When our daughter was two she had a standard answer when confronted with angry parents.
“Why did you throw all the baby wipes into the toilet?” we’d ask.
“Because I do,” she’d answer. “Because I did.”
It never failed. Whatever the disaster – water sloshed all over the kitchen floor, her dresser drawers unpacked and the contents strewn across her room, her brother’s micropet collection hijacked and missing – we would ask why and she would answer, “Because I do, because I did.”
And it seemed like a fair enough answer because when you’re two years old how can you have the words to explain such a complicated situation? To explain the lure of developmentally-appropriate curiosity? The driving need to explore?
“I saw the full container of baby wipes,” she can’t say. “And I opened them just to smell but the smell – it reminded me of you and of daddy and then I wanted to feel the cool of them on my skin and wipe them across my eyes the way I’ve seen mommy do it to get off her mascara before bedtime. I imagined myself like mommy, wiping away the dirt of the day and then when the chill of the wipe went away, I tossed it aside and reached for another one. Before I knew it, they were gone and the toilet was clogged. But I didn’t mean to use them all up and I didn’t mean to break the potty.”
No, she couldn’t say any of that, she said, “Because I do” and “Because I did.”
I think about this not just with my kids but also sometimes when I’m working with a client (child or grown up) in therapy. Sometimes we won’t know why. Sometimes we won’t know why until later. And that’s ok because sometimes we don’t need to know why.
Sometimes all we can do — all that we need to do — is deal with the results. With kids, we can involve them in the clean up. With clients, it’s the same thing. We can deal with the results (the fall out, the grief, the anger) and then eventually if we’re patient with ourselves and each other, we’ll start to make sense of the why.
Meanwhile we can get comfortable with the reality of not knowing. We can work on trusting the process — our child’s growth, our own growth — and operate with the belief that learning is inevitable, if we don’t actively try to stop it, but that we can’t control the time line.
Life is a journey, right? Not a destination!
I recently joined the Association for Size Diversity and Health. It’s an organization made up of activists, educators, researchers and support people of all stripes who promote Health At Every Size® (HAES).
I first learned about HAES a zillion years ago on the internet but didn’t do much more than glance at it. Then when I wrote Weighing Down Our Children I got the chance to speak with Linda Bacon, who literally wrote the book on the topic and has been instrumental in its promotion to a wider audience.
What I finally understood in researching and writing the article is that to truly promote both physical and mental health, we need to unpack it from our ideas about body size. The principles of HAES are these (this is from the web site):
- Weight Inclusivity: Accept and respect the inherent diversity of body shapes and sizes and reject the idealizing or pathologizing of specific weights.
- Health Enhancement: Support health policies that improve and equalize access to information and services, and personal practices that improve human well-being, including attention to individual physical, economic, social, spiritual, emotional, and other needs.
- Respectful Care: Acknowledge our biases, and work to end weight discrimination, weight stigma, and weight bias. Provide information and services from an understanding that socio-economic status, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, and other identities impact weight stigma, and support environments that address these inequities.
- Eating for Well-being: Promote flexible, individualized eating based on hunger, satiety, nutritional needs, and pleasure, rather than any externally regulated eating plan focused on weight control.
- Life-Enhancing Movement: Support physical activities that allow people of all sizes, abilities, and interests to engage in enjoyable movement, to the degree that they choose.
What this means in practice (literally in my practice as a therapist) is:
- I will not assume anything about your mental health because of the size and/or shape of your body (and let me tell you, there is a whole lot of body-bias entrenched in our mental health system);
- I will support you in exploring your relationship to your body, to food and to the care & nurturing of yourself and I will help you confront any commonsense wisdom that is anything but wise;
- I will help you find resources (doctors, exercise classes, etc.) that will be welcoming and supportive;
- I will not assume that I know better than you how to feed yourself, move your body or otherwise care for your physical being although I will challenge you if I see you making decisions that impede your journey to self-love and acceptance;
- If you come to me wanting support in “eating clean” or going to Weight Watchers or otherwise wanting to lose weight, (which as you can see, is not part of the HAES approach) then I will support you as you make your own choices, I will help you explore that experience and I will be there as you learn what works and doesn’t work for your own unique body/heart/soul;
- I will share what I know about HAES just as I share what I know about lots of things and just like all of our work together, I will respect your right to accept and reject what I share because I know your journey is yours, not mine;
- However I will not help you self-shame and will ask you work with me to understand what internal and external biases may be shaping your choices.
In other words, as part of the HAES principals I will honor and respect the diversity of all of my clients — their life experiences, their spiritual choices, their family make-up, their political leanings and the sizes and shapes of their bodies.
Have questions? Let me know.
I don’t know if you’ve seen the picture. I’m not going to post it here because it’s not mine to post but it’s raised a ruckus. The picture is of fitness blogger Maria Kang with her three kids, who are three, two and 8-months. Maria is wearing an abs-bearing crop top and booty shorts and she looks very fit. She’s toned, she has visible abs and across the top she’s written, “What’s your excuse?”
Maria says she’s fought eating disorders and bad genetics and says she is super fit and super healthy and you should be, too, because if she can do it (with her three little kids and her bad genetics), you should be able to do it, too.
Ok. I don’t know Maria and I don’t know much about her story (her site is overloaded so I can’t read up on it) but I don’t need to read it to know that it’s her story and your story is yours. I don’t need to critique her story to know that it won’t cover any of the reasons why you might not look like her (then again, you might, it’s all good — you look however you look and the rest of us will work on minding our own business).
Let me frame it this way.
Let’s imagine a Facebook post of a Super Important biology professor standing behind a desk full of Super Important Papers about Super Important Discoveries. “What’s your excuse?” is across the top because the professor wants to know why you haven’t been making discoveries. Well, you haven’t because you’re not a biology professor, right? You’ve been doing other stuff. In fact, maybe you don’t even like biology. Are you supposed to feel bad about that?
Imagine a picture of J. K. Rowling surrounded by piles of money, her bestselling Harry Potter books, and posters of the movie franchise. Across the top is, “What’s your excuse?”
You know what your excuse is already — you’re not J. K. Rowling. She’s not better than you because she’s sold more books (assuming that you’re not John Grisham or Danielle Steel although maybe they haven’t sold more books, I’m not sure about that). She’s J. K. Rowling and that’s her life and this one is yours.
Here’s one more.
Imagine a picture of the Dalai Lama who is looking way more at peace than you ever will. Across the top is, “What’s your excuse?”
Well, that’s ridiculous, isn’t it, because the Dalai Lama would never do something so silly but still wouldn’t you laugh and think, “Ummm, I’m not the Dalai freaking Lama, that’s my excuse!”
Maria is really good at doing whatever it is that she does to look great in a crop top and booty shorts. You might look just as good or you might not. You might spend your time getting really good at other things. Probably some of those things — being a quality friend, listening to your kids, writing amazing letters, making Very Important Scientific Discoveries, etc. — don’t photograph all that well.
That’s not to say that Maria isn’t good at other things, too, just that we privilege a particular kind of body type because we can see it and think we know what it means. We think we can look at someone’s muscle definition and know something about them even though we don’t really know anything.
We really can’t know Maria by looking at that photograph. We don’t know if she uses healthy means to get that body or unhealthy means. We don’t know the state of her inner life or her relationships. We don’t know if she goes to bed peacefully and without a care in the world or if she lies in bed at night staring at the ceiling with a sense of existential dread. We don’t know anything about Maria and conversely she doesn’t know anything about us.
You don’t have to make any excuses for not having three little kids or not having visible abs or not having a fitness blog or even for not having a fitness routine like Maria’s. You don’t have to feel ashamed of not being her anymore than she ought to be ashamed of not being you. Her life has nothing to do with you and neither does yours with her.
Lots of studies show that people treat themselves well when they feel good about themselves. Photos like Maria might inspire enough shame to make people attempt to make changes but those changes — whatever their results — are unlikely to be long-term, healthy and nurturing changes.
Life is a process. Life is a journey. You are allowed to sit on the sidelines once in awhile. You’re allowed to let your exercise routine lapse without feeling defensive. And you’re also allowed to come back to it not for the abs and booty shorts but because you want to move your body again. You’re also allowed to come back for abs and booty shorts, mind you, because it’s your body and you can do what you want with it. But do me a favor and pay attention to yourself and see what really works for you long-term and makes you happy whether that be following Maria Kang or Anna Guest-Jelley of Curvy Yoga or worn out Stop the Insanity VHS tapes.
You don’t need any excuses for not being someone other than who you are.
Sometimes at the end of our first session, after my client has told me her story and outlined her struggle, she’ll end with, “I hope you can give me some advice so I know what to do.” Only I don’t usually give advice. I do sometimes when the problem is practical — like who to call for additional services or how a process works or I might make mention of a book a client might find helpful — but I never tell my clients what to do like I’m the Keeper Of All Things One Must Do. We might explore ways to do things and I might share research, give examples, or tell stories but I never say anything that sounds like, “Insert Tab A in Slot B and your problem will be solved.”
There are two reasons for this:
1. If I jump ahead sure that I know the answers I’m likely going to miss some crucial information. Most of us aren’t always reliable narrators because we’re usually juggling so much trying to make sense of our stories. It’s not uncommon for a client to come to me about Problem A and after a few sessions I learn that Problem A is actually Problem Z. Sometimes Problem A is a symptom of something else and we’ll only figure it out if I give the client enough room and she gives me enough trust for us to explore it together. If I leap in with answers it’s all too likely that I’m giving her answers to a problem that isn’t the one that needs attention.
2. You know that “give a man a fish and you’ve fed him for a day but teach a man to fish and you’ve fed him for a lifetime” saying? That’s got added resonance in therapy. When my clients come to me with a problem I know that we’re authoring a detective novel. We don’t want to just skip to the end; we want to record the whole journey so that my client gains skills that will let her be her own detective the next time she’s facing a similar challenge. I hope my clients come out of therapy with more than answers specific to this time; I want them to come out stronger and smarter so they’re ready for next time.
Richard Bromfield, PhD, in his book on play therapy, Playing for Real, writes, “[Therapists] lack of pleasure in watching a child do his own psychic crossword, their wanting to take it over, impedes the therapy process. A therapist who takes more joy in his own than the child’s insights sabotages a fundamental aspect of therapy: what the child discovers on her own is more personally meaningful than what the therapist figures out for her.”
Same goes for grown-ups.
It can be frustrating for my clients who are looking for a quick fix so part of my work is helping them see the value of big picture change, especially when it comes to parenting issues. It can take time before repetitive efforts start to sink in and really work. Helping orient my clients’ efforts in the bigger context of their lives and their personal values makes it easier to hang in there for the long haul and that happens when we work together.