Sunday, August 16, 2015

Genetics - curse or blessing?

Disclaimer - this one is a little dark.  Feel free to skip if you want and read other, happier, more uplifting ones. 

I recently saw a photograph of the 61 year old model Christie Brinkley.  She honestly looks about the same as she did when she was 25.  Someone asked her what she attributed her incredibly youthful appearance to and she answered, "Genes, and a great dermatologist!"

"Great answer!" I thought. Way to give credit where credit is due.  We don't think about it often, but our genes play such a huge role in our lives - from our appearance, to our disposition, to our personality, and even our ways of thinking.  Genes control so much that we think is actually in our control, and it's a big relief to realize that instead of fighting against what nature intended, we can embrace the genetic hand we were dealt the moment we were created. Because, (as much as we might want it to sometimes) it's not going to change.

This is a topic that can take weeks and years to discuss, but for now I'm going to focus on one area in particular.  Looks - in particular, a person's genetically predisposed natural weight.

I have struggled with my weight my entire life. And by struggled with I mean obsessed over, worked on, thought about constantly, and mostly have felt a great deal of shame over.  The first time I can remember feeling badly about my body was around age 5, and it's been non-stop since then, so that's 2 score, 4 decades, or approximately 14,600 days of constant, never-ending belittling and loathing directed toward myself and my body.  I can count on one hand the times in my life that I have felt truly beautiful, and I'm up to the several millions that I have felt ugly and worthless because of my weight.

Here's the kicker though: I have never been obese. I have never had to shop at a speciality store for fuller-figured women.  I have been what you might call overweight, plump, chunky, and right after my pregnancies I was definitely inching toward those sizes with the capital Xs in them, but I've never been unable to fit into an airplane seat or had to worry about a seat belt closing over me.

Nevertheless, I was led to believe, from a very young age and from many outside sources, that one could never be too rich or too thin.  Literally.  One pound, make that one ounce over rail skinny was unacceptable, and made a person unworthy, regardless of what other talents or skills they might possess.  I couldn't enjoy the pool or the beach fully because my unacceptable body was on display.  I couldn't feel 100% comfortable performing in front of thousands of people because I thought they would all be thinking "What is that fat and ugly singer doing up there? Nice voice, but she doesn't deserve the spotlight." It's a fact that slenderness is a commodity in America, there have been many marginally talented people who have become successful primarily because they look exactly like a Barbie doll.

I wonder how many people in the world are actually genetically born to have a body like that? I have learned, after all of these years of dieting and exercising, that left to its own devices, my genetics would naturally have my body thicker and stronger (and yes, much hairier too!) than the models and actresses that we see on the screens today.  Why?  Well, quite simply because my ancestry on both sides is Russian. Not the petite, blond, waif-like Russians that we see ice skating and doing gymnastics; no, my people clearly must have come from somewhere cold. Really really cold. With evolution making them hang onto every ounce of fat to ensure survival through the Russian Winters!

For a long time I felt cursed by those genetics. Why couldn't I have been blessed with a high metabolism and smaller bone structure? Why weren't "Tiny Stomach and Small Thighs" on the list along with "Brown Eyes and 5 foot 6?" Would it have been so difficult to get "Perpetual Thinness" on my spin of the genetic wheel?

For....well, forever really, I have been envious of women who won that jackpot.  The ones who can eat whatever they want and not gain any weight. The ones who actually have trouble keeping weight on! (Can you imagine?) I have thought for my entire life that that was the perfect genetic attribute to have.  Because honestly, what could be better?

Then recently I started thinking about the people I have known who are actually like that.  Skinny women with sky high metabolisms, that allow them the freedom of never having to count calories or even consider for one moment what's going into their mouths and where it will eventually end up.  Several come to mind.  One that I can think of lost her father and only sibling at very young ages and has never really recovered from those early losses.  Another has serious learning disabilities and was unable to pursue her dream career because of them.  Another lost both of her parents to debilitating diseases and worries about those genetics potentially shortening her own life.  Yet another is a selfish, inconsiderate, uncaring person who is raising selfish, mean, and inconsiderate kids.

The list goes on and on.  Which got me thinking - which of of my genetic traits would I trade if I could just have a high metabolism?  Hmmm....would I trade the intelligence that made me valedictorian and graduate college in 3 years? No way!  Would I trade my singing voice or musical ability that has not only brought me great fulfillment but has also touched other people in many incredible, inspiring ways? Not a chance. Would I trade my capacity for compassion, love, understanding, and empathy that has made me a good parent?  Never in a million years!

Again, the list goes on and on.  And yes, while my body genetically loves to hold onto excess fat like a squirrel stores nuts for the winter, it is also genetically strong, healthy, and everything is in the right place.  It's not prone to being weak or sickly, it recovers every time it gets hurt, and quite simply, it allows me to get up every day and breathe and move and do what I'm meant to do on this Earth.  It's about time that I was grateful for THOSE genes, and not continually focused on the ones that I had considered a curse.

I also have to remember, those extra pounds weren't a curse for my great-great-great-grandparents.  They allowed them to survive, which allowed their children to survive, which eventually led to me being here.  Without those survival genes, there's a good chance I wouldn't even exist!

A different and interesting way of looking at things, don't you think?

But here's the best thing about it all.  I can lose weight when and if I choose to. True, it's harder for me to shed pounds because of my genetics, but guess what? You can't teach musical ability to someone who doesn't naturally have it. Innate intelligence can't be taught either.  You also can't teach someone to be naturally compassionate - you're born with that or you're not.  I am infinitely glad of the blessings of the genetics I have been given, all of which are ultimately more important than how many fat cells I have.

Do I still struggle with body dysmorphic disorder? Unfortunately yes.  But every time I look in the mirror I can remind myself, I'm more than what society says I am.  I'm more than the number on the scale.  Most importantly, I'm enough just exactly as I am today no matter what the tag inside my jeans says.

We can't choose the genetic cards we're dealt, but we CAN choose to make the most of the cards we end up with.  As for me, I'm sticking with the hand I have and going all in.  Do you know what comes when we do that?  Jackpot!!

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