Saturday, January 05, 2008

Why Immanuel Kant was right

A letter in today's issue of the British Medical Journal warns that the obesity epidemic in the U.K. is so bad that action must be taken now; no more studies or research, says the letter writer. Do something now!

What does she think should be done? It's a question of infrastructure, she writes; we need to build more bike lanes and sidewalks and remove the physical obstacles to biking, walking, and swimming.

That sounds like a great idea to me. I live in a city famous for being bike-friendly. I bike to and from work when the temperature is above freezing (round trip: 6.5 miles) and walk the rest of the time, and I love it.

But I haven't lost any weight doing it, and I don't expect to. That's not why I do it. I bike and walk because I love the feeling of getting somewhere under my own steam--always have; I walked to and from high school, 2 miles each way, even though there was a bus I could have taken. My brain works better when I'm in motion, so I get a lot of my best ideas while I'm walking or biking. And the efficient part of me likes combining daily exercise with basic transportation--killing two birds with one stone.

The trouble comes when we pose such social changes as means to an end, ways to drop pounds, rather than an end unto itself. The philosopher Immanuel Kant spoke to this kind of mistake in his writings. In his view, all means to an end have a merely conditional worth because they are valuable only for achieving something else. In order to have value, something must be worth doing for its own sake.

Bingo! Let's build bike lanes and hiking paths and public swimming pools because we think there's intrinsic benefit in people biking, cycling, and swimming. Conflating weight loss with these activities just muddies the waters. What will letter writers propose when said improvements don't result in massive weight loss? I shudder to think.

Friday, January 04, 2008

How to get naked on national TV

My older daughter has been bugging me to take a look at Lifetime's new show, How to Look Good Naked, and last night I finally did. The idea is that any woman can look good naked if she Loves Her Body. It stars Carson Kressley, one of the Fab Five from the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy show of a few years back, and (in each episode) a woman who is unhappy with her body. Like all reality shows, it's based on the premise of quick transformation, only in this case it's not through diet, overexercising, or self-hatred.

In this show, the path to loving your body does include some high-end clothes, a proper bra fitting, and spa time. But it also pays at least lip service to the idea of taking a good look at your body and learning to love what you see, regardless of how you do or don't conform to cultural beauty norms. It's an appealing premise, though I do have to wonder why women require the services of a gay man to appreciate our boobs, thighs, and butts.

Carson Kressley is, as my daughter says, adorable, and much of the dramatic tension of the show comes from the cognitive dissonance of watching a perfectly toned, tweezed, and tucked-in gay man not flinch at the sight of a fat woman in underwear. And the whole show takes on the unfortunate feeling of a scavenger hunt at the end, when Kressley persuades the somewhat-transformed woman to pose naked for the camera. It feels a bit like a frat dare of epic proportions, and I couldn't help wanting the woman to say "No way!"

But even dressed up in TV sham and tinsel, the show has a little nut of true feeling at its core. When Layla, the subject of the first show, talks about how her mother put her on a diet for the first time at age 12, she wipes away tears—who can't relate to that? When she's asked to place herself in a lineup of women in their underwear, arranged by hip size, she vastly overrates the size of her own hips--and who can't relate to that? It's a clever way to illustrate the concept of how differently we look to others and to ourselves. Mostly, the pleasure that shines on her face when she looks at herself in the mirror at the end of the show, coiffed, well-dressed, and most important closer to accepting her body and herself--that's a genuine moment, no matter how fake the trappings.

Of course, the rest of us have to get there without the help of Carson Kressley or thousand-dollar outfits or highlights. We have to look in the mirror and find a way to say, "I'm beautiful just the way I am." Maybe this show will inspire us to at least give it a try.

I'm going upstairs to do that right now.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

New Year's greetings, of sorts

My daughter sent me this piece, which ran in our local paper on New Year's Day, along with an email asking, "Isn't this appalling?"

Tha's my 12-year-old daughter, who apparently understands more about the world than the fancy-schmancy newspaper editors around here.


Of course, what do you expect from a column called "The Skinny"?

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Please read this first-hand account

sent to me by a mom, describing her daughter's recent experiences in an upscale residential facility for eating disorders:

". . . If my daughter cries in the facility, she is restrained in a punishment chair. If a girl regurgitates food at the table, she has to eat it again. The nurses tell my daughter to try to swallow her vomit at the table so she won't get the punishment chair. Over the past four days, my daughter's typical meal has consisted of two veggie burgers on buttered rolls, three cups (!!!) of canned vegetables, two cups of milk, two bananas, six TBS of peanut butter, and a granola bar, all of which must be consumed within 20 minutes. All food is served stone cold because the pediatric unit has no kitchen. We are allowed one visit per day, during which she cries to come home. . . ."

This is why I'm such a strong believer in family-based treatment (the Maudsley approach). Those of us who have been through the nightmare of anorexia know that you have to be tougher than the eating disorder to help your child survive. You have to allow no loopholes for the disease to continue its insidious mind-twisting.

But you do not have to punish the child. Someone with anorexia is already suffering torments beyond what we can truly imagine. The very concept of a punishment chair makes me feel ill. Eating stone-cold food? Being punished for crying? Who wouldn't cry, trapped in the hell of anorexia? Serving massive amounts of fruits and vegetables during re-feeding? You need the smallest volume possible of food during re-feeding, partly because the digestive system can't handle so much volume and partly because fat is a crucial part of the recovery process. Quality, not just quantity, is important, and the brain and body need fats and protein to begin to heal.

Imagine being ill with cancer and being punished for throwing up after each round of chemotherapy.

Treatment for an eating disorder should never look like medieval torture. There are other ways and options. Even in cases where a child requires an NG tube, treatment can be done with love and kindness and not punitively.

Sunday, December 30, 2007


Fillyjonk over at Shapely Prose has a great post on New Year's resolutions. Check it out.

This year, I resolve to:

Make progress toward learning to love my body the way it is, not the way I wish it were.

Finish my second anthology.

Sell the guitar I bought last year, and which I've played twice. Take voice lessons instead.

Do something surprising every day. OK, every week.

How about you?