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reflections on the New Year

22 Jan

Lots of people make New Year’s resolutions.* Some even keep them. But I like to think of the New Year as a good time to assess things: what is going well? What changes would I like to make? What kinds of things do I hope for the next year?

In terms of your health, this is a good time to start asking those questions, because you’re past the crush of the holidays; many of us have a slower-paced lifestyle through January and February, which you might be able to use to take stock of your lifestyle and your health.

In case you are interested in evaluating your own health as the new year begins, here are a few questions you might want to ask yourself:

1. Am I happy with my progress toward controlling PCOS and any other health problems? (This really is about progress, by the way, not perfection. PCOS isn’t something that goes away, but you can think of your life choices as management choices. Are you happy with those habits and decisions?)

2. Do I have a doctor I trust? This is important, because many of us feel trapped by insurance or convenience or whatever, so we don’t feel that it’s feasible to look for a doctor who has more expertise or whose approach more closely reflects our own. But your doctor is important, and if you don’t have at least one good doctor in your corner, maybe your project for 2012 could be looking for one.

3. Do I have a specific health goal? For a lot of PCOS ladies, that goal is conceiving a baby (or at least maintaining the health habits that would be most likely to lead to conception). But if that doesn’t apply to you, you might still benefit from thinking about a concrete goal. My goal for 2012, for example, is to establish (or, more accurately, re-establish and solidify) a habit of exercising five days a week. I have done well at this in the past, but it is the first thing to go when my schedule becomes hectic, so my goal is to maintain that habit even when time is tight.

4. How do I feel? This is a hard question sometimes. How DO you feel? Are you tired or energetic? Are you feeling burned out, or have the holidays left you refreshed and ready for a new year? If you are feeling tired and depleted (or if you are suffering from a specific health problem that’s bothering you), then maybe self-care needs to be at the top of your 2012 list of priorities.

These questions are general, and that’s intentional. You will need to think about your own experiences here and figure out what’s most important to you. If you ARE trying to conceive a baby, for example, you might want to make a specific commitment to keeping a full and accurate chart (try to help you track your cycles and judge how well your PCOS management regimen is working.

In a lot of ways, specific resolutions can be difficult, because they seem like rules. This time of year is a natural time to evaluate, though: things move more slowly, and you’re waiting for spring to appear and give you a new sense of vitality, right? Well, be ready for it. Take some time to take stock of what you want out of 2012.

* One of my 2012 resolutions is to keep up this blog. Last year was rough, but I finished my Ph.D.–and now I have more time and more mental space, so 2012 is the year!

the hardest advice to follow

12 Oct

I have been thinking a bit about why it’s hard to foster certain healthy habits. It’s different for everyone, of course. Maybe your vulnerable point is exercise–hard to remember to do it and make yourself stick with it, easy to stay home or stay on the couch. Maybe it’s diet-related (can’t resist a certain junk food, have a hard time with portion control).

For me, the #1 hardest thing is this: when you’re eating, sit down and enjoy your food and don’t do other things.

I know this seems like it’s not very important. I certainly believe that choosing healthy foods and being active are more important lifestyle changes than this.

But this is also the one thing that I find it hard to do even for a few days. In fact, it’s hard for me to do this even for one day.

In theory, I know that this would be good for me. It would force me to be mindful about eating; it would give me a more relaxed dining experience and make my day less stressful; it would remind me that food is something to be enjoyed, not something to be frustrated about.

But I still end up eating 80%–maybe 90%–of my at-home meals on the couch, with a book in hand or the laptop next to me. And breakfast, plus sometimes lunch, is eaten in the car or in between the classes I’m teaching.

So, thinking about it today, I came to a staggering (and embarrassing) realization.

I think the reason I struggle so much with this is that I am incapable of keeping our dining table cleared off. It’s always covered in junk; it never seems worth clearing it. My spouse works fairly late, so I usually eat with the kids, and it’s easier to ignore the mess on the table and eat in the living room.

It would seem, at age 31, that I should be old enough and responsible enough to keep the table cleared off, but it’s very difficult for me. Now that I’ve made this connection, though, I’m going to make more of an effort to do this, with the goal of being able to sit down and eat dinner there with my kids. I want them to develop the habit of eating mindfully, too.

The most interesting thing about this observation is that the real problem isn’t what I thought it was. I assumed that I avoided sitting down to eat in peace because I was too busy, or too stressed. I am sure, however, that I would sit down and eat at the table much more often if I didn’t have to move a bunch of books and papers to clear a space.

The moral of this post is that you, too, should think about why you struggle with some habits more than others. If you find it almost impossible to drink enough water, for example, is that because it interrupts your day? Or because you don’t like the taste of your tap water? Or because you’re not in the habit and you haven’t figured out how to remind yourself? Once you figure out why it’s hard for you, you’re in a better position to solve the problem.

politics: size discrimination

5 Feb

Since many women–perhaps even most women–with PCOS struggle with their weight, I thought this might be a good forum to talk about a kind of discrimination that is getting worse over time, not better: the judgment of “fat” people.

Despite the “fat acceptance” movement and the increasing awareness that many people who are considered overweight can still be healthy, I don’t think our culture has gotten very far in this particular arena. (See the Health at Every Size page for more information about the movement–I’m not involved in it, so I won’t presume to summarize the tenets here. It is an intriguing project, though, because it accepts and celebrates the pursuit of health–not the pursuit of a particular body shape.)

It’s a complicated thing. Yes, I think most people who are extremely heavy would be healthier if they lost some weight. And yes, I group myself in that category! However, it is neither reasonable nor fair to assume that you know anything about a person’s health, lifestyle, or personality from his or her size. A thin person may be sedentary and eat poorly; a fat person may eat fairly well and get more exercise.

Here is my list of destructive beliefs about fat people–ideas that are floating around in American society (and in many other parts of the world!):

1. Fat people are lazy.

2. Fat people are sloppy.

3. Fat people are stupid. (After all, why would you be fat when it’s so clear how to avoid it?)

4. Fat people are ugly/unattractive/not sexy.

Obviously, I do not agree with any of these statements. You might want to think about how you would respond if the “fat people” part of that sentence were replaced with, say, “black people”–part of the reason this is so troubling is that people ARE born with a certain predisposition to be heavy or thin, even if it’s not completely set in stone.

Certainly, you have plenty of control over your health and the state of your body. But you may not reasonably, or healthfully, be able to adhere to a cultural idea that supports a body type that is unhealthy for many women. And the fact is, you don’t have to. No one is even telling you that you have to be healthy, although of course I hope that you are and that you want to be. But these assumptions are not made about thin people who don’t eat their vegetables, or about people who smoke (although smoking has become less socially acceptable over time), or about people who never exercise and sit behind a desk all day long. There is no denying it: this is about the way a person looks.

If you are overweight or obese, you probably recognize these ideas. They’re destructive and hurtful, as well as false. Some of these are more flexible than others (for example, if you are tidy, well-groomed, and well-dressed, you’re less likely to be thought sloppy; however, if two women show up in yoga pants and messy ponytails, it is the overweight woman who will be considered a slob).

It is your job to oppose these beliefs, right now, and forever–in thought, in word, and in deed. If you are working on your health, if you eat well, if you exercise, if you are educating yourself about PCOS and taking control of your genetic and medical inheritance, of course you are not lazy. If you are reading about these issues, integrating what you learn in books, in research, in blogs like this one, of course you are not stupid.

I do not suggest that it doesn’t matter what sort of condition your body is in (although I do think it is an egregious mistake for any of us to judge others based on any visible evidence of that condition). I am suggesting the following things:

1. Your body is yours. You can treat it as well or as poorly as you want. It does not reflect on your moral or intellectual status to eat a cookie.

2. A healthy body can look a lot of different ways. There is plenty of evidence that women can be healthy at many sizes.

3. You (maybe in consultation with a trusted doctor) are the proper judge of what weight is healthiest for you. Screw the weight charts, screw the BMI charts–if you are eating right, you’re fit, and your medical statistics are all in range, you’re healthy. That’s that. It doesn’t matter whether you wear a size 2 or a size 22 or whatever.

4. Dieting is unhealthy. A healthy, sustainable diet–in the sense of “what you eat,” not in the sense of “what will help you lose weight”–is a major step toward a healthy lifestyle, but the array of special diets that many overweight or obese people try are more likely to harm than help. In particular, the yo-yo dieting lifestyle is bad for you–not just physically, but also emotionally.

5. You cannot expect other people to stop judging you for your weight until you stop judging yourself. I know this is hard. I know you have probably heard about weight loss for your entire life. I know that you’re going to keep hearing about it. But until you can accept your body for what it is and decide that you are going to stop being ashamed of it, angry at it, or mean to it, you will suffer. And in my view, the best way to change societal pressures is to be clear about the fact that you like yourself and your body. You can work very hard for increased fitness and health without defining your current body as “wrong” or “bad.”

In conclusion:

Our culture expects women to look a certain way. More accurately, it expects women to WANT to look a certain way; I think most of us are accustomed to seeing women who look–well–average. Normal. But it’s expected that every woman wants to wear a size 4. This is patently absurd. Healthy bodies come in many sizes; sexy or beautiful bodies, too. There are a lot of reasons to stop judging your body based on its size, but one of the most important is this: it’s the body you have, right now. No matter what your goals may be, no matter how you may want it to look and feel, right now, it’s what you have. Do you really want to postpone your happiness until your body meets your standard? Especially if you’re drawing that standard from an unrealistic cultural expectation, that’s a bad deal.

START with the happiness. Start with the knowledge that you are already ahead of the game because you are invested in your own health. Start with the knowledge that the people who love you, love you in your current body. Start with the knowledge that your essential self would not change if you could magically eliminate whatever physical “flaws” you dislike. If you can do those things (and trust me–I know they’re difficult), you might have a shot at enjoying the process of improving your fitness and health.

For me, I think of it this way: if I can live a long, healthy, productive life, does it matter what size my jeans are? If I know that every doctor I visit is shocked to find that my blood pressure and lipid panels are what they expect to see in a visibly fit patient, does it matter that I don’t look like an athlete? No. It doesn’t. And while I wish that everyone I met could accept that truth, just as I accept it, I cannot control what other people think. I can only control what I think.

today’s deep task: write a letter to your body.

21 Apr

So, women with PCOS often have some less-than-happy thoughts about our bodies. We struggle with our weight, or our skin, or our hair. A lot of us suffer from infertility. We worry about diabetes. We fight depression, anxiety, eating disorders. All of this stuff is common for PCOS sufferers.

Today, I challenge you: write a letter to your body. Say something nice. Say something mean. Say something honest. Leave it as a comment if you want to, or write it on a piece of paper and then throw it out. Get it out there. Here’s mine–just to show you I’m really serious about this.

Dear Body:
Remember the first time you ran a mile? I do, because I was so happy with you right then. It seemed like the biggest achievement in the world, running that mile, and all of the functions that keep me going [pulse, breathing, muscles moving] seemed like fabulous mysteries. But you do more amazing things than that, every day: you grew my babies, you keep on working and keeping on even though I don’t always–or even often–make the best choices for you. So here goes. I recommit to being better to you. Exercise, yes. Water, yes. Better eating, yes. Most importantly, I’m going to give you some love. I am frustrated by your vulnerabilities [herniated disc, anyone?], but you’re picking up my kids, digging my garden, walking across campus every day…and I appreciate you.
Ms. Academama