Thursday, October 28, 2010

To be continued . . .

I am excited to report that I will be giving a talk about the blog tomorrow at Western Kentucky University (see the advertisement above). I've only given this talk once before—at the University of the South last year—so I'm still putting my presentation together. As a result, there won't be a new blog post today. But I do have something important to say about Halloween . . . so please check back soon!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

It's just a jump to the left.
And then a step to the right.

I had all kinds of plans for tonight's blog . . . but those plans will have to wait because tonight I have to write, yet again, about that pop culture phenomenon that is Glee.

Tonight's episode of Glee was a play on The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And while it's been years since I saw that movie as an unworldly seventeen-year-old, I really enjoyed their take on the musical. But the music wasn't nearly the most interesting part of the episode—nor is it the reason I feel so compelled to write about it.

What really made the episode work was it's theme of reversal.

One of the show's main characters, Finn, was cast as the male lead in the show's version of Rocky Horror. And that role required him to do something that women do on stage or on camera all the time—take off his clothes. No, he wasn't going to be naked, but he was being asked to strip down to his underwear in front of an audience.

To look at Finn, one wouldn't think he had anything to worry about when it comes to his body. He's the quarterback on the football team. He's tall and in great shape. He's dated the most attractive girls on the show. But something about standing on stage in his underwear terrified Finn. He worried that his body wasn't up to snuff, especially when compared to the chiseled, sculpted frame of the new kid in school, Sam. At one point, Finn—who is a little bit of a dim bulb—admitted that the underwear scene had him so freaked out he had started showering with his shirt on.

I'm not certain, but I'd venture to guess that every woman alive has felt the way Finn did in that moment.

We've know what it's like to walk into a room and feel as though everyone is judging our bodies—examining every little flaw, critiquing every article of clothing, running their eyes up and down us in laser-like fashion.

But tonight's episode of Glee reminds us that men can feel that way too.

When Finn is asked to strip on stage, he gains an understanding of what it's like to worry about having some extra flab around the middle. He finds out what it's like to worry that people might laugh at him for not looking like a perfect GQ model, a reality most of us women live with every day we step out the door.

But at the end of the episode, Finn decides to empower himself. And in order to prepare for his on-stage performance, he takes the bold step of strolling down the hallways of the high school wearing nothing but his boxers, his sneakers, and a pair of glasses. (His Rocky Horror costume.) Naturally, everybody laughs and points. (Sounds like the stuff of nightmares, doesn't it?) But Finn comes through the gauntlet with a greater sense of his own worth—and with his dignity intact.

I'm not going to be walking down the halls of my school in my underwear any time soon, but I understand the desire to bare it all—for better or worse—and yet again I love Glee for tapping into that innate desire to put it all out there.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

One girl at a time

As the above video demonstrates, a group of high school girls in Colleyville, Texas has decided to give up makeup once a week in order to embrace their natural beauty. In the video, one of them says that the reason they are doing this is because they just want people to know "They're beautiful just the way you are," and I absolutely love that.

It also makes me believe the real-is-beautiful message is finally starting to make its way to teenagers. Another thing I love.

But as much as I love this story, I do have one question—what about the girls who wear makeup because they have a problem with acne? What do they do?

In the video, the reporter notes that the group of girls she interviews are all "gorgeous and you have this beautiful skin and there's no reason to cover it up." And when I heard her say that, it hit me . . . what about the girls who don't have beautiful skin? What about girls who have blemishes they want to cover up? And don't most girls in high school fall into that category?

I'm in no way advocating that this no-makeup movement isn't a good one because I really do think it's positive step in the direction of body acceptance. I'm just struggling to reconcile my admiration for the campaign with my understanding that LOTS of girls use makeup not to look sexy or womanly, but to hide the big pimples that plagued so many of us in high school.

And when I think about that, I worry that this movement will further ostracize girls who are not "naturally" pretty in high school while also further elevating girls who are, creating even more disparity between these two groups than there already is. A scary thought indeed.

F. Scott Fitzergerald once said that "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function," and that's why I don't mind presenting my two very different responses to these girls in Texas. On the one hand, I want to encourage girls to like themselves the way they are. On the other hand, I don't want to tell any girl—or woman—that it is socially unacceptable to wear makeup when she has an ugly blemish on her face.

These girls claim that they want to change "one girl at a time" (which is what it says across the backs of their t-shirts), an appropriate and admirable stance. But what about the thousands of girls who can't change the way they look?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Monkey see, monkey do

196 pounds
Is anyone else sick of women all looking the same?

Everywhere I look lately—on TV, in magazines, on the internet—all I see are women who seem to look exactly the same.

Women with ostrich necks, sunken eyes, high cheekbones, and protruding brow bones. Women with apple cheeks, smoky eyes, and what an old friend used to call glossy blow job lips. (That is, lips that look like they're ready to give a blow job.) Women with artificial looking extensions and dark roots. Women with sculpted bare legs, mini dresses, and knobby knees.

Even women who used to look unique are starting to look like everyone else.

(Christina Ricci and Kelly Osbourne, I'm talking to you.)

In Christopher Guest's Hollywood mockumentary, For Your Consideration, Catherine O'Hara plays a middle-aged actress whose career is mostly over until the independent film she's working on suddenly gets a bit of Oscar buzz. (Thus the title.) When O'Hara's character is subsequently invited on all of the late-night talk shows, she has a botox-and-boob makeover and stumbles through her media appearances in a short, tight sleeveless dress. Her hair is blown out, her makeup overdone, her cleavage low, her legs bare. As if a woman in her mid-fifties should look exactly the same as a twenty-something sexpot. Guest is trying to say something about how strange it is that we try to put all of our female celebrities—whether they're fifteen or fifty—in the same tiny mold, and the effect is completely chilling.

Ever since I saw that movie, I have had trouble letting go of that image.

And now whenever I tune into Letterman or any other late-night show and see an actress in a short little dress with her boobs popping out and her hemline riding up her thigh, I feel a bit queasy.

Why do we make women do this???

Don't get me wrong. I could not be happier that fifty-year-old women are now considered sexy. But I don't understand why they have to be the same kind of sexy.

Bimbo sexy rather than woman sexy.

It's all a bit too Twilight Zone for me.

Oddly, I was just talking about The Twilight Zone the other day, and every time the subject comes up, I'm reminded of the creepy episode in which a mother takes her teenage daughter to pick out her new body, a ritual all girls supposedly experienced during adolescence in the twilight zone. On the showroom floor, there are four perfect models to choose from, each of which is displayed on a raised flat table, almost like a gurney. The tables sit in a semi-circle around the room, and one can't help but feel like the girl is picking out her own coffin.

I saw this episode when I was pretty young—maybe twelve or thirteen—and I've never forgotten it. Never forgotten how much I hated the idea of anyone being forced to choose a body—perfect or not—that was not her own. Nor have I forgotten how trapped and unhappy the idea made me feel.

All I really wanted to do was stay with the body I had.

I guess I really haven't changed that much.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

THAT GUY by guest blogger Maciena Justice

Jerry the “boy-man”* walks into the classroom in washed-out jeans with holes in the knees. He is wearing a blazer over his t-shirt, his hair is styled with gel, and he sports aviator sunglasses.

The message he wants to send is that he controls the world. And if his look didn't say it, his pompous tone makes it clear he thinks he is above it all.

Women swoon over him, adding to the air bubble that is his inflated ego. He walks with his shoulders squared, oozing an air of supremacy.

He enters class late, expects extensions on his work, and acts as if he is entitled to all these treats just because he is breathing.

His smile, as he knows, can make a girl’s breath hitch, and he uses this knowledge every chance he gets.

He’s that guy.

And Jerry is proud of being that guy. He likes what it gets him.

But Jerry made a crucial mistake one day—he opened his mouth and his vile, uneducated views flooded out of his lips: “I’m never dating a woman who’s past her prime,” he said. “Varicose veins are enough to keep me away. I won't ever date a woman over forty.”

A classroom is not the place to share your feelings on dating. Nor is a class with fifteen women the place to attack women’s bodies.

But Jerry has balls. He doesn’t care. He said what he said and has the detached nonchalance to back it up.

After a few of us lose our shit with him, the instructor gets us back on track, and Jerry seems unscathed.

But when he is old and grey, I hope he realizes that appearance isn’t everything. I hope he learns that imperfection is, in its own way, kind of perfect.

* Names have been changed.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Teach your children well

196 pounds
Some of my body issues come directly from my body—its imperfections and flaws—but most of them come from my childhood.

You see, I was raised in a house where one of us was considered pretty and one of us was considered smart.

I'll give you one guess which one I was.

As a result, it's taken me years to understand that it's possible to be pretty and smart and to have even an iota of objectivity about the way I look.

I might have mentioned this on the blog a while ago, but back in 2007, I had a bit of an epiphany about my looks. I was giving a reading and used a photo from myself at age ten for the publicity materials. When the advertisement went out via email, one of my students said something like, "I should have known you were always pretty."

The comment shocked me because until that moment I don't think I had ever thought of myself as pretty. Attractive, yes. Sexy, hell yes. But pretty? Not really. And I definitely hadn't thought of my childhod self as ANY of those things simply because of the dichotomy I was raised under ... Molly smart, Katie pretty.

For years I've thought about this dichotomy—wondered about it, analyzed it, written about it—and sometimes I find myself thinking, maybe it wasn't as bad as I remember. Maybe I'm being too hard on my parents.

But then, one of them slips up and says or does something that puts me right back at my ten-year-old insecure self.

This weekend that honor went to my mother.

I hadn't talked to her in a while, so I was catching her up on what's been going in my life lately. And when I told her that I was going to have a new author photo taken for my upcoming book, she said, "Make sure the camera isn't too close. It will look better from farther away."


I realized immediately I should have been wounded by this comment, but it was so offensive and so like my mother, that it was more laughable than hurtful.

Still, I didn't laugh.

Instead, I decided to send the message that—despite my parents' best efforts—I am no longer nervous about having a close-up photo taken. But my mother wouldn't let it go, insisting that "you don't want it to be too close."

At that point, I was fed up and explained—loudly, I might add—that author photos are never full body shots, that they are always, by definition, close-up.

She got the message—probably because of my volume—and backed off.

But later I kept thinking about it—does she really think I would look that bad close-up? Does she really think I'm that hard to look at? And is this why I thought I was unattractive until I was twenty years old?

It occurred to me then that my mother's comments were more about herself than they were about me. This is a woman who didn't want to join Facebook because she didn't think she had a good enough photo for her profile picture, a woman who looks stiff and unhappy in nearly every snapshot. She didn't want me to have a close-up taken because she never wants to have one taken of herself.

The truth is that it wasn't that my mother believed that only my sister was pretty when we were growing up or that she wanted me to look more like Katie. It was that she wished she looked more like my sister—more blonde and more thin. And she just assumed that everyone would have that same wish—including me.

Sure, it only takes me a few minutes to figure that out now, but when I was growing up, I lacked the critical thinking skills that allow me to understand this. So I walked through childhood believing I was gross.

I suppose that if I had a daughter—or even a son—I would be falling all over myself to make sure I didn't injure her self-esteem because of my own issues the way my mother did with me. But since I don't have any kids, I guess I'll just have to rely on all of you to take care of that for me.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Sugary haze

196 pounds
As some of you may know from my post about
Pepsi Throwback, I'm a fan of soda made with real sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup. Real sugar—or real anything (sugar, butter, cheese)—is almost always better for you than chemically processed sugar, so I've been thrilled to see a few soft drink companies bringing back soda made with beet or cane sugar.

While it's true that too much sugar—whether it's processed or not—isn't good for anyone, it's also true that in moderation it's better to have the real stuff than to shovel a bunch of carcinogenic chemicals in your body along with it.

And that's why Pepsi is introducing Sierra Mist Natural this weekend. Not only have they replaced the high fructose corn syrup with real sugar, they've also cut all the preservatives, which is a move I can definitely get behind since "Preservatives are toxic and tumor-causing. Most impact the nervous system, changing behavior. Some have an impact on reproductive health or weaken the immune system."*

But what's strange about this is the way I heard about, which was in an Associated Press article called, "Pepsi Giving Away Cans of Sugary Soda."

Say what?

The way this headline is written, it sounds like Pepsi is giving away soda made by Satan . . . or at least soda that is much worse for you than the average Pepsi, which seems like an odd choice given that the opposite is true—the new Sierra Mist Natural is better for you than the old Sierra Mist. So shouldn't the headline say, "Pepsi giving away cans of soda made with natural sugar" or "Pepsi giving away cans of soda without preservatives"? And am I crazy to think that the headline they did use is totally misleading? Am I crazy to think that it almost sounds like the reporter is trying to make Pepsi look bad?

The answer is, no, I'm not.

The article also claims that Pepsi has created this new drink to counteract the "slump in soft drink sales and a rise in sales of juices and teas, which are perceived as healthier than soda." Juice and teas are "perceived as healthier than soda"? Does that sound as funny to you as it does to me??? OF COURSE, juice and tea are healthier than soda. Because real juice is a great source of fruit and vitamins, and tea is rich in antioxidants. But the way this article was written makes it sound like that may not actually be the case.

The article also claims that there is "little scientific evidence" to show that "high fructose corn syrup is more harmful or more likely to cause obesity than sugar." But that's simply not the case. There actually have been several studies that have shown that high fructose corn syrup is worse for you than natural sugar—the most recent one out of Princeton University. Yes, it's true that the Corn Refiners Association questions this research, but to say that little evidence exists is just plain wrong.

So why did this reporter get so many of his facts wrong?

I'll never know for sure, but it almost seems like the article was written by the corn lobby, a group that is fighting very hard right now to re-brand "high fructose corn syrup" as "corn sugar" because Americans are finally learning about the problems with it and the giant subsidies the government gives to the corn industry.

And maybe that's exactly what happened with this article. Some lazy reporter got a press release from the Corn Refiners Association, and rather than check any of the facts, he simply copied the pertinent lines—"percieved as healthier than soda" . . . "little scientific evidence"—word for word. What's sad about this is that most people will probably take what he says as fact and think, "If it's in the newspaper, then it must be true."

Incidentally, as Michael Pollan explains in his bestselling book The Omnivore's Dilemma, corn farming "undermines small farmers, depletes soil nutrients and weakens topsoil—which, in turn leads to more fertilizer use, and further environmental damage."

All of this means that cutting back on high fructose corn syrup will be good for farming and good for our planet. Just one more reason I'm glad Sierra Mist Natural was invented.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

I'll eat when I'm dead

196 pounds
Sadly, my father-in-law had to move to a nursing home over the summer, and that move has led to me spend a lot of time with the elderly lately.

It is possible that there is no place on the planet that upsets me more than the nursing home, and if there is, luckily I haven't been there yet. Because every time I visit, I end up in the bathroom, sobbing uncontrollably.

I wish this wasn't the case—I wish I had the ability to move my father-in-law into our house, the money to hire him round-the-clock care. Or the energy to stay up twenty-four hours a day taking care of him—feeding him, washing him, nursing him.

Even more, I wish he could still walk. Or speak. Or go to the bathroom by himself.

But these things are not meant to be.

One of the few things my father-in-law can still do is eat. No, he can't always feed himself, and he can't ever swallow normal-sized chunks of food. But he can get down small pieces of real food—not pureed food but real food—and that seems to be a bit of a blessing during this time of not being able to do so much.

This is true of almost everyone I've met in the home—Bootsie the lost, Anthony the screamer, Hammond the reminiscer, Raymon the talker—all of them can still eat. Even if they can't all feed themselves.

It's possible there are people there who are worse off—people who are fed through tubes—but they don't let me see those people, they don't roll them down to the dining room for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The people I do meet make that trek three times a day—nearly all of them in wheelchairs, but a few of them still tottering through the halls, as unsteady as newborn colts.

The food at the home is decent—I've had it once, and I'll have it again, probably at Thanksgiving and Christmas. It's certainly nothing I would refuse to eat, and I'm glad my father-in-law has that consistency in his life.

But what disturbs me is that some of the residents don't want to eat. Not because they're not hungry or depressed, but because they're watching their weight.

Let me repeat that . . . they're watching their weight.

Yes, even in the nursing home, even at seventy and eighty and ninety, people worry about their waistlines.

In fact, it's something that Raymon (the talker) mentions all the time. He's lived in the home for a while—possibly more than a year now—and he's obsessed with the fact that he's gained a few pounds. Raymon sits in a wheelchair all day long—watching television, sleeping, or talking—so I imagine he's gained weight because of his lack of activity. But rather than address that change, Raymon is cutting back on his daily calories, doing his best to avoid dessert and leave food on his plate whenever he can.

Keep in mind that in the nursing home every single calorie is accounted for. When your food arrives, it comes with a small sheet of paper that lists everything on your tray and the corresponding numbers for each item in order to avoid accidentally increasing someone's blood pressure or insulin. And nobody gets seconds or more than they should. It is literally impossible to overeat at the nursing home. They just don't let you do it.

But Raymon is still obsessed with what he eats. He tells me about it every time I see him.

"I've got to start cutting back," he says, and I nod.

"I hear you, Raymon," I say because it seems cruel to disagree with a man who has almost nothing left besides his opinions.

Nevertheless, in my gut I feel horror—Raymon is almost eighty, and he's still worried about his weight? It makes me wonder if there will ever be a day when he will stop worrying about maintaining his figure.

I know other people like this. My mom and my mother-in-law are two examples. They've both been on and off diets their whole lives, and it's hard to imagine a time when they will ever give up trying to lose weight. I've encouraged them many times to accept themselves the way they are, but my comments are always met with skepticism and disbelief.

Accept myself the way I am? they seem to be saying. Why on earth would I do that?

So I let them count their calories, skip their desserts, and feel guilty when they snack. But I can't help but wonder—will they ever let it go? Will they ever let themselves eat what they want and stop caring about getting back that twenty-inch waist or fitting into that size six dress? Will they ever decide that it doesn't matter what they look like in their bathing suit? Will they ever look in the mirror and decide they like what they see?