Thursday, May 22, 2014

That time my students talked me into losing 5kg in a week

Korea is known for having ridiculous and un-achievable beauty standards, well, at least for those of us unwilling to consider plastic surgery. Deva Lee wrote a brilliant post about it. Read it here: Teacher Small Face. Usually I ignore it and waddle along the street, aware that I may be the fattest and worst dressed person standing at the intersection. My jeans have holes in them; I can't find them in my size here. The jeans my mom sent me are too small to go past my knees. I have become fat in Korea. But it's never really bothered me. I'm comfortable in my skin... More or less.

But then I started indulging in a bit too much jjimdalk. I was hitting the "I'm over Korea, and all this crap" phase and I comfort ate like it was going out of fashion. I put on about 10kg in the space of a month or two. Suddenly I was panicking every morning because none of my clothes fit and I had no hope of buying more. I hid myself under flowy cardigans and my biggest, baggiest jeans. I felt ugly.

I started doing little things here and there. I attempted a daily yoga challenge and made it halfway through the month before losing interest. I ate more jjimdalk.

Then, last week Wednesday, I maneuvered my hulking frame into my 3rd grade middle school girls classroom. The lesson after lunch on a Wednesday. My coma-patients. These girls have been the least interested, least willing to participate bunch I've ever taught. I've tried everything - pop culture references, being a performing monkey, games that are hits with everyone else, but I get nothing. So I was completely shocked when, seconds after my arrival, a girl mustered up the courage to speak to me.

"Katie teacher," she said angelically, "Why don't you lose some weight?"

Oh my god HER ENGLISH WAS PERFECT! was my initial reaction, followed by OH GOD has it gotten that bad? It had I was the heaviest I've ever been in my life, with a pot belly and so much junk in my trunk it looked like I was moving house. My seams were splitting and I realised when I looked in the mirror that my chin had started to disappear into my neck. So they had a point.

At first I stood there, gobsmacked. Then I said, "Actually, that's a bit rude in my culture," and I joked about how references to a woman's weight are likely to end violently. We laughed together and the tension was eased. The moment of panic passed. And I saw the opportunity to hold onto this moment and cement it and take one step closer to bonding with these girls who had closed themselves off to me for so long.

I raised my hand, and made a solemn promise. "I swear to lose 5 kilograms by next week." They gasped, and applauded.

Why did I pick that number? Well, most Korean women weigh about 55-75kg. They believe the ideal weight is 55kg (regardless of your height, body type, bone structure...). So 5kg is roughly 11% of your bodyweight, if you're Korean.

I am not Korean. I weighed a lot more than that, and I knew from experience that when you start losing weight, it comes off really fast in the beginning. Most of that is water weight. So 5kg was an achievable number for me, while being impressive for them. And it's a nice, round number, and a good place to start.

After class, I walked back to my office and took a deep breath. I'd made a public promise and I had to keep it. It was time to get serious. I re-activated my Sparkpeople account and started logging my food and fitness. I hid the instant coffee sachets and switched to green tea. I developed a strategy for dealing with cafeteria food.

An average meal at my school looks like this:

The top three are banchan, with kimchi on the far right. In this case it's mul kimchi, but usually it's standard spicy kimchi. In the bottom two bits, there's soup and rice. So I decided to eat on a pattern. I alternate banchan and soup, and after two or three rotations through those, I can have a little bit of rice. This way I fill up on soup and veggies without triggering mass panic among the Koreans by bringing my own food or not eating any rice at all. So far it's working. Focusing on how I eat is also making me more conscious of how much I eat and how fast I eat; both are things I've been needing to change.

Usually I sit at home, eating jjimdalk while watching TV. I look down and the food's all gone, and suddenly I'm stuffed. By focusing on my food, I pick up on the signals of fullness sooner.

My mom told me about a new diet that's all the rage; similar to the paleo thing. I dunno. That sort of extremism has never appealed to me. The only detox diet I've ever tried ended up with me puking blood, so no more of that. I'm sticking with the Sparkpeople method - moderation, awareness and all-round improvement of habits, nutrition and fitness. It's not just food; I am also trying to go to bed earlier, workout more, and drink more water.

I did some long bike rides in the evenings after school (and I now fully understand why Korean cyclists mummify themselves. In the language of gnats, they call me the Oncoming Splat). I also did some hiking, some geocaching, some zombie running, some bodyweight reps, some Qi Gong to see what it was like... I've been trying different things. Anything that appeals to me. As long as it gets me moving for at least 30 minutes a day, it's good. I may invest in a hula hoop, or use the huge ones in the parks, because that's fun too.

I worked hard and in the end I did it. Yesterday, I walked into the class and announced that I had lost exactly 5kg. I kept my promise. And then I told them that I'd keep working on it, but that from now on I'm going to stick to a healthier rate of loss, because 5kg a week is not maintainable. My mood has improved, I'm looking better, my chin is back from it's holiday into my neck, and I don't feel like I'm carrying all my emotions in a balloon around my stomach. It's fun, and I did it without spending a whole lot of money on a gym membership or supplements.

My friend Kaleena posted a very supportive comment about not letting their ideals mess with my head, and she's right. It made me question why I'd done this. It wasn't just about the number. I wanted to get healthy again. I wanted to feel happier. I wanted to bond with my students. Making a big public promise was the most motivational factor in doing this, but from now on it's private, it's about me, and it's up to me to keep going. I started off at a sprint, but now it's time to settle into a jog and cover the distance.

Here are links to some of the websites, apps and programs that helped me. Most of them are free:

Zombies 5k
Do You Yoga Daily Challenge
Neila Rey's Bodyweight Workouts