So a couple of years ago, my wife, Nikki, and I are at a party where we encounter a few friends we haven’t seen in a while. Conversation gets around to how we’d just run the Prague marathon, which our friends meet with the typical incredulity non-runners feel towards the willful madness of running 26.2 miles. A half hour later we’re all on the porch having a smoke.
In the endurance sports world, there is a certain level of bad-assedry associated with breaking the health and fitness rules. And endurance sports, in general, attract bad asses. I’ve known ultra-marathoners who drank whiskey and smoked a pack a day while training. There’s a sort of pride in defying the “rules” and still kicking ass. You’re invincible.
The truth is Nikki, my wife, had wanted to quit smoking for a while. I was significantly less committed to the idea, and I know that it’s even harder to quit when the person you love and live with still smokes. Being fully aware of that didn’t sway me. After all, I wasn’t a daily smoker. I couldn’t stand the smell of cigarette smoke in the morning and a pack could last me a week or more. But don’t try to stand between me and my cigarette after a nice dinner out, or a few drinks at a party. After all, wasn’t an after dinner cigarette one of the sweet, civilized pleasures of life?
I’d always been what is known as a social smoker. I mean always. This is to say, by the age of 44, I’d been a social smoker for about 25 years. But I was never a “hard core” smoker, so why stop? That was my reasoning even through training for the Chicago marathon last summer. Yeah, I got wheezy a few times. That was new. But it was probably just the heat and the crushing ozone of Chicago summer that made me unable to catch my breath. The evening after finishing the marathon, I celebrated my victory with a cigarette and a steak.
This past January, I had the privilege of being able to spend three weeks in Paris, teaching Hemingway to a group of college students. Ah, Paris. Wherever you go, you are walking in a trail of someone’s smoke. I had my first cigarette in Paris sitting on a bench killing time while waiting for the check-in at my apartment. Within a few days I’d smoked a pack. By the end of the three weeks I was lighting a cigarette in the middle of the afternoon, just because Paris.
Almost as soon as I returned to the States I caught a cold. Within a few days the cold manifested into dry coughing and wheezing that kept me up all night for several nights in a row. Finally, I went to the doctor. She had me breathe into a peak flow meter to check my lung capacity. I could barely puff 100 on it; a healthy person can typically blow 400 or higher.
Two nebulizer treatments later, I was armed with five days’ worth of steroids, an albuterol inhaler, and the instructions that if things got any worse, I was to go directly to the emergency room.
Which is where I ended up exactly one week later. That morning, I’d gone to a faculty meeting and then taught an afternoon class. Some wellspring of super human strength got me through these. As soon as I stepped out of the campus building I became very ill: short of breath, delirious, panicky, disoriented, unable to get on the train, smothering in my coat in frigid Chicago January.
At the emergency room they determined that my blood oxygen levels were dangerously low (88-89%), and my lung capacity was non-existent. Essentially, I’d been having an acute asthma attack for two weeks. I was admitted for the first hospital stay of my adult life. I left three days later with a war chest of expensive prescriptions and the realization that, just like that, my days as a smoker – social or otherwise – were over.
Rebel Grrl or Corporate Pawn?
By now, some of you might be thinking, “Wait a minute – she’s the editor of a health magazine, and she’s admitting to smoking? To that I say, we call the magazine Ms. Fit (misfit) for a reason. We are the feminist rebels of the fitness world. Smoking, of course, has long been a symbol of rebellion. It’s portrayed as sexy, dangerous, and dirty.
For women in particular smoking has been associated with liberation, with rejecting gender norms, and with not being the “good girl,” and it’s no wonder that feminist-minded young women would find these images appealing. It’s also no accident.
Since the advent of advertising, Cigarette producers have been cunningly figuring out how to identify and appeal to likely new markets, including women. From Lucky Strike’s “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet” smoking-as-weight-loss campaign to Virginia Slim’s “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby,” smoking-as-liberation campaign, the tobacco industry has deftly played on women’s fears, insecurities, and desires, and turned them into profits.
In the meantime, according to a 2004 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Report, smoking has become directly responsible for 80% of lung cancer deaths in women and in 1987 lung cancer surpassed breast cancer as the leading cause of cancer deaths among women in the U.S.
And those tobacco industry profits ($35 billion in 2012)? In 2014 alone, the tobacco industry donated roughly $2,000,000 to federal political campaigns, overwhelmingly to republican candidates, including the re-election campaigns of staunchly anti-choice, anti-feminist politicians John Boehner ($64,500) and Mitch McConnell ($54,400).
Manipulating women, giving them cancer, and using their money to fund anti-woman politicians. Hmm… Smoking doesn’t seem quite so feminist anymore. You know what seems more feminist to me? Telling big tobacco to go fuck itself to death.
All of that is stuff I already knew, but still I smoked. Why did my impulsive cravings prevail so consistently over my capacity for reason, and my feminist beliefs? Why, as women, do we so often participate in self-harm behaviors, even against our better judgment?
When I was quitting smoking, I often compared of my relationship with cigarettes to being in a bad romantic relationship.
-All your friends tell you she’s not healthy for you, and in your heart you know they’re right, but you just don’t want to stop.
-In the moment, you feel like you need him in your life more than anything, but the next day you are filled with remorse.
-You decide to quit seeing hir. That’s it! You’ve had enough!
-And then you make it a week without them, but with time you forget how bad they make you feel and only remember how good they make you feel.
-You begin to hate yourself for not breaking it off with her.
-You feel like you deserve each other.
-More and more of your friends don’t want him around. There are only a few people you can hang out with together.
-You know it has to end but can’t imagine life without hir.
-You want them most when you are feeling desperate or out of control.
-This time, it will be different.
The issue of why women participate in harmful behaviors (and relationships) is complicated, of course, and beyond the scope of this essay, but there are certain conditions that have been indicated in self-harm behaviors. These include low self-esteem, body image issues, sexual anxiety, bullying or harassment, feeling powerless, financial stress, and coping with physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. Looking over this list, to some extent these conditions play a role in the lives of almost every woman I know. Many of them apply to me.
Which leads me to this highly unscientific conclusion: women harm themselves (through unhealthy habits and other, more direct self-harm behaviors) because we do not believe that we deserve better and that we are entitled to happiness and well-being. Society, media, our culture, our families, have convinced us that we are not worthy of love – certainly not self-love (and getting towards a place of self-love is at the core of making healthy and life-sustaining choices).
But women, sisters, I believe this: loving ourselves better is a key to our liberation. I deserve to be healthy. So do you!
I Am Not You
The specific incidents that led to me finally quitting smoking were pretty drastic and most smokers will not experience that sort of extreme health crisis. It definitely made quitting (this time) easier and more absolute. But even if smoking doesn’t land you in the emergency room, there are some effects of smoking that pretty much everyone can count on.
Smoking makes you and your clothes stink. Seriously – don’t kid yourself.
It gives you wrinkles and yellow skin.
It makes your finger nails and fingertips yellow.
Smoking gives you bad breath and can cause your gums to recede.
Smoking negatively affects the function of every cell and organ in your body.
Smokers have a greatly increased risk of many types of cancer, as well as heart disease, pulmonary disease, and type 2 diabetes.
Smoking can cause menstrual problems: worse cramps, heavy and/or irregular periods.
Smoking contributes to infertility.
Conversely, quitting smoking has many immediate and long-term benefits to your health.
Your sense of smell and taste improve.
Your heart and lung function improve.
You reduce your risk for heart attacks, cancer, and many other painful and dangerous smoking-related illnesses.
Your athletic endurance increases.
You reduce your risk of infections.
Your circulatory system works better.
You save a lot of moola that you can spend on yoga classes and/or kombucha.
But none of this is news to most smokers. As I said before, there are a lot of very complicated reasons why we do the things that we do. I like to give everyone the benefit of a doubt and say that we all do what we need to do – in the moment – to survive. Maybe smoking is a better coping mechanism for you than a more harmful alternative. That’s okay, too. You deserve to be healthy however that looks to you – you get to decide that; nobody else does.
At the time that I’m writing this, it’s been four months since I walked out of the hospital as a non-smoker. Although I’d been feeling for some time that my smoking days were numbered, only six months ago, I’d have never predicted that I’d quit so soon and so completely.
Not smoking is liberating. I don’t have to worry about if I have the money for cigarettes, and if and when I am going to be able to smoke. Lighters and ashtrays and smelly cigarette butts are a thing of the past. I’m fancy free! Better yet, I am no longer a pawn of the anti-woman tobacco industry.
For me, this freedom feels like a very feminist thing. It is a commitment to my wellness, and an act of compassion towards myself. It is an affirmation of my value in this world, my declaration that I deserve and am worthy of love. And in my mind, that’s about as bad-assed as you can get.
August, 2015 UPDATE: A year and a half later, and I am still smoke free!