Our Health, Body, and Morals – Followup

I just want to thank everyone for the overwhleming response to my last post, The Connection Between Health, Our Bodies, and Our Morals. I’m really pleased by the well thought-out, careful, and rational posts by my readers, and I think my followup to the post deserves its own space.

You will be relieved, I’m sure, to discover that Juliet and family are entirely fictional in the technical sense. However, in the cultural sense, Juliet is very much alive in the minds of many women (and men), most of the time symbolized as a goal, and not a cautionary tale.

That’s what makes Juliet fascinating. What we know to be unbalanced and mentally unhealthy behavior is, for many, the “right” way to be. That’s why I put the most reprehensible bit — concerning Juliet’s behavior towards her daughter Alexis — in the context that Juliet and Alexis were requested by their pediatrician to get Alexis’s weight down. A request, I might add, that’s not at all unusual these days, the illogic of which extends all the way up to recommendations put out by major health organizations.

In effect, Juliet was complying with what the majority of pediatricians would consider Alexis’s prescription for good health. She used no inflammatory methods towards encouraging Alexis to lose weight — she didn’t say Alexis was ugly, or tut-tut at her in other ways. She did precisely what she thought a good mother should do — and what millions of other mothers would consider the right thing to do. Follow the doctor’s prescription in an encouraging, yet firm, manner.

Let’s further analyze Juliet’s behavior. Her entire day, from start to finish, was a measure of “successes” and “failures” with respect to how she perceived she should be monitoring herself. We never know if Juliet is fat, inbetweenie, or thin, or if she is trying to lose weight or maintain, or if she’s structuring her day around her perceived health or her body (or both). There are some intimations about Juliet’s body size in that she doesn’t have the “extra” weight her sister has, and that her husband thinks her butt jiggles less than some nameless starlet, but all of that’s rather meaningless without context.

The reason I didn’t bring Juliet’s body size into focus is to illustrate that the morality of her behavior doesn’t change if she’s fat, thin, inbetweenie, doing it for her perceived health, or to look like some ideal, and so forth.

Ultimately, and what has been noticed by the group of very sharp commenters on my previous post, what Juliet’s story illustrates is the danger zone encounters when one separates his/her sense of right and wrong from what is real, whether through ignorance, or willingly.

There are a couple of ways we can think about this:

1. Juliet may have only her doctor’s words to go on and may not have thought any more deeply about size, health, shape, psychology, women, and morality.

2. Juliet may have done research, or have lived life mindfully enough to realize that there are healthy and happy people of all sizes, but either doesn’t think that applies to her specifically, or perhaps even believes that there is a connection between the pursuit of thinness and and goodness. That belief could be encoded in some kind of modified Puritanical ideal of work and sacrifice, or in some other fashion.

Either one is easy to shoot down, if one employs a bit of reason. If Juliet is ignorant as in 1, then it is still her fault if her behavior hurts herself and others. Her behavior might be more understandable but should be no less morally reprehensible. If Juliet is informed as in 2, and still makes the decision to behave as described in the story, then that illustrates that she is irrational. Irrational behavior, that behavior disconnected from reality, can have dire consequences, as shown in the story. Sure, for the moment everything seems to be in sort of a metastable “goodish” phase, but what happens when Alexis really starts internalizing a bigger body size as bad, and is meant to be a bigger girl, or carries that bias through life as a thinner person? What happens when Juliet’s son learns from her husband that wives and women have to look and eat a certain way, but men and husbands can do whatever they please? And so forth.

And that brings me to a bit of an aside — there was a question in the comments whether or not we should judge Juliet’s character at all. Of course we should. And here’s why: even though we don’t have the right to tell Juliet how to live her life, it’s of vital importance that we understand why what she is doing is right or wrong, as we each (rational, informed people), understand it. More important than holding beliefs is knowing why you hold them, and knowing how to parse your world with respect to those beliefs, and how to understand the fallacies of logic which lead people to hold beliefs that are irrational, misinformed, and possibly hurtful.

Since many reading this blog also write and speak about size acceptance, it’s vitally important to be able to understand how someone like Juliet (and many people who have been taught that Juliet is the ideal) believes quite firmly that his/her behavior is good, upright, and moral, and, ultimately, the best way of living. Is it so surprising, then, when the idea of accepting one’s size is so foreign to these people? But the chinks in their armor, so to speak, are the logical fallacies on which their moral value systems (regarding body size) are built.

Calling out people people like Juliet as bad mothers (or fathers), or wacked-out obsessives, won’t get you anywhere actually dealing with someone like Juliet. They have every (fallacious, yet widely-accepted) reason to believe that they are being good parents, and are only being mindful about what goes in (and out) of their bodies. To them, their behavior is, while structured, admirable, simple, and reasonable. They are merely “watching what they eat” and “moving more,” and encouraging their kids to do the same. They believe they have a right to enjoy all the societal privileges of their body. They “earned” it be being “good.”

I know I’m going into a lot of detail here. But the Juliets are our fiercest opposition. They believe they are being morally upstanding (for reasons of health, or aesthetics, or religion, or whatever rationalization du jour) by spending the bulk of every day on their bodies and, most specifically, the attainment of some kind of thin(ner) ideal. It’s likely rooted in very early exposure to the idea that thin-is-better, but that’s another post for another day.

We need to know how to speak to the Juliets in a meaningful way. I’ll pose the following situation.

Suppose you were an old friend of Juliet. You know the family well enough to talk about its intimacies. You meet Juliet for coffee on a Saturday afternoon, and Juliet speaks with you about her week, mentioning her food/exercise successes and pitfalls, and most notably, that the pediatrician suggested Alexis lose weight. Juliet seems very relaxed and happy and in control of her life. How do you bring up size acceptance to her in any meaningful kind of way?

(Disclaimer: that’s not to say you should bring up size acceptance to your non-accepting friends, I’m just postulating a specific scenario)

Advertisements

The Connection Between Health, Our Bodies, and Our Morals

Juliet gets up at 5:15am. She throws on some gym clothes, takes a few sips of orange juice, and fills up her water bottle. She opens the storm door ever-so-softly (as not to wake her still-sleeping husband and two children), and begins her warmup. Five minutes later she’s pounding the pavement; forty-five minutes later, she’s stretching in front of her house.

She wakes the children when she gets in at 6:00am, and jumps in the shower. She gets out in time to help the children pour their low-fat, low-sugar whole-grain cereal and skim milk. Her husband gets up and takes a leisurely shower, and wanders down to find the children finishing their breakfast, and wife chewing on a low-fat energy bar, drinking black half-caf. The children’s lunches and afternoon snack (to be eaten before their afternoon sports) — apple, turkey-on-wheat, veggie sticks for lunch, and peanut butter on wheat crackers for snack — have been packed by mom.

Mom loads the kids on the bus to school, making sure to tell little Alexis that maybe she should try out for junior cross country, because she’s worried about her unhealthily-expanding waistline which the pediatrician made sure to mention at their last visit. She suggests that perhaps Alexis should try to only eat half of her afternoon snack, and drink as much water as she could (and no juice).

Juliet arrives at work right on time, taking the stairs up to her fifth-floor office. At 10:00am she retrieves a non-fat, sugar-free yogurt from the breakroom fridge, and savors it at her desk for the next half-hour, drinking plenty of water. From time to time she stretches her legs under her desk, using a small rubber exercise ball purchased just for that purpose.

At lunch time she is asked to go out to lunch with her boss and a few colleagues, and she agrees. She orders a side salad and cup of low-sodium minestrone soup, then splurges on a half-piece of cake ordered by a male coworker. She thinks about how she will need to do an extra half-hour during her afternoon workout.

She skips her afternoon low-fat, low-sugar energy bar, and instead drinks a cup of black coffee. She picks up the kids from after-school activities, congratulating her daughter when she discovers half the peanut butter crackers remain uneaten. She gets them settled on their homework, and when her husband comes home she takes the opportunity to go for another run. She runs harder than usual, thinking of the cake during lunch.

She showers again, and starts to prepare boneless, skinless chicken breasts for dinner. She takes a few calls from her family, trying to convince her sister that her diabetes is curable if she loses enough weight. “I’m from the same family as you, sis, and I don’t have diabetes — or the extra weight you have, for that matter.” By the time she’s done talking, the vegetables have been steamed and seasoned with a low-sodium all-purpose seasoning. She mashes cauliflower and seasons it, then calls in the family.

Juliet savors every bite of her dinner slowly, fighting back her gnawing hunger. She suggests that Alexis do the same, “You might find you stop being hungry sooner, sweetie!” Her husband adds a few slices of cheese to his vegetables, and some canned gravy to his meat. She disallows this for the children.

There is no dessert in the house, so everyone is eventually tucked into bed with a glass of water. When Alexis says she’s still hungry, Juliet replies, “You only think you’re hungry, sweetie. Just keep sipping on that water, you’ll be fine.” Juliet shuts their lights and leaves their doors open a crack, pleased as she imagines the praise she and her daughter’s reduced waistline will receive at their next visit to the pediatrician.

She joins her husband for their evening movie, cuddling close. Her husband remarks that the lead starlet’s butt can’t hold a candle to hers, and they joke about how the starlet’s behind jiggles in particular scenes. They make separate bowls of popcorn: his regular butter and salt, hers plain with pepper. They fool around before bed, and fall asleep sated.

_____

Now, based on the short description above, choose one of the following. First pick on your gut, your base perceptions that may be greatly influenced by what you were taught growing up, and the current media-saturated culture in which we live. Then pick your real answer, and let me know in the comments what you chose.

Juliet is:

A: Admirable and hard-working, a diligent mother, wife, and sister.

B: Healthy, but could stand to spend more time with her family. But at least she’s trying to make it work for her, and is probably reasonably afraid of diabetes if it runs in her family.

C: Only admirable in the current context of our culture, but is actually morally neutral based on the description.

D: Seems to impose on her daughter way too much. What’s up with that? She shouldn’t be so self-absorbed, projecting her body paranoia on her child.

E: None of the above (enlighten us!)

The Fat-Hate Troll in the Livingroom

I’m writing this in response to a heartbreaking post on RandomQuorum. I was just going to leave a comment, but really, this hits too close to home for me to be able to leave a comment of any kind of reasonable length.

As background, the author of the post is going through a tough time in her marriage. She married long before her discovery of FA and body positivity, when she was still in dieting-mode, at war with her body. Naturally, negative comments from her husband about her weight were, before FA, likely met with agreement and an extra tablespoon of self-loathing and dieting incentive. Now, after FA, she realizes them for what they really are: the words of a troll.

Yesterday she made the first post on the subject of this particular tough spot in her marriage, to which she had several replies, including a real live troll.

I did manage to catch a troll though! And it’s lucky I didn’t find their comment until this morning, because today I find it kind of amusing/ironic, but yesterday it probably would have made me homicidal.

My dear troll Vicky said: [insert inane troll platitudes here]

After which she and her husband sat down and had a talk about what was concerning her (good for you, by the way — it’s best to air your concerns as they come up, or else they would just fester and make you feel worse). In the description of her conversation, she many times compares her husband’s words to the words of the Vicky-troll. I’m not sure if she was intentionally showing how similar they were, but after reading the post I came away with one very clear impression: her husband is The Fat-Hate Troll in the Livingroom.

Us bloggers know how annoying trolls can be. It’s annoying enough when they junk up your spam box, or even ecstatically get a bit of hate through your filters. Sometimes the words of trolls can rankle for a long time after they’re said, in an almost irrationally important way — like the first “Moo!” from a schoolyard bully, or that time mom clucked when you were weighed at the doctor’s. Now imagine the fat-hate troll — the one who really doesn’t care about you as a healthy person and instead wants you to change your body for their shallow, visual/sexual benefit — in your livingroom. Permanently. There, with you always, to waggle their fingers at your — gasp, SECOND Hershey kiss of the day, and it’s only 7pm??! — and then scurry off to post vitriol on My Fatt Spouse (intentionally mispelled. No search candy for you!).

All I have to say is that the author of the post linked above is some kind of brave I never was, when I had to deal with The Fat-Hate Troll in the Livingroom. When my eff-wad ex said I needed to “lose 50 pounds” if he was going to marry me? — I curled up and cried on my side of the bed, then started starving myself (what else could I do to lose weight? I had already dieted myself down to well below my setpoint). When my self-loathing dad’s “Christmas present” one year was to, on Christmas morning, explain to my brother and I how drinking enough water will make us skinny and promptly stuck us on diets (he was starving himself at the time) — I internalized it, realizing what he wanted more than a talented, sweet, generous, loving daughter, was a skinny one. A few years later I got the praise from him that I wanted, when starvation caused my spine to rise out of my flesh, like a mountain range (and not when I had won third place in the debate competition, that is).

The most dangerous fat-hate troll is The Fat-Hate Troll in the Livingroom. There, he can live where all trolls want to be — inside your head, pushing your buttons, getting you to do what they want you to do, all the time. What kind of love would have you abuse your body? If it’s ignorance which drives his call for you to diet, I ask: has he not watched you diet umpteen times before, and fail? Has he not seen what it has done to your mental and physical health? And, if he’s not really concerned with health but instead with looks, isn’t that fact something that should greatly concern you?

Saying that the world treats fatter people more harshly is a coward’s argument (and is what my dad used, when he would flog himself yet again with some new diet). The world ain’t gentle, and it ain’t fair. But cowering in the corner won’t make the world treat you any better, it will just attract the bullies who feed off cowering conformists. Maybe what’s bothering your husband is that you are no longer cowering in the corner, and he feels like he doesn’t have as much control over you as he used to. Back when you were preoccupied with being thinner, he didn’t have to care so much about your character, individuality, and thinking of you as an attractive woman outside the media-condoned box (which can take some real bravery on the part of many men and women alike). All he had to do was crack that whip — unleash a fat-negative comment — and you were back where he wanted you to be, and he didn’t have to do anything at all.

When it comes down to it, I’m so sorry to say, his arguments are completely self-centered. He’s not even pretending to be concerned about your health. And that is something that might be the real flaw, not his fat-hating attitude. He’s asking you to abuse your body so that he can find you more sexually interesting, and can cart you around like a trophy in public (or, at least, not have to feel “ashamed” of you). This is a real problem.This is not something that can be fixed by convincing him fat isn’t bad, or that you can’t be thin. I’m not sure any of that really matters to him. He’s not treating you like you’re his wife — he’s treating you like you’re his favorite shirt. Can’t let it get too faded or misshapen or wrinkled, what will people think?

The idea that he’s already foisting upon you the necessity of losing post-baby weight kills me, and really drives home his objectification of you.

I’m sorry to say, but the author’s husband and Vicky-troll and two sides of the same coin. And yes, marriage is not something you just discard. Not without a fight. And you are fighting, and really trying to make it work. But is he honestly doing the same for you? Is he even trying to understand where you’re coming from? Or is he so afraid that he’s going to lose whatever control he has over you (which is symbolized by his irrational fear that you’re just going to “keep getting fatter” and Eat the World and so forth), that he, like my eff-wad ex or my dad, will do anything to put you back in that place where your self-abuse can stroke their egos, can exonerate them from ever really thinking or caring about you, and can justify their own deep-rooted bigotry?

Not all husbands need to be indoctrinated in FA not to fat-hate. My husband grew up in the same fat-hating culture as everyone else, and his sexual preference is generally not women as fat as I am (and wasn’t before he met me). We found out that’s just because of what he had been exposed to, and in fact he was attracted to me and loved me for who I was, fat or thin. When it comes down to it, this isn’t really about fat. This is about control and objectification. And his desire to control you, and his objectification and de-humanization of you won’t necessarily be changed by him accepting your fat (though for that same reason I doubt, quite honestly, that he ever would accept your fat).

Up in Arms: Judging a First Lady the Wrong Way

Puerto Rico Campaign 2008 Michelle Obama

For Mother’s Day (this past Sunday — hurry and send those belated cards, people!), Sally Quinn of the Washington Post brought the objectification of powerful women to new, dizzying heights: The Nation’s Embracing, and Embraceable, Arms

The laser-like focus on a First Lady’s body is nothing new. First Ladies who are young and conventionally attractive are held up as role models and breathlessly worshiped in conversation and print by members who sympathize with the party of that Lady’s husband; First Ladies who are dowdy, fat, older, or aren’t conventionally attractive are praised more for their programs or character, but tend to fade into the background or turn into fodder for late night talk show hosts (and these days, the comedic evening dailies).

However, the essay by Sally Quinn is, I think, a much more modern creation. Beauty has always been seen as a means to endow the lucky genetic accident with princess-like qualities, but today Healthism has pushed the idea of certain body type = moral superiority to a new, frightening level. That this is an essay espousing Michelle Obama’s role model status by turning her thin and toned arms into a symbol of the superior qualities of the Modern Female, implies that flabbier, less-toned, less youthful arms could not convey the same message of female strength and feministic advancement.

The conversation had been high-minded — religion, philosophy, the nature of evil…

…We then began a discussion about the significance of the first lady’s arms. Actually, it turned out to be equally serious. Michelle Obama’s arms, we determined, were transformational. Her arms are representative of a new kind of woman: young, strong, vigorous, intelligent, accomplished, sexual, powerful, embracing and, most of all, loving.

I can see how toned arms can imply youth, physical strength, and physical prowess. But strength of conviction, vitality, intelligence, ability, sexuality, kindness, and love? Certainly older women, or women with larger or non-toned arms, can have all of those qualities. Never for a moment when I used to lift weights did I think, “My arms look more toned now, I must be more intelligent/kind/able/loving!”

It truly is nonsensical and bizarre to claim that the shape of one’s arms can convey so much information about her moral character traits. And no, I think this went well beyond a simple symbolization in order to sell Mother’s Day copy about a popular mother in American culture at the moment. I think it is a symptom that, despite our liberal call for judging individuals based on their true character traits and not based on what they look like, we are, as a society, plunging ever deeper into the chasm of classifying character based on having the “right” body.

Individuals – especially women, but not exclusively – are invested with qualities they may or may not have, simply because of the way they look. Hence, Michelle Obama’s arms make her a “better” First Lady, woman, and mother, because they have a certain shape and circumference. She is endowed with greater qualities of character because of having the “right” kind of arms. By that same reasoning, women who don’t have those arms are ultimately worse women, mothers, role models, employees, students, and wives (“embracing,” “strong,” “accomplished,” “intelligent,” “loving”).

Ms. Quinn, you are sadly, quite wrong. And the kind of tripe you gush has nothing to do with feminism or praising Michelle Obama — it has everything to do with objectifying women and dehumanizing the First Lady. For shame.

On Weddings and Women and Weight (oh, my!)

s_bride-dress-200x300

In a week I’m going to be a married lady.

I’m looking forward to the ceremony, and the reception, seeing people I haven’t seen in a while, and getting family members together who haven’t seen each other in a while.

However, I’m not wrapped up in my wedding as if it were some peak of my youth, or a day which will transform me into some new “wifey” creature I have yet to meet. This is despite the (still, in this modern age) drumbeat that weddings are, for young women, as meaningful and final as death (it’s no coincidence that many classic novels featuring women end in marriage or death). Heck, I’ve been living with my fiancee for two years now, we have a mortgage and a cat, it’s not like much will change once we get married.

Marriage ceremonies, for many, center around a fundamental objectification of a woman.  Marriage is the ultimate day of triumph for a lady and her family, and hence much moola is invested in making the day a huge bash, and dressing up the women and their friends, meant to convey that the woman is a valuable, worth-while wife, as our current culture still defines her.

The ritual is, in fact, centered around making the bride appear as if she has high value, within the strictures of how value is defined in our modern times. This is from where the tradition of the parents of the bride paying for the wedding stems (it is a symbol of her dowry, which, most of the time, was the only monetary value with which a woman came into her married life). Also, the appearance of the woman herself must be that of a valuable object. One can’t convey to one’s family that one’s future bride has a math masters and a great singing voice and is kind to children and that is her true value: no, all the family will see is a woman in white, parading her body down an aisle.

Given the current Healthistic trend and the moral value invested in the width of a woman’s hips or the circumference of her upper arm, one can be damn well sure that the sense of the value of the bride will be, for many family members, tied into those numbers. Many a wedding I’ve attended has featured snarking about the bride: “Oh man, she shouldn’t have chosen spaghetti straps, really,” or “Oh man, she’s really spilling out…strapless?” or “I bet they won’t do the garter ceremony with her!” or “She really should have done something about those arms before the wedding.” And so forth.

So much value can be placed in, and so many assumptions can be made, from the appearance of the woman alone. And for many women, it is the one day they will be on display like no other, where all eyes will be on them, eyes of people who do not know much about the bride except how she looks. Given women are aware of how much value is place in their “numbers,” it can make even sensible ladies throw their sense out the window and try that liquid diet, or put their personal lives in jeopardy in order to get another hour at the gym. Even more sensible family members and friends can be sympathetically oppressive, suggesting the bride change her eating habits or exercise, making not-so-subtle hints about the way in which the dress fits. Silence is also telling: your mother and attendant are silent as you model your dress, saying weakly how it looks good, while the mother and attendant of the thinner girl gush about how she could “be in bride magazines,” etc.

30 lbs, the magical amount of weight for any bride-to-be to lose, can turn the lead-up to a wedding from stressful time filled with planning into a veritable nightmare. The day of the wedding the bride, hanging on to her most prized asset — her weight loss — greets friends and families through a starvation-induced haze. For what? So that she is not judged harshly by the possible (probable) bigot in their midst. She reinforces that a woman’s value is tightly wrapped up in the shape and circumference of her body parts, like an animal to be sold to the highest bidder.

What’s the point of this? The point is to bring attention to how harmful and damaging such a “wonderful” day can be for a woman, when it is the day she is told she must treasure as one of the best in her life. In order to be worthy of such a day, she is told, she must starve, sweat, whittle down, and loathe her body. The sum of a sufficient amount of torture and self-loathing, she is told, is one day she can rest on her laurels, since she will find her self-worth — at long last — in the approving gaze of strangers.