[The pictures of me in this post were taken within 10 days of publishing it, in June 2014. The TEDx talk that I write about here occurred three and a half months earlier, in February 2014.]
June 1st marks the 9 year anniversary — do we call it that? — of when I began my weight loss journey. Nine. Five minutes ago I was in college, then out of college and a terrible under-flaired waitress at Outback Steakhouse, then unemployed and wandering around Target, then working in film, then a substitute teacher, then back to movies, and then! I started a blog, wrote a book, and here we are. I’ve moved from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania to Connecticut to Washington, back to Massachusetts, and finally to New York. I’ve traveled to eleven countries and attempted to speak at least three languages that I know the natives would have preferred I didn’t try.
And through all of that, I had this one body. Not the same sized body, just the same physical being. There were times when I was thin, times when I was painfully thin, thick, chubby, and eeeven overweight.
Did I know myself differently in each? Did I stop to recognize the pros, the cons of each? Did I wear the right clothes at the right time and give them all away too soon, not knowing I’d need them again at some point or another? Was I terrified of failing — myself, you? Did I watch what I ate? Did I binge? Was there a time when my mom mailed me a cake from Boston to Seattle because we’re both completely, no-two-ways-about-it off our rockers? Of course.
And still. When I checked in with you last fall, I wrote about having gained weight. I wrote about depression. I was ashamed, and no, not really for the number of pounds — because heck I’d been nearly 300 pounds before, I’d lived for twenty formative years as the biggest girl I knew — but for having struggled at all. No, what I felt was like a fraud for not having maintained the same weight as when I lost it nearly a decade ago. I felt like a terrible failure for not having kept the shape that you see in those pictures of me on Pinterest.
When I moved to Manhattan in November, though I tried to work against it, I was still gaining. I was “Oh my gosh have you had Baked by Melissa yet?!” I was, “Did you try every piece of every pie in every pizzeria in every borough yet? Oh not yet?” In fact, I was still gaining until the end of February.
“What’s going on with you?” people close to me would ask. “You’ve done this before!” others said. You’ve got a book coming out, I told myself. And still, I maintained, I gained…I struggled with binges. The pressure alone — just to be better, to know better and yet not be able to act upon it — weighed hundreds and hundreds of pounds. The very knowing that I had to lose weight again made me just want to eat for one more day. Start again tomorrow. But I couldn’t. I just — I couldn’t.
I woke up in the middle of the night with panic attacks. I stopped writing, as you well know, because you can’t preach what you can’t practice. I stopped wanting to see people, take photos. I wore funeral black every day: black leggings, black flowy silk tops to go out, the darkest wash of denim.
The thing is, I would have accepted anyone else who was struggling, would have treated her with much more kindness, more compassion than I did myself, would have told her to not let her own two-steps-back keep her from living a full life. I would have told her that we can’t all stay in this one static weight forever, that we change, that this is all just part of the journey. “You’re going to be OK,” I’d say. I would have told her that we can’t change — lose weight — without first accepting where we are, where we’ve been. I would have told her that this was just a season — a testing one, to be sure — but that she’d get through it. But I couldn’t do that for myself. I wouldn’t.
Until I did.
In early winter, I was asked to give a TEDx talk. The date of the talk: February 22, 2014 (video was just released). The theme: Storytelling and Unexpected Narrative. If you’re not familiar with TED talks, they’re these 18 minute speeches — usually held at TED conferences (TEDx are smaller, local events) — and they cover any number of topics: from science to happiness to photography to personal narrative and so on. The tagline is “Ideas Worth Spreading.” The talks are powerful, resonant, and they almost always inspire or ignite some spark in the watcher. Some really big deals have given TED and TEDx talks — including a personal hero of mine, Brene Brown, who famously spoke about the power of vulnerability — which is why I was so confused as to why they’d want me there.
Now, the moment I was asked to give a talk, my mind first went to my body: crap. I can’t do it like this, I thought before I replied. I can’t go if I’m not the person I’m supposed to be. I can’t very well talk about my weight loss if I’m struggling. How will that matter? How can I possibly inspire? No one wants to hear from someone who stumbles on their own success.
Or do they?
I’d made a resolution in 2014. And that was: to not let fear hold me back from doing anything. If I was to keep that resolution, then this was something I certainly had to do. I thought about the theme of the talk: storytelling…unexpected narratives…and I realized that the story– whatever it was — it was mine to tell. It didn’t need to be a black-and-white weight loss narrative; it wouldn’t be linear; it wouldn’t even end need to end on one of those incredibly chipper notes. It would just be honest and vulnerable and as circuitous as my whole life has been. And if the organizers still wanted that, then I had a talk in me. Turns out that’s precisely what they wanted.
I wrote it. Twenty-two minutes, cut down to eighteen. I memorized it by hand-writing it over and over and over again, and when I was done doing that, I recorded myself saying it aloud and listened to it while out walking, while doing the dishes, while falling asleep. If that isn’t true torture, I don’t know what is.
Still, I feared how people would respond. And why was I doing this to myself, again? A friend asked me, “I mean, if you’re this worried, why not just say no?” In some ways, I regretted my decision. But when I thought about what I believe in, or, when I thought long and hard about what I’d tell anyone else in my shoes to do, I realized: you.are.crazy. Own it.
Stopping myself from giving a speech — one that would be both an unbelievable honor and a true dream to give — all because I was ashamed of my body? That I couldn’t live with. That is not who I want to be.
I had a choice, then: to hold onto that fear, that intense paranoia, and the sense that I’d failed spectacularly before even having begun, or to own who I am, what I look like, and radically accept every part. Either way, I was giving that speech.
I think you know, but I did give that speech. And now, it’s out there.
What I’ve learned in the past few months, while just re-learning to accept myself, is that I am a work in progress. I am practicing. I am trying. Every day.
What happens when you radically accept yourself? You feel a whole lot more free. You release — little by little — some of that baggage that’s packed with shame.
It’s fitting that nearly a decade after losing 100+ pounds, I’m re-learning one of the most valuable lessons I took from that experience. And that is: I can never wait on some external change/ achievement/ projection of perfection to starting living. There is no body, no job, no significant other, and no amount of money that brings with it the kind of pure and unending happiness that we imagine it will. Happiness, contentment, fullness — they’re created in experiences. A million teeny tiny experiences. And to feel them? We have to be open, accepting. We have to let ourselves feel them — fully— without holding back, without worrying about how we look while we’re living, without thinking about how our thighs are chafing when we’re walking along the beach.
I spent the better of the past year and a half trying to live in denial of this weight, trying to hide it, trying to wish I hadn’t gained it in the first place, but all any of that did was add more weight and create a painful cycle. The TEDx talk, and thrusting myself out there, made it so that I had to accept my body just as it is — not ten pounds from now, not twenty. Now.
And what did that acceptance do? It made me feel better. It made me happier. Much, much happier. I’d feared that accepting the weight — acknowledging every one of the almost forty pounds I’d gained in the past year or so — would be the ultimate admission of failure, of fraud. But instead, it was a slow exhale. It allowed me to assess myself, with less judgment, to be honest with myself, without the shrill voice of criticism. It gave me a little kindness, a helping of compassion, a bit of grace.
The story I’ve been sharing here for over four years is long. It’s meandering and bittersweet and just plain imperfect. And that’s OK. I’ve lost and gained, and now, I’ve lost a little. It’s a bumpy ride. But I’m not so sure that you or I need more examples of people living pristinely. Maybe we need to see that we’re all just human, that we’re all more alike than we think, that so many of us are struggling, that each one of us is working it all out, day by day. Maybe we just need people who get it. Friends who are real, who accept, who buckle down with us, who laugh at all the insanity, who get on our level and make us know that we’re going to be just fine.
Because we are.