Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change


with 2 comments

I didn’t realize I was addicted to cigarettes until I quit. Maybe all addictions are that deceptive — the object of fascination seems alluring, exciting and oh, so necessary. At the end, when I could go through three packs of Player’s Filter a day, I thought it was normal to wake up in the middle of the night for a cigarette. In bed.

If you believe in guardian angels, surely there are a phalanx of them watching over those of us who indulge in risk-taking behaviour. Most risk takers are young, invincible and immortal, so they believe, until one of them dies a horrible death on a mountaintop, in an automobile accident, on the rocks at the side of a lake or, burned alive. Or worse still, dies of alcohol or drug abuse.

Not once do we believe it will be one of us who will die. Decades ago, I drove my boyfriend’s Austin Healey — top down — through highway traffic at 100 miles an hour, hooting at the sheer thrill of the wind blowing through my hair. Today, I blanch at the thought. Worse, when I was old enough to know better, on a downtown street in Toronto, I chased the guy who had tried to make three lanes out of two and had scraped down the side of my car while passing me. (I figured he must have learned to drive in Spain or Portugal, where the occasional three-lane road will suddenly become two. But I digress.)

I went beyond road rage before that phrase ever became a cliché. I literally drove after him for blocks, into an underground parking garage, squealed to a stop, wrenched open my door, and stormed over to his car. I was screeching like a banshee through his windshield when the two men who were in the car with me scrambled out of my Pontiac and literally hauled me off this guy’s car and frog-marched me back to sanity.

I still remember the horrified look on the other driver’s face and my own lingering, simmering anger at what I had considered an assault. Theoretically, I should be grateful the other driver was not armed and dangerous. Actually, I’m grateful I wasn’t armed.

Such are the occasions of life that makes one understand the emotions that can overcome anyone and the temptations that sometimes make no sense. Passing a high school today, I wonder why so many young girls smoke. But I know the reasons — at the beginning, cigarettes can kill one’s appetite. Teens believe cigarettes will help them lose weight and with one-third of teenage girls expressing dissatisfaction with their bodies and their weight, smoking is more acceptable in their minds than being fat.

Yet studies show this belief is a myth. A McGill University research project followed 1,300 teenage girls for five years. It didn’t seem to matter if they smoked or didn’t, both smokers and non-smokers gained weight at the same rate. Smoking as a method of weight control is a lie. But I believed it myself, even as I was gaining weight — and smoking.

But myths die hard. And this one won’t. Besides, cigarettes give anyone who wants a candy or cookie, who wants to stuff her face with food, something else to do with her hands.

I don’t excuse my behaviour, the over-the-top reactions or the risk-taking. Not now, not at my age. But when kids do stupid things, they need to be cut some slack. And we should all understand addictive behaviour, because I don’t believe any of us can stand in righteous moral judgment over others. And the pursed lips on the street and the tsk-tsks that follow the obese wherever they go are society’s moral indignation at people who may very well be just as addicted as the smoker or drinker.

The more socially acceptable addictions — exercise, food, running, dieting, stamp collecting (okay, I made that one up) appear in the same pretty guise as drugs, booze, gambling or tobacco. Surely all addictions begin with the lure of the substance, regardless of its potential hold on the life of its victim.

It would be impossible these days to smoke as I did — everywhere. There were no restrictions at work, none in restaurants or bars, even hospitals. Airlines were only gradually bringing in no-smoking policies and I had never had to make the plus-three hours flight to Toronto in a non-smoking Air Canada plane. Maybe if I had I would have recognized the addiction earlier.

Did I know that tobacco was a killer? That smokers lead truncated lives? Of course I did, but like all addicts, I never believed it would be me. Even a family history of heart disease and high blood pressure wasn’t enough to force me to quit. The same history should have kept me thinner and fitter for most of my life. It didn’t do that, either.

What does addiction have to do with weight and fitness? Addictive personalities share common traits. A 1983 report in The New York Times quoted studies done by Dr. Lawrence J. Hatterer, from Cornell University, who wrote in The Pleasure Addicts that: “Addictive behaviour has invaded every aspect of American life today. We all feel the cloud of concern about becoming addictive — preoccupation with weight, smoking, drinking too much, or being caught in an excess of spending, acquiring, gambling, sex or work.”

The addict is always seen as a flawed being, controlled by some external force whether that be booze, drugs, food or exercise. The craving is to be treated as inherently unhealthy,

In her 2003 book, Appetites: Why Women Want, Caroline Knapp draws an immediate parallel between the world Renoir painted — his lush depictions of the nude female, glowing, suffused with light, skin so rich it almost begs to be stroked — and today. She writes about Renoir’s world as a place where: “a woman’s appetites are imagined as rich and lusty and powerful, the core of the female being celebrated and sensual, deeply attuned to pleasure.”

That Pierre Renoir was likely sexist and misogynistic in no way robs the viewer of an appreciation of the sheer soft and fleshy beauty of his work. Knapp compares that 19th century art world with the world in which she lived. Her world, she writes, is one of appetites also, but one where “we’re taught to do battle with our own desires from a tender age, and reinforcements are called in over time on virtually every front.”

So Appetites is about how our society regards women’s bodies and their desires and how their appetites relate to identity and value. Writes Knapp: “a notion that a woman’s hunger was somehow inappropriate, possibly even grotesque. I saw how quietly tyrannized women could be by food and weight.”

The imperatives, says Knapp, were obvious, “Size matters. Control of size (of portions of body, of desire itself) matters. Suppressing appetite is a valued ambition, even if it eclipses other ambitions, even if it makes you crazy. . . Other women might struggle with hunger, I could transcend it.”

And she did. She locked herself in a prison of anorexia. Knapp was 42 when she died, but not of starvation, of lung cancer. She conquered her fleshy demons and another one felled her.

It doesn’t seem fair that a woman who recognized what so many of us deal with every day and could write so well about it (she called cottage cheese “the food God developed specifically to torture women, to make them keen with yearning”) should die so young. Worse, still, is the realization that she died before Appetites was published.

It is ironic she would write at the very end of the book: “I no longer fear sliding back into the anorexic prison, but I am somewhat stunned and a little rueful at how arduous it all is, how long it can take a woman to achieve a degree of balance around appetites, to learn to feed herself and to understand and honor the body, and to hunger for things that are genuinely sustaining instead of hungering for decoys.”

I quite smoking — conquered one addiction — in 1991. I did it cold turkey and, like the recovering alcoholic, can remember my last hit: 3 p.m. April 20, 1991. Withdrawal was ugly — that’s how I realized I was addicted.

But food can’t be banished like tobacco.

NEXT: Off to “boot camp” hoping it doesn’t snow.


Written by Catherine Ford

November 5, 2009 at 3:13 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. I finally read all your chapters. (I was away in Italy and Morocco) I want to know the bottom line … have you lost weight and do you feel better?! I can tell you that I haven’t… Italy is not for the anorexic nor the controlled balanced person. Pasta 3 times a day, and bread more often; all washed down with some wine!

    I love how you expose so many issue about weight, yourself and family … but you stay away from letting your loving readers know whats going on with you body!

    Marcella (big)

    November 6, 2009 at 9:23 pm

  2. Dear Dr. C. I can well remember you puffing more than since 1991…shame on you! (smile too!) Nevertheless, as one who has always enjoyed you, for your wit, your brilliance, and the other two senses that most don’t get, horse and common sense, I see the autobiographical sketch part to your posts. This said, I wonder when you will accept yourself for being just you? Do you remember Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”: “Ring the bells that still can ring, Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything, That’s how the light gets in.”
    Best from Beaufort on Roberts Bay. Hugh

    Hugh Landerkin

    November 8, 2009 at 2:50 pm

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