The Shriver Report – The Weight of the Heart
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The Weight of the Heart

ScaleSince being overwhelmed by chronic oral pain last spring, I’ve done lots to cope, including things that would prove to be my downfall: I comforted myself with way too much ice cream (full-fat, every day, it was soothing and numbed the pain), and I put my scale away.

Physicians prescribed an array of painkillers and novel approaches, and I even underwent a few nerve blocks. I learned to meditate and distract myself. But nothing kept the pain at bay as effectively as a huge bowl of ice cream, followed by just one more.

Those poor decisions came home to rest earlier this week when a new doctor insisted on getting a current weight. His nurse was not amused by my suggestion that she simply fill in the chart with F-A-T. So I turned my back to the scale and told her not to mention my weight.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “Every menopausal woman says the same thing.”

In the end, though, I needed to sign a form that featured my weight in solid numbers, bold face, at the top of a chart. I could not avert my eyes.

Or my mind, and how the weight quickly pulled me to the tyranny of the scale. The dread of the dressing room. The never-ending quest to be something less than who or what I am. I’ve been at this since I was 12 years old, and I have an attic full of old journals that describe my efforts in terrible detail: The calorie counting, the sit ups, the walks, the measurements, the self-loathing, the worry. I was not anorexic, but, in hindsight, I clearly had disordered eating habits.

So, too, did my friends, and we spent hours plotting our battles against who we were—or who we were becoming, as our bodies transformed from the lean girlish figures to the full-formed women’s curves we could not escape.

Who knows why I was so hard on myself? I don’t remember any great social pressure in the early 1970s, beyond every-girl’s-wish to have hair that swept back like Farrah Fawcett’s, or wedged like Dorothy Hammill’s. My mother was always aware of what I was up to in terms of diet, but her repeated comments that I was perfect just the way I was did nothing to stop me.

I remember one photo from my (first) wedding, when I was dancing with a beloved friend, and the camera caught me in a twirl. “Look at that wasp-waist!” my grandmother commented. Four children put paid to that.

It never mattered, really, what the scale said: If I was 110 pounds or 190, I was not satisfied. And so for decades, I have battled myself. In such battles, of course, no one wins.

“Websites are full of strategies for slimming those thighs—because, as we all know, absence is a thing of beauty.”

I write about public health, and recently read a very sad article about the latest diet trend among middle- and high school girls: The thigh gap. For those who’ve never heard of it, just ask the nearest teenager.  Or stand with your heels tight, look in the mirror, and see if any light shines through the gap between your thighs. The wider that gap, the more beautiful you are—or so these girls believe. Websites are full of strategies for slimming those thighs—because, as we all know, absence is a thing of beauty.

I was talking about this with a colleague whose baby girl is a year old, and we decried the persistence of eating disorders and the obsession with body image. We’d seen the latest Facebook meme which shows how PhotoShop and wizardry can make the most ordinary woman a Barbie-like object. I described to my colleague the ways that I had failed my own daughters, somehow not keeping the culture at bay enough to keep them from thinking that how they look somehow indicates who they are, or what they can do. Like my mother had with me, I countered their make-up, their hair product, their diets and their worries with a focus on the wonderful fact of their presence in this world. It was not enough to balance how they felt about how they looked.

“And as the pounds racked up, I realized that what I hate is not the scale—it is what I think I am when I do not weigh 120 or 150 pounds. I think I am the weight, and forget that I am not.”

These thoughts rushed through my mind this morning as I dragged my scale from where I’d let it gather dust all summer. I tapped the top to activate its sensor, then climbed on. And as the pounds racked up, I realized that what I hate is not the scale—it is what I think I am when I do not weigh 120 or 150 pounds. I think I am the weight, and forget that I am not.

I thought of the advice I’d given my colleague—that she might avoid body-image issues for her daughter if only she could find ways to praise her that did not revolve around her appearance. That she is smart, I said, or funny. Although as I reflected, I realized that this strategy eventually proved  ineffective for my girls, much as my own mother’s insistence that I too, was fine, had failed to convince me of that.

For years, whenever I complained about some undesirable body part, my mother would respond by saying, “It works, doesn’t it?” Indeed, it does, and my body has been a fairly reliable machine for the chores with which it tasked.

How then, to change gears and not equate some outward metric with the internal? I realized that in nearly 24 years of mothering, I feel most blessed and grateful when I hear reports of my children being kind to others. I was always proud of things my kids achieved, the Dean’s Lists and the sports trophies, but nothing, really, compares to instances when I have witnessed their kindness or generosity or compassion at play.

When they go to Habitat for Humanity in Baltimore and hang doors all day. When an injured girlfriend required intense home care. When struggling friends need help to make it through the night. When they call me to ask how best to respond to a friend facing the death of a loved one, or the challenge of an illness.

That aspect of who they are matters so much more than anything else they could ever do or be or appear to be. In the long run, I have no idea how effective it might be to nurture the kindness in a child’s heart, but surely, big-hearted children reflect so much more than what the scale can ever reveal.

And so, too, myself—I am so much more than what the scale describes. And I’ve spent half-a-lifetime, chained, limited, and frustrated by it. To be sure, the excess weight presents health challenges, and I hope to lose a bit to ease the ache in my knees and the breathlessness on the stairs.

Perhaps it is time to try new approaches: chronicle my own acts of kindness instead of calories consumed. Keep the much-recommended gratitude list. Look myself in the mirror and honor the spirit who looks back.

Janice Lynch Schuster is a Reporter for The Shriver Report.
Janice Lynch Schuster is a poet, essayist, and non-fiction writer. She is also senior writer for Altarum Institute, where her professional work aims to improve lives through improved public health; she is currently working with the Center for Elder Care and Advanced Illness, which aims to “make it safe to grow old.”
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