So where was I?
Oh, yeah. Reluctantly making an appointment with a nutritionist/dietician at my doctor’s urging, because my medical-resident-du-jour thought added weight was the cause of my recently diagnosed (and successfully treated, BTW) sleep apnea.
Not that I felt like there was a problem. I’m in good health, I exercise regularly (including running a few times a week), and while I’ve put on a few pounds – which may have accumulated while my apnea went undiagnosed and untreated for months – I chalked the weight gain up to the ravages of aging and post-layoff stress. I’d been trying to embrace, not fight or go crazy-nuts over, the natural shape of my middle-aged body.
So in mid-July, I found myself in a consult room, feeling like a kid who’d been called down to the principal’s office.
The dietician – a tall woman with long, gray hair – entered, sat down in front of a computer and began asking me questions, beginning with, “What do you want to get out of today’s appointment? Why are you here?”
I shrugged like a moody, petulant teen and said, “I’m not sure. I guess I’m here because the last doctor I saw thought I should try to lose some weight, and that this might solve my sleep apnea issues.”
The uncomfortable, pregnant pause that followed indicated that I had my doubts.
Eventually, I told her about my exercise habits, and how I considered myself to be pretty healthy. She waved all this off and dug into the kinds of things I ate on a regular basis.
The concentrated black tea I mixed with milk and heated up to make chai tea? Too much sugar. Ditto on my occasional Starbuck’s mocha. The spaghetti we’d had for dinner the night before? I should have something akin to a kid’s portion at a restaurant. (More broadly, I should shrink all my portions on most edible things that, you know, bring me happiness.) First thing in the morning, when I’m not going for a run, I should drink something like a Slim Fast Advanced shake for a shot of protein (this inspired some serious side-eye from me). I must say goodbye to my beloved breakfast of peanut butter toast. I should try to keep track of my calorie intake and shoot for no more than 2,000 a day.
Blech. It was like having a run-in with a relentless joy vacuum.
I felt increasingly sad and defeated and a little angry while sitting in that consult room. I knew it was possible to be healthy and not-skinny. Why did these people think it was worth pressuring me about this?
I reminded myself that it was likely because this bodily “change” had happened in the last few years, and was not consistent with my past health history or body profile. People who have always been larger in stature were probably not red-flagged for this kind of “help.”
The dietician flatly pointed out that although I got back to my original weight after having Neve in 2011, I’d put on a little more than 20 pounds since 2012. “Did anything happen in that time?”
“I got older, and once I passed 40, my metabolism slowed down,” I said. “And I lost my job, which didn’t help.”
She nodded, as if this wasn’t particularly interesting or sufficient as reasons go, and moved on.
“BE SYMPATHETIC TO MY TRAUMA, DAMN IT!!” I thought.
I left the office feeling guilty and weirdly humiliated.
But I’m a rule follower by nature, so for a few days I tried, in a typically half-assed manner, to jot down what I ate and calculate the calories. I still had my turkey and cheese sandwich for lunch, but I cut it in half. I still had wine with Shabbat dinner, but I stopped at one glass, and I took those calories into account, too. I did the shakes a few mornings a week (which was like school uniforms, in that it took the minor stress of decision-making right out of the equation). When we got Thai or Indian take-out, I stopped eating the moment I felt full. And I still had a dessert, but I cut that in half, too.
The calorie counting thing didn’t last long – how exactly does one Google “random stuff Joe threw together on a whim to create a new dish”? – but just getting in the habit of mindful eating (looking at the calorie counts on menus and boxes, keeping a ballpark estimate in mind throughout the day, etc.) resulted in me losing seven pounds in the first month without much effort or fuss.
Much of what I eat is the same. I just eat a bit less of it.
And I have to admit that learning at my follow-up appointment how much I’d lost – I still refuse to buy a scale, for fear of becoming obsessive about it (and thus presenting that as a terrible model to my young daughters) – was surprisingly satisfying. I hadn’t let my change in diet consume me, but I’d made changes I could live with, and that seemed enough.
So here I am, buying my first coffee maker at age 46 (coffee has few calories, and since I can’t have my chai tea, I’m now finally turning to this hot drink alternative); planning to bring home half of any lunch/dinner I buy at a restaurant; and still occasionally indulging in the old things I love.
I mean, a life without an occasional Cookie Monster ice cream cone just seems too distressing to contemplate.
(Plus, here’s an odd sidenote about my follow-up appointment with the dietician. She told me that historically, bread and chicken wings, at different times and in different cultures, were once considered “poor people food” – two of the only things the impoverished could afford – and that their popularity today is simply the result of brilliant marketing and re-branding. “So remind yourself when you see those things that that’s ‘poor people food,’” she told me. Huh? Why on earth would this deter me? Because you think I don’t want to be like poor people? I thought, “Lady, I’m a former office temp and bookseller who could barely make rent in Ann Arbor, and then I was a grad student, an adjunct lecturer, and a journalist. I KNOW from cheap food. And bread is f-ing delicious, no matter what socioeconomic class you may assign to it.”)
As for my sleep apnea – the ostensible reason for the referral to a dietician – the nutritionist said that whether or not it responded to the change in my weight would depend on if the apnea was concentrated in my sinuses (in which case there would be no change) or my throat and soft palette (in which case there would be). The jury’s still out on this, though on one night, my sleep disruptions, according to my BiPAP machine, happened just .6 per hour (as opposed to the usual 1 1/2 or 2). So no definitive results there yet, but there’s reason for hope.
Now, I realize that it sounds as though I’ve done a total 180 on this nutritionist thing. Maybe to some degree I have (albeit kicking and screaming all the way). But beyond the obvious reasons for my initial anger and resentment – no one likes to feel body-shamed, particularly in a doctor’s office – I’ve been trying to unpack my intense, complicated feelings about all this.
What I’ve figured out thus far is that my anxiety is largely borne of the code-switching that’s constantly happening within my psyche. I’m a feminist who’d just read (and loved loved LOVED) Lindy West’s book of essays, “Shrill,” which wittily and wisely addresses being a woman who takes up “too much physical space” in the world. So I went into my doctor’s office feeling well-adjusted and fairly confident in my recently altered, but still fit and healthy, female body.
Yet I’ve also inevitably ingested, over the course of my lifetime, society’s clear messages about the innate beauty and preferability of female thinness. So while West had given me hope and rhetorical ammunition, I also, on some level, still simultaneously felt ashamed each time I saw myself in recent photos, with a now-broad face and a (somewhat) bigger body. But perhaps more than that, I didn’t feel like I recognized myself anymore – and that was the far more unnerving reality.
For my identity is already in freefall, since it was previously so wrapped up in my work. To look so different on top of everything else just made me feel like the person I thought I was – someone I’d come to love, after many years of struggle – simply didn’t exist in the world anymore.
Yes, I desperately wanted to reject the idea that my body had changed, and that I couldn’t just eat and enjoy everything I wanted, as I had before.
But what this really boils down to, of course, is admitting to myself that I’m aging, and that this natural process inevitably takes its toll on us all, no matter how many times we, as young people, looked at older people and thought, “That won’t happen to me. I won’t let it.” (Ha! As if effort has anything to do with it. I was so incredibly naive/stupid.)
So while I intellectually and emotionally fought having to make this change, and resented feeling pressured by the medical establishment to do so, I must also confess that I’m encouraged by the results that came with some minor dietary adjustments. Though I’m still feeling existentially lost on most days, I’m at least beginning to look more like the vision of myself that I carry around in my head.
But whether the appearance of my body should play that significant a role in my sense of self is a question that will continue to dog me.