managed to take off all the pregnancy pounds plus some. After my second pregnancy, during which I still put on almost 40 pounds, I took off all of that weight and got down to a good size again. I did it again after my third pregnancy, gaining the same amount but getting it all back off 6 months after. I was 32 at that point, and I looked the best I had since I was in college 10-plus years earlier. I was pleased with how I looked, with my good eating habits, with my commitment to exercise, and being able to do all that after three babies.

About five years later, however, I had some pretty stressful experiences and put on about 10 or 15 pounds because I was eating too many sweets. I have always eaten chocolate and ice cream to my heart’s content, so either I started getting a little too old to burn off those calories, or I just ate too much, more than before. I wasn’t pleased with that extra weight and thought I looked chubby in photos. But try as I might, I couldn’t get those 10 or 15 pounds off; all I was able to do was take off maybe 4 pounds and that was all. Two years later, we went through a cross-country move, couldn’t sell our first house (and had lots of financial worries), tried to settle into a new and more stressful life and get to know entirely new people (and miss the old friends where we’d lived for 10 years), lived three months in a house with family (14 of us lived there in one house for that whole time) while we tried to find and buy a new house, and life really put the screws on. I ate and ate and ate. I packed on the pounds and suddenly was 40 pounds heavier. I hadn’t been that weight except right after that first pregnancy, and this time I’d done it without being pregnant, a really embarrassing feat.

As life settled in and eventually got a bit better, and I somehow got motivated, I was able a year later to focus on “dieting,” which for me meant eating fewer calories and cutting out  sweets, a painful thing for me, and I lost 35 pounds over the course of months. I never got to where I wanted to be, but I felt much better about where I was. I tried to lose more but couldn’t, and as life became (and/or stayed) more stressful, I managed to put a few pounds back on.

About a year ago, my doctor told me my cholesterol had inched up. I told her I’d try to lose more weight and see how that affected the numbers; I really don’t want to be on medication that would need monitoring of my liver and have side effects, etc. So I worked really hard for more than a month and still didn’t manage to lose as much as I had anticipated. I was hungry all the time and super-cranky because of it and only lost something like 7 pounds. I didn’t feel I could keep going that way and lose any more, let alone maintain that kind of hungry feeling for very long. So I gave up. Then life got very stressful again in the fall (the long and the short of things is that I simply got far too heavily involved in far too many things), and I put that weight back on and more. I’m back to 10 pounds short of where I started 2 1/2 years ago.

So what is the point of all these details?

First, appearance. I’d like to be able to look in the mirror and not have my first thought be a mixture of shame, disgust, embarrassment, and self-hatred because I weigh more than I would like.

Second, health. Yes, I would like to be healthier, no question. I generally eat healthy food, but then I also eat ice cream and chocolate. I’d like to be able to eat less of the bad things, just to benefit my health and heart.

Third, fitness. I’d like to at least give myself a pat on the back that I have always worked out. I still go to the gym every day of the week except Sunday, with only occasional weeks where I miss another day or two for reasons of illness or vacations (even then, when I travel, I usually find a way to exercise). So this is my one high-five to myself that I am dedicated to fitness. I like how it feels. I like that time to myself that I have at the gym. It’s wonderful. I highly recommend it.

Fourth, mental health. This is the crucial key to my weight issues. I already mentioned how my father was obsessed with appearance. He would make remarks frequently about aging movie stars or singers (he loved Linda Ronstadt but was so disappointed she “let herself go” and got “fat” as she got older; he was sad that Julie Christie had aged when she had been so gorgeous when she was young; the list goes on and on); he would comment about complete strangers who just walked by; he would comment about friends or family members. Naturally, I couldn’t help but wonder what he thought of my heavier weight, though he never said anything to me. It was pretty likely he commented about it to someone else when I wasn’t around.

My mental health issues include my turning to food as a coping mechanism. It’s my drug, I think. My father’s family had a history of alcoholism. The men in my dad’s family drank themselves to death. Dad managed to escape that because he chose in his 20s to join our church, which discourages drinking any alcohol. So he stuck to that and never had another drink in his life, though his own father had given him a taste for beer when he was a toddler and he still missed it. I believe that there is such a thing as addictive personalities; either it is actually hard-wired in our genes or chemical makeup, or it’s a family pattern of behaving. My sister started using drugs and alcohol at a young age and was very likely self-medicating her own mental health issues. Since I also have grown up with the same faith as my father, I have never had a drink of alcohol or a puff of a cigarette, avoiding any possibility of becoming an addict. But I am quite sure I’m addicted to food. I am reasonable with my eating habits when I’m not stressed, but when the screws are on, I turn to the kitchen. Last fall, things were so hard that I literally felt I couldn’t stop eating. I wasn’t hungry; I didn’t even necessarily taste the food anymore; I just couldn’t STOP. And it scared me.

So my goals are twofold: I’d like to look in the mirror and love myself, not immediately see my physical flaws. I’d like to accept who I am, see ME, rather than a body that’s aging and not model-slim, or even slim like I was in my early 30s (I still have those size-6 super-cute dresses I wore a mere six years ago; they’re in a box). I want to love myself, whoever I am.

But I would also like to break my addiction. I would. I’d like to stop my bad habits. But the idea of stopping them scares me. It scares me to even think about not using chocolate or cookies or ice cream as a soothing mechanism. My life can often become so not-my-own (I have four daughters and plenty of other responsibilities) that the food I eat is my only easy fix. I am not proud of this, but at the same time, I am aware that this is not at all uncommon. Those who don’t have this problem think it’s easy to just substitute other soothing mechanisms for the food and those of us who do have this weakness would just be A-OK. It’s just not that simple. I have pretty good “willpower” when I’m not feeling super-stressed or tired, but when I am, I just cannot resist the food. It’s just too easy. I don’t take the easy way out in almost anything in my life. I have come to believe now, after all I’ve experienced and weathered, that I am strong, brave and resilient. I say the honest thing to people even when it’s the harder thing to do; I work hard to achieve my goals, which may sound a little extravagant. But I try. So the food weakness is one spot in which I just too often feel I don’t have the strength or will to resist, when everything else is so hard and I am not taking the easy way out.

I could probably write ad nauseam about this topic. And I will write more. But I’ll just say that weight loss and health can be very complex issues for many people, and there are no quick and easy answers. Again, those who don’t struggle with these things will THINK there are easy solutions, but there are not. I think with everything I address in this blog, this is the case. That is precisely why I’m writing in this blog. Because life can be very difficult, and every person has his or her own set of weaknesses and strengths. If one thing is a strength for one person, it’s a weakness for another, and the two will likely not understand each other’s views on that topic. I’d just like to be able to explore the complexities of life and communication and relationships here, and those who have thoughtful insights they’d like to contribute to the discussion are most welcome to do so. Sensitivity is most welcome, and thinking twice before writing a cliche or simple answer would also be a fine idea. What say all of you?

Author: Cathy Carmode Lim

I'm a copy editor, writer, and book reviewer with three decades of experience. My book review website is I'm a mom of four and grandma of three.

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