Month: September 2013

The Gym is For ‘Skinny People’ Too

This piece was published by Role/Reboot on September 10, 2013.  You can view it here.

My morning gym-prep routine is pretty simple. Change into a pair of breathable shorts and a tank, pin my bangs under a headband, fill up my water bottle, and hop on the scale. After I do all of these things, I’m off bounding (or reluctantly trudging, depending on the previous night’s activities) into the weight or cardio room.

A few weeks ago, an older man was gazing out the window beside me as I stepped on the scale. He turned to me and scoffed, “I hope you’re not trying to lose weight.”

I stood there for a minute, baffled. No, I’m not trying to lose weight, part of me wanted to say, but that would imply that my weight is this man’s business. Which it isn’t. I have what most people would call a thin or even “skinny” body, meaning that I’m 5’6’’, hover around 120 pounds, wear a size four in pants, and have a petite frame. And over the past several years, I’ve received comments telling me essentially this: Practicing healthy habits as a naturally thin person is superfluous, offensive to others, or, even worse, signifies that I have body image issues.

Having my body or health practices scrutinized is nothing new. Growing up, I found it impossible to gain weight given my ridiculously high metabolism and modest appetite. My pediatrician inundated me with weight charts for my age and sex, pointing to the sad little dot that always trailed far below and behind the line of averages. “That’s you,” he’d say, and I’d nod, my gangly colt legs dangling off the exam table, and I’d wonder what I could do about it. My own parents had tried. Friends’ parents had tried, sometimes nicely, other times not so much. I distinctly remember a girlfriend’s grandmother throwing a fit because she didn’t think my parents had packed me enough to eat, and embarrassingly dumping half the contents of her own granddaughter’s lunchbox into mine in an effort to “fatten me up.”

The teasing I put up with in school sounded different than what the chubby girls endured, though I’m sure it was every bit as painful. I was told to “go eat a sandwich!” and frequently asked, “Do you eat and then throw it all up at home?” “Anorexic,” was the most popular insult, one that confused me (once I looked up its meaning) because I had never deliberately starved myself.

Eventually, I found my inner snark and began to tell these bullies that my parents locked me in a closet with no food, but that didn’t stop me from coveting the fuller, rounder female bodies of my peers. I wanted thighs that actually filled up the leg holes in my shorts; I wanted breasts and hips so that the boys might notice me too. I wanted to be a “real woman.”

Years after my first period and the accompanying body changes that followed, I have the breasts and the full thighs and all the fleshy wonders of womanhood. I also have—imagine!—a slower metabolism than I did at age 12, which means that if I indulge myself at a picnic or a greasy spoon diner, I try to even things out the next day with a nice jog and some fresh veggies.

Because of my thin frame, however, there are certain rules for what I cannot talk about or do without inviting a storm of commentary. I’ve gotten the rolled eyes, the sneer, and the “What on earth do you need to go to the gym for?” simply for mentioning working out in a conversation. I’ve been asked “What, are you trying to lose weight or something?” after selecting carrots instead of chips. And I dare not mention frustrating “problem areas” like tummy pudge or those annoying little pockets that appear below the armpits with the snap of a strapless dress, for fear of sparking a “You think you have chub?! I’ll show you chub!” protest that quickly degenerates into a body-hate pissing contest. 

The rationale looks something like this: I’m not satisfied with my body, and because I’d love to have yours instead, you must love it too. Skinny people aren’t dumping grounds for body image issues, because they live in the same ever-shifting whirlwind of impossible standards as the rest of the world. Building up fuller-figured women (think “Real Women Have Curves”) is not achieved by tearing down their thinner counterparts, whose weight, at some time or another, has probably been criticized.

I’ve been called “too skinny” for a lot of my life, and though I’ve never been called “fat,” there have certainly been times when I’ve felt fat. Ami Angelowicz wrote a very smart article for The Frisky recently on the distinction between “being” fat and “feeling fat,” noting that “[fat becomes] a state of mind synonymous with negative feelings or poor self-esteem.” This means that in spite of my size four waist, I do feel icky the day after I chow down on cheese fries at Denny’s. The gym is for those days, as well as for building strength, managing stress, boosting memory, improving mood, learning new routines, and forming friendships. 

What the gym is not for is managing the weight of others, because your response to their outward appearance is not what should motivate them to make healthy choices.



An Open Letter to Robin Thicke

This piece was published by The Good Men Project on September 5, 2013 under a different title. You can view it here.

Author’s Note: This is a revamped version of last week’s blog post: The Real “Ick” Factor of “Blurred Lines.”  It is a condensed version that addresses Thicke directly.

Dear Robin,

I remember a world before “Blurred Lines,” don’t you? Before the “hey hey heys” and the catchy walking bass line? It wasn’t so long ago. But these days, nearly six months after its initial release, I can’t seem to swing a foam finger without running into your summer anthem. With a simple three-word suggestion, everybody gets up and grinds to the retro beat you may or may not have lifted from Marvin Gaye.

You’ve very publicly come under fire for your creepily coercive and, as a girlfriend of mine described them, “rapey” lyrics like “I know you want it,” and “The way you grab me / Must wanna get nasty.” Your defense was that “lyrics can get misconstrued” and that you were really aiming to parody the degradation of women in music. After all, you’re married and have a child, and we all know that married men and fathers are automatically exempt from being creepy. But what you haven’t acknowledged is that in a world where many listeners readily buy into objectifying messages, the lines between parody and more offensive pulp to add to the stack are, in fact, blurred.

“Misconstrued lyrics” and shameless self-promotion aside, what really got under my skin about your music video was its display of women. No, not the fact that they’re topless. Women’s bodies are beautiful. It was how you chose to display these women – as nothing but bodies for the viewer’s consumption – that bothered me.

Let’s climb into the DeLorean and go back to 1988, when Robert Palmer released the video to “Simply Irresistible.” You were born in 1977, so you should remember this song well. Robert Palmer stands in front of three rows of women whose clothing, hair, makeup, and dance moves are completely uniform. They are linked together in a chain, moving as one being. They wear identical expressions of passive boredom, rolling their eyes or drooping their lids, their lips pursed in flat, indifferent pouts. The camera frequently cuts to specific sexualized body parts – thighs, breasts, buttocks – whenever the women dance or gyrate in a way that simulates sex.

Nudity aside, there isn’t much difference between the women in Palmer’s video and the women in yours. They too look bored, parading around you, T.I., and Pharrell, striking mannequin-like poses, batting their eyelashes, and absentmindedly fluffing their hair. They stick their fingers in their mouths. They run their tongues across their teeth. Yet for all this emphasis on the mouth, these women are silent barring the brunette’s brief “Meow!” after you liken her to a “domesticated animal.”

Words, like clothes, are reserved only for your video’s male stars.

Ever heard of the male gaze, Robin? I’ll give you a little overview. In order for the male gaze to operate most effectively in popular culture, the woman must be disarmed. Her clothes are removed, her individuality is lost, and she is split into fragmented body parts. Though crucial in the transformation from human being to consumable object, none of these processes, contrary to your claim that your song/video “makes people feel good,” are gratifying or empowering to a female audience.

At 3:19 in your unrated video, one of the women dons a mask that covers her entire face. Her mask reminded me of Pauline Réage’s Story of O, a 1954 erotic novel about a young French woman bound in sexual service to various masters. In the novel’s final scene, O is fitted with an owl mask and paraded naked before a crowd of party guests. When a guest asks O’s master who she “belongs to,” the master responds, “you, if you like.”

Robin, the women in your music video belong to us, if we like, because they do not own themselves or their bodies. And despite your labeling “Blurred Lines” a “feminist movement,” lyrics like “I’m gon’ take a good girl” and “You the hottest bitch in this place”, not to mention your willing participation in Miley Cyrus’ VMA train wreck, write a far different story.

Want to satirize the degradation of women in popular media? Shoot a video that shows clothed, autonomous women reacting with disgust to the advances of their pursuers, not one that reinforces the idea of women as morsels for commercial digestion. Melinda Hughes has already done it for you. I’m sorry, but your defense of “Blurred Lines” as parody clearly misses the mark, because no matter how many good intentions this road to hell is paved with, the solution is never found by perpetuating the problem.

Let’s Talk About Stereotyping!

This article was published under a different title by Role/Reboot on September 3, 2013. You can view it here.

Audience analysis. Conventional wisdom. Demographics. 

If you were to sit in one of my speech or communications classes, you’d hear these three terms a lot. Merriam-Webster defines “demographics” as the statistical characteristics of human populations…used especially to identify markets. Demographics are what the Census Bureau collects when they call your house. They are what radio stations, restaurants, colleges, and retail stores rely on to establish branding and appeal to customers. Every semester, my students and I look at appeals to audiences based on age, gender, race, religion, economic status, occupation, and worldview—shared sets of beliefs and perceptions. 

What are we examining during this discussion? Stereotypes. Why? Because part of teaching students how to write and speak effectively is teaching them how to tailor their content and delivery to a particular audience. And yet, every time this day rolls around, I sweat a little behind the podium.    

Leading a discussion on demographics is an exercise in contradictions. I use the words “most,” “many,” “typically,” and “often” more times than I can count, and pray that I haven’t missed any disclaimers for fear of being labeled ignorant. Tailoring topics to a specific audience means looking at an example like prostate cancer as a typically (see?) gendered topic, while also reminding students that prostate cancer can be of interest to women as well. Some women in the audience may have a friend or partner suffering from prostate cancer. Some may volunteer for the Prostate Cancer Foundation.

The topic of body piercings usually appeals to the younger set, while senior citizens are more likely to be interested in Medicare, right? Not always. Plenty of people beyond their 20s or 30s get tattoos and nose rings, and a younger person may have to take care of a sick grandparent. Exceptions are everywhere.

In addition to demographics, my students and I also look at bias—a point of view held by an individual, group, or organization based on a set of life experiences or core values. One day, I offered this example, which was originally shared with me by a colleague. 

“Name a ‘bad area’ of town. Somewhere you wouldn’t feel safe going by yourself or at night.”

The class unanimously volunteered the name of a street downtown.

“When people say things like, ‘Don’t go there, it’s a bad area,’ what are they often implying?”

“Cities,” “people of color,” and “low-income housing” were the associations that the class made.

“So if we take this idea, see someone of color or someone wearing tattered or worn clothing in a store, and decide to monitor them more closely, what is happening?”

“We’re being prejudiced. We’re profiling.”

That was where I thought the conversation would end, until, after a brief pause, a student chimed in from the back row.

“That area IS unsafe, though,” she said. “There’s so much crime and gang violence.”

Something occurred to me in that moment: This girl is not wrong, and neither are those who make efforts to combat street profiling. Problems arise with prejudice. They also arise when you accuse someone of prejudice for merely acknowledging a reality.

Cognitive dissonance is rampant in a world where both the left and right battle for censorship—in speech, in textbooks, even in thought by altering or restricting word choice. “So long as books and stories continue to be strained through a sieve of political correctness, fashioned by partisans of left and right,” Diane Ravitch writes in her book The Language Police, “all that is left for students to read will be thin gruel.” 

The potential for everyone to be both offender and offended creates a climate of confusion over language and definitions; a verbal paralysis for fear of saying or writing the wrong thing. An atheist feels closeted; a Christian stifles his faith to avoid accusations of closed-mindedness. A little boy hides his love of dolls for fear of being called a “sissy”; a woman stashes her high heels away because she is told they are “unfeminist.” 

Demographic data is generally more concerned with the larger picture than the individual and all of his or her multifaceted characteristics (but neglect to mention the handful of Icelandic transgendered bullfighting single dads raising adopted children, and get ready for the outcry).  Enter any discussion of culture and throw in a variety of environments, upbringings, experiences, exceptions, and word choices, and you can feel like you’re teetering on the tightrope of political correctness. 

But provided everyone isn’t afraid to talk openly about demographics, stereotypes, and personal bias, you can also have a great exchange of ideas on your hands. It’s OK to be human, and to seize every opportunity to learn. 

In the same class that discussed the “bad area” of town, another student shared his experience being racially profiled by police in Los Angeles. As his experiences with racism in law enforcement mounted up, so did the resentment he felt toward police. Shortly after moving across the country, he was pulled over for what turned out to be speeding and was let go with a warning. He said that afterward, he felt a little silly for getting defensive as the cop approached him—who turned out to be a friendly man who wasn’t profiling him in the least. One incident, he explained, caused him to reconsider the core beliefs he’d held for years.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a piece here on “white girl culture” as a social construct shaped by popular media and perceptions of what white guys desire. I received a lot of positive feedback, but also a fair amount of criticism. The article was born out of my experience as a twentysomething dealing with having felt ostracized from popular girl-culture for most of my life, and watching girls in my age bracket subscribe to marketed fantasy only to meet disappointment in their actual relationships. 

A few reader comments brought up “internalized misogyny”—valuing masculine traits over feminine ones—which forced me to stop and think. Internalized misogyny wasn’t something I had considered because it’s, well, internalized, which is the very nature of the beast with bias. And so by sharing and understanding these viewpoints, we learn and grow.    

In the classroom, debates abound. Is feminist criticism of psychologist Carol Gilligan’s “ethic of care,” justified, or would that too be internalized misogyny? Is Bill Cosby a positive role model for the black community, or does he completely miss the mark? And how do we feel about his sweaters

My ultimate two cents: Don’t put up a wall when someone brings up stereotypes or bias—break it down. Speak, and don’t just hear—listen. And remember that without demographic research, we wouldn’t have fields like psychology, sociology, or anthropology. Public speaking and persuasive writing would lose their power. Advertising and marketing would be nearly impossible. 

We don’t live in a genderless, colorless, ageless world where everyone holds the same neutral interests and skill sets, and thank God. 

Or don’t, you know, if you’re an atheist.