Expecting crickets

Out of curiosity, and because I’m sure we could all use a break from 500-comment threads in which men drop by to deny or devalue our experience: I’d like you to comment on this post only if you are a woman who has NOT EVER had a man continue interacting with you against your will after you have answered tersely, turned away, walked on, put on your headphones, gone back to your book, resumed your conversation, told him you did indeed have a boyfriend, denied his request, or asked him to leave you alone. Comment only if the men you’ve encountered have consistently respected your boundaries and acknowledged your right to have them.

You don’t have to go on at length — just let us know how old you are and where you live.

ETA: For the sake of science I am combining comments from the same person, and deleting ones that say “yes, this has happened to me.” I’m interested in an at-a-glance count. (ETAA: Ok, clearly I gave up on that.)

ETA II: I meant to make this clear but maybe I didn’t — I’m not talking about guys hitting on you specifically. I’m talking about any insistent attempt to insert themselves into your consciousness, positive or negative. Let me know if you want to recant your comment in light of that.

ETA III: SM tried to ruin my extremely scientific and not at all gimmicky comments count by posting the following re: comments like “I must exude a don’t-fuck-with-me quality”:

I appreciate the sentiment behind this, but this kind of statement comes really close to implying that people who do get harassed have brought it on themselves.

I agree with her — I exude a very strong don’t-fuck-with-me quality and I still get insistent positive or negative attention from the kind of guys who don’t care. It’s not about that. You may have some quality that prevents you from noticing when people demand to be acknowledged, but there is no quality that invites or deters it.

Finally, I asked for the negative space of street harassment because I think we could all use a little peace and quiet, but of course if you want examples of what it looks like when it does happen there are more than enough available here.

Miss Lucy had Friday Fluff

When a friend of my mom’s asked her about “that thing all women can do, and some men,” it turned out he meant hanging your sunglasses off the collar of your shirt. But when my husband talks about “that thing all girls know” he means hand jives (otherwise known as clapping games, hand games, handclaps, etc.). I think he was very struck by the time my friend Emily and I, two grown women in our late 20s who did not grow up together, launched into the very complicated hand motions associated with the “ooh, ah, want a piece of pie” rhyme with no prior discussion.

What’s interesting to me, though, is that all girls know hand jives but almost no two know them the same. For instance, I thought of this fluff idea because I woke up with what this website calls “uno, dos-ee-a-say” stuck in my head, only we used to do it “uno dos-ee-a-mo.” And when I went to look up the “ooh, ah, want a piece of pie” rhyme I found all sorts of funky variations. What were your rhymes? Let’s compare notes.

Below the fold, a few of my favorites to start us off.

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Quote of the day: On fullness

I’m currently reading Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog),” the bloggiest book of the 19th century. Since it concerns the adventures of three 19th-century bachelors and a dog rowing a small skiff down the Thames and camping along the way, there is unsurprisingly a lot of emphasis on the procurement, enjoyment, storage and preparation of food. This isn’t by any means the funniest bit in the book, but I found it resonant:

How good one feels when one is full — how satisfied with ourselves and with the world! People who have tried it, tell me that a clear conscience makes you very happy and contented; but a full stomach does the business quite as well, and is cheaper, and more easily obtained. One feels so forgiving and generous after a substantial and well-digested meal — so noble-minded, so kindly-hearted.

It is very strange, this domination of our intellect by our digestive organs. We cannot work, we cannot think, unless our stomach wills so. It dictates to us our emotions, our passions. After eggs and bacon, it says, “Work!” After beefsteak and porter, it says, “Sleep!” … After hot muffins, it says, “Be dull and soulless, like a beast of the field — a brainless animal, with listless eye, unlit by any ray of fancy, or of hope, or fear, or love, or life.” And after brandy, taken in sufficient quantity, it says, “Now come, fool, grin and tumble, that your fellow-men may laugh — driven in folly, and splutter in senseless sounds, and show what a helpless ninny is poor man whose wit and will are drowned, like kittens, side by side, in half an inch of alcohol.”

We are but the veriest, sorriest slaves of our stomach. Reach not after morality and righteousness, my friends; watch vigilantly your stomach, and diet it with care and judgment. Then virtue and contentment will come and reign within your heart, unsought by any effort of your own; and you will be a good citizen, a loving husband, and a tender father — a noble, pious man.

Now, as it happens I do not react to either muffins or steak in quite the way Jerome describes, nor do I have any wish to be a tender father. But of course those specifics aren’t the point. The point is that this sort of normal, attentive, joyful, purposeful eating is a real and tragic casualty of our cultural quest for thinness. It’s terrible the way mini-mania erodes the self-esteem of all sizes of women, but it’s also terrible that it makes us unable to enjoy food qua food.The idea that food of different kinds can feed your body and mind in different and necessary ways, that you can’t be functional or kind without it (Jerome goes on to describe his normally cantankerous compatriots’ changed countenances after a good meal), that eating “with care” can mean eating as well and as mindfully as possible instead of as little as possible — these concepts seem as archaic as a boating holiday on the Thames.

We — all of us, but especially women — attach moral value to hunger in modern society. It’s virtuous to go without; it’s sinful or decadent to indulge. What if we turned this idea on its head? What if the compassion and goodwill and contentment that come from a full stomach were more morally valuable than privation? What if we recognized that allowing food to be a valuable — but not paramount — part of our lives made us kinder to others and to ourselves?

One to chew on, if you’ll excuse me. Meanwhile, I think I’ll have that whiskey now.

We Saw The Epidemic, And It Was Us

If you’ve been reading Lesley’s More to Love recaps over at Fatshionista, you already know that the show is allllllll about Fat Pain. (If you haven’t, be assured they’re worth your while. I’m not sure anything could make me glad that this show is on the air, but Lesley’s writeups come close.) Sample paragraph:

Luke wants to hear more about the laydeez’ Fat Pain, though seriously y’all, can we hear something about what they do for a living or what sort of music they like or even their favorite fucking colors? ANYTHING but more Fat Pain. But Luke demands it! Desperation Vampire that Luke is, he wants them to “open up” their Fat Pain to him such that he can gobble it down and taste every sweet drop of their despairing tears and heartache. YESSSSSS.

SO WHAT I’M GETTING HERE IS THERE’S LOTS OF FAT PAIN. Fat Pain about prom. Fat Pain about dating. Fat Pain about, importantly, not dating. Fat Pain about wearing a bathing suit. Fat Pain about wearing other clothes besides a bathing suit. The show hinges on two things: fat, and pain.

Now, I find the show exploitative and awful, like any reality dating show but calibrated to offend me specifically. But insofar as these women are real people — and I think more of them are than on a typical reality show, for the simple reason that their weight curbs the likelihood that they’re rushing to or from a Professional Reality Contestant career — I feel their fat pain, if you will. I generally don’t share it, but when I read in Lesley’s recap that someone cried or expressed worry that nobody would love her or was terrified to appear in a bathing suit or what have you, I believe there’s a grain of sincerity to those revelations.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Dodai at Jezebel devoted an entire post today to ignoring these women’s Fat Pain by confidently declaring them Not Fat. See, one of them’s a fitness instructor and another one’s a plus-size model, one of them’s pretty and another one seems to think she is. Also, they all seem to be mobile, they’re occasionally allowed to be seen on camera without food hanging out of their mouths, and pictures of them would probably be shuffled to the bottom of AP’s headless fatty file. By Dodai’s lights, they’re not fat at all! All of that excruciating air time spent on talking about how they grew up hating their bodies or learned to later, how they feel self-conscious when they should be having fun, how they worry about finding love, how they get more than their measure of shit from the people around them? Don’t worry, you guys, we TOTALLY think you’re pretty!

About one of the contestants, Dodai asks: “In which universe is this woman … fat, unattractive, or someone who finds it tough to meet a man?” Maybe… maybe the universe that put her on a dating reality show with all the other fatties to match them up with a fat man who only likes fatties? Because there’s no way she could a) otherwise get on TV (ha ha!) b) otherwise go on a dating show (ha! ha ha!) c) find a man who wasn’t fat (who’d stoop so low!) d) find a man who wasn’t exclusively into fat women (please, you slay me!) e) find a man if she wasn’t competing largely against people who are even fatter than her (as if!) or possibly f) find a man at all? MAYBE THAT FUCKING UNIVERSE? THE ONE THAT MADE THAT SHOW? (Malissa, by the way, seems by all accounts to be kind of a jackass, but even she has confessionalized about how people judge her for her weight. Ya think?)

It’s certainly the same universe Jezebel is in, or at least the same universe it was in a few posts later when Kate made the incredibly controversial claim that healthy behaviors are de facto valuable even if you unhitch them from population statistics. On that thread, the commentariat was falling over themselves to say how sick they were of the idea that obese people could ever be healthy. (I know, when can we EVER escape THAT concept, amirite?) A few choice quotes:

Obesity is dangerous and bad for your health, this isn’t about “chubby kids” or teenagers going through transition time this is about children who are not getting the proper nutrition and exercise they need which is making them unhealthy and setting them up for life-long health problems and complications. Weight is not purely a matter of looks weight has a HUGE affect on your health and overall well-being and to add that’s for both sides of the coin.

Can we all stop equating obese with “fat” or “overweight.” It’s like squares and rectangles: obese is a type of being fat or overweight, but fat/overweight does not equal obese.

Does everyone just feel there’s an implied angle that has to do with forcing people to be thin? Are we assuming that when they say obese they mean simply overweight? I don’t understand why it’s a problem to try to stop obesity. Why are we turning something into an issue about body image that doesn’t seem to be presented as an issue about body image??

As a medical professional I can state without equivocation that truly obese people are not healthy. Sorry but it’s true. But chubby, or ‘overweight’ people can absolutly be healthy.

Obese–to me–is not an objective and medically based assessment of health or wellness, it is more a subjective assessment of how you look to other people.

That last one really sums it up, huh? “Obese doesn’t really mean a weight — it means whether I think you’re gross.

Taken together, the More to Love post and the comments on Kate’s post (minus, to be fair, a strong showing from the sensible contingent) send a clear message: the obese are unhealthy, obesity is unhealthy, we should fight obesity — but we don’t mean you. We mean, you know, The Obese. The unhealthy, lazy, indulgent, gluttonous, immoderate, sedentary, not at all pretty Obese.

Here’s how the four More to Love contestants mentioned in Dodai’s post would stack up in the BMI Project, according to the stats reported on Wikipedia (yeah, you heard me):

  • In which universe is this woman Malissa fat, unattractive, or someone who finds it tough to meet a man?” is five pounds off from “obese.” If she’s actually five or more pounds above her self-reported weight of 170, she’s part of the Epidemic.
  • “Mandy, who is not fat and is, in fact, a fitness instructor” is overweight. You got us there — guess she’s the maybe-okay “chubby,” not the dreaded “obese.” SHE MUST BE THE PRETTIEST.
  • “Anna, who is not fat, and makes her living as a plus-size model” is one pound from being obese. If she is, at any point, one pound heavier than her self-reported weight of 220, she’s an Epidemic Carrier. An Epidemician, if you will.
  • “Tali, the simply gorgeous Israeli stylis/decorator who is not fat” is obese.

This so-called epidemic is not made up of theoretical fucking people who are just as fat as you can possibly imagine. It’s made up of people you see every day AND WHO YOU PROBABLY THINK ARE “NOT FAT.” That’s the point of the BMI Project. That’s the point of the good work that Jezebel has, for the most part, been doing, making it clear that fear of fat is an injustice visited on all of us, of any shape. Jezzies seem to be okay hearing that from their thin editors — since we all know they’re really talking about thin girls, right, and it’s not okay for thin girls to have to think they’re fat! They might start to eat too little, which when you’re thin is called an eating disorder!

In fact, though, the difference between body shame for thin women and fat women is only one of scale. There’s not a magical cutoff where shame becomes healthy. There’s not a magical cutoff where bodies become unacceptable. There’s not a magical cutoff where weight loss pressure suddenly breaks free of patriarchy and societal scapegoating and becomes pure and beneficent concern for health. There’s only an arbitrary demographic cutoff where someone who was okay one pound ago becomes a statistic to scare children with.

And a lot of the people you think are “not fat“? They’re already past it.

Fatweek

So, you may have noticed that there’s been a bit of a fatsplosion over at Newsweek lately. When Kate Dailey, Newsweek’s still-relatively-new health blogger, reviewed LFTF as one of her first assignments, I wasn’t sure what to make of her — her interview seemed hampered by an unwillingness to give up on toeing the “fat bad!” line. It wasn’t that she seemed hostile, but that she seemed reluctant to give up the obesity crisis security blanket. And why should she? We’ve seen how science writers tend to cover fat; it’s easier to get published if you vilify it, plus you get to use all sorts of fun synonyms. (Here, we usually write “fat.” Anyone penning an OBESITYCRISISBOOGABOOGA article also gets access to “corpulent,” “portly,” “flabby,” “overweight,” and lots of other colorful language. It’s hardly fair.)

As it turns out, I’ve apparently seen the “this is all very interesting, and if you need me I’ll be over here clinging desperately to conventional wisdom” response often enough that I’m getting to be an expert. That’s exactly what Dailey was thinking, she says –and here’s how she dealt with it:

I started to re-examine what I thought I knew about weight and health. I also started to pay more attention to how fatness was discussed and debated in the media: It’s not pretty, and it seems that the venom we have for fat people far exceeds the scorn we lay on smokers, or adulterers, or those who text while driving, and the recent health-care debate is only making things nastier.

I wonder whether part of the change of heart comes from reading her blog comments — I know Miss Conduct came to fat acceptance partly by being stunned at the vitriol she got when she suggested treating fat people like human beings. We’ll need to get Dailey on Sanity Watchers.

Anyway, because Kate Dailey is by all appearances a thoughtful and reasonable person, she didn’t yell and fight and stomp her foot when she encountered ideas she found unnerving. Instead, she investigated not only the ideas but her own resistance to them — and that’s how we got America’s War on the Overweight, Who Says Americans Are Too Fat?, and a guest post from the Fat Nutritionist. (Though it may be officially unrelated, there’s also a terrific deadpan paean to correlation/causation errors and overgeneralization in the blog this week: Redheads Fear the Dentist, and Tall Men Get Cancer: What Your Appearance Says About Your Health.)

Read them! And then, put your face where Dailey’s mouth is. By which I mean you’re going to want to give her a big smackeroo, but also: she’s calling for photos of fatties doing healthy things. “Healthy” here seems to be hovering in the “running a marathon” category, but I don’t see why we shouldn’t explode that — Dailey asks you to gloss your own photo, so if you want to write “I have fibromyalgia and here is a picture of me standing up long enough to cook a whole meal,” by all means submit that puppy. No reason we can’t challenge conventional notions of “health” while we’re challenging conventional notions of what a healthy and fit person looks like. And meanwhile, if you do have photos of yourself running or hiking or dancing and you’re willing to use them to say “in your face, haters,” you can submit them to Newsweek’s Tumblr page.

On Message

Last week someone asked my husband why there weren’t more women in ham radio and other techy jobs/hobbies, and being a good feminist he asked me what he should say. The response he’d been tossing around, he said, had something to do with how nobody tells women they can do science, math, or engineering.

This, it seemed to me, was a start but only the tip of the iceberg. I mean, it’s generally true that people don’t tell girls they can get into technical hobbies or STEM professions, but does that really get to the heart of what we’re missing? The implication then is that all girls need is a firm steady guiding hand giving them a Walkie-Talkie and a physics text. Not only does it understate the complexity of the problem, but it leaves your argument open to facile rebuttals: “But my daughter’s Girl Scout troop learned how circuits work.” “But I tell all my math students they can succeed.” “But my niece was signed up for science camp and she just didn’t like it — are you sure it’s not something innate?”

Because the problem isn’t the messages girls don’t get — it’s the ones they do. It’s not the lack of someone telling them, in so many words, that math and science are open doors for them. It’s the fact that everything else in their life tells them that’s not true. Maybe nobody says out loud “but that’s math, that’s for boys.” Some well-meaning parent or counselor or teacher may actually say otherwise. But overt articulation is not the only way that messages get through. Maybe teachers call on you less in certain subjects. Maybe the books and gifts you get push you down one path instead of another. Maybe it’s just the tone in your mother’s voice when you tell her what you want to be when you grow up — disappointment, or amused indulgence. Maybe after being bombarded with these unspoken conclusions every day since birth for your entire life, Teen Talk Barbie no longer needs to tell you in so many words that math is hard.

The same is true of other messages girls get. As Sweet Machine posted recently, Harriet Jacobs of Fugitivus put her finger on how these implicit messages operate in the case of rape and resistance. It’s true of body image too. No quantity of Sesame Street songs about how there is only one you and you are fundamentally worthwhile is going to fully counteract the million insidious messages that say you’re ugly, you’re unloveable, you take up too much space, you don’t measure up. It’s like putting on a Band-aid before you walk through a thicket of thorns. Even if nobody says it out loud (and face it, they probably do), women aren’t stupid. By the time we’re four or five, we can read the wall of text next to the checkout. We can interpret advertisements and facial expressions. We hear subtext. We know the score.

When we talk about the messages that women receive, this is often interpreted as meaning things that people actually say directly and in so many words. Wouldn’t that be simple, if we could just make sure people told girls out loud that they were unique and valuable people? But we are subtle creatures, primed to take in information even when it’s not served up to us on a platter. As an example: I was turning this post over in my head while driving home from the Metro the other day, and I thought to pay attention for a few minutes to all the information I was taking in as I drove. In addition to paying attention to the road and (vaguely, since I do this drive every day) noticing where I was and which direction I was going, I was also taking in messages about the weather, the time, the season, my bladder, my hunger level, the fit of my shoes which were rubbing on my heel, the feel of the steering wheel, an itch on my ear, the functioning of the car, the behavior of other cars and pedestrians not in my direct line of vision, the music and lyrics of the song on my iPod and its relationship to the song before it. I’m generally not consciously aware of all these bits of information, but they come together to make up my picture of the world at any given instant. And if any kind soul had told me they weren’t true, I’d know they were blowing smoke.

This is why patriarchy is so difficult to defeat — because you’re soaking in it. Unless you lock a girl in a windowless, TV-less room from birth and have her wet-nursed by Hortense from Jezebel, she’s going to encounter the sticky tentacles of a social system that says she’s more decoration than person, and a flawed decoration at that. She’s going to encounter them every single day of her life, reinforcing each other, ganging up, forming part of her understanding of reality. And just telling her she’s fine how she is — or not telling her, out loud, that she isn’t — simply will not be enough.

This is also true, by the way, of the messages men receive. I’ve been thinking about this, especially Jacobs’ points about how women learn passivity, in connection with the gym shooting incident (by the way, Kate has a brilliant post about the gym shooter and Nice Guy Syndrome on Broadsheet, in case you missed it). Jeff Fecke wrote a post at Alas about shooter George Sodini’s pathological attitude towards women, in which he talks about the way that “pickup artists” the man’s loneliness and told him that women were less than human:

Sodoni [sic] went to seminars where they told him to “kill the nice guy,” as if niceness was his failing. He read books telling him that if he was assertive enough, bold enough, that twentysomethings would be beating a path to his door… Sodoni looked to charlatans and hucksters who claimed that you, too, can get the girl of your dreams if you just insult her enough.

(You can see the responses of some of these charmers to Sodini’s rampage at another post on Alas, but be warned that you will feel crushing despair.)

It’s all very well to think of Sodini as a sad crank whose chipped shoulder was exploited by misogynist con men. He really did have a little devil whispering in his ear that women owed him sex and deserved to be hurt and mistreated for withholding it — he was even paying the devil for the privilege. But it would be a grave mistake to imagine that just because these messages were more overt than what we usually hear, they were in some way unusual. Sodini paid people to tell him that women are lesser beings. Most men get those messages for free.

We can’t symbolically get rid of Sodini by pointing out all the explicit encouragement he got from the PUA community, both before and after his repugnant crime. Normal men don’t seek out that encouragement, it’s true — but they don’t have to, because they live in the society that bred the PUA movement in the first place. The difference between the messages Sodini got and the ones men are bombarded with every day is only a difference of scale and obviousness, not one of kind. This is why otherwise decent men make sexist jokes  (or listen quietly to sexist jokes), or justify or minimize “gray rape,” or derail discussions of feminism by focusing on men’s needs. It’s overt feminist messages that are unusual, not overt sexist ones. In an atmosphere of constant sub rosa misogyny, where that constant misogyny actually forms part of our sense of reality, it’s the people who object that bring us up short, more than the people who participate or even take it to extremes.

Why do feminists “overreact” to the tiniest traces of misogyny in ads and media, things the more enlightened call harmless fun? Because those tiny traces pollute our minds and our environments. Because we struggle each day through a miasma of subtle, insidious particles of information saying that men need to fuck women into submission, that women are inherently lesser beings, that women’s looks are their only worth, that women’s safety and health and comfort are unimportant — and the particles that stick to you don’t wash off easily. Because this polluted environment breeds girls who think they can’t do math, but also men who kill. And because contradicting only the most obvious, bald-faced, clear-cut messages just doesn’t do enough to stop it.

Miss Conduct’s Mind Over Manners: A Very Belated Review

As you probably also know by now, the Boston Globe’s etiquette columnist Miss Conduct, also known as Robin Abrahams, is a good friend of the blog. I did not, however, get an advance copy of her new book by promising to review it; instead, I had to win my galley fair and square via superior history of science knowledge. So I feel slightly less bad about the fact that the book has been out for months now and I’m only just getting around to reviewing it. My excuse is, um, I only just got around to finishing it? I generally have two books going, one by the bed and one in the pocketbook, and Robin’s book had the misfortune of being the bed book during a period when I wasn’t reading much in bed. Once it migrated to the pocketbook it went really, really fast.

Because people, this book is funny. Sure, it’s nominally an etiquette book, so you’d think (if you weren’t a Miss Manners, or for that matter a Miss Conduct, fan) that it might be really starchy and dry. But, as anyone who reads Robin’s blog might have guessed, this is hardly a “which fork goes where” kind of volume. It’s about etiquette in a more meta sense — about why etiquette is necessary, what it does for us, and how you can make everyone around you as comfortable as possible without actually memorizing a lot of rules about which one’s the shrimp fork and how people should be addressed on wedding invitations. It’s really less about what you might think of as “etiquette” and more about humane behavior, common courtesy, and treating people with dignity. Plus jokes. (Robin has experience in improv and stand-up comedy, and she uses humor to great effect to get her points across — I finished the book on a plane and disturbed my seatmate with my constant giggling.)

To that end, there are chapters on some of the main sources of interpersonal discord and tension: food, money, religion, sex and relationships, children, health, pets. Of particular interest for this blog is the health chapter, which deals expertly with issues surrounding illness, disability, and fat (not, Robin mentions, because fat people are unhealthy, but because they are often treated as though they are). The section on fat is a small one, only a couple of pages, but it’s very nicely done:

There’s an increasing amount of research suggesting that weight might not be under a person’s control, and that the dangers of obesity may be overstated. There’s an overwhelming amount of research showing that diets don’t work. But from the point of view of courtesy, it’s irrelevant whether fat people can “help it.” Tanning is clearly bad for your health and entirely a matter of choice, but we don’t mock and shame the tanned, or yell, “Hey, leatherface!” at them from a car window.

Here’s another bit I really love, which nicely highlights the way that Robin uses her psychology researcher expertise to inform her ideas about interpersonal interaction and etiquette. From the section on how to be a gracious able-bodied/well person:

Acknowledging that [being able-bodied is a temporary condition] can be very, very hard. Prejudice against the sick or disabled is wrong but understandable: most people are terrified of pain, illness, disability, and death, and our profound lack of control over all of the above. We want to believe that it can’t happen to us. One of the ways we do this is by subscribing to what social psychologists call “just world theory” — the belief that the world is just, that people get what they deserve. Just-world theory is comforting — it lets you believe that you won’t get cancer because you don’t smoke, that you won’t get raped because you don’t wear short skirts, that you won’t go bankrupt because you work hard and save. Comforting — and wrong, both factually and morally. It’s natural to look at someone who has suffered misfortune and immediately try to figure out why the misfortune happened and why, therefore, it could never happen to you. But remind yourself, after your monkey mind does that little self-serving exercise, that random bad things happen to people. It’ll make you kinder to others and also much kinder to yourself when the bad things eventually come.

If I were writing the book I’d preface this with a long discussion of the social model of disability and how “disabled” really means “disabled in the context of a society that treats certain bodies as normative” — I would probably not get into evolutionary reasoning about how we react to people when we perceive something wrong with them without a long treatise on what “wrong” means. But Robin’s job is not to explain to people why it’s wrong to feel prejudice — it’s to tell them why they’re feeling it, what to do about it, and how to behave in spite of it. The paragraph on “just world theory,” I think, makes it clear that she can do that well.

I don’t agree with everything Robin writes — and as a side note, isn’t that a weird little compulsive caveat? People use it a lot when they link to us — I think even Robin has — and I always think “who agrees with everything someone else says?” I mean, I understand that it’s a kind of social indemnity, but for fuck’s sake, SM’s been my bestie for half our lives and I still don’t agree with everything she says. Anyway, but I’ll defend to the death her right to say it because it is so fucking entertaining. And in fact, I disagree with very little. My one main criticism is that there’s a bit much evolutionary psychology, a carryover from Robin’s day job as a psych researcher — but just about when I start getting really sick of it, she pulls out this gem:

People who write about evolutionary psychology as though we are trapped in the Pleistocene, and like to use the word “hardwired” a lot, conveniently forget one fact: the main thing we humans evolved to do is to learn and adapt. That’s our major strength as a species: we evolved the capacity to overcome our evolutionary heritage! There’s a party trick for you.

More importantly, even if you don’t agree with Miss Conduct on particulars — if you’d throw a different sort of party, draw the line somewhere else, phrase something differently, whatever — you’re still likely to get something out of her general approach to social interaction. The book is equal parts common-sense wisdom, scientific citations, and humor, so even if the advice is a “duh” or a “huh?” for you (and personally, I consider myself reasonably skilled at interpersonal shit and I still found plenty of food for thought), you can still get a giggle or learn about an interesting study. (I’ve made many references, since finishing the book, to the one about how people like articulate well-groomed folks better than grungy mumblers, but like articulate well-groomed people who spill something on themselves best of all.)

I really recommend this one, and I’m not just saying that because Robin’s a friend. I’ve never even met her in real life! I’m saying it because I like etiquette columns and I still never expected to have this much fun with an etiquette book — and also because in general I think that all of us, even the most compassionate, can benefit from seeing someone break down clearly what it means to be considerate and kind. Go get it. And if you’re intrigued, Robin’s also going to be on the Today Show tomorrow, July 21, in the 10-11 segment, wearing a hotly debated outfit!

Friday Fluff: A crazy box of crabs

As I mentioned the other day, this Talk of the Town column about Paul Giamatti is easily the best example of the genre I have ever read. People in the comments to this post are encouraging me to write a scathing letter to the New Yorker about Kolbert’s article; I’m more inclined to write them a letter letting them know they can retire the feature because it’s peaked. End on a high note, guys.

Evidently Giamatti is working on a film about a soul extraction and storage company, a conceit that sounds pleasingly Kaufman-esque. His character’s soul, it turns out, looks like a chickpea. In the piece, Giamatti freewheels through descriptions of other famous souls, and apparently the guy majored in soul-description or something because he is AMAZING at it:

As he sipped chicken soup, reputed to pep up the soul, he grew less agitated. “I’d like to try Willie Nelson’s soul for a day,” he volunteered. “It would be like an ear of roasted corn. And I go to Dolly Parton, for some reason—her soul would be light and airy, like a hummingbird. Yes, I like the idea of having a country singer’s soul. But not Merle Haggard’s—it’d be an engine block. Powerful, but kind of rusty, with lots of buildup.

“Freud would be interesting,” he continued. “I’m seeing a piece of Babylonian statuary, with the curly beard, the half-a-lion, the wings. Or Donald Trump: a nice set of whitewall tires.” To Giamatti’s surprise, he was also drawn, like many another, to the apparently soulless Jessica Simpson: “I can’t get a read off of her, which is why I’m curious. Her soul might just be a tape measure.” He drew the line at the guitar player Slash, “a blood orange left on a windowsill, all dried out and leathery”; Kim Jong Il, “a crazy box of crabs”; and Henry Kissinger, “a doorknob.”

I don’t know if any of us here have Giamatti’s surprising facility with soul imagery, but let’s give it a shot. What would your soul look like if it were extracted? Some people, including me, find it a little daunting to codify their own soul (Giamatti says his is “a hand-painted ceramic toad,” but he’s clearly the master of this art) — so alternately, describe the soul of someone you know here or a famous person. (Obviously we’re not talking theologically here — you don’t have to believe in The Soul to play, and it should go without saying but let’s please not touch that with a ten-foot soul pole! Forget it, Jake, it’s Friday Fluff.)

The New Yorker presents: bizarro fat acceptance!

A respected science writer of my acquaintance, who is not part of the fat acceptance movement but has been writing for a long time about the increasing research that complicates our stereotypes about fat and fat people, recently pitched an article to the New Yorker about the burgeoning field of fat studies. A new and contentious scholarly field seems like a pretty natural topic choice for the New Yorker, but they rejected the idea very politely, saying that it wasn’t really for them.

This seems somewhat less surprising now that I’ve read Elizabeth Kolbert’s book review “XXXL.” This is one of those zeitgeisty New Yorker reviews, where they look at a pile of related or semi-related works that have come out recently. In this case, it’s on the subject of why people are fat — or, if you prefer to unhitch fat bodies from gluttony, why people are given to overeat. Hilariously, it opens with Katherine Flegal discovering that the population gained weight in the 1980s — you know, the same Flegal who later added that this wasn’t necessarily a problem. But from the rest of the article, I’m guessing that if anyone told Kolbert about that study, she put her fingers in her ears and went “la la la stop trying to make me gain weight.”

The piece throws around some scary-sounding statistics — in ten years, Americans gained more than a billion pounds, or a gut-busting 3.3 pounds per person per year over the course of ten years! (thanks Meowser for checking my math) — and settles on saying that “Men are now on average seventeen pounds heavier than they were in the late seventies, and for women that figure is even higher: nineteen pounds.” Nineteen pounds is roughly the difference between these women and these women, or between her and her, or between Jen and Ginny. And, of course, a huge cohort of individual people are individually 19 pounds heavier than they were in the 1970s, because they’ve all hit middle age. But, you know, whoooooa, terrifying epidemic.

Still, we have gained some weight as a population, at least at the heavier end, and we do have different eating habits than we used to, though people who think they’re unequivocally better worse (whoops!) are living in a nostalgia-gilded fantasy land. There’s not too much negative judgment in evidence as Kolbert discusses recent books picking apart our modern way of eating, which tends heavily towards the processed, the convenient, and the sweet. The books she looks at discuss the evolutionary, financial, psychological, and industry-driven reasons why the population as a whole might be eating food in larger portions, and might be inclined to eat fatty, salty, and calorie-dense foods. Kolbert gives no nod towards the fact that these foods don’t magically become nutritious once you’re below a certain BMI — throughout, she conflates fat bodies with what have come to be understood as fat behaviors — but the discussion is an interesting one. The books put forth different reads on the modern food landscape, sometimes complementary and sometimes mutually exclusive, but after all it’s a book review; the piece stands as an overview of current popular research, not as a scientific consensus. As an overview, it’s thought-provoking at the very least.

Then she gets to “The Fat Studies Reader,” which was evidently shoehorned into a piece where it doesn’t remotely belong (fat studies, I probably don’t need to tell you, isn’t really about the evolutionary psychology of eating) and clearly isn’t wanted. Suddenly, Kolbert feels qualified to offer dismissive analysis where she’d previously been satisfied to treat the experts as experts — or perhaps I’m using the term “analysis” too loosely. Among the rather jaw-dropping claims: fat scholars advocate “putting on weight [as] a subversive act,” the fat studies field “oppos[es] the sorts of groups that advocate better school-lunch programs and more public parks,” and saying that some people are naturally heavier than others amounts to almost the same thing as saying that some people are meant to be poor. As my writer friend, who has seen pre-publication excerpts of the book, put it: “My guess is that she didn’t read much beyond the foreword.”

I haven’t read even that much, I must admit. But even sight unseen, one thing I feel I can say with confidence about “The Fat Studies Reader” is that IT IS A READER. Readers are anthologies of scholarly work designed to show the scope of a theoretical field. Some pieces probably do take radical positions, ones that would be too radical for most of us to stand behind completely, or that stand in direct contradiction to our ideas about what fat acceptance means; others show more measured viewpoints, and some might be too conservative for many of us (for instance, fat academic Corinna Tomrley has criticized Susie Orbach’s important but early “Fat is a Feminist Issue” as being essentially a diet book). Kolbert’s reaction is akin to flipping through a feminist studies reader and coming away with the idea that feminists think all heterosexual sex is rape.

How disappointing that a mainstream, usually thoughtful publication acknowledges fat acceptance, but then describes a movement that none of us would recognize. How disappointing that the usually scrupulous Kolbert couldn’t justify the minimal amount of effort it would have taken to get a more representative idea of the movement as it stands. Reading the entire book she’s purporting to review would have been a start.

(On the other hand, this Talk of the Town piece in the same issue is pretty much the pinnacle of the medium and will probably be back as a Friday Fluff. Dear NYer publishers: you guys can stop that feature now, except for Hendrik Hertzberg. It’s peaked.)

Edited to fix ambiguous phrasing, thanks withoutscene.

Now that’s what I call a surgeon general

It appears that Obama and his administration, while educating themselves admirably on health care issues as they’ve been doing for the past several months, have also clued in to the fact that there are doctors who aren’t on TV. Even before the inauguration, there were reports that  Obama had asked Sanjay Gupta, a fatphobic blowhard of a TV doctor, to be his surgeon general (as Kate said at the time, “what, the Australian dude from ‘House’ wasn’t available?”). Six months later, Gupta having taken himself out of the running, they have suddenly hit what looks to me like a hole in one.

Meet Regina Benjamin. She runs a rural family health clinic serving the poor and underserved. It’s been destroyed twice by hurricanes George and Katrina, and she’s rebuilt it from the ground up. She believes in education and public health care. She’s won a MacArthur and several humanitarian awards. Bonus: she’s kind of fat.

Now, it’s not like having a fat surgeon general automatically means that she’ll be sensitive to fat issues. Some of the ugliest attacks we hear come from fellow fatties who find it terrifying when we tell them they don’t have to suffer. And Dr. Benjamin’s father died of diabetes-related complications, though I don’t know what type, so she probably feels very strongly about at least some of the diseases that are associated with fat — if she thinks they’re also unequivocally caused by fat, she may go ahead with the calls for public anti-obesity measures. They just won’t be as offensive to me as Gupta’s would have been because she seems like a real nice lady.

But this does mean that there’s a chance, however small, that Dr. Benjamin understands that fat is not automatically inimical to health. And her position as a doctor in a poor rural area probably means that she is more sensitive to the effects of poverty on health and food access, and might understand that lack of access to good nutrition or unbiased health care or leisure for activity — not fat bodies themselves — are problems to be solved. That’s a chance I didn’t expect us to get.

The surgeon general is often mocked as being a symbolic role, but it is possible to effect some change in the position, even if many people don’t — especially now, when the health system is potentially in overhaul. What would you want Dr. Benjamin to be aware of? What kinds of changes would you want her to instigate?

(P.S. go here for a much thinkier and generally better analysis of reactions to Benjamin’s body type.)