Weight Watchers and the Last Christmas Kolacky

In 2008, I joined Weight Watchers for the last time. Really this time, the last time. Whenever I re-joined Weight Watchers, I vowed that it would be the last time. In high school. In college. In graduate school. And now, 2008, was really, really the last time. Except that, like all the other times, I wasn’t quite sure if I believed it. I’d failed to reach my goal weight so many times before despite the hope embedded in each new blank weigh-in booklet. I would get soar from the rush of a clean slate, whipping into a frenzy of promises and vows and public accountability only to inevitably unravel and have to invite disappointed, sympathetic reactions when I admit that it hadn’t quite worked out. I didn’t want to have to make that confession again, so I didn’t tell anyone that I joined Weight Watchers for the last time in 2008.

By early December, my holiday defenses were solid. I was banking Points and earning Points through exercise and avoiding holiday parties. If I couldn’t avoid a holiday party like an office potluck, I’d drink water and chicken broth before arriving so I wouldn’t eat as much. I’d already prepared myself for the upcoming family visit for Christmas–the most sacred of family holidays.

I am 4th generation Chicago-Suburban. That is, the roots of my family’s immigration from Poland, England, and Ireland were planted on Chicago’s south side and have spread to its south suburban enclaves. My family’s Christmas traditions are, like most family’s, an indiosyncratic jumble of cultural touchpoints (Garrett’s popcorn) and inside jokes (Unc’s Christmas mobile). My family is known among our social circles for Christmas cookies–impossibly tiny, in a dozen varieties, made by the hundreds, and shared generously. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, so I don’t get too riled up about cookies with one exception: kolacky. I am bound by a deep, sentimental attachment to a simple butter cookie with dab of Solo fruit filling in the middle. Our circular kolackys defy tradition because my Polish-Chicagoan grandmother found the folded shaping method too fussy, and switched to a round cutout using a small cordial glass. Each year, I look forward to these jewel-toned delights each Christmas, and 2008 was no exception.

kolacky cookies
These look almost exactly like my family’s kolacky. (Photo Credit: The Spruce.)

Except that, in 2008, I felt that I couldn’t be trusted around kolackys (pronounced in my grandmother’s house as coal-LAHCH-keys). These were one of my “trigger foods,” a treat that I would take every chance to enjoy, and therefore an enemy. I had Weight Watchers tunnel vision. Every choice I made about what I ate was based on how it would affect my weight loss goals. Nothing else mattered. Nothing. Prior to going home for Christmas, I told my Weight Watchers group that my goal for the Holiday Slimdown Challenge was to eat only 5 kolackys–one each day of my visit–and I would walk for 30 minutes each day to burn off their calories. The group clapped politely, and our Leader reminded us that our excuse to eat foods that are bad for us around the holidays–it’s only once a year–is the same reason we can give ourselves to NOT eat them–it’s only once a year! You can say “no” one time!

I stuck to my plan. Every day, I walked for 45 minutes around the forest preserve trail (a little extra just in case) near my grandmother’s house, and stayed out of the room that housed the cookie tins. By Christmas Eve, I felt miserable. I must have said, “No, thank you, I’m not hungry” to my grandmother a thousand times since I arrived. I was angry and frustrated and jealous–why did I have to be the kind of person who agonizes over food? Why wasn’t I allowed to have ONE DAY where I didn’t worry about calories or what I was eating or constantly beat myself up for not having any willpower? In between these mental tantrums, kept telling myself that this is a minor sacrifice. When I finally get to my goal weight,  I thought, I’ll see that it was all worth it. Just stick to the plan.

After dinner on Christmas Eve, I ate 5 kolackys out of obligation to the promise I made to myself. I took no joy in this, feeling only the mild rage and illogical irritation that anyone with disordered eating patterns knows too well. I cursed the holidays for being unpredictable and disrupting my routine and keeping me off-track from my weight loss goals. My grandmother asked if I wanted another kolacky. I declined. “Are you sure? I know they’re your favorite. And I only make them once a year.” I know, I said, with an invisible nod to my Weight Watchers leader. See? That’s the trick. Once a year.

What I didn’t know then was that 2008 was the last year my grandmother would make kolackys for me. She died in May of the following year, five weeks before my wedding.

I was not a thin bride.

If I had known it would be our last Christmas together, would I have eaten more kolackys? I can’t say for sure. Probably, yes. But I’ll never really know. Here’s one thing that I do know with absolute certainty I would have done differently: I would have said, “Thank you.”

The other thing I understand now that I didn’t know then: eating is an act of self-care, and that care is compounded when we prepare, serve, and share food with others. Diet culture strips eating of this connection to our families and cultural communities, suggesting that food choice is a simple, individual, transactional energy exchange. This is an act of violence. It repeats: your desire for pleasure is wrong, your desire for love and connection is wrong, your needs are wrong. Under diet culture, you are considered a success when you can no longer recognize the difference between self-care and self-flagellation.

But what if, in 2008, I believed that I was already good? That my needs and wants and desires were good? That my body is a good body? If I believed that, I would have thanked my grandmother for her love and time and attention not just for my beloved kolackys, but also for the sauerkraut she made for others that neither of us ate. For the way the warmth from the kitchen on Christmas Eve fogged up the bay window in the living room. For the thousands of ways I learned from her how to love and to be loved.

I am fortunate that my aunt has taken up the mantle of The Christmas Cookies. There will be kolackys in 2017, as there has been every year that I have been alive. I don’t actively restrict how many I have, nor do I gorge myself on them in an act of symbolic consumption just in case this is truly the last Christmas kolacky. This is how I resist diet culture: I live my life with gratitude and care and connection, secure in the knowledge that I am already worthy of it all.

 

My Brother, My Running and Me

When people ask me why I’m training for the Dopey Challenge, an appropriately-named athle-tainment event consisting of a 5K, 10K, half marathon and full marathon on four consecutive days that takes place as part of the Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend in early January, I tell them that my brother made me do it.

Despite our deep roots in the southside Chicago system of getting things done by way of Democrats and teamsters, my family of origin has a streak of doing things they don’t seem to be capable of doing and grinding out a successful outcome no matter how illogical or personally taxing. A few years ago, my previously not-a-runner-except-for-that-one-season-of-grade-school-track brother decided that running would be one of His Things. And so, in 2015, he completed the Dopey Challenge on a very sketchy DIY Jeff Galloway-inspired run/walk “training plan.” He does these Disney races for the hardware. In fact, he tells me that he refuses to run in races that do not have AT LEAST a finisher medal and technical shirt. But I digress.

After the 2015 marathon, he told me that his slapdash training plan included approximately six miles of running prior to the marathon. I was aghast, and remembered cheering for him while watching the livestream of the marathon finish line, so happy and proud that he achieved his own improbable dream. But my big sister instinct kicked in. I had been running for a few years too, and all the marathon training I had seen included 13, 18, and 20 mile training runs. “You were massively undertrained! You could have died out there! I can’t let you do that again. If you ever run Dopey again, I’m doing it with you.”

So, here we are at the end of 2017, fifty days from the start of the 2018 Dopey Challenge. When I started training in July of this year, my longest run to date was a 5 mile race on the 4th of July. Exactly four months later, I completed my first half marathon. In these final days, I have my eyes on the marathon prize, and the work is starting to get much harder. I’m a back of the pack runner, a most-people-can-walk-faster runner, a DFL runner. Long runs take half a day. I started to feel discouraged, especially after last week’s 10 miler that ended in obscenities and tears.

I’ve been reading Athena ultrarunner Mirna Valerio’s excellent memoir A Beautiful Work in Progress for inspiration. Mirna writes a lot about her family–both her husband and son as well as her family of origin–and how they influence her motivation as a runner. She writes about family present and gone, those waiting at the finish line and those in memoriam. But from all the context clues she provides, it seems like Mirna is the only runner in her family. She has created her own tribe of running buddies and support crew near, and facilitates connection through her online presence. Mirna is, in short, a leader in the long distance running community.

When she was announced as a guest on the Plus Performance podcast, followers were given an opportunity to ask her questions. I asked a question that inarticulately framed according to my frustrations about my pace and how to deal with that back of the pack feeling. She responded on the show with the best life advice I have received from anyone who is not my mother: when you commit to the race, you commit to the training. And when you commit to the training, you commit to yourself, which includes wrestling with your demons. (I paraphrase.)

Whoa.

I realized then that I was being a little boneheaded about resisting my training because it takes me almost four hours to complete a half marathon. I was dragging my feet, literally, because I refused to acknowledge what’s real about me: I will never be good at running.

Mirna explains it best: “I love running like I love playing classical piano. It’s difficult, and I’m never going to be any good[.]…It makes me more patient with my own learning and myself. There is still a beauty about simply doing the difficult thing that I will never be good at, for the pure pleasure of having engaged in the process” (233).

I will never be good at running. What I am good at, and what running makes me even better at is being good at Doing the Thing I Set Out to Do. This is my ancestral vocation, a value I adopted as my life philosophy by watching nearly every member of my family successfully complete a goal that they may or may not have been good at, may or may not have had the support to accomplish, and may or may not have been properly prepared to do (side eye to my brother).

Fifty days from today, my brother and I will spend four days of our family vacation waking up in the middle of the night to ride a bus with strangers and stand in a corral for a few hours before we even start to do any real work. He doesn’t need me there. I always knew that. I never wanted to be a good runner. I think I always knew that too. What I do want is to stand on the finisher podium with my little brother, Doing the Thing We Set Out to Do. And if I have to run 48.1 miles to get there, that’s what I’ll do.

 

Kate Browne is the leader of the Self Love Squad (#selflovesquad), a community that helps smart women practice showing up for their lives in the body they have today. Now accepting new #squadsters for compassionate advice, cute outfit photos, reaction GIFs and cat memes! Find out more at katebrowne.net/squad