On Privilege (Or…that time I was taunted for my thigh gap)

I went out recently in public for over an hour and nobody commented on my body. Why is this remarkable? Because I actually can’t remember the last time that happened. See, what with one thing and another, I’ve lost some weight unintentionally over last few months. And apparently, people have noticed.

I went out with a group of women a while back. These are fun ladies. We enjoyed girly drinks and talked about what was happening in our lives. One of the women mentioned she’d found these cool new shapewear garments on Etsy that prevent “chub rub” (when your thighs rub together and chafe…an uncomfortable feeling). I nodded along, but apparently not very convincingly because suddenly one of the ladies gestured to me and said boisterously, “What do you care? I bet your thighs don’t even touch! Do they? I bet they don’t!”

I hid my embarrassment behind my martini and waited for the subject to change.

You know what? Having someone make a joke out of your body doesn’t feel good no matter what your body looks like. Being made fun of for having a thigh gap does not feel less crappy than being made fun of for not having one.

Still…I chose not to address it in the moment for a couple of reasons. The main reason is that I recognized that I was coming from a place of privilege in that instance. Looking at magazines or Pinterest even briefly can show you that thigh gaps are, for some reason which completely elludes me, highly desired. If thin people want to see that thin is a way that people can look, that is easy to come by. “Thinspiration” abounds. But you know what? Seeing a body that resembles yours made into something aspirational is weird. I don’t find that affirming. I find it dehumanizing. Much like racism is bad for all of us (even white people, though that is harder to see which makes it harder to get people to understand), reducing any of us to nothing but a body type is not good for anyone.

The woman who made fun of my body is a cool person. I think she may have heard a few too many times that thigh gaps are the way to be, and so joking about it is a way to say, “I’m ok too!” Here’s the thing: my body is not an indictment of anyone else’s body; it’s just the way I look. That means if I was less analytical I would have gotten very defensive when it was mocked. But I get it: seeing a particular shape of a body feature held up repeatedly as the arbitrary “way it should be” gets old. I think mostly what happens for people is that they start out declaring, “It’s ok that I don’t look like someone on tv.” This is good and important and essential and true. But then that morphs into to, “It’s not ok to look like someone on tv.” And then from there it’s not a big leap to, “You look vaguely like someone I saw on tv and that’s gross.” (This is the hard part for me.)

I think this is the essence of beginning to deal with privilege of any kind…realizing that people have been hurt, often over and over again, and that if they are prickly about something it’s often not about you personally. Confronting privilege means remaining clear about this one important thing:

It’s not about you.

Do you need to change your behavior? Maybe.

Does the perception of someone deriding something about you mean that your identity is undermined so you absolutely have to defend yourself? It does not.

It’s definitely one way to go, and it’s a not unpredictable reaction when we feel under attack (witness the “All Lives Matter” counter-movement to “Black Lives Matter”). But defensive privilege often doesn’t take into account where a non-privileged person is coming from. In the case of some All Lives Matter folks, they seem to have missed that the point is not that black lives should matter more than other lives, it’s that they should matter…too. Without that piece of understanding, it’s too easy to get defensive. The reason I almost didn’t post about this (and the reason I usually don’t respond directly in conversation when someone comments about my body) is that saying, “stop making mean-spirited comments about my thin body because I would never call you fat” felt like saying “All Lives Matter!” But I realized recently that it’s not the same.

The point of the Black Lives Matter movement is not, as far as I can tell, to say negative things about other people. In fact, most of the things I’ve read (a whole movement is sure to have a wide variety of voices and should not be treated as a monolith) have been quite careful to say that this is about helping and supporting one group that is under attack, which has the potential to help all of us. I have yet to hear a single Black Lives Matter protester say, “I think white people don’t matter.”

The point of saying “Real Women Have Curves,” as far as I can tell, is to make women who have fuller shapes think that they are real women too. I get that. I can even get behind it to a point. But you lose me when you start feeling entitled to speak to me about my own body in derogatory and dehumanizing ways (and no, telling me I look like that actress you just spent ten minutes describing as “disgustingly skinny” is not a compliment).

Objectifying any of us hurts all of us.

At this point, when someone approaches me in an unkind or critical way, I try to listen and then pause to decide whether I need to change what I’m doing based on whatever I’m presented with. The way I see it, I may need to:

  1. Change my behavior or words.
  2. Point out that maybe they should change their behavior or words (this is only rarely the answer), or at least leave me out of it.
  3. Try to discern what important piece of understanding I’m missing.
  4. Let it go (this is almost always part of the answer).

Back to thighs: these days, it seems Real Women either have curves or a thigh gap. If you think either of those things in an exclusive way, I would like to invite you away from a false dichotomy. Real women have identities. Still, it’s the way we’ve been taught to think about our bodies and it takes a whole lot of work to step out of the framework which tells us that people who look differently than us are a threat. Our culture is full of false dichotomies and it’s HARD to leave that behind. But I promise you, it’s worth it in the long run.

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Operation Chin Down: Losing Your Mind to Find It

It’s come to my attention that my preferred mode of processing is Quickly and All at Once. I think about things thoroughly, and have a hard time letting something rest until I’ve really processed it. So with something life-changing like heart surgery in the family, what I really want to do is to completely shut down for at least a week. Except I still homeschool my kids. I still have to drive places, make the meals, do the laundry, take the dog to the vet, call the doctors, fight with the insurance company, etc. etc. etc. (etc.). Life doesn’t stop because I’m a mess. Still, I’ve realized that in order to move forward, I need to prioritize being a mess for a while.

When E was a baby and I had postpartum depression, a really smart friend told me, “you have about a hundred hours of crying to do about this. If you work really hard at it, you could be done by the fall.” That was such good advice. The point isn’t to keep track of how long or how many tears. The point is to frame this time as long and intense, but not permanent. It’s a tunnel, not a dead end. There may be cave-ins and things that have to be dug through, but if you keep going there’s light eventually.

I’ve kept my chin up. My chin, literally and metaphorically, hurts. It’s time to stop trying to hold it up all the time.

So I present, mostly for my own benefit (if you’re reading along please note that these are my rules and aren’t meant to apply in a broadly prescriptive sense):

Operation Chin Down: The Ground Rules

  1. By all means, make a few terrible decisions. Allow them to remind you (usually by the lingering bad feeling afterward) why you make good decisions most of the time.
  2. Own your selfish, unhelpful thoughts. Recognize them. Just don’t always act on them. Tell your partner you don’t want him to go play cards on a Sunday afternoon, when he watched the kids all morning so you could get out by yourself. Then tell him he should absolutely go anyway because he deserves a break too and because you’re overwhelmed, but you’re still a grownup.
  3. Repeat after me. “No, Dear Daughter, I don’t want to play Monopoly right now.” In point of fact, I never want to play Monopoly. Ever. It sucks away a little of my life force every time I even see the box. Someday I may again have the patience to play anyway, but today is not that day. Don’t say this part out loud.
  4. Create and listen to a playlist of empowering songs that encourage you to feel whatever you feel and not apologize for it. Do NOT listen to this playlist when the kids are around. They don’t need to be repeating that shit at Thanksgiving.
  5. Say curse words when you need to. It really is kind of like the steam valve on the pressure cooker. Better to curse a little than to let your head explode completely.
  6. Try to have a care where you direct your intensity. Not everyone can handle it, and not everyone should have to. People have their own stuff going on and it makes sense to establish that it’s a safe space before you just start erupting like a volcano of neuroses.
  7. You will likely make mistakes in regards to number 6. Forgive yourself. You’re doing the best you can.
  8. Be honest about whatever you think and feel about God. God is big enough to be able to handle it, and won’t hold it against you. Having faith, for you, has never been about being ‘fine’ all the time. Having faith is about being able to move through things, and about being able to recognize that what you see and comprehend can not possibly account for everything that is. You’re allowed to feel bewildered and unable to form prayers. That’s what liturgy is for. “Amen” doesn’t always mean “this is how it is”. Sometimes it means, “I sure hope so.” Amen. Lord have mercy.
  9. You’re allowed to mourn the clarity that you had before all of this happened. You’ll find a way forward eventually; that doesn’t mean that you weren’t doing a good job before (thanks to my friend Sarah Wilson Belzile for that language).
  10. Go to therapy. There’s no shame in this. Find the right psychologist…you can tell it’s the right person because you can tell they get you and because you believe they are smart enough to tell you things about yourself (lots of therapists are smart enough…but not everyone will make you feel that way…that’s where the “getting you” part becomes especially important).
  11. Go to yoga.
  12. Eat all the carbs.
  13. You’re an extrovert. You have a lot of people. Ask a couple of them to come sit with you, even if you’re in a bad head space. You’ll be able to tell who can really be present in a helpful way, because they won’t need you to be smiling before they leave (it’s ok if you do smile, obviously, but the pressure to appear completely fine according to someone else’s definition is really unhelpful to the healing process).
  14. Have people around you who will tell you if they become worried you’ve gone too far off the rails. Believe them when they tell you that you haven’t.
  15. Recognize that the rules may need to change as you go. This is not failure. This is progress.

One Couch at a Time: On Crisis and Cognitive Distortions

 

There’s this episode of Friends that most older millennials or younger generation x-ers will be familiar with. If you’re not, here’s a clip (the part I’m talking about starts around a minute in). Ross has bought a new couch but refuses to pay the exorbitant delivery fee. Then this:

Ross picks up one end of the couch, then stands there watching Rachel expectantly.

Rachel: Hehehe…are ya kiddin’?

Ross: Come on! It’s only three blocks. It’s not very heavy. Try it! Come on, come on!

Rachael: *lifts the couch* Oh! Oh, I can do it.

~~~~~

Living through a crisis and then trying to reintegrate back into the world is like having this moment 600 hundred times a day. It’s disorienting.

Somebody’s hungry? Oh! Oh I can do it…

Somebody needs to have their pills organized? Oh! Oh I can do it…

Somebody wants to come over and hang out? Oh! Oh I can do it…

~~~~~

A crucial skill I’ve needed during this time (as I type this we are 6 weeks out from a hospital stay and angioplasty for my 35 year old husband) has been to figure out which couch I actually need to lift in a given moment. I’m writing about it because I think maybe it applies to other times too…during times when we are prone to the cognitive distortions that come with anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses, it becomes very hard to sort out what we actually need to spend our emotional energy on, and what can wait or even be disregarded completely.

It’s like standing in a store full of couches but not being able to figure out which one I’m supposed to be picking up.

~~~~~

What if my kids get heart disease someday like my husband? High Lp(a) is genetic and they have a 50% chance of having it. Not that couch.

Did this happen because I saved the bacon grease to fry eggs in sometimes? Just do the best you can with the information you have now. Not that couch.

I’m afraid I talked about myself too much to the people who cared enough to keep asking questions and maybe instead I should have…I don’t know…Not that couch.

I can’t really be there for a family I care about who’s going through a hard moment. I’m going through a hard moment too. Not that couch.

No one will like my food ever again. I love sharing food with people. Not that couch.

I spoke to a prominent physician and researcher on the phone and now I feel like he thinks I don’t care about my family’s health and maybe he’s right. He was in a movie, after all. Not that couch.

I spoke to another prominent physician and she thinks the first one is a quack and now I don’t know what to eat for the rest of our lives. Not that couch. Just eat some taquitos right now.

J’s not here. Wherever he is, there’s a 1% chance that something is going wrong with my husband’s stents. There’s a 99% chance something isn’t going wrong. Not that couch.

We are vegan now. Or something. How will we explain that to the people who thought we were vegan before because they don’t know what that word means? Not that couch.

What if he dies, and I have to support my family and homeschooling doesn’t pay very much and NOT THAT COUCH.

S has three cavities. None of us have ever had any cavities before. Why did this happen? Did I give my family heart disease AND poor dental hygiene? Not that couch.

S has three cavities. I should call the dentist to see about getting them filled. Yes. This couch. Do this thing.

~~~~~

If you’re struggling, I really hope you find the resources you need to pick out your couch from the sea of couches in the crowded store. I know it’s so hard. But if I can do it, that gives me some amount of hope that you can too.

Be the Lady in the Minivan You Want to See in the World

I had a rough week a few weeks ago. My Stuff just got so big and I had a hard time dealing.

This is just part of my process. I know what to do, and I know who my people are (I have a lot of people). So it’s going to be ok. I want to tell you a story though.

One of the Things I Can Do is to go to yoga class. Because having someone remind you to breathe for an hour straight is SO HELPFUL when it feels like you’ve forgotten how. So I took myself to a yoga class at Abide Yoga because I called them the morning after a bad night and had approximately this conversation with H, Yoga Studio Owner and Kind Phone Speaker:

K: Do you have any yoga that’s good for….anxiety….? I mean, I’ll be ok but right now I’m just…ugh…
H: Yes. Please come here.
K: Are you sure? I might cry. I’ll try to be quiet though. Because yoga.
H: Just come here. It’ll be ok.

So I did. After an hour of steady reminders (I did cry, and it was ok), I felt like I could breathe well again. I headed home in my van.

There’s a neighborhood I cut through to avoid the lights on the main streets by my house. I arrived at an intersection where there is no light, but it’s close to another light which was red and cars were lined up. I began to edge into the street to turn left.

A lady in a metallic blue jeep laid on the horn and started yelling at me through her open windows. “What the F*%< do you think you’re doing? STOP!” For her sake, I kind of hope she was just having a terrible day. But I digress.

I was…caught off guard. I called out feebly, “But…the light is red…” She was not convinced. She continued to yell while pulling directly in front of me and sitting there, middle finger extended angrily, until several seconds after her light turned green. Then she pulled away.

What the what?! I thought…but then I looked at the lady in the grey minivan behind her, who had watched the whole thing. She shrugged at me, gave me a kind smile, and waved at me to go in front of her.

I drove home, bemused.

I went back to yoga that afternoon because Abide was having a special day of free yoga for their first anniversary, because my husband is awesome and played with our kids all day, and because I still needed to remember to breathe more. After class was over, I told them the story and said, “Thank you for being the lady in the van today.”

Sometimes the world seems full of stress. It feels like one big middle finger. Ladies in metallic blue jeeps will yell at you, figuratively (and sometimes literally!) speaking. But if you look hard, after that, you can often find well-placed acts of loving kindness. A glass of water. A kind word from a friend or stranger. A yoga class. If you are stressed or otherwise unwell I hope for those things for you, and I hope you are given the grace to see them. It really makes all the difference.

To the Girl Who Came Out to My High School Youth Group

People murmured uncomfortably to each other, “What’s she doing here?”

“I don’t know!”

“I mean, she came out. As a Lesbian. She likes girls!”

Churchgoers between worship services continued to whisper behind their hands and awkwardly avoid eye contact.

You stood there in the middle of the crowded lobby, not moving. Looking at people’s faces one by one. We made eye contact for a brief moment, and then you looked away to the next person as I uncomfortably averted my gaze. I had nothing to offer you. We knew each other but hadn’t been close, and I did not have a grid for how to accept or even understand your presence there because I had been taught that what you were claiming as your identity was an immoral action and so I should pass judgment on it. I was to love you by hating your sin. I was young and impressionable and didn’t yet know that loving someone should not involve voting “yes” or “no” on them before being their friend. So when someone I’d attended youth events with and known moderately well “admitted” to being gay and then came and stared at us on a Sunday morning, I didn’t know that maybe what you needed was for us to look at you like you were still a person; maybe you wanted to know you were still worthy of being looked in the eye and cared about. Better yet, for someone to say, “I don’t know how this works yet because there’s a lot of cultural baggage around this, but I care about you enough to try to figure it out.”

God forgive me.

~~~~~

A few years later, I was home visiting from college when I saw in the church bulletin that the teaching in a couple of weeks was to be on homosexuality. A few years in the school of music and a few key friendships in which I cared about actual gay people having informed my thinking, I emailed the pastor and asked him to please keep three things in mind:

1. That while many Christians think of being gay as a choice or action, most gay people think of being gay as an issue of identity.

2. That when you say that being gay is wrong, you are telling someone that the way they understand their identity is wrong.

3. That even if being gay is a sin, like gluttony or pride, we don’t make people stop doing those other things as a prerequisite for deserving our respect.

I wasn’t home the weekend he gave the teaching, so I don’t know whether my words had any impact. But I want you to know that by that point I had begun to see that our church had mishandled something important by not looking you in the eye that day.

~~~~~

If I go back and think about the day you stood there, I hope that someone in that whole crowd of professed Jesus followers was willing to stop and really look at you. I hope someone, anyone, was able to see your coming and standing there for what it really was: an act of bravery. You came and you said, “this is who I am. This is who I understand myself to be. Do you still love me?” I feel deep shame as I write that knowing it wasn’t me. But wallowing doesn’t help either of us. Guilt is only useful if it propels us to do better because we know better. So I promise to continue learning how to really look at people. I will put away from me, as a doctrine of the Pharisees, the practice of passing judgment on people as though they are nothing but a collection of choices for me to weigh in on.

Congratulations, M. I hope that, wherever you are, the recent ruling from the Supreme Court regarding gay marriage affords you some measure of peace and validation. And I hope and pray you’ve found people who can love you well and see you for the precious child of God that you are.

 

This is The Work.

A number of years ago, a friend of mine was going through a bad breakup (turns out most breakups are bad in some way; people don’t usually break up if things are going well…but I digress). At the time, I was working for her out of her house. I showed up assuming we would work on some administrative tasks we had planned, but neither of us could really focus. So we watched Zoolander instead.

At one point in the movie, she turned to me and said, “You know, I get caught up in thinking I have to be doing work with people, or we are just wasting time.”

“I know that about you,” I replied. “That’s why I started working for you. I wanted to be friends.” See what I did there? I was as subtle back then as I am now.

“But R keeps trying to tell me that really being with people, right in their stuff, is the work. That it’s the important part.”

“He is right about that.”

“I needed to be watching Zoolander. This is The Work.”

~~~~~

Several ladies at the Jewish preschool daycare center where I worked shortly after moving to Cleveland used to tell me I was a “balaboosta.” I liked it then; I like it even more now. I’m growing into it as a major part of my identity. For those of you like me who don’t speak yiddish, a balaboosta is a woman who makes her home and her life a safe and welcoming space for those around her. In prefeminist terms, it meant a sort of super-housewife, who can pull off dinner for 20 at the drop of a hat without mussing her pearls or starched apron. Believe me when I tell you this is not me (well, maybe the dinner part). But underneath the pearls and the endless laundry and vacuuming is the idea that really being with people and creating space for them to really be with each other is The Work.

One of my favorite things about being married to J is that he really, really gets this about me. He understands that my plan to bring dinner to a friend in the hospital is not ancillary to my day; it is a small outpouring of me doing what I feel in my bones that I’m on the planet to do.

I doubt I’ll make much of a career out of it. I have yet to find a university that offers a master’s degree in having a friend over for coffee, or in watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer because that is the best way to be present with someone in a particular moment (doing The Work is not always about talking). Sometimes I think it sounds silly to describe such simple gestures as my calling in life. But I think when it sounds silly to me, it’s really because I am underestimating the usefulness and value of meaningful emotional connection.

Míliath: on Kindness and the People Nearest to Us

I’m tired of reading children’s books that endorse that idea that brothers and sisters being awful to each other all the time is just a fact of life.

I’m realistic enough to be clear that they need to learn to work things out with one another, and that the friction between siblings is a useful and important part of the process. But within that reality, I think I can help my children to learn to disagree (discuss, argue, and yes, fight…) well. It’s tricky, but I think it’s possible. In fact, I think the skill of working out differences graciously is one of the most important relational tools I can give them.

Family relationships ought to be a safe space for children and grown-ups to be other than their best, to have their big feelings, and to feel accepted for who they are. However, I think this is often conflated with a somewhat lazy approach to relationships “I can be a jerk to them, they have to love me anway.” There is some basis for this belief. That doesn’t mean it’s the only way to do things. I also don’t like the implied, “so I don’t even have to try to be kind,” that too naturally follows on that train of thinking.

What if our daily family life together can be the very setting for us to practice all the virtues we read about or hear about? Peace, love, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control….keeping these abstracted away as ideas reserved for “out in the world” makes them much more likely to be practiced only occasionally. But what if our close relationships are the exact places we should be using as a safe space to practice being good to other people? What if my children are, in fact, capable of receiving and growing kindness within them, if I can just sow it carefully?

We are not perfect people. Weeds like selfishness, angry shouting, and other unkindnesses are a fact of life. That doesn’t mean they should be ignored. That’s how you end up with a garden choked with weeds.

With that in view, we are studying kindness this week. We’re making trips to the library to learn about it. We’re studying what wise people have said about it. We’re defining what it means to us personally, and how we can recognize and practice it in our lives. As an attempt to highlight kind actions when we recognize them, we are exclaiming “míliath!” whenever we witness a kind action. Míliath means “kindnesses” (in Sindarin, because why not?).

What has worked to help you to promote kindness within your home or important relationships?

GM courtesy brown