Fighting for Self-Love Amidst a Whole Lot of Thin

This summer I decided to embark on a journey of body love. After leaving my late teens with an eating disorder and eating disordered thinking (my relationship to food and my body will never be the same again), I wanted to make peace with my stomach. Stomach: two syllable noun, gut, holder of food and nerve butterflies. This was the one part of my body that I had ascribed so much hate and disgust to. Let me be clear. There is nothing categorically “wrong” with my stomach. After my summer project, I came to see at a nourishing flesh, the part of my body that sustains me, that pillows my wife’s cheeks. Despite this new knowing, however, my stomach remains a dichotomous place for me.

As someone who is very interested in body politics, who knows about our culture’s obsession with bodily perfection and Photoshop, I often forget that the images I see in magazines, on billboards, you name it, are Photoshopped. I know that this constant forgetting is intentional. There is no better way to make “us” (the collective us) feel badly about our bodies. There are two images that I have seen within the last week that reinforce this.

A Groupon advertisement  for a yoga studio.

A Groupon advertisement for a yoga studio.

The first is an image I saw on Facebook. It’s a Groupon advertisement for a yoga studio. In the foreground there is a woman who is in downward facing dog. Her ribs are pointed, sticking out below her bikini top. To me, this image is yet another example of how thinness and health are culturally made to be synonymous. Anyone who has had an eating disorder can tell you that thinness does not equal health. There is health at every size.

The second image, perhaps more disturbingly, I found at the LAC-USC hospital near downtown Los Angeles. We are all familiar with the traditional (though problematic) symbol for the woman’s bathroom: a body in the shape of a triangle with two arms, two legs, and a floating head. Ever since I could remember, this image has signaled “woman” for me.

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Upon entering the hospital last week, I saw a new sign for the woman’s bathroom:

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This image communicated so much to me. Even on the way to the restroom, a woman-identified person needs to be reminded that she needs to be thin or thinner (apparently the former triangle body was not thin enough). Further it commands that a woman needs to have a waist, something small and distinct. These two visual artifacts—the Groupon and bathroom symbol—were exhausting to see.

The struggle for body positivity and self-love is tiresome and constant. If we want body love, it must be something we actively strive to achieve. To be honest, seeing these images sometimes makes me want to give in, to stop journaling about my body, to stop eating again. Instead, with great commitment (and at times resistance), I find that the best way to love my body, for us to love our bodies, is to shift the conversation. Instead of hating our bodies we need to hate the system that crafts the mandate of thinness. So let’s turn the gaze outward, shall we?

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The Farthest Away From Learning: My Husband’s Not Gay

A friend recently reminded me that the television network TLC stands for “The Learning Channel.” I had forgotten the “learning” part, though with their new docu-special My Husband’s Not Gaythere is most certainly an insidious lesson at hand.

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My Husband’s Not Gay follows the story of four Mormon men who identify as having “same sex attractions” (“SSA”) but who, as a result of their religious beliefs, do not want to live “the gay lifestyle.” It should be noted that on the website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, SSA is not considered to be “inherently sinful” while acting on SSA goes against church doctrine.

On December 29th, Josh Sanders began a petition on Change.org urging TLC to cancel the show. Writing as a devout, gay Christian, Sanders spoke about the dangers of “reparative therapies” and of spreading a “message [that] is harmful to both LGBT people and communities of faith.” While the show was never canceled, Sanders’ petition gathered 128,446 signatures (and counting). Although TLC did air the docu-special and while they have not commented about whether or not this special will be turned into a series, there is much to consider here.

The first is the toxicity of the “overcoming” narrative. In the trailer one of the men states the following: “with our faith in God we believe we can overcome anything.” The “anything” in this case is homosexuality. What is problematic here is the assumption firstly that one can “overcome” their homosexuality and secondly that homosexuality is something so abject that one must distance themselves from it and overcome it. To me, this reinforces the belief that one must perform and align oneself with the institution of heterosexuality. The opening of the trailer visually depicts this alliance: the images of a smiling man and woman holding hands as they ice-skate, a couple talking to the camera with a fireplace behind them, the collective image of a man, woman and child in a kitchen. The trailer depicts a “healthy,” “normative,” “wholesome” couple as being a heterosexual one. In the landscape of this docu-special, in the framework of Mormonism, SSA can only be discussed/shown under this structure of institutionalized heterosexuality.

This version of “normal” scares me. As a woman who came out at the age of 28, I find the show’s erasure of a homosexual identity to be violent. It scares me to see a show that promotes 1) the misguided argument that someone can “pray the gay away,” and further promotes 2) the belief that word in and of itself—gay—is damaging and sinful. Does the title not suggest that? My Husband’s Not Gay, my husband’s not this three letter, derogatory word that is accented with sin. I myself did this dance (I wonder how many others have). When I wrote about my sexuality in my journal, I wrote “g” as short hand. I could not even fathom writing the whole word. To see the totality of the word “gay” felt too confrontational, too truth telling. It is not natural to equate the words “gay” and “sin,” yet it is something that is taught to us and reinforced by different ideological institutions. This conflation is something I learned to do.

Rather than view the men on the show with compassion, I fear that My Husband’s Not Gay, like many of the other TLC shows, creates a climate of mockery. It becomes a freak show, something for us to gawk at and reaffirm our own version of normal. The Learning Channel is teaching us to view homosexuality, to view queerness, as a toxic thing that we can stave off if only it is something we are strong and eager enough to overcome.

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Orange is Not So New

Okay. Maybe it’s because it’s been a full season since I last saw Netflix’s original series Orange is the New Black. Maybe it’s because the glitz and glamor of the show and its “progressive” inclusion of diverse characters has worn off. Either way, when I sat to watch the first episode of season two, it was absolutely unmistakable: the show reeks of racialized privilege and power. Be forewarned: spoilers lie ahead.

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No piece of pop culture or media is perfect. I know that. With that being said, sometimes a show’s plot can lean a bit too over to a regressive place, one where old stereotypes are replayed for a new audience. Not even the allure of new plot lines and the cherished return of old characters can hide racist and classist roots.

The show begins almost immediately foregrounding Piper’s privilege, her misplacement in a landscape of incarceration. Like the first season, Piper is declarative. As she is ushered out of the prison and onto a bus, she asks the guards and corrections officers where she is being taken: “I demand to know where I am being taken … I have a right to know.” In contrast to the other women on the bus, Piper is the only one who who speaks  directly to the guards. Though subtle, this act demonstrates her status. Her background, her class, and her whiteness give her the access to question.

As she waits in line to board an airplane to an undisclosed location, Piper witnesses a black woman in front of her try to smuggle a razor blade onto the plane hidden under her tongue. The guards restrain the woman who is then forced to wear a plastic face cover on the plane (think Hannibal Lecter). The guard then processes Piper. The contrast between these two women is stark. Piper asks the man if she can use the restroom, saying “no sir” and “excuse me.” The guard says that she can use the restroom on the plane and thanks her for not soiling herself. A hierarchical relationship is created here between Piper and the black woman who preceded her, the woman who was told on the plane to “sit and stay.” Piper’s demeanor and the way the guards treat her render her human; she becomes someone who has common sense more so than her counterparts. In both her physicality and her behavior, Piper represents the ideal, though misplaced, citizen.

The presence of power is amplified when the plane makes a stop to pick up some male inmates. One of the black inmates turns and starts talking to Piper. He calls her “first class” and tells her that he’s saving a seat for her on his lap. As the camera focuses on Piper the look on her face is undeniable: she, a white woman, is terrified of this black man (later in the episode she nervously asks another inmate if the man is a rapist). This is where I literally pressed pause. Is this really where the show is taking us? Back to a historicized fear of black masculinity? A racist, 19th century framework?

The privileging of whiteness and the urging that there is inherent power in such a positionality continues when Piper enters into the new prison. While in the prison yard, she encounters a group of women standing in a circle like penguins, trying to keep warm. One woman invites Piper to join in the circle while she tells the others, “Penguin daddies are fucking men. Imagine our baby daddy’s staying in one spot, no food, taking care of the kids?” Piper replies, “You know, Emperor Penguins are setup for that. Physiologically speaking they have shorter feathers and an under layer of wooly down. I did a report on penguins once.” This scene is telling as it positions Piper as educator. She is a source of knowledge. I am constantly reminded in the show that Piper is better than, smarter than. Through this reinforcement I read Piper as a character that gives me (the viewer) access into enter a world where like her, I am a visitor. The prison becomes the exotic and the women inside of it become fetishized.

I have to stress that Orange is the New Black’s dichotomous reference to race is reductionary. The stressing of white as power, intelligence, access, rights, humanity, and citizenship versus color as its diametric opposite is overused and oversimplified. Put plainly, it’s time for a new, more nuanced reading of race, class, and privilege. Season two, I am not impressed. There will be no binge watching, or any watching of any kind for that matter, here.

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Coven: Nothing Unexpected

American Horror Story: Coven has ended and I have to say, I am not surprised by the ending (if you have yet to watch it, spoilers are ahead). 

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When it came down to choosing the next Supreme, I was expecting the show to do something radical. They could have chosen Nan. Although she had potential, strength, and sass her character was treated according to the traditional binary convention for most disabled characters in literature and film: cure or kill. She was killed and unlike the majority of the other witches in Coven that died, she was not brought back to life (they brought back Misty Day, Zoe, Kyle, and Madison. But then again they were all nondisabled characters). The only options for a disabled character are to be cured or to be killed. Coven chose not to rebel against the rule and selected the latter for Nan. 

When Cordelia decided to enter the running to be the next Supreme I was excited. It would be tremendous and progressive move if she was chosen. Given the fact that she was blind at that point in the series, her selection would have made fascinating and expansive arguments about strength, leadership, and disability. Yes, I was hopeful but unfortunately I was not surprised when she magically regained her sight upon passing the last of the “Seven Wonders.” I think the exact phrase was that every Supreme needs to be in “perfect health.” 

I was disappointed by the end of the series because I suppose I was expecting something a bit less ableist (that’s probably why I am feeling a little snarky). The conflation of leadership/success and health is disconcerting to say the least. Why couldn’t Cordelia have stayed blind and been a bad ass Supreme? And why couldn’t have Queenie been the next Supreme? Why did we end up with tall, thin, blond, white, nondisabled woman? 

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Intergalactic Love: Kirk and Spock

Star Trek: Into Darkness satisfied my appetite for the heart and soul of Kirk/Spock fan fiction: homoeroticism in deep space. No, the words “boyfriend” or “lover” were never used. And no, Kirk and Spock never kissed. But that is only if we read what is on the surface. The subtext is far more interesting. (NOTE: This entire post is one big spoiler alert. Consider yourselves warned.)

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The movie begins with the first sign of Kirk and Spock’s bond: an overly heroic gesture of love and commitment. Kirk jeopardizes the Enterprise’s mission—not to mention his crew—when he chooses to save Spock who is stranded in an active volcano. Spock cannot understand why Kirk risked the lives of many to save the life of one. At the end of the movie, Kirk admits that he saved Spock because Spock is his “friend.” Sound familiar? The word “friend” has been used as code to refer to same sex relationships or to state that someone is gay; remember “friend of Dorothy?” To say “he is my friend” functioned as socially sanctioned language used to reference a very loaded and stigmatic coupling. Yes, indeed, Kirk and Spock are “friends.”

The second clue that reveals Kirk and Spock’s relationship occurs when Carol Marcus, an additional science officer, joins the Enterprise. As a tall, thin blond she grabs Kirk’s attention and Spock notices. He shows his jealousy with a grimace, that typical raising of the eyebrow, as she takes a seat between Kirk and Spock on the Enterprise.

And the best example is of course last: Spock cries. Yes, Spock, the embodiment of rationality, breaks down and cries. The icing on the cake is that he cries for Kirk. He cries and he yells out in anger, emotions he was able to control and avoid when he thought he was going to die in the volcano and never see his girlfriend again. A random happening? I think not.

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The Racing of the Bathroom

Watching T.V. online doesn’t save you from the commercials. This I learned the hard way. However, after seeing the same Lime-A-Way commercial ad nauseum last night, I realized that it wasn’t just a benign commercial for a cleaning product.

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Woven into its talk of hard water stains and effective cleaning methods were racist undertones: subtle, but noticeable nonetheless.

Here’s the commercial: http://susancanwrite.com/campaign.php?id=47&section=television 

(sorry folks, you are going to have to click on the link to view the video)

The commercial begins with a woman walking into her bathroom. Immediately the black (literally) sink begins speaking to her: “Ah hello!? These ugly stains are ruining my good looks and style and good luck using that cleaner.”

At this point, the woman rolls her eyes, dismissing the sink’s concerns (I do understand the hilarity of all this), and walks toward the shower. In a very polite voice, the shower says, “Excuse me, miss? He’s right. Those are tough water stains and that cleaner is not going to cut it. Truth is 85% of us have hard water and many don’t even know it. You need Lime-A-Way!”

The problem with this commercial lies in the way it distinctly racializes each inanimate object: the sink’s voice is distinctly African American while the shower’s voice is distinctly Caucasian. The commercial takes all this a step further when it attaches racist stereotypes to each voice. The sink’s concerns are superficial and based on appearance. The woman quickly dismisses them until the shower in a respectful voice tells her the same information, this time with the accompaniment of statistics. The sink represents the body while the shower represents the mind. It is the mind/body binary all over again.

It is clear that negative and positive attributes are being attached to race. The commercial associates manners and intellect with Caucasians, while it associates superficiality and impoliteness with African Americans. There is a reason why the commercial chose one voice to represent the sink and another to be the mouthpiece of the product they are trying to sell. Dominant culture, even in the 21st century, privileges one race and prefers one over the other. There may not be a genetic difference between each race, but culturally the distinctions are still reinforced.

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Mad Men and the Ableist Drive of Production

Although I am finding Mad Men deals with numerous social issues, disability seems to be far out on the fringes. In a 2009 episode entitled “Guy Walks into An Advertising Agency,” disability enters the conversation toward the end of the episode.

An accident results in a lawnmower running over the foot of Guy MacKindrick, a British employee at Sterling Cooper. Once this scene closes, we find Joan Holloway (the office manager) and Don Draper (the creative director) standing in a hospital waiting room. It is made clear once the British executives of the company arrive that MacKindrick has lost his foot. In response to this, one executive replies, “He was a great account man. A prodigy. Could talk a Scotsman out of a penny. Now that’s over.” Another replies, “The man is missing a foot. How’s he going to work? He can’t walk.”

The language used here evokes the equation of bodily integrity and ability with productivity. Particularly so in the 20th century, the able body was aligned with the principle of the working, producing body. Ability, and in many sense citizenship, relied on one’s output. Immediately, at the sign of a lost foot, MacKindrick’s effective and productive body is rendered useless. His bosses identify him as incapable to work. In many ways, this immediate dismissal from his job, even though he is a “great account man,” speaks to the connections drawn in the 20th century between work and ability. There exists the capitalistic belief that MacKindrick’s value to the company, and I would argue, his value as a person, is dependent upon his able-bodiedness, and thus, what he produces. This privilege is starkly called into question when he no longer possesses an able body. His “defective” body signifies lack in the highly capitalistic environment of the ad agency.

The belief that one’s body and personhood depends on what, and how much, one produces still exists in today’s culture. The stigma surrounding people with disabilities that are on Social Security Income (S.S.I.) speaks to our culture of production, the belief that a productive American must hold a job to be a “meaningful” human being. This faulty, ableist logic attaches stereotypes of laziness, ineffectiveness, and being a malingerer to the body of a person with a disability, particularly one who is one S.S.I. Most ironic, it is not that MacKindrick can no longer be an ad man with a missing foot. He can; however the agency is equating the lost foot with deficiency. MacKindrick’s disability now represents his entire being.

Perhaps one central reason why Mad Men does not have more episodes focusing on disability (and please note that I have come to the show late; I am only on season two and I will be keeping my eye out for more disability readings) is because the act of selling ads is contingent upon a discourse of perfection and idealism. In our ableist culture, the ideal body possesses compulsory heterosexuality and able-bodiedness. People with disabilities do not exist in this environment, or if they do, they are, as in MacKindrick’s case, removed.

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