Dr. Deah’s Calmanac

August Perspectives (Project Run-away)

Have you seen them? Every August they emerge, like clockwork: the J. C. Penny ads; the Target ads; the K-Mart and Macy’s ads. If you’ve said, “No,” pat yourself on the back! Clearly, you have been working on limiting your exposure to magazines and television. You are reclaiming your ability to de ne beauty and how much of a priority it plays in your self-acceptance.

If you are nodding your head in agreement, then you know what I am referring to:

The infamous “back to school” clothing ads.

I know, I know. While most of the country is still blistering from record heat waves and wild res, the media is fanning our personal flames of discontent by inundating us with pictures of boys and girls and young women and men swathed in woolens, corduroys, argyles, and tweeds. According to these ads, no child is too young to “get ready” to start the

new school year and “work it” with the most important back to school item of them all…

The sexiest, most flirtatious, stand-out-in-the-crowd back-to-school out- t EVER!

No doubt there is a collective sigh of relief from many as bikini season ends and is replaced, in most parts of the country, by layers of concealing sweaters. But underneath it is usually tummy-control pantyhose, a constant reminder that we are still trying to compress our bodies to t into the model of “academic babeness.”

One campaign is particularly insidious and uses clothing as the ultimate weapon of “lass destruction” by pitting girls against each other based on what they are wearing. The ad assigns clothing the superpower to transform a girl so completely that everyone thinks she is the “new kid” and hence gets all of the attention, leaving fallout comprised of anger and envy in the other girls. The toxic message being reinforced is girls should be more focused on being the “fairest one of all” rather than fostering healthy peer relationships and setting academic goals.

Another spot uses the classic Mo-town tune Get Ready as we watch 7- to 10-year-old girls shimmy their way into the front door of the school building. Is it a coincidence that as we get a close up of one sassy schoolgirl we hear the lyrics, “I wanna make love to you so get ready”?

Really??? Am I the only one who finds this offensive? Am I overanalyzing? Is my feminist, size-activist self, missing out on the simple joy of fashion? Am I overreacting to the K-Mart ad that has 9-year-old kids strutting down the catwalk and advising kids to “work it, girl!” (And trust me, they are NOT talking about history, science or math!)

If being outspoken on this subject and helping girls and women resist the urge to conform to the back-ass-ward priorities of our society means I come off as a Debbie Downer, then I am willing to take the heat … literally and figuratively. It is only going to get worse between now and Labor Day. Newspapers, magazines, and internet articles will follow suit, selling fantasies of life-changing clothing with Clark Kent to Superman capabilities. And if your new clothes happen to be showing off your new body that miraculously dropped two sizes over the eight weeks you were away from your classmates, even better. What could be more amazing than showing up and hearing everyone exclaim how thin you are, enviously asking how you lost so much weight, and murmuring words of congratulations followed by hisses of “I hate you”???

You may be wondering why I care so much about this. After all, it’s a tradition, a ritual, something we have all had to weather in our lifetimes… No harm. No foul. But the truth is these campaigns may spur impulsive, desperate, and dangerous last-minute attempts to drop as much weight as possible before school starts. And that is something that worries me. Additionally, as a Certified College Counselor, I am appalled at the message this sends to older students. Never mind the houses you built in Peru for Habitat for Humanity. Forget the advanced calculus classes you took at Stanford to buff up your college resume or the sacrifices you made by taking extra SAT tutoring classes. Getting your mind or your resume in shape doesn’t hold an energy-saving candle to shaping up your body and wardrobe in time for the first day of school. THAT is the 4.0 that is most coveted!!!

So what can we do to prepare for this onslaught?

Plan A

STEP 1. Dig a hole

STEP 2. Climb into the hole

STEP 3. Stay in the hole until October.

Okay. Not realistic, and I recognize that there is a fine line between denial, avoidance, and self-preservation.

Plan B

This is a more realistic way to win the self-esteem battle and stave off the temptation to fall back into disordered eating patterns that August may trigger.

STEP 1. Get Active. No, I am not talking about going on a crash exercise regimen to lose weight before the bell rings. I am talking about becoming less passive. Know what is in store for you. Prepare yourself for what you will see in the stores, magazines, on television, and on the Internet. Decide in advance how you want to control your exposure to these messages. You have more control than you think. Take an active role in what you let into your life. These media messages are aimed at selling you the notion that you are not okay in the body you have now. Would you let a friend like that into your life?

STEP 2. Find your own voice and use it. You will not be able to keep all of the media messages out of your life (see Plan A) but you can neutralize the power the messages have over you. Define your own priorities for what makes a successful school year. Set your own standards for fashion, personal style, and comfort. Speak out against the media messages when possible and let people know there are more important things to focus on when the school bell rings on that first day. Attend a PTA meeting and remind parents of other ways to acknowledge their children besides weight-related measures of health and success – ones that emphasize initiative, accomplishments, and individual talents and strengths.

STEP 3. Remember you are not alone. You are not the only person struggling to resist crash dieting or disordered eating when feeling vulnerable to body-appearance comparisons. Find support systems to help you maintain your resolve and reinforce your newly developing beliefs. You would be surprised how many resources are out there to help you do this. (e.g. About Face, ASDAH, Body Positive, and The Body Positive; links and information about these and other organizations can be found on my website at drdeah.com)

Try to find the humor in the situation. After all, this is the month of National Clown and Smile Weeks, and without a sense of humor, it just wouldn’t be funny. Be forgiving of yourself and understand that you are already a perfect size you, and no matter how much you still feel attached to changing your body, it will NOT change overnight. Hating yourself in the moment has absolutely NO positive effects on your physical or emotional health and well-being.

I remember when I was shopping for an out t for my niece’s wedding. I told myself over and over, “She is the bride. Her dress is important. Mine? Not so much.” And yet, I found myself in my own personal episode of the fashion reality show, “What Not to Wear.” There was an aura of importance surrounding my attire for this wedding. After all, I am the one in the family that is strident about self- acceptance. I am the one that writes a blog about redefining beauty and challenging societal standards of perfection. I am the member of the family who co-authored a book about size acceptance and women calling a truce in their battles against their bodies.

My niece was getting married. She was the bride, yet I knew I would be scrutinized. This was not narcissistic, grandiose, or egomaniacal. This was a fact.

The last time I had to dress up for an important family event was for my son’s Bar Mitzvah. When I was shopping for that dress, I was – “thanks” to a starvation diet – a nouveau size 4.

STEP 4. I had never been that thin … and, of course, I was “just visiting.” I was so inexperienced in shopping as a thin person that I accepted Saks Fifth Avenue’s offer of assistance from a personal shopper.

In my typical self-deprecating way that I had cultivated over a lifetime of apologizing for my body, I looked at the personal shopper and said,

I’m sorry I’m such a hopeless case. It’s my butt and these thighs; they must make your job so much more difficult.

Did I mention I was a size 4? And there I was apologizing to my personal shopper for not being a size 2.

Years later, the size 4 suit that I purchased wouldn’t get past my shoulders. And I no longer used a personal shopper. Flying solo, I dared to go where all too many women before me have dared to go … into the belly of the beast. Charge card in hand, I walked into The Store.

But my dress size was not the only change I had been through in the years since my son’s Bar Mitzvah. I had been working on cultivating my personal size-acceptance over that time and incrementally incorporating a more Health at Every Size (HAES) approach into my daily routine. Hence, I was not shopping completely alone.

I entered the store with the belief that I deserved to find a dress that made me feel good. I shopped with a self-confidence that hugged my shoulders with an attitude of, “I can look just ne … beautiful, even … at this size.” Most importantly, I was accompanied by my newest supportive companion: ME.

I was NOT shopping with the eyes and opinions of my family or the media. I was clad in the bulletproof vest of MY eyes and MY opinion. I was draped in a comforting serape of conviction that how I felt about how I looked and what I chose to wear was the only opinion that held any weight!!

I began looking around the store. I focused on fabrics and colors that I found pleasing. Then I included the elements of comfort and a dash of pizzazz. I was almost enjoying myself! I wasn’t obsessing over what size I was or whether my arms, thighs or butt would be offensive to someone. In a way, that opened up a wider range of possibilities. True…there was still a hipper selection in the smaller single digit sizes, and that did spark my anger and caused me to write a letter of complaint to the store later that night. But I was a woman on a mission and I was not to be denied!

A saleswoman approached and I waited for my usual wave of apologetic embarrassment to wash over me. It didn’t!

“That’s a gorgeous dress,” I said pointing towards the rack of Elie Tahari designs, “Expensive, but beautiful!”

“This dress is a classic. You will be able to wear it forever!”

I smiled when I thought of the size 4 Bar Mitzvah suit gathering dust in my closet. The personal shopper had told me the same thing, and I hadn’t been convinced. After all, a part of me knew I was “just visiting” the land of size 4.

But this time I had a feeling she was absolutely correct. After years of working personally and professionally on size acceptance, my years of yo-yo dieting and shape-shifting had finally come to an end!

“What size are you?” she asked, flipping through the hangers.

I smiled, and declared, “I’m a perfect size ME!”

Predictable Challenges:

For a month that starts off with National Clown Week, followed by National Smile Week (I am not making this up!), one may think the “August Effect” would be one of laughter, grins, and celebration. Depending on chronological age and developmental stage, some of us are finally allowing ourselves to relax and embrace the different pace that summer brings. But for others, the sound of the clock signaling summer’s end can be heard ticking louder and louder. Labor Day used to mark the end of summer, and returning to school traditionally followed that final holiday weekend. But now, many schools reopen the second or third week of August, and, depending on your point of view, you may experience a myriad of feelings including excitement, anxiety, relief, and loss.

Chin up! All is not lost! I am hoping as always, predicting the feelings associated with the upcoming changes can be a powerful proactive way to manage the “August Effect.” So let’s take advantage of the currents of change that are in the air all around us, and instead of being pulled down by the undertow, let’s ride the wave and make some of our own intentional changes.

New beginnings may not be easy for everyone. Whether it entails going off to college for the first time, starting a new grade, re-negotiating your daily schedule back to non-summer mode, or insecurities about fitting into a new environment, we could find ourselves displacing our anxiety about transition onto body image or increase disordered eating patterns to manage these feelings. So let’s take a look at turtles and snails.

Turtles and snails??!!

I know…this is a big leap. How in the world did I go from woolen sweaters and self-actualization to turtles and snails? But bear with me for just a moment.

Turtles and snails are two creatures that carry their homes with them wherever they go. They don’t change who they are based on where they are or what others expect of them. They are symbols of moving slowly and methodically – as opposed to impulsively or erratically. They know when to retreat into their shells and when to emerge. There is a tendency to equate pulling into our shells with avoidance, but there is a difference between complete avoidance and healthy self-preservation. The upcoming changes that late summer and early fall often bring do not have to mean an inevitable falling back on old habits or reintroducing negative thought processes that you may have put aside during the summer months – especially if you have a strategy to address the situation. One plan that can be helpful is- when you are making your checklist for school supplies, return-to-work task list, or dormitory linens, etcetera, take a moment and add these two items:

  • What are some potential challenges that may be triggered by upcoming transitions?
  • Identify a personal transitional object to bring with you.

“Transitional object?” you say. “I believe I am a bit old for a teddy bear, Dr. Deah, thank you very much!”

Okay, perhaps, but in my opinion, let’s take some advice from the turtles and the snails … we are NEVER too old for a transitional object. We may, however, need to update our definition of what a transitional object can be. Is there a word or a phrase that keeps you centered when you feel you are losing your sense of self? Is there a photo, figurine, or piece of jewelry that reminds you to breathe, focus on the positive, and stay present when you are in stressful or unfamiliar situations? Of course, human support systems are invaluable, and having someone you can call or write to is a great way to manage overwhelming feelings; but having something that is not impacted by cell phone reception or internet connectivity is more reliable. The object should be something that helps you remember your strengths and manage your anxiety. It may sound overly simplistic, a tad cheesy, and may not help at all. But in my personal and professional experience, I’ve seen it have positive benefits. With that in mind, let’s see if we can create an adult transitional object.

Important Dates to Remember:

August 1-7 – National Clown Week

Second week of August – National Smile Week

Last weekend in August – Labor Day Weekend

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