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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You Can’t Fight Racism with Sexism: A Response to Adam Mansbach

Versions of this blog originally appeared on The Good Men Project and Ma’yan, July, 2015

Dear Adam,

I appreciated reading your recent article in Salon, because I too am a justice-loving Jewish white person working to fight racism.

But I’m also totally bumming about what you wrote. I mean, I think you know you come off sounding like an asshole. To quote you explaining a fight with your girlfriend: “Eventually I felt good enough about where we’d gotten…to go upstairs and sleep with her.” I am down with writers exposing their full humanity. But you know that’s not cute.

An extra helping of discussing sexism would pair nicely with your on-point knowledge of racial dynamics. In fact, they have to go together. Your failure to acknowledge male privilege undermines the question that the title of your article elicits: how do we convince other white people that racism is real?

Based on your article, I’m unconvinced that you actually liked Jessie. Maybe she just wasn’t your type, or maybe a sexist society got you all confused about who you are supposed to like. Baring your real self is admirable, but because so many men regularly showboat their sexual abuse of women in the media, your confessions are nothing really that new or liberatory, unless coupled with an understanding of sexism and male domination. Your conversations with Jessie could have been a whole lot more productive if you’d also brought up sexism and admitted to all the complexity.

I feel sad that Jessie’s exposure to anti-racism was through such misogyny. I’m with you: racism is destroying lives and we have to get everyone on board with ending it. Right now. You ask what it will take? It will take recognizing that you can’t teach someone about oppression while exposing them to other kinds. That’s why the term intersectionality continues to be relevant—if we are not aware of other kinds of privilege, power and oppression as we do anti-racist work, we won’t be affective in bringing in more allies.

If women got a published article every time we radicalized someone via dating, we’d all be fucking famous by now. Almost every guy I have dated has become more radical, more feminist, and clearer about racism by being in a relationship with me. And most political women I know are in the same damn boat. My straight female friends often feel frustrated looking for a male partner who is both kind and loving and also understands systemic oppression. It’s a tall order. Many have opted for “kind and loving” with the hope that radicalization comes later. Sometimes it does. And then eventually these men get more credit for their work in the movement than we do because they are seen as a novelty. And because of, you know, sexism.

I’m sure there was at least one woman who brought you in, who helped you through the initial stages of unlearning racism and becoming an anti-racist activist.  I would love to see her get credit. Was it a girlfriend? A friend? A teacher? Your mother?

Maybe the next time you find yourself dating a Jessie, or wondering how you can talk about racism with white people, you can remember the women who have supported you through your political mistrials, and then come to the relationship and the task of anti-racist education from a place of love.

Honestly, it sounded like you cared more about looking cool and anti-racist in front of your friends than actually getting someone else to join in the fight (or having a nice, caring relationship with another human). And you back this point up at the end, by saying that you’re not interested in the “go work in your own communities” approach.

I know you have done work with white people in the past, and you hint that you’re done with it: “I wasn’t interested in chopping it up with any hunkered-down white racists, that I’d had my fill of that ten years earlier when I published Angry Black White Boy.” It’s okay to take a break from doing the professional work of educating fellow white people about racism. Everyone gets to take care of themselves. But you can’t take a break from doing the work on a personal level. Because no matter how finely you have tuned your social circles, there will always be the Jessies. And to try to avoid them completely will not only render you ineffective, but will also make your life smaller.

We all have to do anti-oppression work from a place of loving our own people. And sometimes that will feel hard and terrible, but that doesn’t mean we don’t keep going. Because when we do it with love, we are that much more effective at explaining why ending racism matters so much to us, and why we need more help.

Sincerely,

Talia

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

The Un-Discussed Ism in the Miley Cyrus Scandal

Miley Cyrus has been making me sick. Her performance at the VMAs and her video of “We Won’t Stop” were both filled to the brim with racism, cultural appropriation, misogyny, and general unappealing weirdness.

Even so, I posted on Facebook my discomfort with the woman-hating that ensued. Miley’s performance was offensive, upsetting and nauseating, but she doesn’t deserve to have her butt compared to the backend of a turkey, or to have all kinds of slut comments thrown at her (especially when Robin Thicke didn’t appear to take much heat for his creepy rapey-ness).

Yes, Miley is an individual, and she has agency and a voice (and a fairly good one at that). She could stand up, take charge and refuse to propagate this bullshit. Instead she perpetuates it by saying she wants a “black” sound, using black women’s bodies and sexuality to promote her own coolness while never having to learn anything about black culture, history and oppression.

She could take a stand.  I hope one day she does.

But Miley is also being produced, marketed, engineered, managed and generally controlled by a whole lot of older people who are out to make a buck, and will encourage any wild antics if they seem like money makers.

If Miley says she wants to twerk, my guess is it gets run by a whole bunch of older men who eventually come to the consensus: yes, Miley twerking= profit.

This is sexism, capitalism and a whole lot of yuck in one seemingly small interaction.

But there is one other ism wrapped up in this that no one is talking about.

Adultism.

In my organization- Jewish Youth for Community Action (JYCA)- we talk about Adultism as the oppression of young people by older people. It is different from ageism (which is oppression based on age, and also targets the elderly).

Adultism is the way that young people get oppressed by adults and society because they are young. Adultism is adults who won’t think twice about screaming at children and teenagers to shut up and behave but would never speak to their peers that way. Adultism is stores that put up signs “limit 3 teenagers at one time” and no one calls the ACLU. Adultism is youth getting sent off to die in wars at the age of 18, but are not trusted to drink responsibly. Adultism is the way youth in most school systems get zero say in their education. Adultism is the way young black men get stopped, frisked, beaten, killed by cops on the street all the time.

Adultism doesn’t stand alone. It intertwines with racism, sexism, homophobia, able-ism, militarism and much more. It’s also important to say, as we do in JYCA, that the opposite of adultism isn’t treating youth like adults, but rather Youth Empowerment: helping youth see themselves as powerful agents of change. Just in the way the opposite of sexism isn’t “treating women like men,” but rather building rights and power for people of all genders. So too, youth empowerment and anti-adultism is about meeting youth where they are at and supporting their process. In fact, it would be adultist to try to treat youth like adults, rather than their actual age.

Back to Miley. And to me.

Miley, daughter of Billy Ray Cyrus, famous country music star.

My parents aren’t famous on a Cyrus level, but they are both well known in some Jewish communities. I’ve spent much of my life with the name “David & Linda’s Daughter.” I dreamt of making a name for myself (of being Entirely Talia). I love my parents, and sometimes being their daughter gains me access to people and places that have given me enormous privilege. But the adultism of not being treated like my own person is hard. And I can’t imagine what it must be like for kids of big time celebrities.

At age 11 Miley became famous in her own right: a Disney Channel star, an immediate success with her role as Hannah Montana, a character trying to be a normal kid while leading a secret life as a pop star. Like all Disney stars she is sweet, funny, innocent, perky, pretty…

Miley is not the first Disney star to progress from lovely princess to sex-pop icon. Most notably, Brittany Spears went from Disney Mousketeer, to innocent schoolgirl seductress, to full-out sex kitten, to mental breakdown and back again. Christina Aguilera also ditched her Disney innocence for her “grown-up” image. It looks like Selena Gomez is right on track. Heck, even Justin Timberlake was eager to show off his sexuality post-Disney days.

So what’s going on? Is there some Disney conspiracy to create future sex icons?

Perhaps.

But I think this is also how oppression and adultism works.

These young folks with talent are taken from their lives, offered promises of fame, money, popularity, and then forced to promulgate a specific image of youth (that has nothing to do with their actual lives): a sugary image which then gets spoon-fed to the rest of the nation’s young people who will gladly take a break from their own lives filled with adultism, sexism, racism, poverty, boredom and whatever else. In these adult created Disney representations of young life, kids experience snafus, embarrassment, fights with friends or parents…. But they are well taken care of, well resourced, with a perfect rainbow of friends who never have to confront racism in multiracial friendships. They have crushes, but they don’t have sexualities.

So I admit it. I watched a few episodes of Hannah Montana when it came out. I watched because I was taken with her singing. She was this very young girl, and yet her voice was so mature. In fact at some moments, she almost sounded like an adult. Hmm. As if that’s what it takes for young people to get an adult’s attention. To sound like an adult. To act like an adult. To look like an adult.

Given Brittany, Justin, Christina and everyone else- I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised what happened.

In 2009 Miley came out with “Party in the USA” and was bombarded with accusations of stripper-ness. Disney refused to comment. Then- you know the rest, with her new “black sound” and scandalous performance. And now women are accusing her of being slutty, of not being a good role model. Youth are not supposed to talk about sex, even as they (and all of us) are being bombarded with it thousands of times a day.

These young Disney girls get set up to be fantasies. Whether they are the fantasies of young people wanting a better, easier life, or the sexual fantasies of older men with some healing to do, or even the fantasies of adults such as me, intrigued by something adult-like within them. Is it any wonder they rebel, partially by running in the other direction (“I’m not that innocent!”) but also straight in the direction they have always been pointed: deeper into fantasy land, taking the hidden sexual fantasy element of their stardom and making it fully public?

The oppressive cycles of adultism, sexism and capitalism continues.

I wonder what would happen if we could get Brittany Spears and Miley Cyrus to one of JYCA’s Youth Empowerment and Adultism workshop. If we could teach them about how Adultism is the first oppression that everyone experiences and how it conditions us to accept all other oppressions and eventually perpetuate them ourselves? If we gave them space to remember what it was like for them when they were young, all the ways adults controlled them and took away their voice even as they belted it out. Would they then go out to all the other young stars and say, “Hey, it’s okay. Oppression is real. I know. What’s it been like for you? What do you really want for yourself? For the world?” Maybe we could start an army of pop princesses, marching hand in hand right to the studio execs, to the 1%, to anyone who will listen and demand an end to adultism, to racism, to sexism, to the perpetuation of oppression.

By the way, if you’re a high-school aged youth in the Bay Area and want to talk about this stuff more, come to JYCA’s “Adultism and Youth Empowerment Workshop.” Sunday September 15th, 2013 at noon in Berkeley. Email Talia@JYCA-Justice.org to RSVP or for more info. (Open to all high-school aged youth)

For more info on JYCA and Adultism, you can visit our website, and follow us on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Tumblr.  Contact Info@JYCA-Justice.org if you are interested in bringing the Adultism and Youth Empowerment workshops to your organization, workplace, circle of friends etc… (for groups of all ages).

If you want to hear my music (not my parents!), check out my Facebook, Reverbnation, YouTube, Twitter and WordPress.

And for more information on Adultism, also check out Paul Kivel’s website for lots of great resources.

A Visible Jew (segmented)

The following post is a segment from a longer piece I wrote. The full version can be found here.

The morning of Sukkot, the 8 day Jewish fall harvest festival, my co-worker at JYCA and I set up a sukkah—an open, temporary shelter—at Occupy Oakland. We figured we’d put it out of the way, in a corner of the plaza. Several hours later we returned with friends and community members to finish decorating and to share a Sukkot meal. The following is the dialogue that ensued between us, the sukkah decorators, and other occupiers. I’ll use conversational quotes for what was actually said, and italics for what I thought of saying, but refrained from.

Person from Child Care Committee: “Hey, so we just had a meeting and we felt like it would actually be safest if the child care tent is where your tent is located. So we’d like to ask you to move.” My co-sukkah-decorators start to tense up.

Me: “Of course, we’d be happy to move, can we just change places?” Yes! An opportunity to prove that Jews can share land! Great!

We un-stake our sukkah, pull out the carpets, and—like a wedding chuppah—pick it up and move it over. Re-stake, re –put in the carpets, re-hang disheveled decorations.

Person from Crisis Tent Committee: “Hey so we just had a meeting, and it seems that someone told us that we could have the spot you’re in.”

Me: “Okay” umm…Someone? England?!

Same Person from Crisis Tent Committee: “Yeah, so we’d like to ask you to move. It looks like you just moved here and we hate to ask you to move again, but I think we need that spot so we can be near first aid. I’m not sure where exactly you can go, but I’m sure there is somewhere.”

Me: “That makes sense.” Somewhere? Like….Uganda?!

Crisis Tent: “Yeah. So, I don’t really know where.”

Me: “Well could we go there?” I gesture close by.

Crisis Tent: “I’m not really sure if that will work, we’d like to keep our options open for where we can go and where other tents can set up. But you look pretty mobile, maybe you could go one place and just be willing to keep moving?”

Oy. We ain’t doing this for 40 years, I can tell you that much.

Co-Sukkah decorator: “Well, I mean, we’d sort of like to settle somewhere.”

Oy. “Settle.” We didn’t mean it like that!

Me (determined): “Well I’m sure we can work together on this and find a place for everyone.”

And in the end we do. We pick up, re-shuffle, move about and wind up with a spot ring-side to the general assembly. All I can do is laugh.

I wish I could say that was the end of it. Spending a lot of time sitting in a Sukkah makes me very visibly Jewish. Visible in a lefty movement that has stood actively against homophobia, transphobia, ableism, racism, sexism and more…. But has not yet claimed anti-semitism either consciously (for not wanting to go anywhere near the “I” word…Israel) or unconsciously (for not having Jews or the oppression of Jews on their radar).  I have spent a lot of time sitting in my Occupy Sukkah, being as inviting as I can possibly muster, to prove Jews belong in this movement. This has meant some of the following things to people at Occupy Oakland:

– that I must immediately want to talk about Israel/Palestine

– that I should be careful not to attract the “AIPAC-type-Jews”

– that I am the exception among Jews as a radical

– that I am hitting on them (the passerby) and want to sleep with them and they should therefore hit on me

– that I am risking taking away from the movement by bringing my Jewish Stuff

– that I am doing a really great thing by both bringing Jews together and creating a peaceful space in the Occupy movement for all to come rest (in the only open tent on site)

As the last one suggests, there has been a lot of beautiful moments. Many people have thanked me for creating the sukkah, for sleeping in it, for being so welcoming to all. I have made many new friends by inviting strangers into the Sukkah. And it’s been hard too. The combination of wanting so badly to help Jews be seen as good and important to the movement, while simultaneously needing to not seem too welcoming so that men get the wrong idea… is exhausting. And it’s a familiar combination of anti-semitism and sexism I have experienced in my life. It has become clear to me that this must be when you call on your allies for support. And fortunately, there are many allies in this movement. And though I think many Jews could site individual incidents of anti-semitism, as a whole, this movement has not gone in that direction. This is quite a victory given that oppressive forces get set up to blame the Jews when things get hard.