Taking Up Space with a Better Bio

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There’s a weird paradox in the autobiography world — we love to read stories about other people, but hate to write our own.

Case in point: The Memoir Boom. A 1996 editorial in the Women’s Review of Books coined the term that describes a particularly American obsession with reading about the lives of other people, popularized especially by many Oprah’s Book Club selections. The Glass Castle. A Million Little Pieces. Girl, Interrupted. Wild. Angela’s Ashes. Eat, Pray, Love. Tuesdays with Morrie. And on and on and on. Memoir and autobiography continues to thrive as a popular literary genre because we learn how to live through the example of others. We love these books because we want to find ourselves in the story, looking for hope or redemption or to feel like we’re not so alone in a bad situation.

We love consuming the stories of other people’s lives. We scroll through social media whether or not we post on our own. We share stories told by others — did you hear about…? We read blogs and news articles that feature “real life” stories of transformation and triumph. We look to other people’s stories of success when we want to feel inspired to make a change in our own lives. We base nearly every purchasing decision we make on other’s people’s experiences with a product or service. We made TED Talks a thing.

And yet, when it comes to writing about our own lives in a persuasive way through resumes and cover letters, bios, About pages, and social media profiles, our love for real life story fades away. Or, worse, it becomes twisted into something monstrous and distasteful: bragging.

“I hate writing bios because it always sounds like I’m bragging.”

“I don’t know how much to write about what I’ve done because I don’t want it to sound braggy.”

“Cover letters are the worst — they always sound so braggy — ‘hire me because I’m so great…blah blah blah’”

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we continue to believe that it’s only other people who have stories worth telling?

Most of the personal persuasive writing I read is a dull, watered down, milquetoast version of the powerful and dynamic experiences people actually bring to their professional table. Here’s how some popular memoir authors would write about their work if they wanted to avoid “bragging.”

I’ve been through some hard times, but each one taught me a lesson of humility and helped me find my inner strength. When I’m not writing, I love to travel! — Elizabeth Gilbert, Author of Eat, Pray, Love

Frank McCourt is an author who grew up in Ireland and had a series of jobs and eventually became a writer.

As a woman, hiking the Pacific Coast Trail taught me to always follow my dreams and learn how to trust myself on all of life’s most difficult paths. — Cheryl Strayed, advice columnist

If you’ve read Eat, Pray, Love, Angela’s Ashes, or Wild, you might be thinking, “Oh, their story is so much more than that! I can’t believe how awful it sounds that way!”

Exactly.

That’s exactly how I feel when someone tells me a story of why they do what they do, the impact they want to have on the world, or what they’ve learned from an experience but then tell me they don’t want to brag about it.

I’ve reviewed hundreds of pieces of persuasive personal writing, and I can assure you that the confidence you have in your own story shows in your writing. And if you’re a professional or a business owner, your capacity to connect with opportunities you want depends on the strength of your story.

The good news is that most of the time, improving your personal persuasive writing comes down to having a good handle on a few key writing skills: genre, structure, and word choice. You need to know what you’re writing, how to structure a story, and choose words that pack a punch.

That’s not bragging, that’s good storytelling.

And here’s what I mean when I say that writing about yourself in a clear, compelling way matters: you matter. Your experience, knowledge, and presence in this world is important. To say that you’re bragging about that implies that you don’t deserve to have what’s great about you acknowledged. And I vehemently disagree — you have a story worth telling, and you deserve to be celebrated.

I’ve been studying autobiography as a scholar and as a writing consultant for almost a decade. I know how personal persuasive writing works, and my mission in life is to use that knowledge for good — to help people feel proud of their life stories and tell them confidently.

How to Build a Better Bio

Here’s an example of how I worked with someone to revise their existing business bio:

freelance copywriter bio about page writing consultant
[Used with permission. Contact info remains because I think you really should call Divina Artisti for your live event music.]
There’s nothing about this person, this experience, or this service that’s changed from one version to another–it’s all about working with the nuts and bolts of persuasive writing.

This month, I’m running an online workshop for people who write about themselves in a professional context — career-builders and business-builders.

I’ll teach you the practical writing skills and storytelling techniques that make writing about yourself easy (and, dare I say, kinda fun!) without feeling like you’re bragging or fishing for compliments.

The workshop will be limited to 10 people so that each participant will get direct feedback from me about their writing. At the end of the workshop, you’ll have a piece of writing that you’ll feel good about sharing that represents you in an authentic way that will make other people want to get to know you.

Writing about yourself shouldn’t feel sleazy or weird, because people’s love of personal stories shouldn’t be underestimated! Sign up below to sign up for the workshop and let’s give the people what they want.

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Weight Watchers and the Last Christmas Kolacky

In 2008, I joined Weight Watchers for the last time. Really this time, the last time. Whenever I re-joined Weight Watchers, I vowed that it would be the last time. In high school. In college. In graduate school. And now, 2008, was really, really the last time. Except that, like all the other times, I wasn’t quite sure if I believed it. I’d failed to reach my goal weight so many times before despite the hope embedded in each new blank weigh-in booklet. I would get soar from the rush of a clean slate, whipping into a frenzy of promises and vows and public accountability only to inevitably unravel and have to invite disappointed, sympathetic reactions when I admit that it hadn’t quite worked out. I didn’t want to have to make that confession again, so I didn’t tell anyone that I joined Weight Watchers for the last time in 2008.

By early December, my holiday defenses were solid. I was banking Points and earning Points through exercise and avoiding holiday parties. If I couldn’t avoid a holiday party like an office potluck, I’d drink water and chicken broth before arriving so I wouldn’t eat as much. I’d already prepared myself for the upcoming family visit for Christmas–the most sacred of family holidays.

I am 4th generation Chicago-Suburban. That is, the roots of my family’s immigration from Poland, England, and Ireland were planted on Chicago’s south side and have spread to its south suburban enclaves. My family’s Christmas traditions are, like most family’s, an indiosyncratic jumble of cultural touchpoints (Garrett’s popcorn) and inside jokes (Unc’s Christmas mobile). My family is known among our social circles for Christmas cookies–impossibly tiny, in a dozen varieties, made by the hundreds, and shared generously. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, so I don’t get too riled up about cookies with one exception: kolacky. I am bound by a deep, sentimental attachment to a simple butter cookie with dab of Solo fruit filling in the middle. Our circular kolackys defy tradition because my Polish-Chicagoan grandmother found the folded shaping method too fussy, and switched to a round cutout using a small cordial glass. Each year, I look forward to these jewel-toned delights each Christmas, and 2008 was no exception.

kolacky cookies
These look almost exactly like my family’s kolacky. (Photo Credit: The Spruce.)

Except that, in 2008, I felt that I couldn’t be trusted around kolackys (pronounced in my grandmother’s house as coal-LAHCH-keys). These were one of my “trigger foods,” a treat that I would take every chance to enjoy, and therefore an enemy. I had Weight Watchers tunnel vision. Every choice I made about what I ate was based on how it would affect my weight loss goals. Nothing else mattered. Nothing. Prior to going home for Christmas, I told my Weight Watchers group that my goal for the Holiday Slimdown Challenge was to eat only 5 kolackys–one each day of my visit–and I would walk for 30 minutes each day to burn off their calories. The group clapped politely, and our Leader reminded us that our excuse to eat foods that are bad for us around the holidays–it’s only once a year–is the same reason we can give ourselves to NOT eat them–it’s only once a year! You can say “no” one time!

I stuck to my plan. Every day, I walked for 45 minutes around the forest preserve trail (a little extra just in case) near my grandmother’s house, and stayed out of the room that housed the cookie tins. By Christmas Eve, I felt miserable. I must have said, “No, thank you, I’m not hungry” to my grandmother a thousand times since I arrived. I was angry and frustrated and jealous–why did I have to be the kind of person who agonizes over food? Why wasn’t I allowed to have ONE DAY where I didn’t worry about calories or what I was eating or constantly beat myself up for not having any willpower? In between these mental tantrums, kept telling myself that this is a minor sacrifice. When I finally get to my goal weight,  I thought, I’ll see that it was all worth it. Just stick to the plan.

After dinner on Christmas Eve, I ate 5 kolackys out of obligation to the promise I made to myself. I took no joy in this, feeling only the mild rage and illogical irritation that anyone with disordered eating patterns knows too well. I cursed the holidays for being unpredictable and disrupting my routine and keeping me off-track from my weight loss goals. My grandmother asked if I wanted another kolacky. I declined. “Are you sure? I know they’re your favorite. And I only make them once a year.” I know, I said, with an invisible nod to my Weight Watchers leader. See? That’s the trick. Once a year.

What I didn’t know then was that 2008 was the last year my grandmother would make kolackys for me. She died in May of the following year, five weeks before my wedding.

I was not a thin bride.

If I had known it would be our last Christmas together, would I have eaten more kolackys? I can’t say for sure. Probably, yes. But I’ll never really know. Here’s one thing that I do know with absolute certainty I would have done differently: I would have said, “Thank you.”

The other thing I understand now that I didn’t know then: eating is an act of self-care, and that care is compounded when we prepare, serve, and share food with others. Diet culture strips eating of this connection to our families and cultural communities, suggesting that food choice is a simple, individual, transactional energy exchange. This is an act of violence. It repeats: your desire for pleasure is wrong, your desire for love and connection is wrong, your needs are wrong. Under diet culture, you are considered a success when you can no longer recognize the difference between self-care and self-flagellation.

But what if, in 2008, I believed that I was already good? That my needs and wants and desires were good? That my body is a good body? If I believed that, I would have thanked my grandmother for her love and time and attention not just for my beloved kolackys, but also for the sauerkraut she made for others that neither of us ate. For the way the warmth from the kitchen on Christmas Eve fogged up the bay window in the living room. For the thousands of ways I learned from her how to love and to be loved.

I am fortunate that my aunt has taken up the mantle of The Christmas Cookies. There will be kolackys in 2017, as there has been every year that I have been alive. I don’t actively restrict how many I have, nor do I gorge myself on them in an act of symbolic consumption just in case this is truly the last Christmas kolacky. This is how I resist diet culture: I live my life with gratitude and care and connection, secure in the knowledge that I am already worthy of it all.

 

Thanks, But No Thanks: How to Deal with Food-Shaming Fitness Messaging

Thanksgiving is my favorite non-Christmas holiday. It beats out the 4th of July in a photo finish because of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and because it’s hard to eat mashed potatoes by the pool. (#challengeaccepted).

I get swept up in the sentimental, Americana folk art dreams of Thanksgiving that wrap me in warm gratitude for my family, friends, and starchy sides. I cling to visions of candlelit, red wine-infused gatherings where we all take turns sharing one thing we’re grateful for. Thanksgiving is my holiday, the only day of the year where I don an actual apron handed down from my beloved late grandmother to cook for my family.

I realize that my affinity for Thanksgiving, the most problematic fave, and its high-strung cousin Christmas may strike some as a bit, well, overblown. And certainly, when the actual day gets here it always ends up more like Bob’s Burgers than Norman Rockwell. The chaotic reality of the holiday season often clashes sharply with the idyllic harmony we wish to enjoy. And for me, there’s no greater destroyer of comfort and joy than in fitness marketing that shames people into exercising.

holiday-fitness-exercise-ad-shaming
An ad from my home gym with my editing

Social media is rampant with advice on how to punish yourself for eating: No-Gain Campaigns, “You Ate It, Now Negate It” calorie burn conversion charts, leftover exchange programs, “Turkey Burn-Off” workouts, and cryptic-sounding holiday survival plans. These strategies for dealing with the enemy sound like they belong in a war room: avoid calorie bombs, shore up your defenses, say no to food-offering terrorists, and otherwise shred, torch, blast, fire, or destroy any trace of butter that crosses the DMZ of your tongue with intense physical activity.

There’s nothing wrong with maintaining your fitness practice despite seasonal disruptions, taking a walk after a heavy meal or enticing your family into a playing flag football with you. Exercise is part of a holistically healthy lifestyle every day of the year, and whether or not you make adjustments on holidays is a personal decision. But when gyms and fitness professionals insist that exercise is only an absolution from indulgence, they’re doing you a huge disservice. Calorie burn is one of many reasons why you might want to exercise during the holiday season, and, if we’re being really honest, it’s a pretty unconvincing one. I’m much more likely to want to try a new exercise class if I get some free guest passes to share with my family visiting from out of town than because I feel bad about eating my favorite once-a-year treat.

So, what if your breakup with diet culture is still in the “It’s Complicated” phase and all this garbage messaging is making you question your commitment to that sweet You Do You lifestyle? Come in and know me better, friend, because shame has no place at my holiday table! Here are some tips to help you deal with shame-based memes and fitness marketing and enjoy your holidays as much as you want:

1. “Unfollow” is your REAL Facebook friend

A curated newsfeed is a supportive newsfeed. I report diet ads as spam and anyone who posts a shame-based meme or article gets a swift and unrelenting “Unfollow” from me. There are no second chances in my newsfeed. You can always keep a list of the people you want to follow again in March when the New Year’s Resolution fervor wears off.

2. Have a response ready

Dealing with personal politics can be tricky among friends, family, and co-workers. You may not appreciate being included on diet talk, but you also may not know what to say. If your gym or fitness professional posts shame-based marketing online or in a facility (on a poster, print ad, or digital sign), you can speak up and let them know you don’t appreciate that kind of messaging. There are several ways you can make your position clear on this issue depending on your relationship, communication style, and tolerance for feather-ruffling. Samples:

“Hey, So and So! Thanks for letting me know about the Black Friday fitness class you’re teaching. It sounds like a blast! Do you think we could reach other members by talking about more reasons to come to class than burning calories?”

“Burning calories is great and all, but I like to come to boot camp before a big holiday because shopping for presents and dealing with houseguests is so stressful! I just need a little Me Time.”

“I’m skipping the gym today because I want to spend time with my family.”

“I decided that I won’t exercise as punishment for eating anymore. Thanks for including me in your planking challenge, but I’ll pass.”

“I’m doing a new challenge this season. It’s called the ‘No Diet Talk’ Challenge. Every day, I spend at least 30 minutes a day keeping my eyes on my own plate and not talking to anyone about my food choices.”

“Food isn’t good or bad. It just is. What part is your kid playing in the school holiday spectacular?”

3. Tune out

Some people just can’t take a hint. You may have one or a few people in your life who insist on bringing you in to their shame-fest, or refuse to believe that anyone could truly not care about calories two or three days per year. In that case, it’s okay to just walk away or ignore the message. You don’t owe anyone an explanation or the emotional labor responding to questions you don’t want to answer. Silence can be very productive.

Wherever you are on the holiday restrict-indulge spectrum, you deserve self-care. You deserve access to a variety of health choices without the baggage of shame or coercion, and you have a responsibility to make space for others to do the same. Put this in practice during the holiday season by supporting yourself and those you care about by not sharing shame-based memes, speaking up against it when you’re able, and being generous with the phrase “You are enough.” Cheers!

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Kate Browne is a writer, speaker, and self-care advocate. She is the founder of Taking Up Space, an online body positive fitness and self-care project. She is also the owner of Before and More, a creative strategy agency for health and wellness businesses and self-care professionals. For more information about Kate and all the cool and world-changing projects she’s involved in, visit katebrowne.net.

My Brother, My Running and Me

When people ask me why I’m training for the Dopey Challenge, an appropriately-named athle-tainment event consisting of a 5K, 10K, half marathon and full marathon on four consecutive days that takes place as part of the Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend in early January, I tell them that my brother made me do it.

Despite our deep roots in the southside Chicago system of getting things done by way of Democrats and teamsters, my family of origin has a streak of doing things they don’t seem to be capable of doing and grinding out a successful outcome no matter how illogical or personally taxing. A few years ago, my previously not-a-runner-except-for-that-one-season-of-grade-school-track brother decided that running would be one of His Things. And so, in 2015, he completed the Dopey Challenge on a very sketchy DIY Jeff Galloway-inspired run/walk “training plan.” He does these Disney races for the hardware. In fact, he tells me that he refuses to run in races that do not have AT LEAST a finisher medal and technical shirt. But I digress.

After the 2015 marathon, he told me that his slapdash training plan included approximately six miles of running prior to the marathon. I was aghast, and remembered cheering for him while watching the livestream of the marathon finish line, so happy and proud that he achieved his own improbable dream. But my big sister instinct kicked in. I had been running for a few years too, and all the marathon training I had seen included 13, 18, and 20 mile training runs. “You were massively undertrained! You could have died out there! I can’t let you do that again. If you ever run Dopey again, I’m doing it with you.”

So, here we are at the end of 2017, fifty days from the start of the 2018 Dopey Challenge. When I started training in July of this year, my longest run to date was a 5 mile race on the 4th of July. Exactly four months later, I completed my first half marathon. In these final days, I have my eyes on the marathon prize, and the work is starting to get much harder. I’m a back of the pack runner, a most-people-can-walk-faster runner, a DFL runner. Long runs take half a day. I started to feel discouraged, especially after last week’s 10 miler that ended in obscenities and tears.

I’ve been reading Athena ultrarunner Mirna Valerio’s excellent memoir A Beautiful Work in Progress for inspiration. Mirna writes a lot about her family–both her husband and son as well as her family of origin–and how they influence her motivation as a runner. She writes about family present and gone, those waiting at the finish line and those in memoriam. But from all the context clues she provides, it seems like Mirna is the only runner in her family. She has created her own tribe of running buddies and support crew near, and facilitates connection through her online presence. Mirna is, in short, a leader in the long distance running community.

When she was announced as a guest on the Plus Performance podcast, followers were given an opportunity to ask her questions. I asked a question that inarticulately framed according to my frustrations about my pace and how to deal with that back of the pack feeling. She responded on the show with the best life advice I have received from anyone who is not my mother: when you commit to the race, you commit to the training. And when you commit to the training, you commit to yourself, which includes wrestling with your demons. (I paraphrase.)

Whoa.

I realized then that I was being a little boneheaded about resisting my training because it takes me almost four hours to complete a half marathon. I was dragging my feet, literally, because I refused to acknowledge what’s real about me: I will never be good at running.

Mirna explains it best: “I love running like I love playing classical piano. It’s difficult, and I’m never going to be any good[.]…It makes me more patient with my own learning and myself. There is still a beauty about simply doing the difficult thing that I will never be good at, for the pure pleasure of having engaged in the process” (233).

I will never be good at running. What I am good at, and what running makes me even better at is being good at Doing the Thing I Set Out to Do. This is my ancestral vocation, a value I adopted as my life philosophy by watching nearly every member of my family successfully complete a goal that they may or may not have been good at, may or may not have had the support to accomplish, and may or may not have been properly prepared to do (side eye to my brother).

Fifty days from today, my brother and I will spend four days of our family vacation waking up in the middle of the night to ride a bus with strangers and stand in a corral for a few hours before we even start to do any real work. He doesn’t need me there. I always knew that. I never wanted to be a good runner. I think I always knew that too. What I do want is to stand on the finisher podium with my little brother, Doing the Thing We Set Out to Do. And if I have to run 48.1 miles to get there, that’s what I’ll do.

 

Kate Browne is the leader of the Self Love Squad (#selflovesquad), a community that helps smart women practice showing up for their lives in the body they have today. Now accepting new #squadsters for compassionate advice, cute outfit photos, reaction GIFs and cat memes! Find out more at katebrowne.net/squad

An Open Letter to Cigna

Dear Cigna,

My name is Kate Browne, and I am a Cigna policyholder through the third party payer Benefit Administrative Systems.

I am also a runner, and I am training for the 2018 25th Anniversary #runDisney Dopey Challenge, which will be my biggest running milestone to date.

In 2016, I was diagnosed with Stage II/III lipedema, a chronic, progressive disease characterized by bilateral, symmetrical fatty tissue excess, mainly in the hip region, upper and lower leg areas and combined with a tendency for leg swelling that worsens with standing (more info at http://www.fatdisorders.org/). When I first noticed pain and swelling symptoms were affecting my quality of life in 2012, both my primary care physician and gynecologist prescribed treatment protocols for general edema and obesity. My primary care doctor also recommended a very extensive, very expensive battery of tests to rule out heart disease that would explain the swelling. My heart was found to be in perfect working order. The prescribed treatments—wear compression and lose weight—had no effect on my leg pain, which actually worsened after pregnancy.

In 2016, I sought treatment for pain and swelling in my legs again, and the same primary care physician now diagnosed the swelling as lymphedema and prescribed physical therapy. You may not know this—I did not at the time—but lipedema is a condition regularly addressed in physical therapy training due to its effect on the lymphatic system. My physical therapist diagnosed lipedema on my first visit. This new information led me to the office of Dr. Donald Buck, a respected expert in fat disorder research and plastic surgery. He confirmed that my symptoms, medical history, and clinical presentation were consistent with the lipedema diagnosis, and subsequently recommended tumescent liposuction as an appropriate treatment. Due to my advanced stage, I was quickly approaching a severity at which conservative and surgical treatments would be less effective or have no effect on slowing or stopping its progression.

At this point, I’d like to mention that when Cigna claims representatives and the external appeal board reviewed my case, they stated that I had been misdiagnosed with lipedema. However, the research they cited to define the clinical presentation and proper diagnostic protocol was co-written by Dr. Buck, which betrays both faulty logic and a lack of attention to detail.

Although I sought medical treatment for pain and swelling in my legs beginning in 2012, I received no relief due to improper diagnosis. When I made the decision to pursue surgical treatment, my lipedema had already progressed to the point where my inability to do everyday tasks began to interfere with my quality of life. I woke up every day with a burning pain in my calves, and could not stand for more than 30 minutes. At the end of the day, my legs would swell so much that I could not wear pants comfortably. Running became impossible due to the physical disfigurement caused by lipomas around my knees as well as heaviness, pain, and swelling exacerbated by even small amounts of physical activity. I severely limited my social activities due to fatigue and pain. My clinical depression worsened and began to affect my ability to work. Tumescent liposuction offered a solution not only to alleviate pain and relieve pressure on my lymphatic system, but also to restore my hope for the healthy, active life I wanted. Considering that other treatments had not been effective in slowing the progression of this disease, moving forward with the surgeries as soon as possible emerged as a clear next step.

A reduction in pain occurred almost immediately after my first surgery on July 5, 2016. I maintained the prescribed protocol of physical therapy and compression during my recovery period, and went on to have two additional surgeries recommended by Dr. Buck on August 16 and September 27. Even though Dr. Buck is an in-network Cigna provider with a plastic surgery specialization, Cigna denied coverage for these procedures according to policy document 0470—Redundant Skin Surgery based on the determination that all liposuction is a cosmetic procedure. My attempts at an appeal have been unsuccessful because Cigna representatives have neglected to review my employer’s policy language that covers cosmetic surgery “if the surgery is required to correct a condition that results from an illness.” The disfigurement and subsequent loss of mobility that occurred because of my lipomas should have been reason enough to consider these surgeries covered as a treatment for an illness according to my employer’s policy, but I was continually denied based only on Cigna’s policy 0470.

While my ultimate goal is to receive coverage for the benefits to which I am entitled, I did not write this letter only to challenge the appeal decision made by Cigna’s representatives. There is a bigger issue at stake that I would also like to address in my letter today.

Since I have fully recovered from my surgeries, the pain associated with my lipedema has been completely resolved, and I successfully treat my edema with rest and compression. In other words, my life has been restored. I have resumed all of my everyday activities without pain, and serve as a leader in many athletic communities as a mentor for beginner athletes. I model a healthy, active lifestyle for my son and I can participate in the swimming, running, and gymnastics activities that have become an important part of his life. Also, as I mentioned previously, I am training for my first half and full marathon.

I need you to understand that having these surgeries is what makes it possible for me to participate in the 2018 Walt Disney World® Marathon Weekend, but I cannot stay silent in the face of the irony that is Cigna’s denial of coverage.

Cigna is the official sponsor of the 2018 Walt Disney World® Marathon Weekend. According to your website (https://www.cigna.com/about-us/events-and-sponsorships/), this is what you say this sponsorship stands for:

“Cigna is intently focused on helping people improve their health and well-being. Presenting this event with Disney enables us to reach thousands of people and celebrate their efforts to adopt a healthy lifestyle.”

 

“Cigna understands that meeting a fitness milestone — whether it’s running a race for the first time or meeting personal race goals at any length — is cause for celebration.”

 

“To us, health is intertwined with a sense of well-being and security. Our relationship with the people we serve goes deeper than coverage and claims.

 

It’s about understanding the obstacles people face in trying to lead a healthier life, then helping them overcome those barriers and change their habits.

 

It’s about understanding that healthier people are more productive, enjoy a better quality of life and lower costs for everyone within the health care system.”

I am now asking you to prove it.

Prove that you truly do care about serving your customers and helping them live a healthy, active lifestyle. Prove that when the barrier to an active lifestyle is coverage and claims that you will put your money where your website copy is.

It is estimated that 11% of women in the U.S. live with lipedema, and Cigna regularly denies coverage for liposuction procedures that would restore mobility and improve quality of life, which would lead to better overall health outcomes and lower insurance costs. In my case, I am eligible for coverage through a clause in my employer’s policy, and because Cigna claims representatives did not take information into account at any point when determining my coverage eligibility, I have waited over a year to receive the benefits to which I am entitled.

Now, I am training for the Marathon Weekend, an event that my brother and several of my friends participate in annually. My brother’s participation in past years and my participation this year has inspired other members of our family to also join for some of the races—an unprecedented commitment by our family to make exercise not just a hobby, but a true family activity that we never would have imagined being a part of our story 25 years ago when we first went to Walt Disney World. Yes, our first time at Disney was the same year as the first Marathon Weekend.

My family shares your goal for Marathon Weekend as we “combine fun, family and physical activity in a magical way” this January. But the unconscionable denial of coverage for my surgeries is a gross insult, and has negatively impacted my training experience and my perception of Cigna’s sponsorship of this event.

I hope that we can come to a resolution that will allow me to train for and participate in Marathon Weekend secure in the knowledge that Cigna keeps its promises to “meet people’s emotional, physical and financial needs—for a lifetime.”

I am the founder of Taking Up Space, a platform I use to advocate for body positive, inclusive fitness through access to meaningful resources that allow for the most participation in exercise activities for as many people as possible. My work has been featured in US News & World Report and Refinery29, and I regularly engage with brands to change policies and marketing practices that deny access to fitness based on body size, shape, or configuration. Most recently, I worked with the LifeTime Fitness and Geico to rewrite biased print advertising, which improved the reputation of both companies for my followers and the thousands of people reached by my message.

I am offering you an opportunity to make this situation right. I would much prefer to tell my followers that contrary to the perception of insurance companies as uncaring, faceless corporations that use a rhetoric of compassion to masquerade a singular, demonic focus on profit, that Cigna does care about its customers and supports personal journeys that lead to active, healthy lifestyles. I want to be an example of how health care and health habits can work together to change lives for the better. But I cannot do that while the obstacle of inhumane policy documents, ineffective customer service, and stoic rejection letters continue to deny me the coverage to which I am entitled.

In case it was not very clear, I am not trying to receive fraudulent benefits; I am seeking coverage for the benefits to which I am entitled according to provisions in my employer’s policy. Like the conservative treatments for lipedema that have been prescribed by my primary care physician, physical therapist, and Dr. Buck including wearing compression garments, using a pneumatic pump, and physical therapy that I continue to utilize to treat my lipedema, the surgeries represent a legitimate medical expense. As such, I should be reimbursed according to the covered benefits provided to me by my employer’s policy.

I am ready and willing to work with Cigna not only to provide the information necessary to reach a positive resolution for my claims, but also to be a public supporter of Cigna’s sponsorship of the 2018 Walt Disney World® Marathon Weekend. Once I receive full reimbursements for my claims, I will gladly include a Disney-worthy happily ever after in which Cigna heroically steps up and fulfills its promise to support its customers. I hope you mean it when you say “when people are…managing a chronic disease…we are at their side, around the world, helping them improve their health and well-being.”

Starting today, any training-related post I make on Instagram (@takeupspacewithkate) or on my Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/takeupspacewithkate/) will reference the fact that my coverage continues to be denied and that my experience preparing for Marathon Weekend has been negatively impacted by this denial until such time as my appeal has been overturned.

My entire case file contains more than 250 pages, but I can provide any additional information required to move forward with this appeal. If you would like to speak with me personally, you can reach me at kate [at] katebrowne.net or by phone at the number on file.

I look forward to a day in the very near future when I can start to train for the Dopey Challenge with wholehearted and joyful enthusiasm, and prove to myself, my family, and my followers that putting health first is work worth doing. Thank you for your attention and careful consideration of my story. I trust that I will hear from one of your representatives soon.

 

Sincerely,

Dr. Kate Browne

Founder, Taking Up Space

Love and Other Monsters: Raising the Bar on Self-Worth

Think love doesn’t matter when it comes to your body image?

heart-shaped love tree in a field with red flowers

Imagine if the next wedding you went to sounded like this:

Friends, family, co-workers, obligatory guests, and casual acquaintances—

We are gathered here today to witness the contractual commitment of two people who grudgingly admitted that their mutual tolerance for each other was marginally preferable to living alone. As they combine domestic responsibilities, we nod in agreement that this is a valid choice, and wish them a minimal amount of success in their new joint venture.

Think about your reaction if a real estate agent introduced a piece of property this way:

Here we have a house. The asking price reflects the median amount of money required for a residential building in this area. The features are adequate, and it contains all the walls, windows, and doors necessary to distinguish it from a livestock barn. You will be sheltered from the elements if you live in this house, and I recommend doing so because winter is coming.

The Problematic Problem of Self-Love

I’ve come across several articles recently that suggest that this is the best we can hope for when it comes to loving our bodies. Self-love, I’m told, is flawed at best and harmful at worst because individual solutions to systemic oppression does not lead to liberation, and mental illness can make the struggle to simply provide basic self-care as survival next to impossible.

And I don’t disagree with either stance.

I also support with the idea, argued by both of the authors above in different ways, that the kind of self-love espoused by consumer body positivity and mainstream media is NOT its definition, an end goal to aspire to, or the ultimate measure of “love your body” success.

I used to think that ACCEPTANCE was the best we could hope for when it comes to body confidence. I assumed that self-love was too lofty and too mysterious and too individual to be able to say that it’s a good way to approach health and wellness decisions.

Self-acceptance may be a good place to start especially if “love” feels too intimate or impossible, but is it enough?

I don’t think so.

If we want to get academic about it, love as an action can range from being defined as “to feel a deep romantic or sexual attachment to” or “to like very much.” Is that too much to ask of ourselves, that we like our bodies enough to care for them?

animated gif of women with different body types as superheroes flying away

Self-love is a way to think about health and wellness (broadly defined) that supports the kind of life you want to It’s time to raise our expectations of what it means to relate to our bodies in a loving way.

To be clear, I’m not talking about self-care practices when you’re dealing with an active mental illness like depression, anxiety, or an eating disorder. I’m talking about the general malaise many women have come to expect when thinking about body image and body confidence—the ho hum, “I guess I can learn to love my thighs,” shrug—as better because it doesn’t mean you hate yourself. I reject the idea of self-love as resigned tolerance.

Loving You Is Easy ‘Cause You’re Beautiful

Go find your favorite meditation on love. Maybe it’s 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 or a poem by Rumi or a pop song. Put yourself in it just for a second. How would your life be different if you loved yourself like that? What choices would you make in all areas of your life that honor the love you have to share with the world?

Carole King’s song “Beautiful” is my favorite meditation on love right now.

You’ve got to get up every morning

With a smile on your face

And show the world all the love in your heart

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y77HwJzOv0o

 

Because that’s what it’s all about, right? Self-love is an expression of your spirit, and that spirit is good and righteous and worthy of space. Let’s say YES to wholehearted and joyful living that starts with basic respect and care for our bodies and the bodies of others.

Self-love makes it possible to do things like ask for what you need, set boundaries, take your medication consistently, wear your seatbelt, exercise, ask for a hug when you need one, get a message, smile more often, choose clothes that fit well (and get them tailored if they don’t), do meaningful work, eat food without judgment, sit comfortably in public spaces, get out of your comfort zone, and just plain enjoy being alive.

Because as my spiritual advisor Pitbull says, “Every day above ground is a great day, remember that.”

With love,
Kate

 

Want to work with me to level up your body image? My Self Love Squad is committed to the nitty gritty of practicing body confidence as a way to show up wholeheartedly, and we have fun doing it. Find out more about how you can join us at katebrowne.net/squad

A Brief History of Weight Loss Success Stories, or Why You Think You Need Fixing

I had to cut this bit out of my dissertation for length and focus (it’s a literal cut and paste), but I still think it’s an important piece of history that a lot of people might not know about. Enjoy!

A Brief History of Weight Loss Success Stories in the United States

In the United States prior to the late 19th century, obesity co-existed with countless maladies, illnesses, and bodily conditions accepted as inexplicable aberrations in the collective human condition that sometimes, but not always, result from insufficient morality.With medical science in its infancy, definite causes for pathology could not be established, so large body size was most often considered a side effect of gluttony that could cause illness but was not generally considered a cause for concern on its own (Schwartz 99). William Banting, author of the first widely distributed autobiographical diet book, Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public claims that his reduction in body size through a change in diet gave him more energy and eased his dyspepsia, resulting in a greater feeling of vitality. The popularity of Banting’s testimonial—that a change in diet resulting in weight loss would improve men’s lives as it had his—generated the “if I can do it, you can do it” trope of weight loss memoir. The pamphlet and its message became so popular that the phrase “Are you Banting?” became America’s first national preoccupation with weight loss practices (Schwartz 101). Similar pamphlets followed from other authors, but none came close to reaching the same level of popularity as Banting’s work. As literacy increased and books were made more readily available to a population hungry for the newest developments in scientific medicine, the demand for diet testimonials grew (135).

By the early 1920s, print media had expanded into markets previously untapped due to increased literacy. Newspapers continued to be a popular medium, and magazines specifically created for an audience of female consumers dominated women’s leisure time (Yager 10). The introduction of motion pictures into the national entertainment landscape also contributed to the popularity of beauty products, including “reducing” products that emphasized a new, slender ideal body shape. Early magazine advertisements for weight loss products often featured a call to action followed by product information. “REDUCE YOUR FLESH” or “FAT PEOPLE” feature prominently as headlines in the 1920s (“Medicine and Madison Avenue”). New developments in medical science that made it possible to identify, diagnose, and treat an increasingly long list of ailments also boosted the reputation of doctors as reliable sources of information, so product advertisements began to include testimonials or recommendations from medical professionals. “Dr. Walter’s Medicated Rubber Gloves and Garments” promise not only to help the wearer “safely and speedily reduce excess flesh,” but the pamphlets also claimed to cure rheumatism (“Medicine and Madison Avenue”). Overall, the marketing strategies for health and wellness products stayed the same until the 1950s. Exposure to messages that promote an ideal body type, especially for white, heterosexual, able-bodied women, could hardly be ignored during this time. In addition to advertisements, newspapers and magazines continually ran stories on health and fitness devoted to anxieties about weight alongside reports about medical advancements in the study of weight-related fields like exercise science and nutrition (Yager 150).

The attack against fatness as an aesthetic issue took a pointed turn in the post-WWII era. Print advertisements generally targeted unmarried women and preyed on anxieties that abnormal body shape would deter potential husbands by using paternalistic techniques such as a doctor’s recommendation or a cautionary tale. Bonkorets Slimming Tablets warn that “excess fat means loneliness and embarrassment; stops you wearing fashionable frocks” (“Medicine and Madison Avenue”). Advertisements for Ayds, a weight loss candy product, began appearing in women’s magazines in 1947 and featured two models: “Mrs. C.D. Wells, who weighed 170 pounds, lost 52 and looks years younger” alongside “Mrs. L. Hawkins” who “now weighs only 119” in bathing suits (“Ayds”). This ad represents a departure from previous marketing strategies by including biographical testimonials told in third person voice. Ayds further developed the personal testimonial in a series of ads that ran in the early 1950s by introducing the autobiographical “I” that remains the hallmark of weight loss product advertising today. Single sentences expanded to full, autobiographical stories “as told to Ruth L. McCarthy,” and begin with provocative headlines like “I carried my bridegroom over the threshold. Then I lost 129 pounds” and “I barely fit into my bathtub, until I lost 74 pounds” (“Ayds”). These short stories also featured the first uses of the Before/After photo, now considered a common convention of weight loss memoir. The move from magazine advertisement to mass-market paperback is not much of a stretch considering how weight loss memoir continues to function as advertisement.

644ab08e9add07a68b8da7fd92b49d59Paperback memoir titles began to appear in the same places as major mass-market fiction texts—westerns, romance novels, and science fiction, primarily—in department stores, grocery stores, drugstores, bus stations, and through mail-order services. Eventually, with the addition of mall chain bookstores and independent bookstores that stocked mass-market paperbacks, “working-class and middle-class Americans became book buyers” (Rak 38). In grocery stores and drug stores, paperback memoir appeared alongside advertising pamphlets for food and drug products that double as weight loss aids. An example of a print ad that previously pitched an imperative call for action that changed with the autobiographical advertising turn came from Knox Gelatin. The 1954 tagline “Keep Your Trim Waistline with the popular Knox weight-watcher’s drink!” appeared in newspapers, and changed to “Do You Really Want to Lose Weight?” when the 1962 paperback Knox Eat and Reduce Plan appeared in grocery store checkout displays (“Archive.org”). In addition to these advertisements, early, mid-century weight loss memoir titles such as The Fat Boys’ Book and Help Lord, The Devil Wants Me Fat held space on store shelves with Monarch’s Mad Mad Diet, Better Homes and Gardens Diet Book, The Sexy Pineapple Diet, and the early celebrity diet book Abundant Health and Vitality after 40 by Jack LaLanne. Combining advertisements for products with advertisements for body types and autobiographical accounts of weight loss shows a literal lack of separation between consuming products and consuming lives.

For further reading:

If you have any interest in health marketing history, you have to check out the “Medicine and Madison Avenue” archive: https://repository.duke.edu/dc/mma

Engs, Ruth. Clean Living Movements: American Cycles of Health Reform(2000).

Rak, Julie. Boom! Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market. (2013).

Yager, Susan. The Hundred Year Diet. (2010).

Yagoda, Ben. Memoir: An Introduction. (2010).

^^Affiliate links. Means if you buy those books, I get a little Amazon.com credit. Booyah.

Radical Visibility and the Myth of the Bikini Body

The idea of a “bikini body” is a grand metaphor for a body worthy of being seen. Slenderella International, a short-lived chain of weight loss salons, popularized the phrase in 1961. The company ran a series of ads in major newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post. “Summer’s wonderful fun is for those who look young,” they claimed. “High firm bust — hand span waist — trim, firm hips — slender graceful legs — a Bikini body!”

Hand. Span. Waist.

You might be rolling your eyes and feeling a little nauseous at that line, but I bet you also believe in the bikini body.

I know you do. Just a little bit. A hand span’s worth.

How could you not? It’s been part of the American culture imagination for over 50 years. Two generations and counting of an unshakable commitment to doling out access to beaches and sunshine based on how young, light, tight, tanned, and firm women’s bodies look.

I could talk all day about how the bikini body ideal has deeply hurt women by perpetuating a cycle of self-hate and socialized body surveillance, but that’s been done better elsewhere at places like Everyday Feminism (here, here, and here) and Fit Is a Feminist Issue. This delightful video from Bustle takes it a step further by modeling what a multi-variant body pool party might look like (p.s. I want to go there!)

But there’s something about the bikini body clapback that bothers me.

For some reason, #bodypositivity has taken up the Unconditional Bikini Body as the ultimate symbol of self-acceptance and body love. The message, even from well meaning and woke feminists, is that wearing a bikini in public is the most radical resistance to aspirational beauty ideals, body shaming, and the patriarchy itself. For some women, doing the emotional work to rock a two-piece in the body they have now might be a valuable and righteous form of self-expression. For others, you might as well suggest that they take a rowboat to the moon: an impossible, unappealing, and absurd task.

Bikinis, as a piece of clothing, aren’t even available to all women. Some women choose not to wear them for religious reasons, they aren’t available in all sizes, and prosthetics/medical accessories don’t always jive with a more revealing swimsuit style.

When you give one act of resistance such symbolic power, those who can’t or don’t want to are left out. It doesn’t mean these women don’t love themselves enough, or that their choice *must* by a by-product of internalized oppression.

blonde woman shaking her head surrounded by the word no

That’s where I think our love affair with the Unconditional Bikini Body can really go off the rails—when women are pressured to perform radical self-love without acknowledging and attending to the risks that come with it. For many women, being visible is a vulnerable act because they have been told over and over and over throughout their lives that there are certain bodies that shouldn’t be seen. When you come to understand your relationship to the world in this environment, you know, without ever even stepping in front of a fitting room mirror, when your body does not fit the criteria. So, for lots of women, the possibility of wearing a bikini in public has always been a row to the moon.

I understand, appreciate, and commend feminist endeavors to reassure women that the bikini body is a myth and that all bodies deserve the right to be visible. But it makes no sense to me to suggest that women should feel empowered and free to wear any piece of clothing, let alone such a revealing one, without being really, really clear about what exactly makes visibility so radical.

I adore looking at pics of women on IG crushing it with mad poolside style in their Unconditional Bikini Body because representation matters. If “wear a bikini to the beach” is something you want to do, it can feel so good to see someone who looks like you doing the thing. But posting on social media requires an incredibly high level of resilience that isn’t readily available to most women. Modeling what a shame-free culture could look like—in all its stretch mark, cellulite, belly roll glory—is admirable not because these women are “brave enough” to be seen, but because they are doing the emotional work it takes to be visible in a body they have been told does not deserve to be seen. They show, by their presence in our real life and online spaces, that resistance to diet culture is possible in this very specific way.

Wearing a bikini doesn’t make you invisible. It does not give you immunity from other people’s diet culture cruelty through special No Fucks Given superpowers. Just because the beachy beauties of IG give us the gift of radical visibility doesn’t mean that anyone has an obligation to wear a seashell bra this summer, nor should we assume that women who do love themselves more than those who don’t.

It doesn’t matter if you can’t wait to hit the beach in your bikini this summer or look forward to beating the heat from the comfort of the air conditioning, because we all have a responsibility to talk about our bodies and the bodies of others in a way that supports inclusion and safety in all our public spaces. It’s not up to the individual woman to summon her own bravery and wear the bikini–it’s up to all of us all year long to show up for radical visibility.

 

I am committed to supporting every woman out there living in the Northern hemisphere who has a visibility goal this summer. No more #suffersummer! If you’ve been avoiding warm weather outdoor activities because you’re afraid of being seen, I want you to join my upcoming Show Up for Summer program. Sign up below to be the first to know when it drops (it’s coming soon!). I’m rooting for you!

 

Sources:

Robb, Alice. “Why Can’t We Stop Talking About Bikini Bodies?” The Cut 23 July 2014. http://nymag.com/thecut/2014/07/why-cant-we-stop-talking-about-bikini-bodies.html

What Is Diet Culture?

If you’ve been following me for a while, you know that I am 100% anti-diet culture. But do you know what that means? Here are 3 main characteristics of diet culture, and what you can do about it. But first, a definition:

Diet culture is a system of knowledge, values, and meanings that supports interpretations of personal health choices as moral character.

Got it? Let’s break it down.

 

1. Diet culture isn’t just about weight loss.

This is probably the most confusing aspect of diet culture. Diet, of course, refers to what you eat. Overwhelmingly, “diet” is understood by most people as dieting for weight loss. And that’s certainly a major component of what diet culture does, which is convince people that their bodies need to be smaller. But diet culture is concerned with all the choices people make about the food they eat because food=morality. Think about the messages you’ve been told about certain diets and the foods that comprise them. More often than not, you understand some foods as good and some as bad. Cheetos=bad, carrots=good. Vegan diets=good, choosing not to eat vegetables=bad. Sugar=bad, raw honey=good. But wait–honey is “bad” for vegans, so… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Diet culture assigns “goodness” to certain lifestyles and choices, and that’s morality. We prize restriction and anything considered “self-control” as indicative of strong character. Are people who choose not to eat mushrooms due to taste (me!) better people than those who don’t eat strawberries due to allergies? Nope! We all make different choices about our diets for a variety of reasons.

What to do about it: Be mindful of how you assign morality to choices you make about your diet. And read everything Michelle from The Fat Nutritionist has ever written.

 

2. Diet culture does not support the value of all bodies.

Diet culture doesn’t just show itself through moralizing food choices. It also has a deep concern for assigning hierarchical value to bodies. Again, this comes through most clearly in compulsory weight loss, but the phrase “you are what you eat” also makes this pretty clear. Healthy people look healthy, right?

The place where this part of diet culture is clearest for me is in advertisements for fitness products. There are lots of good reasons to exercise that you can’t see on the body–see this list from Thought Catalog for examples–and I can attest to these benefits having more impact on my day to day life than any physical change. Even physical changes that can come from exercise–improved function for joints, heart, lungs, and muscles–can’t be seen. And yet, nearly every fitness product promises that we’ll look more attractive with exercise. Most leave out other benefits entirely. This sends the not-so-subtle message that your body as it is has inherently less value than it could have. Fitness advertising is also notoriously ableist, meaning that exercise should be used to “overcome” or avoid disability because disabled bodies have less value. This isn’t a naturally-occurring condition–it’s a direct result of diet culture.

What to do about it: Stop looking at fitspo. If you choose to exercise, focus on the non-physical and/or benefits.

 

3. Diet culture does not exist in a vacuum.

Diet culture is just one social system in which people are treated inequitably, and it often overlaps with racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, and classism. I abhor them all, for the record. But it’s important to understand that many issues of oppression and prejudice do not function on their own. If we go back to the Cheetos=bad, carrots=good example, it’s not the foods themselves that signify their worth, but the meanings around them that give that good or bad reading. Cheetos invoke our deeply broken food system, inequities with food access, and people (coded as poor people or people of color) who value inexpensive food. Carrots invoke farmer’s markets, wholesome living, and people (coded as white, economically stable) who value their health.

If you are anti-diet culture, you must also be anti-oppression in other ways. It’s important to recognize the similarities and differences, and how the messages we receive reflect this. Example: Why are yogurt ads so gendered?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zpNOLQINY14

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FicEXpGwzIY

Once you start noticing this sort of thing, it’s hard to stop.

What to do about it: Keep resisting diet culture alongside other systems of oppression. We all deserve better, and the change begins with you! Think twice before you make judgements about yourself and others when it comes to food choice, exercise choice, and access different people have to those choices.

We all deserve better!

Fixing Stitch Fix

I received an email from Stitch Fix yesterday with the subject “Kate, We’re Expanding!” And I was so excited because I’ve been waiting for them to start carrying a plus-size line and…oh. The email says they’re adding a men’s line. Seriously?

I couldn’t join Stitch Fix for a long time because I was solidly plus-size, but recently ordered a Fix because I started riding the straight/plus line. I felt conflicted about this choice because I prefer to give my money to companies that carry a fuller range of sizes (like ModCloth, be still my heart), but I wanted the support in styling that SF offers.

So, why do you think I need more styling advice? It’s because as a husky girl and plus-size teen/young woman, I did not have access to a full sartorial palette. Fashion specifically excludes bodies like mine, so shopping for clothes never brought me any happiness unless it was something from the Juniors department I bought to hang on the outside of my closet with a sign that said, “STAY OUT OF THE KITCHEN IF YOU WANT TO WEAR THIS.” And I think you’ll agree that’s a sad, twisted form of pleasure that’s not very happy at all.

Now, I certainly don’t blame Stitch Fix for these problems. But I’m at a place in my life that I want to start learning what it’s like to put together an outfit and pay attention to silhouette (whatever that is…) and find out how to use accessories, and I really do value their styling service. On their site, it says a women’s plus size line is coming in Spring 2017, but I was disappointed by the message that introducing a men’s line was a more pressing priority. I hope that when plus-size offerings arrive, I can schedule another Fix secure in the knowledge that they’re doing their part for zaftig women like me who are learning how to be seen.