A Ray of Sunshine Instead of a Rain Cloud

Let’s talk about cooking for a bit, shall we?  Imagine a big pot of your favorite comfort food slowly simmering on the stove.  It might be stew, or chili, or potato soup, or gumbo, or veggie soup.  You’ve been working on it all day, and you just taste tested it; it may be your best batch ever.  Perfectly seasoned, perfect texture, perfect blend of ingredients.  You can’t wait to sit down and have a nice big serving, maybe two.  But then someone comes along and throws in a big chunk of rancid meat.  Or a tiny vial of poison.  Or a ladle of sewage.  Suddenly you’re not so apt on eating that perfect bowl of comfort food.

There are a lot of phrases we use to symbolize this idea:  one rotten apple spoils the whole barrel, a little yeast leavens the whole batch, etc.  While I’m not sure it’s quite as absolute as my above example (would you just scoop out the offending item and eat a bowl anyway?), I truly believe that even little bits of negative garbage can have a drastic effect on our lives.  And if it happens often, it becomes a real problem.

If we surround ourselves with people who put us down, put others down, or put themselves down, we’re going to end up being down.  That’s just how it works.  It’s even worse if WE’RE the person putting everyone down, including ourselves.  Think about the things that come out of your mouth (or end up as your Facebook status): I hate my boss; he/she is horrible.  I can’t stand so-and-so; they’re so intolerable.  I hate my body; I wish x-y-z was different/prettier/better.   The reason the country is being ruined is because of (insert least favorite politician here).  If you find that statements like these outweigh more positive statements, you may want to rethink that choice.

Do you really want to be the one who chucks poison or sewage in everyone else’s stew?  Do you want to continue to throw those things into your own stew?

Perhaps your boss IS horrible.  But if you do in fact have a boss, that means you’re employed.  And while circumstances are not an excuse for being horrible to another human being, you don’t know your boss’s back story.  There may be something going on that is consuming his life right now, or something in his past that has left him like that.

Maybe your body is not exactly how you’d like it to be.  Stop focusing on what you hate about it.  Change the things you can (and be patient because it doesn’t happen overnight), and stop whining about the things you can’t change.  Find something about your body that you really like, and think of that when another self-berating thought pops up.

I know everyone gets sick sometimes, and I don’t have the least bit of problem with the occasional, “Ugh, this illness is really kicking my butt” statement.  But if every single post is whining about every single ache and pain, people begin to wonder if anything good ever happens to you.

And I said I was pretty much going to avoid politics on this blog, but I have seen so much negative garbage lately, it makes me ill.  I have seriously considered “un-friending” some people just because their status updates are nothing but constant political poison.  Regardless of your political affiliations, there are two things you need to get through your skull:  one person cannot single-handedly destroy our nation, nor can one person single-handedly bring it out of the difficulties we’re in.  Nobody has that much power.  If you disagree, you were clearly not paying attention in government/economics in high school.  I invite you to educate yourself–there’s this really cool resource called the internet that’s great for that sort of thing.  I might recommend that you avoid sites that pat you on the back for spewing poison, though.  That’s not really going to help the issue.  Nor is it likely to educate you.

I’ll admit it’s not an easy habit to break.  You have to completely retrain your mind.  And hijack your mouth, most of the time.  And then you’ve got to nail those internal thoughts as well.  Like I’ve said before, you can’t control when a negative thought pops into your brain, but you CAN decide how long it gets to stay there, and whether it makes it out of your mouth (or onto your FB page).

While I didn’t make a New Year’s resolution (not really my thing), I do intend to continue working to improve myself in this area.  I have a ways to go yet, but I think progress has been made.  It’s very important to me that I am a source of positive input to my friends and family instead of being a constant rain cloud.  Excuse my Pollyanna moment for the day, but I’d rather be a ray of sunshine.

One of my favorite quotes from my favorite episode of Doctor Who:  

The Doctor, after Amy is heartbroken that they couldn’t save a friend: “The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice-versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things and make them unimportant.  We definitely added to his pile of good things.”

May I always be mindful of whether I am adding to others’ piles of good things, and may I not add to their pile of bad things.

How to Stay Healthier This Winter

On the heels of the nastiest storm we’ve seen in quite a while, we may be bracing ourselves for a pretty harsh winter.  To minimize our chances of getting sick, we know that we should wash our hands often, try to avoid people who are sick, and take our vitamins (because no matter how much we TRY to eat well, it’s likely we’re still missing something).  We might supplement with vitamin D and a few others, or try to boost our immune systems with Echinacea and zinc.

But how much does our attitude affect our health?  This article on the Mayo Clinic site discusses how positive thinking can have a dramatic effect on your health.

How do you react when you first start feeling like you’re coming down with something?  Do you try to stay positive that you might have caught it before it got too bad?  Or do you bemoan how terrible you feel, and how certain you are that it’s only going to get worse?

I’m not trying to say that positive thinking can keep you from ever getting sick.  A virus is a virus, and sometimes they just get us.  That’s what they’re designed to do, of course.  But keeping a generally positive attitude can do several things for you.  First, it gives a boost to your immune system, thus making it harder for the invader to get a foothold in the first place.  Second, it allows that heightened immune system to fight the invader more effectively and evict it sooner if it actually does manage to get through your defenses.  Third, it makes the recovery time more pleasant for you and those around you.

Positive people also generally tend to be kinder to themselves and take better care of themselves.  They eat better, get up off the couch and get moving more (but NOT obsessively exercise), and make healthier life choices (such as not smoking).  All of those things are certainly going to have a positive impact on your overall health.

“But I’m just not naturally a positive person!  I can’t be Pollyannna all the time!”  I call bull.  While some people do seem to have a naturally positive attitude, and some seem to be Eeyore, when it comes right down to it, most of your attitude is a conditioned, trained response.  Which means that if you WANT to, you CAN un-learn your bad habits.  Again, this may come easier to some people than to others.  But I truly believe that everyone can improve their outlook if they are willing to give it some work.

It all begins with self-talk.  We internalize everything that happens to us.  Those things that pop into our heads, unbidden, are often not very positive.  The stuff we say to ourselves has far more impact on us than anything that comes from outside.  True, we may be hearing bad stuff about ourselves from the outside, but it’s not until we believe those things to be true about ourselves and beat ourselves up about them that they really begin to harm us.

We may not have much control over the fleeting negative thoughts that pop into our minds without invitation, but we certainly CAN control how much we dwell on them.  We can decide whether we kick them to the curb immediately or allow them to take up permanent residence in our thoughts.

When faced with the thought “I am a horrible person because of X”, we can choose whether we agree with that mental negative and berate ourselves for every wrong thing we’ve ever done, or we can choose to contradict that thought with this:  “Yes, I may have made x mistake, but I have also done x, y, z, etc positive things”.  Counter the “Oh, I’m so miserable because I have this disease or that illness, or I’m just sick all the time, or I have no motivation or willpower or blah, blah, blah” with “no, I don’t like where I am right now, but I don’t have to stay here forever”.  Temporary illness will pass, and lifelong illness can be dealt with.  Sometimes life sucks.  It is what it is. But there are also plenty of things that don’t suck.  You can choose to constantly complain about all the suckiness, or make the best you can of a bad situation.

As for the motivation and willpower thing, ask yourself if you really don’t like that aspect of your character.  If it’s not something that really bothers you, then quit bemoaning it.  If it IS something that you don’t like about yourself, then CHANGE IT.  Don’t keep talking about how much you don’t like it.

It’s not going to happen overnight.  It will not be easy to overcome years of conditioning.  We may have fallen into the negative self-talk habit so often that we aren’t really aware of it any more.  But we can retrain ourselves out of even the most ingrained of bad habits.  Is it going to take a lot of work?  Probably.  But it’s so worth it.  Your health and well-being depend on it.

What Makes Life Worth Living?

I think this is a question that people often ask themselves, but tend to answer very superficially.  In the article “What Makes Life Worth Living?“, author Dustin Wax reflects upon some of the things that are really important to us.  With Thanksgiving in our so recent past and Christmas right on the horizon, and many friends doing the “30 days of Thankfulness” on Facebook, it’s nice and fresh in our minds.  I don’t want to marginalize this exercise, because I think anything that causes us to focus on what we have over what we don’t have is a good thing.  But let’s not let it be a superficial thing, or let it only last for the month of November.  Dustin came up with these great points on what makes life meaningful:

  • Creating: Writing, drawing, painting (though I’m not good at it), playing music (though I’m not especially good at that, either). For others, it might be inventing something, building a business, coming up with a clever marketing campaign, forming a non-profit.
  • Relating: It’s not “family” that makes life worth living, I think, but therelationships we create with members of our family, and the way we maintain and build those relationships. Same goes for friends, lovers, business partners, students, and everyone else.
  • Helping: Being able to lend a hand to people in need – however drastic or trivial that need may be – strikes me as an important part of life.
  • Realizing: Making, working towards, and  achieving goals, no matter what those goals are.
  • Playing: Maybe this is a kind of “relating”, but then, play can be a solo affair as well. Letting go of restraints, imagining new possibilities, testing yourself against others or against yourself, finding humor and joy.
  • Growing: Learning new things, improving my knowledge and ability in the things I’ve already learned.

I think we all want to live fulfilling lives, ones that make an impact, lives that leave a legacy after we’re gone. But sometimes we don’t really know how to go about doing that.  It’s far too easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of daily life, especially this time of year, and end up just getting through instead of leaving our mark.

I know I am much happier if I have done at least something in one of these categories each day. Even on days when I can’t manage to check much off my “to-do” list, as long as I’ve done something fulfilling, I feel like I’ve accomplished something.  And sometimes I have to celebrate even the smallest accomplishment.

I’d like to make two points here:  First, let’s not beat ourselves up for not making every second of every day a Mother Teresa level activity.  Everyone’s gotta have down time, and everyone has times when they feel overwhelmed by everything that they have to do.  All the greats had their times of inactivity, and I’m sure they had times when they felt like they weren’t accomplishing much.  Seriously, they were human just like the rest of us.

Second, on the flip side of that coin, I think it helps to evaluate the value of an activity based on its lasting worth.  If I have an hour to spend, do I really want to spend it playing a video game, watching reruns of my favorite sitcom, or spending time with my family?  My time is at least as valuable a resource as my money, and what I choose to spend the majority of it on shows pretty clearly what is most important to me.

Ultimately, I think it all comes down to balance. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional mindless activity that has no real value in the light of eternity.  But if the majority of my time is spent on meaningless things rather than the things that will make a difference in someone’s life, I’m very likely to come to the end of my life with some pretty significant “death-bed regrets”.

So try to go though your coming days with this in mind.  Take an extra second to hold the door for a fellow Christmas shopper.  Make a call or send a message to a friend of family member you haven’t reconnected with in a while.  Take time to recharge your own batteries so that you have something to spend.  And give yourself the Christmas gift of reasonable expectations.  A Christmas celebration does not have to reach Martha Stewart level perfection to be memorable.  After all, it should be all about the time with loved ones anyway, shouldn’t it?

Merry Christmas to you all, and shower the people you love with love!

Fat: Using the Other F-Word

Fat: Using the Other F-Word 

Here is a fantastic article about being comfortable in the skin you’re in, regardless of your size/weight/shape.

Self-Esteem: Outer Beauty–Healthy Weight

I started off this series of posts with a general lamentation that clearly we must be doing something wrong in teaching our kids to love themselves.  This time, I’d like to start tackling the outer beauty issue.  At first I thought I’d be able to tackle all of the body image topics (weight, body shape, noses, skin tone/wrinkles, hair) in one post, but it appears that each one deserves its own post, or you guys will get sick of me droning on.  So let’s just look at what the media portrays as a “beautiful and desirable” body shape/weight.  Brace yourselves for a full-fledged rant on this one, because this topic simultaneously infuriates me and tears my heart out.  And be patient with the page load, because there are quite a few pics.

To get us started, here’s a nice article on the subject: The Reality of Celebrity Photoshop

I’m sure many of you have seen some of those before and after airbrushing pictures, but for those who haven’t, take a look.

And just to show that this is not a recent phenomenon, a plague to be blamed on Photoshop, check out the vintage pics in this article:  Models Before and After

Why in the name of all that is decent are we brainwashing our young ladies to believe that they’re not beautiful unless they’re ridiculously thin?  Why are we teaching our young men that their girlfriends/wives should look like they are living on 500 calories a day and/or working out with a personal trainer for 12 hours at a time? Why are we not showing them what the normal, healthy female body is SUPPOSED to look like, instead of the unattainable ideal overwhelmingly represented in fashion mags?

Some companies are defending their distorted ads by saying it’s ok, because everyone “knows” that they’re distorted.  And true, if we think about it, we probably would admit that we realize the photo has been touched up.  However, I don’t think it’s really at the forefront of our minds when we’re looking at a magazine and wishing we could look that good.

  • “I don’t think women and girls know the extent to which photos are retouched. I don’t. And even if they do know, I’m not sure it penetrates.”   Nutritionist, Alexis Best

And sometimes it’s subtle enough that you wouldn’t realize how distorted it is unless you see the original right beside it. Take a look at this Ann Taylor ad before and after manipulation.  They took an already slender model and made her even more so.  WHY??

And you may have seen the ad that Brittney Spears did for Candies in 2010, in which she showed the original and the retouched photos side-by-side.  Read more here.

miranda lambert

But the one that takes the cake is this Ralph Lauren ad in which they transformed the beautiful Filippa Hamilton into this hideously distorted creature that some have called a “stick insect”, and about which one critic commented, “Dude, her head is bigger than her hips!” (This picture was included in the first link at the top of this post.)

You can read more about the “apology”, the backlash, and the firing of Filippa.

Lest we think that a distorted self-image is something that only plagues us regular people, let’s just reflect for a moment on the fact that even Audrey Hepburn, arguably one of the most beautiful, elegant women ever to walk the earth, didn’t think SHE was gorgeous.    She said, ‘I don’t understand why people see me as beautiful.’  If even this stunning woman couldn’t believe she was beautiful, heaven help the rest of us.

Granted, one of the things she didn’t like about her body was that thought she was TOO skinny, but I’m trying to point out that all of us seem to be unreasonably unhappy with our bodies.

So what’s the answer??  How can we teach our young people what a healthy, beautiful woman looks like, and how to love their bodies just as they are, and to accept that very few people have a naturally extra-thin body?  They are constantly inundated with these unrealistic images of women.   How do we combat the attitudes that cause eating disorders in beautiful young women?  Even if our young ones do not resort to such drastic measures as anorexia and bulimia, the internalized self-loathing that seems to afflict EVERY SINGLE YOUNG GIRL I TALK TO about this subject is just as self-destructive, even if it’s not quite as overtly life-threatening.

Of course, we don’t want to encourage our young people to be conceited, nor do we want an epidemic of false modesty, or “humblebragging”.  But I think the tendency to be self-deprecating is far more common.  Maybe if we saw more images like this:

or this:

We might have a more reasonable self-image, and be capable of setting healthy, attainable goals, instead of beautiful curvaceous girls trying to starve themselves and work out fanatically in pursuit of a “perfect” body.  I am all for eating right and being active, because I think that is how we keep our bodies healthy and happy.  I certainly do not condone subsisting on garbage and becoming a couch potato, and I applaud attempts to improve yourself.  But the emotional damage we are doing to our young girls from the moment they are old enough to compare themselves to the images they see is a travesty.

When I was in high school, I weighed roughly 130 lbs, which was just over the upper limit for my “ideal” body weight at my height of 5’4″.  And yet I constantly thought I was fat.   Truthfully, my body looked very much like the above picture.  Now, at far above my ideal weight (although I am approaching it again) and having at one point been firmly planted in the “clinically obese” range, I wish I still looked like that, and cannot understand why I could not see at the time that I was attractive.

I firmly believe that it was the result of comparing myself to others from the moment I was capable of doing so.  I see my own daughter and her friends doing exactly the same thing.  How do we encourage young girls to love the aspects of their bodies that are attractive, and accept the parts they aren’t as happy with, especially if they’re aspects that can’t be changed, such as height?  Maybe we need to be stressing a reality check that includes a reasonable goal-setting of “ideal weight”.  But that doesn’t cover it all.  Even girls who are at the lower end of a healthy weight range are still unhappy with tummies that are not perfectly flat.

They have bodies that look like the one on the left:

and are completely dissatisfied with themselves because they don’t look like this:

I can’t stress this enough: A woman’s belly is SUPPOSED to have rounded areas.  Women require more body fat than men, in order to have healthy internal organs, normal menstrual cycles, balanced hormones, and for those that desire it, the ability to bear children.  Our bellies are not designed to be perfectly flat, and only a very small percent can achieve the look above without an unhealthy restriction of calories and/or an unhealthy addiction to exercise.  And yet that seems to be the ideal, even though it is unattainable for most of us.  This is a much more reasonable shape, even though it’s still on the slender side of normal.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t bother to try?  Of course not.  But I for one wish I could go back and convince my 16-year-old self that comparing my body to that “standard” was unreasonable.  Now how can I convince my own 16-year-old daughter of the same thing, when the media is intent on convincing her otherwise?

One way is to help her set realistic goals, by finding out what her ideal weight actually is.  I like this calculator, because it shows several different formulas for calculating ideal weight.  But that’s not all of it.  It is far more important that she come to love her body in spite of its imperfections.   Certainly, there are some things that we can work to improve.  But there are others that are just not possible for us to change and improve upon.  How can we get to the point where we can love ourselves just as we are, including the parts we don’t like so much?

I confess I have not discovered the solution to this.  I am not happy with the way I look, for I am still comparing myself to others.  This probably explains my failure to convince my daughter that she is beautiful.  So I’m open for suggestions.  What do you say to your daughters to help them love their bodies?  How do your bring your sons up with an appreciation of a normal, healthy-looking female body instead of the starvation diet ideal?  Do you struggle with a poor self-image yourself?  How much do you think your own self-image, good or bad, affects your children?  The input of men on this subject is welcome as well; I think they are probably nearly as dissatisfied with their bodies as we women are, they just don’t talk about it as much.

Self-Indulgence vs Self-Discipline

http://www.marksdailyapple.com/entitled-to-sabotage/#more-35009

This is a great post on two very important truths: 1: You do not have to be 100% perfect 100% of the time in order to be successful, so stop beating yourself up BUT 2: Don’t sabotage yourself by habitually choosing self-indulgence over self-discipline.

In this case, they were talking about diet and lifestyle changes, but I think it applies to all areas of life. Often we are own harshest critics and torture ourselves for not reaching some unattainable level of perfection, or we sabotage our own success by making excuses for our lack of discipline. Often we vacillate between the two, periods of excusing poor choices followed by tearing ourselves to shreds when the consequences of those poor choices come to fruition.

So you’ll hear me say it again, balance and moderation are the important things here. While we should not make excuses for repeatedly making poor decisions, neither should we feel guilty for either choosing an occasional indulgence (as long as they remain occasional) or for failing to be perfect 24/7.

Weight-Loss Myths

Weight-Loss Myths

As a scientist, I suppose I am by nature a skeptic.  I tend to be reluctant to give credence to all of the “facts” that people spout off about, and there are lot of those dubious facts out there about weight loss.  Check out this article, passed on to me by my husband.

What do you think?  Were you surprised that some of these common statements were unsubstantiated?