Monthly Archives: March 2012

Vogue Mom talks about abusing her fat kid, and I think she’s right in doing so

The latest news on the street with regards to the childhood obesity epidemic revolves around an article published in the most recent issue of Vogue.  In it, Dara-Lynn Weiss, a mother of a 7-year-old girl who’s been diagnosed as obese, depicts her efforts of trying to help her daughter lose weight.  Jezebel called it Vogue’s “worst article ever.”    Debating whether I should spend the money to support such a despicable cause, I decided to cough up the $4 to see what the hubbub was about.  And I’m glad I did: because I think this may actually be one of the best articles about childhood obesity currently written.

Don’t get me wrong:  When I first read the article, I was disturbed.  I was saddened.  I wondered how Vogue could ethically publish an essay that so vividly depicts emotional child abuse. Weiss talks about publically humiliating her daughter when the girl wants to drink a cup of hot cocoa with an undetermined amount of calories and depriving her of dinner after she ate too much at a school event.  Similarly, she shows herself teaching her daughter many unhealthy ideas and habits that generally cause long-term disordered relationships with one’s body and food: engaging in physical activity only once or twice a week, depending on processed diet snack foods, obsessing over calorie counts.  Worse, she teaches her daughter to believe that treating one’s body as though it will always “rebel” and tend towards obesity and thus needs to be punished accordingly. What human being who cares even slightly about health wouldn’t be appalled?

But then she ends the article with her daughter’s  perspective:

“’That’s still me,’ she says of her former self. ‘I’m not a different person just because I lost sixteen pounds.’ I protest that, indeed, she is different.  At this moment, that fat girl is a thing of the past.  A tear rolls down her beautiful cheek, past the glued-in feather.  ‘Just because it’s in the past,’ she says, ‘doesn’t mean it didn’t’ happen.’”

At that moment, something didn’t jive with me.  I set the article down.  I texted a friend, complaining about how disturbing the essay was.  I went and read a few other blog posts discussing the same concerns with the article that I mentioned, in further detail.  The internet is up in storm about how this woman treated her daughter and probably scarred her for life.

Then I realized we’d been duped.

The point of the article is not to depict the struggles that parents of obese children face, as most bloggers seemed to gather.  The point of the article is to be highly inflammatory and cause a ruckus.  Plenty of magazines publish these kinds of articles to raise awareness, we just didn’t expect it from a women’s magazine that usually focuses on fashion and mostly comprised of ads.

Consider how the article is constructed: The very first scene, Weiss depicts herself denying her daughter, Bea, a salad because the girl had already eaten dinner and had too many calories, even though she’s hungry.  The moment is a hook to draw the reader in, and Weiss is fully aware that her actions during it are controversial.  She wants our attention.

Then, to build our trust, she develops a sober and believable backstory: She talks about childhood obesity statistics and the problems obese children face.  She tells about her own struggles with weight and body image.  We learn about Bea’s weight gain, her doctor’s suggestion to lose weight, Weiss’s inconsistent attempts to help Bea watch her weight, and the final decision to put Bea on a diet when Bea’s bullied at school.  Already, though, we see some indications of a biased perspective on Weiss’s part, like her discussion of her own dieting history and tendency to eat ice cream for breakfast.  If anything, it helps us believe her as a narrator more, since it allows us to see that she knows how their home environment caused the daughter to gain weight in the first place.

Thus, when we get to the point where she starts talking about the events of the diet, we believe this is an account of a woman who wants to explain her perspective as a parent trying to put her child on a diet.  The irony is that she repeatedly points out the faults in her ways of thinking, without acknowledging that she recognizes them as faults.  She mentions that Bea “threatened violence against the doctor in the waiting room every week” and “whined about being hungry and begged for food she couldn’t have.” She lists all of the different ways other parents and family members questioned her efforts.  In fact, she spends significantly more time focusing on arguments against her case than arguments for her case.  This disproportionate attention to the opposing viewpoints is our first major indicator that Weiss doesn’t actually want to show the difficult situation of parents of obese parents: she doesn’t sympathize with “her” viewpoint enough, or give it enough attention.

In fact, the climactic moment of Bea’s successful weight loss of 16 pounds is couched in moments depicting Weiss denying her dinner or berating her in front of friends and family for eating too much.  No writer whose purpose is to create sympathy for her perspective would depict her ultimate “success” in such a blatantly negative light.  Nor would she end the article on a moment of a child crying if she’s trying to show how she bettered the child’s life.  Instead, she leaves us with her true point, her true purpose of the article: we need to be careful of how we treat our children, because what we teach them and how we treat them will stay with them much longer, even if we “fix” their bodies.

Which is why I applaud Vogue for publishing this article.  The magazine uses its international status to bring light to a hot topic and make people discuss it more fully—because with all this dissent over Weiss’s supposed viewpoint, more people are becoming aware of and furthering the conversation about how we can effectively and empathetically help childhood obesity.  Previous discussions of the topic have been limited to theoretical debate, but Weiss brings us into the life of a child undergoing these changes, so we can better see our health teachings’ possible effects.  She gives us another way to talk about childhood obesity, humanizing the discussion for a more general audience.  Perhaps more interesting to me, Vogue editors must have acknowledged in some way that their magazine isn’t known for cunning debate; as a result, readers wouldn’t expect nuanced argument from Weiss’s piece, thus being more likely to take it at face value, and then talked about the article more than if it had shown up in a venue better known for its innovative perspectives on cultural topics. By talking about abusing her daughter, Weiss showed us what it means to watch out for our kids’ health


When did talking about health get so offensive?

One day, back in grad school, I bought a King Sized bag of peanut M&Ms.  It was right before one of my more tedious classes with a lot of discussion of obscure literary theory and squinting at journal articles with teensy print.  The class was on the smaller end of the spectrum, less than a dozen students, and a few of us collected beforehand to chat. I offered around my M&Ms to share.

I knew one of the girls was a bit of a health nut.  Because I’d offered the candy to everybody else, though, I offered it to her: a polite gesture, more than anything, just to not have her feel excluded or like I didn’t like her.  (What?  I was one of those kids who said good night to every stuffed animal she had so it didn’t feel bad.  Leave me alone.)  She turned down the M&M, but then turned the offer into a long monologue of why refined sugar is bad for you, why she never touches the stuff, how awful her life was before sugar and how great her life is now. 

She’s a loving, caring person, who, as far as I can tell, would never intentionally hurt another person’s feelings.  She, too, is a writer, and writers tend not to be the most socially aware folk (or at least not in the circles I’ve run in).  There’s also a preponderance of oversensitivity, so a fair amount of squashing of feelings.  I think it’s part of why writers drink so much (among other reasons). Point being: she didn’t seem to get that her response was rude. 

But, of course, it hit a nerve for me, enough so that I remember the moment now, five years later, even though I knew she wasn’t aware that what she was saying was rude.  It felt, to me, though, that she was calling me unhealthy.  And are M&Ms healthy?  Of course not.  But I was 22 years old, working out two to three hours at the gym every day (I had a lot of nervous energy), and still hadn’t grasped that the workouts were causing me to have the appetite of a 13-year-old boy. (I’ve since cut down my workouts considerably, and can eat like a normal adult woman.  Kind of.) I knew I wasn’t unhealthy, knew I was working really hard to be healthy, and I didn’t like the implication that this one nutrition misstep, even if it was King Sized, deserved a public shaming. 

Most of us know the stereotype: That person who’s super gung-ho about fitness, obnoxiously so.  Maybe she’s a personal trainer or maybe she just reads a lot of health blogs when she’s supposed to be copyediting page proofs at the local publishing house.  Either way, she’ll yammer on and on about that this or that regimen is THE way to be healthy and live longer than Yoda. You want to engage her in conversation, but you’re afraid that she may just end up judging you for your choice in groceries or workout or less-than-ergonomic shoes. 

Of course, those who care enough about fitness enough to have meaningful opinions hold issue with the stereotype, and perhaps rightfully so.  Yet many get caught up in their monologues and inadvertently judge, like the girl in my class, without realizing that the stereotype was born somewhere.

Now, I’m the first to recognize that I’m a person who can get easily offended in discussions of health, that the girl’s purpose likely wasn’t to shame me.  I hold my tongue a lot because I know some of my responses are just moments of oversensitivity, residues of feelings of inadequacy of attempting to be healthy, inadequacy at being a fitness professional, blah blah blah, go to therapy already, Kat, why don’t you?

But sensitivity with regards to health is a common enough issue these days.  At my gym, whether folks would like to admit or not, there are tiny divides among the staff members, some rifts larger than others, with regards to how different people discuss eating and exercise in different contexts. Our managers sit us all down to tell us to be mindful of others when we talk about our latest diets or ideas in the break rooms; some people applaud the effort for more empathetic communication, some buck against it, wondering what’s wrong with simply saying your opinion.  It’s interesting seeing who responds negatively to which comments, which dialogues strike a nerve. Who we feel self-conscious eating around, exercising near.   All because of how people talk about health.

Some might say that talking about health is a lot like talking about religion or politics—tread gently.  Except unlike religion or politics, our health is our physical being, not an idea we adopt.  You could say to suggest someone lives unhealthily isn’t simply for her to have a silly belief, it’s to take up this whole act of existence incorrectly.

I initially wrote this post as a list of things people should consider when talking about health.  Rhetorical rules, kind of.  Then I realized a lot of the points stemmed from my own moments of sensitivity, which made me wonder what’s really going on here, and how does this affect both my discussions of health and others’? In moments of miscommunication, the fault could be on the speaker, the audience, or both.  Or perhaps “fault” isn’t the best word, because our understandings of health are so intrinsically tied to our persons, our identities.  To talk adequately about health, we need to understand ourselves and others as much as possible, to communicate sensitively.

Those rules I came up with?  Here’s an abbreviated version.

Listen – Better yet, ask questions.  The most “offensive” commentary in our breakroom usually isn’t meant to be offensive, but the person at hand generally doesn’t think to ask others’ opinions, to open up a conversation rather than a monologue.  Sometimes people assume others’ replies and respond to those (ie, I hate running.  You think running is good because it burns lots of fat, but here’s why that thinking is wrong), but it’s not the same as actually listening to others’ reasoning.  Chances are, if you don’t understand another viewpoint, it’s not because the other person is completely misguided, it’s because you haven’t explained to you in a manner that you can truly understand.  Heck, the person may have completely different opinions than the ones you assume she has.

More simply, if you want someone to care about what you have to say, then show that you care about what she has to say.

Know your audience – Basic rhetoric here: how you talk about an argument with someone who agrees with you is different from how you talk about an argument with someone who disagrees with you.  If you’re going to say you think Pilates is lame, it’ll come across a lot differently to someone who hates Pilates than it does to someone who loves Pilates. 

Perhaps more importantly, though, know your audience’s sensitivities.  You’re totally entitled to an opinion.  But if you’re treading on sensitive territory for your audience—for instance, saying people who do this or that exercise look inadequate in this or that way, when your listener does said exercise and has body image issues—you’re probably better off reconsidering how you state your argument.  It’s not that you don’t have a right to say what you think.  But you’re not going to convince anybody of it—in fact, you’ll probably turn people off to it—if you’re not empathetic to your listener.

Know the speaker – On the other side, if you’re listening to someone talk about her opinion and feel yourself being hurt/bothered/etc by it, take a step back and look at the person who’s saying it.  How likely is it that she’s making the argument without considering her audience? What’s going on in her life?  What might make her feel this way in particular? It’s a lot easier to swallow someone’s dogmatic views about food when you take it in context of, say, her currently tumultuous life or family history of obesity-related illness.

Know your context – In other words, is this the time and place for this discussion?  I think this was the major issue that occurred with the girl in my classroom.  How people will respond to a conversation depends on whether the conversation grew naturally, was invited by questions, or if it occurred without warning, completely waylaying another discussion.

Remember, it’s emotional – Health, food, and exercise are for most people intrinsically tied to emotions, self-image, and so on, whether the individual acknowledges it or not.  Saying, Well, it’s just my opinion, others can take it or leave it, prevents us from fully acknowledging how and why these opinions exist, why they hold so much weight with us. It cuts off the conversation before we get to the real meat of the matter: the discussion of gluten-free diets versus vegan versus Paleo doesn’t matter because of the details of the individual regimens, but because of what it means to us find the “best” way of eating. What we believe and how we act stem from our past and current psychological states, as do others’.  To try to separate belief from emotion will not only hobble our attempts to communicate with one another, but it will also prevent us from fully understanding the very topics we discuss. 

Why more trainers (and other folk) should get naked in their gym locker rooms

I never used a public locker room at a gym until my first or second year of grad school.  I’d always worked close enough to my fitness facilities of choice to head home to my own shower, where I didn’t have to worry about strange fungi or whether the towels were large enough to cover all my “swimsuit regions.”  And, to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t much aware of locker room culture once I did start changing out at the gym I belonged to before my current job, because I was usually huddled in a corner, behind the tiny cupboard door of my half-size locker, hoping it obscured the view of my body.  I comforted myself with the fact that most people were likely not looking at me, and grew bolder as I realized I was right.  Unless you were one of those chicks who wander around naked as they blow dry their hair or examine their breasts in the shared vanity mirror, you could rest assured that most people were more interested in finding their tube of body lotion than judging your cellulite.

With time, I did notice one distinct pattern: most of the gym personnel brought clothes with them to the showers so they could change in stall, or hid away in one of the bathrooms to change.  Strange that so many of them would be so prudish, I thought.  Most of my friends with athletic backgrounds seemed to be the least concerned with stripping down in a group of women, if only because they got used to it from years of practices and sporting events. Why was everybody so afraid of being seen naked?  Had there been issues with sexual harassment at the gym before?

Then I started working at a gym myself.  My showering habits didn’t change: I use the locker room with the rest of the members. At this point, I live fairly close to the gym, so I will go home if I can.  Oftentimes, though, it makes more sense for me to exercise during breaks and clean up at the club.  It saves 15 minutes commute time, vying for bathroom time with my roommates (who have equally unpredictable schedules), and I just tend to dawdle less than I do in my own bathroom, where I can tweeze my eyebrows with abandon and analyze my pores for far longer than is practical. 

I’ll find a few of my coworkers in the locker room, but not many. Some have magical, underactive sweat glands that allow them to save showering for when they get home at the end of the day. Some, I imagine, have Type A fear of bacteria and have heard one too many stories of Gross Things Women Do In Public Restrooms to risk entering a public shower stall.  But more than a few have mentioned not wanting to be seen naked by members.

On one hand, I get it.  It’d be weird for both parties, say, to run into your therapist or gynecologist when she’s wearing only her birthday suit.  How would that be different for a fitness professional/client combo? 

But part of the argument has to do with not wanting to be judged for one’s appearance: in other words, what will my clients think of me if my naked body doesn’t look the way they expect a trainer/class instructor/what-have-you’s body should look like? How do I know they’re not checking out the shape of my ass when I’m just trying to apply deodorant in a manner that will not cover my uniform shirt in unsightly streaks of powder? I know that someone can be incredibly healthy and still have bits of flubber around her bra straps, but do they? Will something about my naked body make them doubt my ability as a lifestyle coach?

This question of the importance of appearance when working in the fitness industry comes up a fair amount. I have friends who talk about it: about that time they were at the sporting goods store and ask if they’re a trainer, or the time they were working out another gym and someone asked if they were a trainer.  I’ve been told I should have photos of myself on this blog, because image sells.  A new trainer at our gym—who lasted all of two weeks before disappearing—quipped to one of my friends about how nobody should take advice from a fat trainer. 

When I first decided to switch roles at the club to become a trainer, I tightened up my diet, in part to make myself be the model of fitness I thought I should be for my new clients (and, to be honest, partly because I the prospect of not being a salesperson for the rest of my life made significantly cut down on my emotional eating).  And, when my low tolerance for stress got the best of me, and I regained most (read: all, plus five extra pounds) of the weight, I grappled emotionally with the idea of whether I could be respected as a fitness professional if my clothing size stayed planted firmly in the double digits and I ate brownie sundaes on my way home from particularly tedious closing shifts. 

It took me a few months and a number of fairly athletic clients commenting that I probably never have to think about food because I’m in such great shape to realize that, amazingly enough, most people don’t pay that much attention, even if they think they do. And whether my appearance meets most people’s assumed standards for what fitness should look like or not, it doesn’t seem to be affecting my business. And, you know, despite what my body’s looked like, I’ve still been improving my pushups, running faster, and externally rotating my shoulder better (What?  That last one doesn’t sound cool?  Wait ‘til you battle with borderline wonky shoulders and then come talk to me.)

Yet the locker room conundrum: most women in the US at this point live with some consciousness that their bodies don’t look the way they’re “supposed to.”  And while it may or may not cause personal distress, it’s totally understandable to not want to be judged for these characteristics when you don’t mean to be putting them on display. Plus, just because someone works in fitness doesn’t mean she lives entirely without insecurity about her body. (Hell, sometimes I wonder if I’ve met more people with body issues in the fitness world than I did when I lived in plain-Jane academia.  Or, perhaps it’s more simple: we think about our bodies more, good and bad.) 

But I wonder if more women would be helped if more fitness professionals (or any fit-striving person) took the time to disrobe in the locker room.  Let’s face it: if the only view of the near-naked athletic body women get to see is the airbrushed model gracing this month’s issue of Women’s Health or Shape, they’re never going to have the chance to really learn all the forms healthy living can take, unless they take a quick peek around their friendly neighborhood locker room.

It’s like this: Fitness professionals (at least the ones I’ve met and seen on the world wide interwebs) often show before and after photos of themselves as a way to illustrate how this diet or that routine transformed them.  But what’s usually missing from these photologs is the discussion that the girl in the before picture could do 10 full pushups or box jump to a 24-inch platform or run ten miles or some remarkable marker of fitness in Pilates that I don’t know because I’m not too good at Pilates.  We can argue that even if we looked fit in that before photo, it wasn’t fit for us, but the fact of the matter is nobody is at peak fitness all the time—we function within ranges, and it’s better to acknowledge that a little fall of the wagon that makes you slightly more flubbery and bloated does not mean you will find yourself bingeing every afternoon on Cheetos while you watch Sally Jessy Raphael on DVD. It’s as though we don’t want to place ourselves as a shining example of fitness until we meet society’s rigorous appearance standards.

Yes, there’s a chance that someone who saw you working out on the weight floor silently judges you when she sees you strip in her periphery vision.  But there’s also a chance if she’s looking that closely, she’s trying to use others’ bodies to contextualize her own, and to see that somebody who she knows kicks butt in the gym doesn’t have defined abs or has extra bits of meat around the inner thigh or knee can make her feel better about the fact that all her hard work hasn’t turned her into a fitness model. Since appearance does act as a measure of fitness time and again, valid or not, then it only makes sense for fitness professionals to point out that an imperfect body can be a fit one, and—when considering the standards presented by media—most women’s bodies are “imperfect” in one way or another.  Consider it no different from explaining to a woman that lifting weights won’t make her manly or that the hip abductor/adductor machines are the biggest load of mechanical bullshit known to the fitness industry.

As one of my forty-something-year-old clients tells me, “It’s always young girls who go through these painful processes to get dressed completely under a towel.  I want to tell them to stop.  It’s the best your body’s ever going to look, so flaunt it while you’ve got it.”


PS – Dear Mom, Don’t worry, you did not raise a nudist.  Love, Your favorite daughter.

It’s a bird, it’s a plane– no, it’s a fat kid!

As theory ­seems to have it these days, to get rid of big (read: adult) overweight people, we need to get rid of little (read: child) overweight people first.  Kind of like finding vermin’s nests and destroying the eggs.

Maybe this isn’t really the mindset that drives the current efforts to quell childhood obesity—it is scary that young children face health problems generally meant for a significantly older population—but some recent attempts to increase public awareness of the issue could make the viewer feel that way.  Noble tactics to help make kids healthier, like attempts to modify cafeteria fare or video games that center around physical activity, have given way to more extreme measures popping up in the past few months: In Atlanta, billboards display oversized black-and-white photographs of obese children with captions like, “Warning: It’s hard to be a little girl if you’re not,” or, “Warning: Fat prevention begins at home.  And the buffet line.”  Meanwhile, the latest entertainment experience at Disney’s Epcot center, Habit Heroes, stars overweight supervillains named things like “The Snacker,” “The Glutton,” and “Lead Bottom.”  Both of these awareness campaigns have raised the public’s hackles by questioning whether we’re creating a shame-fest that hurts overweight children more than helps them.

I’ve wanted to talk about the focus on childhood obesity since the release of the public service ads in Georgia.  Being someone who grew up as fat kid in the outskirts of Atlanta, the campaign hit close to home in more ways than one.  The Epcot show hit almost as close, since I attended undergrad in Orlando and had a season pass to the Disney parks all four years; I spent much of my time on weekends­­ wandering Epcot or one of its sister parks while inhaling Disney-branded salt water taffy and fudge.  If I’d been born a couple decades later, this era of public service ads featuring obese children would have been the culture I grew up in.

I didn’t write initially because I felt that enough other bloggers expressed my viewpoint.  A quip from Yoni Freedhoff at Weighty Matters encapsulates it best: “Geez, kids these days, they just don’t try hard enough, do they?”   There were, of course, others with differing viewpoints, like this blogger at who thinks we use society as a scapegoat and parents just need to learn to take responsibility for their kids.   In general, though, the debate seems pretty straight forward, the sides fairly clearly delineated.

Perhaps the main point in favor of the ads is that they’re really meant for parents, not for kids.  Think of it like those hidden jokes in children’s movies that the kids won’t get but will keep Mom and Dad entertained in the theater.  Disney’s mastered these hidden gems; maybe that was part of their intent with the Habit Heroes show.  Kids will just see a fun ride where they turn junk food into broccoli, while parents realize arch-villian Lead Bottom is very similar to their kid, who sits at home playing video games all afternoon. The end of the show, when Lead Bottom becomes a normal-sized kid who plays outside, just illustrates that no overweight kid is really a villain, it’s just her bad habits that make her that way; once she picks up the good habits, she’ll be a good guy again.

Unfortunately, exhibits like this one, or ads like the ones from Georgia’s ads, assume a fair amount of emotional maturity from the kids who view the campaigns alongside their parents.  The psychology of children is inherently different from that of adults, and children may not pick up all the nuances of a message.   These campaigns assume a kid watching the show will understand that there’s nothing wrong with them as people, even though overweight children are presented as bad guys.  The campaigns assume that non-overweight children seeing the shows or the ads will not use them as new ammo against their overweight peers, who they may already tease.  Yet if you ever peruse  literature on brain development in children and adolescents (yeah—a great way to spend a Friday night, I know), it’s pretty clear that kids don’t gain the ability to see outside of black-and-white terms, to analyze and breakdown arguments, until they’re in their late teens.  Before that, they’re able to see the most apparent message—overweight kids are villains—and not necessarily the underlying nuance.  For parents, it ends up being a tricky line to walk when encouraging a child to pick up healthy habits to lose weight without making it come across as the kid is unworthy or unloveable because of her size.

I know these questions were something I only learned to navigate as an adult, looking back on my childhood.  At the time, no matter how well the words were sugar-coated, I still knew something was not right with me because I was larger than my peers.  I knew it seemed stupid and mean that I wasn’t supposed to eat as much at meals or that Mom was replacing our regular snacks with ridiculous, “healthy” snacks that none of my friends’ parents made them eat.  My skinnier friends could have donuts for breakfast and McDonald’s for dinner, but it was okay because they were skinny.  The issue wasn’t health, it was size, and I could see that, if not fully understand it.  And because I couldn’t understand why my friends’ habits and my habits could have such different results on our bodies, I learned that something was wrong with me and my body.

Did I eat too many sweets and processed foods as a kid?  Yes.  Did I not exercise enough?  Sure.  But the irony was my parents did make an effort to do everything that parents are supposed to do: they signed me up for swim team and basketball leagues, they encouraged my brothers and I to play soccer in the front yard, we ate as a family for every breakfast and dinner (and lunch on the weekends), we ate out a total of once per week, our diet included plenty of veggies, most of our grains were some variety of whole.  So I’m not entirely sure what seeing one of these public service announcements would have done to help them to make our family healthier.  We did what we were supposed to.  We played by the rules.

So why was I fat?

In short, knowing the rules wasn’t enough. At the time, I wouldn’t have been able to explain the logic. After school hours I spent mostly alone, raiding the cupboards for low-fat frozen yogurt and cookies and watching every Fox Kids television show in production. One of my parents would take me to the library each week, where I’d check out a pile of books (the rule was that I had to be able to carry them all without help), so when not watching television, I would read one to two novels per day.  It was quite possible for me to never leave the love seat in the living room except for dinner and to refill my snacks. My parents tried to change things: my brothers and I signed contracts about how many hours of television we’d watch per week, they sent us to sports-themed after school programs, they reduced the amount of junk floating around the cupboards at any given point.  Yet I continued to gain weight, eating bread and cheese when sweets disappeared from the cupboards, staying on the sidelines reading at after school program.

Now I can look back and see that the underlying cause was that I was lonely. My brothers were enough older to not want to be bothered me; the neighborhood had too few children my age and was too difficult for a kid to reasonably navigate; I felt like an outcast at school because of my general nerdiness. My lack of coordination made any type of competitive sport nerve-wracking and left me crying on the sidelines—and most physical activity available to me was, in some way, competitive.   So I stuck with the things I knew made me happy and helped me feel good about myself: reading and school work and ongoing television series with characters who could stand in as friends in my imagination.

And perhaps my parents did say yes to treats too often, and didn’t push me enough to participate in the sports I hated because they knew these other things made me happy.  Because, they, like most modern parents, were juggling careers plus the bonus of an autistic eldest son and two fairly needy younger kids (There was a while my mom had to cart me two to three times a week to get allergy shots because I was allergic to every possible allergen floating in the Atlanta air, and, as a result, could barely breathe and was plagued by chronic headaches. And I didn’t like shots, or missing an episode of Power Rangers, so this would result in about two to three tantrums per week). If being a bookworm and eating an order of French fries after a doctor’s appointment was an easy way to make me happy, why not give in once in a while?  Particularly since it wasn’t like they could suddenly make me one of the popular kids at school or make the doctor’s visits go away.

When discussing overeating on an individual basis, we often discuss looking at emotional triggers that disguise themselves as hunger.  Magazine articles that talk about calling a friend when lonely, or taking a power nap when tired, or painting your nails when stressed, but these suggestions skip the important step of being able to recognize the underlying emotion and accept that it’s there.  In other words, if I don’t feel like I have a right to be stressed or that I should be able to handle one day to myself, it’s hard to accept the emotions and fully treat them. In fact, I may bury them so well that I can’t recognize them to begin with.

I wonder if something similar happens when we talk about treating obesity on a larger scale, particularly when we talk about treating childhood obesity.  I wonder if we harp too much on ideas like kids play too many video games or families eat fast food too much and instead need to ask why these things happen, why simple education that these habits aren’t healthy isn’t always enough?

In some ways, I’m talking about whether there are enough measures to make building the healthy habits possible in the first place.  Freedhoff writes on Weighty Matters, “Try to imagine childhood obesity as a flooding river with no end in sight. While teaching children how to swim might help temporarily in keeping them afloat, given that the flood isn’t abating, chances are, even with the best swimming instructions, the kids are going to get tired and sink. So while swimming lessons certainly can’t hurt, what we really need to be shouting about doing is actually changing their environment and building them a levee.”  I think these thoughts expand to the parental level as well: Does it make sense to talk to parents about how unhealthy it is to eat out or order take out if we don’t do something to help make fast, healthy options for those short on time?

In some ways, though, I’m asking about larger reasons and motivations behind our drives.  Why do we not have enough time or energy to make healthy meals for our families in the first place? How has American lifestyle—our priorities, our standards of living—changed over time to create this deficiency? When treating childhood obesity, we must consider how changes in the American lifestyle has affected American childhood.  Those fighting childhood obesity rant about kids not playing outside anymore, but more than enticing video games or shows have probably set them in that direction: maybe it’s that their neighborhood isn’t designed for play, maybe it is that physical activity is usually organized and competitive, maybe they’re so busy living up to the Harvard-or-bust schooling to have time for real playing, or any number of other reasons.

Rather than assuming that kids suddenly have become unable to maintain healthy habits that they have for centuries, we must consider why they don’t maintain those habits on an individual level, then understand what about our environment perpetuates that inability. Because much of my hunger stemmed from loneliness, when I built up friendships in high school and college, my eating habits naturally shifted towards the ones my parents tried to model for me.  To this day, if I feel like I’m misunderstood or lonely, I head straight for the candy aisle.  Now, I can remember to keep myself scheduled with time with friends to keep me sane, but as a kid, I didn’t know.  In other words, maybe when considering our kids’ nutrition and weight, we should also consider their emotional wellbeing, and view “Habit Heroes” simply as sidekicks.

Toning, defined

Confession time: I use the word “toned” with clients when we discuss the results of weight lifting. Many in the fitness industry consider this word blasphemous, or at least inaccurate. At my gym, the trainers and other staff often discuss ways of tactfully turning our clients away from the word, directing their attention instead to the underlying concept the word masks: building muscle and getting rid of fat to make everything seem less flabby, but not necessarily losing so much fat that every nook, cranny or muscle fiber is visible to the naked eye.

 “Toning” has no strict definition, but implies that there are different types of strength training with distinct results—ie, this routine will “bulk you up” and this one will make you “long and lean.”  Yet, in actuality, no strength training process simply makes muscles firmer without building more of them, or turns fat into muscle, or creates nice little shadows around some of the arm muscles without also doing the same things that could make those arms look like Madonna’s  or Cameron Diaz’s or whichever female celebrity is considered too “mannish” this week.  All of the above concepts fall under the umbrella term of “toning.”

Yet many women—yes, even young, well-educated women who’ve bought a copy or two of Women’s Health in their day and presumably grown up entirely in a feminist era—are afraid of the concept of strength training or building muscle, and prefer to describe their fitness goals as “toning” or “tightening,” even if the words are generally meaningless.  Worse, the term “toning” often represents extreme misconceptions about exercise and how the body works.

The first issue, of course, is the myth about women’s ability to put on muscle. For some reason, despite much evidence to the contrary, women fear weights larger than 10 or 15 pounds because they assume heavy weights will make them suddenly grow a beard or chest hair.  Or, if not the body hair, then extremely large, manly muscles, which, it turns out, also come from testosterone and are equally unlikely to show up just because a woman forays onto the rack of dumbbells weighing over 20 pounds. 

Genetics, hormonal balance, skeletal frame, etc, can affect how muscle is distributed—and possibly in a way that a person might not fully appreciate.  Generally speaking, though, the women who look like they have a lot of muscle typically spend a lot of time working on building that muscle and reducing the fat covering it, with workouts that last two or more hours and relatively strict eating plans. You may remember putting muscle on easily during college rowing season, but there’s a good chance it was because you were working out for multiple hours per day in training and maintained a fairly low body fat percentage so said muscle was more visible– not because your body has an overactive response to muscle-building.  Even female bodybuilders or fitness competitors don’t look that “big” when you see them in person.  A former professional bodybuilder I interviewed competed at 135 pounds on her 5’9” frame—which, she said, made her look more like “a shriveled-up raisin” than a goliath in a bikini and heels.  Similarly, good friend of mine is in the process of preparing for fitness competition; when she turned in some recent progress photos to her coaches that showed how her legs had gotten too bulky in proportion to the rest of her body, she was a mammoth size 2.  No, there’s no second digit missing there.  For most women, who take a Body Pump class here or there or even learn some basic Olympic lifts, the threat of strength-training making them look like She-Hulk is fairly minimal.

“Toning,” in part, is a response to this fear of putting on too much muscle.  It’s a concept to convince women that they can lift weights without their bodies becoming too unattractive and unfeminine.  And yes, women will avoid activities that boast a myriad of health benefits because of its effect on their appearance– consider the Surgeon General’s warning to women of color who avoid sweating too much because hair care is too expensive and time consuming to ruin with a workout. Feeling attractive is important to many  (if not most) women, and almost as many will make unhealthy sacrifices to continue to feel attractive—which means everything from wearing heels that ruin their feet and knees, slathering their faces with cosmetics filled with a myriad of carcinogens, and  skipping strength training because it threatens the femininity of their appearance.

Which inherently ties into the second problem with the concept of toning: it implies that one type of appearance is ideal for all women.  A woman should not be muscular or brawny or any other sort of descriptor of fitness that doesn’t lend itself to this particular ideal feminine body type that’s plastered across most forms of media.  But really: Your quads are big?  So what?  Maybe that’s what’s attractive when you consider your entire body as a whole, even if the chick on the cover of Women’s Fitness has thighs that winnow into her kneecaps with nary a bulge.  Women have been taught to fear what their bodies can become rather than embrace the unique way our particular bodies function or change under different circumstances.

Thus, the fact that I don’t correct women when they use the word “toning” to describe their fitness goals may surprise some who know me.  My own workouts consist of a lot of heavy lifting, jumping, and use of large, “scary” equipment like the squat rack and weight plates the size of bike tires—the stuff that many women shy away from for fear that they’ll get “big.”  And, to be honest, when I first started lifting this way, it was because I realized that I was never going to look like a ballerina; thus, I reasoned, better to be big and muscular than big and flabby.  As it turned out, I only ended up getting smaller in the process, and my body became more traditionally feminine looking, not less—my typically thick waist thinned out, my narrow hips got a bit of a boost in the bum region, and so on. When I get big, it’s because of too many peanut butter cups, not too much strength-training.  Even more, lifting heavy and challenging myself to do what the guys in the weight room could do has been a way to appreciate my body in terms outside of whether or not I fit the mold of how women should look.

So why would I want to let any client live under any sort of misconception about strength-training, then, and potentially miss out on how inspiring it feels to achieve something she never has before—be it a “girl-style” pushup on her knees, a totally unassisted chin-up, or jumping onto a 24” tall box?

Because, in short, “toning” acts as a gateway for women in the first place.  It helps them out of the rows of ellipticals, stairclimbers, and recumbent bikes, and into the weight rooms, among the men. “Toning” is an intrinsically feminine term– go look through a couple issues of Men’s Health or Muscle Mag and see if you find the word even once.   Having a female-specific word about lifting weights allows us to view and discuss a typically masculine activity as something that can be feminine. We can co-opt strength-training and redefine it in a means that best serves women.  Introducing the vocabulary allows us to have a conversation we once couldn’t have: what do women need when we workout, what allows us to maintain and enhance our femininity, how is our femininity expressed through our bodies?

When we answer these questions, we will have a more solid, more accurate definition for “toning.” Banishing the word from our lexicon, treating it as a “bad” word, does exactly the opposite of what we intend.  Shaming the use of the word “toning” does not help women see their place in the weight room and the validity of building muscle.  Instead, replacing the word with the more standard terminology of “building muscle while losing fat” implies that what women seek for their bodies is inherently the same as what men seek; we can acknowledge that hormones will make the end-result of this process different for either sex, but we still deny the emotional and social underpinnings of shaping one’s body.  The word “toning” allows us to acknowledge that there are specific standards of beauty that govern how women look at and judge ourselves, how others view and judge us.  “Toning” allows us to acknowledge that while we may seek gender-neutral goals, we may also seek ones that express our respond to our identities as women.  Right now, no one may know precisely what “toning” means, but the more we discuss it, the better idea we’ll have of what it is, and how it represents feminine identity in the modern era.