The denial of life.

When I was 14, and sitting in a circle with my mom, my best friend, her mom, and her mom’s best friend, I came to a sudden understanding that has become the foundation of everything I write on this blog.

I believe the occasion was a cookie exchange, and it was something my friend did once a year. Her mom’s friend, who also worked at the hospital with my mom, was called Georgia*.

She was delightful in every possible way – warm, funny, sweet, without a sharp edge anywhere. She put up with wild shenanigans during sleepovers and let us dress like Madonna on Halloween and eat as much candy as we wanted. She always kept cinnamon Graham crackers in the house. She let us coax her onto a giant trampoline once, to bounce gingerly and scream in delighted terror. She loved her daughters openly, broadly, and unashamedly, and raised them to be as wonderful as she was.

Her husband had died suddenly of a heart attack a short time before. He, she, and their entire family were large people — tall, broad, and stocky. They were also, I thought, nice to look at, and comfortable to be around. From what I could tell, they ate and moved and lived their lives just like everyone else. I admired that.

After exchanging cookies, we gathered in the living room and drifted into chat. At some point, probably following some hospital gossip, Georgia recounted to my mom the story of a recent doctor’s visit.

The visit had not gone well. I believe Georgia went in for some reason related to her husband’s death, maybe to get help with stress or grief. The doctor — a slender, athletic woman in her 20s — had, after haranguing Georgia about her weight, asked how her husband died. Georgia answered that he had died of a heart attack, and the doctor snapped, “Well, no wonder he’s dead. He was obese and he was a smoker. What did you expect?”

The mothers in the circle fell into a stunned silence. I looked at Georgia’s face, and she seemed somehow apologetic.

How anyone could say something so cruel to a person I knew to be unfailingly kind and sweet, and whose husband’s death had recently devastated their entire family, was an utter shock to me for about two seconds. And then I knew something, and I didn’t know how I knew it, but I knew it with such angry certainty that it just came out.

“That doctor is scared of death,” I said loudly.

How else on earth could you explain a doctor expressing anger and blame at someone for accidentally dying? And to then vent that anger on his grieving wife? You couldn’t. There was no other explanation but the fear of death, utilizing the Just-world Hypothesis as its conduit.

The Just-world Hypothesis is the cognitive bias that causes people to blame other people for their misfortunes, even in cases where blame is not appropriate or not proven. Because we want to believe that we live in a fair world, and that people get what they deserve. If they do something wrong, bad things happen to them. But if they do everything right, and follow all the rules, nothing bad will ever happen to them.

It’s a mental shortcut we use, a theory that seems to have the power to predict what will happen — because to an animal, the power of prediction is essential to survival. It helps you to avoid the very worst bad thing that could ever happen, which is death.

If you die, the doctor was saying, clearly you did something to deserve it. When you deserve it, death is expected, which should somehow rob it of its terror. And because I, a doctor, am smart enough to avoid doing the wrong things, and actually dedicate my life to doing all the right things, I don’t deserve to die, and can therefore predict that it will not happen to me.

Last night, one of my group members quoted Anne Lamott –

I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die.

I tend to agree.

I have discovered, through questioning the lovely people I work with, that at the bottom of every fear of eating too much, or of gaining too much weight, resides the fear of death. In the final analysis, it always comes down to this — the awareness that we have to die, someday, and that anything we do might hasten the inevitable.

Some philosophers claim that entire fields of inquiry, entire cultures and civilizations, perhaps the social contract itself, are founded on the awareness and fear of death, and the simultaneous effort to deny it.

Ernest Becker, in The Denial of Death, calls these “immortality projects,” ways that we attempt to create something that might not only forestall death in the immediate sense, but that lives on after we do to achieve a sort of abstract immortality. Great books are written, tall towers constructed, fame and fortune sought, all in the faint hope that our name will live on, long after our body lies beneath the stone on which it is carved.

Even in the absence of dramatic efforts to achieve posthumous fame, our entire lives and all the decisions we make may be interpreted as coping mechanisms for managing, and suppressing, the fear of death. The cracks we step over on the sidewalk, the locks we check over and over (literally or figuratively), the black cats we avoid, the salt we throw over our left shoulder, the pleasure we systematically deny ourselves for the sake of seeming to purify our one immortal organ, the soul — and the trust we withhold from our body, that traitor, who can’t be counted on to keep any promise but the inevitable one.

Fear of physical pleasure, and fear of the seeming bottomlessness of our physical appetites, are disguises for the fear of death.

Responding to your body requires admitting, first of all, that you have a body, that you are a body, that your head does not float on a metaphysical balloon somewhere just north your body, untouchable. This admission requires you to acknowledge that bodies die, and that you will die too. The separation of mind and body, soul and body, spirit and body, is itself a coping mechanism, a sort of immortality project.

All of this would be well and good if it did not cause us to make such tragic decisions during our uncertain, finite, and invaluable lives. Decisions that cause us, effectively, to deny life itself. The fear of death, and the denial of the few concrete things we can touch and cling to as real and worthwhile, can lead to wasted lives. People wrung out and demoralized, lives spent and used up, running on a treadmill toward a mirage that never comes any closer.

How then shall we live?

Health can be redefined as the manner in which we live well despite our inescapable illnesses, disabilities, and trauma.

-Jon Robison

My proposal is that we live in the way that best reflects how we most want to use our precious time, right here, right now. My proposal is that we live well despite our inescapable fear of death. Our time is valuable in more than one way, both in quantity and quality, and neither one should be sacrificed for the sake of the other.

We may instead try, as best we can, to strike a balance between the two, and not go to extremes in an attempt to escape what we all know is coming — but neither to hasten it purposely by squandering what little we do have in a blaze of reckless glory.

This means, then, that I would never suggest running out to smoke and drink yourself into oblivion. Or to gorge yourself on food that makes you feel like shit, even if it tastes like anything but. Or to avoid exercise at all costs, out of a stubborn refusal to (again) admit that you have a perishable body and that it requires a certain measure of care — and in doing so, to deny yourself your life.

Do the things you can reasonably do, without unduly burdening yourself, to be a good steward of the gift of life.

I equally would not suggest that you force yourself to eat food you hate, or eat too little of the things you enjoy and feel deprived, or slog away at life like you’re putting in your time at a dismal job, waiting for the blessed release of quitting time. That you mortify the body to purify the soul. That you sacrifice yourself, your invaluable time, doing things that you hate, hurting yourself mentally and physically, to prove yourself worthy of escaping death, somehow superior to the weak mortals living their pathetically finite lives around you. In short, to live a delusion — and in doing so, to deny yourself your life.

If you genuinely enjoy marathons, run them. If that would be torture to you, don’t. Find something else to enjoy. If you love salad, eat it. If salad is punishment, for God’s sake, there are a million other foods to take its place. Food that isn’t enjoyed isn’t worth a damn. Find something better. You deserve it.

If you feel unfit, if you feel tired and exhausted and find it difficult to move, be good to your body. Feed it good food, give it fresh air and light, and move it gently and compassionately until it is stronger. When it is strong enough, use it to do things that inspire, excite, and even scare you.

Do something that makes you scream in delighted terror.

This is a limited time offer — don’t deny it. Make it count.

*Not her real name.

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64 Comments

  1. Patsy Nevins
    Posted March 13, 2012 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Great post. Our whole culture is indeed built on the fear of death, & all this constant talk of ‘personal responsibility’ is indeed an attempt to blame us for any illness we have, any disability, to blame us if we do not live to be at least 100. We do need balance & common sense, but it is also pretty well established that NO ONE is immortal, & that actually no ONE way of living or eating can guarantee perfect health or very long life. We all know people who live an ascetic life, run many miles, deny themselves whatever they deem to be ‘bad’, & yet die at an early age, often while they are out running. We know even more who do a lot of the ‘bad’ things, yet live to a ripe old age. Nobody really knows what makes us healthier or live longer.

    I have always been a ‘square’ in many ways. I had very abusive alcoholic parents. My father drank & smoked himself to death at the age of 63, just about exactly 9 months older than I am at this moment. I do not drink or smoke, I never experimented with illegal drugs, I think twice before even taking an aspirin for a headache, I am a morning person, early to bed/rise, & usually get between 7-8 hours sleep nightly; I am a fanatic about flossing & brushing my teeth & using fluoride rinse, I have always exercised, sometimes compulsively. Despite the fact that I have cerebral palsy & now arthritis as well, I have walked over 60,000 miles in my life. However, if I live into my late 80′s/90′s, I expect that it will be more my genetics from my mother’s side of the family, the same genes which mean that, at 62 I have very few lines, no real wrinkles, & not one grey hair, & dumb luck, rather than because I have always been such a ‘good girl.’ The world still sees me a ‘bad’ anyway, because I am fat & refuse to diet & I eat what I want & because I refuse to believe in ‘bad’ foods. I hold the heretical belief that my body is mine, my life is mine, & how I choose to live is no one else’s business. Also, since I have been very healthy all my life & have spent very little time or money on medical care, I would love to know how anyone can consider me a drain on his/her healthcare system.

    You are so right, most people are so afraid of death that they forget to live. One thing I do know for certain is that the hearse is not going to stop at the store so I can run in for one last pint of Ben & Jerry’s. I also try to remember every day that, if I do not give my granddaughter a hug & tell her I love her, I may not get a chance to do so tomorrow. Enjoying life, loving the people in your life, being happy in your own skin & at peace with yourself is even more important than physical health & these things contribute to physical health. It is well known that having people to care about who care about you, having a reason to wake up in the morning, a place to go, something to do, feeling as if you have a reason for living, is more important to longevity than exactly what you eat or how much you exercise. Hating yourself, being stigmatized/discriminated against/denied access by a world that hates you contributes a lot more to health problems than a Twinkie or a potato chip ever could.

    I am trying every day to live more in the moment, live as fully as I can, & to let go of the fear of death which has been with me all my life. And I always manage to give the hearty ‘finger’ to the nannies who would tell me how to live.

    • Posted March 13, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

      One thing I do know for certain is that the hearse is not going to stop at the store so I can run in for one last pint of Ben & Jerry’s.

      Hah, I love this sentence!

  2. Kimberly
    Posted March 13, 2012 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    This is great. I spent a non-trivial amount of time in my life not doing things because I was waiting for the right moment (usually the right moment = being thinner). It was a big day for me when I decided that the right moment to do things that make me happy is always right now.

    Through my personal journey to accepting my body, I’ve also come to the conclusion that I don’t owe it to anyone to be healthy either. That doesn’t mean I don’t make healthy choices for my body–I definitely do because it feels good to do that. But it also means that making the “healthy” choice isn’t always the right choice for me for whatever reason. Skinny marathon runners (god bless them) get diseases and die too. So I decided to prioritize my happiness over all things-whatever that means in any given situation. I can’t always get there, but it is my over-arching goal for my life. I haven’t regretted that yet.

    • Posted March 13, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

      I’ve also come to the conclusion that I don’t owe it to anyone to be healthy either.

      I think that this is an incredibly important part of the process you describe. It’s a weird thing to consider that something as intimate and personal as health has been turned into some kind of public barometer of one’s worth, and that makes it Your Duty to Other People to…do what? Never die? Never get sick? Never cost The Taxpayers ™ money? I don’t get it.

      I think this way of approaching health only destroys people’s intrinsic motivation to do good things for themselves, while stripping them of autonomy and a certain amount of dignity. I think we need to leave people the hell alone, to figure it out for themselves, and do the same thing in our own lives – figure it out for ourselves. Everyone’s going to come to a slightly different conclusion or compromise about what they are willing, and not willing, to do for the sake of health. And that’s life. You don’t get to make other people’s decisions for them.

      • Almah
        Posted March 14, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

        “I think this way of approaching health only destroys people’s intrinsic motivation to do good things for themselves, while stripping them of autonomy and a certain amount of dignity. ”

        THIS!

    • Lea
      Posted March 19, 2012 at 7:54 am | Permalink

      I try to see it in a way that happiness is included in health. So when I say “i do everything to be healthy” that includes being crappy to my body at some times when it is what I need to balance my mental health and happiness.
      Maybe food restriction is great for body (doubt it) but even if, then as a recovering bulimic, it sure is not good for my mental health! If you look at things this way, as health as mere “well being” then health is a great goal. If it means having a certain muscle to fat-ratio or whatever, well – screw that!

  3. TropicalChrome
    Posted March 13, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    Timely post, as I’m of an age where death of friends and family is more a frequent visitor than a rare and shocking event. It’s caused me to rethink many things, one of which you wrote so eloquently above: “Our time is valuable in more than one way, both in quantity and quality, and neither one should be sacrificed for the sake of the other.”

    I’ve always believed in a balance – that yes, you need to take care of your body because it’s what you use to do the things to make you happy, but if you have to spend all your time doing things you hate to take care of your body, it’s a failure. Life is not measured by length alone.

    And it’s way too short to be unhappy.

    • Posted March 14, 2012 at 1:37 am | Permalink

      but if you have to spend all your time doing things you hate to take care of your body, it’s a failure.

      Well, some people have to do that and have no choice — some people will illnesses or disabilities have to spend all their time doing things they hate to take care of their bodies. They’re not failures and neither are their bodies. Just sayin’.

      • Posted March 14, 2012 at 8:20 am | Permalink

        Good point – I think this is true.

        But I also think it is much more likely in these cases that people feel it is truly worth it to make these sacrifices, and have more seriously weighed the pros and cons as compared to someone with zero impairments who is just terrified that they have a 0.001% risk of dying in the next 5 years and needs to do everything they can to stave it off.

      • TropicalChrome
        Posted March 15, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

        I apologize that this came across as exclusionary. What I was trying to express was that each person needs to decide their balance for themselves, and to choose when there is too much time spent in maintenance vs. enjoyment. Failure was a poor word choice on my part, and I am sorry I used it.

  4. Sandra
    Posted March 13, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    This is a beautiful essay – and very true. We humans find anything that is random or arbitrary frightening, and placing blame, finding a “reason” brings false comfort and with it a false sense of control.

    • Posted March 14, 2012 at 8:31 am | Permalink

      You said it, lady. Nice to see you! :)

  5. Rapunzel
    Posted March 13, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for this post, it was wonderful. It brought tears to my eyes!

    I’m already kicking myself every day that I prolong this awful diet that I’m on. I know that later I’ll be mad at myself for making myself miserable for so long when our lives are so short. What a waste! But I’m not at a point yet where I know how to stop. It’s either….diet (and lose weight) and be miserable (because of the diet), or not diet (and gain weight) and be fat and miserable (because I’m fat). So far, I haven’t found a win-win instead of a lose-lose. I’ve been dieting all my life (exercise too for some periods, though mostly I just have had a somewhat active lifestyle through my field work), but this is the first time I’ve actually been able to reverse the scale escalation. But it’s also the hardest, most terrible diet I’ve ever been on. Apparently when I was trying to diet and exercise on my own I wasn’t harsh enough and I didn’t have the medications to assist me, but now on a doctor’s supervision it’s different.
    Even being overweight, I just wish I could accept myself for whatever size I am at the moment. Bigger or smaller than “bigger”….I just want to live my life where the entire goal is NOT to lose weight/not gain weight. I need to make myself believe I can be happy and healthy and not have a BMI of strictly under 30. I need to actually believe in my life goals that aren’t marred by my body size.
    It’s such an unworthy distraction from what really matters in our lives, don’t you think? What’s a girl to do? It’s like my happiness has been taken hostage because of my mental incapability of self-acceptance. It’s being ransomed with a diet and a loss of weight!

    • Emgee
      Posted March 14, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I know exactly how you feel. I did give up dieting about 18 months ago, and also have not looked at a scale in about the same time. It’s not easy, but hang in there, and keeping hanging out on this blog. It should help.

    • Emgee
      Posted March 14, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I know exactly h0w you feel. I did finally give up dieting about 18 months ago, as well as looking at a scale. Hang in there, it isn’t easy, but hanging out on this blog might help.

  6. Posted March 13, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    Amazing post, Michelle. I know I’m going to come back and read it again tomorrow.

    • Posted March 13, 2012 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

      Awww, thanks Dee. I miss you.

  7. Posted March 13, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    Fabulous post, Michelle! Yes, it’s fear that keeps us saying stupid things, our need to rationalize that which makes no sense.
    As for living in the present, perhaps this post helps to further emphasize your point: http://dropitandeat.blogspot.com/2011/09/my-eulogy.html

  8. Posted March 13, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    Great post!

    I’m going to kinda shamelessly self-promote: I recently wrote about just world theory and health. I’d say my post is more cerebral, and your post is more profound.

    I think that people do fear other things as well as death when they fear weight gain (losing their mobility, losing social status), but I think death is the big one.

    • Posted March 13, 2012 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

      Oooh, excellent, I hadn’t seen your blog post so thank you!

    • Agnes
      Posted March 14, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

      I like your post too! (Linked article about Komen was good too. I agree with the premise. My insurance company keeps sending me reminders to get a mammogram. I’ll pass.)

  9. Posted March 13, 2012 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    Wowsers! I love it.

  10. Posted March 13, 2012 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    There’s one Sure Thing in life. None of us are getting out of it alive.I kissed off fear of death the first time I didn’t die. We’ve bumped into each other a handful of times since (excuse me? what? time to come play? I Don’t Think So). I’m here to tell you there is a list of things that scare me WAY more than death (and I’m not scared of very many things). Life, that can be scary. Really Living It scarier still. There are things I don’t like and things I’d avoid if I could. I do the best I can with what I have, though, because it’s what I’ve got – oh, and I’m too stubborn to quit.

    This moment inspired by an insightful 14-year-old. Good Girl!!

  11. Posted March 14, 2012 at 1:30 am | Permalink

    I’ve seen people caught in that just world trap so many times. Blaming themselves because they don’t think right or decide right or eat right or whatever right. And then there are the people who blame others. The blame game is a big waste of time and energy.
    Great post.

  12. Posted March 14, 2012 at 4:49 am | Permalink

    Awesome post! Very wise.

    Blaming others (or themselves) gives people a sense of control over the uncontrollable. “I did xxxx and that’s why I got cancer, so if I just stop doing xxx, I won’t get a recurrence and will live a long time.” Or, “That person did yyyyy and that’s why they got sick. If I don’t do yyyyy, I won’t get sick and die.” Or, “If I do zzzzz, I won’t get sick (or sick again).”

    It’s magical thinking, but so pervasive we don’t even recognize it in ourselves.

  13. Karen
    Posted March 14, 2012 at 6:54 am | Permalink

    This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, from Redd Foxx: “Health nuts are going to feel stupid someday, lying in hospitals dying of nothing.”

    Seriously though, lovely post. I’ll need to chew on that for a while.

    • Agnes
      Posted March 14, 2012 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      Ha! Great quote.

  14. G
    Posted March 14, 2012 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    Michelle, thank you so much for writing this post! It does a good job articulating things I’ve been struggling to put into words lately.

    It seems like every health study that comes out says “This will make you less likely to die!” Well, living carries a 100% risk of death… and I really hope that when I get to that point I face it with self-love and the knowledge that I worked toward making the world a little better, and that I and enjoyed life and fully used the life I had. Honestly, life is too short to spend it hating yourself and waiting to live.

  15. Patsy Nevins
    Posted March 14, 2012 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    Yesterday, shortly after I posted here, I logged into yahoo to check my email. One of the headlines was yet another Chicken Little assuring us that if we have ever eaten red meat, or bacon, or bologna, we are taking 20% off our life expectancy. Well, I have eaten & still eat all those things & am 62 now. My mother & grandmother, who lived to be 85 & 90 ate a lot of those things. So does my 90-year-old mother-in-law, whose biggest fear at the moment appears to be that she won’t make it to 100.

    I am SOOO tired of “OMG, don’t do this or you will die!” & “Do this religiously, & you will practically live forever!” These people are usually selling something, it is true, but they are also almost equally afraid of living & dying.

    • Posted March 14, 2012 at 8:24 am | Permalink

      The same culture of fear that leads to sensationalized media accounts of…everything…in order to clothesline your attention and grab as many eyeballs as possible is, I feel, a large part of what’s behind the health panic.

      The mainstream media does not, first of all, have very nuanced (or sometimes even intelligible) scientific reporting, and then they have to make science – which is often a dull, slow, bit-by-tiny-bit progression of knowledge – into something EXCITING!!!!!!!

      Which, most of the time, means something SCARY!!!!!!!

      I mostly ignore sources like that because I know it isn’t going to do me any good. If I see an interesting health headline, I track down the original press release and the abstract of the study. Even at that level, I usually find out that the news article hyped it a bit much, or that they made errors in conflating association with causality, etc.

    • Emgee
      Posted March 14, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I just had a heated discussion with a friend over this very red meat study, and was chastised severely for commenting that there are many anecdotal incidents of folks living to a ripe old age despite eating red meat, and how dare I suggest that it’s a personal decision for everyone.

      • Posted March 14, 2012 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

        So, I just did a quick look at the numbers in this study, and the dietary assessment tool they used, and it is a ridiculously poor-quality study.

        1) They could not have actually verified the level of dietary detail they claimed they had (e.g. “people ate 1 serving of red meat per day”) because they only assessed the subjects’ diets…drumroll please…ONCE EVERY FOUR YEARS.

        2) ONCE EVERY FOUR YEARS WITH THE LEAST-SPECIFIC DIETARY ASSESSMENT TOOL IN EXISTENCE – the food frequency questionnaire.

        3) The risk of each person of dying, each year, during follow up was 0.82%

        4) A 20% increase in THAT risk is a ridiculously small increase in risk.

        5) That 20% increase in risk is probably not correct anyway; see 1.

        Here’s the abstract: http://archinte.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/archinternmed.2011.2287

        P.S. It’s the Harvard School of Public Health (Nutrition Dept, specifically). The same people who brought you ridiculous conclusions of increased mortality with overweight later contradicted by the CDC.

        P.P.S. Even if it were all true, and all the numbers were firm, a study like this, by design, cannot and emphatically does not prove causation. So “all red meat is bad for you!” is a completely unsupportable conclusion, any way you slice it.

        P.P.P.S. If someone more brilliant with math than me (read: everyone in the world) wants to dissect the numbers and compare notes, and/or show me that my math is wrong, please do so. I’d appreciate it.

        • Emgee
          Posted March 15, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

          You are awesome!

  16. Posted March 14, 2012 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Just… wow…. thanks. I realize that while I hope to be around for a long while, I am not, at the moment, afraid of death. I don’t live my life in fear of it. I would say that I am wanting to be around for my daughter for as long as I can (I’m 43, so there’s a decent chance of that, but no guarantees). I am so grateful for the gift of being able to live in the present moment, to enjoy what my body senses, what my soul delights in (not that these are separate, as I made it sound there).
    I think that is the difference between me and some of the “worriers” out there — and I think that my robust enjoyment of the present moment does serve to be some kind of threat. That I wouldn’t place my current enjoyment over some longer-term potential trade-off. Of course, I do make decisions all of the time that are about longer-term potential trade-offs, but there are others that I decide are worth the immediate gain.

  17. ricki
    Posted March 14, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    This is a beautiful post. The doctor’s comment to Georgia was like a gut-punch, though: how could someone be so insensitive (wait, don’t tell me…)

    Count me in with those people who are incredibly tired of media scare-stories telling you how you’re x% more likely to die if you either do something “they” disapprove of or don’t do something “they” approve of.

    Last I checked, everyone’s chance of dying was at 100%. Unfortunately, I tend to be one of those worriers who can be induced to look at her (perfectly moderate) meals and go, “Is there something here I should be cutting out? Is there some other vegetable I don’t like that I should be choking down in the name of Health?”

    I’m a biologist, and I should be better at ignoring those things, because I know how studies can be spun and how data can be massaged. (But it doesn’t help teaching from department-chosen textbooks that do the Fat Is Bad dance and that apparently don’t differentiate between Type I and Type II diabetes…. and it doesn’t help having a colleague who occasionally says fat-hating things, and when I call him on it, essentially says, “Oh, don’t worry….you’re one of the ‘good’ ones.”)

  18. Agnes
    Posted March 14, 2012 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    Wonderful post. The just world theory and fear of death permeates our entire culture– it is not relegated to matters of physical health. I think the need to stand out and the desire for some sort of fame is another way to deny death. My body won’t be here– but people will remember me! Never mind thinking about why do I care if people I barely know or don’t know remember me. I think this is a way to keep us from really living– forgetting that the real pleasures of life are often small- sharing a joke with a loved one, reading a good book, or simply enjoying a nice day.

  19. Joanne
    Posted March 14, 2012 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Do you have a wallet with”BMF ” sewed on it?
    If not, then you need one.

    • Joanne
      Posted March 14, 2012 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      BMF stands for “bad mutha f*cker” by the way!

      • Posted March 14, 2012 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

        I think I’ll go buy one :)

  20. Posted March 14, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    I also came to the conclusion, as a teen, that the main thing people fight against, run from and criticize is death. Fear of death is the primary motivator. And we use it in both positive and negative ways. I think the true determinant of whether our actions are positive or negative is whether or not they make life better, happier, more joyful….whether it makes life more lively. The rest is an exploration of being dead already to alleviate the fear of what happens at the ultimate end.

  21. gidget commando
    Posted March 14, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    I want to peel you grapes and shower you with rose petals and do your taxes for you (well, you might not want me to do the last one, I suck at math). THIS. BOATLOADS OF THIS!!!

    Be kind to yourself, avoid the extremes, do the best you can and listen to your own body. That these ideas are considered radical gives me a wedgie.

  22. Emgee
    Posted March 14, 2012 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    Great post! It has really made me think (always dangerous), and I have 2 thoughts:
    1) I’m not sure many people really give a fig whether we fatties die–given the doctor in the story, after her heartless comment, I can almost hear the unspoken, “Good riddance to bad rubbish.” Substitute any minority, it’s still seen as “us” against “them.” We fatties are the last group who not only can legally be discriminated against, it is socially sanctioned to do so. And I see this continuing until and unless we can become a Constitutionally-protected class. I don’t think many really care if we die, as long as we have the decency to drop dead instantly. It’s when we don’t, they care (and resent) when we linger and rack up costs to taxpayers and/or the health insurance collective. After all, we brung it on ourselves, right? Which brings me to…
    2) In Biblical times, and even later, illness was seen as a result of sin, and thus our fault. Then science taught us about bacteria and virus causing illness, so it wasn’t your fault you were sick. Seems we have come full circle, with science now being able to tell us that our illness is our fault because it IS the result of our “sin” of gluttony and sloth (eating too much, not exercising, eating red meat, etc.). So, our fault again.
    Sorry for the rant, I guess you hit a nerve. :)

    • Posted March 14, 2012 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

      Yes – illness was even seen as demon possession (incubus or succubus possession, to be precise!) during the Middle Ages, which implicated the “victim” because in order to be possessed, you would have had to fraternize with the devil in some way.

      It sounds so crazy when you say it like that, but it is not really all that different from how we look at certain illnesses, and how we blame their victims, today. I am totally with you on that.

    • Quill
      Posted March 15, 2012 at 1:18 am | Permalink

      “We fatties are the last group who not only can legally be discriminated against, it is socially sanctioned to do so.”

      Can we not play the game of “my oppression is most bad” ever again, please? It does nothing but divide groups struggling with various kids of marginalization and irritate people who would otherwise be supportive.

      Discrimination on the basis of gender identity is legal and socially acceptable in most of the US, and the fights around discrimination on the bases of sexual orientation, gender, race, religion, disability, etc. are not over.

      • Posted March 15, 2012 at 9:24 am | Permalink

        Yes, sadly, there are plenty of forms of discrimination that harm (and often kill) people, that seem to have hardly caused a blip on the larger social radar of Gee, This Is Wrong (let alone the legal protection channels) – e.g. transphobia.

      • Emgee
        Posted March 15, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

        I’m sorry, I was not trying to say my oppression is the most bad. And I agree heartily that discrimination in all forms, continues, and disturbingly, seems to be on the rise these days. I was referring to the trend of posting fat kids on billboards to tell them not to be so fat and lazy, and for TV doctors to shame fat people on the air (for their own good, of course) to get them to stop being fat. That is socially sanctioned bullying in the name of public health, and is used in the healthcare debate. We should all do what we can to fight all forms of discrimination and oppression.

    • Inca
      Posted March 15, 2012 at 4:50 am | Permalink

      Not the only or last group though. There’s the whole mental-psychiatrical thingy that face discrimination as well. (First: if you ever get the stamp ‘psychological’ any physical complaints will easily be explained away by saying it is just in the mind, it really reduces your chances of getting a fair physical examination. Second, our government even introduced an additional fee for getting mental health care that isn’t present for physical illnesses – if that’s not discrimination or implying ‘it’s your own fault for going crazy’ nothing else is.)
      The social stigma is quite impressive as well.

      • Posted March 15, 2012 at 9:21 am | Permalink

        Wow, that is just so messed up. Where are you at?

  23. Posted March 15, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    Thank. You.

    (And many more of the above!)

  24. Emerald
    Posted March 15, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    That doctor’s comment was just so appalling on every possible level.

    In cancer registry, my line of work, I document the progress of patients in order that someone, somewhere, can look for patterns that may enable us to improve treatment and help people with these diseases to live months or years longer. But, there’s too much talk of ‘risk factors’ as if that meant ‘indulge in bad behaviour X and you will definitely die of cancer Y’. That’s not how it works. Telling who will get which cancer, how long they’ll live and how they’ll respond to treatment, or not, really is not straightforward or predictable.

    There’s an irony, too, in that cancer is basically down to damage of the replicating mechanism of cells, and – family history and random genetic glitches aside – the vast majority of that is down to age. (An infamous example in the field is that by age 80, probably the majority of men have some degree of prostate cancer. Most die of something else before it ever becomes clinically apparent, and why it does develop earlier and more aggressively in a few men still isn’t clearly understood.) Living longer lives simply means we die more from cancer (and other diseases of ageing) than from infections, malnutrition, unassisted and too-frequent childbirth or any of the other things we used to die from rather sooner. Would we rather go back to that?

    Basically, I think, yes, we’re scared of the fact that the inevitable awaits us all, and we don’t have any say about how or when, so we try to gain some control over it any way we can. I’m a huge Neil Gaiman fan, and I think anyone who’s afraid of death needs to have a read of Sandman (and the spin-offs, The High Cost of Living and The Time of Your Life). Not that I think Death actually does come as a perky little Goth girl (though it’s a cool idea), but Gaiman’s version has a lot to say about the shortness and poignancy of human life, and the value of living while you’re here and making it meaningful.

  25. Posted March 15, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    This post made me think about why I plunged into this whole body image and diet business in the first place, and why I have had (and still have this nagging voice at the back of my head) this compulsion to be skinny, healthy and fit. It’s not about death – for me it’s about love. A huge fear that I am not worth loving if I am not perfect in aspects I can control (and in quite a few I cannot).

    I am working on those issues ;)

    • Posted March 15, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

      A huge fear that I am not worth loving if I am not perfect in aspects I can control

      I think that’s a great insight, and I suspect lots of people share this fear…actually maybe most of us. I hope it gets better for you. I think all humans are worth loving, especially the imperfect ones :)

  26. DisneyDyke
    Posted March 16, 2012 at 4:25 am | Permalink

    This is beautifully written. Not only that. It is poetic but it is also philosophical. Denial of life, you just say it so well. And you write it with compassion, gentleness… And ultimately joy.
    Things like this push me in the right direction.

  27. DisneyDyke
    Posted March 16, 2012 at 4:29 am | Permalink

    But this, this especially… This brought tears to my eyes:
    She was delightful in every possible way – warm, funny, sweet, without a sharp edge anywhere. She put up with wild shenanigans during sleepovers and let us dress like Madonna on Halloween and eat as much candy as we wanted. She always kept cinnamon Graham crackers in the house. She let us coax her onto a giant trampoline once, to bounce gingerly and scream in delighted terror. She loved her daughters openly, broadly, and unashamedly, and raised them to be as wonderful as she was.
    How wonderful it must be having a mother that loves life and loves you! And you just describe it, in a single paragraph so well.
    Not all parents can love their children that way.

  28. Michele
    Posted March 16, 2012 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Beautifully written. What a great message. Thank you!!

  29. RVH
    Posted March 17, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    I just want to say that I love this post. I’m a nurse and this really resonates with a lot of what I hear on a day to day basis. You’re an excellent writer.

  30. Kim
    Posted March 20, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    I came to this blog today since I just had a bad experience at the doctor’s myself. I have been reading this blog after researching HAEC as recommended by my counselor because of my messed up psyche concerning body image and eating. I am in my 4th year of a rigorous PhD program in biochemistry and my husband had to put Batman wrapping paper over all the mirrors in our house because I would daily break down, bawl, and feel like I didn’t deserve to live because I am fat and disgusting and worthless. Those are the ugly words I think about myself (or did more before counseling and HAEC and the Batman wrapping paper which helped a lot). I am big…fat, maybe. My husband says I am amazingly thick, solid, and hard…which is unfortunately not desireable for a woman to be. I did research in a muscle metabolism lab and did water displacement and DEXA scan on my own body with algorithms developed to separate lean mass from fat mass and found out my lean mass is more in line with that of a male making me very overweight by female BMI charts. Even in high school where I was a very successful athelete I worked out excessively (over 3.5 hours of strenuous exercise per day) plus refused to eat properly (800 calories or less per day) and was never under a size 10. I am currently a size 12-14 depending on the jeans. However, I was only applauded for my effort because I was never thin so even though it was unhealthy people acted like it was ok for me to be engaging in such behavior.

    This brings me to today. I went to see an OB/GYN just because I needed a damn refill prescription for my birth control. Since I was there anyone and will probably soon be actually finishing my PhD I thought I may as well ask about having kids (not that it’s even on the radar). Although I have had extensive blood workups done because of my own paranoia about my weight all parameters are normal. Normal thyroid, normal blood pressure, normal triglycerides, normal cholesterol, normal glucose tolerance, normal insulin levels…nothing even close to borderline. The OB/GYN takes one look at the weight listed on my chart and pipes out that “you need to lose weight before thinking about getting pregnant” I sigh and she snips back “I mean AT LEAST 20 lbs.” I explain to her that I run 6 miles during my hour workout every single morning and am already unreasonably restrictive about my food intake. She starts lecturing me on how I probably eat healthy foods but I don’t know about calories and am eating way too many of them. I am getting a PhD in biochemistry and I don’t know about calories? Puhhlease!! I have to tell her my whole embarrassing history that I have to seek mental counseling from an eating disorder counselor because of my issues and that in spite of that I still weigh out and catalog every morsel of food I put into my body most days because I’m so paranoid about gaining even one pound.

    It is only after this that she quits looking at my chart and the big fat disgusting number listed for weight and comments that I have a small waist and do I always gain weight only around my thighs and rear. I do. Then she is interested in what other women in my family look like. They are all large, between 300-400 lbs so I am tiny at 180 lbs. They are all also wonderful women that make me feel so happy and they all have lots and lots of healthy children.

    The culture is so broken! How do we change it? I told my Dr. that her comments made me feel like puking up my breakfast, popping my husband’s Adderall he takes for his ADD and never eating again because I didn’t deserve to. I mean, God forbid I got pregnant and killed my unborn child by suffocating them in the womb with all my fat!

    However, my mental state is still too fragile and even if I had been considering having kids, I would probably deny living my life even longer because I didn’t deserve to and if anything happened abnormally with my baby it would be because I was fat. I hate to think what she tells women that are even larger than me. I know many women that wear larger than size 12-14 jeans and who have larger than 34 inch band circumference on their bras successfully have healthy pregnancies with healthy babies. I hope they don’t go see this Dr!

    • Posted March 21, 2012 at 7:49 am | Permalink

      I told my Dr. that her comments made me feel like puking up my breakfast, popping my husband’s Adderall he takes for his ADD and never eating again because I didn’t deserve to. I mean, God forbid I got pregnant and killed my unborn child by suffocating them in the womb with all my fat!

      I am so sorry you’re having such a hard time with body image – but I am so glad you told the doctor straight out what kind of effect her comments about weight had on you. I don’t know why some don’t seem to understand that eating disordered people come in all shapes and sizes, and you can’t assume someone is eating a particular way based solely on their weight.

      I had to cover my mirrors, too, at one point. I literally thought I was too disgusting to live – and this was back when I weighed probably 165 lbs. We truly live in a very sick culture, and it can make us sick, too.

      I hope you get better, get your PhD and have lots of healthy babies if you want them.

    • Posted March 21, 2012 at 10:44 am | Permalink

      This. This. THIS is the kind of thing that to me makes the BMI police so maddening. It gets my hackles up. You are not a dot on a chart. It sounds as if you are about the same size as I am, but considerably more fit and athletic and healthy — and I damn well don’t think of my weight as something that’s about to kill me or anyone else for that matter. Good for you for speaking up for yourself, but dammit, you shouldn’t have to. Maybe your speaking up will make this doctor think about how she is viewing her other patients. That took bravery on your part.

      Have you looked at the First Do no Harm blog? Many, many stories of BMI blindness in the healing professions.
      http://fathealth.wordpress.com/

      • Posted March 21, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

        (Listen to the FatChickinLycra. She talks sense.)

  31. Posted April 1, 2012 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Patsy Nevins your comment way up at the top of the page is so good I want to link to it separately on facebook. Now I need to go back to the top and read everyone’s comments. Michelle, I cannot thank you enough for sharing your wisdom and kindness with the world, and creating this wonderful space of peace and sanity. What a lovely community there is here.

    • Posted April 1, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      Thank you. I thought Patsy’s comment was utterly fantastic, too.

  32. Kiri
    Posted August 15, 2012 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    Hi, new to this particular blog but have been glued to the site for the last 24hrs or so. I can’t believe I’ve finally found something that makes sense of the madness around weight.
    I agree that fear plays a huge part in the weight story. Though for me, I don’t fear death/dying. I’m a curious type and I’d like to find out if there really is anything going on after I shuffle off this mortal coil.

    I think that maybe I’m afraid to live. And my weight is an “acceptable reason/excuse” for not fully participating in life. Not totally sure what that’s all about. But ok to let it percolate and see what surfaces.

    In the meantime, I’m pleased to have found a place to hangout, feel validated for the first time in a long time and build a better relationship with the thing that’s dangling off my head apparently called my body.
    Thanks for being ….

    • Posted August 15, 2012 at 9:31 am | Permalink

      Very interesting insight! And thanks for reading :)

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