Human Health, Hotness, and How not to Give Up Hope

February 5, 2011

Dear Family,

I am reading “Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Foods,” by Cate Shanahan. Also, am continuing to read Weston Price. And I tell you, I am tired of the word “degenerate.”

I also am totally intrigued, and want to understand: what does it mean to be human and _healthy_? How does one do what we are, in the end, unofficially programmed to do: conceive and birth and raise healthy children?

Goddammit, it's pretty tricky to question all my core ideas and ideals all at once. Sometimes, this process is accompanied by waves of guilt (“I should have done XYZ, and then A would have happened and B wouldn't have”). Sometimes, I get angry (“Why me? Why can't I have a PERFECT life, with PERFECTLY healthy kids, like every other imaginary person I envy in my head? And incidentally, why didn't my grandmothers UNDERSTAND the importance of breastfeeding?!”) Sometimes, I'm just so confused (which I attribute to the fact that humans are really bad at constantly making choices that don't involve immediate, direct feedback. Turns out that I am very much human).

I'm reading about epigenetics, and bone structure, and fetal development, and gut flora, and mental health, and autism, and and and. I sometimes get kind of sad: What is the point, after all? What do we degenerates even have left??

Although there are many pieces to the puzzle, I am more and more convinced that traditional diets (and other lifestyle factors, but primarily diet) are the biggest keys to figuring out the answers to these questions. And at least in America, at least in this type of Westernized culture, our connection to any sort of usable, intuitive, and healthful culture of food is in utter shambles.

I think our connection was broken largely because some people invented, and lots of other people gained access to, items like flour and sugar in copious amounts, and modern processed foods, which displaced all the traditional, nutrient-dense foods they used to eat. Even those who did sense the dangers of this new, crappy diet still didn't have very convincing, scientific reasoning to help guide a human population hell-bent on Progress, and ill-equipped to make dietary “choices” that were never available previously, not ever during 200,000 previous years of human evolution.

And so here we are... Right Now. Sick, on a population scale that is unprecedented except perhaps during times of extreme famine, which is sort of like what we are experiencing now, except that we have an overabundance of nearly-worthless food available to us, rather than a shortage of nutrient-dense foods. And unfortunately, it's been quite a few generations since we started to eat this crap, so the shit, as they say, is really starting to hit the fan.

I read and read and read. About how the foods our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents ate had a statistically enormous, potentially indelible impact on our skeletal development; how the foods we ate as children had a huge impact on our health (including mental health) status, even now; how the foods we ate when conceiving and birthing and raising our kids impacted their health, at birth and up till this moment; and lately, about how these foods even impact things as superficial as our physical attractiveness--“hotness,” as they call it on lack thereof.

I was really disturbed to read this last, because back in those feminist fairy tale books they said that Looks Don't Matter, and that movie stars are only idolized because movie-goers are mentally unsound, and that every single person is equally beautiful, no matter what they look like. And even now, stating that physical attractiveness is important can be incendiary and controversial--which is funny, when you consider all the life-and-death health issues that I generally discuss in the same breath. It is decidedly un-PC to say that a child or adult's beauty comes from anywhere but within.

And yet...we not-so-secretly idolize starlets, professionals, and politicians with strong, broad bone structure, well-developed nostrils, and sleek physiques. Is it any more petty and superficial to want to understand _why_ this is the standard of human attractiveness? Or why, despite the fluctuation in average body weight of female models/movie stars over the years, we do not tend to idolize people with faces shaped by the effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome? Or to imagine that, if we tend to look twice at attractive people, than being attractive might be something that signifies health to members of our species, and therefore deserving of more than the label of “superficial”?

Maybe it would be useful, to look around the playground and notice the plethora of kids with underbites, and overweights, and circles under their eyes, and sallow, narrow faces--and not only attack the problem by saying: Let's cultivate good Body Image!! I mean, whatever happened to the idea of cultivating good, healthy _bodies_ in the first place? I have come to believe that self-image is much more of a reaction to the physical state of our selves than the other way round.

Just by writing these words, I can't help but feel that I am betraying my feminist upbringing, and probably come across borderline-cruel and perverse, to boot. And what of my children's and my own underdeveloped jaws, and less-than-perfectly-expressed genes? The thing is, I think I am admitting thoughts that are sort of obvious: a healthy human tends to be an attractive human. A flip side question emerges, though: is it possible to understand even a bit of what is happening with the “degeneration” of the human species without giving up all hope?

I do see how discussing this topic can cause people to lapse into fatalism, cynicism, or sarcasm...or to additionally be censored, because there is such looming potential to slide down the slippery slope of justifying unequal opportunity for all of us less-than-physically perfect humans.

Fortunately, I have absolutely no idea what to do, on a population scale, about all of us Degenerates. Here's what I'm trying to appreciate: Judging by current health trends, “westernized” human populations are in a pretty bad place. As a species, we are producing weaker, more disease-prone, and even more diseased-at-birth children than our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents did. I am fairly convinced of this, not only because our foreparents didn't have an enormous healthcare (and prison) system keeping them medicated and therapied and categorized (sometimes institutionalized) and therefore technically alive. They just had to succumb to the Laws of Nature immediately when dealing with any problem so serious as sickness. Meanwhile, our current generation is dependent upon a bunch of experts in white lab coats to figure out how to keep us functioning.

Or are we? This is where I know we can find a better balance, and where, at least on an individual level, we can recognize depressing facts with the express purpose of improving our plight. The _function_ of the body, no matter how imperfect the _structure,_ is constantly and continually trying to make the absolute best of its situation. And here's where we have a fighting chance, because: A. most (if not all) of our health problems can be massively improved by bettering the body's function; B. the body's improved function can even affect the way we look (i.e. our Hotness); and C. our brains, our incredible brains, are part and parcel of that Function, constantly regenerating themselves largely based upon what we choose to put into our mouths. Our brains have been in use for many thousands of years, keeping us healthy and strong and able to raise healthy and strong babies.

This means that we can look around, note our sunken faces and not-so-wide pelvises and possibly less-than move-star-attractive facial structure--and get busy! We can take back our brains. We can--maybe it's true!--take our brains back from depression, and fogginess, and overwhelm, and exhaustion, and so-called “psychiatric” conditions, and begin right here to use them to heal the function of ourselves. As we heal up our brains, we can also deal with our thyroids, and precancerous tumors, and excess body weight, and back problems, and annoying hormones, and gut issues, and autoimmune tendencies, and respiratory infections.

What I'm trying to read between the lines of Weston Price is: that It's never too late, as long as we're alive, to seize what we can learn from the gifts our ancestors would have loved to pass down, if only they could have kept the oral traditions going, or written us some detailed notes.

And anyway, Mom always says: You don't fix a problem by making up reasons why you should run away from it. If humans seem to have had an easy time letting go of our connections with the past and a potentially healthier existence, then that doesn't mean at ALL that we can't reclaim at least a bunch of this really useful information, and get healthier again, and help our children have a fighting chance.

These thoughts helps combat the despondence that can settle when my brain is having a sad, Why-Me? sort of a day. Every so often, this recognition also give me inklings of compassion. I'll see a group of little children playing, none of them especially possessing good bone structure, many of them appearing fairly sick or malnourished in myriad ways, but still doing their best to explore their world...and I think: here we are. Humans!! Isn't it crazy and fascinating and COOL to be one of us, alive right now, able to watch this moment? And my heart melts into those basic, enjoyable human emotions of connection and awe. Isn't it amazing, the way our bodies are always, ALWAYS trying to heal, no matter what is happening, no matter what crap we're eating, no matter what silly things we do or don't believe, no matter the abuse we give or receive? Until the day we die, our bodies are doing the best they can, under the circumstances.

Feeling a bit of compassion is also useful for those of us dealing with symptoms ranging from chronic fatigue to hormonal imbalances to depression to autism to obesity to hyperactivity...and for all of us parenting kids with these issues. I finally have a clearer idea of why I have struggled so with motherhood for seven years: I did not evolve to deal with all this! I absolutely no longer believe that mothers evolved to take care of babies who caused them to lose years' worth of sleep, who screamed for hours on end, who had debilitating anxiety and so-called “learning disabilities.” No. These challenges are due to my exact location in a long chain of human events, largely outside of my control at this point, that is currently sculpting the physical and mental degeneration of my own species.

When I put it this way, it's easier for me to see why parenting a sick child while dealing with minor sicknesses of my own, and now undertaking the equally ambitious task of healing our family, has been and continues to be so hugely overwhelming.

There are also the comforting cliches, which are slim compensation when the going gets tough, but which nonetheless are true. Each person possesses unexpected talents. Every challenge or disability can bring gifts of unexpected measure. Our desperation to “deal with” Ben has morphed into a determination to heal every single person in our family, which truly is a gift beyond calculation--and on Ben's bad days I try to remember how grateful I am for the chance to lose my own blanket of chronic moodiness and depression. It's sappy, but isn't it also true that we receive what we give in equal measure? Dealing with adversity, as comic-strip Calvin's dad likes to say, Builds Character!

So. We can appreciate these gifts that our own or our children's health crises can bring. The compassion, the strength, the building of who we are.

But what of the nagging, “superficial” issue of Outside Appearances?? How do we happily appreciate our possibly-already-programmed-and-done, less-than-fully-developed bone structure? I can't help but feel a little bummed that I or my kids just might never be nearly as hot as is humanly possible. Is there any consolation for that fact, if we are agreed that attractiveness is important for the very basic task of determining how best to choose a mate to ensure healthy children, and at the very least for upping the odds that our mate her- or himself possesses a certain level of health that has been passed on and nurtured down to this generation? It is hard to find compellingly happy reasons for me having unwittingly passed down the epigenetic potential for an underbite and a double chin to my three-year-old!

But of course, despite our possibly-very-normal adoration of Beautiful Movie Stars, outside appearances really ARE superficial, beyond a certain point. A great jaw does not ensure that a person hasn't recently developed nutritional deficiencies. A gorgeously-proportioned face does not mean that its owner understands or appreciates the epigenetic potential that has been bequeathed. Possessing a nicely broad, child-birthin' pelvis does not even guarantee that a woman will choose to use it for its “intended” purpose. And finally, a flawed physical body does not indicate whether or not its owner has finally begun to understand the causes of such “defects,” and be working like crazy to make up for lost time to heal the function of said body--or whether this person is, in fact, capable of living as strong and healthy a life as just about anybody. As Jeff says, when it comes to people, it's all about “The Package” deal.

So I look at my babies' less-than-perfect bodies, and I comfort myself with the thought that I am working my ass off to help them make up for lost time. And I know that someday they will find mates who appreciate the talents that they are cultivating even while they encounter and overcome their own lives' challenges. Not to mention how, incidentally, a person can be goddamn gorgeous, no matter what they look like, when they are meeting adversity head on, and making it through. It's another sort of an immutable law of some kind, I think. And at the end of the day, I generally don't believe that one gets into bed with ones partner and thinks, “Gosh, I'm sure glad that Joe has a gorgeous, well-developed jaw, because it comes in awfully handy when we encounter adversity,” or “Gee, I'm sure glad I married Jane, because her well-developed pelvis--along with her sexy immunity to dental caries--has really helped steady our relationship when times were tough.”

No. What matters at the end of the day is mainly due to what is going on within the contents of our own particular heads. And I keep repeating myself, but it is important to believe this in order to stave of despondency: even though the body's Structure can potentially affect brain development and health, it doesn't have nearly as much impact as the ongoing issue of Function, which I keep mentioning in a thankful sort of way because Function is supported by what we eat _right now_, as opposed to only what our grandmothers ate while our mothers were in utero.

And the days are just packed. We can even enjoy some benefits to living in this crazy Western World, like feminism, hot and cold running water, the right to vote, and imported hothouse sweet peppers in February. Yeah, maybe these luxuries pale in comparison with the happy lives led by the gorgeous and hardy Swiss who inhabited the the Loetchental Valley when Weston Prices visited. But guess what? Here was are, lucky to be alive, in 2011! Those Loetchental Valley-ites interviewed by Price? I can guarantee you that if they're not all dead now, then pretty soon they will be, every last one, beauty and health and perfectly golden butter notwithstanding.

And so, I refuse to accept that the course of my or my children's futures, or our collective Hotness, is _solely_ dependent on bone structure. Being Hot, in this day and age, includes getting a grasp on the whole package of human experience.

Once we have this, we hypothetically possess the ability to have: Enough understanding to realize some of what we've lost, and also some of what we have. Enough brainpower to stand in the midst of many extremes, to solemnly make choices for ourselves and our sick kids, to understand the difference between acceptance and denial, to figure out a path between possibility and despair, to heal our families--and then, with the breath of kindness, blow the rest away.