Archive for August 31, 2012

Ugly is as ugly does

I had an epiphany the other day.

I’ve long argued that people who care about us—friends, family, lovers—don’t usually notice our flaws when they see us. They notice, instead, our assets—our eyes, our smile, our laugh, our kind words, etc. Which is probably why nobody ever really thought Betty was ugly.

And it hit me the other day that the opposite is also true… we are more likely to notice the flaws of the people we don’t really like, especially people we consider ugly on the inside.

When we don’t like someone, even someone generally considered attractive, we start to pick up on even slight imperfections—tiny wrinkles, slight bulges, odd shaped body parts, etc.

When the cocky guy at the office comes up to our desk and brags about his latest exploit, we don’t notice his ripped abs, but rather his thinning hair and cracked lips.

In that sense, ugly really is as ugly does.

Which makes me realize that being nice to other people has way more to do with how others see us—both physically and emotionally—than anything else.

I’m going to remind myself about this every time I worry about some silly little flaw or blemish of mine—and tell myself no one will notice these things as long as they’re more busy noticing how much they’re enjoying my good company.

Are early morning workouts really good for us? Not if they come at the cost of sleep.

We live in a culture that puts a high value on waking early.

“The early bird catches the worm” and “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise” are phrases that are thrown at us from childhood and never really go away. This is probably why many of us are reqiured to be at work or at school at an early hour. (This is true even of high schoolers despite the research that proves they’d learn more and generally be better off sleeping in a few more hours.)

I’ve always been a night owl and have chafed at this kind of thinking and living. Many of our best thinkers have been night people—Charles Darwin, Margaret Thatcher, Franz Kafka, and Winston Churchill, for example—so why is there so much pressure to rise early?

Over the past eight months, I’ve sadly had to adjust my way of living to accommodate my Saturday morning boot camp class, which starts at 7:00 a.m. For me, that means I have to get up at 6:30 a.m. and go to sleep by 11:00 the night before, which requires heading to the bedroom around 10:00 p.m. on Friday nights, a reality that seems plain wrong.

I used to be the kind of person who stayed up until at least midnight if not 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. every night of the week. Night time was sacred for me. Anything I didn’t get done during the rest of the day, I could finish at night. But all that has changed because of my new schedule.

My mother is thrilled. She thinks that getting up earlier will make me happier and healthier. The truth is that it, so far, it has been working for me. Going to sleep at 11 p.m. isn’t too horribly early and getting up at 6:30 isn’t truly awful, and now all that work I used to get done late at night, I get done in the morning, making me believe that either being a night or morning person has its advantages.

But here’s what I don’t get—what about those people who get up at 5:00 or earlier to work out? My boot camp offers classes at 5:45 a.m. two days a week, and my local running group often meets at 5 a.m. That means that people who prticipate in these activities have to get up as early as 4:30 in the morning.

Let me repeat that…they have to get up as early as 4:30 in the morning.

The natural response to hearing about these kinds of people—the people who get up before the sun to work out—is something akin to “good for them” or “that’s great!” We all assume that getting up early to workout is good for us.

But I’m beginning to seriously question that wisdom.

I used to believe that people who get up at 4:30 in the morning to exercise just go to sleep much earlier than I do, but I’ve since learned that many of them stay up nearly as late as I do and just get by on less sleep, sometimes getting only four or five hours a night.

There can be no misunderstanding about this—if you’re getting less than 7 1/2 or 8 hours of sleep a night, you are not getting enough sleep and you are hurting yourself both mentally and physically.

Not getting enough sleep is just as bad for you as not working out or eating junk food all the time. Numerous studies have shown that not getting enough sleep is directly related to obesity, cancer, migraines and other mental and health problems (including learning and job performance).

Despite this, we laud  people who get up early to workout and never ask if what they are doing might actually be bad for their health, which is one more example of how our culture is so diet- and exercise-obsessed that we sometimes make bad choices as a result of that obsession.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for doing what you have to do to get in your daily workout, which is crucial to being healthy, but getting enough sleep is just as vitally important.

Being healthy isn’t about choosing items from an a la carte menu. You can’t choose working out but ignore getting enough sleep or eating healthy foods any more than you can choose an unhealthy crash diet and skip the exercise. You have to embrace the whole package—exercising, eating well, getting enough sleep, avoiding processed foods—to be mentally and physically healthy.

I need your help: I want to know how you stay healthy in stressful situations

Lots of people are heading back to school these days.

In the town where I live—Bowling Green, Kentucky—the public schools opened their doors weeks ago, and the university where I teach (pictured above) starts classes this coming Monday.

With the semester rapidly approaching, I find myself worried about not only my health, but everyone’s health.

Like many people who teach, my health almost always suffer during the school year, and it’s not unusual for me to pick up a few pounds during that nine-month period. In truth, it’s usually only a pound or two, but I have to admit that there have been years when it’s been much more than that.

I’m pretty good about dropping that pound or two and getting back to my healthiest state during the summers, but honestly, I am sick to death of feeling less healthy when school is in session! And I would really like to kick the school-is-in-session-my-body-goes-to-crap problem.

But I’m not off to a good start…

We’ve had meetings at school all week long, and every time I set foot on campus, my resolve to be healthy evaporates. I want to eat fast food in front of the computer or tv and eat lots of it. I want to skip workouts and avoid cooking at home and sit on my butt doing nothing.

I’m also under a lot more stress when school is in session. I had an appointment yesterday with my eye doctor, and when I told him my eye was flickering less over the last month or two, he said, “Are you under less stress than you were in the spring?” As soon as he said that, it hit me that not only does my weight suffer when school in session, but other parts of my health suffer too.

So I’m coming to you, my readers, to ask, what can I do to be healthier this school year and how do you keep your sanity and health intact when things get crazy for you? 

If you’re one of those people who likes to give advice, here’s your chance!

Look no further than your own backyard…

Angie kayaking with her partner, Leann

 

I went kayaking with my friend Angie (pictured above) on Sunday, and while we were paddling down Drake’s Creek, we talked about topics as diverse as family and money and everything in between.

When we got to the subject of exercise, Angie told me that she’s been doing the P90X workout most mornings for three years.

Three years! Now that’s dedication.

I was impressed, but Angie was nonplussed.

“It’s not like I look like someone who does P90X,” she insisted.

“Are you crazy?” I argued. “Yes, you do. You’re in perfect shape. No, you don’t look like a model, but that’s not what normal people look like even when they’re healthy.”

I really believe what I said to Angie. Normal healthy people don’t have six packs and bulging muscles. Normal healthy people have flat tummys (not six-packs) and toned legs. They have solid calf muscles and strong but not gun-like arms. (As demonstrated in the picture below.)

In other words, they are not cartoon people. They are real people.

But the pictures we see in magazines—even in “health” magazines like Shape or Self—feature models with impossible cartoon-like bodies.

The truth is that those impossible cartoon bodies take even more than the 90 minutes of exercise a day people do for P90X. Those bodies probably require a minimum of three hours of exercise a day (that is, unless the body is owned by someone under the age of 25). What that means is that they require an owner who makes exercise and being fit their job. That’s why those of us who have other jobs, other lives, can’t possibly aspire to have those kinds of bodies.

I know Angie likes to exercise for fun–kayaking, biking, mini-golfing, and even hitting some balls at the batting cage…

But even with all that healthy activity, it’s next to impossible to get in the three+ hours a day necessary to have a celebrity body.

So the next time you look in the mirror to examine your body, don’t compare yourself to Halle Berry or Mark Wahlberg or Kiera Knightly or Daniel Craig. Compare yourself to friends of yours (read: real people!) who are in great shape, friends like Angie who are committed to working out and being healthy but who don’t make it their whole life.

 

Can Hope Springs launch a new era of smart, accessible movies about women?

If you watch the movie trailer for Hope Springs, you’ll see a lot of comical moments set against the backdrop of some lighthearted happy music…

…including Meryl Streep’s character telling her kids that she and her husband—played by Tommy Lee Jones—got each other a new cable subscription to celebrate their 31st wedding anniversary.

…Streep smiling happily when Jones joins her on the plane to go to “intensive couples therapy.”

…Jones cracking wise about the experience: saying things like “I hope you’re happy” when he boards the plane and “that makes one of us” when their therapist—played with both understated gravity and empathy by Steve Carrell—says he’s happy the two of them are there.

…Streep asking a bookstore clerk for a book called Sex Tips for a Straight Woman by a Gay Man. (A book, by the way, I would like to have.)

…Streep sitting on a toilet eating a banana while reading the aforementioned book (rather than using said banana for its intended purpose).

…Streep laughing bashfully when salty bartender Elizabeth Shue gets a bar full of locals to admit they’re not having sex either. (Shue’s only appearance in the film, I must sadly note.)

…Streep and Jones laughing together over their therapist’s formal way of talking about sex.

…Streep shaking her head in a lighthearded manner at Jones while Jones dances in front of her.

And while all this is happening, the screen reads:

From the director of THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA … comes a comedy about love…and the things we’ll do to get it.

Finally, the trailer closes with Streep and Jones running into the neighbor with whom Jones admitted in therapy he’d like to have a threesome. The woman has just adopted her third Corgie, and the trailer ends with her saying,”Three’s the limit!”

It all feels very light, funny, silly, and—this is important—optimistic, even hopeful, an idea of course reinforced by the title, Hope Springs.

But this trailer is completely misleading because Hope Springs is not a comedy—unless you’re talking about the tradtional Shakesperian definition of a comedy, which assumes that on the way to finding happiness the characters suffer through some incredible tragic experiences.

No, the majority of this movie is more dark than light, more pessimistic than hopeful. In fact, sometimes it’s so dark that it’s hard to watch. (Not The Hurt Locker hard to watch, but still hard to watch.)

This is because Hope Springs is a movie about two people who are desperately unhappy—in marriage and in life. And it is their unhappiness that dominates most of the movie. They certainly spend more time feeling alienated or alone than they do being happy—whether they are together or apart.

And that makes me happy.

It makes me happy because it is so rare that we see a mainstream movie showing average Americans who are desperately unhappy, a condition that sadly affects more of us than it should given how relatively easy most of our lives are.

In most mainstream movies, we are shown something wholly different from these two miserable people … not their polar opposite, but still people who are mostly happy but have a tiny sliver of unhappiness in their life, a sliver which is usually located in their romantic life. As the movie progresses, these mostly happy people, of course, find romance and then all is well in the world.

In other words, most mainstream movies about couples are not at all realistic and not really all that interesting.

But Hope Springs, thankfully, isn’t that simple-minded.

At the beginning of the film, the unbelievably talented Streep and Jones are shown wallowing in the mud puddle of routine and mediocrity. Their lives are horribly mundane—they wake every day at the same time, they eat the same meals and watch the same TV shows, and, most importantly, they spend their time not interacting in the same frustrated fashion.

And some of the clips that look cute and comical in the preview—like when they mention their new cable subscription to their kids at their anniversary dinner—are much darker inside the actual movie, where it seems that absolutely nothing is able to even temporarily lift their suffocating misery. Even on their anniversary, they can’t even look each other in the eye, much less speak to each other, a scene that reads as more tragic than funny when you see it in context.

These tragic occurences continue throughout the movie. From the moment when Streep is packing her suitcase for couples therapy, crying as she thinks about the fact that Jones has said he doesn’t want to join her, to the two different scenes when they each run out of therapy on different occasions after becoming completely overwhelmed by the problems they face as a couple. *SPOILER ALERT* To the brutal scene when they finally try to have sex but ultimately fail, leaving Streep to wonder out loud if Jones is no longer attracted to her because she’s overweight and old. It’s obvious to the viewer that this is not the case, but watching Streep wimper about the baby weight she never lost after her husband stops banging her mid-coitus is utterly heartbreaking. *END OF SPOILER*

These are the kinds of moments that dominate the film, clearly demonstrating that these people are miserable in a way that is not at all happy or light or silly.

But rather is very real.

And the things they talk about in therapy are real too—why they no longer have sex, why they don’t sleep in the same bed, why they play out the same ignore-each-other script every day of their lives, why they never do anything for each other anymore, why their gifts are for the house and not each other, and even more hard-to-talk-about issues like what they fantasize about and whether or not they still masturbate.

The latter discussion made me wish—for a split second—that I wasn’t sitting between my husband and my mother while watching this scene unfold, but ultimately I was so thrilled the film didn’t flinch from the emotional honesty of these uncomfortable moments that I was able to get past the awkwardness of the situation.

I had invited my mother to see the movie with us because I’d had the wrong impression—from the misleading trailer—that it was going to be a well done but cliched and light-hearted rom-com.

But as I said, Hope Springs is far from light entertainment. It’s a movie that makes you think.

It makes you think about what it means to have a healthy relationship and about how you can lose that even with someone you love. It makes you think about how important sex and romance are to a successful relationship. It makes you think about the problems with falling into stereotypical gender roles. And, most importantly, it makes you think about how happiness is more important than being in the wrong relationship.

In that way, Hope Springs feels more like Sex and the City for seniors than a rehash of some of Streep’s other rom-coms—like It’s Complicated and Mamma Mia!—both of which were fun and had some thoughtful interludes, but were still, in the end, just light entertainment.

The woman who wrote the screenplay for Hope Springs—Vanessa Taylor—is new to film but has written for critically-praised television shows such as Game of Thones and Alias, making me wonder if maybe, just maybe, Hope Springs is a sign Hollywood is finally willing to let more serious writers take on comedy, something we’ve seen with only a handful of other screenwriters such as Alexander Payne and Diablo Cody. And if this were to happen even more, it makes me wonder if we could move away from the predominantly vacuous junk that has passed as comedy about women for the past decade—the so-called rom-com—so that we can finally return to our more Shakespearian roots.

At the very least, this movie gives me that hope.

Travel post #13: The revolution is here.


This is the twelfth and final in my series of short travel posts from the road as my husband and I drive from one side of the country to the other. See highlights from our trip here: Across the Great Divide.

Our summer travel has finally come to an end, and—despite the fact that we had a great deal of fun and got much accomplished—I’m thrilled about the idea of spending some significant time at home in Bowling Green.

If I’ve learned anything from traveling from one side of the country to the other—from Kentucky to Los Angeles to New York and finally to Chicago and back—it’s that no matter where we go, no matter who we see, women everywhere feel better about their bodies and are more accepting of their physical diversity than the media leads us to believe.

Nearly all of the women we saw had positive, healthy attitudes about their bodies and accepted the way they looked—whether they were curvy or flat-chested or short or big hipped or whatever.

No, the media does not reflect the collective self-confidence of American women, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have it. So pat yourself on the back and keep sharing your beauty with the world around you. 

 

 

Travel post #12: How to eat all day and still feel healthy

This is the twelfth in my series of short travel posts from the road as my husband and I drive from one side of the country to the other. See highlights from our trip here: Across the Great Divide.

 

Yesterday, Dave and I went on what he called “The Odyssey.”

This entailed driving ninety minutes from my parents’ place in Geneva, Illinois, to downtown Chicago; having lunch with the Chicago sales rep for Penguin; introducing ourselves to the booksellers at three local bookstores; visiting our dear friends Neal and Martha (pictured above with Dave) and their new baby, Annabel; and then making the ninety-minute drive back to Geneva.

Of course, we also had a bit of time to kill between these obligations, which was how we ended up hitting a coffee shop for a snack after lunch and before dinner.

Let me repeat that … we went out for a snack after lunch and before dinner.

Because we were spending so much time in or around dining establishments, I was worried I would overeat, but the opposite occurred: I ate lightly all day long, never feeling too hungry or too full.

And, because of who I am, I began to wonder about the health benefits of grazing in this way.

Back when I was still a teenager (meaning 1989), University of Toronto researchers gave the same amount of food to two groups for several weeks: one group who ate all of the food in three big meals and a second group who ate the same amount of food in smaller portions every hour for 17 hours. At the end of the study, the group that ate all day long had lower cholesterol levels than the group that ate three big meals, thus making the case that grazing was a healthier way to eat than “gorging.” And that’s how the “grazing” idea became a popular one.

I’m sure it’s true that it’s healthier to graze—also known as nibbling—because when you eat all day, you never get really hungry, which is often what leads to overeating. It’s also true that when you know you’re going to be eating often—as I did yesterday—you tend to pace yourself more, not wanting to get too full at any one sitting.

The problem, of course, is logistical.

Who has time to stop what they’re doing every hour to prepare and eat a mini-meal? I guess you could make all of your food in advance—something I advocate on the healthy living page of this blog—but it would still require you to take a break to eat every hour, something many of us don’t always have time to do.

So the solution is obviously to plan ahead.

Or—short of that—hire a personal chef to cook a mini-meal for you every hour all day long.

It couldn’t be more simple.

Travel post #11: The teacher becomes the student

This is the eleventh in my series of short travel posts from the road as my husband and I drive from one side of the country to the other. See highlights from our trip here: Across the Great Divide.

Dave and I are visiting my family in a suburb of Chicago right now. One of the great things about coming up to this part of the country is that I get to see my whole family at once: my parents, my sister and her husband, and my two sweet nieces (pictured above with my father).

As long as I’ve had this blog, I’ve told stories about my nieces while also talking to them about issues related to body image. Like my sister, my nieces—who are 11 and 9 years old—are super thin with long  straight hair. In other words, their looks are a world apart from my curvy body and curly hair. (My sister and I are adopted and do not share any of the same genes.)

Sometimes these differences frustrate my nieces who almost always beg me to straighten my hair. (And for the first time yesterday I let them do that.) Like most young girls they want to follow trends, so it’s no suprise that they prefer straight locks over kinky ones.

As a result, it surprised me when they told me yesterday that my body was perfect.

We were giving each other manis and pedis and had set up a whole “salon” in my mother’s loft to do so. To complete the whole salon experience, we pretended to talk about our problems while we did each other’s nails.

When it was my turn to vent, I confessed that even though my blog is about body acceptance, sometimes I get frustrated that I can’t lose weight no matter how much I exercise.

Immediately, my nieces leaped to my defense.

“No, Aunt Molly, don’t say that!” the 11-year-old said.

Then the 9-year-old jumped in: “Your body is perfect!”

“That’s sweet of you to say,” I said, sure they were just being nice.

But my nieces are getting smarter every day, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when the 9-year-old made a comment that conveyed they understood the implication of my words. “We’re not just saying that to be nice,” she insisted. “It’s true.”

The 11-year-old explained: “You’re the right size for your body. You’re supposed to look that way.”

I could have cried. After years of their mother and me talking with the two of them about the importance of understanding beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, they were now repeating what they had learned back to me.

So instead of crying, I just said the truth: “You girls are amazing.”

The XXX Olympics brings with it a new tradition: Internet Misogyny Fest 2012

A bright spot: Google has been featuring art of female Olympians with real curves

 

I was really looking forward to the Olympics this summer—I took gymnastics classes for many years as a kid and though I was never any good at it—despite a triumphant fifth-place ribbon in vault one year—I still love watching women’s gymnastics during the Olympics.

And, of course, this year was especially exciting for women’s gymnastics because the U.S. team was favored to win the gold, which they did with impressive intensity and focus Tuesday night.

But almost as soon as the Olympics started, so did the misogyny.

Let’s recap:

1) First the Herald Sun, a newspaper in Australia, asked the question whether or not 26-year-old Olympic swimmer and eight-time Olympic medalist Leisel Jones was fit enough to compete, printing this picture with their story:

Jones had already made the Australian team, leaving one to wonder why the Herald Sun would raise a question that had obviously already been answered: of course, she was fit enough because she made the team!

It’s interesting to me that as Michael Phelps returns to the Olympic pool, he’s regarded with an air of reverent nostalgia—It’s okay if Phelps doesn’t always win because he’s already a champion!—but Jones is not getting the same treatment. He’s Olympic royalty, but she’s the “fat” girl at the prom.

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2) Then, several media outlets—including the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and New York Magazine and no less than Conan O’Brien—insulted Olympic weightliftter Holley Mangold’s body by joking about her weight, taking cheap shots at her physique and her appeal to men. New York magazine actually begged her not to hit them—you know because she’s so big—while the Chicago Tribune talked about fluctuations in her weight and “an L.A. Times story couldn’t resist mentioning ‘the small Ohio town where she grew up — with an emphasis on the word ‘grew.‘” And O’Brien went to a new low when he tweeted that “I predict 350 lb. weight lifter Holley Mangold will bring home the gold and 4 guys against their will.”

This will date me, but when I was growing up, Chicago Bear William “Refrigerator” Perry was respected for his weight since it allowed him to occupy two blockers at the same time. I’ll never forget how shocked I was by this. Yes, they made fun of Perry’s size to some degree, but ultimately, he was seen as more of an asset than a joke.

As a teenager who believed that I had to be thin to be happy, this perception of Perry blew my mind. But even though, twenty-five years later, the same could be said of Mangold—it’s her weight that allows her to be an Olympian—the media is more focused on making fun of her than giving her credit.

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3) Finally, social networkers went after Gabby Douglas’ hair after she won a gold medal competing for the U.S. in the women’s gymnastics all-around competition, saying she needed a “hair intervention” and asking why no one wanted to go to London to do Douglas’ hair. One Facebook user said she looked at Douglas’ hair and asked “Why, just why?”

If I have to explain to you why it is disgraceful that people are discussing Douglas’ hair after this talented and courageous young woman won a gold medal at the Olympics, then I give up.

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Don’t get me wrong: the Games themselves have been great for women in numerous ways, featuring more women in more sports and including a woman on every single Olympic team.

But there’s something strange to me about the fact that this achievement comes with a heavy price—more women competing in the Olympics seems to mean more women to ridicule and judge rather than more women to laud.

Why is that?

Maybe it’s because of the age-old fact that our patriarchal society is still threatened by strong women.

Still, I want to believe that our society has become more open to women—after all, this year we have more female Olympians, our third female Secretary of State, and a female CEO of Yahoo.  Doesn’t that mean women are finally be taken seriously?

According to some of the above posts, maybe not.

I used to watch the Olympics with my parents every year when I was a kid. We dutifully watched the various events each night (including women’s gymnastics, of course), but the opening ceremony was the biggest moment of the Games for us.

We would all gather around our pathetic 19-inch color television set and stare in awe as people from incredibly diverse parts of the world walked into a massive arena in perfect harmony. No matter how different they all were, they all entered with the same sense of pride and the same respect for the Games.

My parents used to take that opportunity to talk to us about diversity—not only about cultural differences, but also about class differences, especially how some countries couldn’t afford to train and send as many Olympians to the Games as the U.S. could. They wanted us to understand that, as Americans, we were luckier than most, privileged even, while also wanting us to learn the importance of empathy. It was a lesson that has stayed with me all these years and helped shape who I have become as an adult.

It is my hope that the parents of today—the people of my generation—will do the same with their children during this and future Olympic Games. I also hope that they will encourage their kids to show respect to both male and female Olympians—just as they should with anyone—and not take this opportunity to trash these superheroes online just because we now live in a world where anything goes on the internet.

There’s still more than a week of the Olympics left. It’s not too late.

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