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Body image studio gives women royal treatment



Published: Sat, August 6, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



LuAnn Pierce's studio will offer happy hour refreshments, foot baths and massages.

KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- There's Demeter, goddess of the harvest. There's Artemis, goddess of the hunt. There's Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty.

And then there's LuAnn, goddess of happy hour.

LuAnn Pierce's new Grand Goddess Body Image Studio -- where a unique, pamper-yourself happy hour started in June -- reflects her own hegira through places that were not happy at all.

There was the intestinal-bypass surgery that left her so malnourished it had to be reversed. (She lost enough weight to equal about three Lindsay Lohans, then gained it all back.) Later, she tried fen-phen, the diet drug combination since withdrawn from the market. That worked just fine until she developed congestive heart failure.

At 46, she has decided the way to be her best self is to concentrate on health, serenity and self-acceptance, not on looking skinny in ridiculously expensive jeans. She thinks that could be a good approach for other women, too.

"What we are really trying to do here is help women who are not successful at traditional dieting -- help them feel more comfortable in their own skin and be more healthy without making themselves crazy," Pierce said.

'Lovely little respite'

Thus her studio's motto: "Put yourself on a pedestal."

"The idea for the studio was born from my own desire to take better care of myself," Pierce said.

That's also the theme of the after-work happy hour in the studio. It is meant to be a lovely little respite for women in between their paying jobs and the "second shift" they pull on the home front.

The cozy studio is in a house with hardwood floors, whimsical decorations and fun artwork on the walls. For a $25 cover charge, women can lounge about, have refreshments, read or do gentle stretching or breathing exercises. Foot baths and 20-minute chair massages are available.

Happy hour runs Monday through Friday (reservations advised). Other days offer yoga and crafts classes, massages and discussion groups.

Women who struggle with their weight tend to be do-gooders prone to catering to everyone but themselves, said Pierce, a social worker by training.

"Compulsive overeaters often are women who have gotten in the habit of ignoring their own bodies, their own selves, in the process of helping other people," she said.

Rocky start

That seems to describe the goddess of happy hour.

Pierce was the oldest of four children, growing up in the small town of Camden, Tennessee. Early on, she did not take to baby food. Her 18-year-old mother kept her content with a diet of ice cream, milk and scrambled eggs.

"I looked like I was about to explode by the time I was 3 years old," Pierce said.

That's an exaggeration. But family photos show her as a hefty baby, a chubby toddler and a zaftig high-schooler who had lots of friends but no boyfriend. She carried 250 pounds on her 5-foot-6 frame. She jokes that if she hadn't been a tomboy who played every neighborhood sport, she might have been even heavier.

"If we'd had video games and computer games back then, there's no telling what I would have looked like," she said.

Pierce said her propensity for caregiving developed early. When she was 2, her brother was born prematurely. It was emphasized to little LuAnn that helping to take care of him was of the utmost importance. Long before she got into social work, she said, she was the type of person to whom everyone told her troubles.

Almost as early as the weight problems came the search for weight solutions.

"My mother took me for my first diet pills when I was 8 years old," said Pierce, who later would continue that trend by trying just about every diet plan out there.

Serious surgery

At age 19, she had 20 feet of her intestines disconnected in an early version of bypass surgery.

She lost half of her body weight in one year. Yet a period of depression led to other problems, including use of drugs and alcohol, an unsuccessful marriage and involvement in a religious fringe group.

"In my head, I was always LuAnn the fat person," she said.

She developed nutrient deficiencies that could not be resolved by taking extra vitamins and minerals. She had no energy. In 1985, she had the surgery reversed.

"Within six months, I was right back where I had been" as far as her weight goes.

Having moved to Columbia, she did start to experience career success. A class in psychology at Midlands Technical College led to a master's in social work and a series of fulfilling -- if stressful -- jobs working with children.

She reached a low point for her health when her experience with fen-phen (fenfluramine and phentermine) put her in the hospital with heart and lung problems. But as she worked her way back to health, she also discovered some tools and truths that changed her approach to living.

Health improvement

She discovered the stress-relieving practice of yoga, for example, and she found an exercise she enjoyed -- swimming. She worked with a personal coach who urged her to concentrate on improving her health, rather than dieting. She says some of her size 18 clothes have gotten looser, but don't ask whether she has dropped pounds. She has stopped weighing herself.

Amanda Kemmerlin, one of three massage therapists working at the Grand Goddess, said she was another example of an approach that stresses health over conventional dieting.

Kemmerlin, 25, said she became much more health conscious as she studied massage and learned more about nutrition and fitness. Without doing anything radical, she lost weight -- from 320 to 223 pounds. At 5-foot-71/2, she still has a body mass index that classifies her as obese.

"One of my instructors told me, 'You probably will have a hard time getting a job because of your stomach, because of your weight,"' Kemmerlin said.

And she did. Regardless of her skills, she said, settings such as spas wanted their massage therapists svelte. When Pierce was willing to give her a chance, "I knew this was where I wanted to be," Kemmerlin said.

Common mistake

Pierce feels the biggest mistake women make is comparing themselves to others.

"Regardless of your size, you can be more fit than you were yesterday," she said.

That brings us to a somewhat controversial area, the "fat but fit" concept espoused by some health and fitness advocates and viewed skeptically by others.

"It's definitely true that if you're overweight, you're better off being an overweight person who exercises regularly," said Patrick O'Neil, a psychologist and director of the Weight Management Center at the Medical University of South Carolina.

But you're far better off at the weight recommended for your height, he said. For example, physical activity may lessen your risk for some obesity-related ailments, such as hypertension and diabetes, but your joints still suffer from lugging around all those extra pounds.

Pierce acknowledges this. However, she says developing "self-care skills" such as stress reduction can enhance women's overall health.

"Stress is a major cause of health problems, including weight problems," she said.

Pierce still does social work two days a week, and her success at that has helped finance her new venture.

"This is going to be my new career," she said.

The startup phase of a business is notoriously stressful in itself. But after years of involvement in difficult decisions about troubled children, Pierce is looking forward to taking massage appointments, arranging refreshments and checking the temperature of the foot bath:

"It sounds like heaven to me."




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