Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Five Books That Call Bullshit on Diet Culture

I'm finishing up our February book club picks and putting the final touches on the books for March, but in the meantime, I wanted to share one of my favorite pieces of writing about feminism and diet culture. I have shared the link to it's home over at Book Riot a few times, but I wanted to have it here for posterity. 
This piece was originally posted on Book Riot on September 19th, 2016.
In 2016, I learned that I was fat. I’ve been fat my whole life, off and on, and even when I was smaller (obediently shrinking, absorbing compliments left and right, hearing comments about how gross I used to be) the word “fat” was rarely used. Not even the meanest people will actually call you fat. They might ask you if you like donuts, imply that your furniture is on the verge of breaking, or congratulate you for ordering a salad, but people rarely say “fat.” I think that’s why claiming the word, typing it and having it come flying out of my mouth, feels so damn good. This word is a descriptor, one that applies to my fabulous self, and if you were going to try and search for condescending terms to discuss this situation with me (overweight, larger, curvy, hefty) I’ve trumped you. I’m fat. I like it.
I was not always so proud. I have been searching for, about to start, or struggling with a diet for my entire life. I have tried Weight Watchers, Atkins, 21 Day Fix, low carb, no carb, simply eating significantly less food, eating all organic, eating only berry cereal, not eating after 9pm (then 7pm), drinking lemon water, drinking salt water, taking laxatives, taking vitamins, counting calories on seven different apps. I have stood in front of diet-approved workout DVDS, listening to an angular woman chirping to me that I am finally going to look good in my bathing suit this year! The fat woman modifying the exercises to her right looks as weary as I feel. “Don’t tell me what looks good,” I whisper under my breath. “I’m trying to stay alive.”
Because that is the new vicious lie that has developed since I started dieting as a girl. No longer is fat simply unsightly, a barrier that keeps you from a happy life trailing scarves behind you on the beach. Now it is insidious. It is trying to KILL YOU. You are, at all overweight times, MOMENTS FROM DEATH! You’re going to DIE! It will choke you, stop your heart, poison your blood, slow your breath until you fall over. Cause of death? Fat. Lazy, stupid, idiotic fat accumulating on your lazy, stupid, idiotic body. You’re not smart enough, strong enough, dedicated enough to follow the SIMPLE STEPS to keep the fat off your body. You’re going to die, and you deserve it. Bullshit.

Diet culture is the perpetuation of this lie. Diet culture is gushing “Oh, I’m going to be bad!” before biting into piece of cake or a donut or a Hershey’s kiss. Diet culture is feeling virtuous when you order a salad. Diet culture is your Facebook feed full of people selling you shakes and workouts and wraps to help you drop the pounds. Diet culture is the pervasive chatter about the morality, quality, and quantity of any food eaten in any order during the lunch hour in any building that employs women. Diet culture is the cashier at Dunkin Donuts proclaiming “good girl!” when I order a bagel with no cream cheese (for my husband). Diet culture is a male supervisor complimenting a mostly female staff on the lovely potluck breakfast they brought to celebrate their hard work, then commenting that the weather should be nice enough over the weekend to get out there and burn off all those calories. Diet culture is so pervasive that you might be shrugging right now, thinking none of these examples are really that bad. Diet culture is something I have had to identify, face, and choose to ignore in order to live my best life. Diet culture is something I actively navigate everyday that I live on this Earth as a proud, happy, fat woman.
How did I get here, calling myself a fat woman, proudly brandishing a word that used to represent my worst nightmare? Why I am finally okay with the one aspect of myself I have actively tried to “fix” for my entire life? Oh, you know, books. Badass, life changing, body positive books. The internet is a terrible and beautiful place, but I will be forever grateful because it was my window to the body positive movement. I found bloggers writing powerful manifestos and gentle truths. I don’t have to be skinny to be happy? I don’t have to be ashamed of myself? It took me almost a year of immersion before I was ready to call myself fat, and thanks to these amazing books, I’m never going back.
There are thirty-one essays, one for every day of the month. If you’re just beginning to dip your toe into body positive literature, these bite-sized pieces are great on length, but pull no punches in the power department. You’ll want to read each one, written by a different voice and highlighting a different experience, with enough time to process the fists-raised message. Hot and Heavy features stories about porn, cancer, car crashes, pecan pie, masturbation, speed dating, fashion, burlesque, a place called the Cook Islands (which we all need to visit immediately) and much more.  The works are broken up into three sections, titled Life, Love, and Fashion, but I found a theme of childhood memories (almost impossible to avoid when talking about being a fat person in our society) and sexual positivity (never easy to find in our sex-shaming society) prevalent through most of the essays. This book is a font of empowerment and an introduction to so many strong voices that advocate for pleasure and confidence. It is diet culture’s antithesis, and you need it in your hands.

This was my very first introduction to fat girl literature. I had followed Baker’s online presence for a few years (her blog, The Militant Baker, is a don’t-miss) and was so excited to read her book. I love to take pictures of what I’m reading for Instagram and Listy, but I hesitated with this cover- I was still getting used to flaunting the F word. I posted a picture of it…then started reading it in public. After a few empowering chapters, I was reading this on the elliptical at the gym, head held high. Baker covers a ton of important topics, but her statistic-filled chapter breaking down the mechanics of the diet industry was the most important thing I took away.  It should be obvious that an industry that can only exist if we are unhappy with how we look will have a vested interest in keeping us unhappy with how we look, but Baker explains the patronizing way that diets and the companies that profit from their use perpetuate self-loathing and then reach out, calling themselves the solution to our low self-worth. Baker specifically calls out diet culture for the bullshit it is.

You Dont Have To Like Me Alida NugentYou Don’t Have To Like Me by Alida Nugent
This series of essays is about Nugent’s embracing of feminism, and guess what? You can’t discuss feminism without touching on the screwed up social messages that women receive about their bodies. I strongly related to the essay about claiming a “one of the guys” persona and perpetuating sexism in order to feel accepted- that’s definitely a place I’ve been in the past, and reading about someone else in that position was heady relief. But her chapter about her struggle with bulimia and the myriad of issues that caused her body so much damage was also a powerful punch. Few women have avoided a struggle with some form of disordered eating, and hearing other women speak about this is kind of like becoming an adult and realizing that every woman you know has faced sexual harassment. Nugent calls bullshit on perfection, on traditional standards of beauty, and on beating yourself up. It’s fierce and empowering.
I started loving Lindy West because of her writing on Jezebel (her piece about Love Actually actually made me pee myself) and her amazing work on This American Life. I knew Shrill was about feminism and body positivity, and I knew that West was funny, but I didn’t realize the combination would make me throw up praise hands so many times while reading. Shrill expertly covers topics such as dating while fat, being a woman in comedy, defending yourself against shamers- things you might expect. I found it more interesting when the chapters delved into less-heralded topics: disagreeing with/standing up to someone you like- her boss, Dan Savage- and her own need for acceptance of other fat bodies. West talks about her original shock at seeing larger bodies naked and celebrated, and how she had to immerse herself in images of fat bodies to normalize them for herself. As a person who has received the sometimes screamed message to COVER UP AND CROP FROM THE NECK UP, this resonated with me. West fights diet culture by refusing to accept that her body has to look different before she develops a rewarding career and finds love. West fights diet culture by fighting back against trolls and never allowing herself to shrink in the face of bullying. She also laments about counting almonds in a way that me laughcry.
Dietland Sarai WalkerDietland by Sarai Walker
Dietland is the only work on fiction on this particular list (although I’ve celebrated fictional fat heroines in the past) because Dietland specifically spears diet culture directly in the jugular, with heavy swipes at rape culture and the porn industry in the process. Plum Kettle is not the slightly-plump almost-plus-sized heroine that often represents the struggle. She’s 300+ pounds, and she has been obediently trying to get smaller her entire life. The first few chapters illustrating the minutiae of her following the strictures of her diet were so difficult to read as a former crash dieter. Her discomfort on the street. Her future thin persona that is so real to her that she names it and buys it a wardrobe. Her complete confidence that nothing will derail her from her number one goal- to shrink. She will get thin or die trying. Transformations occur and they are DAMN empowering. This is a book for anyone who is sick of the trappings of being a woman in our patriarchal society. This book is about calling bullshit, and stomping on that bullshit with army boots laced over bright tights. Read it.
Am I missing anything? I’m hungry for more fat heroines, more books that skewer the diet-culture myth that people need to be slim before they can be happy. I need more books that call bullshit on this bullshit diet culture.

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Saturday, February 18, 2017

January Be Your Own Book Club Recap and February Book Reveal!

Hi beautiful readers. My life is full to bursting right now, but I have NOT forgotten about my favorite book club of all time! Let's recap January books:

BIG LITTLE LIES- Like most of my forays into adult contemporary fiction, this took me a little time to get into, and then I sped through the second half of the book in a single evening. I didn't LOVE the characters, but I really wanted to solve the mystery. I was properly shocked and thrilled by the reveal, and then I moved on. 

It took me a few days to sit with everything before I was ready to completely appreciate the genius of the development. These characters are presented like caricatures- rich and gorgeous, poor and plain, sassy and outspoken, humble and Zen, sharp and mean. I recognized it and kind of rolled my eyes. But as the story progresses, ESPECIALLY during the climax, different layers are teased out, and even the side characters who originally seemed designed to antagonize become relatable. It's really difficult to keep a book light and interesting and have that kind of depth without getting melodramatic, but I think Moriarty pulls it off.

YEAR OF YES- Oh. I just adore this book. I'm really curious how many of you listened to the audiobook as opposed to reading it, because hearing Shonda Rhimes narrate really upped the feeling of chatting with a super impressive friend. I spent many a night fixing dinner with tears rolling down my cheeks because I felt spoken to- hearing recordings of her speeches, especially, was such a powerful experience.

I was so nervous when she started the chapter about losing weight. I just wanted so damn badly to enjoy this book without having to sort through my feelings of rejecting diet culture and I did not think I could stomach hearing this firebrand of a woman explain that her life improved so much because she got smaller. No matter how much I love your memoir, I'm not sitting through that. My relief was that this chapter focused more on recognizing when you're using food/lack of activity was a barrier to stay numb. Her description of "veal practice" made me chuckle. Then she described a low point of using consistently chocolate chip cookies and Doctor Who episodes to keep herself from confronting feelings, and my first thought was "That sounds amazing." It was not framed to sound amazing, and it really made me think. Thinking about food as a crutch instead of as a morally good or bad thing was actually very positive for my own understanding of my personal relationship with food. I still love chocolate chip cookies and Doctor Who.

Overall, YEAR OF YES challenged me to take a hard look at my own life, and I knew it was right because I did not like it. There has been a long running joke in my family that I don't like to feel feelings- I'll write about a lot here, but especially where it comes to my interactions with my family, I'll put on a bright smile and refuse to face things that are upsetting me. (I also cannot handle Law & Order SVU or any of those manipulative commercials where an elderly person has friends for the holiday because of a card company or a supermarket.) My husband has been teasing/not teasing for years that this is a terrible way to live life and always ominously tells me that this pushing down cannot last forever. I texted him after finishing YEAR OF YES and said, "I think 2017 is the year I'm going to try to feel feelings." I really hate it so far, so it's probably super important.

I would love to know how you felt about the January picks. I've heard from a few friends that BIG LITTLE LIES was not their bag, and I love when people feel comfortable enough to share what they didn't like! 

I shared the February picks over on Facebook earlier, and I know it's a bit late in the month so there is zero pressure (that's actually the point of the club- zero pressure) to join up. Both of the books for February are adapted for film!

Fiction- Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

From Goodreads: "My disease is as rare as it is famous. Basically, I’m allergic to the world. I don’t leave my house, have not left my house in seventeen years. The only people I ever see are my mom and my nurse, Carla.

But then one day, a moving truck arrives next door. I look out my window, and I see him. He’s tall, lean and wearing all black—black T-shirt, black jeans, black sneakers, and a black knit cap that covers his hair completely. He catches me looking and stares at me. I stare right back. His name is Olly.

Maybe we can’t predict the future, but we can predict some things. For example, I am certainly going to fall in love with Olly. It’s almost certainly going to be a disaster.

EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING is currently being adapted into a film starring Amandla Stenberg, but I suggest looking up the trailer AFTER you read the book because there are serious spoilers. When the film releases, I'd love to do a Be Your Own Lady field trip!

From Goodreads: "Set against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South and the civil rights movement, the never-before-told true story of NASA’s African-American female mathematicians who played a crucial role in America’s space program—and whose contributions have been unheralded, until now.

Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of professionals worked as “Human Computers,” calculating the flight paths that would enable these historic achievements. Among these were a coterie of bright, talented African-American women. Segregated from their white counterparts by Jim Crow laws, these “colored computers,” as they were known, used slide rules, adding machines, and pencil and paper to support America’s fledgling aeronautics industry, and helped write the equations that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space."

Let me know what you thought about January's books and if you're planning to read along in February! Sending you love and lots of downtime for reading! xx