Hey everyone, today is our second installment of Tuesdays 2 Think. This week up is Jana from TigWeb. And I have to say, I LOVE this post. LOVE. I hope you do too!
(Also, I have a couple more contributors on deck for the next couple installments of Tuesdays 2 Think… I am sticking to running it every two weeks… but I will need more. So if you are interested in sharing what you are passionate about, please send me an e-mail and I will get you set up with a date to go.)
I was all gung-ho to write a post about my involvement with the Reconciling Hearts ministry at my church (First United Methodist Church of Lawrence, KS), which is a gay rights advocacy group. I might still write that post someday (because I’m sure most people think of gay rights advocacy and mainstream Protestantism as pretty mutually exclusive), but something else has been nagging at me lately, something I think fits the qualification of something I am passionate about:
I want to change the way women talk about their bodies. In fact, I want to change the very fact that women talk about their bodies. The way we do, the frequency with which we do, the focus we put on them, etc.
Okay, boring, right? What thinking, contemporary woman doesn’t want this? You might be right, and in fact I hope you are. But I wonder whether we aren’t coming at this topic the wrong way.
First a little personal history by way of stage-dressing. I am 33 years old, and have struggled with some kind of eating disorder (anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, etc.) for 20 years now. Pretty much from the age my body began changing (in my mind an unwelcome insurgency) I began what would be a lifelong fixation.
Lately I have read a few of those new year’s resolution posts about getting one’s health in order, and two in particular stood out. Both Maggie (mightygirl.com) and Danielle (knottyyarn.com/blog) talked about not knowing much about food, about how it works in the body, and how learning about that (for both of them, Weight Watchers was one part of that education) has helped or is helping them get a better handle on their health. Let me say right now that I think that is great.
But: this summer, when I had been ignoring my body for a while and then suddenly woke up to the realty that I had gained 20 pounds and for some reason decided to talk about it with my husband’s family (WHY!?), my mother-in-law innocuously recommended I try Weight Watchers, something she’s used in the past with success. At the time I gave a pretty brusque, dismissive answer, but the real answer is: I don’t need a program to help me count points or measure out food in obsessive numbering systems. I have been doing that, internalizing that, for 20 years now.
My freshman year of college I spent hours on my computer (an old desktop my dad sent to school with me) typing away at a document. I had a stack of books I had taken out of the library that I used as references. What was this magnum opus? Sadly, not a term paper or even a long letter. It was a master document of food nutritional values.
I don’t know what my goal was for this document (like, did I think I would print it out and carry it around? Pull it out of my backpack in the cafeteria and calculate the calories in my deli sandwich [like I would ever eat a deli sandwich, ha, those things have so much fat]?). The final (which was still, in my mind, a work-in-progress…this was 1997 and I knew I hadn’t gotten ALL the foods yet) was 27 single-spaced pages long. I am not kidding when I say I spent hours on this document.
So the last thing I need is a program that flips that switch in my brain again, that starts me thinking about food as a measurable intake substance rather than what it is: fuel. (Again, not dissing WW, just trying to articulate why a program like that is probably not a good idea for a reforming anorexic/bulimic).
Here’s the thing that made me want to write this post. I think that kind of obsessive behavior, that finicky attention to what we eat, what women eat, is really encouraged.
Two and a half years ago, I was having a reunion with my old college roommates. We were out in San Diego, all eight of us (well, nine, as I was six months pregnant with Sam). One day, some of us were driving around looking for a parking spot, and the talk turned to weight gain since college as, I’m sure, it does. And it stayed there. I participated, because I always fall into that trap, that self-belittling, maybe compliment-trolling trap. And my friend Mindi, who is one of the most well-adjusted, least physically obsessed people I know, was pretty quiet. And then, after the conversation had gone on far too long, Mindi interjected: “Guys, can we talk about something else, please? I mean, we’re better than this.”
We’re better than this.
A while back I stumbled upon a link to a blog from a woman who had been vegan for years who eventually went back to being an omnivore after a series of health issues. I read the blog entry with interest, because I dabbled in vegetarianism in my twenties, although I was never really a real vegetarian. As you can imagine, my vegetarianism was just another attempt at controlling what went into my body. And either this blogger or one of her commenters made the point that there is an element of creepy patriarchal control evident in much of the sort of vegan/vegetarian image. What I mean is, a majority of vegans and vegetarians are woman. And a lot of the marketing or products or media created for this group is aimed at women. Well, call me a skeptic, but whenever an industry or group seems to be courting women I have questions about their intentions. This blogger (I’d link but her site is down for maintenance) began to have these questions, too, and turned to the words of Megan Mackin (http://paleosister.wordpress.com/2010/11/07/interview-with-megan-mackin/): “It begins, eventually, to look like a very effective way to co-opt a movement: take the most passionate activist-minded, girls especially, and get their focus on a way of living that drains energies and enforces conformity in others. The Big Boys still run things, but now even more freely – with out much interference.”
YES. That resonated with me, because it seemed to be a theme: take a thinking girl, a smart girl, and get her to focus not on something that could potentially change the world, but on her body? Well, you’ve just signed her up for a lifetime of Sisyphean obsession. Because our bodies will always change and surprise us and react in unexpected ways and not bounce back after that second baby and sag and age. That’s what they do.
When I was applying for graduate school, not one but two good friends, smart, educated friends who happen to be male, made a “joke” asking whether I sent in a photo with my applications.
When I tell that story to people, they usually react in one of two ways: 1. Disbelief and indignation. If you react this way, you are most likely a woman who has been thinking about these issues, about how a woman’s worth is wrapped up in her appearance. 2. Disbelief…that I could be insulted by this obvious compliment! This response comes from men and women, people who really think I should have been, should be, flattered…flattered, I guess, that these guy friends who I thought respected me as a potential academic and a buddy and a kind of fun, funny person wanted to make sure I knew that they thought I was attractive? That my physical appearance was in some way an advantage to me, one that I should use…to get into grad school?
What I think is that there’s this system in place in our society where people think: uh-oh! Woman gettin’ too big for her own britches! Let’s remind her that she’s still attached to her body and that she should be worried about that! Let’s show her a mirror!
I’ve spent two-thirds of my life engaged in this endless battle with myself. And I want to change. I want to get on my own team. Ladies. Gentlemen. Everyone: we’re better than this.
But the problem of changing something that is linguistically, systematically, fundamentally part of our culture seems so enormous and daunting, doesn’t it? So lately I’ve been thinking about this in the framework of Anne Lamott’s advice on writing: take it bird by bird. So my single-fowl approach to this is to change the way I talk about my own body, especially around my kids. Why do I eat a salad every day? Not because I’m trying to lose weight, but because salads are good for my digestive system. They’re full of vitamins, I tell Charlotte, and that will make my body strong. We sit at the table, eating our veggies and flexing. We are strong, we are invincible. We are…people. And we have better things to do than worry about how we look. Watch out, world: we’re better than this.