Posts Categorized: body image

This Week I Love …

jessica smith tv

Jessica Smith TV.

Although I have frequent meetings and commitments out of the house, I have found working from home to be even more sedentary than working at an office. I don’t hustle around to other peoples’ cubes or meet colleagues for lunch across campus. I just sit. And write. And sit some more. While writing. So since the day I became self-employed, I’ve made sure to carve out some time for exercise each day. My preference is to take a brisk walk around my neighborhood while listening to podcasts or books.

HOWEVER. My personal temperature threshold is -10, and last winter passed that mark many, many times. So I started looking around for workout videos I could do in my living room on days when it was so cold outside that my eyelashes froze together. I tried a couple of the store-bought DVD systems and found them to be pretty dull as ongoing fitness tools, and a bit too focused on “getting thin and sexy” or “losing weight fast!” for my taste. Which led me to YouTube. Which led me to Jessica Smith.

Smith has an extremely popular channel with dozens of videos – all of them free – at a variety of skill levels and covering the gamut of fitness topics. She posts a new video each week, including full 30-minute workout routines, shorter workouts for those in a hurry, and a few single-exercise demo videos. She’s developed a walking/weight loss program that she sells on DVD, but never hits her YouTube subscribers with the hard sell. Her channel is a robust and valuable resource.

But the real reason I love Jessica Smith? She never harps on getting thin or losing weight as the obvious end-goals, she clearly enjoys making these videos, and she is meticulous about offering modifications for anyone who needs them. She jokes and encourages and talks you through every movement patiently and carefully. She emphasizes the importance of stretching and talks frequently about avoiding new injuries and accommodating existing ones. Her videos are clear and easy to follow, but pretty low-fi – they’re all filmed at her house, which is probably an intentional choice meant to illustrate that anyone can work out at home in a room with some clear space. And the white French bulldog in her banner is Peanut, her dog, who wanders in and out of most videos. Or just sleeps on her mat the entire time. If you’re a sucker for animals like I am, this is a delightful bonus.

On her website and channel, Smith says, “Our goal is to help you find movement that you enjoy (and actually want to keep doing) so you’ll never have to ‘work’ out another day in your life! You won’t find any crazy exercises, revealing outfits or negative energy here; just common sense fitness, advice and support from a friend and certified fitness professional (and her French bulldog).” Some of her video titles focus on weight loss, sculpting, and other concepts that circle around thinness – likely for SEO reasons – but her banter and narration are always neutral or even body-image-friendly. I’ve never heard her harp on the importance of a bikini body, describe anything as a quick/easy route to getting thin, or say anything that set off beauty-standard alarm bells.

I’ve actually kept up with the videos through the year, adding them to my daily walks and exploring a variety of routines and topics to keep the boredom at bay. When my back is acting up I choose from her knee- and back-friendly workout playlist. When I’m in a rush, I choose a 10- or 15-minute targeted workout. If you can’t afford a gym or can’t motivate yourself to go, if fitness classes make you self-conscious, or if you only have a few minutes a day to yourself, peek at Jessica Smith TV and see if you can find a video or two that suit your needs.

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On BMI and Rules vs. Guidelines


Reader Samantha dropped me an e-mail asking about my opinions of BMI. She is the 35-year-old mother of a 5-month-old infant, recently went in for a check-up, and was told that she was overweight based on the current BMI scale. Her own feelings about what constituted a healthy weight for her body were shattered when she was informed that she needed to be 20 pounds lighter than her own typical weight in order to fall within the “normal” range. And she was frustrated.

I can completely relate to her frustration. In years past, I’ve had all sorts of digestive and reproductive health problems. None of the docs ever had any idea what was up, despite round after round of tests. At some point in there, a blood test came back that had me right on the border of being pre-diabetic. Still nowhere close to being actually diabetic, and that test turned out to be an anomaly. Yet I was told that I should probably lose five pounds to kick me back into the “normal” BMI range. I was flabbergasted. I wasn’t diabetic, there was no link between my specific health problems and my weight, I was five pounds over “normal,” and they still chose to harp on BMI.

Now before I really dig into this post, a few caveats. I’m not a doctor, as you all know. I’ve studied human physiology very briefly, but have no experience in the health services or medical professions. Everything contained within this post represents my set of opinions which are based on my personal observations and readings. I don’t know everything about this topic and don’t claim to, but I’ve had experience with it on a very personal level, have read extensively over the years, and have formed views accordingly. Samantha asked for my views, and once I began writing my response to her I realized that the topic was worth bringing to light here.

I do not think that BMI is a nefarious tool of purest evil. There are health problems that the medical community has linked to obesity, and because of these physicians may deem it important and necessary to keep patients mindful of weight. On a daily basis, doctors are faced with hundreds of health problems that aren’t preventable, and I think they may harp on obesity because they feel is preventable. (Which, in some cases, it really isn’t.) Also, broken as it is, BMI is one of the only tools we have that provides parameters for understanding when overall weight may begin to impact other areas of bodily function. The idea of having rough guidelines for healthy weight makes some sense to me, especially if those guidelines have been backed up by broad, deep research, and leave room for individual variation.

But in my experience – as supported by my anecdote above – BMI is treated more as a rule than a guideline. Doctors see you’re over a certain number and it’s a done deal: You need to change. I’m sure much of that is related to the high volume of patients that medical doctors are forced to help, how HMOs are organized and run, and other factors that make medical providers feel totally boxed-in. But it’s still harmful and infuriating to the patients. To tell the 35-year-old mother of a 5-month-old to get cracking on that weight loss seems downright destructive to me. To tell a woman who is five pounds over the magic limit that shaving off a few will cure what ails her seems downright preposterous to me. Especially if no questions are ever asked about activity level, diet, or family background.

BMI is supposed to be more informative and tailored than weight, but I’m not sure it truly is. Cross-referencing height and weight gives a bit more information, but it’s still not enough for real insight. Certainly not enough to merit application of a broad, health-related label to a highly unique human being. In my (albeit layperson) opinion, no group of impersonal numbers will give the complete picture of an individual’s health. Not the way an in-depth conversation will. Furthermore, the person who created the BMI scale did so for measuring populations and stated explicitly that it shouldn’t be used to indicate the level of fatness/fitness of an individual.

Do I have a solution? No. I imagine that reexamining the way BMI is calculated to include factors like activity level, fat percentage, bone density, and other key influencers would help somewhat. So would training docs to really TALK with patients about their lifestyles, choices, and overall health before slapping weight-related labels upon them or advising dietary changes. (Which would mean lightening doctor workloads, a potentially impossible demand.) But I really don’t know if either of those would create actual helpful, influential, effective guidelines for linking weight and health, or just circle back to being oppressive, exclusive, rigid, shaming rules.

My understanding is that BMI is currently used as a guideline to give a rough idea of when your weight may begin to negatively impact your overall health. But like all guidelines, there will be loads of personal variation. Loads. And that’s the piece of the puzzle that ends up missing in a lot of doctor-patient discussions of weight and health.

For more reading on BMI, try:

Image via The Body Pacifist

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Aging Gracefully


Audi made this request:

I’d love to see you do a piece about embracing our bodies and faces as we age. It bums me out to see so many attractive women succumbing to the pressure to look “younger” through cosmetic surgery and Botox and all that. You’ve written a lot about loving your body the way it is now, rather than the way you imagine it will be in the future — how about the other tack; loving your body now and not the way it used to be when you were younger?

I love my body now, at 38-almost-39, more wholly and truly than I did when I was younger. I seem to become more comfortable and more confident as I age, not less. And I know that to be true for many women.

But I also feel myself becoming more attuned to negative messages about aging: Fine lines, dull skin, loss of muscle tone, gray hair, all these trappings of a mature body that society has deemed shameful pop up on my radar now more than ever. Some of these traits are starting to show up in my own body and some are yet to arrive, but the messages about their insidiousness are penetrating my consciousness now when they used to just bounce away like so much noise.

Just as the diet industry exists to make us feel like we’ll never be thin enough, just as the cosmetics industry exists to make us feel like we’ll never be pretty enough, anti-aging products exist to make us feel like we must, must, MUST remain young-looking forever. And while we can choose to change our body masses through food and fitness, choose to highlight certain aspects of our faces with makeup, we can’t truly control how the passage of time will affect our physical forms. Botox and facelifts, anti-aging creams and treatments, these things encourage us to pretend to be other women, younger women, women we simply are not. Encouraging women to take actions that will “turn back the clock” encourages them to feel dissatisfied and uncomfortable in their bodies, encourages them to postpone contemplation of age and aging, encourages them to feel bitter and envious when they encounter young or younger-looking women.

That said, I can’t completely disregard all anti-aging measures, just as I can’t completely disregard all weight loss programs or cosmetics. I would never say that all women who go on Weight Watchers are betraying themselves or all women who wear mascara are sell-outs, and I’d never say that all women who dye their gray hairs are cowards. It’s about choice. Each woman must choose how she presents herself to the world, physically, emotionally, stylistically, wholly. The important and often-overlooked step in making decisions about changing your body is asking WHY: Why do you want to dye your hair? Why do you want to spend $150 on a pot of eye cream? Why do you want to appear younger? You may find that the answers have more to do with your peers, your family, relentless advertisements for anti-aging products, or messages from movies and TV than your own inner musings. Consider carefully before taking action, and ask these questions of yourself:

  • WHO gets to decide what my body should look like as it ages? WHO has given me helpful or harmful feedback about aging? WHO do I consider to be an older body image role model?
  • WHAT bothers me about my aging body? WHAT can I do to make peace with it? WHAT aspects of my physical self will always make me feel proud, no matter my age or their conformation?
  • WHERE do I feel safest talking about aging? WHERE can I find images of or information about the aging process as it pertains to women? WHERE do I turn when I have questions or concerns?
  • WHEN did I become aware that my body was showing signs of age? WHEN do the positives of anti-aging products or procedures outweigh the negatives? WHEN will I feel comfortable allowing my body to be an older body?
  • HOW can I find balance between societal notions of aging and my own beliefs? HOW do I want to describe my beautiful self now that I can feel my body changing? HOW do I want to see myself and feel about myself 10, 15, and 20 years from now?
  • WHY is looking younger important to me, and to others, and do those reasons differ? WHY are younger-looking women valued more by our society, and is that relevant to me?

Our bodies are in a constant state of flux, no matter our ages. Some changes are easier to track than others, and the changes that begin to appear after a certain chronological age may seem more pronounced and alarming. But that’s because of the constant stream of alarmist messages that’s piped into our collective consciousness.

It’s also because women who struggle with body image generally begin their struggles early on. We look back at photographs of ourselves at age 16, 17, 18 and remember HATING our lovely, developing bodies. We look back and wish we’d appreciated what we’d had when we were younger. But the hard fact is this: Until someone builds a time machine, we can’t go back and shake our teenage selves out of that self-loathing. Until someone discovers the fountain of youth, we will never again look like we did as young women. So we must leave the past, and embrace the present. Loving your body is about loving it NOW, as it is today. Your today-body is just as beautiful as your yesterday-body, just in different ways and for different reasons. Identify those ways and reasons, and you can move yourself toward aging gracefully.

Image courtesy Peter Dahlgren

This is a refreshed and revived post from the archive.

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