Wichita, Kansas—Recently, I went to lunch with some women friends, friends I like and see every week. One of the women brought up the Dr. Oz column, a feature that runs in the health and fitness section of the Wichita Eagle every week. In that week’s column, Dr. Oz had written that lipstick is bad for us because it contains harmful ingredients. I read the column when I drank my morning coffee, and as I read it, I thought of all the decades I had been wearing lipstick with no ill effects.
Later in the day, I met some friends for lunch. One friend, let’s call her Joan, who had also read the Dr. Oz column, shook her finger at the rest of us, telling us that we shouldn’t be wearing lipstick, “Especially you, Ann. Yours is the brightest of anyone’s,” she said to the surprised woman sitting across the table from her. I piped up and said that I’d worn lipstick since I was a teenager and if it was going to hurt me, it would have by now. Joan wanted to argue with me about the issue, but I decided it wasn’t worth pursuing, especially if it was going to ruin our lunch, so I dropped the matter.
This particular friend, the one who chastised us for our lipstick-wearing ways that day, often lectures us with medical advice, exercise advice, and food advice, information she gets off the Internet. She tells us what we should and should not eat, do, and think to keep ourselves healthy. It is an irony that she is the only one among us to have suffered a life-threatening health issue, from which she has now recovered, I’m happy to say. I, on the other hand, will never recover from the increasing weariness I feel at the steady stream of “shoulds” and “should nots” when do-gooders pontificate about not just food, but everything else in our lives.
Don’t get me wrong. I think adding GMOs to our food is the worst idea to come down the pike for a long time. Not only are we not sure what such additives will do to human beings who consume such food, we’re also not sure what they will do to the flora and fauna that inhabit the world with them. But these lifestyle busy-bodies aren’t as much concerned with real threats as they are with some of our everyday habits.
The lunch encounter was not an isolated incident. It happens more and more that people feel free to lecture others on their lifestyle choices. On one such memorable occasion, I was with a group of women having lunch at a restaurant. Some of us had ordered hamburgers and were happily eating away when one friend started lecturing us on the hazards of, well, everything. One woman pointed out that her parents and grandparents had eaten fried food and sweets all their lives and lived a good long time. The other friend responded that in their day they got lots of exercise, so they worked it off.
This exchange caused me to think about my family. I come from a line of people who, with a few exceptions, lived long. One of my grandfathers died in middle-age from brown lung disease after working in the lead mines in Baxter Springs, Kansas, for years. His wife died relatively young from diabetes. One of my father’s ancestors died in the Civil War of an unidentified disease. Two my mother’s siblings died of alcoholism. Otherwise, all the family members have lived to their late 70s and into their 80s. My mother lived well into her 80s. My dad, who walked every day and ate well, died in his early 70s from ALS, a disease that seems to be genetically based, which means diet and exercise would have done little to change the sad outcome of his disease.
As I thought about my maternal grandmother, I remembered with fondness the wonderful fried chicken, chicken fried steak, made-from-scratch cakes, sugar cookies, green beans cooked with bacon, lard-laden biscuits served with bacon grease gravy, and all the other wonderful food she cooked. In her wedding picture, she is a slim, solemn, pretty woman. She got fat over the years after raising eight children and working her butt off over a wood stove and a wash tub. As she grew older, she spent a lot of time sitting in her chair cutting out quilt squares for the many quilts she made. She didn’t get a lot of exercise in her older years. Yet, she managed to hang on until she was 83 years old. My mother’s father lived well into his 70s after years of working in the mines and eating my grandmother’s cooking.
My mother cooked for us pretty much the same way her mother cooked for her family—fried chicken, chicken fried steak, gravy, homemade cakes and pies—it was a comfort food dream at my house. In later years, she and my dad changed their ways, eating more lean meat and vegetables, and fewer sweets and fried food. I also did my best to make sure my family ate a healthful diet, even though I was a single mom who found that potato chips are a lot cheaper than apples.
It’s not that I think we should all eat like farmers. We shouldn’t. Our lives have changed. Most of us lead sedentary lives that require us to get exercise and choose our food wisely. For years, I have tried to watch what I eat, going light on the sweet stuff and including vegetables and fruits on my diet. I also have exercised for years to overcome the sedentary life of a teacher. Even now, I try to exercise every chance I get, despite the arthritis that puts a crimp in my walking.
What I can’t tolerate are the lifestyle police lecturing me about what I should and should not do regarding my health. I don’t care what ten foods are bad for me. I’ve eaten many of those foods most of my life with little adverse effect. After some members of my family became vegetarians, I tried being a vegetarian. My digestive system was upset for a week. Yes, I’ve been told my system would adjust after a while, but why should I put myself through that torture. I don’t want to live forever—well, maybe I do, but I know that’s impossible. If I want a good steak every so often, then I will have it. If I want a gooey dessert from my favorite bakery, I will have it. The vegetarian members of my family don’t get on my case if I don’t follow their lead. I gladly eat what they eat when I visit them and I accommodate them when they visit me. When we have large family gatherings, we make sure there’s plenty of food to suit everyone’s taste and we manage to take time out to exercise a little.
As the man in the smokeless cigarette ad says, “It’s time to take our freedom back.” I don’t smoke cigarettes and I don’t want to be around those who do. But I do believe I’m capable of making wise choices when it comes to food and other lifestyle habits without enduring a lecture while I’m eating a juicy hamburger. While I’m wearing my bright red lipstick. While I'm drinking my caffeinated coffee. After all, I’m at the age when I have only a little time to enjoy the wonderful things of life. And, yes, I will continue to drink caffeinated coffee, something I’ve done since I was a teenager, to my last breath.