Looking at Transformation through Myth

This project, like so many others that I’ve got going, has been shamefully neglected over the past several months, as I traveled to the Mediterranean to lead a retreat, and started work on my PhD. However, I’m back home now, ready to really get started with this project. I had intended it to be the basis of my dissertation, but I’ve recently decided to withdraw from graduate school, so now the project is just for me.

It takes a certain amount of focus and dedication to make a major change in life. The whole premise of this project is that I believe I can use the lessons and tools that I’ve gained from studying myth to help me transform my body and health. I recently read a wonderful book that really shed some light on the transformation that occurs in myth and stories, and it has inspired me as I try to really get going with my own bodily transformation.

I read Marina Warner’s book Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds: Ways of Telling the Self, with the intention of using it as the inspiration for a paper I was assigned to write for one of my graduate school classes. It is a series of lectures on myth, folktale and art, all with the theme of transformation at their core. Reading these essays on “Mutating”, “Hatching”, “Splitting” and “Doubling” reminded me just how much myth is about transformation, and how many of humankind’s stories are along the theme of change in their characters. Myth is, really, an ideal tool for teaching us how to transform, as so many of its stories are lessons into how others have transformed throughout human history.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is an excellent example, as Ovid cherry-picked his way through Greek myth to find stories that fit his theme of transformation. In the stories he tells Ovid celebrates the ways in which humans transform, either through their own choice or through the actions of the gods.

These texts, and many others scattered throughout the world’s myths, have much to teach me about how to go about making my own changes. I can look to the example of others who have gone before to learn both what do do and what not to do as I step forward into this unfamiliar space.

In more practical terms, I will share that I started a new workout program today called P90. I’m hoping that a regular workout routine will help me move into a new, transformative¬† space where the uncomfortable and strange becomes daily and necessary.

Onward!

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The Myths of Medusa and Pygmalion: Finding Flexibility

Over the last few months I’ve noticed a stiffening in my body, due to lack of movement mostly. My body is big and heavy to move around, which dis-incentivizes me from moving, which of course just makes things worse. Because I typically think of the world in mythic metaphors, it’s gotten me thinking recently about myths about turning to stone, and, hopefully, of turning from stone to flesh again. I have been meaning to write about myths in this space since I decided to take this project public, but I had an interesting insight into this process this morning, so today feels like the right time to write about Medusa and Pygmalion.

The most potent part of the Medusa myth is the ability of her head to turn people to stone. She is a living woman, very beautiful, but after Posiedon raped her in Athena’s temple, Athena turned her into a monster with snakes for hair, whose sight could turn anything to stone. Medusa is killed by Perseus, who manages it by using a reflective surface to chop her head off. From then on he uses her head as a weapon.

As with all myths, there are some interesting insights to be gleaned from this myth, and certainly some troubling aspects of it as well. It is Medusa, rather than Poseidon, who is punished for her own rape. Athena has always been a favorite goddess of mine, but she does not come across so well in this story, especially when we consider the fact that she ultimately benefits from the weaponized Medusa’s head, as it was set into the breastplate that she was known to wear. Why punish the woman for the god’s crime? Unfortunately, women being punished for the crimes of men is a circumstance that we’re still familiar with even today.

I don’t think I fully understand yet everything this myth has to teach me. I feel the presence of the archetypal Medusa in the stiffening of my body, and I want to honor that archetypal energy as I simultaneously reach out toward the turning of stone back into flesh, a revivification of my body.

The myth that comes to mind as I attempt this is the story of Pygmalion. It is this myth that provided the inspiration for the musical “My Fair Lady”, as it’s a story about a sculptor who falls in love with the image of a woman that he has carved from stone. Pygmalion was a Cypriot sculptor, and he carved a young woman out of ivory, who he named Galatea. He fell in love with this image that he had created, and prayed to Aphrodite that he would be given a bride in the very likeness of his statue. When he returned home, his statue came to life.

I also struggle with this myth, because it seems to be told in the context of the male gaze, as it were. She comes to life because she is desired by a man, for the purpose of becoming his bride. She doesn’t exist on her own. Because such a large part of my issues with my body seem to have been in relationship to the men in my life over the years, this aspect is a difficult one for me. I am not attempting to turn from stone to flesh for the benefit of anyone but myself.

I’ve been meditating on these two myths for a few days now, and I still don’t think I’ve gotten to the bottom of what I need to know about them, but I did come to an interesting realization about the need for more flexibility in my life, in a way that goes beyond the physical capabilities of my body.

As you may know if you’ve been following my original blog Mythic Stories, I will be co-leading a¬†trip to Greece with a friend and yoga teacher, Ali Valdez of Sattva Yoga. Obligatory pitch here-we’d love it if you’d join us. I’m really excited about the trip and the work that we’ll be doing there. However, one aspect of the planning for this major event has been a challenge for me.

I’m a planner. Always have been. Planning is, for me, a thing that helps me to feel safe in the world, much like my extra weight does. When I go on vacation, I plan out every detail months in advance. When I teach a class or give a lecture, I prepare my material with lots of time to spare. This approach may be safe but it’s definitely lacking in flexibility. (See where I’m going here?)

In the months that I’ve been booked to do this Greece trip, it has been an enormously stressful time for me, because I can’t plan it the way I want to. I’m being forced to be flexible about the planning, as the details and needs of the trip have been changing rapidly. I can’t just make my plan 6 months in advance. I’ve really been struggling with that, but this morning it finally occurred to me how good this forced flexibility was for me. I hadn’t realized before that I needed more flexibility in more than one aspect of my life.

I know that the next few months will be painful, as I try to find my way through toward increased flexibility, both of body and mind. I hope you’ll be along on the journey with me.

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A Bit More History, and How Will I Do This? The Plan.

Last week I wrote about some of the body expectations I grew up with, and how they shaped the way that I live in my body. I’d like to continue now to share a bit about how I’ve done in my adulthood, what things have affected me and why I gained and lost weight over the years. Then, a bit on my plan going forward.

I was a normal weight more or less through high school. I had my first weight loss my junior year of hs, as I mentioned a bit last time. I lost about 25 pounds by working in a stable, but gained it back throughout my senior year. My dad was separating from his second wife at that time, and it was a messy breakup, including theft, and a stint in a mental hospital for her. My dad worked on the Alaskan oil pipeline at the time, and was away for a week, then home for a week. His absence meant I wound up having to deal with things that were essentially beyond my pay grade, running the household for myself and my younger brother 50% of the time. I did not make great food buying choices during those weeks. Food was used as a crutch in our family, and I used it then, to deal with the stress of the breakup. Not trying to justify anything, but it helps me now to look back and see where I might have gone wrong then.

I was so grateful to graduate high school (barely happened, due to too many absences), and leave for college in Santa Barbara. I did ok with my weight for the first 3 years of college, maintaining a weight that was around the upper limit of healthy weight (according to BMI). My senior year I spent the fall semester in Alaska to save money (this was also about the time that my dad got married to his third wife), and gained a lot of weight during that semester at home, about 70 pounds. It must have really shocked my college friends when I got back to school in the spring.

Anyway, after I graduated I struggled for several years to right myself and get my feet under me. I was well into obesity at this time, but in the mid-nineties I managed another significant weight loss, this time losing about 80 pounds. I was working nights at a bank, and I was in a terribly unhealthy “relationship” with a guy I met at work. He was consistently highly critical of my body, and he was a lot like my dad in many ways. I was in that relationship for nearly 5 years before I finally broke it off, and during that time I both lost a bunch of weight (through starvation and excessive exercise-more disorder), and gained it all back, plus more.

Since the end of that relationship my life has gotten immeasurably better. I got better work and started making a decent living, and, most importantly, I met my husband in 2003. He loved me, thought I was awesome and sexy, even though I was overweight, and still does.

I’ve come to believe through the years that the reason I wasn’t able to sustain the major weight loss I managed in the nineties was not just because of the poor way that I did it, but because I used the weight gain to protect myself from a relationship with the wrong man. It was a safety mechanism. Being overweight in our culture is an excellent (but not foolproof) way to avert the male gaze. I truly believe that gaining weight protected me from a profoundly unhealthy relationship. I shudder to think what my life would be like if he and I had had a child together. I still have nightmares about that sometimes.

However, I don’t need this weight to keep me safe anymore. I can lay this burden down.

So, here’s the plan:

Fitness: At the beginning of my day, I do two workout videos, from the P90X and Insanity plans from Beachbody. I like to workout at home, because its embarrassing. I also do two because I have to modify both workouts a great deal. I simply can’t do all the moves, and for the ones I can do, I can’t keep up with the people on screen. I do my best, and I know my best will improve over time, but to get one decent workout I have to modify my way through two.

Diet: I’ve tried a lot of different ones over the years, as many people have. Right now, I feel like the healthiest thing I can do is to bring presence to what I’m eating, which includes not eating mindlessly, eating whole foods as much as possible, and tracking what I’m eating. We’ll see how this works. I did try a no-fat, vegan diet for a while, and it felt too restrictive. I plan to keep my meat and dairy to a minimum, but I can’t be too restrictive, but instead more mindful.

I’ve been working with a few myths about turning to stone and turning from stone to flesh, and I’ll publish that in the next few days. Onward!

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Why Stories Matter

If I’ve learned anything in my years studying myth and story, its that stories matter. The stories we tell about ourselves matter. The stories that are told about us matter. Today is my second day into this project, and I’d like to tell a bit of my story, and how the way I grew up influenced how I came to live in my body as a child, adolescent, and adult.

My parents divorced when I was five, and, after a contentious custody battle, my dad ended up with primary custody of my brother and myself. This was a fairly unusual state of affairs in the 1970s. In some ways it was hard for me, growing up in a household without women. My grandmother did come to live with us after my grandfather died in 1982, but she was very old-fashioned about the role women should have in the world.

Each of us grows up bearing the burden of, shall we say, a certain narrative structure. I talk about this all the time in my workshops. Were you the “athletic one” in your family? The “pretty one”? We ingest the ways that our families talk about us from the time we were small, and its up to us as adults to decide if that is a narrative that still serves us. Often, it doesn’t.

I love and respect my dad deeply, and what I’m about to say isn’t meant to denigrate him at all. He, like all parents, raised my brother and me out of his own woundedness, his own brokenness. Part of that brokenness was a result of his divorce from my mom, which he did not choose. Some came before. In any event, the recurring narrative I remember from growing up was that I was capable of anything, but that was mostly predicated on the assumption that I used my looks as a tool. He chose my name out of Playboy magazine (Allison Parks, playmate of the year 1966-yes I looked it up). I was a pretty enough child, I suppose, and smart. I suppose he figured that the combination of looks and smarts would take me anywhere. However, (and this is how I remember it), there was always this message that my primary responsibility was to be attractive and pleasing to men, and that any power that I might have would be based on my ability to use my looks to manipulate men.

Once I started going through puberty in my early teens, I stopped being such a skinny stick of a kid and started to get curves. That was when I began hearing the “you need to lose weight” narrative. I remember being about 17 and hearing this in a really clear way. I had recently taken a job cleaning a stable, which was giving more exercise than I’d had before (I wasn’t an athletic kid-more bookish), and I’d lost about 25 pounds, which got me down to 139 lbs at 5’11”. I thought I was looking pretty good at that point, and was feeling confident, but he thought I was still too fat. I gained the weight back, then more in college, and he freely expressed his opinion about my body for many years, up to the time I got engaged to my husband (you’re going to lose weight for him, right?).
I think the fact that I continued to lose and gain weight (mostly gain) throughout my adult life was a combination of rebellion against authority (you can’t tell me what to do!) and a feeling that I was safer if I was fat. I wanted to avert the male gaze, and being fat was a good way to become invisible.

Anyway, telling all of this has left me feeling wrung out. More tomorrow.

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A Poem to start off with

This poem was in one of my college textbooks, and it’s stuck with me all these years. I dug it up today:

“Fat”-Conrad Hilberry

Wait. What you see is another person
hanging here. I am the girl who jumps
the Hodgman’s fence so quick they never see me.
Skipping rope, I always do hot peppers.
But once on the way home, I got in a strange
car. I screamed and beat on the windows,
but they smiled and held me. They said I could go
when I put on the costume, so I climbed
into it, pulled up the huge legs,
globby with veins, around my skinny shins,
pulled on this stomach that flops over itself,
I pushed my arm past the hanging elbow fat
down into the hand and fingers, tight
like a doctor’s glove stuffed with vaseline.
I hooked the top behind my neck, with these
two bladders bulging over my flat chest.
Then I pulled the rubber mask down over
my head and tucked in the cheek and chin
folds at the neck, hiding the seam. I hate
the smell. When they pushed me out of the car,
I slipped and staggered as though the street
was wet with fish oil. You see what this costume is.
If you will undo me, if you will loan me a knife,
I will step out the way I got in.
I will run on home in time for supper.

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Introductions, and what this project is about

Greetings, dear friends.

My name is Allison Stieger, and I’m an author and speaker working with mythology. I write on myth at my site Mythic Stories, and I write on myth and creativity at The Creativity Post. However, this project is a “horse of a different color”, as it were.

I’ve created this new site at the beginning of this, my most personal project yet. On this blog I’ll be sharing many parts of myself and my journey that I’ve never shown publicly, and indeed are only known by my closest family and friends. In fact, I can think of less than a dozen people in my life that I’ve ever shared any of this with, but I’ve decided to take this part of my life public.

What am I talking about? Time to stop being oblique about this. I’m talking about my lifelong struggle with how I live in my body. I’m talking about obesity, disordered eating, and the broken parts of myself that have led to the health issues I’m dealing with now.

Despite all the shiny-bright parts of my personality and life that I usually share with others, I’ve decided that its time for me to address the fact of my obesity, and to turn that struggle public. Over the next several years, I will be using what I’ve learned about myth and the human psyche to attempt to regain a healthy weight, regain mindfulness with food, and hopefully be around for my children and husband for as long as possible.

I’ve called this blog “The Mythic Body: Finding Artemis” because, for me, this journey is about connecting to the archetypal energy of the Greek goddess Artemis. What does that mean, exactly? Artemis is the virgin goddess of the hunt, and she is associated with robust health, vigor, and athleticism. She is also the goddess of the “parthenoi”, which is a Greek word which refers to young women who are just out of childhood but are not yet married. So, around 11-14 year olds. The stage where women were considered parthenoi was thought to be quite a dangerous one. It was the most liberated time of a woman’s life, after childhood but before she took on the responsibilities of married life.

When I was a pre-pubescent child, I was very skinny. That didn’t change until I went through puberty. When I was about 11, I remember going on a hike with my dad and brother. I can remember practically flying up the mountain. It was effortless, and I couldn’t understand why my family members kept wanting to take breaks as we hiked. It’s been a long time since I felt like that, but that moment was pure Artemis. I’m much older than 11 now, but, if I can, in whatever way I can, I’d like to find a bit of that spirit in myself again.

On these pages I’ll be talking about both my exercise regimen, my diet, and working with different myths that reflect the stages of the journey that I find myself. I will also be sharing the hard stuff, the scary stuff, the embarrassing stuff. That’s why I put a picture of myself at my heaviest at the top of this blog. In the months to come I’ll be putting new pictures up, so the followers of this project can see how far I’ve come.

When I fall, I’ll tell you about it. When I fail, I’ll tell you about it. I hope you’ll come along with me as I start on this path.

Allison

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