Saturday, November 30, 2013

What's Your Excuse?

It's been a few weeks since I checked in. What's my excuse? Well, there was a birthday party for MeToo and a gravity-defying cake to construct… There was a holiday with visiting in-laws and a lot of food to prepare… And mostly, there was just life. Life feels a bit overwhelming right now. It's all good stuff, but I'm overwhelmed all the same. 

It was a Facebook post that stirred me to blog today. A childhood classmate of mine commented on something and I kind of spewed a lot of pent-up opinion back. I stepped up on my soapbox at perhaps an inappropriate time. Well Jennifer, I apologize that I used your status update to vent my annoyance at Maria Kang. I know, she's old news. And you were finding encouragement from her to do something you wanted to do. I completely undermined that. And I'm very sorry. 
So I'm going to make matters worse and more ridiculous by expounding on why her meme got under my skin this morning.

When her picture first started circulating on FB, my initial reaction was "Wow, she looks great! Good for her!" I had just given birth to LittleDebbie and did not look anything like she does. And then I started to think about the line "What's your excuse?" I tried to think of ways that those words could be uttered kindly. Perhaps as a tease? She doesn't know me well enough to tease me. Perhaps as a challenge? Perhaps as a taunt? A challenge can come in kinder terms, like "I can do it, and so can you!" I couldn't help but decide that it was a taunt to anyone who didn't look like her. But I brushed it off. I don't feel the need to look like her, so it didn't bother me. Thankfully, other people do see her commentary as encouragement, as can be found in the comments of her website and blog. She really is encouraging people to change for the better, and I commend her for that. She has travelled a long and rocky road of eating disorders and personal challenges to get to where she is today. I applaud her for what she's done for herself. After reading her blog and a few articles, I have a vague understanding of why she is what she is and why she says what she says.

So I'm going to take her seriously for a moment and answer her question.

I don't look like her because it's not my priority to look like her. 

Once upon a time, I looked something vaguely similar to her. I was a lightweight rower in college. And after college I ran and completed a marathon. I worked out 2-4 hours per day, 6 days per week. I was in my early 20's. Rowing was my sport and my social life. It was all-consuming. I was in great shape. I looked great. (I didn't appreciate it back then, but I just looked at a photo album recently and saw pictures of myself. I appreciate it now.) I ate well and exercised a lot and was very healthy. Other than a few part-time jobs and a double-major class load, it was all I needed to do in life. 

To look like that again, I would need to:

  • Work out 2-3 hours per day, 6 days per week for 6 months to a year. After that, I would need to work out 1-2 hours per day, 5 days per week to maintain it. 
  • I would need to reduce my current calorie intake significantly.
  • Go back to physical therapy to rebalance my pelvic girdle to keep myself from getting injured from all of the exercise.
  • Do a lot of intensive core exercises to cure my diastasis to keep myself from getting injured from all of the exercise.
  • Stop nursing my baby and switch her to formula so that the reduced calorie intake and increased demands on my body didn't reduce her food supply. 
  • Probably hire a babysitter a few hours per week to watch the kids when my husband has too much work to do to watch the kids while I go to the gym. 
  • Get custom orthotics made to manage my shifting arches and reduce knee and back pain when I exercise. (I'm actually in the process of doing this now. Yikes! They're pricey!)

As a result:

  • I would look awesome.
  • I would be in great shape and have more energy.
  • We'd have less money to spend on other things.
  • My children would see much less of me.
  • My husband would see much less of me.
  • I'd have more difficulty keeping up with household demands and would likely want to hire a cleaning lady. Which would take more money away from other things. 
  • I'd have less time to volunteer at church, HeyMama's school, and MeToo's preschool. 
  • My life, and consequently my family's life, would revolve around my need to exercise.

I do know mothers who exercise this much. In general, it seems like exercise is both their job and their hobby. They do both well, and seem to enjoy them. I applaud them. They look great, they seem to have a great balance in their lives (well, at least as FB will lead me to believe), and all is well. I know moms who exercise this much to manage health issues, such as depression and neurologic disorders. Again, I think that this is wonderful. Exercise is a healthy thing, and if it can replace pills to manage medical problems, I think that's fantastic. It's a win-win, if you ask me. 

But I am not that person. It is not fun to me. It is not my job. It is not something that alleviates other miseries in my life. It is something I must do more of to be healthier. It is something I tolerate. It takes away time from other things I'd rather be doing. (Yet I try to do it anyway). I remember once reading an article in Runner's World about a man who never missed a day of running in 30 years. He was older, which made it even more impressive. And then it talked about how he had missed graduations and birthdays, and his children "understood" because that was just who he was. But even if his children "understood" that dad couldn't be there for their birthday party because he had a race to run, did it make them feel good that running was more important than they were? The article has haunted me ever since. It's good for parents to have hobbies, to have interests, to have passions. But the article made me sad for his children. Exercise is good. It should have a place in everyone's life. But it didn't seem to me that it should be of higher priority than one's own children. I vowed then that it never would be in mine.

That said, I agree with Maria Kang about what a sad epidemic obesity is. She speaks out loudly about the dangers of obesity. I've absolutely seen them while working in healthcare. Obesity can set off a cascade of nasty problems: diabetes with all of it's complications (neuropathy, blindness, strokes), heart disease, wounds that won't heal. It's ugly. And I agree with her that the level of obesity in children is horrifying and a bad omen for our society's future. But there's a difference between being in good cardiovascular shape and looking like her. Someone can be far from obese and actually in good cardiac shape without having her chiseled physique. They're not the enemy. And I suspect that most of the people hearing her message are actually in that group. 

I hate to sound like someone who went to a liberal university, but I did and I'm going to make this statement anyway:  Obesity is a class issue. That at least seems true in Boston. We're an overall very fit and healthy city. This is helped greatly by the fact that we're a young city with many students and professionals. We're also a city with a high level of income. We can afford to exercise. Ok, so some exercise is free, like walking or running. And yes, a lot of that happens in Boston. Living in a densely packed neighborhood with public transportation allows many opportunities to leave the car at home and head out on your feet. This low-level exercise adds up. But the exercise required to look like Maria costs time. A lot of time. This time is more precious when you're working multiple jobs and caring for multiple kids. Have you priced a jogging stroller lately? Or tried to get your young children out for a brisk walk without one? How exactly is that single mother barely scraping by going to get out for her intensive cardio workouts? Who's going to babysit for her to get it done? Maria is lucky to live in a world where she truly believes that everyone has the same resources and opportunities to do what she does. Some people truly do have good excuses not to exercise like she does. And I don't think it's a coincidence that the women with the best physiques in Boston seem to cluster in certain neighborhoods - the ones with more Starbucks and less gun violence.

I promise that I'll stop ranting soon, but I want to turn the tables on her original challenge for a moment. Her challenge assumes that everyone shares her goal of optimal fitness. I agree with those who say that her challenge only carries power if you actually do feel like you should be physically fit, and if not, it's not offensive. Perhaps my offense does come from some deep-seated guilt for not looking like I did at age 20 now that I'm 36. But I'll make some similar statements and see how they fly:

  • I always feed my family home-cooked meals. Even when I work overtime. What's your excuse?
  • We're a one income family, but we still manage to pay cash for our cars, save regularly for retirement, college, and a rainy day, and we give a percentage of income to charity. What's your excuse?
  • We only eat organic and local, even in the winter. What's your excuse?
  • I work, but still grind my own flour and bake my own bread. What's your excuse?
  • My kids are 3 and 4, but they always clean their own rooms without help. What's your excuse?
  • My baby's been sleeping through the night since he was 8 weeks old. Yours is 8 months old. What's your excuse?
  • We both work, but still have our baby in cloth diapers and make our own baby food from scratch. What's your excuse?

These comparisons can be made about anything that anyone does, in a constant one-upmanship. Do some of them sound ridiculous to you? I can assure you that they don't seem ridiculous to the person saying (or hopefully just thinking) it. Even if they don't offend you, certainly you can agree that the sanctimonious tone is unhelpful?

So, Maria Kang, I applaud what you've overcome in your life. I applaud what you're trying to do for public health in America. I applaud you for turning a passion into a career and opportunity for celebrity. Bravo for encouraging so many people to work harder at becoming more fit. But please consider that not everyone has your life, and not everyone has your priorities. And please consider keeping your sanctimony to yourself.

A mom who will only prioritize being in decent shape, at least until her children need less of her time.

PS. Here's the gravity-defying cake. Thanks to BestestHusband's parents for managing dinner and childcare while I worked on it.


  1. I like to assume that we all do our best. I've seen the pic too and of course we also have to remember that MK is making this into a business for herself. (Good for her!) So this IS both her work and her hobby, in that sense.

    But regarding your bigger point, sure we all have choices and priorities. You may decide organic food and cloth diapers is yours, Jane may decide to homeschool, Maria may decide to go to every single soccer game. It's all good and appropriate. But there may come a year in which it is utterly appropriate that Mom's body and fitness need to be the priority. Pregnancy, giving birth and nursing are hard, physical tasks. There may come a year when it is right and appropriate to put Mom's physical needs over the extra time for gymnastics meets or organic diapers or whatever. Including, by the way, spending the money for the pursuit. Mom is a person too, and it will only benefit the family (including those children-who-have-become-grownups-someday) if Mom is healthier, stronger, more active. -Polly

  2. Your body is only one of many things God gives you to be a good steward of. (I think that's bad grammar, but you know what I mean). If you neglect your physical and mental health to the point where it interferes with the other things you're supposed to be taking care of, then you're not being a good steward.
    God cares what we look like on the inside, and only God knows what each person is dealing with - the factors that make them look the way they do on the outside. Other's choices and priorities are not for us to judge - they aren't always perfect, but ours aren't either.
    It's our job to let Him work on our hearts, and do our best to love all our crazy neighbors, even the ones who look down on us because we don't look like we did when we had actual free time. Or who eat junk food until they can barely move. Or who decide that they should teach their children to "hit back" so they can stand up for themselves, and then wonder why their children go around hitting people... (Sorry, that's the one I'm currently trying to love a bit more).
    I try to remember that everything I have really belongs to God, and I find that it helps me with my priorities. I'm sure you don't need me to remind you... but it doesn't hurt!