Archive for January, 2013

good/bad food dynamic

Posted: January 28, 2013 in Uncategorized

Every woman I’ve ever pitched this concept to has known what I’m talking about without effort.  Some struggle to have good food days, cutting up celery and carrot sticks, sharing tips to avoid the ice cream section in the freezer or chewing gum instead of eating candy at night.  These same women will lament to their friends about what a “bad” food day they’ve had, out having fun with friends or family or partner, at a restaurant or at home, eating dessert and “paying for it today.”

There is something fundamentally wrong with putting a moral value on the food that we eat.  There is also an inherent problem when we attach global labels to ourselves based on our ability to resist food we enjoy.

I will make this clear at the outset – I am not advocating eating potato chips and chocolate for every meal.  I have no issue with healthy eating.  The problem emerges when we judge ourselves or other people for choosing to eat potato chips and chocolate for every meal.  Those are food choices which have possible consequences.  They say nothing about that person’s character.  Eating food with high fat and sugar content does not make someone bad. 

In my humble opinion, the reason this concept makes almost inherent sense to us is because we are bombarded constantly with these messages, in our advertisements, our media, our schools, our society.  Chocolate is billed as guilty pleasures, an indulgence, but also an escape.  It’s equated with female sensual pleasure almost on the level of sexual arousal; is it any coincidence both are forbidden?  In both instances we are “supposed” to be good (either eating only vegetables or not wanting sex) and in both instances that is clearly an unrealistic and ridiculous expectation.  Food tastes good, and we are built to eat what tastes good to us.

Animism is a concept I first encountered in anthropology, discussing traditional African practices.  It attaches human qualities to inanimate objects.  We see this often in young children who have difficulty separating fantasy from reality; when a child cries because his stuffed animal is sad he’s leaving, this is animism in action.

We’re supposed to grow out of this phase.  A food is inanimate, it is not inherently bad or good.  The most revolutionary thing I’ve ever read or thought was actually small, but it changed my whole concept of eating.  Instead of calories, energy.  Just take a moment to soak that in.  Scientifically the amount of calories is in something is energyImage so it makes sense to view it this way.  How much energy do you need?  Are you planning on running after work?  Might need extra energy (read: snack) before you go.  Sitting in an office for 8 hours today?  Might need less energy to make that job happen, although around 3pm our energy level may get low and you might need to refuel.  This can even change the way we view fat.  It’s not a shameful thing, and we are built to be fat.  Evolution LOVES us to be fat!  It means we can survive if we have to.  It means we’ve been able to feed ourselves with food!  And it’s extra energy for us to use in times of crisis.

At the end of the day we are obsessed with judgment.  We judge ourselves and others, usually with our own ideas about which yardsticks matter and should be used.  And it makes us feel better to judge.

motivation to change.

Posted: January 15, 2013 in Uncategorized

A brief explanation of the concept.


The first thing to understand is that change and the reasons we have to change is not just an issue that interests therapists, but everyone who has tried to change a habit or a behavior they’re not so crazy about.  The way we understand motivation changed radically in 1981, when Carlo C. DiClemente and J.O. Prochaska introduced a five step model to understand the process of change.  A brief lesson:


Precontemplation is our beginning, when you don’t see your behavior as a problem and assume everything is cool. 


At contemplation, you may start to think a little bit about changing your behavior – you’ve maybe suffered some consequences, people may be annoyed with you.


Preparation is when you start trying small changes, and start making a plan for the bigger change.


Action is when you’re actually putting changes into practice.


Maintenance is the stage where…well, where you maintain the changes you’ve made.


Relapse is in there as well, which was and remains controversial – the idea that change is like pushing over a vending machine.  You have to try a few times to get that sucker to tip over.  After relapse, we’re usually back at precontemplation or contemplation, sometimes with an extra large dose of “guilt” over your “failure.”.   You can read more in depth here (


As anyone who has been around someone who is working to change behavior knows, we are always at action.  We can see what needs to be done, we can see the behavior is causing problems, and we want to push for change RIGHT NOW!  You keep saying you want to stop drinking – so stop!  You say you don’t like being fat – go on a diet!  It seems so simple, so clear to us.  We think, you’ve been talking about this for a long time, so frickin’ do it already!  Difficult to stop wishing someone else is as ready for change as you.


Now for practical application.  If someone is not ready to change, is shaming them an appropriate way to encourage change?  Education is the key first, but it has to be gentle application, to avoid the shame dynamic of “bad self.”  Personal control is a part of bad habits, but there are scores of other factors influencing bad behavior, and to ignore the environment to focus on a person makes no sense, except to prevent widespread knowledge and anger about these environmental conditions.  That may be a post for another day.


At the end of the day, some people may simply not be ready to change, at least not yet.  And that’s normal.  The sooner we acknowledge this, the lower our frustration levels will be, and the more likely it is we will see real, positive change.

to argue or not to argue.

Posted: January 13, 2013 in Uncategorized

Let me start with a revelation.

In my family we don’t really talk politics, in part because a few members are so divided from the whole fights are inevitable, and in a small family, maintaining connections is more important that maintaining your position.  This allows everyone to turn a blind eye when something comes up they don’t agree with; a fine idea for preventing bitter arguments but a troublesome one in voicing opinions. 

Last night it came to me I have generalized this pattern of behavior to the rest of my life, not all the time, but enough that it caused some soul searching in the twilight hours.

It’s hard to determine a starting point, because I am so angry.  So I’ll start with the story.  I was sitting with my three roommates last night, shooting the breeze, talking about nothing.  All three of my roommates smoke and somehow the discussion turned to how best to buy cigarettes around our area.  There is one store down the street known for never carding those coming in to get smokes, as evidenced by frequent sightings of children being sent in by their parents.  At some point my (white) friend started doing impressions of an obese African American woman sending her child to buy her cigarettes.  His girlfriend then told a story about getting ice cream and seeing a minivan leaning to the side, with a woman “who had already had her share of ice cream, a lifetime supply.”  It was at this point she stopped, like a professional comedian giving space for a laugh.  It was at this point I removed myself from the conversation.

The last time I had an argument with this particular roommate about race, he ended up screaming at me that he could “let his hair down” with his friends and use racial slurs.  He also ended up screaming n****r in the middle of a crowded bar, at which point I was so angry I again removed myself.

Full disclosure – I’m a white female, but I’m still angry when I think about the things being said, and it’s hard to pin down exactly why.  At the heart of things, I think it’s because at some point, arguments become moot.  I do believe there are some people whose minds cannot be changed.  But at what point do you stop arguing?  At what point do you wash your hands of someone and say you’re finished trying?

In my head, I was screaming.  Screaming about class and how some people use food to cope.  Screaming about how family structure differs and how none of my roommates would have blinked at a white child buying whiskey for his father in the 1930s.  Screaming about how fat is not the issue.  Why does it matter that the mother is fat?  It should only matter that she’s using her child in an emotionally abusive way. 

You see, calling someone fat is the clincher to almost any argument.  I learned this lesson as a child in elementary school, and it’s still true today, probably one of the worst verbal insults to a woman in our culture.  And if you add it onto any other argument it seems to reinforce what is said.  And dehumanizes who you’re talking about.  You’re no longer talking about a woman, you’re talking about a fattie.  And that makes this okay.  We see the same training and process in war and the military – it’s much easier to kill a gook or a towel head than a man, a husband, a father, a son.  It’s much easier to mock and humiliate someone when you stop seeing them as a person and merely as an aspect of themselves.

Is this me not having fun?  Me not allowing others to let their hair down?  Me being “too politically correct”?  I don’t think it is.  This is our life, and we live with these people.  Practice makes permanent, and the more we practice the language of hate, the easier it will come to our lips.  We reduce our own humanity by shaming others.  Maybe it’s time to stop leaving the room and start voicing our thoughts.

guilt and shame, revisited.

Posted: January 7, 2013 in Uncategorized

So the last time we spoke, it was to discuss the difference and purpose between the feelings of guilt and shame.  To reprise, guilt serves a societal function, working to allow all of us to get along with each other.  Shame works to humiliate, to ruin, and attacks the very essence of a person.

Our bodies are often framed in terms which evoke shame.  We speak of personal responsibility and hold up shining examples of those who are able to change their bodies as heroes.  Jillian Michaels is the first to come to mind, as she has built an empire on her history of weight loss.  I am also reminded of Legally Blonde.  Yes, that junky movie with Reese Witherspoon. 


Bear with me here, and see if you can relate.  In that movie, there is a woman on trial for murdering her husband.  She has a fitness empire and has build this on the lack of fat on her butt.  Yes, her butt.  It turns out (spoiler alert! 10 years too late!) the woman was out getting liposuction and couldn’t have killed her husband, but would not allow this to be used in a court defense to keep her out of prison.  She was more concerned with hiding the lengths she’d go to for the perfect body than staying out of prison.


I have a vivid memory of reading a novel when I was in my teens, and there was a character in that novel who was fat.  I remember reading about this character, who would fantasize about cutting off parts of her body with a knife because she hated her fat so much.  As a teenager, I could relate to this, as I often had the same fantasies.   These are not things I shared with anyone, so to see it on the page was remarkable – someone had the same feelings I did.  Just like group therapy, it was a moment of clarity produced by universality.  I am not alone.


There has been a movement in the past ten years or so (probably longer, but that’s when I became aware of this) for fat acceptance.  To move away from the toxicity that is preached by our media and our parents and our peers.  Agree with this movement or not, the purpose is to reduce the amount of shame we have in our bodies.


The way we think about addictions has shift the same way within the past 25 years.  In the olden days, when an alcoholic would go to treatment, he or she would be shamed beyond belief.  Often in treatment centers they would practice “encounters” where a client would be forced to stand in the middle of the room and explain something “bad” they had done.  Then, other clients and therapist would (often harshly) confront this person.  The idea was to associate shame with the drinking or even with an antisocial behavior (such as stealing).  However, encounters are now rarely used in therapy.  Because they don’t work.  Putting someone in front of a group of people where they are publicly humiliated did not make them feel bad about their behavior.  It made them feel bad about themselves.


Those therapists and counselors and self-help aficianados will know the term “coping skills” and often therapy is geared toward assisting clients to build healthy, productive coping skills.  Once a person can cope with life, they no longer need therapy.   The problem with encounters is they evinced intense feelings of shame. 


You see where I’m going with this now.  My father told me when I first started being a counselor that I was dealing with people at the bottom of the barrel.  When I protested, he explained “these are people who don’t know how to deal with life.”  While I still object to the characterization, I can now understand his point.  As we grow up (and even as children) we are put into situations in which we encounter adversity.  Most times, we learn to handle this adversity and develop coping skills.  This can be affected a great deal by our childhood environment (to be discussed in depth later) but as a general rule, we learn to deal with our emotions during stress.


Alcoholics and addicts often don’t learn this. 


While someone without these issues may use deep breathing to calm down when anxious, an addict will smoke marijuana.  Someone may cope with anger by running; an alcoholic will have a beer.  You see the difference?  The substance becomes the coping skill.


Now ,what do you think would happen if we produce intense feelings of shame in someone who deals with adversity by using a substance?  Excellent, now you understand why encounters are so rarely used today.


Despite our increased understanding of better, more effective techniques to treat drug and alcohol addiction, we insist on treating other problems the same way.  If someone uses food to deal with life’s issues, eats when stressed or sad or bored, what will they turn to when feeling ashamed of their body?


I don’t know about you, but I always end up eating healthier and exercising more when I am happy and feeling powerful and good in my body.  When I am embarrassed I have trouble looking in the mirror, trouble getting motivated, and often become so depressed I have difficulty even leaving the house.  Is making people ashamed producing any change?  I don’t think it is.  But it makes us feel better about ourselves.  Just like your mother told you about the high school bully, who put others down to make themselves feel better, we shame and ridicule others to make ourselves feel better.  And it’s not working.

begin: the difference.

Posted: January 6, 2013 in Uncategorized

It’s not just about body image.  It’s about shame.  And shame, dear readers, is the enemy of change. I’ve heard it said that guilt is useful, because guilt is an emotion with an object.  The logic follows, if you feel guilty, the guilt should force you to reflect and (hopefully) change future behavior.  Guilt has a purpose, and with normal, healthy amounts, it keeps our society running where people are generally able to get along with one another.

Shame is an entirely different animal.

While guilt focuses on actions (bad behavior) shame focuses on self (bad self).  The world of difference between “I did a bad thing” and “I am a bad person” is the difference that can allow change to occur or stop reflection at all.  You see, when I am ashamed, it is so painful to look at my behavior I fall into denial.  When I am ashamed, I am ashamed of myself and my person. 

Theoretical concepts to the side, most (Americans) view personality as fairly static and resistant to change; the rise in 10-15 year courses of psychotherapy are based on this concept, that it takes years to change yourself.  A short history lesson on therapy; the mode of therapy currently in vogue and with most supportive evidence is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and it is based on the simple premise that by changing our thoughts and our behavior we can change our mood and the way we view the world.  And it works.  Study after study after study supports this connection.  But shame is the pitfall – shame is the trap.

Those of you reading who have suffered from an addiction of any kind are most likely familiar with this concept.  Since I focus on bodies, I will be (mostly) concerned with food, but those struggling with gambling, alcohol, drugs, sex or really anything should recognize the dynamic.  You decide to make a change, you’re not going to use (your drug of choice) anymore.  At all.  And when you slip and eventually turn back to it, it’s a weight on your chest.  You close your eyes, you hide in a dark room, you can’t face what you’ve done.  It feels like you can’t breathe.  It hurts to talk with your loved ones the next day and tell them how well you’re doing.  You no longer did a bad thing.  You are a failure, a fuck up, no good, worthless slime.  And all of a sudden, it’s not behavior you can change, it’s just the way you are, and who you are is shameful.

So what we’ll be discussing is a balancing act.  An act between personal power and determining factors in our lives, the impact society has on the individual, as well as hope for change.  Class, race, gender, motivation, education will all play a part.  As we progress, I’m sure these issues will intertwine in the discussion and it will be a long and wandering road with no firm end.  I welcome discussion and topics in the comments, with an expectation of respect.  Remember, you are not anonymous here – you are a member of this community, and as such respect applies.

It’s not just about body image.  Or being a woman.  Or feminism, for that matter.  Or psychology.  Or mental health.   Or society.  It’s all of those things together.  So let’s go!