Your Feminist Guide to a Body-Positive Holidays

originally posted on Ma’yan’s blog on November 24, 2015
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If you’re a human living in the U.S., you’re probably starting to see a particular variety of advertisements, blogs & headlines at this time of year, all containing one basic message: “How to eat nothing and exercise constantly while you cook the most perfect feast so that this holiday season you can shrink down to a size zero and finally (FINALLY) be the powerful, loveable person you always thought you could be (and if you fail it’s your fault, you disgusting pig)!” Or….something like that anyway.

Sound familiar?

The holidays can be a confusing time for everyone, but especially for us feminist, self-loving, non-Christian, anti-capitalist type folks.

So here are ten tips to help you navigate body-positivity during this holiday season:

1. Remember that YOU are not the problem


Diet-culture is the problem. Diet culture will have you believe that anyone can be skinny if they try hard enough. Meanwhile capitalism will make you think you are never good enough and will encourage diet companies to sell sell sell, even though they know their products don’t work. Write yourself a note, make up a song or mantra, or do whatever you need to do to remember that nothing is wrong with you/your body.

 

2. Do a little research

Learn about how diets don’t work, how size-diversity is a real thing (and a good thing! Wouldn’t it be boring if everyone looked the same?!), and how our body type is at least somewhat predetermined and out of our control (see: set point weight theory). While you’re at it, check out some thinking about intuitive eating and how it’s okay to trust yourself. Then sit back and bask in the reality that your body is fine and awesome exactly as it is. You don’t need fixing.

 

3. Know your limit

 Know how much body, diet and exercise talk you can handle before you need to just get up and leave the room (or put sunglasses on and start humming “F*ck You” by Cee Lo Green). Know when you want to engage and when you want to change the subject. If you start feeling anxious, take a deep breath and ask yourself what you need. You can engage by using facts, such as: “Hey! Did you know that at least 90% of diets don’t work?” Or with humor, like if someone says, “Oh, maybe I’ll have a piece of pumpkin pie….I’m so bad!” You can respond, “I didn’t realize our virtue was now based in our consumption of squash-based treats.”  Or you can change the subject with a quick, “Water on Mars, eh?” Or, “So what do you think we can do today towards ending white supremacy?”

 

4. Remember that health and eating are not connected to morality


Do you know about the Christian hegemonic roots of our diet culture?! It’s weird stuff. First of all, what is Christian hegemony? Besides being an excellent topic of dinner conversation, Christian hegemony is the system that privileges Christians and Christianity, and labels all other religions and peoples as not-the-norm, weird, exotic. For more on Christian hegemony, read Paul Kivel’s excellent book on the subject.

But back to our story on the origins of diet culture: Reverend Graham and Doctor Kellogg could be called the first “clean eating” fanatics. Yup, the inventors of the graham crackers and corn flakes. Except back then they may as well have been called “Taste-Free Crackers & Flakes.” Why? Because Reverend Graham believed that food should be purely for fuel, and sex should be purely for reproduction. He believed eating bad foods led to bad things like masturbation. Any enjoyment of either act clearly showed a lack of morals. And it sort of makes sense why he thought this: if Christians believe that the body is the source of sin and is the vehicle through which humans are tempted by the devil, then it follows as true that only through abstinence from all temptation can one be pure. So Reverend Graham thought he was on a Christian mission from God to save humanity with his Blandy McBland diet, which would encourage self-discipline.

A lot of people thought those guys were extreme crocks, but the concept of food being connected to morality remains: we judge people as good when they eat salad and yogurt and chia seeds, and bad when they eat donuts and burgers. We turn this inward on ourselves too. And we don’t have to. Instead we can adopt the belief that we are just inherently good, that we never need to be perfectionisty about anything, and that health and eating are not connected to morality.

 

5. A few more suggested dinner conversations

With your tablemates, discuss how crappy it is that racist, sexist, European, white beauty standards have dictated that the ultimate female look is thin, white, fair, weak. Talk about how awesome it is to resist this by loving every inch of ourselves and refusing to assimilate. While you’re at it, might as well mention that thanksgiving is originally a racist, Christian hegemonic holiday in and of itself… (see video example).

 

6. Decide to trust and adore yourself


Eat the food you want to eat, wear the clothes you want to wear, move when you want to move. Don’t count calories. Don’t obsess. Don’t follow rules.  Don’t swear you’ll go on a cleanse when this is all over, as that will make you more food-crazed in the meantime.Trust that your body knows what it wants and knows how to take care of itself. Don’t punish yourself. If you eat a lot of food and feel really full say, “Wow that was really good! Now I’m going to lie around and rub my belly until it feels all better.” Would you punish a child for getting too full? (I HOPE you would NOT!) So don’t blame or shame yourself either.  And if you read this and feel like you’re already “messing up,” don’t use this blog as another way to feel bad. Every minute is another opportunity to show yourself some love.

 

7. Think about what all babies inherently know how to do 

Babies know how to eat when they want to and stop when they want to. It’s not your fault that society taught you to unlearn these skills via self-hate, but trust that you can re-learn what is an innate and inherent skill: how to listen to your body.

 

8. Start following a bunch of body-positive bloggers

Un-follow anyone who makes you doubt your inherent awesomeness. Fill up your social media feeds with people who love themselves. A few good places to start are Virgie Tovar,Everyday Feminism, The Body is Not an Apology, Isabel Foxen Duke, Fattitude andRachel Marcus (many of whom were the inspiration for this blog post). Or just quit social media for a while.

 

9. For an all ages activity, watch Ma’yan’s film

Last year’s interns co-produced Pretty Sexy Sassy, a film about the media’s impact on girls. Watch, discuss, and come up with a family action you could take together (ie writing letters to a company asking them to stop promoting unrealistic and harmful beauty standards).

 

10. Find buddies you can talk to

Find the kind of buddies who are all about the love, not the kind who will give you the side-eye for a second helping.  

You got this! And let me know if you need any extra support.

 

Talia Cooper is the program director at Ma’yan in Manhattan, where she leads anti-oppression workshops for educators, parents, and high-schoolers. Contacttalia@mayan.org for more information on writings and trainings. She can also be found playing music on Facebook and YouTube.

More on Kellogg & Graham:

http://knowledgenuts.com/2014/03/24/the-creepy-origins-of-graham-crackers-and-corn-flakes/

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/01/looking-to-quell-sexual-urges-consider-the-graham-cracker/282769/

Posted in Feminism, Power, Oppression & Privilege

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Letter to my Teen Self

The usual genre of this list is “Advice I’d like to give my teen self” or “15 things I wish I knew when I was younger.” But we’re changing the assumption that our teen selves weren’t already strong and cool. In fact, we think they maybe even knew more about some things than we do now. Here is our three part series, Letters to my Teen Self, imagining a back and forth exchange between our past and present selves. 

To: 15 year old Talia, Oakland, CA

From: 29 year old Talia, Brooklyn, NY
1. You are not naïve for believing in a better world. The adults who say so are confused. I try to learn from your commitment to justice every day.

2. High School is the real world. The friends you make are real, the emotions you have are real, the beliefs you fight for are real, the legs that carry you are real. The purpose of childhood is not solely to prep you for the real world because you are already in it. I know adults say scary things like “You think this is hard, just wait ‘til you’re older!” But they’re just having their own feelings. It’s true, life changes, and change is hard sometimes. But I’m now realizing that you actually work harder than I currently do. The greater task is to learn to stop working, to draw boundaries, to be flexible when appropriate and take care of yourself.

3. You don’t have to please everyone all the time. It’s okay to turn homework in late sometimes, it’s fine if someone doesn’t adore you. For a young Jewish girl, getting people to like you can feel like a matter of survival. But this is misinformation. Getting sleep matters more than straight A’s. Prioritizing the A above all else starts to make you believe your own body is second to (someone else’s definition of) success. You don’t have to believe it.

4. You are not alone. You never have to suffer alone. You can build a whole crew to call on whenever things get hard. You can cry your eyes out and then laugh ‘til your sides split. You can be pissed off and tell people about it. You don’t have to look nice or happy all the time. You can say “Help!” and expect people to come running. You can say “I’m scared!” and expect an embrace. You can say “I’m so proud!” and expect a huge celebration.

5. Things are less scary than you were taught. The adults around you love you and don’t want bad things to happen to you. They may have exaggerated some of the dangers around you, or forgotten to present them with a rational perspective. They said things like, “never talk to strangers” when what they meant was, “I really care about you.” It was the best they could do. There’s a lot of ick, but there’s also a whole lot of good people wanting good things for you. You’re smart enough to suss out what’s safe and what’s not. Trust your gut.

6. I can’t thank you enough for the friendships you are forming. They continue to save my life again and again. I so appreciate how you make time for your friends everyday. I am trying to be more like you.

7. I am re-learning to meet people different from me, like you used to do when you were little.  It used to be easier to make friends with kids who were from different backgrounds. It’s gotten harder. It’s not our fault. Systems of oppression, like racism and classism, are designed to keep people apart. Let’s refuse to collude. Let’s go after friends of all kinds, learn how to be each other’s best allies and how to hold on.

8. You’re a damn good listener, and that’s a powerful tool. But here’s the secret: you don’t actually have to listen to everyone. It’s not your job as a female.

9. Your body is awesome. It will fluctuate in shape and size and that’s just what it is.

10. Don’t worry so much about eating health food. Try to just listen to your body and eat things that taste delicious. The rest will fall into place.

11. You might never stop questioning your sexuality. It’s not a question you are ever obligated to answer.

12. Being messy or disorganized means nothing bad about you. You’re good. End of story.

13. I love that you write poetry and stories whenever you want to.

14. Whatever happens dude, you’ll figure it out.

15. And again- thanks for all you’ve taught me.

For more “Letters to my Teen Self” see here.

Why I’m happy about last week’s U.S vs. Belgium soccer match

No, it’s not because I’m a closeted Belgium fan, or particularly anti-American. Truth be told, I’m not that into soccer, or sports for that matter.

But I do like people.

So on Tuesday I joined my boyfriend, a buddy, and 50 others at a tavern for the last 15 minutes of the game. Belgium had just scored, and then scored again. It was not looking good for the U.S.

Most people in the bar were watching the screens on the west end of the room. The three of us were positioned under those screens so instead watching the TVs on the other side of the bar. This meant I also got to observe everyone’s faces as they stared just above our heads. I watched their eyes moan, light up, wriggle, rise and fall. When the U.S scored a goal, they erupted with more joy than I can remember seeing in a long time. Friends and strangers high-fived. Our elation built off each other and matched that of the players on screen.

Alas, with just 2 minutes left in the game, Belgium was still ahead. I felt pretty sure we could slip out the bar, get some dinner and not miss much. Shoulders drooped, eyebrows raised, knuckles clenched. Each attempt at a goal brought only momentary excitement.

And then.

“I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win!” The refrain started, and almost immediately filled the bar. “I believe that we will win” with clapping and pounding. Being musically inclined, the rhythm caught me up and my words fell in sync. I watched bodies chant, eyes glued overhead. A distantly familiar feeling.

The last time I felt this was the night of Obama’s first election as we screamed “Yes We Can” and later “Yes We Did” and we danced in the streets of Oakland, high-fived and hugged everyone around us. That night we celebrated so much more than one man’s election. We celebrated all of us having made it where we were, that all of us did and all of us can.

Later, we wound up disappointed. We knew we would be. And we were disappointed on Tuesday night too when the U.S lost the soccer match.

But I was happy. I was reminded that we have a huge potential for hope. You wouldn’t often think it from talking to us humans. Many of us have already given in to the inevitability of climate change and environmental degradation, we’ve accepted that oppression runs the day and that isms like racism and sexism just are what they are. Even individually it seems many of us have decided our lives have already hit the peak, and there’s nowhere else to go.

But Tuesday night I saw the truth: we actually want to hope. Even with just a minute left of the game we were already losing, we wanted to band together, we wanted to clench fists, we wanted to chant and stomp, to sweat and grumble, to throw our arms around a stranger, and hope hope hope.

After Tuesday night it doesn’t matter that we lost. I believe that we will win.