Tag: childhood obesity

Heroism and Weight Loss

fat-supermanI’ve been thinking about writing this post for some time.  Everyone who reads this blog is probably aware of my distaste for weight loss in the media.  I know many find shows like the Biggest Loser to be encouraging but for me they are the opposite.

What bothers me is they paint fat people as bad, and reformed fatties as good and that just isn’t true.   As I often say,  ‘a lot of people lose weight in prison’… Losing weight is hard enough without having these types of morality judgments thrown in our face.

So that’s media but this post is a slightly different take.  I would like to talk about how we as a culture often couch weight loss in heroic terms and how this is almost never helpful.

Just the other day I was watching a show and the reporter asked the man how he had ‘overcome his heroic battle with weight loss’.  This is not uncommon phraseology for our average conversation. All of us, including myself, have used such phrases when talking about weight loss.

What’s wrong with that you ask? I mean losing weight is really hard.  Why is that not heroic?

Well, let’s start with some definitions-

Over on about.philosophy.com author Kendra Cherry asked her readers How Do You Define Heroism?  Pretty much every response is something like this:

“A hero is a person who would risk life and limb just to save people or a person. these people standout as brave intelligent and loving. these people need to be recognized”

So what are the elements of being a hero:

1. They are brave

2. They are worthy of recognition

3.  They are loving

4. They risk their own safety to help other people

It is this last aspect that is the most common thread in all the responses.  Another reader says:

“Heroism is when you act out of the kindness of your heart. Whether you’re helping someone on homework, or helping someone who got hurt, the main thing is that your helping someone who is having a hard time”

So, heroism clearly involves being unselfish and serving your fellow men and women especially when doing so is difficult.

indexHow does weight loss fit such a description?  I can’t think of any other change of appearance that is lauded in such ways.  For example, if someone gets a face lift they are often derided, criticized but I’ve rarely heard that when gastric bypass is done.  Why is one surgical enhanced change heroic and another isn’t?

You could say that gastric bypass is required where a face lift is not? Well, the research from the Health at Every Size movement would strongly disagree with that assertion, but even if you accept that gastric bypass is necessary I don’t see how it is heroic?  If I break my leg and have surgery on said leg (essentially fixing a problem in my body like GB) does that make me a hero?  No, it makes me a person with a broken leg that was fixed.

I can see no part of weight loss that involves risk to help other people. You can help people get in shape or encourage them to enter a race, but that’s not really the weight loss, that’s your service in the community and amongst your loved ones.  Anyone should be lauded who serves others no matter their size.  That is worthy of the hero label.

What about athletes? Who are they serving and we call them ‘sports heroes’?  One could argue such a term is misapplied to professional athletes but I would counter that most athletes are participating in a team or cause greater than just themselves.

For example, an Olympian is certainly worthy of individual applause but also their gift of performance on behalf of their country makes it worthy of the hero label.

There are a few sports like golf that are truly individual events and then I would say they aren’t really heroes but simply exceptional.  We like them because they are good at something and we are not. Nothing wrong with that!

But I hear you saying ‘Rachel it’s so hard.  Shouldn’t we be encouraging?’.  My answer is ‘of course, we should’.  However, there are lots of hard things we do in life that aren’t really heroic.  If I am a PHD candidate and I complete my thesis am I lauded as a hero? I’m encouraged, congratulated, cheered but unless there’s a disability or something extraordinary I rarely hear the kind of language we apply to weight loss for any other ‘hard thing’ in life.

Why? Because the diet industry in America is a 20 billion dollar industry.  They want you to spend money and what better way to get someone to spend money than to either make them feel really good or really bad about themselves.  A tepid, lukewarm person never bought anything.  They have a vested interest in convincing us that we need to change and that if we make said change we can be the hero.

Now, you might suggest that I am focusing on mere semantics and poor word choice.  I would argue back that according to the Huffington Post the average American woman has dieted 61 times by the time they are 45 and that’s starting at 16 (I would start much younger- 81% of little girls in America have dieted before the age of 10).

Assuming some marginal success in most of those diets, the average woman has been the hero 61 times,  and then fallen sometimes quite speedily off of her pedestal.  Then to make matters worse 35% of women gain more than they lost on said diet.

So, now we aren’t really a weight loss villain (to use the cannon of terms) that is probably reserved for sinful foods and the companies who pedal them but we are something even worse- the fallen hero.  I mean think about what that means.  61 times the average woman not only feels let down with her own frailties but is no longer the inspirational tool for her family and friends.  I’ve felt it and I bet most of you have too.  It is devastating.

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I actually remember one time my sister telling me ‘you can’t gain the weight back because then you wouldn’t be this person that we admire’.  She was very little and didn’t mean to hurt my feelings but is that not what all of us go through on the roller coaster of weight loss? 2012 I was at my peak of fitness and weight loss, then I had a personal crisis, chronic pain and a herniated disk in my back.  Things changed and so did my body.

I’m not making excuses.  That’s just what happened.  I felt guilty for a long time.  Like I’d let everyone down, which is insane when you really think about it.  What had changed was something in my body.  My other actions were exactly the same.  I still swam my races, I still blogged.  I still worked.  I still held book club and spent time with my friends.  I still traveled.  All of it.  I can’t think of one thing for other people I could do in 2012 and couldn’t or didn’t do in 2013.  So why did I seemingly let them down?

Because I wasn’t the hero anymore. 

That’s why this language about our bodies is so important.  It can have devastating repercussions that can make us feel like failures, and we already feel that way because of the way we look.  The language just piles on. And sometimes it is not just language.  I have friends who’s parents were vocally disappointed in them for their weight loss struggles. Instead of sympathy and encouragement they received pity and disgust.  (Luckily my parets have always been pretty good about letting me live my own life)

What worries me most is if being the fallen weight loss hero is hard for adults, imagine what it must feel like for a child who has so little control over his or her bodies in the first place?  That I do know.  I remember vividly the feeling of disappointment after diet, after diet, not only frustrated at not looking the way I wanted to, which is hard enough for a young girl, but letting everyone down in the process.  For goodness sakes, now these kids are even letting down the President.

So, in a perfect world where everyone took all of my advice what would I suggest? How would I encourage others in this hard thing called weight loss? I would treat it like the accomplishment of any other worthy goal.  ‘that’s great’, ‘I can see you worked very hard’, ‘great job’, ‘congrats’, ‘I’d love to go jogging with you’, or any number of responses without vaulting the person up as a hero because of the way they look.

What do you guys think? Have you felt like you were letting down people when you gain weight or fail to lose?  Do you think the hero narrative is helpful or hurtful?  Please share your experience, as this is just what makes sense to me.  Love you all!

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A Defense of Curves

Got Curves? I do!

I’ve mentioned the infamous Maura Kelly op-ed in Marie Claire many times on this blog . The one where she compares fat people to heroine addicts

“”I find it aesthetically displeasing to watch a very, very fat person simply walk across a room — just like I’d find it distressing if I saw a very drunk person stumbling across a bar or a heroine [sic] addict slumping in a chair.”

and

“I think I’d be grossed out if I had to watch two characters with rolls and rolls of fat kissing each other… because I’d be grossed out if I had to watch them doing anything.”

It is hate speech of the worst kind and the fact that a major fashion magazine would publish and then defend the smut is unbelievable.

Anyway, I came across an article by Josh Shahryar for the Huffington Post refuted each of Kelly’s claims and her subsequent apology.  It is so awesome!

http://huff.to/992Yrd

I was particularly moved by his last segment called The Conclusion.

I don’t normally share whole articles on this blog but I was so moved I wanted all of you to read it.  Being on a new diet this last week I think I needed to read this article.  So beautiful and moving:

5. The Conclusion

I’m not a personal issues expert. But I’m a human being living in the West who knows what’s going on. And what I see is this: there is an incredible amount of bias perpetuated against overweight people in the media. They are almost never the central character — always neatly tucked in as a secretary, the nurse or a character who’s too old to rouse romance. The last time I saw overweight people in a movie as the central character was in Paul Blart: Mall Cop and recently in Precious. Both the movies had a bit to do with weight.

When they appear on TV shows, it’s about weight. Guess who the loser in The Biggest Loser is… Guess who’s huge on Huge (by the way, a very witty show that got canceled). And when it comes to commercials, There’re always those damn ‘fatties’ that can’t seem to lose their weight without this or that new magical drug or diet.

Criminals can and do get central characters, otherwise. Druggies do. Even rapists and child abusers get more frequently featured. Fat people just aren’t good enough. (And to come to this realization right now just truly, deeply and profoundly upset me.)

The only shows, commercials or movies in which they get treated as normal people are those oriented towards the African-American population. Kudos to them for having the empathy. Only the oppressed can feel the pain of the oppressed.

Overweight people have become marginalized by the media simply because they’re overweight. Just like African Americans were marginalized because they were black and more recently, gay people because they’re gay. I understand fully that unlike the color of someone’s skin or someone’s sexual orientation obesity is a medical condition and a problem, but obese people aren’t. That is the issue. That is the problem. That is what both overweight, “normal” weight and underweight people need to come together and fight against.

The first step towards losing weight is not putting your mind to it. It is not making a list of things you will absolutely not do. It is not locking up the fridge. It is knowing that even if you fail at losing weight, people will still love you for who you are and not the number of pounds you’re packing. That people will judge you by your character and not because you are unhealthy weight-wise (and some people are perfectly healthy even when they are overweight). It is that feeling that you are doing this for yourself not because you have to fit a mold created for you.

That cannot be accomplished as long as Western culture continues to brand people who weigh more than what it deems aesthetically pleasing as unacceptable. It’s gotten so bad that even a few people who’re skinny live in constant fear that they might add a few pounds and not look beautiful enough to not be judged by people. And since media plays a huge part in formulating our cultural perceptions, it needs to change immediately — whether people like Ms. Kelly like it or not.

To that end, I urge everyone who finds size-ism in the media as a menace to view this as a watershed moment. It’s time to come together and fight this bigotry to the bitter end. Change does not come without someone pushing for it. If we want this to change, if we want for us, overweight or not, to not be judged by our BMI, we need to not let this fire die down.

We need to stand up and demand change. Even if it means we need to force the issue daily on social networking sites. Even if it means we have to boycott media that continue to practice this bigotry. Even if it means we have to hold peaceful demonstrations for the end of this practice. If media does not change, we cannot change this culture that seems to have been forever marginalizing overweight people.

It’s not just people judging you on the street. It’s about losing job opportunities. It is about equal treatment in the health care system. It is about being able to breathe, knowing everything’s gonna be alright.

The media’s side-stepping the issue and pretending all’s well reminds me of a scene from the movie Good Luck Chuck. Chuck is hexed so any girl who sleeps with him ends up meeting the love of her life in the next few days. His overweight secretary finds out about this and like any woman, she wants to find the lover of her life. She corners him one night and begs him to have sex with her, but he won’t. It goes on for a couple of minutes. Then, finally when he’s on the ground and she’s on top of him and he refuses, she tears up and says, “It’s okay. Close your eyes and pretend I’m someone beautiful.” He looks up, visibly moved, and says, “I’ll pretend it’s you.”

Well, pretending is just not good enough anymore.

(So awesome!  I hope I can keep the discussion going and show people a different version of what a fat American can do.  I bet Maura Kelly couldn’t swim a 5k!)

It’s not just girls that need the positive body image messaging

Diet Before 10

I shared this with my facebook community but thought I’d do the same with my blogging community.  I think this photo tells a lot.

I can relate to this photo because I was on diet before I turned 10.  I have almost no memories of not being on a diet in my life.  In fact some of my most vivid memories are being put on diets or being told I was fat by kids or even coaches, other adults.  As all my readers know I was also bullied for nearly 2 years (4th and 5th grades) because I was overweight.

I have to say compared to some of my overweight friends, my parents have actually been pretty great.  They did put me on a diet when I was young but overall they tried to be supportive and loving.  I did not get a ton of pressure from them to lose weight and I certainly was never told that I was ugly, embarrassing, fat, whatever.  I hear such stories from some of my friends and I’m grateful for good parents.

So what is my advice to parents who have a heavier child and don’t know what to do? Here goes:

1. Set the whole family on a healthy lifestyle regiment so that one child is not singled out. Then everyone wins.  It could even be a fun project to do together.

2. Explain that it really isn’t about appearance. Its about health, energy, happiness.  Perhaps give them examples of athletes, other adults who maintain a healthy weight.  (show them my blog about my swims 🙂 )

3. I think a lot of parents feel guilty about their overweight children and that just makes the child feel worse for failing their parents.

4. Do not EVER be embarrassed by your child.  This will only teach them to be ashamed of their bodies and could lead to behaviors later on that are far worse than being overweight such as self-abuse, eating disorders, and addiction.

5. Try to avoid using food as a reward or a punishment.  It will happen on occasions such as birthdays or at a party and that’s fine but in general find non-food related rewards

6. Avoid equating food as a sin.  Do not make a child feel guilty for what they eat.  Just encourage the good and move on from the bad. I still struggle with feelings of guilt and even sin when I stray from my diet and I don’t think that is a healthy behavior.

7. Introduce your kids to new food experiences so they don’t think that healthy food=boring food.

8. Involve your kids in the cooking process so they can see what goes into it.  A processed packaged meal will never give your children any excitement for fresh, healthy ingredients.  Also take them to farms, have them learn how to milk a cow, see where eggs come from, how to make cheese, whatever.  This may be a drag for some kids but in the end it will help them build healthy eating habits and a love for good food.

9. Be positive, positive, positive, positive!  Even today, I find I need overwhelmingly positive feedback from my trainers and other support.  I know what I could improve on.  In fact, I’m usually beating myself up more than I probably should and don’t need any help in that department.  Any added ‘tough love’ just makes me feel depressed and hopeless

10.  Make sure you explain all aspects of health to your child.  Meaning physical, mental, spiritual, emotional whatever.  All of these aspects are important for a healthy person.  Writing in journals, meditating, having honest discussion, learning new things, reading, prayer, other worship,  and learning to manage stress are all AS IMPORTANT as our weight.

11. Make sure they have correct information about weightloss, health, etc.  Despite all my dieting I never learned that type 2 diabetes was curable.  When they diagnosed me as border-line a few years ago, I honestly thought I was going to die. I was petrified.  Instead of just scaring kids with words like cancer, heart disease, diabetes.  Let’s explain what they really are and how they can be prevented and overcome.

Recently I did a wellness challenge where there were 10 categories of health including 15 minutes of spiritual reading and setting daily goals.  I think this type of overall wellness would be a great system for kids.

Now some of you may scoff and say ‘she’s single.  What does she know about raising kids?’.  Well, I was a kid once and I know intimately what it is like to grow up as a fat kid. I also have kids in my life who I want to support in the right ways; therefore I have given the topic much thought.

Its important to understand that as adults, we are all fighting an uphill battle when it comes to the health of the kids in our lives.  They have so much coming at them from the media and even other children and adults at school.  We must conscientiously work at fighting this messaging or our kids will get their self-worth from the myriad of other sources trying to claim it.

Unfortunately sometimes people that mean well can be a destructive influence.  Celebrities like First Lady Michele Obama have started a ‘war on childhood obesity’.  I really wish Mrs. Obama would rethink this wording.  I wish she was more focused on health of all children whether they happen to be heavy or skinny.  I certainly am proof that an active heavy person can do things that a lazy skinny person could not do.

Health, health, health not weight, weight, weight.

Maggie Goes on a Diet

I am so fired up and upset that I can barely put my words together.   What has me so up-in-arms you ask?  Well, I just found out about a book soon to be on the market for children as young as 4 called “Maggie Goes on a Diet” by Paul Kramer.  In this book he says that poor Maggie was bullied and made fun of so she looked in the mirror and wished she could be thin. If only she was skinny all Maggie’s problems would melt a way. (as someone who was a Maggie in school such experiences are brutal and not necessarily limited to fat girls.  If kids want to bully they will find a way).

To calm her troubled heart she then does what all overweight children do- she went “searching the refrigerator in hopes she would feel better” . (Because all children have full access to the refrigerator at home- no adult supervision in the middle of the night! I hope you catch my healthy dose of sarcasm in the above paragraph!)

Seriously, what is wrong with people? Fat children are not searching through the refrigerator in the middle of the night to calm their troubled self-esteem.  Give me a break!  I ate the same as everyone else but my body processed it differently. All junk like this does is make overweight kids feel guilty about every last treat, every piece of bread, they eat.  Hey, here’ s a thought- how about actually teaching them about their bodies, how cells absorb food, how some people have different blood sugar responses?

Many people believe children are too stupid to understand their own bodies and the complex goings-on inside.  I disagree.  I judged a 6th grade science fair a while back and the experiments were remarkably complex.  If they can understand the intricacies of electricity or volcanoes give them a shot with their own bodies. I think we’d be surprised.  In my experience anyone who actually understand how their body really works instead of just focusing on weight feels much better about themselves.   Ahhh! I’m so frustrated by this.

Maggie stares in the mirror at a skinny version of herself and knows that if she could only be thin her life would be better. She would be more popular and happier- a better person.  You know who stares into a mirror and thinks being skinnier will solve all your problems?- the millions of girls in eating disorder clinics and rehab.  I have known people going through eating disorder treatment and it is brutal.

To make matters worse in the book Maggie actually does become popular after losing weight and she even ends up as a star soccer player (because if all fat people would only exercise a little they would become star athletes- almost as dangerous a promise as becoming popular). I just lost a lot of weight where’s my star athletic prowess and hidden popularity?  What a terrible expectation to set up for children- on so many levels.

As I mentioned in a recent post skinniness as a goal is foolish because it is a unclassifiable term- meaning who’s to say what being skinny really means? Is it Twiggy from the 60’s or is it a more muscular Cindy Crawford?  Who is to say?  By focusing on being skinny there is no end, nothing is good enough and most people become obsessed with it.  It overtakes your life and all that matters is your appearance which is part of the reason this book made me so mad.  The focus is on becoming skinny and how that will make you happy, popular and athletic.  That’s just not true and it it can be a dangerous message.


Maggie is also shown as losing the weight in a fast time period by “eating fruit and oatmeal” and “exercising more”.  Tell that to the constantly on a diet 16 year old me who life guarded and swam competitively.  Tell that to the kids who eat their oatmeal and fruit but still are chubbier than all the other kids.

What are we doing in our society?  Why can’t we just love people especially little children?  Why does everyone have to look a certain way to be accepted?  Why can’t we discuss concerns of health on their own accord without them being wrapped up in vague images of being thin.  It makes me so mad.

I still remember the first time I was told I needed to diet.  I was 9 or 10.  It was my parents and despite their best efforts it is seared in my brain for all time.  At least they didn’t try to pretend I would be more popular or be good at sports if I lost weight.  It still felt like a great sin I had inadvertently committed- something that was my fault but at least I knew they loved me and would accept me either way.

The book also fails to mention that children are not responsible for the food that is served to them- whether it be at home or at school.   (My parents did serve healthy food and I was still fat but not all parents do).  What is a child supposed to do force his or her mother to make oatmeal?  Tell the school lunch lady that they can only make Low GI food?   Give me a break!  The book treats a child as an adult who can make all her own decisions and doesn’t even mention parents or parental support.

The author says he wrote the book to let children know “they are not alone in their struggles.”  How does reinforcing stereotypes, creating false promises and promoting eating disorders do anything but make a child feel more alone, more ostracized?  Did the author think of what a little girl will feel after reading his book, eating oatmeal and fruit, exercising and yet somehow she’s still fat?

How about we teach that little girl that making healthy choices is good regardless of the physical ramifications?  How about we teach her that she has intrinsic value and that her body is beautiful and special?  How about we look at each individual child and find out how their body is absorbing food and give them the right food choices? How about we teach a child that the formation of your character is not related to the weight of your body? You are not a bad person if you are fat.  I wish someone had taught me that years earlier…

I would like to write a book like that.  Maggie and her Healthy Heart.  I’m seriously so mad about this I want to scream.  Mainly because I know the hurt the little girls who are unfortunate enough to read this book will feel and believe me they are not turning to the fridge for comfort.  They are turning to their pillows wet with tears.

In my experience the only way to be happy whether skinny or fat is to accept yourself- flaws and all.  We all have imperfections and yet our family loves us- we should love us too!  Only then is weight loss typically successful and long-lasting.  Even when you are skinny you are still the same person you were before just with a little less baggage.  The core is the same.  Focus on making that core strong and then you will be happy at any size.  Let’s teach our children that message!

Surely America we can do better than this crap. Please lets do better.

For another good blog on this topic look at http://www.beautifulyoubyjulie.com/2011/08/diet-books-are-not-for-girls/