My Plan to Reduce Toxic Masculinity and Improve Women’s Health

I turned to my husband one evening recently in tears. It wasn’t about any one thing in particular. Rather, I was crying about ALL the things afflicting women over the last few years. To name a few:

      • increased rates of domestic violence
      • declining rates of women in the workplace following the pandemic combined with overall lower pay
      • the formula shortage and lack of support for women to breastfeed at work
      • the overturning of Roe v. Wade and all the ramifications that ruling has for women’s reproductive health at large, and more.

The overwhelm of it all combined with my postpartum fatigue to push me past my limit.

Tears began to flow as anxiety and fear for my infant daughter’s future reached a peak.  I remember saying to my husband something along the lines of “It’s not right! None of this is okay! I’m SO sick of this – not just for me but for every woman out there, especially the ones who aren’t even aware that these issues WILL touch their lives at some point.”

After I spoke the words out loud it dawned on me that all of these issues are connected to unfair gender stereotypes, female oppression, and toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity is defined as “cultural norms associated with men that are harmful to society and to men themselves.”

The traits of toxic masculinity include:

      • mental and physical toughness
      • aggression
      • stoicism, or not displaying emotion
      • discrimination against people who aren’t heterosexual
      • self-sufficiency
      • emotional insensitivity

Please allow me to share my experiences and explain why toxic masculinity affects each of the aforementioned issues that harm women’s wellness…

 

 

Domestic Violence

I first learned about domestic violence at the beginning of high school through a program that educated youth about which peer-to-peer actions fall under sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape. The group performed a series of short skits to demonstrate real life scenarios and how to handle them from both a male and female perspective. The education was of the utmost importance and, unfortunately, it was already delivered too late.

Throughout middle school I can recall countless instances of being between 11-13 years old and verbally harassed or physically assaulted through unwelcome and inappropriate touches from ignorant boys my own age and grown men. Back in the 1990s when toxic masculinity was arguably at its peak (later leading to the #metoo movement), I was convinced that such actions were uncomfortable forms of flattery and used them to boost my body image confidence. This was an incredibly sad and unhealthy coping mechanism because I didn’t know what else to do.

Shortly after watching the program in high school I signed up to join the group of teens advocating for awareness and action to prevent sexual violence of all kinds. Alongside a few other teens who happened to share my comfort with public speaking, we petitioned the school board to have a modified version of education about sexual violence presented in middle schools. I’m pleased to say that the motion passed.

Unfortunately, programs like the one I was exposed to are few and far between. Leaders I’ve worked with in Washington, DC continue to be swamped with women coming to their non-profits looking for help to escape violent and dangerous situations. These unhealthy relationships create power dynamics and abuse that affect women’s individual and collective wellness, and the future mental and physical health of any children involved.

Trauma is generational and women who suffer abuse under toxic masculinity are more stressed during pregnancy when abuse typically heightens and are at increased risk for poor health outcomes for the fetus. These women are sometimes less able to offer healthy emotional attachment patterns for babies in the first 18 months of life to no fault of their own, leading to long-term mental health and self-image repercussions into adulthood for those children.

One of the keys to getting women out from under the control of abusive partners is to help promote their financial independence so that they can afford to step away from the situation. Despairingly, women’s workforce participation has taken a dramatic downturn due to the pandemic. Coupled with the abysmal gender wage gap, this is a health and wellness crisis that many women are suffering through as we speak.

 

 

Lower Workforce Participation and Wages

Women have been leaving the workplace in scores since the beginning of the pandemic due to increased workload on the job combined with family demands. The pressure on women to perform in both the work and home sectors but with minimal support, lower wages than men, and gender discrimination is abominable.

A lack of work-life balance has resulted in a depressing four in five women reporting that their employers don’t help them create clear boundaries between work and personal time, especially amid the unusual circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic. Not surprisingly, less than half of women in the workforce are happy about their job situation.

What does toxic masculinity have to do with women in the work force? Just about everything…

Not only does gender discrimination result in lower wages but according to survey data from Deloitte, the majority of working women have experienced “non-inclusive behaviors in work situations over the past year—everything from unwanted physical contact and disparaging remarks about their gender to questions about their judgment.”

I can’t think of anything as toxic as a workplace that suffocates the positive attributes and unique needs that come with being a woman. Men who are domineering seem to forget where the debt of gratitude is owed and whose body shaped their own for nine months. Unfortunately, this lack of respect for all that women do results in poor workplace support for maternity leave, childcare needs, flexible scheduling, breastfeeding/pumping while being a working mother, and more.

 

 

The Formula Shortage and Breastfeeding Hurdles

It pained me to see the effects of toxic masculinity affecting women in the initial days and weeks following the overturning of Roe v. Wade. All the heated debates about women’s bodies and potential future children have been happening parallel to a formula shortage crisis. The women who can least afford to move forward with unplanned pregnancies are also in a position to struggle to pay for nutrition for their babies if they are unable to breastfeed.

Breastfeeding itself is a full-time job and many working mothers understandably struggle to manage its demands alongside their jobs. I understand this firsthand because I gave up some career pursuits years ago when I realized I couldn’t breastfeed and start a business I had planned. It was simply too much for me. I was in a place of privilege where I could afford to step away from the workplace to be with my baby. Many moms can’t afford to lose their income or wouldn’t wish to step away from their careers for a period of time. For these moms, supportive workplaces that allow flexibility and space for nursing/pumping are essential.

The injustice hit me when not only Roe v. Wade was overturned but also a law to protect the breastfeeding/pumping needs of 9 million working moms was shot down by Senate. Did they not get the memo that there is a formula shortage? Do they not know how biology works for nourishing offspring? Do they really think failing to pass a helpful law will enhance women’s workplace commitment and productivity?

I’m left shaking my head.

I’m a breastfeeding mom and woman who has experienced two pregnancy losses and five pregnancies. I can’t help but feel like women just like me are under direct attack by our leaders – and for what? For going through the trials of doing our best to bring healthy little people into this world. It’s absolutely dumbfounding.

The emotional insensitivity and use of power to harm women and children’s health outcomes without question falls under the umbrella of toxic masculinity. The reality of life is that women and children need social support in a myriad of ways that the toxic masculinity mindset of rugged individualism and self-sufficiency fails to meet.

 

 

Women’s Reproductive Health

I learned firsthand what happens when you think you know how your life will play out and usually, reality goes a different way. I was pregnant with my third son when I got a poor prenatal diagnosis at the inception of the pandemic. I openly confess that I was unsure whether I should continue or end my pregnancy.

At the time I had two beautiful sons and had experienced an early pregnancy loss too. I never imagined considering a pregnancy termination but it weighed heavily on me before I lost my child. I wanted to do anything possible to protect my child from pain and suffering. I loved (and still love) the son I lost with all my heart.

With Roe v. Wade overturned I’m horror stricken over the pregnancies that will be forced to term despite being incompatible with life or a myriad of other complications that will result in suffering for the baby and a heightened risk of medical complications for the mom.

As many news sources have cited, the overturning of Roe v. Wade will affect training for medical professionals for both abortions and routine pregnancy losses, enhancing the risk of poor outcomes for women to come. I also lament this reality because during my late pregnancy loss removal I unexpectedly hemorrhaged and was minutes away from my uterus being removed to save my life. If I had been anywhere but a hospital then I likely would have died but instead, I have a four-inch scar on my stomach and a beautiful baby girl.

My story is hard and complicated but it sheds light on the many ways that reproductive choices and care are delicate and nuanced. Most importantly, they are best left between a woman, her medical team, and her faith.

I can’t help but see the ways that Christian nationalism and the rise of toxic masculinity within it has shaped a movement that has its jaws deeply embedded in our messed up, increasingly polarized political and legal systems. Toxic masculinity is behind the cherry picking of biblical texts used out of context to force women into submission, sexual abuse, and inferior roles, and it’s behind the inflexible thinking about reproductive rights that opts for power, control and force instead of compassion, assistance, and mercy.

There are “Godly men” out there saying that women who end their pregnancies should be sentenced to death. I’ve watched the videos of these men defiantly and angrily saying such things. They don’t care that their words alone do great damage to women’s wellness.

These men haven’t sat with an open heart and listened to the complicated stories from women who have endured hardships during years of TTC, being pregnant, enduring loss, and more. These men haven’t seen my tears, heard my sobs, or understood my torment. And they don’t care.

Theirs is a world to be conquered and women to be tamed.

 

 

My Plan to Reduce Toxic Masculinity

My feelings of helplessness kept increasing this summer as one assault after the next against women’s health took its turn. I can’t personally reduce unwanted pregnancies through violent rapes or end domestic violence from behind closed doors. I can’t reach into millions of women’s homes and help them navigate the early days of breastfeeding that are so crucial. I can’t afford to buy formula to help each and every mom in need of her next can. There are so many things I want to do on a grand scale and yet only small steps that I can reasonably take like listening with compassion to women’s abortion stories or donating modest amounts of money to help feed children in need. These small things matter but still leave me yearning for something more that I can do.

Until recently, it didn’t occur to me that there is in fact one HUGE thing I can do…

I can raise my sons well.

I can focus my energy on raising sons who are allowed to be sensitive and who are in touch with their emotions. Sons that grow into men who demonstrate compassion and respect for women as equals. Men who know their own strength but never use it to harm or intimidate others. Men who treat their partners with care. Who approach society and bettering the world with a collective mindset. If these attributes are increasingly displayed through more and more men in the future then they have the power to dismantle oppressive hierarchies and give birth to redemptive healing.

The future of women’s wellness rests on the innocent shoulders of one small boy at a time. It relies on them having safe caregiver attachment relationships. It depends on how they are treated and nurtured through the choppy waters of their emotions and learning how to cope with them. It hinges on them having a healthy sense of worth without arrogance. It needs them to accept and embrace the diverse world we live in and to humbly pause when they feel offended that others don’t agree with their perspectives.

My two sweet sons rely on my patience, energy and effort as their mother. I’m far from perfect but I believe that if I stay mindful and raise them well then those two sets of dark brown eyes looking up at me for guidance will some day look out into a world that is better for their mother, sister, wives, daughters, and friends. That world will undoubtedly be better for men too.

If you believe in collective prayer then I ask you to pray for this future with me.

 

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

 

Leaning into Limitations: A New Era of Wellness

When I initially sat down to write this first article following maternity leave, my infant decided to wake up wailing after no less than five minutes. Eventually, I was able to get through writing the first half. The second day I expected to carve out some time to write was the same day as my youngest’s 6-month check up, which turned into a sick visit because my toddler’s classroom had a Covid exposure. The day got turned upside down from there, masking to grab groceries in the event of a quarantine, picking up test-to-stay kits from my child’s school, and so on. Such is the nature of the season that I’m in as a parent with limited childcare for the summer. This state seems to mirror the pandemic-era world of canceled events, last minute changes in plans, and constant iterations for how we live. All of it leaves me (and I assume many of us) feeling limited.

 

 

No one likes feeling limited, least of all Americans. We are so completely entrenched in our own ideas and plans going exactly as expected that the fast moving trains we set in motion are bound to run off track. But when they do, we fuss and complain. We dig our heels in harder and claim that grit and perseverance are our best assets. The ones that will win us the race, earn us the promotion, get our waistline back, buy us the house, and fill us with full satisfaction. Limitlessness is the dream and beyond the sky is the destination, but we remain forever bound by skin, neediness, hunger, sleep, and a desire for connection.

I’ve worked with not hundreds but thousands of individuals, some in depth and some more surface level. I’ve witnessed nearly every one of them (and myself) pine for achievement, a sense of completion, and – most noteworthy – the ability to do more. The opposite of living limited. The bedrock of Western culture in a word is MORE. Consumerism is defined by more, as is the fitness industry in which I have spent many years of my professional career. More reps. More sets. More weights. More distance. More speed. More strength.

Even places of worship are tempted into the deliciousness of “more” by trying to gain additional members and achieve greater things in the name of their God. As a woman of faith, I see a great danger emerging as certain Christian denominations and groups threaten America’s collective wellness with their desire for more power and control. The entire crisis of the war in Ukraine has been driven by one individual’s bloodthirsty desire for more – more land, control, power, dominance, and fear. The poison of more even impacts gun violence. Automatic weapons are especially deadly because of the greater potential number of victims in each assault on human life. And so it would seem, this thirst and hunger for more is quite universal but perhaps, when we sit with its reality, we can see how dangerous it is. Not just for dictators and fringe extremists but for all of us.

For the past half year I’ve been tending to the needs of my third child in the first months of her life. I’m constantly feeling the pressure of “more.” I wish I could divide myself into five parts at once – one of me to tend to my oldest child, one for my middle child, another for the breastfeeding babe, one for my work, and another to collapse in a heap of exhaustion and *finally* get that nap that I so desperately need. But I too am bound by my own skin. My own limitations. God, help me to accept them.

 

 

The problem isn’t that we are limited creatures in this existence. The problem is that we resist limitations even when they are a part of our very makeup. Denying them and trying to play the more, more, more game breaks us. Yes, we hear stories about executives who start at the bottom and work 20 hour days to make it big and athletes who train eight hours a day year round to win the Olympics (I just watched the “Untold: Caitlyn Jenner” documentary on Netflix), but let’s face it – none of us can outrun the exhaustion forever. There is always a price to pay either mentally or physically. Sometimes we can recalibrate and reverse the damage and other times, it leaves its mark.

Pushing myself past the limit always follows the same pattern:

Life gets busy yet I pressure myself to do even more during already maxed-out daily schedules. The overwhelm of this traps me in a state of anxiety which only serves to drive me forward harder and faster, more determined to get everything done quickly – and done well. My body enters into sympathetic nervous system overdrive, feeling on edge, hyper and anxious most hours of the day. Eventually, an acute stressor enters the equation such as something traumatic happening in the nation or world or my toddler bringing home a nasty virus. This added mental or physical stress is enough to tip my system past its breaking point and I burn out and crash (usually with a head cold).

Do you have a vicious cycle too? One where you know you’re past your limits but keep pushing anyway?

Time and maturity have helped me identify this harmful pattern of pretending and trying to do more than I can. I’m not perfect at avoiding or fixing it though. It’s a gradual process and I constantly have to remind myself that the rat race and nose-to-the-grindstone mentality are no way to live in true wellness. Both tear down the individual and the collective in very tangible and harmful ways. I find myself in a much healthier place when I openly and lovingly acknowledge my limitations.

 

 

Here are a few things that limit me:

Breastfeeding all three of my children has limited me for the better part of the past decade. It’s time consuming, forces me to slow down, and means that I opt for less help with childcare for the first year of their lives due to the frequency of nursing and sub-optimal pumping output in substitute of direct breastfeeding.

My back limits me. I used to be a marathoner but I was hit by a car while riding my bike in DC and ever since have dealt with ongoing spinal instability. Long mileage doesn’t work with my body anymore and I have to heavily favor foam rolling and strength training despite wishing I could run days upon days in a row without issue.

My scar limits me. It’s from an emergency C-section from a pregnancy loss and then the planned C-section for my third child. The underlying tissue is still healing and I’m actively working to keep the fascia from forming tight adhesions that could some day cause me problems. This whole process sets off the instability in my back. The visual scar challenges me mentally and emotionally in many ways too, although less than it used to.

The list is longer but you get the idea. We all have things that challenge us to slow down or do things differently than we would ideally choose to. Again, that’s okay. This is human. Normal. The thing that’s NOT okay is allowing our limitations to steal our joy or question our worth, and yet so many people fall prey to these fear-based mentalities, as though not being able to do more means our inherent value is less. But that’s a lie.

 

 

I cope best with my limitations when I remind myself that I’m enough as I am – and that I’m not all things. Sometimes, it can help to run through a list in your head or write down all the traits you possess and are proud of while also making note of a few things you’re not the best at but beat yourself up about. If you do this, I would ask you to thoughtfully sit with the things you feel guilt, frustration, anxiety, or sadness about and consider if you might be able and willing to accept them with love or let them go in such a way that they can’t allow you to feel shame anymore.

Living limited can lead to a beautiful and flourishing wellness. When I embrace living this way I’m able to breathe deeply and rest peacefully. My priorities become clearer and I let go of the voices in my head threatening to measure my worth based on productivity and accomplishment. In the next few months I will share with you all what one of those crystal clear priorities is and how it’s taking shape but for now, let’s part ways after repeating these affirmations a few times silently:

 

My limitations are where I can find my strength.

My worth is not based on appearances or output.

I am enough.

I am not all things. And that’s okay.

I can find peace in the moment.

 

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

 

How to Manage Chronic Fatigue with Exercise

I’ve long preached that exercise is a double-edged sword. It can help or hurt our bodies depending on an individual’s health status at the time of exercise combined with the mode and intensity of the workout. We must remain mindful of how and when we workout, especially when battling fatigue. When used improperly, exercise can be EXTREMELY harmful for a person battling chronic fatigue syndrome.

Data shows us that women suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome far more than men. So, let’s explore how to identify if you’re suffering from regular fatigue or chronic fatigue syndrome, and then what kind of exercise is appropriate under each circumstance. Every woman is worthy of feeling healthy. Let’s make sure we equip ourselves – and each other – for this worthwhile endeavor.

(Please be patient while the video loads – thanks!)

For more videos and content while I’m on maternity leave, you’re welcome to follow along on Instagram:

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

The Science of Uncertainty and Mental Health

Many of us have sat in the great waiting room of uncertainty. Sometimes we wait on an important medical diagnosis, job contract, fertility outcome, or financial assistance. There are endless situations (including the pandemic) that place enormous stress and anxiety on us due to uncertain outcomes. Today, we’ll dive into how you can manage stress during uncertainty using an evidence-based and accessible strategy. Every woman is worthy of mental/emotional wellness, even in the face of the unknown!

(Please be patient while the video loads – thanks!)

For more videos and content while I’m on maternity leave, you’re welcome to follow along on Instagram!

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

The Healthier My Relationship with Fitness, The Less I Exercise

Confession: I’m a fitness professional who used to ignore her personal boundaries and physical needs. (Yikes.) It’s true though…I used to be oblivious to the ways that I would abuse my body through too much exercise and physical stress while simultaneously coaching clients on how to find balance. These days, I practice what I preach but it has been a journey to get here and find peace. Sharing my story via video below and wishing everyone the best of physical wellness and balance.

(Please be patient while the video loads – thanks!)

For more videos and content while I’m on maternity leave, you’re welcome to follow along on Instagram:

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

My Top Prenatal Care Tips After 5 Pregnancies

Today is my oldest son’s 6th birthday and I’m just weeks away from my third child’s birth. As I prepare to bid farewell to the years spent TTC, being pregnant, coping with loss and medical complications, and recovering from childbirth, it seems appropriate to take a moment to reflect and share a bit of advice about how I’ve found wellness through all the ups and downs.

I’m not a perfect mom. Far from it. I can get impatient, irritable and exhausted just like anyone else. There are days when I feel like I can conquer the world for my children and other times when I surrender to my inability to do it all, no matter how hard I try. Sometimes I can’t stop smothering my little ones with kisses and affection and, at other moments, I firmly step away and demand my personal space and sanity. We’ve all “been there.” Life isn’t just a highlight reel of our best planned playdates, outings, art crafts, and children’s holiday apparel. It’s messy and complicated – and that’s okay!

I share all of this because I want you to know that my attempt to offer up some helpful advice isn’t because I have superior notions of myself as a mother. It’s because I’ve been in the trenches too and want to help other women out.

Over the past 6-7 years my life has consisted of the following:

  • 2 vaginal deliveries, 1 emergency c-section and 1 planned c-section (upcoming)
  • 7 hospital stays due to pregnancy complications, labor/delivery, and children’s health emergencies
  • 3 cumulative years of breastfeeding my 2 sons (no, it wasn’t easy/breezy) and 1 daughter to breastfeed once she’s born
  • 1 early pregnancy loss and 1 late pregnancy loss
  • 1 poor prenatal diagnosis
  • 1 preterm labor
  • 1 fallopian tube removed and 1 uterine artery cauterized

Wow…when I look at that list I’m dumbfounded and also grateful that despite all the trauma, I’ve found ways to advocate for my wellness and care for my body. The prenatal and pregnancy loss care tips that I have included below are what worked for me but I acknowledge that there is no one-size-fits solution or set of advice for each and every women out there. Also, this is *not* medical advice, so if you want to speak to someone about your personal health and fertility then please consult your doctor or OBGYN (…I encourage this communication before posting to Facebook moms groups or forums for advice…please…for your health’s sake…k?).

 

 

Trying to Conceive

  • Focusing on your physical health prior to trying to conceive (preconception) is a really important, often overlooked step in the prenatal process. Experts often recommend focusing on improving health habits for a minimum of 3 months prior to trying for a baby. This is a great time to focus on nutritious foods, taking daily prenatals, limiting alcohol, exercising in moderation, reducing stress and participating in joyful activities. Preconception health is important for BOTH partners and has been shown to reduce preterm birth and low birth weight for babies. I focused intently on preconception health for all of my pregnancies except the one where I had a late pregnancy loss after a poor prenatal diagnosis. Although I was still leading a healther-than-average lifestyle, I will always wonder if there was something I could have done differently. I’m told that none of what happened was my fault and I’ve let go of guilt. Nonetheless, I wish the dawn of the coronavirus pandemic hadn’t derailed my health habits to the extent that it did.

 

  • Dropping expectations and timelines for TTC was critical every step of the way for all 5 of my pregnancies. It’s all too easy to compare your TTC experience to another woman’s but there’s no measuring stick when it comes to starting and growing a family. Stay focused and loving towards yourself and your partner. That’s all that matters.

 

  • In a similar vein, I encourage women to embrace the fact that every couple’s parenting journey is unique. Sometimes you will find yourself envying a friend or acquaintance’s circumstances only to find that a couple years down the line they face something harder than anyone you know. None of this should make aspiring mothers or mothers feel better or less than someone else. Dropping comparison games is one of the first lessons most new parents learn. Doing so is critical for a family’s well-being, and it begins before a baby arrives.

 

  • Try not to get into your head about “advanced” maternal age or prior pregnancy experiences. Preconception health can help many women healthfully conceive babies in time, and the level of reproductive assistance needed may wildly vary from one pregnancy to the next. I know of women who conceived quickly for their first pregnancies only to have long waiting periods for their subsequent ones. Likewise, I know several women who needed IVF to get pregnant the first time and then went on to surprisingly conceive other babies naturally. You may find that every time TTC is different. That’s okay! Just stay focused on your mental/physical well-being, the relationship with your partner, and seeking fertility advice when/where needed be that from an app, ovulation predictor kits, a fertility clinic consultation, a conversation with an OB, etc.

 

  • Speaking of ovulation predictor kits…I know they can be expensive so take this or leave it… but I found that investing in them for periods of time significantly helped me discern which physical symptoms of mine were related to ovulation, as well as get a handle on the timing of it. I understand these sticks can cause some women stress while empowering others with a feeling of control. My advice is that if you can afford to give them a try then it can’t hurt to use them during your preconception period to figure out your cycles and peak fertility days. This might help you learn something about your body while you’re not actively trying for a baby, thus reducing stress over the whole ordeal.

 

First trimester

  • It goes without saying that frequent snacking is crucial for first trimester nausea. I learned this and relearned this many times.

 

  • During the first trimester of my 4th and 5th pregnancies I was stunned by how exhausted I was, especially because my other pregnancies didn’t carry the same weight of fatigue. I took frequent naps, deciding to accept my body’s needs. As a type A person, this was challenging because I always had to sacrifice or cut short something I was trying to get done. My two cents in retrospect – drop the guilt and sleep if you need to.

 

  • Whether due to nausea or fatigue, the first trimester can feel like it drags on forever. Remind yourself that this will be worth it. Stick inspirational notes on your desk or schedule motivational memos to pop up on your phone. Have a weekly check-in with a friend or therapist. Whatever it takes!

 

  • Nausea with my girl pregnancy was a different beast than my many boy pregnancies. Frequent snacking wasn’t helping as much as in the past so I opted for these nausea sea bands. I found that putting them on took the edge off the nausea and that wearing for them for long periods of time seemed to bring it back, so I spent a lot of days slipping them on and off as needed. It was life saving!

 

  • Weight gain is perfectly normal in the first trimester but it’s important for women to remember that the focus on weight gain doesn’t typically come until the second trimester. Unless you’re underweight or directed otherwise by your OB, focus on eating as normally as possible (and to relieve nausea) without going overboard on portions, sweets, and greasy foods. One study found that women who were a healthy weight before getting pregnant were overweight one year after their baby was born. A lot of this can be attributed to the challenges of caring for a baby but for some women gaining more than the recommended amount of weight for their size during pregnancy might contribute to it.

 

  • When possible (ahem, energy permitting) work on building core strength during the first trimester. This is a time when most core exercises are still fair game. Beginning in the second trimester, women will need to modify a number of core exercises so take advantage of building a strong base from the beginning so that you can safely maintain the support your body needs for posture and protection from diastasis recti as the pregnancy progresses. As a fitness professional, core exercises are top priority for my prenatal clients!

 

 

Early Pregnancy Loss

  • If you experience an early pregnancy loss please know that you have my deepest condolences. I’m so sorry this happened to you. I’ve been there and it sucks. Please know that you’re allowed to validate any and all feelings of disappointment, anger, grief, shock, etc. that you may have. Science shows us that denying negative feelings can actually heighten stress in our bodies so take the time you need to face and move through these tough emotions.

 

 

  • If it helps (which it may not), remind yourself that you’re not alone. Other women have struggled through pregnancy loss(es) and are slowly speaking up on social media in particular, in hopes of helping one another. If it’s not triggering, you can check out hashtags such as #iamoneinfour, #pregnancylossawareness, #pregnancylosssupport and #ihadamiscarriage, to name a few.

 

  • Your timeline for trying again (or not) is valid. Do what you need.

 

Second Trimester

  • If possible, tackle house projects and bigger baby projects now while you have some energy. It can be hard to frontload task lists that feel so distant in the future, but it’s worth it. With my first pregnancy, I was relieved to have done this because I had an unexpected family death and a preterm delivery that needed my attention more than folding laundry, prepping the nursery, and finishing house projects.

 

  • Healthy eating while gaining weight is important for the baby’s nutrition and your own, and for reducing the risk of gestational diabetes. My advice is to balance carbs and protein. In other words, be cautious not to sit down and eat tons of breads/muffins/baked goods without incorporating some protein in the same meal setting.

 

  • Our bodies have an intuitive ability to know how much weight we need to gain. Instead of calorie counting, try to listen to your body’s unique prenatal needs. I’ve personally found it fascinating that all three of my pregnancies have resulted in more or less the same weight gain and pacing of weight gain simply by eating what my body seems to be telling me to. During my first pregnancy I weighed myself once a week but in subsequent ones I backed off the scale and found a similar pattern of weight gain nonetheless!

 

  • Some of my favorite prenatal exercises for both myself and clients include: clamshells, single leg balance exercises, modified planks, single arm bench rows, squats, side lunges, and modified v-sits.

 

  • Towards the middle to end of your second trimester you will need to complete a glucose screening to asses your personal risk for gestational diabetes. Most women think they have no option but to go into the OB’s office and drink a highly processed sugary beverage with zero nutritional benefits. But guess what?!? You can speak to your OB about consuming a healthier beverage option at home with the proper grams of sugar (usually approx 50 grams) in five minutes, one hour prior to your blood draw. I’ve done this for two pregnancies and really appreciated that the beverage was both more palatable and nutritious. One time I had acai juice and the next I chose pomegranate juice. After quickly drinking 12 or so ounces it was done, less dramatic feeling, and I was still in the comfort of my home.

 

  • I recommend going to a chiropractor as your body and alignment begin to shift. Chiropractic care is safe for pregnant women, can help your baby achieve an optimal position for birth, and reduces postural stress and aches/pains for the mom.

 

 

Unexpected Medical Complications

  • I sat in this very challenging space following my third son’s poor prenatal diagnosis and was surprised that my gut instinct had been speaking to me the whole pregnancy. It can be hard to quiet the overwhelming news and whirlwind around you amid a poor prenatal diagnosis but if you can, try to sit in silence and listen to what your maternal instinct is telling you.

 

  • Lean into support groups, spiritual counsel, prayer, therapy and/or any other safe outlet for help during this complicated and uncertain time.

 

  • Engage in “flow” activities to help you maintain a semblance of balance and mental health while you’re waiting on uncertain answers from medical screenings/tests, etc. These daily activities have been scientifically proven to help people with the psychological challenges of uncertainty.

 

  • Spend time having heartfelt conversations with your partner. You two are a team and will come out of this together one way or another.

 

  • Whatever happens, you get to create your own meaning from this experience. You also don’t have to seek a “higher purpose” to understand your pain if that feels inappropriate. Do what feels authentic to you and no one else.

 

Late Pregnancy Loss

  • As with early loss (I’ve been through both early and late), this is a child you were expecting and who you need to – and are allowed to – grieve. Please refer to the book recommendations under early pregnancy loss and consider working with a supportive counselor.

 

  • You’re allowed to be upset, angry, confused, disappointed, etc. about losing your baby, coping with a postpartum body, the change of plans you had for your future and more. Take the time you need. There’s no rush or timeline for healing.

 

  • If you feel compelled, I encourage you to consider meaningful ways to honor your baby. Some communities offer free burial or ceremonial options, cremation, or the option to dedicate your baby’s body to science. Choosing something that offers you solace and closure can be helpful. I chose to bury my baby and find comfort in returning to his resting place. I know of other women who light candles for their babies and keep their ashes in their homes. For others, these reminders might feel too painful or not quite right. Whatever honors your needs is what will honor your baby.

 

  • Rituals can help women with healing through the seasons and years that follow loss. Lighting candles, donating to a cause, visiting somewhere sentimental, meditating or praying, etc. are all ways women can foster meaning and remembrance for their babies.

 

  • Some women find they prefer to create meaning through something tangible like symbolic jewelry, journaling or expressive art. I have a small canvas of an angel on my dresser alongside my other children’s framed photos.

 

  • Healing and expressive outlets are important and you might find one of the following useful: therapy, prayer, reiki, community worship, online or in-person support groups, etc. It can be intimidating to open yourself up to these but please remember that there isn’t any stigma to your loss and that you don’t have to carry it alone.

 

 

Third Trimester

  • Sleeping with a body pillow or multiple prop pillows is a must. Since side sleeping is your new BFF try sleeping with a support pillow between your legs and gently tucked under your bump. This will help your hips stay comfortable as muscles stretch and pull. Keeping your room cool at night is another must for better late pregnancy sleep.

 

  • Stabilizing your hips through a combination of exercises and stretching is crucial for comfort. An overwhelming 50-80% of pregnant women struggle with back pain. A lot of back pain originates from hips that aren’t stable and strong. If you have questions or specific needs, this is my area of specialty for prenatal clients. Contact me here or drop a question in the comments.

 

  • Neck tension is also quite common as pregnancies progress. Try to seek relief via massage and stretching. Here are some of my recommendations for alleviating neck tension: Remedies for Neck Pain and Stiffness.

 

  • I was fortunate that I didn’t need a belly band for my pregnancies with my two sons but since my complicated pregnancy loss and emergency c-section last year, my body isn’t quite the same. The scar tissue stretched out fast this time and my stomach doesn’t feel as supported. Instead of investing in an expensive belly band for the last uncomfortable month of pregnancy, I’ve found that using KT tape here and there has been effective and easy! Fellow fitness blogger Sia Cooper, owner of Diary of a Fit Mommy, has done such a comprehensive job covering 8 techniques for KT tape on a pregnant belly that I’m just gonna refer you to her post rather than try to cover the topic myself: Kinesio Taping During Pregnancy.

 

  • Many of my prenatal clients (and friends) accidentally engage their core in a precarious manner during the third trimester of pregnancy. As soon as bumps start to really round out and show, it becomes even more obvious (to me) who is not engaging their transverse abdominus. The TA is like a corset muscle that holds everything in, supports posture, works with the diaphragm, and is critical for preventing diastasis recti injuries during pregnancy. The next time you’re doing core exercises look down at your stomach and make sure you don’t see a “coning out” effect. Your stomach should pull in and “flat” near your belly button when you’re engaging it in a safe and effective manner.

 

  • During the third trimester your immune system is naturally overtaxed. Help your immune health with colorful fruits, vegetables, omega fatty acids (ex: salmon, shrimp, flaxseed, walnuts) and lean proteins.

 

  • Hydration is critical during the entire pregnancy but especially now. Some women need upwards of 100 ounces of water a day during the third trimester. I personally notice that my uterus gets “irritable” and more prone to Braxton hicks contractions when dehydrated – it’s my cue to drink up! Hydration can be made easier if you carry a 30-32 ounce tumbler or water bottle throughout the day and fill it up at least three times. This Yeti tumbler is a personal favorite.

 

  • The third trimester is full of “lovely” changes like extra mucous, nose bleeds and head congestion. I do a daily neti pot rinse while I’m showering to help move congestion and keep breathing clear. Give it a try!

 

  • It can be hard to reduce stress while expecting, especially amid a pandemic. But every so often, I manage to remind myself (and hope to remind you too) to take a few deep belly breaths. Inhale: I’m strong and capable. Exhale: This phase will be over soon. 

 

 

Every woman is worthy of care and support during preconception planning, TTC, pregnancy, pregnancy loss, medical complications, childbirth, postpartum, breastfeeding, childrearing and childcare. I’ll be here if you need me.

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

 

 

Every Woman is Worthy

Out with the old and in with the new!

I’m excited to (verbally) introduce the new slogan for WellnessWinz: Every Woman is Worthy!

In the video below, I dive into why this slogan gets to the core of wellness and the heart of the site’s content over the past seven years. Included in our discussion are the four aspects of wellness covered through long-form content on WellnessWinz – physical wellness, emotional/mental wellness, spiritual wellness, and most recently, social wellness. There are a handful of other dimensions of wellness that are important such as occupational, intellectual, creative, environmental and financial, but I will leave other more qualified experts to dive into those.

So, for now…let’s explore what “Every Woman is Worthy” means, how judgement of the self and others holds us back, and why living this message out is so important for women from diverse backgrounds.

(Ps – An alternative to watching me through the whole video is to start playing it but listen as though it’s a podcast while you cook, clean, exercise, etc.)

(Please be patient while the video loads – thanks!)

I would love to hear what you think every woman is worthy of. Fill in the blank in the comments:

Every woman is worthy of ______.

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

The Great Physician: Spiritual Healing for Unresolved Pain

 

How Is Spirituality Defined?

Spirituality can be loosely defined as the “aspect of humanity that refers to the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose and the way they experience their connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, and to the significant or sacred.” The word spiritual comes from the Latin word “spiritus” which means “breath of life.”

Spiritual healing can happen within religious, faith and spiritual institutions but those are not prerequisites for it. With these definitions and parameters in mind, spiritual healing can be described as connecting to the breath of life in a deeply personal and meaningful way.

The connection to the divine – or breath of life – is something that’s not easily quantifiable or measurable. Due to this, skeptics have a hard time subscribing to the notion that spiritual healing is real and originating from outside of the self. The healing power of spirituality is often attributed to better mental health and nervous system regulation rather than an interpersonal connection with our universe. But, as you will come to see, spirituality opens both channels within the physical body for healing and with an energy that somehow transcends space and time in very real ways through prayer, meditation and distance healing.

 

 

The Link Between Spirituality and Physical Health

More than 1600 studies have been done evaluating the correlation between religious and spiritual practices and health. According to a comprehensive analysis of these studies published by the National Institutes of Health, “the evidence is overwhelming.” The correlation between spiritual and physical health is strong across lines of religion, disease, health status, age, sex, race, and ethnicity.

It turns out that healing is not as simple as previously assumed. A biomedical model of medicine isn’t comprehensive enough. In other words, underlying biological deviations or issues aren’t the sole determinants of an individual’s health, nor do they always arise from physical problems. A biopsychosocial-spiritual model is becoming increasingly accepted and recognizes the role that biological, psychological, social, and spiritual factors play into the presentation, progression and prognosis of disease. This means that a person’s interpersonal relationships, environment, culture, emotions, behaviors, beliefs, and more can impact their health in both negative and positive ways.

In centuries past, the priest of local communities was also the physician. The role of spirituality and physical healing was viewed as intertwined. The scientific revolution pushed apart the spiritual and physical, with an emphasis on the latter, for too long. As mentioned, numerous studies have been done to try to better understand the elusive qualities of spiritual healing and have come to the conclusion that its importance can’t be denied, even in modern clinical settings. For this reason, over 100 medical schools are coaching students to address the importance of spirituality with their patients since it plays a critical role in healing and pain tolerance. Some doctors now encourage their patients to participate in prayer, worship and faith rituals if those offer hope and comfort.

It’s encouraging to see a more holistic return to healing within the context of modern medicine. As a wellness writer and advocate, I see great potential for healing for people of all faith backgrounds with the acceptance of modern science’s limitations and bringing the most powerful healer back into the conversation. “The Great Physician” (i.e. the divine) deserves a place in the doctor’s office, hospitals, and healthcare settings. Spiritual healing is real.

 

 

Healing and Improved Pain Tolerance through Prayer

According to a survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics, 62 percent of people use prayer as an alternative medicine. Today we will explore three types of prayer and their potential for healing: contemplative prayer, intercessory prayer, and intercessory prayer for distance healing.

Contemplative prayer or meditation is when a person sits quietly and/or reflects silently on their thoughts. This type of prayer has been shown to lower heart rate and blood pressure, improve mood, and reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol in a person’s body. Intercessory prayer is when people use prayer as a means of communicating with the universe or a divine power.

Both contemplative and intercessory prayer have been found to have benefits. For example, one study found that people suffering from chronic pain had better pain tolerance when engaging in daily prayer. When used in a positive way (ex: seeking strength, comfort or peace), prayer helped chronic pain sufferers with better health outcomes compared to those who used prayer to express anger, resentment and abandonment from their God.

The third type of prayer, intercessory prayer for distance healing, is especially intriguing. The first two types of prayer might easily be attributed to having only mind/body benefits derived from within the individual. Distance healing through prayer proves that self-healing isn’t the only mechanism or energy at play in prayer. There is in fact an intangible, “other” energy involved.

Distance healing through prayer involves one person praying for another person with the intention of positively influencing their physical condition. Six of nine studies focused on compassionate intention from a distance produced statistically significant positive results. The mechanism by which this happens isn’t understood. In other words, the intangible and interpersonal spiritual/energetic realm is involved. For example, a blind study with AIDS patients involved half of the patients receiving standard treatment and the other half receiving standard treatment plus intercessory prayer from a distance. The latter group had statistically significant improvements.

 

 

Practical Ways to Engage in Spiritual Healing

Whether you’re suffering from chronic pain or not, there are benefits to incorporating spiritual healing into your lifestyle and daily routine. A few examples of how this can be done include:

  • Join spiritual support groups
  • Meditate
  • Try different types of prayer and ask for prayer when needed
  • Spend time in nature
  • Read sacred religious texts/scriptures & spiritual or faith-based non-fiction
  • Perform meaningful spiritual/faith/religious rituals
  • Consult or work with a person in clergy, chaplain services, healing therapies, reiki, etc.
  • Participate in movement programs that emphasize mind/body/spirit connection (ex: yoga, Qi Gong, Tai Chi)
  • Participate in a religious community that is supportive of your theology and values
  • Experiment with healing touch therapy and/or acupuncture
  • Journal and/or do reflective writing exercises
  • Participate in the arts and/or try expressive art therapy
  • Enjoy worship experiences and singing
  • Focus on volunteerism and service for others

All of these activities can help restore balance and energy. Each creates a sacred space for connecting with a higher power and addressing one’s personal and interpersonal spiritual needs. As discussed, spiritual practices can lower pain, facilitate healing, and help a person become more integrated and whole. If you’ve tried pharmaceuticals, herbal remedies, nutritious eating, and exercise but come up short on what you need for health, then perhaps it’s time to pay a visit to The Great Physician? From my point of view, there’s nothing to lose here. Only bountiful potential.

 

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

 

“Women Can Have It All” [the myth that hurts our wellness the most]

I was reading a news article recently and was caught off guard by how angry it made me. I get worried, stressed, fearful, and frustrated but seldom truly angry. Now, before going on, I *don’t* want to get political here. That’s never been what WellnessWinz is for or about. So please discard that idea as you read on. It’s not my agenda.

The article that made me angry was about a triggering topic that just doesn’t seem to stop making headlines lately: Abortion rights. I’ve heard allllll the arguments from both sides and from activists that are secular and faith-based. Trust me when I say I know a lot more about this topic than the average woman due to a medically complicated pregnancy just over a year ago that left me torn as to what I ought to do to protect my unborn child from suffering. It opened my eyes to the torment that so many women endure when considering ending a wanted pregnancy and the underrecognized struggles of many women considering ending unplanned pregnancies, not to mention the plight of women at large.

(If you want to read more about my experiences feel free to check out one of several articles I’ve written about pregnancy loss, grief, healing and being pregnant again after trauma: Glimmers of Joy Amid Grief, My Emergency C-section Recovery, Mental Health Support for Mothers, Pregnancy After Loss Is…)

 

 

So, what made me angry in the article that I read?

Answer: The idea that abortion, chosen or not, legal or illegal, is about empowerment.

 

The arguments go something like this:

Pro-choice: Women’s bodily autonomy = empowerment to choose timing of children, career, education, etc. (this is a long-standing stance).

&

Pro-life: “Women can have it all these days” (the exact words from the article) = empowerment to both raise children and hold down a job.

 

In my honest opinion, politics aside, empowerment has nothing to do with the difficult decision to end a pregnancy, wanted or unwanted. Empowerment is the farthest thing from explaining why many women feel so disadvantaged and under supported that they don’t have the choice to keep their unborn child. Empowerment also doesn’t begin to scrape at the struggles that lie ahead for women who keep their babies against the odds. Empowerment? No.

Allow me to explain the weak points of both sides here:

Bodily autonomy is an important thing, even as people on both sides of the abortion debate have varying definitions of what that ought to mean; however, the idea that it’s empowering to be forced to choose between a child and career, single and/or young motherhood or higher education, putting food on the table for older children or adding a starving mouth to a hungry household is in no way, shape or form accurate, in my humble opinion. It’s incredibly damaging to women’s wellness. No matter the choice, a woman must make a sacrifice.

On the flip side, the notion that “women can have it all” is a long-standing myth that actually means “women must find a way to DO it all.” This is the way our society continues to place heavy burdens squarely on the shoulders of women while disadvantaging and under supporting them along the way. This harms our collective wellness as women too. Big time. It’s entirely out of touch with reality and how much women’s health suffers in nearly every way from an unequal society.

My mom has told me for years that she felt frustrated by pro-choice claims decades ago that abortion “allows women to have it all” (she recognized the oppressive nature of this myth long before I came to terms with it) and now, quite ironically, we’re beginning to hear the exact same argument used against abortion from pro-lifers. What gives?!?!

Let’s move on from abortion debate “highlights” and talk about the most pressing thing:

The reality that women are vastly underserved by our society and are paying a steep price for it, monetarily, personally, and with their health. As a women’s wellness advocate, I can’t turn away from this disheartening data even as I confess that I don’t have many answers for solutions. But perhaps continuing to shine a spotlight on these things is a start…

 

 

The Proof That Women Are Far From “Having It All”

A major gender pay gap exists in many developed nations, not to mention third world countries. In the U.S., women earn 83 cents to every man’s dollar, and this trend of earning less is true across nearly every occupation. In the U.K., women earn a whopping 40% less than men. Unequal pay most certainly means fewer options and opportunities for women despite their hard work.

Earning an advanced degree doesn’t help advance women very much in their earning potential, not to mention the student debt it accrues. On average, most women with advanced degrees (master’s, Ph.d., etc.) earn less than white men with only a bachelor’s degree do, and this pay gap is especially disproportionate for black and Latina women. Again, these disparities persist across nearly every occupation with some small exceptions. Check it out for yourself with this interactive tool that allows you to compare wages (and gives you fuel to ask for a raise).

Not only are women earning less money but they’re shouldering the caregiving load in both married and single parent households. In the U.S. alone, most single parent homes are overseen by moms (8.5 million) compared to dads (2.6 million). According to an article on Parents.com, single mothers feel firsthand all the weight they’re carrying for their careers, families and society’s expectations of them: “Single mothers confirm they’re facing these pressures and high expectations every day and are even shamed when their abilities don’t match up to the ideal.”

Indeed, women are expected to do SO much and with a smile on their worn out faces. Add these struggles to the high cost of childcare, inequitable healthcare coverage, and lack of paid maternity leave, and you have a society that is telling women they can have it all while denying them of all the support for fulfilling that dream.

One example of how women are intensely under supported is the steep decline in breastfeeding rates from infancy to one year of age (84% of women initiate breastfeeding their babies but only 57% still are at 6 months and 35% are at one year). Breastfeeding is arguably one of the most physically natural roles a mother has and yet in our society it’s nearly impossible for most women to stick with due to pressures to return to work, a lack of support for breastfeeding logistics, low help with childcare for older children, and only half of employers offering lactation support programs and on-site nursing/pumping rooms. Not only that, but depending on where you live geographically in the U.S. there are varying degrees of cultural support and importance placed on this healthy maternal-infant relationship: see here.

 

 

How else is our culture expecting too much and offering too little for women? Ohhh, let me count the ways…

I have seen within my own family the toll that caregiving can take. My mother was working full-time, raising three kids, helping support three aging relatives and her disabled younger brother, all while going through menopause. The weight of all these responsibilities is not unique to her. It’s a common, untold story of middle-aged women at large. Right when women’s self-care needs must be addressed to manage menopause in a healthy manner, life demands reach a crescendo and minimize a woman’s ability to focus on her own wellness.

Roughly 66% of caregivers for aging relatives are female, averaging 49 years old and working outside of the home while simultaneously providing 20 hours of unpaid elderly care per week. During this phase of life, the demands placed uniquely on women’s backs has the following repercussions:

    • “33% of working women decreased work hours
    • 29% passed up a job promotion, training or assignment
    • 22% took a leave of absence
    • 20% switched from full-time to part-time employment
    • 16% quit their jobs
    • 13% retired early
    • In total, the cost impact of caregiving on the individual female caregiver in terms of lost wages and Social Security benefits equals $324,044″…read more

This data only reflects the challenges of caregiving for elderly loved ones, let alone the percentage of women who quit work and/or struggle with demands to caretake for disabled or sick children. I think most of us can agree that these numbers do NOT match up to the mythical ideal of “women can have it all.” These struggles are seen generation after generation and unfortunately, the future for women looks somewhat bleak. According to the U.S. Department of Labor:

“The pandemic has set women’s labor force participation back more than 30 years.” 

 

By early 2021, women’s participation in the work force fell to less than 56%, matching rates as far back as 1987. Women of color and those working in low-wage occupations have been the most impacted.

I know, I know…this isn’t a feel good article. But it’s important that we get to the core of why the myth “women can have it all” just isn’t adding up to reality.

 

 

The Ripple Effects of Gender Inequality on the Average Woman’s Wellness

A Statement from the 2020 Global Gender Gap Report:

“In no country in the world is the amount of time spent by men on unpaid work (mainly domestic and volunteer work) equal to that of women; and in many countries, women still spend multiple-folds as much time than men on these activities. Even in countries where this ratio is lowest (i.e. Norway or the United States) women spend almost twice as much time as men on unpaid domestic work.”

This global gender gap contributes to higher mental health challenges for women versus men. The World Health Organization shows that women outpace men on rates of mental disorders such as depression, anxiety and somatic complaints, to name a few. Within the U.S. alone, one study demonstrates disheartening findings stating that “by many objective measures the lives of women in the United States have improved over the past 35 years, yet we show that measures of subjective well-being indicate that women’s happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men.”

Women’s mental health suffers gravely because of how much we are tasked with. Mental health is further complicated by the following factors that contribute to social insecurity:

  • gender-based violence
  • socio-economic disadvantage
  • income inequality
  • low social status and rank
  • responsibility for the care of others

As long as so many women suffer from mental health challenges, the collective wellness of society suffers too. Our bodies suffer. Our families suffer. Our workplaces suffer. Our healthcare systems suffer. And so on.

 

 

Is There a Path Forward that is Better for Women’s Wellness?

I don’t have the answers for pay equity, changes in government policies and benefits,  and normalizing caregiving for men, but I can say without a shadow of a doubt that ALL of this information compels me to scream from the rooftops that we are hurting women’s wellness with the myth that “women can have it all.” We’re far from that reality becoming manifest. So for now, this myth continues to be synonymous with “women must do it all,” and I can’t think of anything more suffocating, oppressive, sexist, and damaging to women’s collective wellness than that.

I hate to end on such a negative statement. That’s seldom my style. But I find myself realizing that passive complacency or putting a positive spin on these complicated circumstances is no longer acceptable as it allows that myth to gain in momentum and harm.

Women deserve better.

Perhaps it’s time we should accept that having it all (ahem, doing it all) is an impossible standard for a person of any gender? Just a thought.

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

 

The Pursuit of Thinness: A History of Oppression and the Harms of Diet Culture

There is a deconstruction process that happens when people suddenly realize the ways their body image and self-talk are informed by harmful societal pressures and cultural norms. The process involves recognizing issues of sexualization, the interconnectedness of thinness and elitism, the roots and realities of racism on body image, and so much more. I went through my own body image deconstruction journey years ago when I started working full-time in the fitness industry.

At the time, I felt that I was happy with my body, proud of its strength, and accepting of its curves. I was proven wrong when prospective clients and gym-goers complaining about their own insecurities quickly pulled down the thin veil masking my own. Female clients would talk about their “ideal weight” and then quickly point out the most thin-framed or outwardly fit woman on the gym floor. I couldn’t help but wonder – Why aren’t any of these women happy with their bodies? And why aren’t they pointing at my balanced health and average body size as a nice ideal?   

 

 

For my entire adolescent and adult life I’ve refused to join in the disparaging and self-deprecating conversations women tend to have about their bodies’ “flaws.” I always thought that because I didn’t chime in that I was somehow floating mystically above the damaging forces of our culture’s beauty ideals. Not only did this façade begin to unravel as I sat across from dissatisfied gym goers ready to fork over large sums of money to work with me, but the whole thing officially shattered to pieces after a bike accident rendered me unable to exercise and seeking comfort foods in my distress.

In that year after college, I gained the classic “freshman 15” that I had managed to keep off while in school. My self-worth deflated within a few short months and I found myself having an unhealthy relationship with both exercise and food, restricting calories only to overeat later, and feeling shame if I didn’t try to work out almost every day of the week.

I managed to preach balance and wisdom to my clients but struggled in my inner world, feeling that my identity had taken an intense blow – all because of what the scale told me I weighed.

Unraveling my worth from my weight took years of slow effort and movement towards intuitive eating and joyful movement. It took patience, self-care, spiritual growth, and discarding so much of what was being preached around me in the fitness realm. In order to find true wellness I had to pull myself out of the diet industry’s powerful, greedy jaws and had to recognize with humility that I was doing inadvertent harm to so many women by conforming to the racist, elitist notion that thinness was somehow superior.

As we dive deeper into the origins and harmful realities of the diet industry, body weight connotating to superiority, and the damaging health effects of yo-yo weight fluctuations, I ask that you keep your mind open and avoid judgment of yourself or others. This is hard for all of us to unpack but it’s important work for collective wellness.

 

The Origins of the Diet Industry

The ancient Greeks were the first to use the word diet (diaitabut it didn’t apply exclusively to a certain way of eating. Rather, it connoted an overall healthy lifestyle of food, exercise, drink, and more. Although they were far from perfect, the Greeks consumed nutrient-dense Mediterranean foods and celebrated athletics. Unfortunately, much of the emphasis on body ideals revolved around a narrow definition of male prowess, muscle and beauty.

Louise Foxcroft, author of Calories & Corsets, says “Women can’t live up to that—or weren’t thought to be able to live up to that. So the onus on diet and on having an ideal body—it’s always been a much more difficult concept for women, and that’s reflected in our modern diet culture as well.”

Journeying forward through history brings us to the Victorian era when plumpness, curves and round figures were considered dignified, allowing women a wider spectrum of body sizes deemed socially acceptable and beautiful. That all changed in the 1860s when William Banting published a pamphlet titled “Letter on Corpulence” addressed to the public about a doctor-led experiment he put himself through to lose weight.

The letter highlighted his diet and weight loss, and resulted in “penny scales” popping up in both public and retail spaces galore, allowing people to check their body weight practically anywhere they went. This led to a rise in self-consciousness and an end to the era of larger body sizes being deemed socially desirable. Add this to the change in the 1800s from clothes being custom made to fit a person’s unique body size and shape to clothing being mass produced and you suddenly have a society that is both more aware of body weight and struggling to adapt to clothing sizes that don’t perfectly fit every person’s unique physique.

 

The History of How Body Weight Got Tied up in Morality and Superiority

At the end of the 20th century, as immigration increased and white Americans felt that their job security was being threatened, thinness became a means of retaining social status and superiority. The white middle class noted that immigrants tended to be larger in body size and thus, an oppressive social hierarchy was normalized.

A few decades later, during World War I, Americans were confronted with yet another shift in body size awareness and valuation. International food shortages resulted in food conservation reminders across the country, with the spreading slogan “Victory Over Ourselves.” In other words, conserving food was seen as an act of patriotism, morality and survival. To be larger and perceived as hoarding food was suddenly considered an inability to control one’s own urges and thus a moral failure.

Between 1920-1950 people started trying all sorts of creative things to lose weight – smoking, diet pills, and bariatric surgery, to name a few. Come the early 1960s, Weight Watchers was founded and the modern era of formulaic diets began, resulting in more and more people experiencing large swings in weight loss and weight regain, not to mention experiencing feelings of failure and shame. In 1992, the National Institutes of Health concluded that diets are ineffective and most people who lost weight following a diet regained the same amount of weight or more within 5 years.

But did this stop the diet industry?

If you’ve heard of people going ga-ga over bulking and leaning, the gluten-free diet, whole 30, or the keto diet (all fads with their time in the spotlight over the last 10-15 years), then you know the answer.

The weight loss and weight management diet market is a massive beast projected to reach $295.3 billion by 2027. Its hunger knows no satisfaction as it tells the masses to get out of touch with their own. Its financial power and cultural influence continue to grow because of weight being inappropriately made to be the “most important” aspect of a person’s health even though we now understand that looking at one’s size tells us nothing about their underlying health.

The diet industry’s expansion efforts also continue based on the inaccurate notion that modern society’s sedentary nature and high calorie consumption are the most harmful aspects of the rise in disposable income. As you will see, there’s much more to the story of why our world is struggling so desperately with health, and much of it is tied up in our harmful, oppressive obsession with the numbers on the scale…

 

 

BMI, Yo-Yo Dieting, and Poor Health Outcomes

Adolphe Quetelet was the inventor of the body mass index (BMI) over 200 years ago. Quetelet was a mathematician, astronomer and statistician, not a doctor. He pursued finding the means of populations in his work and based the modern BMI system exclusively on French and Scottish people. Quetelet made it clear that BMI wasn’t supposed to be a measure of individual body fat, build or health. It was a statistical tool on a population level, not a measure of individual health. And yet, we have seen firsthand how the use of BMI morphed over the years, becoming a central measurement of health.

Beginning about 100 years ago, BMI was used as a justification for eugenics and scientific racism due to broad-sweeping and biased assumptions that the initial population studied (French and Scottish) was representative of all people regardless of race and ethnicity. This put black people specifically at a disadvantage. They became subject to racist and unfair assumptions about their underlying health.

A reporter on Medium, self-named “Your Fat Friend” explains that BMI was publicly recognized through the years as a poor assessment that puts certain groups of people at a disadvantage:

“According to studies published by the Endocrine Society, the BMI overestimates fatness and health risks for Black people. Meanwhile, according to the World Health Organization, the BMI underestimates health risks for Asian communities, which may contribute to underdiagnosis of certain conditions. And, despite the purported universality of the BMI, it papers over significant sex-based differences in the relationship between body fat and the BMI. That is, because so much of the research behind the BMI was conducted on those assigned male at birth, those assigned female may be at greater health risk if their diagnosis hinges on a measurement that was never designed for them.”

The obsession with weight and BMI infiltrate every aspect of modern culture, influencing medical settings, doctor’s offices, insurance, schools, and even churches. In an episode titled “Diet Culture and the Church” on the Faith and Feminism podcast, a dietician named Leslie Schilling says:

“The outside of a person’s body doesn’t tell us anything except about our own prejudice.”

Schilling goes on to talk about how damaging our culture’s focus on weight is and how she’s a non-diet dietician, bringing her clients back to intuitive eating and acceptance that all food is good food. She makes the point that the fixation on weight as the most important indicator of health has actually robbed many people of both physical and mental health as they engage in harmful yo-yo dieting.

There are many well-researched harms of yo-yo dieting and yet diet fads continue to cycle in and out of the limelight. Yo-yo dieting doesn’t even really mean what many people think. It’s not just about jumping from one diet trend to the next. Yo-yo dieting is really about yo-yo weight loss and gain, which can happen with a single diet or disordered eating.

According to research explored on HealthLine, “one in three dieters ends up heavier than before they dieted” due to increases in appetite as the body tries to replenish depleted energy stores and a loss of muscle mass during the dieting process. Not only do diets tend to lead to higher body fat percentage upon weight regain but cycles of weight gain and loss can cause fatty liver, an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease, elevated blood pressure, and a stronger sense of dissatisfaction with one’s life and health. Ironically, these health complications are exactly what diets tout they improve…and yet, evidence suggests otherwise.

 

 

A Healthier Way Forward For All Sizes

This information can be overwhelming and may leave some readers feeling at a loss over what “healthy” even looks like – Is it large or small? What can a person use to track health changes if the scale is in fact unreliable? How do you move away from diets and achieve better health with food?

The answers aren’t simple and they won’t be neatly wrapped up for you like a day-by-day planned out diet program. And in truth, to make matters more complicated, the big picture will look quite different from one person to the next. Unfortunately, modern medicine is not designed to properly address healthy lifestyle and eating behaviors on an individual basis. The revolving door of care doesn’t allow for that amount of time and conversation. Even dieticians and fitness professionals are limited. Many dieticians and nutritionists were “classically trained” to keep a close eye on calories and macros while few fitness professionals are educated beyond the scope of programming workouts for the general population. Which leaves people in the conundrum again:

Where do you turn for answers?

Here are a few soft suggestions from yours truly:

Mental Health Reminders to Reframe Your Relationship with Weight:

  • Weight alone doesn’t define your health
  • You aren’t your weight
  • Your weight should never be tied up in your worth
  • If you find yourself engaging in on/off dieting then perhaps consider working with a mental health counselor who can help you explore your emotions around food and body size

Becoming Friends with Food for the Rest of Your Life:

  • Intuitive eating will take you farther with both internal and mental health than dieting ever will – this involves learning to trust your body’s intuitive system of self-regulation with regards to hunger and satiety
  • A balance and variety of ALL foods is possible in a healthy diet
  • No food should ever be labeled good vs bad
  • It’s okay to emotionally and/or socially eat at times. For example, it’s your child’s birthday and you’re not hungry for cake but you have a slice anyway (guilt free!).

A Healthy Relationship with Exercise and Movement:

  • Exercise can be used to augment energy, health and performance, but should never be used as a form of self-punishment
  • If you feel guilty for missing a workout and find yourself needing to exercise every day, it might be time to speak with a mental health counselor about feelings of worth and achievement being closely tied to your physical performance and consistency
  • If you find that exercise and gyms are uncomfortable experiences then simply aim for an active lifestyle – walking, doing chores, gardening, playing, dancing for fun, etc.
  • Giving yourself permission to engage in joyful movement is key. Ex: Don’t force yourself to run just because you think you should. If you hate it then don’t force it. Find something you like!

 

Ending Comments

Patience and compassion are key as you learn to untangle your emotions and self-worth from your size. It takes time to deconstruct all of the harmful messages and expectations culture has imposed on us all and find a healthier, sustainable lifestyle. Also, keep in mind that food and exercise are only pieces of the bigger health picture. Good relationships in life have been scientifically proven to be key determinants of health. Joyful movement, quality non-stigmatizing health care, clean air and water are other factors too.

Schilling says it best: “All bodies are good bodies.”

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie