I came across an excellent post today by blogger Tony “The Anti-Jared” Posnanski, entitled “Everyone Has A Bikini Body”. Tony wrote about Amini Terrell, a 260-lb. woman who dared to defy social prejudices against the overweight by strutting up and down Hollywood Boulevard wearing a bikini. Tony published a quote of hers that was particularly poignant. She said,

Because if people say you are too fat to wear one, then you will lose weight. Once you lose weight they will say you are too flat-chested for one and then get surgery. Once you have Double D’s they will say you do not have a butt for one so you will have more surgery. Then you will not be tan enough or tall enough or shapely enough.

I found this quite astute. Just about any woman will admit that there are parts of herself that she hates. That’s not “dislikes”, that’s HATES. The sad reality is that no matter how hard women try to look “good”, they are never good enough according to the unattainable expectations of our society. And those expectations are not driven by those who have our best interests in mind. They’re driven by those who have a financial interest in keeping us unhappy with ourselves.

But a reader’s response in the comment section was what really struck me. One particular woman wrote,

Well, I admire her for having the guts to do this. I wouldn’t if I was 135. That’s being said, I find it totally disgusting! That is what I would look like and fat women disgust me and I am one. I’m 56 years old and have given up ever being “hot”.

I read this through several times: “That is what I would look like and fat women disgust me and I am one.” That’s not just hating one part of your body, which is sad enough. That is hating all of yourself.

So, I wonder, what motivation would that woman have for choosing health-preserving foods or engaging in a life-improving exercise program? Forget looking “hot”. Hotness is a manufactured concept, superficial and inconsistent. I’m talking about respecting yourself enough to take good care of your body. It shouldn’t be all about losing weight so that you can fit into a certain size or style of clothing. It should be about keeping your body in a healthy state so that you can move freely and live a long productive life.

Would you do that for someone that you found disgusting?

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My kids have an extensive anti-bullying campaign at their elementary school. They’re taught to treat others with kindness. Ironically, sometimes the cruelest instances of bullying appear in how people treat themselves.

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Some people struggle with an issue, work to overcome it, and in the process decide to explore its origins. It’s not unusual to hear of someone citing a personal event that inspired them to choose a particular profession. We all know people like that.

I’m not one of them. As a matter of fact, maybe I’m a touch oblivious at times, but it wasn’t until I became an adult that it hit me that most of the people with whom I came in contact did not think the same way I did.

What am I talking about?

At the risk of dating myself, I remember watching an episode of Happy Days (remember that show?) in which Joanie (the teenage daughter in the series’ central family) was dumped by her boyfriend, or dumped him, or some teen-angst-ridden combination of the two. At the end of the episode, her mother brought her a jar of crunchy peanut butter and a spoon, and Joanie proceeded to consume the entire thing. Or at least we assumed that she ate all of it, as foreshadowed by an earlier comment by her mom that she herself had eaten a jar of PB after a similar breakup of hers when she was the same age.

I will never forget that episode, mainly because the notion of eating during a time of sadness or high stress (or excitement, for that matter) was completely foreign to me. Why would someone address their emotional pain with food?

Another incident, also in my teens, totally bowled me over. I remember being at high school, in a roomful of girls. I don’t know how the topic turned to food, but one girl mentioned how she would have loved to have Cheryl Tiegs’ body (supermodel from the ’80s) just so that she could ruin it by eating. Another wistfully admitted that it was a fantasy of hers to be able to just eat and eat and eat.

I so did not get it. While I’d gone through my own weight-related ups and downs as a teen, I never thought of food as anything other than fuel. Some foods I liked, others I didn’t. But when I wasn’t hungry, I wasn’t hungry. When I was, I ate.

There is a saying, “If hunger isn’t the problem, food isn’t the solution.” It makes perfect sense to me. What I discovered, however, was that so many people I knew where using food to try to solve problems that had nothing to do with hunger. That method inevitably backfires. When I realized that, within a circle of friends and acquaintances, I was the exception and not the norm, I began asking why.

That’s when I realized that there weren’t many others interested in the same question. As a stay-at-home-mom, I used some of my “free” (ha!) time to become certified as a personal trainer through the American College of Sports Medicine. While it was never my intention to work exclusively in that capacity, I did consider it as a possibility. After all, wasn’t I the perfect candidate? My weight wasn’t an issue; I enjoyed exercising and eating a healthy, whole foods diet; I’d sailed through two pregnancies with a textbook-perfect weight gain that was lost smoothly; and I wanted to spread the word that all you needed to do to get the body of your dreams was (1) eat less, and (2) move more.

IfYouDon'tSucceedTryTrainer

Well, maaaaaybe…or maybe not…

Well, no. I wasn’t the perfect trainer. As a matter of fact, I was probably the worst candidate imaginable.

It became obvious to me rather quickly that l had no idea what it was like to deal with a chronic overweight condition. I didn’t know what cravings were. I didn’t understand how difficult it could be for someone to resist certain foods, or how they might feel ‘hunger’ when their bodies weren’t lacking calories. I couldn’t appreciate why starting and sticking to an exercise regimen could be so tough. And I didn’t get what a powerful effect societal bias could exert against overweight individuals.

What’s more, I wasn’t the only personal trainer who could be so clueless. After sitting in on numerous online and in-person conversations, it dawned on me that those people most drawn to this relatively-young profession — youthful, unattached, athletic, healthy, etc. — were those least likely to be able to relate to their clients.

Educated as a psychologist, I expected that there was more going on behind the scenes than simply recalcitrant clients refusing to follow their trainers’ directions. This set me on the path to explore the “other” components that contributed to weight gain and avoidance of exercise.

And that’s what this blog is all about. 🙂

I’ve taken time off this blog to consider whether what I preach still aligns with the current findings supported by the latest studies. And increasingly, I’ve found that there’s a dearth of research focused on the matters that concern me most. While research must necessarily explore nutrition and exercise science, I feel that the “best” (if such a thing exists) program will be useless unless the individual attempting to implement it is prepared to accept it.

What I’ve read continues to affirm my belief that successfully reducing high levels of overweight in this country will come not from pushing dietary restrictions and creating exercise programs, such as have lead to a billion-dollar fitness and weight loss industry. It will come from developing a greater understanding of what the forces acting on modern-day humans are that make them hold on to the behaviors that contribute to the gain and maintenance of excess body fat.

And that’s not something you can market via late-night infomercials.

I hear parents complain that their kids will only eat fast food. I find that very interesting, because children (particularly before they’re school-age) learn everything from adults. They’re not born with a “must have McDonald’s” gene. Someone must take them there and buy them something and teach them to eat it. And if that’s done enough (because it requires multiple visits to establish a habit like that), they will like it and want it…and soon, may want nothing else. And a parent, wanting to avoid a fight, will take them there. Children know how to be persistent when they know their persistence will be rewarded.

Kids learn through repetition. They learn by watching their parents. It does no good for a parent to nurture a bad habit by encouraging it, and then turn around and scold their kids for it. Let’s face it, the parent gets something out of it too. They get peace in the family, they get out of making a meal, they enjoy the food themselves. If you set up a contingency that a certain food is a punishment (“eat all your broccoli…”) and then use an addictive, sugar-laden food as a reward (“…and then you’ll get dessert”), the message is that “healthy food tastes yucky, food that’s ‘bad’ for you is yummy”. You are setting up an association that your kids will take with them through life. And it’s easier breaking an association when you’re young than when you’ve been carrying it around for the past 40 years.

Want your kids to eat healthy meals? Then you have to start with yourself. And that’s the tough part. As adults we want to feel like we’ve earned the right to eat what we want, even if it isn’t the greatest thing for us. But your children are little sponges and they soak up the info that you’re placing before them, whether or not you realize it.

I use a three-step approach to keep my kids on track with healthy foods:

1) Keep only healthy, whole, clean food in the house. Yeah, that’s easier said than done, but it’s possible. One of the first steps to establishing healthy eating is clearing the crap out of the kitchen. Not only does it make snacking on garbage impossible, it also serves as an indicator for how committed you yourself are to clean eating. This will also necessitate meal planning and preparation, but that doesn’t mean that it’s going to take a lot more time if done right.

2) Keep offering good food to your kids. If you ply them with broccoli but they balk, and you give them fast food “because they have to eat something”…forget it. Remember my comment about persistence? You just rewarded them for not giving up. The more often a food is offered the more likely that the child will eat it, that works for healthy food too. It can take multiple presentations before they develop a taste for it. But they, like adults, are quite ‘trainable’.

3) You have to eat the food yourself. And that’s the clincher, isn’t it? If you really don’t like broccoli and refuse to eat it, what makes you think your kids will show any interest? If you carry around the notion that healthy eating is the opposite of ‘normal eating’, you’re setting yourself up to fail. Consider all the messages that you send, buck up and make a lifestyle change.

The behaviorist in me needs to stress: don’t reward kids for eating healthy foods. You shouldn’t make a big deal of it at all. YOUR CHILDREN SHOULD NEVER EAT SOMETHING JUST TO PLEASE YOU. That’s a biggie, because you want to keep emotion out of the equation.

If you already have a ‘food issue’ that you’re fighting, be aware of the messages that you’re sending your children. If you don’t have an issue, for the love of God, don’t create one in your kids. They will have enough dietary obstacles in their paths as they grow. Take it upon yourself to help them establish healthy eating habits.

Hey, even following the guidelines above, your kids may not fully cooperate. Getting them to change their habits, particularly well-established ones, is not easy. You want easy? Take them to the burger joint for every meal. Offer loads of desserts. Keep bags of junk food in the house. That’s EASY. As a nation, we’re far too preoccupied with EASY. Changing habits is hard, and it’s even harder when you’re not on-board yourself. Make a commitment to set your kids on the path towards healthfulness while you’re still their nutritional gatekeeper. It’ll be the best gift you ever gave them.

Obesity: You'll know it when you see it...or will you?

We need to be careful with how we throw labels around — psychologists are particularly prone to this, and sometimes we don’t consider the repercussions from careless diagnoses, official or not. Some of these terms are derived in ways other than how you’d expect. A perfect example of this is the term “obese”. Interestingly enough, while we imagine an obese individual to be someone who is very fat, it’s possible for an individual with low body fat and a LOT of muscle (think Mr. Olympia) to end up in the same category. That’s because the official designation of “obese” is based not on fat, but on height and weight, using the Body Mass Index. But once you label someone as “obese”, our imaginations run off with what else that means…

In health terms, an individual is described as obese when he/she has a BodyMass Index (BMI) of 30 or higher. BMI is calculated as:

weight (kg)/[height (m)]2.

That’s all. It simply means that the person has attained a certain, greater degree of overweight that has knocked them into a certain category. Note that there is no direct measurement of fat involved, and in fact, the correlation of BMI with body fat is rough and imperfect, but “kinda, sorta good enough”. However, in the realm of public health, collecting reliable data is critical to making accurate assessments about populations, and it’s easier to measure height and weight (which are fairly straightforward measurements) than to try to gather body fat data (generally more time consuming and fraught with user-errors). And because of that “kinda, sorta good enough” correlation, the BMI is used to determine whether a person gets knocked into the “obese” category. The BMI was never designed to diagnose individuals, as has begun happening. If you’ve ever played “Wii Fit” and wanted to throw the balance board at your TV screen, you probably know what I mean — BMI is all over the place and being misused regularly. Wikipedia does an unusually good job of describing the problems with overinterpreting BMI here.

So the BMI, the measure by which we determine whether someone is, or isn’t, overweight/obese, is simply a number that doesn’t have anything to do with body fat, really. HOWEVER, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “obese” as “having excessive body fat”. Doesn’t that seem wrong? “Fat percentage” is not a variable in the BMI formula (have I stated that enough times in one post?), but the word “obese” by definition is based on body fat. And the designation of “obese” as it’s used in our daily lives becomes painfully emotional to many people.

I came across an interesting article (via Twitter, thanks to @AliciaMarieBODY) about an obese woman who managed to avoid looking at herself as she gradually put on fat, thereby ignoring the changes to her body, only to be confronted by her physician with the reality of her physical state. She knew she was heavy, but grossly underestimated her actual weight. When her doctor told her she was obese, her response was,

“It may sound unlikely, but I was genuinely shocked. In my mind I was far from obese. To me, obese was beyond fat  –  with connotations of someone who was greedy, lazy and uneducated and that wasn’t me.”

Wow! To her, it wasn’t simply excess weight or even fat, it was something much worse than that. It was a character judgment. How frightening that a simple measurement (BMI), calculated from two very objective measurements (height and weight), would be interpreted so subjectively.

Even the word itself — “OH-BEEEESE” — sounds unpleasant and bears a resemblance to ‘obscene’, so it’s not surprising that there are several levels of negative connotations wrapped around it. Obese suggests extremely fat to the point of being a circus sideshow. It sounds hideous and evil.

So, we’ve transitioned from simple body measurements to their interpretation as body fat to something that’s nasty. The issue is no longer a number, but rather a reflection of who the person is as a human being. That’s a heavy emotional hit for someone who sees themselves as merely “carrying extra pounds”…and then is confronted with the loaded label of “obese”.

Taking all these things into consideration, it’s not surprising that the woman’s quote above reveals something more insidious that merits consideration: even the obese are prejudiced against the obese.

While I’m not recommending that we take “obese” out of the English language, I hope that people understand how that designation arose. And even more importantly, that it’s not an immutable life sentence. It doesn’t mean you’re bad, lazy, gluttonous, stupid or anything else negative that some people ascribe to that label. It does mean that you should take stock of your habits and see if you’re one of those who needs to reduce their body fat levels to get themselves out of a high-risk category for a number of diseases.

If you’re interested in food issues, I highly recommend setting aside time for viewing Prof. Kelly Brownell’s course, The Psychology, Biology and Politics of Food (psyc123, filmed during the Fall 2008 semester), offered through Open Yale (it’s free!). Brownell is the director of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and an excellent lecturer, and the information presented ranges from interesting to jaw-dropping. I’m not prepared to comment on the course as a whole since I’m only on the ninth lecture (there are 23 in all), but will say that it’s already exceeded my expectations.

Here’s a description, taken directly from the course website:

“This course encompasses the study of eating as it affects the health and well-being of every human. Topics include taste preferences, food aversions, the regulation of hunger and satiety, food as comfort and friendship, eating as social ritual, and social norms of blame for food problems. The politics of food discusses issues such as sustainable agriculture, organic farming, genetically modified foods, nutrition policy, and the influence of food and agriculture industries. Also examined are problems such as malnutrition, eating disorders, and the global obesity epidemic; the impact of food advertising aimed at children; poverty and food; and how each individual’s eating is affected by the modern environment.”

I strongly urge you to view the lecture topics and see if anything appeals. Happy learning!

Difficulties with the link above? Go to: http://oyc.yale.edu/psychology/the-psychology-biology-and-politics-of-food/