Tuesday, February, 11, 14

My Body. Not Myself.

Filed under: a moment in my head — theradishpress @ 2:12 pm
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I naively thought that as soon as I was out of New York – perhaps as soon as I was on the plane leaving New York – all my troubles would go away. The things that had been weighing heavily upon me mentally and emotionally would dissipate into a thin layer of fog – one more piece of someone to cloud the murky skyline. But of course, that did not happen. Once I was alone in Denver I was faced with myself. As a friend later pointed out to me, I was busy helping take care of other people in New York. Too busy to focus on myself. Here I was, alone, forced to really look at myself, inside and out. I was faced with fears I had buried for survival, and self-hating thoughts. Perhaps the biggest challenge was something that began to surface when I was packing for my trip back in New York. After my last day at work and the frenzy of a quick trip to Virginia and Christmas had died down, I was left to to turn my room into a small storage space. My days were dedicated to inviting friends to hang out while I packed up my room and all I could need for my trip into a hiking bag and waist pack.

My mind wandered to my body. I began to scrutinize every part of me. Back in August I weighed myself at a friend’s house. It was the first time I stepped onto a scale – outside of a doctor’s office – in perhaps ten years. I learned that weighing myself caused me to fixate on the number, obsess over bringing it down. In my younger years, I had done very unhealthy things to lose weight: thrown up and followed a horrific diet that made me lose ten pounds in three days. When I weighed myself in August, I was giving into the temptation to obsess, to know what number I was at, to hopefully disprove my suspicions of weight gain. I discovered I had gained almost twenty pounds in a little over a year. The next few days were a spiral of downward emotions. I had a breakdown and was so angry and disappointed in myself. I told two friends at first who I thought might help offer me some comfort, but I was not made to feel better – rather worse – by their assurances that I looked great. The point was, I didn’t think I looked great, and I felt even worse having known for certain I put on weight.

After feeling myself sink deeply into sadness, I decided to do something I never had. I reached out for help. I wrote out exactly what the issue was, how I was feeling, the despair that encased me. This – my body and my weight – has been a lifelong struggle. I have always been overweight. I have always been treated unkindly and often cruelly because of my weight. This isn’t just about wanting to look a certain way, it’s about wanting to have some sort of control over my emotions, and to not feel so badly about myself. In addition to being a lifelong fat person, I’ve always been an emotional eater. Food has suppressed my anxiety and comforted my depression. It has brought me moments of ease. It still does. Of course,  the irony is that food has also greatly contributed to my anxiety and depression, as well as physical ailments.

I have had digestive issues as far back as I can remember. By the summer of 2011 I was so sick that everything I ate practically passed right through me. I soon was eating primarily rice, potatoes, avocados, and bananas. I feared anything else would incapacitate me. Even those foods were not always kind. Finally, after feeling a serious impact on my school, work, and social life, and being told by my general physician I simply had IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), I saw a holistic doctor. I was afraid to leave the house most days, for fear I wouldn’t make a short subway ride without needing an emergency bathroom break. The holistic doctor did something called Nutrition Response Testing and told me I had Candida – an overgrowth of yeast in my stomach. I was put on a strict diet of no yeast, no sugar, and nothing fermented (in summary). This was a three week intensive diet that once cleared the Candida would require I keep to it 80% of the time for the rest of my life. Additionally, I was given supplements to help me detox and later probiotics to repair the damage done to my stomach. Due to my illness, I had already lost a significant amount of weight from my inability to eat. The detox caused even more weight to drop. For the first time in years, I did not feel physically sick, and I was admittedly excited about the weight loss. I could finally fit into clothes I liked. I could shop in the not plus sized section. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying being plus sized is bad, I am saying that I felt excited about how I looked and what it meant in terms of my shopping. I am fully admitting that I liked being smaller.

I also began to notice a shift in my mental and emotional states. I realized that gluten made me sluggish and depressed. Dairy and caffeine made me anxious. It was amazing to finally make connections between what I ate and how I felt – physically, mentally, emotionally, psychologically. The thing about being an emotional eater is that I was never really aware of what I had eaten. If I was asked at the end of the day what I had eaten, I couldn’t remember most of the time. I ate to push emotions down, to cover feelings, to hide myself deep down inside. For at least five months I stuck strictly to the Candida diet. Once I began to eat outside of it, I slowly felt more and more that I could eat whatever I wanted without getting sick. It’s a funny thing, my stomach still gets upset from time to time, and I can’t help but momentarily panic that I am sick all over again. I found that mental health was just as important to treat in conjunction with my physical health. I was already seeing a therapist, but I needed to talk about these issues specifically and draw more connections between all the aspects of me.

The thing about weight is, no one really wants to talk about it. Yes, I could discuss it with my doctor and therapist, but weight and body image conversations still border on taboo. It took me years to even broach the subject with my therapist, mostly because I didn’t want to acknowledge that my weight was in any way contributing to my states of anxiety and depression. And most of the time, I didn’t even think about it. I learned to not think about my weight. My residual self image was so far removed from my actual body – I so often thought of myself as much smaller than I was. It was a sort of way to cope with my actual size. I found that I was getting a lot of compliments on my weight loss, never mind it was all due to sickness. But it got to a point where some people expressed concern, and specifically about how much I talked about diet. I suddenly felt I needed to keep my mouth shut about my diet and weight. It was so central to my life at this point, and having never been thin, it was all new to me. I needed to talk about it. I had this new body and felt lonely in it. As with so many things in my life, I learned to bury what I was feeling. And so, as addicts do, I returned to food. My occasional strays from the diet became daily acts of consumption. I kept telling myself that I could get back to a healthy diet, that one meal a day with something unhealthy wasn’t bad, and then two meals a day, then maybe three, snacks. I began to wonder if in order for me to succeed at healthy eating habits, I would need to completely cut junk out.

I have an ability to maintain focus and follow strict rules, but once I falter, I lose sight of myself and my goals. It’s not only with food, but with food it’s the most difficult. So much of my day is me thinking about what I will eat, and what I will eat based on where I am going and what I am doing, and what will I eat for the next few days and how much will I eat. Food consumes me as much, if not more so, as I consume it. In order to be able to heal from this body hatred and to move forward in a healthy fashion, I need to be open and honest about the role(s) food plays in my life. I need to learn to love myself, to truly love the body that I have, no matter its state. And at the same time, I need and want to work on my relationship with food.

I could write so much more about this. I could write essay upon essay about the impact weight and food have had on my life. I am going to take a break here because even opening up – despite being helpful – brings so much focus to the issue that I need to step back and not fixate and obsess.

Friday, February, 7, 14

12 Years a Slave

When the film ends – over two hours of a harsh reality I have never seen so blatantly exposed on a Hollywood screen – words come across the screen declaring that there is no knowledge of how, when, or where Solomon Northup died. There it is, the value of Black life in our society. Solomon Northup survived being drugged and sold into slavery, wrote his own story, and then worked as an abolitionist, only to be forgotten and swept under the proverbial rug. I began to think back on my public school education in Fairfax County Virginia – one of the wealthiest and (boasting) most diverse school districts in the United States. The topic of slavery was glossed over. There was never any room for debate – an agreed upon bad thing from our past, but there was never any examination of slavery and its impact on African-Americans and the entire country. 

While slavery was never up for debate in the classroom (I guess good job on that front teachers), there was a definite period – primarily in elementary school – when we were taught about Columbus, Ponce de Leon, and other colonizers as if they were heroes. If these men were heroes then presumably their actions were heroic. Thankfully, I was raised in a house where we were told the truth in regard to colonization – after all, I am from two heritages that have been colonized – and the subsequent genocide of indigenous tribes on North and South American soil, and then the slave trade. But still, that was my fortune at home – the school system made little effort to expose the horrors of colonization and slavery.

As I watched 12 Years a Slave I kept thinking about how important Northup’s story is. Steve McQueen does a brilliant job of not shying away from the brutality of slavery. And there are no white saviors. Yes, Brad Pitt portrays a man (Bass) who assists Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in regaining his freedom, but when Bass is first introduced he uses the “n” word when speaking in reference to the enslaved men he is working with – at the same time, arguing with Epps (Michael Fassbender) over the immorality of slavery. Bass’ use of the word and hesitation at helping Northup set him apart as not a clear hero – too often stories about oppressions against people of color are told from a White perspective (Dances With Wolves, Geronimo, Cry Freedom), and the writers could have easily tried to make Bass a completely likable character. But this is Northup’s story, not Bass’, not Epps’, no one but his.

The film is a reminder of the ways in which slavery and the oppression of African-Americans is still so engrained in US culture. That Northup could not trust White people, the rifts created between Black and White women, pitting Black folks against each other, denying proper education and disenfranchising Black youth – all these experiences that Northup and other Black folks in the film endured, are in effect today as well. Yes, I know that Black folks are not in shackles, so don’t bother commenting that. And I know that there are people who would argue this point – White people, let’s be real – and ask for specific examples. The thing is, if you don’t know this to be the case and refuse to believe it, I have zero interest in engaging in a debate. There is nothing to debate. There are DC public schools that are a reflection of how our country values or devalues Black life and education, there is Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s current celebrity status, there is Miley Cyrus co-opting Black culture and identity along with a long list of other White pop stars, there is the fact that the majority of men in prisons are Black, and I could continue. But these are only the blatant discriminations, not even the micro-aggressions that occur on a daily basis. And as I stated, there is no debate.

When Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) throws the liquor bottle at Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) I was so stunned by the pure cruelty of the act. As Mistress Epps’ jealousy of Patsey grew and violence toward Patsey escalated, I began to think about the layers of complexity within the story. There are moments of sadness for Mistress Epps – I was shocked at the sadness I felt for Mistress Epps, stuck in a marriage to a cruel man who has no interest in her sexually. Slavery and the constant rape of Black women by White men created animosity from White women, only the anger was directed at Black women. As if Patsey and other Black women had some say in the actions of these White men. That Mistress Epps’ rage was directed at Patsey and not her husband goes to show the depth and reach of racism. I was also reminded of the ways in which patriarchy prevails, pitting women against each other, while men remain without fault. 

Armsby (Garret Dillahunt) and Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) were fascinating characters as well. tHe latter because he seems in some ways genuinely kind, but when it came down to it, he was just as scary as Epps. In some ways, a man like Ford is more terrifying because at least Epps was clear in his cruelty. There was no question that Epps could not be trusted. Ford seemed perhaps to have goodness to him, but ultimately, Ford only wanted to protect himself and refused to hear Northup’s truth. Ford also gave Northup to Epps. Armsby though, is the perfect example of White guilt and White supremacy. Armsby works the cotton fields along the African-Americans who have been enslaved. It is a reminder that poor White people were also subjected to some of the labors of slavery. Armsby, though, is not beaten and is publicly forgiven and shown kindness for doing a terrible job, while the African-Americans are whipped and beaten routinely. Armsby reveals to Northup – as he helps salve Northup’s lashed back – that he was once in charge of regulating slaves for a plantation owner. Armsby became a drunk and could not work, and was then sentenced to the cotton fields. Armsby tells Northup that the task of hitting another human takes its toll, which led him to drink. He said that some men buried the pain of it, and others drank it away. Armsby’s acknowledgment that his work was inhumane causes Northup to think he can trust Armsby with the task of helping him regain his freedom. Armsby’s quick betrayal is yet another reminder of White supremacy – Armsby saw a way to gain himself loyalty from Epps and get money from Northup. By the time Bass was on screen all I could think was “No, don’t trust him! He’s white!” 

When Bass came through for Northup I wondered at the casting of Brad Pitt. I could not help but think that as one of the producers Pitt would rather be in a favorable light. And I wondered at the extent to which White guilt can dictate actions. Did Pitt want to be a “good guy” in a film with so many horrible White characters? And can we blame him? I can’t say that I wouldn’t necessarily want the same. It made me wonder at Ejiofor and Fassbender as well. The former is an English native of Nigerian heritage and the latter a German native of Irish and German descent. This particular story is not native to their homes, but as Fassbender stated in his Daily Show interview, it is a universal and important story. Slavery was common in other colonizing parts of the world – it lasted longer in the United States, but not exclusive to it. And I wondered more at McQueen, a Black Englishman. Perhaps this story is best told from an outsider perspective. There is no desire to hide behind guilt or shame. The first McQueen film I saw was Hunger (starring Fassbender) about Irish nationals who went on a hunger strike under English imprisonment. I wondered at an Englishman telling this story, but upon realizing McQueen is Black my thought was “oh, he gets it. He knows what it’s like to be Othered”. The point is, Northup’s story, and the story of slavery in the United States is an important part of our history. It is part of what has shaped our nation, and we cannot ignore that fact. We cannot ignore the fact that its impact is prevalent. There are Black folks alive today who have relatives not that long dead who were enslaved, and there are Black folks alive today who lived under Jim Crow. To argue that slavery is a thing of the past is to diminish or straight out ignore the consequences of its existence. 



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