Hiding in Plain Sight

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Sometimes I go looking for trouble, sometimes it finds me.

The other day I was sitting in the waiting room at the hospital waiting for my pacemaker review. I glanced at the stack of magazines on the table next to me, pushed aside the ‘Women’s Weekly’ and ‘That’s Life’, and picked up a glossy beast innocuously titled ‘Women’s Health’.

I started to flick through. I don’t know exactly what I expected, but I really thought there might be something in it actually beneficial to women. Clearly my years of avoiding commercial media have made me soft. What I saw was a manual for making yourself sexually attractive to men.

The quick-fix diets, the fashion and make-up tutorials, and most disturbingly, the ‘what men really think’ article that could be summed up as ‘men want women to pander to their every requirement, and be decorative and sexy but also faithful and not slutty, while men do whatever the hell they want’. I pulled a face and put the magazine back on the stack at this point.

Seriously, this magazine doesn’t even try. It is just another waste of paper telling women how to fit into the tiny box of ‘acceptable’ that has been created to control how we look and how we live.

So of course, I went looking for trouble. I visited the websites of both Australian Women’s Health and Australian Men’s Health to see what kind of message these publications are peddling.

Women’s Health in a nutshell – how to get your chocolate fix without getting fat. How to drop a dress size – fast! How to zap belly fat or get great legs. The Fitness section had subheadings for Running and Yoga – activities that are not likely to cause increase in muscle mass and therefore affect your apparent femininity.

Men’s Health had different subheadings in the Fitness section – Muscle Building and Cardio. Because apparently muscles are only for men. Weight loss short-cuts also feature, and under the heading Sex and Women is a section on how to ‘improve your game’, also known as ‘getting women to have sex with you’.

Where Women’s Health has recipes and nutrition information, Men’s Health has supplements and cooking tips. Apparently women know how to cook, but men don’t.

One of the first articles I saw on the Men’s Health page was about ‘ticking off your bedroom bucket list’. This is an article about getting your partner to indulge your sexual fantasies. And it begins with the author doing ‘what any man would do’ – plying his partner with alcohol to make her more receptive to his suggestions. According to Men’s Health, manipulation and coercion are an important part of the male sex life. Good to know.

Presumably that is why Women’s Health is dedicated to making women decorative and sexy and fuckable and educating them on how to do what a man wants in bed.

The covers and images of both these magazines are so bland and generic as to almost be sterile, yet the air of casual harmlessness hides a disturbing theme. They tell men that they must be buff and tanned and healthy in order to get all the women. They tell women that they must be slim and tanned and healthy and wear just the right amount of make-up in order to be seen as acceptable.

These magazines are the media equivalent of that moron internet troll who tells everyone that fat people are gross because they are unhealthy. They are the published version of the constant reinforcement of the gender binary. Their titles suggest that they care about the wellbeing of people, but their content perpetuates the sterotypes that harm every person who does not look like the airbrushed models in the photographs.

Why can’t there be a magazine simply called ‘Health’, which is gender neutral and doesn’t set out to divide the population? Eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising and managing your mental health are issues relevant to all people.

On the topic of mental health, I did a search for ‘depression’ on the page of both magazines. Nothing showed up in the links for either on the main pages, so I had to do some digging. It seems that mental health is not sexy or cool enough to feature in these publications, despite it being a huge health issue for men and women.

I think what bothered me the most about the content of these magazines, is that they seem to represent the attitudes of society in general. Rags like Cosmopolitan and Cleo make a point of being racy and over-the-top, but these Health magazines present as wholesome advice for everyday living, rather than the manuals for slotting seamlessly into the patriarchal abyss that they actually are.

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On Fat Shaming

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I’ve had a few posts roll through my Facebook newsfeed today about plus-size models and beauty at all sizes. Every single time I read the comments they are full of fat-shamers putting in their opinions about how ‘unacceptable’ the pictured women are.

Now, as a person who is what is deemed a ‘healthy weight’ it is easy for me to spout phrases like ‘all bodies are beautiful’ and ‘size is not an indication of health’. But I grew up in a family where the number on the scales was an ever-present spectre and everybody talked about ‘when I lose the weight’ or ‘when I get skinny’. All sorts of diets were tried and weight came and went. But the body image issues were constant.

Obesity is a huge problem in the developed world. In some countries, two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese. Obesity and poor diet have been linked to many life-threatening health problems. Governments and food companies must take a fair whack of the blame for their misleading marketing of processed foods as ‘healthy’ and the laws that allow this. Drug companies are invested in treating the illnesses caused by poor diet. It is a hard battle to fight on a personal level when the whole system is invested in making you fat.

I might not be an overweight person, but I am not a healthy person. I have an extensive history of heart problems, and mental health difficulties on top of that. I eat with the goal of prolonging my life. But there have been times when, due to medications, my weight has threatened to spiral out of control.

The last time I tried antidepressant medication, I got to a point where no matter how I tried, my weight was climbing by about half a kilogram every week. I was probably eating half of what I am now, and exercising, but my weight kept rising. I counted calories obsessively, and even tried going all fruit and vegetables one week. Nothing worked. Until I went off the medication.

So yeah, I can sympathise with people who try everything they can think of but struggle to lose weight. I can also sympathise with people who have great difficulty eating the way they are told they ‘should’ in order to lose weight.

One thing all those fat-shamers lean on is that promoting body acceptance is the same as promoting obesity, and since obesity is unhealthy then promoting body acceptance is socially irresponsible. Think of the children, they say, growing up in a world where they are encouraged to be unhealthy because being fat is okay. They pretend that the reason they want everyone to be slim is because they want them to be healthy.

This is a load of crap. The reason fat-shamers want people to be slim is because they want them to be decorative, and we live in a world with stringently-enforced beauty standards. A world where people who don’t fit that standard are expected to cover up, change their appearance, and hate themselves if they don’t comply.

And what good does that do?

We all want to be healthy. It is easier for some people than for others. We all want to like our bodies and like ourselves. We all have ‘imperfections’. We have rolls and wrinkles and scars and stretch marks and none of these things make us less of a human being.

Even women who are not overweight are encouraged to hate their bodies. We are given a set of Rules that we must adhere to. Don’t be too tall. Don’t be too hairy. Don’t be too old. Don’t be too fat. Spend ages making yourself look good enough, but make sure you look natural. Unless you can follow all the Rules, you are not allowed to feel good about yourself. And even if you do follow the Rules, don’t get too cocky, you’re not that hot…

The idea of women in particular being decorative above all else should be stomped on, crushed and criticised every time we see it. You might see plus-sized models promoted as ‘real women’, but they too are a marketing trick. You don’t see models with cellulite or hairy legs or blemished skin.

We are all allowed to be comfortable in our own skin and happy with how we look. Whether we are old, sick, fat, disabled, hairy or scarred. We do not have to conform to beauty standards. We are good enough. We are valuable. We are beautiful. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Because whatever ‘imperfections’ you may have, the person who would shame you for your appearance has a bigger problem. They are probably a self-righteous jerk.

Overweight people exist. In the western world there are a lot of them. Yes, being overweight has been linked to health problems, but does that mean that every overweight person is expected to hate how they look, and if they don’t hate how they look then everyone else is allowed to do that hating for them? What does that achieve? If being slim was easy, everyone would do it, but a huge proportion of the population find it very difficult. The issue is complex. The solution is elusive. But if shaming overweight people made them healthier, we would have no overweight people. All it does is make people feel bad about themselves. People who look after their health are people who feel that they are worth it. Your weight is does not always directly correlate with your health or wellness. And none of these things represent your value as a person.

Oh, and here’s me at the beach recently in a bikini. Old, white, hairy, scarred. I don’t care. I think I look great.

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Eat Like Your Life Depends On It

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This dropped onto my Facebook wall today…

food

… and it made me think a bit more about maintaining a healthy weight.

I read a lot about how most people who manage to lose weight gain it all back and then some. It makes me wonder if I am some freak of nature because I managed to lose 17kg and almost three years down the track I am keeping it off without any real difficulty.

I think a lot of the problem is that people make temporary changes to lose weight, and then they go back to their old habits and the inevitable happens.

When I decided to lose weight I started by cutting out added sugar. I have known for a very long time that my system does not react well to large amounts of sugar. In a situation where I could make my own food choices I found it easy to avoid sweetened foods.

I started looking at everything I was eating and making a conscious effort to eat nutrient-dense foods. Then I started leaning towards more natural and less processed foods. I drank nothing but water.

From that point, it was easy. I didn’t even take up exercise until more recently. These days I exercise because I want to be fitter. I am even starting to actually enjoy it.

So why is it that I could make these life-altering changes with such relative ease when so many others fall off the wagon? Over my lifetime of having a family of yo-yo dieters, I have seen and heard and read many times phrases like ‘lose 12 kilos in 12 weeks’ or ‘drop two dress sizes in two weeks’.

The goals are short term. Nobody tells you what to do when you get to your goal weight or fit back into your ‘skinny’ clothes. So you go back to your old ways and of course, before you know it you are right back where you started.

I don’t count calories, although I did for a little while. I used a calorie counter to find out where I could easily reduce my energy intake. Things like bread and butter, cookies and high-energy snacks were letting me down. With help from the calorie counter I learned how to make food choices that reduced my overall energy intake. Without resorting to ‘low fat’ foods or starving myself.

I’ve had times where my weight started to creep back up. I have noticed it, and stopped it, then turned it back around. It is much easier to lose a kilogram than to lose 12. The end of your diet isn’t really the end. Eating well and exercising is for life.

I also wonder if my motivation is different. These days I eat well and exercise regularly because my life literally depends on it. I have to keep my body in the best condition possible to keep the surgeon’s knife at bay. After two open heart surgeries the thought of a third one terrifies me, and the risks are great. But I have a severely leaking valve, and there is every chance that one day my heart will not be so able to cope with the inefficiency and I will need another surgery. Looking after my body makes me feel like I am doing all I can to essentially prolong my life.

The side effect of being healthy is that I look and feel good. I mix strength and cardio exercise and I like the results. I almost have muscle definition on my stomach. I don’t have ‘tuck shop arms’. I also have plenty of energy to keep doing all the things that I like to do, that in turn help to keep me and my family healthy.

But if this fear of poor health and desire to look and feel good is enough to motivate me, why doesn’t it motivate everyone? Why are so many people content to load up their systems with crap, to willfully consume toxins, acidify their bodies and make themselves sick?

Obesity and inactivity increase the risk of many of the diseases and disorders that kill the majority people every year in the western world. Reducing your weight and increasing your exercise helps you to live longer. Why doesn’t everyone do it?

Do the people who lose their 12 kilos in 12 weeks not feel better for having lost it? Do they not like the results of their efforts? Why, once they have seen the other side, do they go back?

Another prevailing attitude that puzzles me is ‘falling off the wagon’ while ‘dieting’. People say they were doing well, eating the right foods, and then they had a ‘blowout’, so they decide to drop the diet and start again next week. This doesn’t make sense to me, but it may be the difference in the approach.

If you make changes for life, to reduce your energy intake and minimise sugary and fatty foods rather than cutting them out altogther, then eating a piece of cake is not ‘failing’. You don’t have to write off that week or even that day. Just make your next food choice differently and keep going with your changes.

I still love pizza and chips, although I hardly ever eat biscuits or cake any more and lollies quite frankly gross me out. I eat loads of full-fat dairy products, but also loads of fruit and veg. Sugar really does make me feel unwell, and by eating very little of it I notice when I have too much.

I want to see my children grow to adulthood, I want to enjoy the fruits of my labours on the farm. I want to bask in the happiness and stability that I have fought so hard to attain.

Don’t dig your grave with your own knife and fork. Enjoy good food, but respect your body. If you want to be healthier, perhaps try making life changes rather than setting weight goals. Your life depends on what you eat every bit as much as mine does.