2 AM Talks Podcast: Baldness and Queer Aesthetics

As you may recall from my little life update a month ago, I’ve recently started a new podcast called 2 AM Talks. My first guest was Alex Gabriel, my colleague here at the Orbit who blogs at Godlessness in Theory. We talked about our experiences with hair loss, queer identities, and so much more.

You can listen to the episode here, or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

The first half of the transcription is over on Alex’s blog, along with some awesome selfies from us. Read that first, then return to this post to read the second half.


Alex: I’m interested in, as far as makeup—you have hair again now, right?

Miri: Yeah! It’s short, but it’s growing back.

A: Yeah. So I don’t know what this looked like when you did not have hair, but for me, one of the things that I love is when I’m—I don’t normally wear everyday cosmetic makeup from the makeup counter at the pharmacy. The makeup that I wear is generally full on professional theatrical stuff. But when I’m doing all of that, I really like whatever base layer you’re doing, my foundation keeps carrying on up my forehead and then all over my head. And then when the contour arrives, I contour my skull! Which I feel is particularly hardcore on some level or other.

I’m not sure—if I said the name Sasha Velour, is that a person you recognise?

M: No.

A: Okay, so: drag queen from New York. Won Drag Race a couple of years ago, and is probably the only person associated with that show who I’m just reallyinto, to the point that I don’t care about anybody else. But yeah—New York drag queen, travels around the world a lot, and is rather intellectual and the child of two college professors. Known for being bald, and doing that in the full made-up femmeness as well.

I’m interested in your bald role models, but that’s definitely one of mine, and a big part of that process of finding a queer version of baldness. One of the things she’s talked about in interviews, actually, is that around the time that Sasha started doing drag, her mum died of cancer. And part of the reason she’s a bald queen is because they had conversations about, what was that process going to be? And [she] encouraged her mum to just embrace the glamorous aspects of baldness, and therefore now is permanently a bald queen in homage to that, and as a celebration of that.

Interesting that there’s a person who embodies both of those experiences of baldness that we have (both cancer and male-pattern). But yeah, that’s one of the people, as well as various film characters and things, that I’ve got as a personal canon of feminine baldness that I like to dig into a lot.

M: Yeah. So bringing it back to that topic, of course the first thing that comes to mind right now is Black Panther.

I’m hoping that everyone who’s listening has watched Black Panther—and if not, pause this podcast and go do that immediately, because it needs to be done! But in the movie, the Dora Milaje—the women who protect the Black Panther and project Wakanda—they’re bald, and they are absolute consummate badasses.

And there is a butchiness about that, in that they’re warriors and probably all queer as fuck (and if not, then I disagree with that!)—but there is a femininity to them. They show vulnerability, and they dress up at points in the movie; at least Okoye does. And that is actually when I love her look the most: when she’s undercover. I don’t remember right now the gown that she wore, but it was a fancy evening dress—and she wore a wig, to fit in I guess, but at one point she takes it off and she’s so happy to be rid of it. And OH that was so good! That gives me all of, like, the queer feels. Yes!

A: So—can I jump in here?

M: Yes!

A: Here’s the thing—I had a lot of drag-and-other feels about that scene. The moment when she says, ‘Look at me, do I have to keep wearing this ridiculous thing?’ is when she first turns up wearing the wig. She takes it off as a combat move and throws it at somebody.

M: Right! That makes it even better.

A: Yeah! But also, as far the gown, the actual costumes the Dora Milaje wear are based on—I think it’s an amalgam of various pan-African influences, but particularly… I can’t bring the name of the ethnic group to mind, but one particular African element. And I really appreciated that when they go to the casino, her dress that she wears is the same colour, it’s bright red, and it’s kind of a translation of what she would normally wear into that context. And I’m really interested in the idea [that] she’s theoretically going from quite butch to quite femme, but as a costume choice and an aesthetic choice, that almost seems to pose the question, exactly where is the switch there? And invites one the think a bit more questioningly about how those roles and aesthetics are constructed. So I was really into that. And also, just her on top of a car, bearing down on somebody, with a spear in hand! …was fabulous.

M: What I appreciated most of all, I think, about the aesthetic aspects of that scene is that while the wig was both practically and symbolically just unneeded there, she seemed as comfortable and at ease in a dress, really, as she does in her normal uniform. And I like that on a number of levels, because first of all, again, it jumps the butch-femme barrier. Just because you normally dress butch doesn’t mean that you can’t fucking rock a femme outfit. But also, it reflected the fact that warriors can come in many forms. You don’t have to look traditionally masculine to do it.

I don’t know enough about the Wakanda mythology to know why they’re bald. Maybe you know that? It might be to do with aesthetics, it might be to do with practicality. But regardless, you can still kind of do both. And in fact, I wouldn’t even call it ‘doing both’. I would call it ‘being her’. Sometimes she wears a fucking warrior uniform and carries a spear, and sometimes she wears an evening gown and carries a spear. (And rides on top of a car. And throws it.)

A: Yeah!

It was on the tip of my tongue, but it’s come back: it is the Maasai, I believe, who are the Africans that that particular—the whole Wakandan aesthetic is drawing from everywhere, but the Dora Milaje in particular are Maasai-looking.

And I guess to take that whole discussion maybe a stage further: potentially, one thing to think about in that context is binaries of masculine and feminine as a European thing. And if you’re not only African, but from—in this context—the African country that was never colonised, of course she does not observe that binary.

M: Yeah. I’m obviously not knowledgeable enough in African history to be able to say for sure, but that, based on what I know, sounds pretty true to me: that white westerners very much imported some of that into Africa, and into many parts of the world.

I mean, just think of the fact that there are many parts of the world where men or masculine wear items of clothing that westerners would call skirts or dresses. And to my knowledge, the only white western exception to that is the kilt. But in many other places, it’s not necessarily the case that just because you’re a man (or masculine), you have garments that wrap around each of your legs. You know?

A: Sure!

I’m only able to discuss all of that about Black Panther in detail because I was really—I very specifically geeked out about the costume design and stuff, so I read a load of interviews with the people behind it. As far as wider African cultural history, I don’t have that knowledge, so major disclaimer there!

But also, for me—maybe this is a generational thing, but the Borg queen from Star Trek is a person that I go to as far as ‘bald femme’, particularly with an evil dimension to it.

M: Yes. The other figure I was thinking of, was—staying within the realm of Marvel (and science fiction more broadly, I guess)—Doctor Strange.

The Ancient One is bald—and that, of course, I have my issues with, because many people say the casting there was whitewashed, and that should have been an East Asian woman. (On the other hand, I had also heard that the reason they specifically did not want to do that was to avoid playing into the stereotype of the old, wise Asian lady. So I don’t know.) I don’t know what my thoughts on that really are, but I will say that the choice to have her be bald was very cool. It very much felt, not like she was an alien or anything like that, but that she was some sort of mystical being, who kind of transcended our normal ideas of what bodies can do—and mortality, and all of that.

A: Yeah! No, I was into it. And of course, apart from any of the stuff about the casting there, I mean, Tilda Swinton is somebody who’s talked explicitly about being an actor who works within a queer aesthetic, and has that fandom going on. (Or did prior to that career move, anyway.) So yeah, no, very into that.

I don’t know if you ever saw the 1984 David Lynch film adaptation of Dune?

M: No! I did not.

A: It’s kind of historically known as a bad film that has a bit of a cult following, and there are certain aspects of it that are really queerphobic. Like, there’s a villain who essentially has AIDS. But it also has—within that world, there’s a slightly sinister group of what are essentially nuns, called the Bene Gesserit. And in that adaptation, they are all bald and wear long habits, kind of thing, and have thimbles that have spikes on them on their fingers. It’s very—I’ve got a weird, not even steampunk, but some kind of draggy, queer [appreciation of it]. That’s part of my list of influences as well.

M: I am into that! I’m gonna go take a look at that.

Does anything else come up for you in terms of interesting representations of baldness in film or in art?

A: Well, I will say: not actually within Marvel Studios, but I don’t know if you saw—not Logan, which is the more recent one, but one of the solo Wolverine films a couple of years ago? The one that’s set in Japan, from 2013?

It has a villainess—and I specifically say ‘villainess’, because I think that’s what’s going on there—who is a sort of evil chemist mutant, who produces a lot of toxins and has a mutation that makes her viper-y and all of that, and eventually sheds her skin. She eventually ends up being bald, because throughout the film, she gradually becomes more and more lesbian as her evilness is made clear. Which, on the one hand, I understand is very problematic and not cool—but also, it’s so over the top that I was really into it! In the way that I sometimes am aesthetically into very over-the-top problematic stuff. Maybe that’s just my having a thing about evil women, but.

M: Haha!

A: I’m wondering, actually—is there, like, an evil Disney queen who’s bald, or anything in that…

M: That’s what I was beginning to think about, and now actually I wonder. It’s a well established thing that villains are often queer-coded, but I wonder if the female (or femme) baldness thing is just a part of that, or if there’s a separate dimension along which we are suspicious, or maybe afraid, or feminine people (or people that we think ought to be feminine) who are bald, especially by choice. What do you think?

A: I mean, it’s worth saying also that on TV Tropes, there’s a specific page called ‘Bald of Evil’, that is, like, Walter White from Breaking Bad and Lex Luthor and people. That, mainly, is to do with men, but I guess there are female examples. So it’s worth adding to that whole context that there’s a baldness-coded-as-evil thing that is not specific to women. But having said that, I don’t think that invalidates [discussion of] the way bald women are portrayed in that way quite often.

I guess part of it that there’s also a thing of quote-unquote evil women being masculine in some way, or masculine-coded—large shoulder pads and all of that kind of thing, and trouser suits. That whole imagery of evil women in parts of pop culture.

M: Or, in some cases, over-the-top feminine. For instance, Cruella de Vil.

A: Mhmm!

M: But yeah, it really is either of those extremes. You don’t see a villainess who looks like the girl next door, unless it’s a much newer work that’s trying to subvert that whole concept.

A: Mm, right? And it occurs to me that often—I’m thinking of Ursula from The Little Mermaid, who was based on Divine. They’ve talked about that, and the actress who was playing her lowered her voice so that she could do it. But often it strikes me that not only is it over-the-top femininity that you get with those characters, but they actually are drag queens on some level. (Interesting to note: Divine specifically was a queen who had receding hair, and drew his eyebrows massively because there was so much bald head to work with.)

But yeah, I guess whether it’s massive femme hair or it’s baldness or whatever, there’s something about that trope of—I want to say drag, but I mean just in the context of… there’s something about characters whose gender presentation is deliberate, and intentional and cognisant, that is there. I think queer people grow up always feeling we have to be intentional about how we look and behave—although being autistic is part of that for me as well. I think there’s a certain thinking-about-clothes-as-costume that comes into that.

But yeah, I think that’s definitely part of that with those evil characters. On the other hand, they are designed to be fabulous at the same time as they’re evil, I think.

M: Yesss!

A: Cruella is a villain, but it’s her film. Do you even remember who the good guys were in that film?

M: So I remember that there were a lot of dogs. I don’t even know what anyone else looked like!

A: Also, as far as famous inspirations, I don’t know if you ever saw the movie adaptation of The Witches by Roald Dahl? But the Grand High Witch in that is a massive point of influence for me. She’s played by Anjelica Huston, who—was she in The Addams Family?—but she walks in and poses like RuPaul. She does the arm [movements] of a drag queen in that moment there, and eventually the hair comes off because she’s a witch and they’re all bald.

M: Sometimes it occurs to me that if drag and associated culture had never existed, where the fuck would anyone get their ideas for films or music videos? Or any of that. They really kind of owe us queers, and especially queers of colour, for that.

A: Totally. I’m thinking about drag and I’m thinking about, in the United States, southern pageantry drag, and I’m thinking about drag balls in Harlem, historically. And I guess that goes back to that whole ‘gender binary as colonialism’ thing. I’m always very conscious that people of colour, and specifically African Americans—that is the part of society that a lot of my influences have been filtered through at some point. But it’s so long ago and so deep-running that it’s easy to not think about; and also so much that it’s not obviously sort of culturally appropriative. The drag I’m aware of has obviously travelled through places like Harlem, but has also travelled a lot since then, so it’s hard to pin down what my relationship with that should be, except to be aware of it.

M: Yeah. As a white person, I of course can’t speak to what is appropriative or not. But I will say that what’s important to me is, first of all, obviously listening; and second, knowing to the best of my ability where things come from. So, some of these badass representations of baldness that we’re talking about—they’re coming from, like you said, maybe Harlem drag culture, maybe Maasai warriors. Any number of things. And I always want to know, who the fuck came up with this awesome thing? So I can thank them for it.

A: Yeah. Right! Also, at the same time, particularly characters like Divine and Ursula, there’s also a slightly more conservative (in some ways) tradition of theatrical drag—in England one would talk about pantomime dames, I know that’s not necessarily international—but there’s layers to that too, and a lot of those categories have got blurred. I guess one thing that’s helpful to think about, for me anyway, is that playing with and being critical of gender is not culturally specific. Or if it is, you’re critiquing a thing that comes from my own end of the world! So there’s that to it.

M: Well, and I think it’s important to point out that all cultures have their own oppressions and hegemony within them, and they have their own individuals and subcultures who are challenging those dominant ideas (whether that’s binary gender or something else). I think that’s something we often overlook, too, when we’re thinking about cultures that are marginalised and that we are not a part of.

A: Right. Sure. Wow, that conversation travelled!

M: It sure did! Wow. Which I think just goes to show how much deeper this topic goes than just a matter of aesthetics. Although—do love me some aesthetics!

As we wrap up, is there anything that you want to leave folks with? Any thoughts, any media recommendations, any questions for the listener to ponder?

A: Oh gosh. We’ll probably hang up in a couple of minutes, and I’ll think of, like, twenty!

M: Haha! And we’ll add them to the description, so it’s fine!

A: I don’t know—it’s probably worth saying there have probably been a load of good pieces and stuff written about this by people who are not me. So ‘Google stuff’, I suppose, is my message!

But one thing I will sort of add, on top of all of this, because I was thinking about this earlier: your hair has started to grow back now, and that is not the trajectory that mine is going to take. It’s just going to keep going in the direction it’s been going, which is ‘away’. But [here’s] one experience I’ve had about that.

You can actually—if you are beginning to experience quote-unquote male hair loss, there are ways of dealing with that medically. There are tablets you can take and there’s cream for your scalp, and they do actually work quite a lot of the time. There are ways to halt hair loss, and eventually there’s transplants and stuff like that that you can have. Which I have thought about, right? Because one does, even if you eventually do what I did and decide that you love being a bald queen. And here’s where I’ve ended up with that. (I’m interested in how it sits alongside your experience.)

My hair is eventually going to do the thing where it’s all gone on top, and I have that ring that goes by the ears and then round the back that bald people sometimes have. ‘Once that happens, it’s basically stopped falling out’ is the science of that as I understand it. It may still go a little bit, but that’s when it’s stabilised. That’s when I am interested in having a hair transplant, and here is what my thinking is about that.

I think a lot of those surgeries—‘Reverse your hair loss!’ and all of that—as very straight. Like, straight men in their forties who want to look younger, and it’s a little bit… I say a bit mid-life crisis, and I don’t want to fall back into that thing of shaming men for having feelings about hair loss. But the marketing of all of that kind of stuff is very, like, ‘Look young and virile and the women will fall for you!’ And I’m just not here for that!

So here’s my plan: when I’m old enough, and I’m forty or fifty and that’s all happened, I want to go to a surgeon who does that kind of stuff when I can afford it, and say, ‘Can you just take the hair from the back and sides of my head, and put it in the middle, please?’ Just so that I have a natural growing mohawk.

M: Oh wow!

A: I think that would be fabulous.

M: Yes!

A: So I’m like the one seventy year old in the nursing home, one day, who just has that! And I don’t even have to shave my head any more at the sides, my hair just naturally grows that way.

I think that, also, is part of my thing of trying to resist the normative culture of baldness, and instead of trying to reverse the falling-out process and go back to who I was when I was younger, I like the idea that I’ll one day do that, and it can be a continuation of hair loss, and I’ll be morphing into some new version of me instead. So that’s my queer understand of that.

M: That is fantastic, and I can’t wait to see it someday.

I think where I’ll leave off is that, even though I’m growing my hair back now and kind of thinking about what I’m going to do with it, I think that the transformative nature of my baldness, and of that experience, is something that’s going to stay with me.

When I first started out, I was heartbroken to lose my hair, because it was such a marker of queer identity for me. (And other things—it’s pretty! You know whatever.) I did not think there would be anything queer or beautiful or particularly notable about having no hair. And that first moment that night, in the mirror, that I myself as this queer space queen? Like, that will always be with me.

And what that says to me is that you can queer really just about anything. In various ways. You can take it back, you can appropriate it (in a positive sense), you can make something out of it.

I may never be bald again—or I might. Or I might have something totally different going on. I mean, I lost my breasts. That was a whole thing for another episode! And this is corny as fuck, but I feel really inspired to make everything queer.

A: I’m really into that. And on that note, here’s my actual signing-off message.

People who are not losing their hair over time the way I have, or don’t have medical stuff going on or whatever: if you’re somebody who is listening to this, and you’ve maybe thought about that idea (or even if you haven’t)—try it! Shave your head. I think everybody should do it at some point.

You can do it in the school holidays, or whenever, if you’ve got a break in between stuff in your life. If your hair is going to grow back, you may as well! (Lucky you.) I have taken so much from this, and my baldness is now such a part of me that I love and have nurtured, and that’s taught me so much, and I think it’s one of those things everybody who can reasonably try should.

M: I love that, and I’ve loved this whole conversation.

A: Me too!

M: Thanks so much for coming on and discussing your experiences. I’ve learnt a lot, and I’m excited to go and watch some of these movies and things that you’ve recommended!

A: Cool. Awesome! I look forward to hearing about it.

M: Thanks so much Alex. Have a good day! Bye.

A: And you! Bye now.


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2 AM Talks Podcast: Baldness and Queer Aesthetics
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All These Years I Thought I Was Just Lazy

[Content note: eating disorders/weight loss stuff]

My arms are on fire. When I woke up this morning I felt the burn immediately. I’ve been stretching and moving them around all day, simultaneously wincing and savoring the feeling because it tells me that I’m getting stronger.

I’m on spring break right now and have been taking advantage of the sudden free time by going to the gym every day. It may not sound like a big deal, but for me it is–with the exception of a few random workouts, I’ve been largely avoiding the gym for at least three years.

When I was in high school it was a different story. Back then going to the gym was punishment. I felt that I’d done a lot of things that I deserved to be punished for; not looking right being the main one. I was furious with myself because no amount of exercise seemed to be enough to make me look the way I wanted to, so I combined that with brief spurts of severe caloric restriction. That didn’t help, either. I couldn’t tolerate the feeling of hunger.

So I went to the gym and took my fury out on my body. At least, that’s how it felt to me psychologically. In reality, of course, exercise within reason is good for you. But I couldn’t feel that. Working out for me was only about two things: 1) losing weight, and 2) punishing myself for not losing enough weight quickly enough.

Then I stopped. Partially because I got too busy to make it to the gym, but also because I realized that, at the time, the only way to recover would be to give up on exercise for a while. I still did stuff like walking, swimming, and biking in the summers, but that was only because I find that stuff fun, not because I was trying to work out.

And, to be sure, whenever I attempted exercise for its own sake, I quickly fell back into my old mentality of “needing” to lose weight at all costs. Along with exercising came calorie counting, bending over naked to assess the gap between my thighs, pinching my stomach mindlessly while sitting in class and trying to hide it, freaking out when my jeans came out of the wash a bit too tight, dreading buying new clothes, and on and on and on.

So I’d inevitably stop going to the gym after a few days. When it feels like that, it’s not at all worth it.

But when spring break started a few days ago, I decided to try it one more time. And this time, it worked.

This time I look forward to it. This time I keep eating whatever the fuck I want. This time I don’t even touch the scale in the locker room. This time I don’t tell people about my workouts if I know they’re going to preemptively congratulate me on the weight I’m going to lose. This time I get to do the exercises I feel like doing, not the ones that burn the most calories. This time I get to do what I thought was impossible–see exercise as a treat, not a punishment.

And let me tell you something. I am fucking furious that this–the ability to feel such joy and pleasure from exercising, to focus on how my body feels rather than how it looks–was taken away from me for so many years. I don’t mean literally taken away. Nobody forbade me from choosing to exercise because it’s good for you. But the way we talk about exercise, both among the people I knew and in our culture in general, precluded that. It’s almost like we lack the language to talk about working out without also talking about losing weight.

And when I go to the gym now and see signs advertising personal training programs to make you “Lose X Pounds in Just Y Weeks!”, it makes me sad. Not because it affects me anymore, but because I know what it’s like to walk into the gym and know in the back of your mind that you are there for that reason only. Not because you’ll feel good. Not because you’ll sleep better at night. Not to feel your muscles ache the morning after. Not to finally be able to run a marathon or bike to work every day without being exhausted or just so that you never have to ask anyone to help you carry things. Not to make friends with people who like doing the same stuff you do. Not because it helps keep depression at bay. Not even because it’s a better way to pass the time than sitting around looking out the window.

Only, only to watch the numbers slip further and further, not even knowing when you want them to stop.

For all these years I thought I didn’t exercise because I’m lazy and pathetic. I never thought to ask myself why someone who somehow has the wherewithal to do well at a competitive university and write 1000-word blog posts several times a week suddenly finds hidden reserves of laziness whenever the question of exercise comes up.

I wasn’t lazy. I straight-up didn’t want to, because I’d never found a way to think about exercise, let alone actually do it, without feeling waves of shame, inadequacy, boredom, and misery.

Now I have. Maybe because enough time has finally passed, or because of feminism, or because of the fantastic friends I have who work out and make it clear that for them, it’s got nothing to do with weight.

I’d be lying if I said that I’m not hoping to lose weight at all, or that I won’t be at least a little bit happy if it happens. I’m not sure that’ll ever completely get out of my system. But even if I lose absolutely zero pounds, it won’t feel like working out is all for nothing. If a doctor told me right now that there is absolutely no chance that I’ll lose any weight given how I’m exercising and eating, I’d keep doing it anyway.

Two years ago, I would not have done the same thing.

For me, personally, that’s as close as it gets to silencing the countless voices telling us to be thin and perfect. That’s as close as it gets to declaring victory.

All These Years I Thought I Was Just Lazy

"Love Yourself": A Beautiful But Flawed Idea

Ever since the 1990s, we–especially women–have been hearing about the importance of self-esteem. It’s associated with better mental health, relationship outcomes, academic achievement, career success, you name it. It’s part of what it means to be a mature and emotionally developed person. Much time and resources have been expended on the development of children’s self-esteem–I remember all the participation awards and being required to summarily tell my parents what I’m “proud of” about my schoolwork at a parent-teacher conference–and I’ll have to write about these initiatives some other time (spoiler alert: they’re mostly failures, and those correlations I listed above may not actually be true).

Along with all this are constant entreaties from various sources–friends, advertisements, PSAs, motivational posters–to “love yourself” and “love your body.” Sometimes this is painfully ironic, like when it’s in advertisements for beauty products or weight-loss aids, but usually it’s earnest and well-meaning. There are plenty of blogs and books and organizations dedicated to helping people (especially women) foster love for themselves (especially for their bodies).

Before I criticize this concept, I want to reiterate that I understand that it’s coming from a good place. It’s meant as a rebuttal to a culture in which people’s flaws, especially their physical ones, are magnified and used to sell as many fake panaceas as possible. A culture in which plastic surgery is $10 billion industry, in which people are getting their genitals surgically altered to be more “attractive,” in which the majority of teenage girls are unhappy with the way they look. I could go on.

Furthermore, part of the reason women are so unlikely to express positive feelings about how they look isn’t just that they don’t have positive feelings about it, but probably that they face social rejection for doing so. The pressure not to seem like you think you’re “all that” can be strong, and “fat talk” is one way women bond socially. Given this, encouraging women to “love themselves” and their bodies can be a way of fighting back against these norms.

But the problem is that when we prescribe ways of thinking or feeling, failing to follow them becomes stigmatized. Not loving yourself and your body isn’t just unhealthy anymore, it’s uncool. It’s immature. I wrote once a long time ago about how a classmate told me that loving yourself is actually a prerequisite for being a good person–implying (accidentally, I hope) that not loving yourself means you’re not a good person.

Not loving yourself means you have Issues and Baggage and all of those other unsexy things. It means you just haven’t Tried Hard Enough to Love Who You Truly Are. Loving yourself and your body becomes the normative state, not an extra perk that some are able to achieve. For instance, someone wrote on Tumblr in response to an article I posted about makeup that “girls should learn to love themselves before fucking around with eyeliner.” Loving yourself is a requirement, according to this person, for something as basic as putting on makeup.

Maybe this would be fair, except for this: according to our society, we are not all equally worthy of love. We are all pushed down in some ways, but some are pushed down more–and in more ways–than others. You can tell a woman who isn’t conventionally attractive to “love her body” all you want, but if everything she encounters in her daily life suggests to her that her body isn’t worthy of love, these are empty platitudes.

When it comes to loving the entirety of yourself–not just your body–the concept breaks down even further. How easy is for a child of neglectful parents to love themselves? How easy is it for someone subjected to a lifetime of bullying for being LGBT? How easy is it for someone who grew up in poverty and was blamed for being “lazy”? How easy is it for a victim of assault or abuse?

Our society pushes certain types of people down, and then mandates that we all “love ourselves”—and if we fail to do so it is our fault.

Yes, loving yourself is great. I wouldn’t say I love myself, but I do like myself quite a bit. But the only reason I’m able to do that is because I haven’t been told for my entire life that who I am is fundamentally unlovable because of my weight, my skin color, my sexual/gender identity, my socioeconomic status, my politics, my personality, whatever. Although I’ve definitely hated myself at times (thanks, depression and college), overall I’ve been raised in a loving and supportive environment and consistently told that I have worth as a person.

I have (mostly) been free of societal persecution. I have never been falsely accused of a crime because of my race. I have never felt like I’ll never find someone to love because I can’t come out. I have never been taught that because I don’t believe in god, I deserve to go to hell. (Except for a few evangelical Christians, but they were easy for me to ignore.)

Loving yourself is a privilege that not everyone gets to share.

I do think there are things that anyone can do to cultivate self-love even when it’s been consistently taken away from them. I don’t think anyone has to “view themselves as a victim” or whatever buzz-phrase people are using these days. But if you do feel like a victim sometimes, honestly, I wouldn’t blame you.

As well-intentioned as these body positivity and self-esteem campaigns are, it starts to feel very alienating when everyone around you is busy Loving Themselves and you just can’t seem to get there. With every injunction to “love yourself” comes an implicit blame if you do not.

I’m not saying that “love yourself” is a bad concept. It’s a beautiful concept and a worthwhile goal. But we should be aware of the unintended consequences it can have when shouted from the rooftops ad infinitum, and we should also consider that “loving yourself” may not be necessary, important, or even possible for everyone.

Instead of “love yourself,” I would say:

Try to be okay with yourself. Try not to listen when the world tells you that who you are is wrong. Loving yourself and your body can wait, and besides, it’s not necessary for a happy and healthy life.

~~~

Edit: Paul Fidalgo responded to my earlier Tumblr rant on this subject and said in a paragraph what I just laboriously tried to say in a thousand words:

Whenever I’m told I need to love myself, I feel like I’m being asked to lie, to pretend to feel something I don’t. I spent most of my adolescence being informed continuously that I was lowest of the low and unworthy of even human decency, let alone love, and I learned to believe it. Messages about what it is a man is supposed to be in the media were not at all helpful. And other things happened, too. So I really don’t feel like “loving myself” is a fair expectation, not in any immediate sense.

Yes, this exactly.

"Love Yourself": A Beautiful But Flawed Idea

[Guest Post] The Evolution of 'El Tigre': A Feminist Discovers the 'Beauty' Aisle at Walgreens

Here’s a guest post from my friend Emily.

I have stretchmarks, acne scars, oddly shaped eyebrows, a decades-long nail biting habit, rough spots on my feet, and hair that is generally nice, but tends to be boring.

So, given that I’m not a girl who spends a quarter of her paycheck on creams, gels, goos, brushes, tweezers, and other body products, I had just lived with my imperfections—accompanied by a self-hatred and guilt worthy of any Jew joke you can make out of it.

So steeped in the hot water of my own shame was I that I didn’t even want to go to the gym for fear of wearing tight clothes (in public!) that showcase my lumps, bumps, and the outline of my underwear. So, the pounds slowly marched further on, till I was 50 pounds overweight, which really shows on a 5’4 frame.

Then I put my big girl panties on and got over it.

I realized that the only way to look the way I wanted to look (so maybe I’m a little vain), feel the way I want to feel, and be as healthy as I want to be was to GO TO THE GYM. I also realized that I had to do it for myself and no one else.

That decided, I bought some gym clothes, signed myself up for a spot in the torture chamber (gym), and hauled my needs-its-own-zipcode ass up on a treadmill. I’m not even halfway to my goal, but I’ve lost more than ten pounds, which is better than nothing.

And I felt SO much better about myself. I can like… run and stuff. If I clench my stomach, I can feel abs. They are hiding, snuggled deep down under the remnants of Papa Johns and chocolate, but they’re there. I know I’ll find them one day.

Then I looked at the rest of the things on my laundry list of self-pity, shame, and loathing and realized I could fix them too. I got what was probably the third manicure of my life (after my bat mitzvah manicure, and one before a family vacation years ago), which helped me stop biting my nails. I’ve gone over a month without biting them, and I have long claws now (so watch yourself).

I actually marched myself to a salon wherein I allowed someone to pour hot wax on my face and slowly rip out my eyebrows, And even though I won’t doing that EVER AGAIN, I now know what eyebrow shape best suits my face and keeps me from looking like an angry troll doll. (And I found some tweezers).

And speaking of trolls: I got a little hair cut, I stopped washing my hair so often, and I bought some leave-in conditioner which has smoothed the frays and brought out a shine I didn’t know was possible without flashbulbs going off.

As for the stretchmarks, I once again donned my big girl panties and waltzed back into the beauty aisle I had spurned and misunderstood before. BioOil is now my personal savior, as it has turned my stretchmarks—formerly livid red lines—into meek little white squiggles that know better than to show up again.

And all of this isn’t to say that I’m some beauty queen who will get a boob job, rhinoplasty, and a pedicure. No. No one will ever touch my feet (it feels weird and I’m very ticklish). My eyebrows will still attempt to belie my Russian ancestry. I still have a few many more hours to clock at the gym.

But I feel a lot better about myself.

I had always shunned the beauty aisle from the get-go because of its ridiculous name. Oh, I can go to the soup aisle and pick up some soup; I can go to the bread aisle and pick up a loaf of wheat; I can go to the beauty aisle and buy beauty? Hell no. But after a little growing up and some experimentation, I realized that it’s not vain, or stupid, or shallow, or anti-feminist to want to look nice or feel good about yourself as long as you’re doing it to make yourself happier. I’m still not an object to be ogled. I’m not doing this to satisfy what my gender studies classes have told me is the “male gaze.”

My bright red nail polish makes me feel more confident and powerful, like I can go sit in a boardroom and tap my claws against the table as I intimidate a bunch of people—or something.

My new nickname for myself: El Tigre.

Emily Davidson is a loudmouth from the State of Tennessee who enjoys talking about politics and correcting other people’s grammar. A Senior majoring in American Studies at Northwestern University, she has many accomplishments that she would love to brag about. She loves reading, books, literature, and belles-lettres as well as science, history, and the color purple. She writes about feminism, religion, and politics.

[Guest Post] The Evolution of 'El Tigre': A Feminist Discovers the 'Beauty' Aisle at Walgreens

[In Brief] Most Beautiful Teenager

I stumbled upon (don’t ask me how) this Facebook page today. It’s called “Most Beautiful Teenager.”

Teens post photos of themselves on the page and see how many likes and comments they can rack up. Sometimes there’s a “scale” for the number of likes, usually going from “ugly” (100 likes) to “OUT OF THIS WORLD” (100,000 likes). The page itself posts photos too (the best ones, I’m guessing).

Both girls and guys post photos on the page, although most of the photos come from girls, and virtually everyone is white and thin.

The comments are pretty predictable, both the creepy ones and the hateful ones. Some people post photos asking to be added as a friend, or requesting “no hate” (they usually get it anyway). Here and here are two disturbing examples, but there are many.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with valuing and taking pride in your appearance (to a reasonable degree, at least), and I’d take issue with anyone who slams these individual teens as vain or superficial.

But I think it says something about our culture as a whole that young people are willing to post pictures of themselves, with their full names attached, to a public page, knowing that they’re going to receive at least a few incredibly mean or creepy comments, just to see what others think of their looks.

All the casual racism, homophobia, and misogyny on the page is telling, too.

For the record, I don’t think the page should be shut down or anything like that. Nudity is banned, so it’s not breaking any laws, and it’s not like people can’t post photos publicly to their own profiles anyway. It’s just disturbing how many users it has, how many photos get posted, and how obsessively its fans defend it when criticisms come up on the page, as they sometimes do.

 

[In Brief] Most Beautiful Teenager

[Guest Post] Runway Rising: Perks and Challenges of a Socially Conscious Fashion Company

Hey everyone! In this guest post, my friend Danielle writes about fashion, mental health, and running a socially conscious business.

To all fans and readers of Brute Reason,

I am Danielle Kerani, CEO/Founder of the knit fashion company AK Kerani and a fellow student at Northwestern with Miriam.

When Miriam first asked me to write a guest blog for Brute Reason, I was both flattered and excited. I have become a huge fan of this blog, mainly because of the bravery it takes to so openly confront anxiety and depression. Having struggled myself with these issues, I know how much of an internal battle it can be. For many months you can be stuck in a cycle of believing you are better only to let yourself down. And this cycle continues until you grow strong enough to realize that your depression is not only a pest that sticks to you. It is your twisted lover that you hate but from which you cannot part. And when you realize that you, not your depression, are the one keeping yourself from a healthy life, only then can you cast the ring into the fire.

Miriam requested that I talk about the seeming paradox of running a socially conscious fashion business. I created AK Kerani last summer in honor of my uncle, Atindra Kumar, who had passed away in June. Since then it has grown from a simple online platform to a vibrant small business selling high quality handmade products to promote knitting as a therapeutic activity for those struggling with anxiety and depression.

At this time, I knew just as well as I do now that the media, fashion-related media being one of the worst, is very conducive to anxiety. Fashion ads don’t merely attempt to persuade us into buying pretty and trendy clothes and accessories. They often seem to be rooted in a deeper manipulation, telling us that our worth lies not in our inherent value as people, but in our ability to represent society’s standard of sexuality. Seeing the adulation that models in ads appear to receive, we get thrown into loops of self-centered anxiety. If adopting the identities of these figureheads is the key to our happiness, why not starve our bodies and souls to be like them? Having partaken in all of these mindsets, I was able to see how all encompassing the media has become, such that nobody in the world, no matter what career path or lifestyle they choose to pursue, is completely immune to its influence.

I hope that AK Kerani can represent a different kind of world – one in which fashion is a means of individual expression and inspires us to love the world and its gifts. We don’t need to hate the world like helpless martyrs when we have a large part to play in whether this cycle stops or continues. I believe that one day, fashion can represent many pathways of real diversity, beauty and sexuality as opposed to one pathway of twisted, photo-shopped lust.

The main challenge of running AK Kerani is to figure out what place our company holds in the entertainment industry, the fashion industry and in society. Are we mainly in business to sell high quality fashion products? Or is our main goal to promote our socially conscious mission? Is there a way that these two elements of our business can intertwine perfectly? Or will one always come out on top? Ultimately, I often find myself struggling with one complex issue: How does AK Kerani battle the trends of the current fashion media without somewhat playing into the current industry enough to gain influence? If we don’t create traditionally appealing visuals to interest potential consumers, how will we ever be able to shout out our mission to a large crowd of ears?

We want to believe that the fashion industry can be a tool for social change. We want those who hear our mission to understand that hurting, starving and demeaning ourselves are not the only ways with which we can fight our anxieties. In hopes of counteracting these common reactions, AK Kerani will set up programs in hospitals and mental health institutions to give those struggling with anxiety not only an employment opportunity through knitting for us, but also a refreshing outlet for feelings they thought they could never control.

There is nothing wrong with looking appealing and celebrating the gifts that we all have been given. Pretty eyes, luscious hair and sculpted legs were never the problem. The problem is the significance that we ascribe to them. The problem is that we have been conditioned to believe that these attributes mean happiness, success and even love. And often, we force ourselves to relinquish all of these things in favor of pursuing the unattainable goal of a skewed perfection.

Though I have become way healthier at handling my own struggles with self image, disordered eating and overall anxiety, I have often wondered if the media’s damage is too pervasive to allow those of us who grew up with it to be completely healed. At times I am tempted to give up. If I am guilty of the same struggles my company condemns, how can I truly lead it to victory? And then I realize that humanity is not about being perfectly healed. It’s about struggling through adversity so that the light shines even brighter than it would have had you never fallen. We will always find ways to struggle, hate and doubt. An improved media, no matter how reformed and supportive, would not change that. But nor do we want it to. Because what we are striving for is reality – for the media to see us truly as we are and proudly represent it. And this can happen at anytime in any place as long as we learn to uphold different values – ones that seek to encourage instead of discourage.

Knitting, writing, and spastically experimenting with social media for AK Kerani have all taught me that success and health lie on an ambiguous continuum. To work out the kinks of a broken society and media, we must rebuild the confidence that we have lost piece by piece under its influence. And though we might think in grandiose terms picturing a new world, this world can only be achieved if we all commit to a slow and repetitive, but rewarding process of healing, row by row–one stitch at a time.

AK Kerani models (photo credit: Priscilla Liu)

Danielle Kerani is a native New Yorker who only just recently started appreciating the all-black stereotype: both in clothing and coffee.  Danielle is a junior journalism major at Northwestern University and is the Founder/CEO of the knit fashion company AK Kerani. In her free time, Danielle is a singer/songwriter, a blogger, a distance runner and a huge fan of exploring cool places with her boyfriend Jang, taking walks with her mom, and having crazy adventures with her super quirky friends. 

[Guest Post] Runway Rising: Perks and Challenges of a Socially Conscious Fashion Company

Surprise! Elle Magazine Editor Doesn't Really Care About Eating Disorders

Nope, no Photoshopping. Nothing to see here, move along now.

Confession: sometimes I read women’s magazines. They’re fun to make critique and laugh at.

This time, though, I didn’t even get past the magazine’s front matter before finding something objectionable. In her opening letter for Elle magazine’s August issue, Editor-in-Chief Roberta Myers discusses the recent legislation in the U.K. that would require digitally altered photographs of models to be labeled as such. You can practically feel the derision and dismissal dripping off the page:

So now the National Academy of Sciences is getting into the act, trying to define what ‘impossibly beautiful’ means. In response to legislation pending in the UK to require digitally altered photos to be labeled out of concern for public health, as well as the American Medical Association’s campaign against changing pictures ‘in a manner that could promote unrealistic expectations of appropriate body image,’ two Dartmouth computer scientists proposed a ‘metric’ at a recent NAS meeting designed to rate how much retouched photos have ‘strayed from reality.’ The authors noted that ‘highly idealized’ images have been associated with eating disorders, such as anorexia.

Scare quotes aside, I have the feeling that Myers knows exactly what “impossibly beautiful” means, even if the idea of defining it operationally seems a bit silly. I do think that regulatory measures like these should be approached with a certain degree of healthy skepticism, because government regulation should not be undertaken lightly and without good evidence. But Myers isn’t critiquing it skeptically. She’s sticking her head in the sand and denying that a problem exists.

Furthermore, the regulations don’t even propose to ban severely Photoshopped images, but merely to place labels on them. Is putting an extra little bit of text on the bottom of an image really such a burden for Myers? I think not. Note that some countries are going even further–Israel, for instance, banned the use of underweight models in advertising entirely.

Myers continues:

Yet according to David Scott Rosen, MD…eating disorders are as old as the Bible. They cropped up in popular literature 200 years ago–long before Photoshop but right around the time when John Singer Sargent painted his famous Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), a most flattering oil-on-canvas portrait that left out many a “flaw.”

I couldn’t find a citation for this, but it’s probably true. However, nobody’s claiming that eating disorders exist solely because of unrealistic beauty standards in the media. It’s not like a perfectly healthy young woman (or man, but that’s a slightly different conversation) opens up Elle magazine, sees a picture of a thin model, and immediately starts starving herself. Eating disorders arise from a complicated interaction of genetics, family life, and the surrounding culture. They involve complex cognitive processes, such as the ones described in this study. As another example, research shows that people determine attractiveness based on what they have seen the most. So if you’ve been looking at images of impossibly thin women for your entire life, that may be what you’re going to find attractive–and that’s what you may aspire to be.

We can’t prevent genes that predispose one to eating disorders from being passed down, and we can’t make it illegal for parents to teach their daughters that their appearance is the most important thing and that one should use unhealthy means to maintain it (though, with more education, we might be able to prevent that). We can, however, place restrictions on the images that permeate our media.

Furthermore, Myers conveniently ignores the fact that eating disorders have been growing more and more prevalent over the past century, especially among young women. Studies have also shown possible links between media that promotes thinness and eating disorders. It is impossible to establish a causative link with certainty, but that’s because 1) nothing is ever certain in science, and 2) we live within a culture that promotes and glorifies thinness. You can’t really evaluate phenomena like this accurately when you exist within the system that you’re trying to evaluate.

But luckily, studies done with non-Western cultures are very revealing. One extremely compelling study showed that girls in Fiji, who previously had little exposure to Western media, became much more likely to show signs of disordered eating after watching Western television shows for the first time.

Several Google searches brought up countless studies like these. Myers seems to consider them irrelevant here. She continues:

My point is that trying to define “impossible beauty,” and then regulate its dissemination by putting warning labels on retouched images, seems rather preposterous. You know, my chocolate bar never looks quite as creamy as it does in the ads; cars are never quite that sexy and sleek; and the milk in my cereal bowl never looks quite that white. Oh, wait! It’s not milk at all! It’s some gelatinous concoction meant to look like milk while it stays sturdy under hours of hot lights. Shall we label those photos, too?

This passage is as laughable as it is offensive. First of all, cool slippery slope fallacy, bro. Second, while one may argue over the sleekness of a car or the whiteness of a bowl of milk, it is completely unmistakable when magazines alter photos of models such that they appear to thin to actually be alive.

Third, and most importantly, the comparisons Myers makes are flippant to the point of inanity. The worst thing that can happen in her examples is that one’s chocolate bar isn’t creamy enough. The worst thing that can happen when magazines use Photoshop to excess is that, you know, someone develops anorexia and dies.

As I mentioned, the link between digitally altered images and eating disorders probably isn’t simple. But research is increasingly showing that it is there. It is worth noting that Myers never makes any comments about her own magazine’s use of Photoshop, which tells me that she’s fully aware of what she’s doing and is just willfully playing dumb. She knows. And she’s threatened by it, because things are starting to change.

But she’s not done. She goes on to cite an article in this month’s issue:

I wonder what the National Academy would have to say about the photograph we ran in this issue of novelist and essayist Ann Bauer, who writes so eloquently about growing up “ugly”–bearing a steady stream of abuse about her looks from classmates, strangers, and even lovers.

This bit confirms for me what I already suspected–that magazines like Elle print articles like this solely from the purpose of distracting people from the role they play in upholding our society’s beauty standards. These magazines can trot these articles out as examples of their commitment to portraying “women of all shapes and sizes,” when, in fact, they use these women as tokens.

The article in question is indeed a beautiful article. But what’s ironic is that Myers doesn’t even realize how magazines like her own have contributed to the bullying and abuse that women like Bauer face. Of course, people have always valued beauty and mistreated those who are deemed “ugly.” But lately, the box into which women must fit in order to be considered beautiful has been shrinking, whereas the “ugly” box has been growing. Magazines like Elle may not be the only (or even the main) causes of this trend, but it would be naive not to implicate them in it.

Furthermore, that photo of Bauer that Myers is so proud to have featured? It takes up one corner of a page and measures about two by three inches. Compare this to the dozens of full-page Photoshopped models in the magazine.

The most telling (and touching) part of Bauer’s piece, to me, is the end, in which she describes visiting Hungary with her husband and going to the opera in Budapest:

I turned and found myself looking into a full-length mirror. And I saw something I’d never seen before: myself, in a sea of women who looked just like me.

[…]Everywhere I looked in that lighted glass, there were women with large features, deep-set eyes, rounded cheeks, riotous hair, and delicate-yet-meaty little bodies. We were, in other words, an army of ugly people.

Only, for the first time in my memory, we weren’t. I wasn’t. I was normal, even conventionally attractive. Stylish. Interesting. Sexy. Simply that.

I stood in front of that mirror in the Hungarian State Opera House, watching couples mill. Men holding the arms and hands of dozens of women who could’ve been my sisters, mother, and daughters, tipping their heads back, kissing them lightly, gazing with naked admiration at faces like mine.

Bauer shows, ultimately, that she is not ugly. It is American culture that makes her out to be so. In Hungary, women who look like her are not bullied. They are not sent anonymous emails about how ugly they are. They are not denied jobs or pressured to lose weight and get plastic surgery.

This makes Myers’ stubborn refusal to examine the potential effects of her magazine even more ironic (and upsetting). Magazine editors seem to feel that they are being solely blamed for the devastating experiences of many women (and, increasingly, men), but no informed researcher or critic would say that magazines directly cause eating disorders. We have to examine this phenomenon as a system of interacting elements–the mass media, politics, families, and individual brains and bodies–in order to begin to understand how to prevent unhealthy beauty standards, poor body image, and eating disorders.

We can’t start without making sure that everyone knows that the images they see around them every day of their lives are not realistic. They’re not something to aspire to, because they cannot be obtained–except perhaps at a very high cost.

The editorial this photo belongs to is totally unironically called “The Surreal World.” Photo credit: Elle August 2012
Surprise! Elle Magazine Editor Doesn't Really Care About Eating Disorders

[Guest Post] An open letter to the woman who said I wasn’t skinny enough to have an eating disorder

Another guest post, this time by my friend Kate.

You are the mother of my greatest friend. Your house was my refuge in high school. I wanted to surprise you and share my happiness with you when I got into my dream college. By my senior year, I spent almost every day after school at your house. You offered to cover for me, to be a hiding place when I simply could not deal with my family…and you became someone I trusted. You knew me in the worst throes of my starvation. I was skinny then. I was too skinny, and faint and malnourished and mentally ill. You didn’t know it then, but your son guessed, and for that, he has my eternal gratitude. Without him, I do not know that I would have survived to this point. That is not hyperbole.

You saw me this summer, back home for the worst summer I’ve had. I have gone off therapy for these three months, because you see, my parents don’t use modern medicine, and I cannot trust them to care for me. I am dependent on the kindness of my university to have treatment in the first place. This summer, all I have are friends, and my own will to do anything to keep from slipping back into a hell of calorie counting and obsessive thoughts and the nightmare of reflective surfaces. I used to hate myself, you know. It still creeps up on me and strangles and pulls at loose skin, until all I can do is hold off from screaming and curl up in bed.

You don’t know this. I would have told you, had you asked. I speak about my cesspit of destructive behavior, because you can’t tell when you look at me. That is true of most eating disorders, and someone has to talk about it. I will be that person.

You can’t tell that some days I realize all I’ve had is a cup of coffee in twenty-four hours, and I am blisteringly happy. You can’t tell because I force myself to hold a normal weight. I have for four years, and on especially good days, that is a source of pride.

That number on the scale isn’t the weight I want, but it is healthy. It is perfectly in the range for my height, a muscular build that runs and leaps and cartwheels, but it isn’t skinny. It isn’t skinny, and that is all you see. I am not starving, and so I cannot possibly suffer. I should get over it.

I’d like to, but if the past six years are any lesson, I won’t. I will always depend on alarms to remind me when to eat. I will plan my workouts ahead of time, because when I don’t, I become obsessive, and exercise until I cannot see straight. I will never eat with abandon. Meals will be planned for. Eating out will be stressful. I will have an uneasy truce with food.

And there will be people like you. I hate saying that because, until yesterday, when I said that I meant people who would care, and make me laugh, and be one of the solid ones. There will be people like you, who think I’m making a fuss, playing victim. You were one of the good ones, once, so I’d like to set the record straight.

I am recovering from an eating disorder. For two years, I averaged less than 800 calories per day. I danced intensively, as much as four hours a day. I lost too much weight. I was starving and bony. I did permanent harm to my body.

I have bradycardia. That means my heart beats too slowly; it doesn’t speed up enough when I exercise. If I push too far? I’ll faint. I do not trust myself to exercise outside of a gym. I cannot know when my vision will narrow, but in a building, I at least know that if I stay unconscious, someone will be there. I want you to consider that my safety net is the kindness of strangers to notice if I do not wake up.

The rate for attempted suicide in those with eating disorders is as high as three times that of the general population. Everyone quotes statistics, but I want you to take a hard look at that one. If you combine the neurotypical people out there with those who have PTSD, with those who have major depression, with everyone else who has considered their life not worth living, they attempt suicide at one third the rate of those with eating disorders. You know what makes me hurt so badly I want nothing more than to make it stop any way I can? When people I trust decide some number on a scale measures the weight of my claims, when they reinforce the horrible things I believe about myself. I just never thought one of them would be you.

I want you to know something important about your son. Your son cared for me without knowing any of those facts or statistics or numbers. He just thought I was worth time. He thought I was too skinny, that I was maybe hurting myself, and so he did what he could. He held me and took me to dinner and made sure I ate. He never demanded justification—he waited until I told him I had an eating disorder—the first person I ever confessed to. He smiled, and said he knew, and then we went back to life as normal. We talk every day, because we take care of each other.

I want you to understand something, more than anything else in this letter. You
said I didn’t really have an eating disorder. But that wasn’t the worst thing. You also told my greatest friend, your son, that he should back away from me. You said he shouldn’t ‘have’ to take care of me. You wanted him to back off, because I was being whiny. I cannot forgive that.

I can forgive your careless misunderstanding of my eating disorder. You won’t be the last. You hurt me badly, but it’s ignorance like the words you spoke that keep me speaking up. I cannot forgive your wish to destroy my support.

You spoke selfishly. It is the selfless spirit of your son, and his love that quite literally, saved my life. I’m sorry you can’t see that. I’m sorry I don’t want to see any more of you.

Relevant citations: here and here.

Kate Donovan is a junior studying psychology and human development at Northwestern University. She is the president of Northwestern’s Secular Student Alliance and a writer at Teen Skepchick and the Friendly Atheist blog.

[Guest Post] An open letter to the woman who said I wasn’t skinny enough to have an eating disorder

"If You're Fat, Then What Am I?"

There are a lot of misconceptions out there about body image and eating disorders. I can’t even begin to address all of them here. But there’s one I’ve been thinking about lately–that problems with body image are caused solely by comparing yourself to unrealistic standards, and can be solved by simply comparing yourself to the “real” bodies around you instead.

First, a disclaimer–I’ve never had anorexia or bulimia. However, I’m not entirely out of my depth here. Had I gone to see a psychiatrist at some point prior to this year, he or she would probably have taken note of my obsessive calorie-counting, severe dietary restrictions, compulsive weight-checking and fat-pinching, and general conviction that I was “fat,” and diagnosed me with something called “eating disorder not otherwise specified,” or “EDNOS.” This means that one doesn’t meet the diagnostic criteria for any of the eating disorders, but is definitely disordered nonetheless.

(For the record, I’m much better now.)

Anyway, one thing I remember very vividly from my years of thinking I’m fat was one particular response that I often encountered. Some people (mostly other girls), upon learning how I felt, would respond with this: “If you’re fat, then what am I?”

Now, I understand exactly where this comes from. Many of my peers were probably insecure, too, and it makes sense that they would be reminded of their own insecurity once I mentioned mine. Since I was indeed thinner than many other people, that response makes sense on some level. If I’m fat, they must be obese!

But it doesn’t really work that way. It would certainly be convenient if people’s self-concepts were always rational and based on reality. But the very definition of mental problems is that they’re distortions of reality–they’re unrealistic. That’s why grief after the death of a loved one isn’t considered a mental disorder, but depression is.

And that’s exactly why “If you’re fat then what am I” is not an effective response. At the time, I didn’t give two shits what other people were. It didn’t enter my thought process. In my case, my conviction that I was fat was mostly caused by cultural factors; namely, the fact that Russians are fucking preoccupied with beauty and weight. Absolutely preoccupied. It was also caused by years of ballet lessons, my depressive personality (which magnifies personal flaws), the belief that I could lose 10-20 pounds and still be healthy, fear that guys wouldn’t find me attractive if I had folds on my stomach, and many other causes.

For other people with body image and eating issues, the causes may be different. Some people develop the feeling that they’re unable to control their environment, so they control the only thing they can–their body. Others may start out actually overweight, start to diet and lose weight, and find that they’re addicted to the feeling of getting thinner. Others develop an overwhelming guilt whenever they eat, especially when they eat unhealthily, and they start to purge after eating. Some may have friends who constantly talk about their bodies’ flaws (remember Mean Girls?) and start to think the same way.

Whatever the causes are, these issues are much too complicated to be defeated by a simple glance at someone who weighs more than you.

Of course, “If you’re fat then what am I” also fails one of the most basic requirements of being a good listener–don’t change the subject to yourself. If your friend feels crappy and needs to talk to you, don’t make it about you. If your own issues are making it difficult for you to listen, tell your friend that. Sure, they might be disappointed that you can’t listen to them, but that’s much better than how they’re going to feel when you take their pain and turn it into a conversation about you and your weight.

It’s easy to resent people who, according to you, “should” be perfectly happy with their weight but are not. I can’t say I don’t get a twinge of annoyance whenever I witness a girl much smaller than me freaking out about her weight. But then I remind myself that she’s not me. Poor body image seems almost like a cliche among young women these days, but it’s so much more complex than you might think.

"If You're Fat, Then What Am I?"

I Love My Body

[TMI Warning]

I’m going to say something women aren’t supposed to say–I love my body.

My favorite part of my body are my shoulders. I’m not entirely sure why; it’s an irrational feeling. During the summer I like to show them off as much as possible with halter-top shirts and dresses.

I also love my curves, but I try to keep those more covered up. Those are for me, and for whoever else has earned the right, to enjoy.

I love my legs. I have really strong legs from years of dancing, walking, and riding my bike all the time. My legs can do just about anything I want them to.

I love my stomach, which makes rolls when I slouch like most healthy stomachs do. When I want to look thinner I can suck it in, but I think it looks fine even when I don’t.

I love my thighs. They store most of my body’s fat, so it’s often hard to find jeans that will fit them. They jiggle. When I’m naked and I draw my thighs up to my stomach, it feels warm and comforting.

I love my hands. I have long fingers that are perfect for playing piano. The nails on my fingers are strange–they’re all different shapes. Some are rectangular, some are ovular, and some are nearly square.

I love my face. My bottom lip is much bigger than my top lip, and one of my eyes opens much wider than the other. My parents asked me if I wanted to have surgery to get that corrected, and for a while I did, but honestly, I’m terrified of surgery and I don’t really care that much about how wide my eyes can open. My eyes are either brown, hazel, or green; it depends.

I love my feet, which are too wide for many types of shoes and rather ugly because of ballet. I’ve had so many blisters on so many parts of my feet over the years, both from ballet and from my habit of wearing insensible shoes, but my feet have taken it all in stride.

My body is conventionally attractive, but that’s not why I love it. I love it because it’s always been there for me, because of the good sensations it provides, because I’m so intimately familiar with it, and because it’s all mine.

It wasn’t always this way. Until very recently, I hated my body, or thought I did. It was the same story–too fat, too weird, too asymmetrical, too disproportional. I pinched my thighs and stomach all the time. Sometimes I’d stop reading or doing homework and realize that, unthinkingly, my hand had drifted to my stomach and was grabbing it and trying to hide the extra fat.

When I dieted or exercised, it felt like I was punishing my body. I took a sick pleasure in this. I liked to make myself hungry, sweaty, and exhausted. I counted calories, and some days I ate as little as 700 calories. That qualifies as a starvation diet. There, I said to my body. Take that.

Things are very different now. When I exercise, I like to think about my muscles working. Sometimes I even touch them while I’m working out so that I can feel them move. When my muscles are sore, I feel like they’re happy and exhausted. I stretch them and imagine them thanking me.

When I try to diet, I enjoy the feeling of eating well and of not having too much food in my body. I hate feeling stuffed; I prefer small portions. When I’m dieting, I’m more mindful of what I eat, and I feel my body appreciating each bite, and I like that feeling.

People think that loving your body means either thinking it’s flawless or completely abandoning the idea of health or beauty. The media perpetuates this myth–only “perfect” people (who don’t exist anyway) should love their bodies, and those who are “flawed” but love them anyway must simply be blinding themselves.

It’s not true. I don’t think my body’s perfect at all. It has plenty of flaws, some of which I mentioned above. Some of those flaws I counteract–I tweeze my eyebrows, wear makeup, diet (sometimes), wear flattering clothes, and use lotion. Other flaws I genuinely don’t care about.

But don’t we love people who aren’t perfect? Don’t we love our favorite writers, even though they might’ve written a couple books we could barely get through? Don’t we love our childhood homes despite the peeling paint and faded crayon marks on the walls?

You don’t have to be perfect to be loved, and neither does your body. I don’t think I’m the only woman who knows this. But I’m one of the few who’s willing to stick up for my body and declare that I love it despite a culture that says that women ought to be ashamed of what they were born with.

My body is there for me even when no one else is. I refuse to devalue it.

I Love My Body