Thursday, August 31, 2006

Lose 20 Pounds Fast!

By now, you’ve probably heard about Katie Couric’s twenty-pound weight loss. It seems that CBS promotional magazine Watch! Photoshopped, without Couric’s awareness, a recent shot of the anchor-to-be, resulting in a cinched waist, contoured cheekbones, a smaller bust, and thinner arms and hips.

Couric’s response, according to The Daily News: "I liked the first picture better because there's more of me to love." And, really, don’t you just love her more after a comment like this? That’s what the polls say, after all. According to People magazine’s online pole, 54% of us prefer the untouched shot. In other words, we prefer Katie with a little meat on her bones.

Or, do we? Perhaps we like the natural shot because we know it’s natural. It’s the cutesy, girl-next-door we’ve grown to adore. Are we really immune to societal messages that thinner is better? Given pictures of two women who look alike, wouldn’t most, as any advertisering exec would tell you, judge the thinner one to be more attractive? Which do you prefer?

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

You Could Learn a Lot from a Puppet

Cookie Monster seems to have it down. The newly appointed healthy-foods ambassador (a cookie is a “sometimes food”) offers a good example of mindful eating. A recent issue of Metro (a New York daily) features an interview with the furry, blue, cookie-loving puppet.

Cookie Monster instructs us how to eat a cookie:
You got to eat cookies like this: You pick up the cookie. Look at it. You smell the cookie. It smell delicious usually and then you just go for it like this: AHHMNUMNUMNUMNUMNUM. The more crumbs, the better. Me teach you how to eat cookie professional way.
His message is funny, and grammatically questionable (in classic Cookie Monster style), but highlights some critical features of intuitive eating—allowing yourself to indulge in what you enjoy and making eating a complete sensory experience.

When asked about variety in his diet, Cookie Monster reports: “Me no ever only ate cookies. Me eat everything. Me eat you know, bicycle, fire hydrant, table, chair. Me love cookies but me also eat vegetables.”

Everything in moderation. . .

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Product Review: Say Goodbye to Hunger?

The Medifast Diet keeps popping up on my computer, begging me to take a look. Finally, I acquiesce. I’m invited to try a diet that eliminates decisions, freeing me from the calorie- and carb-counting I’m presumed to do on a daily basis. The solution? They count for me, and I get roughly four. . . of each.

The program consists of five Medifast meals per day, accompanied by one “Lean and Green” meal (“lean protein and salad greens”). The Medifast website states: "The clinically proven results of Medifast are designed to create a healthy gap between the calories you take in and the amount your body burns, thus promoting natural weight loss." According to my calculations, and based on the roughly 3,500 caloric-deficit needed for a pound of weight-loss, that’s a “gap” of 2,333 calories a day. If you were eating 2,500 calories a day (and maintaining your weight at that figure), you’ll now eat 167. I don’t see any program-recommended exercise, except for that suggested during the post-diet, “weight-maintenance” stage. In fact, the website states that, “Unless you are already exercising, you should not begin an exercise program in the first few weeks of weight loss.” Clearly, with a deficit of 2,333 calories a day, you’re not going to be able to run that far.

The website advertises that “Medifast programs have been recommended by over 15,000 physicians.” What physicians are recommended this program, given that most people in-the-know do not recommend more than a 1-2 pound weight-loss per week (and this is up to 5)? I also wonder what kind of chemicals, fillers, and multisyllabic ingredients they’re passing off as a meal (the site indicates that most products use “acesulfame potassium” as a sweetener).

The copy promises you’ll never get hungry. That "fast" is part of the product name doesn't bode well for you feeling satisfied. And, anyway, how is this even possible? If you’re eating 2,333 calories per day less than you’re burning, I’d think you’d be hungry! And so do they, to some extent: The FAQ’s page encourages users to take an antacid to deal with persistent hunger pains. Other potential side effects they list? Diarrhea, gurgling stomach cramps, constipation, bad breath, feeling cold, skin rashes, heartburn, and hair loss. All this for short-term weight-loss. After all, even the Medifast people recognize the difficulty of keeping off weight, once you’ve completed the program. The site states:
You will maintain your success by making long-term changes in your lifestyle such as healthy eating and consistent exercise. You may also need to work on how you cope with life so that you don't reach for food when you are experiencing stress, depression or other emotional needs.
If you could do all this, you wouldn’t be turning to Medifast in the first
place. . . .

Monday, August 28, 2006

An Afternoon in a Coffee Shop

I’m sitting at a coffee shop this weekend, working on this book. A few people wander behind me, and I’m half-listening to their conversation as I write. One of the women asks the man, “Is that your lunch?” And then I hear (from the man): “Yeah. I’m on a diet. My goal weight is four pounds.” I turn around. He notices me, noticing him, and asks, “What do you think? Is that a good goal?”

I glance back at my computer screen before replying, “I’m writing a book on eating disorders, so I’m going to go with ‘no.’”

He laughs, but then continues: “My whole life, I’ve wanted to be anorexic—but I’m always hungry. I wish I were anorexic.”

“No you don’t,” I quip.

“Yes, I do—my sister was anorexic. I was so jealous.” I stare. “I’m just kidding,” he says. “I joke a lot.” I freeze, caught between a general tendency toward humor appreciation and not wanting to condone a joke about an issue I take so seriously, managing only a half-smile in return. He tells his companion, “I’m going to go back there (he points), before she hits me in the head.”

A friend overhears the exchange and states the unspoken truth: “Theoretically, you could never stop writing, because people are going to give you material wherever you go.” It’s true—even as I sit here writing, there’s something more to tell. At some point, I hope to put this in print, but long after I tire of writing on this topic, there will always be another story, another joke, another conversation. . . .

Friday, August 25, 2006


The Oprah show recently focused on the body dysmorphia now common, even amongst little girls. The show featured two pre-schoolers and a teenage model, all of whom hated their appearance or took drastic measures to conform to a beauty ideal.

The first guest was a three-year-old little girl, a regular Victoria Secret catalogue reader, who throws tantrums when not allowed to wear make-up like her mom. According to her mother, the girl screams, “I hate you Mommy!” when she doesn’t feel pretty enough. Explanations for this? Her mother seems to spend quite a bit of time prepping herself when going out, applying make-up and performing multiple mirror-checks. Mother says, “I don’t recall ever being told ‘You’re beautiful,’ so I’m constantly telling her how beautiful she is.” So, why doesn’t her daughter listen to her? It seems the adage, “Do as I say, not as I do” is most illustrative here.

The second guest, a skinny four-year-old is intensely afraid she’ll become fat. How might such fear arise? Her mother insists that her daughter’s pre-school classmates called her “fat,” stating, “I honestly believe that she’s learning it from just being around other girls.” You do? Because what about, as the show later reveals, your history of anorexia? Turns out mom struggled with anorexia for years, and even now limits all food intake to servings “smaller than a cup” and exercises daily, sometimes twice a day. It’s not surprising that her daughter is restricting her portions and leading her own makeshift aerobics class in the home, is it?

The third guest is a 19-year-old model and soccer-team captain. She reports that at age seven, she couldn’t go to school because her face was “too ugly,” and today, she tends to shatter mirrors and destroy pictures of herself. She, at times, turns her destructive impulses on herself, reporting suicidal ideation and a history of cutting. After hearing from this young woman, we meet her mother, whom her daughter often overhears as saying, “I’m so ugly!” Mom and daughter, from time to time, compete in the “Who’s fatter?” game.

In all three cases, we see daughters, despite well-intentioned mothers, who internalize their self-reproach. A daughter whose mother struggles with body acceptance will likely do the same, as her mother tacitly, but forcefully, conveys that thinner is better and condemns any shape that does not conform. It is my contention that for mothers, no matter how much love you give your daughter, or how much regard you show her, if you dislike your body, your daughter will do the same.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

You Should Consider This

Karen Horney, a pioneering psychoanalyst, who followed in the footsteps of Freud, spoke of the “Tyranny of the Shoulds,” the self-haunting that occurs when we compare how we are to how we think we should be. Focusing on this discrepancy results in, as you’d expect, significant distress, and the solution, according to psychologists, analytical and cognitive alike, is to avoid the use of should—not just to remove the word from our vocabulary, but to be more compassionate with ourselves and lighten up with (often) unrealistic expectations.

I should lose 10 pounds.
I should exercise for two hours today.
I shouldn’t eat that cookie.
I should stick to my diet without any exceptions.
I should be thinner than I am.

Also, beware of the relatives of should: have to, need to, want to (with sufficient angst). Why are these all so damaging? Because truth is, it’s hard to lose weight, to exercise regularly (and excessively), to restrict, to limit, and to shrink your body beyond its natural weight. And when we get caught up in the “should” (instead of the “could” or the “would like to”), we set ourselves up for disappointment and self-reproach, both of which play an integral role in sabotaging our personal goals and further unsteadying an already shaky self-regard.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Hmm. . .

I was at some friends’ house for dinner one night. On the kitchen counter, they had a baby picture of their niece, now five years old. Another guest commented on how chubby the five-year-old had been as a baby—“fat baby,” “not a cute baby,” and how “it’s a good thing she turned out cute.” Half an hour later, the same guest is talking about children’s clothing and specifically about her young daughter’s preferences. “Would you believe that she’s only six, and she already won’t wear one of her coats, because it makes her look fat? I don’t know where she gets that from.”

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

A Girl Can Dream

(written to the editor of Star magazine)

Dear Editor:

I am writing in regard to your recent (August 28th) feature about Nicole Ritchie, entitled, "Bare Bones!" As Pearson, Clark, and Levine note, Ms. Ritchie is grossly underweight.

My concern is that anorexia, a serious (and often lethal) physical and psychological condition is not represented properly in the article. The writers quote Christine Bybee, a "nutritionist and fitness expert" regarding Nicole's condition: "'A true anorexic looks like a walking skeleton. . . . At that point, a person needs to be hospitalized. Nicole isn't there yet."

Unfortunately, Bybee's statement is wholly untrue. First, it is impossible to judge whether someone is anorexic simply based on her appearance. A comprehensive clinical interview is necessary, and, even then, a diagnosis may be difficult if the patient is not forthcoming. Second, not all anorexics have the look of a "walking skeleton," as the diagnosis requires (amongst other criteria) that a patient weigh less than 85% than expected--how this translates into "looks" varies by individual. Finally, hospitalization can and does occur at various points along the continuum of eating-disordered symptoms and is not simply a stop-gap, life-saving measure once a patient appears to be "a walking skeleton."

I write with concern that your readers may, based on the above misinformation, understand anorexia to be less serious (or more black-and-white) than it is. Nicole Ritchie is, even by her own account, "too thin," but to label her as anorexic (or not) is questionable journalism, given the complexity of the diagnosis. Moreover, information about an eating disorder (a mental health disorder) diagnosis and treatment should come from a mental health professional, not a nutritionist or fitness expert.

I urge you to promote responsible journalism, particularly with regard to a disease as grave as anorexia, as many young women are turning to celebrity magazines for information about this condition.

Licensed Psychologist (specializing in eating- and body-image concerns)

Monday, August 21, 2006

I'm Worried About Your Health

In The Diet Myth, Paul Campos discusses the “disease” of obesity as a socio-cultural construction designed to underhandedly fuel bigotry against fat, as well as to potentiate racist and ethnocentric thought. How many times have we heard, “You see, it’s not that you don’t look good—it’s just your health that I’m concerned about”? In his journalistic account of the weight-loss research enterprise (and industry), Campos debunks this myth by presenting facts exposing that (exact quote):

1) The health risks associated with increasing weight are generally small, in comparison to those associated with, for example, being a man, or poor, or African American.
2) These risks tend to disappear altogether when factors other than weight are taken into account. For instance, fat active people have half the mortality rate of thin sedentary people and the same mortality rate as thin active people.
3) There is no good evidence that significant long-term weight loss is beneficial to health, and a great deal of evidence that short-term weight loss followed by weight regain (the pattern followed by almost all dieters) is medically harmful. Indeed, frequent dieting is perhaps the single best predictor of future weight gain.
4) Despite a century-long search for a “cure” for “overweight,” we still have no idea how to make fat people thin.
It’s interesting how often the “health” card is invoked, even amongst medical and psychological professionals. Truth is, there’s really no way to evaluate people’s health based on how they look. And yet, we do it all the time. So, now what? Without the “health” argument to back us up, how should we disguise our disgust with fat?

Friday, August 18, 2006


I'm 82 posts into my 100-post, daily (weekday) goal (yes, this one counts!), and I thought I'd take a moment to reflect, as well as to ask for feedback.

Starting out, I made two conscious decisions (well, at least two, let’s hope) in designing this blog. Number one, I decided I wouldn’t sell out to Google. Not because I wouldn’t like the money that would come with your every click—I would. But, you know exactly what would happen if I signed up for Ad Sense—in no time, you’d see ads on my site for diet pills, weight-loss gimmicks, and a host of other products designed to make you feel bad about yourself. Not here.

Second, I’ve purposely withheld information about my current weight or shape, as well as pictures of myself. My thinking here is that I don’t want to align myself with fat or thin, or with any other point on the body size continuum. Part of the motivation for this book is to illustrate how widespread eating problems are, and how they affect (and unite) us, big and small. This struggle belongs to all of us.

As I'm turning the final corner for my daily-post goal (after 100, I'll still post, though likely not with the same consistency), I have a couple of thoughts that I might like to explore the next several weeks. To start, I am forever grateful for your thoughtful comments. They've helped me to solidify many of my ideas, as well as to engender new ones. That said, I encourage those readers who read regularly but haven't commented to speak up--I'd love to hear from you.

Given the interesting questions that regularly come up in the comments section, I'm thinking about devoting one day a week to a Q & A process. If you'd like to ask a question, please email me directly, and I'll compile and present them once a week. Questions could be personal, general, about you, about me, about anything. . . . You know the (disclaimer) drill--what I write shouldn't subsitute for face-to-face contact with a trained professional.

I'm also considering the idea of allowing a couple of regular readers to guest-post about their experiences related to food/weight. Let me know, again, by email, if you'd like to participate. Related to this, if you like to tell your "story," please let me know if I might contact you re: "appearing" in my manuscript (with all identifying information removed, of course).

Within the month, I'll be submitting some of my work to agents (yes, now I've committed myself to a deadline!), so please let me know if you have any feedback (what you liked/haven't liked), as I pull together various posts.

Again, thank you so much for all your insights. I hope that some of the ideas presented here have been as helpful to you as you've been to me. . . .

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Mixed Messages

In a Details magazine feature, entitled, “Why Fat Is Back in Hollywood,” writer Holly Millea discusses how the super-thin look is slowly being countered by a curvy, more feminine look, reminiscent of old Hollywood and pin-up stars. Millea offers Catherine Zeta-Jones, Scarlett Johansson, and Drew Barrymore as evidence. Even Rachel Weisz, Lost star Evangeline Lilly, and Mandy Moore are thrown in the mix.

But, let’s take a step back. These women are so far from “fat,” that I’m afraid they’ve landed in the wrong article. Rachel Weisz might only be described as “curvy” when with child, Evalengline Lilly is as athletic and toned as they come, and Mandy Moore is. . . Mandy Moore. Are we that skewed that these women are the only ones we can identify as “fat”? (The answer is “yes,” I’m afraid.)

Millea makes some interesting points and challenges us to confront the status-quo assumption of thinner-is-better. She asks, “Seriously, would you prefer to get a Grey’s Anatomy lesson from an hourglassed Katherine Heigl or a reedy Ellen Pompeo?” Point taken, but even here, we can’t look at their bodies without objectifying them, without bringing it back to sex. There’s no beating around the bush here:
You see that look in the faces of formerly fleshy sexpots who have morphed into pinched, prematurely aged superwaifs. What do they do for fun? Food and sex are appetites inextricably linked in the human psyche. One could speculate that for those obsessed with not eating, even the boyfriend’s salami goes the way of the bread basket.
The message? Don’t starve yourself down, not because it isn’t healthy or because it irreparably damages your psyche and your will to live or even because it sets up an (often deadly) unrealistic standard for your fans, but because it’s just (shoulders raised) not so sexy. Hit ‘em where it hurts, and, maybe, we’ll tackle some ground.

Hillea realizes the difficulty of positing a world taken over by the “lush,” “curvy,” forms of Johanssen and Zeta-Jones (now that we’re on the topic, are they really larger than a Size 6?):

Of course, it’s easy for anyone who isn’t an aspiring actress to beat the drum for weight gain. Our careers don’t depend on being a jean size smaller than the next girl. As one male studio executive who asked not to be named says, “Do we really want stars to look like the rest of us? If actresses represented the way the public really looks, the mother from Gilbert Grape would be a sex symbol.”
It seems that that’s the ultimate fear—if we accept Drew Barrymore as body-beautiful, then we’re just a couple of steps away from accepting obesity (in others and ourselves). Not to mention the fact that 500-pound Bonnie Grape is no more representative of her public constituents than Kate Bosworth, Nicole Richie, or the shrinking Keira Knightley.

I’m always interested in journalism that confronts body stereotypes, and the premise here is pure. Even the article’s subtitle, “In an industry rife with painfully thin stick figures, women with some meat on their bones are—lucky for us—rising to the top” offers a respectable purpose and heralds writing I’d like to read. But, sprinkled with not-so-fat celebrity examples, black-and-white thinking (see quote above), and an accompanying graphic (see below) that all but refutes anything said, the take-home message is confusing and elusive at best.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


The National Eating Disorder Association’s (NEDA’s) media watchdog program, which began in 1997, targets advertising that portrays unhealthy messages about body shape and size, with the understanding that such messages may contribute to the incidence of eating disorders. According to NEDA, over 50% of the protested ad campaigns have been discontinued as the result of such advocacy.

In 2002, when I first learned of, and became involved in, the campaign, I met with female students at a local university in order to get their feedback on the ad above. The promotion, for Nutri-Grain breakfast bars, features a slim, attractive woman with two cinnamon buns affixed to her rear end. You may remember similar television ads, including one, this time whose subject was male, who wore a frosted doughnut wrapped around his middle.

Aside from the obvious untruth (cinnamon buns don’t land directly on your buns, nor doughnuts on your waist, and it’s exactly this type of thinking that encourages people to seek out widely proliferated, but highly ineffective, techniques for “spot reduction”), what struck me most about this ad, and when led to the most interesting discussion at the college, was the copy, which does away with subtlety and diplomacy and instead bodes consumers to “Respect yourself in the morning.”

Lest this be unclear, eating a Nutri-Grain breakfast bar allows you to maintain your self-respect. Eating a cinnamon bun (or two), quite obviously akin to engaging in an unplanned, unladylike, orgiastic feast the night before, does not.

It’s interesting, this juxtaposition of food and morality (sprinkled with a healthy dose of sex) that seems to repeatedly be played out in our thoughts and conversations. “I was good” or “I was bad” don’t have anything to do with characterological or behavioral transgressions, but instead with what we ate. It’s not surprising that Madison Avenue caught on, recognizing that how we rate ourselves morally, and how we feel about ourselves in general, is largely tied to what we eat. Breakfast bar or cinnamon bun? Madonna or whore? You make the call. . . .

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

So You Think You're Thin Enough?

Are you following So You Think You Can Dance? They’re down to the final two female dancers, and I can’t help but notice that Donyelle has about 25 pounds on Heidi. I know it’s not just me. Either the contestants themselves or some higher ups on the show notice the discrepancy, too—it’s reflected in their costume choices. While Donyelle is typically covered, often in long pants and sleeves, Heidi’s look is as skin-baring as possible. She gets to wear the sequined skirts, midriff-baring tops, and form-fitting dresses that we’ve come to associate with dancing, skating, pageantry, femininity, and. . . being thin.

When the two performed a number together, wearing two-piece, pin-striped suits, Heidi’s top cut off about four inches above Donyelle’s. It’s interesting how a weight-discrepancy wouldn’t be so obvious amongst male contestants, where costumes aren’t typically as flashy and revealing as they are for the fairer sex.

Let’s be truthful, when it comes to bodies, Heidi’s closer to the American ideal (in more ways than one). Perhaps aided by her boxy shoulders and jutting hips, her lines are angular, and her dancing seems crisp. Notwithstanding technical ability, I wonder how weight and shape will influence our national vote and if it’s possible to evaluate dance without attention to size.

(The two-hour season finale airs tomorrow night.)

Monday, August 14, 2006

Stomach Bugs

This weekend, The New York Times Magazine featured an article entitled, “Fat Factors,” suggesting that a previously unconsidered factor may be to be blame for your weight—microogranisms.

The article’s author, Robin Marantz Henig, describes recent research indicating yet another biological theory of weight—we already have about 50 “guilty” obesity genes, some of which regulate appetite, satiety cues, and activity level. But now, scientists are exploring the possibility that intestinal microbes (e.g., bacteria, fungi, etc.) may play a role in how fat you come to be. And, lest you have any lingering doubts about an uncertain future, Jeffrey Gordon, the director of the Center for Genome Sciences at Washington University, informs us: “‘Microbes colonize our body surfaces from the moment of our birth. . . . They are with us throughout our lives, and at the moment of our death they consume us.’”

According to Henig’s article, microbes (microflora) accomplish a multitude of gastro-intestinal tasks, including the production of vitamins and enzymes, as well as the facilitation of digestion. Henig writes that they “help extract calories from the food we eat and help store those calories in fat cells for later use—which gives them, in effect a role in determining whether our diets will make us fat or thin.” Thus, my 450-calorie meal may be different than yours. It’s possible that I will extract and store 400 of these calories, you only 300, based on varying levels of intestinal microbes, thus complicating the classic calories-in-versus-out method of weight-loss or -maintenance. And, the formulaic 3,500-calorie reduction requisite for a one-pound weight-loss? Again, not so rigid when microbes are involved.

The Times article details animal studies, suggesting that bacterial microflora and/or exposure to certain viruses (“infectobesity”) lead to increased incidence of obesity. In other words, catching a virus can make you fat. Correlational studies in humans seem to support this notion—those with certain viral antibodies are more likely to be obese. Viruses may lead to increases in fat-cell counts and size or may toy with the brain’s satiety center.

While data are still preliminary, researchers are already toying with antibody tests (documenting exposure to one of the implicated viruses), and as you might imagine, antiviral-drug administration looms in the horizon. What I find most interesting about this report are its psychological and sociocultural correlates. Here, we have yet another biological theory of weight (the existence of obesity genes, preceding it) and yet, we still hold strong to the belief that obesity is a psychological condition, an individual failure of will-power, conviction, and self-regard, when in fact, there are plenty of “overweight” people who eat no more than their thinner counterparts. More and more, research is debunking that myth. Henig details an interesting example discussed by Rudolph Leibel, a Columbia University obesity researcher, “. . . if you take two nonobese people of the same weight, they will require different amounts of food depending on whether or not they were once obese. . . formerly fat people need to eat less than never-fat people to maintain the exact same weight.” The possibility of a microbial factor in the incidence of obesity lends weight to the notion that losing weight may be more of an uphill battle than previously thought.

And there seems to be good reason for this. Transport overweight people back in time, and they’re likely to fare better than those who are thin. As Henig notes, the “thrifty-genotype” hypothesis of weight suggests that historically, there was an evolutionary advantage to packing on the pounds. Now, technologically advanced beyond famine and draught, there’s no such need for biological stores, but let’s not underestimate the power of context—put obese people in another time and another place, and they’re royalty, exalted for their natural inclination toward getting fat and “keeping it on.” They survive, while the skinny perish, somehow unable (or not having the discipline) to eat enough.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Family Conflict

In an episode of Showtime’s series Weeds, Celia Hodes (Elizabeth Perkins) regularly weighs her daughter, Isabelle (played by 12-year-old Allie Grant), and as the scale tips, accuses Isabelle of sneaking food. The solution? Celia sneakily swaps part of Isabelle’s candy bar for a chocolate laxative, landing Isabelle in the elementary school bathroom and as the flatulent target of her peers. Isabelle’s father yells at Celia, “They called her, ‘Shit Girl!’”

“Well, better than ‘Fat Girl,” Celia replies. She continues, “It is cold and cruel out there for fat girls.”

Incidentally, the sour apple doesn’t far fall from the tree. Privy to her mother’s guile, Isabelle plants Immodium in Celia’s Trimspa bottle, rendering the bathroom-happy Celia as bloated, constipated, and enraged. As she makes camp on the toilet, reading, doing the crossword, filing her nails, chugging water, and even nodding off, Isabelle’s in bed, polishing off a chocolate bar. Her response to her mother’s frustrated screams: a smug, complacent, “Bitch.” Was Isabelle hungry? Maybe. Craving chocolate? Perhaps. But, it’s clear that rebellion trumps all else, that the chocolate bar is a prop in an ongoing family struggle that ultimately has no victor.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Wednesday, August 09, 2006


I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to be thin, or thinner than you are. In fact, I’d say there might be something wrong if you were not affected by (or hadn’t internalized) the hordes of media messages we receive on a daily basis, suggesting that this be your ultimate goal. But, it’s interesting to me how body dissatisfaction so easily turns emotional and destructive.

Outside of your weight or shape, I’m sure there are things about your appearance that you don’t find ideal. Maybe your hair’s frizzy, or your complexion’s spotty. Maybe your feet are funny. As a personal example, I point to my fingernails. No matter what I do, they don’t grow. As soon as they’re about an eighth of an inch beyond my fingers, they snag/peel/break, and they’re off. Sure, there are some things I can do (nail hardeners, for example), but the bottom line is, oh, well, I’m never going to have long nails. And I’m ok with that.

Why can’t we be this way about our bodies? Desiring to be thinner, but resigned to how we are. We might be disappointed by a “problem” feature, and we may even try to fix it, but nothing, in my mind, packs the same emotional punch as not weighing what we should. Nothing has such a grip, such a soul-clamp, on who we are as the gap between our bodies and how we want them to be.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Pageant Culture

In the recent film, Little Miss Sunshine, 7-year-old, pint-sized, beauty-pageant contestant Olive Hoover is faced with a harrowing dilemma: with her family at a roadside diner, Olive orders waffles a la mode, only to draw criticism from her motivational-speaker father, to the tune of, “eating fat makes you fat.” Olive ponders the diminutive dish of chocolate ice cream before her, as her father persuades her to abstain (citing qualitative statistics—pageant contestants don’t eat ice cream!), and she dejectedly, but resolutely, resists.

Once at the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, Olive prepares for her swimsuit and talent competitions, decidedly unlike the other pre-pubescent participants. Her hair isn’t hot-iron curled, her body isn’t blasted with fake tanner, her make-up is subtle, and her mother is comparatively unobtrusive. But, prior to taking the stage, Olive, in one of the saddest scenes of the film, pauses in front of the mirror, and seems to catch her reflection for the first time. She self-consciously evaluates her childlike frame, and you can almost read her mind. It’s a moment that signifies hope shattered, innocence lost, all in pregnant gaze. She’s a bit pudgier than the other girls, and she’s probably grateful she didn’t indulge. Olive looks at her reflection with a disappointment that can only reflect the internalization of adult-like messages, and in a flash, she seamlessly morphs into a pageant contestant.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Role Model

Mara Reinstein is an entertainment writer for US Weekly, who last year, was diagnosed with enteritis, a “bacterial disease” that resulted in significant gastro-intestinal stress. Due to the disease, the normally thin Reinstein lost weight and was surprised by the reactions she received. In a recent issue of Glamour magazine, Reinstein asks, “‘Why was the outside world so thrilled with my ravaged body?’” It seems that friends and family celebrated her 11-pound weight loss, which resulted in her being significantly underweight, and which, incidentally, also resulted in her inability to hail a cab, keep color in face and ample fluid in her system, or sometimes, even, simply, to sit up.

What I find inspiring about Reinstein’s Glamour piece is her surprise about people’s reactions, as well as her commitment to re-gain her weight (and health). Reinstein writes: “‘It took a life-threatening illness to make me realize how much my peers value being ultra-thin. Now I understand why some celebrities succumb to the allure of jutting ribs in string bikinis: Their bizarre habits are rewarded with compliments from their handlers, friends, and fans.’”

Reinstein reports that she’s re-gained her weight, but has “‘never felt better about her body.’” While it may be hard for some women to identify with someone whose baseline is a Size 6, I’m happy that Reinstein wrote this piece and even happier that she can provide a different (read: healthier) perspective for the entertainment/celebrity industry. As a staff writer, maybe she can convince US Weekly editors to reduce the magazine’s features on ultra-thin women (do we really need another piece on Keira Knightley?), or maybe she’ll just hesitate to write such pieces herself. Baby steps. . .

Friday, August 04, 2006


In Overcoming Overeating, Jane Hirschmann and Carol Munter presented one of the first guides for intuitive eating, namely eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full. As they contend, a compulsive eater is not addicted to food, but to the diet-binge cycle. Their theory purports that overeating results from overly rigid (diet) standards, and that it is your (healthy) way of asserting yourself. Hirschmann and Munter write:

You the hopeless case feel out of control and despondent because you’ve bought the line that you’re a failure at the idealized task of body shaping. But you the rebel are a success. You break the rules and assert your right to eat what you want and look as you do. The compulsive eater is, in an interesting way, a rebel in constant protest against what has, by now, become her own imposition of cultural standards and judgments.

Their approach allows you to eat whatever you’re craving in a given moment and focuses on equalizing different kinds of food, so that you can arrive at a place where a carrot has the same value as a slice of carrot cake. Whenever you’re hungry, you’re encouraged to ask yourself what you’re craving: Something sweet? Salty? Crunchy? Mushy? Hot? Cold? And, you’re encouraged to eat exactly what you’re craving. Time and time again, Hirschmann and Munter (in their clinical work) have found that people may make some unhealthy choices early on, but eventually their bodies regulate and they begin to crave, at different times, foods across the spectrum.

Other aspects of Hirschmann and Munter’s approach include:
1) Carrying around a food bag, stocked with different types of food, in order to prevent those moments of excessive hunger that lead to overeating.
2) Cleaning out your closet to reflect your current weight—either giving away or hiding the clothing that no longer fits, since seeing it on a daily basis is a reminder that you’ve “failed.”
3) Stocking your home with an array of foods, including what they call “formerly forbidden foods.” The theory is that by exposing yourself to foods that you used to deny yourself, you’ll, over time, reduce their “glitter,” and, consequently, their grip on you. As for amounts? Hirschmann and Munter encourage you to have, on hand, three times the amount of food that you’re capable of eating in a binge. Ideally, it’s all in a single container (think stuffing three bags of Oreos into a large plastic container), so that you’re not able to get caught up in amounts (“I’ve now eaten an entire row”), but instead can focus on what your body wants. We tend to overeat when we know there’s a limited amount (possibly a relic of dieting, in which we’re stocking up before a self-imposed draught).
4) Thinking beyond meals—eating when you’re hungry and not around a preordained schedule. In practice, this results, typically, in more than three “eating experiences” per day.
5) Engaging in “mirror work,” in which you practice looking at your body, without judgment.
6) Working at distinguishing between “stomach hunger” (when you’re physiologically hungry) and “mouth hunger” (when you’re craving food out of boredom, anxiety, anger, loneliness, or any other motivation that doesn’t involve physiological hunger) and, over time, arriving at a place where you’re eating more frequently out of stomach hunger and able to identify mouth hunger and why you might be experiencing it.
7) Tossing the scale.

Various aspects of this approach (or the approach in its entirety) may seem ridiculously radical, particularly in a culture that preaches regular meals, precision, restriction, monitoring, and self-loathing. Certainly, it won’t work for everyone. But, I’ve found that it can be quite helpful for women who have historically cycled through the diet-binge chain, who would like to disempower the hold that food has on their lives, and who are interested in promoting a body image governed by self-acceptance.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Just Say No

My office refrigerator is broken. Notwithstanding the fact that New York City (the land of delivery) is one of the only places where a major kitchen appliance could be broken for months without major repercussions, I realized this week that, in fact, there is some eating-related fall-out when the refrigerator goes kaput.

Take my recent lunch experience. I ordered (delivery, of course) a slice of pizza and a side of sautéed spinach. The order arrives, and it’s enough spinach to feed a family, certainly much more than I’d like for lunch, and unfortunately, storing leftovers is not an option. As I’m spooning the spinach from the take-out container onto my plate, I pass the amount that I want and add some extra, thinking to myself, “I better have a little more, since I’m going to have to throw it out.” I catch myself and pause. What????

There are plenty of reasons for me to have more spinach, but, at the time, none of them has anything to do with me and what I want. I should eat more spinach so that there’s less to throw out? What’s that going to do? I eye the trash container on the kitchen floor and, quite mercifully, notice a number of differences between it and me.

It’s funny how the notions of “clean your plate,” “finish your meal,” “starving children in [third-world country],” subtly, but tenaciously, cling to our collective unconscious. How even someone who’s built her personal and professional lives around intuitive eating so easily falls into a trap like this.

I’m not happy that I had to throw the spinach out (in an ideal world, I would have given it to someone else), but I am happy that I tossed my amateur trash-can impersonation and recognized that just because someone gives me more than what I want, doesn’t mean I have to take it.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Neuticle Rant

Think cosmetic surgery is just for humans? Think again. More and more, veterinarians are approached by pet owners, looking to put their pooches under the knife. While it seems that most canine surgeries are performed for actual medical reasons, some, surprisingly, are not. Take the case of neuticles: testicular implants for male dogs, designed by Dr. Gregg Miller, a vet from Missouri.

In an issue of Animal Fair magazine, Dr. Miller explains that neuticles “are for ‘neuter-resistant pet owners’ who want their dogs to retain their masculinity and self-esteem.” Um. . . who, exactly, are we talking about here? The dogs? Can anyone point me in the direction of a female pet owner who insisted on installing a pair of neuticles in her pet?

Dr. Miller reports that the procedure has allowed for a reduction in the pet population (because neuter-reluctant pet owners are now willing to succumb to surgery). That’s fantastic, but is an artificially-stuffed sac really what it takes?

(And because my writing is about women and body image), is there any parallel between dogs undergoing surgery to please their (male) owners and women undergoing surgery to please their (or attract some) men? Neuticles are a hit because male pet owners use their dogs as narcissistic extensions of themselves. Sure, they may not be feeling as manly as the next guy, but their neuticle-sporting pets may help them negotiate the difference. Is it possible that a husband who encourages his wife to get breast implants, or a man who supports his already-thin partner’s decision to get liposuction, is doing just the same? Because a man with a (unnaturally) thin, large-breasted woman on his arm can advertise his masculinity (especially to other men) and compensate for a lack of self-esteem in much the same way as an extra pair of testicles for all the world to see.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Terri Schiavo

If I asked you to free-associate to the name, Terri Schiavo, you’d probably come up with something like the following: right-to-die, brain damage, family conflict, court order.

But, especially if you’re attuned to these matters, you may recall the eating-disorder speculation surrounding Schiavo's deterioration. The family battle central to Schiavo’s right-to-die case took center stage, shadowing what very possibly caused Schiavo to slip into a persistent vegetative state in the first place, an eating disorder. Reports indicate that the 5’3” Shiavo, who weighed 220 pounds at her heaviest, but who had lost 65 pounds, continued to struggle with her weight for years.

In 1990, Schiavo collapsed and her heart stopped beating temporarily. A malpractice suit against Schiavo’s doctor, brought on by her and her husband’s lawyer, Michael Fox, suggests that Schiavo collapsed as a result of an eating-disorder induced potassium imbalance. A 2003 article in The St. Petersburg Times written by Fox states: “One night, Terri purged, which caused her potassium level to drop low enough to cause a heart attack. Before fire rescue arrived and took her to the hospital, Terri's brain had been deprived of oxygen for long enough to produce catastrophic brain damage.”

In a 2005 Associated Press article appearing in USA Today, a reporter writes: “Medical records from the hospital where Schiavo was treated after her collapse note that ‘she apparently has been trying to keep her weight down with dieting by herself, drinking liquids most of the time during the day and drinking about 10-15 glasses of iced tea.’” The article also suggests that Schiavo had stopped menstruating, and that when Schiavo sought medical attention, her doctor was negligent in not inquiring about eating-disordered activity.

Of course, whether or not Schiavo suffered from an eating disorder is still debated. As other aspects of the case revealed, it seems to boil down to one person’s word against another’s. Unfortunately, even an autopsy report doesn’t provide definitive data on an eating disorder diagnosis. But, given the serious speculation, I think some interesting points arise. The USA Today article, published while Schiavo was still alive, notes: “It is a cruel twist lost on no one close to the case: A woman who is said to have struggled with an eating disorder is now in the middle of a court battle over whether her feeding tube should be removed so that she can starve to death.”

Moreover, if Schiavo did, in fact, suffer from an eating disorder, typified by concerns with body-image, self-presentation, and others’ judgment, it seems pretty clear to me that she would not have wanted the media attention she garnered during her final moments and even clearer that she would not have wanted to persist in a state that was largely unreflective of whom she hoped to be.