This week I was reminded of my 11th grade self because I was on a panel called “Redefining Success” at a high school in San Francisco. Imagine me at age 16: everything in my closet is oversized and my color palette ranges from dark blue to black (because fatphobia). I wear glasses. I’m hungry, like, all the time. I'm involved in marching band, debate and the Junior Classical League (the club for poorly adjusted kids with an enthusiasm for the language of ancient Rome.) I'm trying to escape where I came from — my dark home life, boys who call me names every day, and friends who don't stick up for me.
I had low self-esteem and big aspirations. My biggest measure of success at that time (and for many years after) was weight-loss. I imagined that in my future I was thin, and achieving other goals felt secondary. Honestly, I couldn’t see my life long-term as a fat person because I was taught to hate myself and blame myself for fatphobia. It took many years to begin seeing my future in my fat body, and once I was able to do that I still had to re-imagine what success could look like in a culture that tells me my life, my dreams and my achievements are worth less because I have this body.
The panel inspired me to share 3 new rules I gave myself for redefining success post-dieting:
Rule #1 – Your family/society/your boo don’t get to define what success looks like (actually, no one but you does)!
I grew up in a Mexican immigrant family. Expectations were clear: get good grades, go to college, and work at a job where I wore a pantsuit.
I grew up in the United States. Expectations were clear: conform, be a bigot, and buy as big a TV as you possibly can.
At 18 I was a freshman in college at UC Davis. I hated my five (five!) roommates and so I went to Italy with my financial aid money and took my first stab at being a bohemian degenerate. It was amazing! Being so far from home really changed me. The distance gave me perspective. I realized I was a curious, big-hearted weirdo who didn’t like the idea of working in an office. Why work in an office if you could kick patriarchy in the balls over and over again?
I decided to transfer out and go somewhere else. I landed at a school known for its radical history and quickly found feminism, sex positivity, queer community and new relationships with women that changed me. My new friends encouraged me to prioritize my heart and my gut rather than try to be “normal.” They taught me I deserved respect, love, and happiness. I would later take those lessons with me into adulthood when I started making decisions about my relationships and career.
Rule #2 – Figure out what YOUR definition of success is (it’s ok if it takes a while).
Right now I define success as building a life that honors my right to thrive. It took a really long time to figure that definition out, and it might change in the future. There was a long period of my life where I didn't prioritize or think about thriving because I was in survival mode. Dieting was part of being in survival mode. I was taught that weight loss was self-care, but then I did a bunch of research on it and realized dieting is actually about the patriarchal destruction of my body, mind, and soul. Now I work really hard to prioritize:
- Joy — to me that means being around people who make me smile and laugh, and doing things that make me feel happy
- Integrity — to me that means the sense that I am doing things that align with my view of what’s right, just and does less harm
- My investment in other people — to me that means helping to create success and happiness for the people I love and letting myself be seen and vulnerable
- Healing — to me that means crying a lot, grieving my childhood, being in therapy, reading a lot of books by David Richo, spending time at the beach and near big trees; and
- Freedom — to me that means staring hard cultural truths in the face, refusing to submit to expectations that harm me and fighting for my right to live a full life on my terms.
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Rule #3 – Make decisions from desire, not fear.
If you’re afraid to make the wrong decision you are not alone, girl! Our capitalist culture thrives on (especially women’s) fear. There are thousands of signals you’re receiving every day from media, advertising, and, yes, Instagram that activate a sense of scarcity and loss. You haven’t failed if you’re feeling petrified, but you do deserve better! We all have questions that keep us up at night. Here are mine:
- If I stay in San Francisco will I just turn into a tiny raisin-like ball of gentrification-inspired boredom and rage?
- Will I ever find a boo who's a woke feminist or am I just gonna die alone in a hotel when I'm 96?
- Is my grandmother dying a horrible death right now?
- Should I just move to a 14th century barn in Portugal and write weird feminist poetry and drink tea all day already?
The answers to these questions lie in big, beautiful, tragic, magical journeys where I fall on my face and get back up again and watch sunsets and eat chocolate with friends and go to screenings of Poltergeist at 11pm and cry myself to sleep and buy pink dresses and kill my favorite cactus accidentally and miss airplanes and drink cappuccinos.
If you’re new to making decisions from desire, start with tiny stuff: let your desire decide which tea you drink or which route you take to the grocery store. These aren’t make-or-break decisions but they can feel that way sometimes. Once you’ve spent as much as you need on the small stuff, go onto slightly bigger decisions and so on.
If this list is making you feel overwhelmed right now, that’s totally ok.
If you feel like you’ve got this, then rad.
No matter what your response is, it’s the right one. You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be. My rules are meant to inspire your own. Take what works. Leave what doesn’t. I have total faith in you!