Thursday, December 10, 2009

Demise of the Magazine Industry, and What It Means for Health Information

This entry at Weightless got me thinking about the role of Internet reporting and blogging in the way that health information is disseminated among women. (I'm copping out of answering the question posed in the headline, because while I don't think that the master's tools will dismantle this particular master's house, I do think that progress is being made--I'm particularly pleased to see that Marie Claire fashion blogger Ashley Falcon is not only regularly blogging about plus-size fashion for a major women's magazine, but is actually plus-size--so much body image focus has been on women who are "in between," which is important to look at but doesn't really further the goal of body acceptance for all.)

I fear that the movement away from traditionally produced magazines toward user-generated content and free labor will only make things worse. There will be voices of sanity out there, but the very nature of the web--bits and clips that will grab our attention and make us want to click--ensures that the holistic nature of any health plan will be diluted to the point of being lost altogether. Say that a women's health website has good intentions. In order to generate daily content, they will need health news. Health news comes in bits and pieces--this nutrient was proven to reduce this symptom in this study; this study showed a reduction in X when subjects did Y. In the minutiae, the essence of health is lost. The holistic approach to health--i.e., the healthy approach to health--isn't sound-bite-friendly. Scientific studies, by their nature, are extraordinarily limited in scope. They often isolate one cause and one effect in order to contribute to a larger body of study.

Print isn't immune to this, naturally: A good magazine editor wants to maximize the takeaway her readers will get from every word of information printed, especially in bitsy, designy pages (like the health content of most women's magazines). So if there's a study about how depression is a risk factor for osteoporosis, an editor might want the takeaway to be about getting enough calcium if you're depressed--it's something that the reader can take action on immediately. The problem, of course, is more complex: If you're depressed, you're less prone to do exercise, especially of the osteoporosis, weight-bearing kind; you're also less likely to feed yourself properly, including getting enough of the nutrients that would not only help with your brain chemistry, but also with your bone health. Treating the depression could lead to a reduced risk of osteoporosis, and treating depression requires a holistic approach, often combining psychotherapy, medication, behavior and lifestyle changes...that is, nothing sexy, or new, or saleable on the newsstands. But "The Secret Disease You Don't Know You're At Risk For, p. 147" feels like all of those things.

Now: A magazine editor who is trained for her position and makes a living at her craft is also conscious of the true needs of her readers--it's part of what makes a good editor. But web laborers, even those who are skilled writers, editors, and curators, are also more at the mercy of the attention economy than print journalists. And those reductive views of health information are worth more in such an economy.

It goes the other way too, happily: A peek at the number of bloggers committed to creating a dialogue about health, body, food, eating reveals that the two-way information flow can also easily lend itself to a more complete understanding of those issues. I don't know enough about the arc of the web to predict what effect Internet info will have on health reporting and writing, or of readers' understanding of health. But I know enough about the print world to say that the constraints it's under don't set a template of optimism.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Legitimizing Binge Eating Disorder

This L.A. Times story about whether to include binge eating disorder in the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has been making the Internet rounds, usually with a sufferer refuting the supposed claims in the article.

But the piece suffers from a case of badius journalius: In a piece with the headline "Is binge eating a psychiatric disorder?", there is exactly one source who cautions against adding BED to the DSM--and he's a professor of literature. A literature professor with an emphasis in psychology, yes, and the author of books about the evolution of diagnoses (his book Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness is his sole given credential in the Times piece), yes, but a professor of literature nonetheless. Not a clinical psychologist; not a treatment practitioner. Christopher Lane isn't even representing the voice of the trollish Everyman who hangs out on fat-acceptance blogs to harass the participants. His main argument against making BED an official diagnosis is that it would medicalize a complex behavioral disorder, encouraging treatment practitioners to shove pills down a patient's throat instead of look at the underlying issue. In other words: His problem with BED as a diagnosis is a problem with the contemporary direction of psychiatry.

(Side note: What's interesting to me is that patients with eating disorders usually develop their behaviors to mask the underlying issues of anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, etc. In other words: binge eaters are already medicating themselves. I wholly believe that psychiatric medications are overprescribed, but if someone is numbing themselves with food or the absence thereof, I'd rather see the needs unmasked in an appropriate, monitored setting--and if medication rather than binge food is the prescription, so be it.)

I wish that the Times piece had dared to interview people willing to give voice to the true stigma against pathologizing BED. That is, what the Internet trolls pop up to say on fat-acceptance sites: That it's just gluttony, plain and simple. In the heat of the debate over the "obesity epidemic," the rush to judge what those evil, evil fat people who will make everyone's health insurance rates rise, the thought of legitimizing what may appear to be sheer gluttony seems absurd. First you want us to accept fat people, and now you want our insurance to cover their treatment--not for weight loss, but for a "disorder"? Yeah, buddy, I had a "disorder" last night at Cold Stone Creamery, knowwhatimean? Because that, I believe, is the starting point of having an actual dialogue about whatever controversy may surround BED's possible inclusion in the DSM. (That is, assuming there actually is a controversy; since the article didn't interview anyone with any power within the American Psychiatric Association, it's hard to tell. I can only go on the word on the street.) If detractors--or, hell, even the writer of a piece for a major newspaper on something that directly affects 3% of the population--had dared to be honest about the gut feelings against BED's inclusion, the myths could begin to be dispelled. (For starters: BED sufferers aren't eating out of a love of food, or a lack of willpower; they're not all overweight, and not all overweight people have BED; treatment for the disorder, not weight loss, is the goal.)

Anorexia and bulimia are widely recognized as legitimate disorders. I don't know if there were professional skeptics on the matter at the time of inclusion in the DSM, but I imagine that public acceptance of the legitimacy of these disorders was aided by the misperception of glamour surrounding them. As a culture, we have a fascination with thin women--even those who are clearly ill. (One sweep of the newsstand proves that.) There's even sort of a casual, ignorant envy of some patients--I've heard people say they wished for "a hint of anorexia," when clearly what they mean is a hint more thinness, or a desire to eat whatever they wanted without worrying about their weight. But nobody glamorizes someone lying on the couch downing 15,000 calories in a sitting, especially if that person is overweight. I'm beginning to suspect that BED won't be legitimized until our culture's fat hatred is eradicated. And that, my friends, spells a quiet death knell for its acceptance.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Delta Delta Delta May Just Help Ya Help Ya Help Ya

A sea change is coming. For as long as I can remember, my friends and I have talked about body image--it’s hardly news that women are both aware of and angry about unrealistic body standards. But this has been a beat I’ve been personally following since I was, oh, twelve, and I haven’t seen action like what has been happening in the past few years.

*Dove’s Real Beauty campaign: Flawed because it exists to sell products to women, but the shock of seeing “real” women with “real” bodies being used as models to sell those products was a righteous thrill.

*Glamour’s Woman on Page 194: I was skeptical of the magazine’s promises regarding the overwhelming response to the size-12 model who graced their pages, but it was not a publicity stunt (disclosure: I have worked at the magazine), and from what I’ve read of the editor-in-chief’s vows, they are specific, smart, and correct.

*Germany’s most popular women’s magazine, Brigitte, has banned professional models from its pages, citing promotion of unrealistic body standards as the reason.

And now Delta Delta Delta, the sorority of Saturday Night Live “can I help ya help ya help ya” fame, has launched Fat-Talk-Free Week as one arm of its Reflections: Body Image Program.

What’s finally beginning to happen is that body image is no longer being seen as some sort of angry feminist issue. It’s being seen as a community issue. The quickening pulse of body image talk had me wondering if women had finally just Had It, but it wasn’t until I heard about the Tri-Delt program that I began to see the sea change as something that was being tackled by a larger force with a strategic plan.

Community service has long been an essential component of the greek system, but it was service of the most neutral sort: Big Brother/Big Sister programs, serving at the soup kitchen, breast cancer walks. I remember my dorm roommate, a Tri-Delt, coming home tired after picking up trash in the park for her sorority’s “community service day,” which was indeed a day and happened once a semester. It was community service that nobody could make an argument against. What could an opponent say--hungry people shouldn’t have soup? (Breast cancer aid may have once been controversial because it forced people to see how grossly underfunded women’s health issues were, but it’s morphed into a way for people to feel like they’re doing something good when they buy a pink spatula at Bed Bath & Beyond.) More than the essential neutrality of these moves (Democrats and Republicans alike join sororities, after all), it was the utter removal of these actions that bothered me. Big Sister programs maybe, but my roommate could have cared less about the park; I doubt her sisters felt much differently than she did. It was a way to fulfill a requirement and provide some rationale to the university for the existence of the greek system, not much more.

The fact that Tri-Delt has mounted a strong campaign about body image says that the topic has become both politicized and de-politicized: politicized because it calls for specific action and is framed as something that’s a community problem, not simply that of an individual woman who needs to “get over it”; de-politicized because it’s loudly proclaiming that body issues are our issues. They are not a fat woman’s problem or an ugly woman’s problem; these are issues that plague virtually every woman in this country to some extent. And by bringing an explicit agenda to the table, Tri-Delt is saying that because this is something all women deal with, it is therefore a community issue. It’s not something that only self-help books or Post-It notes reading “you’re beautiful!” pasted on your mirror can help. It requires more.

I’ve always half-heartedly defended sororities, because I liked what they ostensibly offered: a community of women devoted to each other and the community at large. The image of ditzy, superficial, drunk girls who pledged greek for the frat parties alone wasn’t exactly what I saw on my campus, but it’s not an entirely erroneous image either. (I watched my roommate morph from fresh-faced ponytail girl in jeans to eyeshadow-wearing lady in pearls and pumps over the years -- her sisters made her over.) Even with more and more greek systems going dry in order to return to their service roots (and avoid lawsuits), it’s probably too late to entirely overhaul the system’s ways -- there are plenty of informal ways to serve the community and make friends, so if that were the only draw to pledging, numbers would dwindle beyond the point of return. But this program forms a community service project that is near and dear to the hearts of the volunteers -- which is an integral part of a formula that works. And it is indeed near and dear to the sisters’ hearts: The flipside of the pretty-perky sorority image is the intense body focus that comes with being in a circle that places heavy pressure on its members to look a certain way. The horror stories of senior members taking Sharpies to pledges’ underwear-clad bodies during initiation rites, marking where pledges needed to lose weight, may be urban legend -- but in an appearance-focused subculture in an already appearance-focused culture at large, it’s safe to say that the de facto effect is the same.

I applaud the strides the magazines I mentioned above have taken, but at the end of the day women’s magazines have an investment in keeping their readers shackled to a certain body ideal. (Refusing cigarette ads is one thing; refusing diet products and makeup would sink the business entirely.) But sororities aren’t selling anything here -- it costs money to join, but the prestige the greek system has in many circles is enough to assure that membership won’t plummet anytime soon. (And certainly our culture has enough ways to be elitist that even if all sorority sisters suddenly gained a permanent 20 pounds, there would be new bars to entry.) I’d love to see this be the beginning of the one case where the master’s tools can dismantle the master’s house. We’ll see.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Zumba, Dance, and Flow

I've been taking Zumba classes at my gym lately. It's a workout class along the lines of Jazzercise, but with international dance steps instead of jazz-style dance steps. The focus is Latin dance (the word itself, pronounced like rhumba with a Z, connotes the buzzing of a bee in Spanish), unsurprising given that a Colombian fitness instructor developed it; more than half of the steps are Latin-dance-inspired, though India, the Middle East, Spain, and West Africa make an appearance. (It's also notable that Zumba became popular in the U.S. when it was picked up by Special K in a promotional effort targeting the growing Hispanic consumer population.)

I loved the class at first. I'm an international dance dilettante -- I've taken classes in flamenco, belly dance, Latin, Slavic folk, West African, Argentine tango, and have mastered none. My thrice-weekly runs were getting stale, so when my gym started offering Zumba classes I thought I'd give it a shot. I picked up the moves immediately -- partly because I recognized basic steps like salsa from my dance dabblings, but mostly because the steps are designed to be picked up easily by anyone who happens to wander into a class. I left class drenched in sweat, feeling endorphin-chipper; I liked catching glimpses of myself in the mirror, hips twitching to a merengue beat, belly undulating to a Middle Eastern rhythm. The dances I like the best are the ones in which I know the actual steps. I could add in the little salsa kick even though the instructor leaves it out; I can do finger placements I learned in Middle Eastern folk dance classes when we're on the ersatz belly dance song. But when the faux Hindi song comes on (a Zumbafied version of "Jai Ho" from Slumdog Millionaire, chosen presumably because it's the only song most American Zumbaers would recognize as Indian), my lack of background in Hindi dance meant that I found myself essentially doing the Pony during the eight-count side-to-side. I was getting my cardiovascular fitness in, sure -- but it ended there. I don't usually look at the other dancers because I'm too in the groove, but I did then, to see what I was missing -- and saw that we were all doing the Pony. What had initially seemed like something invigorating and, hell, sassy, began to seem fraudulent.

The whole idea of Zumba is that you're supposed to be having so much fun that you forget you're also getting a workout. But the only way to forget that you're doing something is to be wholly engaged in it, in a state of flow. And flow comes only from something that can be expanded, or from being in the moment once you've mastered something that was once complicated -- once you can tinkle out a Beethoven sonata on the piano, you've stopped expanding, but the autopilot your mind and fingers enters can still tap into a space that is eluded with other sort of autopilot activities like watching a movie you've seen before. Repetition can be a part of flow, but mere repetition can't be, unless the goal is something larger (like the followers of Sri Chinmoy who run for weeks on end to complete the "Self-Transcendence 3,100 Mile Race").

Once the novelty effect wore off, I realized that I was learning nothing. The Zumba moves, while based on dances with more organic roots, aren't exactly going to make me feel comfortable at a salsa club. (There's one point in a salsa sequence in which Zumbaers hold up their hands in a partner-dance stance, which feels ridiculous when we're all salsa-ing solo.) They're created as a workout, complete with lots of squats to strengthen quadriceps -- and as a workout that everyone can follow, which means that the ceiling for expanding your moves is uncomfortably low. There was nothing to keep me expanding, which meant that instead of reaching the state of flow that would have actually made me forget I was getting a workout, I was checking the clock and getting tired.

Rob Horning at Marginal Utility labels this "the alluring danger of dilettantism," specifically in the context of Guitar Hero. "If you want a more interactive way to enjoy music, why not dance, or play air guitar? Or better yet, if holding a guitar appeals to you, why not try actually learning how to play?" he writes. Commenters who were fans of the game argued that playing guitar and playing Guitar Hero were two utterly different things, which makes sense to me. (I once attended a party where some members of a rock band who were coming back from a gig decided to wind down by playing Guitar Hero.)

In the same way, Zumba is not meant to be a dance class; it's meant to be a fitness class. The classes are offered at gyms, not clubs or dance studios. But that makes it even more of a threat to authenticity than Guitar Hero, because dancing is fitness. Even with the stops and starts of a dance class for novices, even without kicking your way across the floor in a complicated combination, I -- a dance dilettante extraordinaire -- have never left a dance class in any less of a good sweat. Horning's argument about the pleasure of mastery comes into sharper relief here when you look at the Zumba steps for, say, Argentine tango (which is used as a cool-down):

...and then look at the intensity of actual Argentine tango:

These are advanced dancers, sure, but even in a beginning class you learn enough to pull off a few sultry moves. It's not so much that Zumba will never teach you the moves the latter pair are doing; it's that you miss the opportunity to imagine yourself having the kind of heat that accompanies even basic competency of the tango. Zumba instructors are trained -- mine is a pleasure to be instructed by and to watch move -- but they are not dance teachers. You might move your arms up and down with the beat, but the subtle stylings that make a dance a joy to, well, dance, are totally absent.

When I was in my flamenco stage, I took a class that consisted entirely of learning how to stamp my foot. I never shimmied across the floor; I never whirled into a staccato eruption; I didn't even do any faux toreador moves. I stood there for an hour stamping my foot over and over again while the teacher shouted instructions while squatting at my feet. By the end of that hour, I was drenched in sweat, muscles clenched and aching, convinced that my toes were now only a mash of blood and tissue. "You had perhaps six good stamps today," the instructor said. "Six?" I asked. She smiled. "Six. That's promising," she replied. I forgot the aching muscles, didn't focus on the rate of progress -- I had learned something. (It was also a helluva workout.)

But the comparison isn't exactly fair. What's fairer is looking at another dance/fitness gathering I attend, Dance Dance Party Party. The idea couldn't be simpler: A bunch of women get together in a dance studio, turn down the lights, and, for 90 minutes, do nothing but dance. There's no instructor; the only thing we follow is the rhythm. Everyone chips in a few dollars to cover the cost of renting the studio; the music is DJ'd by whoever volunteers that week, meaning that the DJ brings a CD and plops it into the boombox the coordinator brings every week. The only rules: No boys, no booze, no judgment.

The DDPP crew tends to turn up in sneakers and sport bras, just like Zumbaers (though some DDPPers prefer long skirts and bare feet -- anything goes). But after five minutes the reason for that becomes clear: We're wearing gym clothes to dance because you sweat. We sweat not because we're doing squats to a merengue beat; we sweat because we are doing our best Molly Ringwald, or vogueing, or the Pony, or just grooving in the corner. For 90 minutes, we are one big dance machine -- people leave to refill their water bottles or take a breath by the air-conditioner, but then they rejoin the mass. There's an utter lack of self-consciousness that is pleasant at first, then intoxicating: It's a dancer's high, the sheer joy of moving your body however it wants to, surrounded by people doing the same.

You can walk in without knowing a single move and leave feeling like you're a dancing queen. You get a workout without feeling like you worked out. It's fun. In other words, it's what Zumba claims to be -- but instead of being the Guitar Hero of cumbia, it's your own version of, well, whatever.

There's one way in which Zumba matches DDPP and actual dance classes -- a sense of community. Our country has few social dance outlets left for adults -- we can go to nightclubs, sure, but then we have to deal with the set of accompanying social pressures. (This is why I'd be happy to see square dancing come back into vogue. Can some hipster take this up as an ironic cause already?) While men are welcome at Zumba (though not at DDPP), I've yet to see a man take the class -- except for one, who showed up drunk and ogled the instructor's butt. When she kicked him out and the class erupted into applause, I realized that part of the appeal of Zumba was that a bunch of women got to do quasi-Latin dance both by themselves and socially, without having to either coax a male partner into going or showing up solo and hoping to find the occasional partner with no motive further than a good cha-cha. (I know there are men who like to dance with no further agenda, and that women can have dance agendas beyond a quick-step -- but I've never had a man suggest to me that we salsa the night away.) Without a traditionally structured dance society, women who like to dance outside of a club setting are sort of stuck either going to solo-oriented dance classes or chancing it at partner ones . . . or going to places like Zumba or DDPP.

I'll probably go to Zumba again -- it's free at my gym (most dance classes run $15-$25 a pop), and it's nice to shake up my running schedule with a different cardiovascular workout. But I'll look at it as just that -- a cardio workout. And in a way, I'm glad I lost my zeal for it. I'd forgotten the joy I used to take in dance classes. Something always came up to prevent me from pursuing any one dance in particular -- I moved too far away from my belly dance teacher to make it worthwhile; proper flamenco shoes were too expensive; my lower back is too inflexible to even mimic West African dance. Zumba should seem like the antidote to all those little problems -- but instead, it illuminated how trivial those problems are when the reward is authenticity.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Obesity Justification

Dr. Jon LaPook asks over at Huffington Post, "Could the Obesity Fight Backfire?" -- as in, could it create a hyperawareness of one's weight and lead to an uptick of eating disorders?

Well, duh. It doesn't take an M.D. to recognize that the demographic that is vulnerable to restrictive eating disorders will jump upon the antiobesity train to justify their own behavior, and that those with nonrestrictive eating disorders -- specifically binge eating disorder -- are not going to be helped by the antiobesity's focus on portion control and food choices. (The problem for most of those eaters isn't nutrition ignorance; it's addictive behavior, and without addressing that, the idea of three square meals a day goes out the window.)

But more specifically, what I've seen is an ever-widening justification of the overwhelming body focus in women's magazines. The surge of eating-disorder awareness in the '90s meant that most of these magazines had to shape up their nutrition coverage. They never stopped telling you to lose weight, but in the past decade I've seen advocacy of liquid diets replaced by advocacy of wholesome meals. The glossies' words are telling us what our doctors are: Eat balanced meals and exercise, ta-da! (The magazines' images tell a different story, naturally. As much as editors crow about how they're forced to use thin models because designers make samples in size 4 -- maybe that's why size 12 Glamour model Lizzie Miller was naked? They couldn't possibly find clothes to fit her! -- the deeper reason is that if women suddenly started feeling like they didn't need to change their appearance, they'd stop buying the goods that the magazines advertise.)

Then along comes mass awareness of the obesity epidemic. Suddenly, instead of couching weight loss in terms of fitting into your college jeans, magazines could soberly proclaim that really, it was about your health all along. Instead of focusing on waistline measurements, a new set of statistics are of importance: cholesterol, body mass index. It's no surprise that the circulation for a magazine titled Women's Health has skyrocketed 30% in the past nine months (this is an enormous spike). Looking inside Women's Health, though, it's the same-old, same-old. Lose your belly (join the magazine's "Belly Off Club")! Conquer your cravings (food producers engineer processed foods to be addictive -- so make these cheesy fries instead! That'll conquer your cravings, right? But wait -- the website hosts a list of the "125 Best Packaged Foods for Women," so don't get too tied to the idea that you should be making your own meals)!* Ad pages for Women's Health competitors have dropped during the same period, despite containing similar content. It's possible that editors at Women's Health are sharper than the average bear; it's also possible that the mere presence of the word "health" makes it more appealing to the first-time reader. (A friend of mine was given a gift subscription by her aunt, an avid magazine reader who said, "I know you don't like women's magazines, so I got you this instead!")

This should all be good news, given that 2/3 of Americans actually are are overweight (and logically a good percentage of the readers of these magazines are as well); ideally the "health" tips surrounding weight loss would be targeting them and not the readers who don't need to lose body fat for health reasons. But women are reading these articles in fashion magazines, where "overweight" is invisible -- even the now-famous size 12 Glamour model, at 5'11" and 180 pounds, qualifies as "overweight" on the BMI scale by exactly one pound. So the weight-loss material pointed at the "overweight" reader is pointed at someone who isn't visually represented. Since "overweight" in our culture isn't neutral but a synonym for everything from sloppy to out-of-control to poor, all readers are left swimming in a sea of "health" advice. I think back to a conversation I had with my doctor at my last checkup. Like some magazine had directed me to do, I'd written out The List of questions I had about my body so that I wouldn't forget to ask them: Should I be concerned about my creaky knee; my mother is diabetic, could you check my blood sugar. As I pulled the piece of paper out of my pocket, the doctor sighed. "Ah, The List. You all have them. All you young, healthy women come in here with The List. And you know what? You're all healthy. The people who don't make The List are the ones who aren't."

Let's also not forget that the amount of space these magazines devote to weight loss hasn't increased proportionately along with America's obesity epidemic; magazines from 1992 have roughly as many pages devoted to weight loss as those today. The justification for those pages has changed, not the pages themselves.

The funny thing is that women's magazines aren't using the "epidemic" as a hook on their covers. It's still "lose weight fast!" on the cover; it's only when you look inside that the health angle is laid out. It's the same tactic used by best-seller Skinny Bitch, a book billed as a weight-loss time that turns out to be a treatise on veganism. It's a weird sort of whiplash: The hook still has to be the bottom line in order to catch one's attention -- lose weight now! But then the chatter itself turns out to be sensible in content, even if its context prevents it from being neutral.

And that's the very reason that Dr. LaPook's suggestion holds water: We don't live in a weight-neutral society, where "overweight" really does just mean "at increased risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, et al." And until we do, weight loss directives pointed toward women will, unfortunately, seem anything but neutral. Women with fully intact self-esteem remain unharmed; the rest, whether overweight or not, hear "health" advice and suffer.

*Lest I seem too harsh on Women's Health: Their relationship and sex advice is commendable for its focus on the reader and on strong communication. For example, a feature about "enjoying your breasts," which I expected to be about peekaboo push-up bras, was actually a list of ways to increase your sexual pleasure from your breasts (though the piece's subheading is pandering: "Guys get off on the sight of breasts -- no surprise there. But who knew they can double your pleasure too?").

Sunday, August 30, 2009

What Is Normal Eating?

I was sitting in McDonald's eating an Oreo McFlurry when I first read Tara Parker-Pope's Wellness blog entry titled "What Is 'Normal' Eating?" I was on a "working vacation" in a town where the best option for Wi-Fi was Mickey D's, and after four hours of copy editing when I really just wanted to be at the beach, I was irritated and thought an Oreo milkshake-like concoction would soothe my soul. In the piece, Parker-Pope quotes a definition of "normal eating" as given by nutritionist Ellyn Satter:

Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of it—not just stop eating because you think you should. Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food. Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good. Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way. It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful. Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life.

In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food and your feelings.

I had a strong gut reaction (heh, heh) when I read Parker-Pope's main question: What is 'normal' eating? And I couldn't have scripted it better, what with the cultural and personal issues leading me to make unhealthy food choices: I don't usually eat at McDonald's, but there I was for lack of a better option -- not foodwise, but convenience-wise. And I was stressed and feeling put-upon and not doing a great job of walking the work-life tightrope, so I displaced my stress with food. But from the comments on the thread -- nay, from the existence of the post itself -- it was clear that my Wi-Fi McFlurry was far from some little blip on my own little trajectory. Satter's words should sound as ridiculous as "Normal breathing is through the nose, or sometimes the mouth..." -- but they don't. The mere fact that "normal" eating has to be written out in such a careful way shows how something that appears utterly achievable is, in fact, unachievable for so many.

The comments on the post (which garnered more than double the amount of comments of any other recent post on the Times Wellness blog) are frequently exactly the contrary to Satter's wise words. Among them: Eat only until 60% full. No snacks. No omega-6 oils (I didn't know what those were either). Go vegan. More than half the comments are basically echoing what Satter is saying, but given the essence of the post, the number of rules posted is interesting.

"Why can't eating be flexible and fun?" the author of the World of Psychology post that Parker-Pope points to, Margarita Tartakovsky, writes. Here's why: Because in the face of the actual reasons that drove our culture to become so messed-up about food, inflexibility and rigidity became concrete tools we could use to make sense out of it all, to feel as though we were taking some sort of action, however minute, to combat the poisoned mind-set we're in. We've got the industrialization of food production; the lack of community togetherness that drove us from bridge clubs to our television sets and bags of Doritos (related to McDonald's willingness to step in as community center, complete with Wi-Fi for working vacationers); the families of all socioeconomic classes trading home-cooked meals for "home meal replacements"; the sedentary jobs; the Coke machines in the middle schools; the beauty myth; the focus on restrictive eating; fat as a feminist issue. So you beef up on your Michael Pollan and "Fast Food Nation" and maybe read your Susie Orbach -- and then what? Awareness of the issues is a great first step, but it leaves the individual sort of in a no-man's land, aware that you're not eating "normally" but grasping in the fog for a way to begin doing so. The easiest navigation tool around is those food rules, especially if the sociological food issues you're steeped in have served to make you one of the majority of Americans who are overweight. Stop drinking soda. Don't eat after 8 p.m. Park your car farther away in the parking lot. These rules do some good, sure -- at the very least they don't hurt -- but for so many they're placeholders for the real issues that feel too enormous to even attempt to tackle.

I joined a CSA as one leg of my personal/political combat against being messed-up about food. It has undoubtedly made me a healthier eater; every week I have fresh kale and cucumbers I've gotta use or waste my money. But it has done crap to make me a normal eater. Even in my conscious attempt to personally contradict industrialization and depersonalization of food, I find that I'm still left swimming in the dark. I make my kale, then binge-eat sweets -- because that is my abnormality, the way I've chosen, albeit without ever meaning to choose it, to deal with my set of personal and cultural circumstances in regards to food.

I would love to be Satter's mythical "normal" eater, but I see her as exactly that: mythical. I picture her as the sort of person who can buy a Kit-Kat bar and save half of it for later -- and who, more importantly, would be prone to forgetting about the bar until she stumbled across it wrapped up in her desk drawer the next day. But then I think of my friends who can do exactly that, and they're not "normal" eaters either: I remember watching one of them plug all of her daily food intake into a nutrition tool on the web and reciting the day's vitamin intake out loud as though this were just what everyone did at day's end. Even the people I know who naturally gravitate toward a healthy diet yet don't preoccupy themselves with nutritional natter or body checks have their own food-control issues: I think of my father, one of those lucky folks, who gets fussy if foods of different consistencies wind up comingling in the slightest on his plate.

All this is to say that I wish to sign on to Satter's plan. I wish to sign on in ink and blood -- I just don't know what to do to make it a reality. My own signing on becomes an act of resistance, not an act of forward motion: I resist against the abnormal eating that has surrounded me as an American, as a woman. Every part of Satter's credo is so general, so obvious to anyone who has not been steeped in a food-crazy culture, that I have trouble navigating it without rules. There's no magazine cover line called "10 Ways to Have a Normal Relationship With Food." And if there were, I'm sure it would work as well as "Lose 5 Pounds in 5 Days" -- that is, not at all.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Glamour Plus-Size Model, Supposedly

Gasp! A size 12 woman is on the pages of Glamour! I wish this weren’t news, but it is -- and readers are noticing, to the point where editor-in-chief Cindi Leive wrote about the reader response on the magazine’s website.

Specifically, the piece the photo originally appeared in is titled “What Everyone But You Sees About Your Body.” The article coaches readers to “look through the eyes of these experts, who recognize the beauty and sexiness you don’t.” And to illustrate the concept, they use a professional model who happens to have a little tummy pooch. Are we supposed to somehow think that this model -- with glowing skin, a radiant smile, and an hourglass figure -- does not recognize her beauty and sexiness? Or are we supposed to play the role of the expert and see her beauty through the gentle padding, implying that there are others who don’t see the beauty of a woman who makes her living off of looking beautiful?

The magazine is between a rock and a hard place here as far as feminist critique goes -- had they illustrated this piece with a standard-sized model, the piece would have lost credibility; and as much as I’d love to see this magazine (or any other) use women who are actually plus-sized as models (as opposed to “plus-size models,” many of whom would be hard-pressed to find anything that fits them in a plus-size clothing store), we’re light-years away from that. The image was a good choice. But the attention it’s gotten forces me to look at it with a critical eye. I’m pleased to read that so many other women felt affirmed by the image. Me? I felt like I was being tricked, like when a saleswoman compliments you in order to sell you more clothes.

I’m guessing that Leive is correct when she writes that the image struck a chord because we have lost contact with what other women’s bodies look like. From the way people are reacting, you’d think that the model was as overweight as the average American woman and therefore a true reflection of what we look like (her BMI puts her at barely overweight, which, given the fact that nobody in their right mind would look at this model and call her overweight, goes to show how ridiculous BMI is as a measure of health; for more on that, see Kate Harding’s BMI Flickr collection). Still, people are reacting, and strongly. I would a zillion times rather that these images appear than not appear. I don’t think they do harm, and reading the testimonials that are on the magazine’s site, it seems that they are doing a powerful good for a lot of women. But one picture does not a revolution make.

I hope to see Glamour follow up this piece and the attention it’s getting with not a stronger message, but one that’s, in some ways, subtler. Using non-standard-sized models in neutral editorial pages (that is, in pictures that accompany an article on, say, dating, as opposed to fashion or body-image pages). Not insisting that models larger than a size 6 are automatically blessed with hourglass figures. (I mean, kudos for the Queen Latifah cover -- brown-skinned AND plus-size! -- but don’t tell me that the Queen’s waist is actually cinched in like that when Photoshop isn’t around.) Basically, what needs to happen for the all-shapes-and-sizes message to appear authentic is that women of, well, all shapes and sizes need to be represented in ways that don’t make it seem like they’re somehow anomalies.

Glamour has a halfway decent track record on this; I’ve seen one neutral editorial image of a model who was maybe size 12 with no comment or text about body image or her size. (Which sounds paltry but is one more than I’ve seen in any other mainstream women’s glossy.) Their woman-on-the-street Dos and Don’ts pages pay attention to the fashions their unwitting subjects are wearing, not the body sizes of the people photographed (yes, they show plump women in white pants, heavens be). And the May 2009 swimsuit spread was a fantastic sprint on the issue: The piece mentions what fabrics “camouflage lumps and bumps,” yes, but it’s the only time I’ve seen a plus-size model (the stunning Crystal Renn, who makes a living as a plus-size model) in a piece that’s not about plus sizes but about average sizes -- which, at size 12-14, Renn and most other “plus”-size models are. But now that the editors do have that track record and people are noticing, they have a responsibility to set a new, higher standard for themselves.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Belly Flop, Still

Still seeking the hordes of pot-bellied men on the street, and failing. I'm pretty convinced that the Times trend story on pot bellies story was a non-story, but it's been nagging at me. Part of me wonders if it is a trend and women have gained weight over the past year too--the recession upsizing--but that it would be seen as distasteful or disingenious, or even cruel to run a piece in the Times about the increase of women's hip size.

Overall, though, I don't think that the en vogue body has anything to do with how people actually shape their bodies, to the degree that we have individual control over it. That is, we appear to shape our bodies via all sorts of tricks, but the bodies themselves change due to circumstances that have little to do with the "in" body. Female models are as whippetlike as ever, yet Americans are heavier than ever. The "in" body shapes how we think of the ideal, and the emotional reaction we have to it, but it hasn't shaped America's bodies.

Movie starlets of old Hollywood were somewhat heavier than those of today (though not to the degree that some would have it--the whole "Marilyn Monroe wore a size 16" thing is totally bogus, and there's been no time in the past century when the weight loss industry wasn't around, so it's not like women saw The Seven-Year Itch and let out their breath). The average American woman was somewhat thinner than she is today; she weighed 140 pounds in 1960, and 164 pounds in 2002, according to the CDC. Despite the group of people who react to "thin is in" by regimenting their bodies to an unhealthy degree, American women have reacted to a shrinking ideal by getting bigger, not smaller.

The reasons for the expanding American waistline have been plundered from just about every angle--it's processed foods, it's failing communities, it's the income gap. Two possibilities come to mind here:

1) American women are reacting to unrealistic body standards by eating more. Emotional overeating hasn't been explored as much as I'd like as a cause for rising obesity rates, in part because it's hard to identify and examine objectively. But it makes sense that this is at least part of the equation--compulsive overeating is an eating disorder, after all, and it's taken for granted that media images play a significant role in the development of eating disorders that have been explored more thoroughly (anorexia, bulimia). But instead of reacting to images of rail-thin women by starving or entering a binge-purge cycle (and you'd be pressed to find a compulsive eater who hasn't at least tried purging in some way, whether it be skipping meals to "make up" for a box of cookies or by more drastic method), some may just say, "Fuck it" and skip the purging part. Not all overweight or obese people are compulsive overeaters, of course, but a good percentage are. (I've found statistics stating that anywhere from 10% to 30% of obese individuals are compulsive overeaters--the disparity suggests not necessarily bad methodology, but the difficulty in categorizing binge eating, which is only now being considered for categorization in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.) And compulsive overeating is caused by all sorts of things, not just reactions to Gwyneth Paltrow. But if there is a correlation between the expanding American body and the shrunken ideal, it could be here.


2) More likely, the relationship between the supposed ideal and the average has nothing to do with hipster rebellion against Obama's abs, and more to do with a desperate need for a style story. Or maybe men are just taking the lead in this recession on the big body = wealth equation instead of leaving it to Depression-style shoulder pads or the stimulus package (note the National Recovery Administration logo on the bottom of this 1934 weight-loss ad, pointed out by Karen Sternheimer at Everyday Sociology. Or maybe Guy Trebay is mistaking unemployed bankers for hipsters, and he's just spotting the laid-off dudes who are suddenly eating mounds of Cheetos instead of managing hedge funds.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Belly Flop

Like 85% of all style stories, I suspect this New York Times story about how men's potbellies are "in" was pulled out of the writer's ass. Or maybe there is a paunch trend--I haven't noticed it, but then I didn't notice depression chic anywhere either, and apparently that was huuuge. But check out the photos accompanying the story. I just can't see women's bodies--women's normal, "flawed" bodies, captured by a street photographer--ever making it onto the style pages. (I don't want them there, of course; the thought of being told that thick ankles are "in," accompanied by a smattering of poolside photos, is unsettling. Bodies are bodies, not trends, but that's another post.)

There's this assumption that men are "jus' folks" while women are supposed to be on the catwalk 24/7. Every so often you do see a trend story about how "curves are back" for women--always accompanied by photos of "curvy" celebrites like, oh, Scarlett Johansson, or basically any female celebrity who has breasts larger than a B-cup. The Times piece, however, is accompanied by headless shots of paunchy dudes--real people, that is, captured on the streets of New York simply looking like themselves. "Real women" graphics in this style only show up in a dos-and-don'ts formation--never, in my memory, have a collection of headless women a body-shape trend make. (Unless we're talking about Kate Harding's "headless fatties.")

The closest equivalent women have is the tired trend story about Michelle Obama's arms (though the link is to an L.A. Times piece that actually looks at the issue sociologically and with a feminist eye instead of a fitness piece on "How to Get Michelle Obama's Arms!"). Obama here is a stand-in for the headless, sculpted women who might otherwise make it onto the style pages--but, of course, she's anything but anonymous. Even in a piece that might actually be a women's body trend, we're still told to look upward, not sideways, for our mirror.

A quick thank-you to--never thought I'd say this--Quentin Tarantino for the only contemporary ode to the female potbelly, which starts at 2:30.)

Monday, August 10, 2009


This post about the de-skilling of food production and consumption got me thinking about one of the biggest ways that that de-skilling affected America: women's labor, and what happened once food industrialization allowed women to not spend their days canning and grinding wheat. In the 1950s, the post-war food market gave housewives the "gift" of packaged foods (which eventually, of course, led to recipes centered around creative uses of those packaged goods). An essential part of "the feminine mystique" was about what happened when homemaking went from being considered skilled labor to being transparently not-as-skilled, what with all those food processors and washing machines. Homemaking is indeed very skilled labor, but suddenly all those women with educations and/or common sense realized they were bored when staring at the spin cycle. From that (plus maybe another thing or two), we got the women's movement.

And from the women's movement, we got the beauty myth, which has it that cultural overattention to women's appearance rose in direct proportion to the amount of actual power women had in society, in order to maintain status quo. So when we stopped relying as heavily on individual women to be skilled food producers, thus began our journey toward becoming de-skilled food consumers. But the slow food/organic/localvore movement has had popular and practical success in urging a return to skilled production; it's probably the most successful such movement in the culture at large. (Alice Waters might not quite be a household name, but she'll draw a larger crowd than any, say, artisan cabinet-maker.) So we -- and by "we" I mean a fairly privileged group of people who have the time, money, education, and social investment in eating a meal prepared entirely out of local ingredients instead of one from Subway -- are back in the kitchen again, men and women sharing a sort-of-equal stage this time around, happily chiffonading our fresh basil.

Except that the beauty myth still exists. So women are back in the kitchen, but poured into a size 4 apron. As evidenced by the popularity of Julie and Julia, it's not like modern proponents of the slow food movement are skimping on the butter. Au contraire -- the slow foodies I know (of both sexes) are sipping the cream from local cows and kissing dishes with (Dean-and-DeLuca-procured) olive oil. But the body imperative remains, and slow foodies aren't exempt. I'm wondering if this attempt at re-skilling food production and consumption is leading to a subset of overskilled food producers -- slow-foodarexics?

Ideally, the slow food/localvore movement would have its followers to naturally follow a sensible eating plan: Eat wholesome, nutritious foods when hungry; stop eating when you're full; eat from every food group. I'd like to think that's not even "ideal" so much as it is natural -- by paying attention to our food preparation, we naturally pay attention to our consumption. But paying attention to one's food has never been a problem for women who suffer from eating disorders. The rough demographic for eating disorders also happens to be largely the same group most likely to jump on the slow food train -- again, relatively privileged folks.

There's a leisure-time gap between the olden days we want to emulate, and the days we live in. Our approach to food is wildly different than that of our great-grandparents -- it simply can't be as, well, organic (mentally organic, that is). My grandfather recently told me a story about canning foods when he was a kid. He was canning food so that they would have food in the winter, not because it was a fun family activity or because the tomatoes were local (what else would they be?). Those were happy byproducts. He talked about the way the machinery worked, not about how delicious the finished product was. I don't know what was on his parents' minds when they were canning, but I'm guessing they were thinking about the sort of things I think about while mopping the floor. That is, they were thinking thoughts one thinks when one works. Our great-grandparents didn't put as much investment into food as we do because it was a chore. For us, it's a pleasure, so we look forward to spending a lot of mental energy on it. Which is an enormous part of the problem of the American approach to food. People assume that the reason we have an obesity epidemic is because people are undereducated about nutrition. That's true for some, but every obese or overweight person I've heard talk about their weight knows full well that an emotional engagement and preoccupation with food is what added on the pounds, not a lack of knowledge of the fattening properties of Ben & Jerry's.

So I wonder if localvorism isn't for some, in a way, a faint shadow path running alongside the trail of a full-blown eating disorder. If that sounds far-fetched, or even just utterly harmless, consider orthorexia, an obsession with healthy eating. Orthorexics physically aren't usually in danger (unless it's accompanied by overexercising), but mentally they're swimming alongside anorexics, bulimics, and compulsive overeaters. I'm reading Living on Live Foods by raw foods guru Alissa Cohen, and she claims that when she went from a conventional diet to raw foods, she lost her obsession with food. This in a 500-plus-page book about eating nothing heated above 116 degrees. She makes her living off being a raw foods coach. And she's not obsessed with food? Similarly, how could slow foodies not be obsessed, or at least preoccupied, with food? Most people I know who align themselves with the movement (myself included) have a glut of cookbooks, and a blog reading list full of "food porn," and claim to "worship" slow food celebs like Alice Waters.

There's no doubt that the de-skilling of food production and consumption is an ugly path for the American diet. But we live in a culture that allows us the luxury of takeout, a culture ambitious enough to begin the industrial revolution that led us to this place -- a culture that now, as a result, leaves us with a lot of spare time on our hands. Time that is easily spent obsessing over food.

Slow foods at their best help us reclaim pleasure in preparing our own meals, pleasure in eating them, and pleasure in sharing with our communities of choice. But we're not a culture at our best, and I'm not sure if the glut of conversations and blogs surrounding egg custards in Perigordine sauce and pecan-encrusted skate put us any closer to being there.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Street Meat

Interesting article about the new food vendor battles: White-collar (and often white-skinned) types setting up shop with newfangled food carts, disrupting long-held traditions of food vendors who have been on the market for a while.

I don't know enough about free market vs. black market economies to really say, but it seems that the black market has functioned as a free market for food vendors for a long time. The actual provisions put into place by the city--permits and waiting lists and inspections--weren't serving the needs of either provider or consumer, so vendors took matters into their own hands and created an economy that allowed them to bypass the official system. The black market has been the de facto system for a while, it seems.

So while I want everyone to play by the rules (hopefully while holding hands), I can't help but get angry when I read reports of newcomers entering the market and using their privilege to upend this de facto free market. It's a helluva lot easier for an NYU law school grad to navigate the official city system and appear sympathetic to the authorities than it is for a middle-aged Lebanese dude with broken English and possibly limited business skills. (So says science, with this study of how people are more empathetic to the pain of people in their own social group. It takes a generation or so for the latest immigrant wave to have enough footing to be in any spot of political power; City Hall isn't exactly teeming with, say, Middle Eastern men.)

If the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house, what happens in cases where the master's tools have been seized by the workers and refashioned according to their actual needs? It seems that the long-standing traditions created by the immigrant vendors--including passing down prime spots from generation to generation--have been working just fine. I don't like seeing anybody bullied either; I just think maybe it's time for the system to be reexamined, incorporating the perspective of people for whom it's been working for decades.

Or maybe that's just me speaking from my end of the market, where I know where to go for the best falafel plate. I admit that there's some simple bias coming into play here on my part. I love adventurous yuppie food as much as (or more than) the next white middle-class city transplant--bring on the lemongrass cupcake with basil buttercream! But what I love more about the city is its multiculturalism--it's the lifeblood of New York, and has been since it was New Amsterdam. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere, the story goes--yet I can't help but begrudge the people who "make it" here at the expense of people who have farther to climb. Arguments for and against gentrification here are tiresome, but what's remarkable here is how the area being gentrified is...Sixth Avenue. In a way, the hot dog vendors being eradicated in favor of organic cupcakes would just cross the i's on the signing papers of the Brooks Brothers army that populates the neighborhood. But letting that happen seems like it's a resignation of what has made this city great--the huddled masses can stay in Queens, kthanxbye; we'll stick with our own kind here.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Michael Jackson Post

I've been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be understood by another person. When I was younger, the Great Dream was to find someone who understood every part of me, without me having to communicate it (which made me an excellent girlfriend at age 14, I'm quite sure). It took me years to tame the excitement I'd feel when someone would say something that made me feel utterly understood, like finally I'd found a truly kindred spirit. A cute boy would have been ideal, but really, anyone would have been fine. It was a big lure of online relationships at first--I remember reading a post on a bulletin board about how this woman gagged every time she brushed a certain quadrant of her teeth, and how she thought it was linked to some sort of psychological trigger, and I thought, Omigod, someone ELSE thinks that and omigod I've totally found my Other. She wasn't my Other. Nor was the woman who talked about "the sadness you feel in your arms," or any guy I've gone out with, no matter the quality of our 2 a.m. lights-out pillow talk, hands held, bodies swaddled in each other, hearts open. The best I could hope for was those moments in which you hear someone, or they hear you, and you know that the other person, in that moment, in that context, really does understand.

And now, I'm fine with that. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote that because no person can ever be truly known by another, "A good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his or her solitude." I'm unmarried, but I've found a guardian of my solitude; in my close friends, I've found still more. We get each other, in part because we get that neither of us will be wholly "gotten" by the other--not because of our failings but because of our humanness. The parts of me that my guardians don't get, I look to affirm in, say, literature. Or good movies, or family, either through their "getting" it too or through their intrinsic understanding of my history. Or posts on bulletin boards, or a stranger at a party who says one comment that I haven't heard before except in my own mind. There are plenty of people who echo my inner voice: There are many who are creative but hampered by lack of direction; dilettantes but wanting to be more; natural optimists with depressive tendencies. I've never had to fear being, well, un-understood. And the parts of myself that I haven't heard anyone else "get"? I keep them dear to myself, usually not out of shame--occasionally, sure--but more often because secrets are precious; because the murky, unknowable parts keep us from being a string of personality DNA, jigsaw puzzles of other people.

I can't imagine--really, cannot imagine--what it would be like to be in a world in which the number of people who understand fundamental things about you is infinitesimally small. Because you're famous--wildly famous--because the world watched your self-hatred morph and expand the way I watched my neighbor boy grow up from four-year-old to a young man whose voice changed last summer. Because your predilections are immoral, criminal, yet your status allows you to shield yourself from getting the kind of help you would need to reconcile those desires with your similarly true desires to do the right thing. Because we all know about your family; because your pill problem is on the front page; because you are loved and hated in equal measures; because the mere whisper of your presence brings electricity.

So you meet a certain cache of people who understand what it's like to be wildly famous. You find people who are self-proclaimed freaks, and buy skeletons of the freaks who can't speak with you about what it was like for them. You find children who understand what it's like to lose a childhood; you find children who, you think, can give that back to you. You find beautiful, troubled people, and try to collect them. But even then, you are too big for them.

Michael Jackson was so large that his death prompted not a reaction of sadness but of--not quite humor, but of archness. I wasn't cracking jokes or anything, but his death immediately became a ludicrous event. My best friend was late to meet me for dinner. "Sorry, I got caught up at work," she said. "Don't lie; you were composing yourself after mourning for Michael," I said. And we laughed.

His death came up a few times over dinner. And finally, she casually said what we say of sick old people and dogs: He's out of his misery now. And instead of it sounding like a cliche, something you say to excuse a possibly sad event, it was the absolute truth. I was never a crazed fan; I liked him like we all did, no more. I've talked about the tragedy of Michael Jackson before--how can you not, in order to keep the mix of fame beyond fame and awful acts against children from being just overwhelmingly depressing--but it wasn't until I connected him with Rilke that I saw that perhaps his biggest tragedy was that he was given both too much solitude and never, ever enough. He needed a guardian too.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Give Me Snickers Or Give Me Death

Food manufacturers are, according to the head of the FDA, manipulating foods to make them taste so good that you can't help but want more. Their tactics include: hitting a "bliss point" of fats, salt, and sugar (the FDA head, Dr. David Kessler, cites a Snickers bar and the way it melts in your mouth while still providing crunch); not overdoing any of the pleasure points so as to avoid creating consumer overwhelm; designing foods with layers of taste to engage our brains. Companies "design food for irresistibility... It's been part of their business plans."

To which I say, no shit? As opposed to the food companies that create foods that don't taste good, in order to get you to consume less of them?

Listen, I'm all for companies taking responsibility for agitating addictive behaviors in order to exploit the public. (See also: the tobacco industry.) But there is a huge difference between a company manipulating data about their product (or hiding said data, or creating marketing terms that imply something the product isn't) and manipulating the product to make it, well, better. I'm glad to see legislation passed to ban the marketing of "light" cigarettes; I was steamed when it came out that low-fat frozen dessert CremaLita was a flat-out lie. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the anti-McDonald's crusade--I hate that McDonald's has become a go-to meal option for so much of America, but it's not like most people get a triple-decker with fries because they think it's the most nutritious option available to them. Still, I see the point of the crusade: In a lot of communities, especially poor communities where the immediate stress relief of a milkshake is a helluva lot more appealing than a spinach salad, McDonald's is a social center; by keeping their nutritional data hidden, they're doing a public health disservice. Fine.

But to accuse companies like Mars (which makes Snickers) of "manipulating" products so that they taste good is flat-out ridiculous. I'm well aware of the ways that sugar acts upon the nervous system, creating an addictive pattern of sorts--and the high-fructose corn syrup found in these products raises this pattern to a new level. But sugar is not crack, as much as some people would like to have you believe, and junk food is designed to taste good, and that's not manipulation--that's the nature of junk food.

America's food landscape is outrageous--of this I have no doubt. But I recently spent six weeks in Vietnam. And you know what they have in stores there? Candy bars, and boxes of cookies, and loads of candy. Coffee is consumed there with sweetened condensed milk, making our milk-and-sugar habit seem downright pure. Vietnam is a poor country, so people can't afford to gorge themselves on cookies, but that's not all of the equation. Americans are fat because we take emotional refuge in our excess; it's how we express both the pride and ennui that being the first of the first-world nations brings. Companies might exploit this tendency, but they are not creating it. I guess I'm coming down on the libertarian side of junk-food regulation at last.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

8 Days a Week

I've worked in personal finance magazines for about six months now. And in that six months, my guardianship of my own personal finances has swelled--if not in quality, in quantity. I check my bank balances more frequently even when I know nothing has changed; I peruse my decimated 401(k) account; I idly poke around to find favorable money market rates. I'm not doing anything that differently than I did before working in personal finance mags. I'm not even thinking that differently about my finances--I've never been an out-of-control spender, nor miserly, and my interest in investing in anything beyond the rudiments is roughly equivalent to my interest in, say, bass fishing.

The difference is that I'm thinking more frequently. Money has been added to the treadmill of mundane questions that take up space in my mind: what am I doing tonight; what will I eat for dinner; should I go for a run later; what's my bank balance. It only made sense--I was suddenly reading about IRAs and financial solvency all day long, for my job. During my breaks from reading, my mind didn't easily make the switch to reading the headlines or composing an e-mail--it needed a transition, and checking my own financial solvency provided it.

A few months into this, on a day when I was checking my checking account balance for the third time that day, it hit me: If my new gig brought about a sudden uptick in my financial self-awareness, what had ten years in women's magazines done to me? A decade of reading about "loving your body" next to diet tips; of the assumption that whether to pain ourselves for beauty is not the question, but rather how much; of staying within the comfortable universe padded by birth control and makeup removers and 12 blouses I needed now.

Granted, what brought me into personal finance publishing was being unexpectedly laid off--hardly an event that brings out my financial devil-may-care side. And it wasn't like I had no idea that working in women's magazines had done a number on my head. But I didn't realize how insidious the damage could be until then. As a feminist I consciously strained against several tenets of women's magazines; I read relationship columns with a wry eye and treated beauty pieces as foreign-language copy as much as I could. But that's just it: as much as I could wasn't ever going to be enough to truly shield me from absorbing the messages I read all day long.

Hmm, could I get therapy bills for body dysmorphia covered under workman's comp?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Particularly helpful Webster's definitions, II

ri•pie•no \ri-'pya-no\ n: TUTTI

Monday, April 6, 2009

Joke's On You

Something about this April Fool's Day joke by Improv Everywhere really irks me. The group is known for pulling outlandish pranks in public places--they're most known for their annual no-pants subway ride, which began with a group of people coordinating to ride the subway together, in January, without pants, while pretending not to know each other or even notice that something strange was afoot. (It's now sort of an annual parade, with thousands of participants in cities across the world.)

The joke was that they posted on their website that they crashed a funeral: They claimed that they selected a funeral in which the deceased had few family and friends, and then showed up en masse to make it the "best funeral ever." They didn't actually do anything so crude, of course; the joke was not on the nonexistent grievers, but on the viewers of the website. It's a clever conceit--here's a group known for doing mildly outrageous things, and so it's plausible that aficionados would believe that they'd do something like crash a funeral. (A local news channel even covered it--funnily enough, acknowledging the funeral-crashing as an April Fool's joke but apparently unaware that the whole thing was a setup.)

But here's the thing: I was suckered in for a minute or two. But instead of thinking, "What assholes" (or, as some misguided commenters on the site wrote, "How thoughtful"), I thought, "They really don't stop at anything, do they?" Something as intrusive as crashing a funeral somehow seemed like a natural extension of the invasive things this group does, in the name of fun.

I used to support the idea of public pranks, probably because I appreciated their revolutionary roots. When Joey Skaggs took a busful of hippies to a residential area of Queens in a faux-tourism program, he was highlighting the ways in which mainstream culture attempted to marginalize revolutionary forces by turning the freak flag in the other direction. Robert Delford Brown's "Mr. Jesus Christ Contest" called attention to the sexism (and general ludicrousness) of the Catholic church. (In writing this I learned that Mr. Brown recently passed away; here is his obituary.)

There's still some of that: Evan Roth's TSA Communication project, which utilizes flexible sheets of stainless steel to communicate messages to airport security workers viewing X-rays of your luggage, highlights how ridiculous this aspect of the "war on terror" really is. Improv Everywhere commandeered the flagship Abercrombie & Fitch store (which hires live shirtless male models to stand around the store during business hours) with dozens of shirtless not-models, a funny juxtaposition of images of physical ideals. And there's nothing wrong per se with the pranks designed simply to amuse or delight--Improv Everywhere's most delightful mission to date has been the "freezing" of Grand Central Station, in which 200 people simultaneously froze in place for 60 seconds in the bustling station, bringing a sense of wonder to all who were lucky enough to witness it.

But then there's the crowd who gathered to cheer on a random dude as he ate a sandwich. And those who welcomed back total strangers with balloons and signs at the airport. Some of the people surprised in these videos appear vaguely pleased--all seemed bewildered--but they all sort of reassure the videographer, "Oh, this is so nice of you." Self-indulgent seems the better word here--while the strangers chosen at random to be participants came away from the episodes with a story, none of them seemed, well, happy about it. The improv agents, however, seem supremely thrilled.

It's interesting that so many of these pranks revolve around singling out a person and turning them into a public spectacle. It's hardly news that our culture has gotten more and more celebrity-happy, but it doesn't take a genius to realize that not everybody wants that. Being a celebrity because you choose it is one thing; being cheered on by a group of strangers as you try to finish your sandwich is another. There's zero collective spirit involved in this--instead of making passersby ponder what's going on (which was the beauty of the Grand Central Station freeze), it's all about pointing the finger, turning on the camera, and forcing people to make a go of it, like it or not.

There's another strain of prank that engineers public spectacles of supposedly sentimental events. The fake subway wedding proposal, which roped in passersby to hold up "Will" "you" "marry" "me?" signs. The staged romance of leading a cab driver believe he's helping two star-crossed lovers find one another. It all seems harmless enough, until you think of how that driver might feel were he to discover that he was duped into thinking he was performing a small miracle, when really he was a hipster puppet. More than that, however, it takes away from the feats of daily magic, small and large, that are real: seeing two dear old friends run into each other on the bus and watching one of them cry tears of joy when the other announces her pregnancy; witnessing a small act of grace as a woman in a business suit wordlessly hands a crying teenager a packet of tissues in the park; watching as two subway musicians stroll into the same subway car from opposite ends and proceed to perform an impromptu duet.

[Final crank side note: The Urban Prankster site gets negative points for having a background that appears to be smudges. Amusing idea, except for those who actually smudge their screen trying to wipe away the nonexistent dust. (It was merely an annoyance to me, but I know graphic designers who depend upon a pristine screen to do their job smoothly and would find this downright meanspirited.)]

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Reasons to Be Pretty

I went into Reasons to Be Pretty, the new Neil LaBute show on Broadway, expecting to hate it. The show is about what happens when Greg, our protagonist, offhandedly tells his douchey friend that his girlfriend's face is "regular" (instead of beautiful) -- and she finds out. It has all the ingredients of a LaBute sexist cocktail, in the vein of In the Company of Men and The Shape of Things. The surprise here is that in dealing with the beauty myth, one of the most enduring facets of sexism in America, he managed to create a work that wasn't sexist.

Part of me wants to know what Reasons to Be Pretty would be like if written by a woman -- someone who lived with the beauty standard inside and out, every day. But part of LaBute's point is that men, because they are outside of the beauty standard, cannot understand; instead, they have to try to grasp the significance to the women in their lives of something as potent and volatile as beauty. Women may have to deal with it in a harsher, more daily light, but because of that we intrinsically understand it, even if we're left inarticulate of anything but academic-critique language to describe its effects. Men are left to watch. (Or exploit. Which LaBute, true to form, shows with Greg's buddy Kent, who will surely be played by Aaron Eckhart in the movie.)

It's rare to see tales of the beauty myth from a personal perspective in anything other than a story about overcoming self-hatred. That tack is important, but it doesn't come close to belying the acute pain that the beauty standard brings; we know our own worst moments, but we don't know those of others. Reasons to Be Pretty would be absurd if Steph were freaking out over a female friend saying she had a "regular" face. The play works because the beauty myth creeps into intimate relationships, preying on the very uncertainty that often accompanies romance. Instead of verging on cries of "reverse sexism," as The Shape of Things did, LaBute manages to show why he, as a man, is uniquely qualified to tell this story about the beauty standard.

When, in the play's climax, Greg tells Steph that he was ambivalent about his feelings for her -- it comes off as a stroke of love, believe it or not -- we're left wondering if he's lying in order to sever their tie so that she might be able to embark on a new relationship where the word regular will never cut like a knife. In his author's note, LaBute writes that Greg "just might be one of the few adults I've ever tackled." I can only hope that LaBute himself is growing up and that he can continue to add to the growing number of men in the public eye who are examining gender and sexism with openness and concern for both themselves and the women around them -- not defensiveness.

Monday, March 16, 2009

McCain Wins

I just want to give props to my favorite McCain, Meghan, who wrote this straightforward response to Laura Ingraham's commentary on McCain's weight. (McCain criticized Ann Coulter for her, well, Ann Coulterness; Ingraham then criticized McCain on her radio show for her attack on Coulter -- and, in doing so, made a total non-sequitur reference to her weight. Which is, for the record, a healthy one.)

One thing I'd like to note, though, is that this is widely being seen as a critique of McCain's weight -- which Ingraham undoubtedly intended it to be. But what she actually said was that McCain was too heavy to be a contestant on The Real World. Putting aside the general ridiculousness of using anybody's supposed unsuitability for The Real World as an insult, this isn't a critique of McCain's weight; it's a vocalization of the sheer facts. McCain, simply by being a normal-sized adult woman (at a self-proclaimed size 8, she's still smaller than the average), probably is too heavy to be in contention for the "hot chick" role on those sort of shows, in the same way that most plus-size models are actually too slender to gracefully wear plus-size clothing. (Industry standard for plus-size models is size 12; Lane Bryant sizes begin at 14.)

I'm sure that Ingraham had zero intention of semi-critiquing size standards in the media, but in a way that's what she did. The insult wasn't "You're fat," it was "You're too heavy to be on reality TV." (It could also be read as a notation on why one's suitability for television is the beauty standard, or the ridiculousness that anybody's real body could be considered too big for "reality" TV.) No credit goes to her, though; I'm saving that for McCain. I love how she consistently kept the focus on Ingraham and the ridiculousness of her comments, instead of falling for the bait and wailing about how she's not really fat at all. She also took the opportunity to note that even though she wasn't overweight, that didn't matter; it's the critique that's wrongheaded, no matter the size of the target body.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Why Did the Feminist Cross the Road?

I'm sort of left speechless by this Germaine Greer piece about how women aren't as funny as men. Well, she says that's not what she's really saying, but she penned the piece to clarify what she meant when she said exactly that, in those words, on television.

What's interesting about this piece is that, as Kate Harding points out at Salon, "Greer keeps offering great setups for an analysis of why women are culturally discouraged from developing and displaying robust senses of humor, then following them up with conclusions that amount to, 'We're from Venus -- whaddaya gonna do?'" If this were someone who hadn't made a living via feminist writing, it would be forgivable--I'd think that the author simply hadn't immersed herself enough in basic feminist tenets to recognize how close she was to articulating why women are funny instead of why they aren't. But this is Germaine Greer we're talking here. I'm puzzled. (I'm doubly puzzled by her bizarre claim that female comics marry themselves off, and maybe that's why they don't thrive in the comedy world. When the female Muslim comic she referenced, Shazia Mirza, commented that she'd be able to afford getting off the comedy circuit tomorrow if only she could marry a rich man, Mirza was making a joke -- one Greer clearly missed.)

Specifically, she writes:

Women are at least as intelligent as men, and they have as vivid and ready a perception of the absurd; but they have not developed the arts of fooling, clowning, badinage, repartee, burlesque and innuendo into a semi-continuous performance as so many men have

Let's say for the sake of argument that she's right (which she's not), and that women can't do a good pratfall, because our vaginas get in the way. This allows zero room for a cultural feminist analysis of humor; she just assumes that what's traditionally been seen as funny is what's funny, period. Not only does this imply that "droll"ness, which she readily admits at the end of the piece is where women thrive, is humor, not a sidecar to it, but it's a wholly outdated view of humor on the whole. Alternative comedy has been thriving for more than a decade, and while the male-female ration is still far from 50/50 within it, it's also no accident that female comics like Janeane Garofalo, Beth Lapides, and Margaret Cho sprang from alt-comedy. Are they making Jim Carrey goggly-eyes or Denis Leary-style rants? No. They're still funny as hell.

Funnier, in fact, than jokes. When was the last time you genuinely laughed at a joke with a punchline, the type one learns and repeats? There are some amusing ones out there, but none will inspire the kind of laughter that is bound to happen when I get together with my friends and we riff on each others' words, or simply alight on a moment of lunacy and find ourselves doubled over in laughter. This sort of leaves Greer's claim that women aren't that funny because we "famously cannot learn jokes" flatter than a Polack joke. (Yes, let's not forget that an enormous subset of jokes play on power structures. Women aren't immune from telling racist jokes -- or sexist ones -- but it makes sense that we'd have a natural aversion to jokes in which our disenfranchised group could easily be subbed in. See also: dumb blonde jokes.)

Greer states that men develop humor as a survival tool for acceptance within his peer group: "...the other roles in the group are not accessible to him, perhaps because he is weaker or poorer or less imposing than his peers." That's the closest she has to a solid argument here: Women have a small but clearly defined arsenal we've been told to turn to in discomfiting peer groups, and humor isn't in that toolkit. But more than that, she's illuminating that humor is a weapon of competition for men. Women have largely been removed from competing for role of "funniest" (instead, we're encouraged to race for the booby prize of "prettiest"). But what that means in real life is that instead of one-upping each other with one-liner zingers, my female friends tend to be funny in a more collective way. They bring up an incident from the past and exaggerate its ludicrous details; we get "the giggles" together; we hopscotch from one person's joke to another, building a central "inside joke" that we created together. (Well, "inside jokes" are a well-known tool of competition amongst preteen girls--it's unbearable to a seventh-grader when your two friends have a joke they repeat that excludes you. Luckily it circles around to being a cooperative event in adulthood.)

I might be so defensive of female humor because my best friend is a stand-up comic. The first time I saw her perform, I was struck with awe -- not just at the pride I felt at seeing my best friend handle the crowd with ease, but at hearing what it was like to hear stand-up performed by a feminist: as if women mattered, which is basically all feminism asks of the world. It wasn't exclusive humor -- the men in the crowd were laughing just as hard as I was at the way she lampooned health-care policy that covers Viagra but not the Pill. But it's not just her. I've laughed too hard with so many women -- and inspired the same of them -- to think Greer's view is anything but a joke.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

taste tested

I've never really understood acquired tastes. I have them, of course--beer tastes a lot better now than it did 15 years ago, when I first swilled it. And while beer has the benefit of getting one tipsy, it's not like there aren't other beverages that do the same, so there's something else that makes beer worth going back to frequently enough that I worked through the grimaces and began to genuinely enjoy it. Part of that was drinking better stuff (I developed my beer taste buds in Oregon, aka Beervana, so this wasn't hard), but even that took a while. I kept trying beer because it brought me a certain social cachet.

I thought of this when I read this Science article about a dog food tasting. The experimenter, as a lark, conducted a blind pâté tasting with his friends. He included two expensive pâtés, two cheap imitations, and one dog food (the testers knew there was a dog food in the mix). The taste ratings perfectly correlated with the price -- the priciest spread averaged the highest ratings; the cheapest (the dog food) rated the lowest. That's semi-surprising, given that wine prices have little to no correlation to quality--it's tempting to lump all connoisseur fetish items into one category and feel smug for just shopping at K-Mart.

But what's really surprising -- and what made me think of acquired tastes -- is that even though most tasters rated the dog food the lowest, none of them were willing to guess which pâté was actually dog food. The tasters didn't trust their own preferences enough to assert the logical conclusion -- that dog food must taste worse than chicken pâté. Obviously there's no social cachet in professing to like dog food, but there is negative social cachet in admitting to preferring dog food to chicken pâté. Blind taste tests are usually meant to discourage tasters from being influenced by the loaded message a brand may carry -- the quintessential taste test experience is that the unknown brand surpasses the Cadillac of cola, or brownies, or whatever. That's not what happened here: The tasters knew unilaterally that the inferior brand sucked, but they wouldn't make the proclamation. (You could argue that they just didn't know what dog food tasted like, but it's hardly a stretch to think that it probably tastes like, well, dog food.)

So both the dog-food tasters and people who develop acquired tastes aren't sticking to their initial impressions about food, at least in part to maintain or improve their social stance. It makes me wonder about all of my preferences: Do I love my Oregon beers because they're made by superior brewers, or because I want to maintain my claim to the Oregon psyche? Do I actually love Big Macs and have merely convinced myself that they're chalky and gross because it's fashionable in my Fast Food Nation-revering crowd to think so? Inversely, do I actually like foie gras, or do I eat it when I want to shirk my mantle of liberal-ecoconscious-friend-to-all-creatures political correctness, and just eat a fatted liver already?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A touch of class

This study about socioeconomic status and body language doesn't necessarily track to me. The study authors posit that people of higher socioeconomic status are able to be, well, rude when speaking to others -- not maintaining eye contact, grooming themselves during conversation. People of low socioeconomic status, however, are forced to curry favor by actively engaging others in conversation.

It's unclear in the study summaries available (the actual study is for APA members only, unfortunately) whether the participants were paired with people in their own socioeconomic bracket. That's an enormous factor, I'd imagine -- I'm not sure if two high-socioeconomic-class folks in a room together would let down their guard and breathe easy at being among their own (I think of Eddie Murphy in his "White Like Me" sketch on Saturday Night Live), or if perceived competition would force them to up their "I can't hear you nyah nyah nyah" game. Surely the Guggenheims don't all sit around grooming themselves whilst avoiding eye contact and not smiling. (Or maybe they do? I wouldn't know.)

But what I'm really curious about here is A) class guilt, and B) how and when we bury our social cues. Surely I can't be the only middle-class bleeding-heart liberal who probably errs on the side of being patronizingly friendly to those at an obvious disadvantage to me. When I'm talking to someone who is clearly several rungs below me on the socioeconomic ladder, I become acutely aware of my privilege and become more solicitous than I would be of another white thirtysomething lady on the subway -- it's some sort of backward way of showing that we're all in this together, or something. I'm painfully self-aware of this tendency -- it's painful because the fact that I know that I'm doing it means that my kindliness is motivated not by my common bond with all humankind but by a form of patronization -- and I've always chalked it up to white middle-class guilt.

I also wonder how this intersects with the findings of another study: That women are hard to read. Apparently neither men nor women are accurately able to judge the level of interest a woman has in a dating prospect (interested men are supposedly easy to spot -- my hunch is that they're just trained that you've gotta be aggressive to get a date, which may be why some of them seem to think that catcalling might actually be a nice way to meet someone special). Body cues, language cues -- they're all ambiguous with the ladies. I suspect that women learn a dual set of social codes: How to act by your class, and how to act with men. If we're hard to read, maybe it's because our sex overrides other social groups we might be a part of, regardless of whether we realize that's what's going on.