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Why I'm Giving Up Counting Calories for Lent


Feb 17 2010
The practice has led me to believe, erroneously, that thinness is a virtue.

As one of the 40 percent of Americans who makes New Year's resolutions, in January I started going to a local gym three times a week. Wanting to stay active during Chicago's long winter, I soon saw those lectures about the benefits of exercise from my dad—a former Marine with the health of a marathon runner—bear out. I felt energized and refreshed. I slept better. Stresses from the workday melted away as I jogged, stretched, and laughed out loud at Seinfeld reruns to boot. I found myself thanking God for making our bodies capable of tremendous strength and grace. Exercise became another facet of glorifying him.

For a while, at least.

Then the counting began. The gym is typical fare for Western-style health centers: an affordable private chain, it aims to make the gym experience personalized, pain-free, and highly measurable. For every step taken on the treadmill and every rotation on the elliptical, digitized numbers tell you how far, how long, how fast the pace and heartbeat, which body parts used, and, of course, how many calories gone.

For a Type A, task-oriented person like me, watching those burnt calories stack up felt like progress, like a sweaty checkmark of accomplishment. And it made me—who, medically speaking, does not need to lose weight and does not struggle with overeating—want to burn more calories each time, often with no "that's enough" in sight. If the numbers ever stopped motivating, then copies of Shape, Women's Health, and Self were readily available at the front desk to make sure I didn't forget the goal.

Predictably, I began thinking in terms of caloric merits and demerits, as eating became a necessary (though, thankfully, usually enjoyable) activity that counteracted my gym achievements. Fixing brown rice and steamed vegetables for dinner was to keep on the straight and narrow; choosing the cupcake or brownie at a party was a failure of nerve and soul. The fitness-and-healthy-eating routine became a way to gauge my spiritual health—a way to congratulate myself for being a "good girl."

The health-food and weight-loss industries know the power of adding morality into their often-contradictory messages, overwhelmingly aimed at women. Jean Kilbourne, who has written extensively on advertising's effects on women, notes an ad in her book Can't Buy My Love that epitomizes how we think in "good food / evil food" terms. It shows a chocolate sundae on one side of the page and a low-calorie shake on the other. The sundae is labeled "temptation," while the shake is labeled "salvation." Another ad, for lean pork, features the tag, "We lead you to temptation but deliver you from evil."

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