Category Archives: Health

Saving The Smallest Hearts [Parade, August 2014]

I wrote the first draft of this essay quite soon after we came home from Violet’s first (22 day) hospital admission. Our life had just exploded, everything was raw, and I was filled with questions. My (excellent, patient, compassionate) midwife and Violet’s (excellent, patient, compassionate) team of doctors were endlessly kind about my questions. But they didn’t have all the answers. And during a time like that, people are quick to tell you when there’s no fruit there — you need to focus on moving forward, on being strong for what is and what’s next. They are right and I have tried hard to do that. But trying to understand why your baby’s heart didn’t develop correctly isn’t like trying to understand why your ex-boyfriend stopped calling. It’s a big, never-ending question with a million answers (depending on your faith or lack thereof) and also no answers — at least not scientific ones, at least not yet.

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Heavy & Healthy [Marie Claire, August 2014]

Getting back to my roots here, with a new feature for the August issue of Marie Claire that asks: Can you be heavy and healthy?

Longtime blog readers know that my gut response on this would be yes — but it turns out there is a decent amount of science to support that idea. Of course this is a pretty controversial claim, so let’s go over some ground rules right now:

  • No, I am not saying that every overweight person is healthy (or vice versa).
  • No, I am not saying that every thin person is unhealthy (or vice versa).
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Breathing Lessons [Prevention, June 2014]

A lot of the time, as a writer, my job is to tell stories. But sometimes, in ways that are forever surprising me, I realize that my stories are kind of telling me. So here’s a story that I started telling over a year ago, when two assignments inspired me to learn to swim. Yes, at age 32, yes, while seven months pregnant.

And today, I’m sharing a new story, which I wrote for this month’s issue of Prevention, about how swimming has sort of saved my life. The article is part of a wonderful package on “extreme healing.” There are pieces on how to turn your home into a healing oasis, the best healing destinations in the world, and fancy healing spas. Then there are two essays that weave together the science of healing with personal narratives. One is by the utterly fabulous Judith Newman, about the road trip nobody wanted to go on.

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Wonder Drug [ELLE, November 2013]

This is one of those very tricky stories that made me think very hard about stuff that I’ve long taken as gospel. Specifically: That The Pill is the best thing that ever happened to women’s healthcare and maybe to women, period.

I know. As a good feminist and generally responsible human being, I have long assumed that being on the Pill was more or less my civic duty. I thought I had to be on it the same way I have to vote because, you know, Susan B. Anthony and Seneca Falls.

But you guys already know a lot of my back story here: Migrainesendometriosis, what have you.* And at some point along my merry way, I started wondering about the Pill. It was clear that all of my health issues were hormonal. And the Pill — which I had been taking faithfully since the age of 14 — is nothing but (synthetic) hormones. I tried lots of different kinds and ultimately got to this catch-22 situation where I couldn’t stay healthy off the Pill but I also couldn’t find one that worked for one problem without making the other one worse. In talking casually with girlfriends and many readers of this blog, I realized that lots of women struggle to find a good fit with the Pill… yet we also all take it for granted that it’s The Best Thing Ever For Women’s Health. Because choice and responsibility and empowerment, right? 

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Exercise: Learning To Love It [Elle, June 2013]

Elle Magazine Virginia Sole-Smith June 2013

The June 2013 issue of Elle is “The Body Issue,” and I contributed this essay on the science of exercise motivation and my personal quest to stop thinking of my workouts as yet another chore (to be avoided at all costs) and start being one of those people who actually craves physical activity and gets grouchy when they can’t do it.

Elle "Exercise Learn To Love It," June 2013 by Virginia Sole-Smith

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Fitspiration and Southern Fried Fitness

Virginia Sole-Smith, Robin Shea Southern Fried Fitness

Guys, I did the most fun radio interview this week, with Robin Shea, host of Southern Fried Fitness, a TV show and internet radio program on wsRadio.

You can read what Robin is all about in the screen grab above — and guess why I liked her immediately (hint: Fried things are delicious.) Robin wanted to discuss this post I wrote back in March, about the troubles with fitspiration. In case you forgot —  Fitspiration or fitspo is a term for all the sweaty hard body images currently bouncing around Pinterest, Facebook and the like, accompanied by:

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Horace & Co Are Gone!

And I’ve got these delightful get well flowers* plus three cool-if-creepy holes** in my stomach to prove it.

So just a quick check-in to thank you all for the supportive comments and emails before my surgery last week. It was an intense day, followed by a blur of painful/painkiller-filled days. I’m definitely still recovering, but have turned a corner and no longer feel quite so much like death/can brush my teeth and even shower without immediately needing a nap afterwards.

Also, all of you who were so appalled to learn that I hadn’t gotten around to reading the Hunger Games yet: Good news! Read all three in three days and yep, you were right. They definitely go on the list of Brave Books for Girls (Not Princesses).

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Horace is Made of Chocolate

 

When I first came clean about my various health woes back in January, I promised this wouldn’t become a sad sack sick girl blog… and I’d say making you wait almost five months for an update achieves that goal.

So here’s the word: Tomorrow morning, Horace and all his little cyst friends are getting cut out.

I’ve been consulting with a fancy gynecologist who specializes in hard-to-treat ladyparts like mine for the past several months. We’ve tried the Pill — a low-estrogen version that isn’t supposed to interfere with my migraines. Horace is unmoved and continues to flare up with waves of stabbing pelvic pain and 12-hour migraines several times a month. The rest of the time, he wakes me up in the middle of the night, hurts when I pee, spasms when I do certain yoga poses and is generally annoying.

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Why I Quit Dieting

iVillage Why I Quit Dieting by Ragen Chastein with Virginia Sole-Smith

I’m so thrilled to be participating in my girl Ragen’s iVillage slideshow of Diet Quitters. 

A) Because it’s really fun to be back over in iVillage Never Say Diet land for a visit.

B) Because I’ll be so stoked if we inspire even one woman to break up with an unhealthy diet/weight cycling pattern. And with 33 awesome women featured, I think those odds are good.

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Michelle Obama’s Biggest Mistake

Michelle Obama on The Biggest Loser

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I am usually a pretty big Michelle Obama fan. I’ve defended her right to wear un-American fashion designers, because she’s the First Lady, not First Barbie Doll. I had a whole lot of feelings when Rush Limbaugh called her fat. And there is a lot about her MyPlate program and the whole Let’s Move campaign that is just great. 

But then, last month, Michelle Obama went on The Biggest Loser. And that’s where she lost me.

Because TBL is a show that glorifies pretty much everything we’re doing wrong about obesity in this country. It’s about getting thin at any cost. It’s about no pain, no gain. It’s about public humiliation. It’s definitely not about health, no matter what the coaches scream as “motivation.” 

My friend Ragen Chastain, the amazing fat dancer and activist, has written a wonderful piece explaining exactly why Obama’s decision to appear on TBL was a mistake. I’m reprinting it here with her permission because she’s had trouble getting traditional media outlets to publish it (they’re afraid of pissing off the White House — really, guys? First Amendment, anyone?) and we need to get the word out. Just because a show glorifies weight loss doesn’t mean it’s good for your health. 

Here’s Ragen: 

When I heard that Michelle Obama was going on The Biggest Loser to congratulate the participants on being role models I knew that I had to do something.  So I e-mailed my friend Darryl Roberts, filmmaker of America the Beautiful 2: The Thin Commandments. We wrote a well-researched article pointing out the problems with Mrs. Obama endorsing the contestants as role models.  That article is below.

It wasn’t meant for this blog, but it’s now been turned down by three major media outlets.  Not because they disagreed with us, in fact all three said that they agreed with the article.  It was denied in all three cases because the White House wouldn’t like, they were worried about damaging their working relationship with the White House, and it it made the First Lady look bad and out of touch.  That confused me since I think the problem is that the First Lady IS out of touch, not that I’m pointing it out. And why does the media believe that, in America, we should be scared to question our government?

So I’m using my little forum here to get this out.  But before I do, I want to make an invitation:

Michelle Obama – have lunch with me.  I believe that you are a good person and that your intentions to improve kids’ health are good, and I don’t believe that you intend for the media to be too scared to publish pieces that are critical of you.  I’m a champion athlete, a trained researcher, and a real live obese woman and I think that a good place to start is for us to have a conversation.  Tell me where and when you’d like to have lunch and I’m buying.

In the meantime, here’s the piece that the media was too scared to publish:

Michelle Obama’s “Biggest” Mistake

By Darryl Roberts and Ragen Chastain

DARRYL: I have had the opportunity to get to know Health at Every Size proponent Ragen Chastain after interviewing her for my documentary America the Beautiful 2: The Thin Commandments.  I was coming home from a screening of the movie when I received an email from Ragen alerting me to the fact that our first lady Michelle Obama was going on The Biggest Loser to proclaim the contestants as role models.

I will admit that initially I didn’t quite believe this. The Biggest Loser is a show that’s exploits a very dangerous aspect of American life, the unhealthy ways in which we attempt to lose weight. Surely the First Lady had to know this. But it turned out to be true and, knowing what we know about health and weight, Ragen and I decided that we had to respond.

Mrs. Obama, we know you love our youth as much as we all do and that you want to see them healthy, but we would ask you why you chose a game show like The Biggest Loser as a platform to promote “getting healthy,” and why you continue to push weight loss even though it doesn’t meet the criteria of evidence based medicine.

Have you vetted what happens to some the contestants one of two years after the show?

The New York Times did some digging and this is what they found:

“The Biggest Loser has produced some amazing results for its obese contestants, but at what cost? Many see the pounds come right back, and it’s likely because they engage in dangerous, damaging behavior in the first place in order to win the weight-loss reality show, the New York Times has learned. Season one’s winner, who’s almost back to his original weight of 330 pounds, dehydrated himself to the point of urinating blood. “I’m just waiting for the first person to have a heart attack,” says a doctor.

This season’s first episode resulted in two hospitalizations, which is scary given the content of a release form obtained by the Times. It reads: “No warranty, representation or guarantee has been made as to the qualifications or credentials of the medical professionals [on the show].”

Shockingly, contestants who talk about being completely inactive sometimes for years have to attest that they are “in excellent physical health”. And while the Times got some tidbits — contestants apparently work out in as much clothing as possible when the cameras are off — few were willing to talk. After the paper started digging around, former contestants were emailed a reminder of the serious consequences that come with unauthorized interviews: fines of $100,000 to $1 million.”

A lot of our youth actually start off exercising and eating better. But when they don’t see the “desired result” on the scale, they stop because they mistakenly think that if their healthy habits don’t lead to weight loss then they can’t lead to health.

From my travels with the film and Ragen’s work as an expert speaker on Health at Every Size, we can produce health professionals from Harvard, Princeton, Michigan State, the University of Denver, UCLA, who will tell you exactly what we’re telling you.

RAGEN:  This is an illustration of good intentions gone horribly awry. Calling these contestants good examples of health and fitness is deeply problematic. There are already firsthand accounts of Biggest Loser contestants being encouraged to engage in incredibly unhealthy behaviors, including working out against doctor’s orders, and manipulating their weight through dehydration.

According to Golda Poretsky’s interview with former contestant Kai Hibbard:

“They start teaching you that because you are overweight you are sub-human …There was a registered dietician that was supposed to be helping … but every time she tried to give us advice … the crew or production would step in and tell us that we were not to listen to anybody except our trainers.  The doctors had ordered us to take [a solution to re-balance our electrolytes] and the trainers were like, “Throw it out, right now.”  So I got to a point where I was only eating about 1,000 calories a day and I was working out between five and eight hours a day …   And my hair started to fall out.  I was covered in bruises.  I had dark circles under my eyes … My period stopped altogether and I was only sleeping three hours a night.  I tried to tell the TV show about it and I was told, “Save it for the camera.”

Exactly what’s wrong with the “lose weight” to be healthy approach?

RAGEN: Teaching kids about healthy eating and helping them develop a lifelong love of movement are excellent intentions.  Focusing on the weight of kids in order to do that is simply horrible execution.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) stated recently that a program that shames kids carries  “a great risk of increasing stigma for those children who are overweight or obese which, in turn, can reinforce unhealthy behaviors (e.g., overeating),” and also said:

“Studies suggest that overweight children who are teased about their appearance are more likely to binge-eat or use unhealthy weight-control practices, and weight-based victimization has been correlated with lower levels of physical activity. Not surprisingly, stigmatization of obese individuals, particularly adolescents, poses risks to their psychological health.”

Hospitalizations for eating disorders in children younger than 12 years old rose by 119% from 1999 to 2006 according to a report issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) published in the journal Pediatrics.

It’s not just that focusing on kid’s weight might hurt them, it’s also that it doesn’t help.  According to research from the University of Minnesota “None of the behaviors being used by adolescents (in 1999) for weight-control purposes predicted weight loss[in 2006]…Of greater concern were the negative outcomes associated with dieting and the use of unhealthful weight-control behaviors, including significant weight gain.”

Meanwhile there is not a single study that shows that weight loss works for more than a small fraction (about 5 percent) of people.  The cold hard truth is that there is absolutely no evidence that supports the idea that the majority of fat people can become thin through diet and exercise.

Is There a Solution?

RAGEN:  Absolutely.  The fact that I’m a healthy fat athlete isn’t a surprise or a paradox, there are lots of us.  A great deal of evidence (Matheson et. al., Wei et. althe Cooper Institute etc.) points to the conclusion that healthy habits make healthy bodies in a wide variety of sizes.

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