It’s rare that I get to enjoy daytime TV. Usually, it’s all Backyardigans everything, all Dora everything, or whatever’s on PBS Kids (hey, anything to avoid the toy and junk food commercials)… but getting something for myself to enjoy? Not often. However… every Tuesday for the past few weeks, I’ve made it a point to make sure that Mini-me is napping right when Dr. Phil comes on.
Why? “The Housewives of Dr. Phil.”
I don’t know how I managed to catch it the first time, but I’ve been hooked ever since… for one particular reason.
The entire episode is nothing more than Dr. Phil himself, in a room with six women: a woman who was cheated on by her husband and has thoughts of killing him; a woman who was so depressed about her weight gain that she spent her entire day in bed beckoning her maid to do everything for her while having an emotional affair with another man; a woman who has a history of verbal abuse (be it from her mother, Mom’s significant others or her own significant others); a woman who could not date to save her life; a fifth woman who is incredibly attractive (at least, to me she is) and, apparently, flaunts it inappropriately; and a sixth woman.
That sixth woman is why I’ve been so interested in this show.
Meet Alana. (Uh-lah-nuh – she’ll feel some kinda way about you saying “Uh-lay-nuh.”) Alana has been overweight her entire life. Alana used to weigh well over three hundred pounds. Alana had gastric bypass surgery, followed up by a few corrective surgeries for clean-up work. I… it’s hard to explain Alana, because in a lot of ways.. she is me. Without question.
She used to be the charming funny girl, feeling like she had to accept everyone because she didn’t want anyone refusing to accept her. Less judgmental because she felt like she didn’t want anyone judging her. There’s also an element of “if I cast my net wide enough, the more people there are that I can claim as friends… I can still be popular even if it’s not because I’m ‘hot’” at play here, as well.
She was traumatized by her peers because of her size. She has a sister close-in-age who was slim at the time, and always felt like she was compared to her in a negative way. I feel like, by watching Alana, you could tell that she always felt some form of pressure to look more like her sister. It’s as if the heat was always on her from family even if they didn’t beat her over the head with it.
Alana and I both share that. I’ve always had jokes (I admit they weren’t always funny, but I sure did always crack ‘em anyway), and I’ve always been non-judgmental. I never considered whether or not it was because I was trying to encourage non-judgmental attitudes around me, though I could see myself fearing someone snapping back at me with “What do you know? You’re fat.”
When I started to gain weight – somewhere around elementary school – I was picked on by my peers, but when I moved… it rarely came up. I was the charming funny girl.
I’m not vocally judgmental like Alana, though – never have been, never will be. I certainly make judgments – we all do – but I avoid verbalizing ‘em. I’m not mean unnecessarily – I do bust out attack mode to protect myself and my daughter, but who else would? – and the phrase “skinny bitch” isn’t in my vocabulary. I never felt threatened by other women, just because I’d always felt like I was in another realm. Attractiveness is a competition – the competition is what encourages you to look better – but I simply never chose to compete.
But damn all that, though. We both lost weight and have new figures to praise. It should be that easy, right?
No. Absolutely not.
I think we take for granted, sometimes, the things we leave tied up in our appearance. As I was telling a friend last night, things change when you lose weight. Whether you want to admit it or not, a lot of our sense of self-value can get tied up in whether or not we look like “the ideal,” and this is especially different for Black girls. Even when we’re built like “the ideal,” we certainly still don’t look like her. Going from being unnoticeable and practically getting away with murder to being much more attractive to many more people and being an attention-getter is difficult. It messes with your sense of self.If you’re not careful, the fact that others value you more because of your appearance will cause you to value yourself differently because of your appearance.
When I look in the mirror, I don’t feel like I’m looking at a different person. In fact, I know I’m not. I’m still active in my community, I’m still Mommy, I’m still giving, loving and accepting. I’m still empathetic. Like, I’m really not that different. But everyone around me changes in ways that I haven’t. It makes it hard to understand who you truly are and whether or not you value the right things about yourself when the people around you insist on acting like you’re someone different because you look different.
When Alana talks about modeling, I cringe because that’s what I’m dealing with mentally right now. The idea of looking at yourself in the mirror or in a photo and saying “Wow, that’s me?” and being amazed is… it’s something I can’t put into words. Even now, it’s hard for me to embrace and accept that I’ll be standing in front of an audience in a neon pink bikini for a figure competition next year. It’s hard for me to look in the mirror and see such a different face than what I’m used to. It’s hard to understand that these [much, much smaller] breasts, this [much, much smaller] tummy and these [much, much smaller] hips belong to me.
The strange thing about looking in the mirror and “not feeling like I’m looking at a different person” is that I still don’t expect to see a different person. If I’m not careful, I still feel like I’m staring at a stranger in the mirror. It’s hard to not look in the mirror and see the old me… still happy, still overweight. It’s hard for me to understand the life that I have, even though I love it and I live it happily. The connection I have to the old, overweight me and my fear of changing into someone even more different from who I am now (and who I was at 328lbs) makes it difficult for me to see myself at competition level. It’s almost frightening to me.
I think the theme, here, is acknowledging how much of ourselves and our identity is wrapped up in our appearance. How much of who we are is tied up in what we present to our peers? I mean, Alana admits that she was the “jolly fat girl” because her appearance called for it – she didn’t place judgment because she didn’t want to be judged. I can even understand her belief that it’s now her time to judge others and demand that they vy for her attention. (If you are drawing more attention, it only makes sense that you’d use more discernment in who you allow to get close to you. That’s just life.) But all of that was based on her appearance… so perhaps it is inevitable? Perhaps as your appearance changes, so goes your personality?
I reject that. Alana says, “Looking in the mirror, I’m lost.” I think that’s key. If you are lost as a person – unable to recognize your strengths, unable to identify your weaknesses – I do believe it’s easy to adopt society’s principles about what makes a person worthy. (Worthy of what? Who knows.) I think when you feel like you have no idea who you are, you let your peers tell you and it becomes too easy to get sucked into that.
I cling to the things that I’ve always loved and adored, because the person I’ve always been fits into it all seamlessly. Things that are new – like a figure competition, for crying out loud – that could potentially change my sense of identity… scare the hell out of me.
What this is teaching me, really, is to be open to changing. Be open to seeing what I grow into. Be less stubborn about clinging to who I used to be, and be more excited about the possibilities that come from what I will be tomorrow. Even though it’s hard to look in the mirror and see that this is me, I still look in the mirror and say “Wow, that is me,” and I smile at what my hard work has brought me. Each day is an opportunity to embrace the fact that everything about me – including my appearance – is always evolving, always changing and always deserving of my love and praise… or my reflection and effort to change.
So… in support of Alana and her continued growth, I’ll still try to watch every Tuesday. I’ll still root for her because I feel like so much of where I came from (and still am overpowering) is where she is and has been. I suspect the same is for a lot of women out there. Here’s to hoping she — really, here’s to hoping we all heal happily and healthily.