Friday, September 6, 2013

Musings on weight loss, undergraduate education, and stew

  A texty departure, gentle friends! Also a new tag: rants*. Outfit posts will be back shortly.

  Somehow personal style is, well, personal and far more revealing than I had anticipated. I keep things deliberately topical in my social media- Facebook, Twitter, and I tried to with this blog, but things keep leaking out. This is a (rare!) brain spill about weight loss and body image, with some angerballing about college.

  A bit of background: I am a returning student in my 30s. I've burned through my savings of several years and worked as many as three part time jobs to staunch the money hemorrhage while attending classes on three different campuses due to overcrowding. And yet during this pity party I'm painfully aware that I am one of the lucky ones. This stress and exhaustion and fear for me is (hopefully) temporary. There is no end in sight for the adults working multiple jobs, all days of the week, supporting families on barely or less than subsistence wages.


  After this last summer, I'm not gaining my weight back. I have not been able to digest things properly for weeks. My stomach sounds like a herd of cats burping and growling at the same time whenever I eat. I'm constantly nauseated. I lost thirteen pounds in four months, bringing the total to twenty three overall, my kidney got infected, and my hair has been torn out. I get hives now after recovering from each round of school, and eczema has started appearing in patches on my legs.

  Every semester I lose weight and I never fully recover it. I feel like a set of Russian dolls; every semester I am smashed against an edge, and a smaller version of myself is set back on the table. I do not know what happens when we come to that last little solid one. I suspect that I am there now.

  I've started politely correcting people who compliment my weight loss, who counter my explanations of stress with the dubious silver lining of becoming slimmer, more conventionally attractive. I am the reverse of the accepted paradigm: when I lose weight, it is a wasting process. It signifies that stress has destroyed my appetite and study has overrun the need for exercise and sleep. It means the things I take pleasure in have been set aside in a desperate sprint for a ticker tape, marking the end of only one more section of this monotonous grueling trek.

  I miss my physical strength. Half my lifetime ago, I wanted to be the media's feminine ideal, to have slender limbs and more prominent bony landmarks. Now I do not want my build any other way, and I want so much to have it back. I had the luck to fall in love with a sport that made me realize how beautiful a body works: a symphony of cables, pulleys, and organs that made me want to sing when I ran and when I flew in the air for that amazing fraction of a second. I miss my gentle long jogs, my weights, my pushups, my core exercises, my flexibility, and my wushu. When I do those things, the endorphins fill me with an overwhelming awe of how trillions of cells make this complex organism I live in. Life is a constant battle against entropy. Each breath becomes a conscious, incredibly precious gift.

  Most of all, there is guilt. I feel guilty that I consciously burned my health and betrayed the body which has served me and worked so beautifully all these years in a desperate prayer for a future.

  I want to hug my body to tell it how sorry I am, and reassure myself that we'll build ourselves back up together. I want to feel that sense of awe with each breath again, and to experience those precious hours in which I feel I have fully embraced the joy of being alive.

  (My friends, by the way, are amazing. They buy me my favorite foods and check to make sure I am eating, supporting my unusual desire for weight gain. As I type, there is a large container of my very favorite lamb stew waiting for me in my refrigerator. It is as thick and delicious as you can imagine.)

  I've watched the lines around my eyes deepen and show even when I am not smiling. I've watched the roundness of my face that I used to despair over gently fall away, leaving deep channels between my nose and chin. My dimples, once almost hidden by my cheeks, are showing more as my thinner face creases and pulls taut around them. I'm still young, but as I laughingly tell people, the model is modern but past its warranty. I feel my body changing as the battle against entropy rounds its curve, yet somehow the internalization of age makes me more patient. Well, more patient if I weren't so angry at this school process.

  There's a lot of anger. I am so angry at this clown show that has thrown roadblocks every step of the way as I try to graduate, at the complete irrelevance of so much of our only certification system, and watching more and more years sunk in a desperate race to compete for a shrinking pool of jobs.

  There is so much impotent frustration that the education system that could give me such beautiful tools as chemistry and biology would then have me spend years solving the same problems, cranking out the same answers like an assembly line. I don't like this frenetic pace, the shakedown and lazy way of distinguishing between goal-oriented students by testing how well we can memorize minutiae, culling us on the basis of tiny tricks and mistakes in identical problems rather than how we can use these new languages and concepts to change our perceptions of the world around us.

  It was using my new knowledge to read academic papers in the little time I am not cramming trivial details that made me think I might be suited to graduate school. And yet when it comes to statements I have no idea what to write, how much of myself I should hide and how much I should show. Everything in this system so far says what distinguishes me is how perfectly I can recite the arbitrary knowledge someone set down in a text and someone else cherry picked for exams. It is this, I am told, or be denied entry to any further steps. It takes almost all of my time to stay above water in competitive courses in which this and only this determines my grades.

  I started this blog because I was so frustrated at this system. I wanted an organic creative process, the unexpected paths it opened, and the resultant excitement of discovery. It has been so conspicuously missing in the countless years of education I've slogged through in thirty three years.

  Lately I find myself dressing for the things I am so grateful did not change about my body, even after this latest and most dramatic round of weight loss. I am dressing to emphasize the thickest, sturdiest parts of my physique- my shoulders, my upper limbs, my midsection. I used to have a physical sense of invincibility that wore as an armor to help me get through each day.

  I'm in a privileged position, becoming more rather than less conventionally attractive when I lose my health, but what I want is if we could be, as my friend Mo said, our ideal selves. What would we look like if we had enough sleep, enough money, enough to eat, enough exercise, enough fulfillment, and enough love? For now it feels like all I can manage is rice porridge with ginger and bok choy. And lamb stew. I'll eat all the lamb stew I can.

* Rants that are remotely related to style through body image, anyway. You will be spared my rants about the history of civilization, evolutionary psychology, control mechanisms, statistics, feminism, politics, and economics.


  1. Aya--this is concerning. I know how grueling academia can seem. I started my own blog when I saw the handwriting on the wall that my tenured position was being pressured to give way to retirement. It was an excellent way of coping. I do recall how stressful college and graduate school can be. I can remember thinking that life would never be so hard again... I think I too fail to eat in stressful periods. You may just be sorting out loss of weight and perhaps the first signs of aging (I don't know your age), but perhaps a strict diet of ice cream right before bed is in order. If nothing else, it will give you restful sleep and fill your brain with the fats you need to have for intellectual pursuits.

    1. Thank you, Terri. I'm so sorry to hear about getting pushed out of your career. I've been reading the older posts of your blog because I feel I can relate to some of what you write about academia and the introspective process.

      I think my health is getting better now, but it's taking much longer than I expected after the summer session at Cal. My friends have been taking me on a parade of food, from hearty stews to Japanese fried chicken to scones and tea cookies. I know when my body is able to exercise again my voracious (dare I say legendary?) appetite should return. I've missed it. I used to call it "the fire."

  2. Aya, I am sending you all my best wishes. I can only imagine how difficult this is for you.

    1. Thank you, Louise! It felt much better just getting this off my chest. Thank you for your support, for reading, and to all of you for indulging me. (:

  3. Aya, part of my blog has definitely been about focus on my constant changing health and how I'm trying to dress to take into weight gains and losses. Within four+ years I've been everywhere from 89lbs to 110+. Neither end entirely healthy or intentional. It's always been first about getting back to feeling good in my body and trying to dress to feel comfortable with it.

    I still find it very strange for people to comment on another person's weight, as I've never done so unless someone says "Look, I've lost my goal weight of X" and I say "Congrats on meeting your goal"

    Sending you lots of energy vibes, because I understand needing them. Stick around here in the blogworld! I was very excited to discover your blog and look forward to seeing you continue to grow and move forward.

    1. Thank you so much for your support Megan! Getting readership from you, Meghan, Gracey, and Ally was the big boost that got me addicted to blogging. (:

      I admit I find the commenting on weight a little odd, too! It made me realize how much weight loss is linked to health/positivity in the US. It stands to reason given the statistics, but still.

      Fortunately, while I hear many Asian and Asian American women are pressured to lose weight or be very tiny, my family has never done that. My mother worries about me if I lose weight because she knows what it means, and I'm pretty sure if the doctors hadn't told him when I was born, my father wouldn't notice that I am female.

  4. Love this post. Admire this post. Applaud this post.

    Insightful, honest writing like this is valuable -- and rare. Few are willing to look so closely at themselves and fewer still are willing to reveal their thoughts. Courageous of you to do this.

    Not having been raised female, I wasn't subjected to the pressure to become conventionally beautiful. I've always valued health, strength and fitness over "beauty", finding waif-like thinness to be unattractive. I want to be big and strong and wish everyone else did, too.

    I'm immensely sympathetic to your educational and future vocational plight. I was the first child of an immigrant family to go to college and even though I struggled and got into law school, my experience facing a shrinking job-market was harrowing. I spent two years frantically searching for a job in my field, got depressed when my 1,000 printed resumes ran out and I needed to repeat that order, and finally took a position that offered me a step in the door but at a salary that was less than the secretary was making in the office. (My boss explained that she was more valuable to him than I was.)

    So I care. And I'm sorry about how hard things are for you. If you persevere, things will improve and you'll reach your goals. Hang in there and accept help from your friends. Among whom I hope to be one someday.

    1. Wow, thank you so much for your support and for your insight, Ally! There's so much more to a person's life and past than meet the eye. For example, I never knew you were second generation!

      I agree completely with wanting to be healthy and strong. I am surprised how often women are encouraged to be otherwise. It might be because I was raised in a house of men and I did the heavy lifting because my father has back problems that I never got that expectation growing up.

      I had no idea you had to struggle so much to find employment. Thank you for sharing your experiences and I'm so glad you are in a better position now. It pains me that qualified hardworking people who are good at their jobs have to fight to get a foothold.

      I consider you one of my dear friends. I was a little hesitant to jump into the style blog community at first, because you all have wonderful friendships with one another that span time, and I didn't want to barge in and be a rude interloper. Everyone's been so friendly, though. My fears are assuaged. :D

  5. Hang in there Aya ... Your hard work will certainly pay off and look after your health because it is the one thing you need to be with you as you face the daily challenges.

  6. I feel for what you're going through right now. I am glad you have a safety net of friends who clearly want to help see you through this incredibly difficult journey. I often questioned my course material through post-secondary and only later concluded that usually there was NO use except to demonstrate to a future employer that I was able to stick it out. And school was a valuable place to network when I had time off work or homework.
    Hang on! There is a light at the end of it all.

    1. Thank you! You've worded precisely my frustration with Uni education for so long. I've concluded it's some sort of hazing ritual to systematically shake out the bottom of the pool for possible graduate education, but with no system of actually skimming out particular qualities other than the ability to jump through a lot of hoops.

  7. I'm glad that you have found this outlet, something to give you a break from your stresses and trials.

    Don't even get me started on the education system. It is SO VERY BROKEN. And I say this as an individual who was extremely good at being a student. I am thankful every single day that I decided not to go to grad school, even though I'd been accepted and preparing to go right after my undergraduate studies were complete. Granted, that choice had put me into the stresses that so many others face (but at least I don't have the student debt they do, or the debt I would have had if I continued my education for absolutely no reward/pay off in the long run... not in my chosen field, for certain). I don't work in the field I have a college degree in, my job is basically menial labor and I'm afraid to death it's destroying my hands (the part of me I love the most for what they can create and how they allow me to express myself). But at the same time, I'm saving money for my future goal, the ideal that keeps me going day to day.

    The question often is for me, is it worth sacrificing so much for a dream that we tease ourselves with... or is it better to live for today? Like you, I've chosen the future and I hope it's the right decision. I hope the stress doesn't undo me before I get there.

    From what I've seen, you're strong, and I know you'll get through this.