Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Body gratitude

This is the fourth post in a series where I'm sharing my ongoing lessons about body-image and body-acceptance. Part one set the scene. In part two, I shared about how it's helped to become aware that the way I view my body might be distorted and not reflect reality. In part three, I talked about obsolete defense mechanisms and letting go of them.

Today, I want to talk about the popular theme of "gratitude" and what I've been learning about how it relates to body-image.

As anyone interested in personal development (or just has access to social media) knows, there's certainly a growing awareness today of the importance of being grateful for what we have. For someone who's been unhappy with their body appearance for a long time, becoming consciously grateful can help soothe some of those negative thoughts and feelings. Specifically, I've experienced relief by diverting attention from what my body looks like to what it can do.

I want to talk about this photo for a moment: 

One of the nasty surprises I've experienced about negative body image is that after I removed the original source of my unhappiness, my mind just moved on and found new things to criticise in my appearance. One of them is the thickness and chunkiness of my thighs. This is not something that had ever bothered me before I lost weight and got into fitness, even if, physically, my thighs were probably even bigger back then.

I took this photo in December 2017 because I loved these new tights. Despite being very conscious of my thighs in the photo, I still wanted to share it, so I posted it on various social media platforms. 

But while I was feeling very negative about this aspect of my appearance, when my ballet teacher saw it, she commented instead on something I could now do, not on how I looked — how I was holding my feet. The difference in focus between what I noticed and what she noticed in the photo is the whole point here, neatly summed up.

Yes, my thighs are big. That's a product of many thousands of kilometres of running and cycling over the last few years, and hundreds of hours of dance and dance-fitness. These are the legs that allow me to do those things. At one point, after noticing my thighs in a photo of myself after finishing a half-marathon, I despaired and I wanted to stop, or at least cut down on running; but I realised how sad I would be to give it up.

My life-coach highlighted this decision to me. These legs are a by-product of doing things I love. They have literally been shaped by love! (How cool is that?) And in choosing to keep doing those things, I choose these legs too. How about being grateful for being able to run and cycle and dance on them instead of agonising about what they look like?

And, more fundamentally, be grateful for a healthy, well-functioning body. From my own family background, I'm all too aware of how quickly and completely that can be taken away through accident or illness.

I'm admitting that this gratitude still does not come instinctively to me. When I bring it consciously to mind, it certainly helps me. My hope is that gratitude is like a muscle, and that the more I practice it, the more powerful it will get.

By coincidence, yesterday, my coach Marina shared some thoughts on just this same theme, a lot of which spoke directly to me. Here's a chunk of it, shared at her invitation, with my emphasis added to the parts I felt most personally relevant:


Start loving YOUR body. It's a gift you get to live this life in. It's your play/adventure/growth humanness suit. It's a miracle.

Annnnddd....The least important part about it, is how it looks.

YES!.. it deserves to be nourished & cared for... which YES!... will help it to look it's healthiest best self... but if you've only one idea or image in your mind of how your body should look for you to love it... well:

ONE, you'll likely often be unhappy

& TWO, your body is sadly experiencing the opposite of unconditional love.

There are billions of bodies on this planet, many containing minds within them are looking at 'other bodies' wishing to trade. And ironically those 'others' are looking at 'others' wishing to trade too.

We are a mad crazy bunch aren't we!!

So let's remember....Happiness isn't always about changing & getting what you want. It's mostly about loving, celebrating & cherishing what you have.

If you'll never be six foot plus, why waste this lifetime wishing away your contentment and joy...when instead you could embrace being a pocket rocket of awesomeness with a juicy big heart and lit soul.

It's just a huge waste of energy.


Do you really want to trade your days and prana (life force) for discontentment and unhappiness??

Instead- Let's all move from STRESSED + SELF LOATHING to BLESSED + SELF LOVED today ...

Shift from picking on & BULLYING (coz honestly that's kinda what we do) your body, to lovingly complimenting it, like you do others....maybe for it's appearance....or even for the endless miracles it performs each day.

Read the whole post here.

The next entry will be the last in this series and will describe shifting my attention from things I don't like about my appearance to things I do like.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Letting my defences down

This is the third post in a series where I'm sharing my ongoing lessons about body-image and body-acceptance. Part one set the scene. In part two, I shared about how it's helped to become aware that the way I view my body might be distorted and not reflect reality.

Today I want to talk about obsolete defense mechanisms and letting go of them.

Baby elephant image by Manjesh ambore
CC-BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons
Many years ago, I heard a motivational speaker explain that when baby elephants are trained for work in South-East Asia, their handlers restrain them at night with a piece of rope tied around one of the elephant's feet. The other end is tied to a wooden stake hammered into the ground nearby. As the story goes, the baby elephant initially tries to escape by pulling at the rope but soon learns that it isn't strong enough and eventually gives up. Years later, as a fully-grown adult elephant, its handlers still secure the animal at night with a similar piece of rope. The four-tonne animal could easily escape but it doesn't even try because it learned long ago that it wasn't strong enough to do so.

I've tried unsuccessfully to verify this story. For now, let's think of it simply as a fable intended to illustrate a deeper truth: that we all carry with us things that might have been true once upon a time, but reality has moved on while our beliefs about ourselves and about the world have not.

Getting specific

My psychologist has been leading me to become conscious of the specifics of my fears. For example, if I were to go shirtless at a pool or beach, what specifically am I afraid will happen? And why do I expect that?

Before working with her, my fear would have been vague: I'd have said that I'd feel really embarrassed and self-conscious without a shirt. Now, the challenge was to notice and become aware of what was really behind that fear. 

This particular example was an easy one for me to analyse: up until very very recently, my experience of being shirtless at a pool was that of the fat kid at swimming lessons at school being taunted and jeered at by other school kids. This was a horrible experience and I quickly created behaviours to avoid it. Primarily, I avoided swimming lessons. I would feign illness on swimming day so I wouldn't even have to be at school, or I would claim I'd forgotten my swimming gear (whether I actually had it with me or not) and have to sit out while everyone else swam. One direct consequence is that I never learned to swim; to this day, I still haven't learned yet. People who learn this about me often ask incredulously how it's possible to grow up in Queensland and not have learned how to swim. This is how.

As I touched on in the introduction to this series, another consequence is that I've spent decades avoiding any situation where my bare torso might be visible to other people, even by accident. To recap, these don't just include swimming pools and beaches, but trying on clothes in stores, having medical examinations, and passing through security checkpoints like at airports (which have equipment to see through clothes and people who might pat me down).

As a strategy to avoid repeating that childhood experience of being taunted, this behaviour has been 100% effective. I never again had that experience. The defence mechanism is tried and true.

The problem is, it's based on experiences that are very old and relevant only to a specific context.

Getting specific about what I was afraid would happen if people could see me without a shirt allowed me to question whether the risk of being taunted and jeered at was still a credible threat.

Rationally, I can predict that if I were to take off my shirt at a pool or beach today, the most likely outcome is that nobody would notice or care, and that even if somebody did have a negative perception or opinion of my body, it's very unlikely that they would come up and share it with me. The risk is not zero, but it's incredibly low, in line with other low-probability risks that we're all exposed to every single day and have no control over.

Therefore, I can understand my behaviour (always cover my torso) as a safeguard I developed to protect my feelings against something that, while once undeniably real, is not a valid current concern.

My life-coach describes these obsolete beliefs that cruft up our lives as "hyper-stabilised beliefs" that become self-fulfilling because we have an innate need to be right about the world. We therefore avoid challenging these beliefs (so we remain right) while at the same time remaining hyper-sensitive to anything that reinforces the belief (see also confirmation bias and the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon). Nothing catches my eye faster than a news story about air travellers invasively searched by overly zealous airport security agents.

This is the mechanism, she says, by which the belief gets reinforced further and further and further.

My own experience tells me this is true: if anything, my fears, left unchallenged, have indeed grown more intense over time. About eight years ago, the prospect of passing through an airport security checkpoint intensified from uncomfortable and unpleasant through to intolerably terrifying.

At least at the pool I can always wear a rashie...


Letting my defences down


As the quote beloved by motivational speakers and writers goes, there's one way to challenge these beliefs:

"You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it."
— Aline Brosh McKenna and Cameron Crowe, We Bought a Zoo
Putting this principle into action and slowly chipping away at my fears has been having results.

A few weeks ago, I attended an aqua-fitness event, and as I was putting on my rashie, I stopped and chose to notice my feelings. The organiser of the event is someone I trust utterly and completely; and the energy that suffuses her events is incredibly positive and supportive. In turn, this energy attracts positive and lovely people. I asked myself if I was afraid of anyone at the event, and when I affirmed for myself that I was not, I took the rashie back off and replaced it in my bag.

I still felt very queasy stepping out of the change room. And while it took a little more than a literal twenty seconds for that sick feeling to evaporate, it wasn't more than a couple of minutes. And... hypothesis proven: there was no taunting or jeering. I don't think I ever completely lost consciousness of being shirtless, but the sense of alarm definitely dissipated.

This fear isn't completely dealt with yet; but for me, this was a huge step forward. Someday there will be another opportunity for another twenty seconds of insane courage, and I'll see if I can push the boundary a bit further.


Next post: Being grateful for what my body can do

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Questioning my body image

This is the second post in a series where I'm sharing my ongoing lessons about body-image and body-acceptance. Part one set the scene.

The immediate need that took me to seeing a psychologist was that by late 2015 my eating had become very disordered. For a large part of the year I was living on only a few hundred calories per day. I was frightened of food and frightened of regaining the weight I had lost up to that point.

Articles like Gina Kolata's "After ‘The Biggest Loser,’ Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight" in the New York Times are not reassuring: six years after their participation on the show, thirteen out of fourteen contestants regained weight, and four were now heavier than before the competition. Kolata presents some of the research describing the metabolic changes that drive that outcome, which makes it sound even more inevitable.

Regaining significant weight is still something that worries me to some degree today, but in late 2015 and early 2016, it was seriously interfering with my eating.

And, as I shared last time, I still wasn't happy with my body anyway. I wanted to be still thinner.

My psychologist took a functional approach to this concern, asking me what I would be able to do if I were thinner that I couldn't or wouldn't do at my current body shape. I talked about the situations I described in my previous post: about my terror of being teased or ridiculed about my body if anybody could see or feel it.

This led to a very interesting exercise, where she presented me with a series of silhouettes and asked me to identify my body shape among them. (The "BMI-based Silhouette Matching Test (BMI-SMT)" is a similar instrument to the one my psychologist used, if you want to investigate further.)

Recognising distortions of perception: in myself...

This isn't exactly the test my psychologist used,
but it's similar. Figure from Abbas et al (2010)
"Pictogram use was validated for estimating
individual’s body mass index
", Journal of
Clinical Epidemiology 63
: 655–59
I selected the silhouette that I thought was my body shape, and was very surprised when the psychologist revealed the proportions that corresponded to it. The silhouette was of a far squatter body shape than I knew mine to be by the numbers.

This made sense to me because of another phenomenon I was experiencing at the time: my body fitting through spaces that I didn't think it could. For example, when I couldn't open a car door fully because of other cars parked close by, I would be expecting a difficult squeeze to get through the partial opening but instead would step through easily. Or I would often pause at a doorway to let someone else step through it from the other direction because I "knew" we wouldn't both fit through at the same time — I got a few puzzled looks from that at work! It took maybe 18 months for this effect to subside: for my brain to re-align to how much space I was actually taking up in the world. (And even today, it still very occasionally crops up!)

Reality is on the left. I
sometimes see what's on the
right
Finally, my logical brain accepts that the huge variation in how I react to my body in photos and mirrors means that my perceptions are suspect. If I perceive exactly the same body as upsettingly, distressingly "too fat" in some photos and reflections, but not in others, then my perception has to be unreliable.


...and in others

Another thing that has helped me realise the unreality of my perceptions of my body has been the sad experience of listening to and reading other people's negative assessment of their bodies.

Taryn Brumfitt's amazing documentary Embrace (Watch it if you haven't seen it — I promise it's worth it. Here's the trailer) at one point presents people describing their normal, healthy-looking bodies as "disgusting"; it's a shocking and very sad juxtaposition.

Since becoming involved in fitness, I've had the unfortunate opportunity to hear similar things first-hand myself. Two such conversations have stuck with me because of the physiques of the people who held these opinions were physiques that I think most other people (including me) would be envious of: one like a fashion model and one like a lean endurance athlete.

I find it easy to recognise these distortions in other people's assessments of their bodies, which helps me remember that my image of my own is suspect.


What I do now

Reflexive, negative assessments of my own body still sometimes catch me by surprise. When they do, I consciously remind myself of the things I've shared in this article: remembering photos in which I don't think I look fat, or mentally replaying conversations that reveal others' distorted body images.

This doesn't always work for me, and certainly not immediately, but as one layer of defence, it helps.

If you're unhappy with your body shape, I suggest questioning your own assessment: how realistic is the image in your head?


Next post: Letting my defences down


Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Losing weight didn't make me love my body




This post is a little bit different for me because I don't have the answers to this stuff yet — I'm sharing it as a work in progress, a snapshot of where my thoughts and feelings are right now.

I've already written about how I developed a sense of shame about my body and ended up hating my body. And specifically, what I felt ashamed of and what I hated was being fat. So, a little over three years ago now, I resolved to change that; and succeeded. I lost 63kg (139lb) and ended up with a body that sits neatly in the "normal" band on height-weight charts and fits into clothes sized "Small" or "Medium" in most labels. I got exactly what I set out for.

The outcome I wasn't prepared for is that... I still hate my body.

The conventional narrative told in thousands of before-and-after photos is that "I was fat and unhappy, now I'm thin and happy". That's how it's supposed to work, right? And it's unconsciously what I expected to happen.

But it turns out that body-hate, as a learned pattern, has a life of its own that's completely separate from reality. So when I removed the original focus of that hate, my mind just settled on new focuses.

This hate has some very real repercussions on my life, some obviously connected to body image, others not-so-obviously. Some are minor annoyances, some have bigger impacts.

Photos and mirrors
For example, I'm sometimes, unpredictably, upset by what I see of myself in photos or in a mirror. This issue is unsolved and still sometimes hits me when I least expect it. A glimpse of myself in the mirror at ballet a couple of months ago left me feeling down for days, even though I use these mirrors constantly in ballet and barre classes. But just this one time got me and I don't know why.

Swimming
I'm also still not OK with baring my torso in public; so this means always wearing a rashie at the pool or beach. I've made very slight progress here: I actually went shirtless to an aqua-fitness event a few weeks ago because the environment felt safe and supportive enough.

Trying on clothes
A similar one that I've recently overcome is that for years, I would not change clothes or shower anywhere that didn't have floor-to-ceiling walls and doors, and a sturdy lock. Trying on clothes typically meant buying them, taking them home to try on, then bringing them back to the store if they weren't right. I'm OK with typical change rooms now, but it was a major inconvenience for a long time.

Medical exams
Some effects are more than mere annoyances, like avoiding any medical examination that requires removing clothing; although I did get as far as taking off my shirt in this context recently, so that's progress.

Air travel... what?
And some effects are much less obvious: one of the biggest is that it makes me incredibly anxious about air travel, to the point where I just don't do it. I haven't flown domestically for eight years now, and internationally for fourteen years. As a lover of history, art, language, culture, and technology, I'm painfully aware of how much of the world I have never seen for myself and remains inaccessible to me. Work-wise, I seem to avoid around one opportunity for overseas travel per year. And more recently, my family is going on holidays, having adventures, and building memories that I'm unable to share in. But how is air travel connected to body image?

When I tell people I don't travel by air, they assume that I'm frightened of flying; but the reality is, I'm frightened of airport security. I'm frightened of machines that can show people my body through my clothes (backscatter X-ray or millimetre-wave scanners), and of people who might feel my body through my clothes by patting it down. My greatest air-travel fear of all is that some over-zealous security agent might decide that I'm acting suspiciously (maybe because I'm so freaked out and scared) and exercise their right to strip-search me in some horrifying self-fulfilling prophecy. These fears are enough to keep me confined to south-east Queensland.

What has helped?


Not all of these affect me as much as they once did. The most fundamental piece of advice I can give anyone dealing with issues like this is to get help. I am being supported by a wonderful psychologist and I've also had some sessions with a life coach who has given me some valuable practical exercises and some "tough love".

Over the next few weeks, I want to write about the approaches and techniques that have helped so far:

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

On the value of small kindnesses

Sunday 11 February should have finished well for me. That afternoon, I'd been to an awesome and fun fitness event; one full of movement that made my body feel good, and attended by an upbeat crowd of friendly, positive people. And even better, as it ended, the skies over Brisbane opened up with a summer thunderstorm, which always makes me feel invigorated and refreshed.

But that evening, some other pressures and tensions in my life came to a head, and left me feeling really low. For the purposes of this post, it really doesn't matter what they were; only that the effect was by the end of the night, I felt completely worthless. It had been many, many years since I'd experienced anything like this, certainly with this level of intensity. I wanted to withdraw from everyone around me because it seemed that their lives would be better without me in them.

The next day was my birthday, and I awoke feeling like that was nothing to celebrate; I wasn't even grateful to be alive that morning. My morning ballet class helped a bit. Even though I felt on the verge of tears throughout a lot of it (especially in the slow movements), the mental focus of dance demanded attention on something other than my feelings.

A few things really helped me over the next 24 hours; most particularly the love of my incredible wife and family.

But while that's an uncontroversial observation, the purpose of this post is to acknowledge the way that social media helped as well. It's fashionable with some commentators to take a really cynical view of this part of our modern lives. Facebook and Instagram and Twitter "likes" come cheap, we're told. What happens on social media isn't "real" they tell us.

Cynics be damned: that day, when I was feeling at my lowest ebb, the sixty-something people who left me a birthday message, even if it was often only three words, helped to turn things around for me with their small kindnesses:



And then came an Instagram post from a friend that spoke to me exactly what I needed to hear that morning:



The picture of a caterpillar dangling from a stem was captioned "Hang on" and continued:
"Sometimes it’s all we can do - and we need to know what a huge and brave thing it is. Just showing up in the most difficult of times allows our inward transformation to keep ripening. We can describe this ‘hanging on’ as ‘holding the tension’ without collapsing things into right or wrong, success or failure, black or white. The truth is that we have no idea who we are about to become because it’s beyond our mind’s capacity to understand something truly new. Indeed our minds would even rather decide that “all is lost” - because of the mind’s difficulty with uncertainty. If we can be kindly courageous with ourselves and allow the unknown, healing is always possible."

On a morning when I did indeed feel like "all is lost", these words gave me the courage to show up despite my hurt and shame and to receive love and healing. 

So, thank you Emma, for your wise post that morning. And to everyone who wished me happy birthday on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and elsewhere: it was a little gesture on your part, but you made a huge difference in my day, and I'm very lucky to have you in my life.


Emma's Instagram image and post reproduced with her kind permission. 

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

First thoughts on Star Trek: Discovery

Last time a Star Trek series
debuted, I could never have
imagined that I'd delay
watching the next one until I
got home from ballet class...

TL;DR version: There's this new Star Trek series that's just started on Netflix, called Star Trek: Discovery, and I like the first two episodes more than anything else that's been on TV for the last 23 years. 



I've been a huge Star Trek fan practically my whole life. Its original 1960s incarnation and The Next Generation from the 80s are my favourite TV shows by a long margin. I think this love comes from a unique combination of factors that resonate strongly with me:
  • wonder at the exploration of "strange, new worlds... new life and new civilizations"
  • the optimism of the future depicted; its vision that "the human adventure is just beginning" and that the best is yet to come for our species
  • it's a modern-day fable; that from the very outset, the show was intended to (and regularly did) explore social issues, and questions about the nature of being human

When I have failed to enjoy various incarnations of the show since The Next Generation ended in 1994, I think it's because they have failed to deliver on one or more of those fronts. Without them, all that was left was fairly standard action/adventure shows and movies set in space. And to me, it seems a shame to have lost something unique.

Such is my love of the show that even having been burned time and time again by new additions to the franchise, I was still very excited last week to see the debut its newest incarnation, Discovery.

But reviews aren't worth much without understanding what the reviewer values (and doesn't), so a little bit more about that first.

I don't care that the look of the show has changed.
What the future looked
like in 1964: "The Cage"
Discovery is set about ten years prior to the original 60s series that featured the adventures of Captain Kirk and Mr Spock. This places it roughly concurrent with the pilot episode of the original series, "The Cage", which was set under a former captain of the USS Enterprise, Christopher Pike. TV production values have come a long way in the 53 years since "The Cage" was filmed. I have no expectation that the sets, props, or costumes of the new show would align with that was presented way back then.

This also extends to what's bound to be the most contentious change in the show's visuals: the makeup design of the Klingons. This is the third major revision of "what Klingons look like" in the history of the show, and an article on the Ex Astris Scientia website ("The Evolution of Klingon Foreheads") descibes all the minor revisions in minute detail too. In short, there's been such little consistency over the last 50 years that I'm not about to get upset about another change now.

I don't care about story arcs
Similarly, TV storytelling has changed substantially over the last few decades. Whereas series were once more like anthologies of short, stand-alone stories that rarely referred to anything that had gone before, now series are constructed more like novels. I'm happy with either, although I've been more frequently disappointed by attempts at long-form TV storytelling than I've been impressed by it.

I'm not here for the characters
When it comes to sci-fi and other speculative fiction genres, I'm watching for the setting and the ideas; if I wanted interesting, well-rounded characters, I'd be watching a European art film instead. I set the bar really low here: I just don't want to be actively annoyed by the characters.

So, all that said...

What I loved about Discovery (mild spoilers)


Ideas: clash of cultures
The first episode quickly establishes that this is an ideas show. The political tensions of the original show were driven by confrontation of space superpowers — Cold-War concerns. The tension in Discovery is driven by xenophobia and religious fundamentalism — twenty-first century concerns. There's a post-colonial narrative as well, provided by the Klingons' desire to "remain Klingon" in the face of what they see as the cultural imperialism of the Federation.

Ideas: nature vs nurture
The central character of Michael Burnham is a human who was raised by Vulcans and is portrayed as behaving more in line with her nurture than her human genetics. This is not a new theme to Star Trek, but in an era where "identity politics" are contested, is more relevant than ever.

Ideas: pre-emptive strike
The dramatic climax of the opening two-parter revolves around a question of whether it is acceptable to undertake a pre-emptive strike against a known belligerent who has not yet made a hostile move in this encounter. How far should the benefit of the doubt be extended? This story seems ripe for discussion and debate for a long time, just like other notable examples from Star Trek's past. My wife and I still debate 1968's "A Private Little War" every time we see it.

Respect for the past
I do like the small nods to what has gone before, in visuals, sound, and dialogue. For example:
  • the sidearms that the Starfleet officers carry are styled after the hand phasers of the original series, but feature muzzles/emitters that are clearly based on the earlier "hand lasers" in "The Cage"
  • the inclusion of a ship's dedication plaque next to the elevator ("turbolift") doors on the bridge of the USS Shenzhou, just like on the bridges of Federation starships all the way back to the original series (and, as an aside, naming a starship USS Shenzhou, after Communist China's first human spaceflight vehicle)
  • one of the sensor noises on the bridge, taken directly from the original 60s series
  • use of the bosun's whistle, again, a nautical "Hornblower in space" touch that goes all the way back to the original series
  • many aspects of Klingon ritual that draw on what was established during The Next Generation (death rites), but also in the novels and (pen-and-paper) role-playing games of the 1980s (the "Black Fleet") and perhaps even a nod to a single, throw-away line in one of the 80s Star Trek movies (a Klingon "mummification glyph")
  • This characterisation of Michael Burnham echoes that of Captain Pike's un-named first officer, "Number One" in "The Cage", also Vulcan-like in her demeanor 
  • an albino Klingon, as established in Deep Space Nine
  • "phase cannons" as starship armament, as established in Enterprise
  • and probably a lot of other things I missed on my first viewing!
In short, there are a lot of easter eggs here, while none of them seemed intrusive.




Summary
I'm really excited by what Discovery promises so far! I'm hoping it continues as a science-fictional fable for our age, inviting us to think about ethics and the human condition in a setting that is both new and also respectful of its past. That's a hard balance to strike, but the introductory two-parter has me feeling very optimistic.





Saturday, 24 June 2017

Why starving myself was a stupid idea

5-year-old me
I was obese by the time I was about 5 years old and stayed that way for the better part of 40 years. Eventually, I made huge lifestyle changes that transformed the way my body looks and works, a transformation that has lasted two years now. However, this certainly wasn't the first time I tried to become less fat.

Like many other people unhappy with their body size or shape, I experienced multiple attempts and failures over many years. In this post, I want to share what didn't work for me, because, in hindsight, it should have been obvious, and for whatever reason, it wasn't.

Twain never said this.
The memes are lying to you.
There's a famous quip routinely misattributed to Mark Twain that's usually rendered something like "It’s easy to quit smoking. I’ve done it a thousand times."1 Regardless of the source of the remark, it was similarly easy for me to lose body fat on the many occasions I set out to.

I've felt self-conscious and strongly negative about my body since I first started getting teased at school about its shape and size, somewhere between the ages of 6 and 8 years old. But it wasn't until I was a teenager that I felt motivated and empowered enough to do anything about that.

It seems to me that most people instinctively understand the two sides of the energy equation: that losing or gaining fat depends on the balance between energy consumed and energy spent. And consequently, most people who want to reduce their amount of body fat know that they can achieve this goal by reducing the amount and types of food they eat and/or increasing their level of physical activity.2 This principle is sometimes called "CICO", for "calories in versus calories out". While it's essentially true, stripping all the physical, psychological, and emotional elements of body recomposition down to this one simple, cold equation leads some people (like me) to a naïve, "brute force" approach.3

And so, when I was 17 years old, I started starving myself for the first time.

And I found out that I was good at it!

That is, I discovered that I could easily suppress and ignore hunger pains. I started by skipping meals. Then I sometimes skipped whole days. The furthest I went was when I was 25 years old and I went a whole week without eating anything at all.

Most times, I would also boost my output by going for long walks. I chose walking because it was the only form of physical activity I was familiar with that I didn't hate (How I learned to hate physical activity is a story in itself for another time). On some of these fat-loss attempts, I would make time for a two-hour walk each day, which I would do regardless of weather: hot or cold, rain or shine. The longest walk I did was one of around ten hours, coming home with my feet shredded and bleeding, all so I could be happier with my body.

Each time I embarked on a starvation diet, I would pursue it for a few weeks, lose something in the vicinity of 5-10kg (10-20lb) and then lose the willpower to refuse food any further, or have my attention diverted to other interests. When that happened, I would resume eating exactly as I did before, and resume the sedentary lifestyle that I had before.

Worse: while I was in my most severely restrictive phases, like the week in which I didn't eat at all, I would be pretty preoccupied with food, dreaming of all the things of which I was depriving myself. I would start to hoard food, buying the treats I wasn't allowing myself to eat and hiding them in my bedroom. At the time, I would feel good and powerful—that I had a big stash of all this junk food and my willpower was so strong that I could resist eating it. That is, until the willpower eventually collapsed, as it always did, and I would gorge myself on everything that I had been denying myself up to then.

And then, with my normal patterns of eating and inactivity re-established, I would soon regain the fat I had starved off, and the whole cycle would begin again. I would go many months, and sometimes even a year or two, without restricting, and I would always end up at a point heavier than I had the last time I restricted. Over the course of doing this for twenty-plus years, I gradually gained about 40kg (90lb).

In essence, severe restriction as a strategy for fat loss was really a strategy for fat gain.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I always knew that starvation wasn't sustainable as a strategy, and that when I had lost all the fat I wanted to, I would have to come up with a plan to keep it off. But it never got that far, because my will to starve always failed long before I reached my goal.

What went wrong?


With the benefit of hindsight, here's my take on why restriction failed so badly for me time and time again:

1. Reliance on willpower and attentiveness

In my experience, willpower is a finite commodity: mine eventually runs out. Restriction and denial is a constant push uphill; and when the ability to keep pushing faded away, my life always resumed its original path.

The same goes for attentiveness: I can only concentrate on so many things at one time, have so many projects "on the go". So when other things in life crowded out the constant attentiveness needed to suppress the desire for food, restriction would fall by the wayside.

In 2005, I lost about 20kg.
I then gained over 30kg
during the next few years.
The same applied on the exercise side. Prior to the last two years, my most successful fat loss campaign was a little over ten years ago when I lost about 20kg (44lbs) through heavy restriction and daily (as in, seven-day-a-week) gym sessions.

But I didn't enjoy the gym. I forced myself to go. And then, when I had a break from it, I just never went back. I took time away from there to prepare for, and then to run in, the Bridge to Brisbane event that year. But when the run was over, I never returned to the gym. Or did any more running. The change was superficial and driven by willpower alone.

I even kept my Fitness First membership going for about a year because I always intended to force myself back; I just never did.

2. Expecting to be able to go back to the old way of eating and (in)activity

Einstein never said this.
The memes are lying
to you again!
Keeping with the misattribution theme from earlier, it's often erroneously claimed that Einstein said "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results"4 Again, regardless of its origin, the observation holds true here. 

I always expected that after I had slimmed down to a size and shape I found acceptable, I would just go back to eating the food I enjoyed up to that time; maybe less of it, or eating it less frequently, but without any substantial changes to what I was eating.

Here's the most ridiculous expression of that belief: during that attempt where I lost the 20kg, as I reached each 5kg milestone, I would celebrate by choosing some incredibly calorie-rich junk food to indulge in. Yes, really: "I've just starved off another few kilos — I will therefore eat this whole box of donuts!"

If that's not crazy, I don't know what is.

Now, in the scheme of things, that one indulgence every few weeks was not, in itself, going to undo the effects of all the restriction and exercise. But, it does show that my efforts were doomed to eventual failure, because as long as I expected to and wanted to keep eating that way, that's what I would revert to as soon as willpower or attentiveness failed.

And, of course, that's exactly what happened. Every time.

This misalignment of desires and goals is what makes me so wary of the principle of "cheat days" that some people use during body recomposition. For me, needing to schedule a day to eat whatever I want would be a symptom and a warning bell that my lifestyle was pretty out-of-whack; that my values and my eating had become separated, just like eating the donuts to celebrate losing fat.

Again, the same principle applies on the energy output side of the equation: I never expected that the long walks or the daily gym sessions would be something I kept up after I reached my goal shape and size. And that, somehow, magically, the inactivity would not lead me straight back to the body shape I had been working to change.

3. Going it alone

Related to the expectation of going back to eating an old way, the fear of not being able to eat that way was one of the main reasons I was so determined to strive for my goal through starving myself instead of seeking professional help.

Specifically, I expected (without any evidence, of course) that a doctor or dietitian would condemn me to a plan of eating things I didn't like — things that were less appealing than not eating at all. So I deliberately avoided the very help and support that I know now would have made things easier, healthier, and a lot more likely to succeed. 

4. Separating the fat-loss stage from the maintenance stage

Two years ago, this strategy eventually did work for me, but only because I was lucky to be well-supported through the transition. I now think that this separation into an incredibly difficult and unlikely-to-succeed "phase 1" and a completely undefined and not-thought-out "phase 2" was a major reason why dozens of previous attempts over more than half my life had failed.

Spelled out that way, it's obvious what a stupid idea this was, and one eventual success, that relied on luck, after multiple failures doesn't make it a great strategy.

Put another way: if I had ever worked out what "phase 2" looked like, there would have been no need for a "phase 1" — I should just have started "phase 2" straight away.

But to be kind to myself, when I started the journey that eventually transformed me, I literally could not have imagined that I would be leading and loving the life that I have now. Indeed, if I could have seen this future, the me of two years ago would have not wanted it.

Learnings

I now think I was completely wrong on each one of these counts. That:
  • Successful transformation comes from embracing things I love, not through denial and restriction; through letting a healthy lifestyle crowd out an unhealthy one.
  • Tastes and appetite, for food and for movement, are more malleable than I ever believed. 
  • A good nutrition professional will work with you to help you enjoy food. If they're not doing that, you need to change nutrition professionals. In Australia, look for someone registered as an APD (Accredited Practising Dietitian): they're the experts at this.
  • Diets with short-term goals will produce short-term results and are probably counterproductive in the long run. Transformational change comes from transforming a whole lifestyle.
In future posts, I want to expand on each of these ideas, and also to share in more detail what did eventually work for me.





1 There's no evidence for Twain ever saying this. The earliest variant of the gag that Quote Investigator has turned up is in the 1907 novel Duke of Devil-May-Care by Harris Dickson and refers to poker-playing, not smoking (see here for their detailed and well-sourced research).

2 Most people. I do occasionally hear people claiming that no matter how little they eat, they can't lose body fat. Or that restriction doesn't work for them because they have slow metabolisms. Or that restriction doesn't work at all because of the body's "starvation mode". My layperson's understanding of such claims is:
  • We're not plants and we can't photosynthesise; the body must be getting its energy from somewhere. If it's not from fat stores, it has to be coming from food and drink. 
  • It's undeniable that some people lose (and gain) body fat easier than others, but my understanding is that metabolisms that are so slow to make fat loss significantly harder (as in "not work"-level of harder) than for the general population are very rare. It's also easy and pretty cheap to get your metabolic rate (RMR) measured if you really think this is you. 
  • "Starvation mode" is definitely real and was investigated extensively by the US military in the wake of World War II. My understanding is that it doesn't have much of an effect until the body is down to its last few percent of body fat. Most people attempting to lose body fat are nowhere near that point.
  • The horrible truth of the effects of famine on humans and other animals. Enough said. 

3 It's even the basis for a whole fat-loss regime I found very attractive at one point: The Hacker's Diet by John Walker, who co-wrote the famous computer drafting software, AutoCAD.

4 As with the purported Twain quote, there's no evidence for Einstein ever saying this. Quote Investigator has found an expression of the same concept in The Psychology of Personal Constructs, a 1955 psychology textbook, and a close match for the wording of this supposed quote in a 1981 Narcotics Anonymous pamphlet. Their research is here.