When I started dating again as a newly “skinny” girl, I did so with the expectation that most men would not understand what I’d been through, or the positive and negative results of that journey. Like any reasonable (sorta) female, then, I typically summarized this weightloss journey at some point during all of my first dates.
“Wait...you lost how much weight?” was the typical response, followed by a barrage of questions and then a seemingly hesitant, “Well, that’s really awesome.” I could tell that the compliment wasn’t entirely untrue, but also that beneath it, there were some questions about how such a thing would affect one’s physical appearance.
After several dates, a few that turned into short-lived relationships, I was fed up. They didn’t understand why I ate the way I did or why I prioritized going to the gym each day. They couldn’t fathom the fact that when they called me “hot,” I had a reaction of disbelief, or why it was difficult for me to accept the compliment. Nor could they appreciate the way I’d learned to love as a “fat” girl: I lacked the looks and confidence, so I made up for it by loving passionately and with my whole heart.
It had been about a month since the last time Chris, now my husband, sent me a message on Tinder (go ahead, get the jokes out of your system now), and needless to say, the riveting conversation we had about the sandwich I was eating for lunch was not enough for me to pursue further discussion. In fact, when he messaged me again, I didn’t realize we had ever interacted before. Unfortunately, that one month breather between messages was just long enough for me to become completely disillusioned with dating and men in general.
I can’t tell you why I decided to respond to him that day. I had other messages sitting in my inbox and ignored them entirely, but his deeply insightful, “Hi, how are you?” somehow grabbed my attention. Maybe it was because he wasn’t the kind of guy I would typically go for. The year prior to that had been filled with the same exact guy, recycled with a different name and a different car. He didn’t fit the mold, and I think it made me feel less guarded, less intimidated, less anxious.
Being the predictable person that I am, I provided the disclaimer regarding my weight loss on our first date, and he asked the same questions I typically received. My heart hunkered down in my chest as I responded, watching his body language for a reaction. To my surprise, it was not the reaction I had predicted. Once I had exhausted my confession, he reciprocated with one of his own: he had lost over half of his body weight, just as I had done.
In that moment, my heart stood from it’s retreating position, and fluttered to my stomach, creating those cliche butterflies we hear so much about. We both had been there: overweight, unhappy, and unhealthy. It’s difficult to understand the switch. Until recently, the vast majority of our population either fit that description or did not. There were no crossovers. There were no T Swifts in the world of weight.
He understood the mentality that came with the change: the odd concoction of newfound confidence and excitement, mixed up with a flood of confusion that we could not begin to clarify to the common onlooker. It’s like waking up in a world in which people can only walk on their hands: you’ve always walked on your legs, and with enough practice you could probably learn to walk on your hands, but it will always seem foreign and awkward. Of course, you will trip and fall down many times, not because you choose to, just because it happens. And while you would eventually get up and walk on your hands once more, it is much easier to have someone else who understands your struggle to help you back up. It was a new and incredible feeling to have someone who could do that for me.
Our first months of dating revealed a connection I hadn’t found in anyone else. It was as though we had a whole history of inside jokes and stories that we could pull from, and we’d only just met. We laughed about the fact that our next spouse will never have to guess what our 80 year old bodies will look like: we already have them! We compared stories of our excessive eating, joking about how “fat” Crystal or Chris could put down a whole pizza in a single sitting, then had heartfelt discussions about why we had no hesitation about doing so then, yet it would bother us now. We nervously giggled about the awkward moments when we thought we could do what our thin friends could do (like riding roller coasters with tight harness spaces or shopping at American Eagle) and failing miserably.
I know that all of those examples seem entirely superficial. You might be thinking that being able to joke around doesn’t create a solid foundation for a relationship, and in many ways, you’d be right. But with those jokes came an unspoken understanding of a concept with which most people could not identify. When I look in the mirror and see that my abs aren’t as defined as I’d like them to be, he bends over and kisses my tummy. When I am ready to give into the temptation of eating what I should not, he places his hand gently on mine, preventing me from reaching for it. And when I feel down because I’ve gained a pound or two, he wraps his arms around me and whispers in my ear, “I think you’re the most beautiful woman in the world.”
I love him, and he loves me, both despite and because of the struggles we’ve faced in the past, and those with which we continue to struggle. Both despite and because of our sometimes irrational self images. Both despite and because of our bumpy search for self love and confidence. I cannot think of a truer love than that.
I’m not saying that someone who has lost a lot of weight has to find a counterpart who has done the same. What I am saying is that his/her partner needs to be supportive and understanding of the consequences of this journey, both positive and negative. Although it is a life change for the better, crossovers are difficult. Just as we can sometimes still hear a little twang in T Swift’s most recent pop song, there will always be a glimmer of the perspective you had as an overweight person.
I have found that support and understanding in my husband. May you also find yours. <3
After a particularly difficult workout last week, I left the gym feeling disappointed in my performance, prompting a frank discussion between my husband and I.
“I don’t understand why you get upset when a workout doesn’t go well for you. No one has set any expectations for you.”
“Well, that’s not true. I set expectations for myself.”
“But why? Expectations suggest pressure to meet a particular standard. Why not just set goals?”
I’ve thought about this extensively and the answer is not a simple one.
On the southern end of my alma mater’s campus, there is a beautiful wooden bridge that provides easy passage from one side of a small ravine to another. If one is compelled to walk down the steep hill to the stream that flows through said ravine, there is a single wooden bench built about 250 feet from the bridge. It’s nothing fancy: just a plank of well-worn wood with legs that hold it up about a foot off of the ground. However, it provides a quiet, peaceful escape from campus life, along with a breathtaking view of the nature that surrounds the bridge.
I know that view well. In my junior year of college, I spent many hours there, feeling guilty for flooding a perfect portrait of natural beauty with sorrowful tears.
I was depressed, and the introspective part of my brain demanded a place of solitude to try to work out why.
Why? I was attending an elite college with enough financial aid and scholarships to pay for 75% of my tuition. I had a mother who showed me nothing but unconditional love and made sure that I had everything I needed. I had a boyfriend who traveled traveled two hours each way to see me almost every weekend. I had great friends and family who recognized the change in my behavior and reached out to try to help me.
For the most part, every external force in my life was positive. This left only one option in regard to where the problem was rooted: within myself.
Coming to this realization was difficult. I had never felt more pain in my life than I had in those moments, and I was the only reason for that pain. Yet, I had no idea how to change it. I felt like a failure, defeated by the one thing in my life over which I had control.
I remember calling my mom, sobbing hysterically.
“Crystal, what’s wrong?”
“I don’t want to be here anymore.”
“Well, you can come home this weekend.”
“No. I don’t want to be alive.”
I felt infuriated that I would even have such a thought, and ashamed that I had spoken the words aloud. Yet, I also felt some relief. I was unhappy with myself in every way that I could imagine, but at least I now knew why I was feeling the way I was.
Ironically enough, it was at the bottom of that ravine that I found myself at lowest possible point in my life, and also where I made a promise to myself to claw my way out of the depths of self loathing into which I allowed myself to fall.
I would love to say that the ascent was smooth and steady. That, however, would be a lie. It took several years of slipping back down into that hole, remaining stagnant, and then finding the will to climb up again to actually start loving myself, and, in turn, finding happiness.
You might be thinking, "This is a blog about weight loss, right? Why is she rambling on and on about being depressed?” Although it was not the only leg of the journey, losing weight and leading a more healthy, active lifestyle accounts for a huge part of why I am able to comfortably and candidly write about these details of my life today. A significant part of my melancholy was a direct result of my poor body image. Losing weight and pursuing fitness was the penultimate goal. However, I was aware that I needed to improve my mental and emotional well-being before I could pursue any physical goals that I had for myself.
So, this all leads me back to the conversation about setting expectations versus setting goals. I wholeheartedly believe in setting goals for oneself; however, I believe that the path toward meeting those goals also requires setting expectations. When I set the goal to overcome my depression, it came with the expectation that I would take some sort of action to help me do so. The expectations were stepping stones toward achieving the goal. I could not hope to reach a goal, if I did not have the expectation that I would seek professional help, a vital step in allowing me to see beyond the haze of depression that held me back from understanding how to be comfortable with myself. Once that expectation was met, I set forth another expectation, and then another, and so forth until the goal was met. For me, setting those expectations was quite literally the difference between life and death.
Although my “expectations” are not of dire consequence any longer, I still find it important to set a standard for myself. I believe that having high expectations for myself is what allows me to chip away at the things that are necessary to achieve that penultimate goal. And while it’s true that doing so will beget both success and failure, those are the things that make realizing any goal so incredibly sweet.
About a year ago, I returned to that same ravine on my college’s campus. The bridge looked the same, as did the landscape, and the same bench stood next to the stream. Nothing had changed about the place, yet it was where I had made a decision that prompted significant change in myself. Another small piece of irony, forever remaining a secret between it’s steep walls.
I don’t regret many things in my life. I believe that all of our actions serve a purpose and because we cannot change those actions, time spent regretting them is useless. However, one of the few things that I truly do regret is not having had the foresight to start making positive changes in my life at a younger age so that I could share the successes that I’ve achieved with the ones that I love the most. Unfortunately, this is often a realization that comes too late. As I sit here today, shocked by the realization that it has been exactly 10 years since the world lost my grandmother’s beautiful smile, quick wit, compassionate heart, and absolutely legit Italian cooking, this regret is especially apparent.
After a decade without my grandmother, I’ve written a letter to her in hopes that, if there is an afterlife, she might be able to see me now and share pride in all that I’ve accomplished:
I’m grateful to have a photo to capture the last time that I was able to talk to you face to face, to hug you, to hear your laugh.
Although you left us in October of 2007, the last time I saw you was on August 29, the day before I got on an airplane and traveled to Cologne, Germany for a semester of study abroad. You were so proud of me on that day. I was the first of our family to do something like this, a it was a huge leap of faith for a girl who had only taken two vacations in her entire life, never venturing far from the limits of our little town in western Pennsylvania.
I knew you were sick. Our family knew the realities of pancreatic cancer all too well, having lost another family member suddenly to the very same thing only a few years beforehand. As I contemplated the pros and cons of taking the opportunity to move 1,000s of miles away to live in a time zone 6 hours ahead of yours, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was just being selfish in accepting it. The possibility that I might never see you again was a very real one.
And yet, the phone call that I received from another continent on a cold October morning, before the sun even had time to rise, seemed more like a dream (or maybe a nightmare) than any other moment in my life. As stepped off of a direct train from the Berlin city center to Berlin Tegal Airport to board a flight to Dublin, Ireland, a single vibration of my German trac-phone sent my anticipation to explore new, foreign lands spiraling into a feeling of shame and self-loathing for not being by your side, for having eternally lost my opportunity to say goodbye to you for the final time...and I had no one to blame but myself for having made the decision to benefit my own personal well being instead of yours.
As I pressed the red hang up button on my “Handy,” I slumped to the ground, my back against a fence halfway between the train and the entrance to the airport. I looked around at the lights high above me, blurred from both fog and my own tears. I would never be able to share this experience, that you so wanted for me, with you. You would never see me graduate from college, get a job, get married, buy my first car, my first home…and as I reflect on this today, I realize that you never got to know me for who I really am.
Grandma, I am not the person who took that picture with you on August 29, 2007, and if you were here to see that, I think you would be so proud of me for having left her behind.
I’ve made my mistakes, that is for sure, but the person who sits here today has accomplished so many of the things that you always wanted for her.
I’m not only the first of our family to receive a bachelor’s degree, but also the first to earn a master’s.
I’ve broken away from the holds of western Pennsylvania, and tried my hand living in both Memphis, TN and Winchester, VA where I have made a home and a life for myself.
I am a professional in the working world, having established myself as a competent teacher with many students who respect and appreciate me.
I’ve traveled to so many places that I never thought I would see, from coast to coast in the United States, to Europe, to the Caribbean.
I have dedicated myself to losing weight and have done so with great success. As a result, I am a much healthier version of the woman you once knew, and absolutely more confident in myself in every single aspect of my life.
I’ve found an incredible man, who loves me, supports me, treats me like a queen, and could definitely keep up with your quick wit if he had the chance.
I have a beautiful step-daughter who I know you would love to spoil with candies, clothes, and a $10 bill slipped surreptitiously into her pocket.
I have great friends who love and endlessly support me in whatever decisions I make (even if they are sometimes foolish).
I have big muscles and can lift up some pretty heavy things (and occasionally put them back down).
Grandma, I have used these last 10 years to become a person of whom I believe you would be incredibly proud. I wish you could see me now. I hope so much that you can see me now.
All My Love,
Two spoonfuls of mashed potatoes and half a slice of meatloaf mockingly sit in disarray on the plate in front of me. I feel tired, sluggish, and have reached the brink of a food coma that will leave me incapacitated for the next several hours. Even so, when I look up, I receive a glare from the adults in the room.
“Clean your plate.”
“You aren’t moving from the table until you finish your dinner.”
“There are children in Africa who are starving, you know.”
It was not because I was ungrateful for the food that had been prepared for me with loving hands that I looked upon the remains with such disgust. It was not because I despised meatloaf like most children; on the contrary, I loved it! It was because I couldn’t. Even another bite might have adverse effects that I had no desire to experience.
And yet, after a deep breath and a short prayer, I put another bite of potatoes in my mouth, chewed it, and swallowed hard.
This was an unwavering mentality in my family. Food was the equivalent of money in a home where money was hard to come by. It was also the equivalent of love. To waste food meant to waste money and reject the love of the hands that prepared it. Therefore, hungry or not, I grew to learn that clearing my plate was not a request; it was a requirement.
I became acclimated to this rule of thumb quickly, becoming the perfect model in my family of the ideal child’s eating habits. I remember my grandmother reprimanding my cousin for walking away from the table without finishing his meal. She proudly used me as an example, saying, “Look at Crystal’s plate! She didn’t leave anything behind!”
I carried this ideology with me into my teenage years, never leaving a scrap behind at dinner. It was unfathomable to do so, and why would I when I received accolades for my thorough eating habits?
When I went to college, it was the ultimate test of my plate cleaning talents, mainly because our choices in foods consisted of food, food, and as much food as possible. My plate nearly always exceeded the limitations of what it was meant to hold, and I could clear it, fill it, and clear it again. Buffet style meals mixed with this mindset was a lethal combination that turned my freshman 15 into freshman 40.
During graduate school, I no longer had the convenience of ready-to-go meals that I could just shovel onto my plate and demolish. I was instead responsible for cooking my own food. Having never cooked for only myself, this was a difficult thing to navigate. How much pasta or mac & cheese should I make if I’m the only one eating? I think one box should be good. But here’s the problem: if I’m the only one eating, that technically means that all of the food I’ve prepared is on my plate...so, I guess I have to eat it all. Yes, I would eat the entirety of any meal I cooked for myself every single night.
My portion control was virtually nonexistent, and although I had the power to change that, my “clear your plate” mentality completely clouded any logic that may have allowed me to do so.
It became my biggest struggle as I relearned how to eat in my adult life. When I started measuring portions against calorie, fat, carbohydrate, and protein content, I was shocked at what I had been consuming. For instance, that ENTIRE box of mac & cheese that I ate in a single sitting totaled 1200 calories, 55.5g of fat, 147g of carbohydrates, and 33g of protein. Just as a frame of reference, my current DAILY nutrition goals are 2000 calories, 63g of fat, 187g of carbohydrates, and 165g of protein.
So, I started portioning my food and tracking it religiously. Of course I got some flak from my friends about this when I was sitting at a restaurant, inputting numbers into MyFitnessPal before I could even order, but it kept my food intake in perspective and allowed me to resist succumbing to the eating habits that I possessed for over 20 years of my life.
Despite this, I will admit that I still consistently clear my plate. However, MyFitnessPal, measuring cups, and a food scale are the most frequently used items in my kitchen, so everything that goes on my plate fits within the constraints of a healthy nutrition plan.
We’ve all grown up with these little quirks that our families instilled within us. Although our families teach us with only the best of intentions, sometimes what we take away from their lessons can have negative impacts. I do not blame my family for emphasizing the need to eat everything that is placed in front of me. When they learned the same lesson, food was a less accessible commodity, and the necessity for clearing one’s plate hinged on the fact that the food that sat in front of them at dinnertime may have been the only food they received for the day. They could not predict that future generations might live in a world in which we can pay $12 to eat as much as we could ever want, and far more than what we could ever need.
At some point, we have to filter through those lessons and decide which ones benefit us and which ones do not. We cannot live our lives based on outdated mindsets, and if we cannot remove ourselves from them, we have to find a way to work around them and still do what is good for our own well being.
A few months ago, I dropped in at another CrossFit gym in my hometown. I received two pieces of feedback from the coaches that stuck with me: “You lift like a weightlifter” and “You move really well.” I was proud to hear these compliments, and thought I’d share their outside perspective with the head coach of my regular gym. He responded, “Those are right. You should do a weightlifting competition.”
“Me? You know this is Crystal, right?”
You may be thinking that I questioned his judgement in jest. I didn’t. Although I followed the question with an “lol,” I was truly taken by surprise when he suggested that I was ready to compete. In my head, I ran through about 100 ways that I could challenge what he said and falsify it, not for his sake, but for my own: my brain could not translate these statements as truth.
I’ve experienced moments like this on a variety of occasions, but try as I might, it is terribly difficult for me to think of myself as an athlete with any kind of merit. I can look at the people around me and see all kinds of great things about their physical capabilities.
My friend Kathryn is the cardio queen: she kicks my ass in any workout that requires a consistently high heart rate.
Amanda is a machine: she knocks every single workout out of the park, and is on the fast track to the CrossFit Games.
Jamie and Holly have the best push ups in the eastern time zone.
Dwight and Mike will kill any workout that involves running.
Cali has gotten exponentially stronger than the first day I met her.
I can see all these things in the people I know and see perform each day, but if you ask me what my strengths are as an athlete, the best you’ll get from me is, “I’m a pretty okay rower.”
This mentality unfortunately trickles into other aspects of my life, as well. Although I’ve received a variety of positive remarks from both colleagues and students regarding my teaching abilities, I still constantly work to improve my assignments and lessons. I will accept that I am a decent teacher, but I am not yet an excellent teacher. Just the same, I will accept that I am a decent athlete, but no where near the best.
When I catch myself thinking this way, I semi-jokingly refer to it as my “fat girl mentality.” I realize that this is not a blanket assessment: there are plenty of women who are overweight who hold a beautiful and enviable amount of confidence and pride. That, however, was not the case for me. As an overweight child, young lady, and woman, I never felt good enough. It didn’t matter if there was any truth in that; all I could see were the comparisons that I made between myself and others. Sure, I graduated fourth in my class, but the girl who graduated third was both smart AND beautiful. Yes, I was the editor to whom all of my friends in college turned when a paper was due, but I was no great writer myself. Indeed, I lost 150 pounds over the course of a year and a half, but others have lost more.
There are deep-seated daddy issues, anxiety, and minor depression attached to some of this way of thinking, but I can’t accept that those factors are acceptable reasons to feel this way. For others maybe, but not for me...yet again, a display of feeling inadequate.
At times this has been crippling for me. I have spent weeks, sometimes months in funks for a variety of reasons throughout my life. At times this presented itself in terms of my academic performance, other times in terms of work performance, and most recently in terms of athletic performance.
That is where I was a few months ago when I dropped in at that box in my hometown. When the coaches there gave me positive feedback, and it was confirmed by a coach who has seen my progress over the course of almost 4 years, I had a revelation. Initially, I assumed that their perceptions were skewed, but I was wrong.
During the 4 hour drive home from that visit, I thought about what it means to truly be an athlete. According to the dictionary on GoogleDocs, an athlete is “a person who is proficient in sports and other forms of exercise.”
Proficient. As a teacher, it’s a word I hear often. Proficiency doesn’t mean being the best. Proficiency indicates meeting the most basic standards of performance. A student who is “proficient” in reading can tackle a text at reading level and interpret it accurately. A student who is “proficient” at algebra can utilize basic formulas to solve problems. Therefore, a person who is “proficient” in exercise, is any person who completes a workout without quitting or injuring oneself. An athlete is any person who TRIES to to be athletic, who TRIES to participate in sports, or who TRIES to exercise.
This was a revelation for me that pulled me completely out of my funk. I was putting so much stock in a definition of an athlete that was false, an expectation for myself derived entirely from comparisons that I made between myself and others.
It wasn’t fair to me and it wasn’t fair to those with whom I was comparing myself.
Being an athlete has nothing to do with how fast you can run, how much you can lift, what place you ranked during a workout, or if you can climb a rope. The second string quarterback on a middle school football team is an athlete just the same as the starting quarterback on a pro team.
There is no golden formula for defining what an athlete can do. As long as you are making an attempt, you are an athlete.
So each day, I make an attempt. Some workouts are better than others, and some still end with me crying, but as long as I know that I did the best that I could do in that moment, I feel satisfied that I, along with all of the people who worked out next to me, am an athlete.
If you got to the gym today, you are an athlete.
If you are trying your best at your workout, you are an athlete.
If you are working toward progress, you are an athlete.
As awkward teenagers, we probably all struggled with “finding” ourselves. Our elders tell us that as we grow up, we will have that inevitable experience that will define who we are for the rest of our lives. Maybe that experience is a first job, college, the army, Peace Corps, etc.
I believe that we do not truly know ourselves until we fight tooth and nail to achieve a goal that we want more than anything else in the world. However, doing this requires an unbelievable amount of courage. As a result, most of us go through life without ever knowing who we truly are.
I can say without any hesitation that the greatest part of my weight loss journey was not necessarily the weight loss itself; it was the discovery of who I truly am.
Let me paint an image of teenage Crystal.
My musical preferences were much different than they are today: Nine Inch Nails, Metallica, Pantera, Linkin Park, etc. Any upbeat music, including pop and hip-hop, were absolutely insufferable in my mind. They were stupid, and severely lacked musical merit.
I wore black all.the.time. Black was slimming, right? But more so, it represented my mood. The little girl who once loved pink and purple was kept quiet in the back of the closet with the frilly dresses that her mom wished she wore. Furthermore, the clothing that I wore often consisted of jeans and t-shirts that had sarcastic quotes printed on them. For example, “How many vegetables had to die for your stupid salad” or “Your inferiority complex is justified.”
I liked to be alone. I didn’t need friends. I didn’t need a man. I didn’t need to go out. I was perfectly content to sit in the basement every night and watch television or play video games while eating Doritos and drinking Mountain Dew (I wish I could honestly say I wasn’t so stereotypical, but I was). I loved video games like Doom, Chronicles of Riddick, and really anything else that involved shooting things. Anyone who asked me to actually leave the house and do something that required physical activity was likely graced with the most cynical laugh I could muster at the time.
Being in school inevitably meant that I received some criticism for my weight. I didn’t care. The people who were making fun of me were shallow, superficial, and stupid. I didn’t care what they thought because most of them would end up dropping out of college and working minimum wage jobs anyway. That was a point about which I was incredibly vocal because, quite frankly, I was kind of a bitch.
I was unhappy. I was mean. I hated myself and I hated almost everyone else.
For years, I was squeezing myself into a mold that offered the lowest likelihood of encountering judgement. I used things like musical preferences, clothing, and “hobbies” to interact (or not interact) with people who (I thought) were less likely to judge me for my appearance, not realizing that I was being unfair to both myself (for denying myself authentic interests) and to people who genuinely rooted themselves in these types of activities (for using stereotypes to assume how they would react to a person’s physical appearance).
When I look back at the first 25 years of my life and realize how much I missed simply because it didn’t “fit” the “persona” I had created for myself, I can’t believe how foolish I was. Driven by fear, I missed out on countless opportunities for valuable life experiences and social interactions. Even while I was in college, I refused to go to a party because, no matter who was hosting, it wasn’t “my crowd.” In reality, I was simply unsure whether or not I would be judged for my appearance. I avoided any outdoor activities, most excursions that required walking or physical activity, many things that required social interaction, and anything that involved the beach.
As I began to lose weight and became more confident, I learned so much about myself. I do genuinely enjoy the rock genre of music, and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails will always be my first love, but I absolutely love pop and hip hop music! It’s upbeat, energetic, and although I have the whitest dance moves EVER, it makes me want to shake what my mama gave me.
I love fashion! Of course, I still wear black, but I enjoy experimenting with different colors and accessories. I wear dresses all the time, and heels on nearly a daily basis!
While I like watching a good movie while I cuddle with my hubby on the couch, I cannot tell you the last time I played a video game other than Just Dance.
I liked going to the bar with my girlfriends, spending hours at the gym, dancing, hiking, laying in the sun (yes, on the beach!), going to concerts, going on road trips, hanging out with other people, going shopping...in general, I loved experiencing all of the things that life has to offer, not just sitting in front of my television every night.
I became less and less concerned about where I might find “my people” and more concerned with doing what I actually liked. I didn’t feel pressured into a particular activities because I was concerned about how people would view me while participating in said activities.
This came with some negatives: I lost touch with some friends, grew out of a long term relationship, and experienced several moments of confusion that caused me to question whether or not I had made the right decisions for myself.
However, the positives outweighed the negatives. I discovered who I really am without any hesitations or stipulations that I applied to myself based on societal expectations. I have learned to be true to myself and do the things that I love. This, in turn, has made me an exponentially happier person.
Reflecting on this progress reminds me of a quote from one of my favorite movies, Fight Club. The great Tyler Durden asks, “How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?” This incredibly applicable to anyone who has fought for a real change in his/her life. Regardless of your success in achieving that goal, the fight for it forces you to learn more about who you truly are than any other journey in life.
I am lucky (or maybe unlucky) to have absolutely the MOST delicious heritage. I grew up in a rare cultural mix: Italian, Lebanese, and quintessential Appalachian. My grandparents alternated Sundays for cooking. When it was my maternal grandmother’s weekend, we showed up promptly at 2 p.m. to a table stacked with foods that no one could resist:
Every other Sunday was a decadent indulgence in the fine art of Italian cuisine. And true to form for an Italian, the entire visit was full of rhetoric persuading all guests to eat, and eat some more. Sure, you just ate your week’s worth of carbohydrates, but do you want an ice cream sundae? How about a can of mixed nuts? Maybe a candy bar? “No, thank you, I’m full.”
“Well...here’s one just in case.” And if you didn’t know, now is the time to learn: refusing food from an Italian is the ultimate insult...in addition to that, how do you refuse an ice cream sundae that is melting in front of your eyes?
Don’t forget the leftovers...even though only 8 people were committed to coming to dinner, my grandmother made enough to feed Queen Elizabeth’s court, and you know what that means: everyone goes home with something! You get a meatball! And you get a meatball!
Fast forward to the following Sunday: my paternal grandmother is cooking and if you like “down-home” cooking, her house was the place to be. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob with a tub of butter on each end of the table. You know how you applied the butter to the corn? Spread that butter liberally on a piece of sliced white bread, wrap it around the corn, and give it a rub down. Delicious.
And we aren’t even to dessert yet. My grandma LOVED Dairy Queen...especially Dilly Bars. She always had them in the freezer, and we kids took them as we desired.
As an adult reading this blog, you might catch yourself salivating at the prospect of these meals. Maybe you feel your dieting willpower diminishing ever so slightly, thinking about the fact that you have pasta in the pantry and some thawed ground meat in the refrigerator that needs to be cooked.
Now, imagine being a child and having that food already prepared and directly in front of you. If your willpower so easily wavers as an adult, who understands the consequences of eating badly, a child might as well have none at all.
Add to the formula the fact that child supervision decreases as the guest count at a gathering increases, that the child comes from a household of very meager financial circumstances that do not allow for the same delectable cuisines throughout the week, and said child with no willpower gets to delight in a volume of food that is likely more than necessary.
This was the situation that I faced as a kid. Every. Single. Weekend. I cannot count the amount of Sunday dinners during which I ate so much that I felt sick to my stomach afterward. And even then, I couldn’t refuse dessert.
It is no surprise, then, that I weighed well over 100 pounds even in elementary school. The more pressing issue, however, is that I carried these eating habits into adulthood. As I started becoming more financially independent and doing my own grocery shopping, the scrumptious foods that I so fondly remembered from these family gatherings were inevitably those to which I gravitated. These eating habits, paired with my lack of work-life balance (as described in last week’s blog), was a recipe for the destruction of any and all nutrition.
I remember sitting at lunch one afternoon with my coworkers. I was eating my usual leftover pasta from dinner the previous night. During our conversation, I commented that I’d really like to lose weight. One of the more blunt teachers in our group said, “If you're trying to lose weight, why are you eating all that pasta and bread every day?” My defenses were up immediately, so I responded with my typical excuse: “I’m Italian. I can’t give up my bread and pasta.”
For years, I used that response. My predisposition toward carb-filled foods was entirely in my head. Believe it or not, an Italian CAN live without pasta and bread. In fact, I can’t tell you the last time I purchased either of those items. And yet, I’m still living and breathing (with much less effort than I’ve ever done so before).
Bad eating habits developed during childhood are hard to reverse, but they CAN be. However, if you invest yourself in the old cliches that tell you when people are set in their ways, they can never change their habits, you are setting yourself up for failure. You cannot allow the circumstances of your past, dietary or otherwise, to determine how you will lead your adult life. If your goal is change, clearly what you’ve done in the past is not giving you the results for which you hope. To change yourself, you must also change your ways. As an adult, you have the ability to make those decisions, and you are also held responsible if you do not.
I think it is safe to say that many people struggle with the concept of work-life balance when their jobs require them to work hours beyond the typical 9 to 5. Often times, the things that are neglected the most when teetering on that fine line have to do with their own personal health, namely fitness and nutrition.
This became a very real situation for me throughout my first two years as a teacher.
Teaching is a beautifully intricate art that requires an awkward balance between being knowledgeable and relatable, personable and stern, creative and strategic. Every moment within the classroom is an assessment and reassessment of how to compliment an ever-changing multitude of personalities in hopes of keeping the attention of students who would much rather be staring at a screen. This alone requires us to be at the highest level of attentiveness that we can manage for at least seven hours each day. Every single day.
Then we must factor in the actual teaching part of the job: creating and recreating assignments with the unattainable goal of making them universally effective.
Throughout the year, we inevitably see students at their best and their worst, when they succeed and fail, when they are healthy and ill. It’s no longer just a question of being an educator, but also being a role model, a counselor, a mentor, and many times, a shoulder to cry on.
And then, we have to grade papers.
After tackling all of these things over the course of the workday, it is no surprise that I also struggled with finding my work-life balance. When I got home from work, it was much easier to grab some pre-made microwaveable meal with a ton of salt and fat for dinner than to grill up some chicken breast and make a fresh salad. And certainly I had no time or energy to even think about exercising. During my first two years of teaching, I gained weight more rabidly than in any other period of my life.
Once I made the commitment to lose weight, however, I made a personal promise to afford myself an hour each day to exercise. So, at the end of every work day, I suited up and headed to the gym.
I received some dissent in regard to this decision. “Wow, Crystal. Leaving already?” was a typical response from other teachers who were known for burning the midnight oil.
It made me a little self-conscious. I did not want to earn the reputation for being the teacher who runs out of the school before even the students have the chance. After all, this could not have been further from the case. Each night after I settled in at home, I graded papers and planned lessons just like those teachers who remained within the confines of the school building.
Soon I began to see the positive effects of taking this hour for myself each day, effects far beyond just weight loss or physical fitness. I learned to ignore the condescending judgement I received from coworkers and see this commitment as an integral part of my success as an educator.
The most obvious positive is the ability to relieve some stress, a natural product of exercising. For me, part of this relief is a result of being focused on something entirely different. When I am in the middle of a workout, I am 100% concentrated on completing the task at hand. It is one of the few precious moments during my day when the ever growing pile of work that I’ll eventually have to address is not nagging at me from the back of my mind. I am fully devoted to operating within that moment, and I have no concern for how I should tweak the lesson I gave that day, nor what work I’ll have to tackle once I get home. This release of tension results in allowing me to go home and do all of that work more effectively and efficiently.
It also keeps me from getting so stressed out that I go into work the next day in a bad mood. As we all know, teenagers are fragile creatures, and even one moment of negative interaction can have a huge bearing on them. I never want any of my students to feel as though I dislike them or have intentionally disrespected them. Therefore, I believe keeping my anxiety levels in check is a benefit to them, as well as to myself.
Going to a gym where coaches run the classes also allows me to always remember what it’s like to be in the role of the novice. I believe that losing sight of what it’s like to work hard to learn something, to experience failures, and to achieve success would make me a complacent, and therefore ineffective, teacher. Being able to understand the point of view of a student on a daily basis allows me to have a superior understanding of my own students’ feelings and needs as they grapple to understand equally complicated concepts.
The simple fact of the matter is that a teacher who takes no time to focus on him/herself cannot sustain effective teaching practices over the course of several years. Just the same holds true for doctors, lawyers, accountants, hair stylists, managers, salesmen, etc. I choose to focus on myself through exercise, and it has been a positive and effective way to not only maintain my good health, but also to be the best professional that I can be.
My eyes widen as I scroll through the calendar, stopping on Saturday (or, as our gym likes to call it: Suffer Saturday). I read it once. Then again. Then once more before I am convinced that the trainer at our gym is either very angry with us, or incredibly confident in us.
“With a partner:
Run 1 mile
100 burpee box jumps
80 double unders
60 push press
40 hang power cleans
20 pull ups
40 hang power cleans
60 push press
80 double unders
100 burpee box jumps
Run 1 mile.”
“Are you doing the workout on Saturday?” my friend asks.
“I don’t know. That looks rough and I’m awful at most of those movements.”
“No you aren’t! Come do the work out! I’ll be your partner!”
But I am...I’m a slow runner, double unders skyrocket my heart rate, and I can’t do more than 3-5 pull ups at a time (on a good day). This is a workout that will test me physically, mentally, and emotionally, and I do not want to do it.
And that is exactly why I make myself do it. “Okay, I’ll be there.”
I made a decision a while back that I would not “cherry pick” workouts, or skip certain workouts because I don’t particularly care for their content. You might be wondering why. After all, people don’t generally feel badly for picking particular books to read or movies to watch. A person’s preference in entertainment, however, is based on interest; choosing to skip particular workouts is, more often than not, rooted in fear.
Although human beings are well acquainted with the concept of failure, it still tends to generate fear within us that is difficult to overcome. Our best defense mechanism in these circumstances is generally avoidance. But what does avoidance achieve? How many times did Thomas Edison try and fail before he successfully created the lightbulb? How many times did Muhammed Ali get a black eye or bloody nose before he started winning fights? To how many publishers did J.K. Rowling send manuscripts of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone before someone gave the story a chance?
It is quite certain that all of the failures that humans experience are difficult to handle, some more so than others, but if we hope to become better at those things with which we struggle, we have to actually DO them. In the process, that might mean experiencing some failure, but the great thing about being a free-willed, free-thinking species is that we can choose to ignore failures, or even learn from them, and try again.
This is something I’ve learned quite well in my CrossFit journey, specifically in my seemingly eternal pursuit to improve my pull-ups. It took me two and a half years to get my very first, incredibly ugly, kipping pull-up and three years to get a strict pull-up. A few weeks ago, we did a workout called “Jackie,” which includes a 1,000 meter row, 55 barbell thrusters, and 30 pull-ups. I was off of the rower in less than 4 minutes (a decent time), and did the thrusters unbroken, allowing me to approach the pull-up rig at around 5:56. I grabbed the black metal above me and did 5, dropped down and did 3 more. I huffed and puffed uncontrollably, partially from anxiety, and partially from being utterly winded. I jumped up and did 2 more, but failed my third rep. I cursed. My heart rate elevated even more. I tried again, and failed another rep.
“Stop getting in your head!” my coach yelled from across the room. Back up on the rig for another 2 reps, then single pull-ups until rep 22. I failed again. Walking away from the rig, I threw my hands up and said, “I can’t do it!”
The coach saw me breaking down emotionally. “Come on. You’ve got this. Do one at a time,” she said.
“No! I can’t do this! I’m done.”
“Crystal, you are going to finish this.”
It took me over three and a half minutes to do thirty pull-ups, and when I finished, I sat down against the wall and cried.
The next time that pull-ups were programmed for one of our workouts, my heart sank. I dreaded it. But I went.
The only reason that I was able to do them, slow as they may have been, is because I never skip a workout with pull-ups in it. Sure, I struggled with those 30 pull-ups, physically, mentally, and emotionally, but 3 years ago I would have done those pull ups with the strongest assistance band available. If I had skipped all of the workouts with pull ups in them, I would still be using that band.
You don’t exercise for the joy of leaving the gym a sweaty mess. You exercise to see progress, in whatever capacity that means for you. Achieving progress requires you to face your fears head on, knowing that you might fail in the process, but doing your damnedest not to. Will doing so sometimes end in tears? Yes, probably. But tears wipe away easily. Accept that those tears might come, embrace the fact that failure is possible, and use both of these mentalities to help you face the same fears again and again. Only then will you achieve the goals you set forth for yourself.
While I was visiting one of my closest friends last week, she asked me, “Do you feel like you yet?” I wasn’t sure what she meant.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, are you able to fathom that this body is now your own? That you are a different woman than you used to be?”
That’s a difficult question. The realistic answer is, “No.” I’ve lived so much of my life as an overweight female, that it is still very difficult for me to break the habits that came with being that person.
Here are some weird things that I still experience:
There are so many more of these that I could list. To a person who has never experienced being heavy, these likely all seem nonsensical. But for those of us who have spent most of our lives wearing much larger pants, not being able to fit our hineys in the remaining space on the couch, being looked down upon for being overweight, being kicked off of roller coasters when we don’t fit in the seats, or knocking some kid’s work off of his/her desk because the aisles in between the desks are too narrow, these are real concerns.
I absolutely understand that this perspective is skewed, and perhaps to some it may seem that I should actively be working to change it. I don’t know that I would, though. These are the kinds of things that motivate me to continue working on myself. I know the fear and embarrassment that I felt in those situations, and I know that I never want to genuinely feel the same way again. If I lose sight of those emotions, I feel like I will also lose inspiration to continue being a better version of myself. However, I can only utilize that perspective as motivation so long as I can identify that those moments of hesitation mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. Once they pass, I can brush them off or even consider them small victories upon realizing that I am no longer the person who needs to concern herself with the problems she encountered as a 300 pound woman.
If you are also navigating your way through the twists and turns of a transformation journey, weight loss or otherwise, it is important to recognize that the mind and body do not always change at the same rate: you may be physically different, but your brain will need a few minutes to catch up. For some, this can be confusing, and maybe even burdensome. With the right mindset, though, you can train yourself to use it as motivation to remain both humble and driven. And who knows? Maybe one day you’ll forget the little idiosyncrasies attached to your former self. Maybe you won’t. What matters is that you can identify them as being based on an outdated and inaccurate perspective that holds no meaning to the progress that you have made or what is yet to come.