Yes, I (Still) Harbor a Love-Hate Relationship With My Body. Ugh.

I am a woman.

I grew up in America.

Ergo, I have a complicated relationship with my body. We have a history, which includes bad times and good times and mixed emotions.

This phrasing is awkward (After all, when did “my body” and “me” become separate entities? Answer: I don’t know, I guess when English was invented by that notorious patriarch, Mr. English); yet, every other woman in America knows what I’m talking about. If your relationship with your body is not complicated, well, congratulations, but I bet you know someone whose is.

I remember being about 13 years old when I first looked in the mirror and thought that I looked fat, and that that was an undesirable trait. I told my mom so, and she scolded me (a rare occurrence in my house): “You are not going to start with this now. You’re too young for this.” Her intentions were good, but her message was clear: growing into a woman meant that I would eventually join the flocks of women who hate their bodies. That’s just what a woman does.

This is how happy and beautiful we are supposed to look eating zero calories.

I didn’t know much about losing weight. I took up running – even though I hated it. Some days I would force myself to bring only raw broccoli and carrots to school in a Tupperware and leave my money at home, so that I would have no other option but to consume zero calories. I went to the gym and read Cosmopolitan on the treadmill, learning about all the ways my body was imperfect and all the products I could buy to fix it. I put my mental math skills to use on that treadmill, calculating over and over how much time it would take to burn off the beer I drank that weekend. Regardless, I never got out of the “overweight”category and this made me feel even more guilty. This is all typical white girl stuff – I know plenty of people who have a similar journey and some are living this life right now.

I started drinking coffee in college alongside my rigorous work-out routine – I lost 15 pounds and remember telling anyone who’d listen that I had found the secret. Of course, I gained it all back. I was in college!

I didn’t really start accepting my body until I moved out here to California. I think it was just being away from my past in Ohio that allowed me to let it all go. I began to enjoy running because I didn’t force myself to do it – I ate whatever I could afford on my AmeriCorps stipend, so I didn’t have anything to feel guilty about. Roller derby became a huge part of my life. In fact, sometimes at practice, I catch myself wishing that I had more weight on me, so I could hit harder and absorb the hits easier – how many American women can say they’ve ever had that thought?

My body would never be featured in a magazine, but I stopped caring. I have cellulite – so what? I feel beautiful regardless. A friend whose body I’ve always envied even confessed to me how much she envies mine – that was a surprise! Things were looking up for my body and me!

Even this PSA warning thinks women my size are fat.

Unfortunately, my recent transition out of AmeriCorps and into a new workplace has shaken this great relationship I have with my body. For the summer, I’m working as an RA to a STEM academy for minority high schoolers. It’s a 24/6 kind of a thing – an all-encompassing environment and now, I can’t escape my co-workers’ body hang-ups. The hottest topic of discussion is how fat this food makes you, or how someone is trying to give up red meat, or how we really should work out today. The constant moralizing of our food intake and exercise routine is bringing up issues for me that I thought I had locked away for good.

And the thing that bothers me most is that we are supposed to be mentors to the students, and instead we are passing on our insecurities and guilt over consumption on to them, and at such a delicate age. Some of the RAs have put together a whole lesson to shame students for what they do to their bodies. The lesson requires the students to track everything they eat for two days (I remember doing that voluntarily in high school, and how terrible it made me feel). Girls are getting up at 5:30am to go running with the RAs. Freshmen in high school are being shamed for eating red meat, because “it stays in your system for 30 days,” (a Google-able urban legend).

This is how society teaches us to be women. Just like I learned when I was 13. You hate your body; your body is a source of guilt and fear. I can’t stand to think of how many hours of our lives women waste in front of a mirror, criticizing ourselves, moralizing our diets, and directing perfectly good conversations to self-deprecation. I don’t like the way this is going for me. I want to get out of here as soon as I can so I can stay in love with my body. Any tips out there for a fairly fierce feminist, trying to escape this environment of self-hate? I think just writing it down helps, logicking it away, but I could use some thoughtful discussion on the topic right about now.

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Blood Drive

The Situation

As the training coordinator at my organization of young idealists, I have the responsibility of filling our Leadership Development half-days with programming every Friday. It’s done wonders for me, creatively, and I’ve had the opportunity to coach corps members through leading their own bits of programming as well. I’ve given space to just about every corps member that asked. Up until about a week ago.

One of our corps members e-mailed me with an innovative idea. Why not hold a blood drive at City Year on a Friday morning? We could open it up to the public, he suggested. It would encourage idealism, optimism, and potentially save lives in the process.

Why not?

I knew that this was a great organizing opportunity for this corps member. He would need to make arrangements with the Red Cross, build relationships with their outreach people, and coordinate logistics for the blood drive. He could publicize the event and get City Year more exposure in a different circle.

And why not?

In theory, this is a great idea. As a leadership development person with the mission of making young people aware of their own power, I should love it. But I don’t. Here’s why.

The Red Cross determines its donor eligibility on outdated assumptions made by the FDA about whose blood is safe to donate. If you have ever tried donating blood before, you know that there are certain questions that, when answered in the affirmative, immediately disqualify you from donating blood. Here is an non-exhaustive list of the questions I take issue with for considering this blood drive:

For men: Have you had sex, even once, with another male since 1977?

For women: Within the last 12 months, have you had a male sex partner who had sex with another male, even once, since 1977?

How audacious. Remember those Facebook groups you could belong to: “Blondes have the most fun.” “Brunettes have the most fun.” “Jewish girls who have two rabbits and live in Leadville, Colorado have the most fun.” Then came along the tongue-in-cheek, “People who have the most fun, have the most fun” group.

Well guess what? Same tongue-in-cheek logic applies here. Men who have sex with men don’t have HIV. Women who have sex with men who have sex with men don’t have HIV. People who have HIV have HIV. Let’s just get that straight.

What I Know

According to fda.gov, “HIV tests currently in use are highly accurate, but still cannot detect HIV 100% of the time.” Well, good thing they supplement that shoddy scientific testing with the completely 100% accurate method of asking people who they’ve slept with! (By the way, I couldn’t help but notice that the answers provided on the FDA’s page are backed by a few studies conducted no later than 2005!) And I suppose we can expect the same amount of truthfulness and accuracy about sexual practices that we commonly find at your typical frat party.  

And yeah. I have friends who have lied on this question because they are passionate about donating blood and know that they are HIV negative.

There’s a part of me that wants to let this blood drive happen – I want this corps member to initiate and execute his unprecedented and good-willed ideas for programming. I even want to help him do it. But can I, in this case? How can I allow my organization to partner with another organization that discriminates against me and others like me?

from Avert.org

While it may be true that HIV disproportionately affects MSM populations, it is also true that HIV disproportionately affects African American and Latino populations. What would we call an FDA ban on African American or Latino blood? It is further true that HIV in America is most prevalent in Washington DC. What would it look like if the FDA banned the blood of people living in our nation’s capital?

If my National Service organization were to hold a blood drive, effectively it would discriminate against a protected population (albeit, minimally protected). We would implicitly be endorsing these policies. This situation is oddly reminiscent of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – “okay, gay men can serve the country in this way, but only if they aren’t sexually active.”

The Red Cross’s policy is founded in the FDA’s baseless fears, debunked at least 20 years ago by HIV researchers. Why hasn’t the policy changed? Make no mistake about it: this is not about health anymore. It’s about fear. And we have a special word to describe policies that are made based on fear of homosexual people.

Want more?

You can read more about this issue inBad Blood: Crisis in the American Red Cross by Judith Reitman.

Big Questions: Pro-Life Edition

If pregnant women are obligated to carry a fetus to term to preserve an innocent human life, at personal cost to the woman, why aren’t all men and women required to donate their tissues and organs to save innocent lives?

I mean, what’s the difference between those two situations? In both the case of a fetus and a dying patient, one could argue that an entire innocent human life is at stake. Why is only the pregnant woman obligated to preserve the human life at cost to herself? And why are healthy people not obligated to do so when the opportunity arises?

Harassment on the Lightrail

Street harassment: a socially acceptable form of intimidation of marginalized people, especially women and LGBT folks. Street harassment is an expression of male dominance in the public sphere. It’s a reminder that as a woman, a queer person, or a trans person, your body is public property.

When I am harassed on the street, I feel incredibly uncomfortable. I feel unsafe to say anything to the harassers. I wish they would just leave me alone, as is my protocol with passersby. I don’t know if harassers know how it makes me (us) feel. Are they aware that their creepiness factor just skyrocketed? Do they care? Is it a privilege of the cis-het-male class that they just get to be creepy?

Last night, my girl friend Liz and I experienced such harassment on the lightrail. Here’s what happened:

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