Thoughts on Hitchcock, Stress, and Weight Loss

I don’t know much about Alfred Hitchcock’s personal life, certainly not enough to judge whether the movie Hitchcock is a faithful representation of his character or marriage. It was, however, a very entertaining story, well worth the time to see Hopkins and Mirren fill their larger than life personas. While Helen Mirren’s Alma Reville certainly rises to the occasion, the Alfred Hitchcock portrayed here betrays a deeper insecurity, which is especially apparent if you pay attention to Anthony Hopkins’ eyes. I’m not giving away much by pointing out that Hitchcock’s legendary portliness, while certainly influenced by his filmmaking success and rich appetite, is also shown here as due in many ways to stress, anxiety, and insecurity. In the scenes where he’s very clearly stress eating, he looks very much like the scared little boy, hiding behind his fleshy defenses.

Without a doubt these images resonated with me. I first began to struggle with my weight around age 7 or 8, although maybe it was earlier. Looking back, I can see a combination of factors that worked against me—being a clever kid with good grades, physically awkward and awful at physical sports; social awkwardness that made me more comfortable talking to grownups than kids my own age (who generally disliked my overachievement in class and enjoyed my shortcomings in gym class and other sporting activities); and, generally speaking, just not knowing how to cope constructively with stress, anxiety, and depression.

I can identify a few key moments in my adult life when I managed to re-make my body. First, like a number of gay teens I have met I dropped a substantial amount of weight when I came out, found friends, and gained a ton of confidence in myself. Over time though, the blessing of an enriched social life (especially in college) can turn into joyful overindulgences, and college especially added some (but not all) of the pounds back on. The second time I felt a significant change came when I went to NYU for a summer, when the experience of being alone in Manhattan and needing to walk everywhere certainly had an impact. Getting a Master’s degree in social work, however, re-introduced me to food as a way to cope with stress. I’ve often said that comfort food is the social worker’s drug of choice—and after years of work in the social services, I haven’t seen much evidence to convince me otherwise.

The third occurrence came when I moved to the Twin Cities several years ago. I was single, taking walks every day over the lunch hour, and working at a job that frequently had me on my feet doing outreach in the local gay bars. Although I was able to keep that weight level for a few years, gradually it creeped upward as my job became more stressful and Jaxon and I settled into a domestic routine. I’m absolutely convinced that stress plays a major role in how I gain and lose weight. My first year in the Ph.D. program—when I was still working full-time at my old agency—led me to balloon up again, with my blood pressure spiking as well. Even though I swam laps twice a week, it was easier to grab pre-made food or order out than drag my mentally exhausted brain and body to the co-op and then the kitchen.

Over the last year or so, I’ve tried to re-introduce some balance in my life. It helps that we started making communal dinners with our housemates and changed our shopping habits so that we get fresh food in shorter amounts, over multiple trips to the co-op each week. Recently though, a big catalyst for me has been meeting a new friend, also gay and about the same age that I was during my last major weight loss period. Having someone who’s been in my shoes, who doesn’t necessarily want to adopt the hardcore “training” mentality but is galvanized by his successes so far, has given me a new motivation to get a bit more active. (Not that I haven’t been active, but given how much time I spend on the laptop with research and lesson planning, I could use the boost.) I don’t know if I’ll be able to replicate my previous successes—honestly, right now I think that significant weight loss is less my goal than simply finding and keeping a balance. More importantly, I think back on the image of Anthony Hopkins as the unquestionably brilliant but deeply insecure Alfred Hitchcock, feverishly stuffing food in his mouth in an attempt to fortify himself from his own fright. I’ve been there, and will probably revisit that state of mind at some points again in my life. Part of this journey, this struggle, inevitably involves revisiting the pitfalls of my own past. Revisiting, however, doesn’t mean that I have to live there.

Turkey, Thrift, and Reciprocity

Everyone in this household is hungry for Thanksgiving food—turkey, cranberries, stuffing, the works. For I think the seventh holiday season, Jaxon and I are buying the bird from Callister Farms, a family of poultry farmers we met when they ran a small business at the Midtown Global Market a few years ago. Although that venture didn’t pan out, they still sell to local co-ops and do direct sales as well, via online or the farmer’s markets. Nice people, and moreover great bird. The first time I brined one of their turkeys, I made Jaxon take a picture because it looked like carved alabaster coming out of the saltwater.

Sort of a running “argument” with my parents involves the amount of money we spend on food, which should be interesting this year as they are coming to Minnesota to spend the holiday with us. Minneapolis-St. Paul is without a doubt a foodies’ destination, and we take full advantage. My mother in particular always shakes her head at the co-op prices, saying how much more they can get for their dollar at the big-box grocer/all-purpose retailer where they shop. (Last summer when we visited, I was a bit disconcerted by the large ammunition aisle, not terribly far from produce and dairy.) My pat response is that we prefer quality over quantity, I know the names of the farms where my meat came from, and I’d rather eat pasture-raised animals, eggs, and dairy than factory-farmed, processed food. She gets the point—20-30 years ago, she and my father were pasture-raising farmers in their own right, way before the Internet could have helped them. But, the issue of cost—and being able to get the best deals– always sticks with her.

As Jaxon would attest, I tend to panic over expenses, but really we both like good second hand shopping. We thrift damn near everything we acquire, including clothes, household items, and entertainment (viva cheap VHS tapes!). At the same time, I’ve really reached the conclusion that whenever possible I want my purchases to directly benefit the people who make and deliver the goods to me. The fact that it costs more forces us to be frugal, but that’s fine.

At the same time, I’ve been watching Jaxon try to build a clientele for his design business. He managed on his own for several years as a faux finisher and interior designer before the economy collapsed, and recently left his “temporary” retail job to return to the independent marketplace. I’ve always told him that he’s more artisan and craftsman than “typical” designer, and I think that’s made his work more challenging. By emphasizing relationship-building, getting to know the emotions and desires underlying people’s preferences, and focusing on how spaces feel rather than pushing the newest product lines, he harkens back to a way of doing business that I think some people understand, but others may find odd. While one of his objectives is of course to attract new business, the larger goal is to build relationships with people who appreciate the interaction that occurs between him, them, and the space they are creating or reshaping.

There’s a common thread here with my ruminations about food up above, which I can only describe as “reciprocity.” In a way it’s kind of old fashioned in that we tend to look more for reusable goods whenever possible, and prefer buying from people and places where our relationships already exist. At the same time, it reminds me of my old job working in volunteer management and fundraising for an AIDS organization. I think that with charitable giving it’s expected that the contribution will support someone’s wellbeing (directly or indirectly), and people tend to have a sense of the real-world value that their labor or cash represents when they make a donation. In this market economy however, we’ve gotten used to focusing solely on our consumption—we give money to the big box or online seller and we take something of value from it. The idea that what we give is helping to sustain someone else’s welfare (there’s a dirty word) is sort of lost in the complexity of the corporate enterprise.

It leads to a kind of paradox, doesn’t it? On the one hand, I really cherish the opportunity to engage with other locals in a city where there are ample opportunities to exchange cash for direct services and goods. At the same time—what’s especially true is that this modern (postmodern?) economy makes a lot of this possible because of the Fortune 500 companies and financial heavyweights that attract workers to cities like this, and the Internet that enables me to order fresh turkey from farmers who drive past the big boxes and factory farms to deliver it. I suppose we get used to living with contradictions like this in the 21st century—we’re light years ahead of our ancestors technologically, while culturally we’re advancing toward a more pluralistic understanding of our differences. Yet, it’s not uncommon for me to see friends and colleagues yearning for simpler exchanges in their commerce, more holistic approaches to their health and nutrition, and less chaos in their nonstop social networks. It leads me to wonder if it’s really the case that we are straddling the divide between these contradictory worlds, or if maybe we’re actually pre-figuring the arrival of an emerging, more reciprocal and pragmatic way of doing business with each other.