Fear & Speaking

Earlier today I read a NY Times article by Kathleen McCartney, President of Smith College, entitled: For Women, Glass Ceilings, and Glass Walls, Too. I’m trying to be selective about the post election articles I read, because it can take up a lot of time and often leaves me feeling sour. Here are a couple of quotes where she touched on topics that I’ve been chewing on this month. They relate to the behavior and comportment that is expected of women:

The psychologist Raymond Cattell coined a phrase — “coercion to the biosocial mean”… Society punishes people who deviate from culturally expected patterns or push boundaries. …Once, for example, a colleague told me that he thought I was “scary” when I voiced a strong opinion about a job candidate during a faculty meeting. I went home feeling chastised. The next day I checked with a few female colleagues; they had found me convincing, not scary.

[During the campaign] Reince Priebus, the current head of the Republican Party and future chief of staff for Mr. Trump, tweeted that Mrs. Clinton needed to smile more, a coded reminder that women must project beauty and deference to the male gaze.

I am reminded of occasions when I donned that Amazon cloak, precisely because I was fearful and ended up being criticized for “coming on too strong.” Damned either way.

So, today I’m asking myself: “Why do I write? Why am I ‘doing’ NaBloPoMo again this year?”  I struggle to say anything worth reading. No one is more surprised than I am when I reread a paragraph and find something in there that makes sense or is a good use of words to describe a sensation. Of course that can only happen if I do write down some words. So is that the point of writing? To occasionally surprise myself with some insightful (hopefully not merely clever) string of words?

I’ve always been keenly observant of people, a skill born of self-preservation as a child. Self-preservation and to be honest, fear. If someone was angry, I needed to know, almost before they were aware of it themselves, so that I could avoid the explosion. Then and now, if someone is sad, I feel compelled to tune in and too often, compulsively try to ‘help’, which really just amounts to butting into things that are not my business.

As a child, I was always fearful that someone might hurt themselves – or me – because they were hurting emotionally. Bad logic. Kid logic. Eh, I’ve never been very capable of logic. I am a gut instinct kind of girl. That can be good sometimes, I suppose, but it seems that my gut is just as likely to lead me down an unwise path.

Now I’m going to close this disjointed post with another quote. audrelordeMaybe I can use that as the topic of my remaining NaBloPoMo posts… quoting the writers that I admire, whose work has influenced my life and writing.

The late, great poet and activist Audre Lorde wrote:

I was going to die, sooner or later, whether or not I had even spoken… My silences had not protected me. Your silences will not protect you… What are the words you do not yet have? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own need for language.

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Shaping, part two

When I think of ‘shaping’ what comes to mind is sculpture.

There is obviously a type of sculpting that is additive… I picture an artist applying lumps of clay.  But the image of sculpture that I have is, well, subtractive, which is not a word that rolls off the tongue.

Somewhere, long ago I heard or read a sculptor describe the act of sculpting as finding, exposing, uncovering the figure or object that is inside the piece of wood or marble.  That is the way I have always pictured sculpture…

Finding what is hidden inside the raw material and exposing it, setting it free.

You can see where I am going with this, I suppose.  This wasn’t a conscious motivation when I felt driven to write about the childhood experience that laid down the law for me about the importance of female appearance. But it makes sense to me today. Those ‘formative’ experiences are what shaped me.

My personal experience may be more singular than other girls’, but I can state with confidence that each of us received that layer of shaping at some time in our youth.  It still assaults us from multitudinous directions. The best that I can say is that today it is possible for a girl to also receive the message that she is more than her looks, that she has intrinsic value as a human being.

But honestly, on this November day in 2016, it is too easy to yield to the belief that the tide has shifted.  The wave has pulled back from the shoreline that we have spent so long approaching.  Okay, perhaps I’ve gone a step too far with the metaphor.  My point is that the volume of regressive voices seems so much louder than the progress we have made.  Girls now can hear positive messages about their value, but the din of female value = appearance has never lost it strength.

You know, I didn’t intend to rant like this.  I guess it is the sound of another layer of anger being scraped off.  At this point, that seems to be the essence of ‘shaping’ my life.  It is about removing each lamination that has been applied over the years, in order to expose my true self.  Like a sculptor with a chisel facing a slab of marble or a beautiful piece of wood.

Chip, chip, pause; step back and look.

What is inside there to be discovered?   Me.

I’ve provided links to the eight women sculptors that I have featured here.  Their work is breathtaking and moving.  They are each amazing. 

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Shaping

My plan was to write about shaping and living my life, as in this quote from Pearl Cleage:

My mother’s passing was so important to my own realization that I was a grown woman. I understood then that there was nobody to stand between me and the shaping and living of my own life.

But then there was something I felt that I needed to deal with first.  Then I thought that I would not post this because it is too raw and personal.  Then I said: what the heck.ike2

The year is 1959. Imagine that. It’s the final year of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s second term as President and still very much the 50’s. No Kennedys in the White House. No race to the moon. I am only seven, so if there is activity in the movement for civil rights, I don’t know about it. I barely see the news and in first grade, we don’t discuss current affairs.walter My childhood life is circumscribed, but seems okay, if I don’t focus on certain things at home. I can watch the mouse-clubMickey Mouse Club on TV and pretend that I inhabit that heartwarming and imaginary world.

My maternal grandmother is spending a lot of time with us in NJ, because my grandfather is in Europe for his job. She refuses to fly in an airplane, so they live apart for many months at a time. I suspect that suited both of them. He was a dapper, worldly man and by all accounts, he thoroughly enjoyed his traveling adventures. She did not have a domestic bone in her body, so the relief of not having to make and maintain a home for him was, I suspect, quite pronounced. I will never know how having her mother around so much was for my mother, but since they never seemed cozy close, I suspect it was a strain.

So Nanna, as we call her, is essentially living with us, for a week or so at a time. Then someone will drive her back to her apartment for a week or so and then back she will come. Because she is so often with us, she has become a patient of our family doctor. What her ailments are, I do not know. Dr. P. has been our backyard neighbor all my life, with his office on the first floor of his home. He has just recently moved his practice into a new high-rise apartment building a few blocks away.

Nanna goes to see the doctor at least once a week and I go along with her. Whatever. I don’t suspect anything the first time they weigh me, but when they begin to track my weight on a weekly basis, I am a little confused. What’s up? Neither my sister nor my brother is being measured. Then, one day, Dr. P. who is a very large man, sits me down to explain. Nanna sits across the room, nodding approvingly.

The problem is that my size is wrong and unacceptable. He passes judgment, invoking all of his power as a medical man, to tell me that I am five pounds overweight and this is a crisis. Soon, he tells me, boys will start to pay attention to girls and I will be rejected, unwanted, because of my size. This sentence of doom is passed on to me as if by an oracle. This is my future: to be unwanted, ignored, unchosen.

I’d like to say that I didn’t get it, that I didn’t understand these dire predictions. On some level that’s true, since I wasn’t yet thinking of a future need for boy approval. But part of the message came in loud and clear, with every weekly weigh-in and with the change in my treatment at home. I was not okay. How I looked was not okay. My appearance was what really mattered, not my behavior, not my thoughtfulness, friendliness, kindness, sense of humor, intelligence or any other aspect of me. It was all about how I looked. My value, my worth was measured by a scale and tape measure. And they were telling me that as a little girl I was failing.

So, what does this have to do with the topic of shaping? Well, this was pivotal for me, this moment and the years that followed. In the bosom of my family I was repeatedly reminded that as a girl, what was most important was that I be attractive to boys. Doctor, parents and grandparents shaped me, with their attitudes, into a girl and then a woman who was stifling her own anger at the same time she was trying to live up to their expectations.

The ability to shape shift, to change my sense of self, did not really open up until my mother died, as Cleage notes in her essay. By that time, my rage at their ignorance and cruelty had been bottled up for decades, with occasional minor eruptions. After she was gone, there was only my father, who never stopped his misogynistic rants, never imagined questioning the belief that female value is based on appearance.

Yes, there are echoes of the revolting attitude and statements of PEOTOS here. Yes, I am angry. The cutting edge of that anger has been essential in my ability to begin “shaping and living my own life.”

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The Day After

NaBloPoMo_1114_298x255_blogrollThe announcement of the grand jury’s decision not to indict the Ferguson police officer who killed Mike Brown, coming on the heels of reading about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the frightening reality of how many of the U.S. soldiers come to be there (joining the National Guard for the chance to go to college, then being deployed to fill the ranks of a ‘volunteer’ army) was too much for me yesterday.

Thus the title of my post: Too much wrong.

In reaction to these shameful manifestations of injustice, I began thinking about and investigating the research on privilege. There are apparently eight or nine agreed upon forms of privilege. I added one. I found the illuminating statements below on the website of Media Smarts, a Canadian organization. They helped me to frame my thoughts.

“… privilege is not merely about race or gender… it is a series of interrelated hierarchies and power dynamics that touch all facets of social life: race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, education, gender identity, age, physical ability, [and body size.]”

“… privilege, discrimination, and social groups all operate within interrelated hierarchies of power, dominance, and exclusion. Just because someone is privileged in one way doesn’t mean they may not be underprivileged in another (and vice-versa). It is therefore important to be aware of the various groups to which one belongs in order to be able to question our own participation in a system of discrimination and privilege.”

“… the privileged group is the one that is commonly treated as the baseline against which the others are judged or compared – it is seen as ‘ordinary’ [or the ‘norm’.]”

So here is one list of the forms of privilege and who has it, as they are generally present in western culture. The information is mostly taken from the Media Smarts website, with some modifications added by me.

  1. Gender (male authority, stories and perspectives)
  2. Gender Identity (how one identifies and express oneself in gendered terms)
  3. Racial (institutionalized racism: system structured to privilege one group over others)
  4. Sexuality (heterosexuality assumed)
  5. Religious (WASP: religious practices and observances recognized as the norm)
  6. Education (access to higher education)
  7. Class (economic status & social class)
  8. Ability (able bodied, w/o mental disability or addiction)
  9. Body size (“In terms of media, it is extremely rare to find representations of individuals whose [body] does not conform to cultural expectations. In the rare instances that such characters are portrayed, their nonconformity is typically used to elicit… laughter, or may be portrayed as a kind of mental [disability].”)
  10. Age (youth)

This gives me a lot to think about.  I have a renewed awareness of the groups to which I belong.  At the very least, I want to remain more conscious of the ways that my privilege makes things easier for me in my daily life. I do not expect that it will be comfortable, but it seems critical to focus on my “own participation in a system of discrimination and privilege…”

The work I am attempting to do here, addressing issues of fat stigma, sexism, corporate greed and so on, feels like a privileged indulgence, unless I also honor these realities.  These seem like the right thoughts to carry with me into Thanksgiving Day 2014.

PS:  How to be a White Ally by Janee Woods

The Care & Feeding of Friends(hip)

I believe it was Descartes who said: “I think, therefore, I am.” I could say, or certainly in the past could say, “I feed, therefore, I am.” This is (has been), obviously, not always a good thing. Particularly when used against myself, as in “My worthiness is determined by my service to others… i.e. feeding them.” But that is the shadow side. There is so much that gives me pleasure about feeding others. I am proud of my knowledge and my skills and I love to share them, as well as the resulting food for consumption. Random associations include:

  • long time friend JR saying: “Cathy used to bake all the time… ” which recalls the years when I worked as a baker and constantly baked sweets at home for my friends;
  • talking with a young mother about ways to put together quick, easy, nutritious and varied pureed food for her baby;
  • making a Key Lime pie for my elderly grandmother every Christmas for 15 years;
  • cooking up large batches of Guatemalan black beans and rice for family and friends;
  • trying new recipes and food/flavor combinations;
  • playing with fresh produce or herbs from my own garden or a farmers market…

Many happy memories. I am quite sure that I could continue adding to this list for a long time and that it would more than out weigh [sic] the ‘cooking as a responsibility and burden’ occasions that are also a part of my history. And I do want to share my thoughts about the subject line: The Care and Feeding of Friends and Friendship.

Nurturing is what makes a friendship strengthen and grow, just as feeding a child is essential for its growth and development. Sharing food is an elemental manner of nurturing; preparing the food adds another layer to the connection. In virtually every culture, the act of eating together represents an essential bond for family and community. There is some powerful magic that can happen when humans focus on their food, setting aside, even briefly, the contentious stresses of everyday life. Sitting together to eat or drink can bring forth the conversational sharing that solidifies relationships. I’m not saying that people must share meals in order to have healthy meaningful friendships, but it doesn’t hurt, does it?

Alright, I am going to move away from this warm fuzziness for a bit, because I need to share something from Caitlin Moran’s book, which I mentioned yesterday, How To Be a Woman. I’m just going to put the raw material out there, which for some reason I’ve avoided doing in this blog, thus far. I think that I’ve begun to understand why I shied away from putting it out there.  When I first read it, it knocked the wind out of me, in both a good way and a terrifying way. Good, because she put into words something that had been my experience, but I could never have articulated. Terrifying, well, for the same reason, I guess. It explains a piece of my personal psychology and experience, in part by placing it in a larger cultural context, which is devastating in its simplicity, obviousness and outrageousness.

from How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

[The fact is that]… people overeat for exactly the same reason they drink, smoke, serially f**k around or take drugs.  In this trancelike state, you can find welcome, temporary relief from thinking [and feeling]… Overeating, or comfort eating, is the cheap, meek option for self-satisfaction and self-obliteration. You get all the temporary release of drinking, f**king or taking drugs, but without… ever being left in a state where you can’t remain responsible and cogent.

In a nutshell, then, by choosing food as your drug… you can still make the packed lunches, do the school run, look after the baby, pop in on your mum and then stay up all night with an ill five-year-old… something that is not an option if you are [shooting/snorting drugs] or… knocking back quarts of Scotch.

Overeating is the addiction of choice of carers, and that’s why it’s come to be regarded as the lowest-ranking of all the addictions. It’s a way of f**king yourself up while still remaining functional, because you have to.

Fat people aren’t indulging in the ‘luxury’ of their addiction making them useless, chaotic or a burden. Instead they are self-destructing in a way that doesn’t inconvenience anyone. And that’s why it’s so often a woman’s addiction of choice.     [Emphasis is mine.]

Well, it happened again. Every time I read this, I am struck dumb by the truth of it and the power of it. In one fell swoop it deconstructs so much for me about addiction (of all kinds) and women, food, care-taking and responsibility.

I encourage you to check out the whole book, which is, as stated by the reviewer I quoted yesterday “… as much attitude as analysis. … in equal measure, intellectual, rebel[lious] and goof[y].”  Or at least to take a look at this article about the chapter from which these lines are drawn: I Am Fat. Moran describes a visit to a friend in a British rehab center who reveals to her the ‘ranking’ of addictions being treated there. And Moran plays out a pointed and hysterical tale about dysfunctional and beloved rock and roll musicians, whose behavior and unreliability are forgiven and somewhat glorified.   What if they used food instead of drugs? They would show up for every performance, but how would their fans react to the fact that they look not wasted, but fat?

In closing, a comment about an editorial in today’s Boston Globe. It expresses a very sensible opinion, with reference to some very interesting research about food labeling. You can find the full text here.  But…

Can someone please tell me why the editorial writers or staff decided to include a photograph of two XXXL women, taken from behind, which emphasizes their XXXL butts? The headline is One soda = a five mile walk. The research tracked the behavior of black teenagers. So, is this choice of image perhaps playing to the basest responses of the reader? Is it about shaming? Misogyny? Shock value? Comedy?

It is cruel and wrong, wrong, wrong. They ought to be ashamed of themselves, for furthering erroneous stereotypes.  It makes me so mad.

Promising

Thinking about the article I quoted yesterday, (Professor Pothos’ research findings), I started to chuckle, struck by an ironic thought. The image that came to my mind once belonged to the women’s [sic] magazines in the grocery store checkout lines, but now includes the sidebar of almost every Internet site. I’m speaking of the weight-loss and ‘New Diet!’ claims that sprout endlessly in our media-saturated and weight-obsessed world. Seems like there is a new, sure-fire plan every day.

It’s easy to mock and scorn those annoying promises, so gloriously promoted and later debunked. However, it’s also true that articles touting new research on ‘causes of obesity’, or in this case, ‘Why it’s so hard to diet’ are regularly presented as earth-shattering, only to be pushed aside by the next big thing. Are they different sides of the same media game?

As I once-upon-a-time grasped at the latest weight-loss solution, I am now likely to seize upon a new study that appears to explain the whys and wherefores of body size. I’d like to think that I’m a bit wiser now about the whole hype game. I turn a blind eye to the magazine headlines proclaiming that some starlet with a small belly has found the true and sacred answer to weight loss. I sneer, curling my lip at the ‘Never eat these five foods’ adverts that pop up on the computer screen.

I exercise my critical eye.

I read snippets from studies that conclude, based on research with rats or mice, that there are mechanisms that are hard wired within me.  Some are species specific, some familial-ly genetic and some are neural pathways that have been created by trauma or the death of critical microbes in my intestines. These scraps of information, taken with a grain (but no more) of salt are something I want to share with others who may not have the obsession or time to seek them out.

I believe these data bites are pieces of the puzzle. Although my history and the story of millions of large people cannot be rewritten, these studies contain a cautionary note. This may be what my researching and writing are all about, really. I’m driven to understand what has shaped me as a person, both physically and emotionally.

I want to share the information and insights I have acquired from food researchers like Michael Moss (Salt, Sugar Fat) and others regarding what I call the Processed Food Industrial Complex (PFIC). I want to share the psychological and sociological information and insights I have gained from Brene Brown (I thought it was Just Me…) and others, which have helped me to de-construct the monster called shame. And I need to share some of these new ‘facts’ that are trickling out to the public, backed by oceans of scientific research, explaining or attempting to explain misunderstood phenomena about weight.

I want people like me to know that it is not our ‘fault’. The boogeyman and cudgel named the ‘Obesity Epidemic’ has many causes, with roots deep in our profit-driven, misogynistic culture. I am determined to throw off the blame, the claim that we simply lack discipline and will power.  In some ways the deck has been stacked and it’s time to understand that and listen to our own bodies. For far too long the slick voices of the PFIC, presented by their marketing and advertising geniuses, have dominated and we have internalized their inaccurate and self-defeating messages.

End of diatribe.

Next time:  Friendship

What if…

Another line of thought, springing from: What if… I had been told, ‘don’t worry about [my] size’… is more concrete: my actual body size and eating behavior over the years. I was first placed on a diet at age eight and my food intake was restricted for the next ten years by my parents. There was a lot of stigmatizing, teasing by my siblings and parents (there was a post about this last November…) a lot of shame and a concurrent, childhood pattern of ‘secret eating’ began. If your siblings are given ice cream after dinner and you are told that you cannot have any because are too fat, I think that it’s a fairly predictable response from a preteen. It’s the same as hearing: you can’t go out after 8 PM and sneaking out the window to meet your friends; or any other prohibition that triggers a defiant response from a child.

Some forty years ago I first heard about ‘yo-yo dieting’ and the body’s ‘set point’. The most basic explanation made sense to me immediately. It seems obvious that the body needs and expects a certain level of nutrient intake for optimal health. As an organism, it responds to an experience of starvation (read, restrictive diet… and the diets of the late 20th century were certainly restrictive) by drawing on its reserves (stored fat, then muscle) and adjusting its expectations/needs. As I understood the concept at that time, the body changes its ‘set point’ and proceeds to operate in starvation mode. Add a few extra nutrients (calories) and the weight piles on. In the case of yo-yo dieters, where their weight goes up and down repeatedly, the body’s internal regulatory systems get completely messed up.

That’s pretty much how I understood the concept back in the 1970’s: simplistic and undoubtedly containing medical inaccuracies. However, over the years, a lot of research has been done and mountains of literature have been published about the ways in which the body reacts to healthy and unhealthy eating. Remember, overeating and dieting are equally unhealthy eating patterns! I have found much of the latest research into the neurological aspects of this issue is fascinating. One such article crossed my path recently.

“Emmanuel N. Pothos, associate professor of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics and neuroscience in the Tufts School of Medicine’s Department of Integrative Physiology and Pathobiology and his colleagues are focusing on the reward system in the brain that motivates us to seek out food…”

“When an animal eats a meal, the brain’s food reward system releases dopamine, one of a group of chemicals called neurotransmitters that relay signals between brain cells. Dopamine produces a pleasurable sensation that lets the animal know it has satisfied a primal need.”

“A number of factors can knock the reward system off kilter… Gaining weight and losing weight alter the system… as can certain diseases, including addiction.” (Ah, addiction.)

“Starvation… will alter this reward system’s otherwise tidy feedback loop. When an animal is having a hard time finding enough food… the brain doesn’t want it to feel satisfied after just one meal. The brain wants to compel the animal to keep looking, to keep eating, all day if it can.”     Here is a link to the full article.

… That Bass

This is the line from Meghan Trainor’s  All About The Bass that got to me: “My mama she told me don’t worry about your size…” Maybe it’s obvious, if you know me or have read any of my earlier posts on this site, but I was told just the opposite.

I was told, in no uncertain terms and in every possible phrasing and manner imaginable:

“Worry about your size.”

“Worry about your size more than anything else in the world.”

“Your size is all that matters.”

This message was/is culturally ubiquitous, of course, but the saddest part for me is that the primary carriers and promoters of this credo were my progenitors, my parents. From the age of my first consciousness until they each departed this earth, that was what they kept telling me: in every possible phrasing and manner imaginable: “Worry about your size.” “Worry about your size more than anything else in the world. Your size is all that matters.” Yes, I have repeated myself. On purpose, it is not an editing error.

As I have stated before in these posts, I don’t seek to blame my parents. I fully acknowledge and understand that their own backstories and the prevailing opinions and norms of their world supported this behavior. But you can’t blame me for wondering: ”What if…?”

There are (at least) two lines of thought that I have followed here. One is the emotional impact it might have had, to be told that I was okay, loveable, worthy, acceptable, even beautiful, by my family. It would have been contrary to the chanting of the outside world, but I might have been able to face that negative onslaught with inner fortitude, rather than ‘knowing’ that the ugly assessment of my non-value was ‘correct’. What might I have chosen to do with my time and energy if I felt sustained, rather than drained by the daily battles of shame? We’ll never know, of course and I will reiterate that I am grateful for the hindsight that shows me the richness of the life I have lived so far, despite this emotional handicapping.

All About…

I thought that I was ready to ‘move on’, to transition from Eating Art Work’s previous focus to other elements of my life, our lives. I thought that I was going to spend the NaBloPoMo (Remember? National Blog Post Month) exploring friendship, a topic I have written and thought about sporadically for almost 40 years. And I may still do that, for part of the month, but I find myself back on familiar ground, today: the personal, political and sociological story of body size. That is: growing up in 1950’s and 60’s America as a chubby girl and surviving (occasionally thriving) as an XL woman for the last four decades.

There is a music video that I saw for the first time yesterday, although this song has apparently been quite popular for some time now. Once again, late to the party, but as ever, I feel some elation at connecting with something positive in our late 2014 culture. There is so much that is oppressive and depressing. But this song and video by a young woman named Meghan Trainor is definitely upbeat. Her song is All About That Bass and here is a link to the youtube video.

The tune is catchy and the video is fun and endearing (probably not the adjectives the producers were aiming for, but hey, I’m a 62-year-old admirer, outside of their target demographic!) However, being the wordsmith that I am, it is the lyrics that really landed the punch for me. That is to say, tapped my heart, brought tears to my eyes and brought me both sadness and in-your-face joy. You see, there is defiance in this piece; rejection of the size two, Barbie doll, Photo-shopped image that is lauded as the ideal in our times. Needless to say, I love that ‘f.you’ attitude. Makes my heart sing and my body move to the beat (of the bass…)

This is the line that got me: “My mama she told me don’t worry about your size…”

Where did those words take me? ‘Dear god, I wish that my mother had told me that.’

Full stop.

How might my life have unfolded differently? Impossible to tell and of course, there is very little I would ask to change about my life today. I love my life, today. What I would change is the years of agonizing shame and self-loathing. Maybe it’s obvious, if you know me or have read any of my earlier posts on this site, but I was told just the opposite.