Not only is it that time of year again (the one where we reflect on all the things we’ve done, and all the things we hope to do, while simultaneously being bombarded with “new year, new you” messaging, which is all just bullshit trying to get people to buy whatever weight-loss program/tea/diet crap is hip this year) but, it’s also “that time of year” during the actual weirdest year that many of us have ever lived through.
These are strange times. And recently, in talking about These Strange Times, I said that a sign of being an emotionally intelligent adult is being able to hold two opposing feelings in your body, at the same time, and still function. And, I don’t recall, but did I also mention that holding two opposing feelings in your body at the same time and still functioning… fucking sucks? Because it definitely does.
In many respects this has been both the best and the worst year of my life. Sometimes for the exact same reasons (which, for the record, is maddening.) And, also, for none of the reasons anyone else in the world seems to be happy and/or miserable. And, also, for none of the reasons I myself would have expected to be happy and/or miserable.
It is almost impossible to make sense of it.
But, when I really do the work of analyzing how I’ve felt, what mistakes I’ve made (and there were a few life-alteringly big ones this year), and where I want to put my time and energy… I’ve realized (again) that even when I’m not living up to my own expectations, the times I feel the best are when I’m using my own measuring stick to evaluate my achievements. And the times I feel the worst– the times I’ve been the most lost, and miserable– are when I’m judging myself using other people’s measuring sticks.
I’m going to pick on the diet/weight-loss industry for a second, because honestly? Fuck that industry (and anyone who tries to make money off people feeling bad about themselves.) This is the best personal example I have– the first time I became aware of the toll other peoples measuring sticks can have on my own ability to kick ass and do awesome things–but if discussion about weight loss or eating disorders is triggering to you, skip down until after the ***.
For most of my life–up until about 10 years ago– I would have told you I was largely oblivious to the diet industry or cultural messaging around body size or weight loss (mostly because I have an irritatingly bulletproof ego, but also because up until that point I always had a nondescript body-type. Not small enough or large enough to merit comment, one way or another.) However I also, completely unconsciously, bought in to all of that messaging. I equated less body fat with being “healthier” or “more fit”. When my friends suggested they needed to lose some pounds before a vacation, I may have mentioned whatever fad diet I’d heard about recently. I weighed myself every day as part of my routine, and ascribed a “good” or “bad” value to the numbers I saw on the scale. And I’m sure many-a-new-years-resolution centered around “eating healthier and exercising more.” (I even documented a weight-loss challenge one year on this very website once, which I am absolutely horrified by now. Those posts are gone, but it’s the thing I most regret ever putting out on the internet.)
Then, after the two years I spent living in a garage and building a house , which meant a lot of microwave meals and take-out (but didn’t actually have any real impact on my body-composition), I decided I was going to “get healthy.” (Because that’s what the messaging says, right? Regardless of how you feel and what you’re accomplishing, takeout and tater tots must be a diet that needs correcting.) So, I did what they say you should do. Researched diets, came up with a strict meal plan, and lost a fair amount of weight in a short-ish period of time. And then, all of the sudden, people started commenting on my body. All kinds of people… a lot of coworkers actually. Totally unsolicited. (You’ve lost weight! You look so good! What’s your secret?)
(Looking back on it, I often think, if no one had made any positive comments on my body during that timeframe, the “diet” probably would have worn itself out after a month or two. I would have taken on another big project, would have started eating normally again, and never would have thought twice about it. But, what happened instead was two years of full-blown eating disorders. the end result of those two years–a decade later– is a far more (physically and emotionally) stronger version of myself, but I still wouldn’t recommend it as an optimal path for personal growth.)
At the time, I felt like I was winning something. Like I’d figured out some secret to life. And the unsolicited, positive feedback from people was reinforcing that. So, when my body burned through most of its fat stores and was like WHAT THE FUCK, WE NEED MORE FOOD, (which meant more cravings, and less control over my carefully planned meals) I felt like I was losing.
So, in order to “win” and stick to my rigid eating (or not eating) regime I stopped going out with friends (because I couldn’t control my calorie intake at restaurants). I tried exercising as a punishment for eating (and, as a side note, was not capable of doing 5 push-ups from my knees in a row during this timeframe). I would take Tylenol PM in the evening to knock myself out so I would sleep through being hungry and it would be “okay to eat” when I woke up again. I took a lot of pictures of myself and my body as a “reward” for “doing well.” I mentally measured my body against every stranger I saw in the street. The first thing I did every morning (the literal reason I got out of bed) was weigh myself. I have, to this day, never felt worse about myself or had more negative self-talk, then those mornings where the number on the scale stayed the same or went up from the day before. (A thing I had never cared about before in my life!)
Also. I started getting horrible night sweats. My skin broke out so bad that in the last ten years I’ve done two rounds of Accutane to clear it up. My hair started falling out in actual clumps in the shower.
Also. My weight never dropped below the healthy weight on the BMI chart for someone of my (short) stature. My actual doctors complimented me on all the things I was “doing right”.
It never once occurred to me during that first year (the one where I was taking sleeping pills to knock myself out so I wouldn’t eat) that I had an eating disorder. Because I was doing everything right according to the diet/weight-loss industry, and I was getting positive reinforcement for it from literally everyone in my life, including medical professionals.
(Side note: The clinical term for this is Orthorexia. Basically “eating healthy to the point of physical and emotional detriment.” You can read more about it here.)
In the second year of this (incidentally, the first year I lived on the farm), because my body was trying every trick in the book to get me to eat enough to support my energy levels, the orthorexia became full-blown bulimia. (Although I also would not have told you I had an eating disorder at that time either, because you have to binge/purge at least once a week for 3 months for it to be a diagnosable condition. And I knew the “rules” so I deliberately only ever toed the line of having a diagnosable condition.)
This, I believe, was the first and hardest lesson I have ever learned about using other people’s measuring sticks.
Because here’s the truth. Literally every person who was not me, was telling me I was “winning”. I was measuring up, according to the ruler they were using. Because I took up less physical space than I had before. Because I hit a certain number on the BMI chart. Because they found me aesthetically pleasing (when being measured against… what? A lot of photoshopped magazine covers?)
Here’s the other side of that truth. I was failing in all the ways that actually matter to me as a person. I felt physically weak. I had no energy. I wasn’t connecting with friends. Almost all of my brain power wasn’t going to projects or exciting things, but to counting calories, or the immense amount of willpower it takes to not feed a body that is begging for food. My body was falling apart.
Because I was using other people’s measuring sticks.
My body has done all kinds of things in the last 10 years. I let myself eat until I stopped obsessing about food. I took a year away from gyms because I could only go in with stress and the mindset of losing weight (when it turns out the actual best part of gyms–for me– is finding fun new ways my body can do strong, impressive shit and also finding really good drinking buddies. Something I’ve learned since.) I haven’t stepped on a scale in a decade. I started climbing, and summiting mountains. My body is above the range that the BMI chart states as “healthy” and my actual doctor tried to have a conversation with me about it. My body does not conform to conventional aesthetic standards, and is above the healthy BMI range, and I am strong as shit. The last physical challenge I took on in January of this year was a 30 hour endurance race in which I did not sit down for 30 hours, racked up 36 miles of orienteering in the mountains while also solving brain puzzles (including a rubix cube… blindfolded) and at the end of that event I ran two miles (faster than I’ve ever run two miles in the last decade) and also did 50 military chest-to-ground pushups inside of a minute. Above the healthy BMI range. And guys, it’s not just muscle… my body has a lot of fat. Which is totally cool. Apparently, it operates best that way when it comes to my own measuring sticks (i.e. being strong as hell, capable of doing kickass shit, and able to physically take on any challenge farm life throws at me.)
Also, when the pandemic hit (and even before that, after I had a death flu that knocked me out of commission for weeks in February, and that I don’t believe I fully recovered from for a full six months) I didn’t have the extra energy I usually have for workouts and climbing. I didn’t have a hiking adventure or a big endurance event on the calendar to train for. And so I didn’t. I used the energy I had for other things. My measuring stick wasn’t about physical strength or the next big physical challenge (or even the next big thing to build on the farm). My measuring sticks became about finding work that felt more meaningful to me. About managing my mental health. About supporting the people I love who were taking on incredible challenges in their own work and personal lives.
And even owning those measuring sticks–my own measuring sticks–I failed. A lot. Sometimes I lost sight of what was most important to me. Sometimes I just had to bear down and grind through projects even though I didn’t have the energy for them, and I was one cranky asshole because of it. Sometimes I felt bad just because I wasn’t getting the adrenaline rush of climbing mountains or doing some other incredible physical feat. Sometimes I didn’t take the time to reach out or make genuine connections with the incredible people in my life because I wanted to wallow instead.
But (and here’s the key) at least when I felt like I wasn’t “measuring up”… it was because I wasn’t measuring up to my own stick. To the things that really are important to me, in this time and this place. And I think that’s okay… that’s the kind of thing that will make me better, stronger, and more aware of who I want to be in the future. (Instead of just tired and hungry and miserable.)
And, incidentally, when I sat down to write about “measuring sticks” it was not my intent to write a 2500 word essay on the eating disorders I had a decade ago. And, also, I have tried to tell that story no less than a dozen times in the last decade and could never get it out, because it feels like a story that needs to be told correctly, and I never knew exactly what that meant.
Which is a weird thing about stories. Sometimes they simmer inside of you for years, until one day (15 days after contracting covid–I’m fine, btw–and trying to write a story about measuring sticks) the words just come to you.
This isn’t about bodies and how they look, but about what we do with them (because your body is, in fact, the only vehicle through which you will do all the awesome things you do in the world.) And, during this time of year, at the end of the strangest of years, when we’re all trying to figure out what we want out of 2021, I hope the words that come to you are: When I set goals for myself–when I look at who I want to be in the future–am I using my own measuring stick?