Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change


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Life shouldn’t be simple. That statement flies in the face of the relentless marketing of simplicity as a lifestyle. Its head cheerleader? The magazine Real Simple. This year it’s celebrating its 10th anniversary of virtuously telling women how to make their lives simpler and marketing all the stuff to do so. (In one of its first issues, it told grown-ups how to do laundry. That was the last issue I bought.)

Life shouldn’t be simple. Regardless of Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie’s four-year reality television escapades, The Simple Life isn’t. And despite the attitudes of a couple of simpering kids of wealth and privilege, jobs such as waiting tables, mucking out barns and other menial work are honourable labour, not a cause for snide remarks.

Such work may not be intellectually challenging — forgive me if I snicker very loudly here at including two spoiled and pampered American princesses in the same breath as words that indicate brain power and endurance —but such jobs are worthy of respect.

I learned my lesson while attending the University of Alberta working at Canada Packers in Edmonton for two summers.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that working alongside the advantaged sons and daughters of means and choice — we were going to university which bespoke a certain status — might not be the most welcome thing for full-time employees. The men and women we worked with did the various factory jobs because that was what they could do, not necessarily what they wanted to do. We students were there to earn money knowing full well this was not our future. But something told me from day one that swanning about telling experienced workers how to do their job better — as did one summer employee — was no avenue to a comfortable and rewarding job for the next four months.

The snot-nosed kid (as one beefy guy in the bacon department called him) was lucky to get through the summer without losing any fingers, the revenge being meted out to him for his know-it-all attitude ranging from simple shunning to dangerous ostracism, not the best atmosphere when working with sharp objects.

But, I learned the lesson quickly and well and my summers passed without incident, other than being a magnet for the neighbourhood cats. Why? Working with sausage meat and casing at a time before such chores were automated inevitably meant something would always stick to your person. The first summer, working as a wiener packer (insert brand of stupid, sexist joke here) my father would threaten to hose me down in the backyard before letting me in the house. The reason was simple: the ripe smells of the kill floor and the rendering floor which, regardless of how far away you were working in the plant, clung inexorably to one’s clothes. The next summer, as a wiener hanger, when the casings would break, some of the mixture would end up splattered on you and thus, the attraction for the neighbourhood cats.

They were simple jobs, indeed, but they came with a complex social structure.

Life shouldn’t be simple. It should be satisfyingly complex, so that when we fail, we can blame it on the difficulty of negotiating life’s treacherous paths.

That’s a good metaphor for those of us who struggle with our health and our weight. And the collection of “wisdom” I’ve accumulated in the past six months would lead one to believe all of this is frustratingly complex. I’ve amassed an amazing pile of research — dozens of newspaper clippings, myriad of magazine articles, reams of print-outs from Google searches and at least a couple of dozen books, from Fat is a Feminist Issue to In Defense of Food all piled around my desk. Magazines from The New York Times food issue to Women’s Health have joined the books.

All of this advice from others has been consulted and quoted from in the past six months. Some has been useful, some has been insightful. All have made promises.

When I was a teenager, it was fashionable to blame one’s excess weight on “glands.” I can clearly remember my mother snorting whenever she heard this, not because there wasn’t a single case of “glandular” disorders, but because most of the women spouting this nonsense refused to learn a simple truth: if the calories ingested are more than the calories expended, weight gain is the obvious outcome.

Perhaps my mother was somewhat less kind than other kids’ mothers, but blame that on her no-nonsense practicality. She knew the difference between the fat that comes from overeating and the fat that comes from cortisone or steroid treatments.

Margaret Ford wasn’t much on self-reflection or analysis nor one to dwell on the past, preferring to ignore what couldn’t be changed. But she wasn’t prepared to lie to herself or let others do so. So, whenever the subject of being overweight came up, she always had a simple answer: Eat less. Move more.

After our brother was born in 1957, Mother decided she needed to lose weight, so she went to work. Not paid work, there was no question about that at the time, but physical work. Mother was the kind of person who believed logic would solve every problem, so she assumed, logically, that the combination of our house in Edmonton lacking a patio and her needing to lose weight offered an opportunity not to be missed.

The fact that a 1950’-era housewife would not think it unusual to buy bags of cement, find a hand-operated machine to rent and to mix the ingredients for concrete and then lay a patio by herself explains a lot about Peggy Ford. (She once told her husband she had bought a piano as it was being delivered to the house. She also spent most of her life trying to get people to call her Margaret, but was saddled with Maggie and Peggy all of her life except for the final two years when, having to move into a new place where no one knew her, she succeeded in her quest.)

I don’t think any of us children ever thought our mother was different than anyone else’s, except for the fact she did stuff other mothers didn’t and our father couldn’t. She was completely unafraid to tackle any job from knocking down a concrete block wall in the basement to teaching her eldest child — me — to drive. (This came after my nerves and Dad’s impatience reached an impasse and Mother took over.)

Because she was willing to attack any job, regardless of whether she had previously learned how to wire a lamp or fix a toilet, Clint, Susan and I never thought it strange that Mother always had a project on the go, whether it was making clothes for her daughters or, one year when Clint was in high school, making him the pigskin jacket he wanted.

I came home from school one day to discover her with a saw in her bedroom, dismantling what had been her bedroom vanity before remaking it into two night tables. She had previously destroyed the ugly breakfast nook because she kept bruising herself on the immovable table. In a fit of pique she took an axe to it and the benches, tossing the detritus into the back lawn and setting up the card table and chairs in its place until they could buy a kitchen table and chairs.

As a result, nothing Mother said or tried surprised us. So, if she didn’t believe that some glandular disorder was the cause of one’s obesity, she communicated that fact in her inimitable fashion — she dismissed it as a pathetic excuse. Maybe that’s the reason I’ve never tried to blame forces beyond my control on my life-long struggle with my weight — even when I wasn’t, in any rational opinion, overweight.

So obviously, when tackling what is essentially a problem of logic — less and better food combined with more and better exercise should, by logic, lead to a leaner, fitter life.

And it all boils down to two simple statements: If you eat too much, you’ll get fat. If you don’t move enough, you’ll get flabby. Combine the two and you have the perfect recipe for a sickly old age.

I guess much of life really is simple.

NEXT: Dove’s campaign for Real Beauty notwithstanding, advertisers still think we’re so much packaged meat on two legs.


Written by Catherine Ford

April 6, 2010 at 10:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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