19 January 2011,

For the month of January, I have focused more than usual on weight loss advice. This is bound to change, because frankly, weight related issues don’’t all revolve around losing it or how to be thin.

What underpins our desire to be that little bit thinner? Obesity is a relatively new thing, but a woman being frustrated with her weight is a borderline biblical cliché. Fight as I might to be non-conformist, of course I am part of this club too.

I did find this old journal entry though, and it’’s helpful after a few days of being inundated with glossy images and instructions to embrace the good ol’ New Years Resolutions (again).
I wrote this while I was in Uganda on a wild life photography trip with my husband.
Birds, like people, cannot always be classified by a series of typical characteristics. For every set of nose, eyes, lips, and hair there will always be exceptions to “rules” of normalcy. I’’m thinking right now about chickens that fly, pigeons that are a mix between British racing and bright yellow, and birds that have mouths like frogs (yep, they all exist. I swear).

Among the more indelible memories of “atypical people,” I’’d probably include the troop of drop dead beautiful Thai dancers who wore Brazilian Samba costumes, with whom I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon last year in Brighton. Their China doll features, geisha sized feet, and breathy air kisses weren’t the most prominent or surprising characteristic; delicate beauty is kind of a prerequisite among professional dancers, honed ever the more by years of grueling training.

…That they were all men, did however, make me pause for a brief second.

If you can multiply the degree of shock/curiosity I had trying to understand the logistics behind how certain body parts would fit into Samba underpants – by about fifty – you will understand the shock I experienced when we embarked along the banks of a Ugandan swamp looking for what I thought was a “bird”, and what we found was a Shoebill.

Upon arriving at the destination to find the Shoebill (Mabamba Swamp), we swiftly got out of the land rovers, and studied each of the wooden canoe rowboats that were docked on the sandy, dirty, little port. With some requisite boat and seat switching, we pushed off the sandy shore and embarked on our way to find the remaining living creature from the Garden of Earthly Delights.

The taxonomic origins of the shoebill, like the waters it dwells in, are murky. Somewhere between a stork, pelican, with the grey blue feathers of a heron; this enormous grey bird has been a mysterious creature for nature lovers and hunters alike. Unfortunately, the latter group in addition to the threats posed to its habitat, have reduced its population to about 6000 birds. The shoebill is carnivorous, feeding on small frogs and baby crocodiles. Touching the gunwales of the plywood raft we were sailing in began to make me a little nervous. When confronted by a crocodile, the boat would be sacrificed, which is to say nothing of those of us inside.
Circumstance did not permit me to worry about boat issues for too long – frenzy ensued when four out of the group of 12 ornithologists saw the Shoebill for the first time meanwhile trying to balance the Tipsy Canoes, and maximize their photographic opportunities. The bird stood forty feet away from us; its gangly, gray, 1.25 m bird body above the reeds of the marsh.

The first surprise is not that the bird would be the same height as my ribcage, but rather its enormous non-bird-like head. It is also called a “whale head”, which for me is surprising given that the thing at the end of its face really does look like a shoe. Aladdin’’s slipper turned upside down and backwards gives a nice idea of how the shoebill face looks. The bill is widest in the middle, but goes towards a point at the tip. The body is as equally surprising as the shoey face: a humpy dumpty body of about 7 kg sits upon two twiggy legs. The feathers are surprisingly beautiful, the soft grey adds a subtly to the shocking face, and the wingspan is over 2.5 meters.
Put all together, you have one of the most intriguing species of animal (I’’m including mammals here, too) that exist.

The shoebill stuck around for a short time, and we studied it mouths agape, as long as she would allow us. All of a sudden (maybe she was hungry, bored, or not in an entertaining mood), she cocked her head, stretched her wings, and took off. The twiglet limbs were tucked in, and the boundless wings lifted the bird on to greener pastures. Our heads dangled almost touching our backs and we watched the bird away until she became a speck on the bright blue skyline.

We turned the boats back, and began to cruise back into the camp. We saw a few kingfishers, which are immediately engaging. They are what you might call ‘cute’. The Kingfisher is compact and colorful, and in a group of bright green reeds it’s amazing how easy it is to find this friendly little bird with its sharply colored beak, and Crayola feathers.

The kingfisher, though, is not the shoebill. For some reason, for all of it’s complete weirdness, the glamour of the shoebill will trump the kingfisher any day. The Shoebill is rare, it is interesting in spite of all of its imperfections. In fact, the imperfections are what make it so excellent.

Thinking about this back at the camp, I can’’t help think of the ways that changing a species’ adaptive characteristics to improve their “aesthetic appeal”, really has on the overall picture:
Would changing the Aladdin slipper for something sharper result in a more beautiful shoebill?
Would adding color to the feathers make it more intriguing?
Would contorting the body, so it was thinner and finer around the middle, and not quite so humpy dumpty make it nicer to look at?

Our ability to change ourselves to be “more feminine” has evolved to a point such that men can convincingly present themselves as women. I would wager that there are actually relatively few men who genuinely want to dress in Brazilian Samba tutus (or can pull it off effectively!). However, my male dancing friends embodied the very ideal of “femininity” that many young girls have today: colorful, petite, with very little extra flesh except maybe around the chest…

Have we smoothed out our own Aladdin slippers to the point where they are unrecognizable? Or at least, have we bought into an ideal that is so easily replicated that we are making ourselves redundant?

If being attractive becomes so easily mass-produced that anyone can achieve it (including the opposite sex), for how long will it be useful? When I hear the rant about the cruelty of the media I always think about the Brazilian dancers and the Shoebill.

I imagine a Shoebill whining to a Kingfisher about the hypocrisy of society, how she would love to know how to be thin or have a thinner waist, how sick of her soft gray (not bright green) feathers, and how nice it would be if tourists took as many pictures of larger birds as they do of the Kingfisher.
…But then, that’s just me being stupid, right? Itˊs far more complicated than this, surely…?
Maybe not.

3 responses on “Shoebills and Brazillian Dancers

  1. Jimmy Moore says:

    Hey Dr. Yúfera-Leitch,
    I saw that you created this new blog on the Nutrition & Metabolism Society LinkedIn Groups page today and wanted to invite you to come on my “Livinˊ La Vida Low-Carb Show” podcast (http://www.thelivinlowcarbshow.com/shownotes) to talk about the work you are doing. E-mail me if you are interested.

  2. Cornelia says:

    The gienus store called, theyˊre running out of you.

  3. Lorraine says:

    Your anwser was just what I needed. Itˊs made my day!

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