I recently got word that my proposal for the 2015 Kids Health Conference for Voices of Ohio’s Children was accepted. My session, Growing Healthy Kids: Looking Beyond Weight as a Measure of Health, will share research about supporting kids’ health without relying on anti-obesity rhetoric. I will share the recent research about what we know about kids, weight, and health along with ways families can support kids in both their physical and mental health.
This is a hard sell for a lot of people who believe that obesity is the enemy and that kids need to be protected from that enemy at all costs. The problem is that the “obesity epidemic” is a lot more complicated and recent research shows that our well-intentioned efforts may be doing more harm than good.
Some of you may have read the article I wrote about this a few years back (you can find it here: Weighing Down Our Children) and I’ll be sharing some of that info but updated and with more information about things we can do to help our kids be healthy without demonizing differently sized bodies.
The conference is May 6th and 7th and my session is on the second day. The conference will take place at The Westin Columbus and there are CEUs available for social workers (but not counselors — frustrating! maybe that’ll change).
You can register by going here.
I may offer the same workshop in my office at some point so let me know if you might be interested. (You can contact me here.)
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.
Today’s Therapeutic Moment brought to you by the artist Moolist. Here‘s the original piece, which you can download and make your desktop background if you’re so inclined, and here‘s more of her work. You can also subscribe to her Tumblr here.
I don’t really feel one way or another about Martha Stewart because I’m not crafty and I’m not interested in having the best most perfect ice cubes on the block, which is also why I don’t read many magazines and why I have never done a very good job of hanging out on Pinterest. But anyway, I was watching it a long time ago because my daughter’s cold was making her cough and I had to hold her while she napped to keep her upright so I was stuck in the rocking chair staring at the television.
(This was a very long time ago. My daughter has not been small enough to be rocked in my lap for years.)
It was her “commit to be fit” or “fit to be tied” or some such week where she’s lecturing about what she eats for breakfast and how she does two hours of Ashtanga a day and I’ll admit the bit of bossy, oblivious Martha was amusing me but then this poor woman gets on and they do a moving video of her sad trials as a woman who wants to get healthier for her kids and who wants her kids to be healthier, too. The woman, however, has some daunting challenges. One is her reliance on convenience foods. Two is her lack of exercise routine. But the biggest — and what plays into both of those things — is that this woman gets up at 6:30am to get to work and doesn’t get home until after 7pm.
Well, now things are getting interesting. I’m looking at this woman’s life, which is making my life look positively leisurely, and I’m thinking that Martha is really going to pull some Martha-magic. I’m waiting for some really useful info because this is Martha and she’s going to give us something original, some Good Thing that really will improve this woman’s life and I can’t wait because I could use a little more healthful living in my own life so I’m just about ready to take notes except for the deadweight of a snoring toddler on my lap.
You want to know what they told this woman? Are you ready? Here it goes:
Cook more, exercise more, eat more whole grains. Oh and here’s this magazine subscription, here’s another magazine subscription, here’s a membership to a gym, and here’s a whole spiritual take on connected eating or some such.
You know, some of that is helpful. You want to get more fit then I’d say cooking more and exercising are the way to go. And when the special guest (some doctor-type) said that one reason they were giving her a subscription to one of the magazines was to reset her thinking, I thought that was ok. After all, reading about cooking veggies can help you start adding veggies to your menu, right? But the big piece missing is when in the hell is this woman going to do all this? When is she going to hook up with her new trainer? When is she going to fix these healthful meals for herself and her kids?
And there’s all this shame underlying their messages to her because they’re not acknowledging how busy she is; they’re just acting like she’s lazy.
It’s one thing if they’re just saying, “Hey, if you don’t know how to cook vegetables or whole grains that’s all right because that’s what cookbooks are for.” But it’s another thing when they’re saying all that and not acknowledging that when you’re gone from home for 12 hours a day and probably getting ready to leave for a couple of hours before that and then getting everyone settled in for a couple hours after (because she has kids and they have homework and she has a home and it needs vacuumed and people need laundry and she probably needs to stare into space now and then just to stay sane), it leaves precious little time to peel carrots.
So I was watching and wondering when they were going to help her find some time in her day. Like how old are her kids? Can they take on some of the work? Does she have a partner? Could her partner help? Could she join a cooking co-op? Can she afford housekeeping help? Could Martha buy her housekeeping help and a cook and maybe a vacation so she could catch her breath before making major lifestyle changes?
It’s like when I was teaching at a daycare and went to a mandated training about handling stress. The leader took us to our “happy space” (the usual suspects: ocean, breeze, sun, etc.) and said that the next time the kids were giving us fits we should go to our happy spaces. Great. But who’s going to watch the class of 21 preschoolers while we’re deep breathing in the supply closet?
That pretty much sums up what I think when I see most of this “improve your life” advice in magazines and magazine-style television. I think that a lot of the time the little bits of information they give us are just more flotsam and that becomes more jetsam when we get next month’s issue inevitably about decluttering.
Here’s a way to declutter: Stop buying the magazines. Stop hoarding the tips. Stop thinking, as we are all prone to think, “If I could just figure out how to clear out this junk drawer I might finally have a handle on my life.”
Life is messy and that’s fine. Small children are hectic. Twelve hour days are a problem and it’s way bigger than any gym membership will solve. Small steps are big enough and you don’t have to solve everything all at once.
There you go. Go easy on the Pinterest, people, because a little goes a long way.
This post was originally published in a slightly different form on my old blog, this woman’s work.