And for My Next Trick, I Will Attempt to Defy Diet Culture

Dear Body, I Hate You

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I was nine the first time I felt disgusted with my body. I remember pulling on a pair of shorts and suddenly being acutely aware that my thighs jiggled too much.

That moment was the beginning of a difficult, lifetime long battle against my own body. It has always felt to me that my body is like a rebellious teenager. It is hell-bent on doing whatever it wants regardless of the ways I try to control it. I’ve been on some type of diet for at least the last twenty years. Some have been obsessive, focusing on deprivation (no sugar, no eating after 6, no carbs, nothing over 1100 calories a day) and some have been hidden under the guise of health (juice cleanse, only raw foods, weight watchers) but at their centers, they have all been about punishment, control,  and self-hatred.

About three months ago, on the edge of summer, I had one of my worst and hopefully last attacks of intense body hatred. I was trying on summer clothes in a dressing room and the only thing I could see was the size. I had let myself go up a size. Which meant that I was disgusting. I was out of control. I was gluttonous. I had too much thigh, too much stomach, too much arm jiggle, too much cellulite. Not enough self-control. I didn’t work hard enough. I was lazy. I wasn’t worthy of love. I didn’t deserve to go to the beach. How could I force people to look at me in a bikini? I called myself names in the mirror. Pig! Fat! Heifer! I pinched myself hard in my flabbiest parts. Disgusting! Look at you! Shame! Shame! Shame! I told myself that I would never eat again! I did not deserve it. I went home and cried in bed.

I’m Onto You, Diet Culture!

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And then, I decided to start paying attention to how diet culture has negatively influenced me and how it burrows deep into the subconscious of our cultural ideals and norms. The thing is that diet culture pushes the importance of weight and appearance over the importance of health. Diet culture tells us that our bodies need to be altered, not to make them stronger, fitter, or healthier, but because they are not the right shape or size. It’s like smog in the air. We don’t notice it or think about it because it is a part of our day to day lives, but it is highly dangerous none the less. I started doing research and paying attention to the advertisements and images of ideal female beauty that I saw promoted. I started to question what the purpose of this diet culture was, and I learned that at the root of diet culture’s ideology is the desire to control women.

If we track the origins of diets and diet culture, we can see that the desire to alter, control, and dominate the female form came into popularity as America entered the 20th century. The Industrial Revolution brought with it a conflicting shift in the roles of women. On the one hand, women entered the workforce as power looms and new textile technology developed in New England. Many of these women came from agrarian lives that centered around family and farm work, and now for the first time, they were able to earn and save their own money. On the other hand, this movement away from the home lead to a push for traditional family values, with the women as the “light of the home” and the “guardian of moral purity in the household”. Historian Barbara Welter coined the term “the cult of domesticity” to describe the ideology in American history between the 1820s and 1860s that fought to keep women at home and in submissive roles to their husbands.  In a very short window of time, women entered the workforce, began the women’s suffrage fight, and helped sustain the country through a civil war. As America changed, so too did the roles of women, and undoubtedly, this change made men very nervous.

Divide and Conquer

William Banting developed one of the first popular diets in 1863. The diet spread across the ocean and became wildly popular in America. Suddenly, it seemed that there was a new way to control women: Dieting.

If you are a smart member of the dominant group and the subservient group begins to pose a threat to that status, what do you do? One way to keep a subservient group in line is to create a culture where they regulate one another. Consider the role of the house slaves. Since the offspring of slaves and slave owners tended to have lighter skin, the lighter skin slaves were often moved to the plantation house. There they received better living conditions, food rations, and less physically demanding work while their darker skinned counterparts were left to toil in the fields. This created an arbitrary hierarchy among the slaves and helped slave owners regulate the behavior of their subservient population. This divide can still be seen today in the way light and dark skin black Americans are treated by those inside and outside of their race.

Similarly, diet culture enables the dominant members of the population to maintain their power by dividing the subservient members of the population into arbitrary categories. Men create body ideals for women and women are left to race blindly toward these ideals while cutting down and judging other women in the process. If women are too busy judging one another for a body ideal that men created for them, if they are too preoccupied with grouping one another into their created hierarchy, if they are quick to cut one another down in order to  build themselves up, then men can keep their position of power and leave the dirty work to women. Have you ever said to yourself, well at least I’m not that fat? Have you have rolled your eyes at a woman who shows too much skin? Have you ever walked into a room and tried to figure out where you stand in terms of looks? If you have, as I have, then you’ve been working to keep your fellow women in a less powerful position for men.

Diets Have Never Been About Health

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You cannot find a moment in the fight for women’s equality in this country that doesn’t have a dietary counterpart. The 19th Amendment is passed in 1920, granting women the right to vote and Lucky Strike champions the “cigarette diet”, urging women to “reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet”. WWII ends in 1945 and women are practically pushed out of their jobs and back into the home full time and the cabbage soup diet comes into vogue, urging women to limit their food intake and sustain themselves off of cabbage soup. Betty Friedan publishes the controversial Feminine Mystique in 1963 while meal replacement shakes like Sego and Carnation Slender act as poor substitutes for real food for women. The groundbreaking Supreme Court ruling on Roe V. Wade grants women the right to elect to have an abortion in 1973 just in time for Slim Fast to hit the scene in 1977.

The list goes on and on, but the bottom line is that diets are not about health. They are control tactics used to categorize, and manipulate women into believing that their worth is connected to an arbitrary size, an arbitrary number, and an arbitrary shape all of which change from one decade to the next based on male predilections of the moment.

It’s Time for a Change 

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I’ve gained and lost the same 20ish pound over the last two decades of my life, and never has the focus been on health. Once, I lit up a cigarette on the way out of the gym. When a bystander commented, “Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?” I assuredly responded, “The purpose is to be skinny!” I have a few pictures from 2006, that I cherish because I slimmed down to a glorious size 4. I was smoking nearly two packs of cigarettes a day, drinking far too much vodka, spending hours and hours on the elliptical trainer at the gym, and rarely eating anything that wasn’t processed. I had just broken up with my college boyfriend, my brother was in an out of rehabs, my mother had just lost her house, I was dropping in and out of long depressive episodes, and yet, when I pulled on those size 4s I have a vivid memory of the pure joy I felt jumping around the dressing room. When I look at the collection of pictures from that time period, I am proud.

Conversely, there are pictures of me earning my first and then my second master’s degree, pictures of me teaching room-fulls of focused high school students, pictures holding my baby nephews, pictures of the love drunk first trips with my now husband, pictures of weddings celebrating the love of friends and family, exotic international trips, and moments with best friends that I have avoided because I look too fat.

So for my next trick, I will attempt to defy the dangerous and pervasive diet culture that exists in our society. I will do this for myself and I will do this for other women. When I look in the mirror, I will celebrate the sexy jiggle of my thighs and the strong girth of my muscles. I will talk to myself the way I would talk to my best friend, reminding myself that I am trying the best I can and I am doing a pretty damn good job. I will stop thinking I need to “earn” food with exercise. I will stop calling food bad or good based on its calorie content. I will nourish my body with healthy, whole foods that will keep it running well. I will participate in workouts that are a celebration of my strengths and my abilities, like CrossFit, that keep the focus away from what my body looks like and moves it to what my body can do. I will stop believing that worth is a pant size and happiness is just a few pounds away. Above all, I will stop this decades-long war with my body.

These Two Douche Bags

Yesterday I stumbled upon two serious douche bags. I was getting work done at the Starbucks on the Post Road in Fairfield Connecticut, and these douche bags introduced themselves to the room by stomping up the stairs (it’s a two-floor establishment) while one of them boomed to the other, “Yeah my divorce lawyer is a real bitch.”

They were salt and peppered, attractive, white, older men in their late forties or early fifty. After they finished berating their ex-wives and their bitchy divorce lawyers, they got to work, taking up four seats and one table, making sure to really spread out and get comfortable in the packed Starbucks. They yelled into their phones, conducting their business on speaker phone, disrupting the peace and quiet for the other patrons. They swore loudly, and people got up and left. Even from across the room with headphones on, I could hear them easily.

Honestly, I didn’t mind the distraction too much, because I love a good distraction while I’m trying to write, but then they started talking about the women they were currently and had in the past, been “fucking.” I muted my headphones and wrote down parts of their conversation because it was just too good not to.

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“Here’s the thing. She was hot, like a Playmate hot, but I’m not gonna commit because I’ll tell you, I’ve got four more years of alimony to pay, and I’ve got all these women in rotation. And it’s like my dad used to say, if it drives, flies, or fucks, rent it. Don’t buy it.” 

The women around me looked over at them, and we exchanged looks with each other. giphy4But we didn’t say anything to the men. I thought about it. I thought about walking over and politely asking them if they could keep it down. I imagined yelling from across the room, you guys are rude douche bags! I thought about sauntering over and giving them a good feminist rant. I thought about a lot of different scenarios, because, like I said, I was trying to do anything to keep from actually writing. But in the end, I didn’t say anything. I put my music louder and I finished the piece I had been working on.

I thought about those Douche Bags all night last night, and I woke up thinking about them this morning. Should I have said something to them? Why didn’t I say something to them?

Part of the reason why I didn’t say anything to them is that I didn’t want to come off as a delicate snowflake. I mean, I like a good racy joke. I swear like a sailor. I’m no prude and I like to think that I save my “that’s offensives” for really really offensive stuff. If I had gone over to them and said, “I’m sorry, but your language is really offensive to me,” I’m sure they would have quieted down, but it wouldn’t have changed their mindset. I didnt’ want them to quiet down, I wanted them to think differently. It wouldn’t have altered their perception of women and it wouldn’t have gotten to the core issue of why they think it’s acceptable to not just talk about women that way, but think about women that way. And honestly, I wasn’t offended. I posted this picture of the Douche Bags on my Instagram, laughably explaining the situation and a friend kindly responded, “I’m sorry you had to hear that. It’s very offensive.” But this word, offend, has taken on such a bullshit connotation.

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Technically, an offense is an annoyance or resentment caused by a perceived insult. To use the word offensive suggests that the person doing the offending could be right. The offense has to do with your individual beliefs. It has to do with you personally and your individual ideals, and that is where the problem lies. As long as we are looking at the way women are treated, viewed, exploited, stigmatized, threatened, and so on, as a personal issue, and not a societal and cultural issue, we’re not going to get anywhere. I wasn’t offended. They were just wrong. If these guys had been jerking off at Starbucks, I wouldn’t have gone over to them and quietly said, “I’m sorry but that is offensive to me.” It’s not offensive. It’s wrong. And talking and thinking and treating women like that should be as socially unlawful as jerking off in public. We’re not going to do it because it’s the wrong the thing to do.

Another reason why I didn’t say anything is because I honestly didn’t think it would change anything. I succumbed to apathy. I resorted to the “these guys are douche bags and I’m not going to change their minds and being confronted by a woman while they’re talking about women is only going to solidify their ideas about women, so fuck it, I’ll just check Facebook again, I mean, finish this project.” But maybe the point shouldn’t have been to change the minds of these men, but to publically let them know that what they’re saying is wrong. I’m a firm believer that everyone has a right to their opinion and should be able to freely express their ideas, even if I don’t agree with those ideas. The problem here is that, as a society, we are still very gray on issues of right or wrong in terms of human equality and treatment. Mistreating a person based on their gender/ gender identity, sexual orientation, race, religion, or ethnicity is wrong. It is not an issue of personal belief systems or ideas. It was cowardly of me to say to myself, “well even those Douche Bags have a right to their opinion and ideas,” because when a person’s opinions and ideas lead to inequality and potential violence, then those “opinions” are wrong. The more we stand up to these ideas, the more unacceptable they become.

Even still, with all of this contemplation and reflection, I don’t know how I’d treat the situation if I had a do-over. The truth is, I’m still scared to be a woman sometimes. I’m scared to be “that girl” or to be too vocal or “make a scene” or get too emotional. I’m worried about coming off as too bitchy or like a “know it all.” I was scared of confronting those men because there was a part of me that questioned whether I would have been right or wrong to call them out. Hell, there is still a part of me that feels weird about buying tampons from a male cashier.

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How am I going to confront two grown, white men and tell them that their views on women are wrong? I was scared that I would have been ostracized in that Starbucks, and if things got intense, no one would have had my back.

I blew it this time, but something tells me I’ll have another chance because there are a lot of Douche Bags out there.

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Remember When We Used to Have “Going Out” Clothes?

A few weeks ago, I was getting on a train in New York City. It was 1am, and I was feeling pretty good about myself. I went into the city. I wore an outfit. I drank cocktails that were way too much money, and then I even went to a second location that involved walking down a dark flight of stairs into a tiny sweaty room full of people dancing and nowhere to put my coat where I danced and drank more cocktails.

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My old ass trying to rage

At one, I was getting on the train, and gaggles of young women were just arriving. They were wearing valor jumpsuits, high-waisted shorts with platform sandals, sunglasses in the shape of hearts and black lace chokers. They were laughing with each other and taking long swigs from cute little flasks that they pulled out of their tiny purses. They took pictures of the ceiling of Grand Central Station and selfies with one another.

For a second, I rolled my 35-year-old eyes at these groups of girls. Little girls. Girls who, in the moment, might be feeling grown, but I knew, I knew so much better. They were babies, and they should be in bed, or heading home on the 1am train to their beds, not gallivanting all over the…and then I stopped myself.

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Once upon a time, I was one of those girls. I would put on ridiculously cute outfits that didn’t match the weather at all and gallivant across cities with too little clothing on, laughing too loudly, full of too much alcohol and confidence, surrounded by my girls feeling unstoppable. I had one particularly infamous outfit.

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This isn’t the shirt exactly, but you get the idea. (I had to google “slutty butterfly shirt” to find this image)

It consisted of stretch jeans that somehow had glitter built into their fabric, high black platform sandals, and the most amazing “shirt” ever created. It was a butterfly made out of sparkly sequence. The wings flapped out to (barely) cover my boobs, and stretched down to not even come close to covering my belly button. To get into it, I had to hold the butterfly against my chest, while at least two girlfriends weaved the lace up back in place and tied me into it, tightly. Once in this shirt, I would slather glitter lotion all over my body and have more best friends slather it on my back so it would sparkle under the lights of the club. I would wear this outfit out, proudly, into the New England winter with no coat, because who could afford the 5 dollar coat check? I tear up now, thinking about the sheer class of this scene.

Those late teens to early twenties, although filled with unreasonable outfits and questionable moral choices were a vital part of my development, and were no less important than my exploration of womanhood in my 30s. This turbulent and often confusing part of my life taught me about friendship and love. It taught me about what I would and wouldn’t accept from men: as sexual partners, as dance partners, as boyfriends, as study partners, and as friends.  The late teens and early twenties were a time to practice being an adult. They were full of mistakes that felt cripplingly permeant. There was such a limited point of reference and all of a sudden we were doing such adult things that we had no way to evaluate. There was this intense pressure to figure it all out.

If I could go back to that 21-year-old, I would tell her that she’s doing great. I would encourage her to rage hard and I would promise her that even though it doesn’t feel like it, she really is figuring it all out. I would high five her and tell her that she’s going to grow and change in ways that she can’t even imagine and when she feels like it’s all coming to end, it is actually the start of something that she can’t really understand yet. I would tell her to trust herself.

I wonder what my 40 something-year-old self would tell the 35-year-old me. As women, we have so much to learn from one another, at every stage of our lives. It often feels like we’ve been so trained to compete with one another and see one another as adversaries that we don’t open ourselves to the lessons of our sisters. And since we are trained to ruthlessly doubt and criticize ourselves, we end up turning that on one another too.

Before I wrote this, I walked into a coffee shop to work for the day. At two tables pushed together, there was a group of “older” woman. They were probably in their 40s or 50s. They looked good, and they laughed openly with one another. One of them was wearing a “birthday queen” pin. The only thing I can do is hope that when I am their age, I will be an even better woman than I am right now. On my journey to that woman, I’ll look for female role models, of all ages, to help guide me. And when I see women rocking their womanhood, at every age, I’ll celebrate them.

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