Sunday, February 28, 2010

A man, his weight, and his secret desire to be pretty(er): vanity and weight loss Part 1

Continuing on the theme of exploring mannish views on weight and weight loss, I have been thinking a lot recently about vanity.  [If you happen to know me personally, I would greatly appreciate if you could extinguish the snickering and withhold any snarky comments that might be traipsing down your tongue.  Just because I'm an easy target doesn't justify shooting me.  At least not all the time.]

For ages, it seems, women have been dealing with all the issues of body image, which has all sorts of impact on how they think about weight and weight loss.  Much has been written about this in too many places to count.  That said, I would definitely support the school of thought that the media does no favors with its ritual practice of creating unattainable and unhealthy body image.    If rock hard abs in a bikini or size -2 dress is the only definition of weight loss success, I suspect we are all quite doomed to a life of abject misery.  And frankly as a population, we deserve much better than that. 

But what about men and body image?  How does this work with the swarthy crowd?

As I often do, I will attempt to explore this topic by looking at myself and then naturally extrapolating to all men on planet Earth (I cannot speak for men from other planets or universes.  I just haven't met them.)  My plan is to explore this in a few posts, starting with the beginning of my weight gain.

To put this in a framework, let's kick it off with a fun fact.  According to regular polling done by Gallup over the years, roughly 33% people who are trying to lose weight are doing it for looks, 33% are doing it for health and 33% are doing it for both.  Said differently, despite all the recent (and extremely justified) focus on obesity as a health issue, vanity still plays a big part in the mix.  According to Gallup, men are somewhat more likely to cite health as a driver behind their weight loss, but not nearly as much as you might think.  But what role did vanity play for me? 

As I laid out in my very first couple of posts, I did not grow up with a weight issue.  In fact, I struggled to put weight on.  It seemed that no matter what I ate, I couldn't gain weight all the way through high school.  What I now realize is that my life before college was actually pretty nutritionally reasonable despite how I might have imagined my occasional binge behaviors.

Then college happened, and I started to gain weight through a regular diet of campus starch, beer, pizza, fried chicken, BBQ (to put it in perspective, I went to college in North Carolina).  I went from 6'3" and 175 lbs in high school to 210 pounds freshman year of college.  Truth be told, I much preferred the way I looked by the end of college as I was able to finally escape the heroin chic look that I couldn't quite shed in HS.  I also stayed pretty fit, so it was all good.

All of this would have been great had I not continued to keep packing on the pounds over the next 15 years.  Like a lot of guys, I would gain about 2-5 pounds per year, and then sometimes go back down a few pounds.  It was a slow, but inexorable creep.  However, when my career really started to pick up after business school, I shattered every weight milestone I had ever known.  At my measured peak, I was clocking in at a not too healthy 242 pounds (see reprint of the "who ate dave" picture to the right).

So how did that make me feel?  I've thought about that quite a bit over the past year.  I would not say that I was obsessive or grief stricken about my weight.  As a pretty tall guy, I was able to hide it with the right kind of clothes.  Also, it seemed that many of the guys I knew were dealing with the same issue.

Yet, I knew deep down that something was wrong with this picture.  First off, there was the doctor and life insurance person giving me a hard time about my weight.  I don't think they were doing so because they were bored or evil/spiteful -- I had high blood pressure and high cholesterol.  Second, there was the inescapable truth that I had to see myself without the benefit of camouflaging outfits every morning in the shower and in the mirror.  I remembered the TV ads from years ago with the line "if you can pinch more than an inch...".  Well, I could pinch an order of magnitude above that.  I did not like that way that made me feel.  That thing that women do when they describe performing a cruel body critique in the mirror?  I did that too.  You know what?  It's kind of a crummy way to start the morning.

So, if it made me feel badly, why?  First, the obvious answer.  It's not a great look.  I guess that makes me shallow, but I feel honesty is useful here.  No matter how hard I tried to suck it in, my layers of flab were an inescapable and not awesome looking truth.  Second, I didn't like what it symbolized about me.  I did not view being out of shape to be a great statement on me as a person.  I felt like it was evidence of a lack of discipline and hard work.  In truth, I was secretly embarrassed by the state of affairs. 

When I got my offer to work at Weight Watchers in early 2000, I publicly talked about the awesomeness of the opportunity when describing it to my friends, but I also was secretly  looking forward to a possible fix for this hidden (semi-hidden, anyway) and vexing issue.  I wanted Weight Watchers to make me look good naked.  TMI?  Fine.  I wanted Weight Watchers to make me look good in a swim suit. 

Health was an awesome reason to get in better shape, clean up my diet, etc., but want for vanity was my secret X factor.

To be continued...



Thursday, February 18, 2010

Note to self: put it all in perspective

I will admit to the fact that I sometimes throw myself pity parties (sometimes even bashes) when I think about the hard work of staying on program.  I have SO many obstacles and SO many derailers to sticking with the program:  e.g., endless travel, lack of good food choices at Bob's Big Boy, etc.  Then I meet someone who helps me put it all in perspective, and I use it as an opportunity to shut up and quietly get back to living happily in a healthy way.

(Jean & I with her new book)

A couple of weeks ago, I went down to Boca Raton, FL to attend a book signing and joint interview with Jean Nidetch.  She's 86 now, and she still has the energy of 86 people.  I've had the chance to read her new book (available in meetings), and I recommend it HIGHLY to all who have the chance.  It is an excellent reminder as to why the soft stuff is what ultimately matters in successful and sustainable weight loss, and it is an excellent reminder as to why meetings rock.  Effectively all of the profits of the book sales go to Jean, so I have no ulterior motive in supporting it.

But I digress (as I often do).   The book signing event in Boca was attended by a bunch of local area Leaders and Receptionists from our meetings.  In many cases, they brought a member or two so they could meet Jean.  One of the Leaders, Vicki Thomas (on the left), brought a very special member by the name of Kimberly Marino (on the right).  Kimberly is special for a variety of reasons:  she's a joyful, kind, energetic, hard working and enthusiastic person.  At age 34, she also happens to have the developmental disability of Down syndrome.

I did not realize that people who have Down syndrome are statistically much more likely to suffer from an overweight or obese condition.  It seems that this is primarily due to the fact that people who have Down syndrome also tend to have a lower basal metabolic rate.  With this in mind, some of our local staff in the Palm Beach area worked with the local Goodwill to begin providing Weight Watchers for people who have developmental disabilities including Down syndrome.  The effort has been funded by the State of Florida, and 24 people have now gone through the program.

Kimberly was one of those people.  At a relatively young age, Kim had to have a total hip replacement which disallowed her from doing an exercise for a long period of time.  At only five feet tall, her weight jumped to 157 pounds.  To help with the recovery of her hip operation, Kim's mother had her enrolled in the Weight Watchers program so she could learn about better food choices and proper portions.  Kim attended regular Weight Watchers meetings and had the immediate support of all the members in her meeting.  During her first week, she lost 5 pounds to the wild cheers of her group.  She was hooked.  She has since gone on to lose 52 pounds and keep it off for two years.  She has done so despite having a second hip replacement operation.

Today, she loves to shop, and she is a regular exerciser.  She regularly puts in 10K steps EVERY day, reportedly while singing Celine Dion loudly.  She approaches her healthy life with joy and enthusiasm.

She is a reminder to me about why I love to work for Weight Watchers, and she is a reminder to me that a healthy life is a gift, not a punishment.

Kim.  You rock hard and successfully.



Monday, February 8, 2010

You eat like a girl!

Before I get started, I wanted to provide a little context for this and other posts that get into man-weight loss…  One of the reasons I decided to start writing this blog was to take the opportunity to explore weight loss from a male (i.e., my) perspective.  While I do not claim to represent all men (I think that requires a majority vote of the population, not to mention getting a petition signed and perhaps an act of Congress), I do think that not enough men talk about this subject.  Based on my personal and professional experience, we are a tad bit touchy talking about both our weight and weight loss.  If in some small way, I can be a contributing voice to the nascent movement of the diminishing center of the man (e.g., the midsection), then maybe that serves some small useful purpose.   To further my aim of describing my own mannish perspective on weight loss, I may from time to time rely on hyperbole, self-deprecation and politically incorrect sensibilities to attempt to illuminate the topic.  I mean no offense resulting from any inadvertently offending statements. 

With that out of the way, I do, in fact, kind of eat like a girl.  And truth be told, I am sometimes a little self-conscious about it.  So what do I mean by “eat like a girl”?  Well perhaps the best way to illustrate this is to focus on stereotypical man-eating behavior.  Perhaps a brief review of some favorite cultural icons is in order:
  • Fred Flinstone.  Need I say more?  I’m curious if anyone has ever tried to calculate the POINTS value of Brontosaurus ribs?  Anything large enough to tip your car over can’t be a proper portion.
  • Henry VIII seemed to be a big eater and proud of it.  And he had a bunch of wives. 
  • Most Roman aristocracy were not afraid of big banquet.  
  • Dagwood had his shockingly large sandwiches. 
  • Bluto from Animal House.  Remember the cafeteria scene?  “That boy is a P-I-G, pig!”  Of course, that slight didn’t go well for her, thereby creating a new use for mashed potatoes. 
  • More recently Mad Men.  Always eating their steak, yet they never seem to gain weight.  Totally unfair.  
  • “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche”.  OK, maybe this isn’t a good example, as quiche really is incredibly fattening and caloric. 

It seems that society continues to expect us to eat in a particular way. 
  • Our mothers and mother-in-law’s become visibly upset not only if we fail to clean our plate, but if we don’t ask for seconds. 
  • We are expected to order steak whenever possible. 
  • We are expected to lunch on burgers and fries. 
  • We are expected to consume large quantities of full-test beer. 
  • If we watch what we eat, we may find ourselves being accused of anything from metrosexuality to prissyness.

So does it matter?  Maybe, maybe not.  I have to admit that I still feel a little self-conscious when I’m having dinner with a bunch of dudes and I order a lightly prepared fish with grilled vegetables while they are metaphorically killing, skinning and eating small animals with blood dripping down the cheeks.  If there is anyone who really shouldn’t feel strange about eating in a careful way, it’s me:  I work for freaking Weight Watchers!  Of course I have to watch what I eat!  But it does make me wonder how other guys who are trying to shift to a healthier lifestyle deal with unstated (or stated) peer pressure. 

Interestingly, these days if I order first (or early in the lineup) at dinner, the fellas who follow me often start ordering fish and lighter dishes too.  It’s as if they were given license to take their foot of the fat absorption accelerator pedal.  I can almost hear their cries to have me take them to a fern bar. 

I do think that male stereotypes around eating are and will continue to change.  There is too much at stake with obesity for them not to.  Obesity has all of the same health consequences on men that it has on women.  The bottom line is that we are all supposed to be eating the same things:  fruits, vegetables, lean meats/proteins, whole grains and low/non-fat dairy.  We are all supposed to be eating sane portions, and we are all supposed to be getting regular activity.  Those guidelines were not written for women in hopes that some men would get a clue.  They were written for all of us. 

So don’t judge me for my newfound love of salad, scallops, yogurt and fruit salad.  Just because I don’t finish everything on my plate doesn’t mean I have stomach flu.   Just because I didn’t order the steak doesn’t mean I don’t like movies where they blow things up.  My masculinity is unbowed no matter how many courgettes I order.