Whether you turn to the right or to the left,

your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying,

“This is the way; walk in it.”

Isaiah 30:21

The roots of beauty sickness are deep

Some noticings during my first week of giving up "beauty sickness" for Lent:

Thursday night we ordered wood-fired pizza from our favorite local spot.

My husband (whose permission I have to tell this story) crisps the crust in our cast iron pan while I whip up a salad.

We have this meal down to a science. 

We sat down to watch Netflix and enjoy our meal.

Soon, there was only one piece of pizza left.

My husband turned to me and said: "Do you ever feel like you don't get your fair share of the pizza?"

I looked over at him, curious. "What do you mean?" I said.  "Do you feel like I ate more than I should have?"

Grinning at me, he said, "Yea. Yea I do!"

I think he expected me to laugh and apologize.

Instead I said, "Well go crisp up some more, friend! You know how to do it! Don't shame me about eating delicious pizza! We still have an entire pie in the kitchen."

I was dead serious and angry.

He knew what I had been reading and writing about. He knew what my deepest struggles are around food and weight and eating and such. He knew I had given up beauty sickness for Lent.

And yet, there it was: The assumption that the "little lady" should eat less than the man. 

I was HUNGRY. And I had eaten until I was full. 

It was fantastic and so satisfying and delicious and delightful.  I was thoroughly enjoying my new Lenten fast!

After I cooled down a bit we talked about this interaction. We are even laughing about it now. It will become a running joke between us.

Here's the moral of this story:

In order to succesfully pull a weed, you gotta' make sure you get the root.

The roots of female beauty sickness are deep.

They are a part of ALL of us, men and women. And they are everywhere.

In every interaction, it seems.

Even in the simple act of eating pizza with your favorite person on a Thursday night.

 

Subversive abstinence ...

A friend of mine from my days at Northwestern University (thanks, Mary!) suggested I look into the research of a current psychology professor at our Alma Mater.

Dr. Renee Engeln wrote a book called "Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women."

I cannot recommend it more highly.

However, I am stuck on page three where I read this:

"Thirty-four percent of five-year-old girls engage in deliberate dietary restraint at least 'sometimes.'

Twenty-eight percent of these girls say they want their bodies to look like the women they see in movies and on television ...

These are girls who are just learning how to move their bodies around in the world, yet somehow they're already worried about how their bodies look, already seeking to take up less space.

Between ages five and nine, 40 percent of girls say they wish they were thinner. Almost one-third of third-grade girls report they are 'always afraid of becoming fat.'"

These statistics took my breath away. I had to close the book and just sit with my sadness.

Our little girls, barely in kindergarten, are worried about their weight.

Our grade school girls, not even in fourth grade yet, wish they were thinner.

I am shocked, and not at all shocked.

In her Introduction Engeln writes this:

"We have created a culture that tells women the most important thing they can be is beautiful. Then we pummel them with a standard of beauty they will never meet. After that when they worry about beauty, we call them superficial."

Engeln describes this as "beauty sickness," and its greatest tragedy is that it,

"steals women's time, energy and money, moving us further away from the people we want to be and the lives we want to live. It keeps us facing the mirror instead of facing the world."

This is such a complicated issue. I am both a victim of this and a perpetrator.  I finally feel, in my mid-50's, at peace with my body. I mainly want to be healthy and strong. But I grieve over all the hours, days, weeks, months spent "facing the mirror instead of facing the world."

I am confident Engeln is not advocating unhealth.

But I am confident she - through her research - is creating a path forward for girls and women as we stand strong together against the wrongly-held belief that the greatest thing we have to offer the world is our outward beauty and thin bodies.

As I think about the start of Lent and all the girls and women who might use this annual season of religious observance as a chance to "give up chocolate," or "give up pop," or any other kind of dietary restriction disguised as devotion to Jesus, I wonder if a better observance might be - for all the women and girls I know - to give up "beauty sickness" for the next forty days.

Imagine the freedom we might all find in that subversive abstinence.

 

Girl power ...

I have written a couple posts about body shaming I experienced during my childhood. I could write a thousand more; many more recent. 

There is a toxin in our culture that provides men both the freedom and permission to comment on women's bodies. 

I, in no way, believe that young boys and men aren't ridiculed for their looks, as well. I doubt, however, that it is as rampant and acceptable as is the constant discussion (to put it nicely) about how women look.

So, when my two daughters were young - probably due to the sense of disempowerment I had felt - I vowed to afford them a strong sense of personal power in this arena.

Two quick stories - neither of which I suggest are "good parenting - but I want to share, nonetheless.

One daughter was at an elementary school skating party. I was a chaperone. She let me know that a 5th grade boy had snapped her bra while she was skating. I could tell this felt like a breach of her boundaries and made her uncomfortable. So, I walked out onto the floor of the skating rink and snuck up quietly behind the young man and whispered in his ear: "If you touch my daughter's body again, you will have to deal with me." 

Can you picture this? Like I was a mob boss or something!!!

He looked terrified. Shocked that his actions had such swift consequences.

I do not think he ever snapped her bra again.

After that, I decided to be more proactive.

I told my other daughter that if any boy ever made a disparaging comment about her body she had my complete and total permission to make an equally disparaging public comment about his body. 

In fact, I would go as far as to say I encouraged this by suggesting a phrase she could use. 

We giggled quite a bit about this suggestion.

I hope you understand what I was attempting to do for my daughters, however crudely.

I knew I would never be able to stop the constant barrage of public comments they would receive about their bodies.

But I could prevent them from feeling powerless about it when it happened.

What else was a mother to do?

What else can mothers do now?

How do we offer our daughters protection from this kind of shameful garbage?

How do we provide them with a sense of empowerment about their unique and beautiful bodies?

How do we teach boys and men that it is never ok to offer their thoughts and critique about female bodies?

I welcome any constructive thoughts.

 

Body shaming 101

I was 12 and so was he.

I was a scrawny, scrappy, happy, athletic kid.

My body was strong and it felt powerful when I ran or swam or played. I was not at all self-conscious about it.

Puberty was on the horizon, but not yet a reality.

I was at my friend's lake cabin for the week and we - along with a bunch of other kids our age - were piled into sleeping bags in the main living area to sleep each night. 

It was summer and the evenings were warm.

One night I woke up sweaty so I slipped off my long-sleeved shirt to change into a tank top.  Everyone else was asleep. I didn't think anyone saw me make this quick change.

I was wrong.

The next morning we were all gathered around the kitchen table eating pancakes. We were laughing and enjoying the morning and the fact that another summer day stretched out long in front of us.

Suddenly, my world shifted forever.

One of the boys with us - the one I had a crush on - said:

"Pancakes are the perfect breakfast for you, Alice."

I bet you really like PANCAKES.

I think from now on, that will be your nickname - I will just call you 'pancake.'"

All the other boys snickered at this, laughing at me, sharing an inside joke.

The room grew silent.

My face grew hot. My stomach dropped. The pancake I was previously enjoying turned to gravel in my mouth. I felt tears well up. 

I now know that what I was feeling was a deep, deep level of shame I had never experienced before.

I learned some of the cruelest lessons of girlhood that day:

My body was an object for boys to criticize publicly.

My body was available for public comment.

My body, formerly a source of childlike joy, could be a source of shame and embarrassment.

This prepubescent boy thought it was ok, funny even, to announce that he had seen my equally prepubescent body when I changed my shirt the night before. 

And he pronounced my body lacking.

Not up to his standards.

Worthy of a good laugh in front of my peers.

Pancake was my nickname the rest of my time at the lake.

I was 12.

I will never forget the shame of that day.

Next, I will write about how this experience influenced how I parented my two daughters.