Shelli Johannes on body image

Shelli Johannes on body image

Zibby Owens: My first guest is Shelli Johannes who is the coauthor of the very popular best-selling children’s books Cece Loves Science and Libby Loves Science. She is just a rockstar. I recently had her on my other podcast. She has been posting lots of comments and interesting stuff in the moms’ group. I wanted to hear her story. This is my first episode. This podcast will undoubtedly morph over time and potentially include more experts or more whatever. Right now, I just want to hear from other women, other moms, other people who are going through the same stuff and hear about everybody’s journeys. Bear with me. I’m going to fine-tune this as we go. I hope you enjoy this conversation I just had with Shelli, who is amazing. Hopefully, it’ll make you all feel a little bit less punitive and less hard on yourselves when you hear some of her advice and her story. Enjoy it. Please offer any feedback. I’m at, or you can DM me @MomsDon’tHaveTimeToLoseWeight. I hope to hear your feedback. Enjoy.

Welcome, Shelli. I can’t wait to talk to you on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Lose Weight.”

Shelli Johannes: Nice to see you.

Zibby: Thanks for being, first of all, my first guest on this podcast and second of all, my first guest on both podcasts. It’s pretty awesome.

Shelli: I’ve already made a record. I didn’t even know it.

Zibby: You’ve already made a record. It’s not even noon. This is great. The point of this podcast is just to hear stories from other people that people can relate to. We all go through very similar struggles with our bodies, but in different ways and different forms. I just wanted to hear about your journey. I know that’s a really, really broad question. I just want to have you take me through some of the highs and lows and see what we can learn and share and benefit from.

Shelli: The reason I joined your group is because — I’ve never really joined a group before, but when it was moms who don’t have time lose weight, I just felt like it would be a larger community of people that had tons of different stories. It wasn’t a Weight Watchers group. It wasn’t a SlimFast group or a very specific — the women who get up and do the five AM workouts, I tried that group. Trying to find my people. I’ve always struggled with weight. I don’t even know it’s just weight. I think it’s more body image. It started very young. My mom was a beauty queen from Florida, very fit, very tall, very thin, and had a very specific body style. I remember when I was younger, I was a gymnast, and so my body style was very different, just muscular and bigger. Weight was a big issue, a big topic in my family. It really started there. I think it just stuck with me. It’s always stuck with me. Do you need to eat that? The slight comments, some more derogatory, but a lot of times just those little slight comments that you just don’t think kids will hear, maybe. Do you need to eat that? Do you need three cookies instead of two? Haven’t you already eaten enough today?

Zibby: Wait, is this the voice in your head, or is this you talking to your actual children?

Shelli: These are not me talking to my children. These are my parents talking to me, so when I was younger. I think that voice, we get those voices in our head which are just people who have made impressions on us, has always stuck with me. Do I need to eat that? Am I thin enough? Am I good enough? Am I fit enough? That’s really where it started, was super, super young. I remember being in high school, and I was never the thinnest one. I was always the bigger one of my friends. I remember the first time doing the weigh-in. They do those at school, the nutrition weigh-ins. I remember everyone afterwards talking about their weight. I was embarrassed because my weight was higher because I’m more muscular. I just felt, oh, my gosh, if I weigh X amount and they weigh twenty pounds less than me, I must be fat. I remember that’s where it started, really a lot in my teen years, my mom putting me on Weight Watchers when I was fifteen. Then I think we moved to Atkins diet after that. Then I think we moved to South Beach Diet after that. I could never find something that worked for me. It kind of got me on this fad diet roll. That’s really where it started. I’ve always been someone who worked out. That has benefitted me as I’ve gotten older because I’m a little bit obsessive about working out. I think that was because I was always trying to lose weight and always trying to count my points and always trying to count my calories and making sure that I burned off enough. Then when I got into college, it kind of took a downward spiral where I went on a Jell-O diet.

Zibby: Wait, what was the Jell-O diet?

Shelli: All you ate was Jell-O for a week.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I missed that one, but I got all the other ones.

Shelli: Unhealthy. This was in the nineties when that whole fad diet things were coming into play. Then I went on the pineapple diet. I don’t eat pineapple now. I had sores down my throat. I just went down this really bad path. I don’t think it was a path anybody sent me on. I think it was just messages that had somehow gotten on the wrong track. That’s really where it started.

Zibby: Then what happened throughout college? What happened after? Did you stop the fad diets, or when you started working, or what?

Shelli: I went on the fad diets. I remember going on the Jell-O diet. This is kind of embarrassing. I’m kind of sticking myself out there. I went on the Jell-O diet, and I lost a lot of weight. I was like, finally, I found a diet that works for me.

Zibby: Starvation.

Shelli: And sugar. That’s what kept me going throughout the day. I have tons of energy.

Zibby: There’s water in Jell-O, right?

Shelli: Right, no calories to count. I know, it’s horrible. I look back on my teen and college self and feel bad because I wasn’t over, over, overly weight. I wasn’t having any health problems. When I saw myself in the mirror, I looked big. I did go through a bulimic stage in college. I don’t remember what pulled me out of it. I think I remember my mom and dad coming up for a game at UGA and my mom looking at me and saying, “Are you eating? You look way too thin.” That was the conversation. You look great. You look thin. You look like you’ve lost weight. You look like you’ve been working out. I think that still goes on in my family. You look great. How are you keeping weight off during the pandemic? You look good. I don’t even know if they’re really aware of it, but I was. That didn’t last long because, I’m not making a joke of this, I really don’t like to throw up. After my mom’s comment and then just the process I had to go through, I couldn’t do it. I don’t know how I pulled out of it. I think it’s always been there. It always sits in the back of my head.

Zibby: Now fast-forward to here. What’s been going on since? I feel like having kids is then another huge time where our bodies are like — you have to focus on them because they’re changing so much.

Shelli: And you’re weighing all the time. Your weight’s going up. I remember when I was pregnant. I was probably about maybe five to ten pounds away from my husband’s weight. I remember thinking, oh, my god, I cannot weigh as much as my husband.

Zibby: Oh, my god, I had the same thought, FYI. Same thing.

Shelli: They were like, “We’re going to take your baby two weeks early.” I remember thinking, yes, that means I don’t have to weigh in. I will not make his weight. That was a thought that went through my mind, which is so embarrassing that that is the first — it wasn’t like, is my baby going to be okay? What’s a C-section going to be like? It was, yes, I’m not going to gain that extra five pounds in this last two weeks. I’m going to make it. I’m going to skim by under the weight of my husband. That was really hard. I came back after the first one because I do work out. The second one, I didn’t come back. I think I mentioned to you that I have a nerve disorder, and so I started taking medicine. It keeps weight on. I couldn’t get back. It was very frustrating. I still am kind of there. I still struggle. I was just talking to Kim this morning about coming on your web page. I was like, “What do you hear me talk about from weight as a friend?” She said, “I just think you’re always trying. If you go do really well –” I’ll go off my medicine and I’ll do really well, and then I’ll need my medicine, obviously. Then I’ll put weight back on. I’ll kind of beat myself up about it.

I joined yours to be like, you know what, this is a time for me to just focus on, I need to love myself. I just turned fifty. I had weight goals for when I turned fifty that I didn’t meet. I always said, when I turn forty, I’m going to be this. When I turn fifty, I’m going to be this. That was hard because I’m a very goal-oriented person. If I set a goal, I will kill myself to make it. It will almost be to my detriment. Like we were talking about, if I say I’m going to do something, I will do it, and I will do it now. I don’t succeed until I meet that. It’s a really tough journey to learn how to love yourself and look in the mirror and see yourself for who you are and not have it be a weight number. It’s how you feel. Other people will say, “You don’t need to lose weight.” I’ll say, “I carry my weight really well. It’s probably these jeans.” I will offset it because I’m like, they don’t really know what’s behind this. They don’t see me the way I see myself.

Zibby: I feel like I’m carrying this secret shame of the actual number. If anyone knew, oh, my gosh. I figured out how to dress for it. Maybe I could hide it enough. The thing is, here you are, you’re a best-selling author, so accomplished in so many ways. I keep hearing you say about how your body is so athletic. That should be celebrated. You gain weight because of medicine. Even though you have the answers right there of why, perhaps, you’re not like the other girls, it’s hard to intellectually process that. One of my daughters is super athletic, gymnastics or whatever. I look at her, I’m like, I hope she never has an issue with this beautiful athletic body of hers because it’s not stick — I don’t know.

Shelli: I think media and society, that’s what’s pushed. That’s what’s celebrated, is those sickly models that are so thin. You’re seeing them on the camera. Being a mom — my daughter is sixteen. She was a soccer player. When she got to be about maybe ten and started being a little more concerned about weight, twelve — she was a soccer player, and they had to a run a certain amount. They never weighed them, but they definitely had to be in shape. I hid my weight scale. She was always like, “Do you have a scale?” I was like, “I do not have a scale. I don’t keep a scale around. It’s not about the number. It’s about how you feel.” I was like, I have to change this message for my daughter because I don’t want to repeat the same mistakes. I think sometimes we say things to our kids and we don’t realize the message we send is not the message they take in. That’s scary to me. That was why we started the books, the same reason. From a weight perspective, I didn’t want her to get so focused on a number. Of course now, she’s like, “We need a scale.” I’m like, “It’s not about a number. It’s about how you feel. How do you feel today? Do you feel healthy? Do you feel unhealthy?” She’s like, “Well, I have been eating a lot of sugar.” I’m like, “You probably don’t feel healthy, but you’re beautiful. Everybody has different body styles.” I see her going through the same thing. She’ll be like, “But she’s a size two. She’s small.” She’s a size six. I’m like, “Honey, you’re a size six. Don’t look at magazines. You have to go by how you feel. You can’t get so caught up in what people are telling you you’re supposed to be that you lose sight of who you are.” It’s scary.

Zibby: It’s so true. I feel like sometimes I just need to listen to the things I’m saying to my kids. I was so afraid of saying the wrong things that I’ve been only body-positive around the kids. I was like, I am not going to do any of this. I’ve read all these articles. I’m never saying I feel fat or this. I have pain in my body right now, and I would like to eat better for the inflammation, basically, but I can’t let them hear me say all that stuff. It’s so corrosive. I think our generation, our moms — my mom had me on diets like you. She took me to some diet center. What I wouldn’t do for that body, by the way, back.

Shelli: Oh, yes.

Zibby: There was nothing wrong with my body, seriously. Anyway, whatever. That was the culture.

Shelli: I look at pictures and I’m like, what was I thinking? I look at the pictures. What was I thinking about myself? Why was I so hard on myself?

Zibby: You know, it’s funny because that also follows you. I remember a vacation I took maybe five years ago and being in my bathing suit with the kids in the water and being self-conscious. Are people watching me as I wade in here with my kids all climbing all over me? I had this thought at that time, wait a minute, maybe one day this is the body that I’ll wish I had. Now I do. You always are thinking things could be better. Yet life changes. There are extenuating circumstances like your medicine which is so much more important, getting rid of pain.

Shelli: I will try and get off of it. My husband will be like, “You look beautiful.” I’ll say, “I’m trying to find that line between looking old and — I don’t want to be old and too thin, but I don’t want to be fat.” That is what I go through. I’m like, there’s a fine line. I need to find that line, so maybe I don’t need three a day. Maybe I could do two a day. It’s almost like the stages of grief. It’s like I’m in negotiation constantly now. Maybe if I do this. Maybe I could do this. Maybe if I could do this. Then there’s also that point — how old are your daughters?

Zibby: I have a thirteen-year-old daughter and a seven-year-old daughter and then two sons.

Shelli: I knew you had four kids, but I wasn’t the sure the age. My daughter now is sixteen. I found myself telling her more stories about my journey because I don’t want her to feel like it’s odd for her to think those things. I’ve said I’ve had a tough relationship with food and it really is about health so that if something ever does happen, she can come to me. I did go through the period where I never talked about weight. I never said the word fat. I never said the word weight. I always talked about healthy choices. Let’s make healthy choices. These are fun choices for cupcakes. I even remember my very first book — I know you’ve written a picture book, right? You’ve got one coming out?

Zibby: Yes.

Shelli: My very first book was when I was in fourth grade. It was about a fat, smart cookie. I’m in the process now of reworking that to be like, that would be really awesome if I could rewrite that book for myself. It was about a cookie who was constantly eating bad. Everyone was constantly telling her she was fat. That was in fourth grade. I won an award for that essay. I remember in fourth grade saying, oh, my gosh, even my weight won an award. I was rewarded for writing about weight. To me, it was really a sad story about this cookie that was too fat and always ate wrong and tried to do better and just couldn’t. It’s funny how those things kind of bleed into even creative aspects that aren’t bad.

Zibby: I wrote an essay when I was fourteen about how I felt about my body, I had gained some weight when my parents divorced, and how I felt like people were even treating me differently and how I felt about it. I ended up publishing it in Seventeen magazine. That started me writing freelance essays, essentially. By the way, now that I look back, I’m like, wow, how did I do that at fourteen when I look at what my kids are doing? Anyway, it inspires so much artistic production, thought. It’s such a waste, actually. Think about what else we could’ve accomplished. When we think about where we are now, and now here we are joining this group and trying to be there for each other — again, that’s why I did this. When I got all these comments, everyone had such different tips. There’s no one-size-fits-all thing. Forget it.

Shelli: It’s stories. I loved reading all those stories.

Zibby: Everybody had so many stories. I want to hear all the stories. What are your goals now? How can the group help?

Shelli: One goal is I’m trying not to focus on a number because I think I’ve been so overly focused on numbers my whole life to my detriment, to an unhealthy — as you get older, I just turned fifty, and so you start realizing this is the only body am I ever going to have. I better celebrate this vessel and take care of it the best way that I can because I don’t get another one. I don’t think when you’re younger you realize that. You don’t realize what the fad diets and what the yo-yo diets, they would call them, or just the mental anguish of what that actually does to my body — with my nerve thing, I really can’t work out very hard. I just have started walking. I think I posted some of these in there. I’ll just say, you know what, I don’t feel like walking, but I’m just going to walk around the block. Then I’ll listen to your podcast. I’ll end up walking around thirty minutes for a podcast. Then I’ll be like, yeah, I could probably watch one more. I ended up, just started walking and walking and walking. Over the pandemic, I’ve lost a lot of weight. I think I told you I lost fifteen, but then I started the medicine back up. I’ve gained five. That was disappointing right before my fiftieth birthday, which was why I posted. Your post came right at that time where I was super vulnerable. I was like, yeah, and then this happened. Then I look back, I’m like, wasn’t I just an open book?

Zibby: I love it, though.

Shelli: I am trying to find a way to be healthy but still have the things that I love, which I think is why I told you I gravitate towards Weight Watchers. I just feel like when I get in those areas where I’m like, no, you can’t do this and you can’t eat this and you can’t have this and it’s past eight, I find I set myself up to fail. I never am successful when I do that. Now I’m trying to be like, okay, I can have the special gluten-free cinnamon bun, but I’m going to have to have a salad for lunch. My daughter ended up coming to me saying, “I don’t feel healthy. I would like to figure out how to eat healthy.” I showed her the Weight Watchers SmartPoint and was like, “This is not a diet. This is a way to acknowledge what you’re putting in your body and make choices and see what the choice gives you. If you come out and you want a granola bar –” She’ll say, “It’s got too much sugar. It’s six points. I think I’m going to have an apple and a string cheese.” I’ve tried to teach her, but that’s been hard for me because I don’t want to send the message that she needs to lose weight and that she needs to go on a diet.

Now I’m trying to focus on getting ready for her to go off to college and making those healthy choices so that if she doesn’t feel healthy and doesn’t feel good that she can say, well, I am having Lucky Charms every morning. Maybe I should have an omelet and a piece of cinnamon toast. That’s half the points of what Lucky Charms would be. That’s a struggle when you have a sixteen-year-old, is to figure out, how do you teach them how to eat healthy without talking about weight and exercise and how you feel? What are the good choices? What are the bad choices? Why are they bad? You can’t just say, it’s got sugar. The way I can say is, these two granola points are ten points. This caramel rice cake with a string cheese is two points. It’s healthier. It’s rice. It doesn’t have as much sugar. I really struggle with that. When you said moms who try to lose weight, I thought that maybe some moms would also have tips for, how do you get your kids on the right path? How do you teach your sons to work out when they’re super thin? His doctor’s like, “You need to put on weight.” In my mind, I was like, oh, god, don’t tell him that.

Zibby: How old is your son?

Shelli: He’s thirteen. He’s in that space where they’re like, you need to put on weight. You need to get some fat in your body. You need to do this. I’m trying to teach him different skills like, what’s good fat? What’s bad fat? You have to work out. His metabolism’s so high. He can’t put on weight. It’s hard. It is hard being a mom when you’re looking from your lens out that isn’t a healthy lens and trying to teach a healthy lens.

Zibby: How do you actually eat? What’s a go-to meal for you? I know you’ve referenced some of the points meals and stuff. What’s your general eating? Then what’s your biggest downfall?

Shelli: My biggest downfall is cheese. That’s my biggest downfall. I try to eat eggs in the morning. I love cheese, so I use the cheese as my points. I sometimes eat cheese in the afternoon, but I’ll have a salad with some cheese or vegetables with some cheese. If I cut out cheese, I’m just not happy. My creamer in my coffee, I will not stop my coffee creamer. It just makes me happy. I like the Delight White Chocolate Raspberry. We stock up on it every Christmas because it only comes out for a couple months. I’m like, two points a tablespoon, I just measure it, and I’ll take it. It helps. It’s not about the points. I think it helps me be very conscious and aware of what I’m putting in my body because I know that the higher the points, the higher the carbs, the higher the sugar, and the lower the points — if I have string cheese and a pickle, that’s still cheese to me. I can’t buy those big logs of cheese. I will eat the whole log. I could probably eat it in a day if I didn’t pay attention, just slicing them and your slices get bigger and bigger and bigger. I have to buy the ones that are either sliced or that are individual.

Zibby: That’s like me with banana bread. I’m like, I’ll just make a slice here in the thing. Then next thing you know, it’s like half the thing is gone.

Shelli: Two-inch slice.

Zibby: Yeah, exactly.

Shelli: You’re like, one slice of banana bread is only… But I’ve had three slices in just one.

Zibby: It sounds like some goals and things to look forward to are maybe just getting rid of the scale entirely. Maybe you don’t even need it in the family, or just shoving it away for a while. Focusing on the amazingness of your athleticism and that your body was built for more than just being a scrawny model, and that that’s a good thing. That’s a blessing. Not that saying this for the millionth time will do anything, but just to keep in the back of your head. Counting points. Those are already lots of goals. Keeping walking.

Shelli: That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m keeping walking. This last weekend, I went with my daughter, we had a mom-daughter trip. We ended up doing a lot of, I think I mentioned it on one of the posts, we ended up doing horseback riding, which was mountainous and rugged. We ended up doing ziplining and hiking Tallulah Gorge. I have not been able to walk since. I did too much. I remember going to Tallulah Gorge going, “We could go down the suspension bridge.” My daughter was like, “Are you sure we could do that?” I was like, “Yes, we can do that.” Then I got down. Then I was like, oh, we got to go back up. That wasn’t smart. I kind of overfatigued my muscles. Then I end up laying down for three days being upset because I’m not walking and beating myself up because I should be walking, but I’m trying to take care of myself and let my body heal from the overexert-ness of a weekend. Then I eat because I’m not walking. I find when I walk, I just get outside and get that energy outside, get out of my small world, which is hard right now in the pandemic because we do live in small worlds. My refrigerator is there all day long. I’m not busy and in the car saying, I’m hungry, but I didn’t bring a snack with me, or I only have a banana. Now it’s just staring at the refrigerator waiting until, is it snack time? Is it snack time yet?

Zibby: You’re like, lunch? Is it lunch yet? When’s my feeding time? I’m like a child or something. What would you say to yourself? You’re going to have bad days coming up. You’re going to have great days coming up. To be more forgiving, what would you want to say? What do you want to remember? Maybe if you replay this or you’re having a period of feeling very vulnerable or bad about yourself, what would you want to remember that’s really important, like a don’t-miss-the-plot kind of message to yourself?

Shelli: I try to talk to myself the way I would talk to my kids. I’ll hear myself something. I’ll be like, I would never say that to my daughter. Why would I say that to me? I would never say, get off your ass and go work out even though you’re in pain. I would be like, you have to listen to your body. Your body is telling you that it can’t do that today. Embrace your body. Love your body. Know that you can do that tomorrow. I try to think about now, a little bit more consciously, what would I say to my daughter? If I wouldn’t say it to my daughter, then why would I say it to myself?

Zibby: I love that.

Shelli: That helps me because I will get in my head and be like, you only lost a pound. You only did that. Why would you do this? I would never ever say that to my kids. We almost have to retrain that message. We almost have to change those messages that have somehow gotten wired in our heads, that inner voice that is just like, get off your ass. You got to work hard. Work harder. You said you were going to do this. How come you’re not doing it? Change it to be a little bit more nurturing and be like, I’m doing the best I can. I did great yesterday. Today’s been a bad day. Tomorrow’s a new day. It’s a hard one, though. I struggle with that question every day.

Zibby: I love your advice. That’s advice that could help me, talk to myself like I would talk to my child, talk to myself internally like I would talk to — we seem to treat ourselves with so much less care than all the people we take care of all the time.

Shelli: Oh, my gosh, I’m so cruel to myself. I feel bad for myself sometimes.

Zibby: Sometimes when I hear my daughter being down on herself, I’ll be like, “Hey, that’s my daughter you’re talking about there.” I have to stick up for her being rude to her. “I don’t want to hear you being mean to yourself. That’s someone I care about there. Stop it.”

Shelli: Right, I like that. I like how you’re making it the third-person situation, say, hey you, little mister, . Internal family systems is some kind of therapy that I’ve read about in the past about how all your different voices in your head — I have those voices in my head. I have the lady who’s just like, your nerve problem, and this and that. She’s a hypochondriac and always worried about her nerves. Then I have the person who’s like, you’re not doing enough. Got to get out and get busy. I’m trying to put those voices — I think Elizabeth Gilbert talks a lot about that in her Magic book. Put those voices in the backseat. They’re the two-year-olds. We don’t need to hear from those voices. Bring the other voices that are more positive and nurturing and loving, let them sit in the front.

Zibby: I love it.

Shelli: Those other whack-a-dos in the back, they shouldn’t be driving.

Zibby: Right, so just be kinder to ourselves and speak to ourselves the way we’d want anybody else to speak to us. Not to say that’s going to help. I know this has been more of just catching up, us talking about our struggles, but I think it’s all relatable. So many people wish they had a different body and structurally, they don’t. It’s kind of a shame now that I’m in my forties when I think about the body types I longed for before. Why? Why is that necessarily any better? I don’t know. Anyway, this is also a much bigger conversation. All to say it’s a blend of self-acceptance and yet working hard to keep our bodies functioning at their best which sometimes means not having all the extra stuff and staying active and somehow .

Shelli: And maybe realizing what those triggers are. When you posted, it was very intimate. Something triggered that all of a sudden. We have these feelings, and then something will kind of weigh us down. What was that for you?

Zibby: When I posed that I wanted to eat everything in my kitchen?

Shelli: Yeah.

Zibby: I don’t think I explained the whole reason. I had just heard some really bad news. I had had such a long day. I was just so sick of being careful and having to focus on this. I was just like, ugh, I don’t want to do it anymore. Then the group helped so much because I got all these tips. I went out for a walk with the dog. I waited five minutes. I chewed gum. I did all these things. Then next thing you know, the craving passed. I handled it another way, and I lived. I think it’s also habit breaking. Anyway, there’s a lot. I’m just so happy you shared your story. Thank you for being so open and your advice. I hope the group helps. I hope you continue to keep posting all your stuff because it’s so great.

Shelli: Thank you for starting it. Thank you for having me on here. When you said, “Let’s kick it off,” I was thinking, really? I don’t know if I’m the expert to talk or person to talk about…

Zibby: I didn’t want to start with an expert. I just wanted to be real. It’s just one woman to another. We’re in it together.

Shelli: That’s why your podcasts are so great. It’s amongst moms and women to women. I’m also looking for tips on, how do we raise our kids in a healthy environment with positive messages?

Zibby: Yes, me too, so that I don’t mess them up. Thanks, Shelli. This was fun. Now I’ll be thinking of you as I go about my eating today. It’s nice just to have a partner in crime, if you will.

Shelli: I totally get it.

Zibby: Face to a name and all the rest. Thanks for coming on.

Shelli: Good to see you today.

Zibby: Bye, Shelli. Thanks.

Shelli: Bye.

Shelli Johannes on body image

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