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I hope someday

Well, the storm that prevented my presenting on the panel as described in A Meteorological Change of Plans has moved out to sea–not without causing some serious ruckus. But another strong one is moving in right now, rerouting regular daily trajectories, thus providing me another opportunity to curl up and explore the thorny business of eating disorders on college campuses.

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My Campus Eating Disorder Notebook

Eating disorders are very complicated–and at their crux, are not about food. They have long been, and continue to be, the cornerstone of study for many a scientist and mental health clinician, in terms of the identification of their etiologies and appropriate treatment. Underlying biological genetic-based factors seem to seed the predisposition for the development of one of these conditions that take root by substituting out healthy development and replacing it with one which has a laser-like focus on the control of body weight and shape–and the feeding behaviors that determine such. While advances are being made, these are hard nuts to crack from a mechanistic standpoint.

However, this should not mean that we ignore the evidence that socio-cultural and psycho-social variables also play a causal, and not merely triggering role in eating disorders, and thus should be considered as potent avenues of prevention. And while each and every person exists in relationship to the social and cultural environments with which they interact, college campuses constitute a unique microcosm providing a unique breeding ground for the germination of these disorders. (Today, I discovered the term ‘culture-reactive’ which I think is relevant to this issue.)

I worked at a small liberal arts, predominantly white, self-contained campus in a non-urban community. While there, I would remind my students that this 4-year college experience was just a stage they were going through. It is temporary and somewhat illusionary. Even working only part-time, I could get sucked into seeing life through a campus-view lens and would have to remind myself that this was not ‘the real world’.

Within this world, everyone is–well, young, with all the usual archetypes that youth is associated with. Like some mythical island, it seems like all the inhabitants (aside from the few attending groundskeepers) possess beauty, vigor, vitality–and unbridled brilliance and talent. Each attribute is defined by the normative cultural standard (including thinness) established by no fault of one’s own. Such concentrated energy is pulsating, exhilarating, intoxicating–as well as deceiving, and potentially health diminishing or downright dangerous. Here, often impossible standards present themselves as expectations that should be assumed with ease–forcing any self-perceived failure or deviation from the norm to greatly magnify.

The maintenance or pursuit of this idealized persona and its requisite body weight and shape are challenged on college campuses by a few particulars. Firstly, there are the potent triggers that come from living day-by-day, night-by-night in close proximity to only one’s peers. At this vulnerable developmental stage there is much peer pressure, exposure to all types of media–including unregulated body-focused content, vocalized body shaming of self and others, unending body comparison opportunities, and a multitude of ways to feel “different than”.

Then, there are the academic, social (and athletic) pressures that college students have and the hungers such pressures activate. The non-stop studying, paper writing, exam taking (and sports training)–and attendant lack of sleep, make for long days and extra hungry brains and bodies. These hungers may be physical, “emotional” or stress related–but even stress-related hunger is physiologically driven. This hunger is potent and real and involves late night eating associated with studying or socializing. Stir this together with the stress of high personal standards, perfectionism, and anxiety and you have all that contribute to uncontrolled feeding impulses, or to advancing control behaviors and starvation.

The college eating experience is also an exception. Many colleges now market their dining venues and meal plans to lure students their way.  Access to a college dining hall is like being on a never-ending cruise. Loads of offerings served from different specialty sections available from early morning to late into the evening. Standard meal plans may limit access to three meals a day, while premium ones allow unlimited visits. Many plans also allow for use at other campus food venues.

Being exposed to so much food with no limits, and having to make so many choices at every meal, can be very overwhelming with various responses. Eating (or not eating) amid the clamor of hundreds of other students also makes for challenging circumstances. Enticements also seem to be everywhere on campus. Various clubs and campus activities promise candy, pizza, or doughnuts in exchange for attendance–all within walking distance. Food, its embrace or avoidance, becomes a constant obsession.

On the flip side, students living on or off-campus without a meal plan often have difficulty accessing food or preparing meals. This precipitates and perpetuates other unhealthy feeding behaviors. Students in these settings can isolate themselves more easily, and can both yield to or hide their behaviors more–but students on campus can do so as well.

Finally, I might add the lack of parental/familial supports and/or constraints; heightened attention on ‘healthy’ foods; and increased alcohol or drug use behaviors are additional contributors to the development, unleashing or exacerbation of eating disorders in the college setting. Oh, maybe I will also include easy unlimited access to an indoor gym as another risk factor.

Given the high prevalence of such disorders on campuses, I will assume that most colleges have charged themselves with developing or strengthening approaches to care–though perhaps with continued difficulty. But, it has also been ten years since I worked on campus. Is there new information or have there been shifts in paradigms that have infiltrated and influenced changed consciousness and constructive activity on campuses? Is the explosion of people sharing photos of thinning bodies on social media exacerbating the problem or are movements like Body Positive finally exposing and mitigating this insidious epidemic of body-hating? I suspect the former and am aware that men and certain minority groups are becoming increasingly affected.

Still, I believe something is changing and that we can begin to shapeshift our perceptions of beauty. And, I believe the collective wisdom of dedicated activists and this current generation of emerging and young adults are going to demand and provide the solutions. They have already witnessed enough in too many ways. The statistics are staggering, sickening and sobering.

My humble little suggestions for colleges (and every place) include the following: create Body Shame Free Campuses; further media literacy as a prevention tool; include and support the parents/families of college-age students with eating disorders and provide resources;  stop the demonizing of all dietary fats as agents of weight gain, and appreciate their vital importance in maintaining body functions; and, educate and inform all campus personnel about eating disorders and maintain trained staff to help students.

And, I strongly invite you to read this article by Laurie Penny, that my dear friend Chris just happened to send me this morning, that defines Eating Disorders as a social crisis and political issue–and explains why we really must care.

What might you add?

Most Sincerely Yours, Elyn

my plate

MyPlate Plate

MyPlate Expression: I hope someday to look back on this time in our history and only read about the curious phenomenon of anorexia and bulimia to be touched by it, not have to witness its destruction and ruin on the bodies and faces I pass on the street. Excerpted from individual’s stories of recovery from the book, The Secret Language of Eating Disorders by Peggy Claude-Pierre.

 

 

 

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a meteorological change of plans

A few weeks ago, I received a call from a student at the college where I had once worked. I had been referred to her as a possible presenter for one of the college’s Eating Disorder Awareness Week activities that the campus group Active Minds was organizing. They asked if I would sit on a panel of professionals on the topic.                                                                                      Butterflies, Tree, Colorful, Color, Ease

I reacted with hesitancy. This stemmed from both my reluctance at public speaking and the fact that I had not done much eating disorder counseling in recent years. And besides, it had been a decade since I served as the Campus Nutritionist.

Still, the chance to participate did call to me. I had dedicated much energy to eating disorder support and other nutritional matters while I was there and still was invested in the cause. After clearing a few details, I offered and agreed to come to the front of the room, not to proffer any specific nutritional strategies, but rather to share my perspectives gleaned from my particular role during four years at this small liberal arts college. I still cherish the time I spent there holding space with so many impressive young adults as they figuratively shifted their seats from the kids’ table to the grown-ups’ one–some more easily than others. The college years are a very vulnerable time for many who pass through them–and, not coincidentally, span the ages when most eating disorders begin.

In preparation for the event, I gathered my thoughts and made some notes for my talking points. Various students I worked with came to mind. They represented the collective of all the forms of eating disorders and disordered types of eating–anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, exercise bulimia, binge eating disorders, stress-induced eating, and orthorexia–an obsession with healthy eating. I tried to recall if orthorexia had even been recognized by the early 2000’s–apparently, it was only coined in 1998–but I encountered it frequently.

I remembered the athletes, the dancers, the student leaders, the artists, and the none of the above. Mainly they were female, with just a handful of males seeking help. Many, ready for graduation while I was there, graduated–and I attended a number of end of year ceremonies. Some did not. There were those who required leaves of absence–from which a few did not return. And, if they did, a close eye on their progress was necessary. Though no cases of eating disorders are easy to manage, I recalled the “really difficult” ones–those which forced immediate hospitalization, panicked roommates and friends and challenged the health providers (and administrators) trying to keep a declining student on campus so they could just finish their education. This was messy. And, the more remote campus bathrooms known to be frequented by those that purged were messy too.

While it was presumed that students would stay active in their physical and emotional care by making and keeping appointments, there was sometimes little to prevent them from elusively slipping out of reach. And, with the prevalence of eating disorders on college campuses estimated to be between about 10-20% for females and 4-10% for males (if not higher), it was certain that there were many who did have disorders that were not receiving any treatment. Eating disorders are masters of disguise.

Despite a significant degree of infirmity, I was continuously amazed at how these high achieving students pushed through at high levels of academic, athletic and/or creative performance. Such success did not equate with health. While everyone does their best, and there are models of care, colleges are not fully equipped to handle these serious disorders, medical illnesses, which breed on their campuses–the mental health conditions with the highest level of mortality.

Remembering both the intensity and tenderness of my time with these students helped me to shape what I would want to share with this current cohort, this next in line generation capable of making some serious change in our world. Nothing necessarily earth-shaking or profoundly professional–just the observations of someone who was up close and personal. Could I possibly impart some, dare I say, wisdom or reflection that might resonate or maybe have some impact on this vulnerable cohort? Well, I was prepared to give it a shot and looked forward to the event.

However, first thing yesterday morning, the day of the event, my phone rang. A monster nor’easter was pummeling the East Coast, dropping a fair amount of snow in our area. The panel would be canceled. Though there was a small touch of relief that I would not have to contend with treacherous roads, I had to process the loss of this opportunity. Not only had I readied myself, but I was eager to hear what the other professionals–mental health clinicians–had to say, and what the audience of students, and possibly faculty or other staff members, wished to ask, as well as to expose or express.

Left alone with my floating ideas, I realized I could deposit them here in my little blog which has been suffering its own neglect. And, I will do so, in a follow-up post. (In the meantime you can visit my previous related posts: Stopping Traffic, Dolls with Faith, Muse of the Girl and Nourish Thyself Well Day.)

In reminiscing, I realized that those who I strove to help nourish during my years at the college, would now be in their early to mid-thirties. Recovery from eating disorders is definitely achievable, and relative to various factors, but not all who suffer are successful. I hope those whose lives touched mine, and who that campus had nurtured in various ways, did emerge from their chrysalis to become the beautiful butterflies they were meant to be. I pray they are doing OK.

Thanks to those who continue to carry the flame.

Most sincerely yours, Elyn

my plate

MyPlate Plate

MyPlate Expression: My great fortune was in meeting people who understood my strange interior life, without judgment and who, at a time when I didn’t feel there was anything to live for, were there to lend me their vision and pull me through the grueling journey of recovery. I’d never been afraid of hard work and perhaps it’s that work ethic that finally worked for me rather than against me.–Excerpted from individuals’ stories of recovery from the book, The Secret Language of Eating Disorders by Peggy Claude-Pierre.

 

size me down

I am not much of a shopper. And, much to my late mother’s chagrin this is true even when it comes to clothing. However, clothes are one of those commodities that need to be replaced and updated at least once a decade or thereabouts, so I do occasionally have to take to the stores and wrangle with the racks of hangers hawking their formless wares.

I have a whole little narrative about my relationship with clothes–and a good and deep relationship it certainly is. Because once I find a cozy item–since I essentially dress for comfort–we are in for the long haul. I will spare you the hoary details and instead share what happened on a recent outing.

National Eating Disorders Association

Zena and I had gone into town to get something I needed for a class I am taking and were then going to head to the farmer’s market. Back in the car between the two errands, just chatting about life, it did come up that I really could use a pair of jeans–given that I didn’t have any.

A few minutes later, we were passing by a small strip of clothing stores. Zena, making particular mention of one of them, said, “Mom, I think that would be a good place for you to find jeans.” And wouldn’t you know, there were a number of parking spots easily available right in front. The next thing I knew, we were in the store.

Apparently, a love of shopping, along with the refined ability to dress oneself and others in exquisite good style, skips a generation. Having Zena with you while hunting for attire is like having the best in a game hunter–I mean personal shopper. She is really good. Except for one thing. She insists that I must try things on. Left to my own devices, I never try things on in stores. I generally know my size and feel confident that by holding the item up before me, I can determine if it will fit well enough–maybe not perfectly–but that’s OK by my gene-lacking standards. The onerous act of dragging one’s body along with a forearm laden assortment of clothes into a tiny dressing room with an enormous mirror is not how I wish to expend my physical or emotional energy.

Given my dogged determination to stop the madness and to help others make peace with their bodies, I purport to have a ‘relatively’ healthy relationship with my own–though gauging relativity is rather vague in this regard. However, I admit that some of this is achieved by having infrequent encounters with its distorted reflection under bright lights in quasi-public places. I would prefer skinny dipping at a sunny beach if bright light and public places are in the offer.

As it turned out, it was a good thing that I was trying things on. Since the last time I shopped, or maybe it is dependent upon the type of store, sizing seems to have changed more than I was aware. This is either a case of new math or given the placement of multiple zeros on some tags, a result of some computer coding process replacing real numbers. In the name of I am not sure what, we are not our mothers’ clothing sizes. We are increasingly being resized to a lower number. Zena had to forcibly take from me some of the items I had chosen that were based on my belief in an antiquated sizing system.

Into the dressing room we trudged. This step thus engaged the unsolicited assistance of the kind store clerk. I do know these attendants are there to be helpful, but I still prefer to ignore such attention–and besides, I had Zena to help me. Apparently, though, my case was complicated and required the two of them to seek out for me what would best fit. The sizing and styling of jeans is nuanced. Ultimately, I would have to determine if I was curvy straight or modern straight and the style would influence the size. Zena and the clerk each ably navigated the floor and the dressing room bringing me different options, which I compliantly tried on.

At one point, the sales clerk poked her head in and asked me how I was doing. I was not exactly sure but said I was OK. Eyeing the tag on the pair of jeans I was then donning, she said, “Oh, that is good. You went down a size.” Apparently, it was time for me to have another one of my stunned moments in a retail setting.

I could have responded enthusiastically, that in the six minutes since she had last seen me in the two-digit greater-sized pant, I had in the 4 x 4 space taken to a program of calisthenics including jumping jacks and sit-ups while wearing one of those fat burning sweat suits– and was glad that my efforts had paid off. Instead, I asked, “What?” She replied by saying, “Isn’t that what every woman wants, to be a smaller size?” Oh dear, I sighed. With Zena out on the floor, at least my daughter would not have to see her mom (gently) trip out this well-meaning woman. She already knows how I feel about such things.

Quietly, I explained where I was coming from and why I was sensitive to her comment. I shared why believing and voicing such assumptions can be misguided and problematic–if not downright dangerous. (Not to mention, how in this case, absurd.) Such common banter ascribing value to diminished size–especially with no knowledge of an individual’s personal experience–belies the realities of those who may be contending with an illness or emotional stress; needing or wanting to gain weight; actually comfortable with their body size; just changing from an adolescent to adult body shape; or struggling with a psychologically and physically disabling eating disorder. Such entrenched beliefs can trigger reactions ranging from a shaming emotion to a dangerous feeding behavior. Now, how about those new spring colors?

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Cat and Flowers

The clerk’s cheerful countenance dimmed a tad, but she acknowledged what I was saying. She said she had not ever really thought about it. Understandably, it is one of those things we don’t think about unless we have to. But, with 30 million Americans struggling with some form of an eating disorder and many more at risk, (and a zillion just wishing to hate their bodies a little less) I tell this little story in honor of  Eating Disorder Awareness Week which is observed this year from February 26th through March 4th. This year’s theme is, “It’s Time to Talk About It”.

The insidious nature of eating disorders keeps them hidden in bedrooms, dressing rooms, locker rooms, and emergency rooms. To shine a light on the seriousness of these disorders, an incredible event has been coordinated by the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA). Large iconic landmarks throughout the country will be lit with the blue and green colors of the organization. Please check this out and look for a location near you. Otherwise, you might even see these lights but not understand their significance.

In the end, all was well. I purchased one pair of jeans of some size and style along with a few other attractive items that should keep me well-attired for a few years. I think my mom would be pleased. The clerk and I were all smiles as she handed me the large shopping bag over the counter, and I was feeling smug about the 60% savings. We had actually had a somewhat intimate encounter. Thinking about it, I recognize that dressing room attendants play a big role in helping women of all sizes to find clothing that makes them feel good. Cheers to them! Zena and I headed back out into the great outdoors feeling quite accomplished. Though we never made it to the farmer’s market we’d had a good catch.

Please drop in, say hello, share an experience, subscribe and/or pass my writings along. Thank you.

In health, Elyn

my plate

MyPlate Plate

MyPlate Haiku: In the dark places/I ask courage to believe/I am beautiful. by Anne-Marie

weight, weight, please tell me

This is a post about weight–weighty matters, the weight of the world, mainly the ongoing conundrum of there being too much of it. It is a topic I think about sometimes–trying to wrap my arms around it to contain it properly.

Actually, you will see that I don’t have much to say about it, but am sharing the brilliant voices of others who do. It seems these stories have recently, coincidentally collected in my little basket of big dilemmas.

Before I proceed and attempt to offer something up on this largely considered nutritional–but so much greater– matter, let me digress for a moment to share something about me and my nutrition work and my nutritionist status. I have a little explaining to do. IMG_0309

I have experienced a lot of changes in the past few years. Some of these are profoundly personal while others are professional. I will stick to the latter and how they have influenced what I write about–perhaps some of you who follow me have noticed–but they are both intertwined.

When I began writing this blog in the fall of 2010-wow-I was perched in a clinical setting that continued to make me privy to the upfront and personal stories of individuals’ eating lives. I had been doing nutritional counseling for many years at that point in time. My clients’ issues strongly reflected, what I refer to in My Story, the massive changes in our food culture and highlighted the intimate art of eating in response to the personal and cultural milieu. The nutritional crises of our time, including the obesity crisis and its shadowed sister–eating disorders–were about twenty plus years deep in the making.

Professionally, I had been riding this unforeseen wave since its onset in the early 1990’s and felt I had something to say to personalize and humanize what was projected as a faceless statistical trend. Having worked with so many people, I was able to synthesize the common experiences that were impacting us all. I could also relate some true experiences of my clients in my writings. I would juxtapose these experiences alongside the larger impacts of poverty, trauma, environmental changes, food adulteration, community access, societal messaging, etc.

But, what I never stopped to share, was that two and a half years ago, I stepped out of direct care. I began doing nutritional program development and administration for a statewide program serving childcare centers–the preschoolers, families, and educators. It is a good program. Though its implied mission is to prevent childhood obesity, I strongly prefer a redirection of intention to support the full health potential of all our children and mitigate the effects of what I am wont to refer to as nutritional violence and size stigmatization. Anyway, at that time, the nature of my posts changed and their frequency decreased. I had less material and more other things to tend to.

And now, I have just begun a new position. I am working for a breastfeeding support organization. This is a nutritional and health issue I am passionate about, but for essentially the first time in my career, I am not carrying the title of Nutritionist. I seem to be welcoming this change– it is a natural extension of my life work and public health orientation that fits well with my current circumstances. But it also stirs some emotion. Due to a combination of my personal experiences and the fact that I have not done direct care for a few years now, I no longer feel I can assist others with the acute health challenges of our time and the precise nutritional approaches they demand. So, along with other big changes I am now facing, I think it may be that I am no longer a Nutritionist.

So, my dilemma asks me, “Then what’s with the name of your blog?” For now, I will answer that until I have time to reconsider it, it will stay the same. I am still deeply interested in nutrition and how it relates to our individual and collective health. I am still paying deep attention and I still want to be part of the larger conversation. And, I still want to help people. I may present more concise offerings on my Instagram page which is now called, Lifeseedlings: Budding perspectives and occasional haikus on food politics, nourishment, body respect, eating, and cooking. Join me there.

And so, back to the issue of weight which I raised as the focus of this post. I wish it wasn’t all that it was and is. I wish it didn’t dominate the headlines and pervade our thoughts. I am bothered by my own sometimes prejudiced assumptions and that despite my somewhat larger awareness of its complicated nature, I still conflate weight with health and want to help ease and prevent the physical and emotional burdens it encumbers. But it is about time for all of us, those with or without the business to do so, to stop believing that banishing this weight, this unruly fat, is similar to scrubbing dirt and grit off of a coal miner’s body–some effort no doubt, some soaps better than others, but once undertaken, the job would be done.

From my observations, I think MAYBE things are changing. We may finally be realizing that plain out calorically restrictive diets of any ilk and fat shaming just don’t seem to be working to solve the problem in the long run nor are they doing anyone much good.

And, while not entirely new, more voices–powerful, angry and/or tender voices, are emerging that challenge the once firmly held ideas and attitudes held by our scientific and medical communities, our society and even our personal selves about the ‘weight problem’. Their words and advocacy may be shifting our perspectives, sharpening our sensitivities, and providing new approaches to care.

Here is a short little syllabus of what I consider to be very interesting insights on the topic. It includes:

  1. Where the story often begins. A post by Your Fat Friend, a personal story about the implications and consequences of early childhood weight interventions; and a discussion on What Harping on A Child’s Weight Looks Like 20 Years Later about the importance of fostering body appreciation for everyone, by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen on her website, Raise Healthy Eaters.
  2. What No One Ever Tells You About Weight Loss. A powerful and personal look at how expectations about ways to lose weight imply a process that is both isolating and not sustainable, by Nick Eckhart in What I Wish Someone Had Told Me About Losing a Lot of Weight.
  3. How Even Well-Meaning Assumptions about Fat Athletes Can Be Misguided. Here, Ragen Chastain (whose blog Dances With Fat I have written about before) deconstructs such assumptions in her post, What Fat Olympians Prove (and What They Don’t).
  4. Really? Just five amazing stories from an episode of This American Life, entitled, Tell Me I’m Fat. (Transcript or Audio).

This is not required reading, but I hope you find something thought-provoking, attitude- adjusting or maybe even life-changing within. And, though I don’t have Carl Kasell to answer my phone, you can leave me a message here.

Thanks for listening, following/subscribing, sharing and supporting my writing.

Elyn

 

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MyPlate Plate

MyPlate Haiku

Pick your own today

Happy kids in wide-brimmed hats

Sweet summertime fruit. by Nan (Blessings on her new little grandson, Orion!)

 

 

 

 

peacock feathers

Recently, I received an inquiry from a writer named Mel D., asking to share a piece of her own story on my blog–to impart her experience and shed light on an eating disorder related condition that is not commonly appreciated or understood–body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). As I give space to compassionate discussion of eating disorders, I was glad to honor the request.

In considering the manifestations of BDD, I was drawn to the image of a peacock–such a splendid, mysterious and almost mythical creature–and thus named this post. Not surprisingly, peacocks and their resplendent feathers are rich in the symbolism of many cultures, and interestingly, their symbolic and spiritual meanings represent compassion, kindness, patience, all-seeing knowledge, resurrection, renewal, and the reminder to show our true colors. I wonder if perhaps the peacock asks, How stunning must we be to honor our beauty; how much self-compassion required to accept our flaws; and how not show our true and lovely colors?  

Prior to becoming a writer, I had a career working in finance. It was a job that naturally came with a lot of stress and time pressures. During my teens and twenties, I had suffered with what I now know to be classified as Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified or EDNOS, but at the time I had little idea what was affecting me.

The symptoms of my eating problems developed when I was studying at university and straddled the anorexic spectrum. Anxiety and high stress from being in school prevented me from eating properly and I began to calorie count to gain control over my life. Unlike many other anorexics, I knew I was too thin, but felt powerless to stop what I was doing. I began to also develop symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) alongside my eating issues.

BDD is a disorder wherein a person becomes obsessively preoccupied with how some aspect(s) of their body looks and is fixated on trying to correct or cover up the perceived flaw. There’s a clear link between poor body image and eating disorders, although the relationship between the two becomes a vicious circle rather than a linear development.

When poor body image leads to a strong desire to change the appearance, and often this focuses on losing weight, eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia can either become triggered or more entrenched. Those who suffer lose sight of the connection between the food they eat, their body, and their physical and mental well being.  Although on the surface eating disorders seem to be about losing weight, the weight loss and other physical effects are really just symptoms of the underlying issue, which is rarely about weight at all.

As with all eating disorders and associated BDD, the key to regaining mental and physical health almost always requires professional help—a residential or outpatient treatment program offering multiple therapies.  It’s also often useful to learn to think of food in new ways, to allow the person to start focusing more on nutrition and health, rather than on weight and appearance. Thinking of food in terms of nutrients, rather than calories, and acknowledging all the amazing things that our bodies do with the nutrients we feed them can be a useful tool in recovery.

It was only when I left the world of finance– after a period of time out sick from stress–that my illness was properly addressed. I can’t claim to be fully well, but after time spent in therapy and rehab, I now understand what my triggers are and can better control my behaviors. Having walked away from my job, instead choosing to become a freelance writer, I now try and to write on the topics that are important to me and that may hopefully help others. 

For more information on eating disorders and BDD, check out this article at Bulimia.com. As these are very serious health conditions, please seek appropriate care promptly. You deserve to heal and be well.

In health, Elyn

Antiques 2 027

Susan’s My Plate

My Plate Haiku

In the dark places

I ask courage to believe

I am beautiful.  by Anne-Marie

I Speak for the Fat People

Although I have taken a little writing hiatus, the nutritional discourse continues unabated. The stories of our communal incarnate experience resonate with frustration, guilt and misunderstandings. This is an older piece that I hope offers some response with a bit of healing balm. Some of its points have been raised and debated among those in the scientific community rather recently. I have published it in three parts previously. Here it is mended back together. Soon, I will return with some new posts. Thanks for waiting.

I speak for the fat people. Like Dr. Seuss’ Lorax who spoke for the trees, someone must speak for the fat people. Unlike the trees who needed a spokesperson because they had no tongues, you would think that the fat people would be able to speak for themselves. Of course fat people have tongues. If they did not have that taste bud-laden sensory organ, they would not be fat. Given the current weight of the world, this group should not be particularly hard to hear. However, in the huge public dialogue about weight and obesity, the fat people are merely statistics. There are no real people behind the statistics, and this is where they have lost their voice.  Therefore, they are stripped of any ability to speak with authority on the topic.

I am not a statistic. Though I have had some years where I toed the chubby line, for the most part I have done my part in tipping the scales toward societal svelteness. Besides my obligation as a citizen to keep the fat numbers down, as a nutritionist it is my professional responsibility to pull people out of the fat pool and to keep them from falling in at all.

It is no big secret that the medical and nutritional community has not done a great job in their role as bariatric (the science of obesity) lifeguards. I myself do not have a great track record of turning people into mere shadows of their former selves. But, I have spent my career as a nutritionist hearing the stories and struggles of the fat people and observing the ways of food and eating that define this turn of the century. I am a spy in the house of girth.

The fat community does in fact have some spokespeople. There are magazines, journals, books and websites–written mainly by  women–who have spent one day too many in the deprived and depraved world of dieting. There are individuals who are doing incredible and poetic work about re-informing and re-educating on misconceptions about weight and health and respectful self-care. Still, many of these efforts are marginalized or featured in venues that only topic-obsessed people like myself pay attention to. Even Roseanne Barr once said, “It’s OK to be fat. So you’re fat. Just be fat and shut up about it.” For every undertaking that sings the praises of body love and acceptance, there are thousands of counter-voices screaming the imperative to whip this fat away.

Therefore, I believe I must use my credentials to speak out. I hope that the fat people can accept me, a thin person–who is often cold and prone to osteoporosis–and an ex-stress and emotional eater to be their voice. Born of thin mother and fat father, I will try to do the cause justice.

Let’s begin by putting  the issue of overweight into perspective. If we look at weight historically, I’m pretty certain that from the beginning of time, there have been fat people. We have all seen the pictures of early Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal men. Even those quintessential hunters and gatherers seemed capable of packing on a few pounds. After them came Confucius, King Henry the Eighth, Mamie in Gone with the Wind, Jackie Gleason, Pavarotti, Aunt Bea and my grandmother. Chances are your grandmother was fat, too.

English: Luciano Pavarotti in Vélodrome Stadiu...

English: Luciano Pavarotti in Vélodrome Stadium, 15/06/02. Cropped version. Français : Luciano Pavarotti au Stade Vélodrome de Marseille, France, le 15 juin 2002. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since our early beginnings, human beings have come in varying shapes and sizes and large-size was not necessarily an aberration of medium-size. It is good that there are large-sized people. A world without them would mean a world with fewer great opera singers, chefs, women of ample bosom, football players, construction workers and cuddly grandmothers.

It is not very difficult to become fat. You do not have to go out of your way to try. If Chinese youth can become fat, then anyone can. Only about 4% of the population has naturally model-thin bodies.That means that many models are starving themselves in order to be models. It also means that the rest of the size 2 wannabes are expending a lot of physical and mental energy in the pursuit of thinness.  Carolyn Knapp, in her book Appetites, tells the story of a woman who describes the angst she feels putting on her stockings every morning. She wonders what she could have accomplished in her life with the time she has spent worrying about her weight.

There are the naturally skinny–and then there are the neurotically and pathologically skinny; and the metabolically hyper-activated skinny–those who sustain themselves on a steady diet of excessive caffeine and nicotine—or maybe extensive exercise. For the rest of us, the possibility of becoming overweight is just around the corner. We are physiologically and neurologically wired to pack it on. The ability to store fat came in pretty handy a time or two during our multi-millenial evolution. We have about 107 compensatory mechanisms that prevent us from starving to death. A bunch of those certainly kicked in to save our forefathers when they were unable to kill a bison. In people who attempt to starve themselves toward thinness, the body fights back–it regains the lost weight plus more, and then absolutely refuses to budge.

In addition, we are wired for comfort. Research shows that the food habits that sustain us are those that we developed while still wrapped in the loving veil of early childhood. Whether that happened to be gazelle, chicken soup, mashed potatoes or cheeseburgers, you will probably turn to those foods as an adult. Believe me, the corporate world certainly knows this. The Happy Meal ensures that today’s toddlers will become tomorrow’s adult fast food consumers. The concept of comfort foods is one I hear a lot about during my spy missions. Women have confessed to me that they would choose a good loaf of bread over sex. The quality of the sex is not indicated in this context.

Then of course, there are our natural temperaments as well as good old genetics. I listened once to a tender story of a woman who was adopted as a child. She never met her birth mother, but she possessed a very old, poor quality home movie that she believes is of her mother. Though she struggles to see the face better in search of subtle resemblances, it is the woman’s thighs that confirm her finding. She states, “Look at the thighs. Those are my thighs.”

On top of all this, let’s sprinkle on a life change, or just daily, chronic stress. Take your pick. Break-ups, abuse, graduate school, poverty, working long hours, care giving, illness, depression or menopause are possible choices. And, God forbid you should simply possess a deep sensuous life affirming passion for cooking and eating. Throw any of these on your plate and if your primal wiring wasn’t enough to enlist you, then current circumstances will. Even the once-thins can become the now-fat–especially in this current milieu where food is literally out to get ya. Not even the high school cheerleader is immune. Any emotional state that is heightened increases for many the desire to seek food for reward. When one is working their way up the weight chart, it is because they are possessed by physical or emotional hunger, or physiological changes that they can neither understand nor control.

I can hear you begin to protest that it has to be more than just this.  Aren’t we soooo bad?  We ate the piece of chocolate cake (and we loved it). How could we? How dare we? That translates into four hours of floor mopping according to the calorie expenditure charts.  That must be fair penance for the crime. As a spy, my days are peppered with the monologues and dialogues of self-hate and recrimination that people utter like a mantra before and/or after each foray into eating. The guilt is palpable. We must have all been ____________ in a previous lifetime. (insert your own response.)

I was heartened to hear once, a man describe his joy-spreading tactic. Essentially, he spends half of his time acquiring special little chocolates and the other half, gifting them to people as morsels of universal love. I am either becoming a very cynical nutritionist or a very empathic human being. The collective psyche is longing for the morsel of joy even at the expense of the perfect waistline. The truth is that we have appetites and hungers because we are merely human, not because we are bad people. However, when all of these human tendencies accumulate into extra pounds, getting rid of that weight is very difficult.

A few years ago, I attended a conference on an obesity-related topic. As a group we were to brainstorm how to counsel a postpartum woman with a BMI of 30. The exercise had me squirming from the get go. As the attendees were getting rather  dead-ended in their attempts to master this case-study, the presenter, a physician and researcher at a major university said, “Let me offer this idea. I am often in my office at my desk and on the phone. I could just sit there and talk on the phone, but instead I stand and pace as I am talking.” My agitated brain said, “Yes, let’s file that idea to use.” Not with my clients but in this article. I could picture Homer Simpson stuffing one more donut in his face while muttering “Ah, vigorous pacing. That’s the ticket.” I wondered when was the last time this guy got out of his office and realized the experiences of real people, real fat people.

Hardly are all defined cases of overweight problematic. Some in the field maintain that the goal is for all individuals to attain an “appropriate” BMI.  Short of that, they will be at risk for various health problems. My intuition and much science beg to differ.  Many people are fine–if not perhaps better off–with a little extra weight on them. Pavarotti once said, “The reason fat people are happy is that their nerves are well protected.” My own observations reveal that the neurotically thin tend to be more frayed than their rounder counterparts. Besides, BMI is just a tool. At times it is a cruel tool—or at least a not very nice one.  It makes no allowance for age, fitness, or even natural body type. Whether we like it or not, our bodies will shift and change as we age. Nature, with no ill intent, seems to want to round us out a bit as we mature. That is how we get to be grandpas and grandmas. Appropriate BMI does not necessarily confer lack of health risks–only ones of a particular nature. Last long enough, and we tend to eventually shrink.

Do not get me wrong. I am not undermining the seriousness of the obesity crisis that we are facing. I understand its consequences perhaps more than most. I see the implications of weight that people struggle with on a daily basis and I strive to alleviate the challenges through educational, lifestyle and nutritional support. I bemoan the forces that are propelling our society into ever-expanding levels of girth, especially those that are now affecting our children.

Still, I feel a need to call TIME OUT! To stop the madness that makes those who are the statistics speechless. To stop pointing the finger merely at the individual without an understanding of the deeper forces that are at play. There are multi-factorial causes that lie at the root of the weight gain epidemic. Many are so abstract or insidious that it is very difficult even for the experts—let alone an ordinary individual–to understand what is going on. Though overeating, bad eating, food addiction and poor lifestyle choices are definitely a part of it, the magnitude of the communal weight gain doesn’t seem to make sense based on calories alone. In the causative mix lie politics, hormones, pharmaceuticals, poverty, nutrition misinformation, dieting, food sensitivities, sensory science, profits, changes in the components of our food, environmental toxins, personal and spiritual alienation and lifestyles spinning out of control. There are strange bedfellows in each and every fat cell.

Now, back to our friend the Lorax. For the record, the Lorax, our venerable spokesperson, was rather portly himself. Based on his picture, I’d put him at a BMI of about 29. I’d describe him as neither apple nor pear-shaped but rather pickle-shaped. According to Dr. Seuss, “He was shortish. And oldish. And brownish and mossy.” The final message of the Lorax in his plea to save the environment was UNLESS. “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

I too, am rather shortish. Oldish, brownish and mossy may someday also describe me. For now, my intention is not to imply an ultimatum. It is, however, to bring a greater sense of compassion and understanding–and a broader lens to the discussion and to the approaches to care.

I do not intend to deny the role of personal responsibility—be that for everyone. It is a big piece of the puzzle. Though it is critical that we address the current weight epidemic–we should not do it with an assault on the fat people. We must not slap everyone silly in an attempt to squeeze them into a size six dress or Speedo swimsuit. Besides, who would be left to sing the blues? And though I’d have been happy to find my grandmother at the gym, it could not replace the experience of cuddling up on her big, warm lap with wonderful smells wafting in from the kitchen.

In health, Elyn

my plate

My Plate Haiku

Adirondack lake

Soothes us  from the heat–weightless

We float like feathers

By Elyn

under the waning gibbous moon

Tonight, as sleep calls to me, while the waning gibbous moon that illuminates the night sky is 88% full, I take an excerpt from a previous post, Muse of the Girl, in recognition of Eating Disorder Awareness Week. A gibbous moon is one of the phases of the Moon, when the size of the illuminated portion is greater than half but not a full Moon.

Waning gibbous moon. Français : Lune gibbeuse ...

Waning Gibbous Moon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I want to discuss the war that doesn’t get covered, that wages within many girls and women–of all ages and sizes–who hate their bodies and therefore deny a large part of their selves. Or, who, by not loving themselves, direct a lot of abuse toward their physical temples in both thought and action. Though they often wish they were invisible, we see them walking around in all sizes– including those we deem acceptable and those we envy. Persons, whose self-worth has long been determined by the numbers on a scale or by an image in a mirror.

The war, where the collective pain and problems are as profound as those we ascribe to obesity–and the physical consequences are often more severe or deadly. Here, confusion and dictates about food and eating scar the bountiful landscape. Here, much potential is lost and much love is denied. I think we all have wandered into and many have lingered in this place where reality is distorted and self-flagellation and deprivation seems deserved.

This is the ignored epidemic. Not many resources are designated, but I have apparently been assigned to cover this front. My field notebooks are filled with stories and quotes that are usually too intimate for me to share. But, they reflect the reality that too many females (and increasingly, males) believe that without perfection they cannot be whole and should not take up much space on this generous planet. It is heartbreaking to witness this.

Having been touched by the lives of so many amazing, intelligent, gorgeous, creative, warm, gentle, caring and funny individuals who have been broken in this battle of self and body, these are some things I wish would receive front page headlines:

Bodies change, contours soften, bellies round, babies fill, bloat happens, hunger informs, weight is not absolute, judgmental words injure, beauty shines, food nourishes, wisdom evolves, body protects, hormones ebb and flow, pleasure is permissible, fat is often just a feeling in one’s head and restriction revolts.

If you are living this, put down the staunch resistance, begin the surrender and trust your inner feminine voice. Please know you are all so beautiful and you possess that which really matters. Take a moment to put your hand on your heart and belly and send love to yourself. Take a deep slow breath and be thankful to your body. Send a healing thought out to other women, because I assure you, you are so not alone. Hold the daughters and ask to be held. Reclaim your place. Change the internal tapes. Know there are many paths to healing available. The world needs everything you have to offer.

How fully illuminated is your feminine moon?  What else might you wish for others to know and trust?

Any sharings will be welcomed and respected.

In love and health, Elyn  

my plate

my plate

My Plate Haiku

Deep scarlet red beets

 Reveal your sweetness to me

 Slip out of your skins  

By Elyn