We’re all imposters on Halloween

imposter-syndrome-costume

What is imposter syndrome? Well, if other people would say you’re a high achiever but you don’t feel that way, you might have it. People with imposter syndrome feel they aren’t qualified for the job they have (or for the job they want) and no amount of success relieves these feelings.

For Halloween, I dressed as imposter syndrome. It was a 2-part costume:

  1. Physical representation of imposter syndrome: The ugly mask represents how we feel about ourselves. We know about our failures and rejections and the many times we felt like the only person in the room who doesn’t understand. The pretty mask represents how we present ourselves–our resume, our polished presentation that only shows the experiments that worked, the elevator pitch that makes us sound like the ideal match, etc.
  2. Survey: I’m a big fan of collecting people’s experiences. I wrote speech bubbles based on a) common experiences of imposter syndrome and b) direct quotes from the stories I collected to make my Grad School Stresses presentation. I carried sharpies with me to the grad student party I went to on Saturday and asked people to add tally marks below the speech bubbles they related to.

Lessons learned:

  1. Most grad students have or have had imposter syndrome (Okay I actually knew this already). Heard from a party guest while they were drawing on my costume: “What do I get if I relate to all of them?” Me: “A hug, if you want it.”
  2. Hot glue doesn’t stick to latex, and E6000 glue (which does stick to latex) smells terrible when it isn’t 100% dry.
  3. Having 2 removable parts to the costume (graduation cap, mask) meant that I found myself shedding parts of the costume throughout the party and only retrieving them when I got the very reasonable question, “wait, what are you dressed as?”

Full questions on the costume (most are geared towards grad students, but could be adapted to be relevant to other jobs):

  1. I’ve pretended to know more than I did or been afraid to ask questions [in class]
  2. Sometimes people tell me I look good but I think if they saw me without my clothes/makeup they wouldn’t think that.
  3. I don’t know what makes me special or unique [as a researcher].
  4. My project fails so much and it makes me wonder if I’m a bad researcher.
  5. Other people seem better at presenting/communicating their research.
  6. I worry that my mental/physical health issues will always interfere with my goals.
  7. I don’t have enough publications (or didn’t when I started grad school)
  8. I haven’t made as much progress as I had hoped.
  9. I worry I need too much work/life balance or am too lazy.
  10. I think about leaving grad school and/or sometimes regret starting.
  11. I worry a lot about my productivity and whether I’ll reach my goals.
  12. Because I may not go into academic research, sometimes I feel like an outsider.
  13. My perfectionism slows me down.
  14. I haven’t prepared enough so thinking about my future is overwhelming.
  15. I don’t feel as qualified as my peers and I worry people will find out I’m not good enough.
  16. I’ve avoided applying for something because I didn’t think I was good enough.
  17. I obsess over criticism.
  18. I compare myself to postdocs, advanced grad students, or the people who are the most successful.
  19. I don’t know if I’m smart enough.
  20. I forgot much of what I learned in undergrad.

Relate to any of these? Share your experience and/or share this post!

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Stream of Quirky Consciousness: Eye Contact

This post is in honor of National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Mental Health Month. They intend to break down the stigmas associated with mental illness and Quirks Who Care supports that mission!
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When I’m talking to you I’m never completely focused on what you’re saying. It’s not that I don’t care. I love the people in my life and want to learn about their lives, their struggles, their passions.

But my mind wanders. Where does it go?

Too many places for anyone’s comfort.

Am I making too much eye contact? How long have I been looking at their eyes? Is this creepy? Are we both thinking about this?

Ok, it’s time to look away. But where do I look? If I look at a different part of their body, they’ll think I’m noticing something about them or even….interested?! Though, how could I possibly know what they would think? I’m starting to recognize how little we can predict another person’s thought processes and emotions.

Ok I can look in the distance instead! Oh eep, they thought I noticed something there and looked where my eyes were too.

Eye contact is hard. But it’s not all I think about. Where else does my mind wander?

How am I supposed to be responding? What’s appropriate to ask? Am I supposed to ask follow up questions or will they tell me what they want me to know? How will they know I’m interested to hear whatever they’re willing to tell me if I don’t match each of their statements with a question?

Wait, am I asking too many questions? Did they just allude to a private issue and I took it upon myself to try to dig deeper? Or if I don’t ask more questions they’ll think I’m uncomfortable or unwilling to discuss!

Do my follow up questions even address the point they’re trying to make? Did they have a point they were trying to get to? Am I just saying something to fill the silence?

Oh here we go, here’s another moral failing of mine! I say something just because it’s silent. Fill the silence because eye contact is even more awkward when no one is speaking.

So I must change my behavior! Abort abort! Behave as a normal human does.

Wait, what am I doing? My policy is self acceptance, right? Why am I changing my behavior to be more normal?

But surely that’s a slippery slope! Fine, do everything that comes naturally to you. You’re going to go all the way back to middle school where you didn’t know how to communicate with people and had no friends.

Oh my Flying Spaghetti Monster how long have I been thinking and not paying attention? They’re still talking so maybe it’s ok. But wait, what’s that facial expression? Is that a reaction to something in their story? Or do they know I haven’t been paying attention?

No, no don’t think I don’t care. I care so much! I want to know what you care about, what drives you, what keeps you awake at night.

If I had to guess, it’s probably not the number of milliseconds our eyes were locked.

“It’s amazing that I can feel as good about my body as I do right now, given how objectively bad my body is.”

The title of this post is a thought that pops into my head sometimes these days. I want you to see it so you understand the progress it’s possible to make on body image, but also see that I’m in a mental transition that is far from over, and my feelings on the issue are confusing.

Your well-intentioned inclination is likely to immediately tell me how good I look, that I’m crazy for being self conscious. My request for you is to instead think of something that you’re self-conscious about (some aspect of your appearance, progress in your career, ability as a parent) that you have shame about. You’ve probably been reassured many times, possibly to no avail. So you understand what I’m feeling. Having others respond to “I’m ashamed of ____” with “you have nothing to be ashamed of and I would be so happy to be in your place” instead of “I’m sorry you’re experiencing shame; I’m here to listen” can make it really difficult to share. But it’s a totally understandable response and when were we ever taught growing up how to help our loved ones with their insecurities?

Although I refer to the last three years as in the maintenance portion of my process, in fact, I’ve been trying the whole time to continue to lose a little more weight. Given my specific body statistics, this is safe–while I’m in the normal weight category according to body fat percentages, I’m at the highest part of that category, so I could lose more without worry that I won’t have enough body fat to be healthy. I say this to avoid another type of concerned (but also well-intentioned) response. Navigating how to respond to weight-related issues really is a mine field, huh? But I’m starting to identify and announce where the explosives are.

So, I can safely lose body fat and have continued to try to do so. Physiologically, it’s fine. But this year I’ve realized that my reasons for trying to do so are psychologically less healthy.

The assumption behind weight loss is that you’re going to feel better about your body once you’ve lost weight. What’s the point otherwise? Yes, health reasons. But… That’s not why most of us are trying to lose weight. If you want to lose weight right now, it’s probably not because you want to make it statistically less likely that you’ll develop an obesity-related disease in twenty years; you probably want to look and feel attractive. Losing the “last ten pounds” is certainly about that. (Aside: there are definitely lots of non-appearance non-health related benefits to losing weight that I’ve experienced; that will be the subject of another post).

This is where I have to tell you that it would be a mistake to assume that you’re going to feel better about your body as a result of losing weight. Or that you’re going to feel as good as you want or expected to feel.

Reflecting on my own experience, one of the times of my peak body image was when I was around 260 pounds (my heaviest). Right now I weigh about 165 pounds and I’m at another peak of body image. Doesn’t really seem to correlate with the number on the scale. I actually think that my relative comfort with my body that I developed when I was still heavy was part of what made it possible for me to lose weight. I respected my body, felt it was strong, and wasn’t desperate to change it. In fact, the article that was the tipping point of my weight loss wasn’t about how to lose weight to look better. I identified with her because she wanted to lose weight to try to reverse knee issues (which I also had) and the fact that her weight loss was not based in the assumption that being fat is wrong/unattractive. (However, I won’t pretend that appearance didn’t play into it for me. I just don’t remember how I thought about the appearance part of weight loss).

Since part of this is about me sharing my “secrets” to a better body image, I’ll pause to answer a question that might be in your mind: how did I manage to get a relatively good body image when I was obese? I believe this was a combination of factors: I was attending a lot of queer- and women-focused events at Humboldt. Some were explicitly about body image; others just exposed me to a whole variety of people who seemed comfortable and confident (and beautiful!) in their bodies). Another factor was a romantic relationship where I could tell that my body was adored exactly as it was. That is so affirming.

So why might a person who’s lost a lot of weight not feel good about their appearance? I have some ideas but many others exist:

1. Every time you share a before and after picture along the way, what you’re calling “after” is really “during.” You get used to thinking of yourself as in progress. Even healthy approaches to weight loss (the only kind I will ever endorse) require some degree of obsession, because it requires an extraordinary degree of thought and planning, both short and long term. Along the way, you see parts of your body that make you unhappy and look forward to when you’ll have lost a sufficient amount and those will no longer be a problem.

2. When we hear about other’s experiences, it’s through a filter. If you think you know your acquaintances’ lives from what they write on Facebook, you are incorrect. There’s a self-perpetrating cycle where we’re all presenting ourselves as attractive (quick, untag any photo where I have a double chin!), put together (only post about your career when you get a promotion), a great parent of perfect kids, and in a perfect relationship (posting about an amazing anniversary date but never sharing about the painful and confusing conversations that a long term happy relationship actually demands). Weight loss is no different, especially in what you tell your Facebook friends (I do see a lot of honesty and vulnerability in online forums where there’s more anonymity and you’re speaking to people in the same situation rather to your entire social circle). So we see the one after pictures that are the very best out of the 30 pictures the person took–the one where they’re clothed, sucking in their stomach, have the perfect angle, are in their most attractive outfit. Compare that to what we see of ourselves, which is every random time we look in the mirror, with no makeup, in even our unattractive outfits, and of course fully nude.

3. Some aspects of body dissatisfaction are unrelated to weight loss. For example, how people feel about their nose, skin, hair.

4. Some parts of weight loss cause additional body concerns. Depending on various factors, this can include loose skin, stretch marks, and probably many other things I’m not thinking of.

5. Despite the fact that fitness magazines are supposedly catering to women at all stages of weight loss, the models featured in them are always in amazing shape. I’ve decided not to renew my subscriptions to Self and Women’s Health magazines, because while I appreciate that they take a reasonable and evidence-based approach to weight loss, it is hurting me mentally to continue to see so many unattainable bodies presented as the ideal. Writing a letter to their editors about this issue is on my agenda.
Of all the reasons, the one I’ve been thinking about the most is the extent to which we are all walking around with an inaccurate understanding of our body, others’ bodies, and how people feel about all of these bodies. We have an extremely inaccurate picture of what other’s bodies look like. The vast majority of the bodies I’ve seen in my life were those on TV, movies, in magazines, and in ads. These people are selected for their extraordinary appearance, their career depends on their appearance so they can spend a disproportionate amount of time on it, they have their hair, makeup, and clothes professionally styled, and then their images are edited to make them even more awe-inspiring! Because in our day-to-day life people tend not to be particularly provocatively dressed or oozing sex appeal, when we imagine what’s sexy and appealing to our preferred gender, it’s easy to assume that there is only a tiny proportion of body types that are sexy.

I’ll share two personal anecdotes here: A couple of months ago, my therapist suggested I go looking for images of women with my body type. I did, and I came across a picture of a model that had a body type with very similar proportions to how my body looked when I was obese. She looked so damn cute, and I had never ever before seen someone who looked like me posed and looking so appealing. I immediately started crying, a few tears escaping my eyes. It felt wonderful in the moment to see but made me so sad for my younger self, who walked around assuming that looking cute was not an option for someone with my body. I’m so glad that that model is out there somewhere, but I had to go searching on the internet to find that picture! And it’s still only a fraction of a percentage of the pictures of cute-looking women that I’ll ever see, because it’s one picture. It makes me feel a little nauseated when I think of the millions of teenage girls (and younger girls, and adult women!) out there who are going through life thinking the way I always have.

The second anecdote is from a few months ago, when I went dress shopping to go clubbing with friends. I’ve bought a lot of cute dresses since losing weight. There are way more size ~6 dresses than size 18, they tend to be cuter (which is a problem too), and the proportion of them that still look good when I put them on has dramatically increased (don’t get me started on how even the plus size mannequins are a terrible representation of what a fat woman’s body looks like, so it’s an incredibly demoralizing experience comparing how you expect a dress to look vs how it looks when you put it on…). However, since as I mentioned I’ve continued to be extremely self-conscious about my body despite being slim, I had only chosen dresses that weren’t form-fitting, because I thought looking cute meant hiding what my body actually looked like. I let myself be convinced this time to buy a dress that was very form-fitting, and I nervously wore it to the club. It was a scary experience, but I am so glad I did it. I could tell by people’s reactions at the club that they liked how I looked, and it started me down the path of understanding that I can be attractive even without hiding what I actually look like.

This is a long post (and I haven’t even exhausted all of my thoughts on the matter), but I want to end on one final piece of evidence I’ve found that “objective” attractiveness and body image are extremely uncorrelated. During my hunt for pictures of what lots of different unedited non-posed non-model women’s bodies actually look like, I found so many pictures of women whose bodies look just like the gorgeous models in my fitness magazines (slim, hourglass shape, large breasts, smooth skin) who describe their body the same way I would have described my own only a few months ago (or even a few years ago). They focus on minor issues, see flaws that no one else does, and don’t recognize that their body would be considered classically attractive. They describe how they cry looking at their body, hate it, want surgery, and other thoughts that make absolutely no sense to anyone else. Seeing these women’s stories was another huge turning point in my understanding of my own body. It made me see that being attractive is no guarantee that you’ll feel attractive. It made me realize that if those women could be so wrong about their bodies, maybe I was wrong too.

And that realization has led me to where I am now, which is well on my way to feeling pretty dang good in my own skin.

3 years of maintaining 100 pounds lost means time for some honesty again

3-years-of-maintaining

The first note I ever wrote about weight loss was called “Time for some honesty”, where I was admitting that I was trying actively to lose weight and had already lost ten pounds. I remember being shocked by the fact that I was so successful with the weight loss even in just the first few weeks and that I didn’t even feel deprived or hungry. People often hide trying to lose weight and their loved ones don’t always know if they are allowed to ask about weigh loss. But I decided to do it differently–openly.

Thank god that’s how I did it. I could share my successes, people could ask me for advice about weight loss for themselves, know I was ok with compliments about my appearance change, and cheer me on as dozens of annoying exercise statuses filled their news feeds. I think sharing my journey with you all is a big part of its success.

But when people post to Facebook they are mostly focused on successes, rarely honest about struggles. But I want to be. If we don’t know how much everyone struggles, we think we’re the only one who do. So I want to be honest about the fact that while I’ve maintained my 100 pound weight loss (with fluctuations of about 10 pounds), it’s been a struggle and continues to be. I  still sometimes feel out of control around food, I still sometimes eat out of boredom, I’ve had SO many weeks well over my calorie budget, I had a week where I was definitely eating like someone with a binge eating issue, and there were a couple of months when I stopped logging and started eating poorly the way they say you shouldn’t let yourself do in maintenance. Stuff like this is something I’ll always struggle with. But the fact that I still weigh in the 160s (versus the 260s where I used to be) means I’m doing okay.

Another issue that is so important to this whole matter is body image, which is something that is so missing from the weight loss conversation as a whole. The best way I can explain this is: don’t assume that a good body image will follow automatically from making your body better (even setting aside the subjectivity of the word “better” in this case). In my case, I realized recently that the fluctuations in my body image throughout my life were uncorrelated with my weight. As a result, I’ve recently started taking an active role in improving my body image, and I’m happy to report that my progress has been incredible. I feel much more confident and happy these days than I did six months ago. I would encourage anyone who is unhappy with their body to consider seriously how to divide their efforts among body improvements versus body image improvements.

Since the goal of this weight loss isn’t the weight loss itself but life improvement, I’d also like to share something else I’m working on recently: de-stressing and relaxing. I attacked undergrad with a vengeance; I spent it wrapped up in to-do lists and endless studying and research. Matt and I were long distance at the time, which made it easier to be that way, but there were a lot of people in my city that I missed out on getting to know better because I was so wrapped up in my studies.

Now in grad school, I’ve changed my priorities. I make time for husband, family, and friends (which can be a lot to balance when you have not only new friends but also family and lifelong friends in your same town! It’s a good problem to have). I’ve also recently started taking time to myself, because although alone time was something I had never understood the merits of, I now find relaxing by myself worthy for its own sake. I’m still really new to this but it’s been really rewarding so far.

I feel like I’ve made a lot of progress happiness-wise and am more at ease than I have been in the past. Nevertheless, I’m still a hugely anxious person and I look forward to continuing further in the direction I’ve been going.

I would love to hear anyone’s thoughts, experiences, struggles, successes, etc.

As I’m a huge fan of before and after pictures, I took a new one. The best thing about is that the first time I put the “after” dress on, I wasn’t confident in it. That took some work and now I feel great in it.

Two years of maintaining my weight loss means a new note

two-years-of-maintaining

Two years ago, I stepped on the scale and it told me I had lost 100 pounds. Here’s my story.

I started losing weight when I was 21 years old, when I found a blog post from a writer named Greta Christina, describing her experience losing weight.

Link: http://www.alternet.org/story/149549/how_this_weight-loss_skeptic_lost_60_pounds_and_kept_it_off?paging=off

It spoke to me because her reasons for losing weight were based on a desire to be healthy (her weight was causing her to experience serious knee problems) rather than due to a hatred of how obese bodies look,and reading about her experience convinced me that I can lose weight without severely depriving myself. The latter part was incredibly important, because my previous attempts had never worked because I had never succeeded before at cutting out all of my favorite foods, drastically reducing my calories, or doing enormous amounts of exercise for any longer than a few days, and suddenly I had reason to believe that I could lose weight without making my life miserable. If the changes I made were easy enough to live with, I could keep it up until I had lost all of the weight, and I knew (from reading that article) that even once I reach maintenance, I would keep up the same lifestyle. The part about losing weight while not feeling that overweight people look unattractive was also incredibly helpful to me; I had managed to finally feel comfortable in my body (possibly due to being in a university with a lot of discussion about body acceptance)and I now believe that that comfort and self-acceptance went far in helping me take charge of my body by losing weight. I think it’s much more effective than trying to lose weight because you hate how your body looks.

I downloaded the Lose It app, and as the days and weeks passed, I was surprised to find that I enjoyed recording my food in it (perhaps because I had just gotten a hand-me-down iPod Touch and doing anything with it was a huge novelty). A question I received often my first few months of weight loss was whether I was hungry all the time. The assumption was that since I was eating less than I used to, naturally I must be hungry. Luckily, I wasn’t. I had been eating a lot before not because I was extraordinarily hungry but because I liked to eat. The amount of calories that Lose It told me to eat (1600-1800 calories daily) was enough to satisfy my physical hunger.

When people ask someone how they lost weight, the answer is usually “I ate less and moved more,” but I’m here to say that that answer is extremely incomplete and is only helpful in answering the question of whether a weight loss pill or crash diet was used (to which the answer should always be ‘no’, if you’re talking about sustainable and healthy weight loss). A better answer would be “I figured out what would work best for me to make it possible for me to eat less and move more, and in a way that would keep me happy, not hungry,and able to maintain the lifestyle forever.” It takes longer to explain but it’s worth the extra effort.

At the time, I felt that it was best to not let myself get hungry, because I was nervous that if I let myself get too hungry, I would be ravenous at my next meal and overeat. So I ate smaller meals about every 4 hours or so, which is how often I tended to eat anyway. I did some meal prep so I would have healthy meals in the fridge to take with me to school. This was very much based in the idea that willpower is finite, and it’s unreasonable to expect to have enough willpower to make healthy choices at every meal. Instead, I used my limited willpower on the weekends during my grocery shopping trips,and then all I had to do was grab the healthy foods that I had in my fridge.

For the first six months, my only exercise was playing Just Dance games (on the Wii) and walking to and from school. With my busy class schedule, this was much more sustainable than trying to force myself to go to the school gym. I liked the dancing games, so it was easy to get myself doing it every day. It taught me to love to move, which I used later to do more intense exercises, such as running on the elliptical after I had already lost about 50 pounds. There was an added benefit to my choice of exercise: I became a morning person (after years of being the opposite) because I didn’t want to be dancing in the living room when my roommates were awake and I knew that if I didn’t exercise first thing in the morning, I would never get around to it, so I started going to bed at 9am so I could get up at 6.

I had started using Lose It in January 2011, but I realized later that in the six months previous to this, I had actually lost about 15 pounds without realizing it. I think it was because I had started cooking my meals at home more and I must have been making better choices. So technically my weight loss began in the summer of 2010. I reached the 100 pound milestone on July 27, 2012.

I’ve basically considered myself on maintenance since then. I have a few more ‘vanity pounds’ that I’d like to lose, but in terms of my frame of mind, I think the most important thing at this point is to make sure that the lifestyle I’ve transitioned to in these last 4 years is one that I’m still comfortable maintaining. There have been ups and downs (as evident in my weight chart). Part of it has to do with moving in with my husband, and falling into the habit of indulging in lots of snacks together when we hang out. Part of it is that motivation inevitably wanes, and it’s easy to go from justifying small indulgences (which I maintain is an important part of a weight loss plan) to indulging way too frequently. Over the last year, I regained about 10 pounds. Certainly,10 pounds is not much compared to the 90 pound deficit I still had, but it was an indication that I was starting to go back to my old habits. A few months ago,I realized that when I saw a treat, the question in my mind wasn’t whether to have some but how much I was going to have. Now, allowing yourself occasional treats is a great way to be able to carry on long-term weight loss sustainably,but it only works if your mindset generally defaults to the healthy option. I’m grateful that I recognized this shift in mindset, and I’m now back to feeling much more comfortable with knowing that I can pass up treats most of the time. I also feel incredibly grateful that I had never given up my habit of logging my food into Lose It. There was a year or so when I was over calories most days, many times very far over my calories. But I always logged it, which kept me more in check and made it much easier for me to get back in the weight loss mindset when I decided to lose those 10 pounds I had regained.

There’s been a major shift recently in my approach to my eating, but it’s very new so it’s hard for me to know yet how it’ll go. I mentioned above that I had very much avoided letting myself get hungry because I was afraid of the resulting overeating that might ensue. So what I had done was to eat based on the clock, basically trying to preempt my hunger with a meal. Obviously,this worked well for me, and I don’t regret it. However, there’s been a side effect, which is that my eating is disconnected from my experience of physical hunger. When I was younger, I ate so much and so frequently that I doubt I was hungry very much. While losing weight, I ate a reasonable amount but still frequently enough that I didn’t let myself get hungry. As a result, I don’t actually understand the sensation of hunger very well. If you were to ask me at a random time whether I’m hungry, I would automatically try to figure out how many hours it’s been since my last meal rather than pay attention to my stomach. I’m trying to change this. A few weeks ago, I listened to an interview by a nutrition coach with the awesome name Georgie Fear, and it helped me realize that listening to hunger is important and helpful, and I decided that I’d much rather learn to eat based on hunger rather than based on the time or the number of calories that I’m allotted in a given day. I had planned to continue logging all of my food into Lose It for the rest of my life (and I certainly still might end up doing this), but I decided I have to learn to listen to my stomach to determine whether I’m hungry or not.

I’ve recently started eating a higher fat diet (while staying within my calorie budget), which is (for many people) more satisfying to the taste buds and tends to make people feel more full longer. I also recently read Brian Wansink’s book Mindless Eating, which helped me understand that many times when I think I want to eat because I’m hungry, I’m likely actually just responding to various external cues. A great example: I work in a research lab,so I split my time between working in the lab and working at my desk. Since I always eat at my desk (a habit I’m not yet prepared to break), I’ve realized recently that I’ve formed such a strong association that I want to eat whenever I go to my desk. Realizing that is helping me remind myself that thinking of food or getting the desire to eat does not mean I need to actually eat something! If I recognize that I’m not actually hungry and distract myself, the feeling will pass. The combination of trying to listen to my stomach to determine if I’m hungry,eating more foods that promote satiety, and thinking actively about whether my desire to eat is based on internal or external factors has really led to a mindset shift recently. I’ve even started carrying around an index card in my pocket that says “What’s your hunger level right now?” and I pull it out occasionally and try to access how hungry I am without thinking about how much time has passed. I’m hoping that over time, I’ll get a really good understanding of my physical hunger and eat based on that. In the meantime, I’m continuing to log my calories because I know that my perception of my hunger isn’t trustworthy yet.

I’ve also been listening to a really excellent podcast called the Cut the Fat podcast, which has convinced me that since I’m now at the point where I’ve lost most of the pounds I’m going to lose, it’s best for me to focus now on getting stronger and more fit (rather than watching the number on the scale), so I’m working on building in high intensity workouts (such as interval training and resistance training) into my routine. I want to get stronger and combine fat loss with muscle building, and I feel that listening to that podcast has given me a great understanding of how to do it.

This post has just been about me describing my experience, but if you’re reading this and you have a goal you want to reach(weight loss or otherwise), I can apply what I’ve learned from my weight loss to tell you that it is absolutely possible. I am not a superhero; I’m a person who used to have no handle on her eating, who figured out how to change enough to get her eating in check. Losing weight has made my life better, in a number of very specific ways. If you have a goal that you want to reach that will make your life better, figure out what you can do to get there. Listen to stories of people who have been successful in reaching the same goal (search the internet,read books, listen to podcasts). Focus on the stories of people who seem the most similar to you, and who made changes that you think you can make. Divide your goal into subgoals. If it’s too overwhelming to make big changes, choose just one habit to adopt. If you don’t have much time, print out a calendar for the month and make a big check mark for every day when you spend 10 minutes on that goal. If you don’t have much money, do extra research into how to reach your goal without breaking the bank. Also, don’t expect your motivation to stay elevated indefinitely, so make a plan now for how to make sure you’ll continue taking the steps towards your goal even when life gets hectic and it all seem too hard.

Well that’s my story, and those are my thoughts.

self-efficacy as a weight loss tool

Last year for my Learning and Motivation class, I wrote the following essay. I just reread it and thought it was pretty cool so I wanted to share in case anyone else was interested. It’s about how I used self-efficacy to lose weight.


I was fat all of my life and I never believed that I could ever lose the weight. It was a vicious circle—because I never believed I could lose it, I couldn’t. But this year, I lost all of the weight that I needed to lose, and for that, I needed to use the self-efficacy that had built up from a number of sources in my life.

Perceived self-efficacy is defined as “one’s beliefs concerning what one is capable of doing” (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009, p. 338). It is an important part of social cognitive theory, which suggests that much learning happens vicariously, as people observe others and integrate these observations into their beliefs. Self-efficacy is part of this theory because it develops largely from the observations of other people, and its end result is the formulation of self-perceptions.

To begin, I should explain the reasons that I never believed I could lose weight. First, all of the weight loss advice I had ever seen was unreasonable. On the one hand, there were people who advised taking pills or doing crash diets or taking herbal supplements; I knew those didn’t work. On the other hand, there were people who said the only way to lose weight is to avoid eating your favorite foods and to engage in an extended period of vigorous exercise every day. I knew I couldn’t do that. I had tried throughout my life to stick to a set number of calories or work out and I always failed after a day or two, because the lure of candy or the couch was too great.

Then, on January 6th, 2011, something changed. I came across a post on a blog I had never read, where Greta Christina, the author, described her experiences having been overweight her whole life but then finally losing weight. As I read through her blog, I realized she had struggled with many of the same things as I had—of course, there was the fact that she had trouble exercising and resisting delicious foods. But she also was a scientifically-minded person who understood the importance of going through the research of a particular topic in order to make her decision about a personal choice, and she was also a feminist who had had to reconcile her choice to lose weight with her support of the fat positivity movement, which encourages people to be happy with themselves at any weight. Reading through her blog post, seeing that she had such a similar mindset to me, and finally seeing that she had successfully lost a great deal of weight, I couldn’t help but be faced with the realization that my notion of the impossibility of losing weight had to be at least partially wrong. That day, I discovered several things. First, I learned about the iPod Touch application that she had used, called Lose It, in which I too would be able to record my calories and exercise. Second, as I read through her blog, I could see that a person who was relatively similar to me in mindset could be successful. Third, I learned that it was possible—and in fact optimal—to indulge relatively frequently in my favorite foods as I lose weight.

Albert Bandura described four sources of self-efficacy (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009), and I will describe how three of them related to my experience. The first is mastery experience, which means that previous success leads to the belief that one can accomplish future goals. This was very important to me. There have been several experiences in my life in which I have overcome a personal flaw. The most salient is my pulling myself out of a bad academic situation in high school. In my junior year of high school, I realized that as a C student, I was not doing well, and in that year I suddenly scurried to get organized and change my approach to learning. Over the course of a year, I raised my grades from Cs and Ds to Bs and As, and also passed all of my AP tests. This required constant effort and mindfulness, but I managed it. Another previous experience that had shown me I had the ability to make major improvements in my life that taken place several years earlier. Growing up, I was very shy and awkward. I had not had many friends in elementary school and by the time it came to middle school I was one of the most unpopular people in my class, and had nobody whom I could truly call a friend. Near the end of my 7th grade year, I had a conversation with a girl in my class and she suggested ways that I could behave differently to relate better to my peers. The following year, 8th grade, was one of the most difficult of my life. I struggled to incorporate my peer’s suggestions, and along with changing my own behavior, I had to overcome my classmates’ established opinions of me. Over that year, I learned a great deal, and when I went to high school the following year, I had grown enough to find some people with whom to hang out—a triumph! In my later years of high school, I finally made many friends with whom I connected deeply, and have had little trouble making friends since.

Because I had been successful in these enormous tasks, I had reason to believe that I could be successful in this one. Nevertheless, despite the fact that I had been aware for several years of the implications of overcoming these previous difficulties, I clearly still did not believe that I could extend that ability to follow through on a goal to lose weight. Somehow, food had a power over me that I knew could not be overcome. To surmount this obstacle, I needed another push—a reason to believe that an endeavor to lose weight could be successful. For that, I needed another source of self-efficacy that Bandura described—modeling (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). Modeling affects self-efficacy in that if you see someone else successfully completing a task, you will be more likely to believe that you too can achieve it. This makes sense in light of social cognitive theory, which states that learning can occur even indirectly. I had had several experiences of seeing somebody else overcome something enormous. For example, my mother had earned a medical degree in Russia, because she had always dreamed of being an ophthalmologist, but when we moved to the United States, she would have had to go through medical school again in order to practice here. She decided to find a new line of work, so in addition to having to learn English, she had to completely re-establish herself, learning how to use computers, how to program them, and how to write in complex programming languages. She did, and watching her struggle with the difficult required courses showed me that it is possible to get through a difficult situation. However, in order to really make an impression on my belief in my ability to lose weight, I had to see that someone else had accomplished the specific goal I had. This is why that blog post had such an effect on me—it was the first time I had really read about somebody who had specifically overcome the exact problem I was facing, and therefore it was incredibly moving and it was absolutely the jumpstart I needed to actually begin. I believe that the moment I read the blog post, my perspective—and my life—changed.

Bandura’s third source of self-efficacy is social persuasions (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). This also played a huge role in my self-efficacy regarding my ability to lose weight. As I was in the process of losing weight, I set up Lose It so that every time I logged exercise, or lost any weight, it would announce it on my Facebook account. My friends on Facebook routinely would comment or ‘like’ it, which was incredibly encouraging. Many of them would write supportive comments, telling me that I could persevere and that I was inspiring them to become healthier, and that always kept me going. Everybody seemed so convinced that I was not only making the right decision but that I could really succeed, and that undoubtedly helped me believe that I could.

I think a vital part of my use of self-efficacy this year (without even being aware of it) was making sure that at every step, my plan to lose weight was extremely realistic. After all, perceived self-esteem is related to actual self-esteem (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). Had my plan to lose weight required a substantial amount of willpower or deprivation, I certainly could not have followed it through to completion. What was the likeliness that a person who had over-indulged her whole life could suddenly eat a restricted diet and engage in vigorous exercise every day for the entire period of weight loss, and then maintain these habits for the rest of her life in order to maintain the weight loss? The odds were close to zero—I knew it could never work.

Instead, I made a plan for myself that was more reasonable and would require only a modest amount of willpower. I made an account on Lose It, and told it I wanted to lose 1 ½ pounds per week. I had tried in the past to record all of my calories in food journals but had always quit after a day or two. But somehow I believed that this time I could do it—perhaps for the simple reason that recording food on my iPod was more fun and less of a hassle than carrying around a notebook and having to manually look up calories. And so, because I believed that this time counting calories would be more manageable, I launched in and started doing it!

Next, I had to figure out how to deal with my food choices. On Greta Christina’s blog, she had written about her decision to indulge occasionally in her favorite foods. Reading about this, I knew I had to do something similar. I love ice cream and cookies, and any meal plan that did not allow me to eat both could never be successful. With this in mind, I made the decision that if I was ever craving a certain food, I would eat it. This usually meant that if I had calories left over at the end of the day, I would walk to the corner market and buy ice cream, but on some occasions, even if I had already used up my calories for the day but really wanted something or was hungry, I would never hesitate to allow myself to indulge. It was far more important to me that my meal plan was sustainable in the long-term than it was for me to never exceed my daily calorie budget.

The final major part of my weight loss was exercise. While I did enjoy occasionally going to the gym and running on the elliptical machine, I knew that as a busy student, it was unlikely that I could make it to the school gym frequently enough to form a fitness habit. Additionally, I have some problems with my knees (ironically enough, caused by the very weight problem I was trying to fix) that prevented me from always being able to do vigorous exercise. Luckily, a few weeks after beginning my weight loss journey, I found exactly what I needed. My roommate bought a Wii game called Just Dance 2, and as my roommates and I all played it together, I realized it was the perfect tool for me! It was exercise I could do in my house (saving valuable time on transportation), and it was so much fun that it didn’t even feel like exercise. I started going to sleep earlier so that I could wake up in the morning and do this new exercise. I couldn’t force myself to get out of bed every morning to run (and in fact, when I tried, my knees wouldn’t allow it), but it took very little effort to get out of bed knowing that a dancing game awaited me. Because it was easy and enjoyable, I knew I could do it, and because I knew I could do it, I did, and have all year.

This year has been dramatically life-changing. Beginning on January 6th, I have slowly changed my views on food, exercise, fitness, and my beliefs about what I can achieve. As I lost more and more weight, I felt not only better physically but also more confident in my ability to follow through on my goal. I also felt so much respect from my family and friends, which has been incredibly rewarding.

In July of this summer, when I was nearing my 50 pound goal, I had a pleasant surprise. While attending a conference about science and skepticism called The Amazing Meeting 9, I came across Greta Christina in the list of panelists. I was excited but nervous—in these hallways walked the person who had completely changed my life without even knowing it! On one of the last days of the conference, I found her in the hall and nervously approached her. I briefly explained my story and the role she had had in helping me turn my life around. She thanked me for sharing my story and we took a picture together. That weekend, I had met many famous and important scientists and scholars, but the meeting that most stuck with me was this one.

Throughout the year, as time passed, it became somewhat more difficult to stick with my goal. As I got closer, the weight fell off less quickly, and I found myself losing some motivation. Determined to continue, I changed my plan so that I could eat a bit more and lose the weight more slowly. This way, I could continue my mission to stay as realistic and reasonable as possible in order to keep my plan one that I knew I could stick to.

On November 16th, 2011, 10 months and 10 days after I began this journey, an incredible thing happened. I stood on my scale, as I do every morning, and read 169.2. For so long, I had awaited such a number, just below my goal of 169.6. Seeing this number on the scale, I was faced with the fact that I had achieved my weight loss goal. I started crying, thinking of how growing up I had just known this was the one problem I could never overcome, thinking of all of the times I had tried before and failed. I thought of the beginning of this year, when I finally began to believe that I could actually succeed, and had made a plan to make sure I did. Finally, I thought about the fact that I had followed through on my plan and achieved it. Still crying, I stepped off the scale, and I called my parents, so excited to inform them of my news.

down fifty means a new post!

down50

It’s official: I’ve lost 50 pounds! This means I’ve achieved my second weight loss goal (my first was 25 pounds, my second was 50 pounds down). I’ve decided to make my next goal 65 pounds down, and then to see where I stand. I might stop before or after that, or choose a lower number, but it’s hard to decide that until I’m closer.

My concern before summer started was that with summer would come laziness and perhaps a lack of motivation. Luckily, my plan to keep myself busy has been working well: I’ve been going the gym almost every morning, and not spending a whole lot of time just vegging out in front of the television. But actually there have been plenty of days when I’ve spent quite a bit of time watching television or in front of the computer, and even then, I found it pretty easy to avoid eating constantly. I went to the doctor at the beginning of the summer, and she told me that at the weight I was then (which was when I had lost about 40 pounds), I’m basically at a healthy place. She said I could lose more if I want, or stay where I am, and that at this point, it’s up to me. That’s very reassuring!

Other indicators of the fact that my weight loss has gone very well:

1) My prom dress is now definitely way too big for me. Which means I’ve now lost all of the weight that I gained in college, as well as plenty more.

2) It is SO much easier going up stairs and hills. I barely even notice them now!

3) A trip to the store a few weeks ago showed me that I now can comfortably wear a smaller dress size than I’ve ever worn (or at least smaller than since middle school)! In fact, I found the same dress that I had bought a few months ago (which I bought partly to celebrate having lost a bunch of weight) in a smaller size, and when I tried that on, it totally fit! I didn’t buy it though, since it makes more sense to just tailor the bigger one to make it smaller.

Another thing I wanted to mention: A lot of you know that I recently went to the conference The Amazing Meeting 9, since I just posted pictures and I’ve posted about my excitement. One of the cool things about it is you get to meet a lot of really amazing scientists, authors, and bloggers. For example, I got to meet Bill Nye and thank him for his show, which got me and so many other kids pumped about science! I also met Steve Novella, and thanked him for being such an amazing model of how you can be incredibly successful professionally and still have hobbies and have a family (he is a neurologist and professor at Yale, and runs multiple blogs and podcasts as well as many other projects). But despite these incredible introductions, I had an even more memorable meeting at the conference: I met Greta Christina, whose blog post was what got me started on losing weight. I found out when I was already there that she would be there, and decided I wanted to meet her and thank her. I did: I introduced myself and told her how back in January, I came across her blog, and it completely changed my perspective on weight loss, and since that time I’ve lost 50 pounds. I thanked her for saving my health, my life, and my happiness. And then I hugged her and we took a picture together. It felt so amazing to be able to thank someone who unintentionally had such a direct and vital effect on my life, and I will always remember that.

A few people have recently asked me what it is that actually changed my perspective on losing weight, and made it possible. You can read the article that did this here: http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2010/03/fatpositive-feminist-skeptical-diet-1.html

and make sure to read Part 2 and Part 3 as well. But to summarize, the things I read on there that did it for me are the following.

1) First, not thinking about food as good or bad. Attaching morality to food leads to (or is the result of) an unhealthy relationship with it. So, as the blog suggests, I’ve been thinking about food in terms of a budget: I set a budget for the day (the number of calories I can eat) and then think of food as either calorically expensive or inexpensive. So eating chocolate cake isn’t sinful; it just means that I’ll have less calories in my budget for the rest of the day. Which means I can eat a smaller amount of a calorically expensive food, because I get both the delicious flavor as well as the knowledge that taking just a small amount means that I’ll have more calories to eat later.

2) Doing a cost/benefit analysis about whether losing weight is a worthwhile thing. For many people, it may be more worthwhile to not lose weight and to instead change how they feel about their current weight (which is a big part of the fat acceptance movement). So if a person would be happier in the long-term accepting how they look and feel at a heavy weight, as long they are willing to accept the risks (increased chance of many diseases, shorter lifespan), then that should be their choice. But a cost/benefit analysis should be done, instead of just ignoring the risks or pretending they don’t exist.

3) The idea to talk openly about losing weight. So I’ve had the Lose it program post all of my exercise on Facebook, as well as weight changes and when I’ve received their motivational badges. Also, notes such as this one, where I get a lot of ideas from you guys, as well as feedback. SO HELPFUL! I think another big thing about this is that often when someone is losing weight, people aren’t sure whether they are allowed to mention it or not. So posting about all of this stuff has let people know that I’m generally open to comments and questions about losing weight.

4) I learned about Lose It from the blog post, which is an application that has been INCREDIBLY instrumental to this. It just makes keeping track of food and exercise easy and fun, as well as other helpful features like a forum, social network, the ability to look at trends in your calories, exercise, nutritional intake, weight, etc. Which is awesome for nerdy people who like graphs. Oh and another amazing feature is the fact that you get motivational badges, which gives you fun things to aim for.

5) Thinking about this as a lifestyle change instead of a diet, and planning to behave in the same way on the day I hit my goal as I have on every other day, so that I don’t just go back to my old habits.

6) Doing exercise that is fun. Most of my exercise the first few months was just getting up in the morning and playing Just Dance 2 on the Wii. It got me moving and burned calories and never felt difficult! It also helped that sometimes my roommates would join me which made it extra fun!

7) Not letting myself get ravenously hungry, and remembering that for the rest of my life I will never let myself get ravenously hungry.

So reading the things I just mentioned on her blog are pretty much what got me started on this. If you think you might be interested, definitely click the link I posted above.

A final thing I wanted to address is something that has been on my mind a lot lately. During this whole weight loss process, I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback. Since people can’t see the health benefits of weight loss but can see the appearance benefits, it makes sense that that’s what people have mentioned (“you’re looking so slim lately!” sounds way less weird than “I bet your cholesterol levels are within a healthy range now!”). And it’s been really amazing to have people tell me that I look good. It’s something I barely had growing up, so to have that now is a shock to my brain, and is perhaps making up for lost time. But the problem is, it’s happening at the time in my life when I need the least reassurance. I look in the mirror now and I see that I’m slimmer, and I do think I look better now; I never had any of this positive feedback when I hated what I saw in the mirror, which is when I really needed it. Growing up, the one physical compliment I got was that I had great hair. So essentially my self-esteem regarding my appearance was built around that one trait, a trait that I knew wasn’t really all that important to most people. I guess I just wish I could have had that kind of positive feedback when I really needed it. I notice that this paragraph of the note is a lot more rambling and less straightforward than the rest of it, so that might tell you that it’s something that I feel emotional about, and that I don’t really know how to explain. But I wanted to try anyway.

Well, I believe those are all of the main things I wanted to address. I can always write another note if something else comes up. And as I said, I’m continuing all of this with the new goal of getting to approximately 65 pounds lost. Onward!

And my most recent before/after picture, because those are always fun. 😀