Tuesday, April 21, 2015

There is only hereafter

Inspired by this post on Can Anybody Hear Me?, I want to talk about this photo I recently posted of myself on Instagram. On the left is my race photo from the 2012 Tinkerbell Half Marathon, and on the right is my race photo from the Star Wars Half Marathon this past January:

A photo posted by Thu (@vivaglamr3d) on

Normally, I'm wary of Before/After photos, and I also don't like to emphasize weight loss, because it's not my goal, but I do want to talk a little bit about my weight loss.

Sometimes I feel guilty about pointing out that I've lost weight. Why? Well, a big part of it is that THINNER is a societal mandate. You can't escape it - everyone and everything in mainstream media encourages thinness, sometimes at the expense of your own health. It took me a long time to stop making weight loss my focus and to learn one very important thing: my body will do whatever it wants to do. I'm going to keep pursuing the activities that I love, and my body might lose weight as a result, or it might not, and I've made peace with the idea that it doesn't matter what the numbers on the scale are, as long as I'm happy with the life I'm living.

Lisa (from the above blog post) is right when she says that it's problematic to associate your "After" with a number. Your appearance may change, and your clothing size may change, but you never stop being who you are - your struggles and insecurities are not going to change. Your insides are not going to change just because your outside has changed; you need to change your insides.

And I'm not saying "you need to change your insides" as an admonishment. I'm saying that nothing can take the place of learning to love and accept yourself. Some people think that hitting their goal weight will help them do that, and for some people it works*, but I think a lot of people find that the internal unhappiness they were feeling before, in their "Before" bodies, still exists even after the pounds have melted away.

Weight loss was my goal for many years, and while I was successful in that endeavor for a time, I wasn't happy. To be honest, it constantly felt like work, and not the good, satisfying kind, but a stressful, anxiety-filled chore.

I stopped exercising and dieting for weight loss, and I started training for specific sports and eating to fuel my training, and it changed my life, not because of any weight loss that might happened, but because I learned to see my body in an entirely different light. I also learned to see weight loss itself in a different light - I stopped caring about having a "hot body," and started caring about having an efficient one, one that can run faster or lift heavier. If I'm trying to lose any weight right now, it's because I want to be better at my sports. But I'm not willing to sacrifice my personal health or happiness for that weight loss, so it either happens or it doesn't, and it's all the same to me; my body will do whatever it wants to do. 

And you know what? My weight hasn't budged much. As I wrote on my FB, the numerical difference in weight between my two pictures is less than 10 pounds, which only goes to show that the numbers on the scale don't tell the whole story. I've only lost a single-digit net amount of weight in the last three years, but in that same span of time, I've run 3 marathons and 22 half marathons, and in the past six months alone, I've brought my powerlifting total to 840 (385 deadlift/315 backsquat/140 bench press). People might tell me I look better now, and I'll accept it as a compliment, but the truth is that I don't look better; I feel better, and it's because I'm happy about the things I've achieved, which are not wholly dependent on weight loss.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't be mindful of your body and your physical health; I'm saying that your mental and emotional health is just as important as your physical health, and that thinness doesn't necessarily equate to physical health anyway. (And, for the record, health and fitness aren't the same thing either, even though I'm using them interchangeably right now.) Just like there's no magical pill for weight loss, there's also no magical number for personal fulfillment and self-actualization.

So, she's right. There is no After; there is only hereafter. There is no magical point where all your troubles and struggles will disappear, and everything will be sunshine and rainbows. There is just you, your body, for the rest of your life, and the lifelong battle to love yourself in the face of everything that encourages self-loathing. I have not reached my After, and I probably never will, and that is okay.

* There are definitely cases where weight loss will significantly improve people's quality of life. I will not deny that. I'm not here to judge which cases those are, either. I'm just acknowledging that they exist.

Friday, April 17, 2015

The uphill climb

My next marathon (Vancouver, WA) is actually my 4th marathon, but in training for it, I feel unsure about myself all over again. I have not yet reached that point where everything is just lock-step for me, and plus, training through the winter was a brand new experience, since usually I don't get much mileage during January, February, and March.

Hashtag: story of my life
It's been really hard not to compare myself right now to how I was doing at this point in my training for CIM a few months ago, especially since my tendency has been to focus on the highlights of my training from back then, rather than to remember the everyday ups and downs. For example, during my taper period, I managed to run ten miles at an overall 11:30 pace, which was waaaaaay fast even for me. (I normally go 12:30-13:30.) I remember being shocked... and pleased.

That's what goes through my head as I run now. I ran ten miles at an 11:30 pace. So when I fall short of that, which has been pretty much every long run these days, I get really bummed out. And I question myself. Why am I so slow? Why do I feel so sluggish all the time?

Nevermind that that run happened during my taper period, which was at the peak end of my program, and right now I'm just barely halfway through this current training period.

Nevermind that I had put in a solid 2+ months of consistent running to get to that point, whereas right now, I'm coming off a winter full of interruptions due to death plagues, nerve inflammation, and blisters from hell.

Nevermind that that particular run had me doing a 5/1 interval, and right now I'm still only doing 3/1 and 4/1 (so my pace is slower right now because my training program actually specifies it).

Nevermind all of those logic-filled reasons. The irrational part of my brain is dead-set on focusing on my shortcomings, even though they're not really shortcomings.

Even though I am the same person (inside), and I'm using the same training program, things are not the same, and I have to keep reminding myself NOT to compare, because it really won't turn out in my favor. My body really isn't the same - the changes in my muscle and fat composition are quite visibly different, thanks to a more solid background in weight training, and I'm more tired because I'm working out waaaaay harder, week by week, than I was before. The conditions I'm running in are not the same: it's April right now, and the weather is getting warmer all the time. My 20-miler is scheduled for the end of May, which is far different from the middle of November, which is when I last ran a 20-miler. And this time, my actual race is at the end of June instead of the beginning of December, and considering how I run better in colder weather, I can't necessarily expect that I'll get similar results from my training when the big day comes.

It's not fair to myself to compare my performances, because I'm not even training for the same race. But it's a hard habit to shake - I felt like I achieved a certain level of greatness (for me, anyway), and I'm so eager to get back to that point. And I feel like my body is not cooperating with me, when in reality, it IS cooperating with me, but I'm failing to remember that I'm asking it to do something quite different this time around (3 days a week of heavy weight training in addition to 4 days a week of training for a marathon in spring climate).

I'm not giving up - not even close - but it would do me some good to hit the pause button and get some perspective on the situation. And to stop beating myself up about it mentally and just enjoy the journey.

Friday, April 10, 2015

The lasting legacy of roller derby

I've recently started deciding to get more serious about my strength training and fitness, and in doing so, I'm actually digging up a lot of old feelings or habits that were once really problematic in my life. There was a period of time when I was obsessive about perfectly tracking every calorie I consumed and when; where I was spending a ton of money at GNC buying protein powder (without really knowing why I needed it, or if I really did) and fat burners that I consumed like candy; when I would sit there sweating and feeling my heart pound as a result of all the stimulants and feel afraid that I was doing something bad to my body, but then I would go home and lift my shirt up in the mirror and imagine the barest hint of an outline of an ab muscle, and convince myself that everything would be okay as soon as I lost 10, 20, 50 pounds, maybe more. "Some girls who are my height are even under a hundred pounds," I mused to myself. "Maybe if I work hard enough, I'll get there." Of course, I never got there. And day in, day out, my life thrummed with a constant undercurrent of self-loathing for not being thin and pretty.

I've come a long way since then. I don't hate my body anymore, and I have learned to care far more about what it can do than what it looks like, but right now it kinda feels like hiking in the woods and knowing the cliff's edge is somewhere nearby, but you're not sure how close you are to it. I feel like my mind is walking that fine line between being serious and being obsessive, and I find myself constantly having to talk myself down. I'm tracking my meals again, but it's not to lose a ton of weight drastically; it's to make sure my body performs the best that it can when I run or lift. I'm taking supplements again, including a (stimulant-free) fat burner, because building muscle and losing some of the fat will help me run faster or lift heavier. I'm looking at my counter-top full of powder-filled jars and shaker bottles, and I'm seeing a version of me that looks remarkably similar to the old me, and it worries me quite a bit.

One thing is different though: the self-loathing is gone. I know without a doubt that, before, I was trying to beat my body into submission, and hating myself when I failed. Now, I'm trying to treat it with care, to honor my body and its limitations, to not see all my actions as "pass" or "fail," but to see each step as an achievement in itself on my journey to... something. I don't have an end goal, like a specific weight, but just a general plan to feel good physically, mentally, and emotionally.

What changed? If I could pinpoint one time in my life where things really started to turn around, I would have to say that it was when I started getting involved in roller derby.

My first bootcamp with SVRG in 2010
I stopped over a year ago, officially, but I feel the impact that roller derby made on my life every single day, and maybe that's why I constantly miss it and I still haven't really let go of my derby name/identity. Why I still feel like I'm a part of it, even though my skates are collecting dust in my garage.

As much as roller derby has grown since its inception, it's still very much a niche sport. There are still many who think it's just about lipstick and fishnets and fake fights. It's still a sport where most of the time, when it comes up in casual conversation, people require an explanation of the rules. (No one ever needs to explain the point of soccer or basketball, right? Although, I still don't understand football.) As a sport that exists on the fringes of the sports world, it also attracts people who tend to exist on the fringes of life, in the sense that you rarely ever see a sports team that is such a large collection of punk girls, rockabilly girls, goth girls, fat girls, genderqueer girls, transgender girls, pansexual girls, poly girls, etc. I met "types" of people I'd never met before. I use the word "types" with bunny-ear quotation marks because no person should be reduced to a type, of course. What I mean to say is, my world expanded exponentially when I joined a roller derby league.

Of course, the roller derby community is as diverse as the world is, but there must be something special about it that draws us all together. It wasn't just a workout or a random hobby - it was a universe. There's a saying that goes "The derby monster ate my life," and we all affectionately chuckle at it because it's true. You don't just play roller derby; you live roller derby. It consumes you. And it never wants to let you go.

I found a home in the roller derby community, and it was there that the broken parts of me started to heal. For the first time in a long time, I was learning how to train, rather than just exercise. For the first time in a long time, I was focusing on my body's performance, rather than its appearance. I wasn't just a girl trying to lose weight anymore; I was an athlete. And it's amazing what a difference that change in terminology makes. I'm not saying that athletes are immune to self-esteem and body image problems, but I'm saying that becoming an athlete gave my body a purpose other than to look pretty.

And roller derby nurtured those feelings of positivity. Derby chicks are fierce. They're badass. They hit hard, and they don't take crap from anyone, on the track or off.

I had found one of the few pockets of society where it was okay to be larger, where it was actually helpful to be a big girl, and I learned how to exercise and eat healthily and how to appreciate my body rather than beat it up all the time. (Well, there was a fair amount of beating up too, but of a different sort.) I lost weight without actually trying to lose weight, and moreover, I didn't really care that I had lost weight. All I cared about was spending my time skating with some of the most amazing, empowering people I had ever met, and I was happy with myself and my body.

Practicing with Peninsula Roller Girls as Viva Glam, #R3D
Roller derby helped me find my feminism, which is still an on-going journey for me, but this eventually helped me learn about things like the prevalence of Photoshopping in the media, which made me hate myself less when I looked at magazines. (Actually, I stopped reading magazines altogether, except for ones about running, knitting, and feminism. That really helped a lot.) Also, it was roller derby that led me to Crossfit and Paleo, which taught me about functional strength and finding the right way of eating for my body. While I don't do either of those anymore, I will be forever grateful for the positive impact they both had on my life, because they both made me healthier and happier about my body.

I don't play roller derby anymore, but I feel its presence in my life every day. Roller derby changed the way I look, and it also changed the way I look at myself. My large body that I resented for so long is now an asset rather than a burden, and as I embark on this next phase of my athletic life, I will never forget that time in my life when I finally learned that I was capable of being awesome and that it had nothing to do with the numbers on my scale or the tags in my clothing. I pretty much still carry a bit of Viva Glam with me everywhere I go because she was powerful and unafraid, and when I feel my strength slipping, I call upon her. It's her strong legs pushing out of the bottom of a back squat and finishing strong at the end of a 20-miler. You can take the girl out of derby, but you can't take derby out of the girl. I owe my body and my sanity to roller derby, and I'm thankful for it every day.