Identity Stories

I have been thinking a lot about the narratives that we inhabit. There are stories that we believe about ourselves, that we’ve grown up hearing and have been woven into our psyche. Most often they are stories our family of origin told us, though often teachers and peers make appearances.

One of my stories is how, as an infant, I invented a cough to get more attention. I was already the only child, the first grandchild on each side and the first niece for all of my 4 uncles. And yet, I fabricated a medical ailment for more attention as a 6 month old. Now, having kids of my own, I know what bullshit this story is. Both my girls went through little coughing phases in their infancy as part of their development. I know that I wasn’t as outrageously needy and attention-hungry as I was portrayed. But that story became part of my story and I believed it until I had my own kids.

Another story is about my body. How, even as a child, I was rounder than expected, rounder than my parents were as children, rounder than some other kids. Looking at pictures, I see my softness, but I wasn’t a fat kid. Maybe a little chubby here and there at stages, but again-lots of kids grow OUT, then UP, which is what I did. But those chubby phases left me vulnerable to comments from my grandmother and neighbors that were absorbed into my body. As an adolescent, the diets began. I came into this fitness and nutrition work from a childhood longing to find the magic bullet that would make me thin. I was always looking for it. And that searching became another story: that I would always be rounder than acceptable.

One of my clients earned her PhD about a decade ago. She has struggled with her weight her whole life. Sometimes we’ll talk about the way she feels about herself and she will frequently say that she’s lazy, has no willpower, can’t stick with anything, etc. And I always yell YOU HAVE A PHD!!  Obviously you can stick with something, obviously you are NOT lazy, obviously you have willpower and strength and brilliance. But those deep stories are there.

Just last week a Sugar Purge participant called herself lazy in one of her emails. In that same email, she mentioned that she ran 16 miles that weekend. She said she just was too lazy to cook for herself. Lazy should not even begin to come into her vocabulary. I know she was talking about cooking, but it’s still a message you’re giving to yourself. Words are powerful. Self-deprecation is powerful.

Another client sent me a picture of herself at the gym with the title Fat Girl Problems. SHE WAS AT THE GYM! Working hard!

How do we move the needle around this stories we have about ourselves?

It wasn’t until reading Lindy West’s (amazing) book Shrill: Notes from a a Loud Woman that I really realized that I’m actually a regular sized person who no one else would perceive as fat. And that was last spring. All the messages I listened to about my body for the previous 37 years were that I was too big, too curvy, lazy, lacked willpower, etc etc. I couldn’t see the other side of those statements.

I think how we talk to ourselves matters. And there are multiple truths at a time. I will never be a healthy size 6, I’m not willing to cut out chocolate, I love cookies. So maybe that does mean I lack willpower. But it also means that I value pleasure in my life and have (mostly) made peace with my never-going-to-be-flat stomach and I’m taking the best care of my health that I can on a sustainable basis. And that’s the story on which I choose to focus.

Just for today, could we all pick a story about ourselves that’s true, positive and non-judgey? What could that be? Can we turn the self-deprecation around?

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