Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Five for Ten: Running into courage

As I walked the brick-paved streets of Ljubljana, Slovenia, my heart tumbled into mad love with the country's beauty -- its charm, its old Eastern European fashioned buildings and outdoor cafes overlooking rivers that gently wound through the middle of town.
But mostly my heart swooned for the lovely, courteous, utterly beautiful people.
My friend Erinn and I had been mingling in and out of shops on a particularly lovely March afternoon, searching for memories and soaking in the experience of a new culture soon after arriving for our study abroad trip.
We'd been practicing the Slovene language on the plane ride over, and we were a fabulous blend of excited and nervous when it came to actually conversing with the young, beautiful baristas and shop owners.
After we'd entered a few shops and gracefully exited, I noticed that all of the Slovenes we'd come across addressed Erinn in Slovene, while often speaking to me in English.
"What was it that gave away my identity as an American?" I had pondered. My clunky Converse All Stars in a sea of Pumas and high-heeled leather boots?
Erinn was wearing a similar pair of sporty shoes, so I had ruled it out.
Was it her blond hair against my own chestnut-colored locks? No; there were many dark-haired Slovenes walking the streets.
After several hours of musing to myself, trying to figure out why I was always the victim of spoken English, I realized why all of the Slovenes nailed my identity as I watched Erinn walk into our shared hostel room.
With her tall, trim and lean body, she looked like she belonged in a city where people walked nearly everywhere and participating in sports was as common as drinking water.
I looked at my own body; my 5 feet and 4 inches did not stretch 189 pounds very far. My wide hips were at least five sizes larger than nearly every person I had come across that day. Perhaps I epitomized the typical vacationing American with my short, stout frame, waist line spilling out of shirts and hips filling the width of size 14 jeans.
As I made friends with the Slovene students who were hosting us, this issue of weight (among many other issues that are typically associated with Americans) was central to many discussions, and I began feeling like the abnormally large American in the middle of toned and healthy Europeans. Self-awareness of my scale number had yet to peak, though.
One of our last nights in Slovenia, Erinn and I ventured off to a gorgeous restaurant where we were seated on a brick patio surrounded by blooming, vibrant plants. She offered to split a meal with me. Being extra cognisant of my weight, I agreed. As we were dinning, our professor, her husband and their Slovene friend entered the patio and struck up a conversation with us about our trip. Our professor's Slovene friend wasn't shy about stating his opinions or sharing truths. I don't know what lead us to the topic, but we were talking about beauty. The older Slovene man, with his silver hair and warm smile said to me, "You're a beautiful girl, but you're just very chubby."
My mind, like a rubber band that had been stretched too far, snapped. As Erinn and my professor's husband tried to rush to my aid while my professor chided her Slovene friend, I knew he was right. And I quickly reasoned that what he'd shared was OK, afterall, I'd traveled half way around the world was to see life with a new perspective. Certainly, I'd planned to be challenged about my beliefs, my cultural stereotypes, my American views. I'd expected, I wanted, I craved to be changed on the inside upon returning home; I wanted to grow and gain a broader, wiser worldview. I embraced challenging my self identity.
But changing my physical appearance was so much more personal for a girl who loved food so intensly that she formed a group called the Fat Kids' Club her sophomore year of college and knighted herself as president (true story).
I didn't eat food to just sustain life. I ate food to celebrate, calm fears, drown sadness, combat stress, socialize. I ate food for everything. And I liked it.
But, darn it, I didn't want to be the fat American anymore; that was no longer an identity I wanted to claim.
I wanted to bring home clothes not just shoes but I couldn't because it was impossible to find any jeans or flattering shirts in my voluptuous size. I wanted to climb the side of that mountain up leading up to that castle with out being winded just as my Slovene friends easily breezed up terrain. I wanted to frame the pictures of myself in front of the most beautiful flowering tree next to one of the country's gently flowing rivers with the new friends I'd made without noticing that I took up twice the space.
I so desperately wanted someone to mistakenly speak Slovene to me as I browsed the shopping racks.
But give up my food? My source of comfort and reward? Could I do that? It was a long 24 hour trip back to our home, in which spilled my heart onto sheets of paper trying to muster the courage to let go of something I so loved in order to live the life I so wanted.
I wrote myself notes on our train back to Munich, attempting to summon the strength to portion control, pep talk myself into eliminate 2 a.m. pizzas and convince myself that food other than pasta could be served and enjoyed for dinner.
Because it wasn't just about the actual food; it was about the thing that had been there, ushering me through all of my varying emotions virtually all of my life. Some people suffocated their feelings with drugs or alcohol or sex or money. I kept mine at bay with a double cheeseburger and fries. All that time I was eating away my feelings, I was also eating away all of my courage as I gained pound after pound.
When I set foot back home, I found that courage I'd eaten away in my first pair of running shoes. With every step I pounded, I gained a little bit more self respect and a little bit more courage to let go of my old friend, food. Instead I found comfort in the early morning songs of birds while I ran. I found stress relief in the form of sweat dripping down my face as I forged steep hills. I found friendship and conversation in the long, brisk walks of twilight.
And the very thing I blamed for my self-identity issue that first day in Slovenia -- my shoes -- was actually the very thing that ended up carrying me away from the root of my identity crisis -- my food.


  1. It must have taken so much strength and... courage :).... to write this beautifully touching post. You know I can relate... so very much so. You were brave beyond your years to take that experience and spin it in healthy way.
    You blow me away :)

  2. Oh that is simply beautiful, Hyacynth! Very powerfully written and so true for so many. I love it!

  3. This is beautiful. I found myself nodding through the whole post, picking out many pieces that related to me and my own addictions. The last line especially caught my eye. The imagery of your shoes being the beginning and the end of your journey is simply lovely.

  4. First off, you are such an incredibly talented writer Hy. I savour every word as much as I would a McDonald's french fry...wait, MORE than I would a fry :-).
    I can very much relate to your struggles as well as your Eastern European experience. When we moved to Montenegro, I was very pregnant and VERY huge. A co-owner of our company there would often chastise me for my size and we'd all laugh, well, because I was pregnant. I had the ultimate excuse. Truth be told, I didn't eat like a pig through my pregnancy but was still HUGE. The daughter of said co-founder had taken to calling me Shrek. Again, we laughed. Fast forward a few months after baby was born. I had started exercising with a personal trainer. The weight wasn't coming off as fast as I would have liked it and to be honest, I had never been a skinny girl. Was always the girl who could have stood to lose a few extra pounds(like 15-20!). We're at a restaurant one night, the founders and my family and the same co-founder makes another loud joke about my weight. This time, noone really laughed. And I felt myself turning every shade of red. He was oblivious. Turns out that later on, someone explained to him the inappropriateness (is that a word?) of his comment. He truly was ignorant to the cultural faux-pas and didn't quite seem to care because of the cultural difference. But he never did make a joke about my weight again. I lived in a land much like Slovenia, tall, thin, gorgeous women. It wasn't long after that night that I too changed my outlook on life and food. I lost the weight. And for 2.5 years, I kept it off. And now I'm back to struggling again. Though you can't mistake me for Shrek, I could be headed down that road again if I don't keep it up. So thank you for your words of inspiration and reminding me of my own experience. Really proud of you!

  5. Really beautiful, so real and honest. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  6. This is unbelievable. What a great story told like a master. Good for you. It must have taken courage.

    I have to admit, when you were telling the story I could almost taste the wine and the Med. food.

    I go there too. But don't you just love the honesty of other cultures. Say it like it is.

    Good for you.

  7. Wow. Just wow. I can't believe the comments you got on your trip. That must have been impossibly difficult to here. And so objectively, too. I imagine it would find it's way even deeper into your heart because of that.

    There is comfort in food, to be sure. I've found myself lately finding a bit too much comfort in food. :( But, when I lace up my sneakers and take to the street, I am much more comforted by something that is undoubtedly internal, rather than external, and that right there beats out a pizza anyday.

    Love this post!

  8. This is a beautiful piece, Hyacynth. I am honored to have had the chance to read it and am amazed by your strength and presence of mind in the face of the comments you heard on your trip. I think about the ways in which I internalize criticism and really admire your courage to turn it around into a healthy goal. Thank you for sharing this powerful essay with us!

  9. You have such a talent as a writer and as a woman, for having the courage to share with us this story.

    It's an incredible story, told amazingly well.

  10. This is a wonderful post. Thank you so much for sharing. Corinne directed me over here after reading my most recent post about my issue with food and overeating. She thought I would appreciate you and your blog - and I do. I look forward to reading more.

    - Melissa


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