False Gospels

Kataphatic (who I must now add to my blogroll) has an awesome post about how we set weight loss up as a false gospel. It’s supposed to lead to life and health and all good things, but when we put weight loss on a pedestal, we totally ignore the fact that most ways of getting there are not healthy, or not sustainable. Gastric bypass, anorexia, diet pills. Even “eat less and move more” can cause gall stones, mess up your metabolism, and apparently screw up your immune system (credit to Kate Harding @ Shapely prose for that study link).

And yet we link these dangerous activities not just with health but with faith. There are prayers for weight loss and Christian diet books.

Dude, just no. I’ve been exhausted from not eating enough, and I’ve been happily fed, and I can tell you which state I have the energy to serve God in. And in which state I’m better able to show love and tolerance and mercy to those around me. It’s not when I’m hungry and counting calories and making the gym my first priority.

Huge props to Kataphatic for this–it definitely deserves a read.

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Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

So, one of the topics that crops up in the fatosphere from time to time is the fact that a lot of people who are fat don’t fit the “sits around all day and eats too much junk food” stereotype. And that a lot of thin people do those things, but it’s assumed that they must be healthy (and not just have a fast metabolism) because, hey, they’re thin.

And these are good, true, and important things to point out. Because all the panic about obesity is centered around health, so it’s really worth separating health from weight, and healthy and unhealthy behaviors from weight. Obviously, those things all interact, but in a more complex way than exercise & healthy eating = thin = healthy, being sedentary & eating junk = fat = unhealthy.

But the downside of pointing out that not everybody who’s fat eats like crap or is unhealthy is that it creates a really crappy false dichotomy of “good” versus “bad” fat people. Where the larger point is not just that the stereotype is a gross and hateful oversimplification (like, you know, all stereotypes ever), but that each person’s body is their own business, nobody else’s.

So, what’s up with the title? Well, trying to get across the message of “fat isn’t always unhealthy, and, hey, each person’s health is *their own business*” reminds me of that Seinfeld episode. You know, people keep thinking that he’s gay, and he keeps vigorously denying it, then realizing that sounds homophobic and tacking on “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

The same way, when we talk about how fat isn’t necessarily unhealthy and the average fat person doesn’t actually live on fast food and spend their life on the couch, it marginalizes people if we leave it at that and don’t add “not that there’s anything morally wrong with being sedentary,” or “not that anyone owes health to anyone else, or to the universe.” Without those caveats, it implies that fat acceptance is only for people who are doing healthy things. It also implies that one person’s health is somehow everybody else’s business, and we have way too much of that going on as it is.

Snarky’s Machine puts it really well here.

…if I really value being seen as an individual first, rather than my gender, size, race, then I must accept that other women are also free to make choices about the way they lead their lives as well. More importantly, I must actively work to ensure their ability to make choices I might not personally make is free of sexist, transphobic, classist, ableist, homophobic, racist and sizeist oppression. After all, they are my sisters – regardless of whether or not my own lived experiences mirror theirs or I agree with their life choices.

The first principle of any anti-oppression movement has got to be that people’s lives are their own business, and they get to make their own choices.

Neat Little Boxes

So, a friend of mine, who blogs about Christian mysticism, recently read the book Wild at Heart and found it a bit lacking. He wasn’t thrilled with the way the author describes a man as:

a warrior who is wounded, yet often does not realize it beyond a fear of being uncovered as a fake in feelings of inadequacy. Drawing heavily from cherry picking the warrior imagery passages found within the Bible, Eldredge argues that to try to tame a man who is wild at heart is to emasculate him by trying to make him feminine.

He notes that reading this description, which he couldn’t really relate to, left him questioning his own identity, until he realized that it’s not that simple.

That right there is the huge problem with gender essentialism. It tries to shove people into neat little boxes, and people are more complex than that.

Gender essentialism often has religious roots, but it seems to come from the secular side too. For every book or sermon about “Christian manhood” or “Christian womanhood,” there’s some evo-psych article telling us that women are naturally suited for housework or men are more rational or what-have-you.

But it’s BS no matter where it comes from. People are, first and foremost, individuals, and there’s more variation between individuals than between the sexes as a whole. (Even before you consider that biological sex isn’t a simple dichotomy.)

I haven’t read Wild at Heart (and I’m not likely to, it’s not written for me, and my books-to-read list is a mile long), so I won’t say much about the way it seems to cast women as the bad guys–wanting to tame and feminize those free, proud warrior men–and to describe “masculine” as innately superior to “feminine.” Okay, maybe a little. I’ll note that it gives women the short end of the stick and move on.

What I find more interesting is this book, and the review of it, as an example of how gender essentialism hurts men and women both. There’s a disconnect that occurs when society and culture tries to shove you into a box where you don’t fit, telling you that this is “how you” are, regardless of the fact that you, as an individual, probably already know what you’re like better than anyone.

From a Christian standpoint, why can’t we accept that God made everybody unique? I mean, look at the variety of the natural world, on our planet and in the whole flipping universe–deserts, oceans, 15,000 different species of butterfly, supernovas and white dwarfs, cold planets and hot planets. And all the colors of flowers, of animals, of people. You think maybe God likes variety? Just a bit?

I know, dealing with people as individuals is hard. Sweeping generalizations simplify things, they make it easier. But they’re also a crutch. Like the way people often *just can’t deal* with not knowing the gender of a baby. Does it really matter? Does the kid care, at this point, whether you call them “him” or “her” or put them in a pink onesie or a blue onesie? As long as they get fed, changed, and snuggled, I’m thinking not. But it throws people for such a loop to not know someone’s gender because we assume that it’s this all-encompassing, all-defining thing. Maybe it’s not, at least not inherently, not until a culture makes it that way.

Note: Link has been fixed. (He separated his book review posts into their own blog, rather than keeping them on the mysticism one.)

Out of the Kitchen

So, I’m definitely not the first person to criticize something Michael Pollan wrote from a feminist perspective, but I’m gonna give it a shot anyway.  Kate Harding made some great points about this article.  Especially when she skewers his comments about The Feminine Mystique

“the book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression.” Funny, I always thought Friedan became a feminist icon because she articulated what millions of women already felt, not because she brainwashed them into believing that repetitive, menial, unpaid labor might not be the best use of their talents.

Pollan seems to be trying to rag on feminism but to toss in just enough comments that of course men should cook too to avoid being criticized for telling women to get back in the kitchen.  He notes that men “are cooking more today than ever before: about 13 percent of all meals, many of them on the grill.”  Wow, a whole thirteen percent?  So, in a household with a man and a woman, the average guy is doing about 1/5 of his share of the meal-making.  And that average might be worse than it sounds in terms of gender equity–what part of that 13% is cooked by men who live alone or with other men?  (I recall reading somewhere that guys who get married do less housework than they did before, while women who get married do more.  I don’t recall whether cooking was counted as part of that, but I’d be really unsurprised if the same thing applies.)

He talks about wanting men to cook too, but it often seems to be a sidenote, like he’s preemtively trying to keep too many women from feeling like he’s throwing us under the bus. But, you know, it’s really not enough to say that someone should cook, whether it be the  man or the woman, unless you actually look at the reasons behind women doing 87% of the cooking, many of them while working the same or longer hours than the menfolk who manage to produce the other 13, and unless you actually emphasize that if Americans as a whole aren’t cooking, maybe our longstanding definition of feeding a family as “women’s work” has something to do with that.

Even though he gives lip service to “men should cook too,” he also says things like “Women with jobs have more money to pay corporations to do their cooking, yet all American women now allow corporations to cook for them when they can.”  Excuse me, *their* cooking?  As in, even when she works full-time, it’s still the woman’s job to cook? Regardless of whether there’s a guy in the household who works the same or fewer hours? Unchallenged sexist assumptions much?

Pollan does a whole lot of waxing nostalgic about his mom making meals after watching Julia Child, including how entertaining it was for him to watch her prepare complex dishes like Chicken Kiev, and I had to do a little eyerolling at the way that the woman’s work is treated as entertainment for other (male) members of the family.

And while I’m eyerolling, a major portion of his argument, that Food Network no longer teaches us to cook, would fall apart if he’d ever watched Alton Brown outside of Kitchen Stadium.  Yeah, there’s a lot of food entertainment, but there are also a lot of cooking shows.  Not all on prime time, but dude, that’s what Tivo is for.

He also talks about how we spend more time watching cooking shows than it would take us to actually prepare food, as if you can’t do both at once.  (Like, tonight, after cooking a nice dinner, the hubby and I settled in front of the TV to eat while watching Chopped, and I often have it going in the background while cooking or eating dinner.)

The thing that really annoys me about this article, though, is how it implies that women aren’t very smart.  He talks about feminism convincing women that cooking is drudgery and then the food industry convincing them that pre-packaged food was acceptable and not a “dereliction of their ‘moral obligation to cook,’ something they believed to be a parental responsibility on par with child care.”  So we’re easily brainwashed and led astray.  Thanks, haven’t heard that one before.

But, you know, maybe the reverse is true.  Maybe the brainwashing wasn’t feminism, but the earlier Angel in the House idea that a woman’s job is to nurture, comfort, make things pretty and civilized, and of course, do a crap-ton of unpaid labor as part of that “nurturing” gig.  And the mere existence of food options that didn’t involve devoting huge amounts of time to cooking didn’t automatically undo that conditioning.

Let’s also not forget that not every woman has the time or energy to do that cooking even if she wants to. I give Pollan some credit for noting that the ridiculous hours Americans are working puts a major crimp in home-cooking, but in all his snide comments about “instant everything,” he forgets that there are plenty of people who are actually not able to cook. Like folks who are disabled, for whom junk food is a hell of a lot healthier than nothing.  And, presumably, for all those seamstresses, factory workers, secretaries, and schoolteachers who were working outside the home long before the last generation or two, who probably weren’t cooking the chicken Kiev and mousse that he remembers from his childhood. I’m guessing poor city children eat better now than they did 100 years ago, and microwaves and preservatives have a fair bit to do with that. (Well, so do laws against selling rotten meat or passing chalky water off as milk.)

Sure, cooking more is a good thing. It’s often healthier and better for the environment, and it can be fun. But let’s not, to use Pollan’s term, thoughtlessly trample over folks who don’t have tons of free time, spacious kitchens, and easy access to fresh foods, or over women who have no interest in being shoved back into the kitchen, in the pursuit of some nostalgic foodtopia (that didn’t exist for most people in the 60s either).

That first post

So, I have a blog. This is the result of reading a lot, thinking a lot, and wanting to join the discussions that are going on in the blogosphere. And, you know, not spam my Facebook with political rants, because it really annoys me when people do that.

This is going to be a feminist & fat-accepting blog for sure. I’ll talk about what that means to me personally, but for more info on the concepts in general, there’s a feminism 101 blog and Kate Harding’s Don’t You Realize Fat is Unhealthy post will give you a good background.

I also want to tie this in with my religious beliefs. I don’t think being a Christian and being a feminist are in any way mutually exclusive. That central principle of equality is actually, you know, Biblical. And yet, I see so much done in the name of God that makes me want to facepalm.

So, welcome to the party. More to follow soon…