I vividly remember one night about 26 years ago, when I was walking home from a college bar. I passed a small group of guys on the street, and after we passed each other I heard one of them say, "If she was about ten pounds thinner she'd be hot."
If you are female and over the age of five, there is a very good chance you would answer YES to the question, Do you want to lose weight? Or, you would have no problem offering some sort of complaint about your appearance. The size, shape, texture of a body part or feature, is something that stands between you and complete satisfaction with yourself.
As a coach, I could get an enormous following and make mucho bucks if I sold you a plan that would get you to some magic number on the scale or the clothing tag. Plenty of coaches and "fitness gurus" and bestselling authors have done just that. I have fallen for it just as you have. I like to try out plans and programs, to see how they affect me, so I can be more informed when a friend or client is interested in it. But I admit that my interest is not just professional. I, too, have been curious about finding the best way to raise my metabolism, burn fat, feel less bloated, avoid cravings. Since I was a teenager, I have poured over "health & fitness" magazines to find out about the latest and greatest way to whittle down the wobble.
When I quit drinking 15 months ago, one of the main reasons I quit is that I felt like a hypocrite. I knew that my wine and beer habit was at odds with the healthy lifestyle I know is best for me, and that I want to represent as a health advocate. I felt like I was living a lie, as intellectually, with my fascination with neuroscience and neurology and nutrition and psychology, I knew that alcohol is pretty much a poison, and for me, a dangerous slippery slope. So I became more and more uncomfortable with my consumption, which in today's standards is probably considered the "norm" for a mom in my life stage and demographic, but as I tell my kids regularly, just because everyone else is doing it, doesn't mean it's normal or healthy or right. I know that for many of us, our social media lives are not exactly accurate (for every picture of joyful times with the family there are 10 images burned into our conscience of really bad parenting fails, for starters). That is kind of how I felt about what alcohol was doing to my conscience, my organs, my soul- what you saw on the outside was a far cry from how I felt on the inside. Tired of the lack of integrity, I decided to take a break, and eventually, I started to realize how full my life was (is) without the hazy filter of booze and how it complicated my life.
This is sort of how I have felt about the whole food and exercise thing. Those of you who know me or have read my blog for a while, know that I am very uncomfortable with Before and After claims and photos that people post on social media to hock their programs and "cleanses." I already wrote a blog about the subject a couple of years ago, so I won't rehash it, but basically, I believe these posts to be inaccurate, and potentially very damaging. Inaccurate, because they promise freedom from the jail you have been living in, consisting of yo-yo dieting, weight battle defeats, shame and self-hatred, because surely anyone with a muffin top or back flab must hate herself/himself. This is where the damage comes in. The best way to sell a product, service, religion, ideology, pretty much anything, is to tap into people's deepest fears, and promise them hope, freedom from the fear. The "health and wellness" industry knows this, and is making trillions of dollars each year (of course, this does include some legitimate, ethical, helpful products and services too). Millions of people have seen the Before pictures and related to the hopelessness they see in the slumped posture and "disgusting" bulges, and they are sold on the success and joy they see in the radiant smile, confident posture, supposedly slimmer After photo allegedly taken a few weeks or months later. Likewise, we are suckers for online courses, books, YouTube videos, etc that we believe may give us the magic ticket out of our shame jail. It's brilliant marketing.
It's also really misleading, and quite frankly, an act of violence because of the harm it causes by feeding into and expanding damaging insecurities and self-hatred. The discomfort I feel when I see this type of advertising has led me to lots of soul-searching about my own posture as a woman who works within the "health and wellness" industry. The thing is, the Before and After pictures are just one way in which we are being brainwashed. Many of us are at this point aware that the media glorify thin, youthful bodies, and we know that a lot of it is fake - enhanced by photo editing tools, magic lighting, etc. We get that. We point it out to our daughters, and if we are really into talking about it with our kids, we may take them to a screening of Miss Representation and Embrace, two thought-provoking documentaries that in different ways point out the objectification of women and how harmful it is. So, intellectually, we may know how our society is contributing to our being judged based on our appearance. But, gosh, it's complicated, isn't it? Because then, when it comes to our own actions, how we live on a daily basis, how we make decisions of what and how to eat, what to wear, how to move our bodies, what photos we share on social media, I will be the first to admit that I have acted in ways incongruent with my wish to be a role model to my teen daughter, my peers and my clients. On the one hand, I want to say a big "FUCK YOU" to our disempowering culture, that reduces my worth to a snapshot of my weight, size and skin quality. On the other hand, I want to feel and be the picture of health and strength.
For a while I have been asking myself, what is health, really? A couple of years ago, a Facebook friend of mine who is a health practitioner as well as a fellow triathlete, was encouraging his clients to completely eliminate dairy from their diets. He and his wife were often posting pictures of themselves, looking extremely fit and happy, along with dairy-free, gluten-free, sugar-free, etc claims, brags, pontifications. (I don’t follow their posts any more). At some point I commented, “but if being dairy-free is a huge pain in the ass, and you are not even lactose-intolerant – at what point does the stress from being super restrictive about what you eat, outweigh any possible physical benefits?” He never replied to my question.
It is really hard to know exactly what is healthy these days. One day you will have someone coming out and stating with absolute certainty, that a diet of plants and animal protein and no grains or dairy or processed food or starchy carbs, will solve most if not all of our problems. The next week, every health podcast will feature the latest author to come out with a book saying that, actually, sugar is Satan and no wonder it looks like cocaine - it's just as addictive and evil. A week later, while we are feeling righteous for having donated all of our Halloween candy to our soldiers stationed in the Middle East (because apparently we want to poison them), we are told that actually, we really need to get rid of anything that comes from animals, if we are to have a strong heart and save the earth. It's all so confusing that it's no wonder we are completely disconnected from our body's signals about what it needs. All of the "experts" are far more convincing than our body, which is really just quietly tolerating our choices, nudging us through signals like fatigue, aches, pains, insomnia, cravings, viruses, GI distress, etc - and instead of listening to our body, we believe the quick fixes we read about or see in our social media feeds.
In my yoga classes, I often remind the class to not force anything, because then we increase the resistance, which is counter-productive and leads to suffering. I have been thinking about this and how it relates to weight and body image. A friend of mine, Beth Rosen, who is a registered dietician and among other services, teaches clients about intuitive eating We taught some workshops together a couple of years ago. She did the portion about intuitive eating, while I led the portions on mindful living and exercise. It was super cool, and I benefitted from this experience personally as I began to learn more about intuitive eating.
Intuitive eating is basically about tuning in to our body, to recognize the cues of hunger and satiety, as well as what sorts of nutrients and yes, pleasure, it may need today. It sounds so simple, and yet, it truly is an art, especially as in order to eat intuitively, we probably need to do a complete mental reboot, practically a lobotomy, because of all the inaccurate messages we have internalized pretty much since birth. Mindful living and exercising are similar in that we tune in to our incredibly wise, patient body, to learn about what best supports us today, in terms of rest, type of exercise, and input from the people and environment around us. It is a way to stop forcing ourselves into situations that only increase resistance and thus suffering. It is a way of living intuitively. Less violence, more compassion.
Since exploring the concept of intuitive eating, I have come across a movement that I had had no idea until pretty recently existed. The world I have lived in is the one guided by the belief that our modern world is becoming increasingly unhealthy, as evidenced by the increasing rate of obesity, for one. So, when my position is that I can help you avoid or tackle weight management issues, and lead by example, then surely I am being helpful? After all, plenty of studies show that "diabesity" is a top public healthy enemy. If I can show you a way to workout and eat healthy, then surely I am doing a good thing? This new (to me, at least) movement, though, says I am part of the problem, if I am going out there and stating or implying that your being overweight is something that needs to be fixed. Health At Every Size calls itself the new peace movement. Proponents believe that fat bias, which is increasing with our growing obesity rates, is highly discriminatory and:
"Extensive “collateral damage” has resulted: Food and body preoccupation, self-hatred, eating disorders, discrimination, poor health, etc. Few of us are at peace with our bodies, whether because we’re fat or because we fear becoming fat."
I was at a dinner party the other night and a couple of the guys, who didn't know I had gone down this fascinating rabbit hole via intuitive eating, brought up the subject. They were talking about this movement without knowing it's a movement, just saying that a Facebook friend of theirs was now posting all kinds of links to articles that celebrated body acceptance. They said something like, "So now she's saying it's great to be fat?" They were confused and thought it was funny. I admit that I was first confused too, when I started to hear about this. I thought it was another way to justify our eagerness to take the easier path. "I will skip the gym today and eat doughnuts because America runs on Dunkin' and that's my favorite way to run" is the new black. The same way that for years, I ignored the voice inside of me that said, you need you examine your relationship with alcohol. It was easy to blow that voice off when running clothing companies were printing shirts that said "Run now, wine later" and studies shared on Facebook were telling me wine will extend my life as long as I don't have more than 7 glasses a week. Ah, yes, we do love to focus on the stuff that proves us right - we see what we want to see.
I am still exploring this whole movement and as I read, and listen, and observe, like with anything new and weird and (to me) counter-intuitive, I try to suspend my beliefs and biases, while also noting my questions and doubts and a-ha moments. Some of what I am learning has been really surprising, while some of it just confirmed what I believed but I didn't know there was a movement that would not only back me up, but that had articles and books by people with lots of letters after their names, talking about what my gut was telling me. For example, this whole fat=unhealthy belief that our media and medical professionals and "health and wellness" industry keep shouting about. In general, yes, this would seem like it makes sense, and certainly, if my weight changes drastically and in a short period of time, my body is saying something is not right. It's a clue that something is imbalanced in my body, brain, life. And I do agree that carrying a lot of weight will probably place extra strain on my back, hips, knees, and even if I am okay with it now, in a few years this may cause some quality of life issues (back pain sucks!). But the thing is, when a person is urged to go tackle their weight issue by eating better and exercising regularly, is that helpful? Is it effective? And is it even accurate? I remember when I first starting doing triathlons, I would get passed in the swimming and cycling portions by women who were probably 20+ pounds heavier than me. Just because I was thinner, did that mean I was healthier? That is the assumption so many of us are being guided by - but is it true? And, how is it helpful to urge someone to basically go on a food and exercise program to solve their existing or "will probably happen in the future" health problems?
Something else I have learned during my investigation into this movement is how prevalent and damaging addictive dieting is. You may have heard of it referred to as "yo-yo dieting." You go on the next best diet or cleanse, lose some weight, go off it because all diets/programs have an endpoint, maybe coast a bit, then the weight creep starts. You start to hate yourself because you lack self-discipline ("ugh - why can't I be like Jenny? She still looks like her After picture, a month later. I'm so weak"). So then you do it again. And again. And when you're killing it, posting all your happy, thinning photos on Instagram, you feel successful, "I've nailed it this time!" and all the comments in your feed confirm your strength and commitment and hotness. You feel superior to people who are still consuming food you actually have to chew, and eating at regular intervals ("didn't you know that intermittent fasting is soooooo healthy??"). And then, well, the two or four weeks are up, or the target event is over, and life goes back to usual. And your body, which has basically done what it's supposed to do when it's trying to protect you by going on high alert because it's in starvation mode, relaxes because phew, it turns out the crisis is over and now it can go back to eating what it has been denied for weeks or months or years. The return may be gradual or in the form of bingeing. In the meantime, as our weight creeps up to its homeostatic point, our self-regard plunges. And so we begin again. Chasing the high of achieving a weight standard that in our minds equals freedom, success, happiness, which is confirmed by the feedback we get via social currency. Of course it's addictive!
In general, we are so out of touch with an intuitive way of living, that takes cues from our body rather than extrinsic sources of information and motivation, that we are putting ourselves through abusive exercise programs, we are devouring dogmatic eating plans, and we are totally stressed out because of our chosen lifestyles. Chronic back pain, thyroid issues and other autoimmune disorders, substance misuse disorders, anxiety and depression, injuries from workouts that are too intense for our body and lifestyle, insomnia, disordered eating - are all on the rise and are not only preventable, but I do believe to a great extent are because we are trying to force ourselves into some image we think means happiness, fitness, health, success.
This morning I was listening to a podcast episode, an interview with Diane Summers, who is a registered dietician who has extensive experience in the field of eating disorders. She referred to the way we treat ourselves and others, judging our worth based on weight and size, as a form of violence. That, when we restrict our eating in an effort to lose weight, it can be a way of inflicting injury on ourselves, especially when it becomes a cyclical behavior. She also talked about this in relation to us going against what is biologically natural. For example, she said, menopausal women, because of hormonal changes, will naturally have a bigger mid-section. When we fight this, we are going against the natural order of things, and this is a form of violence. I was thinking about what she said, with my own filter that has grown from personal experience (myself and loved ones) with eating disorders, and her words really rang true. When I deny myself something, or force myself to do something, am I being kind to myself? I was thinking about women who are past the childbearing age, striving to look the way they did when when they were still technically viable baby-making material. It seemed so unnatural and unhealthy to me when I thought of it that way. The same way it is so obviously unhealthy when a pubescent girl wants to starve herself down to look like she's six years old again.
The tricky thing for me is that murky area of healthy vs unhealthy. As in, surely it is healthy to make the tougher choice and have crunchy broccoli instead of plantain chips. As in, I really don't want to develop diabetes in a couple of decades, and intuitively I know that the choices I make now, will impact my long-term health. As in, going to the gym is not the easiest, most comfortable choice, but I do enjoy my workouts and feel so great afterwards, so surely that's a good thing.
So then, I consider one of my favorite buzz words: INTENTION. When I choose broccoli, what is going through my mind? Am I choosing it because it's a "good food," as opposed to "bad food" chips? Or am I choosing it because I really do enjoy the taste, and I know that after eating trees I feel better physically than after eating canola oil? When I embark on a workout, am I doing it because I know it helps my creativity and focus and I love the feeling in my lungs and muscles, during and after, or am I doing it because I am chasing a certain physique? And if it's a little of all of the above, is that a bad thing?
One of my sober friends, Stephanie, is a magician with hair and makeup She loves going to the gym to work out pent-up energy and frustration, as well as to further strengthen her body and hit new milestones on the treadmill. Stephanie has struggled with weight since she was a girl, and is painfully honest as she talks to us, her support group, about what it was like being a teenager in a body that was larger than that of her peers, and compensating for her feelings of inadequacy, shame and loneliness, by hiding behind a jovial, entertaining persona. She has shared with us how suicidal she became, and although she is much better now, she still feels like the "fat girl." Sometimes the photos she shares on social media have her all made up and ready for work at the salon, with fabulous makeup - and sometimes she shares photos of a "bare" face and just-out-of-bed hair. Stephanie is a "keep it real" warrior and is totally honest about her life struggles, as well as her profound gratitude for being now nine months sober. As she points out, her "insides finally match her outsides." It is a daily effort, a lifelong journey for Stephanie - for so many of us.
This authenticity is so refreshing and inspiring to me. Sometimes, I want to spend all day in yoga pants, no makeup, hair whatever. Actually, this is most days. It's not because I don't care about how I look, or that I have given up, because I am happily married and 47 years old and the mother of two teens. It's not because I am a crunchy Mama (I find that is a relative term), and it's not because I am making a political statement against the "beauty" industry. I am just showing up in the way that feels most comfortable, the way I decided a couple of years ago that any sort of shoe that gets in the way of my love of running (eg high heels) needs to find a new home, the way that the tiny pants I used to fit into when I was in my middle-to-late 30s, no longer need to torture me. I gave them away too, and releasing those ten pounds of fabric was the best weight loss move I have made in years - because it was a huge weight off my shoulders and off my soul! I often say, the real source of oppression against women, especially in modern times, is the woman looking back in the mirror. Ah, what we could all accomplish in terms of making the world a better place, if we only gave ourselves the compassion it takes, to let go of the energy it takes and the self-hatred that comes from measuring our worth by the number on the scale and the size of our clothes! Now THAT is a right and a freedom that cannot be decided by executive orders, and it is pretty freakin' powerful and has a very real ripple effect. Imagine if our stressed-out daughters saw us embracing who we are, for real! Talk about a pink revolution!
So, where I am these days in relation to all of this, is professionally, I continue to encourage those I teach, to listen to our body. Listen with curiosity, with compassion, trying to let go of judgment. And, at the same time, recognizing that if we are not moving forward, we are moving backward. In terms of fitness, this means, as we sink into a stretch, or settle into a plank, let's see if we can soften into the stretch a little further, on the next out-breath. If we can, let’s challenge ourselves to hold the plank an extra breath, to further strengthen our core, so it can support our back, that works so hard every day. If we want to start or continue a form of exercise that appeals to us, awesome! Exercise is key to our continued vitality. But what is our Intention? There is a big difference between doing a workout because on some level we believe we will become more "attractive" and "accepted" - versus choosing a form of movement because it's fun, it helps us relieve stress, and we really do feel great from it. In other words, move our body in a way that is helpful and paying attention to that edge, where we are within our capacities and maybe expanding them a bit.
With food and drink, same thing. Let’s pay attention to how we feel in terms of energy, digestive comfort, our immunity. Fueling our body in ways that are nourishing, rather than being dictated by the bitch in the attic that tells us that if we eat something we really want (eg chocolate ice cream), we don't deserve the admiration of those college boys, or love from the skinny mom who raised us, or acceptance by those Lululemon moms at the gym.
As far as where I am personally with all of this, well, quite frankly, the lines are blurred for me, between professional and personal. Because this is very personal. This body I live in is the only body I will ever have in this life, and while millions of women may be out there marching for our rights to control the choices over our bodies, I am doing my best (some days are better than others) to move, eat, dress, and in other ways, treat my body the way I feel is empowering and authentic. That, to me, is the ultimate statement I can make as a female consumer, voter and role model. To me, as a coach who wants to walk the walk and live in integrity, rather than structure my energy and choices based on how a coach and athlete “should” look, I prefer to practice flexibility, self-compassion, humility, vulnerability and honesty. And, today, the way I do that is to honor my body by working on accepting it as it showed up today, and feeding it and moving it with gratitude and wonder, for its patience, strength, health, and resilience. And, like with Stephanie, this is a life-long journey, that I chunk down to one day at a time. Some days are better than others - and that's okay.
If you would like to explore a new way of thinking about your body, image, and self-worth, I urge you to check out the following resources as a "dropping in" point:
Website: Health At Every Size
Documentary: Miss Representation
Book: When Food is Love: Exploring the relationship between food and intimacy, by Geneen Roth
Podcast: Life Unrestricted Episode 29 with Isabel Foxen Duke
Podcast: Food Psych episode 94 - How to leave the religion of dieting with Alan Levinovitz
Book: Intuitive Eatingwww.amazon.com/Intuitive-Eating-Revolutionary-Program-Works/dp/0312321236 by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch
Motivational coach, athlete, mom, entrepreneur. I love helping people mindfully reboot their health & joy.