Category Archives: Beauty Standards

Pleasure in a Pill? [Marie Claire, December 2014]

As a journalist, you always try to go into a story unbiased — but the truth is, we all of us have biases, almost all of the time. It’s unavoidable. You’ve got some kind of back story that brings you to the subject and that informs how you choose your sources, the questions you ask them, and how you write the piece. Of course, if you’re good at your job, you play devil’s advocate with yourself the whole time, ask both sides of the debate equally tough questions and stay open to having your mind changed. But that doesn’t happen terribly often. (See: All of the evening news.)

This might be the first feature I’ve ever written where I honestly did not have my mind made up. I mean, as a woman, a feminist, and a married person, obviously, I have pertinent back story (and no, we’re not getting into it here). But even after spending months reporting this, interviewing tons of different researchers and regular women, I have not found a good answer to the question I explore in this new investigation, out now in the December issue of Marie Claire: Do we need a female equivalent of Viagra? 

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There’s Nothing Mickey Mouse About These Mermaids [Times Magazine, July 7, 2013]

In my last post (about my essay on fitness motivation for Elle), I mentioned that I traveled on another assignment in April and the experience inspired me to learn to swim.

That story will make more and less sense now that I can tell the whole thing, because the article in question is finally online now and will be in this weekend’s Times Magazine.

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Sexism and Body Shaming, Oscars Edition

I fully admit to falling asleep after Russell Crowe ruined the Les Mis group singalong, but now that I’ve caught up on the remaining 19 hours of the Oscars last night, there are a few things I think we need to talk about.

1. Enough with the Black Swanning already.

Forget your feelings about her nipple-y dress and overly earnest acceptance speech, Anne Hathaway killed it f*cking dead as Fantine and I’m glad she won. At the same time, I am not excited about two big wins, two years in a row, for already-tiny actresses winnowing down to skeleton size for these roles. I know there’s a case to be made for method acting and I guess, yes, an 18th century French prostitute dying of consumption would be pretty starved-looking. (Though the chicks who played her on Broadway never seem to need to go there.) See also an insane ballerina. But the media frenzy around these weight-loss-for-art stories only reinforces our skewed ideas about what women need to look like to be successful. We do not get this lathered up when male actors change their body shape for a part, period. It also gets in the way of appreciating the fine acting these women are actually doing because instead of talking about the interesting choices they made with their brains, we’re thinking, as usual, that women are their bodies and not much more.

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Virginia on We Are the Real Deal

I know I’m subjecting you guys to some blog radio silence at the moment — and here you are, only halfway through your business plans! It’s the usual holidays-work-travel pile-up but I promise we’ll get back to that soon.

In the meantime, I’m delighted to report that several of my posts have been reprinted over on We Are the Real Deal, a project of the nonprofit NORMAL, which raises awareness about eating disorders, body image and self-esteem through the arts. We Are the Real Deal is “an educational blog universe” where a roster of over 40 contributors blog about body image, self-esteem and nutrition for young girls and women.

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Do We Have Secret Fat Envy?

Envy

Rebecca DiLiberto (producer/executive editor of The Ricki Lake Show, which my inner ’90s child is randomly a bit excited about although I usually consider myself strictly an Ellen girl) has a post up over on Huffington Post called Why You Can Have Everything You Want (Even Though You’re Fat). 

And at first, I though it was going to be the usual “I finally realized that there’s nothing wrong with being a size 14″ coming of age/finding love tale, which I’m all for (there is nothing wrong with being a size 14) but I get a lot of, if you know what I mean.

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On The Olympics & Body Diversity

Holly Mangold, weight lifter London 2012Nastia Liukin

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Fitspiration and Southern Fried Fitness

Virginia Sole-Smith, Robin Shea Southern Fried Fitness

Guys, I did the most fun radio interview this week, with Robin Shea, host of Southern Fried Fitness, a TV show and internet radio program on wsRadio.

You can read what Robin is all about in the screen grab above — and guess why I liked her immediately (hint: Fried things are delicious.) Robin wanted to discuss this post I wrote back in March, about the troubles with fitspiration. In case you forgot —  Fitspiration or fitspo is a term for all the sweaty hard body images currently bouncing around Pinterest, Facebook and the like, accompanied by:

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Why I Heart GIRLS & Lena Dunham’s Body

Lena Dunham GIRLS HBO

I’m a little late to this game since the first season of HBO’s GIRLS ended Sunday night. But if, like me, you don’t schedule your life around appointment television, then you’re probably very appreciative of the fact that I waited a respectful three days before blogging about this so as to avoid spoilers. You’re welcome.

At any rate: It is high time that I expressed my fervent appreciation and admiration for Lena Dunham and the amazingness she has created with this here show. The poor girl experienced all manner of backlash when it first premiered — how could she not? She’s approximately twelve and she’s been put in charge of a prime time comedy at HBO. She’s writing, directing and starring in a show about being a New York-based twenty-something all the while actually being a New York-based twenty-something. Most of whom are generally lacking in the perspective you would need to do such a thing. So everybody had to get up in arms about whether she was accurately capturing the experience of being poor and pretentious during your twenties. Are their jobs appropriate? Do they dress too fashion-y? Why aren’t there more black characters? Who eats cupcakes in the bathtub? Is Bushwick just too… Bushwick-y? And so on.

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Why I Quit Dieting

iVillage Why I Quit Dieting by Ragen Chastein with Virginia Sole-Smith

I’m so thrilled to be participating in my girl Ragen’s iVillage slideshow of Diet Quitters. 

A) Because it’s really fun to be back over in iVillage Never Say Diet land for a visit.

B) Because I’ll be so stoked if we inspire even one woman to break up with an unhealthy diet/weight cycling pattern. And with 33 awesome women featured, I think those odds are good.

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Michelle Obama’s Biggest Mistake

Michelle Obama on The Biggest Loser

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I am usually a pretty big Michelle Obama fan. I’ve defended her right to wear un-American fashion designers, because she’s the First Lady, not First Barbie Doll. I had a whole lot of feelings when Rush Limbaugh called her fat. And there is a lot about her MyPlate program and the whole Let’s Move campaign that is just great. 

But then, last month, Michelle Obama went on The Biggest Loser. And that’s where she lost me.

Because TBL is a show that glorifies pretty much everything we’re doing wrong about obesity in this country. It’s about getting thin at any cost. It’s about no pain, no gain. It’s about public humiliation. It’s definitely not about health, no matter what the coaches scream as “motivation.” 

My friend Ragen Chastain, the amazing fat dancer and activist, has written a wonderful piece explaining exactly why Obama’s decision to appear on TBL was a mistake. I’m reprinting it here with her permission because she’s had trouble getting traditional media outlets to publish it (they’re afraid of pissing off the White House — really, guys? First Amendment, anyone?) and we need to get the word out. Just because a show glorifies weight loss doesn’t mean it’s good for your health. 

Here’s Ragen: 

When I heard that Michelle Obama was going on The Biggest Loser to congratulate the participants on being role models I knew that I had to do something.  So I e-mailed my friend Darryl Roberts, filmmaker of America the Beautiful 2: The Thin Commandments. We wrote a well-researched article pointing out the problems with Mrs. Obama endorsing the contestants as role models.  That article is below.

It wasn’t meant for this blog, but it’s now been turned down by three major media outlets.  Not because they disagreed with us, in fact all three said that they agreed with the article.  It was denied in all three cases because the White House wouldn’t like, they were worried about damaging their working relationship with the White House, and it it made the First Lady look bad and out of touch.  That confused me since I think the problem is that the First Lady IS out of touch, not that I’m pointing it out. And why does the media believe that, in America, we should be scared to question our government?

So I’m using my little forum here to get this out.  But before I do, I want to make an invitation:

Michelle Obama – have lunch with me.  I believe that you are a good person and that your intentions to improve kids’ health are good, and I don’t believe that you intend for the media to be too scared to publish pieces that are critical of you.  I’m a champion athlete, a trained researcher, and a real live obese woman and I think that a good place to start is for us to have a conversation.  Tell me where and when you’d like to have lunch and I’m buying.

In the meantime, here’s the piece that the media was too scared to publish:

Michelle Obama’s “Biggest” Mistake

By Darryl Roberts and Ragen Chastain

DARRYL: I have had the opportunity to get to know Health at Every Size proponent Ragen Chastain after interviewing her for my documentary America the Beautiful 2: The Thin Commandments.  I was coming home from a screening of the movie when I received an email from Ragen alerting me to the fact that our first lady Michelle Obama was going on The Biggest Loser to proclaim the contestants as role models.

I will admit that initially I didn’t quite believe this. The Biggest Loser is a show that’s exploits a very dangerous aspect of American life, the unhealthy ways in which we attempt to lose weight. Surely the First Lady had to know this. But it turned out to be true and, knowing what we know about health and weight, Ragen and I decided that we had to respond.

Mrs. Obama, we know you love our youth as much as we all do and that you want to see them healthy, but we would ask you why you chose a game show like The Biggest Loser as a platform to promote “getting healthy,” and why you continue to push weight loss even though it doesn’t meet the criteria of evidence based medicine.

Have you vetted what happens to some the contestants one of two years after the show?

The New York Times did some digging and this is what they found:

“The Biggest Loser has produced some amazing results for its obese contestants, but at what cost? Many see the pounds come right back, and it’s likely because they engage in dangerous, damaging behavior in the first place in order to win the weight-loss reality show, the New York Times has learned. Season one’s winner, who’s almost back to his original weight of 330 pounds, dehydrated himself to the point of urinating blood. “I’m just waiting for the first person to have a heart attack,” says a doctor.

This season’s first episode resulted in two hospitalizations, which is scary given the content of a release form obtained by the Times. It reads: “No warranty, representation or guarantee has been made as to the qualifications or credentials of the medical professionals [on the show].”

Shockingly, contestants who talk about being completely inactive sometimes for years have to attest that they are “in excellent physical health”. And while the Times got some tidbits — contestants apparently work out in as much clothing as possible when the cameras are off — few were willing to talk. After the paper started digging around, former contestants were emailed a reminder of the serious consequences that come with unauthorized interviews: fines of $100,000 to $1 million.”

A lot of our youth actually start off exercising and eating better. But when they don’t see the “desired result” on the scale, they stop because they mistakenly think that if their healthy habits don’t lead to weight loss then they can’t lead to health.

From my travels with the film and Ragen’s work as an expert speaker on Health at Every Size, we can produce health professionals from Harvard, Princeton, Michigan State, the University of Denver, UCLA, who will tell you exactly what we’re telling you.

RAGEN:  This is an illustration of good intentions gone horribly awry. Calling these contestants good examples of health and fitness is deeply problematic. There are already firsthand accounts of Biggest Loser contestants being encouraged to engage in incredibly unhealthy behaviors, including working out against doctor’s orders, and manipulating their weight through dehydration.

According to Golda Poretsky’s interview with former contestant Kai Hibbard:

“They start teaching you that because you are overweight you are sub-human …There was a registered dietician that was supposed to be helping … but every time she tried to give us advice … the crew or production would step in and tell us that we were not to listen to anybody except our trainers.  The doctors had ordered us to take [a solution to re-balance our electrolytes] and the trainers were like, “Throw it out, right now.”  So I got to a point where I was only eating about 1,000 calories a day and I was working out between five and eight hours a day …   And my hair started to fall out.  I was covered in bruises.  I had dark circles under my eyes … My period stopped altogether and I was only sleeping three hours a night.  I tried to tell the TV show about it and I was told, “Save it for the camera.”

Exactly what’s wrong with the “lose weight” to be healthy approach?

RAGEN: Teaching kids about healthy eating and helping them develop a lifelong love of movement are excellent intentions.  Focusing on the weight of kids in order to do that is simply horrible execution.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) stated recently that a program that shames kids carries  “a great risk of increasing stigma for those children who are overweight or obese which, in turn, can reinforce unhealthy behaviors (e.g., overeating),” and also said:

“Studies suggest that overweight children who are teased about their appearance are more likely to binge-eat or use unhealthy weight-control practices, and weight-based victimization has been correlated with lower levels of physical activity. Not surprisingly, stigmatization of obese individuals, particularly adolescents, poses risks to their psychological health.”

Hospitalizations for eating disorders in children younger than 12 years old rose by 119% from 1999 to 2006 according to a report issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) published in the journal Pediatrics.

It’s not just that focusing on kid’s weight might hurt them, it’s also that it doesn’t help.  According to research from the University of Minnesota “None of the behaviors being used by adolescents (in 1999) for weight-control purposes predicted weight loss[in 2006]…Of greater concern were the negative outcomes associated with dieting and the use of unhealthful weight-control behaviors, including significant weight gain.”

Meanwhile there is not a single study that shows that weight loss works for more than a small fraction (about 5 percent) of people.  The cold hard truth is that there is absolutely no evidence that supports the idea that the majority of fat people can become thin through diet and exercise.

Is There a Solution?

RAGEN:  Absolutely.  The fact that I’m a healthy fat athlete isn’t a surprise or a paradox, there are lots of us.  A great deal of evidence (Matheson et. al., Wei et. althe Cooper Institute etc.) points to the conclusion that healthy habits make healthy bodies in a wide variety of sizes.

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