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I wanted to write a short diary about food and my attempts to establish a healthy diet, but I soon realized that writing about weight and dieting would first require me to write about my issues with my weight.
Since a relatively young age I have had several issues with my self-confidence, self-esteem, and body image. The “issues” are relatively simple to state: I tend to refer to myself as fat and ugly, as well as uninteresting, or at least not interesting to the right people. At various times friends and some relatives have requested that I be less self-deprecating, either by telling me that my statements aren’t true or that I should just stop being so negative. Another approach is to point out that even if my self-image is correct, I have the option to change it. I am also reminded of Nate’s comment that I should be less self-defecating.
In the fourth grade I was tested and placed into the district’s Gifted & Talented program, GT for short. I’ve always done well at tests, at least when I put in a minimal amount of effort; when that effort is lacking I have, on one or two occasions, produced less than stellar results. I knew a few other students in GT, and at least one of them came across as haughty, and a few non-GT students, such as Stacy King, rubbed me the wrong way—she often appeared to act as if she were better than the rest of us. I had an aversion to conceited and stuck-up kids and I had no desire to fall into that category myself. In the fifth grade my school absorbed several neighborhoods of kids who had previously attended Ustick, and many of them came from wealthier backgrounds than the rest of us. Quite a few of them were aware of this and projected an attitude of superiority; this was the first time that I found peers of mine unapproachable. My mom warned me that bragging about my newfound academic standing would earn me enemies (terms like “envy” and “jealousy” were not used), so I instead chose to affect an air of plainness. I chose, for example, to focus on other characteristics, such as atheleticism—I distinguished myself as the best tetherball player, first in my class, then schoolwide; in the fifth grade I did lose to Mr. Anderson, the PE teacher, who was 6’5". Some kids, especially a few girls a grade ahead of me, would pay me to let them win.
My early attempts to deflect attention from myself failed and only much later did I learn to graciously accept compliments with a simple “Thank you” and perhaps a smile or nod; even now I forget this on occasion. I only knew that saying “I know” was bound to toss me into the conceited, big-headed category, so instead I either muttered something incomprehensible, said nothing, or denied I had done anything special whenever I was confronted with praise. What began as a facade and coping mechanism—that is, a tool—became my standard operating procedure and intruded upon my actual self-image.
In addition I did not deal well with being anything but number one. School and many other things came naturally to me but at the same time I had no study habits; thus whenever I applied myself I won a competition or got the best mark, but more often than not I did things at the last minute or did not prepare at all (and even then I usually came out on top). I was unwilling to credit my competition with being better than me; nor would I admit that I was at fault (due to lack of effort). Instead I would, depending on my mood, call myself stupid and claim that of course I could not do it, or, as was often the case, I would simply deny any interest in winning in the first place. So it was with spelling bees in the fifth and sixth grades (for example, in the latter I later claimed that my misspelling of ‘tortoise’ was intentional so that I could get myself out of a competition that did not interest me anyway) and with some athletic competitions. If I did well at something, it was easy; by definition those things that were easy were those that I could do well, and thus accomplishing them was no real accomplishment. It was often easier to act the clown than to admit interest, desire, or stake in something.
No doubt my feigned indifference came across to many as attention-grabbing or conceit—of course I’m not interested in this; it’s below me—, an irony that was lost upon me at the time. Attempts to blend in by playing dumb never (or rarely) worked; my rhetoric never matched the actual test results. At the same time I did not want to fit-in, I just did not want to be the one to toot my own horn, for if someone else did it, I wouldn’t be bragging.
My growth spurt came in the fifth grade. Even before that I was taller than most the other kids in my grade. In kindergarten I was tied with Tim Smith, for the next few years Shawn Henry had an inch or so on me, but by the fourth grade I overtook the rest. In the fifth grade I went from five foot to five-eight, and in the sixth a few more inches were added. After that it was just an inch or so a year until I stopped growing by my sophomore year at the latest, measuring in over six-three but generally less than six-four (due to posture issues, I suspect, I now come in only around six-three). My voice broke before that of most my peers. I was at about 160lbs. in the sixth grade, and while I was never overweight, I never lost my baby fat around my waist; that part of me never got toned, even as my thighs and calves, especially, developed due to year after year of soccer. During my year abroad in Germany I had a body with which I was relatively happy; although I never developed the fabled six-pack I was flat and the rest of me was muscular. Only later, in college and beyond, did I gain too much weight and get grossly out of shape as I rather abruptly ceased all athletic activity (I could count bowling as a “sport” but not as an athletic event). As it is, however, nearly half my life has been lived after I stopped growing.
Whereas I was, at the time, satisified with my body, the same could not be said about my face, which I’ve considered ugly as long as I’ve given it consideration. My express concern with it grew sophomore year in high school when, during German class, a kid named Jason commented, “Krause, you sure are butt-ugly,” and mentioned that I had a bean-shaped head. Before that I was merely self-conscious of my body; being taller than most of my peers, I stood out in a crowd and I did not wish to be stared at. I always assumed the joke was at my expense. I don’t like dancing in public because I feel that I don’t blend in well; I am also worried that, depending on the type of dancing, I am prone to flail around and inconvenience or injure somebody—looking stupid while doing so is just another downside. At the same time I was upset that I stopped growing when I did; my mother had told me that the doctors had told her, based upon bone measurements when I was an infant, that I would end up around six-foot-seven ... ending up several inches short of that goal made me feel short. Thus I ended up with an objective satisfaction but personal loathing of my body.
In my tenth grade human anatomy course we tracked our food intake for a period of time and counted calories and recorded other nutritional values. Based upon my activity level I should have been eating upward of 3500 calories a day. In the seventh and early eighth grades I had let my body become flabby and I peaked at about 205lbs. I got into bastketball (in addition to soccer) and later joined the track team; I returned to a slim and trim 180 or so, and throughout the first few years of high school if I did approach 200, it was only due to weight-training. During my junior year spent in Germany I participated in basketball, volleyball, soccer, badminton, and track & field, and I biked everywhere. Thus when I returned to the United States and withdrew from most sports activities my metabolism crashed and by the following summer I was no longer even in “good” shape. I faked my way through the World Scholar Athlete games, but I knew I was in worse shape than nearly all my peers. During my freshman year of college I took a volleyball course for PE credit, and the following spring I enrolled in fencing. At Pomona the warm weather allowed me to wear shorts and a t-shirt nearly every day, and I did not have to worry about my increasing gut or waistline—a t-shirt and shorts hid it well enough, if not completely. Of course I did not gain weight because of what I wore; I wore what I did because of the increased weight. It was a small campus, and even though I walked everywhere, “everywhere” was close and all-you-can-eat buffets at the dining hall only contributed to the problem. After the first semester I was at 220, and by the end of my sophomore year I was probably about 250, though I never, or rarely, weighed myself. In the course of my sophomore year I did try to return to working out; two to three times a week Leena and I went to the weight room, spent our time on the bikes and stair machines, and pushed our muscles with the various weight machines available. Adding muscle, however, would not or could not combat a growing gut, especially when the aerobic workout was token and my eating habits were not up for discussion.
Junior year rolled around and this time I was off to Hungary. I travelled alone for three weeks (with several days spent in northern Germany with my old host family) and although I used a Eurorail pass to get between cities, within cities I relied on walking only. By the time I arrived in Budapest and settled down I had dropped at least 20lbs and my jeans for the first time in ages felt good and loose. I needed a belt to keep them up and the thighs were not tight. The gut was still there, of course—just reduced. I didn’t feel like people on the street would see me and just think fat. Then I went with Kristin and Aaron to the castle district one summer evening and after Aaron finished playing the guitar he commented that my hair was thinning—his actual comment was less flattering ... that I was going bald. As a kid and through my teen years I had had thick, difficult to cut hair; part of every trip to the barber or my mom’s hair stylist was the thinning of my hair, and now it seemed that same head of hair was thinning on its own. On top of that my own father had had a bald spot for years, though this meant little for my fate, but my maternal grandfather had been completely bald for decades. Whatever confidence I had gained regarding my appearance dissipated. Nearly a decade later I still have plenty of hair and no receding hairline, and while it is likely that I will go bald someday, I blame that spot on the top of my head more on the way I comb my hair than anything else. In any case, I remained overweight but not as overweight as I had been throughout that year and through the end of college.
Then I went to graduate school, any remnants of athletic activity disappeared, and my weight settled around 250 I suspect, though by this time much of it was in my gut, since over time the muscles I had developed through soccer and other activities had faded away. While I wanted to lose weight, I didn’t want to put any effort into doing so; furthermore I didn’t feel as if doing it for myself made it worthwhile—why should an ugly person such as myself care about their body? How vain.
Being fat, however, was also an excuse: I could claim that people found me unattractive not because of some inherent ugliness on my part but because of how fat I was—and since the weight issue was something that I could change if it mattered enough to me (which it didn’t) their dislike was not a true criticism of who I was, just of who I was at the time. I often made jokes about waiting until I had enough money so I could get plastic surgery and get an “improved face” ... but these jokes were just that because I also knew that even with better looks I would remain unlikeable due to my personality. Thus first weight and then ugliness were defenses against criticisms of my personality and who I was; ironically these defenses were only necessary because while I felt people would not like the “real me” I at the same time did like who I was, at least enough not to want to change my personality. That is to say, my self-esteem issues are only superficially about not liking who I am; I like myself well enough, thank you very much—I’m merely superficial, egotistical, worried that others won’t share my self-image, and averse to failure and rejection.
A certain level of exaggeration has always played a role as well. I could make statements about how fat I was and then friends or colleagues would comment that I didn’t seem as heavy as I claimed. Thus the external evaluations were always more positive than my internal ones. Leena and I once talked about external versus internal loci of control, and that I had a strong internal locus—I made my decisions and took actions based upon internal values and goals rather than upon what others thought or would think. This was true insofar as it concerned actions, for while I had set up a nice little system of deflecting external criticism I did want positive external feedback to reinforce my self-image.
I also knew better than to accept all praise as such. If it came from those older than myself, I would weigh it and perhaps accept it, but if it came from my peers I took it as some sort of sarcastic remark meant to make fun of me. While this was true regarding intellectual pursuits, I found it especially applicable to questions of my personality or body. So it was that when S. Gilbert expressed interest during the fifth grade and tried to become friendly with me, I became mean and pushed her away emotionally (a debacle that was onlo y resolved once my mother called my teacher and involved her in the quest to get me to apologize). In the eighth grade when the friend of a popular girl approached me in PE and said, “So-and-so was wondering whether you would like to go out with her,” I responded with a sarcastic “Yeah, right” and turned my back on her—I have always worked from the point of view that since no popular girl would want to be seen with me it must have been a setup of sorts and thus my dismissive response was justified. In other cases I’ve been sure of the cruel intentions of others, such as in the fall of 2002 when, returning from the Madison Blues Festival, I was heckled by a carload of college-aged women who honked, yelled out, “Hey, you’re hot,” and drove off. Thus I have built up certain walls that make it difficult to accept that anybody might actually like me for who I am, and if it concerns a romantic relationship, I am often convinced that I am but a temporary solution until they find out more about me or they find someone better.
It would be foolish to track all my self-esteem issues back to the fourth grade; it is merely a convenient point of illustration. It was my favorite year in elementary school, it still provides me with great memories, it was the first (and beginning of the last) time that I had a truly close friend with whom I could speak freely for more than a decade, and it marked the point when I began to stand out enough from my peers mentally and physically that I had to reconcile how I saw myself and how others saw me. Being good at everything, or at least at everything I tried, didn’t make matters easier, because what is normal quickly becomes normative—being good means you have to remain good. I either never felt the need or perhaps didn’t have the guts to rebel, trash my grades, and become a failure so that neither I nor others would set high expectations for me. At the same time there were limits to the expectations that could be met; I knew that even if I continued to always test into the top 1% of whatever group I was compared with (be it all 8th graders, all college bound seniors, or all graduate school bound students), in a world of more than 6 billion people, “the top 1%” was no small, exclusive company. The problem I had was not with people in general, just with my peers—I had no problem admitting that some world-famous mathematician whom I had met was smarter than me, but I was not fond of the idea of ever coming face-to-face with someone my age whom I would have to recognize as my superior.
Not all “issues” are “problems”, and not all “issues” need to be resolved. When, however, they form the basis for other behavior it behooves one to consider them in order to modify that other behavior. Part of the reason why I am “fat” is because I am lazy and part of it has to do with issues of self-image and self-esteem, but at the same time it is worthwhile pointing out that I exaggerate when using the term fat to describe myself—I use it to mean “obese”, although it is unfair to those who struggle with obesity to toss myself into the same category in a superficial ploy to stroke my vanity. On that note I should return to my quest for self-improvement, a quest that necessarily includes not only my body, but also my lifestyle, environment, and personal relationships.
—May 10, 2004