Monday, September 29, 2008

A Closer Walk with Thee

There is so much information "out there" regarding fitness that it is easy to become overwhelmed.

With the internet, books, magazines, television, and your friends and family telling you what to do, how do you decide what's right?

It's not easy. But I've found inspiration can be found just about anywhere, and even broken clocks are right at least twice a day. Today's surprise good advice came from a simple source -- one I enjoy referring to when my mom is too busy to talk: a women's magazine purchased at the grocery check-out.

While I don't recommend getting the bulk of your health and fitness advice this way, I must admit I have learned a lot from the pages of these publications. Often they contain well-researched articles that can be uplifting and educational. Just as often they also list the latest fad diet for me to obsess over, but I'm learning to take these with the requisite grain of salt. So for your perusal today are some thoughts from a neat article in the latest issue of First that covers our favorite subject -- faith and fitness.

In the tabloid's "happy, healthy, sexy you" section (you know you belong there, right?) is an article entitled "WALK OFF a mushy middle!" As an avid walker and owner of a mushy middle, I was hooked.

The article recommends walking -- something every fitness plan seems to promote these days. But this plan promises three times the fat burning power and instant motivation. Wow! Sign me up! The secret? It's twofold: try "interval walking," and get a friend to do it with you.

Interval walking involves varying the pace of your walk. According to this article, women who walked this way, rather than at a constant fast pace, burned three times more subcutaneous fat (the kind that jiggles) and 11% more of the visceral kind (the nasty stuff that's packed in around your internal organs.) This came from a study done by the American Medical Association, so I figure it's worth a try!

The fascinating part of this article came from its emphasis on the "walking with a partner" strategy. The very first suggestion? Partner with GOD!

That's right: choose The Lord as your walking buddy. Research suggests that prayer walking calms the stress center of the brain, lowering the release of tension (and fat) causing hormones.

I've enjoyed walking as a time to de-stress and pray for some time now. I know it is good for my heart, lungs, and muscles. It is a time to celebrate the fact that I am well and strong. I plan to experiment with interval walking and focused prayer when I next hit the pavement. Maybe I'll slim down a bit in the process, but my goal -- finding peace with my body as it is, rejoicing with my God -- will remain my focus.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Achieving Real Beauty

I recently wrote about my reluctance with having my daughters grow up to be beautiful women.

Then, later in the week, I was perusing an old prayer journal where I’d scribbled down “Canticle of Mary” and beside it the words “achieving real beauty.” This intrigued me. I read the Canticle of Mary or Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), and the first and perhaps most famous lines jumped out at me: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

I’ve always thought of Mary as beautiful. But it’s not because she wears flashy clothes, has lustrous hair and flawless skin, or a perfect body. It’s because her soul – her entire being – proclaims the greatness of the Lord. She is what every woman should strive to be: pious, humble, gentle but strong, feminine and blessed.

Once my preschooler was gazing up at a statue of Our Lady when she said, “Mommy, isn’t she pretty?”

“Yes,” I said. She’s the most beautiful woman in the world.

So I stand corrected. I do want my girls to be beautiful. As beautiful and lovely and worthy of roses as Mary.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

And They Lived Miserably Ever After...

Cathy's insightful post on the Cinderella Syndrome really hit home with me. When I started high school, I had braces and a round face. I had no curves and when I smiled, my eyes disappeared into my chubby cheeks. I was not fat, but I certainly didn't have a face or a body that would draw attention. I was also one of the "smart" girls. I took all the AP and honors courses and participated in activities like mock trial (that's actually where I met the boy who would become my husband!), Beta Club, and the Thespian Society. But you know what? I was happy.

Then over one summer I blossomed. I went from a chubby, awkward, brace-faced girl to a curvy, young woman whose smile now revealed pearly whites. I went to school that year and some of my peers did not recognize me. The same boys who had never looked twice at me started asking me out on dates.

My parents allowed me to date when I was 16 and I couldn't wait. I thought it would be magical. It wasn't.

I remember my first "boyfriend." He was a nice enough guy and the first guy I went on a few consecutive dates with and the boy who walked me to class even though I felt really cheesy when he did it. I remember how he reeked of cologne and always wanted to hold my hand and put his arm around me and how uncomfortable I felt, but I acted like I liked it. All my friends thought he was cute, after all. Plus, I was a people-pleaser. A lot of girls are. We do what we think others want.

Speaking of friends, a lot of them were asking how I did it. By did it, they meant how did I transform myself? How I did "it" was simply physically mature and let nature take its course. It just happened overnight for me. It was like my fairy godmother paid me a visit and worked her magic on me. What really happened was I got my braces off, grew a few inches, started my period (finally!), grew some breasts, and thinned down (without dieting, just naturally).

I remember that school year well. Everyone was always complimenting me. I got invited to more social events and was asked to sit at a "cool" table in the cafeteria (even though I was still a geek). But here's the kicker: With this newfound popularity and attention came a lot of pressure - pressure to be perfect, pressure to be beautiful, pressure to be smart but not too smart. Even though I was the same girl on the inside - a goofy, drama queen who loved horses, singing, and reading - how I looked on the outside had somehow made me more important (at least in the ridiculous hierarchy of teenagers).

But was I happier? No. On the contrary, I was the swan who was constantly worried that I was going to change back into my old, ugly duckling self. I never meant for it to happen, but I was suddenly thrust into a competition to be one of the pretty girls, the fairest of the fair.

Truth is, one of the reasons I started dieting and resorting to eating disordered behavior was because of my fear. I had it in my mind that the thinner I got, the better person I'd be. However, if I gained weight, I'd lose myself in all the fat and lose my friends at the same time.

For me the message was clear: I was easier to like being pretty.

Thinking back on those tough teenage years, I've said to my husband that I hope our girls are plain or even cute but not beautiful. I've seen too many unhappy, beautiful girls to think it's something we should want (just think of so many of the Hollywood starlets who seem to have it all and end up in drug rehab programs or in an endless game of marriage roulette or with eating disorders). It's too exhausting to maintain beauty. Once you have it (or society says you do), you cling to it, thinking it's all you've got. Once you hit a size 0, you think that's what you have to stay to be anything (ironic isn't it that a size 0 used to be my favorite size because it made me feel like I was important when that number means an absence of anything).

I'm not saying pretty girls have a right to feel miserable. I'm not condoning vanity either. I've had beautiful friends complain about their looks, and it's frustrated me. "Can't you see how pretty you are? Can't you see how lucky you are?"

Funny, I think my mom and dad, my brothers, and husband have all asked similar questions of me more times than I'd like to count.

Recently, my daughter whipped this up in her toy kitchen:

She called it Cinderella stew. I thought it was hilarious. There was also something comforting in thinking about boiling Cinderella and all she stands for - beautiful perfection - along with some carrots and potatoes.

I'm not sure they have to go as far as poaching Cinderella, but I don't want my daughters idolizing beauty. I want them to pursue health, not flawless looks or a perfect body. If God blesses them with loveliness, I want them to be grateful but to remember that it's what's beyond that skin that's really important - their passions, their brains, their sensitivity, and most importantly, their souls. I want them to not be like the person their mom can sometimes be.

What's really sad to me about all of us who are relentlessly striving to be the fairest of the fair is that physical beauty, especially as it is defined by society, isn't something you can hold onto for forever. It eventually fades. Botox won't save you. Neither will face lifts. Smooth skin becomes wrinkled with time and splattered with age spots. Even the firmest of bums eventually head south. Hair of all shades will all end up gray or silver. In time, our faces and bodies won't seem like our own, but what's on the inside will remain constant.

My mom is someone who has grown old gracefully. Now, I will say she is blessed with looking younger than her age and being petite, but she's never let her looks be her focus.

Just recently, she did admit that aging has been tougher than she thought it would be. I had no idea she felt this way. But the reason aging has been challenging, she said, isn't because she wants to look a certain way. It's just that she'll see a picture of herself and think, "I don't feel that old." How she feels doesn't always match with how her body looks, she says. She still feels like a 30-year-old sometimes, but her body's saying she's in her mid-fifties. I think that's the same way it is for pretty girls. They look beautiful on the outside, and we think that that's how they should feel. Yet, so many of them have some ugly demons - from crippling perfectionism to an obsession with looking a certain way - to contend with on the inside.

My mom also told me she's decided to concentrate more on how she feels than how she looks. Who cares if her body is telling her something differently? If she feels like a young grandma, then that's what she is. We don't have to listen to that mirror, mirror on the wall (or that scale on the bathroom floor). It's up to us on whether we want to exude beauty or not at any age or at any weight.

For today do something that makes you feel beautiful. For me this often means getting dressed up for my husband. He thinks I'm attractive when my hair is streaked with diaper ointment, so you can imagine how we both feel if I slip into a black dress and some heels.

After you're feeling beautiful, why not cook up some Cinderella stew and then just make the decision to live happily ever after...

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Cinderella Syndrome

I know women of all shapes and sizes, and I've noticed something striking about them.

The least confident among them are also the most beautiful.

What I mean is that I know some very tiny women and some very large ones. I know some gorgeous girls and some who are not so pretty. Most of the ladies I know, of course, are simply average. They are of average build and average looks (because that's what average means, right? It's the most common.)

What I've realized of late is that my friends who suffer the most with issues of poor self-esteem are really much more attractive than the average. They are the pretty girls that don't think they're pretty. They're the ones who shy away from cameras and complain they look fat in their size 8 jeans.

The "average" ladies I know, the ones who blend in with the crowd, seem much more content with themselves. Even those who are very overweight seem not so discontent as their prettier sisters.

Cinderella syndrome, perhaps? Are the lovely ones convinced they are like the poor girl in rags who is waiting for a fairy godmother and a handsome prince to come rescue them? Admit it; we more often relate to the "ugly" stepsisters who felt deserving of the prize. The beautiful Cinderella who sits in the corner, covering her beauty with rags while patiently waiting on everyone else, really gets on our nerves.

Sometimes I think I'm one of those girls. It would be a lie to say that I'm grossly overweight or unusually unattractive. But sometimes I sit there with my broom, cinders on my face, waiting for compliments to come take me away.

I have several friends who are really beautiful. They have been blessed with lovely skin, lustrous hair, sparkling eyes, tiny waists, long fingers, and everything else the world says is beautiful. These same friends avoid posing for photos and complain that they look fat.

I have little patience with them.

Maybe they (dare I say we?) are such perfectionists that we are not happy unless we are "perfect." Maybe we feel that we're just so close to being "the total package" that we're regretting the tiny imperfections that keep us from that goal. Does the world expect too much from the beautiful?

Are we really just vain?

Or in pain?

I'm not sure I have the answer to that. But Cinderellas or not, we all better get ourselves off the hearth and to the ball. It's practically midnight, you know.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Weighing In: An Update

"I wondered why I wasn’t stronger. I didn’t have the “better” eating disorder. I wasn’t anorexic. In my twisted mind, I was weak because I was unable to completely deprive myself of food."

I read these words from my friend Kate and felt such a sad kinship with what they express. I must confess I have felt this way myself. I don't have the nerve to have a "real" disorder, like bulimia or anorexia. I just have an inordinate attachment to my bathroom scale, an obsession with what I eat and how my body looks as a result.

I have been "scale-free" for over a week now. It has been an interesting week. At times I feel liberated and carefree: there is no concrete sign of my inability to deprive myself, no measure of my failure proclaimed clearly on an LED screen.

Sometimes, though, I've felt dangerously alone.

If I lack a scale to measure my worth, how will I know if I am OK?

Should I eat this or that? Should I be punishing myself for eating that slice of pizza? Did I eat too much, exercise too little?

Am I a good girl or a bad girl?

I've said this before, but I can't overestimate the power the scale has had over me. Without its clear unbiased voice shouting approval or dismay each morning, while I stand naked, both literally and figuratively, upon it, I feel lost. Am I a success of a failure?

I must find other ways to determine this. There are better ways to find my worth. There are more accurate ways of understanding my value, of appreciating what I have to offer to the world. There are greater measures of the good I can do, the ways I can heal and support, the gifts I can bestow.

There have to be.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Porcelain God

I once worshipped a porcelain god. Throughout the day I bowed down to my god in addictive reverence.

During high school, I secretly grappled with bulimia. On the outside, I was a straight-A student who was always smiling and laughing.

On the inside a demon was taking over, eroding my teeth and gums, leaving my throat raw and transforming me from a happy young woman to someone sad, shameful and scared.

Even as I forced fingers down my throat and watched my sustenance and my health and my faith swirl down, down, down, down, I wondered why I wasn’t stronger. I didn’t have the “better” eating disorder. I wasn’t anorexic. In my twisted mind, I was weak because I was unable to completely deprive myself of food.

I did give anorexia a shot and ate only shards of lettuce for several months. I lost weight – a lot of it. People noticed. (I loved the attention. It gave me a sense of accomplishment when people asked me how much weight I’d dropped.)

Then my parents become aware of my problem. “You’re too thin, Katie. Please eat,” my mom begged.

Never one to disappoint my parents, I answered my mother’s plea. I started eating again. Food tasted so good, but when I saw that little red line on the scale climbing, I panicked. I felt out of control. When I was losing weight, the scale was my cheerleader, applauding me for being “strong.” Now suddenly it reared its ugly head, revealing its superego. It was screaming at me, berating me for letting myself go. The barometer of my self-worth was betraying me.

Then I read about a girl who suffered from bulimia and how easy it was to purge herself of the demons that haunted her. Extra calories. Fat. She would gorge on cream-filled donuts, greasy pizza and cookies, only to regurgitate the meal and watch it disappear down the toilet. This unknown woman became my mentor.

I was never gluttonous. No eating frenzies for me. I only used bulimia as a way to hide my eating disorder. My parents wanted me to eat, and so I did. But I couldn’t stand the feeling of food swimming in my stomach. I had to get it out. I had to purge myself and stay thin.

Interestingly enough, today I’d probably be diagnosed with purging disorder, a new eating disorder doctors are beginning to recognize that’s characterized by women of normal or thin weight who purge themselves after eating even small amounts of food by vomiting, taking laxatives or some other purging method.

But back then I was given another label – bulimia nervosa. I was told I had a “full-blown eating disorder” when I finally sought counseling in college. Because I met the puking quota – I had self-induced vomiting more than two times a week for longer than three months – I was seen as someone who needed help.

Amazingly, (I credit my parents’ support and my Catholic faith) I recovered fairly quickly. Although an eating disorder is an obstinate companion that never completely goes away. I still have days when I’m too consumed by my weight. I constantly have to fight impulses to engage in unhealthy behavior – whether it’s fasting or throwing up after eating two cookies – but I have come a long way from those dark days when I worshipped a god that did nothing but hurt me.

In some ways, I was fortunate; I was classified as an “eating disordered patient.” People were trained and available to help me.

Other women aren’t so lucky.

A friend once tearfully recounted an experience she had while trying to seek treatment.

“I wasn’t dangerously thin,” she told me after she learned I had struggled with an eating disorder, “but thoughts of food and diet were controlling my life. I wanted help, but I was terrified the therapists would laugh at me and tell me I wasn’t thin enough to have an eating disorder.”

She said she role-played her counseling session over and over in her mind:

“Do you starve yourself?”


“Do you binge and purge?”


“Have you lost more than 15 percent of your body weight?”

“Well, no but…”

“I’m sorry, but we can’t help you. You’re not skinny enough.”

Her premonition wasn’t too far off: She took a slew of psychological tests, briefly talked to a therapist and was then told she was not sick enough to get help. I wasn’t surprised. Insurance often won’t cover therapy for patients who don’t meet certain requirements the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (psychiatry’s bible) outlines for eating disorders.

One in five women is purported to have a clinically diagnosed eating disorder. They’re the ones everyone wants to help. But what about the millions of women who feel like failures because they eat bread (and other “bad” carbs) and aren’t Auschwitz-thin? Or all the prepubescent girls who are on a diet right now? What about the college student who lives off beer, cigarettes and laxatives interspersed with an occasional meal? Are they not sick as well?

We’re all in denial if we think any woman who is preoccupied with diet, fitness or whether or not her thighs touch needs doesn’t help.

Frankly, I’m tired of the term “eating disorder." Many women will never vomit every day (or ever) or starve themselves to the point of emaciation. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a problem. The obsession with all the media figures who have personal trainers, cooks and their share of eating problems is taking its toll most women. It’s rare to find a woman who loves her body (all the time, not just when she’s on a diet), unless perhaps she’s sucked out the fat, tucked the tummy and taken a knife to her breasts to boost her cup size. (Research suggests that media idealize a female body that only one percent of woman can hope to biologically attain.)

It’s time all women – mothers, sisters, grandmothers, wives, girlfriends – take it upon themselves to stop the self-loathing and the “lookism” permeating in our culture. It’s time we remember we are made in the image of God and that our bodies truly are temples that deserve our respect. It’s time we help our children develop positive body images and not support media that perpetuate unhealthy and unnatural bodies. What’s important is being healthy and knowing our worth is much deeper than our dress size.

As a woman who once was at war with her body, trust me on this one. A fixation with weight only robs you of your inner peace and health. And even when the scale is cheering you on to lose more weight - it is only a hollow, ephemeral espousal that knows nothing of true happiness

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

I grabbed this image from the site

Isn't it fascinating that about 100 years ago, women were chastised for being too thin?

My first thought is that I was born in the wrong century.

My second is more powerful: who decides what is beautiful?

Weighing In, Not

This past weekend, I did something I never thought I'd have the courage to do.

I gave my bathroom scale to my husband, and asked him to remove it from the house.

As I've recently shared, I have a love/hate relationship with my scale that has existed my entire adult life. Weight down? I'm a good girl. Weight up? I'm bad, very, very bad.

A few days ago I woke up and made a decision. I am tired of using the scale as a measure of my worth. I'm just exhausted with it.

I must admit I'm a little bit scared. I fear that if I don't know my weight each day, my eating will be out-of-control and my weight will zoom off the charts.

I'm stepping out in faith here, bigtime. I'm trusting that I will eat appropriate foods, in appropriate amounts. I'm trusting that I will continue to exercise, enjoying the benefits I can feel, not just see on a scale. I'm trusting that God will guide my choices if I place my trust in Him, not in a diet plan. I will attempt to seek validation as a daughter of the King. Might I grow in true virtue if I base my success on my relationships -- with God and my neighbor -- instead of on how much I weigh?

I'm giving it a shot. What have I got to lose?

So I got rid of the scale, and gained some freedom, and a new burden. Now I must find new ways to judge myself. Am I a good girl or a bad one? Am I a success or a failure? I'm still interested in progress, in perfection -- no -- excellence. I will have to develop new standards for gauging my progress. It is rather exciting.

Last night, I dreamed that I could fly.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Confessions from the Closet

I love clothes.

I absolutely adore clothes. I love the fabrics, the colors, the textures. I love to look at them, follow new styles, shop for them, and wear them. I'm pretty fond of shoes, handbags and jewelry, too.

My closet, not surprisingly, reflects my passion. It is tiny and burgeoning with the stuff I love, and I know that it, like so many things in my life, is greatly in need of some organization.

I'm in the middle of a major redecorating project, one that will include a fabulous new wardrobe for me. (Wardrobe as in closet, not a new wardrobe of clothes. Now wouldn't that be exciting?!) But I'm pretty excited about the new storage space, and I've spent the last few days doing two things I love: going through my clothes and shopping for more.

How's your closet? If you're like most women, it's probably got at least four types of clothing in it. There are those things you wear all the time, the old stand-bys that you reach for day after day. They fit (maybe because they feature elastic or spandex) and they don't require much thought.

Then there are the things that DO NOT FIT. This includes the items that are "just a little" (or maybe a lot) too tight. Maybe we used to wear them (before the last baby?) or we bought them on sale, figuring we were only a diet away from squeezing in. Also here are our "fat" clothes, the ones we reach for when we're feeling chubby, or have in fact put on a few pounds. These clothes are not usually the prettiest items in the closet, are they? They are often shapeless, faded, or out-of-style. Wearing them just solidifies the negative thoughts we have about ourselves when we are not at our thinnest: we don't deserve to look nice. We're unattractive.

Next are the clothes we have acquired that do not flatter us. They may fit, but not well. They are not designed for our body type, but we keep them, and perhaps wear them, anyway. Maybe we got them on sale, or they were gifts, or we gave in to the latest fad or fashion. When we do wear them, we don't feel all that great about ourselves. But we feel a little guilty getting rid of perfectly good clothing, so we keep the stuff.

Then there are the special occasion threads, the ones we only wear when someone tells us we should. I know most of us wouldn't feel comfortable wearing an evening dress to go grocery shopping, but I think many of these items are like Grandma's china: we're saving them for a special occasion, and that occasion never comes. Maybe we could find or make special occasions more often. For example, I tend to be one of the more dressed up gals at Sunday mass. (No evening gowns, but I do usually wear a skirt.) I also really enjoy getting a little dressed up when I go out with my husband, even if it's just for a quick dinner at a casual restaurant. We deserve to look nice and enjoy our femininity!

As I was going through my clothes this week, I realized I have lots of items that don't flatter me, and I am letting them go. Jeans are my worst offender. I have a curvy figure with a umm, mature tummy. I went shopping this week and found a great style that fits and does not give me a "muffin top," so I bought several pairs. (FYI, they're wide leg jeans with a slightly higher rise. Gorgeous!) Then I added the old ones (some with tags on them) to the give-away pile. (I've actually discovered a local consignment shop where I hope to sell them. Might there be one in your neighborhood?)

I had a new attitude while trying on clothes this weeks: I will not buy something that doesn't fit AND make me feel good. I will not accept clothes that are "ok." I deserve to look nice and feel good about myself!

An important point here: the clothes must fit -- and the SIZE ON THE TAG DOES NOT MATTER. We girls are a little crazy here. How many times have I reached for a smaller size, to see if I could squeeze into it, so I could brag to my girlfriend in the dressing room next to me? That's madness. No one knows what size your pants are, and no one cares. Nor should you. Wear what fits you.

Give your closet a look-see. How does it make you feel to wear the clothes you have? Depending on your budget, get yourself something amazing. You don't need to spend a lot -- many of my favorite items were purchased at resale shops or even garage sales. You might just need to "shop your own closet" and discover the items there that really flatter you. Whatever size you are, you deserve to be wearing attractive clothes that fit you and emphasize your beauty.

Because you are beautiful, right now, today. Don't wait to be a certain size or for someone to tell you it's a special occasion. Today is a special occasion.

Dress for it, girlfriend!