Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change


with 4 comments

The millstone I wore around my neck had nothing to do with the Biblical exhortations of Matthew, Mark and Luke. But mine was just as real, if only metaphorically. It was bright yellow and made of chiffon, not granite.

It wasn’t the yellow ribbon of the 1917 folk song or the 1949 John Wayne movie, it was a dress — a party dress with delicate ruching on the bodice. I was 12 years old and the dress was a present from my grandparents. I loved it. It was the most beautiful present I had ever received from anyone. It was enough to turn the tomboy into a girl or the ugly duckling into a swan.

I squirmed into it, holding my breath and praying, to no avail. It was at least a size too small and the pleating on the bodice made it the absolutely wrong style for a pubescent kid already wearing a bra. I looked like an overfed honey bee without the black stripes.

In my mind’s eye, that dress hung in the closet for years, a silent reminder that that even as a child I didn’t quite measure up to the expectations adults had of me.

I don’t know if my mother was too busy to return the dress to the store, or even if it could be returned. I have no idea where my grandparents bought it. There are all sorts of ready explanations for that dress to hang in the closet as a mute rebuke to the fat kid. I have managed to remove from my memory the fate of the dress, how long it hung in my bedroom closet, or what replaced it.

Psychologists would call that selective memory. University of Michigan psychology researcher and assistant professor Robin Edelstein wrote about avoidance and that happy habit (my words, not hers) of being able to shove unpleasant memories to the back of your mind and then conveniently forget.

Edelstein’s research into memories and emotions, published online two years ago in, led her to believe those who block out bad memories do have some short-term gain, “but emotionally detaching themselves causes long-term consequences.” Or, in the words of the American alternative rock band, The Eels, “I wish I could remember/ but my selective memory/ won’t let me.” It sounds more profound when sung in the guttural and raspy voice of lead singer Mark Oliver Everett, but the point’s made. The human brain is very efficient at blocking out that which we don’t want to remember.

And the long-term consequences? More than 50 years later, that dress still haunts my memories. My sister tells me to let go: it’s done, it’s over; it’s history. Move on.

Easy for her to say — it wasn’t her dress. It’s not her childhood memory. For whatever reason, and it would likely take a trained psychologist to puzzle this one out, I can’t forget how mortified I was — a fat pubescent kid with mouse-brown fly-away hair, an aggressive personality and too mouthy for her own good. That about covers it.

Why do I remember a sunshine yellow dress but can’t remember the colour of the walls in my teenage bedroom?

Why do I remember being taken to a movie by my father at age four, but can’t remember stopping up the bathroom sink and flooding my grandparents’ house?

I can still see, in my mind’s eye, the sweeping grand staircase of that theatre in downtown Calgary and the delight of being out with Daddy by myself. Yet the memory of a far-more traumatic event — actually flooding the two-storey house in Mount Royal — completely escapes me.

Both of these events happened before I was four years old: one is a cherished memory, the other has vanished into the eraser of time.

My “remembrances” of that stunt — I presume I wanted a shower in a house that didn’t have one — are not memories, but are actually stories told to me by my parents and reprised years later when it happened again. This time it wasn’t me.

In the middle of a typical Alberta winter, when my grandparents were in Europe and my uncle left their house for his job up north, his last act was to flush the upstairs toilet and turn down the thermostat. The toilet overflowed, flooding the entire house. The temperature plummeted, and when the outside temperature went below the freezing point and stayed there for about a month, the water froze. All of it. In the ceiling, on the floors, on the staircase and in everything capable of holding water, including decorative vases. What couldn’t stand the pressure of the ice shattered. Including the vases.

My grandparents came home to an ice palace and, I am sure, the question why should they be the only people in Calgary whose relatives persisted in flooding their house.

But I digress.

Childhood memories, as any first-year psychology major will attest, are the strongest of all. But the reason some linger and the others don’t has been the subject of a myriad of learned papers and scholarly essays and research.

There must be a reason I grew up believing I was fat and ugly, although I am sure that Irish superstition played a large part. I’m content to put this corrupted image of myself down to my Irish mother’s upbringing on the west coast of Eire. There, folk stories and tales were as common as a turf fire. And one of the commonest superstitions is that praising your baby for her fairness or beauty was nothing short of an invitation to the fairies to come and snatch her from the crib and replace her with a demon child, a changeling.

It is to snort. How could any reasonably intelligent person believe any of this nonsense? But wait: Just ask yourself when was the last time you had 13 people at your dinner table? Or didn’t toss a pinch of salt over your shoulder when the salt shaker spilled? One doesn’t have to believe in superstitions to be affected by them.

It’s not that I haven’t intellectually tried to battle all of this with help. Such books as Fat is a Feminist Issue by Suzie Orbach, The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness by Kim Chernin, No Fat Chicks by Terry Poulton, have all sought to understand why women are so hard on themselves and the harsh standards by which the female form is judged by society. Dianne Hales’ 1999 book, Just Like A Woman: How Gender Science is Redefining What Makes Us Female dismisses what one researcher calls the “tits and ass” theory of evolution — that women’s bodies evolved to please men.

Rather, stored fat is an evolutionary necessity. “In all cultures and countries, women average twice as much body fat as men . . . Even young girls have more body fat than boys the same age,” writes Hales. The answer to why is fairly simple: The survival of the next generation may depend on the mother’s fat stores. Our “extra upholstery” as Hales puts it, not only helped keep prehistoric women alive “during harsh winters, but may have sustained their ability to conceive, carry and nourish a child.”

Yet there is something pervasive about the need to achieve some kind of acceptable level of fat. Right next to the aforementioned books sit the usual complement of diet books: The Complete Scarsdale Diet, The Fit or Fat Target Diet, The Fit or Fat Woman; Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution, The South Beach Diet and, of course, their companions in my kitchen — more Weight Watchers cookbooks than I can possibly count.

It’s not for lack of reading or lack of inspiration that I keep battling the bulge. And I don’t blame my childhood for my weight struggles. Being the victim has never been my strong suit.

But no one would deny that as the child goes, so does the adult.

Which, of course, brings us to the active child who played baseball, ran wild across the prairie grasses, chased down and tackled her best friend’s brother and rode her no-speed bike everywhere. She was shooed out of the house daily by her mother with the instruction: “Go outside and play.” How did she turn into a sedentary woman? Cultural conditioning, Dianne Hales writes. It has turned so many women into couch potatoes. “No medication, no therapy, no diet, no quick fix can do more or the body of a woman than exercise.”

NEXT: Squats, lunges, balancing acts and the amazing Helen


Written by Catherine Ford

September 23, 2009 at 2:19 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. Catherine,
    The blog is great – very readable and highly personal – and issues most, if not all, women deal with all their lives.
    Phyllis Ford once told me that I “wolfed my food” which was probably more a reference to my table manners as a six year old, than to any weight issues. But I of course took it as a reference to my size. A similar thing happened when, as a kid in Sister Mary Pricilla’s grade three classroom, I overheard one of my classmate tell her that my desk had been overturned. She replied “well it wouldn’t have been if Susan had been in it”. I beleived until I was forty that she was refering to my size – not to the unruly classroom.

    It’s all in the perpective.


    September 26, 2009 at 11:37 am

  2. Catherine.
    You Rock. Haven’t seen you in so long – but you would be proud– I’m in the middle of a 4 week bootcamp where I sprained my most useful right index finger throwing a 25 pound medicine ball in the dark in a park at 5am.
    What I’d give for a drink in a bar with you,

    Kathy Daley

    September 27, 2009 at 2:48 pm

  3. Hang in there, Catherine. If nothing else, you are going to give other people a lot to think about during the year. I might even join you in the challenge to get more fit (but not to lose weight, since my struggle has always been in the other direction).

    Timothy Anderson

    September 27, 2009 at 11:04 pm

  4. Catherine,
    We all share the challenge of staying ‘fit and lean’–loosing weight and gaining weight–routinely excercising and then not! Being “fit” has always been a part of my life style and the image I keep of myself. BUT I got FAT! “Fit and Fat” shouldn’t even be used in the same sentence! Three years ago, I decided to be “fit and lean”–45 pounds later I feel terrific! BUT I gain a few pounds here and there and then immediately get rid of them. Recently I ate my way through Bermuda SOOOO right now–I’m in the “getting rid of it” stage! But I have learned something in my 68 years of dealing with “fitness”. The personal, internal “why” you want to be fit and lean is the most important part of the equation. Once you answer that question for yourself, the rest-well–it isn’t easy but you are motivated do it!!! I found it interesting that very few people asked me “why” I lost 45 pounds – everyone wanted to know “how”! What was the big fat Canadian secret–Yikes! as if there was one!!! We know what to do–the issue is internal self motiviation and determination. Figure that out first and the rest just comes off! (…so to speak)

    Recalling a rather round plump six year old being called “Hippo” during recess rings painfully in my head still!

    Good luck–we’ll travel this journey together.

    Hey Catherine! Where’s the “spell check” on this thing???



    September 28, 2009 at 2:07 pm

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