Category Archives: body image

Bad Fairy at the Christening


Backstory to Sleeping Beauty: two Good Fairies offer upbeat predictions for baby Aurora; then a Bad Fairy [name of Maleficent] predicts that on the girl’s 16th birthday, she’ll prick her finger with a spindle and die. A 3rd Good Fairy softens the malediction from “die” to “fall asleep.” Then they put the baby into a witness protection program [changing her name to Briar Rose]. You remember the rest.

So here’s the malediction du jour from BMC Medicine 2009, 7;46: based on a decades-long study of 16,496 kids, all born in the UK, in the same week of April, 1970. When they were 10 years old, several tests & measurements were administered. Less subjectively, their Body Mass Index [as well as that of their parents] was obtained by “a qualified nurse.” The Social Class of their parents was calculated, based on Dad’s line of work [if any]. Their teacher filled out a “modified Rutter B” questionnaire [which assessed each kid for how “worried,” “miserable,” “tearful,” and/or “fussy” they were]. Hands up, if you ever were assigned Robert Rosenthal’s 1968 educational classic, Pygmalion in the Classroom. If so, you already know how this study is going to turn out; but don’t spoil the surprise for the others.

Then these UK 10-year-olds were given 3 read-it-yourself-and-fill-in-the-answers surveys. The so-called Self-Report test had just 2 items: “I worry alot,” and “I am nervous,” to which the kid could answer “Not at all,” or “Sometimes,” or “Often/usually.” [Let’s cut to the chase on this one, and say that it predicted nowt, bupkes, nada.] Ah, but there followed the 12-item LAWSEQ [“yes,” “no,” “don’t know”] to assess Self Esteem; and the 16-item CAROLOC [“yes,” or “no/don’t know”] to assess External/Internal Locus of Control. The scoring on each test was like golf [not basketball]: lower was better. Did you ever study the “Yea-sayer Effect”? [As the name suggests, some folks Just Cain’t Say “No” on questionnaires. That’s why well-designed surveys throw in some “Yes, we have no bananas” type of questions, just to catch out the “yea-sayers.” Not these two tests, though.]

Okay, so fast-forward 20 years. Of the original cohort, less than half the 30-year-olds [mostly women] chose to contact the researchers, with their self-reported Body Mass Index. Now for the high-concept title of the article: “Childhood emotional problems and self-perceptions predict weight gain in a longitudinal regression model.” And now, for what the data actually show. “The strongest predictors of weight gain were BMI @ age 10 and parental BMI.” “[For women only] External Locus of Control and Low Self Esteem predicted weight gain on a par with Social Class.” “The Rutter B predicted increased BMI [for women].”

So–before we all start wringing our hands like the guests at Aurora’s Christening party, at the “Statistically Proven Fact” that highly-strung 10-year-old girls [or those who Just Cain’t Say No on questionnaires], whose teachers have already pigeon-holed them as Nervous Nellies, are doomed to become overweight 30-year-olds–let’s consider an unexplored bias in the data. As Rosenthal’s [much more robust] results have shown, a teacher’s subjective assessment of each student has a powerful effect–for good or evil–not only on the teacher’s predictions of that kid’s academic and social success, but on the kid’s actual success.

So, here’s my advice to concerned parents of young girls. Listen carefully at those parent-teacher conferences; and if you’re getting the vibe that the teacher has your kid in “negative halo” mode, either change the teacher’s attitude or change which teacher your kid has. I have no doubt that my father’s move-in-October Navy schedule fortuitously rescued me from some toxic negative halo situations [inasmuch as I was an Exceedingly Highly-Strung, ergo annoying, young pupil]. And twice, my parents insisted that I switch teachers, even when we weren’t blowing in or out of town.

Ya gotta be your kid’s Press Agent, and package ’em, like an Oscar nominee. Ya gotta win the Bad Fairies over, and get them to revise their own predictions of your kid’s prospects. Also, it couldn’t hurt to coach your kid to charm it up a little, no? And for those of you waiting for the Up Your Nose nexus here, say it with me: Childhood humiliation [at not being one of the teacher’s faves] leads to anger [often, directed against oneself] and to dumping cortisol, which leads to weight gain…along with other forms of pain & suffering.

But watch out for that 16th birthday, anyway. It’s a risky time for most girls.

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Filed under attribution theory, body image, confounds, locus of control, murky research, stress and cortisol

Consider the Source


In all the stage, telly & film versions of Shakespeare’s play Richard III I’ve seen, he wears a gaudy, gold piece of bling: a heavy chain necklace with a wild boar pendant. Now, why is that? “Cuz that was his heraldic emblem, innit?” How come? “Cuz he was a hunchback, all bent over like a wild boar, innit?” How do we know that? “Cuz that’s how Shakespeare had Richard describe himself, right at the opening of the play, innit?” But Shakespeare wrote the play more than 100 years after Richard’s death. How did he know what Richard really looked like? “Cuz, clever clogs, a Yorkshire school master, name of John Burton, wrote in 1491 (within living memory of Richard) that he was ‘an hypocrite, a crouchback, and buried in a dike like a dog.’ Innit?”

Well, it’s clear that Burton was no fan of the last Plantagenet king (nor was Shakespeare, who was kissing up to his own monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, of the rival gang, the House of Tudor). But his research was a bit dodgy. “Crouchback” was a family name in the House of Plantagenet [not a diss or a diagnosis], referring to the family’s right to wear an embroidered cross on the back of their formal wear, cuz their ancestor, Henry Plantagenet, fought in [and funded] the Crusades. Ya see how these urban legends get started?

Do you believe everything you read [or hear] in the media about Hollywood’s “royalty”? How can you, when every week two adjacent tabloids at the grocery check-out are contradicting each other? Do you believe in the genuineness of paparazzi photos, or have you twigged to the magic of PhotoShop, by now?

If you are female, do you believe that Barbie’s proportions represent the Platonic Form of Absolute Feminine Beauty? If so, you have something in common with the not-so-ancient Chinese, who bound infant girls’ feet, to keep them from growing [also, alas, keeping them from supporting the weight of the unfortunate girl, when the rest of her body grew up, so that she had to be carried around, like…um…Barbie].

See where I’m going with this? Be very careful in your choice of Body Image role models, for yourself or for those in your care. Ask yourself, who gets to decide what size [of foot, or body] is The Right Size? If you know someone who looks like a runway model, regard them with pity, not envy; for such cadaverous thinness [usually] comes at the cost of long-term health. A male cousin of mine [who studied at a famous UK ballet school in the 70s and danced professionally], gave us a glimpse into the grim reality behind those fairy-princess-looking girls. That ethereal look was [most often] achieved through the imposition [before the legal age of consent] of a forced choice: the humiliation of constant criticism for weight gain [soon followed by fear of dismissal from the school or professional dance company], or the pain & suffering of a life-long battle with Eating Disorder.

Last year, after the death of 3 South American models in their quest to compete with their European “colleagues” for angularity, there went out an international hue & cry, to insist that runway models must have a doctor’s certificate of “healthy Body Mass Index” before they could work in the fashion industry. Didn’t happen. Fashion designers refused to provide attire sized to fit the “certified healthy” models. Think about the priorities of such people, and those in the media who allow them to dictate what will be The Look for this Fall. Before you buy into their hype, that their Look is the Only Acceptable Look for this season [“Wear It or Be Square”], consider the source.

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Filed under attribution theory, body image, semiotics, sharks and jets

"He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother"


Couple of fun facts, before I get to the point. [What’s new?] The Hollies released this song in the UK in 1969 (featuring Reg Dwight on piano); although Neil Diamond [him again?] recorded it before that, but didn’t get around to releasing it until after the Hollies’ version was a trans-Atlantic hit. Reg (who got paid 12 pounds Sterling as a session musician for the Parlaphone version) is now better known as Elton John. [If you knew all that, you’re a Geek, no matter how Field Dependent you are.]

Now to Desmond & Penny, who were born to different mothers, but adopted together from the Rancho Cucamonga Animal Shelter. If you’re a film buff [or just know about Boys’ Town], you will recall that the song title is taken from the motto of that once all-boy (now co-ed) Kid Shelter in Nebraska, made famous by the Spencer Tracy flick, Going My Way. So, Poetically speaking, the aphorism means, “I do not regard or perceive my fellow Boys’ Town inmate as a burden, but rather as my dear brother, whom I carry because I can.” In the cats’ case, however, it is literally true that Desmond [the exotic-looking striped & dotted male] weighs less than Penny [the black female], although they eat the same amount. If they were horses, one would say that Penny was a “good keeper,” whereas Desmond was a “hay burner.”

Alas, with cats, dogs & humans, being a “good keeper” is no longer regarded as a Good Thing [except in the 3rd World, where it keeps you alive in times of famine].When our daughter & her apartment-mate anthropomorphize their cats, they have Penny saying, “Does my brother make me look heavy?” In our East Coast menagerie, the two “hay burners” (Ruth, the 6-pound Maine Coon cat & Lili the 71-pound German Shepherd) have long, fluffy fur which disguises their ferret-like thinness [until they get wet]. Not so, shorthaired Desmond (whom his vet declares is “just fine-boned,” not unhealthy).

So, here’s the point. The vexed topic of Body Mass Index (for our pets & ourselves) seems to be a no-win proposition. The range of “just fine” seems to be a moving target; and failure to hit the bullseye leads to humiliating glances & remarks from the general public, and/or alarming remarks from healthcare providers. If one is a child or a pet, it can also lead to the imposition of a special diet [to promote weight loss or gain], which in turn can lead to the pain & suffering of various forms of eating disorder. For instance, when our vet urges us to feed Ruth bigger helpings, the food ends up [quickly “recycled”] on the floor. When she urges us to cut back on Napster’s serving size, he whines at us like Oliver Twist, until we relent and give him “some more.” And, as previously noted, these 4 irritants lead to anger & the production of bad-for-the-body cortisol.

So, my first bit of advice to those who have what is currently called Poor Body Image, is to adopt your body as a rescue pet. [I know, sounds kind of Out There, but after all, I am at least a part-time Flake.] Even though the vet decrees “Feed Ruth more,” and “Feed Napster less,” I take her [expensive] advice as a Serving Suggestion, and temper it with common sense and compassion. I make subtle course corrections, not Draconian changes. If I were you, and I had been given the “shape-up-or-be-shipped-out [possibly, on a stretcher]” ultimatum, I would strive to be as kind to my “pet” body, as to any of the animals in my care. I would forget about “Best in Show,” and set my sights on “Getting Better. Trending in the Right Direction.”

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Filed under black and white thinking, body image, lesser of two evils, stress and cortisol

Albert Ellis Knew, Too


I promise, we’ll get to the permissible aggression–just not yet. First, we should exhaust [or at least explore] all alternative responses. Albert Ellis, who died on 24 July 2007 at the age of 93, was annoying as hell. Ask anyone who knew him, including the woman he lived with for 37 years, Janet Wolfe. Because he was a graduate of our program @ Columbia, he used to drop by and try to incite us to fury, mostly succeeding. Even so, I feel lucky to have sat in his presence. He is known as the father of Rational-Emotive Therapy, which [I now realize, having come to Epictetus via Tom Wolfe] is based almost entirely on Stoic philosophy. I shall paraphrase him closely [but you must imagination his whiny, nasal voice]: “We talk to ourselves in short, declarative sentences. We say, ‘I am a cat in a sack; and that is awful!’ That is not awful–it is only highly inconvenient.

As it happens, we were weighing Zanzibar, to calculate his proper dosage of flea & tick meds. He wasn’t in the sack 30 seconds. Also, despite the expression on his face in this picture, out of the 16 cats I have owned, he is the most laid-back, seemingly oblivious to the notion of humiliation. When Napster’s turn in the “sack-scale” came, he was, as usual, overcome with fear. Ruth–the 19-year-old, 5-pound Maine Coon–was soaking up BTUs under one of our few remaining incandescent lights; and because her weight has remained constant for almost two decades, she was spared the intrusion into her nap time. Now, be honest with yourself. Do you enjoy public weigh-ins? What gets up your nose about them? Realistically, only jockeys, pugillists and military personnel are likely to face the pain & suffering of job loss, in connection with avoirdupois. Let’s say your doctor hectors you, “If you don’t lose some weight, you’re going to die!” You can reply with the words of Epictetus: “When did I ever say I was immortal?” So good old Dr. Ellis would have you reason with your aroused amygdala, in the face of an impending weigh-in, “I may have put on a couple pounds; but that is not awful. It is only highly inconvenient.” Thus, you should experience less anger, dump less cortisol, and spare your body additional adipose deposits. [I must say, Albert was a trim fellow.]

As with this trivial example, so with much of life: the Stoics and their modern descendants, the Cognitive-Behavioral Theorists, would have us believe that the acting out of aggressive impulses can–and should–be avoided in most instances. We cannot control other people’s actions; but we can strive to control our own emotional reactions to them. My favorite adjunct professor would ask rhetorically, after making a seemingly absolute pronouncement, “Always?” and then answer his own question, either “Always,” or “Not always.” So, Epictetus, Tom Wolfe, and I would answer, as to whether we should always maintain our equanimity, “Not always.”

Oh, yay! We sometimes get to resort to violence! [“Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war.”] When? Epictetus offers one specific circumstance: one must never “ignore cries for help from a friend under assault from robbers.” Less specifically, he opines, “Just as a target is not set up in order to be missed, so evil is no natural part of the world’s design.” Hmm. That seems to cover alot of territory. Since we’re supposed to love and accept the “Natural,” but hate the “Unnatural,” anything any one of us finds “unnatural” could be considered “evil”; and we’re allowed to oppose it, with violence, if necessary. This is where Cows, Pigs, Wars & Witches would point out to our ancient Greco-Roman philosopher, that what is “unnatural” is largely a matter of geography. There is–and has been, since way before Epictetus was teaching–a variance in climates, native flora & fauna, and resulting folkways, that inform one’s beliefs as to what is “natural” and “unnatural.” We can’t all be Mediterraneans, ya know.

So, alas, we are back to “When in Rome, do as the Romans…unless you are Greek, and despise the Romans…” This is where ethologists point out, we evolved with an amygdala for a reason–to help us [and those within our reference group] survive. Sometimes, the amygdala is not simply “barking mad”–to be overruled by reason, cognitive reframing and Stoicism. Sometimes, the right thing to do is cry “Havoc!”

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Filed under body image, Epictetus said..., pro bono publico, reference group, stress and cortisol