Wednesday, January 29, 2014

No Excuses, No Masks


While we're looking back at 2013, let's talk about Maria Kang. You remember the fitness trainer and mother who ruffled our feathers with that photo of herself wearing skimpy workout attire and posing with her three young sons beneath the caption "What's your excuse?" While some applauded Kang for telling it straight, others accused her of fat shaming.

This is not Maria Kang.
A number of bloggers responded to Kang's challenge head on, enumerating their excuses for not looking like her. The Militant Baker fired back: "My excuse is that I am one of the 95% of women who were not born into the body represented in American media." The Tatted Mom wrote: "I used the time after my kids were born to enjoy my children." And from the Body Pacifist: "What's my excuse for not looking like Maria Kang? I look like me." (Note to readers: Hit me with suggestions for a vaguely superheroic blogger name.)

This is not Lucille Ball.
Some excuses were sobering (cancer, fibromyalgia), some humorous ("I love eating cookies…in bed"). Some used logical appeals ("I've had the perfect body and it's not all it's cracked up to be"), some poetic ("I don't work out. I lift my kids. | So I have biceps, but not a flat tummy.") But my question is this: Why do we think we need excuses? Other bloggers have raised this question—and then, in many cases, proceeded to offer Ms. Kang their excuses. Kang's photo struck a nerve because so many of us feel that, like Lucy, we've got some 'splainin' to do. Fat shaming is oppressive because, collectively, we've agreed to be ashamed.

Fat shaming is a new name for the old practice of condemning people whose bodies we deem overweight. Turning body size into a moral issue helps us justify prejudice and discrimination. It shifts our focus from public health (e.g., making whole foods as accessible as processed) to individual culpability (e.g., gaining weight when we buy what the food industry feeds us). It conflates thinness with health. And it's more likely to promote weight gain than weight loss. A study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that ads with captions like "Fat Kids Become Fat Adults" actually deterred engagement in healthy behaviors by eroding self-confidence. Another study found that instead of motivating us to lose weight, weight discrimination increases our risk for obesity.

Here's the thing, though. Shamers gonna shame. Yes, we should stand against bullying and unfair treatment. But if we wait for Maria Kang and her ilk to let us off the hook, we'll be making excuses until we die. Freedom from shame begins with admitting we're human, broken but beautiful. I love how Leonard Cohen expresses this in the song "Anthem":

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

(If you like Cohen's song, take a listen to the cover by Canadian folk trio The Once, on their self-titled debut album.)

I was astonished by the light that got in when I stopped masking my brokenness.* When I dropped my pretensions of perfection and sought treatment for bulimia—accepting both my own responsibility and the help of others—food and body woes no longer dominated my thoughts. If you'd told my younger self that I could live an entire day without a single negative body thought—let alone days on end—I'd never have believed you.

Now, when I find myself exercising less than I'd like, I can evaluate the reasons and make adjustments without shame. In my humanity, I occasionally use food to fill emotional needs. I'm not excusing or endorsing this behavior. But I'm not ashamed. Emotional eating signals a deeper issue I need to address, and I respect myself enough to excavate the real issue. In the meantime, living without shame means resuming healthier eating without recrimination.

If I were to offer a Kang-like challenge, it would be this: "What's your mask?" Take it off! Stop accepting shame as a way of life. And then, having safely removed your own mask, help your kids shed theirs too. To get started, read my interview with author Dara Chadwick on helping our daughters overcome body shame. And arm yourself with this article by Dawn Friedman for more evidence that a blame-and-shame response to obesity does more harm than good.

UPDATE: It turns out there's a Facebook group called Don't Need an Excuse, founded by blogger Darlena Cunha, that responds to the Kang brouhaha with images celebrating a diversity of body types and aspirations. My post today echoes a Huffington Post article by Elizabeth Hawksworth, where I learned about the Don't Need an Excuse project.

*I wouldn't be telling the whole story if I didn't acknowledge the role of my faith in overcoming shame. My belief in a Creator who gives me grace empowers me to extend grace to myself and others. Here are some more lyrics I love, from the 34th Psalm:

I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me.
He freed me from all my fears.
Those who look to him for help will be radiant with joy;
No shadow of shame will darken their faces.

Friday, January 24, 2014

We Are Not Royalz

Prominent among the top stories of 2013 was Kate Middleton's pregnancy and the birth of the royal baby. If you weren't familiar with the term "baby bump" before 2013, you can hardly have avoided initiation through the royal "bump watch" that occupied the first half of the year. News outlets on both sides of the pond went into hysterics when the Duchess started showing. Enthusiasm quickly gave way to concern over the petiteness of Kate's belly and a media-hyped Bump War between Kate Middleton and Kim Kardashian.

Scrutiny on Kate's midsection didn't end with Prince George's birth. Photos of the royal couple leaving the hospital with their new baby prompted criticism of the Duchess's still visible bump, along with heated discussion of how a postpartum body should look. (The gossip rags are back on bump watch this month, with speculation that Kate is pregnant again.)

I've written previously about our infantile fascination with celebrities' pregnant bellies. What's interesting about the Kate Middleton stories is how they focus both our preoccupation with celebrity pregnancy and our obsession with royalty onto one woman's body.

Tom Sykes, editor of the Daily Beast's blog The Royalist, believes Americans are fascinated with the British royals because "they encompass all the best elements of a reality show, a fairy tale, and a historical novel in one ultra-famous family." We watch the royals as we would a soap opera, this line of thinking goes, fully aware we're watching a fantasy.

So what's wrong with a bit of regal entertainment? Peggy Orenstein addresses the same question in the book Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture. "To call princesses a 'trend' among girls is like calling Harry Potter a book," Orenstein wrote in a New York Times article preceding her book. When the article was published in 2006, the Disney princess line alone was generating $3 billion in annual sales.

Princess play becomes a problem, Orenstein argues, when it is "the only narrative or fantasy girls have access to or are indulging in." A Disney executive told Orenstein that princess merchandise is specifically designed to help girls project themselves onto the princess characters. Our daughters might not aspire to become actual princesses, but through projection they become Disney princess-like: slender sopranos sweet enough to attract woodland animals to perch on their shoulders as they sing about the day their prince will come.

We're still projecting ourselves onto royalty even after the prince has arrived and an heir to the throne is in utero. Like our daughters, we know we'll never be royals, but we identify with Kate through pregnancy and childbirth. The media encourages such identification, comparing readers to Kate in articles about morning sickness, pregnancy weight, and postpartum hair woes. Since Kate's arrival in the public eye, stories about her have frequently mentioned her down-to-earth lifestyle and demeanor.

If Kate is no different from us commoners, then we too should have a yummy mummy tummy a few months after giving birth. Women's media perpetuates this reasoning and offers products and services to get us back on track. But it's not just that we should look more like Kate. When we compare ourselves to royalty, we start to think we deserve to live like royals.

This is what bugs Peggy Orenstein about what she calls the Princess Industrial Complex. On her blog, Orenstein writes:

Today's princess is not about romance: It's more about entitlement. I call it "girlz power" because when you see that "z" (as in Bratz, Moxie Girlz, Ty Girlz, Disney Girlz) you know you've got trouble. Girlz power sells self-absorption as the equivalent of self-confidence and tells girls that female empowerment, identity, independence should be expressed through narcissism and commercialism.

"Selling self-absorption as the equivalent of self-confidence" could be the tagline for women's media, which swaps animated princesses for real-life royalty and a reigning court of celebrities—"royalz," if you will.

Let's stop buying the lie that self-confidence comes from dressing like Kate Middleton or shopping like celebrity moms. Let's question marketers who tell us we and our children deserve royal treatment obtained through consumerism.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

My Beef with Baby Bumps: It's What's Inside That Matters


We expect celebrity awards shows to focus on style over substance (as lampooned in The Onion's hilarious report on mandatory Golden Globe uniforms), but this year's Golden Globe coverage added a new wrinkle to red carpet reductionism. The top story in my newsfeed during and after the ceremony was a side-by-side photo comparison of pregnant actresses Drew Barrymore, Olivia Wilde, and Kerry Washington.
Credit: Steve Granitz/WireImage.com; Jason Merritt/Getty; George Pimentel/WireImage.com


This is far from the first time a mother-to-be has walked the red carpet. Natalie Portman, Kristen Bell, and Jane Krakowski are among the stars who have attended the Golden Globes while pregnant in recent years. But the presence of three expectant mothers among this year's headliners had fashion writers all agog, like a classroom of first graders with a pregnant teacher. Commenters raved about Barrymore's "bold" pink and red floral gown, Wilde's "body-hugging" green sequined gown, and Washington's "sophisticated" ivory gown (and "baby-on-board boobs"), noting how each dress showed off its wearer's "bump."

I am all for clothing that helps pregnant women feel fashionable instead of frumpy. And celebrating a pregnant woman is preferable to hiding her from the public eye, as if she'd committed an unspeakable act. (The very word "pregnant" was taboo as recently as the 1950s.) What bothers me about these stories is how they dehumanize not just the actresses—by dissecting their bodies and defining them by their pregnancies—but also their babies.

Call me a curmudgeon, but the term "baby bump" brings out my inner Julia Sugarbaker. Why are we okay with treating our children like objects before they're even born? A baby is not—as nearly every story about Barrymore, Washington, and Wilde would have you believe—an "accessory." Bringing a child into the world should be more than—as the International Business Times puts it—"a big fashion trend in Hollywood these days." (And by the way, how does Olivia Wilde's pregnant belly qualify as international business news?)

Treating our children as accessories doesn't end at birth. Baby bumps exist alongside attention-grabbing baby names and child beauty pageants and the Octomom. Even if we don't parade our children around like reality show offspring, our culture starts objectifying them before they can speak for themselves. Girls especially are subject to sexual objectification from a distressingly young age. (See Peggy Orenstein's blog and the website Objectification of Children.)

Extreme examples aside, accessorizing with our children sometimes looks like caring for them. What parent isn't tempted to "make decisions motivated less to help their children fulfill their own individual aspirations and develop into their own people, than to promote conformity to parentally defined notions of success," as feminist blogger Jolene Tan wrote in a post about objectification? The problem here is not the specific decision—enrollment in a particular school, for example, or participation in a particular activity—but the motivation behind it. Like Golden Globes coverage, we've lost track when we're concerned with appearance more than actions, with accolades more than meaningful accomplishments.

Our preoccupation with "parentally defined notions of success" teaches children that external assessment determines their value. Measuring ourselves against other women—their pregnant and postpartum bodies, their parenting choices, their domestic and career accomplishments—becomes measuring our children against other children, and soon our kids are drawing their own comparisons.

This humbles me because, while I have some idea how to help my kids combat cultural assaults on their sense of worth, I fear sometimes I am the one waging the assault. Avoiding this, I think, requires routine examination of my own motives and exploration of what motivates my kids. It requires less "bump-gazing" concern with how my children make me look and more concern with how they look at the world and their place within it.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

New Year's Revolution

Ah, January: The time when marketers, who've spent the past three months enticing us to overspend and overindulge, exhort us to slim down and simplify. To reduce debt accumulated on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, we're sold personal finance courses and budgeting software. To organize the holiday gifts we've accumulated, we're sold closet systems and Rubbermaid bins. To compensate for the Halloween candy and Thanksgiving stuffing and Christmas cookies, we're sold diet products and gym memberships.

Year after year, weight loss is Americans' most common New Year's resolution. Women in particular are barraged with "New Year, New You" weight loss advice. Consider the January 2014 cover lines of popular women's magazines: "15 Ways to Lose 15 Pounds" (Glamour), "Drop 5 pounds fast and keep going" (Redbook), "Shed Two Sizes! A Breakthrough Weight-Loss and Fitness Plan" (Women's Health), "'I Lost 172 Pounds.' Brooke's New Year's Diet" (Woman's Day), and "The Real Secret to Long-Term Weight Loss" (Ladies' Home Journal).

This year, instead of buying into the resolution industry, let's be revolutionary. Let's resolve to change our attitudes about women's bodies, for ourselves and for our daughters.

Revolutionary Resolutions
  1. Stop negative body talk. Eating disorder experts Nancy Logue and Jill Schaffer define negative body talk as the expression of critical judgments about natural body diversity. Such "talk" is not limited to speech but also includes harsh thoughts about ourselves and others. Critical words and thoughts reinforce body dissatisfaction and contribute to unhealthy eating behaviors. As mothers, engaging in negative body talk affects our children as well as ourselves. Make a resolution to counter these effects by taking Logue and Schaffer's Stop Bad Body Talk challenge at changethemessage.com.
  2. Curb comments about women's appearance altogether. Even compliments can have a negative effect by valuing a woman's looks above her actions or accomplishments. Author Lisa Bloom, who wrote the much-shared Huffington Post article "How to Talk to Little Girls," urges readers to resist commenting on girls' physical appearance, even when our impulse is "to tell them how darn cute/pretty/beautiful/well-dressed/well-manicured/well-coiffed they are." Instead, Bloom encourages us to talk with girls about their thoughts and ideas. Even preschool girls can discuss a book someone has read to them, a place they've visited, or a phenomenon they've observed in nature. Bloom's advice can apply to adult conversation as well. We all appreciate genuine compliments about our appearance, but why not make a conscious effort to talk more often about women's insights and abilities?
  3. Instead of dieting to lose weight, try a media diet. Multiple studies show that exposure to idealized images of women tends to increase body dissatisfaction and unhealthy eating behaviors. Reducing media consumption is a good idea for many reasons, not the least of which is the recovery of time that can be put to better use. When we do indulge in media, an analytical approach promotes greater well-being. Healthy women know the origins and ingredients of the media they consume, just as they know about the food they eat. We can't avoid idealized images of women, but we can dampen their effect by understanding why they exist (e.g., to manufacture discontent) and how they are produced (e.g., through intensive fitness and beauty regimens and extensive airbrushing). Jean Kilbourne's website is a good starting point for deconstructing images of women in the media.
  4. Get in the picture. Writer Allison Tate struck a chord when she urged mothers in another Huffington Post article to stop avoiding the camera. Though we might feel "awkward and tired and rumpled," Tate wrote, "we really need to make an effort to get in the picture. Our sons need to see how young and beautiful and human their mamas were. Our daughters need to see us vulnerable and open and just being ourselves—women, mamas, people living lives." If you avoid being photographed, resolve to change that this year. Perhaps start by replacing that picture of your kids or your pet with a photo of yourself for your Facebook profile. Because you're beautiful.
  5. Respect your body here and now. When we respect the bodies we have instead of fetishizing the bodies we want, eating and exercise behaviors are about self-care instead of self-loathing. Respecting our bodies as they are today means feeding ourselves nourishing and satisfying foods, not depriving ourselves to change our shapes. It means taking time to find and prepare food that sustains us, not scarfing down stuff that depletes us. Respecting the bodies we have means moving them with both gentleness and vigor, not submitting them to punitive workouts or shying away from exercise because we don't like how we look in yoga pants.
What about you? How will you love your body in 2014?