Tuesdays 2 Think: Jana

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.

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25 responses to “Tuesdays 2 Think: Jana

  1. kelly @kellynaturally February 1, 2011 at 8:32 am

    I agree we need to worry less about how our body looks, and think more about what we’re putting into our bodies, why, and how it affects the planet.
    What I don’t agree with is the negative connotations of vegetarianism.
    I’ve been a 20+ year vegetarian. It is quite simply a healthier, more compassionate, and more conscious way to eat.
    Companies tend to target who their market is & frankly, more women ARE vegetarians (not because they are told to be but) because women are more likely to be more healthful, more compassionate, more concerned with the earth than their male counterparts. We are mothers, and caretakers. A vegetarian diet dovetails into that role. And being a vegetarian doesn’t mean you need to eat anything “marketed” – fruits & veggies don’t come in a box with advertising on them. 🙂 You don’t need to play into any marketing that makes you feel uncomfortable.

    We SHOULD be positive about our bodies, what we eat, and why, and teach our children the same.
    Of course, my persepective is one of a 30 something who has never had weight or body issues or an eating disorder – so maybe my experience is different than the majority of women. I don’t know. But I truly don’t see a thing wrong with eating natural, real food that comes from the earth, without causing pain and suffering to living creatures, and teaching my children to do the same. It isn’t about body image or marketing for me.

    • janatig February 1, 2011 at 9:12 am

      Kelly, I think that’s a really good point, one that I don’t articulate very well here. I love the aspects of vegetarianism/locovorism/organic eating that is outwardly focused, working to enact social change. Absolutely. I think a lot of that helps support the idea of “changing the world” that I think women should be focused on instead of just, you know, “changing your body.” Good point.

    • Perpetua February 1, 2011 at 10:09 am

      I think there’s a difference between the individual vegetarian’s beliefs/values and vegetarianism as a marketing scheme. There is certainly an angle of animal rights advertising, for example, that emphasizes the connection between a vegetarian diet and a “desirable” body. Just think of the PETA “Save the Whales” campaign, for example.

      • Jennifer B February 1, 2011 at 12:53 pm

        Immediately after I finished reading this post, I ran across PETA’s rejected Super Bowl ad on Jezebel: http://jezebel.com/5748977/peta-finds-a-new-way-to-show-women-fellating-vegetables

        This definitely illustrates the hurtful messages that our society has managed to attach to vegetarianism – I don’t know how it could get much more blatant than women in swimsuits pretending to have sex with vegetables. Way to go, PETA, for making vegetarianism entirely body-centric and completely disregarding other motives such as social change.

      • janatig February 1, 2011 at 1:07 pm

        OH MY WORD. That ad is RIDICULOUS. I have no words.

      • kelly @kellynaturally February 1, 2011 at 4:28 pm

        I don’t think PETA is a good example of… well, anything other than extremism; bordering in some cases, on terrorism (I think of throwing blood on unsuspecting people in fur coats). It’s unfortunate that it is so aligned with vegetarianism because it really hurts the case for eating a meatless diet as a valid way to be HEALTHIER.

      • janatig February 1, 2011 at 7:51 pm

        Oh, yeah. Thinking PETA = vegetarianism is as misguided as thinking Westboro Baptist = mainstream Protestantism. I know SOME people make the mistake but hopefully not all.

      • Perpetua February 3, 2011 at 6:23 am

        Agreed, PETA definitely doesn’t equal vegetarian. They are the public face of animal rights, though, and they do a lot to control the public conversation on vegetarian diets and body image (ack, how are we all forgetting Go Naked? PETA = JERKS).

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  3. Perpetua February 1, 2011 at 10:13 am

    Jana, I never would have guessed you had a history of disordered eating. Even though it affects a great many of it, it’s brave every time someone steps out and says “me, too.”

    Your doing an awesome job with C–modeling healthy eating, but emphasizing health, and strength, and power, all of which are meant to support/fulfill the self, not another’s image of what that self should be.

    Thank you for sharing this, and thanks to K for hosting this series. 🙂

  4. Jennifer V. February 1, 2011 at 3:45 pm

    Thanks for sharing this, Jana. Sounds like you’re showing Charlotte the right kind of relationship to have with food–that’s awesome. Also, the end of your post reminded me of Dorothy L. Sayer’s essay “Are Women Human?”. For those who haven’t read it, she argues that human motivations ought to be attributable to women first, and their femaleness considered as a motivation for action only where relevant. You know, she directed this essay at others who portray women (like the newspapers), but perhaps it is even more relevant for women themselves to keep in mind: focus on the human motivation (such as eating healthy foods to make us strong–like you mentioned in your post) and only allow the gender specific motivation when necessary. Easier said than done, I realize.

  5. amoment2think February 1, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    So I was Stumbling today and found this relevant article: http://nonprofity.com/?p=1117

    Very interesting. I have always kinda liked the Dove marketing… but the article makes a very good point about how it is connected via its parent company Unilever to a lot of unhealthy body image marketing.

    • clara February 1, 2011 at 4:50 pm

      Oh Dove. I don’t care how awesomely fat your models are, they’re still being used to sell me things that you think I should use to make me less ugly. Like smoothing cream (cause I’m all rough and crusty) and anti-age goop ’cause OMG I might get a wrinkle and everyone will hate me. Sod off, Dove.

  6. clara February 1, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    Wow. So so well put. I love this.

    I … sound like a spammer. I know.

    But really, I agree 100%. We are better. We can teach our kids better. (And “single fowl approach” made me laugh.)

  7. explorationstation February 2, 2011 at 5:06 am

    Jana, I have struggled with eating disorders and body image issues for years; when I was younger, it got so bad I was nearly hospitalized. In high school, I had a little booklet that my nutritionist gave me with a weight-watchers-like point system in it. I literally carried it around everywhere with me. I get so frustrated with myself sometimes, because even though I consider myself as “recovered” or “recovering” as I’m going to get, I still obsess about my body, and my intellect and energy could be going toward better things. I hate the fact that my most inwardly-focused tendencies are so negative, and it has taken me years (and several major life-altering struggles with eating disorders and alcoholism) to have what I consider a moderately healthy lifestyle. The thought patterns are a lot harder, and I think that’s where talking about our bodies come in. Whether it’s compliment-fishing or genuine venting, it’s not that we shouldn’t talk about bodies; they shouldn’t be our scapegoat, our punching bag, a place to focus our negative energy. What bothers me more than anything is hearing other people evaluate bodies, whether they belong to celebrities, mutual acquaintances, or people on the street. I can’t stand hearing males go unchallenged in deciding it is their place to size up a woman based on her body, and I really can’t stand hearing other women join in. I also wish women and strength (i.e., muscle) were held up as a little more of a model, rather than “I look starving” . . . I could go on for hours. I’m glad you wrote this post, and I’m glad you’re bringing up your daughter with “healthy” in mind. My first word was “pretty,” and for some reason no one ever finds this quite as disturbing as I do. Maybe because they don’t know the rest of the story.

    • janatig February 4, 2011 at 6:39 pm

      I am so glad you commented, because I think that the more women I meet and talk to, the more I find out how pervasive eating disorders, negative body image, and self-criticizing behavior is rampant. And that sucks. You are better than that. We all are. And I too struggle every day with not internalizing that shitty little critical voice…I guess after 20 years I sort of expect it to never go away. But the more you fill your radar and life with positive voices, the harder it is to hear that nasty little voice telling you you’re not good enough. So fill your life with those good voices, with uplifting friends, with positive people.

  8. Nadia February 2, 2011 at 8:58 pm

    Oh God, this post is like opening a can of worms LOL there are so many possible comments related to one single line “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.”

    I started to think about this a year a go, and of course, my mind went to so many directions. I’ll comment them here but with no intention of debate them, these are only my thoughts on a post.

    1. Would men be the reason why women do this? All the “beauty” products are (were until few years ago with all that metrosexual campaigns) marketed for women. “Beauty” products, what, women aren’t already beautiful enough? So, we have to be “beautiful” = wear make up, shave our legs, be in excelent body shape, smell great, dress sexy…and I can go on and on and on

    2. Cruel reality. So, forgeting about point 1 for a second. So many times I heard from ex-boyfirends and current husband (LOL) about “oh, you look so beautiful without make up”, and yes I did!
    Or “I don’t care if women shave or not” and my reaction to that was “really?, I challenge you it is otherwise”. Well, it ALWAYS came to prove how BS their statements are. Oh right, I had no make up, but my partner kept staring at the beautiful woman with shiny lips and perfect eyelashes, yeah right you did not care about make up. Or how I went without shaving my legs for a month just to brake my partner to take back that he did not care about my hurtful legs. So, this just makes me reafirm the theory the reason we pay SO much attention and care to VEIN matters is because men (for some women though). And for a twist, partners can also be as cruel as to “I like women with make up” or “I like women with long hair” and all that as well leads to body image.

    3. So, point 1 was about the media and point 2 about our reality with our partners therefore point 3 is to ourselves. We FOLLOW both points, why? Because deep down we know women won’t stop caring about looking “beautiful” to men eyes. And basically there is always going to be one that is going to work on it. And then all goes back to point 1 again, media. Ahhhhhhh the cycle starts again.

    But yeah, Media should stop marketing how women should look like. If that happened, CSI Miami would have more realistic looking women in their show, Models wouldn’t be size -1 and Katy Perry probably wouldn’t exist in the music industry (boosty lady).

    • kelly @kellynaturally February 3, 2011 at 8:52 am

      Nadia, while I think you make a point, I do want to mention that really, truly, not ALL men care about their female partners wearing makeup or shaving their legs or having long hair. My partner really, truly doesn’t have a preference ON ME about those issues (truthfully, I imagine if I caked on the makeup and spent hours coiffing my hair he’d wonder what was up). If I am comfortable, he is, and he thinks I am beautiful, regardless.

      So what if he looks at a woman with perfect makeup, shaven legs, and long flowing locks out in public? We ALL look at beautiful people – it’s in our nature to do so; but it shouldn’t have anything to do with your OWN self-worth. If you are happy in your own skin, it will shine through & make you beautiful – hairy legs & all! 🙂 Of course, if it makes YOU happy to shave your legs or wear make up, then by all means, you SHOULD. But if you’re doing it because someone ELSE (a partner or a magazine) thinks it makes you look “better”, or that’s how you “should” dress/look/maintain your body, then you might want to reconsider why you’re doing what you’re doing!

      • Nadia February 4, 2011 at 5:05 pm

        Kelly,
        That is what I tried to say in point three and “self-esteem” should be an extension of that point for sure. Clearly, people comfortable in their own skin wouldn’t be constantly talking or worry about their body, so I’ll tried to comment from a side of someone who isn’t.

        Jana says “we are better than this”. It is true. We are better than talking constantly or worry too much about our image, but let’s face it not everybody is comfortable in their own skin and not everybody has the same degree of self esteem. There is a lot of cognitive behaviour around us working against some of us to obtain high self esteem in order to be conformable in our own skin. Otherwise, teenagers with eating disorders or people undergoing painful operations would’t exist – for example.

        After being a mom, I worry about my image more than before. Would I regain my shape? How long until that happens? I need a haircut. I need a skin treatment. I need new clothes that fit my new body. On and on. That is what I talk to my firends and trust me, I wish I wouldn’t, but I am not there yet.

        Peace

      • janatig February 4, 2011 at 6:35 pm

        Nadia,
        I think it’s important to note that I don’t really think it’s wrong to talk about our bodies…I realize I’m contradicting myself here. You know, where I said I want to change the very fact that we talk about our bodies? But I think what I really mean is I wish people could talk about their bodies in the sense of “My body is amazing! I am really proud of how strong my arms are!” John Berger, the art critic, says that in the history of art (and advertising), men act while women appear. I am tired of just appearing…I want my body-talk to be about action, about what I (and all the other amazing women I know) can DO with my body.
        Also, the thing about what guys want…what people find attractive is culturally shaped. Men might like a certain kind of physical appearance in part because that’s what they’ve been culturally conditioned to think of as attractive. But even within that cross section of “regular” guys who find that kind of generic Cosmo woman attractive, there is a lot of variation.
        This is in part why I think of my “we’re better than this” movement as being not just for my daughter, but for my son, too. I want both of my children to realize that placing certain physical restraints onto the idea of beauty is restrictive to everyone.
        Okay, I promise to stop stalking this comments section now!
        Thanks again, Kathleen, for giving me this opportunity to post this!

      • amoment2think February 4, 2011 at 7:15 pm

        Jana,

        Please continue to stalk the comment section. I have been meaning to comment on a bunch of comments, but in my strep throat malaise I haven’t… so thanks for taking on that role for me. 🙂

      • janatig February 4, 2011 at 7:32 pm

        I LIED! I’M STILL HERE! Caught me!

        Also, get well soon!

  9. Emily February 9, 2011 at 8:25 am

    I think you should clarify what “mainstream Protestant” means when you say that it is mutually exclusive with gay rights. It really depends on the branch. For example, my denomination, the Lutheran Church, does ordain gays and lesbians in committed relationships in Scandinavia. So does the Episcopal Church. On the other hand, don’t expect the Southern Baptists to do so anytime soon. So the attitude of Protestants towards gay rights isn’t uniform.

    • janatig February 9, 2011 at 1:31 pm

      Oops, sorry, Emily! I guess I didn’t really mean to say that that’s what mainstream Protestant churches do…just that I think that is a common perception of Protestantism in the United States. Just checking…yeah, what I said was “because I’m sure most people think of gay rights advocacy and mainstream Protestantism as pretty mutually exclusive.” Not that it IS that, but that people THINK that. And the post I hope to write sometime soon will try to do a bit to dispel that idea.

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