Many years ago I called on her and she came! The word exercise entered my vocabulary and little by little I made small dietary changes: I stopped eating meat; stopped drinking juices and sodas, and started eating a healthy breakfast. Over the course of a couple years, the pounds simply melted—not all of them, but quite a few—until I hit a plateau and just could not lose any more weight. I knew I needed to eat more carefully and increase the intensity of my workouts, but try as I did, I just couldn’t. For several years I did my “This is the week I start my diet” Monday morning ritual. I was like a mad woman grabbing at the wind, but opening her hands to an empty palm. I cannot begin to explain the fleeting nature of that thing I was trying to find, that weight-loss genie who comes when she comes and goes when she goes. But to my delight, my genie has returned!
I just finished participating in a “Biggest Loser” program offered at my workplace. It is modeled off the nationally televised American series of the same name and features many of the same components—scheduled workouts with a trainer, frequent strength and endurance challenges, regular weigh-ins, and required consultations with a nutritionist and motivational coach. The program started a few months ago, and for my first several meetings with my coach and nutritionist, I repeatedly questioned why I was finally able to consistently stick to a sensible eating plan. Was it the aligning of the stars? Luck? Magic?
We never settled on an answer, and they both advised me to simply live in the moment and appreciate that the program was going well. A couple weeks ago while meeting with my motivational coach, Anthony, we had a conversation about my success in the program. At the time I’d lost twenty pounds—yeah!—and he commented, smiling, that the manner in which I have been speaking about my approach to the Biggest Losers sounded to him as if my participation has been an act of self-love.
Self-love? What about the genie—that amorphous, faceless, and voiceless spirit that worked weight-loss magic when she was in the mood? Self-love struck me as suspect and vague, but could it be the genie that had eluded me all those other Monday mornings when I swore that change was around the corner until lunchtime when I ate my Lean Cuisine PLUS a bagel?
Self-love, I believe, is an embracing response to ourselves and manifests as a degree of tenderness towards that face in the mirror. It is an ease of self-forgiveness and an inclination to see the good in ourselves despite that relentless voice in our heads that recites our flaws day after day. To make any important but challenging change in our life, we have to begin by deciding that self-love is an admirable thing—not the same as selfishness or greed. We have to decide that waking up at 5:25 a.m. and going to the gym, logging every single morsel of food we put in our mouth, or sipping on water while our colleagues feast on our favorite pastry are sacrifices of which we are worthy.
It’s amazing how many of us approach weight loss as an act of self-hatred, beginning with a manifesto on all our flaws and a declaration that we hate the person we have become. This posturing is prolific in weight-loss commercials in which people mock and belittle life-size images of their formerly fat selves. But this fat self is the person whom we have to ask to go to the gym and eat more broccoli than thought humanly possible. This fat self has to be our collaborator, and if we hate her and tell her how worthless she is, how likely are we to get her cooperation—long term cooperation?
Losing weight or accomplishing any major life goal is best achieved with a willing accomplice who feels loved and appreciated. If we think of ourselves as an employee of our will, consider how an employee would react if you screamed obscenities at him day after day. He would either walk out on you cursing, or do a lousy job while mumbling under his breath. We can get so much more cooperation from someone who knows that he is valuable no matter what he weighs and that he deserves our love just because he exists.
I still struggle a bit to clearly delineate how the few weight loss successes I’ve had in my life began differently from all the others. The difference was not my intensity of desire nor my knowledge of what to do, and I can’t say that I did not in some ways love myself on all the other occasions that I tried. However, my successful diet endeavors have been accompanied by a certain gentleness with myself that makes me less anxious, less frustrated, and more patient than I otherwise recall. Perhaps this gentleness is the genie, this ability to not be overwhelmed by the mistakes and keep a steady eye on the prize.
The Biggest Loser program at my job has been a blessing—an opportunity to decide how much I love myself and the extent to which I will make a sacrifice for my own benefit. And you know what, I deserve the gift of effort I have given myself and should not flinch at that effort being named for what it is: self-love. So I agreed with my coach’s observation, and we talked about the ways this love was being manifested in other areas of my life such as my plans to get an early start on some projects this summer, so I’ll be under less pressure when the fall semester begins.
The Biggest Loser program just ended, and I was not the biggest loser—never expected to be—but I am a “loser” and will continue to be one. What it has taken for me to be a loser is something we all sorely need: a champion who will look at us in the mirror at 5:25 a.m. and say “I love you, so get that workout gear on and let’s go!”
About the Author:
Andrea Shaw, Ph.D., is assistant director of the Division of Humanities and an assistant professor of English at Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale. She was born in Jamaica and is a creative writer and a scholar of Caribbean and African Diaspora studies. Her book, The Embodiment of Disobedience: Fat Black Women’s Unruly Political Bodies, was published in 2006. Her creative and scholarly writing have been published in numerous journals, including World Literature Today, MaComére, The Caribbean Writer, Crab Orchard Review, Feminist Media Studies, Social Semiotics, and FEMSPEC. She graduated from the University of Miami with a Ph.D. in English and from Florida International University with an M.F.A in Creative Writing.