After 2 kids and a few years spent without the rigorous physical activity I was accustomed to as (at different times) a runner, a dance instructor, and a horseback rider, it’s probably not surprising that I’d like to take off a few pounds. Since Liam will be 2 in September, I really can’t keep blaming him for the current state of my waistline (I will, however, continue to blame the incredible quality of baked goods in Austria).
There are a lot of differences in the way Austrians and Americans perceive weight, approach exercise and relate to food. Vast differences. Americans are obsessed with food, weight, physical perfection and judging each other. Austrians are not. Austrians love food. They love to enjoy good food, but they don’t examine and judge every morsel that goes into their mouths (or anyone else’s mouths) the way that Americans do. It took me almost a full year to grow accustomed to the way Austrians eat . . . and I mean watching them actually eat. They aren’t ashamed of food. They don’t hide what they’re eating or pretend they’re not eating it. They don’t make a show of drinking diet soda or having tiny portions or consuming meals composed entirely of either lean protein or leafy greens. They just don’t. They walk down the street, eating ice cream, or a donut, or a sandwich. They take normal sized bites of normal kinds of foods. They just eat — it’s not a big deal. Young, old, fat, skinny — there’s just no shame in the way they approach food. They seem to mostly eat what they want, and not think about it overly much. (I suspect my Austrian friends are reading this and thinking, “What are you talking about?” because it’s just so not an issue here.) They get a lot of exercise but they do it as a natural extension of how they live their lives — getting from place to place, enjoying the beauty of the city and the countryside, or playing games and having fun. (They also smoke a lot, so that probably helps with the waist measurements, too.)
Americans obsess about food and then pretend not to eat while keeping themselves on ridiculously strict diets (or cheating on said diets) and judging themselves and everyone else they see eating. We generally try to eat in public as little as possible, and when we do, we make a huge show of having as little as possible and having the “right” thing (or we revel in how much they DON’T CARE what anyone thinks of us and eat indulgently). Americans regard food as the enemy — constantly trying to figure out which particular food group is the guilty party in torpedoing dreams of size 2 jeans, and exercise is often done for show or out of guilt or because it’s expected. Americans think about food about a million times more than Austrians, and almost all of what we think about is negative — what we can’t have, how bad something is for us, how “good” we are for NOT eating something, or when, when, when do we get to eat again? Americans have an obsession with physical perfection (which goes beyond weight issues) that I just don’t see here.
It is a culturally different perspective, and one of the most striking examples is the way that weight is treated by medical professionals. I’ve been here for over a year, which means that I’ve been to the doctor plenty of times — regular checkups, visits for illnesses and vaccines. (I even took a course of acupuncture — from my general practitioner! — for about 6 months.)
Today, I got on a scale at the doctor’s office for the FIRST TIME since I moved to Austria. First time. In over a year, after many doctors appointments. And only because I specifically mentioned to the doctor in question (Liam’s pediatrician, of all people) that I’m working on losing weight, and she wanted to help me track my progress. How’s that for different?
In the US, getting on the scale for the doctor is standard practice for almost anything (except the dentist, I think) and every single doctor you see is going to comment about your weight if you’re heavier than you should be. In the US, I am considered obese, and I think every doctor I’ve seen (since that’s been true) has commented on it . . . at every single appointment.
Today, I showed up to Liam’s pediatrician appointment sweating, red in the face and in exercise clothes, because I ran the half hour (uphill the WHOLE WAY, oh my goodness) to the appointment. (It’s been hot in Vienna lately, and I knew if I didn’t get my run in first thing this morning, I wasn’t going to. The doctor is a runner herself, so I didn’t figure she’d mind. She didn’t.) Since Liam was napping when I arrived, the doctor and I chatted for a bit about the running I’ve been doing, my goals and my knowledge. She commented how great it was that I was running, “because it can help you feel so much better”. After I sheepishly commented that I have some weight to lose (a point I feel obligated to acknowledge when talking about exercise to a health professional) she asked — ASKED! — if weight loss was one of my goals, or if I was just trying to be more fit.
She had me get on the scale to measure my current weight, just for the purposes of helping me keep track (Liam was still sleeping) and she offered to help me calculate a good heart rate for my exercise to help improve my metabolism. When I glumly read her my current weight from the scale, she replied, “No! You mustn’t think of it as a glass-half-empty situation! This will just help you keep track of your progress.” (Hmm. Ok. I truly have no idea how to respond to that, but it sounds good to me.) She made a big point of saying I’m “a little overweight” and that I shouldn’t really focus on anything except making an effort to get into a routine of exercising 3 times per week — “Once you do that, it will be easy to exercise for longer and for more exertion, until you’re making the progress you’d like to see.”
It’s really different here. People see weight differently here. Or maybe they see it exactly the same but don’t see the benefit in denigrating someone over the weight they’d like to lose. (On the other hand, I certainly did have trouble finding a pretty dress in my size for the ball, which I wouldn’t have in the US, so there’s that side of it, too.) In my year here so far, not a single person has called me fat, or obese, or implied anything like it. In fact, no one has commented on my weight at all . . . except for me.
This isn’t an, “I’m fat and I’m proud of it” kind of thing. I don’t feel that way. I”m not happy at my current weight, and I’m taking steps to change it. But I’m making these changes for me. They’re not coming from a sense of guilt or obligation, and being free from a sense of shame about how much I weigh makes it EASIER to make these changes. I’m doing them with a light heart and an open mind. Not from a place of embarrassment or self-hatred. (Ok, MOSTLY not from those good places. I’ve been in Austria for 1 year and I was in the US for 34. It’s not magic. But it is a new perspective.)
This is one of those things that I had to step outside of to really be able to see. The shame, guilt and burden of being overweight, and feeling judged because of it, seemed natural and normal to me until I lived here for a while. I’m not defined by my weight here in a way that I really, truly am in the States. I’m able to let go of some of my mental “weight” about it, and regardless of how successful I am in losing the physical weight, it’s a much more comfortable place to be.