It’s based on Melanie Klein’s essay on feminism, yoga, body image and the media. In her essay, she distinguishes between the practice of yoga and the culture of yoga, including the rise of the increasingly commercialized consumer industry of yoga of the last decade.
This post specifically seeks to delve further into this dichotomy, exploring the roots and implications without drawing any firm conclusions. As the book was a collaborative effort, showcasing a myriad of voices and opinions, we hope you’ll comment and create a dialogue in response to this hot-button topic.
Sad, but one day our kids will have to visit museums
To see what a lady looks like.
Admittedly, I was a bit tipsy. Actually, I was drunk.
“All these women around have the same face. Why do they all have the same face?” I inquired holding my third glass of red wine precariously askew.
I was leaning heavily on the table with my right elbow as I sat at my sidewalk table at Porta Via in Beverly Hills. Even though it was years before the rise of the “Real Housewives” franchise, today one would have assumed that they were casting next season. Women between the ages of 20 and 75 walked up and down North Canon Drive with high-end designer outfits and eerily similar features.
“I mean, they all have the same face. It’s like the twenty-first century version of The Stepford Wives around here.”
Truth be told, I wasn’t expecting or looking for an answer for the surreal parade I was witnessing that summer evening. As a sociologist with an emphasis on gender and media studies, I already knew what I was seeing. While Los Angeles is certainly a parallel universe to the rest of the union in many ways, the astronomical increase in both surgical and nonsurgical cosmetic procedures isn’t limited to the 90210.
Increased requests for vaginoplasty and vaginal rejuvenation, anal bleaching and virgin waxing joins the rise of the more “conventional” procedures—botox (including those in their early 20s) and other fillers and plumpers, liposuction (often given as graduation gifts), breast implants and facelifts (again, on the rise for those in their mid-20s to the their mid-30s). And this is happening across the country with those on limited budgets going into credit card debt, cashing in on military discounts or competing for a slot on make-over reality shows.
And this trend is indicative of our cultural climate, not the individual women (and men) who chose to voluntarily go under the knife or get injected.
This discussion is not intended to mock or blame the individuals who pay thousands of dollars for their insecurity or vanity (or both).
This is not an individual phenomenon anymore than it is an individual choice.
I’m not discounting individual agency but people make choices within a given cultural environment, one that is sociohistorically specific and variable. That cultural landscape’s taken-for-granted norms and values play an influential and powerful role in determining what we consider desirable/undesirable, good/bad, beautiful/ugly. And the images that shape our desires, aspirations and notions of beauty are inescapable. We’re soaking in them. Both the claim that people are foolish for taking out loans to increase their bust size or to have those individuals claim they’re only doing it for themselves dismiss the environment in which those seemingly individual decisions are being made.
It’s awfully challenging to “love yourself” and defy beauty norms when all around you you get the message that you’re just not good enough. But you can be if you buy this cream/filler/diet pill/body sculptor/pimple cream/fill in the blank.
As Taylor Kirkham writes, “It’s human nature to crave feelings of acceptance from our peers. The problem is that we are continuously fed the myth that we’ll gain this approval not by accepting ourselves, but by battling our bodies and tearing our self-image into shreds.”
It is a waste of time to hate a mirror/ or its reflection/ instead of stopping the hand/ that makes glass with distortions.
~ Audre Lorde
Yoga celebrities didn’t exist when I started practicing yoga in 1996. Yoga pants hadn’t been invented and there were just a few studios operating in Los Angeles County. My consistent practice developed in an old dance space with wooden floors brined by decades of sweat. I’ve always been drawn to the grittier elements of life and the raw, authentic and noncommercial flavor of Bryan Kest’s style and studio space resonated with the street-wise, punk rock valley girl I was in a former life. The enormous room teemed with people of all ages, sizes and ethnicities. Nobody donned designer spandex. Most people didn’t even own “mat bags.”
As yoga gained in popularity at the beginning of the new millennium, the practice inevitably filtered through the lens of the popular culture.
The yoga industry began to pick up rapid speed and yoga began to take on a new look. As Julian Walker details in his chapter of the book, alongside the practice and community of yoga, “a small group of advertisers, designers, and magazine publishers promoting a fairly narrow aesthetic that is about technical perfection, youthful beauty and impressive gymnastics” cropped up. In a fairly short period of time, the industrialized consumer culture of yoga began to reflect many of the mainstream values and norms, including its narrow beauty ideal.
I immediately felt threatened by the encroachment of the dominant culture’s influence on this safe haven I had found in my practice and my community. It had taken me decades to find healing from my own distorted body image, one that was in large part forged at the hands of the prolific and repetitive images of unattainable beauty alongside the influence of the women in my family. I wanted to take the practice and community I loved (and continue to love) so deeply and hold it protectively against my chest.
Since my sociological imagination and feminist radar first went on high alert, many other yoga practitioners have asked critical questions about the objectification and sexualization of women to sell yoga products, standard advertising themes when it comes to the representation of girls and women. Those critical questions have not always been met with critical and constructive dialogue. In fact, the responses were often hostile and defensive. Personally, I was disheartened by a “conscious” community that frequently speaks out against animal cruelty, genetically modified food and environmental issues that didn’t feel equally compelled to address the exploitation of women and their bodies.
I’ve always felt obligated to ask questions about the communities I’ve been a part of. I appreciate the other outspoken and thoughtful yoga practitioners, like my fellow book contributors, who feel compelled to pause, look around and engage in critical dialogue about North American yoga in the 21st century. As Poep Sa Frank Jude Boccio notes in his chapter of the book, “…there’s a reason that ‘intention’ comes after ‘understanding’ in Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path: intention alone without understanding, can cause much suffering.”
For me, my sociological training and feminist ideology married well with my yoga practice. They are committed to raising consciousness and digging deeper. They’re about understanding.
I don’t want to leave it up to the universe. I want to engage critically and thoughtfully in what is emerging around us. The yoga community is not immune from the rest of the culture or the mainstream images that have been replicated in the subculture of yoga. Just because you throw some mala beads on or pose in anjali mudra doesn’t make objectification and sexualization any less so.
And yoga isn’t immune to eating disorders, disordered eating (which is not the same as a clinical eating disorder) or fractured body images. As Chelsea Roff remarks in her essay, “Eating disorders are prevalent in the yoga community, I would argue even more so than the general population. Many hide their self-destructive behaviors under the guise of detoxing, cleansing or a pseudo-spiritual path to enlightenment.”
While the practice has the capacity to heal, the yoga industrial complex upholds unrealistic representations of beauty present in fashion magazines and mainstream advertising.
I appreciated Kathryn Budig’s candid remarks about her own body image issues in a recent interview. The interview didn’t include a conversation regarding the notion of the “yoga body” and it’s proliferation in much of the popular yoga photography or the advertisements and images populating many of the major yoga magazines. But I appreciated the honesty and courage to be vulnerable. (I also appreciate her photo shoot with Daniel Stark that produced images that are much less digitally altered and polished than most).
And this body insecurity isn’t limited to women. One of the most popular (and drooled over) male yoga teachers in Los Angeles, replete with chiseled abs and perfectly sun kissed skin, recently confided his own body insecurity to me. “Do you know how much pressure there is for me to fit the body ideal of the male yoga teacher down to having zero percent body fat?”
Yoga is a subversive practice in so many ways. In a culture that repeatedly tells us we’re not good enough and that we’ll be happy when we lose another five pounds or if we buy fill-in-the-blank, yoga lets us be exactly as we are moment to moment. Yoga doesn’t ask us to change because we’re fine just the way we are. In the same way there is no such thing as a perfect asana, there’s no such thing as a perfect ass because we’re all individuals.
I’d like to preserve the unique face of yoga before she is unrecognizable.
We have the ability to consciously direct the culture of yoga, creating something subversive, powerful and real that reflects the uniqueness of each one of us just as we are.
For the women in my family, the body was a sFor the women in my family, the body was a source of anxiety, shame, a measure of discipline and worth – something to fret over, scrutinize, and punish for bad behavior. Food invoked anxiety and fear. Calories were meticulously tracked and exercised away as quickly as possible.The women openly complained about their “flaws” and lamented the numbers on the scale, while many of them ravenously ate a couple extra hundred calories in secret. I learned that life began five pounds (or, in my case, 10 pounds), from now.
I didn’t grow up feeling comfortable in, or good about my body. The body as a source of joy and vitality was an alien concept most of my life. I enjoyed food and wanted it, but I knew that made me weak, undisciplined and “bad.”
It didn’t help that I inherited my height from my father’s side of the family. I learned that beauty was a beast, one I had to conquer in order to measure up and feel good about myself. And that I had to conquer it no matter the costs because, hey, baby, you’re worth it.
My mother and the women in her family were all diminutive women with tiny feet, tiny hands, bird-like shoulders, and bitty waists. They were delicate flowers that liked to remind people that they were “petite.” From the time I’d entered fourth-grade, I was referred to as “big-boned,” “solid,” “big like her dad’s side of the family” and in need of “losing a few pounds.” I had surpassed my great-grandmother in height by the time I was 11. By seventh-grade, I was taller than my mother and grandmother. Measuring 5’3” and weighing 130 pounds, I was an “Amazon,” that poor freak of nature that had inherited the wrong set of genes.
I knew none of these comments were compliments. In fact, most little girls want to secretly flip someone the bird when an annoying aunt or family friend hovers and croons, “My, she’s gotten to be such a big girl!” “Big” and “girl” don’t go together well in our culture. But I didn’t have the confidence or wherewithal to say, “Whoah, whoah – back the hell up. Don’t you all know you’re talking about my body right in front of me? Don’t you know your tones are either derisive or filled with worry about my size? Don’t you know this kind of body talk objectifies me and makes me feel like shit?”
Nope, I was too deeply mired in my own shame and guilt about my body. Oh, why oh why wasn’t I born short with a delicate bone structure? Plus, these were my family members and adults in my life that I respected, admired, and trusted. I believed they had my best interests at heart. And they did. They really did. I don’t doubt that for an instant.
My mother and my grandmother, the two women I idolized more than anyone else and who loved me deeply, were projecting their own anxieties and insecurities on me because they didn’t know any better. We’re all prone to absorbing the socially constructed images and messages in our cultural environment.
And they’re no exception.
Like me, their own families, peers, and the society they grew up in influenced their sense of self and their measure of worth as girls and women. Like me and legions of other girls and women, they internalized the notion that what matters most, aside from any other skills or talents, is how pretty they are (and in our culture, pretty is synonymous with skinny). Not how they feel, not what they can do, not how healthy they are.
And, let’s be honest, there are lots of skinny people who aren’t healthy. In fact, health never entered the conversation in my household. Losing five or ten pounds was never a matter of health, but a matter of aesthetics.
I mean, ceaselessly dieting, from the Atkins diet to the pineapple diet (where you consumed vast quantities of pineapple because pineapple would “eat” away the extra fat you were carrying), over exercising, diet pills, caffeine, and excessive calorie restriction isn’t exactly the yellow brick road to optimal health.
After years of compulsive and punishing exercise (my mother got me a gym membership when I turned 12), severe calorie restriction, bouts of binging and purging, and Slim Fast shakes for breakfast, I stumbled into a yoga class led by Bryan Kest.
It was the mid-nineties, I was 24-years-old and my life was about to radically change. Everything I knew about my body, everything I felt toward my body, and my negative self-talk was about to undergo a seismic shift. For the first time since early childhood, I was about to learn how to be comfortable and radiant in my own skin. For the first time in my life, I was about to learn how to love my body.
I settled in on my mat in a space that would become the rare and sacred space devoid of competition. A space uncluttered by external chatter, removed from the world of advertising and one that would quiet and soothe my own self-critic. Kest began that first class by inviting me back into my body. “Welcome to your bodies. Welcome to yoga.”
“I can’t enjoy how pretty I look if I don’t feel good.” – Bryan Kest
I’d spent almost two decades trying to have the reality of my body conform to the image that had been created in my head. The women in my family, boyfriends, my peer group and, most importantly, the prolific realm of pop culture, had influenced this image of physical perfection, and its correlating value. The joy of living in my body as a child had been replaced by disappointment.
The women in my family were consumed by their weight and their desire to measure up to mainstream standards of beauty; lamenting weight gain with bouts of depression and self-loathing, celebrating weight loss with great fanfare and sizing other women up. An unhealthy preoccupation with my body and food was set in motion before I hit puberty and manifested in all sorts of dangerous methods to obtain thinness: diet pills, colon hydrotherapy, fasting, legal and illegal stimulants, calorie restriction, self-induced vomiting and excessive exercise. And all along the way, the images around me assured me that the pursuit of pretty by any means necessary would be pay off. After all, baby, you’re worth it.
The routes to freedom presented themselves at about the same time: feminism and then yoga. After wandering around fairly aimlessly for over a year, running away and living in Maui for a period of that time, I had landed in “Sociology 22: Sociology of Women” in the fall of 1994at Los Angeles Valley College. I didn’t know what Sociology was or what it might have to say about women, but it sparked my curiosity. “I’m a woman,” I thought and, “this should be more interesting than meeting my general requirements for a major I’m not too committed to.”
“It’s not you. You’re not an isolated case. It’s systematic and it’s called patriarchy,” said the radical 60-something woman at the front of the room with the “War is not good for children and other living creatures” medallion swinging from her neck. She wore a turtleneck encased in a neat blazer and put one leg up on the seat of the chair for leverage as she lectured with more gusto, authority and confidence than any woman I had ever encountered. I was utterly smitten and completely enthralled, all the while having my mind blown during each and every class. The world was transformed. My paradigm shifted from one that viewed my body image issues as seemingly personal troubles to understanding them as public issues that were (and are) systemic in nature. In short, my soon-to-be mentor, in all her fierce fabulousness, had ignited my “sociological imagination.” And it was distinctly feminist.
My sociological and feminist education included a healthy dose of media literacy, a field of study that was just beginning to blossom at the time. I was offered the ideological tools and skill set to deconstruct mediated images and understand the role of the advertising industry in the creation and manufacture of these endless streams of images and messages that flood the cultural landscape. This allowed me examine my tortured relationship with my body in a systematic and structured way, lifting the clouds of shame and guilt that followed my every move.
Maybe there wasn’t something wrong with my body. Maybe there was something wrong with the messages the mainstream medic culture proliferated, contorted and unrealistic messages that were raking in profits from my insecurity and from the body image issues of girls and women around me. (The mainstream media’s targeting of male body image issues didn’t begin in earnest until several years later.) The realization that I wasn’t the problem was a relief and ultimately liberating. It also left me utterly pissed off.
Yoga provided the practice that rooted the things feminist sociology had taught me. It is one thing to intellectualize self-love and acceptance; it’s another to embody and practice it, especially after spending decades learning, practicing and perfecting self-loathing.
My friend, Marla, led me to a spacious dance loft in downtown Santa Monica, a space large enough for over 120 sweaty bodies to get their downward facing dog on by donation. The room was bursting at the seams with a sea of bodies and their body heat warmed the cavernous room. A hard-talking high-school dropout from Detroit was leading the practice in the most conscious and loving way amidst his occasional farts, burps and f-bombs. It was 1997, and I had landed in the company of an eclectic group of yogis led by the sometimes delightfully inappropriate and absolutely authentic Bryan Kest.
I knew I had stumbled upon something utterly delicious and profoundly nurturing for me. It had taken me a lifetime to find yoga and over a year of active searching to find a teacher that fit my needs. His street-wise attitude and working-class background meshed with my own and I felt comfortable. I was finally home.
To read the rest of this essay, purchase the book HERE.
This article is an excerpt of my chapter in the newly published anthology, 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice, edited by Carol Horton and Roseanne Harvey. In the complete essay, I detail my budding relationship to feminist ideology and my yoga practice. I examine media culture at large and reconcile my experience of yoga as a practice of self-love with an increasingly commercialized yoga “industry.” I invite you to read the rest my chapter, as well as the eleven other phenomenal essays in this book, which discuss contemporary North American yoga and its relationship to issues including recovery, body image, and spirituality. You can learn more about 21st Century Yoga by visiting the website, and purchase a copy either in print or Kindle edition.
and the actress who portrays Skyler White, Anna Gunn, discussed that she is found to be an “annoyance” on the show, in an interview with Vulture.
If you haven’t watched some or any of these shows, you might be wondering what awful behaviors and actions have lead to such strong hate among viewers. To very briefly recap the storylines of each of the women listed and pictured above: (SPOILERS Within)
You know what’s really been lacking on television lately? White, straight men. At least according to the co-creator of Two and a Half Men, Lee Aronsohn. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Aronsohn had this to say about the recent uprise in female centered sitcoms:
“Enough, ladies. I get it. You have periods,”
“…we’re approaching peak vagina on television, the point of labia saturation,”
For those of you keeping track, that brings the grand total to men: 21, women: 11. So despite the fact that women are half the population, but helm a third of sitcoms, we’re reaching “labia saturation” on television. Riiiiight.
Aronsohn has since apologized for his comments on twitter. Considering how he regularly (and I’m sure will continue to) treat women as second class citizens on his show, I can’t say I take his apology too seriously. According to Aronsohn: “What makes men damaged? Sorry, it’s women.”
Hey there. Yeah, you, the fierce teenager I know so well. I know you are having a time of it, trying to find your way out of the vituperative situations thrust upon you by circumstance. I only wish you knew then what I know now.
It’s hard to watch you struggle with your self-esteem and self-worth, as you berate yourself often, and weave truth into the lies your father told you. It saddens me so that you believed them, but in retrospect, I’m not surprised. It’s normal to want to believe your parents, even though in your case, they were full of crap. 40 years and a lot of nicks later, I can tell you they were, in fact, lying, and those untruths had nothing to do with you. You really are enough, dear one More than enough. And when you hurt yourself, you let them win.
You won’t believe this now, but you are a survivor and a warrior. You have always had the intrinsic ability to see the truth and tell it like it is. You are compassionate, and kind, but it will take time for you to embrace this and stop hiding behind your anger. Eventually, I know you’ll come around.
I want you to know that you find safety and solace from the pain and trauma you’re swimming in. The weight of your secrets and pain won’t break your back but will be the very thing that carry you to safety. Only then will you find the right place to unburden yourself and let go. You really will be ok. Trust me, as the adult you, we have almost 19 years clean, a wonderful child, and a loving husband that wants nothing but happiness and success for us.
There was a time when I ignored you and thought doing so would make the nightmares go away, but it wasn’t until I embraced you and your strength that I realized how incredible you are. Your mom’s boyfriend who tried to kill you was afraid of your moxie; the bastard in high school who raped you tried to kill your spirit with rumors and shame; the ex-boyfriend who hit you wanted to control your spirit. They lost and you prevailed, eventually directing your life to one of service and love. You were a badass for asking for help and seeking therapy on your own at 16. Talk about willingness, how inspiring!
I wish I could tell you that your grandmother loved you like the daughter she never had. I wish I could stop you from making some of the choices you made, but I can’t. They are what they are, and they ended up making you into the woman you become. I wish I could tell you not to stop singing, and not to believe the hate your father spewed at you. He was wrong. You are talented. You are smart. You are normal.
You, dear one, are worthy of all the love in the world. It’s going to be okay. Be safe; Be kind to yourself; Follow your heart. I love you, songbird.
Dear Sweet 16,
It’s me, the 39-year-old you with a little advice, lots of love, and tons of gratitude.
I don’t want to take up too much of your time, but I’m writing to let you know that I’m thinking about you. In fact, I think of you often and you need to know it. I think you’re a remarkable, crafty and capable young woman and I’m grateful to you for giving me this life; a beautiful son, a deep love and appreciation of art and nature, a rewarding career, and some kick-ass friends. Yeah, really. That’s what’s going on now and you’re the one to thank. You don’t give yourself enough credit, grrl. You’re fierce.
I wish I could remind you of these admirable traits more often, especially in those nagging moments of doubt and uncertainty that seem to be becoming more frequent. I’d love to regularly celebrate your accomplishments and triumphs with you. So I’m here now, offering you support and words of encouragement because I know you need it. I know you feel inadequate far too often. You think you’re not cool enough, pretty enough or smart enough. I know that you feel alone, especially since your greatest champion, Opa, passed away earlier this year. I know it sucks that you lost him so early. But be glad you had such a rich relationship with your grandfather while you did. His gifts to you last a lifetime. His memory never leaves you.
It’s Not You
But the guy you’re with now, the guy you’ve been dating for almost two years is another story. He’s a problem. He’s a huge reason your self-esteem has tanked. May I remind you of your joyful spirit? Your sense of wonder? He’s made you feel inadequate and you’ve lost yourself along the way.
I know you blame yourself for his abusive behavior. Too often he makes you feel crazy and erratic- he causes you to question your worth. You think you’re the reason he changed. You keep waiting for him to come around- to treat you the way he did when you met. He was so kind, attentive and loving. Maybe he’d change if you changed—if you were better.
I know it may be hard to believe now, but it’s not your fault and there’s nothing about you that needs to be fixed (and you certainly shouldn’t be wasting your time trying to fix him). You’re smart, you’re talented and capable. Really, it’s not you. Besides, I’ve seen him recently and, honey, it ain’t pretty. If you keep waiting on him to change, you’ll be waiting forever and your life will pass you by. He’s well over 40 now and not much different than you know him now.
And why do you have a boyfriend anyway? You’re much too young for a serious (and seriously dysfunctional) relationship. I know it seems like anyone who is anyone is dating, but don’t cave into the pressure. There’s plenty of time for dating. Your relationship status isn’t a sign of your worth. Yeah, I know- he’s hot, he surfs, he plays guitar. Well, even those charms fade, believe me. You’ll meet other guys, better ones. Don’t let him treat you badly. It isn’t you.
You’re resourceful. You’re a survivor. It’s because of you that I’ve been able to accomplish all that I have. In fact, whenever you run into old friends, the friends you’re hanging out with now, they’re amazed, absolutely amazed, at how you turned out. You truly defied the odds and I am eternally grateful for your fierce commitment to improve your life.
Don’t Waste Time
You deserve better. No high school sophomore should have a bruise on her face in her yearbook picture. Once you come to recognize, believe in, and appreciate your own worth, you’ll lose interest him and demand better. I promise. Don’t waste your time seeking external validation from anyone, especially him. When you do that, you’re vulnerable and at the mercy of his fickle moods and desires. He is not the most important relationship in your life. He does not determine your value.
Love Yourself Fiercely and Unconditionally
You determine your own value. Nurture yourself, respect yourself, and cultivate self-love.
Don’t be so hard on yourself.
Don’t second-guess yourself.
Don’t judge yourself.
Don’t self-sabotage your own success.
Don’t make yourself small.
Use your voice.
Focus on your art, your poetry and what’s in the truth of your heart. You’re not going to do everything perfectly, nor should you expect to. You do end up making mistakes both small and large (along with some epic ones). It’s OK. It all works out. Don’t beat yourself up. Make amends and move on. Yes, people get hurt along the way, including you. It’s all part of the process. Learn your lessons and don’t repeat your mistakes (not too many times anyway).
Be open to the nice guys. You know, the ones that like you the way you are. The guys who treat you well, laugh at your jokes, share in conversations and don’t tell you that nobody else will ever love you. Nice guys aren’t boring–I swear, and they’re not full of it. When you believe you’re valuable, you’ll believe others. Like I said, work on that self-love thing before you dive into anything with anyone else. In fact, ditch the boyfriend you’re with now. Don’t wait another six years. Trust me on this one.
One day, you’ll thank me in the same way I thank you for all you’ve given me. I’m proud of you and I love you completely.
By Melanie Klein–My students and I talked back to mainstream media by creating our own messages. We let them know that we’re fed up with what we’re being given and told them what we want.
Sometimes anger can spark real change, especially when it gets us to move away from thinking “What’s wrong with me?” and start questioning what’s wrong with a culture that makes us feel so bad about ourselves so much of the time. Margaret Cho knows a little something about that. She went off in a much-publicized and justified Twitter tirade last week. After being on the receiving end of some snarky comments about her body, Cho lost it. As she eloquently put it, “I blew a f****ing gasket. I screamed out loud and tracked the perps down and blocked them, but not before really ramming it to them in the strongest language I could use.” For years she’s been told she needed to lose more weight, she wasn’t pretty enough, and worse. Cho reacted to this latest criticism in a massive, over-the-top rant, during which she basically told the haters to shove it.
When you’re repeatedly told you don’t meet the ridiculously narrow and unrealistic expectations of beauty, that negativity can mess with your head for a long time until you eventually just get sick of it…and then get totally pissed off. And the way I see it, getting pissed off is a whole lot healthier than retreating into self-hatred.
While not all of us have our anger at this body-hating injustice shared across the internet, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or that it isn’t valid. As I quoted in an earlier post:
It is that act of speech, of “talking back,” that is no mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of our movement from object to subject – the liberated voice.” –bell hooks
“Are you sure you’re not hungry?” he asked with grave concern as chicken grease ran down his fingers and his chin. We’d just finished a rigorous hike and I was starving—famished, ravenous and slightly light-headed. I mean, really, we’d been cavorting, frolicking and climbing the local mountains in the summer heat for over 6 hours and I hadn’t eaten anything except for an apple. Maybe.
“Oh, no, I’m fine,” I replied. He paused mid-bite and questioned me with raised eyebrows. “I’m good--really,” I said sounding far too relaxed and nonchalant about something as serious as a meal after physically exerting myself as excessively as I had. But, nope, I wouldn’t change my mind. I was not going to let him see me eat, especially a greasy, messy meal like that. Mind you, this is the same guy I wouldn’t take a pee around. I’d turn the faucet on when I had to go really bad to make sure he didn’t hear me, otherwise I’d hold it until I got home. I know I wasn’t the only 17-year-old girl to pull a stunt like that.
If there was anything I’d learned up to that point, it was that girls and women don’t have bodily functions or odors (unless they’re created in chemical factories and mask your natural female body smells), and they aren’t supposed to be seen eating (unless it’s yogurt, salad or other “girl” food) or sweating (unless they’re sweating like women should—hello, female antiperspirant industry).
Fast forward to 15 years later:
“Are you going to eat that?” the student I had been mentoring asked with nervous excitement. “Yes,” I said awaiting the sweet taste of carrot cake as my fork hovered close to my lips. “In public?” she continued.
“Um, where else should I eat it? In the bathroom or the broom closet?” I laughed as I sank my teeth into the cream cheese frosting knowing perfectly well that those were considered viable options, ones preferred over this scenario—that of a woman eating cake out in public in broad daylight. I’m talking a slice of cake, not a bite of cake and not an entire cake. A slice of cake. On a Tuesday at 1 in the afternoon. There was no special occasion. I simply wanted some cake and I felt no shame or remorse about it. Shame and guilt had led me to stuff myself in private after starving myself publicly one too many times in the past.
“Wow. I admire you. I wish I could do that,” she said slowly. I asked her what was stopping her and she went on to tell me about her mother, a woman who kept a scale in the dining room so she could look at it while she ate dinner and remind herself not to eat too much. And when it came to cake? Well, her mother always cut much smaller slices for the girls and reserved the big frosted pieces for the boys at the family party.
We continued to have lunch on campus between classes with a few other students for several weeks and each time I’d enjoy something sweet without embarrassment or great fanfare on my end. One day she sat down and said, “I have to tell you something.” She giggled like someone about to dish a shameful secret. “I went to my cousin’s birthday party over the weekend and when my mom handed me a thin slice of cake on a paper plate, I told her that I wanted a big one. She looked at me with surprise as I put the plate she handed me back on the table and grabbed one of the large slices. I felt great.”