Thursday, January 27, 2011

On Being a Slightly Overweight Woman with a Slightly Overweight Dog

Chunky Canines & Portly Pooches

January is the month, as we know, of New Year’s resolutions. Take one look at the covers of dozens of womens’ magazines at the local newspaper kiosk and you will see that most resolutions—in fact, 90%--involve Losing Weight. My resolutions, however, have nothing to do with losing my own weight. It’s my dog who needs to shed some pounds.

My niece likes to tell the story of the time I stayed at their house for Christmas a few years ago, and brought along my dog—a jolly little spaniel mix named Chloe. As we pulled up to my sister’s driveway in suburban Massachusetts (“we” being the dog and I), and stepped out of the car, my niece and brother-in-law were watching from their living room window. It was snowing; I think they wanted to make sure I didn’t slip.

“Wow, she’s put on weight,” my brother-in-law said as they watched us make our way up the walkway.

“Dad!” my niece replied in horror. “How can you say that about Auntie Lee? She looks great. She always looks great.”

“I mean the dog,” John said.

I get this a lot. People telling me my dog is fat. But is this true? I mean really and truly true? Read on...

The words Chloe’s critics (and my friends) use to describe her are myriad: plump, chunky, well-fed, sturdy, a linebacker, no-stranger-to-the-meatloaf. My favorite description comes from the sweet Austrian librarian at our local library. “My, my, aren’t you getting portly,” she’ll say to Chloe, when Chloe comes forth for her daily treat.

On the one hand it’s cute; on the other it’s not. I’ve become The Woman With the Fat Dog. Perhaps I am even known as the Crazy Dog Lady with the Crazy Fat Dog.

It seems so unfair, especially given that I take her out on walks at least five times a day. In the country these are full-out romping walks, and Chloe gets to run on miles and miles of wooded trails. In this city, we walk through Greenwich Village and play in Washington Square Park. She is not a sedentary dog and I am not a sedentary person. So. Mr. Cesar-Macho Male Milan can’t call me on that one.

I also feed my dog the best possible food one can provide. Most of her diet is of the BARF variety—an unfortunate acronym for what is otherwise a superb food system. It means Bones And Raw Food and it follows the theory that dogs, in the wild, would eat bones and raw food. Simple as that.

I personally find this BARF dog diet most convenient for me, the provider, because I don’t have to open any cans or lug around large bags of kibble. And who knows what’s in some of that low-quality kibble anyway? Beyond the preservatives and genetically modified corn meal I mean. Old baseball gloves and work boots, ground to a fine oily powder? Sawdust? Old elephant hide? One study found traces of—get this—euthanized dogs in dog food. Can you imagine? Anyway, let’s get back to BARF, because thinking of dogs eating dog meat, or animal shelters selling this meat to manufacturers, makes me want to barf...

As I was saying, feeding your dog raw meat is very easy. You just have the butcher chop up the chicken or beef or whatnot to designated sizes, and then you just throw the meat on the floor (or outside) for your dog to chow down. “There, go pretend your feral,” I always say to Chloe when I toss her her meat. I don’t think she quite gets the joke, but she eats happily, and that’s all that counts. That girl ain’t got a feral bone in her body. And neither do I.

Feeding raw, by the way, is less expensive than purchasing commercial manufactured dog food. Go look at the per-pound price of the kibble and/or wet food you are buying. And see the light.

When I am traveling, and/or visiting family I do not feed Chloe raw, mostly because it grosses people out. Once my step-brother, as a joke, started to spread a rumor among family that I fed Chloe raw meat on his bed. That part was funny. It was not, however, funny when I found out the rest of the family believed it was true! That’s when I realized I better work hard to change their opinion of me and my ways :)

So, no raw meat at the homes of my hosts. Instead, I cook Chloe’s food. This is a hot new trend, by the way, but I’ve been doing it for years. My previous dog, Wallace, had food allergies, so I prepared his meals as well. Beef and vegetables mixed with oatmeal, or a bit of yogurt, and funny things like kelp, krill oil, lentils, kale....the kinds of things people who buy kibble like to make fun of. They find us excessive. And who knows?

The funny thing is, I technically don’t cook. Not for myself. I eat like a bachelor (frozen burritos and Indian entrees) and my only saving grace is that I buy organic bachelor-food. And I don’t microwave it. I use the stove—less chemical mutation that way. So my “cooking” consists of buying pre-made thing and pushing buttons. But the dog gets the whole shebang: stews prepared in large soup pots, vegetables pureed in a food processor, grains fluffed up in rice cookers, and then a hundred pots to wash. And I’m the one who has to wash them. This, to me, is a solid reason not to cook.

So sometimes, when I am in a rush, and/or camping, I do buy canned food. But it’s always no-grain organic food. PetGuard or Wellness. Nothing but the best for my dog.

And, despite giving her the best with my best, she’s still fat.

Would you like to hear my excuses?

For the record, Chloe has thyroid issues, and that’s why we have trouble keeping her weight down. It’s true—you can call my vet and ask her. And I have a thyroid problem too (hypo, just like Chloe). So cut us some slack.

In fact, one might say that my dog has thyroid problems because I do. You’ve all heard how some animals “take on” our physical ailments, i.e.: the heroic cat who developed throat cancer just after her human went into remission for the same thing. But is another topic for another the meantime we have heroic Chloe taking on my propensity to gain weight.

Not a day goes by in which people do not tell me she is fat. I mean, I find it cute when Pia the librarian calls Chloe portly. Or when Clayton, my ten-year old nephew, calls Chloe “Miss Chubs” or “Chunky Monkey” or “Honker-Wonker.”

But when other unnamed people offer their habitual “your dog is overweight” comment, I get pissed. I get offended. I take it personally. I hear in their benign, offhand observations decades of latent criticism: you’re a failure; you don’t have a real job; you don’t know how to take care of yourself, let alone your dog; you’re a f—ck up—look! Your dog is going to die of heart failure, or suffer through a lifetime of hip problems and arthritic needs, all because YOU ARE A FAILURE!!

Do they actually say these things?

Do they actually think these things about me?
Probably not.
Okay, definitely not.

Then why do I react so negatively to being told my dog is overweight? Why do I take it so personally?

For one thing, it’s rather bad manners, don’t you think? Children are taught that it is rude to shout “Mommy, look at that fat man!” in the supermarket aisles. Aren’t they? Or is this permissible now?
But then again, some people these days spend most of their days flaming other people anonymously on the internet....perhaps children are more apt to flame to peoples’ faces now.

Anyway, I guess people think it’s okay to insult a dog’s weight because some people think dogs don’t have feelings. Or that they don’t hold grudges. The latter is true. And Chloe, she’s just as friendly and loving and goofy with the strangers who call her a Fatty-Fat as she is with the people who call her a Cutie-Cute. She, likes all dogs, loves the attention.

I suppose I like attention too, as long as it’s positive. Criticism crushes me.
In the interest of full disclosure: I used to be very self-conscious about my weight, and about the way I looked. I cared so much about looking “good” that I starved myself into near-oblivion. They called it anorexia back then and they still do. I remember well the feeling of starvation, of insatiable hunger, coupled with an intense self-loathing that had somehow convinced me I didn’t deserve food. At that time in my life I guess I thought I didn’t deserve to live. It was a horrible belief, a horrible sensation.

Now, thankfully, I don’t really care how I look. I could stand to lose five pound, but I don’t care enough to spend the time or effort accomplishing this. I just don’t eat crap, or high fructose corn syrup, or anything with exclamation points or cartoons on the packaging. I don’t eat anything genetically modified, artificially colored, or brewed in a test tube. Simply put: When I am hungry I eat and I eat when I am hungry. In behavioral therapist terms, this is called a “healthy relationship to food.”

So does my dog. She has an extremely healthy, well-functioning, vigorous relationship to food.

Chloe is part Lab, however, and it is said that Labs will eat and eat and eat until they explode. I cannot prove this, having never seen a dog explode.

But once, when I was staying at a friend and fellow band-member’s house (a friend who serves her dog kibble), we came home late from a music gig and found Chloe lying sideways on the floor. She seemed stiff and uncomfortable, and didn’t get up to greet us when we walked in the door. This is unusual Chloe, who always regards the occasion of a human entering a room as a cause to celebrate.

I rushed over and knelt before her, to check her breathing and feel her heart. I even checked for blood and felt for broken bones. “What’s wrong?” I said to the dog. Her posture was that of a dog with a twisted intestine.

“I think I found the answer,” my friend called from the kitchen. She led me into the pantry, where we beheld a tipped-over bag of kibble, more than half of it gone. And we’re talking one of those thirty-pound bags.

“Chloe, how could you?” I said to her, back in the living room. But she didn’t acknowledge me. She was practically passed out on the braided rug, sleeping off her kibble-induced stupor like a drunk.

She farted all night, by the way. Which is why I personally never give my dog kibble.

So. Here was proof that any animal with a drop of Labrador Retriever in her portly body will at least try to eat until she explodes. But she will not actually explode.

Chloe remained comically bloated for the next day or two, and even seemed somewhat chagrined...the way a college freshman might be after one of those nights of too-much-to-drink, and “Oh, God, I don’t remember what I said.”

During those two days I was a bit more lax in my reaction to those people who happened to call her fat. I had a perfect excuse.

And why are the called Chocolate labs, by the way? Isn’t chocolate often associated with food addiction? I’m just saying...

I like to joke that Chloe is part Wooly Mammoth. She has very long, very course, very thick white fur on certain parts of her body—mostly her back. I don’t know where this fur comes from—I mean, what part of her DNA would produce such thick, abundant fuzz, that is wiry in some areas of her body, long and smooth in others, and short and coarse underneath?

But this fur honestly does make her look bigger than she is. Go ahead and call my groomer if you don’t believe me—he’ll vouch for us.

In the summer time I get the dog groomed—a “spaniel cut,” they call it—shaved down to a buzz cut on the top half of her body, and fringed on the lower half. Thus, in the summer time, everyone says: “Wow, Chloe has lost a lot of weight.”

People say that to me too, in the summer time, by the way: that whole “Wow, you’ve lost weight! You look great!” thing.

“It’s because I’m no longer wearing seven layers of sweaters, four layers of woolen leggings, and a North Face full-body ski suit on top of it all,” I tell them. Rather irritably. Because inside I’m thinking: so this whole time you’ve been thinking I’m a fat cow?

It’s true that in the winter I look like the Michelin man. In the winter I do not get asked on dates. But who cares? Looking bloated is better than being cold, I always say.

But when people start to exclaim in the summer how great I look, it makes me suspect that I must look absolutely wretched and bloated in the winter.
How shallow people are, to judge a book by her covers like that. Her many, many covers. I’ll see you next June.

Yes, yes, I know it is unhealthy for a dog—or anyone—to remain overweight. It’s not like I’m trying to have an unhealthy dog.
Let’s recap my excuses thus far:
1) She has low thyroid function.
2) She is a part Lab. Chocoholic Lab.
3) She is part Wooly Mammoth.

Plus, I want her to be happy and comfortable. Starving is not at all comfortable. I know this first-hand. I starved myself for about four years when I was a teenager. It was horrible.

One of my friends once told me that his vet told him that dogs are always supposed to be in a state of hunger. It’s in their nature, this vet says.

Always in a state of hunger.

When I was anorexic I was like a ghost. I used to think of food all day and dream of food all night—I used to consume trays of macaroons and French baguettes and almond croissants in my dreams, and then wake up aghast at the thought that I might have actually truly eaten something. I rarely ate anything. Food was the enemy. Food equaled fat and fat made me detestable, corrupt, hideous, etc. I don’t think I had a genuinely happy or healthy thought for about ten years.

In my twenties, when I moved beyond the affliction of eating disorders, I made a vow to myself: I would never go hungry again. So now we must ask: Am I somehow transferring this vow, this fear of starvation, onto my dog?

When she is hungry she lets me know it. She pokes me with her snout and leads me, like a gallant Lassie, into the kitchen, toward the refrigerator, and then goes en pointe, like an elegant, hard-working bird dog. It’s so cute I just have to feed her. Even if it’s just a small morsel of something. But usually she does this only twice a day—at her usual feeding times. She reminds me to feed her, you see. Because she knows that I am a spacey artist who needs to be reminded to tend to practical things. I forget a lot of things these days. I need a service dog to remind me to feed the dog.

Years ago, a very famous article appeared in Atlantic Magazine, entitled “Why Your Dog Pretends to Love You.” I can’t remember the author’s name, and I don’t have time to Google it, but the author’s theory was that dogs have learned that acting affectionate and cute and loving will result in the reward of food. But that they don’t actually really love you. Or even like you. They’re just in it for the food.

Hmmm. My ex-husband once accused me of the same thing....

I wouldn’t be surprised to find scientific proof that my dog Chloe is manipulating me, and that she goes en pointe at the refrigerator because she knows it will make me laugh and because she knows she will get a small morsel of hotdog or a larger morsel of sliced turkey breast, or perhaps even a full-fledged dinner, even though it’s technically not dinner time. We call it the “early bird special”: her 6:00 pm dinner meal, served at 4. All because she is cute. And please note that she always gets her thyroid supplements with her meals.

Okay. So perhaps we could say that it is my dog’s fault that she is so fat. Or portly. Or chunky, chubby. A Mack-truck-in-fur...whatever you want to call her.

Perhaps we could say I am wimp with former eating disorders and self-worth issues, who is afraid that her dog won’t love her if she doesn’t feed her “enough.”

Or perhaps we could say I’m just a softie, with a kind heart, who wants her sweet middle-aged dog to have a happy, comfortable life.
I prefer to think of it this way.

Years ago, when I was married, and had another life, and another dog, the dog named Wallace, who had a perfectly functioning thyroid, we used to spend our summers up in Wisconsin. My former mother-in-law had a place there--an old family compound belonging to her husband and his siblings. My husband, dog and I had the grandmother’s old cabin (Oh, that place was heaven!) and my step-father-in-law’s step-brother F____ had the cabin next door.

F___ and his wife had an old Labrador Retriever. I forget his name but I remember his girth, and his sweet grey muzzle, and his vaguely clouded eyes. I also remember that he was—and remains—the fattest dog I have ever seen.

Two images stay in my mind: One is of this old dog lying on the dock, in such a manner that his entire body covered the width of the dock. He was the sort of dog who wouldn’t, or couldn’t, move much, so once he spread himself on the dock he was there for the day. We’d step over him on our way out to the kayaks, and step back over him to retrieve the coolers and the sun block, etc. This was easy and simple enough for us humans. But I remember my dog Wallace did not quite know what to do. He was the younger dog, clearly not the leader of any pack, and also clearly a guest at this compound. Wallace seemed to know that it would not be cool for him, the Gamma, to jump over the Alpha dog. So he used to leap off the dock and swim up to the kayaks, or back to shore.
This was my first experience with fat-dogs-as-roadblocks.

The other thing I remember about that fat old lovely lab is that, at meal times, he would plant himself next to his Mum—a jolly woman named M.—and rest his head on the table, and basically receive treats all night long. Like a slot machine.

M. too was a softie. Older than me. I always saw her as someone I might become.

Ben was the dog’s name—I remember now! We all used to joke about how, well, obscenely obese Ben was, but we never said that in front of M. Or in front of Ben for that matter. What we would say—and mean—is that “Ben has a good life, eh?” And he did. He lived eighteen years as a canine slot machine.

So back to Chloe. Chloe of the Big Appetite and the Low Thyroid. You may call her portly or flabby or Chunky-Monkey. But you can’t call her unloved.

Perhaps that is why I get so offended when strangers—and family members—make those off-hand comments. Perhaps I worry that at some level, another person is challenging my own personal version of love. But that’s just is—love is so personal. And we I’m just trying to love my dog the way I think she deserves to be loved.

And so, I give her her thyroid medication (when I can afford it, which lately has not been often). I dose her up with homeopathic remedies and herbs. I groom her in the summer and call her a Mammoth in the winter. I give her plenty of off-leash exercise in the acres of mountain trails behind our house.

And when she eats, I watch her wag and wag and wag her tail and think about an Alice Walker quote I read in Oprah magazine: “You do your best, and when you know better, you do better.” And in the meantime, let us eat and be merry.

If you, dear readers, have any input as to how you handle your portly pooches, we welcome it. Cheers!

PS - That sweet fat dog pictured above is not Chloe. Here she is. Ain't she cute?

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