Tuesday, April 28, 2015

As American as healthy apple pie

Twenty years ago, my maternal grandmother and I got into a fight over apple pie. It was during a game of "Scattergories," at my mom's house. Christmas, or Thanksgiving, or someone's birthday. I forget. It was shortly after my mom had divorced my dad. She was living in a tiny one-bedroom house and we'd all gathered in her living room for food and drinks and family fun. And competition.

The letter was "A" and the category was "health foods." Some joker--I can't remember who, let's just blame my brother Pat since he's dead now and can't defend himself--wrote down "apple pie." I said, "no way." My grandmother said, "yes way," and that was that. She insisted that because apple pie is full of apples, it should be considered a fruit, and therefore healthy. I insisted that because it's full of sugar, it should be considered a dessert, and therefore, unhealthy.

No one backed either of us up. Not Mom. Not Pat. Not one of our other siblings, our grandmother's grandchildren. No one gave either of us any kindling for that fire. They just sat there and wisely stuffed their faces with pie, guzzled their beers, told their jokes. I can't blame them. I wouldn't have wanted to argue with either of us, either. I am a know-it-all librarian, which is bad enough, but I'm also a former anorexic who used to memorize calorie counting books for fun. You don't want to argue nutrition with me. Our grandmother was no health expert, but as the self-appointed Ruler of the family, she allowed no dissent. She was the boss and everyone knew it. Mom had managed to slip out from underneath my dad's grip after the divorce, but she never was able to shrug off her own mother. 

It was futile to try to assert yourself around my grandmother. The best strategy, the one that kept your head dry and out of the toilet, was to ignore her domineering streak and ride it out until she died, which she did eight years ago, at the ripe old age of 94. Must have been all those healthy apple pies she ate over the years. 

The strategy that got your head wet and shoved into the toilet, where you could hear the great whirring sound of the flush in your ears combined with our grandmother's maniacal cackle, was to challenge her authority. I'd never had the nerve, so I never had my head flushed in the toilet by our grandmother when I was young. But I'd heard the stories of it happening to my other siblings and cousins enough that I knew to keep my mouth shut around her, unless I wanted a mouthful of toilet water.

So I kept my mouth shut until she tried to say apple pie is a health food. That's when I chose to speak up. You can break me, but you cannot break my obsession with nutrition.

I was in my twenties. I was fat and had been ever since I'd recovered from anorexia, just as I had been before I was anorexic, from the time I was four until third grade when my parents sent me to Weight Watchers, which triggered my struggle with anorexia. I was fat, but I wasn't slow. I knew I could outrun my grandmother. She was fat, too, but also old and unfit. I, on the other hand, was young and fit. I walked and worked out regularly while my grandmother sat on the couch, running her mouth off in the lobby of the senior center where she lived. I was certain my head would stay dry. 

And it did. Our fight over apple pie was short and sweet. Not because I had to show off my athletic skills against an elderly woman. I just decided it wasn't worth arguing about. Once I saw that my grandmother was not going to rise from her chair and drag me into the bathroom by my hair, I dropped it.

"Whatever," I said, rolling my eyes. "Think what you will, but I know apple pie's not on my diet."

I let Pat or whoever it was score a point in the game. I didn't care about the game. But I knew I was right. Apple pie is no health food.

At least I thought I was right at the time. Now I don't know. Maybe adding a little apple pie to our diet isn't the worst thing we can do to our bodies. The way health trends change in our culture, the way doctors say one decade to do this, and the next decade to do that. They say fill up on rice cakes and sugar-free, fat-free, low-cal packaged food! And then the next decade they say, Oh shit, no, wait a minute. Your body needs some fat. OK, now go fill up on avocados and nuts and salmon, but no eggs or whole milk. Stay away from those unhealthy foods or we'll have to start you on medicine to control your cholesterol! Fill up on whole grains and nuts! And then, just when you've discovered the joys of almond milk and granola, you start to read news articles that warn about eminent death if your diet is too high on the glycemic index from putting sugar-sweetened almond milk in your--oh, shit!--high carb granola.

As a former anorexic who has spent far too many years obsessing over my body and my health and trying to "eat right" and "be healthy" and "follow my doctor's advice," all I know is this: I feel my best when I listen to myself. When I tune out all the so-called experts, with their conflicting research and unethical diet industry ties. When I pay attention to my body, when I notice that I feel alert and energetic when I eat a big salad for lunch, but I feel sleepy and under a mental fog if I choose Indian buffet, or irritable and confused if I skip lunch altogether, when I treat my body with the respect it deserves, when I listen to it and trust it, I feel healthy.

When I don't plan my days around what I'm going to eat, or what I'm going to avoid eating, I feel healthy. When I have time to think about ways I can make this world a better place instead of spending a ridiculous amount of brain power on worrying about my weight and trying to ignore what I want to eat and trying to muster the enthusiasm for eating what I should eat, I feel healthy. 

It's taken me over four decades to get to this point in my life, but I feel like I'm finally my own health expert. I'm the boss of my own body.

So when my husband and I watched this video the other night, I took it all with a grain of salt. Sea salt. Not Morton's. Not No-Salt.

Right from the start, I could tell that the authors of this video are mixed up. They claim with their title "Top 10 Unhealthy Health Foods" that this list is about foods that are unhealthy, but then, as they say in the intro, it's really not about heath, but weight-loss:
Here are a few food options you might want to avoid when you’re trying to lose a few pounds. Join http://watchmojo.com as we count down our picks for the Top 10 Unhealthy Health Foods.
Their assumption that weight-loss and health go hand-in-hand is as outdated as this ad for Tab from 1979. 

Tab advertisement, 1979
image source

Remember Tab? It's that shit I was advised to drink instead of milk when I was sent to Weight Watchers in third grade. You know, the time in our children's lives when we want them to build strong bones. Ahh, the Seventies.

I quit my dieting for good a few years ago when I read a book called Health at Every Size by Dr. Linda Bacon. I've written extensively over the years on this blog about my discovery of the Health at Every Size book and movement, and how much it's changed my life for good. But don't take my word for it. Here's an excellent summary of what it means to advocate for Health at Every Size:

HAES stands for "Health At Every Size". It is an approach to promoting health that first and foremost rests on the premise that everyone deserves respect. Whether we are thin, unwell, fat, healthy, fit, drink pop, eat burgers or wheat grass - whatever. A HAES approach recognizes that the single most effective way we can work to improve population health is to build a fairer world. Also, there’s more to health than diet and exercise: that size stigma, racism, poverty and so on are health hazards.
Many people first come across HAES as an alternative to dieting. And what an alternative! Rather than pursuing weight change, HAES advocates help people focus on health-gain and body respect. There are huge benefits for quality of life, sense of wellbeing and physiological outcomes that come from making peace with your body, not least having a healthy relationship with food and enjoying being active. 
HAES isn’t suggesting that everyone of every size is always healthy - a popular misconception. Instead, it focuses on helping anyone interested in being as healthy as they can be in the body they have right now. Hand in hand with this it challenges size stigma to advance equality. 
Weight change may or not occur when someone shifts to a HAES approach, who knows? HAES advocates aren’t anti- weight loss as such, we’re anti- the pursuit of weight loss. This is because health improvements can occur independently of weight change, and the weight-centred intervention is an unscientific and harmful endeavour that increases size stigma.
As more research piles up, the idea is catching on. Here's a great piece in a recent issue of The Guardian which sums it up nicely:
Of course, correlation is not causation, and there is still evidence to the contrary. But the fact that there is now statistically significant evidence to show that “overweight” and “mildly obese” people live longest, tells us that it’s at least something to consider when we think about fat bodies. 
It is hard to say whether this research will lead to any meaningful change in how we think about bodies and weight loss. There is such an emotional, cultural and financial investment in dieting and the diet industry that it seems we will never entirely shake it off. Thin privilege is rampant, and people truly believe that “working hard” to lose weight gives them the moral high ground. Apparently many people believe there’s something virtuous in consuming low-calorie food and going to the gym, and refuse to recognise that that’s a culturally constructed myth that props up the diet industry, patriarchy and oppressive beauty standards. It will take a long time to accept that it could be beneficial to your health to be fatter, purely because so many people are so invested in the belief that it’s not. 
Let me say that one more time. "A culturally constructed myth that props up the diet industry, patriarchy and oppressive beauty standards." You can certainly say that about body weight. You can also say that about body age. Just as our culture is obsessed with convincing women that we're too fat so we'll buy all their weight-loss crap, it's also obsessed with teaching us we're too old so we'll buy all their anti-aging crap.

What our cultural beauty myths tell us--you must be small, you must be young--let's just come out and be honest. What our culture means when it tells us we must be small and young is we must be vulnerable.

Stop it. Just stop. Women today, we must stop listening to so-called experts. We must start listening to ourselves. We must insist on being our own experts.

It's hard to overcome when we're bombarded and brainwashed by cultural norms from birth. But we can escape it if we're willing to pay attention and think critically. When we're willing to look back on our past and see how shitty it was, acknowledge the shit, and move on.

While searching Google Images for that Tab ad from my early childhood, I ran across these two ads for Love's Baby Soft perfume. I hadn't thought about Love's Baby Soft in decades. I still remember adding it to my Christmas list in first grade. I was thrilled when I discovered Santa had stuffed my stocking with it on Christmas morning.

Now that I think back on it, I just want to barf. Seventies, why you gotta be so sleazy?

 video source

Image and quote via Cracked:
"It really is hard to work pedophilia into your ad campaign gracefully. In the 70s, this Love's Baby Soft ad, with a dolled-up, pouty-lipped child and the slogan 'because innocence is sexier than you think' appeared in an issue of Tiger Beat magazine.
"And really, what better place to convince both young girls and sexual predators that this product can turn a preteen into a sexual dynamo? We can't figure out whether this ad means the 70s were a much more innocent time (when, what, nobody had heard of pedophiles?) or a much, much sleazier time. From our brief research into the 70s, we're going to go with the latter."
Ahh, The Seventies. As American as healthy apple pie.