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Dr. Deah’s Calmanac – September Perspectives
Your Body or Your Life?
I am mesmerized by the human brain. All of the classic clichés about the “wonders and miracles of nature” do not even come close to describing the remarkable capabilities of what some call our sexiest organ. My attachment to my brain is increasing exponentially as I age. This is sad, considering that my brain seems to be reveling in finding ways to let me down and disappoint me. My memory has always been one of my greatest strengths. While I could never accept a compliment about any other asset, I had no problem owning the fact that I had an unbelievable memory; and I used it professionally and personally to bene t myself, my students, and my patients. Today? It pains me to report: I live in a world of perpetual Mad Libs.
Remember Mad Libs? It was a party game where you had to fill in blanks with verbs, adjectives, nouns and the occasional gerund without knowing the context for the words. When all of the blanks were finished, the “scribe” would then read the completed version and giggles would abound at the incongruity of the words. Of course, as we got older, we made the words as sexy as possible and got very creative with four-letter words … more hysterics.
Today? Not so hysterical. My brain is reMINDing me daily how hard it has been working for over half a century and is now ready for a rest and would I PLEASE not burden it with superfluous questions or concerns like:
What was the name of the guy in that movie with that other guy … I think they were in Texas?
Hmmm, a proper noun … here’s one. Now leave me be.
Of course, there are still memories that haunt my brain, embedded so deeply that, when accessed, I relive the experience in present time. When the memories are joyful this can be great fun. But unfortunately, my brain also holds memories of times that were so profoundly painful that, to this day, tears well up in the blink of an eye.
Some of my most negative memories revolve around my body hate and shame as a child – a common chord among those who were not the “perfect” size growing up. I still vividly remember one particular day in second grade. It was only my second time participating in the ritual, but I had already learned how to prepare for the moment when the school nurse would call, “Next…” and I would be walking the “last mile.”
Unlike the walk to the “chamber” or the “chair” there was no “last meal request.” In fact, I hadn’t eaten since noon the previous day when the announcement over the PA warned us that “Tomorrow is weight day.” That morning, I tried every trick in the book to get out of going to school, but my mother had to work, my father was already at work, and I didn’t have the following pre-requisites for staying home:
- Fever over 100,
- White spots in my throat,
- An inexplicable rash.
So, reluctantly, I put on my lightest- weight clothing, even though it was winter and I was living in Far Rockaway, New York. Girls weren’t allowed to wear pants to school yet, so I knew I would be cold no matter what. I might as well go ALL OUT! I went to the back of the closet where my summer clothes were hanging and pulled out
the princess skirt and the light cotton blouse. “Perfect,” I murmured, calculating that the combined weight of the clothing would be at least two pounds less than my warm, wonderful woolen skirt, woolen knee socks, and thick, hand-knitted, favorite gray sweater. I covered it all up with my heavy winter coat, so my mom wouldn’t yell at me to change into something warmer. I threw the Cream of Wheat cereal in the garbage and made it past her X-ray eyes. I had a higher purpose in mind. I was battling the enemy that day. It was me versus the Dark Lord, the Sith, the School Scale.
I could never understand it. Why was it so public? Why did they put the scale on the stage of the auditorium in front of everyone, while the nurse loudly announced the number? It was like the Salem witch trials! Why did the boys, except for Michael (name changed) NOT seem to care? Why were there other girls wearing crepe paper to school that day instead of clothing???
Why? Why? Why?
One of the first inklings I had that something was wrong with my body began when they started weighing me at school. Until then, I had been content in my body’s abilities. I played kickball, flipped baseball cards, jumped Double Dutch and was no slouch at Freeze Tag. I was one of the gang – that is until I met up with Scale-a-tor, who obliterated my self-esteem in one defining moment.
“Next!” the nurse called again, impatiently. There were so many more people to humiliate, and time was ticking away. “Miss Schwartz, you are next!” I took off my shoes and socks. (Years later, when I was more into accessorizing, I would also take off my rings and watch, but that year, I was still a novice.)
“Step on.” In retrospect, I wonder what would have happened if I had said, “No,” curtsied and pirouetted off the stage (I also took ballet classes).
But I was obedient and stepped up. She moved the little weight bit by bit and then raised her eyebrows. She had to move the BIG weight … the one that brings you into another decade of the scale … the 10-pound weight.
I was bad.
She proclaimed my weight for all to hear. I grabbed my saddle shoes, socks, and ran off the stage. I had walked the last mile, got zapped, and a part of me died.
It would take me years of personal exploration and therapy before I was able to transform my body hate into self-acceptance. Despite the decades of pain, however, I know I am one of the lucky ones. Many people reach a point where they are so tormented by the criticism and overt disgust aimed at their bodies that they end the misery by committing suicide. For those of you who think this may be far-fetched, trust me. If you had seen the number of adolescents that I worked with at a psychiatric hospital who survived suicide attempts and told me that the primary reason they wanted to die was because of how disgusting their body was, you would be less skeptical.
When I was the director of the Expressive Arts Therapy Department at a psychiatric hospital in the Bay Area, there were many ways we categorized our patients. One way was to separate the “voluntary admissions” from the “involuntary admissions.” Along with the label “Voluntary Admit” was the assumption that this patient was ready to change. Conversely, the “Involuntary Admit” was being forced to change.
In both cases, change was an elusive goal; and resistance was a formidable barrier to actualizing change. Even the voluntary patients with the internal desire to change bumped up against the walls of resistance.
Change is hard. Think about it: Paper money is squishable, foldable, and malleable. Change? Metal, unyielding, rigid.
When a person embarks on the road of size-acceptance – which may or may not include changing their ways of eating or relationship with food – it is often as a result of external pressure to be different from who they are. The individual is being told over and over to change:
Change your diet. Change your body. Change your behavior. Change your appearance.
The overriding message is:
You are not okay.
I worked with a patient once who told me, “If I ever kill myself, tell people it was because I couldn’t stand facing another day looking in the mirror and starting the day off hating myself.”
She felt like a failure every morning because she couldn’t change herself into what others wanted her to be. The only definition of change she could articulate or imagine was to change the way she looked, in an attempt to please her family. Every day was an apology for her existence. Every day she put her life on hold and believed that she could only be great if she lost enough weight.
We worked on re-defining her criteria for change. We looked at why others had the authority to prescribe her “change menu.” We looked at what she would change about her- self if no one else had a say and she could just change what she wanted. We explored her resistance to change, from every angle.
One day in our drama therapy group she announced that she was doing a scene about the two things she wanted to change about herself more than anything.
The group waited. Would it be her butt? Her thighs? Her upper arms?
Her scene was enthralling, powerful, humorous, and poignant. As the scene ended, she was in a restaurant. She ordered her selections from the “change menu”:
For my main course, I’ll have the “not-giving-my-power-of-self-acceptance-away-to-my-family.” And for dessert, I’ll have the “learning- to-speak-Spanish- fluently,” please.
It’s been a while since I’ve heard from this patient. But from time to time I like to think of her sitting in a restaurant in Barcelona, speaking perfect Spanish and loving herself as she is. No apologies. No ifs, ands, or “butts”.
And speaking of butts, I want to talk about the “But Rule.”
I am really sorry, but… I am wonderful, but… You are totally awesome, but…
One of the rules I live by is: Be aware of what comes after the “but”.
The But Rule isn’t a catchy phrase or a quotable snippet like, “I before E except after C;” but, nevertheless, they are words to live by.
Here’s what I mean.
Imagine a time in your life when a friend, lover, or family member, apologized to you. Chances are, the apology didn’t begin and end with, “I am so sorry.” Most likely the apology went more like, “I am so sorry, but I was really angry” or “I am so sorry, but you brought up the subject,” or “I apologize, but you need to own your side of it as well.”
If they had stopped at “sorry,” it would have been a pure, unadulterated apology – but they didn’t, because everything they said after “but” was really the message they wanted or needed you to know.
Frequently, the same holds true with compliments:
You look beautiful, but you could stand to lose a few pounds.
She played that piece wonderfully, but she messed up that one arpeggio.
He is amazing, but he is too short.
And sadly, sometimes we are the violators of the But Rule. How often do we look in the mirror and say, “Great outfit, but it makes my butt look big?”
All rules have exceptions, but…
Most of the time if you look at the words after the “but”, those are the true intentions of the statement, and they frequently neutralize the words that came before. I am guessing that most of us know how diluted an apology immediately becomes when someone follows the words “I’m sorry” with a justification of their mistake. In the moment, it is the apology we need, not the excuse. The excuse is usually there to convince the other person that what they did was really okay. It diffuses the apology.
Likewise, when a “but” is inserted into a compliment, the praise becomes a message of needed improvement:
She’s great at her job, but she’s too fat to be the face of the company.
She’s healthy, but she needs to lose the weight.
He’s brilliant, but he’s fat.
Do you see how the stigmatization of the person’s body eradicates the positivity of the rest of the statement? The audience is left with the secondary image in their minds, not the first. It may seem subtle or petty, but I really believe it to be true.
As I wrote in the April chapter, despite the increasing proof of the connection between weight-bullying and suicide, few, if any, interventions are being systematically implemented in schools. Sadly, stigma is claiming more victims every day. NAAFA’s End Bullying Campaign is a refreshing exception. Typically, Anti-bullying Legislation includes protocols regarding bullying children for race, religion, and gender identity, but not for being too fat, too thin, too short, or too tall. Hence, children and adults continue to take their own lives as a result of being teased and discriminated against based on their size.
Ludicrous? Yes. Rare? No. We live in a society that gives people permission to perpetuate unapologetic hatred towards people who are, heaven forbid, fat! Read the comment sections from just about any online article or blog post about obesity, dieting, or weight management, and you will inevitably see at least one comment from someone who has no compunction about sharing their belief that:
FAT people deserve to die. They take up too much space and they are disgusting to look at.
Ludicrous? Yes. Rare? No. Painful? Absolutely. Some of you may remember the 10-year-old Illinois girl who took her own life because she felt so hopeless about being fat. She is not alone. Additional studies have shown that normal-weight adolescents who merely feel fat are at risk for feelings of hopelessness, depression, and suicide.
Look, I know this is a painful and controversial topic, but the timing couldn’t be more perfect to explore your thoughts and feelings on the matter. Did you know that September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month? The first full week in September is National Suicide Prevention Week, and the third week of September is Weight Stigma Awareness Week.
I am not sure who the people are who put together all of these awareness weeks, months, days, or years. Sometimes my linear, hungry-for- order, left side of my brain would appreciate it if they would all just come together and work from a master calendar. It would feel so much more … well … linear! (And this may be a primary motivation for my putting together this Calmanac). But I will say that it is not a big leap to make from Suicide Prevention Week to Weight Stigma Awareness Week. Perhaps having the two weeks so close together will prompt us to take some action, get involved, and acknowledge the need to address this preventable waste of life, whether it is in our homes, schools, workplaces, or legislatures.
For more about bullying, weight stigma, and suicide prevention, please visit these links:
- National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA): naafaonline.com
- Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA): bedaonline.com
- Association of Suicidology: suicidol- ogy.org
Next to January, September is the month regarded as an opportunity for new beginnings.
Historically, September has been the official beginning of the new school year and a chance to start over and reinvent ourselves. We already discussed in last month’s chapter the need to recognize that a new school year for children, adolescents, and college students may be fraught with insecurities about not fitting in. Bullying kids based on their body type frequently goes unchecked by adults in school. Using the justification of fighting childhood obesity (remember that September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month), which is being proclaimed as the new epidemic, it is becoming all too commonplace to suggest that kids as young as 4 or 5 go on restrictive diets.
This is especially disturbing, given the extensive body of research showing that these drastic attempts at weight loss often lead to eating disorders. In the spirit of a new school year and a new opportunity for learning, this is a wonderful time to review the literature, update our knowledge, and learn the facts about appropriate ways to address healthy eating and exercise habits. (Some excellent resources are available on the NAAFA website (see above) in the “Children and Parents” section) and the Association of Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH) site.
My hope is that people will stay informed on this subject and spread the word that it is time to focus on other scales to measure a child’s health. We need to educate nurses, nutritionists, doctors, therapists, teachers, moms, and dads, and remind them that eating disorders among kids are escalating and directly related to self-loathing. The good news is that eating disorders and body hate are preventable, and one method is to avoid measuring a child by BMI and weight alone.
September is also frequently the month of the Jewish New Year. Because I was a “red diaper baby,” I had minimal involvement with religious Jewish rituals. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, a “red diaper baby” is a child raised in a family that sympathized with communist/socialist tenets. In my part of the world, the New York City borough of Queens, red diaper babies were frequently the children of Atheist Jews. As a child, this meant attending Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson concerts and attending family summer camps in upstate New York or the Berkshires with names like “Camp Kinderland” and “Midvale.” I attended both of these “subversive organizations” as a child, and I have fond memories of music, marshmallows, swimming, and being far, far away from the blistering heat of Far Rockaway, my hometown.
Along with the lyrics to pro-union songs, camp also taught me that there were cultural Jews and religious Jews. We were the former, and hence, my sisters and I did not miss the multitude of school days that the religious Jewish children did (BOO), nor did we have to attend religious school on the weekends (YAY).
But thrice a year we passed over the line and joined the religious Jews for Passover and the High Holidays.
My father was very clear about the reasons for these “visits” to the other side. They had less to do with God and religion and more to do with discrimination and oppression. In regards to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the holiest of holy days, he’d explain:
If we were living in Nazi Germany, they wouldn’t give a damn if we went to temple or not. We’d be killed just because we were born Jewish. Today you stay home from school to let everyone know that you are a Jew.
It was an early life lesson about the irrationality of prejudice and an opportunity to watch weekday cartoons. Needless to say, we still weren’t fully in the community of the “temple attending” Jews.
My grandmother, however, had both feet firmly planted in the religious Jew category, and both hands firmly planted in creating the most amazing potato knishes I have ever tasted to this day. I know I’m getting a tad sidetracked, but I need to talk about the food – the food that accompanies Jewish holidays.
The food I grew up with offered comfort, closeness, community, and cohesiveness. I don’t want to talk about the calories or the confusion that amassed as I grew older resulting from being told to eat and then criticized for being fat. Mostly, I just want to reminisce with some of you and introduce others to a world of flavors and textures that filled my senses. I didn’t know it then, but eating my grandma’s cooking was an exercise in mindful eating because, in the world of mindful eating, it is important to really appreciate food, to relish it, to conquer ones’ fear of it and to recognize satiety, hunger, and appetite.
When it came to my grandma’s cooking, it was not just about my stomach being full. It was about my heart being full of her happiness that we were all together and my arms being full of loved ones and my small hands being full of dough as I helped Grandma shape the knishes. Spoons and ladles over owed as we fed each other tastes of the proverbial Jewish grandmother chicken soup that, to borrow a metaphor from food critic Ruth Reichl, was heaven “distilled in a spoon.” And her kugel, mouth-watering slippery egg noodles, buttery goodness, snuggling in between pillows of sweet pot cheese and a blanket of raisins. The top of the kugel was a comforter of crispy brown noodles. How did she get the top so crispy and keep the inside so soft, smooth, and velvety?? Miraculously there were leftovers and the next day we would eat it cold. To my delight, it was just as yummy but with a whole different array of textures on my tongue.
As we would wait for the oven to do its job, she would cut a Macintosh apple in half, scrape out one side with a teaspoon and feed me instant applesauce … and if her apple tunnel connected to the other side of the fruit without breaking the dividing core with the seeds, I would squeal with pleasure. Then her face, usually furrowed with worries that I didn’t understand, smoothed out, and was replaced with a look of satisfaction at her accomplishment.
Her knishes were flawless; the flaky pastry that my cousin Susan and I would help her prepare were filled – no, stuffed – with spicy, peppery potatoes, and the crispy top was so alluring that I would burn the top of my mouth every year because I just couldn’t wait to taste one.
And then there was the tsimmis, the only dish that could transform a prune into a good time for anyone under the age of 20, and the brisket that evaporated on my tongue if it got there (it was so tender it would often slip through the tines of the fork).
Matzoh Ball Soup. Grandma’s matzoh balls would go down like a cloud but live in your stomach long enough to warrant jokes about issuing the knadlach a tenant’s lease, charging it rent and giving it a name!
My grandmother had very old china, and each dish was dedicated to a specific portion of the meal. A covered bowl was the vessel for the kasha varnishkes, health food before health food was health food…who knew kasha would become a staple during my hippie days? Years later I would be living in a tipi in New Hampshire, where I was one of the only Jewish people around, cultural or religious. One day I was shopping at the co-op and I found kasha living off the radar,
safely hiding underground under the alias of groats!
So, in September, I think about the food that accompanied my childhood years of celebrations. I find comfort in knowing that there are ways to connect with my family and other Jewish people that transcend our personal beliefs about God or our worries about calories. Instead, we sit down to a family style banquet that has to do with nurturing and embracing our culture. I am satiated as I take in the smells, tastes, textures, memories, and company … all ingredients of the holiday food that is laid out before me. Is there any wonder that it is called comfort food?
The other tradition I have embraced from the Jewish New Year is the belief that it is time to close the book of the previous year and to begin writing your new book for the coming year. I love this metaphor – not just because I am a writer, but because it hands over the responsibility for shaping the quality of our lives to us. How we feel about our bodies is entirely in our control. How we navigate our way of eating is entirely in our hands. And how we incorporate or prioritize our personal goals of health and wellness is our personal choice.
As you will see below in the “Important Dates” section, there is an extensive list of health-related themed weeks and days. The number of these observations is indicative of this “New Year, New Start” mentality that people seem to attach to September, and is indeed, reminiscent of the New Year’s resolutions from January. Whenever we are asked to observe or participate in a ritual that celebrates something, we are given a choice to accept all, part, or none of what the observance is about. This can be a wonderful opportunity to re-assess our values and beliefs and to map out our personal itinerary for change.
The Health at Every Size (HAES®) tenets reminds us that engaging in an activity that is NOT motivated by weight loss can be fun and, ultimately, result in healthier physical and emotional health. Be mindful that no one should be shamed into making choices to be healthier, and health and body size are not synonymous. Try to speak up if you feel or observe any body-shaming directed at you or someone else, even if under the auspices of good intentions and obesity prevention.
Important Dates to Remember:
First Monday of September – Labor Day
America on the Move Month of Action: americaonthemove.org
Healthy Aging Month: healthyag- ing.net
National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month: tness.gov
National Yoga Month: yogamonth.org
First week of September – Suicide Prevention Week: suicidology.org
Third week of September – National Weight Stigma Awareness Week: bedaonline.com
Last full week of September – Active Aging Week: icaa.cc
September 21 – International Day of Peace: un.org/en/events/peaceday
September 22 – First day of fall
Last Wednesday of September – International Women’s Health and Fitness Day: tnessday.com/women
Last Saturday of September – Family Health and Fitness Day: tnessday. com/family
First Monday of September – Labor Day
September 21 – International Day of Peace, un.org/en/events/peaceday