Chocolate Chip Cookies and Cute Kittens: Compare and Contrast

I’m currently working on a piece comparing the child rape scandal at Penn State with the child rape scandal in the Catholic Church. It’s making me sick and sad. Over on Facebook, I pleaded, “Can’t I write a piece comparing chocolate chip cookies with cute kittens?”

And it was pointed out, by more than one person, that there’s no reason I can’t do both.

So. Chocolate chip cookies and cute kittens. How are they similar? How are they different? Is one superior to the other; are they equal/ are they simply not comparable with one another? Let’s discuss!

Similarities: Chocolate chip cookies and cute kittens are both wonderful. They make you smile. You can curl up with both of them on a rainy day, and it’s comforting and homey. They both have a tendency to leave detritus on the sofa — either in the form of cat hair or crumbs. They’re both soft and warm (not always the case with chocolate chip cookies, but often).

Differences: Chocolate chip cookies are delicious. They’re extra-delicious with coffee. They smell good. They have chocolate in them. You can bring them to work and leave them in your kitchen for your co-workers to enjoy. (I suppose you could do that with cute kittens, but it’s probably inadvisable.) You can make them yourself at home, which makes your house smell wonderful, or you can buy them at your favorite cafe or bakery.

Cute kittens, on the other hand, are fluffy. They’re alive and conscious, and you can interact with them and have a relationship with them. They love you (sort of, in their self-absorbed cat way). They scamper. You can dangle toys in front of them, and they’ll bat them around in an entertaining way. The bounce around the house going “boing, boing, boing,” and then suddenly fall asleep. They have big adorable eyes.

Conclusion: I am in favor of both chocolate chip cookies and cute kittens. They have some important similarities — mostly in the area of wonderfulness. They do, however, have some important differences, and are difficult to compare, since they serve such different functions in our lives.

Thoughts? How have these important issues played out in your own life?

I have my archives!

I have my archives from my old blog! They’re here! With comments and everything! They’re even in the right categories!

Images and videos didn’t make it over, and there are a handful of posts that didn’t make it and that I’ll have to put in by hand. (For some reason, it didn’t like my posts about alternative medicine, speaking at Stanford, making atheism a safe place to land, atheists having morality, and my recipe for chocolate pie. Make of that what you will.) But I can live with that. The archives are here. Years of my old work — all finally in one place. This has been driving me up a tree, and I can now finally relax about it. (A little.)

If you want to see them, scroll down in the sidebar to where it says “Recent Posts/ Comments/ Archives.” Click Archives. There they are! You can also search for posts in the archives with the handy Search box at the top right of the blog. Which works waaaay better than the search box at my old blog.

When I’m back from my Minnesota trip, I’m going to start working on (a) getting the old blog to redirect to the new one, and (b) getting the best and hottest posts listed in my sidebar, so newcomers to the blog can browse them more easily. And I’ll probably start linking to the cool stuff from the archives, so newcomers to this blog can become familiar with it. For now, I’m just going to sit back and cry tears of happiness and relief. I can haz archives! Yay!

I have to express my intense gratitude to fellow Freethought Blogger Jason Thibeault, at Lousy Canuck, for making this happen. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that atheists have no sense of community or compassion. I owe him big time. Go visit his blog, and tell him Thank You.

Ad Hoc Soup

Soup So since I was a jerk last week and posted a recipe for insanely easy, insanely delicious chocolate pie, right at the beginning of January when everyone’s resolving to eat healthier and lose weight, I thought I’d make up for it, and post this recipe for insanely easy, insanely delicious, insanely healthy soup.

Although it’s not a recipe, exactly. It’s more of a concept. A philosophy even, one might say.

Eat me kenny shopsin We got this idea from Kenny Shopsin, of the famed Shopsin’s in New York, out of his wonderful and entertaining cookbook, Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin. The philosophy is this: With traditional soup, you make a big pot of it, and cook everything together, so the flavors of the vegetables/ beans/ meat/ whatnot all get blended into the broth. But with this soup, it’s exactly the opposite. You don’t make a big pot of it at once; instead, you make just a bowl or two of it at a time, ad hoc. You cook your protein, you sautee your veggies… and then, at the very last minute right before you’re ready to eat, you put all the stuff in a bowl, and pour the hot broth/ stock over it. (Or you can set some of the stuff on top, if you feel like making your soup all Japanese and pretty.)

It’s a very different philosophy of soup, and it’s one that I had to be persuaded about. With this method, the vegetables/ beans/ meat/ whatnot all keep their own flavors instead of blending together. But once I tried it, I was completely sold. The biggest upside is that the veggies don’t get mushy: they stay nicely crisp, and their flavors stay vivid and distinct. It’s also very fast: a quick sauteeing of veggies and/or meat, a quick nuking of some stock or broth, and you’re done. Plus you can use whatever veggies are in season, and whatever you happen to have on hand on your fridge. And you make exactly as much soup as you want: no more, no less.

The downside is that the flavors don’t have time to blend into the broth. But if you use a flavorful broth or stock to start with, that’s not a problem.

Here’s how it goes.

INGREDIENTS:

Vegetables Vegetables that are in season and that you like in soup. Carrots, celery, peppers, green beans, spinach, peas… whatever. You can also use frozen veggies if you like; frozen corn is especially good. For the most part, though, I like to stick with fresh.

A good stock or broth: chicken, vegetable, beef, whatever you like. I make my own stock and freeze it in little Tupperwares, it’s easy and yummy. But you can also use store-bought broth, if you have one you like. I use about two cups per serving if I’m eating the soup as a main course.

A little olive oil, enough for sauteeing veggies.

Some sort of protein that you like in soup. (You can skip the protein if you’re serving this soup as a side dish — I had the soup last week with bread and cheese, which was plenty protein-y. But if it’s your main course, you’ll want a protein.)

Salt and pepper.

PREPARATION:

Cook your protein however you like it cooked. Broil a chicken breast, poach an egg, cut up and sautee a sausage, nuke a can of beans.

Heat up your stock/ broth to just boiling.

Sautee pan Slice your veggies thin and sautee them lightly, in a little bit of olive oil. Start with veggies that take longer to cook, like carrots; finish with ones that take less time, like peppers. Or don’t sautee them at all, depending. Spinach, for instance, I just put in the soup bowl, since being in the hot stock for a couple/ few minutes will cook it plenty. Green onions I sprinkle on top.

Put your veggies and protein in a soup bowl, and pour the hot broth/ stock over it. If you like, you can reserve some of the veggies or protein, and arrange them prettily on top. I do this with green onions and slices of broiled chicken.

Salt and pepper to taste. Fresh herbs wouldn’t suck, either; but if you have a really flavorful stock with a lot of herbs in it, they’re not necessary.

Empty soup bowl And that’s it. Eat it up. Serve it with rice if you have some leftover, or some good bread, or some artisanal saltines (seriously, I am not kidding, I saw these at Rainbow Grocery). Or whatever. It can be a side dish or the main course. Eat huddled in front of your heater, or cuddled together under the blanket with a heat-seeking cat trying to wedge in between you. Serves however many you made enough for.

Greta’s Amazing Chocolate Pie

Pi_plate It’s been a while since I’ve done a food post here that wasn’t about weight management, and I just made this pie for my birthday, so I thought I’d share the recipe.

This is a ridiculously easy, unbelievably delicious recipe for chocolate pie. And it’s not just me saying so: friends have been known to demand it for celebratory events, and will shed hot tears of bitter disappointment if it doesn’t appear at Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. It’s very distinctive — most people who try it say they haven’t had anything else quite like it — and it’s one of those rare recipes that seems really elegant and like it would be really complicated, but in fact is insanely simple. The pie crust is 9/10th of the work.

The recipe came from my mother, but I don’t know where she got it from. I’ve been making it for many years now, and have refined the recipe a bit over the years, mostly in the direction of using better ingredients. I did an experimental version for my birthday this year (in addition to a classic version), which was a big hit, so I’m including that variation here as well.

CLASSIC CHOCOLATE PIE

INGREDIENTS

1 single pie crust (this is an open-faced pie). More on pie crust in a tic.
1 stick butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
3 Tbsp. evaporated milk
2 squares/ ounces baking chocolate (unsweetened)
Whipped cream (optional in theory, mandatory in my opinion)

ScharffenBerger A quick note on the baking chocolate: For the sweet love of Loki and all the gods in Valhalla, use Scharffen Berger’s if you possibly can, or some other seriously good baking chocolate. I made this pie for years using just regular baking chocolate from the supermarket, and it was perfectly yummy… but once I started using Scharffen Berger’s, it amped up from delicious to transcendent. I frankly don’t much care for Scharffen Berger’s eating chocolate, I think the mouth- feel is insufficiently creamy… but for cooking, their baking chocolate is beyond compare.

Bake the unfilled pie shell for 5-10 minutes, until it’s starting to firm up a little but isn’t cooked through. Melt butter and chocolate in a saucepan. Add the other ingredients (minus the whipped cream) and mix; you can do this in the saucepan. (I add the eggs last, so the melted butter and chocolate have a chance to cool and the eggs don’t scramble.) Pour the filling into the pie shell. Bake for 30-40 minutes, until the filling is set. (I usually test it at 30 minutes, but it usually still needs another 5-10 minutes. When it’s no longer jiggling in the middle, it’s done.)

That’s it.

No, really.

I told you. Ridiculously easy. Not counting the pie crust, the actual work you put into this pie takes about five minutes.

I always serve this with whipped cream, as the pie is intensely rich and dense, and I think the whipped cream gives it balance. But many people prefer it with the richness and denseness unadulterated, and scoff at the whipped cream as an unnecessary frill for lightweights. My advice: Make whipped cream available, and let your guests decide. (Don’t add too much sugar to the whipped cream; this pie is plenty sweet.)

EXPERIMENTAL CHOCOLATE PIE

Make the exact same recipe above, but when mixing the filling, add:

White pepper1/8 tsp. ground cardamom
1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp. ground white pepper

This year was the first time I tried this experiment, and I think it was a big success. It gives the pie a nice, exotic, spicy bite that I think enhances the chocolate and gives it complexity and depth. But it also makes it less purely chocolatey. A lot of what makes this pie so yummy is its “pure essence of chocolate straight to the hindbrain” quality, and you do lose that with the spices. You be the judge. You can always make two — one classic, one experimental — and switch back and forth between the two until you explode.

BTW, if you wind up making this pie and come up with your own experimental variations — let me know! I’m toying with the idea of adding liquor, like rum or Kahlua or madeira. Cayenne might also be good — I love me some chocolate with cayenne — or maybe rosemary and almond. And I’m considering using vanilla vodka for the crust instead of regular vodka.

Speaking of which:

NOTES ON PIE CRUST

For years, I made this pie with store-bought pie crusts, mostly because one of the things I liked best about it was how easy and fast it was, and making my own pie crust would defeat that purpose. Also, pie crust was one of those cooking tasks that for some reason I found scary and daunting. And it’s true that if you get a decent quality store-bought pie crust made with butter, it will make a perfectly fine pie.

Rolling_pin_and_dough But I was recently taught how to make pie crust by my upstairs neighbor, Laura the Pie Queen… and it is one of the refinements that has elevated this pie from Perfectly Good to Ambrosially Exquisite. I have now become a complete convert — a snob, one might even say — and will have no further truck with store- bought pie crust. And while homemade pie crust is definitely both more time- consuming and more difficult (it reduced me to near- hysterics the first couple of times), like most things it gets easier and faster with practice.

Here’s the recipe Laura gave me. Some of the reasoning behind it: Crisco makes pie crust flakier, butter makes it more flavorful… which is why I like this recipe, which uses both. And using vodka to moisten the dough makes for a flakier crust, as it evaporates during baking. (You want to use as little liquid as you can to make the dough hold together, since more liquid makes the crust tougher: the vodka facilitates this.) This is a recipe for an entire two-crusted pie; since the chocolate pie is open-faced, halve this recipe if you’re making just one pie, or make it all if you’re making two pies. Which I usually do. We will never get leftovers if I don’t make two pies.

2 – 1/2 cups (12 – 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for the work surface
1 tsp. table salt
2 Tbsp. sugar
12 Tbsp. (1 – 1/2 sticks) cold butter (frozen is good)
1/2 cup cold vegetable shortening (Crisco or equivalent)
1/4 cup cold water
1/4 cup cold vodka

Pie-crust_in_dish Sift dry ingredients together. Cut butter and shortening into smallish pieces, add to flour. Using a pastry cutter or your fingers, break butter and shortening into smaller and smaller pieces covered with flour, until the little floury fat-balls are roughly pea-sized. Sprinkle in the water and vodka, enough to make the dough hold together and roll out, without making it too sticky. (You may wind up using slightly more or less liquid than the recipe calls for, depending. Don’t ask me “depending on what.” Just depending.) Sprinkle more flour on your rolling surface and your rolling pin, and roll the dough out. Place it gently in the pie plate, flatten the edges over the lip of the pie plate, and prick the bottom and sides with a fork. Proceed.

In general, you want to work the pie dough as little as humanly possible while still making it a coherent whole. Don’t overwork the dough while breaking up the butter and shortening; use as few strokes as possible to roll it out. And everything that can be cold, should be cold.

Like I said: The pie crust is 9/10th of the work. It’s totally worth it, though. If you can’t bear it, go ahead and buy a crust from the store. Better yet, get your upstairs neighbor to make it for you. (Thanks again, Laura!)

If you make this pie, let me know how it turns out. If you make an experimental variation that you like, let me know what it is. And yes, I realize I am a bad, bad person for running this recipe in January, right when lots of people are making New Year’s resolutions to eat healthier or lose weight. What can I say. I’m an atheist, and therefore have no moral foundation and no reason to have compassion for others. Happy eating, and happy New Year!

Caught Between Fat and Thin: When a Fat Acceptance Advocate Takes Off the Pounds

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Doll tape measure I’m always going to be a fat woman.

Don’t get me wrong. At five foot three and 135 pounds, I am not, by any useful definition of the word, fat.

But I have been fat. I was fat for many, many years. And for years, I was an ardent advocate of the fat acceptance movement. I actively resisted the idea that there was any point whatsoever to losing weight. I believed that medical statistics on the health effects of fatness were exaggerated at best, part of the cultural conspiracy to make women hate their bodies at worst. I was convinced that I could be just as healthy at 200 pounds (and with the eating and exercise habits that kept me at 200 pounds) as I would be with less weight. And I was convinced that losing weight never, ever worked… or at least, that it worked so rarely it wasn’t worth trying. If there was even any reason for trying. Which I was convinced there wasn’t. (It wasn’t until my bad knee started getting worse that I saw the writing on the wall, and decided that, given a choice between losing mobility and losing weight, the weight would have to go. Here’s how I did it, if you’re interested.)

You’d probably think that losing weight would make a person stop thinking of themselves as fat. And you’d almost certainly think that making a concerted effort to not be fat would make someone abandon the whole idea of fat acceptance.

If so, you’d be wrong. I thought all that myself once… and I was wrong.

Greta fat avatar I still see the world as a fat person. My perceptions of myself, and of society, and of how society views fatness and bodies and health, have been profoundly shaped by my years of being fat… in ways that are never going to change. And while I have huge disagreements with the fat acceptance movement — especially with its more extreme denialist edges — I still think many of its ideas are important, and perceptive, and entirely fair. I have serious disagreements with FA, but I am still very much shaped by it, and I would like to think of myself as an ally of the movement, and even as a member of it.

It’s just that they don’t feel the same way about me.

Or about other fat people who choose to lose weight.

The Thinnest Fat Woman in the World

Shallow Hal My years as a fat woman — and as a fat acceptance advocate — have made me hyper-conscious of anti-fat hostility, contempt, and discrimination. When I hear mocking or insulting comments about fat people, I stand up for them. When I see rigid, internally contradictory, impossible- to- attain standards of physical beauty promoted in pop culture, I rant about it ad nauseum. When I hear about fat people being discriminated against in employment and medicine and so on, I get seriously ticked off. When folks call fat people “lazy slobs” and say that “as a society we should not look up to successful people who are fat. We should tell them we admire their acting or philanthropy, but look down on them for being lazy” (direct quotes from comments on my Facebook page, btw), I smack them down with every weapon in my rhetorical arsenal.

And I still take it really, really personally. I don’t hear anti-fat bigotry the way I hear, say, racial bigotry, as something to be passionately opposed but that isn’t aimed at me personally. I hear it as being about me. When someone in a comment thread on AlterNet linked to an older photo of me and mocked me for being fat, I felt the shame and the sting and the anger… before I remembered, “Wait a minute. I’m not fat.” And was left with only the anger. On behalf of myself… and every other woman who’s ever had her ideas irrelevantly dismissed because of her personal appearance.

I sometimes feel like the thinnest fat woman in the world. (Well, probably not the thinnest… but you know what I mean.) Some people say that, inside every fat person, there’s a thin person trying to get out. I feel the exact opposite. Inside this relatively lean body, there’s a fat person nobody can see. People think they can say stupid, bigoted, hurtful things about fat people to me, because they don’t see me as one of them. They couldn’t be more wrong. I am fat. Not in a body-dysmorphic way — I don’t look in the mirror and think I’m still fat — but because this fat identity shaped me for years, and it will always be with me.

Medical journals It’s true that my feelings about fatness — my own, and other people’s — have been changing since I’ve lost weight. The biggest change is that I now acknowledge the health problems associated with fatness: problems I was in deep denial about during my fat years. So I have some concerns about the health and well-being of the fat people in my life, in a way that I didn’t before.

But I also see it as none of my freaking business.

I do think weight loss is both possible and worthwhile. But I also think that the cost-benefit analysis isn’t the same for everyone. Weight loss was really freaking hard: it wasn’t as hard as I’d initially thought it would be, and it got easier with time, but it still took some extremely hard work. And I had everything going for me: easy access to healthy food, money for things like healthy food and a gym membership, a health-conscious city to live in, a supportive partner who was going through the process with me. Not everyone has all that. And even people who do have all that still may not make the same cost-benefit analysis that I did.

So if some other fat person looks at the time and work and emotional effort that weight loss takes, and decides, “Nah, that isn’t where I want to put my energy”… I think that’s a reasonable decision. As long as they’re making it with their eyes open — as long as they understand the costs and risks of fatness, and decide that they’re willing to accept them — then I support them. To me, that’s the essence of fat acceptance. Their body, their right to decide.

And in a totally freaky paradox, fat acceptance has helped me lose weight and keep it off. My years as an FA advocate have actually given me essential tools for weight management.

Perfect Here’s what I mean. One of the hardest things about maintaining weight loss has been accepting the fact that my body is never, ever going to be perfect. It’s never going to be the culture’s ideal; it’s not even going to be my own. Even though my weight and body fat percentage and so on are now well within a healthy medical range, there are still plenty of things I’d change about my body if I could wave a magic wand and make it happen.

That’s been hard to accept. For years, I projected all my body anxiety onto my weight. If I was unhappy with how I looked or felt, I assumed it was because I was fat. Period. And when I was in process of losing weight, even though I was healthier and happier with my body than I’d been in years, I was still very focused on trying to change, to reach my goal weight, to make my body different. Now that my weight is where I want it… I have to accept this body. With my thin hair, my veiny hands, my droopy breasts, my funky loose skin from the weight loss, my chronic middle- aged- lady health problems. I have to accept this body, and live with it, and love it.

And my years in the fat acceptance movement have been helping me do that.

Greta on porch The idea that I can love my body the way it is? The idea that I can focus more on how my body feels and functions than how it looks? The understanding that the cultural ideal of physical beauty is not just insanely rigid and narrow, but internally contradictory and literally unattainable? The understanding that everybody, even fashion models and movie stars, is insecure about their bodies and their attractiveness… and that becoming more secure happens, not by hating our bodies and trying to change them, but by loving our bodies and learning to accept them? The idea that there are lots of different ways to be beautiful and desirable? The idea that confidence and joy make people way more attractive than any physical traits? The idea that I can make the body I have be as healthy and happy as possible, instead of trying to cram it into someone else’s ideal? The idea that I should eat well and exercise, even if it doesn’t make my body look exactly the way I want it to, because it will help my body feel the way I want it to? The wacky notion that a “good body” is one that gives me pleasure and does most of what I want it to do?

All of this comes from my years as a fat acceptance advocate. And I can apply it to how I feel about my body now, in ways that have nothing to do with my weight: my age, my skin, my hands, my short square frame. Heck, I can even apply it to my weight… which is totally healthy by medical standards, but is still seen as grossly fat by the standards of, say, TV actresses. Even though my weight is well within a healthy medical range, it’s still not always easy being okay with it. And the ideas I learned from FA have been of invaluable help.

And I’m tremendously grateful for that. I am still very much shaped by the ideas of fat acceptance, and even though I’m not fat anymore, I would like to think of myself as an ally of the movement, and even as a member of it.

I just wish the movement felt the same way about me.

And about other fat people who choose to lose weight.

My Body, My Right To Decide

AtherosclerosisI am grateful for the FA movement. But I also have serious differences with it, and some serious anger. Among other things, I spent years buying into the hardcore FA line denying any connection between fatness and health problems. And this denialism gave me a years-long excuse to not try weight loss. I spent years ignoring the serious health problems my weight was creating for me… because I’d been persuaded by the FA movement that weight loss wouldn’t make any difference to my health, and that I’d never succeed at it even if I tried. I wasted a lot of years being a lot less healthy than I could have been. I’m pretty ticked off about that.

But that’s nothing compared to the anger I’m experiencing now that I’ve lost weight.

When I first started blogging about my weight loss, I was met with a faceful of extremist denialism, concern trolling, and outright hostility from many FA advocates, in both blog comments and private emails. The health benefits of successful weight loss were denied. The extremist attitudes of many FA activists were denied. Connections between weight and health were denied, and medical researchers publicizing these connections were called “crusaders.” I was told that all diets fail everyone. I was told that there was no way my weight loss would work in the long run; that I might succeed in losing the weight initially, but would almost certainly fail to keep it off over time. I was told that weight loss is never the right decision for anyone, and that there is no health problem that could appropriately be dealt with by weight loss. I was told that there are no serious health risks caused or exacerbated by being fat, and that health problems that appear to be caused by fatness are always really caused by something else. I was told that weight is entirely controlled by genetics, that eating/ exercise habits have absolutely nothing to do with it, and that weight management is therefore a complete waste of time. I was told that it was okay to incidentally lose weight as part of a “healthy at every size” eating and exercise plan, but that deliberate weight loss was horribly unhealthy… even if the “conscious weight loss” plan was identical to the “healthy at every size” plan in every way. I was told that even when weight loss is successful, the harm done by it — physical, psychological, or both — is terrible: so terrible that, in all cases, it completely outweighs the benefits.

Knee And the specific health concern that inspired me to lose weight — namely, a bad knee that was getting much worse, to the point where my mobility was becoming seriously impaired — was met with a callous, trivializing dismissal that I still find shocking. Many FA advocates were passionately concerned about the quality of life I might lose if I counted calories or stopped eating chocolate bars every day. But when it came to the quality of life I might lose if I could no longer dance, climb hills, climb stairs, take long walks, walk at all? Eh. Whatever. I should try exercise or physical therapy or something. Oh, I’d tried those things already? Well, whatever. As long as I didn’t try to lose weight. That was the important thing. For the sweet love of Loki and all the gods in Valhalla, whatever else I did, I should not try to lose weight.

Essentially, when I started writing about weight loss, I was treated like a traitor. I was treated like a threat. Even though I made it clear that I wasn’t advocating weight loss for everybody, the mere fact that I was choosing to lose weight myself was seen as undermining the principles of the movement. And I was told, in no uncertain terms, to knock it off.

Our bodies out right to decide This didn’t just piss me off. It baffled me. I’d always thought of the fat acceptance movement as essentially about empowerment and self-ownership. Our bodies, our right to decide. Apparently, not so much. Apparently, the decision to manage my health by losing weight was not really mine. Apparently, my body didn’t belong to me. It belonged to the fat acceptance movement. Many of whom felt entirely comfortable telling me what I should and should not do with it.

And I’m not the only one. When I started blogging about my weight loss, I wasn’t just met with toxic denialism from FA advocates. I was also met with a hugely positive response from readers who were dealing with the same stuff. Like me, a lot of my readers identified as fat-positive, but because of serious health concerns, they were now working on losing weight… and were trying to reconcile their fat-positivity with their weight loss. And a number of these readers had dealt with the same hostile, concern-trolling, denialist reaction from the FA movement. They felt the movement had made an important and valuable difference in their lives, they felt a connection with it that they wanted to maintain… and yet they felt like they’d been abandoned by it, even pushed out of it. Margo put it best in her email to me: “The body / fat positive communities don’t seem to have any place for me, even though these are communities I’ve sought out, identified with and gained a lot from over the years. Firstly, I’ve done the unthinkable and dropped my body fat percentage intentionally, and secondly, the scientist in me just can’t deal with the faith-like basis for some of the debates on health, weight and weight loss anymore. I just wish there was a place to talk about the intersection of these issues with feminism without feeling that I’m a FA and feminism drop-out.”

What. The. Hell.

What kind of feminism is this?

What kind of movement claims to be about empowerment… but disavows people for making their own choices about their bodies?

What kind of movement claims to be about self-ownership… but abandons people who deviate from the movement’s norm?

What kind of movement claims to be about self-esteem… but treats people like traitors for loving their bodies and wanting to take care of them the best way they know how?

Full body project I still think there is a hugely important place in our society for a fat acceptance movement. I think we need a movement that advocates for treating people with dignity, equality, and respect, regardless of their size; a movement that resists the impossible cultural ideals of beauty; a movement that encourages fat people to love themselves and take care of themselves, regardless of whether they lose weight; a movement that speaks out for fat people’s right to make their own choices about their bodies and their health.

Greta avatar But it needs to accept that not everyone is going to make the same choices. If the fat acceptance movement is going to advocate for fat people who don’t choose to lose weight, it needs to be every bit as supportive of fat people who do.

Our bodies.

Our right to decide.

Period.

Caught Between Fat and Thin: The Pounds Come Off, But the Label Stays

Doll tape measureI’m always going to be a fat woman. Don’t get me wrong. At five foot three and 135 pounds, I am not, by any useful definition of the word, fat.

But I have been fat. I was fat for many, many years. And for years, I was an ardent advocate of the fat acceptance movement. I actively resisted the idea that there was any point whatsoever to losing weight. I believed that medical statistics on the health effects of obesity were exaggerated at best, part of the cultural conspiracy to make women hate their bodies at worst. I was convinced that I could be just as healthy at 200 pounds (and with the eating and exercise habits that kept me at 200 pounds) as I would be with less weight. And I was convinced that losing weight never, ever worked… or at least, that it worked so rarely it wasn’t worth trying–if there was even any reason for trying.

It wasn’t until my bad knee started getting worse that I saw the writing on the wall, and decided that, given a choice between losing mobility and losing weight, the weight would have to go.

You’d probably think that losing weight would make a person stop thinking of him or herself as fat. And you’d almost certainly think that making a concerted effort to not be fat would make someone abandon the whole idea of fat acceptance. I thought all that myself once… and I was wrong.

*

Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, Caught Between Fat and Thin: The Pounds Come Off, But the Label Stays. To find out more about how fat acceptance has been both an ally and an enemy in my struggle to love my body — and how I still see the world through the eyes of a fat person, even though I’m not fat anymore — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

The Fat Positive Feminist Skeptical Diet, Phase 2, Part 2: How Do You Know When Enough Is Enough?

This is Part 2 of a two-part post. In yesterday’s piece, I talked about the process of switching from weight loss to weight maintenance… including the strange attraction of the process of losing weight, and the challenges of letting go of that process and embracing lifelong weight management. Today, I talk about how you even decide what a healthy weight might be… and how loving and accepting your body is part of that decision.

Done button So, like I said yesterday: I am officially done losing weight. I’ve reached my target weight. Or, to be more accurate: I have reached the bottom of my target weight range. Or, to be even more accurate than that: I have made a final decision as to what my target weight range should even be — something I wasn’t sure of at the beginning of this project — and have reached the bottom of that range.

But how did I make that decision?

Feet on scale Deciding when to stop losing weight was an interestingly tricky question. Much trickier than I’d thought it would be. I knew I didn’t want BMI (weight to height ratio) to be my only metric of healthy weight. I knew that BMI, while a fairly good measure of healthy or unhealthy weight in populations as a whole, isn’t the best metric for individuals. It can give some good broad strokes — I knew that at five foot three and 200 pounds I should definitely lose weight, and that at 160 pounds I should probably keep going for a bit — but when it comes to the fine-tuning, it’s really not the best gauge. There’s too much variation in how people of different heights are built — different frames, different muscle masses, etc.

So once I got closer to my “ideal” BMI, I had to decide when to stop.

And I had to decide how to decide.

Which metric of healthy weight should I use? Body fat percentage? Waist circumference? Waist to hip ratio? Should I use body mass index after all? Some combination of the above?

Yoni Freedhoff (of the Weighty Matters blog), an evidence-based doctor/ weight loss expert I’ve been following and whose work I greatly respect, advises his readers not to get too hung up on external metrics. Instead, he says, we should find a weight we’re happy and healthy at, one with a calorie budget we can sustain and not be miserable with. And there’s some real value in that. When I was hovering near my “ideal” BMI and trying to decide whether to stop or keep going, one of the factors I considered was whether I could be happy dialing down my calorie budget a little more to lose a few more pounds… or whether that would restrict my eating too much for me to be happy with.

Broken plate But there are also real problems with this approach. The whole point of this weight control project is that my own instincts about what is and is not a healthy weight are pretty broken, and I can’t trust myself to make that decision without some external metrics. After all, I deluded myself for years into thinking that I was happy and healthy at 200 pounds… and that eating any less than I was eating would make me miserable. And on the other side of those broken instincts lurk eating disorders. Like I wrote yesterday, the process of losing weight itself has a strange appeal, with its constant cycle of victorious accomplishments and new goals to reach for. I could see myself coming up with a rationalization for continuing the process, even if I had no earthly health-related reason to do so. And since even at a completely healthy weight, my body still isn’t the exact perfect body I’d choose if I could, it’d be easy to delude myself into thinking that more weight loss would solve that imperfection. I could see myself deciding that I’d be happier with my body if I lost just a little more weight… and then lost a little more… and then just a little bit more after that…

Target 1 So I knew this “decide for yourself what weight you want to be” method wouldn’t work. I didn’t just want to paint a target around myself and call myself “done.” I knew that my powers of rationalization would make that a dangerous path. It’d be way too easy, if my weight slid up again (or slid too far down), for me to just keep re-painting that target at every new place that I landed. I needed some other way of deciding.

But what else? BMI isn’t great, for the reasons I detailed above. Waist-hip ratio isn’t bad, it’s pretty strongly linked to health outcomes… but the problem is that you can’t really do much about it. Spot reducing (i.e., losing weight in one particular part of your body) doesn’t work — so if you want to improve your waist-hip ratio, all you can do is lose weight, and hope you lose more of it in your waist than your hips. Waist circumference? Seems a bit weird for that number to be the same for everyone, regardless of height or frame. But sure, I’d gotten that below the danger point. Was that enough?

I decided to go with a combo of BMI, waist circumference, and body fat percentage. I figured if all three were in a healthy range, I was probably fine. So when the first two were where I wanted them to be, I signed up with a hydrostatic body fat testing company — you know, one of those places that measures your body fat percentage by dunking you in a tub of water — and got that number.

And here’s where it got interesting.

Digital-23 According to the Tub of Water Dunking Company (no, not their real name), my body fat percentage is 23%. And according to the company’s calculations and categories, this puts me squarely in the “healthy” range. In fact, it puts me close to the bottom of that range.

I had my answer. I was done.

In theory, anyway.

But according to the Tub of Water Dunking Company and their calculations and categories, my 23% body fat percentage put me very close to the “athletic” range. And the moment they told me that, I found the idea almost irresistibly appealing.

Book_Nerd I have never, in my entire life, considered myself “athletic.” I’ve always been nerdy, indoorsy, a bookworm. Growing up, I was always a fat, gawky, “last picked in gym class” kid. Even when I lost weight in my teens, even in high school and college when I was taking tons of dancing classes and getting an A in fencing — hell, even when I was dancing at the Lusty Lady peep show fifteen hours a week and making a living being professionally beautiful and sexy — I never once thought of myself as “athletic.” And now, finally, according to the Tub of Water Dunking Company, if I lost just a few more pounds of body fat, I’d officially be in that category.

And I thought: Maybe I’m not done after all. Maybe I should lose a few more pounds, and get my body fat percentage into that “athletic” range. Maybe it would be worth it to keep going, just a little bit longer.

It took some time, and some thinking, and a bit of Googling, to realize that something was very wrong here.

The Tub of Water Dunking Company had ranges for body fat percentages that they considered too high — but they didn’t have any that they considered too low. Their categories were Obese, Overfat, Healthy, Athletic, and Excellent. They had no category for You Don’t Have Enough Body Fat. They had no category for You Are Dangerously Thin And Need To Start Gaining Weight Now.

And that was very disturbing.

Body fat percentage So I did some Googling. Mostly to get a reality check on my “Yes, a 23% body fat percentage is totally healthy, you can stop losing weight now” answer… but also to get a reality check on my disturbance. And I got both. Yes, the body fat percentage range that the Tub of Water Dunking Company called “healthy” is also called “healthy” by the somewhat more reliable World Health Organization and National Institutes of Health. I really and truly didn’t have to lose any more weight. Yay!

But here’s where it gets really interesting. The body fat percentage range that the Tub of Water Dunking Company called “athletic,” the WHO and NIH call “underfat.” Yes, many athletes have a body fat percentage in this range… but athletes often have serious health problems, and sacrifice their long- term health to reach short-term goals. Serious athletic training is about achieving extraordinary feats of performance — not about good health.

And I started thinking:

Why was I so eager to be in that “athletic” range?

Why was I so eager to keep losing weight?

A lot of it, I think, has to do with what I talked about in yesterday’s post. There is a powerful appeal in the process of losing weight, and in the sense of accomplishment and approaching a concrete goal that it gave me. That’s been surprisingly hard to let go of. I also knew how much harder weight maintenance is than weight loss, and I think I was nervous about embarking on this new leg of this project that everyone says is so much more difficult. So as relieved as I was at the thought that I was done, a part of me was disappointed, even somewhat scared… and eager to jump at an excuse to keep going. And again, even at my “ideal” weight, my body still wasn’t the perfect body I would choose if I could …and since weight loss had gotten me so much closer to where I wanted my body to be, it was seductive to think that a little more weight loss would get me a little closer to that ideal.

But some of the appeal, I’m embarrassed to admit, has to do with that word “athletic” — and the feeling of validation and approval I could feel in having someone else, someone with some sort of objective eye, apply it to me.

Even if it was just the guy at the Tub of Water Dunking Company.

War of the simpsons There’s a Simpsons episode that perfectly illustrates what I’m talking about here. (Because there’s a Simpsons episode to illustrate everything important about life.) It’s the one where Homer and Marge go on the couple’s counseling retreat, and Homer sneaks off to go fishing for the legendary giant catfish the locals are obsessed with, and thus be respected and admired. When Marge asks him, “By whom?”, he answers, “Those weirdos down at the worm store!”

Why on earth did I care about those weirdos down at the worm store?

Why on earth did I care whether the guy at the Tub of Water Dunking Company thought I was an athlete?

And this is where I come back around to Yoni Freedhoff, and his “whatever weight you’re happy with and can sustain without being miserable” metric.

Foot on scale The truth is that we don’t really know what a healthy weight is. A lot of research is being done in this area, but right now, we just don’t know. There are lots of different metrics, and not much agreement about which one is best, or where on each metric it’s best to be. The answer is almost certainly a range, not a single fixed number. The range is almost certainly different for different people. And we don’t really know exactly what that range is, or how wide it might be. We have some clear ideas of what a definitely unhealthy weight is… but we don’t have a clear idea of what a healthy weight is. We have some very broad outlines… but for any given person, the question, “What should I weigh?” does not have an obvious answer.

So ultimately, I do need to take responsibility for this decision myself.

Yes, I need my decision to be evidence-based, informed by the best available research I can find. Yes, I need to avoid denialism about the serious health problems connected with overweight and obesity. (And, for that matter, denialism about the serious health problems connected with underweight and disordered eating.) Yes, I need to be aware of my human ability to rationalize and justify decisions that I find comforting and convenient. And so yes, I need to find reliable outside sources that will give me a good reality check.

Biceps But I don’t need the guy at the Tub of Water Dunking Company to tell me I’m athletic. I know I’m athletic. I pump iron three days a week, most weeks. I’m doing bicep curls with 25-pound dumbbells. I can run up a flight of stairs without getting winded or breaking a sweat. I can dance for hours, and be disappointed and ready for more when the night is over. I can bench press half my weight. (Not that I would, usually: my trainer says bench pressing is a waste of time.) And when I flex my biceps, I look like a freaking Amazon goddess. I don’t need to get my body fat percentage below some essentially arbitrary line, above which I’m just an ordinary schlub, and below which I am somehow magically transformed into Martina Navratilova.

Greta full I know I’m athletic. And more importantly: I’m healthy. My body does most of what I want it to do, most of the time. In fact, lately it’s been doing things I never in my wildest dreams would have thought to ask of it. It’s not perfect, and it never, ever will be. But it’s strong, and it’s sexy, and it’s awake and alive and happy, and it connects me intimately with this universe I love so much.

And I’m learning to be okay with that.

Also in this series:
The Fat-Positive Diet, 7/28/09
The Fat-Positive Skeptic (Part 2 of 2), 7/29/09
An Open Letter to the Fat-Positive Movement, 11/11/09
The Fat-Positive Feminist Skeptical Diet: An Update, 3/8/10
Weight Loss and Strange Emotional Stuff: The Fat-Positive Feminist Skeptical Diet, Part 2, 3/9/10
The Fat-Positive Feminist Skeptical Diet, Part 3: The Actual Diet, 3/10/10
Some Evolving Thoughts About Weight and Sex, 3/17/10 (reposted here 6/28/10)

The Fat Positive Feminist Skeptical Diet, Phase 2: Switching from Loss to Maintenance

Done I’m done.

I am officially done losing weight. I’ve reached my target weight. Or, to be more accurate: I have reached the bottom of my target weight range. Or, to be even more accurate than that: I have made a final decision as to what my target weight range should even be (something I wasn’t sure of at the beginning of this project), and have reached the bottom of that range. My goal was to get my weight between 135 and 140 pounds; as of this writing, I weigh 135. I’m done. I am off of weight loss… and am now on what everyone informs me is the much harder project of life-long weight management.

As I always do when I write about this stuff, I promise yet again: This is not going to turn into a weight control blog. If you want to know the details of how I lost the weight, you can read them here: but I’m not going to bore you every day, or indeed every month, with the tedious details of what I’m eating and how much I weigh and how I feel about it all. I’d rather lock myself in a box with snakes. And as I always do when I write about this, I want to make it clear: I’m not evangelizing about weight loss for every fat person. I know that weight loss takes a lot of work, I know that it’s harder for some people than others, and I think the cost/ benefit analysis of whether that work is worth it will be different for everybody.

But enough of you have been interested in the other writing I’ve done about this project, so I wanted to update you on where I’ve gotten… and where I’m going from here.

Road_work_sign Or, to be accurate, where I think I’m going from here. Because everything I’ve read tells me that, as difficult as it is to lose weight, it’s more difficult by an order of magnitude to keep it off. Lots of people lose weight; relatively few people lose weight and keep it off. It does happen, but it’s less common by far. I do have some ideas of what I need to do (and not do) to make this work: I’ve done a lot of reading about this, I know what many of the pitfalls and success strategies are, and since forewarned is forearmed, I feel reasonably confident that I’ll be able to make this happen. But this part of the project is very new to me — I’ve only been on maintenance for a couple of weeks now — and this post is going to have a lot more questions in it than answers.

Lose it The first question, of course, is, “What am I going to do to maintain my weight?” And in an entirely practical sense, that question has a very simple answer: I’m going to do exactly what I did to lose the weight in the first place. I’m counting calories, and I’m exercising almost every day. The only difference — and I mean the only difference — is that my daily calorie budget is a little higher. I am not changing anything else… and I don’t plan to.

Couch_potato Everything I’ve read about maintaining weight loss says the same thing: One of the biggest mistakes people make with weight loss is that they think they’re done. They think that, once they’ve lost the weight, they can go back to their same old eating and exercise habits. And their old habits are what got them to gain the weight in the first place. As I’ve said many times when I’ve written about this topic: Our “natural” food instincts cannot be trusted. Our “natural” food instincts evolved 100,000 years ago on the African savannah, in an environment of food scarcity, and they are not capable of coping with a food environment where Snickers bars are easily and cheaply available on every street corner. Our “natural” food instincts are dummies. That’s just reality. Weight control isn’t something you do once and then forget about. It’s a permanent lifestyle change. Like any lifestyle change, it becomes less self-conscious and more automatic as time goes on… but it’s still a permanent lifestyle change, and not a one-time project. (That’s why it’s so important for weight loss programs to be sustainable: if you lose weight, but don’t learn healthy eating and exercise habits that you’ll be happy with for life, it’s not going to work in the long run,) When people stop consciously managing their weight, and go back to their old unconscious eating habits, they gain the weight back.

Peets-freddos And I can see exactly how that could happen. The day I decided, “I’m done,” one of the first thoughts that came rushing into my head was, “Woo hoo! Now I can go have a frappuccino at Peet’s! I can get a double cheeseburger with fries at the Double Play! I can eat anything I want! I’m not losing weight anymore!”

Fortunately, forewarned is forearmed. I knew this was coming. And I knew it was a bad, bad idea. I knew that this inner “Woo hoo!” was the siren song leading me back to 200 pounds. So I ignored it. I kept up my program. The day I decided, “I’m done,” I ate exactly as I would have if I’d still been on the weight loss program. I think I ate a cookie, and let myself go over budget by about 50 calories. (Both of which are things I did fairly often, even when I was on weight loss.) I’ve since dialed up my calorie budget slightly, and am still trying to decide what it ultimately ought to be… but the nuts and bolts of my program are the same. Counting calories; staying within a daily calorie budget; exercising almost every day.

Doll tape measure But weirdly, and very unexpectedly, the other thought that rushed into my head when I decided I was done was, “You could lose a little more.”

“Come on.” the voice said. “Keep going. Five more pounds, and you’d be a Size 6! Ten more pounds, and your body fat percentage would be in the ‘Athletic’ range! You can do it!”

This wasn’t about anorexia, or any other body image distortion. I didn’t think I was too fat, or even fat at all. This was about being weirdly attached to the process of losing weight. The little victories, the sense of accomplishment, the feeling of having a goal that I was getting closer and closer to every week… that’s been very deeply satisfying. And it’s been strangely hard to let go of. As difficult as this process has been, I’m going to miss it. I clearly have to find some Zen-like way of seeing ongoing weight management as a victorious goal in itself. (I’m thinking anniversaries. Celebrating six months of maintenance, a year of maintenance, two years, three years… those are goals, too. And getting to a year of successfully maintaining weight loss will mean getting to sign up for the National Weight Control Registry… and I’m enough of a nerd to think that will be loads of fun.)

Attention What’s more, the process of losing weight has been bringing me attention and compliments that ongoing weight management probably isn’t going to provide. There’s going to come a time when the people I’ve known for years are finally used to the weight loss, and they’re going to stop mentioning it. And new people I meet aren’t going to know that I ever looked any different. I do have seriously mixed feelings about the compliments — there is a “What was I before, chopped liver?” quality to them that annoys me — but they’re still compliments, and I know I’m going to miss them when they start to fade.

And some of it is just a mental habit I need to break. For a year and a half now, I’ve been thinking that losing weight was Good, and that maintaining the same weight was Not Good. I now need to unlearn that mental habit, and learn the new one. Maintaining Weight Good. Maintaining Weight From Week To Week = Success.

But there’s another reason the “losing weight” part of this project is proving hard to let go of.

It’s that I now, officially, have to accept my body the way it is.

Road ahead For many months now — for the year and half since I’ve been on this project — I’ve been very focused, not on what my body was like at the moment, but on what I was trying to get it to be. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been very happy with my body during this process. I’ve actually been happier with my body during this process than I’ve been in a long time. I’ve been getting tremendous pleasure out of my body, and I’ve had many, many stretches of being intensely present in it, and very much in the moment with it. But as much as I’ve been enjoying my body, I’ve also been very focused on the goal of getting it to a different place. And it was easy to displace any anxiety or unhappiness I had about my body onto my weight… and to assume that, as the weight dropped, the unhappiness would too.

And some of it has. A lot of it has. But it’s not like my body is now the exact perfect body I would choose if I had the power to. I still have a flat butt, droopy breasts, chronic middle- aged- lady health problems I won’t bore you with (nothing life-threatening, just annoying). Since I’ve been losing weight, a lot of my anxiety about my body has transferred from my size to my age — something I really can’t do anything about. And the weight loss itself has brought on a few changes in my body that I’m not thrilled with. (Have we talked yet about loose skin? Oy fucking vey.)

Peace So now that I’m officially done losing weight, I have to accept it: This is the body I have. Sure, there are a few things I can tinker with still — getting my abs stronger, my legs more muscled, my bicep curls back up to 25 pound dumbbells and maybe even higher. But when it comes right down to it, this is my body. It’s not going to change that much, except for a few gradual changes from strength and stamina training, and the gradual changes of getting older. I have to learn to accept it, and to love it, and to find peace in it. I am way, way happier with my body than I have been for years; it works better, it feels better, and I’ll admit that I think it looks better. But it’s not perfect. And it never, ever will be.

And I have to learn to be okay with that.

To be continued tomorrow. In the meantime: If any of you have been through this process, I’d love to hear what you have to say about it. If you’ve lost weight and kept it off successfully, I’d like to hear what maintenance strategies have worked for you; if you’ve lost weight but then gained it back again, I’d like to hear what you think made maintenance harder. Forewarned is forearmed.

Don’t Feed the Stars!: Celebrity Bodies and Gossip’s New Schizophrenia

Dont-feed-stars“It’s sort of awful. Yesterday for lunch? Spinach… and some seeds.”

“I swear by almost nothing for breakfast. Mugs of hot water!”

“The other day I realized as long as I’m in this business, I’m going to be hungry.”

“I hate dieting… I’m hungry all the time.”

These quotes aren’t from a medical journal. They’re not from a psychology book on body image in modern society. They’re not from a Lifetime Channel docudrama on eating disorders.

They’re from an Us Weekly Magazine half-page celebrity puff piece (Sept. 13, 2010, Page 18), titled “Don’t Feed the Stars!”, on how “these celebs admit it’s a diet struggle to keep their fab figures.”

Encapsulating the celebrity gossip magazine’s bone-deep schizophrenia about dieting and body size… in one neat sentence.

*

Thus begins my latest Media Darling column on CarnalNation, Don’t Feed the Stars!: Celebrity Bodies and Gossip’s New Schizophrenia. To find out more about the celebrity-industrial complex’s freakishly self-contradictory attitude towards diet and weight loss — and the deeply mixed messages it sends the rest of us about food, beauty, bodies, and sex — read the rest of the piece. (And if you feel inspired to comment here, please consider cross-posting your comment to Carnal Nation — they like comments there, too.) Enjoy!