Thursday, April 1, 2010


(Photo: Still from "Stone Cold")

There’s a down side to Project Up, a dirty little secret I’ve been keeping. In the interest of full disclosure, and with a nod to the patriarchal notion of confession being good for the soul, I’ve decided to come clean.

With all the uplifting news, the epicurean adventure, and the steady progress as a climber and a human being, there’s been a dark reality following me. Like a shadow hemmed to the soles of my feet, it lurks behind me everywhere I go. And it’s a truth too horrifying to look at, like the Medusa demon of chthonic female monsters capable of turning even the bravest into stone.

Like all freaks of nature, they’re proof one should never encourage incestual relations, prima facie evidence that inbreeding, even among the gods, is never a good idea. Among women it’s a truth so horrifying we’ll spend millions of dollars each year on arming against it, as we build an arsenal of creams, serums, and surgical interventions.

That’s right. I’m talking about stretch marks. And I’ve got ‘em. IN MY ARMPITS.

(Photo: "Matisse Circle" of The Full Body Project by Leonard Nimoy - yeah - the Spock guy)

One of the cool parts of being a Chubs McBigPants is that your face won't wrinkle. It’s easy to maintain youthful-looking facial beauty when you can feel your face stretch every time you blink. Trust me. However, rapid weight gain causes a great deal of stress on skin from the neck down. Sometimes, the stress goes unnoticed – not everyone develops stretch marks at the same rate, and not everyone develops the telltale signs of redness and swelling. So for some people, it’s only after they lose weight that they begin to see the exterior damage done to their bodies.

New stretch marks are often deep in color, and usually red or even purple. They are, technically, scars. When the elastic fibers in the middle layer of the skin, the dermis, break down stretch marks appear. Since collagen (more specifically, “collagen VII) holds the dermis layer together, the best “cure” for these dermatological injustices is really a matter of prevention. Vitamins A, C, and D are critical building blocks for collagen and should be consumed through sensible eating (citrus fruits, vegetables like broccoli, and dairy products) with some “help” from a vitamin supplement. Keeping properly hydrated all day, instead of just during workouts, is also believed to help protect your skin, too.

There are about 20 types of collagen (proteins) in the human body, incidentally, and they do amazing things to your soft tissues, ligaments, tendons, and even your lungs. Bones benefit from collagen I, so those concerned with preventing osteoporosis should care about vitamin A, C, and D levels even if their skin is “flawless.” The womb, stomach, heart membranes, and your eyes – all of these need healthy levels of collagen in its various types to function properly.

As far as collagen VII and your skin go, nutrition is more important than superficial treatment. Though topical creams and lotions containing A, C, and D vitamins are believed to be helpful in keeping the skin supple, they are by no means as powerful as good eating habits.

Unfortunately, one often doesn’t see evidence of dermis layer damage until its too late. And for some of us, the scars don’t appear until after the burden on the skin is removed. That’s what has happened to me. Old marks I couldn’t see before are now visible. For me, even faded stretch marks are rather painful to look at because the skin itself is clearly looser, and evidence that firming up isn’t going to happen as quickly as I’d like it to – if at all.

For a lot of people working on healthier lifestyles, this evidence isn’t easy to look at or accept. It can make one feel defeated, especially if one had any hope of feeling more aesthetically beautiful, or comfortable in one’s own skin, even when naked. The most common surgery post weight loss is the tummy tuck done to remove excess skin after prolonged periods of obesity. Surgeons literally pull, cut, and sew back together the dermis layer to remove the excess, and the surgery itself costs between $6000 and $20,000.

Surgeries to remove excess skin from the arms and legs, however, leave mighty scars and are recommended only to those who have been morbidly obese, have skin rashes, infections, or problems due to friction and moisture problems, and are deemed unlikely to regain weight by a responsible surgeon. Recovery time for all of these surgeries is considerable, and there are substantial surgical risks. And if you ask me, they're horrifying.

Yet the struggle to be fit, to take care of yourself, can feel all the more defeating once weight begins to fall off. Looking in the mirror naked, gazing at your stomach and seeing what appears to be a frowning, one-eyed bulldog staring back at you, doesn’t do a lot for one’s self esteem. My own bellybutton seems to be perpetually disappointed and depressed – it’s like a downturned mouth. And there’s a part of me fearing that after all is said and done, after I’ve reached my weight-loss and fitness goals, I’ll look like I’m wearing a skin suit that’s two or three sizes too big.

I know this could, on some level, seem like a vain, superficial concern. But beauty really isn’t skin deep. It goes far deeper into the psyche than one would hope. Feelings of acceptance, purpose, future, and hope are often located within one’s body image and self-perception. The best thing I can think of to assuage my fear is to keep climbing, and follow this up with a healthy dose of patience with my physical self.

I’ve been projecting a couple of 5.7 routes, fiddling with the first three problems of a 5.8, and getting my butt kicked by a 5.7+ that has a slight overhang. I’m getting better at the footwork required to get up and over that damn thing, but I’m discovering that keeping good arm position as I do that work is burning up my upper body. I’m not pulling myself up, mind you, just trying to maintain the right amount of upper body tension to encourage progression of my foot positions.

I know I’m making progress. Some things are getting easier, for both my body and my mind. However, I’ve reached a difficult place as a climber, when the mind is willing but the flesh is weak. Though I have on-sight victories of every 5.6 set at the Rec in the last six weeks, I’m (sometimes quite literally) beating the hell out of myself on 5.7 routes the better climbers – my heroes - use for warm-ups.

As Kermit the Frog sings, “It ain’t easy being green.” And I’m very much so. I’m six months into what I hope is a life-long relationship with climbing, something I try to remind myself every time I feel beaten by the wall. I so desperately want to transition to the next level, to feel as though I’m making my way and holding my own. I’ve got “Newbie Fatigue” big time, when the newness and excitement for the sport can no longer eclipse its difficulties.

This isn’t about earning other climbers’ respect, either. I get a lot of support from the climbing community to which I belong. Admittedly, some of it is awkward like the standard comment, “I wish my mom would try climbing” and my personal favorite, “Your like our own Biggest Loser.” But even the awkward comments are encouraging, earnest, and sincere so I’m lucky, actually, to have people in my life who are as excited about my project as I am.

But as I’ve reached a few fitness goals, I’ve also reached the crux of my dermatological shame and a major hiccup in self-perception. Though I am more confident and comfortable with myself, and though I celebrate my climbing victories with great joy, there are times when I feel I’ve completely stepped outside myself. Who is this woman? Who am I now that I’ve decided to take better care of myself and try new things? Who am I when I’m hanging above the ground, resting my arms before giving a problem another go?

I don’t always recognize her, this woman I’m becoming. I suspect this is what really gets under my skin about those stretch marks – they’re inarguable evidence that big changes are going on in my life. They’re also evidence of just how far I let myself go, a truth I can’t deny. This isn’t existential navel-gazing, either. I can’t look my navel – it’s angry.

I suppose, if I aim my critical eyes at myself, I’m just burdened by the weight of process, and feeling a bit overwhelmed by change. At least I know this journey is a one-way trip. There’s no going back, even if my body leaves its own map, the scars that show where I’ve been.

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