The Beauty Trap:Can You Escape It?

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Beauty is a loving dad

I don’t remember his name but I will call him Jake. I was a sophomore in college and had just transferred to a new school, and Jake was the guy all the girls were smitten with. He had a perfect head of long blond hair (hey, it was the 70’s!) and a nice tan with perfect straight white teeth. His smile melted us. So you can imagine how excited (and nervous) I was when he actually asked ME on a date! I can’t remember the details, just that he picked me up in some clunky car and away we drove to go get a bite at the local ice cream parlor. He smiled politely, but pretty much said nothing. I remember struggling to engage him in a conversation. What I thought was going to be a dreamy evening turned out to be one of the longest nights I ever had. I could not wait to get home. I was bored out of my mind. Nothing against poor Jake, but his beauty did not help at all. I knew I could never torture myself like this again, and when he dropped me off I was so relieved, but also disappointed. He was so cute, I guess I just assumed he would be fun too. Nope. I was only 19 years old but this was a good lesson.

This has happened again in my life where I may have had expectations or made assumptions just because of appearance. I remember another time when I met Scott, a man who my husband had hired to do some work at the house. He rang the doorbell, and there he stood, gigantic arms with tattoos everywhere he had skin. He looked like a scary biker, the kind of guy you might be afraid of. But this guy was one of the sweetest men I have ever met in my life. I felt bad for having that initial feeling of fear. How stupid.

I don’t think I am the only one who has made the mistake of making assumptions by the way someone looks. In our culture, in my opinion, we are somewhat brainwashed about “beauty”. People make money off of selling “beauty”and companies play off of this. For example, being thin is in, and diet products and clothing that makes you look thinner sells. Being young is also a good thing for sure so any product that makes you look younger is really appealing. Women in particular (if you ask me) get sucked in. Women want to feel pretty. Not sure why I don’t like that word, pretty. I think it is old-fashioned and feels shallow. I do like the word “beauty” though. So let’s talk about beauty.

When I was young, say back in high school, I thought straight hair was beautiful. That is probably because the style back then was straight long hair, and I had curly long hair. It was a nightmare when it rained. The iron worked but was a pain and eventually I invented a technique that was even better than ironing. I would wash my hair, pull it back into a low ponytail, split that ponytail in half and wrap each half around my head and secure with bobby pins. In the morning my hair would be dry, I would remove the bobby pins and ponytail and except for a few telltale bumps from the bobby pins my hair was somewhat straight. Unless it rained. I wasted a lot of time and emotional energy caring about something as insignificant as hair. I have had friends who have lost their hair because of chemotherapy. I should have appreciated God’s gift of a head full of curly brown hair. But I didn’t.

These days I look at “beauty” with a whole different lens. Think for a minute about someone you know who when you met them was not thrown by their “beauty”. Maybe they did not have Jake’s perfect white teeth, or that perfectly blonde head of hair. But then you got to know them and they were the most beautiful person you knew. They are that person who makes you smile when you are down. Maybe you have witnessed them helping someone in need. Or maybe they are that person who never complains and takes on all the work nobody wants to do. In my world I encounter so many people like this. They make me smile and laugh. They go above an beyond. They take the time to stop and engage a special needs child. They wear funny hats just to make people happy. They put on costumes not caring that they might look like a fool to most normal adults, but they do it anyway because they know people will smile and be so much happier because of it. Those people who might fry dough for 120 people they work for because they want to make an event special. They aren’t getting paid extra for this mind you, it is just because. Or, that nurse who allows the same boy with Down’s Syndrome to come into the office with a fake illness just to get a hug. …..to witness that is witnessing beauty.  Yes, I really don’t notice the texture of someone’s hair or the number of tattoos anymore. And I definitely don’t care about the wrinkles on anyone’s face. Beauty radiates in a different way, and unfortunately, we don’t always see it.

I do sometimes question myself, and wonder why it is that I feel so much better when I buy something new to wear. Am I being shallow? I am falling into that trap, the one we buy into that says we have to look a certain way? I just bought a new dress for a wedding, in a gorgeous dark salmon, so simple and elegant and comfortable and appropriate for my age and I love it. It makes me feel, well, good. I can’t lie, I love new clothes (that are on sale especially), and that are comfortable and look good on me (in my mind, and that is hard when you get older, just saying). So maybe I am not free from that beauty trap if wearing certain clothes makes me happy. But at least I am proud of myself when it comes to pocketbooks and shoes….I don’t like pocketbooks with the letter C on them…I know that means something and many women I know and love just adore pocketbooks. They have an appreciation I just can’t relate to. And I am happy about that because it saves me lots of money. You might notice if you know me that I always have my black pocketbook I got at TJ Maxx. Apparently, it is a designer one, but I did not know it, it just serves my needs perfectly, was not too expensive and is very durable. And black goes with everything. A new pocketbook does not make me happy, although new clothes often do For a little while. It doesn’t last.

The bottom line is focusing on the outside, I have found at least, is not what makes me happy or feel good about myself. Making someone laugh or smile does make me feel good. When I look at someone now, when I don’t know them yet, I don’t know if they are beautiful. I now know that it takes time to see who they are. Then beauty comes through (or not). It makes me sad sometimes how many people (women especially, at least in my experience) don’t see their beauty. They look in the mirror and they look at the wrong things. They make up the stuff in their own minds as to what they are looking for in themselves that may meet the standards of beauty. They buy into the stuff our culture or the media pushes us to think is the only thing that matters if you want to feel beautiful. Back then it was straight hair. Now, it is a number of things that seem to change depending on what is trending. It may be being skinny, being muscular, having a bigger butt, tattoos, rainbow hair, who knows…..if you try to keep up, you lose yourself. Eventually.

I think it would be much cooler to make up our own definition of beauty. Face it. In real life, who are the people you are drawn to? Who are the people you want to emulate? Who do you want your children to be like? It has nothing to do with anything like clothing or hair or body shape. Beauty to me means kindness and acceptance and a sense of caring, and humor or course, modesty and humility, being grateful and forgiving. You may have your own definition. I challenge you to come up with one, your own definition of beauty. One that has nothing to do with outside appearance and everything to do with what is truly important to you.

And the next time you look in the mirror and curse your frizzy hair or anything else staring back at you, I hope you stop and see what others see.

 

 

It’s Time To Talk About It

No automatic alt text available.Margaret is in her 20’s, almost done with law school, an A student with a promising career ahead of her. Debbie is 54 years old. If you saw her you might think she’s got it all together for a woman her age. She is a smart dresser, hair always perfectly in place and she has energy galore. Pedro, on the other hand, is only 17. Tall and handsome with a shy smile who is the star swimmer for his high school. One of the “cool” kids, you would think he must be enjoying every minute of his teenage years. Robert is a 62 year old man, recently retired with his wife and known for his super fit physique. He still works out at the gym several hours a day and everyone knows him there.

What do all these individuals with seemingly a lot going for them have in common? They all are suffering from a disease that often goes unnoticed……until their world collapses. These completely different people all revolve their lives around “ED”. Short for “eating disorder”. ED does not discriminate between sex, race, religion, social class or sexual orientation. But people suffering from an eating disorder often have similarities in the debilitating affect on their lives.They likely wake up every single day of their(sometimes what feels like a) facade of a life thinking about food. They may weigh themselves daily with goal weights they have been obsessing about for weeks in Pedro’s case, or years, in Robert and Debbie’s case. When the number on that scale goes up, they have a really bad day. They may record every morsel and calorie they consume in a food diary, on an app, or in their minds. They starve, they binge, they purge, they are exhausted and feel like crap. And yet, even when they reach that initial “goal weight”, they still are not happy. So they lower it. Nobody seems to notice at first because our culture just loves it when people lose weight. Comments like “you lost weight! You look so good!” just fuel the fire. Our cultural focus on bodies makes it really confusing and hard for someone to stop the often dangerous behaviors they have fallen into. Even if someone manages to avoid serious medical and physical consequences (for a while) the psychological and emotional drains on a life are not always apparent to the outsider. But the person with the eating disorder often becomes depressed as they lose previously treasured parts of their lives (socializing, family gatherings, jobs, relationships) all because ED demands it of them. It becomes really hard for the person with an eating disorder to face food at social gatherings, to listen to comments and questions from family members expressing concern over weight loss and often sickly appearance as the disease progresses. Opportunities are lost, sports scholarships are taken away, dropping out of college and leaving a job, even relationship fall-outs happen because of ED. Sometimes, binge eating leads to excessive weight gain. Unfortunately, with the focus on childhood obesity, even children aren’t immune as they get the message at a very young age that the number on that scale really matters, and it is up to them to do something about it. The bottom line is appearance and body size of a person with an eating disorder are never the same, yet assumptions are made because of this, and this is a big mistake.

Every year during the month of February, the eating disorder community of health care professionals, those who suffer(ed) with eating disorders and the people who have been affected by them make an effort to educate us all. This year, National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is February 26th through March 4th. The theme or message is “Let’s Talk About It”. This is such a great message because the fact is, the earlier an eating disorder is identified and treated, the more chance there is to prevent it from getting worse, or to beat it. We need to talk about the fact that it is a confusing world with our focus on, and fear of fat. We get confused about what is important. Is it more important to be thin or should we just focus on being healthy? How do we fight the cultural ideal and still feel good about our bodies? And most important, we need to talk about the fact that nobody is immune, and no, you can’t tell if someone is suffering just by looking at them. Eating disorders strike children, teenagers, college kids, middle-aged and older adults. Fat, thin or in-between, rich or poor, educated or not, no matter what nationality or culture, you can’t tell what someone’s life is like or how miserable they may be.

Or, you may wonder about yourself. Is your obsessive calorie counting really a problem? Do you say to yourself “well, I do need to lose weight” and think your diet is just “healthy?” but you do feel drained from thinking about it all the time? Is it a problem that you feel guilty for missing the gym? Do you constantly think about your bulging middle-aged tummy and have started cutting out foods to fix it? Do you have an eating problem you are starting to worry about? To help you answer these questions, or to at least lead you in the right direction, why not take the free screening offered by the NEDA website (National Eating Disorder Awareness). Go ahead and take the free screening Get Screened, or share with any friends and/or family members who may know loved ones they are worried about. Remember, the earlier this debilitating disease is identified and treated the better chance for recovery. Don’t wait. It’s time to talk about it.

Get Screened

Were You “Bad” Today? And Why is it so Hard to be “Good”?

Chef’s Salad: Good or Bad?

My daughter was visiting yesterday and was telling me about a weird conversation she had with a woman in line at Subway. After going to the gym she had decided to run in to get a grinder (she is like me, we hate spending money on food we can make ourselves) but sometimes saving time is more important. So she ordered her grinder and the woman behind her says “oh you are being so good!” Huh? “you got vegetables on yours!”……”but I like vegetables on mine….”my daughter said.

The woman goes on to say something about the fact that my daughter had on work out clothes from coming from the gym. That made her “really being good” in this woman’s eyes. The discussion led to this stranger sharing that she had been “bad” for almost 3 years, had not exercised but was just starting again. She was going to make herself eat vegetables, too. But not today. Today she would be bad.

I know I have talked about the language of dieters, of the moral judgement (of oneself) depending on if certain foods are consumed, or if food is “burned off ” with self-induced and not-too-fun “exercise”. But this lingo means so much more if you ask me. It is another one of my triggers to shake my head and feel sad, angry, not sure what. This language goes back decades, and is so ingrained in our culture that when you don’t buy into it, YOU are the weird one. YOU don’t get it, don’t fit in, aren’t normal. Of COURSE there are bad foods and good foods, people tell me.

I can debate why any food you can name is “good” if you happen to like it. “Good” is just a word and can mean different things to different people. To the dieting woman at Subway, “good” meant eating vegetables and exercising. To me, good means something very different. If a food tastes good to me, well then it IS “good”! If you want to talk about how different foods contribute to your health, that is a different story. I happen to believe that since all foods have energy (calories) they are good in at least that respect. If you were hiking in the woods with no food or water, and stumbled upon a picnic basket with Twinkies and Koolaid, I’d call that pretty good.

No, the problem is not just in your interpretation of the words, it is how they make you feel. It is the emotional response you get (and often the behaviors that follow) when you have this judgmental belief system. It ruins people’s entire days. Entire weekends. Entire vacations. The word “good” and the word “bad”. It reinforces the belief that we need to restrict ourselves of certain foods if we are to be healthy (meaning thin in many people’s minds). Most people believe that if you eat certain foods then you are likely to gain weight, and if you eat other foods, you will be thin. I can’t tell you the number of comments I have gotten depending on what someone sees me eat. A friend of mine once commented “You must have a good metabolism! You eat so much candy!” when in reality, I happened to buy a bunch of penny candy while on vacation (it brings me back to my childhood, when we had a corner store that really truly sold penny candy….that cost a penny). So when I happen to go to a store that has Mary Janes and squirrel nuts and caramels, I always buy a few. It just struck me funny how a small little candy is supposed to make you “fat”. I don’t have a high metabolism. I just really enjoy that candy and the reality is a piece of that candy has less calories than an apple. But I am sure if I ate 3 apples, nobody would comment.

The other thing that often baffles me is what different people consider “bad”. To some of my patients, rice was bad. To others, rice was “safe”. Potatoes can go either way I have found. Some people think they are “fattening” however some don’t. So depending on who you listen to, potatoes can be good or they can be bad. Same with rice, and bread, and olive oil, and nuts. It is pretty confusing.

I have wondered where this all started, and from the decades of research on binge eating and “disinhibition” I know that it most likely has come from our dieting mind-set. It may have started with the labeling of foods by Weight Watchers of “legal” and “illegal” way back in the day (they don’t do that now, now you have points….still, crazy if you ask me. TOO MUCH THINKING). But probably before that, depending on the fad diet of the year. No wonder everyone is so confused. One year fat is the “bad” food and the next year “carbs” are bad. Why don’t people ever stop and wonder: how is it that bad food keeps changing?

My suggestion is this: have you entertained the thought of thinking about health? If you have, then is the obstacle that you just don’t like “healthy” food? Consider this: you may be so obsessed with unhealthy food mainly because you have been trying to avoid it. If you let yourself have it in moderation when you really truly wanted it, do you think you would want it so much? Or, maybe you truly have never developed a taste for healthy foods. There are so many people who grew up on canned vegetables and Mc Donald’s burgers. I have worked with many families who really have not tried fruits and vegetables because they did not grow up with them. I also have worked with people who just don’t know how to cook, and so spaghettios and Ellio’s Pizza are mainstays. We know that exposure to healthy foods (such as fresh fruits and vegetables) over time really makes you eventually love them. We call it the “Rule of 20” which means that if you keep trying something (say broccoli) that it takes 20 exposures to really know if you like it or not. Research actually has mostly focused on children, and it could take as little as 10-15 tries. The bottom line is, that you just can’t know unless you keep trying. I am on my 7th try of beets, and I still don’t like them. I won’t give up though. Thirteen more tries…over time.

The other problem is, we do get used to certain types of foods, and our bodies actually learn to crave them. For example, eating really high fat, fast foods on a regular basis can actually affect your body in a way that makes you tolerate them more and crave them more. But when you eat lower fat foods, or if you never eat fast foods, you may find you get a stomach ache when you do eat them. I am not saying we should never ever eat fast foods or high fat foods. But I do think it is important to take a look at your overall habits. If you never ever eat fruits and vegetables because you think you don’t like them, then you might want to just consider starting to try them. NOT because they are “good” but because we know eating more of them makes us healthier. You can still have those burger and fries, but learning to also like a salad on the side is a huge step toward being healthier. Experiment with cooking vegetables different ways. Read cookbooks or check out cooking websites for new and interesting ways to make vegetables. Just because a dish is “healthy” or “good” does not mean it does not taste fantastic! My favorite thing to do is experiment with cooking healthy foods and coming up with something amazing. For example, last night I made “ratatouille” which is sauteed garlic, onions, peppers, eggplant, squash and zucchini in diced tomatoes. But added some spicy turkey sausage, shredded carrots, several herbs from my garden, some leftover red wine and grated Italian cheese. I melted some mozzarella on top, we had rice and adobo seasoned grilled chicken. It was heavenly. Good? I’d say! and not because it was healthy, but because it tasted wonderful!

Here is my challenge to you: for one week, can you catch yourself when it comes to talking about food? When you go to eat something “bad” can you re-frame your words? Instead, say “this is yummy”. Try to tune in to your body and hunger and eat an amount that makes your tummy feel content. No need to stuff yourself, because you are not being “bad”. You are enjoying something that tastes good to you. Also, instead of avoiding something that you never eat unless you are “dieting” and being “good”, can you try it anyway? have a yummy salad. Try a new fruit. Don’t miss out on exposing your taste buds to good food just because you are “off” your diet. Who knows…..you may discover a new favorite. Stop labeling food. All foods are equal.

Well, except beets maybe. But I won’t give up.

Oh, and that chef’s salad in the picture? It was good!

What I learned about food and eating in Italy

IMG_5635 I recently returned from an almost three week vacation in Italy. It was an amazing trip in many ways, mostly because it truly validated who I am and why I like the foods I do, (and why I love dancing). I felt very connected to my roots. Growing up in an Italian family with a grandfather who spoke broken English and a grandmother who did not speak a work of English created many wonderful memories. Family was the center of our lives and meals and gatherings that centered around cooking and eating were just a part of life. I remember going to my grandmother’s house who did not speak English, and she would take chunks of aged Parmesan cheese and melt them on a gas stove as a snack on the end of a fork. Every Sunday was pasta and meatballs and fresh Italian bread.

In Italy I loved the way everyone was never in a hurry. Meals took a long time! If we went to a restaurant, the bread always came out with the olive oil first. Then the liter of homemade red wine which was cheaper than the water! and tasted better : ) And then the “first course” would come which was your pasta, pesto or sauce or whatever and it was always homemade. Then came the meat or fish, chicken was rare to find on a menu. And salad was last, always simple and always olive oil and vinegar. Dessert was offered but the funny thing was that every single breakfast we had at every hotel or B and B consisted of beautiful homemade cakes and croissants and pastry as well as some type of cheese and ham. We joked at the end of the vacation that we did not want to see another slice of ham or salami for awhile! Italians love their ham and prosciutto and salami! and the olives were out of this world. In fact, if you stopped in anywhere for just a drink you were always given a platter of food that usually consisted of cheese, ham, bread, nuts, olives and/or potato chips….I was in heaven.

What I loved the most was the feeling of never being rushed. Italians will never bring the check until you ask for it. They do not seem to care if you sit for three hours over the same plate…..they understand the importance of savoring a delicious meal and a glass of wine and spending time with friends talking. It was absolutely wonderful. Oh, and I had real gelato for the first time…in a word, YUM! But they have not learned about super-sizing…the cups were tiny….but just enough. It did not strike me that Italians wanted quantity, they were more into quality and deliciousness.

I hope to continue to take the time to enjoy and savor all that meal times represent. It is more than just eating. It is savoring and enjoying and connecting over traditions. Whether you are Italian or Polish or Asian or French or Hispanic, whatever your culture and your food traditions, take the time to learn about them, learn how to prepare them and cherish your heritage.

But it is good to be home!!!