Another Christmas has come and gone. The hype and promise have expired, and I’m left with a familiar emotional cocktail of joy, contentment, gratitude and disappointment. Though never as ebullient or picturesque as ads in a glossy magazine might suggest (our tree never looks quite as glamorous; our gifts are never as big or surprising; that beauty-editor-recommended hairstyle never looks quite right atop my head), this holiday season did provide me with many opportunities to fill up on the goodness of loved ones. As January impatiently awaits, I find myself wanting to hold on to the stillness of the season--not the festive, incessant opportunities to drink and indulge, but those moments of quiescence, the short days and long spells of darkness, which provide the opportunity for reflection. This time of year, I feel compelled to take stock, to note an end and hypothesize a beginning; maybe it will be like this; maybe the new year could hold this possibility, this growth. Which can then become, Yes, I want it to be so. It is really New Year’s, I suppose, that holds a place in my heart, its possibilities and uncertainties so captivating: the clear, sparkly magic of what if.
A few months ago, my daughter and I were in Trader Joe’s, looking unkempt and bedraggled after some serious park time on a blustery spring day. Along with everyone else, we elbowed our way through the bottle neck at fruits and vegetables, continued bumper to bumper past meat, and finally arrived in frozen foods—a wide boulevard of an aisle where shoppers can exhale and leisurely peruse all things chocolate-covered. On that particular day, we were after TJ’s mint chocolate chip ice cream, which is an object of worship in our house. I was just catching my breath, grateful to escape the sea of humanity two aisles over, when a fellow shopper bellowed “Oh, I see a young Dakota Fanning,” as he peered at my daughter. A young Dakota Fanning? Funny —I see the scabs on her knee, the ketchup on her chin, and the greasy sunscreen in her hair. And did I mention she’s two? Not eleven, or even eight, but two. I assume he was giving her a compliment, his intention benign. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I, like most parents, feel a certain amount of pride when my little ones are praised. But his remark represents our culture’s relentless attention to female appearance, a process that starts before our daughters are even out of diapers.
Does Katy Perry have good body image? That is, does she have positive feelings about her body, and generally perceive little difference between how she actually looks, and how she would ideally like to look (the rubric by which body image is frequently measured)? What about other stars who wear little and reveal much? Kim Kardashian, for example. Does she love her body? I got to thinking about whether we can discern someone’s body image after reading a post by Ashley at Nourishing the Soul. Ashley has just announced that she is taking nominations for websites, bloggers, organizations, and celebrities who promote good body image (which is a fantastic way to celebrate those who counterbalance negative messages and provide inspiration). But the celebrity category made me wonder: how do we know if someone has good body image, or if she is “body positive” as Ashley puts it?
If you have young children, you know that taking them out to eat requires a lot of patience and humor and napkins. Some parents chose to forgo this experience altogether by leaving the kids at home when eating involves a menu and a waiter. Not me. It’s not that I enjoy the disapproving glances of other patrons; it’s not that I like getting down on my knees, sheepishly, to pick up half-eaten pieces of bread, broken crayons and greasy forks. It’s just that flavor becomes skittish and makes itself scarce when I put on an apron in my own kitchen. When I cook, it usually doesn’t turn out so well. And you can only eat so much frozen pizza. So I’m left with few options, save the early bird special at our favorite diner. (Or so I tell myself to justify the money we spend eating out.) Here are some tricks we use to increase the odds that our time out is more fun than frenetic:
A few weeks ago, my family and I left our favorite restaurant after a wonderful meal, our bellies replete with green chile-smothered enchiladas. The only food ordered but not eaten was my daughter’s, as she had been more interested in playing peek-a-boo with a girl at the neighboring table than in consuming her substantial bean and cheese burrito. As we were about to get into the car, a woman approached and asked, in a near inaudible voice, whether we could help her out. She looked cold and miserable: face sunburned, hair unwashed and scraggly, clothes soiled and smelling faintly of urine. I was immediately struck by the idea that this would be an excellent opportunity to teach my older daughter (almost three) about the importance of helping others and sharing with the less fortunate. ‘Tis the season, after all, and we’d already broached the topic due to a recent food drive at her school.
I have a thing about spiders. I didn’t grow up having any particular thoughts about them, other than the vague notion that they were benign or even helpful (Charlotte’s Web was great for spider PR). In those days, my high tolerance for critters was probably due to the fact that I spent so much time in the arroyos near my house, which put me in proximity to things like lizards, horny toads (yes, this is what we called them in Santa Fe), and caterpillars. Subsequently I left the high desert and lived in highly populated, urban areas. There, I was not concerned with creepy, crawly things. Parking tickets? Yes. Getting run over by careening, wayward taxis? Yes. But other than rats and pigeons, there were few living things to contend with. Now that I’m back in Santa Fe, things have changed. I am surrounded by black widows. They stare at me while I sleep, and wait to bite my toes when I slide them, unsuspectingly, into a pair of shoes I’ve not worn for months.
Dr. Phil is great at his job. He cuts straight to the heart of the issue, elicits an emotional response from clients, and gets people to commit to making changes (whether they are ready to do so or not). Though he may be a bit like a bull in a china shop, what he lacks in finesse he makes up for in fortitude and enthusiasm. This is part of his appeal; viewers enjoy his direct, take-no-prisoners approach. But this is not exactly what happens in your average therapist’s office. In most cases, therapy is more like an archaeological dig; the client and therapist root around and sift through layers of history to make sense of things. Problems are identified by a particular shard or clue, which leads to a greater understanding of patterns and the interaction between self and environment. Frequently (and increasingly, given managed care), goals are identified, and therapist and client embark upon a journey of exploration to create solutions and generally make things better.
Deprivation is not my friend. Although I have tried to make use of it in past diets—depriving myself of particular foods I deem off-limits or forbidden—it always comes back to haunt me. Most people who have tried to restrict their calories or change their diet will say the same thing—they end up eating more than if they had not tried to cut down in the first place. It is the rare person who can sustain deprivation for any length of time, and even those who can (such as Anorexics), often become bulimic or overweight when they can no longer endure the physical and emotional fatigue that accompanies scarcity. This is why diets do not typically work. When we are told (or when we tell ourselves) that we cannot have something, we want it all the more. I experienced this recently with my two year old. She wanted to chew on a greasy, filthy kitchen sponge, and my best efforts to talk her out of it only intensified her interest in doing so. If I had a greater tolerance for germs, I might have avoided a power struggle by letting her chomp away. But my squeamish nature got the better of me and I vied it from her hands once it became clear that she wasn’t backing down. (You can imagine how this ended up.)
In last week’s New York Times Magazine, Gretchen Reynolds described a Finnish study on the body’s responsiveness to exercise, or, as the case may be, lack of responsiveness. Surprisingly, some of the study’s 175 participants showed no improvement in cardiovascular fitness subsequent to a 21-week regimen in exercise endurance, and others failed to increase strength after doing weight training for the same duration. Further, there were those who completed both regimens but showed no improvement whatsoever. As Reynolds points out, these results shouldn’t be used to justify exercise avoidance, because most people do respond positively to exercise. There are also the less tangible benefits, like improved quality of life, which count for something as well. But non-responders are not unheard of, and exist in virtually all research. The take-home message is that aerobic capacity and strength are not uniquely impacted by our behavior; environmental factors and disobedient genes may have more say than we’d like.
Some days, my daughter eats a chocolate chip cookie for breakfast. It all began with these amazing cookies that my husband started to make. If he had offered me one on our first date, our courtship would have been much shorter. Recently, said cookies have become an object of contention in my house. If this doesn’t make sense to you, then clearly you are not living with a two-year old. You would be forgiven for not understanding that something made of chocolate chips, butter, and walnuts could become a battle ground of sorts.