If there’s one thing that drove me from ambivalence about publicly discussing the Losing of the Cow, if there’s one thing that made me feel like I was just going to have to get over the weird secrecy that sometimes settles over this whole issue (“The first rule of Fat Club,” and so forth), if there’s one thing that made me think, “All right, whatever, I’m telling,” it’s the wildly diverse expanse of unbelievably asinine advice about losing weight that you can find scattered everywhere you look. I’m not even talking about the Big Questions — surgery pro and con, Atkins and South Beach and Sugar Busters and whatever else. I’m talking about insipid little “tips” and “hints” and “tricks” and other “unbelievably ill-informed yap-flapping” that your local idiotic magazine columnist is congealing into a revolting mass for the August Take It Off By Christmas! issue as we speak.

So here, in no particular order, are my top ten choices for the most infuriating, nitwitty, knuckleheaded advice that I have run across — in most cases, over and over and over again.

1. Want chocolate? Have a pickle!

No, people really say this, and things like it. The idea being that if you crave something sweet and you counter it with something salty, you’ll kill the craving. I’m not saying this has never worked for anyone — what I’m saying is that if it works, it’s because you don’t want the chocolate that much in the first place. If you really want the chocolate, the pickle isn’t going to do anything except change your setting from “want chocolate” to “want chocolate, and am grumpy and irritable.”

I am a great believer in learning to recognize real cravings in the “craving” sense rather than the “feel like it” sense, and then . . . well, giving in to them, within reason. There was a woman on the WW boards a week or two ago who posted this frantic plea, complete with many exclamation points, about how she was madly, insanely craving a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Blizzard from Dairy Queen. Couldn’t stop thinking about it. Couldn’t concentrate. Couldn’t talk herself out of it. What, she asked should she do?

“Well, you could take a tablespoon of whipped peanut butter, and you could mix it with a cup of Fat-Free Cool Whip, and then . . . ”

“Take three peanuts and split them in half and lay them carefully on the flat side of a Hershey’s kiss, and then . . . ”

“EAT THE FUCKING BLIZZARD.”

Yeah, that last one was me. Because . . . are you kidding? It’s a Blizzard. It’s not a nuclear weapon. And honestly, she’s had a Blizzard before if she’s craving one that badly. She knows they’re not THAT good. If they’re driving her to distraction, I would personally advise eating one. Or eating half of one. Or eating three spoonfuls of one and throwing it in the trash. (I have done, roughly speaking, all of those things in similar circumstances.) And whatever plan she’s following, count it for whatever it’s worth. I find that a lot of the magic drains out of that stuff when you suck out the emotional sway it has over you when you’re posting in all-caps on the internet about it.

Another example: There are people on those same message boards who will tell you that you can make a margarita from Diet Sprite, a tiny amount of lime juice, Crystal Light lemon-lime powder, and a tablespoon and a half of tequila. TWO POINTS, WOOOOOO!

Right. Two points. And it might even be tasty. But that is not a margarita. If you drink something that is mostly Diet Sprite, and you expect it to be a margarita, you will wind up wanting to beat the crap out of someone. Don’t take yourself there. Have the margarita or have the spiked Diet Sprite, but they’re not the same thing. Better to get yourself accustomed to the fact that you can only have a margarita once in a while, I believe, than to have a sad imitation every day and tell yourself it’s the same thing.

2. If you find yourself tempted to eat, take off all your clothes and stare at yourself in the mirror, and think about whether you reeeeeeally want to eat.

Yes, that’s brilliant. Because what you ought to encourage someone to do when she’s trying to climb out of a pit of despair is to embrace her disgust with herself and poach in it like a salmon fillet. Great plan. Hate Yourself Thin in 30 Days.

Sure, you can call this some weird form of “accountability,” but to me, it’s gratuitous and cheap, sort of the porn of self-loathing. And in addition to the corrosive effects of self-loathing generally, I think it’s safe to say that the one thing that fifty years of this kind of advice have conclusively proved is that self-loathing is the one thing that we can safely say is ineffective. Shame has been tried. Scolding has been tried. What else have you got?

3. You should want to lose weight only for pure, noble, warm-hearted reasons. Never be angry. Never want to please anyone.

Okay, this is where we discuss the seven deadly sins.

Sloth and gluttony are kind of not helpful, I will grant you. The other five, however, are valuable tools in my personal arsenal, and I use them regularly. Pride? Obviously. Envy? Yep. Lust? Um . . . heh. Anger? Done it. Greed? Please. Heard anything about the differences in pay between fat people and thin people recently? That’s five deadly sins that are on your side and only two that are working against you. With odds like that, there’s nothing to do except embrace sin, within reason.

I mean, yes, for the most part, my motivations are pure. I want health, I want control, I want blah blah blah. Much of the time, I’m hippy-skippy-productive-positive-thinking girl about all of this. But if what it takes on a particular day is concentrating really hard on how much I want to stick it to some piece of shit who yelled an insult at me out of a goddamn car window in 1994 because I had the audacity to walk down the street? Then on that day, that’s what it takes. My subconscious mind certainly isn’t polite about the crap it sometimes tosses out to mess with me; I might as well throw everything I’ve got back.

4. A great person to go to for advice is your doctor.

This one is tricky. For some people, who have some doctors, this is actually very good advice. But it’s also very perilous advice, because unfortunately, there remain a certain number of completely clueless doctors, and they are some of the worst people you can possibly talk to.

When I was in eighth grade, I went on my own initiative to see our family doctor, who had been taking care of me for so long that my file at his office said “Baby Linda.” He’s the one who “put [me] on a diet” when I was eight, and he’s also the one who later put me on the shakes. But anyway, I went to see him, which required pretty much all of the resolve I had when I was that age, and I told him that I wanted to lose weight. I just went totally belly-up and asked him for help, which was . . . oy, embarrassing, sort of, and incredibly uncomfortable, and . . . I mean, I was in eighth grade, you know? Hard time.

Anyway, he stepped out of the office for a minute, and I heard him across the hall talking about me to the nurse — who was a really nice lady, actually. And this is what I heard him say, in a voice dripping with skepticism: “Well, she says she wants to do something about this.” And then he came back into the office, and he was carrying a little yellow booklet with black letters on it. “I just love this,” he said with a bitter chuckle. “The title of this just says it all.” He handed it to me, and the title was, Are You Really Serious About Losing Weight?

Sigh. No. No, Dr. Dumb-Ass, I’m not serious. I’m just kidding around. You know us fourteen-year-old fat girls and the great time we’re having about it. Don’t mind us, we’ll just be over here stuffing our faces with bonbons in a carefree fashion, as you know we are wont to do.

Jerk.

5. Be “Really Serious About Losing Weight.”

Yeah. Dr. Dumb-Ass’s little book brings me to my next point, which is that with all the really difficult, really complicated old stuff that you have to slog through when you’re doing this, it’s really easy — and really deadly — to lose your sense of humor. I don’t think anyone does anything for life that feels like drudgery. If I let myself become grim and unhappy about it, all contemplation and no fun, then I start to get antsy and want to quit.

You just have to get your chin up off the floor. People who do this with some slump-shouldered, miserable, lip-biting mentality are doomed. I’m not sure what expression I used to wear while taking my daily walk in the tunnels under the Capitol complex in St. Paul, listening to Tina Turner singing “River Deep, Mountain High” when there was nobody within a hundred yards of me, but suffice it to say I am fairly sure it was not “grudging.” I mean . . . it’s Tina Turner, people. There was shimmying. And technically speaking, it was for my health.

6. Eat to live, don’t live to eat.

Okay, I despise this little saying, and I’ll tell you why. First of all, the fact that you look at a fat person and assume that they live to eat is a pile of judgmental bullshit. Even at my heaviest, I had friends, I was in school, I loved my family, I loved music, I was writing . . . I was unhappy a lot, and I had a lot of bad habits, but I wasn’t living to eat, dipshits.

Furthermore, that “eat to live” thing kind of makes it sound like you should subtract the entire joyful or pleasant experience of food and think of it as, basically, vitamins. That will not work. People like eating good food. You don’t have to be an American-ified, McDonalds-eating, sofa-surfing testament to empty calories to enjoy food. And you certainly don’t have to become, for lack of a better term, a medicinal eater in order to lose weight. What crap. The best thing I have made at home in the last year, probably, was an absolutely perfectly seared piece of salmon that I did in my very own cast iron skillet. It was absolutely awesome. I don’t suffer, believe me. My own experience suggests that plunging yourself into that anti-tasty-food attitude just sends you back on the cycle of “cheating” and “repenting” and a lot of other bad-news behaviors that you can’t sustain.

7. Pretend you are adopted.

Okay, I admit I have heard this advice only once, but it is here to represent an entire list of pieces of bad advice found in a book that I read over and over (and over) again in junior high, which was called The Woman Doctor’s Diet For Teenage Girls. The part of the book I hated the most (aside from the part where she said you shouldn’t wear your hair curly, because one of her patients came in that way once and “looked like a fat Little Orphan Annie doll” — yes, this was a doctor) was her list of “excuses” and “responses.”

They were like this:

Dieting is boring.
Being thin is exciting!

I was meant to be fat; my mother was fat.
Pretend you are adopted.

Seriously, that was her answer. “Pretend you are adopted.” Not “yes, you may have a predisposition, but where you are in the range is up to you,” or anything like that. Just “pretend you are adopted.”

I read that book until it fell apart. I remember how she said that you should come home after school and, if you feel hungry, go for a walk and then open a window. Open a window? I remember how she said that it may be reasonable to consider surgery if you’re 100 pounds overweight, because someone may lose “20, 30, even 40 pounds,” but that’s about it, and they’ll still be fat. I remember how she told about her friend the doctor who would test girls to see whether they were overweight by throwing them over his shoulder and seeing whether he got a pain in his groin. She thought that was really great. I find myself a little more skeptical. I mean, Dr. He-Man gets a hernia and you wind up on bread and water.

My point is only that the worst advice is no advice — it’s the “fuck you, loser” advice, which is basically what that entire book was. (Be sure the read the reviews on Amazon; fortunately, I am not the only one to have noticed the problems with this book in retrospect.)

8. The Sacred Trinity.

No, no, not that sacred trinity. This sacred trinity: Celery. Cottage cheese. Melba toast.

I totally get the use of celery as an aromatic — in a recipe like a stew, with onions and carrots. Other than that, the persistence of these three foods in the Diet Hall of Fame utterly mystifies me. I mean, they’re mostly gone now, and that’s a good thing. And yes, there are devotees of celery and peanut butter, or of cottage cheese and peaches.

But seriously, this is the part where I briefly become Jerry Seinfeld, because . . . what is with cottage cheese? And has anyone ever eaten Melba toast? How did Melba toast become famous? Was this before Saltines? I mean, granted, it predated reduced-fat Triscuits and many of my other ubiquitous snacks, but how bad can things have been?

And celery . . . I mean, I understand the raw vegetable thing. I do. But . . . baby carrots, you know? At least they taste like something, and they have nutritional value. Celery? Crunchy water. Iceberg lettuce sticks. Shut up, celery.

9. Television is the devil.

Yeah. It’s killing me.

10. Think about how great you’ll feel about yourself . . . later.

This one is always really well-intentioned. It’s also wrong.

I really wish I had been keeping a better journal at the time I started this whole thing in earnest, because I no longer can really put myself in that place — such long odds, such a long way to go, none of the little day-to-day rewards I get now with getting into littler clothes and gaining confidence and getting praise and so forth. I mean, it’s hard now. I think sometimes about what I did then, and I think . . . that, by far, is the thing that I’ve done that I’m most proud of, is the first day. People started to congratulate me a lot later, but if you want to know when I had my Rocky Balboa moment, it was then. It’s not easy now, but it’s easier. Then? Good grief. With the news stories telling you how bad your chances are, and the scale staring back at you like, “Oh, RIGHT,” and how stupid you feel trying to walk or get on and off of a step in the living room (what I used to affectionately refer to as “the hamster wheel”) when you feel so . . . well, ungainly . . . that’s hard. And when I say hard, I’m saying . . . hard.

So I wish they’d tell you, you know . . . don’t imagine how good you’re going to feel. Just go ahead and feel good now. Every day on the hamster wheel is a day you’ve already won.

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Moooooooo. Not.

June 16, 2004

It’s always a good idea to start a project on a highly controversial note, which is why this site is called Losing the Cow.

“ARE YOU CALLING YOURSELF A COW?”

Well, no.

“I AM TRYING TO LOSE WEIGHT! I HAVE ENOUGH SELF-ESTEEM ISSUES AS IT IS! ARE YOU CALLING ME A COW?”

Of course not.

About the title

The story is that at some point, I stumbled across a quote from Harvey MacKay, who is, unfortunately, a business motivational speaker. He said this:

It doesn’t matter how much milk you spill, as long as you don’t lose the cow.

And because I was in the middle of this mondo weight thing, that made me laugh. Because . . . get it? Don’t lose the cow? But, like, lose the cow? Well, I thought it was funny.

Because Harvey, even though he probably endorses thinking outside the box and numerous other concepts I despise, has hit it right on the head. The only thing — the only thing — that will sink your ass is quitting. I have news for you about people who have lost big-time amounts of weight and not gained it back: They don’t go balls-out all the time. To a person, everyone I know who has had success in this particular arena knows how to say, “And then I had a gigantic piece of Extended Screaming Orgasm Chocolate-Peanut-Whipped-Cream Pie, which was really, really, really good. And then it was the next day, and for breakfast, I had Cheerios.”

It’s easy to get really austere about the whole thing. You can always tell when people are offended by food. They look at donuts with . . . suspicion, sort of. It used to be the fat-gram people. “That has 80 grams of fat.” “Thank you. It’s a bacon burger and fries, so . . . right.” Now, as you know, it is the carb people.

No offense, carb people

I don’t mean to slag the carb people, because . . . damn, I don’t fault anybody who’s doing something. It’s the same thing with the gastric bypass thing. If you do surgery, then . . . that’s a rough road, and I wish you nothing but luck.

And actually, as I said once before, I have a lot of ambivalence about even getting into this, for precisely this reason. Hell, I don’t have answers. I still eat Cheez-Its for dinner on occasion. But this past Saturday, when I was leaving my Weight Watchers meeting (more on this at some point), I was getting into my car when this lady stopped me and said this:

You’re my inspiration, you know.

Holy crap. I mean, those things are said tongue-in-cheek, to some degree — the people at that meeting know I just passed a hundred pounds lost, and they know it took me for-freaking-ever, so in some ways, I am sort of the iconic turtle in the grand Tortoise-Hare Race To Get Smaller. (Hmm, I could have called this place “The Iconic Turtle,” also.) And they know I’m still working my ass off (heh, mm-hmm) because there’s still a ways to go.

But tongue-in-cheek or not, it’s hard for me to even explain what it means to have someone tell you that you inspire them to succeed at something when, for the first twenty-five years of your life, you pretty much constructed your entire identity around failing at it. It’s nothing more or less than that. I wish I were kidding about the “whole identity” thing. But I’m not. And that’s what she and I got talking about.

We were doing the thing, as you do, where you pick people’s brains about what works for them and how they think about things, and I got to trying to explain about how I sat at the same point for probably two years after getting really close to that hundred mark, and how I eventually figured out that I was kind of . . . blocked. And that was when I figured out the thing I said up there about constructing your identity around failing at something and then appearing to be successful at it, and the fact that depending on how complicated and goofy your mind is, you’re going to fight yourself about it.

Shaking your booty

To really understand this chapter of my particular tale, you should hear an earlier chapter, which is that when I was a senior in high school, I did that shake-taking regimen that Oprah did. Remember? How she lost 90 pounds or whatever, and came out in her Calvins and everybody cheered with yellow pompoms, and she brought out the little red wagon full of fat? I did that same thing. Nothing but shakes, three or four times a day (four, I think), for twelve weeks. God, those things were gross. I could stomach the orange ones dissolved in Diet Sprite — I’m pretty sure that’s what I had most often. The chocolate ones I found kind of horrifying. The vanilla ones were acceptable with cinnamon. But overall, they were really disgusting. Pasty, chalky, nasty little fuckers. Twelve weeks, and I never broke. Didn’t have a bite, didn’t have a taste, didn’t lick a spoon. And the particular twelve weeks that I chose included Halloween, my birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. Not one bite. It was the year I turned eighteen.

And, like Oprah, I lost all this weight, and then, like Oprah, I gained it all back. And then, just for fun, a bunch more stacked on top of it. The best comparison I can really offer you, as melodramatic as it sounds, is Flowers for Algernon. You get this reprieve, and it’s like visiting the Promised Land, and it’s really exciting. Girls who used to snort at you in third grade come up and say, “Oh, I just admire you soooooooo much!” You want to tell them to go fuck themselves, but you don’t. Because you used to be a loser, and now you are a winner, and you’re much too busy hungrily sucking up the affirmation to notice that you kind of haven’t learned anything, in that you’re still obsessing over and fetishizing what you eat and how you look. And then, much faster than even seems possible, it just gets away from you. You’ve run your metabolism down to a pitiful limp, you’ve taught yourself to be scared of eating (scared! of eating!), and you still don’t really know anything about yourself except where you are with this one thing. And I could try to tell you how heartbreaking it was when it didn’t take, for me and (I’m sure) all the people who loved me, but anything I said would fall painfully short.

But, as I was telling this woman on Saturday, I remain extremely glad that I did it. I think it was absolutely critically important that I did that. Because here’s what I took away from that experience: Weakness is apparently not the issue. And it started to kind of bug me, in the way that my brain is analytical and ponderous. Because when you first got poked in the belly by a disapproving doctor at the age of eight, for fuck’s sake, by the time you’re fifteen or sixteen, you have a very well-developed theory of yourself, and it goes like this: I suck. I’m weak. No (and here’s my least favorite phrase ever) will power.

You know all those jokes? You know what the greatest exercise is? Pushing yourself away from the table. Oh, har har. When I was growing up, it was just kind of an accepted thing everywhere you went that the issue was merely lack of will. Oh, toughen up. Oh, quit being so self-indulgent. Oh, quit being so weak.

And then I went twelve weeks without eating, so that theory was pretty well demolished. Iron will? Yeah, I got that.

How I was ahead of Dr. Phil

So I’m sitting around thinking, “What the hell am I doing? Why am I not changing this stupid thing about myself if I obviously can and I obviously want to?” I got this inspiration, and it went like this: You’re using it for something. It was the only explanation. Now, understand, this was before Dr. Phil started telling everybody the whole “you do it because it works” thing, which is the same theory. But those were the words in my head: You’re using it for something.

Now, all of the details of my thought process are probably a little too personal and a little more than you need to know, but it boils down to this: Why would you expect that it would be easy to give up something about yourself that’s defined you all your life in your own mind? It was absurdly obvious, once I started to think about it. At some point, I realized that I had literally no idea what I would be like if I were abruptly transported into, like, an athlete’s frame. I couldn’t imagine it. Could not imagine. And it’s dumb, because everybody has a personality, and everybody has things about them, and I was not in fact defined by what I looked like, but that’s how much it had started to crowd out everything else in my head.

Of course I was using it for something. I was using it to stay myself.

Ahhhhhh. *Ding!* It’s not like that has ended the struggling, but it gave me an entirely, totally different perspective on it. People will tell you it’s because you don’t “want it enough.” Oh, I wanted it enough. The problem is that it took a while to figure out that there was an equal and opposite sense in which I didn’t want it.

The inevitable extended and tortured metaphor

As I explained it in this conversation on Saturday, it’s like trying to win a tug-of-war, and you pull as goddamn hard as you can, and you don’t make any progress at all. And it seems like you should be able to do it, but you just don’t. And when you seek advice, you get the same piece most of the time: “Pull harder. You’re not pulling hard enough.”

Gee, thanks.

Or “Pull like this. You’re holding the rope wrong.” “No, no, pull like this. Stand with your feet like this.” “Put this stuff on your hands.” “For six easy payments of $19.95, we can teach you how to pull even harder.” “Pull harder, goddammit, what are ya, a sissy?”

Yeah. Here’s the advice you don’t get, that you should get:

1. Tie the rope to something secure.
2. Walk along the rope until you find the other end.
3. There will be a guy standing there. Kick the shit out of him.

I’m serious. It’s not just about pulling harder. Well — that’s not quite right. It’s about pulling hard. I pull hard every day. There’s iron will involved, most definitely. Without a measure of that, you’re going nowhere. But when you’re pulling really hard and you don’t know what the hell is wrong, find what’s at the other end of the rope. That’s what I mean about fighting yourself about the loss of your identity — that’s what it was in my particular case; yours might be different.

I think part of the problem is that historically, the other end of the rope has been understood to be something like “how much you like cookies,” which is bullshit. Like it’s how valiant of a person you are versus your urge for mashed potatoes. Ridiculous.

Now, like I said, it’s not that those things aren’t in play. I’ve given up stuff I like, or at least given up having it frequently. I’ve dragged my ass out for walks or aerobic what-have-you when I have not felt like it. That plain old bad-ass brute-force engine I used to skip Thanksgiving and Christmas, I still use every day. The difficulty is that iron will and fiendish determination are necessary but not sufficient conditions for losing a substantial amount of weight.

It’s also not that there aren’t people for whom tightening up their habits and pulling a little harder are pretty much all it takes. When I see people who are like, “Oh, I gained twenty pounds after I had a baby and started being stuck in the house all day,” that’s a different phenomenon. I’m really talking about the lifelong-struggle people.

And I do think that for those people, a lot of the time, there’s something else at the other end of the rope. It’s about protecting yourself, or knowing that your boyfriend loves you for your mind, or sharing something with your mother or your best friend or whoever . . . something, you know? When I say there isn’t enough advice about looking for root causes, I’m not saying you don’t get counseling-types who tell you that you have to learn that food isn’t love — that shit is so condescending and ridiculous. I’m not a dimwit; I never believed that a cookie replaced boys. That’s . . . not really worth dignifying, and it’s a really insulting pile of crap to lay on people.

But in the end, the thing is, it’s still on you. The only one who’s going to get up, follow the rope, and do the ass-kicking is you. Just because it’s not “pull harder” doesn’t mean it’s not you. And it’s weird, and hard, and disorienting, and you might have to rip out a lot of your internal architecture to get there, because the entire reason you’re pulling so hard and not getting anywhere is that the guy at the other end of the rope is no cupcake.

The good part of it being all on you, though, is that it’s one of the most satisfying accomplishments you can own, I think. It’s not like I don’t love my friends and my family, and it’s not like I don’t appreciate them for being really supportive, and it’s not like I don’t appreciate the Weight Watchers people and whatnot, because I do. But you know, there’s really ultimately nothing anybody except you can do on this particular issue. Your behavior is the sum total of your decisions, and when you’re pleased with them? That’s good, and it’s yours, and it means something.

So ANYWAY

Yeah, so I told her a lot of this, about the rope and things, and she was really insistent that I remember it and talk about it at one of the meetings some morning. So I got to thinking . . . Well, I write, and I have space, and I know how to throw a weblog up in about ten minutes, so since my brain has already spent ten years figuring this all out, I might as well make some notes, in case someone finds them useful.

So that’s what I’m doing. Making some notes.

Now here’s what I’m not here to do: Give you constant progress updates. If you’re looking for one of those “Down 1.8 this week!!!!” journals, this is not one. I am also not here to argue about Atkins or surgery, at least not right now. Maybe later. But this has been a major project in my life, and I’ve learned some interesting stuff, both profound (see tortured metaphor, above) and less profound (the fine line between good and evil is well-represented by the fine line between reduced-fat cheese and nonfat cheese), and I’m going to write some of it down.

Plus, it’s possible that I will give you my margarita recipe, which I am proud to tell you has 10 points, and therefore is saved for Friday nights at the end of successful weeks, since my FlexPoints reset on Saturday. (Some of you completely understand this paragraph; the rest of you, we’ll talk about it later.)