Monday, December 7, 2015

A tale of two kitties: Our bodies are what they are

Hobo Mama wants you to know she's a professional blogger! Look at how professional she's being!

I really, really had to convince myself not to make the title any worse of a pun by spelling it "tail." You're welcome.

I want to talk with you today about my cats — one fat, one skinny — and what that means. I think it's illustrative of what body composition is like for humans as well as felines.

We adopted our kitties from a rescue. They're purported to be Maine Coons (no idea if there's a mix of something else in there), which are a large and hearty American cat breed. They're not genetically sisters and are a year apart in age, but they were raised together, so we adopted them as a bonded pair.

The big one has the broad, strong frame of a typical Maine Coon, but then she's added quite a bit o' bulk to it. Her sister is petite, very small for her breed, and so thin you can feel her spine clearly when you pet her.

I think you can see the size difference. The little, darker one is so fluffy, it's hard to eyeball how skinny she is underneath all the fur. You can see the larger one hanging off the top of the scratcher.

This is the small kitty on the same scratcher, for comparison.

They both get the same food and the same exercise opportunities. I find this fascinating.

There's a current, overwhelming tendency for any talk of overweight to blame the (human) person for being fat. There's an overt messaging that being fat is a moral failing, an inability to curb decadent gluttony or "get off the couch once in awhile." It is so culturally ingrained that most fat people believe this themselves, even if they have personal evidence that it's not true.

I think my cats could help us shed some light on this one.

When we adopted them, I researched and decided that since cats are obligate carnivores, they would do best on a mostly raw diet of high-quality meat. We feed twice a day to mimic, as well as can be expected in domesticity, their ancestry of hunting and eating prey. No cat in the wild would have a bowl of kibble out to free feed. I could get sidetracked here to talk about why I think this is a good dietary choice for cats, but let's move on. I'll just say that I fed them both very well, and both the same.

Since I was concerned that the skinny one might not be getting her fair share of the food because her larger sister was so desperate at mealtimes, I even fed them in separate areas. I can't swear that the bigger one doesn't swoop in at the end to clean up her sister's leftovers, because I've seen that happen, but I can at least assure you that the smaller one eats her fill and doesn't let her sister push her away from the dish until she's eaten. When I stand back and watch, I see that the bigger cat stands near but doesn't push in until her sister walks away, licking her chops and heading off for post-prandial grooming. I rarely see the smaller one go back for seconds, but sometimes the larger one will wander back to the dishes several minutes later if I don't put them away immediately.

We give treats very, very rarely (once a month, maybe), and mostly meat-based ones, such as fish flakes. The boys like to eat them, too, so it works out nicely! Alrik in particular can pretend he's a cat and eat along with his kitty siblings. Yes, it's weird. He's four — what can I say?

Same loungeOne kitty has a lot more room.

For "exercise" (I kind of hate that term in general, but…), since we keep our cats indoors for various reasons, I have a lot of interactive pole toys that we all use with them as well as smaller carry toys that we leave scattered around. We also have furniture they can scale, and of course, they can run around like hooligans as they choose to. You might or might not be surprised to learn that the skinnier one is much more active than the larger one and has a nightly wild dash around our condo, scaring me into thinking she's going to break a bunch of knickknacks this time, even though she never does.

Assuming you agree on some level that this is a healthy lifestyle for cats, let's compare what this would be like for humans.

Let's imagine two non-genetic sisters who live together. They eat a pretty dang strict version of a paleo or primal diet, with set mealtimes and no snacks. One eats an extra helping at mealtimes, but that makes sense because she's much taller with a broader frame and would be expected to require more calories to sustain herself. They give themselves a treat or dessert once a month that is something moderate like fruit with drizzled honey. They're in middle adulthood, working mostly sedentary jobs, and they like to sleep a lot (oh, to be a cat!), but they have daily exercise sessions, and one enjoys a daily wild sprint (or zumba class). They love sitting on laps. (I think the metaphor just broke down. Never mind.)

With all this, one is chubby. One is thin, nearly frail.

In our disordered world, the conclusion is that the fatter sister is doing something wrong. She's eating too much, or not the right foods, or not shaking her tush enough. The thinner sister is doing everything right and is so much more virtuous than her sister.

Ugh, I ate too many Cheetos. I'm never going to get that orange crud off my paws.

But, truly, how many of us live even that wholesome a life? And yet many people are still thin, despite making (what seem like) poor food and exercise choices, and some people eat austerely and run marathons and are still fat.

Remember how this program shakes out for our cats: One is fat, really fat. One is thin, truly skinny. Both are healthy and in the prime of life.

I'll wager that neither has been exposed to cat-centric fat shaming. We don't allow magazines like Cat Fancy to sully their innocence, so they have no idea that some cats are shaped like whoa and groomed to the nines. I don't think they even know who it is when they pass a mirror. Suffice it to say, our cats are not hearing, over and over, the messages our culture gives us about portion control, nutrient-dense foods, exercising for an hour a day, etc., etc. They eat when food appears and meow when it doesn't. They chase feathers when they fly by and chillax the rest of the day away as a proper cat should. They don't have body-image issues. They don't ask me if their fur makes them look puffy, if their tails are long enough, or if they should trim their ear hair. They don't compare themselves to each other. They're uninfluenced by all the negativity that pours into our brains on a daily basis, and yet: One is fat. One is thin. One eats more, but negligibly. One moves more, but not by much. There is no agenda, and here is the result.

Well, all right, the thinner one does read puppy fan-fic.

I think it's time to stop blaming people for being the size and shape they are. It's not helpful, and there is plenty of evidence that, by and large (ha!), fat people are fat and will continue to be fat and thin people are thin and will continue to be thin and that it's not some sort of contest, that there's no possibility of changing your fundamental body composition and no prize if you do so. Which you can't do. So we should stop saying people should.

Now, as a counterpoint, I'll say that to be healthy (healthy, not necessarily thin!), the only way I know how is to change what you eat to mirror our feline friends here. In other words, eat what your body was designed to eat. For cats, that's wee mice and birdies that can be caught and eaten as a full meal of meat, bone, organs, and small amounts of plant material in the gut of the prey. For humans, I lean toward a grain-free, primal diet. BUT, and this is a BIG BUT (I like big buts and I cannot stop myself), this will not keep certain body types from being fat! It is not a magic wand that transforms a large person into a skinny counterpart. I mean, it might. Don't let me take away all your daydreaming fodder, but if you want to get realistic with me, very, very few people manage sustained and substantial weight loss. And even if a big person loses weight, her body will still look like her body! It will not look like a small person's body, because she is not a small person. This should be no-duh, but I feel it needs to be stated because the illogical reverse has been dangled tantalizingly in front of us our whole lives.

More … weight.
For my addendum, I'll say that in the past couple years, we've had a mini economic downturn in our household — nothing to concern yourselves about, just the normal fluctuations of a home-based business when a new creature (one of those non-fur babies) is added to the mix — and we were unable to keep up the cost of feeding the cats solely the raw food. That stuff is pricey! There was no question of rehoming them (as if!) and we of course economized like gangbusters on our human food as well, but we've had to mix in some store-brand wet cat food in addition to the cheapest raw options we can source that the cats like.

They love the store-brand canned food we settled on to supplement their raw food. They scarf it down more quickly than they ever do the raw meat. All I can compare it to is a person faced with a plate of steamed veggies and free-range chicken (ah, delightful, thank you!) or a takeout pizza (nom, nom, unhinge jaw, stuff face, greasy coma). Most of the flavors we feed them are meat-centric but meat byproducts. A few have added fillers and grains, which naturally aren't ideal for obligate carnivores. The result to me has been striking: The fat kitty has gotten fatter. She's a positive tubster now, on slightly less food than when she was eating all raw (we cut back on portions to see if it would help her better maintain her svelte figure), to the point she's having some trouble reaching the fur just above her tail for grooming purposes, and her fur in general is greasier and lanker. I feel pretty bad about that. Her sister is even skinnier than on raw. Again, same food. Basically the same portions, per general body weight and caloric requirements. Same exercise regimen. Eating crappy food exacerbates existing metabolic conditions. This is not a shocker, but it shows again that blaming fatness on behavior misses the mark. Stopping at calories in and calories out and pretending it's as simple as turning down dessert is downright nonfactual, not to mention deeply unhelpful.

Here's the thing: Our own experience shows that not everybody can afford the highest quality food. Even those that could afford it don't always choose to, because they're prioritizing their money elsewhere. This does not make them bad people. Plus, lower quality food is often delicious. Many people, large and small, skinny and otherwise, appreciate so-called junk food. For some of us, it makes us fat. For others of us, it does not. Does that mean that only the fat people are immoral for eating it? Is there a good reason to say that any of us are bad for eating foods of which some people don't approve? You might guess I'm going to say no. For one thing, there are almost as many opinions about what people "should" eat as there are people. We each get to choose what we do with our own body, and we don't get to choose what other adults do with their bodies.

Unless those other adults are cats, and then I can make them into my own private experiment. But what I can't do — proven — is turn a fat cat into a skinny one or a skinny cat into a fat one. We are who we are. It's a powerful lesson to learn.


Anonymous said...

Oh I love this post! I used to be one of those people who saw thinness as moral superiority and absolutely believed that fat people must be doing something wrong, eating piles of rubbish, etc. Then I became a fat person despite eating less & more healthy than ever before... Ahh, karma. But it has selfishly now become an issue with me. I guess because I know the way I used to think, the way most people STILL think. The bit about fat people believing it even when they have personal evidence against it is what resonated with me most. It is SO ingrained.

Also, I love that your awesome kid pretends to be a cat. Kids are awesome.

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