Fat-shaming: Stop. Just stop.

Following up to my last post about Harriet Brown’s Body of Truth, here’s another reminder of our society’s last acceptable prejudice. Racism still exists, but our society no longer will accept it, and we call it out whenever it appears in the news or the cultural consciousness. Our treatment of and attitude toward homosexuals is something that’s changing and is addressed frequently. Debate over policies is still complex, but how we treat individuals should be pretty clear: just be kind. Don’t name-call. Don’t lump into a category. Don’t assume.

But we’re still in the very early phases of ending the name-calling and shaming over fat. About once a week, it seems, some celebrity or other makes assumptions and puts their foot in their mouth about people who are overweight. Cheryl Tiegs stupidly assumed a couple of things in February about model Ashley Graham: One, that Graham isn’t healthy. Two, she assumed her waist size was 35 inches or more, giving her the basis for saying Graham can’t be healthy.

Here’s what happened: Graham’s waist size was revealed to be 29.5 inches. It’s perfectly within the range of what experts say is healthy (although, let’s be real … doctors really know far too little about weight and health, as Brown writes in Body of Truth, for one). And Graham works out regularly. She seems to be taking care of herself. As she said to the Daily Mail, “There are too many people thinking they can look at a girl my size and say that we are unhealthy. You can’t, only my doctor can!” (I’m guessing she’s lucky enough to have a doctor who sees the big picture of health and hasn’t pushed her to lose weight.)

And the fat-shaming of today comes from Australia, where a fitness expert just assumes that all overweight people must be unhappy. One, it is possible to be overweight and happy, and two, her remarks and attitude likely contribute to people who are overweight feeling dissatisfied with themselves simply because of their size. It’s been shown time and time again that making someone feel bad about themselves, guilty, shameful, etc., will NOT lead to them taking steps to take better care of themselves, such as incorporating some better eating habits and exercising regularly. It may motivate briefly, but in the long haul, they’ll just give up and say it’s impossible. The best motivation to help someone truly take care of themselves for life is to help them feel they are worthwhile as people; therefore, they deserve to take the time and energy to take care of their physical bodies.

One thing that needs to become more common knowledge among doctors and all of us is that fitness is a huge indicator of health. More people should get out and exercise more. Yes. But there are plenty of people who exercise regularly who are not thin. (And on the flip side, there are plenty of skinny people who have never exercised, and on top of that, they eat food that no one would call healthy. But they get a pass in others’ eyes because, hey, they APPEAR healthy, since our society still only equates health with thinness.) And we should be working to get more people fit. But it doesn’t need to be in pursuit of being thin. It needs to be fitness for its own sake.

Let’s just stop the fat-shaming. Let’s stop assuming overweight means miserable and unhealthy. Thinness does NOT automatically = healthy, and fatness does NOT automatically = unhealthy. Fat people are not necessarily unhappy, lazy, or unmotivated. They are people. And how do we treat people? With kindness. As whole, worthwhile individuals.


Get the skinny on our society’s obsession with fat

body of truthI’ve decided I’m going to make reading this book a once-a-year activity. Body of Truth is just that helpful. When I read it a year ago before it was even published, I dog-eared pages as I devoured it in just a day or two. I made my husband read it. THIS, this, is what everyone needs to know. I read it again this week in a day, dog-eared more pages, and considered making my husband read it again.

Read my review of the book on Rated Reads.

Now, I was able to keep my review to a reasonable length, but I’m going to write more about the insights I gained by reading Harriet Brown’s book. And I’ll have to split up the info into a few posts so it won’t get weighed down (ha ha). Today I’m just going to address the damage that is done by dieting. And let me tell you, that is one of the takeaways of this book that has me the most furious.

I never considered myself a dieter until the past 7 years or so. I noticed myself gaining when I was nearing 40. But I had actually dieted when I was about 12 by reducing a bit what I ate and not eating desserts. I didn’t keep track of pounds, just slimmed a little of “baby fat,” you could say. And then each time after my three pregnancies I breast-fed, counted calories (stuck to 1800 or so), and kept up my regular exercise. I got back down and a little bit more and was looking nicely trim at 33. I kept it up until, yeah, almost the 40s. Then I saw 10 pounds creep on and got a bit panicked (ha!). Then I happened to move to a new state and put on another 10 pounds, then another 10, then another 10. All of a sudden, I was a lot heavier and was feeling much different than I had before as generally an average-weight, trim-ish person. I dieted first by just really counting calories (and going hungry often) and lost 30, but it only held for a year or maybe two. It came back on, and then I started looking at other options. I did the hCG diet (yes, I know, I never DREAMED I’d be the person to do something drastic like that), but it worked and I at least lost almost 20 pounds and felt a lot better really quickly. That crept back on, and I did it again a year or so later. A couple of years ago, my best friend started doing Atkins, so I tried it. It worked and I did well enough to lose maybe 20 or 25 pounds and feel it was worth the work and sacrifice. My daughter got married, then, last year, and all bets were off. I ate, and I ate, and I ate. I was depressed and stressed and just went straight to food. And what do you know, I am now by far the heaviest I’ve ever been. I went back on Atkins for a few weeks in the fall, then something crazy happened, and then I went back on it this last month, then my grandma died. And I am 20 pounds heavier than my heaviest weight ever before.

So not counting the post-pregnancy “getting back to pre-pregnancy weight” work, I have dieted, lost and gained, at least four main times, plus a few more little times, in the past 8 years. I have been successful. I have been tough. I have focused. And then I’ve either gone back to semi-normal eating (not being hungry) and gained back, or I’ve had some eat-a-lot periods. And what do you know, I’m completely normal. Studies show very low rates of “long-term” success, which is at most watched over 5 years, and almost nothing for rates past that time period (3 years is really even the limit of most “long-term” studies). Evidence also shows that not only do people who diet tend to gain back what they lost, but they gain more on top of that.

So if I had never dieted, I’d most likely just be at my previous “heaviest,” but not the 20 pounds more than that that I am now. I might even be 10 or more pounds below that. And I’d have saved myself a lot of unnecessary work, focus and energy that could have gone to something more productive. I don’t know if you’ve been in this situation or not (likelihood is many of you have been), but this realization absolutely OUTRAGES me.

Brown writes this:

(An) oft-repeated lie about weight and health is that dieting makes us thinner and healthier. At the very least, we consider dieting benign, something that can’t hurt us even if it doesn’t really help. But the truth is, dieting is actually harmful for many of us for all sorts of reasons. And it doesn’t make most of us thinner or healthier. On the contrary.

And she says this: a 2007 investigation (as one example) confirmed that diets don’t work. “The mind-boggling element here is that we’ve known diets don’t work for a long time, and so has the medical establishment.” But still society at large, doctors, individuals … we all think they can work if people just are motivated enough, have enough willpower, work hard enough. And that big fat lie is causing us health problems. Just think: doctors who are all encouraging patients to lose weight may very well be making their patients’ health problems WORSE.

Here are some sobering points Brown tells us:

  • “Dieting nearly always makes people heavier over time. In one study of Finnish twins, the more diets people went on, the higher their risk of becoming overweight and the faster they gained weight later in life.”
  • “Dieters tend to have higher levels of cortisol, sometimes called ‘the stress hormone,’ and free fatty acids, and dieters tend to exhibit diminished executive function, (‘strained bandwidth’), maybe because using so much mental energy thinking, worrying, and negotiating about food choices leaves them too distracted to think about much else” — which in turn actually causes us to gain more weight.
  • Dieting actually has been shown in studies to lead to binge eating. It’s not just psychological, either; physiology on various levels causes us to eat more after dieting, reversing all our work (brain circuitry even changes!).
  • ”An ever-growing body of research suggests that weight cycling, or yo-yo dieting, correlates with higher levels of heart disease, impaired immune function, cardiometabolic risk, insulin resistance, triglycerides, hypertension, and abdominal fat accumulation.”
  • Studies have “found correlations between weight cycling and disordered eating, higher stress, lower well-being, and less confidence about food and eating. In other words, the more loops of the yo-yo you go around, the worse you feel about your weight, your eating, your very self.”
  • Each loop of the cycle then is harder. It’s tougher to drop the weight every go-round. Dieting changes metabolism. “People who have intentionally lost weight generally use about 15 percent fewer calories than non-dieters to perform exactly the same activities, which means they gain weight eating fewer calories than non-dieters.” As one research professor told Brown, “We know there’s some sort of derangement of the metabolic pathways, and that has a cascade effect on everything from the hormones involved with obesity to hunger.”

So people who feel fat or have been told they’re fat and need to lose weight feel “incredible shame.” Our whole culture reinforces that. Doctors reinforce that. And it’s not helping anyone. It’s not helping health; it’s not making anyone motivated; it’s not making us feel good; it’s a wicked prejudice that is still allowed. Feeling the outrage yet?

In the next few blog posts, I’ll focus on some of these last ideas and more.

Let’s stop making ‘fat’ a bad word

It occurred to me yesterday that I don’t have to use “fat” as an adjective for myself. No one does. It’s another label, and while labels are necessary for products on a shelf, they are dangerous for people. (How about this?: “CAUTION: This label is toxic for your emotional health.”)

caution label

We don’t say someone “is cancerous,” just that they “have cancer.” We are striving to say someone “has Down syndrome” (or some other disability) rather than “is a Down syndrome person.” Because that label does not by any stretch describe the whole person.

So I am not fat. I have fat on my body. Right now, I have more fat than I’d like to, because I’m uncomfortable, and part of the reason I have more fat than I’d like is that I’ve been resorting to emotional eating for a few months, and the quality of some of those foods (sugary) is making my cholesterol a bit higher than I’d like. And those are the facts.

The problem with words is that they often become loaded with associated meanings that weigh them down far more than their original, “true” meaning. Some words even become so weighed down with other associations that they change meaning entirely. This happened with the word “gay.” No longer do we even use that to mean “happy or lively.” We only use it to portray someone as homosexual.

What meanings have become tied to the word “fat”? I’d like to offer these: ugly, disgusting, lazy, shameful, embarrassing, gluttonous, gross. I’m sure you can come up with many more, and they’re all negative. What’s happened is that there is a stigma attached to the word “fat,” and that stigma, rather than “helping” obese people to get healthier through diet and/or exercise, etc. (and that’s a WHOLE OTHER topic entirely), is actually hurting us all. The stigma, the shame and embarrassment of being labeled “fat,” is actually making it even harder for those who would like to make a change in their health to start an exercise program or change a few bad habits in their diets. Shame doesn’t motivate very well or for very long. Researchers Lexie and Lindsay Kite at Beauty Redefined put it this way:

(R)ampant self-loathing, which can be partially attributed to women’s self-comparisons to unrealistic and unattainable body ideals in mass media, may very well encourage women to give up on achieving healthy body weights altogether due to the perception that “healthy” or “average” is unreachable. Studies help to confirm this idea.

It’s actually true that the better you feel about your (whole) self — including your body — the more motivated you are to take care of it in every way. But if you feel shame and all those bad words associated in our culture with “fat,” the less motivated you will be to take care of yourself.

So can we shift the stigma, remove it altogether? Can we snip the associations tied to the word “fat”? It’s going to take some hard work on everyone’s part, but it is possible. Because what we’re “doing” right now — shaming the majority of our population that’s deemed to be overweight — isn’t working. It isn’t working to make anyone feel good about themselves and it isn’t working to get more people exercising, which is truly the goal. Losing weight isn’t really the “magic bullet” we think it is, but more and more we’re learning that being fit is what really counts.

Let’s take the first step toward a healthier and happier society and cut the “fat” talk right now.

To my pregnant and postpartum friends: take that weight off your shoulders, not your belly

I am about to turn 45 and haven’t been pregnant for almost 13 years now, but I have a number of wonderful younger friends who are still firmly in their childbearing years. I am writing today to them.

Dearest friends, I see your adorable posts on social media and am thrilled with all the sweet experiences you are having now, just as I remember enjoying a decade and a half ago. I can’t help but “like” your comments and pictures of growing bellies and ultrasounds and new babies. What an amazing period of life you are in — and difficult and challenging and exhausting and … the list goes on. The joy is equaled by the fatigue and all the other challenges that can come from pregnancy and taking care of an infant.

But I’m going to say this with all the kindness and tenderness I can show in the mere printed word (hopefully you know me well enough “in real life” to be able to hear me saying this): please stop worrying about your weight.

I have seen your posts over the course of months and been concerned for you when I’ve noted multiple comments about how much weight you’ve gained (in exact number of pounds) and how you were already planning during your pregnancy to lose it post-delivery (yes, I see your Pinterest boards too). I’ve worried a little for you when you talked about your weight a mere two weeks after giving birth.

cathy pregnant
This was me just before giving birth to my third child. Do celebrities ever look like they’ve swallowed a torpedo?

Believe me, I was there. Three times. I gained the exact same number of pounds each pregnancy: 38. And each was different. I started out about 25 pounds overweight with my first and ate pizza almost nonstop and didn’t exercise at all. With my second, I started out maybe 10 pounds overweight and exercised for about the first six months and ate a little better. With the third, I was at just about an “ideal” weight starting out and exercised up until a couple of days before delivery (I looked pretty ungainly, I’m sure, with my huge belly on that elliptical machine, but it felt good). I still gained the same amount of weight each time. And every single time postpartum, I breast-fed my girls and counted calories (keeping them to a reasonable amount for nursing) and exercised after six weeks had passed after delivery. On the last one, I got back down to a really good weight for me six months after my baby was born.

I went into all that detail to show you that, yes, I’ve been there. And for me, losing weight postpartum was work. I felt the pressure. Yes, I hated seeing the pounds pile on during each month of pregnancy, especially after working so hard to take them off during previous ones. I feel bad saying that now because I wish I hadn’t been worrying about something so superficial as how I looked while I was growing the amazing human beings I’m now proud to call my daughters. But the (sad) truth is, I would feel the same way again even now if I were to be pregnant again. I struggle more now with my weight since I’m older; it’s even harder now! And I struggle with the struggle. I want to be healthy but I don’t want to allow myself to be caught up in our society’s “religion” of thinness, of image, of appearance. I am working to be kinder to myself and try to separate myself from the bombardment by media and culture that tells me how I look is a huge component of my worth.

Because this is the truth, one that goes completely opposite to the messages we see and hear all the time in our media-saturated culture: My worth is not tied in any way to how I look, whether it’s how much my body weighs or how many wrinkles I have (or that aging neck that’s manifesting itself) or how gray my hair is.

And that’s true for all of you. Even though society is pretty much shouting from the rooftops (and our ever-present computers and handheld devices) that we’re supposed to be thin, that it is possible (because, hey, look at the celebrities!) during pregnancy, except for a cute “bump,” and then entirely thin (no more bump) immediately after giving birth, and thin all the rest of our lives, that is just A LIE. Pregnancy changes us. Life changes us. And we’re all different anyway. We all have different body shapes and shouldn’t be worrying about trying to fit our square or triangular or hexagonal pegs into round holes. People come in all different shapes and sizes and colors. Make the best of your own shape, size and color. Take good care of your body. Value it for what it can do for you, for the part it plays in who you are as a whole. Treat it kindly and with respect. But don’t spend a disproportionate amount of your time and energy trying to make it what society says it should be. It’s only going to make you more exhausted than you already are, and when you are pregnant or taking care of a baby, you have NO ENERGY TO SPARE. You know this.

So, my dear friends, stop posting about your weight and size. Stop worrying about it. Take gentle loving care of your body and your psyche. Delete your Pinterest “Fitspiration” board. Those things are just plain dangerous. And please keep posting those baby pictures. I can’t get too many of those.

Safe, healthy food a must for everyone

I wrote recently about how we as individuals and families need safety nets and support from extended family and society around us. What’s on my mind the most is that of all the issues we as families (and in my case, being the mother and “home manager” of a family of six) face, it’s impossible to fix them all or deal with them all on our own.

As just one example, I have many concerns about public education, but I can’t change them alone; I can only try to speak up when I can and get involved in the big picture (higher levels) in what are fairly limited ways at this stage of life. I also have decided I am not capable (mentally, mostly) of home-schooling my kids, so I send them to public school and try to be involved and aware at the school level.

Health is another big topic. Health care and health coverage systems are a part of that. I’ve written a little about that and found one book really a great overview and resource: Catastrophic Care, by David Goldhill. Another issue we face that is part of our health is that of our food supply. Obesity in the U.S. and in other developed nations is a huge problem, and one I’ll admit I personally struggle with. (And might I point out that I exercise daily and cook healthy meals at home almost daily, and I’m STILL significantly overweight. What about all those out there who don’t exercise at all, who don’t cook, who eat junk food, etc.?) Yes, there are some “obvious” issues, such as the easy availability of food that’s bad for us, sedentary habits, and the heavy marketing and research done by large food corporations (just read Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss: Yikes!). But there are also more insidious things going on with our food supply that are affecting everyone: hormones and antibiotics and other fatteners being fed to the animals that we eat for meat, pesticides, and even sugar substitutes (just to get a taste of these problems, read a recent article on Salon).

If we’re having a hard time as a country educating individuals and families about healthier ways to eat, just putting together balanced meals at home with vegetables and lean proteins, etc., as well as getting people to just move more, it’s going to be a pretty hard sell to get everyone to eat organic and/or locally produced food, including dairy and meat, which either costs more money and/or takes an extra trip (or two or three), to get to farmers markets or specialty stores. Again, I consider myself to have the motivation, interest, and time (as well as a decent income) to be able to shop well and cook well on the first count. But I admit I balk at spending three times or more the amount on produce and meats and dairy to get foods that supposedly come without coatings of pesticides or added hormones or antibiotics, though that would certainly be ideal.

I'm working on being more involved in our backyard garden and learning more about it. This way, we get fresh, healthy food we like right from our own yard.
I’m working on being more involved in our backyard garden and learning more about it. This way, we get fresh, healthy food we like right from our own yard.

There are possibly some alternatives to the above pricey/time-consuming options for me and others who might have the time and at least a little extra cash to put towards them, such as growing your own food (if you have the time, the space, the know-how, etc.), contributing to raising a community garden, or just shopping local. But these options, again, are ones that are going to work when education efforts get past just the simple things of getting people to eat better, cook, and exercise.

No, this goes back to our society as a whole, including how our government is involved in regulating (or not overseeing) our food supply. It’s becoming more clear and more substantiated that these pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, plastics, etc., are contaminating our food and introducing all kinds of chemical problems into our bodies, making us fatter and just less healthy, maybe causing cancer. But government is slow to regulate and corporations are certainly not going to change of their own accord unless we as consumers really get educated and speak up with letters/phone calls to these companies or at the very least speak with our wallets by not buying their products. But that latter option leads again to this issue: what are average Americans going to buy if most of the big food producers aren’t providing healthy food? Most can’t afford organic or specialty stores.

As a mom and home manager, I am daunted and sometimes overwhelmed by all that is wrong and all I have to “protect” my family from, all that I need to “fix” or address in some way. What about all those others who don’t have even the luxuries of time and some extra money that I have? I feel a responsibility to do all I can not just to make life better for my own family, but for them. But I don’t have THAT much time or extra cash.

Yes, government can and must do better. Companies can and MUST do better to be responsible to consumers. Those with greater wealth and time to do good can do better to help those who don’t have what they have. Each of us can do a little something to spread the word, to raise awareness about whatever issues we’re facing, and to just speak up and let our voices be heard: voice our discontent, ask for specific things to be changed and improved. It comes back to my starfish post: I can’t save everyone, but by doing a few small things, they might add up to saving at least a few others. Give back by doing just a little, just whatever you can do.

Beyond compare

The past months have just seemed nonstop stressful (well, to be completely honest and accurate, they’ve been nearly-nonstop stressful; I’ve had a few days here and there that weren’t). With the holidays and some big projects wrapped up, I now stand at the beginning of a new year.

While I’m not striving for a “new year, new me” (I cringe every time I see that in any media source the first few weeks of any January), I really have been searching within to figure out what I can do a bit better for myself, so I can feel less stressed even as life is most definitely going to continue to be hectic. After all, I’m launching an adult into the world in mere months, to provide just one example of the life experiences I’m going through. (Giving birth is a big job and one that launches a new person into the world after nine months of gestation; at this stage, I’ve been actively parenting for 18 years to make sure this person can be a full-fledged independent being. It’s exhilarating and all of a sudden terrifying.)

I’ve noted, not for the first time, that I compare myself, my strengths, weaknesses, abilities, energies, visible-to-others “products” (children, writing and editing projects, volunteering efforts), etc., to those of others all the time. Social media is a blessing in many ways, connecting me at least in small part with far-flung friends who bring various gifts into my life, but it can also be a nasty tool for comparison. Day in and day out, I see photos of friends my age who still have the same figure (at least what I can see) they had 20 years ago; I see perfect family portraits; I see kids of these friends who are doing unbelievably impressive things in music or sports. It’s easy to look askance at my own figure, which is now no longer the one I had even a decade ago; to briefly (and, honestly, selfishly) wish I’d put my kids in more activities and lessons so they could do more with their own talents; to wonder why I cannot get just four kids to smile normally all at the same time.

Even worse, I compare my current self, at age 43 years and 8 months, to the self I was (or at least imagined I was, which might be more accurate) a decade or two ago. This body is 50 pounds heavier than it was at those times, when I wore a size-6 dress and had a great figure and pretty, shapely calves. To be honest, my habits aren’t much different. I have exercised an hour every day for 20 years. I have generally eaten healthy. But I now struggle mightily with my weight. (I emotionally eat and always have, and at times it’s worse than others, but it hits me harder now.)

In examining myself, I feel weak, impatient, tired, not nearly as capable as I used to be. I almost felt I had the parenting thing down somewhere in the middle of this 18-year mothering journey I’ve been on so far: I had fewer worries for my girls and felt I’d hit my stride. Now that they’re older and the stakes feel higher somehow, it’s a whole new world and I once again feel inadequate more than I’d like.

I mostly pinpointed maybe 10 years ago the kinds of mental challenges that are my particular “cross to bear” and have been on medication pretty much ever since, have consistently gone to counseling, have tried to stay aware of where I am so I can stay or get balanced. But even with the awareness, the knowing, I am honestly terrible at balancing out my capacity to give and do with what I think I need to do and be. My mental mouth is always bigger than my emotional stomach: I put so much on my plate and live to regret it. (I either metaphorically stuff myself or throw the plate against the wall…)

I guess I feel frustrated with myself because I still somehow don’t get it yet. I don’t feel a whole heck of a lot different, stronger, wiser, than I did when I was younger. I’m just older and tireder and flabbier.

I see people around me who have double the number of kids I do. I see peers who have experienced the death of a child or a spouse, who have gone through cancer, who have what I’d term other real crises or catastrophic events. One part of me thinks when considering those things, “I should feel more appreciative of what I have” (and I really am appreciative and grateful), and another part speaks up: “I can barely handle the challenges I have, and they don’t seem nearly as ‘big’ or ‘bad’ as those others’ challenges. Man, I’m a mess if I fall apart at stupid little things.” I compare my trials to others’ trials and come up feeling inadequate! Now that’s pretty ridiculous.

So that’s where I’m at. At least part of me is an optimist, someone who’s very grateful and happy for all I have and get to experience in life. I readily smile; it truly is the natural and comfortable way for my facial muscles to arrange themselves. Even so, I can easily feel disappointed in myself for just not “getting it,” even after what should be plenty of opportunities to do so.

I guess the truth is that I really have grown stronger and more resilient as life has thrown me the same kinds of trials, just constantly tweaked, over and over. I just can’t tell. It’s not obvious. Maybe if I were able to put my current self back into what I thought was a difficult time 15 or 20 years ago, I’d sail right through without batting an eyelash. But life doesn’t usually give us that kind of opportunity. It keeps upping the ante, tightening the screws, adding on five pounds of weight to the stack as we lift.

Meantime, I keep lifting. I will also keep working on rewording my thoughts and inner instantaneous reactions so I don’t compare my right-now self to my earlier self or anyone else. I suspect I won’t be completely successful in this life, but I’ll edge ever so closer.

Whatever her intentions, fit mom’s photo still misguided

I’ve watched the past few days as different people and media observers have discussed the backlash as well as support for the very fit mom of three boys who posted a picture of her scantily clad self with the title “What’s your excuse?” I’ve wanted to say so many things to respond to so many other people who have added their own reactions to the whole thing.

you are capableHere’s the lowdown, though: practically no one has gotten down to the nitty-gritty of the real issue here. There have been two primary reactions: “her story is inspiring, as she meant the post to be” or “it’s shaming.” The latter response has skirted it but hasn’t fully developed it. But the great ladies who started Beauty Redefined and who work tirelessly to spread their message about women have already addressed this topic on their blog and have revisited it many times: We as women are capable of more than just being objects, of just being something to look at.

They discuss the topic of “fitspiration” in a blog post they wrote almost a year and a half ago. Here’s one point: how do you (if you are a woman) feel when you look at this incredibly fit woman? Do you feel inadequate, less than worthy, embarrassed about your own body? Because I think that for the majority of us who aren’t this incredibly toned and fit, that is the real reaction we have immediately, whether or not we talk ourselves through it, even very quickly, to a place where we think the more acceptable “oh, that’s so inspirational.”

Let’s be real here: yes, many of us in the U.S. could do better to take care of our physical health. Too many of us are overweight, don’t eat enough of the healthy foods our bodies need and too much of the foods our bodies don’t need; too many of us don’t exercise regularly, even if it’s just for 20 minutes. HOWEVER, even if all of us did eat healthier and spent 30 minutes exercising four or five times a week, which is essentially what most experts on health recommend, we would not look like this woman. There’s this thing called genetics, and some bodies are just not built that way. But eating right and exercising will make those bodies healthy and strong, which is the real goal of fitness and taking care of ourselves.

What this photo does is tell us that if we don’t look like this, we’re clearly NOT doing the right things. This woman, Maria Kang, has said she spends about an hour each day working out. I don’t know what her diet plan is; it may be healthy and satisfying; it might be pared down to a small number of calories. Whichever it is doesn’t matter here; what does matter is that her eating and hour of exercise lead her to look like a model. I can honestly say that if I eat the number of calories I should (which I admit I have been overdoing a bit for some stressful months here) and continue the hour of exercise that I already do incorporate into my life five to six times per week, I WOULD NOT LOOK LIKE HER.

And that’s OK. Isn’t she saying we’re supposed to make ourselves a priority and exercise? But what the picture tells us is that the point is to LOOK a certain way, not have our own version of good health, which is often correlated with appearance but not entirely. Yes, diets lead to “looking” thinner. But if she and other “fitspiration” advocates, as well as their supporters, truly just wanted us all to be healthier, there would be no need for pictures that make women feel bad.

The truth is this: our society is still firmly entrenched in certain results, in appearances, in what we consider an ideal, which today is being very trim, with firm and hopefully large-ish breasts, not just thin but toned. (Fifty years ago the ideal was different; one hundred years ago it was very different.) Just because this is TODAY’s ideal doesn’t mean it’s some kind of eternal, absolute Truth.

I’m sure that Kang did want to inspire. But she bought right in to our culture’s damaging belief about appearance being paramount. It’s so prevalent that it’s almost invisible. We can’t see that it’s there right in front of our eyes because it’s been “taught” to all us, male and female, since we were born into this world. The only way to notice it is to start taking action, to respond in positive but strong ways that women are more than objects.

How about the radical notion that, rather than stripping down and showing off her abs and thin but toned thighs, Kang posted some information about her actual health: cholesterol levels, healthy blood sugar, etc.? Because that’s what health is about, what the fitspiration posters SAY they want to promote. So stop the shaming photos of ideals that really are not possible for at least half the population (and I’m being conservative here). Talk about health and measure it.

The women who did complain about Kang’s post are experiencing shame twice now, once as they felt bad about themselves when seeing Kang’s perfect body, and a second time by being called “catty” and “jealous.” They should be supported as they remind us all that shame is not an effective motivation, not in the long run. It’s “counterproductive, … debilitating and discouraging,” according to an excellent post on shame at Beauty Redefined. Please take the time to read that post because it is absolutely crucial in understanding what’s going on in our culture. The more that we can talk about this issue, the better. All in our culture, women and men, need to change their mindset, need to totally rewire their brains when it comes to how they think about appearance. Let’s unlink “health” from “appearance.” Let’s stop thinking of our bodies, our appearances, as the most important part of our SELVES. Let’s compliment ourselves and others for more important things than how we look.

Let’s have this conversation and do it right. Be an advocate. Share these “radical” ideas. Kindly challenge and help remind others, wherever you are, whether it’s online (Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram) or in person, that we are capable of being more than looked at. Start changing how YOU think, the horrible messages society has drilled into your brain for years, and help others to do so too. We can all do it if we just speak up.

There’s more lying on Pinterest than in any political campaign

So I have enjoyed Pinterest quite a bit since I decided to sign up and start using it earlier this year. It’s definitely handy-dandy for lots of things. My youngest even knows that if we’re trying a new recipe, it’s most likely from Pinterest. I think, like a lot of other Pinterest users, I use the site for recipes, laughs, and just useful ideas about all kinds of things.

Yes, it is delicious. But NOT 50 calories; no, it’s 500.

But what has really gotten my goat over the months is noticing how much of it is just blatantly false. This is the case with “no-calorie” recipes of various kinds and with “fitspiration” pins. A few examples: the 50-calorie shake. The photo shows a delectable-looking glass filled with a thick, creamy chocolate shake. It always says “50 calorie shake” underneath the photo. I have now seen this repinned by friends at least four or five times. Every time I can’t help but comment on it. Because the truth is that the shake (if the whole recipe is imbibed) is 496 calories. Nearly 500. Not 50. If one wanted to have a 50-calorie version of this shake, that person would have to get out a shot glass, because she’d only be able to drink about 2 ounces. The original site doesn’t say anything about it being “diet” or low-calorie; it’s just a healthier way to have a “shake” than going to an ice-cream shop.

There’s also the “no-calorie slushie.” The photo shows a glass with the final product, and there’s pictures of bananas and strawberries. If anyone were to think about it for just a second, she would know that bananas and strawberries HAVE CALORIES. The blogger admits that “her diet plan” doesn’t count fresh fruit or vegetables, but for those of us who do count everything (which I certainly think is a wise move), it’s about 250 calories. I’m thinking there’s a big difference between NO calories and 250. In fact, if one were to drink that no-calorie slushie every day without changing her diet in other ways, she’d gain half a pound a week.

I think I’ve already mentioned the “fitspiration” pins. Beauty Redefined writes a fab blog post about those. Here’s the thing: it’s great to motivate yourself if you’re trying to take better care of your body by eating better and exercising. But the pins that show a ridiculously thin naked midsection with hip bones protruding, for example, are not going to help anybody. They tend to say “all you have to do to get these abs is follow this plan….” Honestly, I don’t care how much I worked my abs, I would never look like that. I’d also have to cut my calories to less than 1000 per day (not healthy) and get plastic surgery to get rid of the extra skin and the stretch marks to look like that. Can we sit back for a moment here and say, OK, I’d like to get healthier, but repinning this ridiculous photo isn’t going to help me or anyone?

Yep. All lies. Why is it that we perpetuate them? I personally don’t repin these. I just don’t. If the recipe looks tasty and I’d like to try it, then I’ll repin it and give it an accurate title and caption: “fruity slushie,” for instance, or “protein-packed shake.” And even if I would like the tips for exercise, I just flatly refuse to repin those photos of tiny midsections. I’m not gonna do it. I don’t want to send the message out to my friends that image is paramount and flat abs are a holy grail. I don’t want my wonderfully normal friends to feel worried about their abs. Why should they? I also tend to make comments when friends pin some of these, just to correct the erroneous notions that are being sent along via the ever-so-simple pin. I imagine they are annoyed by me. Oh well.

So I ask: if you’re a Pinterest user, are you going to breezily send the lies along for hundreds of other pinners to see, or are you going to stop them in their tracks? When you see a claim that seems “too good to be true,” it most likely is. Think about it for a second. Do some quick calculations. Go to the original post. Do something, but just don’t send it on!

The complex intersection of health, fitness and self-image

I never felt particularly pretty or slim when I was growing up. I always felt like I was a little chubby. When I was about 11 or 12 I actually went on a diet, and at this point I don’t feel I can accurately recall whose idea it was: mine or my mother’s. I cut out sweets, mainly, and ate a little less. My younger sister was taller and slimmer than I and just somehow charismatic and attractive, and I always felt kind of dumpy next to her. When we went on family vacations on occasion, such as the one we made to Florida (Disney World and Daytona Beach) when I was 17, my 15-year-old sister is the one who snagged the attention and admiring looks of the guys. I was just there and along for the ride. It wasn’t until a little later that I came to feel that I was attractive.

My father also had a bad habit of commenting on people’s looks. I adored my dad, and his death in October 2009 was devastating to me, but he did have his quirks and plenty of imperfections, and this obsession with judging others’ outward appearance was one of those. I finally told him the year before he died that it was time he stopped making comments about how people looked. It surely contributed to my constant worry about my own appearance. One of Dad’s infamously terrible remarks happened when I was somewhere around 12 or 13 years old, and we were all listening to music in our living room. My mother was dancing around the room, and my dad observed that she looked like “one of the dancing hippos from ‘Fantasia.'” Silence. I knew it was a bad idea to compare my mom to a hippo, even if it was a very cute animated one, and my mom to this day will sometimes remark about how much it hurt her.

My dad had gotten overweight when he was in his mid-20s and decided to do something about it, so he went on a diet and started running. After that, he stayed super-trim and always exercised and ate healthy foods, even obsessively so. I am sure that his own experience feeling overweight contributed to how he saw things, or the other way around, or both, but it certainly affected my self-image.

We always ate fairly healthy foods when I was growing up, with my mom making homemade wheat bread and putting wheat in every baked good she made. We ate vegetables and fruits in reasonable quantities, and rarely had soda or ate out. So we took care of ourselves pretty well. I never was an athlete, but I did start running my freshman year at college because I was “forced” to in a required fitness class I took my first semester. I dedicated myself to doing it and then just never stopped. Over the past 23 years, I’ve always gone to the gym to work out or gone running or walking, and I’ve only had a hiatus of a year or so total over that time, I think. I just enjoy the feeling of having a good workout, and for a long time, it helped me stay reasonably trim.

At college, too, I didn’t have a car, and my campus was large, so I did a LOT of walking. I could eat all I wanted at my cafeteria and have ice cream galore (I am a fool for ice cream), and with all that exercise, I probably lost a few pounds when I went off to college, rather than gained any. I actually felt pretty good about how I looked, and I felt confident in my attractiveness to all the members of the opposite sex I had the opportunity to meet at that large school.

When I married, graduated college, and got a desk job, however, I quickly put on 20 to 30 pounds. I wasn’t pleased with that and I started eating lower-fat foods and lost a little of it. But I still had most of that extra weight when I got pregnant the first time. After putting on almost 40 pounds with that pregnancy, I left the hospital just under 200 pounds and was shocked at how I looked in the mirror. That was all I needed to limit my calorie intake (I started counting calories for the first time in my life, and I kept it to 1800 since I was nursing), and I managed to take off all the pregnancy pounds plus some. After my second pregnancy, during which I still put on almost 40 pounds, I took off all of that weight and got down to a good size again. I did it again after my third pregnancy, gaining the same amount but getting it all back off 6 months after. I was 32 at that point, and I looked the best I had since I was in college 10-plus years earlier. I was pleased with how I looked, with my good eating habits, with my commitment to exercise, and being able to do all that after three babies.

About five years later, however, I had some pretty stressful experiences and put on about 10 or 15 pounds because I was eating too many sweets. I have always eaten chocolate and ice cream to my heart’s content, so either I started getting a little too old to burn off those calories, or I just ate too much, more than before. I wasn’t pleased with that extra weight and thought I looked chubby in photos. But try as I might, I couldn’t get those 10 or 15 pounds off; all I was able to do was take off maybe 4 pounds and that was all. Two years later, we went through a cross-country move, couldn’t sell our first house (and had lots of financial worries), tried to settle into a new and more stressful life and get to know entirely new people (and miss the old friends where we’d lived for 10 years), lived three months in a house with family (14 of us lived there in one house for that whole time) while we tried to find and buy a new house, and life really put the screws on. I ate and ate and ate. I packed on the pounds and suddenly was 40 pounds heavier. I hadn’t been that weight except right after that first pregnancy, and this time I’d done it without being pregnant, a really embarrassing feat.

As life settled in and eventually got a bit better, and I somehow got motivated, I was able a year later to focus on “dieting,” which for me meant eating fewer calories and cutting out  sweets, a painful thing for me, and I lost 35 pounds over the course of months. I never got to where I wanted to be, but I felt much better about where I was. I tried to lose more but couldn’t, and as life became (and/or stayed) more stressful, I managed to put a few pounds back on.

About a year ago, my doctor told me my cholesterol had inched up. I told her I’d try to lose more weight and see how that affected the numbers; I really don’t want to be on medication that would need monitoring of my liver and have side effects, etc. So I worked really hard for more than a month and still didn’t manage to lose as much as I had anticipated. I was hungry all the time and super-cranky because of it and only lost something like 7 pounds. I didn’t feel I could keep going that way and lose any more, let alone maintain that kind of hungry feeling for very long. So I gave up. Then life got very stressful again in the fall (the long and the short of things is that I simply got far too heavily involved in far too many things), and I put that weight back on and more. I’m back to 10 pounds short of where I started 2 1/2 years ago.

So what is the point of all these details?

First, appearance. I’d like to be able to look in the mirror and not have my first thought be a mixture of shame, disgust, embarrassment, and self-hatred because I weigh more than I would like.

Second, health. Yes, I would like to be healthier, no question. I generally eat healthy food, but then I also eat ice cream and chocolate. I’d like to be able to eat less of the bad things, just to benefit my health and heart.

Third, fitness. I’d like to at least give myself a pat on the back that I have always worked out. I still go to the gym every day of the week except Sunday, with only occasional weeks where I miss another day or two for reasons of illness or vacations (even then, when I travel, I usually find a way to exercise). So this is my one high-five to myself that I am dedicated to fitness. I like how it feels. I like that time to myself that I have at the gym. It’s wonderful. I highly recommend it.

Fourth, mental health. This is the crucial key to my weight issues. I already mentioned how my father was obsessed with appearance. He would make remarks frequently about aging movie stars or singers (he loved Linda Ronstadt but was so disappointed she “let herself go” and got “fat” as she got older; he was sad that Julie Christie had aged when she had been so gorgeous when she was young; the list goes on and on); he would comment about complete strangers who just walked by; he would comment about friends or family members. Naturally, I couldn’t help but wonder what he thought of my heavier weight, though he never said anything to me. It was pretty likely he commented about it to someone else when I wasn’t around.

My mental health issues include my turning to food as a coping mechanism. It’s my drug, I think. My father’s family had a history of alcoholism. The men in my dad’s family drank themselves to death. Dad managed to escape that because he chose in his 20s to join our church, which discourages drinking any alcohol. So he stuck to that and never had another drink in his life, though his own father had given him a taste for beer when he was a toddler and he still missed it. I believe that there is such a thing as addictive personalities; either it is actually hard-wired in our genes or chemical makeup, or it’s a family pattern of behaving. My sister started using drugs and alcohol at a young age and was very likely self-medicating her own mental health issues. Since I also have grown up with the same faith as my father, I have never had a drink of alcohol or a puff of a cigarette, avoiding any possibility of becoming an addict. But I am quite sure I’m addicted to food. I am reasonable with my eating habits when I’m not stressed, but when the screws are on, I turn to the kitchen. Last fall, things were so hard that I literally felt I couldn’t stop eating. I wasn’t hungry; I didn’t even necessarily taste the food anymore; I just couldn’t STOP. And it scared me.

So my goals are twofold: I’d like to look in the mirror and love myself, not immediately see my physical flaws. I’d like to accept who I am, see ME, rather than a body that’s aging and not model-slim, or even slim like I was in my early 30s (I still have those size-6 super-cute dresses I wore a mere six years ago; they’re in a box). I want to love myself, whoever I am.

But I would also like to break my addiction. I would. I’d like to stop my bad habits. But the idea of stopping them scares me. It scares me to even think about not using chocolate or cookies or ice cream as a soothing mechanism. My life can often become so not-my-own (I have four daughters and plenty of other responsibilities) that the food I eat is my only easy fix. I am not proud of this, but at the same time, I am aware that this is not at all uncommon. Those who don’t have this problem think it’s easy to just substitute other soothing mechanisms for the food and those of us who do have this weakness would just be A-OK. It’s just not that simple. I have pretty good “willpower” when I’m not feeling super-stressed or tired, but when I am, I just cannot resist the food. It’s just too easy. I don’t take the easy way out in almost anything in my life. I have come to believe now, after all I’ve experienced and weathered, that I am strong, brave and resilient. I say the honest thing to people even when it’s the harder thing to do; I work hard to achieve my goals, which may sound a little extravagant. But I try. So the food weakness is one spot in which I just too often feel I don’t have the strength or will to resist, when everything else is so hard and I am not taking the easy way out.

I could probably write ad nauseam about this topic. And I will write more. But I’ll just say that weight loss and health can be very complex issues for many people, and there are no quick and easy answers. Again, those who don’t struggle with these things will THINK there are easy solutions, but there are not. I think with everything I address in this blog, this is the case. That is precisely why I’m writing in this blog. Because life can be very difficult, and every person has his or her own set of weaknesses and strengths. If one thing is a strength for one person, it’s a weakness for another, and the two will likely not understand each other’s views on that topic. I’d just like to be able to explore the complexities of life and communication and relationships here, and those who have thoughtful insights they’d like to contribute to the discussion are most welcome to do so. Sensitivity is most welcome, and thinking twice before writing a cliche or simple answer would also be a fine idea. What say all of you?