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The Beauty Advantage

2nd August 2010

The Beauty Advantage

by Rachel

I meant to post this the other week, but that pesky thing called life got in the way and I back-burnered it.  Newsweek has put together an awesome special feature on the advantages (and yes, even disadvantages) of being beautiful and how it can affect our lives, careers and health.  There are a lot of great multimedia links to follow, but here’s a few that caught my attention:

(And in my own addendum on the subject, I highly recommend Kathy Peiss’ Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture and — what I consider the definitive work on the history of American cultural beauty standards — Lois W. Banner’s American Beauty: A Social History…Through Two Centuries of the American Idea, Ideal, and Image of the Beautiful Woman.)

I think that most of us would agree that lookism is A Bad Thing, but surprisingly, in a survey conducted by Newsweek, only 46 percent of the public said they would favor a law making hiring discrimination based on appearance illegal.  Is this a case of a deluded public who’s bought the beauty myth hook, line and sinker?  Or could it be a pragmatic public realizing the practicalities of such a law difficult to enforce?   Your thoughts on this and the other columns and galleries in Newsweek’s special feature on beauty?

posted in Body Image, Fashion, Fat Bias, Feminist Topics, Pop Culture, Rachel, vintage ads | 4 Comments

9th June 2010

The Wednesday Weigh-In

by Rachel

Margarita Tartakovsky of the blog Weightless interviews Cheryl Kerrigan, author of the new book Telling ED NO! and Other Practical Tools to Conquer Your Eating Disorder and Find Freedom.

Fat Lot of Good blogger Bri weighs in on a recent study that found that children whose mothers were chronically abused by their partners were more likely to be fat by age 5.  Because being fat is so much more pressing of an issue than being victimized by domestic violence.

Urban Outfitters removes what many are calling a pro-ana t-shirt from its website, but the “Eat Less” shirt remains available in stores.   Outraged?  Join the Girlcott Urban Outfitters group on Facebook.

Should appearance-based discrimination be treated with the same weight as we give to other -isms like racism and sexism?  That’s the question Deborah Rhodes tackles in her new book, The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law. Read Dahlia Lithwick’s review of the book on Slate.

Just when you thought the insanity would never end…  It’s not enough that some parents lose custody of their obese children because of their weight.  Now a British animal welfare council has seized custody of an obese dog.  The pudgy pup Gucci is said to now be on a strict diet and exercise regime at a special canine fat club.

FEAST has launched its Around the Dinner Table Plate Drive through June.  The fundraising initiative supports the group’s mission, which is to empower families and support parents and caregivers in helping loved ones recover from eating disorders.

The British Mail’s Lucy Taylor ruminates on on how she gave up running and learned to simply enjoy the journey.

Oprah.com contributor Karen Salmansohn looks at the Fox and ABC refusal to air the sexy new Lane Bryant lingerie commercials in a different light: “The fact that a TV network would find this Lane Bryant spot far more sexually enticing than Victoria’s Secret spots — which air all the time — simply shows they’re acknowledging the extreme sexiness of voluptuous women!”

Comments?  Any links to share?  Add your two cents in the comments below.

posted in Anorexia, Body Image, Body Politic, Body-Affirming, Eating Disorders, Fat Bias, Feminist Topics, Legal Issues, Mental Health, Non-profits, Politics, Pop Culture, Rachel | 12 Comments

7th June 2010

Replacing racism with sizeism? Not cool, Wonkette

by Rachel

So, the blog Wonkette recently opined on Prescott, Az. city councilman Steve Blair who used AM talk radio show to advocate for the removal of a black child’s face from a downtown mural.  Arizona isn’t exactly considered a bastion of racial tolerance right now, what with the passage of SB 1070, a stringent law many (myself included) would argue only legalizes racial profiling of Hispanics.  But the case of the mural, which was drawn from the photographs of actual children enrolled at the nearby, racially-diverse Miller Valley School, is especially egregious.  Blair’s call for the removal of an African-American child figured prominently in the mural was met with a wave of Waspian support, with even the school’s principal pressuring the artists behind the mural to lighten — a.k.a. whiten – the faces of children depicted (the principal has since backed down).  And this is just the latest insult — the children who worked alongside the artists were repeatedly subjected to drive-by racial slurs and epithets during the months-long project.  Read more on this affront to decency here.

Wonkette, like so many others, was naturally outraged by the blatant racism, as was radio channel KYCA, who promptly and appropriately fired Blair from his radio show (he still remains a city councilman).  In an blog update about the firing, Wonkette had this to say about Blair:

HE SHOULD BE DUMPED IN A CESSPOOL FILLED WITH BOILING BP CRUDE, etc.

But whatever, look at this fat fucking hunchbacked pig, and pity him if you have that kind of generous soul.

Not to take attention away from this horrible display of racism, but is anyone else struck by the inherent hypocrisy of Wonkette replacing one form of -ism — racism — with yet another form of -ism — sizeism?  There are plenty of slurs with which to hurl Blair’s way — racist, bigot, uninformed, xenophobic and spineless, ignorant twit, to name just a few — but commentary on his size and appearance should not be among them.  Not only are these remarks entirely irrelevant to Blair’s speech and actions, such comments, in fact, only perpetuates the  exploitive hegemonies and ideology of domination that buttresses all forms of discrimination.  As Shirley Chisholm once said, In the end antiblack, antifemale, and all forms of discrimination are equivalent to the same thing – antihumanism.

posted in Body Politic, Fat Bias, Race Issues, Rachel | 14 Comments

20th May 2010

Guest post: Fasting for God or holy anorexia?

by Rachel

Speaking of women, food and god… Reader Jocelyn (who comments here by the name J.S.) contacted me a few weeks ago proposing a guest blog entry on the convergence of fasting for religious purposes and eating disorders among women of faith — and we’re not just talking here about pursuit of the Gospel of Thinness. As someone who subscribes to spiritual beliefs (Buddhism) in which followers promote many dictates around food (no meat or alcohol, eat only until you’re 80 percent full, etc…), I was intrigued to learn more about the fasting traditions held in other religions.* Many religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, incorporate fasting into spiritual beliefs, believing it to give followers a heightened sense of self-awareness and more intimate connection with god or nature. Yet I was still a bit shocked to read in Jocelyn’s guest post of the extreme fasting lengths to which some people of faith will go — and how quickly those religious motivations can morph into something entirely more dangerous and insidious.

“You have to watch it with those religious girls,” my sister murmured to me under cover of the blender noise.

I looked away from my room-mate, who was shoving a concoction of blueberries, soy milk, and bananas into the blender’s pitcher across the kitchen. “What do you mean?”

“That’s going to be her only meal today? She’s ‘fasting’?” At my nod, she added, “Didn’t you tell me she’s anorexic?”

I shifted, uncomfortable. “Well, she was. I mean, obviously she’s not starving herself now, she looks healthy…”

“Maybe she’s still trying to starve herself,” my sister said softly, just before the motor cut out.

At the time I had recently moved to the area in order to become part of a large group of Christian people who believe in something called the “fasted lifestyle.” As preached, the fasted lifestyle means voluntary restraint, from spending to housing to food—in other words, one lives in a simple fashion in order to have greater resources to devote to the Kingdom of God. As practiced by many of the early twenty-something women who devoted themselves to the cause, it became practical, religious-sanctioned anorexia.

I didn’t know this when I moved there. I had friends from a previous year spent in the city; we had all belonged to a church that was now defunct. Many of them had joined the group before I returned. I liked their message of whole-hearted devotion. I still do, which is why I’m not naming it; the leaders practice what they preach. But. When I would hang out, outside the building, I would overhear snatches of conversation that should have given me pause.

“She’s only eating one meal a day for… forever. She’s, like, totally devoted.” (This was about a church leader who was in her early twenties at the time.)

“What are you fasting from this time?” “He said we’re not supposed to talk about it so we don’t compare… Okay. I’m doing liquids only.” “Oh man. Maybe I should make mine tougher. I was just going to go no meats, no sweets.”

“It was supposed to be a 21-day fast, but I lost ten pounds so I thought maybe I should go to forty days?”

I wasn’t self-aware enough to realize it, but this was a toxic scene for me. I had recently lost quite a bit of weight through extremely regimented means, although it was all physician-approved, and I lived with the daily fear that I would gain it all back. Every time I stepped on the scale, and it was often, I would suffer a shaft of icy panic if I had even gained one pound. When my room-mate moved into my apartment, we fed each others’ obsessions. We would go and eat monster servings of frozen custard, and then declare we were fasting for the next two weeks—or at least until we could fit into our skinny jeans again. But of course, the fasting was all for God, not for us… right?

Eventually I moved back to my home state. Once there, I found a church that I felt comfortable with. They were loosely connected with my previous spiritual leaders, and preached a similar message. I slowly regained some stability in my eating habits. I stopped obsessing over weight gain. All was well for a couple of years… And then I noticed that fasting was becoming more and more commonly preached from the pulpit as a means to connect with God. Church-wide fasts were declared. The teenaged and slightly older girls grew gaunt, or gained weight—almost none stayed the same. I lost a bunch of weight, and then yo-yoed back up again. I have to admit, though, that I didn’t comprehend how dire the situation had become until my best friend, who had started attending about six months after me, came to me with the news that she and her husband were strongly considering leaving.

“Do you realize, Chris (her husband) and I added up all the days we were supposed to be fasting—I mean, church-wide fasts that were called from the pulpit? And it added up to one hundred and fifty days,” she told me. “That’s ridiculous.”

I had by no means participated whole-heartedly in that many days of fasting, though I had tried, but—150? Faced with that number, I retreated to my computer. I looked up fasting to see if I could find anybody else who had experienced something similar. The first blog I read opened with an introduction in which the author pleaded for support and understanding for her lifestyle of fasting. I thought I must have found someone from the same church… And then, as I continued scrolling, I discovered that it was a pro-ana blog. Her fasted lifestyle was one of stylized starvation. A light bulb went off in my head—not the ultimate light bulb that I was eating disordered, that came later, but I did realize, “this is not healthy. And if I’m not caring for my body, which is a temple, then it can’t be holy either.”

It took another year, but I left that church. There were other reasons, of course, but the emphasis on fasting over practical expressions of love was the main factor. I had come to realize that my relationship with food simply wasn’t healthy enough for me to deny myself all of it for a period of time without serious consequences. Nor was I ready to hear it preached as a shortcut to God’s action without experiencing crippling guilt about my inability to participate.

I have friends who are Muslim who have told me about their conflicted relationship with faith-mandated fasting. I know (partly from Rachel) that other religions recommend denying oneself food as a gateway to accessing the divine. Have you ever experienced this sort of thing, or am I the only one? I’d love to hear from The F-Word’s readership, because I’ve felt like an oddity.

* For more on fasting and Buddhism, read the last half of the post here.

posted in Anorexia, Eating Disorders, Guest Blogger, Mental Health, Rachel, Religion | 31 Comments

14th April 2010

Healthy Media for Youth Act: Can I get a ‘Hell Yeah’?!!

by Rachel

Here are the facts:

  • 90 percent of girls say the media places a lot of pressure on girls to be thin.
  • 55 percent of teenage girls admit they diet to lose weight
  • 31 percent admit to starving themselves or refusing to eat as a strategy to lose weight
  • 37 percent know a girl with a diagnosed eating disorder.
  • 66 percent of girls report being dissatisfied with their bodies.

France and Britain are currently debating laws to regulate airbrushed images in advertising and now a few of our own esteemed Congresswomen are bridging great partisan political divide to take up the fight across the pond.  Representatives Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) have introduced the Healthy Media for Youth Act (H.R. 4925), a bill to improve media literacy for youth and to encourage the promotion of healthier media messages about girls and women.

The bill, which draws  on research by Girls, Inc. and the Girls Scouts Research Institute, takes a three-pronged approach to promote healthy media messages about girls and women:  through a competitive grant program to encourage and support media literacy programs and youth empowerment groups; research on how depictions of women and girls in the media affect youth; and the creation of a National Taskforce on Women and Girls in the Media, which will develop voluntary standards that promote healthy, balanced and more positive images of girls and women in the media.  Read the bill in its entirety here.

The bill asks for $40,000,000 each year from 2011 through 2015 — a mere drop in the bucket compared to the billions we’ve given to banks and corporate fat cats.  Among its highlights:

Congress supports efforts to ensure youth improve their media literacy skills and consume positive messages about girls and women in the media that promotes healthy and diverse body images, develops positive and active female role models, and portrays equal and healthy relationships between female and male characters.

Grants will be awarded to nonprofit organizations to support programs that:  educate youth on how to apply their critical thinking skills when consuming media images and messages; promote  healthy, balanced, and positive media depictions of girls and women among youth; and counter the perpetuation and damaging effects of narrow, restrictive gender roles, stereotypes, and expectations, including the sexualization of female children, adolescents, and adults.

The Secretary, acting through the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and in coordination with the Director of the National Institutes of Health and the Director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, shall review, synthesize, and conduct or support research on the role and impact of depictions of girls and women in the media on the psychological, sexual, physical, and interpersonal development of youth in areas including: childhood development; academic performance; media depictions and their affect on minority boys and girls; and how food marketing and obesity campaigns affect girls’ and boys’ body image, nutrition and exercise.

While I think that this bill is made of pure awesomeness, I’m a little wary on the emphasis on promoting “healthy” body images what with all the hoopla about childhood obesity and the prevailing delusion that the only “healthy” body is a thin body. That the Centers for Disease Control will be involved in defining and filtering these “healthy” depictions of girls and women in the media is all the more cause for concern given the center’s sorry history of launching misguided programs that only foster and even enable greater economic and social discrimination against people of size.  And as we discussed yesterday, even those on obesity task forces hold negative views and disrespectful and assumptive stereotypes of fat people, so I’m concerned that these kinds of morally-based beliefs might bleed over into programs and research supported by this bill.  However, I’m reassured by the inclusion that the bill will also promote the depiction of “diverse” body types and recognizes the potential of anti-obesity campaigns and legislation to inadvertently promote eating disorders.  I’m also heartened to see that the bill encourages a greater focus on girls and women of color and from certain socioeconomic status groups and that it also does not neglect the impact of such harmful imagery on boys.

All worries aside, this bill is certainly a step in the right direction and I encourage you to lend it your support.  You can track the bill via OpenCongress and Washington Watch.  The Girl Scouts Advocacy Network as also created a draft email that you can send to your representatives urging their support of H.R. 4925.  And be sure to send thanks to Congresswomen Baldwin and Moore Capito for putting partisan politics aside in an effort to enact real change.

posted in Body Image, Body Politic, Class issues, Eating Disorders, Feminist Topics, Mental Health, Race Issues, Rachel | 6 Comments

23rd March 2010

Chicken pills and big bottoms

by Rachel

NPR yesterday launched a new online series called “The Kitchen Sisters“, which seeks to explore the hidden world of girls around the world and the women they become. The first series premiered yesterday and focused on girls and women in Jamaica, who go to amazing — and dangerous — lengths to achieve a cultural standard of the idealized woman.  Read the story and listen to the clip here.

In some African cultures, being fat is a symbol of wealth and beauty. Indeed in Nigeria, young women there often enter “fattening rooms” for six months to a year and are sometimes even force-fed before they are considered robust enough to marry. This trend of associating fatness with wealth and prosperity is most often seen among the more have-not developing nations, but for a long while also proved to be the cultural norm in the U.S.  In Jamaica, the “healthy body girl” is at least between 160 and 210 pounds and men especially admire women with “big bottoms.”  Carolyn Cooper and Sonjah Stanley-Niaah, lecturers of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, and Carol Turpin of St. Catherine, Jamaica, who is the head of the 4-H Club, explain in more detail:

“Most males, they love to see women with big bottoms. The whole idea of Coca-Cola bottle shape,” Turpin said. “I don’t want a meager woman,’ that’s how the men would speak. … They’re figuring if you look meager, you look poor, in the sense that you’re not being taken care of.”

“If you have a big bottom that means you’re sitting on a lot of power,” said Cooper.

“If you have no meat on your bones, the society can’t see your wealth, your progress, your being,” said Stanley-Niaah.

While it might be refreshing to know that me and my fat bottom would be crowned queen in Jamaica, it’s important to remember that beauty ideals exist precisely because they are often unachievable for most people.  And in Jamaica, a dangerous trend emerged in the 1990s among Jamaican girls and women desperate to pack on the pounds in the form of “chicken pills” — the same pills farmers give chickens to make them grow faster. The Jamaican government has banned the chicken pill for both chickens and women, but it’s still available across the island in farm stores and on the street.  Dr. Neil Persadsingh, a dermatologist in Kingston, says the pill, which contains arsenic, can have severe side effects, ranging from numbness, diarrhea and dermatitis in people. And arsenic is a cumulative poison that can build up in the body and cause cancer.

But as globalization takes hold of the island nation, another competing form of beauty is emerging: the idolization of white thinness. Although rotundity is still seen as beautiful, slim and trim is also quickly coming into vogue, as well as the longtime goal of appearing “whiter.” Donna Hope, a lecturer in reggae studies at the University of the West Indies says that, like women in all cultures, Jamaican women are using all kinds of artifice, hair extensions, eyelash extensions and skin bleaching as a form of enhancement. The cosmetic concoctions – a mix of toothpaste and curry powder — and are sold in unmarked plastic bags in downtown markets. They’re rubbed on the skin and “work” by literally burning the epidermis.

The complicated body politic in Jamaica might seem polarizing at first, but it isn’t all that contradictory when you consider that the nation emerged out of slavery. Here’s Cooper again:

“There’s a kind of anorexic, Eurocentric model of beauty. Also, a much more Afrocentric body type that is valorized,” explained Cooper. “We still have a racist legacy in which the perception is reinforced that the lighter your skin is, the more beautiful you are, the further you can go in the culture, the more socially accepted you are. Still, in Jamaica, a lot of positions of power are occupied by people who are light-skinned. And the attitude is, if light skin is in, I can get it, too.”

But Cooper sees signs of optimism, too. Jamaican beauty contests traditionally crown lighter-skinned contestants, but three years ago, Zahra Redwood — a Rastafarian woman with organic dreadlocks, broad nose and full lips – won Miss Universe. Fifty years ago, that kind of image would never be paraded on a stage as beautiful, says Cooper.

Fat bottoms. Chicken pills. Bleaching powders. It all may seem strange and bizarre to the rest of us, but the whole discourse of dissatisfaction and anxiety about the body is a common thread among most, if not all, cultures.  In Jamaica, women take chicken pills.  In America, we down Fen-phen and diet pills.  If women have anything in common with our sisters worldwide, it’s that the natural body is never enough.

I’m excited to hear the rest of the series — and they’re looking for more stories. Call the NPR Message Line at 202-408-9576 or share your photos, audio and video here.

posted in Body Image, Fat Acceptance, Feminist Topics, Race Issues, Rachel | 11 Comments

17th March 2010

Help Constance McMillen take her girlfriend to prom

by Rachel

With the exception of Monday’s behemoth of a post, posting will be pretty light again this week.  I’m mad crazy busy with both work stuff and a few personal projects and now with the sun making its grand reappearance along with blue skies and spring-like temps, will most likely be spending any and all leisure time soaking in the vitamin D and preparing my cottage garden for planting season.  In the meantime, I urge you to take up a call issued today by Dan Savage.  Dan might not totally *get it* on issues of fat stigma and discrimination, but he’s right on when it comes to the case of Constance McMillen, an out teenage lesbian and senior at Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, Mississippi.  Dan writes:

When [Constance] asked if she could attend prom with her girlfriend, she was told no. When Constance pressed her case, the Itawamba County School Board canceled prom rather than allow Constance to attend with her girlfriend. The school board had to know what would happen next: The other students blamed Constance for getting prom canceled and “ruining senior year.” Constance is now being harassed and bullied.

The school board claims it canceled prom to avoid “distractions.” Now it’s up to us—to decent people everywhere—to make sure that bigotry and discrimination are a much bigger distraction for the Itawamba County School District than inclusion and tolerance ever could’ve been.

E-mail, call, and fax Itawamba Schools superintendent Teresa McNeece (tmcneece@itawamba.k12.ms.us, phone 662-862-2159 ext. 14, fax 662-862-4713) and Itawamba Agricultural principal Trae Wiygul (twiygul@itawamba.k12.ms.us, 662-862-3104). Then join the Facebook page “Let Constance Take Her Girlfriend to Prom.” And, finally, make donations to the Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition (www.mssafeschools.org), which is organizing an alternate prom that will welcome all students, and make a larger donation to the ACLU LGBT Project (www.tinyurl.com/yl9mvkb).

Call, write, fax, donate. Constance needs to know that there are people all over the world who are on her side. And, more importantly, Itawamba County Schools needs to know that we’re not going to let them get away with this. Be respectful, but be relentless. Let’s show these bigots what a real distraction looks like. Get ‘em.

My best friend in high school transferred to my school because of the emotional and physical abuse and harassment she received from students and even a few teachers after taking a girl to the prom at her old high school.  One of the chief reasons I think we bonded is that while I was a Rush-parroting conservative Republican at the time (like my parents),  I, too, was often on the receiving end of emotional and physical abuse and harassment because I was fat.  That was more than 13 years ago and yet how very little times have changed.  As Shirley Chisholm said, ““In the end antiblack, antifemale, and all forms of discrimination are equivalent to the same thing – antihumanism.”  We’re all in this together, folks, so take a few minutes to help Constance out.

posted in Gender & Sexuality, Rachel | 7 Comments

15th March 2010

Religion, abortion and eating disorders

by Rachel

I’d heard of Angie Jackson, the Florida mother who’s been making the news rounds since she live-tweeted her abortion last month, but it wasn’t until I saw this Slate story on Jackson’s bizarre, evangelical fundamentalist upbringing that I took the time to read further into it all.  Religious cults?  End-of-days extremists? Demonic energy purging and faith-healing?   Even the National Enquirer couldn’t make up stuff this juicy.

Aside from the obvious connection between abortion and this blog’s focus on feminism, it seems that Jackson also has some experiences with the other two F-words discussed here.  First some background:   Jackson was raised  in a conservative, evangelical household that would make Rick Warren look like a lefty liberal by comparison.  Her grandmother, a fringe Christian leader and author of Christian apocalyptic thrillers, acted as a “spiritual midwife” in “Zion home births” conducted without medicine or medical intervention (which she considered to be “pagan religion”).  In her mid-20s, Jackson googled her grandmother’s name and discovered a trail of deaths and tragedies that occurred as result of her grandmother’s extremist teachings and shortly after began an antithetical blog, Angie the Antitheist, where she writes frequently about atheism and the abuses of faith healing.  It was on her blog that Jackson, the mother of a four-year-old special-needs son, announced her decision to terminate her second pregnancy after her birth control (she was on three different forms) failed.  Read more of Jackson’s background in her own words here.

In an interview with The Frisky, Jackson said that she initially thought that people might be more accepting of her decision to have a non-surgical abortion in her first trimester because of the serious health risks a full-term pregnancy would hold for her (it still didn’t stop the death threats lobbed at her and her family by good “Christian” folk).  She suffered from such severe sexual abuse as a child that she was told beginning at the age of 8 that she would never be able to have children, but got pregnant at 22 and went on to deliver her son after a grueling 98-hour delivery.  Yes, you read that right — a 98-hour delivery.  Yikes!  On her blog, Jackson details some of the serious health problems she suffered from at the time of her first pregnancy, including anorexia, bulimia, body dysmorphia and self-harm (cutting) — all of which she says is closely linked to her cult upbringing.  She writes:

I was told, over and over and over, in the repetative indoctrination style of a cult, that I was a burden, that I had too many needs, and that I was no good. I tried to cut away my flesh (my “Adam nature” or sinfulness) with a razor blade. I tried to make my physical body as small as possible, thinking maybe then I wouldn’t take up too much space or be so in the way. I starved and I ran. When my hip went out, I couldn’t run anymore so I went back to throwing up. I once carved the word “FAT” into my left thigh, and the scars are still there.

And from an excerpt in her forthcoming book (trigger warning for glamorizations of eating disorders):

My grandmother taught that there were worlds or realms – the spirit realm and the flesh realm. Flesh was always bad. I can’t help feeling like that has to mean something in the origin of my eating disorder. Starving was a way of making myself less about my body – that evil, human, sinful natured, Adam and Eve descended, recently molested and victimized body – and more about my thoughts, and the voices in my head. After all, that’s what I was taught to do.

So, given her history, Jackson just assumed her missed periods to be amenorrhea caused by a “particularly bad bout of anorexia.”  In fact, she only found out that she was pregnant because her weight loss had plateaued and she had trouble reaching her goal of getting below 100 pounds.  Anorexia wasn’t Jackson’s only problem; she was in an abusive relationship, had struggled to get off drugs and was struggling financially.  She describes that first visit with her doctor and her consequent efforts to get healthy:

“You need to gain weight,” he told me, looking at my 5’3″ 104 lbs frame. “You need to gain 50 pounds, and you need to do it yesterday.” That was my battle for the next four months, trying to put on and keep on enough weight to make sure the fetus’ brain developed properly.

I quit smoking pot, and mostly quit smoking cigarettes. (Yeah, I snuck a few here and there, most memorably on my wedding day, early in my third trimester.) I laid off the diet sodas, energy drinks, and diet pills I’d relied on to get me through school, and dropped out of college. I changed everything about my body, from what I put into my body, to how long I kept it there (no bulimia for me, as the electrolyte imbalance that would cause could be extremely damaging to the fetus), to what size I tried to be. I dropped bad habits, bad friends, but regretfully, picked up again the bad relationship I had with my ex-boyfriend…

I struggled to stay healthy, while planning a wedding (on an extremely lean budget), fighting with my fiancee, fighting with my mother, and moving three times. I didn’t always win that fight, and I spent days and days in the maternity wardmergency room, on IV drips and supplements. My iron levels were low, but the prenatal vitamins with iron in them made me throw up. I was living off pizza, ice cream, and Subway sandwiches, but I couldn’t keep weight on to save my life (or my fetus’). A week after my honeymoon, I went into the ER with a fever and a stomach flu, and over the course of that week I lost 10 pounds through vomit and diarrhea. I wondered if either one of us would make it out alive.

Miraculously, Jackson and her son did make it out alive, but with her doctor’s warnings that a second pregnancy could be seriously risky for her health.  And from some of her recent blog posts, it appears as if Jackson is still struggling with body image and disordered behaviors, thus complicating her preexisting health risks all that much more.Jackson’s case is a biographer’s dream not only for her bizarro religious upbringing and decision to live-Tweet her abortion., but what I find most interesting is how the issue of personhood (generally defined as personal integrity and autonomy) plays out here in relation to abortion and eating disorders.  Indeed, it’s an issue that lies at the very heart of the heated abortion debates.  Anti-choice zealots argue that personhood begins at conception, with some going so far as to claim that even sperm or ovum possess all the rights of personhood, while pro-choice activists maintain that to affirm the personhood of the fetus is to, in effect, deny personhood to the woman bearing it — and by proxy, to all women.

I’m sure you can guess which side of the abortion fence I straddle. As a Buddhist, I would have a difficult time reconciling a decision to have an abortion for myself, but as a feminist, I absolutely believe in a woman’s right to make medical decisions for her own body. Abortion is about so much more than women’s reproductive rights; a woman’s right to decide on abortion when her health and life are at stake is synonymous with her very right to be.  Uh huh, I see you nodding, but how exactly does the issue of eating disorders come into play?

It may be a leap here on my end, but I see the denial of bodily integrity to women when it comes to their reproductive choices as representative of a much larger and historical devaluation of the bodies of women in general. And I’m not alone. In the anthology Unbearable Weight, Susan Bordo includes an essay titled “Are Mothers Persons?” in which she examines women and reproductive rights that, at first blush, appears incongruous in a book about women, body image and eating disorders. Bordo’s motives become increasingly clearer, however, as she examines court cases and legal decisions in which pregnant women have been systematically denied agency over their own bodies and in making medical decisions for themselves and their unborn babies. The American legal tradition has traditionally upheld cases involving bodily integrity or “the right to one’s own person” — that is, in cases brought before the court by male plaintiffs. Cases involving pregnant women and mothers, however, evoke a legal double standard.

Social control of women is predicated on bodily control of women — throughout the centuries, women’s bodies have been subject to assault, rape and other forms of violence, their movements restricted both literally and figuratively, their sexual expression and self-determinations denied, their bodies sexualized and commodified, their health issues dismissed and undertreated, access to food restricted and regulated, ad nauseum.  Is it any wonder then that 90 percent of eating disorder cases are seen in girls and women? Women seek to control their bodies precisely because they continue to lack control over their bodies.

And that’s what I find most interesting about the case of Angie Jackson, a woman with a history of abuse, both externally and self-inflicted. Sure, Jackson has serious medical problems that could complicate a full-term pregnancy, but as she very plainly stated on her blog, she also just didn’t want to be pregnant. For Jackson, terminating her pregnancy represented the best possible choice she could make for her physical and emotional health, and by live-Tweeting it, she declared her rejection of some of the same fetters that helped make her a victim of sexual abuse and eating disorders.  If that’s not good enough of a reason to trust women, what is?

posted in Anorexia, Bulimia, Eating Disorders, Family Issues, Feminist Topics | 10 Comments

25th February 2010

Quick hit: Nation’s top doc a HAES supporter?

by Rachel

MSNBC interviewed U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin about weight and fitness and her “vision for a health and fit nation.”  Benjamin, you may recall, was attacked and criticized for her weight after her nomination (she appears to be about a size 18).  But while Benjamin is enthusiastically joining the “nation’s war on fat,” I’m glad to see that she’s more even-keeled and sensitive about it than, ehem, others.

So how do you reach more people?

If you talk to the average person, what’s clear is we need to give them tools to make it easier. We need to get people to make good health part of their lives. I’m showing my age, but I remember going out dancing, doing the hustle and sweating off my makeup. That was fun. People need to exercise and eat well because they enjoy it and they want to be fit. It could be taking a walk in a park. But we need nice parks. We need people to buy better foods. But a lot of communities don’t have access to fresh produce. Right now, it’s very difficult to find a meal that’s healthy and competes with a “dollar meal” like a burger and fries. We need to ask the communities and food manufacturers to offer more healthy choices not as alternatives, but as first choices.

Your weight was made an issue when the President picked you for the post, and you said it was hurtful. So how do we talk to our kids about a sensitive topic like weight?

I’m very secure in my own self esteem, but yes, it was hurtful. There were some mean comments. But what about those kids who will be looking at me as a role model? They may be very discouraged by some of those comments. I exercise regularly, at least four days a week. If I didn’t I probably would be a big blimp. And I try to eat pretty healthy, as much as I can. I know the things that I’m doing. I tend to stay on the elliptical as long as other people. I’m not out of breath. You can be healthy and fit at different sizes. The real message is that you don’t want to limit yourself by your dress size. You need to be comfortable with yourself and have a good body image. Don’t have some dress manufacturer tell you what size to be. Be a size that makes you fit.

I dislike Benjamin’s near exclusive focus on obesity — as if Not Getting Fat is the only worthwhile reason to encourage people to make healthier choices — and I am vehemently against workplace wellness programs and challenges, which she also promotes, but I’m glad to see that not only does Benjamin appear to support HAES, she also seems to recognize the racial, environmental and socio-economic forces at play that contribute to body weight.  Now if we could only get her to heed her own words and redirect her health and fitness outreach efforts from just fat people to all people.

posted in Body Politic, Class & Poverty, Health, Nutrition & Fitness, Race Issues, Rachel | 4 Comments

23rd February 2010

NEDAW: Eating disorders’ forgotten victims

by Rachel

This month is Black History Month and this week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and Stephanie Armstrong addresses both in an interview on “Saturday Mornings with Joy Keys,” an interactive, live Internet talk-radio show that focuses on “providing people with tools to enrich and advance their lives mentally, physically, monetarily and emotionally.”  Stephanie  is the author of the new memoir Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat: A Story of Bulimia, in which the now 40-something, recovered, married mother of one daughter and two stepdaughters documents her descent into bulimia in her early 20s and describes her struggles as a black woman with a disorder consistently portrayed as a white woman’s disease.  The Brooklyn native also examines the “bootylicous” black woman stereotype and why the black community’s “code of silence” often leaves black women with eating disorders suffering in silence.  The work is being hailed as the first book by and among black women about eating disorders.  You may remember that Stephanie also answered the-F-word’s questions a few months ago.

Guests included Stephanie and Laurie Vanderboom, program director for the National Eating Disorders Association, which sponsors and coordinates National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.  A few interview highlights

Joy: What do you (NEDA) see when you have these programs?  Do you see a lot of African American women coming to the programs?

Laurie: We’re just beginning to and we’re just beginning to reach out.  There’s so much shame involved in an eating disorder that people hesitate to step up.  Stephanie, wouldn’t you agree that no matter what your racial make-up…

Stephanie: Absolutely, but especially coming from a culture that doesn’t support therapy, that doesn’t support getting outside help, and risking falling outside of the strong black woman archetype that we’re raised believing and have to become.  It’s hard to disassociate yourself with that image to get the help you need.

———————————-

Stephanie: One of the things I always talk about, especially in the black community, is that we don’t have an awareness of what exactly bulimia is.  It’s like you go to someone’s house and they’re drinking that dieter’s tea.  That’s bulimia.  Laxative abuse is bulimia.  Diuretic abuse is bulimia.  Compulsive exercising is bulimia.  It’s like we think it’s just throwing up, but it’s not just throwing up.

———————————-

Joy: I was talking with a professor of mine and he mentioned that psychologists don’t diagnose African American women properly with eating disorders, because they’re not used to seeing a African American woman coming to their office with this issue. Stephanie, do you feel that that’s the case?

Stephanie: Absolutely. Absolutely. I am constantly talking to women — some who are therapists, some who are young — who are constantly misdiagnosed. I’ve had doctors say, ‘Oh, you don’t have an eating disorder. African Americans don’t have eating disorders.’ I had a young woman call me yesterday – she goes to Clark Atlanta College and she’s at the American University in DC working on an exchange and she’s doing a paper in journalism and decided to do a paper on blacks and eating disorders because her aunt was bulimic and died from it. She calls me up and she said her teacher said, ‘Well, the problem is that there aren’t really that many black women with eating disorders, so that’s going to be a hard paper to do.’ It’s that overall belief that we don’t exist. (she briefly cites a rundown of research showing the prevalence of eating disorders among black women and girls, including this study) …the research is seeping in, but it’s still not getting the attention.

And it’s not just black women with eating disorders who are thought to be virtually non-existent.  Running Tiptoe recently posted a review of a recent “Intervention” episode featuring an Hispanic woman with an exercise addiction and a history of bulimia.  In her review, she offered this link to this 2006 study of “eating disturbances among Hispanic and native American youth,” in which it was found a much more significant pattern of disordered eating behaviors than previously thought.  There are more stats and studies on Hispanic women and eating disorders listed in this 2003 news report.*

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, eating disorders continue to persist in public opinion as a disease young, white girls from middle-class and wealthy backgrounds develop.  But eating disorders are the great equalizers: food is one of the few legal “drugs” out there; everyone needs it to survive;  and in industrialized nations, at least, is widely available and relatively cheap.  That, combined with the constant affirmations of weight loss as morally good and idolization of thinness saturating virtually every facet of our lives, and it’s no wonder that  those with emotional issues and unfulfilled needs might turn to food and the body to express a pain they cannot put into words.

Black girls and women with eating disorders.  Hispanic girls and women with eating disorders.  Adult women with eating disorders.  Boys and men with eating disorders.  Orthodox Jewish girls and women with eating disorders.  Poor girls and women with eating disorders.  We. All. Exist.

* For more information on eating disorders amongst non-white populations, see here.

posted in Anorexia, Binge Eating Disorder, Bulimia, Class & Poverty, ED-NOS, Eating Disorders, Gender & Sexuality, Interviews, Mental Health, New Research, Purging Disorder, Race Issues, Rachel, Recovery | 5 Comments

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