“Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life. Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.” –Thoreau

14 August 2011

Super Slim Me

Last week, I had the opportunity to watch a rerun of the BBC special Super Slim Me, which followed television presenter Dawn Porter on her quest to achieve an American size zero, or what the British apparently call "Hollywood Zero." She wasn't doing it with the intention of remaining that size-- this isn't one of those obnoxious reality weight-loss shows-- but rather as an extreme example of what being a size zero actually means.

Ms. Porter had three months to drop from an American size 10 (UK size 12) to a size zero, and she was monitored along the way by doctors and nutritionists. Losing that much weight so quickly is inherently dangerous. She had to cut back to 500 calories or less each day, and she began a strenuous exercise regimen. At a certain point, she even resorted to trying out some of the Hollywood "fad diets" which other celebrities have famously used-- Beyonce's maple syrup beverage, for example, and the Cabbage Soup Diet.

The weight did indeed fall off, but at a steep cost; her hair and skin became dull, her mood was unpredictable, and she was terribly miserable throughout the process. When Ms. Porter interviewed celebrity stylists and personalities in the U.S., they told her honestly that being a size zero was crucial to one's success in Hollywood. Zero is the gold standard, the brass ring: achieve that, and new doors will be open to you. They also admitted that maintaining that size is hell, that they're hungry all the time and obsessed with the scale. I'm not sure they'd have been as honest if an American interviewer had been asking the questions.

I've been bothered by this super-slim phenomenon for years. I have friends and colleagues who've been told that losing weight was critical to their success as actors. Heck, I've been told that myself. I've begun to think, in my cynical mid-twenties, that any female actress who believes she doesn't need to lose the weight is kidding herself. We all succumb to the pressure of the film industry eventually, or we stay poor, starving stage artists. Devil or the deep blue sea.

But I received some eye-opening advice from a colleague at my current day job. I was eating a hotdog for lunch in the staff room, and I commented about how "bad" it was for me. He stopped me immediately. "Don't do that," he said. "Don't think of your food as 'good' or 'bad.' Don't do that to yourself." I wasn't sure what he meant. He explained: "Food is energy, it's nourishment, it's food. There is no 'good' food. There is no 'bad' food. If you allow yourself to label it that way, you just set yourself up for negativity and failure."

You know what? He is right. There is no bad food. So long as we are eating lots of different kinds of things, so long as we eat when we're hungry and stop when we're full, then we are just eating food. When did Americans begin to develop this adversarial attitude toward nourishment? When did food become the enemy? Why do we idolize people who control (read: severely limit) their food consumption?

There's a prevailing theory in the U.S. that we have to stop eating as much as we want in order to be healthy. But the Japanese eat as much as they want, and they are healthier than we are. Perhaps the real issue is that we don't celebrate food enough! We don't allow ourselves to explore the billions of different foods the world has to offer, and what we do eat gets consumed in our cars, in front of our TVs, or at the bar. We don't stop when we're full because we're too distracted to notice that we feel full. And how can we know that we love "healthy" foods like sushi, or nicoise salad, or tandoori chicken if we've never even tried it?

Those foods we think of as "bad" are very cheap in the U.S. Our government subsidizes the creation of chicken nuggets and french fries because those industries provide our country with many, many jobs. Simultaneously, our media outlets tell us that we have an obesity "epidemic", that we're too lazy, too gluttonous, too fat. The mixed messages wreak havoc on our self-esteem and our collective psyche. Those who can afford to eat the most delicious food in the world won't touch it, in an effort to reach and maintain a size zero. Those who cannot afford it don't even know what they're missing. They pile on cheese and chocolate and salt, and they pile on pounds too. More is better when it all tastes the same anyway.

I'm tired of Hollywood actresses claiming they eat normally, and models saying that they are "naturally thin." Naturally slim exists. Naturally 5' 11" tall and an American size zero does not. Women cannot naturally maintain a body mass index under 17, and anyone who claims they do is lying. These lies are damaging to the person saying them, and to the audience hearing them. And they need to stop. It's one thing for an Olympic athlete to maintain such a low body fat percentage-- I'd argue that level of physical training can hardly be called "natural" anyway-- but size zero is another matter entirely. Unless you are very short, size zero simply isn't healthy. To reach such a small size, women are sacrificing the health of their bodies and minds. And most women know, realistically, that they'll never achieve that super-slim ideal, and so they give up before they've even begun.

We believe we have to go to war with our bodies if we want to be fit, but that simply isn't true. We have to stop "conquering our cravings" and "controlling our portion sizes." We need to stop fighting with our food. We need to start eating passionately. We need to savor every bite, and learn to love our healthy, functioning, miraculous bodies. What more can we ask for?

04 August 2011

Driving a car and other impossible feats.

I hated learning to drive. I mean, I hated it. Most teenagers look at driving as a kind of rite of passage but I spent most of my fifteenth year thinking up reasons to skip the whole thing. It scared the crap out of me. I was nearly seventeen when I finally learned, and that was only after my parents shipped me off to driver's ed summer school. One of my (innumerable) faults: I hate being responsible for a stranger's health and happiness. Theoretically, I believe in being my brother's keeper, walking in his moccasins and all that, but realistically it terrifies me. What if you screw it up? What if you hit a biker with your door, or forget your turn signal, or miss the crosswalk sign? It's a lot of responsibility, driving. And I was pretty sure I was not ready for that.

My father was my original driving instructor, and he is not known for his patience. We would trundle out to the county fairgrounds, which were usually deserted, and he'd attempt to teach me how to shift gears manually without making my stepmom's old car cry out in pain. Needless to say, I sucked. I really, really sucked. Eventually, he would get frustrated and tell me to drive home. That was the worst part of the day, since there were actual cars to navigate and actual lives at stake. (Yes, I was and am seriously neurotic. You would think I was making Sophie's choice, when really I was just deciding which street to turn down.) Our driveway was so steep, I don't think I ever successfully pulled that little manual transmission in to park. When my father gave up on teaching me-- and on giving me a car with a manual transmission-- I was secretly relieved. I had dodged the bullet, I believed, and so had anyone who might have had to drive on the same roads with me.

But my success was short-lived. In the end, my parents enrolled me in driver's education courses at the community college. It was a boring, stodgy sort of class. The instructor droned on and on for hours about the shape of street signs and the importance of wearing seat belts. We drove around the parking lot for the first few days, and then ventured out into the quiet, suburban neighborhoods surrounding the school. And I did learn to drive. I may never be an excellent driver but I am certainly a conscientious one, and parallel parking is overrated anyway. When I finally "graduated" and received my driver's license (after two attempts at the written test, naturally), I sat out on the porch with my father and drank Capri Sun in the late-summer heat. I admitted to him that I'd thought I'd never learn to drive, that it was just too hard, that it was probably impossible. He laughed, and then he told me something I have never ever forgotten:

"Difficult is not a synonym for Impossible, you know."

It's not a revolutionary idea. I don't suppose Dad invented it. But it was a light bulb moment for me, one of those rare and perfect phrases that just sticks to your bones. Proverbial soulfood.

Without that mental mantra, there is absolutely no way I could have survived two years in a long-distance relationship, graduated from college in four years, moved 500 miles to Chicago, began an acting career, ended that career by choice, gotten married, and embarked on a brand new life as a writer. My father believes in following dreams-- all of them, wholeheartedly, no matter how often they change course. He never lied to me about life being easy but he also never allowed me to think of my dreams as unattainable. Nothing is impossible, but nearly everything is difficult. Accepting that reality marked my first step toward becoming an adult.

It's strange, isn't it? Becoming an adult? I think we all mark that particular rite of passage in our own way, at our own time. It varies so wildly. Was I an adult when I learned to drive? Hell no. What about when I moved into my first apartment? Probably not. When I graduated college? Maybe. When I got married? Well, I hope I was one before that. Some cultures set societal deadlines for adulthood (Bar and Bat Mitzvah, Shinbyu, QuinceaƱera, even a society Debut). My father was only 21 years old when I was born, which launched him into adulthood much earlier than I myself began it. Our society allows us to delay the "adult" distinction almost indefinitely. Because, it turns out, being an adult is difficult. Difficult, but not impossible.

The truth is that, at least for me, adulthood arrived gradually and with very little fanfare. I eased into it. It wasn't so much that I fought my adulthood; I didn't dream up ways to get out of it, as I had with driving, and I wasn't nearly as fearful of the consequences. Sure it sucks. It sucks hard. My adulthood grew out of my acceptance of responsibility, not only for myself but for the world at large, and responsibility is all about doing the things the universe asks of you. And it hurt sometimes. And I think it is supposed to. But isn't there something beautiful about finally taking ownership for your place in the world?

Difficult, as it turns out, really isn't a synonym for Impossible. It's a synonym for Life.

Thanks, Dad.