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So far in my life I’ve been great at losing and re-gaining weight. My intention this time was to lose and not regain: finally to solve the puzzle that is my relationship with food, so that I can live without that drag. What would that be like? How could I repurpose that energy? What could I accomplish?

I think I cracked the puzzle this week.

Worth the Effort

The pivot came during the Lifeline exercise in The Four Day Win (my guidebook, by Martha Beck), in which you rate your perception of leanness or fatness for every year of your life. I saw that the only time I have been happy with food and my body is when I have put effort into it.

At first this looked like a problem, because I believed that in order to be maintainable, it had to be effortless. . .

But is it true? No! I realized that it’s the effort itself – the feeling of being in charge of my life and worth some effort, damn it – that delights me as much as the feeling of a right-sized body and peace around food.

My lifeline showed me that my “subjective perception of leanness” includes a period of time when I weighed what I weigh now. Back then it felt great, but now it feels fat. What’s the difference? A few things. First, then I was super fit. I worked out 6 days a week. I also surfed (we lived in Hawaii) and hiked. As a consequence of my fitness and lifestyle, I had loads of energy, was incredibly productive, and – surprise! – found food to be great but not terribly interesting.

It all started – I remember the moment – because I passed the gym every morning after dropping the kids at school, and one day I said to myself, “Go in. Just do it. You’re worth it.”

Working out, of course, is the opposite of effortless. When it comes to fitness, we know that effort is the point, and we call it good. Furthermore, we know that it takes effort to develop an exercise habit, and we accept that effort as part of the deal.

Why not the same attitude toward food? Why did I make “effortless” the standard in the first place? Most things in life take effort. Without effort, things fall apart – gardens go to weeds, buildings crumble, bodies decay.

The Limits of the Child Comparison

I think I got confused because I study babies and young children in order to try to understand how humans work. Who are we essentially, underneath culture and socialization? How can we live with more freedom and joy, as they do?

But now I see that babies and young children, while instructive, are imperfect guides for adults. They do not have adult brains or adult lives. The brains of immatures are (according to research psychologist Alison Gopnik) like lanterns – wide open, unfocused, perfect for exploring the world through play. Furthermore, immatures are usually comprehensively cared for by adults, so they don’t have to occupy themselves with thoughts of food. The mature brain is different. It’s a spotlight – focused, perfect for exploiting the efficiencies it learned throughout its play years in order to think ahead and plan. . . in order to take good care of itself and its offspring.

To summarize, I am no longer a child, and it’s no good to try to get myself to think like one – to go back to a period in my development and to circumstances that simply no longer exist.

The Liberation of Boundaries

I am an adult. What do adults know, and what are they good at? A profound lesson of adulthood for me is the importance of clarity and boundaries. I am clear that I love feeling powerful, confident, and in charge of my life. To that end, boundaries around self-care make complete sense.

For example, I know how much sleep I need, so I protect it. Though I can stay up late and sleep in if I want to, it usually isn’t worth it, so I avoid it. I don’t experience my boundaries around sleep as a restriction but as a liberation. Similarly, I have a workout habit. Do I always want to work out? No. But I find doing so good for me in every possible way, so I usually do not follow the urge to stay sedentary, but rather put in the effort to exercise, no matter how short the work out. This boundary, too, feels like a liberation, not a restriction.

I have cultivated lots of boundaries – around socializing, work, relationships, and other elements of self-care – that have allowed me to thrive. I finally see that I can bring food into that fold of boundaried relationships, where the boundary is not a restriction but a liberation.

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