facing forward (# 51)

My alcohol free summer has saved me several hundred dollars, at least. I’ve been voraciously buying books for my Kindle, so that has eaten up some of the savings. Then, I started thinking it would be nice to try something new and different.

Over the past few years I have become increasingly dissatisfied with my skin. Part of that was because drinking alcohol, the notorious antibeauty serum, was dehydrating me and drying everything out from the inside. Part of it was the fact that my skincare routine has been in the same minimalist rut since my early 20s, when I decided that the best thing to for my skin was pretty much nothing but fingertip scrubbing with shower water and daily application of Oil of Olay for sensitive skin SPF 15. Sure, I would use this or that product from time to time, but I didn’t regularly use anything to cleanse my skin. Benign neglect ruled the day.

Well, over the past few years I started noticing little white bumps, which are called milia, as it turns out. Google revealed that milia result from dead skin cells that get trapped under the skin especially when oils, makeup, moisturizer, and whatever else gradually builds up.  Milia can be avoided pretty easily by regular cleansing and exfoliation.

I disliked the way my skin was starting to look close-up and feel–kind of bumpy all over. There were a few small bumps that seemed permanent, which my doctor identified as a “clear mole” and an “overactive oil gland.” But the rest of the stuff seemed like it didn’t absolutely have to be there. It seemed like there should be a solution.

So I decided to use some of my sober gains to get a facial, something I have not done in about two decades. I told the aesthetician that I had been noticing distressing changes in my skin and I wanted to learn how to face the future and take better care for the long term. I believe this was some of the best money I have spent in a long time.

This woman was a wizard. She confirmed what I had learned about milia, and she told me that it’s okay to take a minimalist approach to skin care but you have to do something to emulsify and wash away that stuff that builds up on the skin. That could be anything from using an oil like coconut or almond oil and rinsing with warm water, to using a cleanser of some sort.

This skin wizard was able to remove most of the milia (you need to get rid of the white bumps sooner rather than later because otherwise they become less encapsulated and more rooted and fibrous, more integrated into the skin). She did such a lovely delicate job that even right after she finished my skin did not look stressed, just a little spotty at the toughest areas. By the next morning, everything looked and felt perfect.

This facial experience was just what I needed. It tangibly improved a situation that had been bothering me. It also felt fitting to use this extra money saved by not drinking on an extra boost for my skin, which has already benefitted considerably from me not drinking. Lastly, I learned new things about how to take care of myself that I can carry forward into the future, clean, clear, and freshly scrubbed.

UPDATE: I am adding a link to an article about skin care products called “essences” that I happened upon today.  I purchased an essence (spray mist) after my facial and I have been using it since, although I didn’t really “get” the purpose of it. This article explains it’s role as a primer for the skin very well and describes how essences have long been a part of Asian beauty rituals. American beauty ritual, by contrast, are far more aggressive, based on stripping skin dry (typically with alcohol-based products) and then slathering on moisturizer. In Asia, it is more typical to prepare skin for moisturizers by moistening it in the first place. In any case, I am pleased to report that my skin is still feeling and looking great with my simple new routine.

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body: a history (# 25)

This post brings you the story of the 45-years-long relationship between food and my body. This accounting is more for me than for you, but I share in case it resonates.

I was a very skinny kid and remained so until college. I did a lot of ballet until I was 12, and it left a lasting imprint on my body, particularly my leg muscles. It was the grunge era when I was in high school in the late eighties. Everything was pretty baggy and loose and I wasn’t overly concerned about looking traditionally feminine or sexy. Nor was I particularly athletic. I pretty much thought of myself as a brain on a stick. My body was not a matter of great concern or interest to me. Except for one thing: my stomach. No matter how thin I was, I always had bit of a potbelly. This bugged me.

In college I may or may not have put on the freshman 15. Probably not that much, but I matured physically then, and went from being a scrawny kid to someone with boobs and hips. I dabbled in different forms of exercise intermittently: dance, swimming, gym workouts. I never really stuck with anything and never had a plan. I ate a lot of cheese and bread. I danced a lot, drank a bit.

My weight fluctuated within a 10 pound range from about 118-128 (I am 5’6”). Again, I didn’t think much about it. Among my friends, I was one of the thinner ones, so it would have been bad form to discuss body image issues honestly with my friends (who would have said, “but you’re so skinny!”).

Secretly I thought of myself as the fattest thin person in the world, because I knew I was not in the best shape. I guess I was what people now call “skinny fat.” I still disliked my poochy stomach and envied my heavier friends who were athletically or genetically blessed with sexy flat stomachs. Also, I had a major hang-up because my mother was extremely overweight throughout my childhood. Sometimes I was embarrassed by the looks people gave her. Other times, I worried about her health when I heard her huffing and puffing her way up the stairs. In any case, I deeply, deeply did not want to grow up to be just like my mother. I was pretty paranoid about that.

After graduating from college I moved to N.Y.C. I belonged to a gym that I went to intermittently, but mostly I just walked everywhere. I was in good shape. Same thing in Dublin, where I lived next. As long as I was walking everywhere, it didn’t much matter how much bread and cheese I ate or how much Guinness I drank.

Eventually I returned to the U.S. and started living with my boyfriend. I was not walking so much, and over the course of a year, I began to put on weight. I went from size 6/8 to 10/12. I don’t remember my highest weight, but it was probably about 140. When we broke up, I was very depressed and I rapidly shed about 20 pounds. Partly, I went to the gym a lot. Also, I really didn’t feel like eating, so I adopted what I now refer to as “the apple diet.” Basically, when I felt hungry, I would eat an apple until I felt better (or just bored with it). Then, I would throw the rest of the apple away and grab a new one when  hunger pangs hit. Occasionally I supplemented the apples with bread and cheese.

Eventually I got over it, started eating normally again, and got a new boyfriend. I continued to exercise semi-regularly. When I got married I weighed about 125 and probably gained about 5 pounds over the next 3 years. Then I got pregnant. The whole thing was a science experiment run amok. “Let’s just see what happens if I . . . ”

I ate pretty healthily most of the time, but I also ate whatever treats I wanted, which tended to be sandwiches with a lot of mayonnaise or, oddly, Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese. I gained 50 pounds and a TON of stretch marks.  After the birth (a C-section) my stomach, which had always been a sore spot for me, was completely and totally trashed. It was as loose and flabby as bread dough. Adding insult, I never really shed the last 10-15 pounds, which put me at around 145 for the next five years. I was exercising some, but I was also eating a lot of carbs. I looked kind of puffy. Not horrible, but not good.

Finally I committed to working out much more seriously than I ever had before. (This was about 10 years ago now—and since then I have worked out 3-6 times a week. Every. Single. Week.) I walked and ran on the treadmill, lifted weights and got down to about 135. I felt really good for the first time in years. And then . . . pregnant again!

This time, I was much more careful. I had worked so hard to turn things around, and I didn’t want to lose that. I kept exercising and ate much better (lots of organic farm-raised meat and veggies). I gained a reasonable 25-30 pounds and lost most of it quite easily soon after the birth. Although I had another C-section, I began walking a lot right away and resumed running the day I got the ok from my doctor. By the time my baby was 9 months old, I ran my first half marathon. When she was 1, I started graduate school full-time. It was stressful, and to cope with the stress I continued to make exercise a priority. My weight was about 132.

Partway through grad school my marriage broke up. Eating was not a high priority for me at that time. I also made a conscious decision to stop eating bread, pasta, and sweets . . . and to stop eating leftover anything off the kids’ plates.

In my family, I had always done most of the cooking, which I enjoyed very much. My family also enjoyed it, however they mostly refused to eat leftovers. That meant I ate leftovers for lunch until they were gone. When the marriage ended I vowed to only eat what I wanted to eat. I was no longer going suffer eating through ALL the leftovers just because nobody else would eat them.

So. without following any particular plan, I adopted a relatively low carb diet. I still ate a lot of cheese. In my new single life, with the kids around only half the time, I tended to eat less at meals, I ate mostly fruit, salad, cheese, and chicken. Simply easy things. I skipped meals a lot also. This way of eating agreed with me and without trying at all, except for keeping up with the regular, ongoing exercise, my weight dropped to 120 for the first time in many years. Effortlessly, it stayed there for almost 5 years.

But then . . .a couple of things happened. My wine and alcohol intake crept up over time. Back when I was in grad school, I barely drank. After I graduated, I definitely counteracted the stress of my job with alcohol. Without thinking about it, I was adding hundreds of calories to my diet weekly. Also, I met someone, got married again and my eating habits shifted a bit for the worse. Although we both eat low-carb meals, I began snacking more. I ate tortilla chips more.

About a year ago my weight jumped from 124 to 130 seemingly overnight. Seriously. I remember the exact week when it happened. I couldn’t figure it out! At first I thought it might be the effect of more rigorous strength training I was doing at the time—more muscle, maybe. But the trend continued.

It took a while for the weight gain to be apparent with my clothes. All my clothes mostly still fit. Gradually, though, I realized that I was no longer choosing to wear my skinny jeans because they weren’t so comfortable anymore (I used to need to wear them with a belt!). The bodily changes accumulated—thicker thighs, the return of the potbelly–and I could not deny the unwelcome changes seemed to be here to stay, instead of being the product of temporary fluctuation. Perhaps the changes are partly due to my age, but deep down I also knew that I had been doing things wrong  . . . wrong for me. Before I blame my age, I want to course-correct the habits I know are wrong for me.

Being honest with myself, I was feeling much less happy with my body, and negative thoughts were beginning to overwhelm me. Particularly before I stopped drinking, I felt like I was flailing, looking for solutions while mourning my lost willpower and moderation, especially as to snacking and alcohol. Obsessive and negative thoughts were draining my energy and compounding my inability to do right by my body  for more than a day or two at a time.

I had, of course, hoped that a few pounds would just melt away once I stopped drinking. Here at almost four weeks, that has not happened for me. I don’t think I have lost a pound! That said, I do feel good, and my negative funk has begun to dissipate. I can now see that the gloom about my body was actually displaced negativity rooted in my feeling like I was drinking too much and spiraling slowly to a worse place. I was uncomfortable with myself, and my discomfort was manifesting physically.