An Open Letter to Congress

Dear Congress-people responsible for the ridiculously-named  Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act:

Have you heard about the 2006 study* on pre-term births that revealed racism as a very real risk-factor in early labor?

African-American women at every socioeconomic level have higher rates of preterm birth and infant mortality. Incredibly, these rates exceed those of white women who have not even finished high school and those of black women who emigrated to the U.S. from other countries. For example, infant mortality in white women with a college degree or higher is 4 per 1000, while for similarly educated African-American women, the rate is 12 per 1000 births. [Source]

If that is not compelling enough check out the transcript for Unnatural Causes: When the Bough Breaks, one part of an (awesome) documentary series about health disparity in America (that I was lucky enough to be introduced to at a recent YWCA Cultural Competency training!)

I agree – racism is a serious issue – but how about we deal with the racism faced by fully-gestated people first? There are a plethora of reasons why you should care about the racism that fully-gestated people face every day (basic human decency and a sense of justice, for starters) but if none of those reasons compel you, then do so for the fetuses that you care so very much about. Fetuses who are being born pre-term because their mothers bodies are so worn down by the constant stress of racism that they cannot carry their baby to full-term, despite making every effort to do so.

Or, you know, you can keep writing bills that exploit the very real problem of racism in an attempt to screw over women of color even more. Your choice.

– A concerned voter.

*Institute of Medicine Committee on Understanding Premature Birth and Assuring Healthy Outcomes, Board on Health Sciences Policy, Behrman, R.E., and Butler, A.S. (eds.). (2006). Preterm Birth: Causes, Consequences, and Prevention. Washington, DC, The National Academies Press.

We Don’t Have an Obesity Epidemic

Crossposted at Persephone

If we really cared about health in America, we wouldn’t be worrying about an obesity epidemic, because we don’t have one. We don’t have an obesity epidemic because weight isn’t the problem, health is. We have an epidemic of food-deserts. An epidemic of people who cannot afford healthy, well-balanced diets even if they do have access to decent grocery stores. We have an epidemic of companies producing foods laden with trans fats and hydrogenated oils, things that do damage to our bodies, simply because those ingredients are cheaper. We have an epidemic of people damaging their bodies through yo-yo dieting, dangerous diet pills and supplements, completely unhealthy weight-loss plans, and even eating disorders because our society teaches that this behavior is normal, okay, even preferable. We do not have an epidemic of fat people; we have an epidemic of people of all sizes being fed damaging attitudes, horrible misinformation, and unfulfilling food.

Yet all we can focus on is fat.

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So Long Summer, Hello Stress

Its that time of year again: summer is ending and (for many of us) that means school is about to begin and life is about to resume a more hurried and busy pace… or maybe that’s just me. Regardless, I’d like to devote a post on this blog to starting a conversation about stress and stress relieving techniques, because I have a feeling this is something many of us deal with.

I’m not shy about the fact that I have a lower anxiety threshold than many people. I am a worrier by nature, a worrier who regularly piles her proverbial plate so high with commitments that it is almost but not quite ready to topple over. If I’m not careful I tend to fall to pieces fairly quickly but, in general I like the business of my life and choosing between my commitments is impossible… I love them all, so taking on less isn’t really an option here. Thus, I’ve had to develop some tricks over the years to maintain a level of sanity even during the craziest times. Here’s what I’ve learned…

Take mini-vacations. During finals week we decorate the Women’s Center where I work with a festive theme, turn down the lights, put out snacks, and provide fun little distractions like bubbles. This quick makeover provides a quick change-of-pace for all of us, patrons and employees alike, that gives us a chance to get away from the stress of finals.

To apply this principle to my day-to-day life I like to take fairly frequent breaks from working, studying, etc.  to recharge. A five minute walk, or a cup of tea consumed alongside a chapter of a good book, a twenty minute nap, a quick dance break… you get the point. These things help me to feel much less over-extended when things get rough, plus they tend to make me more productive as I am more energized when I have something to look forward to.

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Back Down the Rabbit Hole

WARNING: I talk about dieting, bad body image, and disordered eating in fairly personal detail below. If this is triggering to you, I’d advise skipping to the previous post about Twilight (unless you’re allergic to articles about horribly written sparkle-vamp stories, in which case, you’d best skip down even further.)

I spend a great deal of time talking about how damaging the diet industry is on young women, and how important it is to encourage self esteem and happiness at any size. Given this theme it seems dishonest not to share my own experiences with you, even though they do not paint me in the most flattering light.

So, here goes… the other day I went to pull on my favorite rainbow skirt and I found, to my dismay, that it was really uncomfortably tight in a way that it hadn’t been a few weeks ago. I’ve gained weight. I thought, with dread, before committing my first mistake: weighing myself, something I haven’t done in months, to confirm what I already knew. Once that number got into my head, I was doomed.

See, for all of my talk about body-acceptance and loving yourself there’s still this whisper of self doubt, a voice that is always waiting to let me know just how much better I would look and feel if I just dropped say, ten pounds? Fifteen? Maybe even twenty?! It’s a voice that I work incredibly hard to silence with projects, outings, new dresses, and accomplishments. Most of the time I’m stronger than it but if I do something like, say, get on the scale and discover that I now weigh five pounds more than I thought I did… that’s when the voice in my head takes over.

So I told myself I was going to cut back and I made a few easy rules that essentially boil down to:

1) Stop snacking so much, especially at night

2) Exercise more: hula hoop, do sit ups, take a walk, whatever.

See? Perfectly rational. It started off fine – I stopped snacking on crap when I wasn’t even hungry and I bought a hula hoop. The first two days were totally normal and I was feeling happy and healthy and good.

Then the voice got louder.

If you actually commit to a diet, it whispered,  you’d lose that weight so much faster. What you’re doing now… you may was well just eat a tray of brownies for all the good you’ve done, you’re not really committed to anything. You’re not really going to lose anything this way. Think how awesome it would be to go back to school in the fall and have your roommates notice how slim you are! Don’t you want that?

Just like that, food became the enemy.

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Beauty Ideals Need to Go

Here’s an easy one: this has been sitting in my drafts here since September 2oth, but its been finished on Amplify for ages! Enjoy :)

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For a long time I used to fantasize about how great the world would be if our beauty ideals were different, for instance, if I lived in one of those countries where being curvy and even fat was valued, instead of being thin. In my mind those countries were so much freer: women were not afraid to eat, to wear clothing that shows off all of their curves, to just be who they were… then I read this article in Marie Claire on a country called Mauritania, where the beauty ideal is, “like America’s cult of superthinness in reverse. Mauritanian tradition holds that among women, rolling layers of fat are the height of sexiness.”

As I continued into the article, I began to realize just how skewed my idea of these countries were. Rather than being freeing, the larger beauty ideal present in Mauritania causes women emotional pain and pushes them into unhealthy behaviors – like our opposite ideals do. If their parents are wealthy enough, teenage girls in Mauritania are often sent off for months at a time to “force-feeding camps” where they are forced to eat “eats about 40 [egg sized balls of crushed dates and peanuts with couscous and] per day, along with 12 pints of goat’s milk and gruel, making their daily intake 14,000 to 16,000 calories” even though, “the recommended consumption for a healthy 12-year-old girl averages 1500 calories; an adult male bodybuilder eats up to 4000.” If the girls try to fight this feeding they are beaten or tortured by having to squeeze a stick between their toes, all while being told how little value skinny people have in society.

Reading this I was aghast but, upon further reflection, I guess I shouldn’t have been. In American culture we are bombarded every day with images of thin women in magazines, on TV, in the movies, and so on… rarely do we see larger women portrayed as successful or happy with their lives or their bodies. Coupled with all of the diet programs that are advertised constantly, especially to women, the message is sent loud and clear: you’re not good enough unless you’re thin. Is this that much different from the devaluing of thin women in Maritania? Not really.

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Is Regina Benjamin’s Weight Even Our Business?

regina_benjamin-2006On Wednesday Broadsheet reporter Francis Kissling posed a question: “Is Regina Benjamin too fat to be surgeon general?” A question I respond to with a raised eyebrow of disapproval and a really Salon, I mean really?

Luckily, despite its irritating headline, the article itself is one I can almost get behind as I agree with its author that, “this country is full of above-average weight women and children struggling for dignity,” and having an above average weight Surgeon General could positively impact that struggle. Unfortunately the article is quite the mixed bag. Here’s a full quote so we can do a breakdown:

“This country is full of above-average weight women and children struggling for dignity as well as to lose weight. Achieving either of these is not easy. (Never mind that none of these criticisms have mentioned any actual health concerns Benjamin might or might not have, instead presuming “obesity” as a catch-all for bad health.) Having a confident, big-bodied and big-spirited woman as America’s family doctor could do more to improve their health than skinny HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius. It’s good to know that even doctors struggle with their weight and lead full and active lives in spite of adversity.

The Good:

“Never mind that none of these criticisms have mentioned any actual health concerns Benjamin might or might not have, instead presuming “obesity” as a catch-all for bad health” Here, the author points out that Benjamin may not have any health problems, calling out the people making critical assumptions about her simply based on her weight.

“…and lead full and active lives in spite of adversity” Although the rest of the article makes it clear that the adversity the author is referring to is related to money, rather than judgment based on weight, I originally got excited and thought that Kissling was again acknowledging he social stigma that comes with being considered overweight. Regardless, the fact that the author described Benjamin as having an active lifestyle is a great thing because it observes the way she lives her life, rather than the way she looks, and stands in opposition to the idea that fat = lazy/inactive.

The Bad:

“…as well as to lose weight” Here we have to common assumption that all fat people are/should be unhappy with their bodies as they are and actively trying to lose weight.

“…could do more to improve their health than skinny HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “ Some fat people are perfectly healthy and some are unhealthy, some thin people are unhealthy and some are healthy… health comes at a multitude of sizes and is based way more on one’s activity level and diet than it is on a (largely genetically determined) weight or, to be more accurate, the perception of one’s weight due to assumptions that are based upon one’s appearance. I don’t like the assumption here that anyone has a responsibility to improve the health of all fat people…. we should be focused on improving everyone’s health instead and understanding that health and weight have no definitive correlation.

even doctors struggle with their weight” Not all fat people are struggling with their weight. It is possible to be not skinny, but still happy with your body as it is (just as it is possible to be skinny & unhappy with your body.) Why is the author automatically assuming a struggle on Dr. Benjamin’s part?

This isn’t even about health so much, however, so I’m not going to delve further into the issue of whether or not fat = unhealthy (especially since I’ve covered it already so many times.) If you have any questions about the link between health and weight please take a look at the Junkfood Science blog, or this comprehensive article on Shapely Prose, or watch one of Kelly Bliss’ awesome media apperances.

Instead, I want to get back to that question: “Is Regina Benjamin too fat to be surgeon general?” I want to backtrack to that opening question and raise my own question back in response: Is it right for us to question anyone’s qualifications based on their weight?

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