Western North Carolina Woman

embracing willendorf: loving your body to health and freedom
by byron ballard

Chapter Five: What Is Your Intention?

What do you do? People ask me this when they see my appearance—the “new” me. Today, one of my favorite customers came in the store while I was changing the window display. “What have you been doing ?” he asked. “Writing, a little travelling.” He looked incredulous. “No. I mean what have you done to lose all that weight?” I outlined what I’d been doing and smiled that I hadn’t realized what he was really asking.

Some people, however, don’t mention the change. In this age of traumatic illness, a weight loss can be the sign of something too challenging to speak of casually. One woman who has herself lost many pounds due to catastrophic illness was hesitant to say anything. She finally broached the subject very carefully and told me she’d been overweight her whole life and knew how people can be careless with their words. Her question was the best so far—is it intentional?

Isn’t that lovely? She didn’t make assumptions that I’d finally given in to the mountain of cultural pressure to be a size 10 or that, conversely, I might be gravely ill. Is it intentional? As you begin to embrace the glory of your body, let it be intentional for you, too. Be intent on flying in the face of the pervasive culture and loving your fat/skinny/short/tall body. Loving you, exactly the way you are. Right now.

Ouch. How did that feel? Did it seem silly? Did it seem impossible? Did it seem...wrong? That’s part of the baggage we must bear in Western culture, that somehow loving ourselves is immoral, goes against spiritual law. Surely I should expend some energy loving others? Isn’t it wrong to love yourself? Aren’t there rules against it?

Yes, there are deeply ingrained and body-hostile rules against loving yourself. We are taught early and often that self-obsessed and arrogant people who are in love with themselves are bad role models. And that’s true. Selfish, monomaniacal people who are not reflective about life are not a pretty sight and they don’t contribute much to the cultural or spiritual life of the planet.

That’s not what I’m talking about. You are not that person and will not morph into that person simply because you don’t hate yourself every waking moment. Yes, hate yourself. People do that, I’ve discovered—people who are kind to children and animals, who do good works in the community, who take care of their kith and kin. Some of these people carry around the heavy backpack of self-hate. And they’ve carried it around for so long that they’ve grown accustomed to it. I say—take that pack off and stay a while. Have some cool spring water up here on the porch and leave that burden be.

It is indeed okay to love yourself. There, I gave you permission. Now—and this may be much more difficult—I want you to give yourself permission. If you are too shy or damaged or freaked out to love yourself at this moment in time, start with liking. Can you like yourself a little more? Can you begin to see yourself as someone you could talk to in line at the grocery store or the bank? Some people think more highly of that nice teller at the bank than they do of themselves. It’s easier to like someone you don’t interact with every minute of the day—that’s a given. T ry liking yourself—liking your sense of humor and your kindness and your zest for living. I think when you’ve grown accustomed to thinking of yourself as likable, you’ll find that being lovable is just around the corner. It’s a matter of intention.

So, here’s my intention—to get my blood sugar to an acceptible level and my cholesterol under control. My plan for doing this includes watching carbohydrates. Yes, it is popular to the point of faddishness right now but in working with a nutritionist I’ve discovered that limiting carbs works for my body and my level of activity. But I do eat carbs—150 grams each day. I concentrate them in fresh fruits and vegetables with some whole grains. I’ve had to limit portions of my favourite breakfast—oatmeal. But I still eat it and love it.

Water—lots of it. Clean, filtered water is what I drink most (I keep a gallon container in the fridge) but I also love cold spring water. My friend Bonnie drinks a gallon of water a day but I manage to do a little over the minimum daily requirement of eight eight-ounce glasses. I carry a water bottle everywhere and drink all I can. It’s my beverage of choice in most situations. The occasional draft Guinness or glass of Chateau Neuf de Pape is also quite welcome.

Your body needs hydration to do its work. You know that. Plain water is best and easiest on the organs. Avoid soda—especially diet ones!—and limit your intake of caffeine, if you can. That’s hard for you coffee-achievers, I know. But notice I said “limit”, not eradicate. Hey, I’m not a monster.

Drastically reduce your use of refined sugar. Eliminate it from your diet if you can, with the possible exception of dark chocolate. This was the hardest thing I did and I did it cold turkey when I found out my blood sugar was high. Now, diabetes educators will tell you that eating too much sugar doesn’t cause high blood sugar but I wasn’t taking any chances. I weaned myself from my excessive sugar intake by eating fresh fruits like apples and grapes. But the most important thing in that process was dried fruit—specifically dates and figs (both mission and calimyrna). They satisfy my sweet tooth (or should I say “teeth”?) and are very nutritious. They saved me from my heavy candy habit.

As a non-caffeinated woman in a caffeinated world, I used candy as a pick-me-up anytime my remarkable energy flagged. Mid-morning, mid-afternoon, anytime. I walked around all day blissed-out on refined sugar. Empty calories, sure, but what an effect. So the hardest thing I did was cut it out of my diet. I confess I was a little afraid of it. Afraid that one bite of birthday cake would send me over the edge and I’d eat the whole damned thing.

So I avoided sugar for a long, long time. But I recently added the occasional dark chocolate square to my diet. It tastes, oh, so good. And I find I can limit my intake without having to think too much about it. I don’t have the urge to buy a bag of Mounds bars and eat them in the car as I’m going down the road. Okay, that’s a lie. I do sometimes have the urge to do it, but I don’t. I eat some fresh dates instead. Or I drink more water.

The first Hallowe’en I encountered while working with Willi was much harder than I would have ever thought. Hallowe’en is a convenient excuse for everyone to eat lots of mind-altering sugary treats. There are bowls of candy everywhere—at the bank, the Red Cross, the auto mechanic’s. Tiny Tootsie Rolls, Jolly Ranchers (which I despise but looked strangely delicious to my sugar-deprived brain), chocolate Kisses—they were everywhere, there was no escaping it.

The grocery store, the drugstore, the discount store—each one had shelf after shelf of large bags of cheap candy. Irresistible prices, tiny bites of perfect heaven. I thought I would lose my mind. Talk about visions of sugar plums.

I knew this would be much harder than avoiding birthday cake. I was feeling pretty cocky about my exercise routine, about the way my silhouette was shaping up, about my ability to process healthy food into lean muscles and boundless energy. Maybe I could eat a little Mounds bar, maybe I could eat a tiny KitKat bar, maybe...

No. I listened to my deep self, past the chocolate lust and the craving for crunchy sugary bites of bliss, I listened to the part of me that felt better with sugar out of my system. And, yes, I listened to the tiny frightened voice that said I still wasn’t ready to risk it, to risk all that I’d done. I listened and brainstormed options for going underground or leaving the country to go some place that didn’t do trick-or-treating.

Here’s what I came up with, the same technique that got me off big sugar in those early weeks:I went to a local gourmet store and bought an enormous quantity of fresh dates and I carried them with me everywhere I went during the week before Hallowe’en. I ate them slowly with great delight. Sometimes I ate one or two, sometimes I ate a handful. My weight didn’t change appreciably, my blood sugar levels were fine. I made it through the dangerous, vulnerable time by listening to my deep self and forming a strategy that worked for me. I did my best not to panic, and to be strong.

Being conscious about it is, I think, the key. And Hallowe’en taught me a valuable lesson in personal responsibility. My friend Kayla and I have a running joke about “opening up a can of personal responsibility on your ass”—a derivation of a popular Southern saying. We both think that personal responsibility is fast becoming a lost art, and Hallowe’en was a good chance for me to test that theory for myself. One part of me wanted to embrace that sugar-lust and say—it’s only once a year, surely I deserve a break from all this rigor? What could it hurt? I might have the equivalent of a hangover for a few days but no long-term damage was probable, was it?

All that self-talking and rationalizing was very tempting. But I took the opportunity to embrace Willendorf and listen with love to my deep self. Would I have been able to binge out on sugar and then get back to the program. Probably. Would I have felt badly, both physically and emotionally? Certainly. Did I choose instead to open up a can of personal responsibility on my own ass? Yes, I did. I made a conscious choice that came out of my commitment to my self.

I won’t always make good choices but I now know that the choice really is mine. The culture is permeated with excuses for me to rationalize my way through bad choices. Maybe one day I’ll need to use some of them. But not today. Not today.
I have salmon at least once a week and I eat the aforementioned canned tuna in olive oil on a bed of spring greens. My preference in life would be to be a vegetarian, but when you limit your intake of carbohydrates and are sensible about fat, you’ve got to make up those extra calories somewhere. Protein. Yes, there are non-meat ways to do that, but they mostly involve high carbohydrate solutions. So I eat fish and chicken. I joke that I’m a chicka-fisha-terian.

I honor the spirits of the animals who gave their lives so that I may live and because I am a Pagan, after all, I also honour the lives of the vegetables that I consume. All that honouring slows down my consumption a bit and gives me time for reflective chewing, something I’ve found healing and quite meditative. I recommend chewing slowly, looking at your food, conversing with your companions. Eating is—or should be—a pleasure. Bite after bite of healthy nutrition, delicious fuel for your delicious machine.

Now that low-carb eating is everywhere, you have the option of buying ready-made low-carb meals and treats at your grocery store. I saw some ice cream today that has only 8 grams of carbs in a half-cup serving. Look at the list of ingredients: crap, crap, crap. Better to occasionally eat a half-cup of real ice cream made with nutritious cream, some sugar and vanilla than to poison your system with non-nutritive chemicals that have fewer carbs. Eat a big salad, grill a chicken breast and then really enjoy a half cup serving of the best ice cream you can afford.

One of my favorite treats in the long-ago, sugar-drenched glory days of my early middle age, was to eat a lot of chocolate-covered cherries on Boxing Day. I was steeling myself to forsake a cherished but unhealthy tradition. But as the holiday sneaks closer, I’m thinking of a tiny box, maybe four pieces, of Godiva chocolate, one a day for the days after Yule.

This is probably a good place to talk about portions. When you sit down to a plate of pasta, is it a sea of linguini covered in rich red sauce? Does the thought of eating a half-cup of pasta make you feel sad and deprived?

Yeah, me, too. Thinking seriously about portions required me to keep a measuring cup handy any time I was cooking or eating. And there are some things, pasta being one, that are not at this point worth it to cook and eat. Maybe at a later date, I will add pasta, albeit whole-wheat pasta, to my diet. I have to admit that I miss it.

And eating out? Ha ha ha. In order for a restaurant to survive in a very competitive business, they must give each diner an enormous quantity of food. There’s a restaurant in my town that serves a “small” Greek salad that’s enough food for an entire family. The salads aren’t such a big deal as entrees, however.

I got very good advice early on and I happily share it here—as soon as the meal arrives, ask for a to-go box. Immediately. Nibble until it arrives, then divide your dinner and put half of it away. Just like that. Then you aren’t tempted to graze through the whole thing. Out of sight, out of mind. And lunch for tomorrow.

Of course, the only way this works is if you make sound decisions about your entree. Listen, always listen. What does your body want? What does the machine need today? A little more protein than usual—are you doing weight work? Or would you be best satisfied with a big salad with a chicken breast on top? Sautéed vegetables with brown rice? An omelet with portobello mushrooms? Listen and try to override your treacherous taste buds. Or gently remind them that onions and garlic sauteed in olive oil are just as yummy as a sub on white bread.

I’m getting hungry just writing about it. But, as I listen to my body, it’s telling me to take a swig of cold water and remember that dinner was less than an hour ago—tofu sauteed in olive oil with a sprinkling of almonds on a bed of spinach on top of a romaine salad. Am I eating high on the hog or what?


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