Thoughts on life after the PhD
Back in February, I got sick.
Not horribly, deathly ill. Not even so sick that I had to miss work (though there were a few days that I wanted to.) Without going into too much detail, I can say that it was a bit like a mild case of food poisoning, or at least a mild case of “whatever I ate yesterday did not agree with me.” I winced a bit and thought it would be over in a day or two. But a day became three, then five, then a week. After two solid weeks of essentially everything I ate turning to knives in my stomach, I decided to go to a doctor.
Two doctors and a little over three months later, the diagnosis is still inconclusive. One doc said I likely had IBS, which may have just been another way of saying “nothing bad came back in your tests, so given your family history, we’re going with that.” Another doc said he thought I’d contracted something that wouldn’t necessarily show up in tests, and that it might be gone in a month, or three, or six.
In the meantime, I was suddenly faced with two very sudden realities: 1) there was a long list of foods I could no longer eat, and 2) I had lost a lot of weight.
Number one actually hasn’t been as bad as I thought it would be. It’s not an exact science, but so far it seems that beef, pork, lamb, dairy, and anything fried or super fatty / oily are the foods that set me off the most. When I found out what I wasn’t supposed to eat, I imagined myself crying over pictures of pizza and enchiladas, but the truth is I haven’t actually craved the forbidden foods that much, maybe because I now associate them with being sick. Sure, sometimes I get a craving for a burger or some ice cream or a big plate of mac ’n cheese or Porto’s potato balls (sob), but it really doesn’t last.
Being thinner, though, was weird. Mostly because people kept saying, “You look great! Have you lost weight?”
I should be clear here–I am NOT criticizing anyone who said that. It’s not as if I looked ill. But looking in the mirror was odd. My face was thinner. My neck looked longer. My trousers quite literally slipped off my hips. (On a recent trip home I bought more clothes than I’ve ever bought during a single shopping trip, because I just needed stuff that fit. And hey, it was an excuse to go shopping.) When I passed my reflection in buildings walking to the station I did a double-take.
When people said “You look great! Have you lost weight?” I really had no idea how to respond. Because of course I hadn’t been trying to lose weight, but it was a safe assumption that I had, because every woman everywhere is supposed to be on a diet, and everybody wants to be thinner, no matter how thin they already are, and when someone gets thinner it’s a cause for celebration, provided they don’t look really sick. To the people I knew well, I was honest–I said I’d been sick and I was getting better, that I hadn’t been actively trying to lose weight. Given the deafening roar of the diet industry, I kind of felt compelled to say something that let people know that a) I was perfectly fine with my body just the way it was before I got sick, and b) I wasn’t “dieting,” I just suddenly couldn’t eat a ton of stuff that happened to be very fatty.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like my slightly thinner self, though. It was fun to wear skin-tight jeans and like the way I looked in them. It was nice to smile at myself in a dressing room mirror where before I might have judged and nitpicked the slightly pillowy thighs and not-exactly-washboard stomach.
I’ve written about this before–it’s scary that the cult of thin still has so much power over me. I don’t like that I like myself in this slightly thinner body, but I can’t help it–thousands upon thousands of pictures and moving images have been telling me practically since I was born that this is what I’m supposed to look like, and that my previous self was just a stepping stone to thin-me. I look in the mirror, smile, and then feel bad for smiling. People tell me I look good, I feel flattered, and then I simultaneously want to shout “It’s because I’m SICK! That’s what it took to get here, to get to this place that everyone says I’m supposed to get to, and that’s not cool!”
It’s all a little confusing.
If there’s a silver lining to all of it, it’s that a lot of the foods I can’t eat were really bad for me. And I’d been wanting to cut back on them, but I just didn’t have the willpower. When it comes to moderation, apparently nothing works better than the threat of severe physical discomfort.
And the good news is that I feel fine 90% of the time. Socially it’s a bit awkward, because occasionally I end up at a dinner party at a shabu-shabu or tonkatsu restaurant and I have to just pick at my food or say that I already ate, or try to explain to people what I can’t eat and watch them look somewhat confused and concerned. (It’s confusing for me, too, and what sets me off seems to change from week to week. And I realize it’s way tougher to be vegan–at least I can still eat chicken and fish.) I’m also not supposed to drink alcohol, though I’ve found that I can have one drink if I fill up my stomach with food first. That one’s particularly tricky in Japan, where so many social and work events center around drinking.
Mostly, though, my temperamental stomach and newly restrictive diet have been a non-event. And maybe someday I’ll be able to have a burger again. Which could mean that I’ll eat a lot of burgers and pizza and mac and cheese and this thinner self will be history.
Which, come to think of it, I can totally live with. Especially if it means Porto’s potato balls are on the menu again.
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writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)
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