Friday, September 30, 2011

Peddling Sex Symbols: But Bunnies Are Cute!

At Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams reports that a tween-marketed jewelry store in Australia (Diva) has started carrying Playboy products. 

Of course, the sexualization of young girls is nothing new. And don't be fooled; even though Diva is selling earrings and necklaces--not push-up bras and garter belts--that bunny represents sex. As Williams bluntly explains, Playboy "sells young women sassy accoutrements -- and sells men those young women's asses."

And, yes, I am outraged that bigwigs at multiple companies okay'd the marketing of sexual products to our children. Of course I wouldn't want my daughter wearing a rhinestone-encrusted bunny around her neck (or sporting it on her school notebook, or her socks--you get the idea). 

Digging a little deeper, I think there's another source for outrage. The companies (Diva and Playboy) want to make money. It's what they're designed to do. 

While it obviously has a less sexual bent, I'm reminded of a section in Peggy Orenstein's Cinderella Ate My Daughter. 

Here, Orenstein comments on the marketers of Disney discovering the popularity of homemade princess costumes. In response, they created a line of princess gear that now adorns everything from Band-Aids to bedspreads. This Rutgers article (which notes the princesses are a $4 billion industry) explains that slapping a character on unrelated products means the "emphasis no longer rested on a story, but a product to be merchandised." The result: no little girl who doesn't want to be teased shows up in a homemade costume; she shows up in a trademarked, expensive, and creativity-killing store-bought one. She no longer gets to highlight qualities of herself through her own imagined princess; she has to cover her own individuality with a pre-formed identity of "princess." She might get to choose if she's Ariel or Jasmine, but the range of expression is seriously hindered.

Sound familiar? 

Disney was able to put a brand on "princess," and Playboy is able to put a brand on "sexy." When we let a company decide what "sexy" looks like, we lose the ability to write our own scripts. Sexuality should be empowering, fun, and diverse, not assembly-line produced packages.

Disney, Diva, and Playboy--and every other company trying to sell a certain representative image--needs their brand to take over self-created representations of the identities they aim to simplify and package. If women are allowed to experiment with sexiness, they might not choose to put on cheap bunny ears and a cotton-ball tail. If little girls are allowed to experiment with costumes, they might not choose the polyester pastels of Cinderella or Belle.

By branching out to the tween market, I don't think that Playboy is trying to set up these adolescents for a life in pornography. I think they realize that these girls are on the cusp of becoming young women and  discovering what it means to be sexy. This experimentation is happening at younger and younger ages. They are already experimenting with clothing, hair styles, and make-up that are outward expressions of that burgeoning identity. Playboy isn't trying to be associated with porn (it's already got that (un)covered); it's trying to be associated with sexiness in general.

In other words, I don't think Playboy is trying to hasten sexualization; Playboy is afraid these girls will find definitions of "sexy" that don't include a simplistic rabbit's head as a symbol. Complex definitions of "sexy" threaten not only Playboy's ability to peddle necklaces and robes, but ultimately their ability to corner the market on the image of sex they sell to those who view their pornography. Those little girls could grow up into women with strong senses of identity and their own sexuality. And that's bad for business.

Collective Shout has the contact details for Diva if you'd like to tell them what you think.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Of Income Gaps, Fertility, and Crises in Hiding

A few semesters ago, I had the opportunity to teach a class on the American Dream. It was a great class, and we had a lot of good discussions about what the Dream means, if it exists, and whether it has any relevancy in our contemporary society.

One of the points that kept coming up again and again--whether we were discussing race and the Dream or housing policies or the value of labor--was American income disparity. You've probably seen the charts featured here. Americans who were polled on what they thought America's wealth distribution looked like frequently picked the middle chart--where the top 20% had 36% of the wealth. In actuality, America is represented by the bottom chart--where the top 20% have 84% of the wealth and the bottom 40% are left with a paltry .3% of the wealth.

Our class discussions often centered around how problematic this was for the concept of the American Dream. While some income disparity is necessary for the very concept of social mobility to exist, a gap that is too wide cannot be bridged, freezing the lower class where they are, and essentially denying them access to the Dream.

With these discussions as a backdrop, I was interested to read "Knocked Up and Knocked Down" on Slate by Sharon Lerner.

Flickr davhor

See, money is not the only thing different between these two increasingly separated groups of Americans. In fact, Lerner goes so far as to say "our country is actually more like two countries." In one of these countries, we are having a childlessness problem. The wealthiest sector of Americans aren't having enough babies, and Lerner compares this crisis to the fertility rate crises of many European nations, crises that are being responded to with better family-work balance policies, incentives for having children, and a general cultural attention to the problem.

Meanwhile, the low-income sector of America is having too many unplanned pregnancies: "poor women [are] now five times more likely than higher-income women to have an unplanned pregnancy, and six times more likely to have an unplanned birth." In addition, they are "more likely to smoke, drink, and go without prenatal care. Their births are more likely to be premature. Their children are less likely to be breastfed, and more likely to be neglected and to have various physical and mental health effects. Then, reinforcing the cycle, the very fact of having a child increases a woman's chances of being poor."

However, looking at America as whole hides both of these crises. Combined, the birth rate is a healthy 2.1 children/woman, a rate that doesn't suggest an overwhelming population growth or a staggering population decline.

What's at stake in smothering these narratives beneath averages? Neither population has the advocacy or attention it needs. Lerner discusses policies in the European countries aimed at making childcare for working parents easier. America is far behind the curve on these types of policies, and part of that may be because the crisis isn't very well vocalized.

Meanwhile, the idea that the overall birth rate will even out ignores the fact that it is much, much harder for a child born in poverty to climb out of it. In my own field, for instance, I know that children born to parents without college degrees have a much harder time successfully completing degrees themselves both because of finances and because they aren't always given the cultural tools to navigate the collegiate landscape.

To me, this is just another example of why attention to diverse perspectives is important. By focusing on a unified American perspective, we sweep problems under the rug, but these are problems that affect all of us, and they are certainly problems that will require a multi-faceted approach to solve.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Worst Thing I've Read (Today): Close Your Legs, Ladies; You're Messing Up The Economy

I almost can't believe I'm even responding to this insulting article at the New York Post, which is so blatantly sexist that it's hard to pull anything out of it to really analyze. I'll try anyway.

The entire article is premised on the fact that women have a marketable commodity: sex. Then it goes on to liken sex to the housing market: "Too many foreclosures in one community, and the price of neighboring homes start to plummet."

There are many disturbing assumptions that have to be established in order to  make the metaphors used in the article make sense, namely:
  • "Men want sex more than women do."
  • "it begins at US colleges, where 57% of students are women. With such an imbalanced sex ratio, women are using hookups to compete with other women for men’s affections."
  • “Sexual strategies for making men ‘fall in love’ typically backfire, because men don’t often work like that.”
Suffice it to say that there's a lot wrong here--the idea that women don't want sex, the idea that men don't want love, the idea that women have to use sex to be "competitive" not just as mates, but as human beings.

But what's the worst thing going on in this article? The way that the conclusion blatantly calls for women to tear each other down through slut-shaming:
So, what can women do to return the balance of sexual power in their favor? Stop putting out, experts say. If women collectively decided to cross their legs, the price of sex would soar and women would regain control of the market.
What I hear in interviews with women is plenty of complaining about men or about the dating scene, but their annoyance is seldom directed at other women.
Flickr Markusram

That's right, ladies. If you're unlucky in love, just blame that scantily clad harlot sitting across the restaurant. She's the one who did this to you. Her enjoyment of sex, her cleavage-baring dress, her perfume, her high heels--they're all designed to conquer you. They have nothing to do with her own ability to make decisions about her appearance, sexuality, and pleasure. She has come with one goal in mind: to prevent you from ever getting married.

Why stop there? The article explains that "single women in New York sometimes feel as though sex on the first date is a given: According to the market, it is." So if it's promiscuous women who are responsible for setting this norm, then it's their fault that men expect sex on the first date. Is it also their fault if a man doesn't take no for an answer? Is it their fault that too many women are afraid to leave their houses after dark?

I don't want to start down a slippery slope, but there's something very problematic with placing the responsibility of adult sexual interactions solely on women. It simultaneously creates a culture where women can't depend on one another for support in independent decision making and denies men agency in their own sexuality. In this article, men are non-thinking creatures responding to the whims of the female-controlled market. They are the numbers on the stock ticker, not responsible for the outcomes, just along for the ride.

The article is blatantly sexist against women, but it's sexist against men, too. Men and women are equally capable of enjoying love, sex, and marriage. And they're equally capable of determining which combination of the three is right for them and their partner(s) in each particular time and space. That should go without saying, but apparently it does not. 

Monday, September 26, 2011

Free Formula in Hospitals on the Decline

At Time, this article looks at a decrease in free formula gift bags given to new mothers in hospitals.

I had previously written on my own experience with a hospital gift bag. Even though the bag I was given was clearly labeled as being for breastfeeding mothers, it was chock full of formula samples and coupons. And that makes sense--it was provided by Similac.

The Time article explains that many hospitals are given free formula in exchange for handing out the bags, which should raise our suspicions. Obviously, the formula makers are making money in this exchange, or they wouldn't be doing it. In the article, a representative from Ban the Bags explains that increasing profits for formula makers is sometimes the equivalent of sabotaging breastfeeding: "There's a fixed number of births every year, so the only way to sell more formula is to sell less breast-feeding."

Also noted is the fact that "research has shown that free formula given to new moms tends to result in poorer breast-feeding outcomes." And I remember being exhausted and frustrated when my daughter wasn't gaining enough weight in the first few weeks of her life. I remember feeling like a failure as the doctor demanded I come back in three days for another weight check. I remember looking at her and feeling guilty, and then thinking about those free formula samples sitting in the other room. I had done enough research to know that using them would, statistically speaking, further hinder my chances for breastfeeding success. I knew that, but I was still tempted, and part of that temptation was justified by thinking of the context that gave me those bottles of formula. "Surely," part of my brain rationalized, "the hospital wouldn't have given them to you if they weren't okay to use."

And they were "okay" to use. I don't want to demonize women for choosing or needing formula, but it wasn't okay that the hospital had given me, someone who had explicitly told them I was committed to breastfeeding, several bottles of formula before ever even heading home. It wasn't okay to subtly undermine the decision I had made and voiced, to plant the seeds of doubt, to suggest "well, maybe that'll work out, but probably not, so here's a back-up plan."

I didn't use those bottles of formula, and I'm glad for that.

I'm also glad for the statistics in the Time article. The number of hospitals who have stopped handing out the samples has doubled since 2007 (three-quarters of hospitals still give them out, but progress is progress).

There are also a handful of hospitals striving for the Baby-Friendly USA designation, which requires rooming-in and formula that is restricted to medically necessary cases (unless mothers explictly ask for it).

Before I had my daughter, I would have read this article and thought "What's the big deal?" I would have wondered why women were so weak-willed that a little gift bag could totally derail their plans, and I would have thought that their plans weren't that well thought-out or important to begin with if that was the case.

I would have been wrong. The first few weeks of my child's life were some of the most vulnerable moments I've ever experienced. The responsibility is huge, and the feeling that I could mess it up was almost overwhelming. These gift bags are subtle, certainly, but they are strategic marketing, strategic marketing aimed at people in some of the moments they're least likely to be critical consumers. I'm glad to see this trend declining, and I hope it keeps going.

Links for You (Yes, You)

Forgive my lack of posts. I spent the weekend traveling for work, and I've returned with a miserable cold that's left me unable to think clearly. Instead of giving you half-coherent ramblings (as opposed to the three-quarters coherent ramblings I usually give), I'd like to share some links to things I'm finding interesting:

  • Love Isn't Enough has a post examining the Atlantic's "The Most Racist Thing That Ever Happened to Me." Here, LIE asks if modern racism has become so subtle and slippery, how are we to teach our children how to navigate it?
  • The Feminist Breeder explains that feminism is not the equivalent of "man-hater" and " the true definition of feminism is good, pure, and important. No one should be ashamed to be a Feminist. If you believe women are human beings and should be treated as such, then you are a feminist, and there’s no reason to deny the word."
  • For those of you looking for something a little less academic and a little more fun, Play At Home Mom has a post on how to make homemade glow-in-the-dark playdough. If you don't have kids, but still want to make it, I won't tell.
  • And finally, Kid Casting is a tumblr that has pages and pages of movie stills that feature side-by-side shots of actors and the children who play them in flashbacks.
Bonus: one of these features Buffalo 66, a movie I enjoy
that it seems no one I've ever talked to has seen.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Limits of Labeling Identities

A word only has meaning if we know both what it is and what it is not. It is often necessary to exclude things in order to make sense of the world. I have to exclude flowers and grass and shrubs and bushes to fully define a tree. If I don't, then there's no reason to use the word "tree," because I could just say "plant." Exclusion is not necessarily a bad thing.

But the necessity of excluding things in order to define others creates the binaries that often frustrate us.

Photo: Flickr ...-Wink-...

While defining what something is not can be useful, it can also be so restricting that it morphs into something else entirely. One place we see this is the labels people use to define themselves and others. When we think of ourselves (or others) as Democrats, we are also saying that we are necessarily not Republicans. That would be fine, but there are a ton of cultural assumptions that come along with those labels. People start throwing in "musts" that aren't necessarily tied to the actual definition of the word. Democrats "must" be pro-choice. Republicans "must" be pro-death penalty. There are thousands of these binaries that seem simple enough at first glance, but are actually rife with complications.

To explore some of these complications, I wanted to see what happened when I typed "Can you be a ______ and" into Google search and see what automated responses came up. Here's some of what I saw:

  • "Can you be a feminist and. . ."
    • be pro-life
    • be anti abortion
  • "Can you be a man and . . ."
    • a woman
  • "Can you be democrat and . . ."
    • a christian
    • a catholic
    • vote Republican
  • "Can you be republican and . . ."
    • vote democratic
  • "Can you be pro life and . . ."
    • pro choice
    • pro death penalty
    • pro war
    • eat meat
  • "Can you be pro choice and . . ."
    • christian
    • a catholic
    • pro life
  • "Can you be Christian and . . ."
    • buddhist
    • gay
    • greek
    • wiccan
These searches suggest that there are quite a few people struggling with how the labels they use to identify conflict (or, more darkly, that they're trying to find proof that others don't fit the labels they've claimed for themselves). What's at stake in these conflicts of definition is control of the parameters. If "Christian," for instance, does not exclude anything, it means nothing (or everything, which is basically the same thing). But who gets to decide what is excluded? When that exclusion is maintained by some sort of societal standard that has not been fully examined, the label may cease to be useful.

The problem may stem from people assuming that each label they wear must fit them completely. If a man labels himself both a "feminist" and a "Christian," it would be detrimental to then assume that the two are intricately intertwined. That's not to say that he isn't both of those things, but figuring out which parts of his beliefs are tied to one and which parts are tied to another requires a level of analysis that many people don't give to their identities. Instead, they find labels to wear and then let the different parts of their identities mix fluidly beneath them.

For instance, here are some labels I feel fit me: feminist, mother, wife. Certainly, the things that make me a "wife" are connected to the things that make me a "mother," and the things that make me both of those are also connected to what makes me a "feminist." It would be a horrible misrepresentation of any of these roles, however, to assume that other people must wear them in the same ways or to confuse one of the labels' attributes for another. Someone else could certainly be a "feminist" without being a "mother." Someone could be a "mother" without being a "wife." Just because my labels align and intertwine doesn't mean that I can tear them off, redistributing whatever baggage happened to stick on someone else's identity.

While some exclusion is necessary to prevent a label from being meaningless (it's hard for me to envision, for instance, a definition of "feminist" that could also include "pro-patriarchy"), we must be careful about how we make those exclusions and who we give the authority to do so.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Pro-Fathering Commercials During Up All Night

I'm watching Up All Night, the new sitcom about a stay-at-home dad and a working mom. So far, I'm not too impressed because the plot is revolving around the post-parent identity as a negation of everything positive in life, which--in my experience--isn't true, and is depressing regardless. I'm going to give it a chance; maybe it'll get better.

But what's already better? The pro-fathering commercials airing during the show.

Like this one:

Two fathers stand around talking about mini-vans. Meanwhile, the older son of one of the men tries to get his attention, but he's too into his conversation. Both men wrinkle their noses and do a quick sniff test on the diapers of their babies. "Not mine," they each say. Then they turn to the older child who has turned away, obviously signaling it's too late for the attention. The screen cuts to a bottle of Clorox "for all life's bleachable moments."

Now, I don't condone ignoring your child while he soils himself, but I do like that a) the fathers are shown wearing their children comfortably (no indication that this is a rare, awkward occurrence--while one child is crying, they are both bouncing to try to keep the babies calm and handling what could be frustrating with patience and calmness) and that b) they need to be concerned about laundry (both the hand plopping down the bottle of Clorox and the voice-over seem to be male).

There was also a Target commercial showing an entire family participating in the cooking throughout the day. I loved that it featured a black family and that the man wasn't portrayed as a "mother's helper." For half of the meals shown during the commercial, he's clearly the one in charge of the meal. In the other half, he's clearly following the woman's lead. It's a nice balance of equally sharing this household responsibility.

Finally, there was an ad for a car (sorry, they all run together in my head, indicating I'm not the target audience) that I'd seen before. A man leans through the passenger window giving his little girl (6 or 7 years old) advice on how to drive safely. It cuts away from the girl and when it cuts back, she's a teenager. Though this isn't pushing the gender norms as much as the other two commercials, it is portraying an active and caring father.

While I'm not completely sold on Up All Night yet, I am excited that there is a trend toward normalizing participatory fatherhood. Marketing is such a pervasive part of our lives, and it is a place where a lot of our societal norms are quietly crafted and maintained. I hope to see more involved fathers in commercials in the future.

Checking the Balances: What's Working, What Isn't

Image Credit: Digitalnative

This blog, ostensibly, is about my attempts to balance the various areas of my life. Usually, that takes the form of balancing the mental work, the thoughts, the philosophies, the contradictions, the purpose. Every once in a while, though, I like to check in on the balancing of the day-to-day stuff, the mundane work of it all.

See, I've always had a tendency to over do it. In high school, I layered jobs on top of one another and could often be found working two or three at a time. Some of this was the need for money. Most of it was the need to stay busy. I do not function well without activity. I crave the structure within the chaos, the way floating in and out of roles sharpens the edges of my own crafted identity.

I may have taken on a bit much this semester. I'm working full time, taking two graduate-level classes (I meant to only take one, but then they sent out the syllabus for the one I intended to drop, and, well, you know how it goes), still learning my role as a new mother, and adjuncting one English class. On paper (or screen), I know that looks a little crazy, but it's working. I swear it is.

Those things just seem to fall into place. Sometimes, though, the little things catch me completely off guard. I have no problem figuring out how to read for two classes while still finding time to grade papers, play with my daughter, talk to my husband, and watch a movie now and then. But ask me how I'm going to make dinner or get the bathroom clean, and we're in a whole other sphere of existence.

I've managed to get a handle on some of those little details, but others still baffle me. Here's a look at one issue I've recently gotten on top of and one that's driving me mad.
What's Working-Food 
Not that long ago, I was completely perplexed by how to handle the fact that I--and the rest of my family--had to eat food. It was so time consuming and so expensive. I also knew we weren't eating very healhfully. We were eating out two or three times a week, and not even enjoying it. I was grocery shopping haphazardly and throwing away meat and veggies that spoiled before I ever got around to making something with them.

We'd tried weekly grocery lists in the past, but before long we were back in the old habits. We recently switched to eating almost entirely whole foods without preservatives, which meant that a weekly shopping trip didn't really work--the food wouldn't stay fresh long enough. That seemed to be the trick, and everything has finally fallen into place. We now grocery shop as a family (which takes longer, but lets us spend time together) on Mondays or Wednesdays and then again on Fridays or Saturdays. We plan out dinners for each night, but--and this is a big change that shouldn't have taken me so long to figure out--I also buy a couple of emergency dinner plans that will stay good longer and can be made in a hurry (pasta and a jar of spaghetti sauce, a couple of frozen pizzas). I'm wasting less food, we're eating out less, and--though I wouldn't have believed you if you'd told me this when we first switched to healthier food--we're actually saving money.

Cooking the food is also a family affair. I do most of the cooking, but my husband and I use this time to talk about our day--which usually becomes a debate on some current event or another. Meanwhile, we put our daughter in her high chair and she plays and babbles along with us. This pattern will probably evolve as she gets older, but it works for now.

What's Not Working-The Dog

This is my dog, and I love him, but he is driving me crazy.

Now, don't start hating on me. I'm not thinking about getting rid of my dog; he's part of my family. We adopted him a little over two years ago from the Humane Society, where he had spent the first 11 months of his life after being nearly starved to death as a puppy. The previous "owners" had mutilated his ears--I assume in an attempt to "crop" them--which is why he looks a little like funny.

He is an affectionate, loveable goofball who has never met anyone--human or animal--he didn't want to befriend.

He also likes to eat baby bottles and breast pump parts as well as trash, diapers (dirty or new), and Tupperware containers.

This is mostly our fault. He's not getting enough time to run and get rid of the excess energy that defines him. We could alleviate this by taking him on walks, but he's horrible at leash manners. Horrible. Embarassingly horrible.

We're not neglectful of our role as authorities. He's been to obediance training, and he passed. He knows all of the commands and he likes to show that he can listen. He'll sit, stay, lay down, shake, go where you point, get in his crate, and come when called. He will sit, patiently waiting to be released for his dinner as long as we want. When he gets on a leash, however, he loses that part of his mind, and becomes fixated on pulling as hard as he can in whatever direction sparks his fancy. The commands no longer work because the part of his brain that controls hearing has shut down. When I asked the trainer from our group sessions what I should do, she looked at me with a sad sort of half-smile. "He's just high energy," she said reassuringly. Mm-hmm.

I've tried all the methods people have suggested. I've stood firm, refusing to move until he stops pulling. The result? We just never move; I stand firmly planted to the sidewalk like an idiot as my dog chokes himself with his front feet off the ground. Also, look at that picture. He is 75 pounds. This is no easy task. I tried a Gentle Leader to no effect. He has a harness that tightens if he pulls, but he seems oblivious to the discomfort this is supposed to cause. Without the harness, he'll just choke himself. He ignores treats, clickers, and loud noises.

So, we have a bored dog on our hands, which further exacerbates the problem because the energy he needs to get out and can't makes him even more horrible on the leash, so then he gets more bored and so on and so forth.

I think we're going to try an in-home trainer for a few sessions and see if she can help us figure out a solution. Anyone have any other suggestions?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Follow Up: Confronting the Med Student

After the incident with the med student who asked me if my daughter was adopted, I did some reflecting. Several people responded  that I should say something to the doctor about the med student's comment, and I reluctantly took their advice.

I wrote my doctor an email this morning explaining what happened and telling her that I didn't think he did it maliciously, but that the comment suggested he needed some lessons in how to navigate a multicultural and racially diverse landscape.

She responded quickly and apologetically, thanking me for contacting her and ensuring she would talk to the student.

Then, at the end of the workday, I got a call from her office. I knew it was the student calling to apologize after being reprimanded. I almost didn't answer it--not because I was too mad to talk or anything (the heat of the moment has pretty much died), but because the conversation was bound to be awkward and I didn't want to do it.

But I answered.

He talked quickly, but--what seemed to be--sincerely. He apologized for the comment, "I said a stupid thing without thinking, and I'm really sorry." When I told him that I never thought he meant it hurtfully, he seemed to sigh in relief and sounded much less scripted. Then he told me that the doctor had told him I likely had to face comments from people in my day-to-day life and that he hadn't really thought about how my family's situation might impact me. I told him that it could be frustrating and that it would help a lot if people like him, people training to be professionals, were more attuned to the realities of racial complexity. Then he told me he was sorry again, but glad that it had happened because he felt that he'd really learned something from it.

Sure. That could have all been lip service, and the doctor could have been sitting next to him and listening to make sure he followed through on the consequences of his reprimand, but I don't think so. He seemed sincere, and I feel a lot better about the situation.

Thank you to those who encouraged me to say something. You were right. After all, if you're not part of the solution .  . .

The Way I See It: Diverse Perspectives Matter

Jill Abramson, new executive director for the New York Times, is in some hot water over claiming that being a woman brought no change in perspective for the paper:
Do you think any readers noticed it when I was a managing editor and had a major role in the play and picking of stories online and in print? The idea that women journalists bring a different taste in stories or sensibility isn’t true.
Several women who study gender in journalism share a different opinion, among them June O. Nicholson, who explains that:
collectively the presence of women as top editors and leaders does make a difference. Part of this is life experience. Diversity among editors and top management helps ensure that a variety of perspectives are a part of the decision-making and coverage of issues. Diversity, including gender diversity, should be an important consideration in every newsroom and company.
Abramson claims gender-neutrality as a good thing, and it's easy to see how someone could take the statement that women manage news material "differently" and spin it to the conclusion that they manage it "worse" than men. Her stance doesn't seem like it was intended to alienate women, but what's at stake when we ignore the diversity of perspectives, deny the fact that different life experiences manifest themselves through our work?

Consider this report from the Directors Guild of America, which found that 77% of all television episodes produced in 2010-2011 were directed by white men. The site includes a list of shows that hired no women or minority directors for the entire season (among them, iCarly, which is interesting to me since its target audience is young girls).

Maybe it's tempting to say that it doesn't matter who directs these shows or who edits our major media outlets, tempting to claim that gender-neutrality would be a step away from gender norms but research (and life experience) suggests that perspective matters and the way you frame your identity is a large part of perspective.

Media has a tremendous influence on the way we view our world. Television shows and news reports are a window into our frame of reality. If that window is overwhelmingly controlled by the dominant segment of society, that dominance remains unchecked. Bringing in other viewpoints gives us the opportunity to examine things through new lenses and deconstruct the assumptions surrounding our existing frames of reference.

Connected to this is the way we consume information to begin with. Are you more likely to seek out information if it comes from a particular lens? Chances are, the answer is yes. We like to find affirming points of view, points that support our own ways of thinking.

For instance, my Google Reader feed contains a lot of feminist parenting blogs. There are days when I can become immersed in the language of these discussions and almost forget that this is a minority viewpoint. Similarly, a study I wrote about a while back suggesting that parents who equally share parenting responsibilities seek out social groups that support that decision and avoid those who don't. This suggests that even when we make decisions that are specifically designed to go against the grain (perhaps even because we would like to enact change in a larger societal norm), we are more comfortable when the abnormality of our choices isn't pointed out to us.

PhD in Parenting recently tackled some of the issues surrounding this phenomenon in a post titled "Is shame a barrier to social change?" Here, the question is whether advocating for one thing (such as support for breastfeeding or the prevention of teen pregnancies) is the equivalent of shaming everyone who falls outside of that scope (such as shaming formula feeding mothers or all mothers who had babies as teenagers).

It is hard to accept other perspectives as equally valid without questioning our own because we get much-needed support and affirmation by seeing other people agree with us. This is especially true when online technologies have made it possible to craft communities outside of geographical constraints. I can talk to feminists mothers all over the globe and feel like I'm not alone. You can find someone who is just as enamored as you are by comic books and vintage superhero toys. By honing in on these shared experiences, we strengthen our identities and build confidence in our ideas.

But we run the risk of shutting out the opportunity to learn more, to do more, to grow more. Valuing diverse perspectives can be hard work, but it is necessary work to illuminate the gaps we've left in our own thinking (and believe me, there are gaps--the world is complex).

What does watching television overwhelmingly created by white men do to our collective view of reality? Does consuming news edited by women open the possibility for new ways of looking at old issues? What can listening without needing to defend our own identity do for our ways of knowing and belonging?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Responding to Rudeness--What's Up With That?

I spent this morning at my daughter's nine-month check-up. It, for some unknown reason, took three hours. By the end, she barely even registered the shot because she was screaming so much out of boredom and frustration. I felt a little like screaming, too, and there was a part of the whole interaction that didn't sit well with me.

The doc came in for a brief moment to ask if it would be okay for her med student to do the pre-exam questions. I said sure, she left, and in steps a young, friendly, well-dressed med student. He asks how she's doing, if she's hitting milestones, etc. He asked what she was eating, and I gave him a list of some of the many table foods she eats (a list that included avocados, sweet potatoes, spinach, nectarines, bananas, and apples). He switched to a patronizing tone and told me, "Now, really, we suggest that you stick to mostly veggies because when they get a taste of those sweet things like cake, ice cream, and nectarines, they really don't want to eat the vegetables." Cake. Ice cream. Nectarines. One of these things is not like the others. But I just smiled and nodded, ensuring him that she ate plenty of veggies.

Then, he checked her grip and said something that confused me: "Is she adopted or what's up with that . . . (without pausing for my reply, he looks up, sees my face, which I suspected was somewhere between amusement and anger and stumbles on awkwardly). . . and, um, and you said she was in daycare, right?"

"No. She's not adopted."

"Oh. Okay. And, um, she babbling and responding to her name?"

I didn't press any further, mainly because he seemed to at least realize that the question was awkward and inappropriate. I tried to just shake it off, but the "what's up with that" really stuck with me. What did the "that" refer to? My daughter's curly hair? Her dark complexion? Her brown eyes?

I never know how to respond to these things. My husband and I usually grocery shop and run errands together, but when I am out alone with my daughter, I seem to get comments and odd looks that throw me off guard. Once, in Walmart, a woman walked up to me and said, "Oh my gosh! She's so adorable! What's she mixed with?" "Labrador," I wanted to respond.

See, when it's out and out malevolent racism, I know how to respond. But when it's cluelessness and seemingly well-meaning comments with a smattering of racist insensitivity, I don't know what to do--but I need to figure out a good way to handle it before my daughter gets old enough to understand the conversations.

Update: I did end up confronting the med student. You can read about it here.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Names, Identity, and the Earliest Labeling

People laugh at me when I say my last name. It's long. I hyphenated it when I got married, tacking my husband's five-letter, two-syllable name onto my ten-letter, four-syllable one. Sure. It's long. I used to be self-conscious about it when I had to say it to strangers (bank tellers, for instance, or on the phone trying to make doctor's appointments). I'd make little jokes: "Yeah, it just wasn't long enough so I had to tack on some more!" But, when I really stopped to think about it, it's pretty rude to laugh at someone just for saying her name. I stopped qualifying it. I stopped laughing back. My name is important to me, and--though it's a small thing in the face of all the things that are wrong in the world--it's a tiny battle for my own identity when I refuse to let it be mocked.

I read this St. Louis Post Dispatch article about name changes today. In it, a series of name changes (both odd and more typical) are catalogued and discussed. Synthia became Calvin as a step in a sex change operation. The Kmieciks became the Kents because they were tired of having to spell their difficult-to-pronounce name. People dropped hyphenated parts of their names to avoid computerized documentation snafus (and I feel their pain). Among the less conventional, George F. Blackburn became Led Zepplin II as a way to reinvent himself after his third divorce. Robert James Reed became Robert 52 Jackson to honor his favorite rapper, 50 Cent.

So, what's in a name? Something, apparently. And if the power to rename ourselves is tied to the power to craft our own identities (in the above examples, name changes signal an immigrant family becoming American, a woman becoming a man, and a divorced man severing his past), what kind of power do we have as parents naming our children? And what responsiblity accompanies that power?

Obviously, our children can later strip themselves of those names just as the people in this article do. But a name has a way of hanging around, leaving behind residue like a sticker you can't quite remove. Even if you recreate yourself, the old you is in the background.

It's a big responsibility, to give a name.

Consider this college counselor whose name is--wait for it--Marijuana Pepsi Jackson. She chooses to go by her legal name as a "symbol of her struggle to succeed." And what a way for whoever decided that was the earliest label to place on his/her child to add to that struggle. A name can have a much greater impact than a few awkward glances or rude giggling.

After all, studies have shown that "black-sounding" names get fewer call backs than "white-sounding" names on resumes, even when the credentials are identical. This has resulted in some job seekers, like Tahani Tompkins from this NYTimes article, "whitening" their resumes (Tahani became T.S. Tompkins). As John L. Jackson Jr., an anthropology professor, points out in the same article, "In some ways, they are denying who and what they are. . . They almost have to pretend themselves away.”

The choice to name a child carries all sorts of baggage. There are often pressures to keep a family name alive, or at the very least to choose a name that pays some sort of homage to heritage. For us, that could get ridiculous in a hurry. My paternal grandmother was a second-generation German immigrant, my paternal grandfather a second-gen Italian immigrant. My maternal grandparents add to the mix Irish, Native American, and Dutch heritages. I don't closely connect with any of these traditions. My husband is African American. An attempt to give my daughter a name that honors her heritage would leave her with more than she could handle, I think.

The pervasiveness of product placement has also crept into names (as Marijuana Pepsi demonstrates above). It makes me think of the movie Idiocracy, in which the President is named Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho.

Then there are cultural pressures. You don't want to give a child a name that's too popular or too uncommon. You don't want to accidentally scar a kid by tapping into some cultural phenomenon, but sometimes you can't help it (how many Katrinas do you think are going by less destruction-laden monikers these days?)

I struggled over what name to give my daughter. In the end, she got a somewhat uncommon (but not that uncommon) first name, a family middle name, my maiden name as a second middle name, and her father's last name. That's a lot of names. When I say all of her names together, it sounds a little like a law firm--a powerful law firm, I tell myself. IIn the end, I hope that I've left her with options on how she can use those names in a way that best fits who she will become. My aim was to balance the responsibility and power of this earliest labeling with the freedom to self-identify I hope my daughter will have. Only time will tell if I succeeded.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

What's the Point of Maternity Leave?

Belinda Luscombe writes about a lawsuit in this Time article. Kara Krill is suing her employer for not extending maternity leave benefits to her after the birth of her twins by a surrogate. The employer wants only to grant the five-day leave given to adoptive mothers and all fathers, not the 12 week leave given to mothers who give birth. Krill argues that she is not adopting her twins; she has a legal document stating that she and her husband are the biological parents to these children, so she should be given the full maternity leave.

As Luscombe points out, what's really at stake isn't the lexical acrobatics of this particular maternity leave policy, but rather the point of maternity leave at all:
If maternity leave is offered so that women can recover from what is, at best, the incredibly messy and strenuous business of giving birth, then new mothers like Krill who use surrogates would not really deserve paid leave, since they are not doing the hard yards of labor and delivery.

But paid maternity leave could also be regarded the same way as paid leave for jury duty — something a company does out of civic responsibility. Supporting new mothers as they bond with their children, learn to care for them and give them a good start is beneficial for society and for the survival of the species.
This connects to my earlier blog post about Gen Xers getting angry over parents "lucking out" in job benefits. What is the point of these benefits? Is it akin to sick leave, allowing for physical recovery? Is it an acknowledgment of the social responsibility of shaping good future citizens through parenting? Is it, as parts of the Gen X article suggests, an unfair bias toward the "hobby" of raising children?

Surely, labor and delivery is a trying physical act, and mothers need time to recover. Some mothers need more than others due to their own delivery experience (C-sections take longer to heal, for instance) or their own personal recovery, both physical and mental.

I took seven weeks off after my daughter was born, and then I worked another five weeks part-time. I was physically healed (enough to do my job anyway) within two weeks of delivery, but the all-consuming nature of caring for a newborn was too much. I certainly could not have returned to work and done an adequate job much earlier than I did.

Luscombe cites June Carbone, a law professor, who says "I can't see that an employer would be able to provide women with maternity leave for the purpose of bonding with a child, where the woman has not given birth, and not be obligated to provide men with the same benefit."

But if the purpose of maternity leave is not (at least solely) physical healing, then fathers, too, have the right to take time off and care for their children. If the parents plan to equally share parenting responsibilities, fathers have the responsibility to be present and active in these early days when routines are developed and lessons are learned.

All social ramifications and gender equality aside, this case raises some very practical problems. Most daycares will not accept children younger than 6 weeks. What, then, can a parent like Krill do when she's given only five days of leave?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Is Raising a Child Like Playing the Cello?

I'm not speaking in metaphors. I'm referring to this Huffington Post article that discusses many Gen X women's decision not to have children. The article discusses how many women in the 33-46 year old range (Gen Xers) do not have or plan to have children by age 40, and the reality of fertility means that many have essentially made the choice not to have them at all. Sylvia Anne Hewlett, president of the Center for Work Life Policy weighs in with the observation that "many individuals decide they want to do two things well, and not three things badly. Those two things are their relationship and their career."

What interests me the most about this article is Hewlett's assertion about women's perceptions on how their choice to remain childless affects them in the workplace:
Many companies have a bunch of benefits and support policies around working parents. There's flextime, paid parenting leave, telecommuting options, these things are not unusual these days. Often times, non-parents feel that all the best benefits are going to one demographic: those who are married with small kids. If you've got a two-year-old, you luck out. If you want to run a marathon or play the cello or volunteer, you have a really hard time getting any legitimacy around those things.
First of all, I feel the need to point out that those benefits and support policies aren't in place for all (or even most) working parents. The work/life balance is far from a priority in many workplaces, particularly lower wage hourly positions.

But, for the sake of argument, let's say that there is more workplace flexibility for a working parent. I don't have anything against running marathons or playing cellos. I like to volunteer. I have a lot of hobbies (writing this blog among them). I fit these things into the spaces (however big or small they may be at that particular moment) of my life. I write on my lunch break. I volunteer on Saturdays, and I seek out opportunities where I can bring my daughter so that I don't have to lose valuable time with her. I read books while I'm waiting in lines.

I cannot parent on the breaks. I cannot tell my daughter that her diaper can only be changed when I finish grading a stack of papers. I cannot put her on a shelf in the closet while I run errands. My role as a parent is not the same as my role as a volunteer because it is not a hobby and, once the decision is made to become a parent in the first place, it is not optional. It is not a crime to leave your cello in the basement for a week, and no one is going to die if you do so.

I see how this line of discussion can get ugly in a hurry. I understand how those who have chosen not to have children can ask why their choice isn't equally supported in the workplace, and I think that's a valid argument.

I just don't think that trying to compare parenting to a hobby is the way to make that argument. My child is not a cello.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Baby Roulette? Maybe It's Baby Poker.

Are you playing baby roulette? That's the question posed in this recent Glamour article by Michelle Stacey. Stacey combines some shocking statistics (50% of American pregnancies are unplanned, most among women under 29, the number of women who've had sex without protection rose 35% between 1995 and 2008) and some interviews to come to the conclusion that many young women are purposely playing fast and loose with their birth control to deal with an ambivalence toward pregnancy.

Wait. What?

Stacey suggests that women are facing career pressures and stifling the conscious urge to have children. She gives us Alison, a 21-year-old college student who uses condoms "sometimes" as an example:

“But there’s also a little part of me—maybe a big part—that secretly wants to get pregnant. That would make the decision for me, and I’d deal with it. Sometimes being a stay-at-home mom sounds easier than having to compete out there in a tough job market.” But it’s hard to admit those dreams to her crowd of ambitious college classmates. Veronica agrees: “There’s a sense that it’s not cool to get married and have kids right out of college. But if you just ‘get pregnant,’ you don’t face society’s judgment. If anything, it becomes kind of heroic: ‘Wow, what a sacrifice. She made the choice to raise her baby!"
The article ends with a somewhat didactic tone, urging women to think of the women's movement and the choices it's given them:

In short, do you want to be a mom right now? If the answer is no, then you can’t play baby roulette. “The women’s movement was all about giving us choices,” says Marjorie Sable, Ph.D., a professor of social work at the University of Missouri, who studies pregnancy intention. “The choice to become a mother—or the decision not to—is equally legitimate.” The point is to make a choice, not let chance make the choice for you.
I see the statistics and I follow the logic, but something about this article rings--I don't know--off, somehow. Are women really feeling so much pressure to be in successful careers that they have to pretend they don't want babies and then trick themselves into having them by "forgetting" to take the Pill? It just seems like a lot of mental hoops to jump through. And it seems suspicious that young women capable of undergoing that much mental work (tricking themselves into a conscious action based on the unconscious desires stifled by their conscious decision to fit into societal norms by overthrowing other societal norms--aren't you tired just thinking about it?) would also be capable of recognizing that "accidentally" getting pregnant doesn't make the reality of the way pregnancy and a baby fits into their lives any easier.

I think that there is another complication that could explain at least some of this "Baby Roulette" game. The pressures to conceive a child are pretty great. You need only look at the fertility support groups on any pregnany message boards to know that there are thousands and thousands of women struggling with concerns about whether they can, in fact, get pregnant. If you openly admit (even if it's only to yourself) that you are "trying" to get pregnant, you also open yourself up to a whole host of vulnerabilities.

Or perhaps Stacey hits the nail on the head when she attributes this phenomenon to tensions with perceived feminist ideals. Maybe these young women don't think they're supposed to want to have a baby yet, so this ambivalent stance feels like a middle road.

Perhaps it's not so much "Baby Roulette" as "Baby Poker." I want to think that these women are not truly opening themselves up to pure chance and luck with no concern over their own agency in their lives. Maybe, instead, they've put on a poker face and are allowing a little bit of chance to play in with their own carefully crafted strategies.

Or maybe they all just feel luckier than I do, because the idea of just leaving pregnancy completely up to chance terrifies me.

What do you think?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Some Thoughts On Marriage

My feminism is dependent upon my marriage. Wait, wait! Put down the pitchforks. Let me explain. 

I'm not saying that feminism is dependent upon marriage (or any relationship). I'm not even saying that I wouldn't have found a different type of feminist lifestyle had I not gotten married. What I'm saying is my feminism--the way I'm living it out right now--is dependent upon my particular marriage.

I started thinking about these things because of this interview with Richard Banks, author of Is Marriage for White People? I can't even begin to answer the question in Banks' title, and though I am interested in the social implications that Banks discusses, I also feel like marriage is one of the most personal decisions we make and it's hard for me to try to make generalizations about it for other people.

While the primary thesis of Banks' book is obviously concerned with race (and, as this Root article points out, suggests interracial marriage as a cure for the problem), he also tackles some more general ideas about marriage and relationships, especially how they intertwine with the feminist movement.

At one point in this interview, Banks even states that "A less charitable take is that it's doing a disservice to black women to manipulate their experience for the ideological ends of feminism."

When asked if equating happiness with a relationship and children is problematic, Banks responds:
The overwhelming majority of people do want to have children because they do want to nurture a young person and project themselves into the next generation. I think an even larger number of people want to have a partner. Maybe they don't when they're in college or just after college, but as they get older, most people tend to want to have an ongoing, intimate relationship with someone. 
This is problematic. Feminism should not be (and I don't think it is) at odds with marriage. It should not be on the opposing end of a spectrum that faces off with children and a steady relationship. (Banks also explains that "we should be clear that marriage decline is shorthand for the decline in stable, committed, intimate relationships."  This ignores the fact that marriage cannot be shorthand for this for people who are not legally allowed to marry, but at least it opens up the discussion a little).
You can be married (or be in a "stable, committed, intimate relationship"), have children, and be a feminist. This is where I started thinking about my own marriage.

As a little girl, I didn't dream of getting married and starting a family. In kindergarten, I declared I wanted to be a marine biologist, a goal I held onto throughout most of high school. My primary goal was to get to college, a feat in and of itself for a troubled kid growing up in a poor, single-mother household.

At the same time, I've always been pretty skeptical of tradition for tradition's sake. Marriage doesn't seem like a necessity. People should be free to live their lives however works for them.

How, then, did I end up married at 23 and a mother at 25? Did I fail somewhere along the line? Lose sight of my goals? Give in to tradition?

My husband lived across the hall from me in our freshman year dorms. We appeared, I assume, complete opposites. He was an outgoing football player; I was a quiet bookworm. He's black; I'm white. He's from the inner-city; I grew up on a gravel road on the outskirts of a tiny town. But we bonded quickly over a love to debate and a true thirst for information. We learned of these similarities on weekends when most everyone else in our dorm would head back home and we found ourselves talking for hours. Our friendship grew not into attraction, but with it, our relationship a complex combination.

We started living together when we were 20. The statistics on such endeavors are grim, but it worked for us. And work is an important word. We were both from the first generation in our family to go to college, and neither of us had much of a financial support system to fall back on. As we began to plan for our futures, we knew we would have to work hard to build the kind of life we said we wanted. And then we did it.

We worked through undergrad and into graduate school (for me) and law school (for him). We decided which school to attend based on where we both got accepted. We supported each other through late nights of studying and rock bottom bank accounts. We made decisions together. We bought a house together and then cursed every repair together. We adopted a dog. We debated race, politics, the law, literature, and which color to paint the kitchen. We decided to have a baby, and we're learning how to parent together.

Am I too young? Some have said so (some even to my face). Do my roles as a mother and wife limit my career? If we're speaking hypothetically, they could. I am certainly limited more geographically because I have another career to think about along with my own. I do not have the freedom to take any position I want. But you can't play the what-if game without going in the other direction. It is equally or more possible that, without the love and support I've received through my marriage, I wouldn't have been able to take the opportunities I have taken. A ship's anchor might keep it from exploring distant lands, but it can also keep it safe, and we have weathered many storms.

In the end, I think about the implication that feminism stands on one end of the spectrum, glaring down at women who aspire to be wives and mothers. While, yes, limiting a woman's place in life to those roles is sexist and degrading, denying the value of those roles is equally so. While I feel the confines of sexist systems of oppression in the larger society, I feel that my own life is a space where I am safe to step outside those confines. I have the freedom to try and fail, and I have the freedom to try and succeed. My marriage helps make that possible.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Turning at the Intersection

I'm thinking about intersections. What initially got me thinking about intersections is this post from Feministe, but I think that just got me thinking about the word "intersection." I was already thinking about the concept.

Intersectionality (as you'll see from the comments on that post) can mean a lot of things, especially when it's being used in terms of feminism and other movements against systems of oppression. One way to frame intersectionality is by looking at the way that the different labels we wear (by choice or by force) place us in different groups. A woman who identifies as both gay and black has a personal stake in fighting racism, homophobia, and sexism.

These more academic uses of intersectionality are certainly important, but they're not the intersections I'm thinking about. I'm thinking about something more akin to the intersections pointed out in this New York Times opinion piece by Curtis Sittenfield. She explains how she just joined Facebook for the first time. The thing that kept her from joining it earlier was the way that Facebook seemed to force her to demonstrate one of her "selves" above the others, without the benefit of tweaking that identity for different audiences (though, actually, there are some functional choices you can make on Facebook about which parts of yourself to show to which group of "friends," so you can decide to show more or less of your self depending on who is viewing).

I've often had some of the same misgivings about the portrayal of my "selves," especially through online media. Now that I link these posts to my Facebook page, people that I haven't actually interacted with in face-to-face communication for years can see them. It's not that I'm ashamed of anything I say here, but it does make me wonder how people connect these words and the "self" of me that they once knew. Am I what they expected? Am I a cautionary tale of how grad school can make you an over-analytic ball of crazy? How many people have "x"'d my Facebook updates from their feeds because the "self" that I portray doesn't mesh with the updates they're there to see? What about people who only hear from me through these posts and what they see on Facebook? If they run into me on the street, will I match who they think I am? Am I thinking about this too much?

What's really happening is an intersection between my academic self and my personal self, but even that is too cut and dry. Neither of those selves are whole or fixed. My academic self changes her mind daily about what, exactly, it is that she wants to do with her life (she's fickle, that one). My personal self inhibits all of those familiar spaces--mother, wife, daughter, friend, sister--to lesser or greater extents depending on, usually, which one is in dire need of attention. And neither one exists without the other.

Am I just the sum of these parts? Am I more? Less? A blank page with a different story every day?

At the end of it all, the intersections are both what complicates things and makes us who we are. We're meaning-making creatures, and we're going to find labels for just about every action and attribute that we can identify. It's how we make sense of the world around us. The layering of those labels, then, may be the closest we can get to true individuality. If you peeled them all away--tossing forth a whirlwind of "women," "mothers," "feminists," "scholars," "daughters," "vegetarians," "skateboarders," "Democrats," "brunettes," "customers," "wives," "modernists" and so on--what would you find underneath?

Perhaps all we are are intersections. No wonder they're so hard to define.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Obesity, Health, and Oppression: What -isms Lie in Wait?

I'd be lying if I said that I never have concerns over what I look like. I'd also be lying if I said that didn't extend to body size. I've struggled with weight, and--even though I'm now probably in the healthiest mind frame I've ever been about the connection between my personal weight and health--I'd also be lying if I said I'm not excited about the numbers dropping on the scale and my clothes getting looser. My main concern is health. I want to be healthy. I want to be able to run a few miles without passing out. I want to feel strong and capable. But I can't pretend like I don't also take a glance at the way my clothes fit in the mirror and feel good about that, too.

Many, many women in my family struggle with their weight. There have been surgeries. There have been diets. There has been yo-yoing and self-shaming and group-shaming and pain over weight.

From my personal experience with weight, weight loss, and health concerns, I approached an article posted on Shakesville  with a particular lens, and as I read that lens got . . . well foggy. [Edit: This was the first time I had visited Shakesville, and it will be the last. People have the right to run their blogs however they want, but this site is a little too totalitarian for my tastes. With that in mind, I removed the link because I'd rather not send traffic there. You can search for it if you'd like to read the article, as I still think that the points raised are interesting and worth discussing.]

The author, Melissa McEwan, takes a well-argued and eloquent stance against a celebrity-backed petition calling for initiatives to fight against obesity. Her issue is primarily with the underlying principle that "OBESITY IS PREVENTABLE," which is key to the petition. To this, she responds:
It's always nice to see wealthy people with access to the best food, comprehensive healthcare, personal trainers, private chefs, and individual nutritional plans put their names to a petition admonishing the fatties that OBESITY IS PREVENTABLE.

She goes on to say that she will always be obese, and that campaigning to eliminate obesity is the same as campaigning to eliminate her. Finally, she says that fat acceptance in the future will make us embarassed by the intolerance we currently display, that "one day, people will look back at this revolting petition and wonder how the fuck such unapologetic hatred was popular enough that celebrities were tripping over each other to sign their names to it."

I think that her points are valid, and I'm especially convinced that there are other -isms tied up in the imagism we use to denigrate overweight and obese people. She mentions that not all people have access to healthy food, and this brings up both classism and racism (and there's an interesting piece about trying to eat healthy on food stamps from Civil Eats here). Weight loss is often hindered by limited mobility, so ableism comes into play. And, of course, women are particularly prone to imagist attacks, so sexism factors in as well.

But I still feel conflicted. While trying to figure out why I felt conflicted, I remembered this article from a recent Glamour magazine. In it, Jess Weiner, an advocate for body acceptance and a plus-sized woman who authored books about the topic, tells her story of being heckled by an audience member at a book reading. The woman asked "How can you honestly tell us that you love your body?” she asked. “You are obese.” While the audience shunned the woman and her rudness, Weiner says it was an eye-opening moment that motivated her to go to a doctor for a check-up. There, she learned that she weighed 250 pounds and nearly every test (from cholesterol to triglycerides) showed up as at-risk health factors. She was categorized as prediabetic and told to lose weight for the sake of her health.

And she did. She lost 25 pounds, an amount she wished was bigger until her doctor pointed out that it had been enough to bring all of her numbers into normal ranges. She ends with this:

I understand why women are so fed up with being told by society (and doctors) that they need to get to some “ideal” size. I get why they’d want to rebel and no longer care about weight—I’ve been there too. But we also can’t pretend illness doesn’t happen to us. Health matters, and paying attention to markers like your cholesterol, blood pressure and, yes, your weight doesn’t mean you’re giving in to some societal ideal. It means that you’re listening to your body on the inside, which is a crucial part of loving yourself completely.
I don't want to be dismissive of McEwan's viewpoints, as I see her points, but I also don't want to be dismissive of very real health risks associated with obesity. Being in tune with these risks does not in any way give people the right to shame or hate a person over his/her body. And painting with a broad brush that claims obesity is preventable ignores the diversity that makes us human beings and alienates people for whom it truly is not preventable. At the end of the day, I hope that we can separate out a message that says self-worth is tied to body size from one that says that self-respect is tied to being as healthy as you can be.

Finally, if I take McEwan's viewpoints to heart, does that mean that feeling good about losing weight and getting fit makes me complicit in a system of oppression? It feel paradoxical that taking pride in my own weight loss accomplishments could be tied up in eliminationism for other women.