Thinking About Thanksgiving

It’s Thanksgiving Day. I come from a New England family, Mayflower descendants even so Thanksgiving was always sort of “our” holiday. After we moved back to the States from Japan, where my father was stationed during the Korean War, he was mistakenly sent to Ft. Knox, KY and we were there Thanksgiving the year I was 8. While he waited for new orders, my dad was put in charge of the mess halls for reasons known only to the Army. We were to eat there with the troops but I got the mumps and so we missed that. I remember my mother learned from the mess hall cooks to cook the turkey in a paper bag that year. Other than that year, all of the Thanksgivings of my childhood blend together. 

Not being a big turkey lover, I confess I found it hard to wholeheartedly embrace the feast. It seemed to me to be mostly about me doing a huge amount of cooking for a meal that lasted only a fraction of the time it took to prepare — and then came the clean up. And I have felt growing ambivalence about the myths surrounding Thanksgiving, the myths that make my people the heroes and good guys and the Native Americans at best ignorant savages. 

My town was among the first in Maine to rename Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. And that movement has grown, not without pushback but slowly the change grows. It is time now to face the reality of Thanksgiving. 

The holiday arrives in the midst of a national struggle over racial justice, and a pandemic that has landed with particular force on marginalized communities of color. The crises have fueled an intense re-examination of the roots of persistent inequities in American life. NY Times

Against this background, I have been reflecting about how we do need a thanksgiving but one not so connected to our history of racial injustice.

Every day we are confronted with the horrible mounting death toll from this pandemic. As I write today, the toll is at 262,000 souls. And rising. It is unimaginable. I try to visualize the number — little lights all over the map going out one by one. In my small town, recently the woman who tended the garden in Post Office Square became one of those numbers. We all must live with the anxiety of knowing that this invisible force, this virus is everywhere in our lives. Many, hopefully most of us wear masks, avoid unnecessary trips outside of our homes, do whatever we can to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Many of us have forgone spending this holiday with family in order to avoid travel and the spread of infection. But millions have not heeded the warnings from public health officials. Still the death toll rises and likely there will be a spike around Christmas. To fully realize what is happening is to face into horror — so many people dead. So many people ill. A terrible toll exacted from doctors and nurses caring for the ill. 

It came to me the other day what we might do at the end of this, maybe a year from now if the effort to vaccinate everyone has succeeded and we enter a recovery period. When the crisis has ended, I feel we will need two events to mark what we have passed through: first a National Day of Mourning to publicly acknowledge our dead and our grief. And then a day of Thanksgiving that we survived, we passed through this terrible time. 

I am just one person living in a small town in Maine. I have no idea how to bring these events into existence. By writing this, by linking to it on FaceBook and Twitter, maybe enough of you will share my idea and maybe we can together actually make it happen. Feel free to share the link with anyone you believe might be interested. Please share your feelings and thoughts in the comments below.

What would I do?

Like many of you the tensions surrounding the election and the renewed intensity of the pandemic sapped my creative energies for a while. So for the past couple of weeks I have been reading, knitting and watching Netflix to take care of myself. I hope that you have also been tending to your needs.

Today I woke up and I feel ready to write again. So here goes as I consider what to do when a patient presents a really thorny issue that might reach into  the territory of a moral dilemma.

A while back, someone asked me how a psychotherapist deals with the situation in which something the patient has come to understand she would really like to do to improve or change her life is likely to cause suffering to someone in that patient’s life? Situations like this are not uncommon, as for example someone wants to divorce her husband, an action which will doubtless cause upheaval and pain for all involved.  

But this questions contains, I believe, a misperception about what therapy is about and what the role of the therapist is.  

A new patient comes to me. I gather a bit of basic data and then ask her to tell me why she is here, to tell the story in whatever way makes sense for her. I listen. Very rarely is what I hear framed as a moral dilemma. I ask and ask many times during the time we work together “What is the life you want?”, because this is a pivotal issue. And as she frame possible actions, I ask if that action will take her closer to the life she wants. And we do that process again and again. I don’t tell anyone what to do. I am not really a problem solver.  

I deal with what is the life the person wants, what keeps them from having that life, and how/if it can be achieved and what the cost of achieving it might be. In my years of practice, to the best of my knowledge, I have never seen a pedophile or rapist or person who engages in behavior that I think is beyond the pale — those people don’t come in for therapy, at least not to me. Once I saw a person who might have been a murderer. I checked with colleagues and the appropriate state agency to see what my responsibility was to him and to the community. I saw him 3 times and discharged him to a more appropriate facility. That was a professional decision not a moral one.  

So how do psychotherapists navigate these waters?  

I don’t give answers when asked what people should do. I can help them look at why they want to do it and what the consequences are and whether it will get them what they want. But I do not make the decision.  

In two sets of conditions, I am bound to act on what I hear. If I am told by someone that they abuse someone or are abused, in most states, I am mandated to report the abuse. If someone threatens the life of another, case law says I must inform the authorities, but statute does not — so I consult and then report or not. Otherwise, my task is to listen.  

I am not Dr. Phil. I am not a priest. It is VERY hard sometimes not to try to tell people what to do. Because the work I do is not short term and because I usually work with people over the course of months, and  years, we have time to sort through issues, to examine them from as many sides as possible. And ultimately what they do is up to them. 

“The principle aim of psychotherapy is not to transport one to an impossible state of happiness, but to help (the client) acquire steadfastness and patience in the face of suffering. “
-C.G. Jung

Be Still My Heart

What was rumored a few weeks ago is becoming a reality — In Treatment Season 4! Uzo Aduba (Emmy® winner for “Mrs. America” and “Orange is the New Black”) will play the lead role of the therapist at the center of the season, Dr. Brooke Lawrence.

Back in 2008 when the series first ran and this site was new, I became a big fan and wrote about each episode as it ran. You can find these posts still by selecting In Treatment above and choosing the season you wish to read about. If you haven’t seen this series, I urge you to do so — it is available on DVD and if you subscribe to HBO Max, is available there. And of course, do read my posts and ask questions and comment — more discussion is welcome.

In my mind, this is the best dramatic presentation of therapy I have seen. Of course the therapy is compacted and made more dramatic for purposes of the drama. But still, it is faithful to the basics.

In sadder news, Daniel Menaker, who wrote my favorite novel about psychoanalysis (this is a genre, you ask??), died this week. His book,The Treatment, which was also made into a movie, is based on his own analysis. The book is funny and moving and well worth the read.

Therapists and Fat

 As a therapist I am very interested in how therapists respond to fat patients and how fatness is viewed psychotherapeutically. I have had some interesting experiences myself with therapists who made assumptions about me and the issues I wanted to work on based on my size rather than what I said. It is  interesting to me that the literature is relatively silent on this subject. I have searched long and hard to find pieces written by therapists about their reactions to fat patients and written by fat therapists about patients’ reactions to them — the picking are pretty slim.

One of the books I stumbled upon is Eating Problems: A Feminist Psychoanalytic Treatment Model. I am impressed that the articles in this book do not take what I would consider a fat negative posture at all, but offer the author’s thoughts and experiences with patients — anorexic, bulimic, fat and everything in between — in light of feminist theory and with a deep understanding of cultural forces we must all contend with. The net result is an approach that offered me some fresh insights into my own history and some very useful material I can use with my patients.

Here is a statement that it seems to me describes what underlies so much of the negative feelings every fat woman and many who only fear being fat that I know has struggled with at least some of her life:

“A fat body is cruelly stigmatizing in this culture. It is treated, seen, and felt as an object of disgust and fear. Many disabilities are so treated and seen; but fatness is also seen as reason to blame the fat person who ate her way into “freakishness”.  ” p. 154

I found myself nodding in agreement frequently as I read this book, underlining many paragraphs and sitting and reflecting on the ideas therein. If you are a therapist, I recommend this one. And consider this:

The therapist can feel concern about weight, but to be invested in weight loss as a goal is to be aligned with the cultural and internal saboteur.” P. 70

 When therapy works, when patient and therapist are able to influence each other, both do change. In the case of dealing with fat, usually it would be that the fat patient becomes free enough of the cultural fat complex, a fish able to see the water, and who then can dare to confront her therapist’s attitudes and beliefs. She can begin to tell her story in her own voice. Jane Burka asks:

If my body is present and significant for me and for my patients, but remains outside the discourse of the therapy, what kind of taboo have my patients and I created? 

A great deal of change is needed for it to become the norm rather than the exception for a fat therapy patient to be perceived as a person who should be asked what she wants to work on, for her not to be subject to the suggestion that she could/should lose at least a little weight, for it to enter the mind of the therapist that this patient may not see her weight per se as the problem in her life, even though she experiences the negative effects of stigma and bias. Or that it may be that she needs most to deal with the pain, the trauma of having a stigmatized body. In a little book published in the late 80s, Fat Oppression and Psychotherapy, Laura Brown puts her finger on a problem: “…while it was acceptable for clients to be fat women, therapists as so-called models of good functioning, we’re required to stay thin.”  

Home

Every twice in a while when I am a little bored, I sometimes watch an episode or two of the HGTV show “House Hunters”. It can be almost addictive, watching couples and families with their list of must haves in a new house — the house must have a kitchen with granite counters and stainless steel appliances. There must be a large “master suite” with an equally large master bathroom. And even the bathroom must have updated fixtures. Even more surprising was the amount of space these people felt they needed. Even couples without children and not planning to have any often wanted four or five bedrooms and 3000+ sq. ft. 

I am hoping to offer a workshop on What is Home? next spring, which has taken me back to a favorite book of mine House As a Mirror of Self: Exploring the Deeper Meaning of Home,  by Claire Cooper Marcus. Growing up as I did as an Army kid, the houses I lived in were provided by the Army and we had little to no freedom of choice in the appearance or style of the houses. Due to my history of home, I like to think about houses and what they say about us.

So what does it mean that people want huge kitchens, designed not so much for cooking convenience, as many of these huge kitchens require many steps in order to prepare food simply because they are so large, but as exemplars of luxury and being up-to-date? I am not speaking here of really high end houses — most of what I saw were for middle to upper middle class people who would not have others preparing food or cleaning for them. And what is it that makes relatively new but white appliances not acceptable? What makes stainless steel so important? What does it mean? What are these people wanting their kitchens to show about them? Is it only about prosperity and success? And today as we see into the homes of many news people and pundits who often speak from their kitchens, I am impressed by the elegant and very large kitchens.

Now the whole concept of the huge master suite rather amuses me. I use my bedroom for sleep and related activities. It needs only to be large enough to comfortably accommodate the bed, a couple of bureaus and allow us room to move around a bit. My bedroom is 13′ x 14.5′ and it is plenty for us. But these master suites were often larger than some apartments I have lived in in the past. In a family with children, what does it mean to have so much space set apart for adults only? And why must it be so much larger than an ordinary bedroom?

I live with my husband in a 1000 sq. ft. house. It is plenty big enough for both of us; in fact we could easily and comfortably live in a smaller place. So I try to imagine what it would be like for us to be in 3000 or more sq. ft., just us and the three cats. What would that be about? 

In my town there is a shortage of affordable houses, or what is sometimes called “workforce housing”. Were the discussions not often acrimonious it might be amusing that for many people this term, “workforce housing” connotes subsidized housing for low income people. And in the discussions a deep suspicion and antipathy for renters leaks in, renters being almost lesser beings than home owners. What does this mean about our notions of “home”?

On the other end of the scale are “tiny houses”. The typical small or tiny house by definition is a home with square footage between 100 and 400 square feet. The house may be mounted on wheels and thus also be movable. Many look to this movement as a desire to downsize. And predictably there are shows on tiny houses too.

I have some ideas forming about these extremes in housing and what they mean about what home is today.. But I am interested in what you think. What does it mean that expectations are for so much or so little.

One of those days…

I had all kinds of ideas for what I wanted to write about today – more about therapy or maybe some thoughts I have about a workshop I am developing or maybe the way the flowers in the garden are hurling their beauty out for us to see before frost comes in a matter of weeks to make everything brown and gray again. But I can’t wrap my mind round those things today.

I am sad about RBG’s death.

Heartbroken about all the people who have died in this horrible pandemic — in my mind’s eye, I see them as tiny lights blinking out, one by one by one.

I am tired of the confinement of the pandemic, of the anxiety it arouses, knowing this invisible virus could bring the end to my life.

I missing able to touch people and be touched — and deeply grateful for the enduring and endearing presence of my husband. 

I feel the anxiety so many of us feel about the upcoming election. I eagerly await the arrival of my ballot so I can vote.

So what do I do on a day like this? 

Well, it is chilly here this morning, so we gave in and turned on the heat for the first time this season. It feels good.

I have loads of yarn. Knitting socks feels satisfying, the magic of a single thread, unbroken from toe to top, delights me. And everyone can always use socks.

My Kindle is full of books. Today I choose to read one in paper.Good books and good yarn and a mug of tea go a long way to soothing.

What do you do to soothe yourself, to care for yourself in these anxious times?

Misfit Produce, Lady Ragnell, Mr. Rogers and Me, Pt. 2

Better late than never — a look at the story of Sir Gawain and Lady Ragnell and what it has to do with us today.

Our story is from medieval England. It is often titled ‘Sir Gawain and The Lady Ragnell. Lady Ragnell also known as the loathsome Lady Ragnell, bargained with King Arthur. A spell had been placed over him. Unless he could correctly answer the riddle “What do women desire above all else?”, he would die. She agreed to tell him the answer to the riddle. In exchange, she desired to be married to the King’s nephew, Sir Gawain. He was known as the most handsome, skilled and compassionate knight at the Round Table, whereas Lady Ragnell was a very ugly hag. Sir Gawain willingly chose to marry the Hag Ragnell, so that his King’s life would be spared. He did not know that a spell cast over Ragnell, had turned her into a loathsome Hag for half of each day, but left her as a lovely princess for the other half. 

On their first night, after brief hesitation, Gawain decides to treat his new bride as he would if she were desirable, and go to bed with her as a dutiful husband is expected to do. However, when he looks up, he is astonished to see not an ugly hag, but the most beautiful woman he has ever seen standing before him. Ragnell explains she had been under a spell to look like a hag until a good knight married her; now her looks will be restored, but only half the day. She gives him a choice-would he rather have her beautiful at night, when they are together, or during the day, when they are with others? 

He wisely gave her the right to choose, having learned that above all else, women desire the right to have sovereignty over their choices.  In giving the Hag Ragnell the right to decide when she would be beautiful, the spell was lifted, and she was beautiful all day long.

It is in fairytales that when a spell is broken, the entrapped woman becomes a beauty. Most of us have heard those stories for decades. We may think we don’t accept them as literal because we cannot see how they are present in our modern lives. The entire diet and weight loss industry and cosmetic surgery depend on our belief that we will be better loved, have more opportunity, live happily ever after if/when we lose weight, make our breasts larger or smaller, reshape our nose. Even among many therapists the assumption is that the best outcome is for s fat patient to lose weight — more about this on another day. 

We recoil from the language but fatness is also seen as reason to blame the fat person who ate his or her way into ‘freakishness’. Even using the word ‘fat” makes people uncomfortable, thus betraying the assumption that fat is bad. But many, perhaps most fat women and girls feel themselves cursed, bewitched like Lady Ragnell and condemned to life as a hag unless or until a modern day Gawain comes along and is willing to be with, to love her as she is. Because giving Ragnell the authority to choose for herself what she preferred was in fact being willing to be with her as she was. 

How many of us have head of husbands complaining that his wife “had let herself go”, meaning she had gained weight and gotten older, and implying that he wanted her less? Or know women who are constantly trying to lose that 10 or 25 or more pounds that stands between them and beauty?

In my own life, in my first marriage from the time we got married until the time of the divorce, he kept telling me he would really love me when I weighed 120 pounds. It went on for 24 years. I was angry that he kept telling me throughout the marriage that he would really love me when I weighed 120 pounds. And he was angry that I never attained that goal.  In the end the spell was broken, but I did not transform into a slender woman. I divorce him and a few years later met and married my own Gawain, a man who was and is willing to love me as I am.

Polly Young Eisendrath’s book, Women and Desire: Beyond Wanting to be Wanted . Wanting to be wanted, fearful of not finding the partner who will want us, believing ourselves that fat is unloveable, is the curse many woman live under. Therapy and doing the work of coming to value ourselves and the right to be loved for who we are is the way out.

Misfit Produce, Lady Ragnell, Mr. Rogers and Me, Part 1

Today I am beginning a several post series looking at bodies, especially fat bodies, and psychotherapy.

You might very well ask what this image — used by the company, Misfit Market which describes itself “Misfits Market delivers ugly, but otherwise perfectly edible fruits and vegetables”. I have frequently seen this image online for several months now. It struck me that even fruits and vegetables are expected to conform to some standard of beauty in order to be acceptable, even though appearance has little or nothing to do with their actual nutritional value. And that sounds so very familiar.

Take a look at this from John Berger’s book, Ways of Seeing:

“A woman must continually watch herself.  She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself.  Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another….  

One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”

When we women don’t rise to the standard of beauty expected of us, we become as misfit people, not marketable nor desirable. And we must survey ourselves constantly to assure ourselves that we acceptable. And when we don’t measure up, when we fall outside that conventional range of attractiveness, then like the misfit produce, in a way we become freaks.

Irvin Yalom is much loved by many therapists. Yet in his book, Love’s Executioner, he too reveals an all too common view of fat women as akin to misfit produce.

“I have always been repelled by fat women. I find them disgusting: their absurd sidewise waddle, their absence of body contour‚ breasts, laps, buttocks, shoulders, jawlines, cheekbones, everything, everything I like to see in a woman, obscured in an avalanche of flesh. And I hate their clothes‚ the shapeless, baggy dresses or, worse, the stiff elephantine blue jeans with the barrel thighs. How dare they impose that body on the rest of us?”

To his credit, Yalom acknowledges that this is an instance of countertransference, and that is good. But in the many comments that refer to this essay, I have not seen anyone be critical of the attitude he expresses nor what effect it had on his patient. Because though he did not voice his feelings, they were there in the room and no doubt she felt them, especially as they aligned with what she and any of us who do not fall within the range deemed attractive experience every day.

What is this issue with the body about? Let’s look at the body as shadow.

Jung, in Collected Works,Vol. 18: The Symbolic Life wrote:

We do not like to look at the shadow-side of ourselves; therefore there are many people in civilized society who have lost their shadow altogether, have lost the third dimension, and with it they have usually lost the body. The body is a most doubtful friend because it produces things we do not like: there are too many things about the personification of this shadow of the ego. Sometimes it forms the skeleton in the cupboard, and everybody naturally wants to get rid of such a thing.”

Jung sees body as shadow, avoided because it inevitably brings into the room those aspects of life we most wish to avoid — death, aging, desire, greed, excess. Certainly the female body, and especially the fat female body carries this shadow and inevitably activates in both patient and therapist all of the anxieties attendant upon these shut off aspects of life.

One more look at this trap of attractiveness from a Jungian analyst, Polly Young-Eisendrath:

From the Pandora story we can see that identifying with this “power”[of beauty] is a double bind – you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you identify with the image of female beauty, you put yourself into the Pandora box: beautiful but empty. Increasingly as a woman ages, she finds that identification with a beautiful appearance is a losing game. She will lose the game through aging when she no longer looks like Pandora, a “maiden” – youthful, slender, lovely. To identify with a beautiful appearance and to pursue that power leads to depreciation of her other strengths and ultimately to depression about falling short of standards. To disidentify with the power of appearance (and “let herself go”) usually leads to feeling like an outsider, feelings of low self-confidence, and fears of failing to find a heterosexual partner or to be the object of a certain kind of male regard.”

Damned if we do and damned if we don’t, where do we go from here? That’s for the next in this series, where we will look at the story of Sir Gawain and Lady Ragnell. Look for it on Wednesday.

On My Shelves

 The NY Times Book Review has a regular feature called By the Book, a Q&A with an author. I have published a book, though the NY Times has yet to discover me and I do read a lot, so here is my take on their questions: 

What book is on your night stand now?

Truthfully I no longer keep books on my nightstand as I no longer read in bed. And as you can see, my bookshelves are anything but tidy. Still next to me and on my Kindle I have a pile of books waiting to be read or in varying stages of being read:

Sarah Perry The Essex Serpent

Matt Haig How to Stop Time

James Lee Burke A Private CathedralAbigail Saguy What’s Wrong With Fat

Michael Eigen Rage

Francis Weller The Wild Edge of Sorrow

Michel Pastoureau Blue: The History of a Color

What was the last truly great book you read?

I come back again and again to Barbara Stevens Sullivan’s The Mystery of Analytical Work: Weavings From Jung and Bion. There is so depth to this book. I wish I had people I could read and discuss it with.

Or When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams. I love this book and have given it or recommended it to many women.

What is your favorite literary genre? Any guilty pleasures?

I love memoir. I am endlessly interested in the stories people tell and write about their lives. 

I also love mysteries and thrillers. They are my popcorn reading.

Have you read any good books on philosophy lately?

No.

What were your favorite books as a child? Did you have a favorite character or hero?

I had a book about a man who sold balloons in the park. I don’t know the name but I can still see the illustrations. I also loved the book of fairy tales that my grandmother had and would read to me.

I had a book that had been my father’s when he was growing up — Cop: A Police Dog.I liked it more because it had been my dad’s than that I liked the book itself.

I read Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames. I used to go to the library and come home with armloads of books — everything from poetry to novels. I started reading biographies when I was around 10. The libraries on the Army posts where I lived didn’t limit what I could check out or how many books I could have at a time. So I read everything that looked like it might be interesting.

What books had the greatest influence on you when you were a student?

Man and His Symbols was published when I was in college and it made me a Jungian before I really even understood it.

What was the last book that made you cry?

What comes to mind first is When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

And there were passages in Naming the Gods by Gary Astrachan that moved me deeply.

The last book that made you laugh?

I must be brain dead this morning because none comes to mind right now.

The last book that made you furious?

Too Much and Never Enough by Mary Trump. Everything about him makes me furious.

What’s the best love story you’ve ever read?

Like Water for Chocolate. 

Are there any psychotherapists that you think are also particularly good writers? What are your favorite books on psychotherapy?

There are indeed wonderful writers among psychotherapists. Barbara Stevens Sullivan is a favorite of mine. Michael Eigen. Christine Downing. Naomi Lowinski.

And if you could meet a character from literature, who would it be?

A friend of mine, Janice MacDonald, writes mysteries, terrific mysteries set in Edmonton, Alberta where she lives. And as it happens I am a character in one of her books, Hang Down Your Head. So I know one!

Who are your favorite writers of all time? 

Margaret Atwood, Marge Piercy, Jung, Freud

What are you planning to read next?

I have a Kindle app full of books to read. I just started How to Stop Time by Matt Haig.

Sleeping Beauty’s Mother

I am reposting this piece today because I have seen here and there renewed efforts to focus on children’s weight and controlling it. I think often  about Sleeping Beauty’s mother. Most of us are like Sleeping Beauty’s mother, eager to do whatever we can to spare our children difficulties.

 

You see that beautiful little girl in that photo? She was 5 years old there. I was delighted beyond measure when she was born. I always wanted a daughter, in part I’m sure to redeem my experience with my mother. To me she was and is the most wonderful daughter ever — smart, funny, and beautiful — everything I could hope for. 

But like Sleeping Beauty’s mother, we always fail in one way or another. Remember how it happened that the curse came to be in that fairy tale family? When the long desired child, a daughter, was born to the king and queen, they planned a great celebration. According to which version you read, they invited 7 or 12 fairies to the great feast. And whichever version, that is where the problem begins because one fairy is left out and she appears just as each fairy offers her gift to the child. She is angry at being neglected and acts out her anger by giving a curse, namely that on her 16th birthday, the girl would prick her finger on a spindle and die. The last fairy cannot undo the curse but she can mitigate it so that instead of dying, she and all the kingdom would fall into deep sleep for 100 years until a prince would come and kiss her awake. 

All The Spindles

Remember all the efforts Sleeping Beauty’s parents made to keep her from the curse placed on her at birth, that she would prick her finger on a spindle?They searched high and low determined to find and eliminate all the spindles and thus stave off the curse.

Well, knowing my body and how like the Fuller women I am, I was afraid that my daughter faced the curse of having to battle her weight all of her life. And I was determined to do anything and everything I could to protect her from it.  

Our concern here is not with interpreting the fairy tale; that has been done by many. Our concern is with the mother and all the efforts she made to keep her daughter from ever encountering a spindle and thus staving off the curse.  Such a frantic wish to protect her child.

Fate 

But the Moirae* could not be escaped no matter how vigilant she was or how hard she tried. When she was 16, the princess happened upon a woman who was spinning and asked what she was doing. She asked for the spindle and as soon as she took it into her hand, she pricked her finger — and well, you know the rest.

The mother failed in her effort. And even more, the curse happened at least in part because of the lack of a place setting for the dinner or enough goody bags, depending on the version. A careless error of omission that opened the way for this curse to come to pass.

 

I have been thinking about this a lot lately. How often we fail to be able to protect our children from whatever curse it is we fear. No matter how hard we try, there will always be one spindle. And perhaps the seeds of the whole problem lie in our frantic desire to keep our children from pain such that in the process, we fail to teach them things they really need to know. I was as much enthrall to the desirability of slenderness as anyone and so in a way my efforts led to exactly what I least desired.

I read and I talked with everyone I could think of who might be able to help me. I breastfed her for all of her first year, because it seemed breastfed babies were less likely to become fat. I held off introducing solids until she was almost 7 months old, because it was thought that early introduction of cereal predisposed to obesity. I made all of her baby food so that I knew there was no hidden sugar or modified starch. I was vigilant about what I and my husband ate, so that we were modeling healthy eating. I struggled to overcome my shame about my body so that I wouldn’t communicate that to her — I worked my ass off to get comfortable talking about my body, answering questions about it, getting comfortable in my skin.  

And it seemed to work. Until she was around 11 she was slender and I thought maybe we had escaped the curse. No matter how vigilant I was or how hard I tried, I hadn’t reckoned with genetics and puberty. She began to gain weight. She started menstruating when she was not quite 12 and it seems that it signaled the pricking of her finger on that spindle I had tried so desperately to get rid of. She became plump, with the same rounded body I have. Initially I was in despair because I had done absolutely everything right, everything that was supposed to stave off the curse. We didn’t overeat, eat junk food or any of the other “bad” things. We walked and did things together. She walked to school every day and played field hockey. None of it kept her slender.  

My heart broke for her as she struggled with it all. We talked about bodies, about doing everything possible to be healthy, that people come in all sizes. Her doctor and I determined that it was important for her to focus on being active and healthy, not dieting because she was at risk of developing an eating disorder, like several other girls in her class had.  

It was like walking through a field of land mines every day. I wanted someone, anyone to wave a wand and let her have the body she wanted. I felt guilty, that somehow I was responsible for her weight, for having passed along this terribly difficult problem to her. I worked  with renewed vigor on my own body issues. But none of it could change things. And I had to forgive her for not having escaped and myself for not having been able to save her.  

She is 43 now. She is not thin, but she has settled into an adult weight less than mine. She is active and healthy. She has been able to keep her weight fairly stable by concentrating on being healthy. She is largely free of the self-loathing I was still struggling with when I was her age. 

I read here and there and everywhere that if we get children to eat healthily, avoid junk food, and exercise, we can prevent obesity, and I think of my beautiful daughter. If they only knew how hard it is to eliminate all the spindles in the kingdom. 

* In Greek mythology, the Moirai are the Fates