Thursday, January 31, 2013

Doctors, please don't tell fat people to lose weight

I seem to have taken a slide into weight and body issues on this blog. Oh, well. That's where my focus is these days. Food issues are a huge part of my self esteem building and I'm determined to spend my fifties in a lot less self-hatred than I spent my thirties (and every year before 30).

Shapely Prose is an archived blog that was maintained by Kate Harding between 2007 and 2010. The focus of the blog was to advocate for the acceptance of all bodies, no matter their size. It was a strong part of the fat acceptance movement and as an archive, it still is. Harding has moved on to other projects and the comments are closed on Shapely Prose, but I strongly recommend that anyone with body issues check it out. So I'm talking to pretty much every American woman alive today plus a lot of American men.

I particularly like Harding's post called Reality vs. Relativism. She asserts that since there's no method that safely and conveniently causes a fat person to become thin permanently, fat people with health conditions need medical advice other than "lose weight." Harding points out that the human body simply isn't designed to become skinnier over the long term: it's designed to maintain stasis or beome fatter. She writes that weight loss studies (whether for diets, exercise or weight loss surgery) rarely follow results for more than one or two years, while most weight loss reverses within five.

(I've learned that while weight loss surgery can cause dramatic results, the challenges of a post-surgery digestive system are more demanding than most of us know. And even if the person meets their nutritional needs, manages the pain and accommodates their stomach's reduced capabilities, the weight can come back eventually.)

Harding argues that we must stop telling fat people to improve their health through weight loss because it's simply not realistic. I agree. For a doctor to advise a fat person with bad knees to lose weight is stupid. If the patient could lose weight, she would have done it. Does the doctor not know that? Weight loss is terrible medical advice because even if the patient resolved to try it again, how is she supposed to get out of the building without pain? A doctor advising weight loss for an acute condition is cruel as well as ignorant. What about the person's symptoms today?

Given that -
- we're hooked on an American way of life that causes fatness
- weight loss surgery is difficult to live with, dangerous and sometimes fatal
- diets and "lifestyle changes" rarely maintain weight loss permanently
Then what else has the medical community got?

It better come up with new ideas because we've pretty much proven -- since the 1970s -- that weight loss as a public health solution isn't realistic. As long as doctors give fat patients impossible requirements like losing 50 pounds, fat people aren't going to get the medical help they need. Now please read Harding's excellent post on this subject because she says it way better than I do.

[P.S. Here's an eye-opening discussion of some possible results of bariatric surgery on the blog of a registered nurse with 30 years experience.]

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Exercise that feels GOOD (and I don't mean morally)

After years of being a gym rat, I stopped all exercise last March, except for dog walking and yoga classes at my workplace. Since there haven’t been any workplace yoga classes since November and dog walking has been curtailed by the weather, I’ve hardly moved at all since the holidays. It has been a long time since I've been this inactive (15 years).

Since December, I’ve noticed more pains in my abdomen and chest. I also get out of breath easily. The last time I panted to catch my breath like this was when I was in Bolivia at high altitude. Is it because I'm at my all-time top weight? I don't think so. Chubby people can have excellent cardiovascular capacity and muscle tone. Fatness does not correlate to lack of health. I've basically staged a nine-month rebellion against my own grueling exercise standards and have taken physical inactivity as far as I'm willing to go. I want to be healthy again, but in a reasonable way. To this end, my focus is on movement and breathing, not getting back into size 8.

The challenge of course is that having stopped all exercise and letting myself go flabby, I can’t just jump back into the same routine as before. I used to be the woman who always kept up with the Pilates instructor, never stopped for a break during step class and hit every yoga pose without having to modify it. I used to be one of those who made it to the gym every damn morning and you wondered what motivated her like that.

It's different now. I took a Pilates class two weeks ago, my first in almost a year, and I couldn’t keep up at all.  It was extremely humbling. I actually felt grateful for my pudgy physique because I figured that anyone looking at me would think, “Another overweight, middle-aged woman who's trying to keep up with us. Poor thing.” As embarrassing as it was to be the inept person, I would have felt worse if they knew the powerhouse I used to be. It wasn't so much that my rolls of fat got in the way, but that I had so little abdominal strength and lung capacity. I gladly played the role of the out-of-shape midlife person who hadn’t exercised in decades because that felt more comfortable than the truth: a year ago I was the person who kept up with every move and now I was floundering.

It shifted my view of the people in exercise classes who look like they don't belong there. I used to feel like I was better than them because I could keep my heels flat on the ground for downward-facing-dog and they couldn't. Now I'm one of the people who flops onto my back because my abs give out before we're even halfway through a set of Pilates repetitions. From now on, I will look more kindly on those who need to take the modified poses.

Maybe this is how it would be for a pregnant woman who prides herself on fitness, then has to go on bedrest: after months of gaining weight and taking it easy, she tries some exercise that turns out to be much more difficult than she's ever experienced. She thinks, "Oh my god, what's happened to me? Is this my body now?" Then she starts calculating what it will take to get her previous fitness level back. That's where I am.

As relaxing as my nine-month sabbatical from exercise was, I'm tired of its effects. (Yes, nine months is the human gestation period. What a coincidence.) After a couple of weeks of trying a few activities sporadically, I made a point of exercising this past weekend in exactly the ways that felt good for me: walking and yoga.  I re-committed myself to moving regularly and -- for the first time since last March -- I put in thirty minutes on the treadmill before work yesterday and it felt great. I'm proud to be moving in fun ways that make me feel good. My yoga-and-walking exercise plan isn't ambitious, but I don't care. I'm starting where I am and doing what I like. No more physical movement I don't enjoy.

Throwing all my nutrition and fitness routines out the window last year was like hitting the shutdown option on my health habits. After years of frantic dieting and painfully early workouts, I finally allowed myself to just let my body go. I ate whatever and did whatever for nine months, and it was like re-booting my mindset towards fitness.

Now I am only allowing back the eating and exercise habits that I like. I want to improve my health, but I'm only willing to do what feels good. I will stop evaluating how good people are based on how well we hit yoga poses. I'm going to find out what health and fitness are like when they're NOT connected to self-hatred, guilt and ego. I can't wait!

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Write Club: Great for writers and listeners

The first rule of Write Club is to tell five to seven other people about Write Club, so here I go. Write Club takes two writers and gives them opposing themes to write an essay about. They prepare this essay ahead of time and it must take no more than seven minutes to read out loud in front of an audience. That's where you come in. The audience listens to the two writers read their pieces, and decides who the winner is. What are the criteria? Who the hell knows, I couldn't figure it out during the evening of Write Club that I attended last week. As far as I could tell, it was whichever essay you enjoyed more, totally subjectively. They use the "applause-o-meter" tool. The evening was a lot of fun.

The first two writers to face off at the Fillet of Solo event I attended had been given the following themes: hope and fear ("Hope Vs. Fear"). The fear writer spoke poetically about fear as a concept. The hope writer told his story of overcoming the desire to kill himself after learning about a retreat type of place in Switzerland where they help you kill yourself. It was an candid, unpredictable essay and he won.

The second two writers represented "Cradle Vs. Grave." The grave writer described a death metal rock band named Grave that he used to know. My favorite quote from his essay was the Grave lyric "fisting me in the ass with a severed arm" (I apologize for not getting that verbatim, which I'm sure I didn't). The cradle writer told a story about a date she had that went terribly wrong: it turned out the guy wasn't looking for the mother of his children, but a woman to powder his behind. As someone who dated for way too long when I was single, I really appreciated her extremely startling and funny story. She won that battle.

The third faceoff wrote on "Teach Vs. Learn." Both writers touched on the theme of how soul-suckingly discouraging it is to teach in the public school system. The more engaging essay described what the writer had learned from her mother who is now dead. This was the only pair I didn't have a strong opinion about (in the previous "fights" my favorites had won). The woman with the dead mother won.

The host of Write Club is Ian Belknap, who admits to being an ex-actor and who teaches writing. Some of (all of?) the writers that night were his students. Ian did an impressive job of being dry and funny enough to keep the audience engaged and enthusiastic from the very beginning. I liked him a lot. He really built a rapport and I felt like a full participant even though I stayed in my seat the whole time.

Write Club takes place at The Hideout in Chicago at least once a month. I'd say more, but I couldn't easily find upcoming dates on their website or Facebook page. Chicago is the birthplace of Write Club, but there are also Write Clubs in Atlanta, Athens, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Toronto. I'm a middle-aged woman without much energy for evening shows of any kind, but I really enjoyed myself at Write Club and could see myself doing it again. I laughed a lot, heard some great stories and got to give input on who did best. I hope you'll check it out.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

I want to bend easily again

(Can you find the dog in this photo?)

I want to be part of the fat acceptance movement, but I'm having doubts. The 25 pounds I put on since October have added to and subtracted from my happiness. I love not worrying about restricting food or fitting into a size 10. Loosening up my eating has accompanied a general sense of self-acceptance and well being. I'm nice to myself now! But to whine: I'm tired of not being able to bend the way I used to. Tying my shoes, drying off from a shower, folding forward in yoga class and other movements are quite uncomfortable if not impossible with the additional fat around my middle (where most of my extra weight goes). Because I put on this weight so suddenly, I have a clear memory of what life was like at 130 pounds and how much easier it was.

I'm also tired of the odd aches and pains that have increased since my gut ballooned, especially the pains in my abdominal and chest areas. I know: whine, whine, whine, complain, complain, complain. Maybe if the weight had snuck up on me over decades, I wouldn't feel so awkward about it. Or if I'd been fat from childhood, I'd have nothing to compare this to and I'd be used to this level of flexibility.

Unfortunately, I remember exactly what it felt like to slide socks on easily or grasp the bottom of my feet in yoga class. I remember not getting out of breath from simply darting across the room and back again.

I know being 5'2" and 155 pounds isn't that much fat-wise and I feel like a huge whiner and sellout of the fat acceptance movement. But how much does physical discomfort count? I'm not talking about looking-in-the-mirror discomfort (although there's that, too), but pulling-on-my-socks-and-shoes discomfort. Chest pain discomfort. Does this discontent with my new size make me anti-fat?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Hotel Metro, Milwaukee, Wisconsin USA

Fancy hotel room with dog

Beautiful bathroom with oversized tub and Ozzie's dog dishes in the back.

Monday, January 21, besides being Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Inauguration Day, was one of the coldest days of the year. In Chicago temperatures stayed in the teens, but in Milwaukee, WI, which is where Bob and I were vacationing, the temperatures didn't even hit the teens. Yes, we're winter people and like heading north for our getaways, even in January and February.

We ended up "stuck" in our hotel for our entire stay because it was too cold to do the outdoor things with our dog we were planning on doing, but you know what? If you're going to be stuck in a single building during the most frigid days of a Midwestern winter, make it Hotel Metro in Milwaukee. The huge room had a partial wall dividing the bedroom area from the sitting area, with a flat screen TV in each area. The bathroom was gorgeous, with a huge tub, gleaming fixtures and two exits. In the photo above you can see our dog sniffing the bar. We were very, very happy with this room.

The first night we tried the hotel restaurant downstairs, just to make it easy on ourselves. The food was excellent. Bob had the three-meat meatloaf with potatoes and vegetables, and I had the mushroom ravioli. SO good. Bob also enjoyed a bowl of chili. The next morning we headed back for wonderful blueberry pancakes that were actually crispy around the edges.  The eggs and potatoes were delicious, too (I liked the turkey sausage better than the pork links). In fact, the Metro Cafe was so good, we ate there for dinner again (porterhouse steak and scallops) and breakfast again (country fried steak and eggs). We also had the best dessert I've had in a long time: upside down apple pie with walnuts and vanilla ice cream. Oh!

We barely left the hotel between 3 p.m. Monday and noon on Wednesday, but still had a great time. We ventured out to the lakefront once, but only lasted about ten minutes before photographer Bob's fingers began going numb and Ozzie began shivering and quaking under two layers of dog clothing, no matter how I tried to run around with him. Besides that attempt, Bob went on some brisk walks to take photos around our hotel, but the dog and I mainly stayed inside, on top of the nice firm bed.

For two days, I was happy to get plenty of novel reading done, Bob spent time taking/uploading photos and Ozzie got in some good napping. I use vacations for resting, not being active, so nothing was missing from this trip for me. Hotel Metro was the perfect place for us to hole up during days that were so cold our Chicago dog learned to take care of all his business in about 60 seconds flat (good dog).

I am stunned that a beautiful, boutique hotel with Aveda products and a detachable showerhead in the shower allowed our 50-pound dog to stay with us for an additional charge of just $25 a night (much less expensive than boarding him). We had excellent hotel and restaurant service, and if the weather had been warmer, we could have visited a number of museums and attractions during our stay. Maybe we'll do that stuff next time (or not), but I don't regret the timing of this trip at all because Hotel Metro was the perfect place to get "stuck" indoors.
The 10 minutes we enjoyed the lakefront in 10 degrees.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Die, inner critic, die!

Sitting in my weekly EFT tapping circle, I tapped as I listened to topics like family dynamics, self-nurture and the feeling of not being good enough. As I tapped, my feelings of not being good enough and being too fat, grew.

"I really hate myself," I thought, as I tapped.
"No, my inner critic really hates me," I realized a moment later.
"No, my inner critic hates everyone," I thought as I remembered that my mental criticism includes the whole world. I constantly have judgments about what everyone's wearing and what they look like, but I never questioned where those opinions came from. I'm starting to realize how completely I learned to be highly critical of everyone at all times, especially of me, but these aren't all my views. The critical voice in my head is probably a blend of every critical voice I've ever heard in my life and every critical opinion anyone has ever taught me, from "don't sit that way" to "too much salt will kill you."

Sadly, it's been damn hard for me to distinguish between the inner critic and my own natural opinions that are really me. When I start thinking "This is the fattest I've ever been," I believe I'm just being practical and honest. And I start feeling bad.

But I'm making a change. When I start thinking "This is the fattest I've ever been" I will identify that as the inner critic and I will step away from the sentiment. I am not my inner critic. I don't hate me: my inner critic does, and if I keep in mind that my inner critic hates everyone, I can stop taking it personally. There are plenty of people who love me no matter what my weight is. My inner critic cruelly hounds me no matter what my weight is. I've weighed 125 pounds and that critic still told me I was too fat, so screw it!

I've been working for decades on this concept of "negative thinking" and how I need to weed it out of my regular thinking. For decades I had no idea what any of that meant. I thought it was just me in my head, criticizing myself with statements ("my stomach is way too big") that were objective and practical and truthful. I'm only now, at the age of 46, starting to see that such merciless psychological flogging is not a natural or reasonable thing to do. This negativity did not originate in my mind, but was installed there by everyone who ever showed me judgment and criticism. It's time to stop this constant flow of internal nitpicking that's just plain mean.

These days I tap on: 1) There are many people who love me no matter what size I am; 2) I love me no matter what size I am; 3) My inner critic hates me no matter what size I am, so I'm done trying to please it. (There's also a dog that doesn't seem to care what size I am.)

I wish my inner critic would die completely because that just might guarantee me a happy life, but I know the inner critic also has its uses (sometimes I really shouldn't sit that way). But on body issues it hasn't done me any good at all -- not when I was thin and not now that I'm chubby. So on this subject I permanently dismiss my inner critic from the table. So there.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Gaining 25 pounds in three months

When one suddenly becomes chubby after being not-chubby all one's life, one might do the following:

1. One might hate how tight everything fits.
2. One might hate buying new clothes, which is not fun if the reason is that one keeps gaining weight, steadily and efficiently.
3. One might wear her husband's shirts on her days off.
4. One might look longingly at photos of herself from 25 pounds ago when she also believed she needed to lose weight.
5. One might adjust one's definition of overweight.
6. One might give up on certain yoga poses that used to be so easy and satisfying.
7. One might read websites such as Health At Every Size and Shapely Prose and consider that being fat is perfectly okay.
8. One might develop a new appreciation of her body.
9. One might allow herself to enjoy food because being this size isn't so bad.
10. One might change her exercise to movement she truly enjoys, ignoring how many calories it burns.
11. One might stop paying any attention to calories at all.
12. It might finally sink in that the growth of women's rights has directly coincided with the pressure on women to have thin, pleasing-to-men bodies. And that might really start to piss one off.
13. One might decide that fixating on clothing sizes and calorie counts is such a huge waste of energy it's an offense to her intellect.
14. One might give herself permission to be any size that works for her, regardless of what everyone else thinks.
15. One might realize that she's spent all her life as a thin person who had a fat person waiting to get out (see Fantasy of Being Thin by Kate Harding).

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Blasting through zombie-like depression

A one-on-one session with Lili Betancourt has melted the frozen suppressed anger that’s had me down (see yesterday's blog photo). Locked into emotions I couldn’t release on my own, unable to focus or function, I made an emergency appointment for her powerful blend of Emotional Freedom Technique and hypnotherapy. Yesterday Lili spent over an hour with me, tapping, talking and clearing out gucked up feelings. Then she led me through a relaxation technique that renewed my energy after what had been a draining experience. I left feeling calm and alert. With tentative optimism, I noted that my depressed daze had lifted.

Today to my great relief, I’m able to concentrate, get work done and engage with others. I’m back in the world! I can’t recommend Lili Betancourt highly enough for help with emotional problems, addictions, physical symptoms or feelings of just not being yourself. Her website is here.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Sunday, January 06, 2013

One dog's reaction to extreme emotion

The owner of the dog lay in bed until after 10:00 a.m. with the dog's body curled up next to hers in the blankets. After a brief phone call, she began to weep loudly. The dog, still in his relaxed position, pricked up his ears. At the first shriek, the dog's head whipped around to look at the owner. She rolled over and buried her face in the pillow to absorb her screams. The shrieking and weeping went on for a minute or two, then the owner rolled back over and reached for a kleenex from the nightstand. The dog got up and walked to the head of the bed, tail wagging and ears down. As the owner continued to weep loudly, the dog began to lick her face.

"Ew, gross!" she said. "Don't lick my face." She pulled a kleenex over her mouth to protect it. The dog walked to the foot of the bed and crouched down, facing away from the woman, who went back to ignoring him. He was almost laying down, but with his legs folded right under him. After another minute, with the owner sobbing, yelling curses at the ceiling and blowing her nose, the dog stepped down from the mattress and walked away.

The sobs gradually subsided. The dog walked back into the room and sat next to the bed with his head hanging down. The woman muttered and wiped her face. After another minute he lifted his head and fixed his gaze on her. He sat there, his head barely clearing the height of the mattress, with his eyes locked on hers. He didn't get back in bed and after a few minutes the owner got up. As she left the room, the dog rose to his feet, tail wagging again.

Friday, January 04, 2013


What causes a depressive episode? Not staying on the meds consistently enough? Actual external events? Random fluctuations of body chemistry? For those of us with chronic depression it can feel like the trigger is nothing that's within our control and that leads us to find a scapegoat. Scapegoats give us a focus for our sadness and anger and they can be things like "I still don't have a boyfriend," "I'm fat," "I hate my job," "I still don't have a job," "I shouldn't have gotten a dog/new car/house/etc."

What's reassuring about this is that such problems are things we can do something about. In a state of depression we might tighten up the diet or work harder on job search. But since that's not the real cause of the depression, it doesn't usually work. I try to be careful now about scapegoats. What I'm fixated on, say my weight, might be a concern, but I remind myself that it's the depression that's making me feel like it's a crisis that has to be solved right now. It's the depression that makes me hate myself. It's the depression that makes me feel like things will never be any different.

Today it's okay to feel down. If I don't give myself that permission, the depression hangs on, so I've declared to myself that it's perfectly okay for me to feel down today. I'll have some hot chocolate, do some extra tapping (EFT), walk a little slower and remind myself that there's nothing wrong with feeling bad. If I don't do that, I'll get stuck on berating myself for feeling bad and that's just a downward spiral.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

I care about myself more than the world

(By the way: Happy New Year! I hope.)

One morning as I walked to the train station, someone handed me a booklet entitled "25 Reasons to Try Vegetarian." Not counting the front and back covers, it's 14 pages of persuasive writing with excellent presentation and quality graphics. Mercy For Animals ("a national non-profit organization dedicated to preventing cruelty to farmed animals and promoting compassionate food choices and policies") sank big bucks into producing this piece. The booklet is nice, but it misses the mark for me and, I suspect, for a lot of Americans. Like many arguments for vegetarianism, it tries to appeal to my morality and values instead of to my practical side. Out of 25 reasons, only four of them are about me as an individual. The rest are about helping the planet, environment and animals. Unfortunately, people like me just aren't morally good enough to be persuaded by that, so vegetarian groups need to refocus their pitch.

Everyone wants to think of herself as a good person who isn't destroying her planet, but the strongest motivators are always the most immediate. Even though we're all familiar with the phrase "the greater good," we worry much more about the well-being of ourselves and those close to us than about millions of people who we'll never see, let alone animals we'll never see. If vegetarians really want to persuade someone like me, they should tell me how eating a vegetarian diet will help me in an immediate way, not my children, which I chose not to have anyway. For me, the most interesting statements in the Mercy For Animals booklet are reasons #1, #2, #6 and #23, which are: to reduce your risk of cancer, to reduce your risk of diabetes, to reduce your risk of heart disease, and to maintain a healthy body weight.

Those are good, immediate, personal reasons, but the rest of the booklet describes the horrors of our farming system, the morality of eating other creatures and effects on the environment. These are also powerful arguments, but they aren't enough to get me to give up a critical part of my daily diet. I'd like to help animals and the environment, but not at the price of my own well-being, which is how I see giving up meat, poultry and fish. Convince me that avoiding animal flesh is better for my body, and you've got a convert. I need a nutrition-based argument, not a moral one.

Maybe I'm a heartless animal-cruncher who is ignorant of how my habits affect the environment and too selfish to consider any species besides humans. I'm being short-sighted about future generations and hypocritical about animal treatment. Fair enough. So I am. But my point is that if I'm the audience such vegetarian groups are trying to reach, they've got to bring their arguments home for me. How will my physical body benefit from a vegetarian diet today? For many of us, that kind of discussion has more potential for getting us to give up our baloney sandwiches than a list of ideals about abstract concepts such as the future of the rest of the planet ("the rest of the planet" is impossible for me to conceptualize and does not matter nearly as much to me as my own health).

The part of the booklet that intrigues me most is reason #15: caring for some animals (like dogs and cats) and eating others (like pigs and chickens) is morally inconsistent. Yes, I agree with that. I'm a hypocrite. But we're all hypocrites at various times because it's humanly impossible to live strictly by principles in every moment. We all make decisions about what hypocrisies we can accept in ourselves. It's called rationalization. Reason #15 intrigues me because it suggests that it's possible to live without moral inconsistencies, or at least it urges me to abandon this particular moral inconsistency. Unfortunately I'm not prepared to do that, not if it would endanger my personal health.

I doubt I'm morally good enough to be a vegetarian. I don't have it in me to give up the foods that give me the best energy and clarity of mind for the good of other species and the planet. If groups like Mercy for Animals really want to reach selfish cartilage-chewers like me, they need to meet us where we live: tell us how giving up meat benefits our bodies right now. A self-interested American public that's comfortable with its moral inconsistencies needs arguments that are more practical than moral. If Mercy for Animals revised its booklet to focus on medical reasons for switching to vegetarianism, I think they'd capture the interest of a lot of people who glance at concerns about animals and global warming and dump the piece of literature in the trash. Sure, we probably suck, but that's the reality of it.