Wednesday, April 20, 2011


(PHOTO: Climbing godfather Jon Cannon celebrates his 40th birthday face-down)

In America when experts discuss the "obesity epidemic" and its possible solutions, the emphasis on change is most often a focus on the systematic, the "efficient" models for weight loss. There's tremendous focus on food and calories, and diets are recommended. There's a punitive, punishing attitude abundant in the diet industry's rhetoric because diets are structured against time. Results are pandered as quick, discipline-driven evidence of one's dedication, even as the national companies claim under their spokesmodel pictures, "Results not typical."

Diets are marketed as time-dependent solutions to what is, essentially, a life-long problem. And true to America's love of Frederick Taylor's "scientific management efficiency model," to its Henry Ford fantasy of mechanized production of reliable, predictable results, the diet industry replicates formulaic systems designed to work for every body. Dieting is sold as an individualized struggle, which again reaffirms the American tenets of "rugged individualism." If you're fat, there's something wrong with you, and it's up to you alone to fix it.

This business approach to body ignores rich histories steeped in anthropological tradition. The communal aspect of living, of humans as hunters and gathers, as social creatures who establish cultural traditions - music, art, providing, family, community, and even culinary histories - are often ignored, set aside as academic. The very social nature of people, the way we are born into a familial tribe and socialized to see all things, including the dinner table, in the ways our fathers and mothers do is ignored. Most Americans don't see the intersections where individual and community meet. In the most basic of ways, even our food supply is stripped of its communal connections. Giant, discount super stores display products that are no doubt, manufactured by real people somewhere, somehow - but the connection between what we buy and the state of our larger, national or even global communities is missing from the labels and displays.

Unless one goes to a farmer's market, one won't meet the person who tended the vegetables one buys. One won't get a chance to shake the hand of the rancher who brought his beef and pork to market, won't chat with the woman who brought eggs and honey to the market square, won't share a recipe with the vendor selling the rich, vibrant greens beneath a tent. The independent dairy farmer selling cheese, the small family making money to buy a home by selling tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers, the elderly couple selling breads, cakes, and pies - all of these are missed with a single trip to a supermarket, erased. The "buy local" movement in America isn't simply a matter of commerce. It's a matter of responsibility, of connection to one's community in ways that foster growth, happiness, and sustainability.

How we buy, more than what we buy, affects our communities, ourselves, including the solutions to our alleged problems. How we live, who we are, how we spend our time, is also a matter of community. As Dr. Nicholas Christakis asserts in his book, Connected, humans live their lives connected through social networks - and these networks shape what we think, feel, and do. Christakis posits that our communities are like superorganisms, a collective entity that shapes individual perceptions, behaviors, and outcomes. As Christakis writes:

Seeing ourselves as part of a superorganism allows us to understand our actions, choices, and experiences in a new light. If we are affected by our embeddedness in social networks and influenced by others who are closely or distantly tied to us, we necessarily lose some power over our own decisions. Such a loss of control can provoke especially strong reactions when people discover that their neighbors or even strangers can influence behaviors and outcomes that have moral overtones and social repercussions. But the flip side of this realization is that people can transcend themselves and their own limitations (xii).

(PHOTO: Beth cheeses while lamenting the lilac color of her tassel, pleased to be nearly finished with architecture studies)

A typical dieting scenario within American households and supported/marketed by women's magazines: The mother/homemaker wants to shed a few pounds. The magazines offer a diet for one instead of a family option. Individual women will then try to exert intense self-discipline for their own eating choices while still cooking what the rest of the family prefers. The woman's struggle is considered separate from the family and she is alone in her desire to make lasting changes. Magazines offer advice such as: "Phone a friend when you're tempted to cheat," and "Make your own plan-friendly snacks for those family nights in front of the TV when the popcorn and chips tempt you."

What's missing from the national conversations about health and well-being is the notion of community. Who you spend time with shapes how you treat yourself. An individual's health within a family is dependent on the entire family - it's traditions, habits, and lifestyle choices. And friends, the social networks you select outside of familial bonds, affect your choices, habits, and outcomes - even those you take on alone, like a diet. What's also missing is a conversation about the way communities treat individuals, the ways in which the hardness of life creates insatiable hungers in our young people that go unsatisfied. Childhood obesity isn't a matter of calories and a lack of self-discipline. Something else, something much more complicated than the Self is influencing our children to make such unhealthy choices, to eat needing more than nutrition. I'm not sure our country is prepared to have those conversations, to look at our nation's children and consider that millions are obese while millions more children go to school uncertain there will be food for their family at the end of the day. It seems America prefers to maintain an individualism at all costs - even those our children pay.

Community is essential to one's well-being and potential. I didn't need to read the research to experience this idea first-hand. At the UNL Climbing Wall, there is an established yet evolving community of climbers. As a collective, the superorganism provides support, enthusiasm, and care. One can't climb alone at the wall - one must rely on another to offer belay. As one climbs, one forges relationships with others. One learns to trust and count on those belays. One begins to look forward to the conversations on the bench while waiting for a rope. Recipes are exchanged. Restaurants are reviewed. Weekly group dinners and movie nights take shape. Others will note and compliment a climber on his or her own progress. Victories are shared. Disappointments soothed by good-natured jokes or sincere kind words. This environment is quite different from a dieting center whose members show up, get weighed, suffer the gains alone, but celebrate the losses collaboratively with stickers, small trinkets, and applause - the typical Weight Watchers meeting would be a good example of this.

Instead, one develops relationships that lead to other opportunities, such as climbing at Shelf Road or biking on a Saturday. And when you're with other people who care for their bodies and their minds, you tend to follow suit as the "price" of membership in that community. Your personal changes become part of a larger evolution, almost imperceptible without deliberate reflection, as you yourself become part of the superorganism that is the community itself. You are affecting and being affected by the group - permeable in your changes and influences.

Unlike a diet program, a community doesn't pressure one's growth and personal results to fit into a specified time frame. Change is gradual, part of the superorganism's inherent life cycle. It's kinder to the psyche as one attempts to entertain new possibilities for health and well-being. The voices of failure that so often accompany diets simply fade, even as one radically changes eating habits. The key is to forget the typical goal-setting, such as, "I want to lose 20 pounds before that wedding," and to embrace, "I want to make myself as healthy as I can and have fun while doing it."

It's a radical notion and quite contrary to the American ideology to decide to invest over a lifetime without an end goal, a result, a product, to show for it. In my own experiences during the last three years, I can only testify to the gradual and imperceptible changes that I hadn't considered until sitting down to write this post. For example, five years ago, one could have opened my cupboards and found "staples" such as Nutella, Oreos, chips, microwave popcorn with extra butter, and sodas. My refrigerator was full of processed meat products, easy to fix frozen dinners, and a plethora of unhealthy, over-processed fodder that passed as "food."

Today, if one were to open my cupboard in search of a guilty pleasure, one would be sorely disappointed. Staples are now indeed staples, such as brown rice, oatmeal, tea, honey, beans, whole wheat pastas, and spices. My refrigerator stores vegetables and fruits, dairy, and healthier proteins such as tofu, chicken, and very lean beef. My daughter often complains, "Geez, there's nothing good to eat here." I smile when she does. There's plenty to fuel a body with proper care and concern - and that's revolutionary for me, a person who grew up in a family convinced gravy and melted butter were beverages.

(PHOTO: Ryann, Caitlin, and Stephanie hold baby Easton and discuss Stephanie's upcoming nuptials)

More importantly than my individual changes, I've become part of a larger community. Going to the wall to climb is also going to see friends, to hear news, to share stories. It's a witnessing of life unfolding, like graduation, when Beth, Ryann, and Caitlin will scatter like seeds to the wind to start lives anew. Being there reminds me of the role of generations, as an experienced climber shows a newbie the ropes, as I did last night when a colleague from work took me up on the offer to climb. As I tied Wendy in and explained the process, as she learned to trust herself while climbing up and doing what she never thought she could, there was a collective joy, a palpable happiness, when she reached the top. Those of us who climb know that feeling of a first climb well, that first day when we saw ourselves anew and potential beckoned. Seeing another's personal goal bloom helps us to carry on.

(PHOTO: Steph holds son Easton to the wall)

When I started this project a few years ago, I thought it was a weight loss journey. I thought that I'd be testifying to the benefits of exercise and healthy eating, showing photos that heralded my success, and then end it. What I've discovered along the way is that the journey itself is everything. All I have accomplished, the changes in me that are more evident with each passing day, are a matter of community. I couldn't have done any of it without the support of those near and far. Even more amazing to me is that time is no longer something I'm working against, trying to shape it to meet my demands. Instead, I'm becoming more and more present in the present, taking stock of my day as a day in itself. Tomorrow will come soon enough. Yesterday is behind me.

That isn't to say I always succeed, or that my patience prevails. My vanity gets the best of me sometimes, when I sit writing in a journal lamenting the fact I'm not one of those women men cross rooms to court; or when I'm feeling sorry for myself because all I've learned about love I've learned the hard way, by its absence. What I've learned that's mattered most is that I'm not ruggedly individual. I need others. I want others in my life. I want to inspire people not with my accomplishments, but with my connections to them by caring about what they want to do and become. It's an ethos of collectivity in a world demanding individuality, so I should expect to feel outnumbered, invisible. But when I need to feel a part of something good, when I want to rejoice in others' joys, when I want to laugh and feel as though anything were possible, all I have to do is go to the wall, put on my harness, and ask a friend for a belay.

(PHOTO: Easton, lovely, lovely boy)

And that, like the smile of a child so dear, is all I need to keep believing in myself and the community that makes me possible.


  1. Wow! I think this is my favorite EFR blog post. I love how insightful it is and the wonderful connections you make!

  2. Thanks, lizzil. I'm glad you had some time to yourself and shared that with P'UP!


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