I name this post not just as a tribute to one of my favorite writers, Zadie Smith, but as a follow up to my previous post (On Mortality), which has left me spinning with energy and desperate to continue to take shots at how stupid societal conventions and expectations are.
Despite all the horribleness of diabetes, I can give it credit for one thing: it has shifted my perspective in a way that I never thought my perspective could possibly shift. In my first ever post on this blog, I wrote the following about my life before diabetes:
“At the end of 2013 I realized I was settling into my weight with a complacency brought about by 22 years of yo-yo dieting. I was accepting it, relaxing into that comfortably awful self-loathing, assuming that this would be “my issue”; assuming that all the unhappiness I felt, day in and out, was just the price I was going to have to pay for the rest of the privileges I enjoyed in my life – good friends, good family, comfortable socio-economic status.”
In accepting all of the above, I was also unquestioningly accepting society’s regulations about image and weight.
Like everyone does, I go about my day hounded by images and representations of beauty in the media. Particularly at that point in my life, I looked at those billboards and magazines that depicted airbrushed models not with frustration or anger, but with a kind of sad repulsion at my own body’s inability to live up to the standard.
Not that I would have admitted that to your face. To your face, were we discussing magazine ads or media standards of appearance, I would have expressed a very real anger and frustration in the stupidity of a culture that wants us to be as skinny as possible; in the damaging effects this has on all of us – not just young women, but all women, and young men, too, and old, and people for whom gender is not as simple as “woman” or “man.” We’re so much better than airbrushed models, I would have told you.
But of course, if you’d then offered me a pill I could have taken to look like that, too, I would have taken it. I say this not as an “admission” of my own failure; frankly, I believe that many of us would take the pill, not just me. This is not my attempt to admonish myself publicly for ascribing to this conventional standard; rather it’s me voicing a sadness, a genuine sadness, in the overwhelming power of this standard. It feels unbreakable.
As it turns out, diabetes has been, for me, the best weapon I’ve ever been given to break this standard. For better or worse, I now feel like I know truths, really know them, not just intellectually, which have cracked the un-crackable foundations of Society’s Ideas About Health and Body Image.
This is what I know now about health and body image that it took getting diabetes to understand: society is a tricky little motherfucker. It has convinced us to idolize and pursue something it calls “health”, but which is not actually health, or at least, which is so different from actual health that actual health, is, at most, a potential inadvertent side effect of it. What society is actually tricking us into pursuing is an arbitrary and comically specific physical ideal, which is focused on thinness as well as a hundred other different random aesthetic priorities. Things having to do with body proportion and symmetry and having, truly, nothing whatsoever to do with health.
The level of assault that we take from advertising and media is impossible to underestimate. We see thousands and thousands and thousands of images of what “beauty” is – and most of them conform to This Standard. I don’t care who you are: that’s a lot to fight against. I’ve fought hard; my whole life I’ve realized, as we all do, that the whole system is stupid, so stupid, but I’ve still be unable to defeat it. Media is pervasive, insidious, and domineering – even many outlets that preach “pseudo” anti-conventional standards can often be traps; be actually preaching the same arbitrary ideal under the surface. What could possibly have the power to fight against such a grotesque enemy?
Turns out, my grotesque chronic disease has done a pretty good job. It’s hard to care so much about what you want your body to look like when you’re forced to go even more primal – most of us would probably agree that I want my body to stop hurting tends to take precedence over I want my legs to be skinny. Or that I want to live a long time tends to take precedence over I wish my arms were skinny.
But here’s the rub: “I want to live a long time” doesn’t mean anything unless you’re actually confronted with the possibility of not living a long time. I “thought” I cared about health before diabetes, but I didn’t. I didn’t know how to care about my health. I’d never been forced to do it. My health was something I could completely, entirely, without reservation, 100% take for granted. It just was. I do not pass judgment on myself for this; how could I? I didn’t know any better. I was blessed with that ignorance. Even before I got diabetes, I understood everything I write about in this post – understood it 100% – on an intellectual level. Diabetes just helped me understand it on an emotional level, too.
Understanding on an emotional level, is, for me, true understanding.
Being able to take your health for granted is an incredibly privileged position. It’s a beautiful one, and if you’re in that position, I pray you never leave it – even it means you’re still struggling with these body image issues. Of course, at the same time, I know the pain of feeling fat, I know it so, so, so, so well. It is excruciating. For those of you who feel it, I know. I know. And I say again: I am not speaking to you now from a Zen Master enlightened place. I still feel fat. I still see someone “beautiful” on TV and feel my stomach clench in sadness and jealousy. I look at Facebook pictures of friends who more easily conform to societal ideals and struggle to tamper down the useless flare of envy. I stumble upon old pairs of pants from my “skinny” days and feel crushed. I catch sight of my arm looking “fat” in the mirror and feel a wave of despair. These are all real emotions that I feel. They are awful, and shaming, and embarrassing.
But they’re not all that I feel anymore. I also feel frustration at my physical limitations. I feel resentment of the power that diabetes has over my body. I feel grief at the way my life has irreparably changed. And I feel scared of what is going to happen to me, what has been set into motion by the biochemical changes in my body diabetes brought on. And I will tell you this, I will tell you and I will pray, pray, pray that you not only hear me but that you, perhaps, can imagine what it would mean to understand me: these new feelings are worse than the old ones. The frustration is worse than the sadness. The fear is worse than the jealousy.
Before diabetes, I was settling. I was prepared to lose the battle for myself – to concede victory to the media, to Those Arbitrary Societal Standards. I was prepared to never know what self-love felt like. I know that there are those of you out there who have won that battle, won it all on your own and without a chronic illness “on your side”. You are, truly, my heroes. And holy crap, I would love love love to hear how you did it.
For those of you who have not won, who do not know how you could ever win, I offer this: think of health. And not society’s “health”, real health. I am just guessing here – I’m as much on this journey as anyone else, but the events of the last seven months of my life have suggested that health might be the answer. Because today, I can say to you, more than anything else – more than skinny arms or clear skin or small thighs or a tiny waist or shiny hair, the most beautiful thing I can think of is health.
What is health? A big question, another question without a definitive answer, but lets start with this: health is whatever allows you to live your life the way you want to. To be spontaneous, to love, to move, to enjoy smells and sensations. When health is threatened, all of these things are threatened, too. When health suffers, all these things suffer too. The days that I can love, move, enjoy smells and sensations, I love myself: I feel love and gratitude towards my body for letting me do these things.
Remember in my last post, where I talked about “the numbers that matter”? Numbers like lipids, (cholesterol, HDL, LDL), CBCs (complete blood counts – the balance of blood cells in your body), CMPs (Complete Metabolic Panels – the balance of chemicals in your body), and, of course, glucose levels. Lousy doctors will automatically lump “weight” into this category, too, but the truth is the more research I do on this, the more it becomes clear that the connection between weight and overall health is much less airtight than medicine has had us believe. Sure, there is plenty of research that suggests that, at a certain “weight”, your body is much more predisposed to having the above numbers be off in a way that could be dangerous. But the truth is that it is very possible to have a weight that falls outside the conventionally accepted “ideal” for your gender and age and be, from a Numbers That Matter perspective, perfectly healthy. In the same way, it is very possible to have a weight that falls within the conventionally accepted “ideal” for you gender and age and be, from a Numbers That Matter perspective, perfectly unhealthy.
In this way, I was healthier at 211 pounds, without diabetes, than I am now.
Today, my BMI (and let’s not even get started on BMI…) now falls within a range that would be accepted as “healthy” for the first time in my adult life, but I have diabetes.
I am sick.
My decision to lose weight when I got diabetes was a concerted effort motivated entirely by health. I did not want to be a Type 2 diabetic as well as a Type 1. I wanted my body to accept the insulin I have to inject into it as easily as possible. I wanted to help my poor, broken pancreas and my poor, starving cells in any way I could possibly help them.
And as I lost weight, and I did lose weight, my body thanked me. It thanked me by needing less insulin, by being less insulin resistant, and by giving me endurance and energy where diabetes has previously sapped those things.
And “Type 2 diabetes” is not currently on my doctors’ lists of my health conditions.
I do not have to take Type 2 diabetes drugs.
To me, this is a triumph.
I jog now. HA, my eight months ago self says, YOU JOG? WHAT THE HELL?
It’s comical for my eight months ago self to think of me jogging. Because that self wanted to run to get skinny and be beautiful, whereas this self likes running because I feel like a badass, like a goddess – see, when you are prey to seemingly random attacks of exhaustion and weakness and paralyzingly powerful physical symptoms, forcing your body to move in such a challenging and unnatural way (yeah, jogging is hard), is such a win. I take nothing for granted from my body anymore – nothing. Once I’ve finished my 25 minutes of jogging on the treadmill, sweating and panting and hopefully with my blood sugar hanging in (you guys – does it ever stop being so hard???), I thank my body for allowing me to do this crazy thing with it. Thank you body, thank you so much.
And so I repeat: today, the most beautiful thing I can think of is health.
Last weekend, my incredible sister got married to a wonderful, wonderful man. It was a beautiful day. My sister is, objectively speaking, one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met, and she legitimately had never looked more beautiful: it was her smile. As soon as she and her husband connected on that long, crazy, exhausting day, her face burst into a smile that never left. I know that when I think back on the day years from now I will probably not remember how her hair was styled or what color eyeshadow she wore, but I am 100% certain that I will be able to recall the exact image of her smile. She was alive, she was present, she was celebrating and declaring her love for her husband, and it was joy.
I think back on the post that started this whole blog and my ruminations about my sister’s upcoming wedding: specifically, worries about bridesmaids dresses and my anxiety about what I was going to look like. The idea of being a 211 pound bridesmaid filled me with despair. And yet, it seemed inevitable. The idea of me feeling beautiful on my sister’s wedding day seemed, quite literally, impossible.
But I did feel beautiful. And believe it or not, that had less to do with the 65 pounds I’ve lost since January, and more to do with one simple fact: I was there. Back in January, when I was imagining how excruciating it would feel to precede my sister down the aisle at 211 pounds, I was also taking my presence at her wedding, much as I was taking my health, entirely for granted. No longer. When you’ve spent a few nights in the ICU, it’s hard in the very dark moments to keep up that confidence. I’ll admit now that, for a moment or two back during my February hospital adventure, it crossed my mind that I had come pretty close to not making it to my sister’s wedding.
But I did, and that was beautiful.
I look over pictures of myself from the last 27 years and although sometimes the same twinges of anxiety come back – the “I’m fats” and the “I’m uglies” – they’re weaker than they used to be. I see health. I look at my fat self and (irony of ironies!) I am jealous of her. Of her beautiful, functional body.
I felt beautiful at my sister’s wedding, yes, but I was beautiful here, too:
The last three pictures have spent their lives fully classified as “ugly shots”. “Fat shots”. Now they make me happy. And, in their way, sad.
A beautiful working body.
YOU GUYS, I AM GETTING SO CORNY! I can’t help it, I can’t – I feel this now so strongly and with such conviction. So brace yourselves, its about to get cornier.
I know another thing for certain, too: You are beautiful. You are. You are so, so, so, so beautiful. Even if I have never met you, never seen you in my life, I know this to be true. Because what isn’t beautiful about a human being who is alive? If you ever feel not beautiful (and it is so easy to, my god it is so easy to), I want you to come back to this page and read these words over and over and over until you can’t read them anymore: You are beautiful.
In my opinion, these days the most beautiful part of my body is also the ugliest: my stomach. It’s pretty rough looking these days – having lost a lot of weight, I have some serious extra skin, especially in this area. When I am on my hands and knees, it tends to hang down flabbily from my ab muscles.
My stomach is also where I inject insulin, and its where my Dexcom (a diabetes tool) is attached to me, as well as where my insulin pump attaches. Everything happens on the stomach because it absorbs insulin so easily – better than the other areas on your body you’re allowed to inject: legs, butt, arms.
My stomach is quite cyborg looking with all of these devices on it. Plus, there’s the red spots from where I didn’t do as clean an injection as I would have liked, and made myself bleed or made the skin scab. So many spots that are healing over or in varying states of healing over.
In truth, my stomach is a mess, but I love it because of all the parts of my body, I probably ask the most of it these days, and so far it’s risen to the challenge. It accepts my insulin, it accepts my Dexcom, it accepts my cannulas. The skin hangs so softly from my body when I lean over. I like to feel it. Is that weird? That’s weird. But whatever. It’s mine, and it’s working, and in its own insane way, my stomach is the epicenter of my diabetes and it has not stopped fighting for me and I love it for that. It is my new “healthy”.
And, like me, like you, it is beautiful.