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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

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

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

8th January 2010

Bought and sold

by Rachel

It’s Friday (!) and in case the mid-afternoon slump strikes, here’s a couple videos to slack off to.

A new PBS documentary follows four girls as they grapple with body image issues, unhealthy and confusing media images and the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse.  “A Girl’s Life” is hosted by Rachel Simmons, the author of the New York Times bestsellers Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, and The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence.  An educator and coach, Rachel also blogs about dating, relationships and other issues at TeenVogue. Click here for more info on the project.


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How to be the perfect wife, mother, career woman and super hot sex babe? Just buy more stuff! Sarah Haskins zeroes in on consumerist messages aimed at women in 2009.

posted in Body Image, Feminist Topics, Humor, Pop Culture, Rachel, Television & Film | 6 Comments

28th December 2009

Open Post: What are you reading?

by Rachel

When I was younger, our parents would have us fill out our Santa wish lists weeks before Christmas.  As the sole bookworm in the family, I, of course, always requested a long list of books — Oliver Twist in the third-grade, Shakespeare at the age of 9 and later, in my teen years, Stephen King.  My list must have not made it to the North Pole because instead I got things like a makeup brush kit or a t-shirt screenprinted with a picture of a black labrador.  One of the joys of marrying a man who used to do all his Christmas shopping at Walgreens on Christmas Eve is that now all I do is fill out my Amazon wishlist and know that most, if not all, will be wrapped and waiting under the tree.  I’ve already devoured the two fiction books I received — Stephen King’s new book, Under the Dome and The Strain, coauthored by Chuck Hogan and Guillermo del Toro — and am now ready to dig into my non-fiction gifts.  In no particular order…

So, what’s on your reading list?  Any recommendations for the rest of us?

posted in Book Reviews, Class & Poverty, Eating Disorders, Fat History, Feminist Topics, Food History, Race Issues, Rachel, Recovery | 30 Comments

10th December 2009

Guest blogger Filmi Girl: Appetite and deprivation in the Twilight series

by Rachel

You may remember guest-blogger Kara (a.k.a. Filmi Girl) from her great post on the whittling waistlines of Bollywood actresses.  Now she’s back with a guest post on the body image struggles inherent in the popular Twilight series, specifically Bella’s desire to rid herself of her human body and the disturbing descriptions of physical sensations and appetite.  I’ve read a lot of feminist critiques on the Twilight series, mostly concerning the books’ not-so-subtle messages of abstinence and the unbalanced relationship dynamic between the main characters, but Filmi Girl’s is a new take I haven’t yet seen before.  It is, to say the least, food for thought.

Filmi Girl writes:

Imagine you’re reading a story about a girl starting over a new high school. As she enters the cafeteria, her eyes are drawn towards a certain group of kids – all physical perfection and effortless cool.

“They weren’t talking, and they weren’t eating, though they each had a tray of untouched food in front of them…As I watched, the small girl rose with her tray – unopened soda, unbitten apple – and walked away with a quick, graceful lope that belonged on a runway.” (Twilight, p. 18-19)

To me, this doesn’t say ‘vampire’ as much as ‘pro-ana.’

While I don’t think that Stephenie Meyer, author of The Twilight Saga, was deliberately encouraging young women make an unopened soda and unbitten apple their lunch of choice, the scene is an early indicator of the twisted relationship with appetite that runs through the whole series. There are plenty of disturbing facets to The Twilight Saga, from Edward’s abusive behavior towards Bella and the imprinting which seems more like child grooming, that have been looked at in depth but I haven’t seen much on appetite – or rather, Bella’s desire to rid herself of her appetites.

For those gentle readers unfamiliar with the tragic tale of Bella Swan, resident of Forks, Washington, let me give you a crash course. Bella, age 17, moves to Forks, Washington at the beginning of Twilight. At her new high school, she meets and develops a crush on a mysterious student – a student who finds being around her intolerable and yet won’t leave her alone: (the pale Adonis) Edward Cullen. In a fit of self-loathing, Edward reveals his true self to her. He takes off his shirt in a patch of sunlight, his chest sparkling with the glittery skin of a Meyer-verse vampire. But while Edward is a predator, built to feed on the human race, he has adopted a lifestyle referred to as “vegetarianism.” Edward only eats non-human animals and compares the experience to a human living on tofu, keeping their hunger at bay but never being fully satisfied (this is Meyer’s take on vegetarianism, not mine). Bella gradually moves into his world, getting to know his “family” of like-minded vampires (the Cullens), until one day she catches the attention of a particularly vicious vampire named James who is moving through the Cullen territory and decides to make a meal of her. Bella flees to Phoenix under the protection of Cullens but despite their best efforts, is still captured by James. Edward and his family rescue her and kill James but not before James has a chance to deliver a giant bite to her arm, that will kill her. Edward bravely sucks out the vampire “venom,” knowing that he will kill her if he cannot stop himself in time. He does. Bella lives and returns to Forks, still infatuated with Edward.

In the second book, New Moon, Edward leaves Bella – telling her that he no longer loves her – and Bella works her way into a deep depression. She emerges from it with the help of her good friend Jacob Black, a Quileute Indian boy who lives on the local reservation. Jacob and Bella develop a genuine friendship, although it’s hinted that Jacob feels something more, but are interrupted from furthering their relationship by Edward, who under the false assumption that Bella has died, is going to kill himself by provoking the Volturi, a sect of vampire nobles – the vampire drama queen equivalent of “suicide by cop.” Bella, still feeling the pull of obsession towards Edward, goes to stop him. Edward is saved and reveals that he had left Bella for her own good and that he never stopped loving her. Bella forgives him and returns to Forks with Edward. Jacob isn’t so quick to forget and vows that he will not let her throw her life away. Eclipse, the third book, follows the love triangle and Bella’s desperate attempts to become a vampire, which at times sound chillingly like preparations for suicide. At the end of Eclipse, Bella discovers she loves both men – but Edward more and ends with Bella still human but engaged to be married to him.

Perhaps it takes someone who has struggled with her own appetites to view Bella’s quest for vampire-hood (if that is the correct term) in quite this way. Vampire stories have traditionally mined crevices of human desire that are not socially acceptable, substituting blood lust for passions unnamed, such as homosexual desire (Carmilla, 1872) or, more recently, general teenage restlessness and ennui (The Lost Boys, 1987). But the Meyer-verse vampires Bella is infatuated with actively battle their own unacceptable hungers – living off of non-human animals instead of allowing themselves to be physically satisfied. The life of a Cullen is filled with self-deprivation. As Edward himself says, “I can’t be sure, of course, but I’d compare it to living on tofu and soy milk; we call ourselves vegetarians, our own little inside joke. It doesn’t completely satiate the hunger – or rather thirst. But it keeps us strong enough to resist. Most of the time.” (Twilight, p. 188)

Leaving aside Meyer’s views on vegetarianism, we are clearly meant to find Edward’s heroic resistance to his own physiology to be admirable. It is never suggested that the Cullens could eat donated human blood, either from willing victims or from the hospital. Human blood is a forbidden food. And Edward’s morbid pull towards Bella seems, at times, less like romance and more like a dieter eyeballing a particularly delicious slice of cake. He gets a perverse satisfaction from abstaining. “‘Just because I’m resisting the wine doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the bouquet,’ he whispered. ‘You have a very floral smell, like lavender… or freesia,’ he noted. ‘It’s mouthwatering.’” (Twilight, p. 306)

And Edward’s thirst appears to be his only physical desire. All evidence in The Twilight Saga points to Edward being a 100+ year old virgin. Bella is the one pushing their sexual relationship and Edward keeps her from pushing too far. In Eclipse, Edward does initiate some sexual touching with Bella but it is only as prelude to his marriage proposal and he gets more aroused by the sight of Bella wearing his engagement ring (although Bella feels it weighing heavily on her hand) than by Bella herself. Edward is master of his physical desires – more superego than vampire.

Bella is constantly comparing herself to Edward and finding herself lacking. She is uncomfortable in her own body, a feeling extremely familiar to this former 17-year old girl. It’s made more painful to the reader because everything is written from Bella’s point-of-view. In the first book, especially, the reader is treated to endless descriptions of Edward’s physical beauty contrasted with Bella’s self-loathing descriptions of her own clumsiness or her plainness or her fragile human body. Edward is described as a statue of Adonis come to life – cold and hard to the touch, but physically perfect. Bella wants nothing more than to be just like him. She is already asking to be turned into a vampire by the end of Twilight and Eclipse has her begging and pleading with Edward to perform the deed.

Through the course of the three books, Bella tries and tries to rid herself of her human desires. She rarely eats. Although she cooks dinner for her father, she doesn’t take any enjoyment in it – it’s a duty and one she dispatches with little thought. In one memorable scene, to me at least, her father takes her out for a celebratory dinner and not only is Bella ungrateful for the gesture, she doesn’t actually eat her food. She waits until her father isn’t looking and then tucks bits of her hamburger into her napkin. Perhaps she is unconsciously echoing Edward, who spends his time at the school cafeteria doing exactly the same thing. She is not yet a vampire but is already abstaining from food and physical pleasure.

Bella’s sexual desires are another thing she is made to feel ashamed of. While the supposed erotic chastity is a big selling point, I never saw it. Instead a mutual desire to take things slow, Edward withholds his physical affections. He explains to Bella that he might devour her if he allowed himself to go too far but that doesn’t stop Edward from chastising Bella for wanting to explore her sexual drive. In one particularly vile scene in Eclipse, Edward snuggles up to her on a giant bed only to pull away when she begins to reciprocate he tells her, “I was just trying to illustrate the benefits of the bed you don’t seem to like. Don’t get carried away.” The benefits of the bed being only available after marriage, which she does not want.

This shaming of Bella just makes New Moon, in which the character of Jacob Black takes the forefront in the narrative, more frustrating, as the book shows the reader what Bella would be like free from the influence of Edward. The chapters of New Moon are filled with food and physical pleasures. Bella eats muffins and enjoys an outdoor spaghetti party. Bella holds hands with Jacob and accepts warm and friendly bear hugs. She goes hiking with Jacob and walks. Edward would literally carry her when they went places. Under the calming influence of Jacob, Bella begins interacting with her school friends and the pages of New Moon show a Bella much more sympathetic and human than in any other book in the series. The tragedy of The Twilight Saga is that the promise of this Bella, who grows up and accepts herself, is thrown away as soon as Edward enters back into the picture.

The final scenes of Eclipse show Bella having a vision of her happy, human life with Jacob. She turns it down in favor of a life of constraint and prohibition with Edward. Bella will never be full again.

posted in Anorexia, Body Image, Eating Disorders, Feminist Topics, Guest Blogger, Mental Health, Television & Film | 29 Comments

20th November 2009

Is Newsweek’s cover of Palin in short shorts sexist?

by Rachel

Even I was kind of shocked by Newsweek’s cover this week of Sarah Palin — not for the image used, which on first glance seemed both puzzling and irrelevant, but for the blatantly biased headline of “How do you solve a problem like Sarah?  She’s bad news for the GOP — and for everybody else, too.* But as it turns out, it’s the cover image used that’s getting the most press.

Newsweek cover of Sarah Palin

Originally published in the August 2009 issue of Runners World, the photo features the moose-hunting , aerial-wolf-shooting former Alaska governor and supermom in short runner’s shorts and leaning on an American flag.  It was part of a multi-photograph slideshow that accompanied an article about Palin and her passion for running titled, “I’m A Runner.”  Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham said that the photo choice was simply the “most interesting image available” and that the mag applies “the same test to photographs of any public figure, male or female” thus adhering to a “gender-neutral standard.”

This isn’t the first time Newsweek has taken heat for their choice of Palin images. Perfectly coiffed, and flawless conservative Fox anchors cried sexism last year because Newsweek didn’t airbrush Jane Sixpack beyond recognition on a cover photo.  In a Facebook post, Palin took issue with Newsweek appropriating a photo from an article about health and fitness to promote an analytical piece on her as a political figure:

The choice of photo for the cover of this week’s Newsweek is unfortunate. When it comes to Sarah Palin, this “news” magazine has relished focusing on the irrelevant rather than the relevant. The Runner’s World magazine one-page profile for which this photo was taken was all about health and fitness — a subject to which I am devoted and which is critically important to this nation. The out-of-context Newsweek approach is sexist and oh-so-expected by now. If anyone can learn anything from it: it shows why you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, gender, or color of skin. The media will do anything to draw attention — even if out of context.

Palin’s conservative supporters have predictably rallied behind her, but the image is drawing mixed reactions from pundits.  CBN commentator David Brady called the cover “a new low” for the “biased” magazine, adding that Newsweek has a history of portraying liberal women as “heroes for the next generation,” while portraying conservative women like Palin as “nuts and dopey.”  Documentary photographer Nina Berman meanwhile hailed the cover as “brilliant” and “shrewd,” adding:

The Newsweek cover is a shrewd strategic maneuver to demean Palin without having to take responsibility for it. I think it’s brilliant. They take an inelegantly, even laughably propped photo where Palin is an obvious participant as opposed to being a manipulated subject, and recontextualize it to show how far out she is willing to travel on the road of self promotion. They beat her at her own game and in the process shield themselves from what would have been the inevitable criticism if they had dolled her up themselves and posed her the same way.

Given the cover, the accompanying Newsweek articles — here and here — are surprisingly impartial and both defends and accuses Palin on her merits while making the argument that history is not on Palin’s side in terms of even a qualified populist nominee winning the White House.  And Newsweek’s right: Palin is a major cause for concern.  She promotes questionable, ill-informed and inaccurate positions on national and international policy and as Newsweek’s Christopher Hitchens notes, believes that the end of days and Second Coming will come in her lifetime — which could be entirely possible if elected to a position in which her finger rests on the big red button.  I find it ridiculous how Palin consistently dismisses “the media” as if we are all just one large, homogeneous entity out to get her, yet as much as I dislike siding with someone so diametrically opposed to me on virtually every issue across the political spectrum, I do believe that Newsweek used the image deliberately in order to marginalize her.  While there are a whole slew of reasons to be concerned about Palin’s broad national appeal among conservatives, none have anything to do with how she looks in runner’s shorts.

But that isn’t why Newsweek used this image.

The Daily Beast founder Tina Brown rightfully argues that Palin should have known that, “If you don’t want the moment captured on film, don’t show up in sporty hot pants for a photo shoot.”  But it’s more than that.  This pin-up-style image may have been inappropriate for an analysis piece on Palin, but it wasn’t appropriate in its original context, either.  While there’s nothing scandalous about showing some skin — even the First Lady has appeared in shorts about the same length as Palin’s –  this image is deliberately styled not to show off Sarah Palin the runner, but Sarah Palin the sexy governor.  Newsweek is simply holding the image up to the world as an answer to its own rhetorical question of why Palin is bad for the GOP.  An image may speak a thousand words, but this one asks only:  Why would anyone take this woman seriously?

* The headline refers to this song, about a nun going rogue.

posted in Feminist Topics, Politics, Rachel | 24 Comments

18th November 2009

Guest Blogger Michal: To be or not to be a mother

by Rachel

Reader Michal (who goes by the screen name “cggirl” here) picked up on my oh, so subtle childless-by-choice vibes here and wrote to tell me about an awesome project she’s working on called “Motherhood Shmotherhood,” which examines “women deciding whether, and when, to have kids, and the pressures they face from their families, peers, and society at large.”  The project consists of a one-hour documentary — view the site and trailer here — and a blog that features webisodes and contributions from others similarly undecided on motherhood.  The question of motherhood is a decision most, if not all, women encounter at some point in their lives and the outcome is often a deeply personal one influenced by social, cultural, ethnic, religious, political and biological factors and circumstances.  Michal so graciously agreed to guest blog about her personal struggles on motherhood and invites you to also weigh in on your own experiences in the decision to be or not to be a mother.

Michal writes:

I always thought I would have kids. I figured I’d have a nice career too, but in the end, I thought kids would be so important that not only would I have them, I’d also put them first in my life, and sacrifice my career to be able to be at home with them a lot of the time.

If you’d asked me when I was twenty, I would’ve said I’d probably have a kid in my late twenties, surely by the time I was 30 at the latest. I also would’ve said there is no point in getting married unless it’s to have kids.

Now I find myself at age 31, married, and no closer to actually having a child. When my husband and I got married, it felt like something really meaningful in its own right. This was a way to show each other and the world that we are each other’s family, something more than just “boyfriend/girlfriend”. And it didn’t feel like it had to have anything to do with having kids. Two people already ARE a family.

I’ve discussed this with my husband, and neither of us is ready for parenthood right now. We both know that women have more of a biological limit, so I will probably end up being the one to say “now or never”, but I can’t say that until I’m sure in my own heart what I want.)

In terms of my own wants/dreams, I’m not sure what to think. Shouldn’t I feel some sort of yearning yet? Sometimes I feel it a little bit. But for the most part, the idea of childbirth scares the crap out of me, and the idea of actually raising a child and losing my freedom? Even scarier. However, when I think to myself that I will never have a child, it makes me very very sad. I always thought I would be a good parent. And I do think I have that thing, maybe it’s a biological thing, of wanting to pass on my genes or some self-centered thing like that. I do think it’s selfish but I also think it’s natural for many of us to feel it… I just don’t feel like I could do it now.

It doesn’t make things any easier that EVERYONE asks about it, strangers even. I’m Jewish, Israeli actually, and I think we have a culture of everybody being in everybody’s business, and a strong social influence that the main purpose of a woman in life – much moreso than men by the way – is to have a baby. Having a family is EVERYthing, and being child-free by choice is virtually unheard of. This is so stressful, because it’s hard enough figuring out what you want without all this pressure. I don’t want to have kids just because I was conditioned to want that, and I don’t want to NOT have them just to spite all those people that try to push the idea on me.

I do find myself trying to rethink my image of motherhood. My own mom did not have a career, and the entire burden of raising us fell on her. I don’t think that was such a happy arrangement; at least, it wouldn’t be a good arrangement for me, even if it was the best thing for my parents (which you’d have to ask them about). And I wonder if my early thinking that I should do the same came from some sort of subconscious desire to justify her choices, or even not to feel like it was my fault, or something… I don’t know. And on the other hand, my rather depressing view of motherhood is also based on that idea – of all the burden falling on the mother and her not having her own career. But now I see that it doesn’t matter what my mom did. She is a different person, and her relationship with my dad was a different relationship than mine with my husband, so naturally we can and will have a different arrangement.

Sometimes I think that maybe I AM selfish like they say… I’ve heard it said that people who don’t have kids are selfish. And I disagree – many of them are selfless people who do amazing things for others (not to mention benefiting the environment by not procreating!) and I know many parents who are quite selfish (not mine, thank goodness). As I mentioned, there is something selfish about procreating anyway (shouldn’t we all be adopting? and/or having at most one child so as not to overpopulate the planet?) – so I disagree that people who choose to be child-free by choice are selfish. But for me, specifically, maybe it is true. I don’t feel like putting someone else ahead of me all the time. Then again, also selfishly, I don’t want to miss out on something so special like motherhood.

I’m also always told that once you have the child, you love them and don’t regret it. But I don’t know. I think there are parents that don’t love their kids, or don’t love them enough. And I think there are parents who do love their kids but still regret their decision. Those cases of regret – they have the same paradox of, say, a teenage mom – she might love her child and still advise anyone AGAINST getting pregnant so young, or even taking a pregnancy to term at that age. I think there are parents who are adults and have kids because that’s what’s expected, or maybe because they think it will help their relationship, and end up regretting it and the child gets hurt too. And I think there are plenty of relationships that get ruined because of having children. (I’m grateful that my own parents love me a lot, and that they are happy they had kids and the kids did not, as far as I know, ruin their relationship. But I don’t think everyone is as lucky as me on all these fronts, as I have seen in other families. My parents will probably think I’m weird if I decide not to have a kid, because to them it seems such a natural thing to want…)

So I’m still entirely undecided… I think the thing is – I don’t want to give up on the idea of parenthood, and I certainly don’t want it to mess up things with my husband who is my best friend in the world and the love of my life. So I want to be ready for it before it’s too late, and, in turn, I want him to be ready for it right about the same time. How to actually get there, I have no idea.

posted in Feminist Topics, Guest Blogger | 49 Comments

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