Ana, Mia, and the Health Imperative: Do We Have to Eat for Our Health?

Example of thinspo "pro-ana" inspiration: "Stop stuffing your fat face.  eat. feel guitly."

Example of thinspo “pro-ana” inspiration: “Stop stuffing your fat face. eat. feel guitly.”

A long while back, after I’d just stumbled into the pro-Ana and pro-Mia communities (not as a member), which I had no clue about before I started blogging about fitness and health, I wrote “Why the Thigh Gap Makes Me Sad.”  When I re-visited that article later, “Revisiting the Thigh Gap: Thin Body Shaming Isn’t Okay Either,” I remarked that it contained some thin-body shaming. Based on what I’ve learned over the year and a half or so of blogging on these things, I said a lot of thing I wouldn’t say (or would say quite differently) now.

A couple of days ago Sam sent me a news story from the National Post that is essentially a commentary on pro-Ana and pro-Mia websites and on-line communities.  It’s entitled: “‘Anorexia is a lifestyle, not a disease: an investigation into the harrowing on-line forums promoting extreme dieting.

The author opens with a bit about a woman named Jade,

Jade calls herself an “ana veteran.” Her aim is to provide “tips, tricks and information” for others who, like her, are in the grip of an eating disorder. Her readers, she says, are “girls who are desperate in their anorexia and willing to do anything to lose weight. They are sick, but they don’t see it as an illness. I’ve been anorexic for 10 years and I know this is the way I want to live.”

Instead of urging her readers to stop starving themselves, Jade helps – often encourages – them to embrace their eating disorder. “I eat three meals a day but make sure I never take in more than 50 calories,” she writes in one post. Another boasts: “I’ve reached a point where I can go without food for three or four days. You can do it too, but it will take discipline and hard work.”

Moving into commentary now, the author says:

Her attitude is chilling but far from unique. Jade is part of a growing international group of “pro-ana” (pro-anorexia) and “pro-mia” (pro-bulimia) bloggers, who perceive their illness as a “lifestyle.” Though sites like this have been around for years, hers is one of a worrying new generation of online communities that have turned anorexia and bulimia into an aspirational state.

The attitude is a bit chilling, I agree. But as an onlooker, my thoughts about this issue have evolved quite a bit over time. One thing that comes up regularly on this blog is a rejection of the idea that health is an imperative. There is no requirement to be healthy, to choose healthy options, to pursue healthy goals.

If there were such an imperative, that would support all sorts of interventions that most of us think cross the line by violating people’s autonomy and right to make their own choices.  Is forcing someone with anorexia to eat any different from forcing someone who is extremely obese to diet or mandating a committed smoker to quit or even forcing a thin couch potato living on junk food to make healthier choices?

It’s not clear to me that it is.  This is not to say that health is not a good. I think, in fact, that good health is an objectively valuable thing to have and to aim for.  It’s an important part of a good life and contributes something fundamental and basic to human flourishing (I’ve been teaching Aristotle lately!).

And still, it’s not something to be forced on people.

I get, too, that anorexia and bulimia, both of which are promoted in these on-line communities, are considered to be illnesses.  Considering them as illnesses, the people who have them are actually ill and in need of help.  But we allow other people with illnesses get to make their own choices.  If I’m diagnosed with cancer, it’s up to me whether to pursue treatment, not up to anyone else.  And if I chose not to, surely there would be support for my decision and people would respect it.

But with eating disorders it’s quite the opposite. Few anorexics or bulimics will find support from family or friends.  From the article:

Dr. Helen Sharpe, a professor at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, has conducted research into pro-ana and pro-mia websites. They are, she says, “incredibly common,” and though they don’t cause eating disorders, they can perpetuate them. “What do they give people that they can’t get elsewhere?” she asks. “Eating disorders can be extremely isolating conditions, and so finding a community of other people who think like you can be a powerful draw.”

This idea of community, of anorexics and bulimics wanting to “belong” to a virtual family, is played out across the websites. On the world’s largest pro-ana forum, which has 65,000 users and 1.5 million posts, many topics are available exclusively to members, with layers of access granted the longer they stay with the site.

A couple of comments. As Sharpe says, these communities do not cause eating disorders even if they promote the idea.  I’ve lurked on some of the message boards a bit and seen that when someone comes on looking for advice about how to “become anorexic” she (usually she) is certain to get flamed.  She is urged to get out and to get a grip. Members explain to her that it’s an illness.

So even within the idea of anorexia as a lifestyle, there’s an implicit often unstated assumption at work: that it’s only a “lifestyle” for those who are already afflicted with an illness. There is a further assumption that it’s a difficult and painful lifestyle. No wonder they are seeking mutual support.

The shocking element for an onlooker is the type of support–it’s a lot of support to maintain and sustain the condition in a stealth way, so as to minimize interventions and comments from friends and family members.

But perhaps, like addicts or alcoholics whose chances of successful recovery are low if they’re forced, much better if they choose it, pro-ana and pro-mia support communities can nudge people into the direction of choosing something different and seeking help and healing:

Not all online discussion of eating disorders is negative, either. There are a host of websites that are more constructive than destructive. These ones, suggests Susan Ringwood from Beat, may hold the key to encouraging sufferers to have more positive discourse.

Ruby, a 32-year-old from the West Country, runs one such blog. She has lived the “half-life” of anorexia since she was 16. With her doctors’ permission, she writes to me from inside a psychiatric unit, where she is seeking treatment after decades of concealing her illness. “It’s a daily battle,” she explains. “There is a tug-of-war going on in my head. Recovery or eating disorder. Life or death. Fight or give up.”

Though she shares some characteristics with other sufferers who write online, Ruby’s blog is different from a pro-ana website. There is no claim that anorexia is a lifestyle, no “10 thin commandments,” no telling others off for eating.

Instead, there are sections entitled “myths”, “the facts” and “treatment”. Her writing is stark and honest; her acceptance that she has a mental illness clear. Most importantly, she urges her followers to seek help. “I don’t think pro-ana girls realise how dangerous their behaviour is,” she says.

There are signs, too, that writing has spurred Ruby on towards real-life recovery – a result that, experts say, might encourage others. “It’s a sad truth that my virtual life is more active than my real life,” she writes in a recent post.

I guess what I’m saying is that the issue is much more complicated than I thought it was when I first encountered it.  The article in the National Post would have had me nodding along a year ago. But today, I’m more cautious.  I still feel as if there is a reason to feel sad when people choose to pursue a life that restricts their range of choices and, by all accounts, promotes an excessive focus on one thing (much as an addict or alcoholic is focused on one thing).

But I don’t think that people can be forced to pursue healthy options even if they’re ill.  And that’s because health is a value, not an imperative.  And yes, watching people make choices that we perceive to be harmful, to support their illnesses, is a difficult thing to do. But the bottom line is, no one has to eat for their health.

Sugar on my tongue: In defence of the sweet stuff

image

If your social media newsfeeds include fitness and nutrition sources, you’ve likely read You’ll Stop Eating Sugar After Reading This Post. From the aptly named Babble.com, it went viral, as they say, this past week.

Here’s the short version: Sugar is evil, it will kill you, blah, blah, blah.

Now if you’ve been reading this blog for awhile you know we’re not fans of thinking of some foods as off-limits and we especially hate the language of “good” and “evil” when it comes to food choices. See Tracy’s past post Why Food Is Beyond “Good” and “Evil for a clear articulation of why that’s so.

While there is no doubt we, as a society, are eating too much sugar (the American Heart Association recommends 9.5 teaspoons a day but the average American adult eats 22 and the average American child 32–no Canadian stats close at hand) I’m very leery of approaches to food and nutrition that involve demonizing some foods and banishing  them from our diets altogether. There is a handy info-graphic about sugar and its over-consumption here.

I’m not going to defend sugar or take on the claims from Babble, but I do want to share with you a post from someone who has. Here’s Healthy Urban Kitchen’s response: 25 Things You Should Know About Sugar

I won’t rehash all 25 myths and the myth busting responses but I will include 22 as it’s a personal favourite and it’s a myth that lots of friends believe even though there’s no evidence to support it.

22 Sugar is Affecting Our Kids

Citing a single study about preschoolers and sugary drinks doesn’t support the idea that sugar as part of a balanced diet has any adverse effects on the behavior or cognitive abilities of kids.

a) ‘Although sugar is widely believed by the public to cause hyperactive behavior, this has not been scientifically substantiated. Twelve double-blind, placebo-controlled studies of sugar challenges failed to provide any evidence that sugar ingestion leads to untoward behavior in children with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or in normal children. Likewise, none of the studies testing candy or chocolate found any negative effect of these foods on behavior. ‘

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8747098

b) Does sugar make children hyperactive?

http://news.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/hi/health/newsid_7789000/7789412.stm

If you want to understand why parents believe this, look no further than the power of fear-based articles like these being widely shared and the Pygmalion effect: the phenomenon in which the greater the expectation placed upon people, the better they perform.  When kids are primed to bounce off the walls because they ate sugar, most will take the opportunity to let loose.

Here is an older post on the alleged evils of sugar from one of our favourite websites Go Kaleo.

Sugar Isn’t Evil: A Rebuttal

Go Kaleo: “Sugar is not THE problem. Sugar may be (and probably is, under some circumstances) A problem, one of many. But if we’re going to treat sugar as THE problem, and then ‘solve’ that problem by simply eliminating sugar, we’re missing the forest for the trees. Well, for one tree. A bush really. Inactivity is a bigger problem than sugar, and fixating on sugar gives the inactivity a free pass. To improve metabolic health we really need to address all the problems. Don’t get hung up on Sugar As The Bad Guy. You cheat yourself out of vibrant good health, and miss out on some yummy and perfectly appropriate desserts.”

And while Healthy Urban Kitchen and Go Kaleo sound all polite and reasonable, Melkor (another favourite Facebook fitness and nutrition skeptic) isn’t that restrained.

Melkor writes:

Better headline: You’ll Stop Reading Babble.com After Seeing Them Give Airtime to This Codswallop.
This new anti-sugar article that’s going around is 100% incorrect. It is false, every bit of it, it’s the perfect example of fear-mongering. It is supporting an upcoming documentary called “I Should Be Embarrassed for Believing Shit I Didn’t Research”. I’m writing a rebuttal now…
Photo: This new anti-sugar article that's going around is 100% incorrect. It is false, every bit of it, it's the perfect example of fear-mongering. It is supporting an upcoming documentary called "I Should Be Embarrassed for Believing Shit I Didn't Research".<br /><br />I'm writing a rebuttal now...
Finally, if you’re searching for more science in your assessment of sugar, read Scientific American’s Is Sugar Really Toxic? Sifting through the Evidence.  (tl;dr: it’s a mistake to call sugar ‘toxic’ but we’d be better off eating less of it.)
See also In defence of sugar in The National Post.
No shortage of evil sugar images!
sugar-devil
sugar
evil sugar

On Winning for Gold and “Losing” for Silver

canadian women's hockey team When Patrick Chan got the silver medal for men’s figure skating in the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, he apologized to Canadians for not getting the gold. And when Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir skated to silver, Canadians cried foul!  How is it possible that their free skate was that much “worse” than the American team’s?

When the Canadian women’s and men’s hockey teams won gold, Canadians celebrated and cheered in a way that they would not have had “we” lost that gold medal game.

But the thing about a gold medal game is this: the worst you can do is get the silver medal!  Silver is pretty darn good.  I’m always struck by the reaction of athletes and spectators, especially when it comes to the gold medal game.

I get that in the gold medal game, you win for gold and lose for silver.  And in the scheme of a hockey game, for example, there’s no getting around the fact that if you end up with the silver, you’ve lost that game.  But you’ve still come out pretty well, and don’t we all forget that?

There is such tremendous pressure on the athletes to get gold. Suddenly, during the Olympics, so many people lose sight of the sheer joy of watching elite athletes compete at their chosen sports.  The pressure is so great that I actually feel bad for athletes who don’t win (which is a lot of athletes!).

I’d read somewhere that the Sochi Games would be considered a failure (by Russians?) if the Russian men’s hockey team didn’t win the gold medal.  If that’s true, it’s sad.  I felt a real pang of disappointment on their behalf when they got eliminated (they didn’t even make it to the bronze medal game).  I recalled the time in World Cup soccer when the Columbian player who scored on his own net was murdered for his mistake.  Is winning the big prize really so important?

And yet, I sat on the edge of my seat during both hockey games, cheering for the Canadian teams, knowing full well that the worst they could do was get a silver medal. And though I didn’t think Patrick Chan owed us an apology, I felt disappointed that he didn’t manage to nail a couple of parts of his beautiful program that would have earned him the gold medal.

Besides the thrill of Canadian victory in the hockey games (we’re kind of serious about our hockey!), I have two Olympics moments that will be forever etched in my memory. The first is the overflowing joy of the Swiss women’s hockey team as they received their bronze medals.  They beamed with pride. I felt more moved watching their reactions than the Canadians, equally beaming.  In contrast, the US team stood in shock. Few smiled when they received their silver medals. They were still feeling the sting of having just lost a game (that it looked as if they had in the bag).

I don’t blame the US women for their reaction.  I’m sure “our” team would have been similarly devastated to lose the gold medal game.

The second image came right at the end, when in the closing ceremony they awarded the medals for the men’s 50K cross country ski event.  Three Russian athletes stood on the podium while the three Russian flags ascended to their rousing national anthem (what is it about their national anthem? I love it!).  I could feel the pride of the athletes at that moment. Pleased that we Canadians didn’t have to sacrifice hockey, it seemed fitting to me that the final medal ceremony should be a Russian sweep.

I can get as caught up as anyone in medal counts and pining for gold, but the fact is, all of the athletes are amazing to watch.  All of them, medalists and non-medalists, the athletes who get the gold, the athletes who surprise themselves with bronze, the athletes who come in seventh but are thrilled at their personal record, they’re all world class at their chosen sport.  What an amazing thing to get to watch them every day for a couple of weeks every four years!

I’m one of those people who likes races where everyone gets a medal.  See my post Why It’s a Good Thing That Everyone Gets a Medal. I don’t actually think that this should extend to the Olympics. It wouldn’t be nearly as exciting. So I’m not saying that everyone who competes at the Olympics is a winner.  Of course not. But for sure everyone who gets a medal at the Olympics, whether it be gold, silver, or bronze, is a winner.

Just ask the Swiss women’s hockey team.

Can the UFC handle a female Roy Nelson? Or is it all Rouseys? (Guest Post)

While plenty of other Canadians were obsessing over hockey this week, I was looking forward to UFC 170, in which as-yet-undefeated bantamweight champ Ronda Rousey would take on former Olympic wrestler Sara McMann. Those of you who care might already know that McMann didn’t manage to end Rousey’s domination of the division, though instead of ending the match with her signature arm bar, Rousey TKO’d McMann with a knee – admittedly with some controversy around whether or not the referee ended the match too early.

But that’s not what I want to talk about at the moment.

I want to talk about the future of women in the UFC. Fans might know that the UFC is planning on adding a female strawweight (115 lbs) division, in addition to the existing bantamweight (135lb) division. And I think that’s pretty great since it means more opportunity out there for female fighters. On the other hand, the cynic in me wonders what motivated the decision to add this division rather than another. I know they can’t do everything at once, but the issue of female athletes and weight is, well, complicated. While journalists don’t report the weights of many female athletes, it’s pretty much inevitable in MMA, or any other fighting sport. So could it be that the UFC is playing it safe by adding more female athletes who are likely to be conventionally good looking and, well, marketable?

I’m sure there’s a lot I don’t know about the politics behind it all, and there are certainly plenty of talented strawweight fighters. But there has also been a thriving division of talented featherweight (145lb) fighters for quite some time. In fact, Cris “Cyborg” Justino has recently called out Rousey, and wants to drop divisions to fight her. Gina Carano used to fight in that division and is now making action movies. There’s no shortage of amazing women there who already have a fan base.

Maybe this has some selfish motivation, but I want to see some heavier women fighting. And by “heavier,” I mean “heavier than the current fighters,” since 145 lbs is not exactly heavy, and that was about the heaviest women’s MMA division I could find much media coverage for. The world is already saturated with images of super-thin women who can apparently kick anyone’s ass. (See: basically any action movie with a female central character) We need to see something else as well.

This might also be a good time to point out that even the super-sexy Rousey has to cut plenty of weight to fight as a bantamweight. Her Olympic Judo career was spent at 155 lbs. So let’s not even entertain the thought that there aren’t talented female fighters over 135 lbs. I’ve met plenty of great female heavyweight fighters in taekwondo.  I’m sure MMA has them as well. And, fine, I don’t deny that sexualizing the fighters could just be arguably a good way of getting more people to watch them fight. But anyone who watches fights knows that, while some fighters (male and female) have conventionally hot bodies, there’s not too much of a correlation between how hot you look and how you perform in the ring.

So how about it, UFC? How about some women at lightweight, welterweight, heavyweight? Let’s get a female version of one of my favourite unsexy and super-tough fighters, Roy “Big Country” Nelson. Let’s get women who are just there because they can fight. Fine, market them with the usual moderately manufactured controversies, but get them fighting. I definitely see a lack of women at the higher weight classes, and I don’t think this needs to be the case. So… lack of encouragement? Not wanting to compete in a sport where weight class is one of the defining features of a career? What’s the problem? I don’t believe for a minute that it’s aptitude.

Get it started, world. If you really believe that “strong is the new skinny,” then let’s give some strong women (who might not be all that skinny) their day in the ring. And female Roy Nelson – if you’re out there – I want to see you fight.

Skipping in the school yard, or why I’m so grumpy about double unders

double unders make me pee tshirtLast summer I blogged about the problem of peeing during workouts, Peeing during workouts, not just an older woman’s issue, and frankly, since it isn’t a problem I have (yet?) I haven’t thought about it much since.

But I’ve been working towards mastering one of the CrossFit staples–the double under–and it bugs the heck out of me that I can’t do it. I can skip really fast and I can tuck jump but I seem to lack the coordination to get it just right. I’m either landing on the rope, or whipping myself in the shins with the rope, and it’s super super annoying. Reading up on difficulties with double unders I was struck again by all that’s written about women and exercise induced incontinence.

(By the way, would you wear that t-shirt? Who would? It’s a prank gift  for mean people to buy for their partners, don’t you think?)

What’s a double under? “A double under is a popular exercise done on a jump rope in which the rope makes two passes per jump instead of just one. It is significantly more effective than a single rope pass in that it allows for higher work capacity.The Double Under takes a bit of coordination and determination to master. Those with less coordination will find it a little more difficult. The Double Under must be executed with more intensity in order to complete a high number of repetitions without mistake.” More here.

Ryan Gosling memeI wondered for awhile about why the frustration. After all, there are a lot of things at CrossFit I can’t do unmodified (see Leveling up at CrossFit: Rx versus modified workouts for more details): box jumps, pull ups, even push ups if I need to do more than 10.

Then it hit me. It bugs me because I’m used to thinking of myself as being good at jumping rope. I love jumping rope. It makes me feel like a kid again. See The joy of jumping rope .There’s lots of gender role socialization I missed out on. I don’t know very much at all about make up. I can’t knit or sew and I cook only because someone has to but I did get elementary school skipping! I attended elementary school in Newfoundland, Catholic elementary school, wearing  school uniforms and being taught by nuns. I know ideologically there’s a lot to dislike about Catholic school but these nuns were terrific. They were post-Vatican II nuns, hippie folk granola nuns with acoustic guitars and a fervour for educating young women.  There and then it was likely a choice for them as girls to either marry and have a dozen children or become a nun and get a university education. They taught me to read, to write, to knit, and on the school yard I learned to jump rope.

I also recall lessons in penmanship which clearly didn’t take.

Recently I had the occasion to go back and wonder about these nuns. I found my old first day of school diploma! Who on earth gets a first day of school diploma? It reads “we’re sure that the years between now and your graduation from university will be rich and rewarding”? I had taken it out and was marveling about the bravery and optimism of nuns in rural Newfoundland sending these beautiful certificates, complete with photos, home to families who might have been giving not so much thought to their daughters’ educations beyond high school.

my diploma!They were members of the Presentation Sisters, http://www.presentationsisters.ca/begin.html, an order which had come from Ireland to Newfoundland charged with the task of educating girls.

Four pioneering Sisters among Nano’s followers, Sisters Bernard Kirwin, Magdalen O’Shaughnessy, Xavier Maloney and Xaverius Lynch, carried her vision and spirit to the shores of Newfoundland in 1833. They came at the invitation of Bishop Michael Fleming to establish a school that would offer improved educational opportunity for girls and young women in St. John’s. Nano’s vision had birthed a response that was both broad and penetrating. For the next 175 years our sisters continued to respond to this call. Academic learning, spiritual development/religious education and a deep appreciation for the arts and music were central to our education ministry among students, teachers and parents.

So I think I’ve always thought of myself as good at skipping rope. I’ve got lots of fond school yard memories. That’s why I get so grumpy now that I can’t do double unders. Searching for advice about mastering the double under I found lots of advice geared at older women. Great, I thought. But sadly it’s all about strengthening the pelvic floor so you don’t pee during double unders. (See Curing a Case of the Workout Pees and “CrossFit Gynecologist,” I’m Appalled. There’s Help For ‘Peeing…)

That isn’t my problem though. I’m back at it next week, learning to whip the rope faster and hold a tuck jump longer. I’m following CrossFit coach Dave Henry’s instructions and I’ll let you know how I go.

It took awhile to find a video double under with a woman! But here’s one:

And here’s someone doing a wild number of double unders very quickly!