Archive for the ‘Stereotypes’ Category

This is it. I’m going no-poo!

March 19, 2012

You know what I’m not a big fan of?  Fat chicks going on YouTube or elsewhere on the web and declaring publicly, for all the world to see, that they’re Really. Going. To. Lose. Weight. This. Time.  I don’t think holding yourself accountable to the anonymous inhabitants of the Series of Tubes accomplishes much, and when the majority don’t succeed, as is inevitably the case, they leave themselves open to even more ridicule from people who like to kick a fat chick when she’s down.

On the other hand, I’m, like, totally comfortable making a public declaration on the internet that I’m going to try to break my shampoo habit.  Because I’m Really. Going. To. Do. It. This. Time.  No really, I mean it!

A few years back– I can’t even remember how or why– I came across this blog post by Sean Bonner, describing how he gave up using soap and shampoo, and not only was he not a big smelly, greasy mess, his wife actually preferred him this way.  That led me to the paleo web site Free the Animal, which is is mostly about dudes who follow the paleo diet, but also includes fascinating accounts by the site owner about his experience giving up soap and shampoo.  Basically, the idea is this:  shampoo is basically a detergent, and it strips your hair and scalp of your own natural oil, which you produce because it protects your hair and scalp and keeps them healthy.  To compensate, your scalp starts pumping out extra oil, which means your roots get oily even when your ends are dry, and you wind up having to shampoo every day.  The more you shampoo, the more you NEED to shampoo.  It’s like you’re a shampoo junkie, trapped in a cycle of addiction.  But if you could just stop shampooing, eventually your scalp ought to return to its natural state of balance, producing just as much oil as your hair needs to be healthy.  These two guys had done exactly that.

Further googling showed that giving up shampoo was a trend among women, too.  They call this lifestyle “no poo,” which is short for no shampoo.  The benefits seemed many; the drawbacks, few.  I mean, who wouldn’t want to help save the environment and reduce their own exposure to harmful chemicals while simultaneously looking better and saving huge sums of money?  Sign me up for that shit!  For that poo!  For that no-poo!

Although some women stop washing their hair with anything but water, many of the no-poo chicks wash their hair occasionally with baking soda.  Baking soda is cheap, y’all.  I could totally do this.

Alas, I chickened out.  The thing is, I have THAT hair.  The kind that qualifies me for OPEC status after just 24 hours without a wash.  I’m a greaseball.  A greasemonkey.  A greaseburger.  There’s grease, y’all.  That’s all I’m saying.

Don’t get me wrong.  I fully believed in the notion that, after a while with no shampoo, my scalp with calm the heck down and stop pumping oil like a Texas geyser.  I just didn’t think I could survive that long.  After all, I can’t lock myself in my apartment for two months waiting for the well to run dry.  I have bills to pay.  I have to work.  Gradually, I forgot all about this project.

In the few years between then and now, however, I have managed the housecleaning equivalent of giving up shampoo in favor of baking soda:  I have given up almost all other household cleaners in favor of borax.  I clean my bathroom with it.  I clean my kitchen with it.  I clean the tile floors with it.  I clean the fridge with it (it works WONDERS in the fridge!).  Sometimes I even toss it in the laundry.  Borax is sodium borate in powder form, mined in the desert and dragged out in wagons pulled by mule teams.  Hence the name 20 Mule Team Borax.  Maybe they don’t use mules anymore.  I don’t know.  But the point is, yes, it’s a chemical, but at least it’s not an evil concoction of multiple lab-created chemicals with evil side effects.  And it works in very, very low concentrations, so it’s crazy cheap.

A few weeks ago, my friend’s doula shared  this blog post to Facebook from Fulfilled Homemaking, written by a stay-at-home mom who went no poo.  Scroll through the pictures, and you will see that she waded through a hell of grease to come out clean on the other side, with absolutely gorgeous, healthy hair.  Her hair type is not that different from mine.  That means I can do this.  At least in theory.

I think my adventures cleaning my home with natural sodium borate sort of primed me mentally to be ready to start cleaning my hair with natural sodium bicarbonate.  So I googled some more.  What I discovered is that there are lots of women out there who have gone no-poo, some of whom seem to have hair like mine– very fine, very straight, goes from zero to greasy in under 24 hours.  Many of them have succeeded, and now follow either some variation of a regimen involving baking soda and apple cider vinegar, or nothing at all other than water.  However, I also noticed that the majority of examples I found were stay-at-home moms.  I applaud stay-at-home moms.  My mom was a stay-at-home mom.  So please don’t take this as a comment about stay-at-home moms.  But some of them — not all of them, but some– are less frequently required to go out into the world with what I will call “office-ready hair.”  In other words, their lifestyles are a little more suited to the initial greasapalooza period that happens in the no-poo transition before your scalp adjusts to not being stripped of oil every day.

I asked my own circle of friends if anybody who works full time outside of the home and has hair like mine (disappointingly fine and straight) had ever done this.  As it turns out, a few people I know have tried it.  I’ve seen their hair in meatlife, and I can attest that both of these ladies do, indeed, have very nice hair.  I was encouraged.  So I’m doing it.

I actually started testing the waters a bit last week.  For all of last week, I still shampooed every day, but I used half my normal ration of shampoo.  I managed to clean enough oil off the roots to leave the house without the risk of going up like Michael Jackson if my hair got a little too close to an open flame.  But my hair started feeling grungy almost immediately, and by the end of the week I could smell it.  I’m sure everybody else could, too, although nobody actually ran screaming in horror from the stench.  By Saturday, I knew I couldn’t go on this way.  Some women go cold turkey and just endure the greasapalooza as best they can, hiding themselves away from the world, or at least hiding their hair away from the world.  That’s just not an option for me.  So on Saturday, given the increasingly frightening state of my hair, I know one of two things had to happen:  Either I would give up in defeat and run screaming back to my bottle of Paul Mitchell Shampoo One, or I would take the plunge and try a soda/vinegar wash.

Let me back up a bit and talk about the whole soda/vinegar thing a bit so you know what I’m talking about.  It actually seems pretty rare for women who go no poo to actually go water-only.  Most of them still wash their hair with something.  Most often, that something appears to be baking soda in solution, followed by a rinse of dilute apple cider vinegar or some other acidic rinse as a conditioner.  A very common regimen appears to be washing and conditioning this way twice week, sometimes with daily water rinses in between, sometimes without.  Don’t ask me why, but I happen to have one of those red squeeze bottles you see for ketchup on picnic tables, sitting in a drawer in my kitchen doing nothing. So I tossed about two tablespoons of baking soda in there, filled the rest of the bottle with warm water, and hopped in the shower.

Now obviously, baking soda solution does not lather up the way shampoo does.  I felt a little bit like an idiot massaging my scalp in the shower with no bubbles.  But you know what?  Who says there should be bubbles?  The people who manufacture the shampoo, right?  Because they stand to gain financially if they can convince you you’ve never really lived until you’ve experienced the luxurious lather that only their shampoo can produce, and that you’re an idiot to do what I was doing just then.  So I soldiered on.  After all, nobody was watching.  I not-lathered.  I rinsed.  I repeated.

And after that, yes, I really did rinse my hair with diluted apple cider vinegar.  And no, monkeys did not fly out of my butt.  Apparently I did not dilute the vinegar quite enough, because even after a very thorough rinsing and drying, I was informed by my beloved that I “smelled like salad.”  Okay.  You live, you learn.  But here’s the thing:  MY HAIR LOOKED FREAKING AWESOME.  And it FELT FREAKING AWESOME.  Not only that, but I could run my comb through it more easily than I ever had in my life, and I didn’t hit a single knot.  It was like hair heaven!  And I had accomplished that with a couple of tablespoons of baking soda and about a quarter cup of vinegar.  I shit you not.  Or, I guess, I poo you not.  I was amazed, y’all.  Amazed.

On Sunday, I tried again, only that time I used only about a teaspoon of baking soda and a lot less vinegar.  A second sniff test by my beloved showed I no longer smelled like salad.  In fact, he stuck his nose right into my head and could detect no smell at all.

But of course, there’s a problem.  The thing is, you’re not really supposed to do this every day.  As glorious as the effect of the soda/vinegar wash is, if you do it too much, I hear it screws up your hair.  Severe drying and breakage, dandruff so wicked it creates blizzard-like conditions, you know, stuff like that.  In all things, moderation.  So I clearly didn’t want to do this for a third day in a row.  Thing is, I had to go to work on Monday.  It was time to poo or get off the pot, so to speak.  (An added benefit of going no-poo is being able to use the word poo all the time, which appeals tremendously to my inner five-year-old).  One of three things was going to happen:

1. Do the soda/vinegar wash for a third day in a row, which might totally screw up my hair

2. Whimp out and go back to shampoo

3. Not wash my hair at all, and go out in public anyway.  Not just in public, but TO WORK.  TO MY JOB.  WHERE PEOPLE I KNOW CAN SEE ME.

This was going to be the moment of truth.  In desperation, on Sunday I begged for input from the font of knowledge that is Facebook.  I actually found two people I know who have done this, and one of them even has hair that’s a lot like mine.  There’s every reason to do this, and the only reason not to boils down, really, to vanity.

So this morning, I rinsed my hair in the shower, but I didn’t wash it.  And then, I left my house and went to work.

Now, I’m not going to lie to you and tell you I’m having the best hair day of my life.  I’m not.  But I have never, ever voluntarily left my house without washing my hair.  In fact, the only time I can remember doing it, I actually was in an ambulance being rushed to the hospital.  Even last December when I found myself admitted to Lennox Hill for almost a week because my gall bladder was throwing stones, I begged the nurses to let me wash my hair on the third day because I just couldn’t take it anymore.  But today, I left my house without having washed my hair with anything other than water, and it doesn’t look that bad.  Even after just a few days substituting baking soda for shampoo, my scalp is already chilling out.

So here’s the plan:  I’m going to alternate a soda wash and a water wash every other day for a week.  If that works out, I’m going to see if I can cut back to washing with soda twice a week.    If I can make it for a month like that, I think I may be able to jump off the shampoo bandwagon forever.  There.  I declared it to the internet.

I think I take a special risk doing this because I’m a fat chick.  As I was googling, I noticed all of the women brave enough to post pictures of themselves going through greasapalooza were otherwise conventionally attractive, which of course includes being thin.  Leaving the house with other than pristine hair, I will risk reinforcing a lot of negative stereotypes about fat chicks.  You see a skinny chick with greasy hair, you probably assume she didn’t have time to wash because she was busy all day yesterday rescuing orphaned puppies or something.  You see a fat chick with greasy hair, you know it’s because she’s lazy, sloppy, unhygienic, and doesn’t care about her personal appearance.  Of course she’s gross– it’s because she’s gross, don’t you know?  In reading other women’s blogs over the years, I’ve noticed there’s sort of a secret list of things some fat chicks are really reluctant to do in public because it reinforces negative stereotypes.  They won’t ever order dessert in a restaurant, even if they haven’t had one on six months and they really, really want one, for example.  Or if they’re in pain for some reason having nothing whatsoever to do with their fat– say, their feet hurt because of a blister from a rockin’ new pair of kicks– they will go to great lengths not to let it show, because they know other people assume they “did that to themselves” and they deserve it.  Things that thin women never even have to think about.  This is going to be one of those things for me.  But the adjustment period shouldn’t last forever, and if I come out okay on the other side, the benefits will be worth it.

Stay tuned…

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Should the faculty and staff of a women’s college be losing weight for cash?

January 5, 2011

Last fall, a wealthy, weight-obsessed alumna of Stephens College, a women’s college in Missouri, dangled a $1 million donation in front of the cash-strapped college with one condition:  the staff had to collectively lose at least 250 pounds by January 1.  In addition, the donor will kick in an additional $100,000 if the college’s president, Dianne Lynch, loses 25 pounds herself.  Here’s a link to her photograph.  Does she look to you like she needs to lose 25 pounds?

I worked for a women’s college for a few years when I still lived in Ohio.  It was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.  Women’s colleges are special places.  They produce a disproportionately high number of female leaders.  This isn’t surprising, considering every leadership position on campus goes to a female student– they are the captains of every sports team, the presidents of every club,  the valedictorians and salutatorians of every graduating class, and they constitute the entire membership of the student government.

Women’s colleges are one of the few places you can go that seem to truly value women for the content of their brains and their characters, not for the way they look.  Since there are no male students around, the pressure to have perfect hair, makeup, and clothes in order to look pretty for the menfolk is largely absent.  I remember being thrilled to see the students roaming the halls in clothes that were casual but modest, with hair that was combed but not carefully coiffed, and faces largely devoid of makeup.  It was about the learning there.  Not about the competition to see who is the thinnest and the prettiest.

Then the college went coed, largely for budgetary reasons, and it nearly broke my heart.  The very next semester, even with relatively few male students on campus, the behavior and appearance of the women noticeably changed.  They began dressing differently– less for comfort, more for display, especially the display of lots of skin.  I heard stories of women putting on prom dresses just to go visit the men’s dorm, in some cases to do their laundry for them.  The makeup came back.  The hair came back.  In short, the emphasis on women’s bodies and physical appearance came back, and how.  (Also, the very first semester we had men living on campus they set fire to their own dorm, but that’s a story for another time.)

Despite the benefits of attending a women’s college, a campus devoid of men is a very hard sell for teenage girls today.  Keeping enrollments up is a challenge, and aside from an elite few, women’s colleges are all under enormous pressure to raise money any way they can.  When you have a chance to bring in a cool million, it’s hard to say no.

These were the things on my mind when I first read the story about Stephens College last fall.  Now there’s an update:  The staff has lost just over 300 pounds total, and the president is more than halfway to her individual goal of 25 pounds.  Looks like Stephens is going to get the money.  But does this monetary end justify the means?

Is this donor really health-obsessed, or just weight-obsessed?

The evidence points to the latter.  The thing of which she seems to be most proud is that, at age 86, she weighs exactly the same number of pounds she did when she got married.  Not that her blood pressure or cholesterol or endurance are the same, but that the size of her body is the same– a trim 117 pounds.  (Incidentally, it tells me a lot that the donor shared her weight with the president, the president shared it with the press, and virtually every article and blog post I read on this story specifically mentions it.  Unless she’s really, REALLY short, at 117 she has got to be very thin, and it’s obvious that we all seem to find that fact to be very important to the story.)

Does she really want the staff at Stephens to be healthier, or just thinner?  Again, the evidence points to the latter.  The metric she chose was not improved health outcomes such as better blood pressure, lower cholesterol, a better resting heart rate, healthier blood glucose levels, or anything else.  It also wasn’t an easily measurable exercise goal, such as total miles walked (easily measured with personal pedometers), total hours logged at the gym, participation in fitness classes, nutritional counseling, etc.  Nope, just pounds lost.  As far as I can tell, there was no instruction on how this was to be accomplished, no way to monitor how it was being accomplished, no concern for whether weight loss was indicated or even prudent for each individual participant, and no attention paid to whether the participants would be able to keep the weight off in the long term.  We know that these types of contests tend to encourage unhealthy weight-loss strategies.  We also know that virtually all dieting leads to regain of the weight and that weight cycling itself is dangerous– maybe moreso than just remaining fat (for those who were fat to begin with).  As far as I can tell, these issues were completely ignored for the Stephens contest: by the donor, by the president, by the participants, and by virtually every member of the media, mainstream or otherwise.

Now that the weight has been lost, we know who did it, and how it was done.  Photographs and videos show that even people already well below the upper bound of what is considered to be a “healthy weight” attempted to lose weight to earn the money for their employer.  The president herself appears to have been at a healthy weight before the competition even started, and it’s not clear at all that a weight loss goal of 25 pounds was appropriate or even safe in her case.  If she consulted her doctor before she began her diet, she hasn’t mentioned that to the press.

Did Stephens really want its staff to get healthier, or did they really just want the cash?

Again, the evidence indicates the latter.  It’s pretty clear what motivated Stephens to take on the challenge.  At the outset, Lynch said this about the challenge:  “This is a good thing.  If we do this, we’re $500,000 ahead of our budget goals.”  In fact, the part about adding an additional $100K if she lost 25 pounds was apparently her idea.  That’s disappointing coming from a woman in a leadership position with multiple degrees in feminist history.

Since then, the college has tried very hard to frame the contest for the press in terms of getting healthier.  But if they really wanted to get healthier, they could have done so at any time.  For the contest– but not at any time prior to it– Lynch paid staff to spend an hour a day at the gym.  For the contest– but not at any time prior to it– nutritional counseling and healthy snacks were provided for the staff.  Lynch normally keeps a snack jar in her office for visitors.  For the contest, she put fruit in the jar.  Prior to the contest, there was candy in it.

How Writers Covered the Story

Not surprisingly, the Stephens story has been covered very differently by different writers, with the mainstream media largely choosing the lazier “weight loss automatically and universally signifies better health and is therefore always an unqualified good” view and bloggers thinking a bit more critically.  Very few mainstream publications, including the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Education, questioned the wisdom of academics allowing themselves to be bribed into losing weight on a deadline, however they manage to do so, whether they need it or not.  Elizabeth Kissling, a blogger for Ms. Magazine, wr0te the very best piece I’ve seen on the Stephens story.  I know most of you don’t click on the links in my posts, so I’m telling you now, stop reading this post, click on this link to Kissling’s piece, and go read it.  It’s way better than anything I’m going to write.

Here’s some other thoughtful coverage on the story:

The Sustainable Food blog at Change.org took Stephens and the donor to task not only for an ill-conceived project that is not supported by research, but also for not spending the money more wisely on things more likely to actually make a lasting impact.  Here’s a bit of what change.org blogger Tara Lohan had to say:

[W]eight-loss challenges like this one address Americans’ growing waistlines in the wrong way. Obesity is such an epidemic because of a host of complex, interrelated issues like our dysfunctional food system, poor health care, food deserts, junk food marketing, an increasingly sedentary culture — the list goes on and on.

So while it’s great to see people become more fit, the idea that shedding pounds for a one-time goal (of money!) would help achieve that seems ludicrous. What this competition — and all weight-loss competitions, for that matter —  is more likely to do is make the staff feel really bad about their bodies. Plus, singling out the president is just downright insulting. Also, this is a staff-wide endeavor, which means that anyone can lose the weight, even people who really shouldn’t.

At Care2, Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux puts it this way (there are some great comments under the post, too, especially noting the poor message the contest sends to students by focusing on pounds rather than true measures of health):

Lynch seems to have bravely put on her game face in an attempt to snag the cash, saying, that the donation is “unique” because it’s not about creating a scholarship or new program (you know, those silly programs that help the students) – no, it’s about “investing in the people who work at this college.”

Investing in them?  Or making them feel inadequate and body-conscious?  The donor in question seems to have no shortage of self-righteousness; “fit and fond of organic food,” she wants to generously use her wealth to incentivize weight loss among America’s obese population.  But there also seems to be a heavy dose of body image issues – according to Lynch, the donor, at 87, “weighs exactly what she did when she married her husband—117 pounds. It’s a point of pride for her that she has maintained her youthful physique.”

In her Size Matters blog at Bitch Magazine online, Tasha Fierce wrote a great piece about the relationship between this type of contest and the detrimental effects of body shaming.  Here’s a quote on point:

As if size discrimination wasn’t enough to deal with, many workplaces are instituting weight loss incentive programs, which further marginalizes fat employees. Incentive programs that include rewards for departments or teams that lose the most weight create a hostile atmosphere in which fat people are shamed for not being able to lose significant amounts of weight. For example, an alumna of Stephens College in Missouri recently pledged to donate $1 million to the college if the staff loses a collective 250 pounds by January 1, 2011. This puts undue pressure on fat staff members who may or may not be able to lose enough weight to contribute “their part” of the collective 250 lbs.

In response to this, folks may point out that many of the follow-up stories include very positive comments from participants on the staff and no reports of shaming.  To those folks, I would say this:  Trust me, one of the only things western society likes about the fat people they shame is their silence.  If there’s somebody at Stephens who spent her whole life yo-yo dieting and is now intractably fat as a result of a lifetime of disordered eating, I guarantee you two things:  First, that this contest triggered feelings she has worked very hard to overcome, and second, that shes suffered in silence through the whole contest and didn’t say one damn word about it to anybody.

Been there, done that.  One day I’ll write a post about the time my coworkers wanted to gather enough participants to form an on-site Weight Watchers group, so they had a membership drive that consisted mostly of fat-shaming emails and fliers combined with in-person hard sells.  If you didn’t participate, not only were you failing to make a “healthy choice” for yourself, but you were also letting down your coworkers by depriving them of the minimum number of participants they needed to lure a WW counselor to their worksite.

But I digress.  Shameless Mag has this to say about the Stephens contest:

Coerced weight loss for money? Really?

Manipulative?

Unfair?

Promoting a healthier lifestyle? Why tie it to weight loss and not to activity levels or fruit and veggie consumption, then?

A commenter under the post said this:

Wow! Young women can barely escape being bombarded by unrealistic/harmful/dangerous(!) beauty ideals outside of the classroom, but now their whole academic experience could be tainted by the same messages.

Elena at Women’s Glib said this about the contest:

Why isn’t this anonymous donor pledging one million dollars if the school gets most of their food from within a 50 mile radius? Or if the school creates a program promoting physical activity? Also, if I ever got to meet President Lynch, I think I’d talk to her about many things other than whether or not she should lose weight. Evidently, it’s not enough that Lynch has many academic achievements, seems to be very well-loved by the student body (she became president after I left, and actually sent me a very nice email), or writes a very cool blog.  She evidently also has to fit an anonymous donor’s (who evidently weighs 117 pounds) idea of what is an acceptable weight [emphasis mine].

The Columbia Tribune ran the story, and a commenter posted this beneath it:

I’m not going to lie, I’d quit if I worked there. The consequences of a program like this are potentially disastrous. While the intentions are good and I agree with the statement that many people in America have very unhealthy lifestyles this is absolutely not the way to motivate people to change.

Programs like this lead to disordered eating. If the program is optional those women who do not participate are automatically stigmatized. Those that are visibly overweight will feel pressure to participate because they have the potential to lose the most pounds…people with (probably) already poor body image and self esteem will be placed in a situation where they are put on display…even if they do not participate this will be the case. Their coworkers, students, the community (this was published in the columbia daily tribune and the community benefits from having a successful university in their town) will wonder why they have opted out. They are arbitrarily using pounds as a health indicator and financially incentivizing body shaming. There has GOT to be more creative things they can do to promote healthy living on campus for ALL (students, faculty and staff) than create a 4 month rat race to some arbitrary 250 lb mark all of which, statistically speaking, will be gained back in the next year.

Columnist Amanda Woytus at the Columbia Missourian had this to say:

Students at the women’s college won’t participate, but some employees hope it will set a good example.

By a good example, I’m sure they meant inspiring students to live healthier lives, but the challenge isn’t a wellness challenge. It’s a weight-loss challenge [emphasis mine], evidenced by the goal’s measurement being pounds lost.

Healthiness is related to weight. Diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and certain types of cancer and gynecological problems are all linked to obesity. But you can also be thin and binge drink, chain smoke and eat nothing but Yogoluv’s frozen yogurt.

Losing 1 1/2 pounds, though it might start a pattern of healthier living, isn’t going to significantly improve an individual’s health. I don’t see the point. Maybe, as Lynch volunteered, the point is to put the school ahead of its budget goal.

Daniel Luzer, who writes for the College Guide blog at the Washington Examiner, points out that this “may well be the first time a college president managed to leverage a donation out of [a] conversation in which an alumnus basically just indicated that she was too fat.”  He’s one of the few male authors I’ve seen who questioned the wisdom and appropriateness of Stephens’ contest.

Time Magazine and  A few writers point out that the Stephens weight loss challenge (note nobody ever called it the Stephens Get Healthier Challenge) happened during the same time period as another initiative happening on college campuses last fall– the No Fat Talk Week.  Recognizing the damage done by constantly commenting on the sizes of women’s bodies and using the word “fat” as a weapon, women leaders developed No Fat Talk Week to begin to counteract the problem.  Apparently, Stephens didn’t get the memo.

The Big Fat Kiss-In, Fat People on Television, and the Epic Marie Claire Fail (Part 2 of 2)

October 31, 2010

I first found out about the Marie Claire blog article on Thursday morning from a friend of mine, who sent me a link to it and asked, “Have you seen this shit?” As soon as I read it, my first reaction was anger and disgust, but not really surprise. My second reaction was to note how poorly written it was. An entire paragraph in parentheses? Careening wildly from statement to statement without attempting actually to support any of them?  Grossly oversimplifying complex issues in order to support her own bigotry?  Even half an hour of internet research, had she cared to do it, would have shown Maura not only that her points are unsupportable, but also that if she really does want fat people to lose weight, what she was about to do (extreme body-shaming) has actually been shown to work AGAINST that goal. This thing would not have passed muster with any of my high school English teachers, much less the freshman comp instructors at the public university I went to. Is this really how they taught Maura to write at Dartmouth?

My next reaction was to turn to my boyfriend and declare, “You know what should happen? A whole bunch of fat couples should go stand on Maura’s front lawn and make out.” I bet thousands of other people had the same idea. But Marilyn Wann, Substantia Jones, Aris K. Manhattan, Sandy Schaffer, and Stacy Bias did more than think of it. They planned it, and it happened.  And that was the Big Fat Kiss-In, which happened Friday night in front of the Hearst building in Manhattan and a handful of other Hearst buildings in other cities.

There are links to much better photographs on the event’s Facebook page. But for what it’s worth, here are some of the ones I took with my very low-tech camera:

It was extremely empowering to attend an event like this one, but it’s important that this not be the end. The attention span of Americans is famously short—something bad happens, everybody freaks out, and a week later we’ve moved on to other things. It’s important that we not let this one drop. Here’s how Josh Shahryar at Huff Post put it:

…I urge everyone who finds size-ism in the media as a menace to view this as a watershed moment. It’s time to come together and fight this bigotry to the bitter end. Change does not come without someone pushing for it. If we want this to change, if we want for us, overweight or not, to not be judged by our BMI, we need to not let this fire die down.

We need to stand up and demand change. Even if it means we need to force the issue daily on social networking sites. Even if it means we have to boycott media that continue to practice this bigotry. Even if it means we have to hold peaceful demonstrations for the end of this practice. If media does not change, we cannot change this culture that seems to have been forever marginalizing overweight people.

I found out about the Big Fat Kiss-In over my lunch hour on Friday.  (Let me tell you, if I had known I’d be part of a public protest later that day, I would have worked a lot harder on my hair that morning!)  Fortunately, I work in Manhattan and my boyfriend works from our home in Queens, so we could get there easily without much advance planning.  From some of the posts to the event page on Facebook, it’s clear that many more people would have attended if they had more time to plan.  Here’s hoping Friday’s event was just the first in a series of similar protests, and that the folks who could only be with us in spirit can stand up right beside us next time.

The Big Fat Kiss-In, Fat People on Television, and the Epic Marie Claire Fail (Part 1 of 2)

October 30, 2010

Last night I had the privilege of sharing a rather chilly Manhattan sidewalk with some of the most important people living in America right now:  people willing to stand up for the right of fat people to be treated with the dignity and respect that should be afforded ALL people by virtue of the fact that they are, well, people.  The event was the Big Fat Kiss-In, held in front of the Hearst Corp building in protest of a recent blog post by Marie Claire magazine blogger Maura Kelly.  I haven’t blogged about this yet because I haven’t really had the time to sit and think of something to say that hadn’t already been said.  But I’m going to give it a shot now.

A week or so ago, a grad school classmate of mine said this in her Facebook status:

[Grad School Friend] is kinda irked that TLC is making such a big deal out of plus sized brides…why can’t they just be included in the regular series instead of making it seem like they’re “other”…?

There’s a whole body of work on the concept of “othering” that I’m just now starting to explore as my interests shift from natural science more toward social science as an adult.  Othering isn’t a tough concept to grasp, but you have to be sharp to recognize the variety of ways in which is happens, and who’s doing the othering, and who’s being othered.  If you want to know who’s being othered these days, popular culture is the place to look.  Currently, there are plenty of examples of fat people being segregated into a television ghetto where they really only appear in shows that are, to one extent or another, ABOUT their fatness.

Take the shows that fit into the format of “The Bachelor.”  Every bachelor has been thin.  Every bachelorette has been thin.  Every contestant vying for their affections has been thin.  Of course they would be, because everyone knows that romance and relationships and sex are for thin people, and that nobody would ever compete for the affections of a fat person, nor would a fat person be a legitimate competitor for the affections of a more conventionally attractive person.  Fat people were completely absent from these shows.  But then, they were given their own show, where fat women competed for the attention of a fat bachelor.  And the entire premise of the show was that it was about FAT relationships, as distinct from NORMAL or REAL relationships, which already had their own show.  Note the original shows on which this show was based were not called The Thin Bachelor or The Thin Bachelorette.  It is taken as as given that a show about romance and sex will feature only thin people.  It goes without mentioning. But when there’s a show where the participants are heavy, it has to be pointed out in the title, and it has to be the entire point of the show.  It’s othering.

Anyway, back to GSF’s FB status on the show about plus-size brides.  Most of the comments by her friends were enlightened and very positive, pointing out how weight does not equal health on the individual level, how Hollywood can be ridiculous and contributes to weight issues in women and girls, etc.  A very impressive showing, and not a surprise; this particular grad school friend is a stunningly well-educated and enlightened person herself, and I’d expect her to have really smart friends.  But one of the other comments said this:

[GSF’s F]: Maybe it sheds light on the obesity epidemic and encourages people to take better care of their health?

GSF responded, calmly and wisely, with this:

[GSF]: idk. It kinda ridicules them but trying to make it look like they support them…

Yes, exactly.  Othering people isn’t done to be helpful, which is good, because it isn’t.  Excluding plus-size women from a “regular” television show and putting them in a separate-but-not-equal show that is mainly about their fatness… that’s not done to raise awareness that there are a lot of fat people.  After all, is there really anybody left in America who doesn’t know this?  It’s done to make money at our expense.  To pretend otherwise is unproductive at best.

I, on the other hand, kind of lost my shit.  I started out with the facts, but then I lost my cool a bit and let it get personal at the end.  Here’s what I said:

[Me]: @ [GSF’s F], there’s a whole body of research that demonstrates that treating fat people like circus freaks and/or social pariahs has just the OPPOSITE effect. Also, what evidence do you have that these women are not CURRENTLY taking good care of their health? It may be that they gained some weight from making bad choices in the past (although this is far from the only reason some heavy people are heavy), but they may have turned their lives around entirely and the weight has not come off like they hoped. Or maybe they started out at 300 pounds and now they’re 250, and although that’s a huge accomplishment, they still look fat by American standards. Yeesh. Think before you speak.

At which point she proceeded to attack my character at length and then pretend the discussion had not been about the effects of othering of fat people on television, but rather about whether there was an obesity crisis in America, blah blah blah.  If you can’t win the argument, change the subject.  I do have to own the fact that I made it an argument by accusing her of not thinking.  Of course no person will react positively to something like that.  But on the whole, the thing played out like these things always do– somebody says something ignorant and concern-troll-y, and does anything but open their mind when confronted with the facts.

Anyway, that’s the blog post I had been working on before the Marie Claire thing hit this week.  So the topic of fat folks on television had already been on my mind.

If you haven’t already read Maura Kelly’s blog post, you’re out of luck, because I’m not going to post a link to it here and reward Marie Claire with additional page hits.  But I will sum up:  It started out being about the television show Mike & Molly and whether it’s okay for fat people to kiss on television.  It is hateful and vile, it is condescending and cruel, and it was written by someone who has very deep-seated weight issues of her own.  She is someone who has learned to hate and resent fat people in very extreme ways, and she apparently has no effective editor, internal or otherwise.  If you have been living under a rock this week and you haven’t read anything at all about it, the best writing I’ve seen about it so far is by Josh Shahryar at Huff Post and you can read it here.

One of the things I’ve read a lot about the piece is incredulity that the editors at Marie Claire let the blog post get past them.  Didn’t they see how vile it was?  Didn’t they know a lot of their readers would find this offensive?  Having stood outside the Hearst building last night and seen the employees walk out– the almost universally young, thin, conventionally beautiful employees– I think the answer is:  actually, no.

Remember in August when Glenn Beck planned his rally at the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of the I Have A Dream speech?  And how Beck claimed it was an honest mistake and he had no clue it was the same day?  And how people had a hard time believing he didn’t do it on purpose?  Well, here’s what Jon Stewart had to say about that.  (The bit you’re looking for comes between 0:25 and 1:45 in the video).

I think Stewart really might have been serious, and correct to boot.  Think about the narrow little  world Glenn Beck lives in.  Do you think black leaders and the importance of the real Civil Rights Movement are even remotely on his radar?  I doubt it.

And after watching the employees of Hearst Corp exiting the building after work last night, that’s what I think about them, too.  With only one exception– one! — the people coming out of Heasrt were either young, thin, and conventionally pretty, or middle-aged, white, male, and very affluent-looking.  These are the beautiful people, writing for (among other things) a fashion magazine.  In the course of their working day, it appears they only see other thin, (conventionally) beautiful people.  A plus-size person to them is a size-12 fashion model.  Thus, I think it really is possible that they ARE truly clueless about the actual lived experiences of fat people, or that we are people at all.  We are Other.

I said with one exception.  Let me tell you about the exception.  Around 6:30, the one and only plus-size person to come out of the Hearst building all night came out.  And although technically not thin, she was maybe a size 14 at most,  she was young, and she was conventionally pretty, with long blonde hair and blue eyes.  (Amazingly, one of the kiss-in protesters actually knew her.  Can you imagine?  The ONE fat person among a sea of thin Hearst employees was the ONE person among them who knew one of us.)  I cannot even begin to describe to you how strikingly different the workforce Hearst chooses to employ is from the dedicated and talented group of people at my workplace, who come in all shapes and sizes.

So yes, I think it’s perfectly plausible that the editors at Marie Claire really were and are completely shocked to discover that fat people are real people, with feelings, and that we want and deserve to be treated with dignity.  In the narrow world in which they move, it just doesn’t come up.  As Jon Stewart said of Glenn Beck’s ignorance of the MLK speech, I find that perfectly plausible.  Not excusable, but plausible.

This post is already too long, so I’ll stop for now and write about the protest itself (with pics!) in another post.  Stay tuned!

A fat chick at the grocery store

October 14, 2010

There’s a school of thought that says this:  Fat people don’t owe it to anybody to prove that they’re exercising every day and eating a lot of brussels sprouts in order not to be the objects of public ridicule and scapegoating for every imaginable societal ill.  I subscribe to it.  I see this referred to frequently as the “good fatty” argument: you shouldn’t have to prove that  you’re a “good fatty” in order to be treated with basic human decency and respect, because it implies that being a “good fatty” is the reason you deserve respect, and the unspoken second half of that notion is that “bad fatties” do not deserve the same respect.  Everybody deserves respect, and every body deserves respect.

Having said that, I still think it’s a good idea for fat people who do make healthy lifestyle choices to talk about those choices, not in order to prove their “good fatty” bona fides, but simply because there are so many people out there who refuse to believe it ever happens.  I have this dream that if people who mindlessly buy into negative stereotypes encounter enough people whose current life choices disprove those stereotypes, there’s a chance at least some of them will discard those stereotypes.  If you think that’s a crazy dream, it may help you to know that I keep the original cast recording of Man of La Mancha on my MP3 player pretty much all the time.

I read/hear/see fat-bashing all the time that has to do with what fat people buy at the grocery store:  tons of highly processed junk food filled with sugar and fat.  Carts and carts of cookies, chips, sugary sodas, and, like, tubs of Crisco to be eaten directly from the container with a spoon like ice cream.  But not instead of ice cream, because, of course, that’s in the cart too.  There’s usually an electric scooter in the story somewhere.

My own grocery cart tends to look a little different from that.  Yeah, there was a time about a decade and a half ago when my ex and I couldn’t make it out of Horrock’s in Lansing without a package of fudge-dipped Oreos in our cart, but I have since turned my grocery shopping habits around big time.  And although changing the way I shop for food hasn’t made me any thinner, it has definitely made me healthier.  In the midst of the current national moral panic over the OMGbesity epidemic, people need to know that there are, in fact, people who look like me who also shop like me.

So on the way home from the grocery store tonight, I had this idea:  post the contents of my shopping cart to my blog to demonstrate that yes, in fact, there really are fat people who buy healthy foods at the grocery store.  And no, I didn’t shop healthier so my list would look good.  This is a pretty typical grocery haul for us.

So here you go:  A complete list of everything my (also fat) boyfriend and I bought at the grocery store tonight:

  1. 100% Whole Wheat Bread
  2. Fat-free greek yogurt (FAGE, the brand my Greek food nazi recommends)
  3. Fat-free organic milk
  4. Reduced-fat cheese sticks
  5. Frozen blueberries (to go on my breakfast cereal)
  6. Honey
  7. Coffee (his– I don’t drink coffee)
  8. 12-pack of Cherry Coke Zero
  9. Fat free, low sodium chicken broth
  10. Cake  mix and frosting (to make cupcakes for an event at work next week)
  11. Cheerios
  12. Pickles
  13. Mushroom gravy (for a vegan bean dish I’m making)
  14. Snack-size natural applesauce (no sugar added)
  15. Bag of fun-size Baby Ruth bars for trick-or-treaters on Halloween (yes, I’ll probably eat a few)
  16. Shredded wheat cereal (not the frosted kind)
  17. Natural peanut butter (the sole ingredient:  peanuts)
  18. Various toiletries
  19. Smuckers low-sugar strawberry jelly
  20. Canned sliced mushrooms (for the aforementioned vegan bean dish)
  21. 6-pack of low-sodium V-8 juice
  22. Wheat germ (also for the aforementioned vegan bean dish)
  23. Chicken thighs
  24. Soy milk (yes, it’s for the bean dish)
  25. Granny smith apples
  26. Bananas
  27. Cantaloupe
  28. Cucumbers
  29. Garlic bulb
  30. Avocado (the bright green, lower-calorie kind)
  31. Red bell peppers
  32. Green leaf lettuce
  33. Lime
  34. Bag of spring mix (salad greens)
  35. Nectarines
  36. Onion
  37. Organic cranberries (not Craisins– actual fresh cranberries)
  38. Jalapeno pepper
  39. Fresh “baby bella” mushrooms

Find fault with that list.  I dare you.


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