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. 

 

Imagine the power

Imagine the power for good that could be released into this bruised and broken world

if women

stopped

obsessing about our bodies,

and focused all that energy, instead,

on

living big, wild, free, courageous lives.

Imagine the energy that could be harnessed for world-changing.

Imagine a world full of women unleashed, unhooked from body shame.

Imagine what we could do about hungry children.

About wars.

About oppression.

About inequity and racism.

About power imbalances.

About dirty politics.

About addiction and depression.

About rape and sexual assault.

About homelessness and heartache.

Imagine the power for good that we are wasting by

hating our bodies.

And trying to fix them, starve them, tone them, lift them, tighten them, lessen them.

What if we stopped?

Imagine the power ...

Love one enemy

So much hatred fills our world today.

It overwhelms me and leaves me feeling hopeless. 

It makes me ask myself:

What can I do in a world that feels so big, so out of control, so full of chaos and concerns?

Here is how I am trying to answer my own question.

The great writer and activist James Baldwin said:

“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense,

once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”

Once our hate is gone ...

we will be forced

to deal with our pain.

Truth.

Today, when I see hate or feel hate, I ask God to give me eyes to see the pain underneath that hate.

The rioters at our nation's capitol were filled with hate.

Rather than hate back - which I am deeply tempted to do - what if I asked myself:

What is the pain hiding underneath their hate?

And what if I also asked myself:

What is the pain hiding underneath my hate?

I have not known how to pray during the tumultuous days of this last week.

Words have failed me.

My thoughts are scattered, often ugly.

Fear rises; the unknown looms. I am tempted to label and to judge and to condemn, and yes, even to hate.

And so I have practiced simply sitting still,

asking God to give me eyes to see not only my own unattended pain, but the unattended pain of those who feel like enemies right now.

And I have asked for the grace - not to skim over wrongs or criminal acts - but to try to find a way to pick just one face out of the angry mob,

and to love them in the best way that I can.

Even from a distance. Even though I don't know their name. Even though we will never speak.

Because I believe that love is power.

And that using the power of love to intend good for our enemies, rather than evil, is the very pinnacle of love.

Jesus demonstrated this.

Jesus calls me to this.

So, this is where I will start.

I will love one enemy. I will try to look beneath the hate to find the pain.

Will you join me?

 

We have lost our way

I have been writing about self-compassion in this new year and I will continue to do so.

But not today.

Today I am compelled, after the events of this past week, to stop and acknowledge our current reality.

We have lost our way.

We have turned on each other.

We have turned on ourselves.

And those who claim to follow Jesus - in ways large and small - have turned on Jesus.

Jesus is not about rage.

Jesus is not about hatred or fomenting hatred, in any form.

Jesus is not about violence or threats of violence.

Jesus is not about lies.

Jesus is not about destruction or desecration or diabolocal plans to harm others.

Jesus is neither Republican nor Democrat.

Jesus is not "with" one political party or another.

The church is not to be aligned with any political party. And when the church forgets that the church loses her way.

Jesus is about peace.

Jesus is about love. And most pointedly, love for enemies.

Jesus is about truth and reality and honesty.

Jesus is about justice and integrity.

Jesus is about resurrection and reconstruction and human flourishing.

Jesus is about the orphan, the fatherless, the widow and the stranger.

Jesus is about God's good kingdom -

A kingdom defined by what the apostle Paul called the fruit of the Spirit:

Love

Joy

Peace

Patience

Kindness

Goodness

Self-control.

These are the marks we watch for as signs of God's presence and power. There are no other marks.

Some of my dearest friends have declared this weekend a weekend of kindness.

Because they feel so powerless against the negative forces that are wreaking havoc at the governmental level they are taking the most powerful counter-action they know to take.

Acts of pure kindness carried out with deep love and intention.

The great subversive power of love, kindness and mercy cannot be stopped.

We have lost our way, this is true.

The One many called "the way" can lead us back.

But only if we follow him ... and live in his ways.

Amen.

 

What my enemy steals from me ...

Some truth for these days:

"The moment I have defined another being as my enemy, I lose part of myself, the complexity and subtlety of my vision.

I begin to exist in a closed system.

When anything goes wrong, I blame my enemy.

If I wake troubled, my enemy had led me to this feeling.

If I cannot sleep, it is because of my enemy.

Slowly all the power in my life begins to be located outside.

And my whole being is defined in relation to this outside force, which becomes daily more monstrous, more evil, more laden with all the qualities in myself I no longer wish to own.

The quality of my thought then is diminished.

My imagination grows small.

My self seems meager.

For my enemy has stolen all of these."

(Susan Griffin, b. 1943)

Let's try these beautiful responses

If you read my post yesterday, you know I cited a list of things we should stop saying to struggling friends or acquaintances.

This list was composed by Kate Bowler and can be found in the back of the incredible memoir about her life with Stage IV colon cancer. The book is called Everything Happens for a Reason ... and other lies I've loved.

As promised, here is her suggested list of things to say to those who are hurting.

She calls it - Give this a go, See how it works: A Short List

1. "I'd love to bring you a meal this week. Can I email you about it?"

Oh, thank goodness. I am starving, but mostly I can never figure out something to tell people that I need, even if I need it. But really, bring me anything. Chocolate. A potted plant. A set of weird erasers. I remember the first gift I got that wasn't about cancer and I was so happy I cried. Send me funny emails filled with You-Tube clips to watch during chemotherapy. Do something that suits your gifts. But most important, bring me presents!

2. "You are a beautiful person."

Unless you are of the opposite gender and used to speaking in a creepy windowless-van kind of voice, comments like these go a long way. Everyone wants to know they are doing a good job without feeling like they are learning a lesson. So tell your friend something about his life that you admire without making it feel like a eulogy.

3. "I am so grateful to hear about how you're doing and just know that I'm on your team."

You mean I don't have to give you an update? You asked someone else for all the gory details? Whew! Great! Now I get to feel like you are both informed and concerned. So don't gild the lily. What you have said is amazing, so don't screw it up by being a Nosy Nellie. Ask a question about any other aspects of my life.

4. "Can I give you a hug?" *

Some of my best moments with people have come with a hug or a hand on the arm. People who are suffering often - not always - feel isolated and want to be touched. Hospitals and big institutions in general tend to treat people like cyborgs or throwaways. So ask if your friend feels up for a hug and give her some sugar. 

5. "Oh, my friend, that sounds so hard."

Perhaps the weirdest thing about having something awful happen is the fact that no one wants to hear about it. People tend to want to hear the summary but they usually don't want to hear it from you. And that it was awful. So simmer down and let them talk for a bit. Be willing to stare down the ugliness and sadness. Life is absurdly hard, and pretending it isn't is exhausting.

6. ******Silence******

The truth is that no one knows what to say. It's awkward. Pain is awkward. Tragedy is awkward. People's weird, suffering bodies are awkward. But take the advice of one man who wrote to me with his policy: Show up and shut up.

A FINAL PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT TO SUFFERING PEOPLE:

Just remember that if cancer or divorce or tragedies of all kinds won't kill you, people's good intentions will. Take the phrase "but they mean well ..." as your cue to run screaming from the room.

Or demand presents.

You deserve a break.

* Note from Alice -

No hugs during Covid, unless you are part of the quarantine pod of the struggling person!

One more note from Alice -

So many people are hurting right now.

People we know are suffering all kinds of tragedies, large and small.

The very last thing we should do with our words is add to their misery.

If you have to, keep this list close by. Refer to it before you get together with a hurting friend.

And if all else fails, try silence, a small gift, a hug and a smile.

Lord knows we could all use some serious kindess these days.

 

No more of these dumb statements, please

These days I am reading Kate Bowler's fantastic memoir called Everything Happens for A Reason ... and other lies I've loved.

Bowler has Stage IV colon cancer.

She is also a young mom, a brilliant professor, a wife, a follower of Jesus.

She cites, at the end of her book, a list entitled: "Absolutely Never Say This to People Experiencing Terrible Times."

I feel compelled to share.

Here is her short list, along with her commentary:

1. "Well, at least ..."

Whoa. Hold up there. Were you about to make a comparison? At least it's not ... what? Stage IV cancer? Don't minimize.

2. "In my long life, I've learned that ..."

Geez. Do you want a medal? I get it! You lived forever. Well, some people are worried that they won't, or that things are so hard that they won't want to. So ease up on the life lessons. Life is a privilege, not a reward.

3. "It's going to get better, I promise."

Well, fairy godmother, that's going to be a tough row to hoe when things go badly.

4. "God needed an angel."

This one takes the cake because (a) it makes God look sadistic and needy and (b) angels are, according to Christian tradition, created from scratch. Not dead people looking for a cameo in Ghost. You see how confusing it is when we pretend that the deceased return to help you find your car keys or make pottery?

5. "Everything happens for a reason."

The only thing worse than saying this is pretending that you know the reason. I've had hundreds of people tell me the reason for my cancer. Because of my sin. Because of my unfaithfulness. Because God is fair. Because God is unfair. Because of my aversion to Brussels sprouts. I mean, no one is short of reasons. So if people tell you this, make sure you are there when they go through the cruelest moments of their lives, and start offering your own. When someone is drowning, the only thing worse than failing to throw them a life preserver is handing them a reason.

6. "I've done some research and ..."

I thought I should listen to my oncologist and my nutritionist and my team of specialists, but it turns out that I should be listening to you! Yes, please, tell me more about the medical secrets that only one flaxseed provider in Orlando knows. Wait, let me get a pen.

7. "When my aunt had cancer ..."

My darling dear, I know you are trying to relate to me. Now you see me and you are reminded that terrible things have happened in the world. But guess what? That is where I live, in the valley of the shadow of death. But now I'm on vacation because I'm not in the hospital or dealing with my mess. Do I have to take my sunglasses off and join you in the saddest journey down memory lane, or do you mind if I finish my mojito?

8. "So how are treatments going? How are you really?"

This is the toughest one of all. I can hear you trying to understand my world and be on my side. But picture the worst thing that has ever happened to you? Got it? Now try to put it in a sentence. Now say it aloud fifty times a day. Does your head hurt? Do you feel sad? Me, too. So let's just see if I want to talk about it today because sometimes I do and sometimes I want a hug and a recap of American Ninja Warrior.

 

Do you love her as much as I do?

I highly recommend her book. It is incredible.

Stay tuned for her very short list of statements to try if you want to speak a word of hope and help to suffering friends.

Until then ... silence is a great option. Along with a hug or a home-cooked meal.