04 March 2011

Health: Our Bodies, Our Weight, Our Magic

Health is the foundation for prosperity; the quality of one's health has a direct effect on one's ability to not only earn a living, but to enjoy the fruits of one's labor. A state of optimum health means having a strong digestion, a consistent and high level of energy throughout the day, the strength, endurance and flexibility to do a variety of tasks, a robust immune system, a clear mind, clear complexion and lustrous hair and nails.

It is not easy to maintain health in modern America. Lots of people make obscene amounts of money from pushing unhealthy "foods" and the medications, weight-loss programs and treatments required from a lifetime of eating poorly and getting little physical exercise. It requires a near-constant vigilance to eat well and get the amount of physical activity needed to maintain even a moderate level of health.

Admittedly, I'm reluctant to discuss this topic for fear of offending those who seem to think the only appropriate response to the growing obesity epidemic is polite silence. Let's face it, as an acquaintance of mine once wrote, "The Pagan community doesn't photograph well." Take a lap around any Pagan festival or gathering and we seem to be riddled with chronic health problems, bad teeth and obesity. I have also observed that on the whole, we eat poorly and do as little physical activity as possible.

I am not a fat-basher; I am not filled with disgust or hatred when I am in the company of those who are overweight. I am related to and friends with lots of overweight and obese people and I confess that currently, I am heavier than I would like to be. I love my fat friends for the same reasons I love my slender and athletic relations and acquaintances; they are funny, intelligent, kind, creative, witty and I feel good when I spend time with them. My concern for my overweight friends and family is for their personal comfort. They are often in chronic pain and I hate to see anyone, especially someone I love, suffering in discomfort.

My favorite aunt suffered her entire life because of her weight. She was diabetic and grappled with all of the problems diabetes causes: poor eyesight, numbness in her extremities, heart and kidney problems, arthritis and joint problems. Eventually she had to use a wheelchair because the cartilage in her knees was worn down to painful bone-on-bone contact. She couldn't get the knee replacement surgery that would have restored her mobility because of her obesity and other related health problems. It isn't uncommon for the women in our family to live to 100, but her life was truncated by her excess weight. She eventually died a few years ago - she was only in her late 60's.

Expense is another problem related to being overweight. Many people in my life who are overweight must take a fist full of pills to control their blood sugar, their blood pressure and their cholesterol levels. These medications are very expensive and often I see them compromising on the health care they could receive in favor of a pharmacy plan that provides their medications at a reduced rate.

Lastly, and more specific to the Pagan community - our health affects our magic. Not many of the Witchcraft 101 books mention how much physical endurance it really takes to run energy for rituals, sabbats and spellwork. I've observed that many Pagans get sick or run-down after a festival or major ritual. They aren't healthy and strong enough to manage the amount of energy they are using and end up depleted and ill. We need to be fit - mentally, emotionally and physically - to practice strong magic.

So, why is the Pagan community so chronically overweight and unhealthy? I have a few theories which I will share below:

Pagans are a brainy bunch with an increasing roster of PhD's in our community. We read a great deal and love to talk shop with other Pagans, Heathens and Witches. We value the intellect and learning, often to the neglect of other aspects of the self.
According to the Pagan census, the majority of us work in the computer science field and lots of us love to play video games. Many of us are crafty, enjoying needlework, knitting and crochet. These activities don't burn many calories, unfortunately. In fact, the first time I had to start paying attention to my weight was when I went to college. The intense study sessions, library visits and classroom time meant I spent a lot more time sitting than engaging in physical activity.
The tendency for Pagans to live in their head seems to lead to a dissociation with their body. They simply are more interested in thinking than doing.

Lack of Grounding
The most popular and sexy parts of magical practice seem to exclude the body - astral projection and possession work  - actively concentrate on the psychic rather than the physical. Many Pagans seem to get attached to the high one experiences in sacred space and in the concentrated presence of invoked deity.
To use a different model to illustrate what I mean--it seems Pagans are most often operating from the 5th through 7th chakras. They seldom engage, let alone integrate their personal energy with the 1st through 4th chakras. This "head in the clouds" default position means that Pagans are not functioning in a grounded manner, resulting in a neglected body and physical environment.

Extended Adolescence
This theory is what I like to call "You're not the boss of me!" Pagans tend to be distrustful of authority, if not downright defiant of it. I suspect that there are Pagans out there who rebel against their parents, medical research or other authorities in favor of having cookie dough for breakfast. They eat like they would have liked to when they were fifteen, but now they can, so they do.
There are also feelings of injustice in this group; they feel put upon having to watch what they eat and exercise, so they cry, "It's not fair!" and continue to eat poorly in brazen challenge to what they know to be true.

Monotheism Carry-Over
Pagan refugees from some of the more strident monotheisms seem to suffer from discounting the value of their body. Because they were taught that their body was inherently dirty, sinful or temporary, they tend to focus exclusively on their spirit. The concept of the body as a meat car for the spirit is as common and persistent as it is pernicious. It isn't possible to embrace a religion that says, "Thou art God/dess" and hold that the body is merely a vessel for one's spirit without creating cognitive dissonance.

Everything Goes
Pagans value diversity and have created a community that is safe for those who may otherwise feel like an outsider. Unfortunately, I think that this laid-back, everything goes attitude has fostered an environment anathema to discipline. Many Pagans simply don't care about their body and promote an acceptance of unhealthy behavior as a condition of being accepting of diversity. To admit to caring about the body is akin to admitting to being shallow.

Ignorance & Laziness
If Pagans applied themselves to learning about nutrition and exercise with the same zeal that they employ in their spiritual study, this would cease to be an issue. Learning and practicing new habits can be tedious and difficult - learning to eat more healthfully and consistently getting exercise is no different. These new skills and practices don't have to remain drudgery - exercise and learning to cook can be fun. Lots of community centers, kitchen supply retailers and gourmet food outlets teach cooking classes. Grocery stores like Whole Foods regularly offer tours and classes on shopping for and creating healthy, balanced meals.
Community colleges, dance studios, martial arts schools and intramural sports associations offer a variety of alternatives to dressing up in spandex and hitting the gym.

Lack of Self Love
Ultimately, I think that health problems stem from a lack of self love and respect. If we loved ourselves, we would honor our body and honor our boundaries - and demand that others do as well. We should treat ourselves with the same generosity of spirit, compassion and respect we treat others. Frequently, we comfort ourselves with tasty, but unhealthy foods instead of observing and serving our real needs. Additionally, there is seldom immediate feedback when we abuse ourselves in this way - it takes awhile for the pounds to pile on and the health problems to make themselves urgent.

Perhaps many consider these issues to be personal; I agree that people's relationship to their body is often sensitive and fraught with painful experiences. Many Pagans have very good reasons for not wanting to fully inhabit their body. I do think however, that ignoring this issue is not the correct way to deal with it. We need a great deal of healing in this area and should seriously consider the most effective methods for increasing the physical vitality of our community.


  1. I'm not a pagan, but I am fat, and I'm going to respectfully disagree with some of your assertions. Concern trolling is another method for fat-bashing. "You'd only be so [insert compliment here] if you were only thinner." "I'm only thinking about your health" ad infinitum, ad nauseum. We fatties have heard it all, with varying shades of concern, contempt, pity and disgust before. Really. Heard. It. All. Before.

    We fatties know we're fat. We own mirrors, and if that wasn't enough, we have society's constant censure regardless of whether we do something about it or not. In fact, we get MORE crap for trying to improve our health than if we don't. That's not even taking into account the various endocrinal and autoimmune diseases that make gaining weight remarkably easy and losing it damned near impossible.

    So while I appreciate that you may have only the purist motives and intent behind your concerns, sometimes that "polite silence" is the kindest thing you'll ever do for someone you love. Or better yet, try to imagine your life in their shoes and have a little polite empathy for what they're going through.

  2. I don't see this as "concern trolling". I think you missed the point, Kelly. This is looking for a "why" behind why pagans in particular are so predominantly overweight/obese, not the general population.

    Pagans are a different subset of the general community, and after over 2 decades of watching pagan behavior and eating habits, it ain't no endocrinal or autoimmune issues responsible for most of the obesity in the pagan community. It's people not spending more calories than their intake, pure and simple. The reasons behind that behavior are the mystery, though.

  3. Kelly, I am very sorry if my post hurt your feelings or insulted you. It was not my intention to be offensive. So, let's talk about it.

    What I hear you saying is:
    1. People have used your appearance and weight as a passive-aggressive way to reject and insult you.
    2. That not all excess weight is caused by a lack of proper nutrition and exercise.
    3. Your attempts to improve your health have been unsupported or sabotaged.
    4. That silence is the best response to those who are overweight and unhealthy.

    I do not think that I have subtly or passive-aggressively insulted anyone in this particular post. I can't ignore the cubic ton of research that shows unequivocally that excess weight is unhealthy, increases risk of disease, and shortens lifespan. The Pagan community, while growing, is also aging; excess weight complicates and speeds up the aging process in addition to increasing costs - something the Pagan community cannot afford.

    I am aware that body composition issues and excess weight can be caused by endocrinal and autoimmune diseases unrelated to diet and exercise. I consider those issues to be out of the scope of what I am discussing here. It's my understanding that endocrine/autoimmune problems, while not common, unfortunately affect mostly females and are not well understood. It is my sincerest hope that individuals facing these problems can find the endocrinologist or immunologist that can find the perfect cocktail of medication and treatments.

    People can be cruel - I have had people literally wave a plate of food under my nose and ask if I was tempted, despite knowing I was dieting. A lack of support can be frustrating and the sabotage can be a cruel torment. How would you have been better supported? What sorts of things could others have said or done that would have been helpful?

    I am not diabetic, but a couple of my grandparents were. This early contact gave me a pretty good idea of what diabetics need to do to manage their disease: avoid sugar and alcohol, eat small meals more frequently to maintain blood sugar, eat a diet rich in fiber, and get some exercise.

    My sister in law is a diabetic, but she has a totally different approach. I've watched her eat a large slice of apple pie with a couple of scoops of ice cream and slip into the bathroom to inject insulin. Is silence really the best response to this kind of self abuse?

    Many years ago, I knew (in passing) a Pagan gentleman who was diabetic. He loved sweets and his coven brothers and sisters would continue to bring candies, baked goods and other sweets to rituals which he indulged in. Eventually, he developed gangrene in his legs and had to have both legs amputated. Yes, he knew he was overweight and diabetic. Was silence and empathy the best we could offer him?

    Another Pagan woman I knew well - she was a family friend - had struggled with her weight for years. She didn't develop diabetes until she got pregnant, but even then, she did not adjust her diet or increase her exercise. After she had the baby, the gestational diabetes stuck around as Type II diabetes and her weight continued to climb. The last time my mother saw her, she was in a wheelchair, too disabled to walk and easily over 400 lbs. We all remained silent while she struggled with her weight and then developed full-blown diabetes. I'm pretty sure silence didn't help her.

    From where I am standing, to pass a plate of cookies to a diabetic is unethical and abusive. They may be adults who can make their own choices about what to eat and manage their health - or not. However, I will not contribute to this destructive behavior. I couldn't and maintain a clear conscience.

  4. I think we're going to have to agree to disagree on this. From where I sit, and basing this on some of your past posts elsewhere on dieting, body image and weight, I see a lot of easy judgement on a problem that's not so easy.

    It's remarkably easy to say to a fat person "Oh, if you wouldn't do this" or "Oh, if you'd only do that." It's easy to say, as Alan did upthread that it's a simple matter of calories in versus energy expended. Well, it's not that easy. It's NEVER been that easy.

    I'm not saying you have support someone's poor food choices. I'm not saying you have to give a diabetic person a cookie. But tut-tutting that same diabetic person eating that cookie isn't going to get you anywhere and it might just make it worse. No one has ever lost weight out of a guilt-trip from another person. No one has ever made the decision to lose weight because someone stood and lectured them into it. All it does is prove in that person's mind that you are like so many other people in their lives who see them not as a person with intellect, abilities and power, but as a FAT person - an ambulatory pile of blubber and shame to be pitied, derided, lectured or condemned as the mood takes you.

    I'm sure you have the best of intentions, and I'm sure you're doing it out of love. I really mean that. But I'm not sure that the message is coming out the way you intended. At least, it doesn't from here. Take that as you will.

  5. Your assessment surprises me, mostly because I cannot see how I have ever pathologized people who happen to be overweight, let alone derided, pitied or condemned anyone with a weight problem.

    Maybe I'm a fool for thinking that everyone would want to have robust health and engage in an active lifestyle. I know for myself, I highly prize athletic prowess and miss it in myself. Maybe this is a bunch of projection on my part - I can't tell.

    I am disappointed and hurt that you suppose me someone who thinks of overweight people as an "ambulatory pile of blubber" - the Gods know I do not believe that for one second. I have never lectured anyone about their body or guilt-tripped them about their weight.

    What I am interested in is this: combating the confluence of economic, social, environmental and other factors that make excess weight nearly unavoidable. I am interested in learning if other Pagans share my love of an active lifestyle, and if so, how can we foster a culture that supports that. I am interested in developing a community that supports each other in maintaining health.

    I am confused about one thing - what is your position on this topic from a personal perspective? I can't tell if you feel that everyone should cultivate an attitude of fat acceptance, or not, regardless of the implications for individual health and longevity.

  6. A lot of the tenets of fat acceptance are of person acceptance, and the acceptance that fat does not always equal unhealthy. Based on what you've said, you are not willing to accept that. Fat acceptance is also the acceptance that another person may not share your desires or live life the way you choose to do.

    I think your goals are noble, and as I said, I think you're doing it out of love. But I do see negative judgement in your words, here and elsewhere. I'm sorry it hurts you, but maybe it will be a way to break down the walls to communicate more effectively. I don't know. As I said before, I think we're going to have to agree to disagree on this.