Health news to heed–and not

The buzz lately is a recently released study by Marco Narici and colleagues of Manchester Metropolitan University in the United Kingdom. Narici, like many with Y chromosomes, was sitting around contemplating women in their high heels. As an experimental biologist, Marco began to ponder the effect on women’s calf and foot muscles of long periods of time in the unnatural position required of this fashion statement. When the researchers used MRI to examine the legs of high heel wearers compared to flats wearers, there was a significant difference. The muscle fibers in the calf muscles of the high-heeled women were 13% shorter than those of the flats-favorers, and the Achilles’ tendons were stiffer and thicker. These were actual physiological changes that persisted in women who regularly wear high heels. Narici asserts that women don’t need to give up their heels. Regularly stretching the affected body parts allegedly will ease the distortions.

Who says that permanently distorting your body and causing yourself pain for fashion purposes is sexy? Ever since I grew taller than all the boys in seventh grade, I’ve eschewed high heels and prided myself on my cute flats. Let’s call for a national “Flats are Sexy” day. Maybe not crocs or bunny slippers . . .

As for the health news to challenge, the National Breast Cancer Coalition (NBCC) announced in 2008 that breast self-exam (BSE) was not a reliable tool for women to employ in early detection of breast cancer. The data suggest that “BSE greatly increases the number of benign lumps detected, resulting in increased anxiety, physician visits, and unnecessary biopsies.” After the experience of a loved one this week, I say it’s time to revisit this issue. She had a clean mammogram in January, then detected a palpable lump last week. After multiple biopsies, CT and MRI scans, said lump was diagnosed as invasive ductal carcinoma. Talk to your doctor. Learn correct technique. Research, by nature, rolls the experiences of thousands of women together in order to draw conclusions such as that made by the NBCC. I’d rather undergo anxiety and unnecessary biopsies than miss the real thing. Just my opinion.

Naked in the woods

I’ve just had the delight of Mother’s Day weekend with my two grown daughters at Gray Bear Lodge in the hills of Tennessee. The event was a Red Tent retreat, named after the ancient tradition of women separating themselves from the rest of the tribe during menstruation, resting, recuperating, and nurturing each other in a separate tent. If you’ve not read Anita Diamant’s great book by the same name, check it out. Who says this is an out-dated tradition? Imagine the reduction in stress levels if once a month we retreated from the world to spend time in connection, sharing stories, laughter, and pampering, with our sisters, mothers, and daughters. Let alone in a setting like this.

Healing abounded in the woods: scenic beauty, sauna followed by cold plunge in spring-fed creek, sand shower, rock pool and hot tub, natural facials–all anticipated and welcome experiences. Unexpected aspects of the weekend abounded–like group drumming. My less than musical self could keep time slowly, and even enjoyed it once I got out of my rational head.

Most wonderful– and most surprising of all– was the afternoon spent by this pristine waterfall, sunbathing in the buff. Two dozen women, all ages and shapes, easily shed clothing and communed comfortably together. No judgment in the air, either woman to woman or in any woman’s head. No air-brushed models here. With a few young exceptions, these were Rubenesque bodies that had birthed and breastfed babies, weathered life, cradled dying spouses. Cellulite be damned, we all reveled in soaking up the warmth radiating from sunshine on the table-size rocks. We waded into the freezing water, stumbled across the stones, and rubbed green-tinged mud all over. After the mud dried, we scrubbed it off until our skin glowed pink and alive.

The lack of self-consciousness and total acceptance flowed as freely as the cadence of our leader’s drum on the hike to the waterfall. And caused me to reflect on how rare–and powerful– it is, to free ourselves from our body image obsession (does this look good on me? is my butt too big?) and immerse ourselves in complete acceptance. Who says we can only feel beautiful if our bodies fit some arbitrary, waifish standard?

The phrase repeated throughout the weekend about our generous bodies was “goddess flesh.” As in (as we sank cross-legged onto the floor for meditation) “reach under your buttocks, adjust your goddess flesh so you can sink in and get comfortable.” This is a phrase we all can adopt each time those self-critical, culture-driven appearance obsessions pop into our heads. We’re all goddesses–embrace this body that works for you, which is all it needs to do.

And if you want to protect this lovely spot, check out the Gray Bear Land Trust.

Art Addendum

If you have time, please do make time to visit Dutch Art Gallery in Dallas to see the exhibit of Finding Her Voice: A Celebration of Women in Art. Wonderful, awe-inspiring works.

And here are the links to the powerful work by artist moms who graciously talked with me during The Sanity Hour last week:
Janis Mars Wunderlich and Kathleen McTee

My apologies for the delay! Now go take a look and have a visual feast–one way to treat yourself today.

The value of friends, part 2

You’ve heard me write–and rant (The Sanity Hour, 3/30/10)–about the importance of honest connection with friends for our happiness. Turns out that emotional well-being is not the only benefit.

Serendipitously, I discovered this relatively new blog, MWFseekingBFF, about the process of making female friends in a new city by Rachel Bertsche, an Oprah web producer in Chicago. I won’t repeat her post on the value of friendship for health–you can check it out here. My conviction to invest time in–and honestly connect with–my BFFs is strengthened once again, if doing so not only makes me happier but will extend my life while protecting me against dementia, colds, and insomnia. Rachel calls friendship “the miracle drug.” I declare that champagne and deep conversation with my girlfriends is way more fun than fish oil, curcumin, and broccoli! Bring on the book groups!

The Pearl Illusion

Time to tear off those pesky June Cleaver masks. Women work day in and day out to put up a good front. Not only is it exhausting to appear decked out in our pearls as we vacuum, but a new study shows that we’ll be happier through honest connection, engaging in depth with others, than when we chatter on at only surface level.

In research at the University of Arizona, the happiest people engaged in only one-third as much small talk as the unhappiest participants. Happy people engaged in twice as many substantive conversations, and spent 25 percent less time alone, than unhappy people. The link is well-documented between loneliness and depression. Even when I was in grad school thirty years ago, research was clear that feeling connected to others was a key factor for happiness and for health.

Women often battle the urge to conceal their troubles, rather than speak honestly about the challenging, tedious parts of their lives. Why invest so much energy in projecting the image that we’ve “got it all together?”

1) We secretly suspect that we’re the only one for whom it’s hard. Everyone else has twenty balls in the air and a smile on her face. We think “there must be something the matter with me,” as another ball goes careening out of reach. “If I were only stronger, smarter, more organized, a better multitasker. If everyone else’s life is smooth, it must be me who is defective, weak, or less than.”
2) We are certain others don’t want to hear us kvetch. Complaining is not attractive. People will tire of it, shy away, judge, or label the complainer as a downer or even a bitch.

Straight thinking is helpful. Is everyone else truly surfing breezily through the stresses in their lives? Are you the only woman out of 82.8 million who forgot her pearls today? Really? Are you accurately judging the ratio of calm versus chaos that you are expressing? Is 100% of your conversation constantly stewed in negativity?

Aim for moderation and middle ground. Yes, perhaps, if all you ever do is bitch, others might tune you out. I believe most women err on the side of minimizing life’s thorns, blocking honest communication and connection, than on spewing complaints 168 hours a week. Besides, it’s not the complaining that drives others away. Listeners shy away if they feel uncomfortable with the topic, or when the complainer doesn’t listen to suggestions, can’t be consoled, or goes on like a CD on repeat, ignoring possible remedies. If a friend is interested and listens, we need to honor her efforts with action on our problems.

I find that a simple expression of “poor baby” is incredibly helpful. When we kvetch, we validate each other. We empower our friends by saying “I get it, I know where you’re coming from.” We feel less alone and less defective.

Remember, June Cleaver only had to parent 20 minutes per week. She had no carpools to drive and no boss-imposed deadlines for her pies or her dusting. We feel better when we acknowledge that life is hard for women in this century–maybe the challenges are different than in previous generations, but hard nevertheless. None of us is perfect. All of us have trials. There’s nothing the matter with me–I’m just part of the whole race of women, tromping through the overkill of daily demands. When we connect through honesty, we feel happier, less alone, and healthier, too.

I don’t want to brag, but . . .

“I shouldn’t brag, but . . .” Fill in the blank: “I just paid off my car/student loan/house.” Or maybe “My child made it into the gifted program/the select soccer team/Harvard.” Hardly a day goes by without this example of how women are conditioned to minimize their successes, to hide their skills, to quash their good news. This is so deeply ingrained in us. Who says? Why shouldn’t we take pride in our accomplishments?

Examination of this question is personal of late, as I think about the need to announce blog launched, books published, radio show to debut — at least if I want followers. Humility was drummed into me at an early age, growing up as a preacher’s kid. Even as I sit in solid mid-life (if you’re counting years, nearly two thirds into my life, statistically) it is hard for me, as for the women I listen to throughout my life, to even announce my achievements, let alone with pride. Women I know have written admirable books, started social movements, reigned as national experts in their fields, created art that inspires, raised remarkable young adults. And the norm is to hem and haw and softly mutter about what we’ve done, lacing the speech with apologies and detractions. The equivalent of “oh, this old thing?” when someone compliments your brand-new dress. Those admonishments in our heads to be nice and not brag never seem to quiet entirely.

And why is this? We want to be nice girls. Nice girls don’t brag. Good girls don’t toot their own horns. This modesty is not for modesty’s sake, however. Nice girls are programmed to be cautious and concerned about the feelings of others. Isn’t that what it’s about? We don’t brag (or even proclaim deserved pride) in our accomplishments because we don’t want others to feel badly. We don’t want others to feel that they come up short. So we downplay our triumphs and miss an opportunity to boost ourselves up.

I’m not saying we should model ourselves after those who constantly broadcast their own victories, however shallow or magnificent, and are seemingly incapable of any topic beyond their own gold stars. As I often remind clients when talking about this life-changing switch to self-affirmation, I’m not that powerful a therapist that I can turn a self-effacing person into a narcissist. Nor is that the goal. Just calling for a little balance, swing the pendulum ever so slightly towards positive feelings about self and away from minimization of life’s prizes. Good friends and loving families want to celebrate with us. They realize that we’re not proclaiming ourselves “better than.” We’re trying on some well-earned self-praise and want to share the joy, not shouting nyah, nyah.

Let’s trust that others will share our pride. Let’s affirm that we deserve to feel good about our hard work. Let’s remember that there’s plenty of happiness to go around and our wins don’t jinx our sister’s chances. Let’s inspire with our strengths, moving other women toward their own dreams, rather than viewing life as a competition. Let’s embrace each other’s bragging, rejoicing not just in the lauded event but in the boost to esteem that healthy bragging brings.

Oh, and by the way, please spread the word about my blog. If you like my message, pass it on to your friends. And look forward with me to the launch of my radio show, “The Sanity Hour,” beginning February 22 at 7 p.m. CT on HerInsight radio network. I’ll need guests, if you want to share my fifteen minutes of fame. Link coming soon!

New Year’s resolutions make me a better person, right? Says who?

Just about everyone, I’m afraid. Seventy-five million plus hits on Google for “new year’s resolutions” suggest the annual lure to magical self-improvement thrives. Nearly half of all Americans make resolutions. The magic of a new decade adds hype. Certainly this will be The Time, finally, to achieve that goal–drop that weight for the final time, tone that flab, toss out that pack of cigarettes, or perhaps evolve into a more patient person, censoring those intermittent cranky verbal explosions. The collective “how to” wisdom gets more specific each year: set manageable goals, change just one habit, own your intentions to others.

Perhaps you are serious about this advice and wish to set a goal you can actually reach this year. I’m at your service–even if I’m launching this on January 4th , not 1st. I could beat myself up about my tardiness, imagining what an experienced blogger would offer (post mapped out weeks in advance, launched at 12:01 a.m. on 01/01/10.) However, a survey reported by proactive says that after the first week, one in four resolutions have already been trashed, just like so much holiday wrapping paper. Perhaps it’s fortuitous that I was distracted by the end of year household mess (execute post-holiday clean-up, donate to charity, submit health savings account receipts, pay property taxes.) Maybe this post will reach you just when you’re sick of yogurt, sore from yoga–and aching to abandon those noble resolutions.

If my procrastination and distraction mean my timing is great, here’s a resolution for you: embrace your humanity. Forget being better at anything. No eating less, exercising more, Zen breathing when some maddening underling (child or employee) eggs you toward one more scream. Affirm that you are a lowly Homo sapiens, not Superwoman/supermodel/supermom. You will make mistakes, lose your temper, oversleep, overindulge in occasional fudge or champagne, miss appointments, and/or swear too much. And you will work to end the judgment about the inescapable fact that you are an imperfect–and still valuable– person. Trust that, most days, you are doing the best you can–and that’s perfectly good.

Shift the focus away from your inevitable screw-ups to your successes. You are a human being with feelings–sometimes powerful ones, which are proof that you are very much ALIVE. Embrace your humanity! You can give your children a valuable lesson: that people, even moms, get mad–and then apologize and say “I love you.” Embrace your humanity! You can leave your favorite coffee cup on top of the van as you back out of the driveway, crush it as you drive off, swerve to the curb as the tire blows, and be late for work or school. S*#! happens, and you survive it. This is a chance to pronounce that even when  life bulldozes right over you, you can embrace your sense of humor –and your humanity.

Resolve to affirm that you are who you are, with strengths that outnumber your weaknesses. Feel good about all that is right with your life, rather than aiming for improvements that are merely icing on the You Cake.  This is, after all, a resolution we all can achieve. And if you work on embracing your humanity all year, one screw up at a time, those other goals have a way of taking care of themselves–or ceasing to matter before 2011 even rolls around.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

You know the lilting song — or at least this line. The refrain echoes endlessly in the mall, at the office party, and from the car radio–until it turns into an earworm, embodying the pressure on women: to make the holiday season the most wonderful time of the year.

The song is a lie, at least for women I’ve talked to this week. The most wonderful time of the year? Too many: hours in traffic, cookies to bake, lists to check off, gifts to hunt down, parties to smile at, decisions to make (Pecan pie or Yule log? Silk or cashmere? Wii or iPhone?) At the holiday party for my writing group, we challenged ourselves to write six word Christmas stories (six word stories were first composed by Ernest Hemingway on a dare.) Mine? “Exhausted women engulfed in excessive expectations.” How is this wonderful?

Certainly, 365 days a year women are expected to be everything to everybody, holding the fabric of life together by making events happen. Women succeed gloriously every December: from tinsel to eggnog, every event cheerily attended, each perfect gift beautifully wrapped, every cookie artfully iced. Sometimes at 2 AM, like Kate in I Don’t Know How She Does It,you might find yourself smashing store-bought mince pies to mimic homemade — but it all gets done. Grumbling and exhausted on January 2nd, we collpase in a collective heap. (We need a nap, after all–our new gym memberships activate on January 3rd!)

Given the ramped-up holiday demands, the default mood is not holiday bliss, but rather the latest incarnation of Scrooge. Not only are most women not immersed in holiday wonder, they’re plagued with guilt because they’re not feeling positive at all. Here’s a another line of that song: and everyone telling you “be of good cheer.”

We swamp ourselves by adding even more items to brimming “to do” lists, to create a magazine-perfect, joy-filled holiday. Then, we outlaw some healthy kvetching about it. The result: guilt every moment that “loving it” is outshouted by your inner Grinch.

Here’s one small gift you can give yourself this season: honesty about how hard it is to pull off the Holiday Wonder. It’s a difficult time of year, with excessive expectations, crowded schedules, and the ever-lurking possibility of tearful disappointment. Let’s cut ourselves some slack. No one can execute good cheer 110% of the time, humming along and living every Xmas carol. There’s a lot on your list for one mere mortal. No more guilt about your mood. Expect to have cranky moments and not love every minute — and one level of stress will evaporate.

How can this help? When you know you’re facing increased demands, you can adjust your expectations and 1) drop the overlay of impossible seamless cheeriness, which lessens the guilt and 2) remember, because you’re working hard, you need to take five minutes with feet up, nursing your favorite festive beverage. Do one (or ideally both) of these items, and you will feel less stressed.

Here’s the mantra for this week: “It’s a hard time of year — and it’s okay toacknowledge my inner Grinch.” And here’s the action plan: take a deep breath, reflect upon what pieces of the holiday really matter, and make sure those get done. Forget the rest. After all, If Andy Williams’ wife had written the lyrics, they might go something like this:

It’s the most frustrating time of the year
With the kids raising hell
And everyone telling you “Be of good cheer”
It’s the most maddening time of the year
It’s the most, most stressful season of all
With nonstop obligations and high expectations
When friends come to call
It’s the most, most stressful season of all

There’ll be parties for hosting

With all the moms boasting
And waiting in line -til you cry
There’ll be scary sale stories
And tales of the glories of
collapsing each night with a sigh.

It’s the most traumatic time of the year
There’ll be much overdoing
And you’ll still be stewing
When loved ones are near
It’s the most nerve-racking time of the year

Now, to untangle that blasted string of pepper lights for the banister . . .

Time magazine says: over-parenting has run its course. Hallelujah.

There’s tyranny in 21st century parenthood. It begins with a mandate to sing, talk, rattle and roll with your new baby in every waking moment –at least if you want your baby to achieve her full potential. Read one article in any glossy magazine for moms, and you’re fully tuned into how your shoulders bear the responsibility (and imbedded anxiety) for that product, your child.

For two decades, I’ve watched earnest new moms agonize about missing even one teensy teachable moment, one drop of quality time. We fear we’re dropping the brain development ball if we go to the bathroom alone. I see the relief on tired faces when I explain that babies are little scientists. Everything in an infant’s world is stimulating. Babies need to learn to amuse themselves–by exploring a rattle in hand or staring at dark fan blades against white ceiling. To be constantly in a child’s face talking, playing, teaching deprives the child of exploring the world at his own pace. With mommy, nanny, or grandma always there to amuse, what happens when the child gets to school? The kindergarten teacher despises her.

Extend this push for over-the-top parenting –designed to enhance development, ensure safety, engineer kids’ happiness –to childhood overall? Birthday party limousines for six year olds, tag banned in schoolyards, mothers who drive two hours to campus for laundry duty have been the result. Extreme parenting has become the cultural standard and morphed into a lava flow of expectations on moms (and dads).

Finally, enough really seems to be enough.


When Time says it’s so, it must be so. (,8599,1940395,00.html) Back-up for what I’ve been preaching for years. This is a call for sanity. This is recognition that, while this nation was founded upon the concept of a continually better life, the endless quest for “more, better, all” is not sustainable. The current recession may have been the unfortunate impetus — dollars for Russian lessons and bounce house birthday parties evaporate in the face of record unemployment rates. A silver lining for families is the permission to drop the parental overdoing.

Time’s article offered this concrete remedy: “let it go.” Over-parenting is driven by anxiety: Will my child turn out okay? Can my child compete? Will my child grow up safely? Until women learn to tackle the underlying absolute thinking that fuels this anxiety, it’s hard, as Gibbs’ article says, to shut off our inner helicopter parent and simply let go. We need new thinking habits. Forget the all-or-nothing thinking, e.g. that our kids will be stellar performers — or flop as quickly as Jay Leno in prime time. Hardly any single advantage or activity will make or break your child’s success in life.

The goal of this blog is to call attention to the unrealistic expectations –in our heads, in society — for mothers, and beyond that for women, And offer tools that make letting go possible. We can critically evaluate the news stories, scary reports, and competitive pull of “everyone is doing it.” We can stop the madness, practice straight thinking, compare notes and know we’re not alone. We can ask “who says” when expectations ignite the stress in us like so much gasoline on the fire.

Let’s start a conversation. I want your questions, comments, news about the pressures on women. We can design our lives in ways that work for us, rather than getting caught in a tangle of societal shoulds.