I had intended for my next post to be about how fabulous my forties have been, but then I got COVID, lost my job, and spent two of my darkest months since, well, this time last year when my lovely boyfriend ditched me during a cancer scare. During that time, I’ve done a lot of thinking. A LOT. And, while I will eventually get to my #FabulousForties series (because I have some very cool guests lined up), the truth is a bit more complicated. It often is. And, because this is how my brain works, right now I’m pretty fixated on beauty, so we're gonna head down that rabbit hole for a bit.
I went into 2020 needing to lose 20 pounds or so to be at my “ideal” weight. I left it needing to lose closer to 50 pounds. My struggle started long before COVID lockdowns, and I suspect it has more to do with stress and hormones than being home. In fact, I want to sidetrack for just a bit to go on record as saying I absolutely loathe the meme about “Now that I’ve lived through a plague, I understand why Renaissance paintings are full of fat women laying on couches.” It doesn’t make me giggle even a little. My entire life, I’ve looked at those paintings and told myself that had I lived in another time, I would have been beautiful. That even in my time, there is a beauty to my curves. That stupid meme makes it clear how the rest of society sees it, though.
And the thing about being heavier than society dictates as acceptable: People make assumptions about you. I literally had a date ask me once if I’d ever considered dieting. The saddest part is, it wasn’t my last date with him. It should have been, but I'm rather used to men making comments about my size and, at the time, I was still clinging to some home that my person might be out there somewhere.
“I just want you to know, I like the way you look. Don’t be self conscious about your size,” was the closest any of the men in my life have come to complimenting me. Actually, two different men said that one. Like they were embarrassed to be attracted to me. I was a size 10 or 12 at the time, for reference. Curves. Flat stomach. Toned arms. What the actual hell, guys?
Before COVID, I was eating 1300 calories a day and working out at the gym an hour a day, five or six days a week. I did this for two months and I GAINED weight. Before you say “muscle weighs more than fat…” My jeans were tighter, not looser. My shape did not change for the better in any way.
When lockdowns hit in March, I walked 5 miles a day. No change. Then I got incredibly sick (for the second time since January). The COVID test came back negative, but it took forever to recover and my lungs never did tolerate 5 mile walks again. I’d worked back up to two miles by July, when I got sick again.
Somewhere during all of this, I was gaining weight. I now have one pair of jeans that fits. My arms, my stomach--they disgust me. I have to give myself nearly daily reminders to love this body and all she’s been through.
Probably about August, I was talking to a health coach in Australia who wanted me to come work for her. In effort to learn more about what she did, I signed up for her eating challenges and threw myself into the incredibly strict dietary changes she recommended for the women she worked with. The easiest way to describe it is Paleo on steroids. For more than three months, I cut all dairy, gluten, and sugar from my diet. No white rice or potatoes. I ate more vegetables than I had in my life. I paid attention to the balance of nutrients on my plate. I moved my body more. I told myself my body had been good to me, it was time I give her the attention she needed. In time, things would right themselves.
Nothing. Not one pound gone.
This particular health coach was adamant that women shouldn’t count calories, they should focus on nutrition, so I tried it her way for the first month or so. When it hadn’t seen results, I downloaded an app and counted every morsel that passed my lips, even the oils used to prepare the foods. Most days, the app yelled at me for not eating enough because I’d come in under 1,000 calories and have to add more.
Before I’d undertaken this diet change, I was eating the wrong kinds of foods (poor people food, which is never healthy), but my weight has never been about overeating, despite what people assume when they look at me. Most days, I eat maybe two meals.
Even though I’d had a resounding lack of success with my own foray into the health coach’s suggested lifestyle, I went to work for her and left the safety of my corporate job behind. That job was causing me immense amounts of stress, which I was guessing to be the root of my stubborn weight gain.
It was a bit of a gamble that would leave me without health insurance for a month, but by this point, I was desperate to get away from the toxic atmosphere, so I took the leap.
And instantly came down with COVID. I mean instantly. The new job told me to take as long as I needed to heal. Unpaid, of course. Two weeks later, they notified me they were scrapping the project they’d hired me for.
By this point, I was a single mother with little savings, no health insurance (because I could no longer pay the premium on the new plan), too sick to walk to the bathroom, let alone work. My breathing was shallow and my heart felt like someone was squeezing it. I distinctly remember the night I went to bed, certain I would not wake up in the morning. I did my best to get right with God and put it in His hands.
I did wake up and eventually mend, but it was the longest month of my life. I’d been cautious of COVID before, now I truly fear it.
The thing about COVID is you feel too horrible to eat. You have to force yourself, and then only if someone brings it to you. My sister was sick while I was and lost five pounds. Want to guess how much I lost? None. Of course.
There is another meme that does amuse me. I went searching for it and found it sprang from a Tweet. I giggle snort every time I come across it because I feel its truth to my very bones.
My boys and I left my marriage with nothing. No car, no furniture. We had little more than the clothes on our back. The house we moved into was over a hundred years old and had no insulation. (A friend once told me "I can literally see the sun coming through the side of your house.)
I worked three jobs to repair my credit from my marriage and pull us up out of that. There’s another story there, one I may eventually get around to telling, but for the purpose of today, I’ll simply say that I am proud of how far we’ve come. I worked hard to provide them with a nice house, nice things, and a comfortable life. All by myself.
And now, with one fateful decision and a bit of crap luck, it’s all in danger. I used my savings up getting us through the first month. Friends kept us alive the second. A fierce job market and holidays mean I’m now peering into an abyss, unsure where month three will come from. My boys are unsure. The reality is that we will be going our separate ways soon; my empty nest thrust upon me all at once and much sooner than planned because of this whole mess.
What does all of this have to do with an article that has thus far lamented weight?
It’s changed how I look in the mirror. My eyes are sunken, the circles under them pronounced. I see the wrinkles I could ignore before. Any beauty I had in my youth seeped out of me during the long months of this COVID nightmare. Some days, I tell myself I will be healthy again. I will build a life for myself that will help my body find its balance and I will be healthy and strong and I will feel beautiful again, even if the men of the world don’t see it.
I was raised to believe I needed to be beautiful to attract a man, was told I needed one by my side. For whatever the reason, men don’t find me attractive and the ones that do only cause me pain. But what I’ve come to realize is that my beauty is for me, not them. Even now, if I stand up straight, I can see that I still have killer curves. They please me. I have pretty hair that’s long and soft, and I love the way it waves.(And I'm really digging this henna rinse that's turned it fiery red.) I love my eyes and how they change color with my mood. I have feminine hands with pretty fingernails and I love the shape of my feet.
As I looked back through old photos, trying to find one to put with this post, I was struck by the fact that my weight has fluctuated throughout the years, but the core of who I was did not. I have grown, changed, learned. I have lived and laughed and loved. (Pardon the cliché) But I was always more beautiful than I felt at the time or gave myself credit for. Even in the times when I carried more weight.
Because I am more than the sum of my waistline and more than the number of men who desire me.
I am a woman who raised three beautiful sons, mostly alone. Sons that have become competent, compassionate men. I have written and published twelve novels with millions of readers all around the world. I have held my own in board rooms where I was the only woman and negotiated multi-million dollar deals with globally recognized brands. I tried on the Super Bowl ring!
I taught school children and Sunday school. Mentored youth and sat on the floor with young girls while they cried. I worked up the courage to sing in front of a live audience. I’ve been in plays and given speeches. Fought against human trafficking. Been in parades and backstage at one of the largest music festivals in the country.
I learned to live off the land. I create gardens that are beautiful and can nourish my family. I learned the forgotten art of herbals and how to make butter from scratch. I’ve raised chickens and goats and ducks. Rescued horses. Rode turnback in a herd of bison for the president of the National Cutting Horse Association. Sat in a goat barn with my favorite doe licking my forehead while she labored. Brought a stillborn kitten back to life. She's actually curled up next to me purring at the moment, come to think of it.
These arms I so loathe have held babies, built fences, and fixed water heaters. They’ve wrangled alpacas. These hands have painted--walls and canvas--to fill my world with color.
My beauty, whatever that might be, does not have to be appreciated by others to exist. And if it is so easily erased by my weight fluctuating during a few particularly hellish years of my life, then it most definitely was not appreciated to begin with.
One of my sisters said something pretty brilliant yesterday: When food is scarce, the beauty standard is to be fat. When food is plentiful, the standard is to be thin. Pretty much whatever is opposite of natural women at the time.
I haven’t researched the historical accuracy of that, but it sounds about right.
I cannot control what the world appreciates. I cannot control their memes or pettiness or how shallow their depth. I can only control myself. My depth and what I appreciate.
And it’s past time for me to appreciate that the sum of me is so much more than the number on the scale or the size of my jeans.
Once upon a time, I got it in my head that I wanted to start a magazine to encourage and empower women. I decided to name it Sass.