Wednesday, July 22, 2015

fat: clarification, further examination and some checking of myself

After my previous post, I got a Facebook message from a friend (who is staying anonymous because she is private, not because she has body shame). With her permission, I’m posting our exchange. Body stuff is such a loaded topic, so it makes me happy that we can talk about it sanely, in stark contrast to most of the internet.

Cheryl, I just read your post about weight and dieting, and I have a lot to say about this post and would be happy to have a longer 1:1 conversation after you have had some sleep...say in 2-3 years!

Briefly let me just say that in not one of the photos you posted were you fat by anyone
’s definition -- anyone’s but your own. To say that you were the “fattest cheerleader” is a disservice to you and to all of us who are fat. Further, youve set up a double dichotomy of skinny = good and fat = bad. For your sake, and most especially for your sons, I would encourage you to spend some time reading in the Health At Any Size (HAES) and All Bodies are Good Bodies movements. Some good links:

Bevin Brandlandingham:
Jes Baker:
Linda Bacon, PhD:


Your fat friend


Bevin of the blog Queer Fat Femme; owner of amazing shark dress.
Thanks for reading the post and writing to me. My intention was most certainly not to say fat = bad and thin = good, but I can see now that I fell into an unfortunate trap of conflating weight and health habits. In general, I do think that eating a table full of pastries is a bad idea. But fatness is only sometimes a byproduct of such behavior; sometimes it’s a byproduct (note I’m not saying cause) of other conditions (from polycystic ovarian syndrome to a regular old slow metabolism), and sometimes it’s just body type. Similarly, thinness is only sometimes the result of eating vegetables and exercising. I’ve known people in every one of these categories (fat and healthy, fat and unhealthy, thin and healthy, thin and unhealthy).

The American Cancer Society put out a pamphlet about cancer prevention that recommends a general “healthy body weight” in every category except for estrogen-positive breast cancers, for which it suggests, I swear to god, “being as thin as possible without being underweight.” As you might imagine, that spoke directly to my little overachieving soul and whatever anorexic residue lies buried beneath my chocolate-loving heart. That dictum hangs over me in ways that aren’t always good for my brain, because when I go up a jean size, I imagine cancer cells nomming on the estrogen that is stored in fat cells.

Dash’s birth family has a history of heart disease. His birthmom is on the slender side, so again, I know that health and weight are not the same. I also know that genetics plays a huge part in all of this stuff, so I could get cancer and Dash could get heart disease even if we live off organic carrots and small mercury-free fish.

I also know that orthodoxy can be a fatal flaw, one I have a long unfortunate history of falling victim to. If you try to eat only carrots, you’ll probably fail, say FUCK IT and eat all of the croissants. Better to eat some carrots and some whole wheat bread and half a croissant. By “you,” of course I mean me.

I’ve now played the cancer card, the heart disease card and the kid card. Aren’t I holy?

If only this didn't require playing beach volleyball.
So let me add: I want to look hot in a bikini. Not “body acceptance movement” hot—I want to look beach volleyball player hot. What can I say, I grew up in a town of beach volleyball players. I never looked like one of them, I never really liked the beach all that much and culturally I’ve veered in the opposite direction of Manhattan Beach. Except for the ways I haven’t. And all that shit, all those voices, all those girls who never thought twice about wearing sports bras and short shorts all summer long, are in my head even when health is (genuinely) my top priority.

You’re right, I’m not fat in any of the pictures I posted. I was, nevertheless, the fattest cheerleader—like I said, Manhattan Beach’s body bar is set high and traditional. I was always on the bottom of the pyramid, tossing some cute hundred-pounder into the air. Obviously it still messes with my head a bit.

I wrote about trying to leave shame behind, and I’m realizing now that there are two categories of shame: shame for things that were really a bad idea (whether it’s as minimally consequential as eating a box of Oreos in one sitting or as big as something that would land you in jail) and shame for things that are actually fine and even awesome (being fat, being queer, etc.). In both cases, shame is useless and tenderness is the only cure. But I’d put some of my eating habits in the “try to avoid in the future” category, while putting my body, in all its scarred imperfect glory, in the latter.

Thanks for the links. I think I’ve read and liked some of Jes Baker’s posts before. Bevin Branlandingham has a fun voice and style (not to mention a fantastic name), and I’m interested in what she says about “food neutrality,” which I see that I so don’t possess, as I reread my opening paragraphs of this message. Obviously I need to read more; this is a process. I’m not an authority, just a ponderer with a chronic sweet tooth.

Thank you again!


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

the principal suffering of human beings, or: croissant hangover blues

“I’d come to squander an appalling proportion of my mental time on empty vows to cut down to one meal a day, or on fruitless self-castigation over a second stuffed pepper at lunch. Surely on some unconscious, high-frequency level other people could hear the squeal of this humiliating hamster wheel in my head, a piercing shrill that emitted from every other woman I passed in the aisles of Hy-Vee.”

--from Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

I never think of really smart, self-actualized women—whether fat, skinny or in-between—as dieting, but Shriver’s novel about consumption and excess in various forms (I think; I’m only on page 28) suggests that maybe she’s not a total stranger to the endeavor.

I spent my teens and early twenties bingeing and dieting, plummeting to 107 pounds for a brief period and becoming the fattest cheerleader on the squad for a much longer one. Then I came out, and within a year my eating habits were the best they’d been since childhood.

Halloween during my brief flirtation with anorexia. I was so excited for the one night I allowed myself candy. (Thanks to Bonnie, lower left, my best Facebook historian friend, for this pic and the one below.)
So I assumed that my body issues had to do with self-hatred and low-level depression, and were therefore a thing of the past.

But the past five and a half months have easily been among the happiest of my life if not the happiest. So why have I gained like ten pounds? (And is there anything more embarrassing than baby weight when you adopted?) Why did I stand next to the pastry table at yesterday’s staff meeting, pounding almond croissants from Homeboy Bakery while Shirley talked about our educational outcomes?

I tell myself that I’m still well within my BMI. But just because you don’t have liver damage yet doesn’t mean you’re not an alcoholic, y’know?

Hiding my stomach behind my pompoms.
Now I look at my bingeing years with some revisionism: Yes, I was wrestling with (or working hard to deny) my sexuality between the ages of twelve and twenty-two. But I was also taking hard classes, getting almost straight A’s, going to cheer practice after school, navigating the social minefield that is high school and practicing abominable study and sleep habits. College was more of the same—just sub out “newspaper” for “cheer” and subtract forced interactions with the popular kids.

Maybe I was just tired.

Peak chub during my first year at CalArts. Where are pompoms when you need them? (Photo by Suzanne Danziger.)
As happy as I am right now—I, who was/am suspicious of that very word—I am also exhausted. I have a miraculously “easy” kid, but there is really no underestimating the 24-hour-ness of parenting. Throw in a job, a serious hobby (that would be writing, that thing I still occasionally do), a marriage and a genetic predisposition toward addictive behavior, and you have me chasing my pastry binge with birthday cake, a grilled cheese sandwich, cereal and chocolate.

I’m putting this out there partly for cheap reasons: I love fresh starts, and I want today to mark the start of my Would I Let My Kid Eat That? non-diet diet, in which I try to become a good food role model to Dash now that he’s on the cusp of solid food.

I’m also putting it out there because I’m thoroughly ashamed of the hamster wheel in my head—of how loud and shouty it is even when I have so many better things to think about. And I would like to try to be done with shame.

We are at an anti-shame moment in our culture, in which we frequently call out (i.e. shame) people for shaming others. Slut-shaming, breastfeeding-shaming, whatever. It is a lazy endeavor, but the impulse toward being who we are and being okay with that is a good one.

Today Fr. Greg said: “The principal suffering of human beings is shame and disgrace, and it prevents us from feeling joy. I don’t know how to get beyond it except to be tender with each other.”

That seems like a good place to start, whether your shame is that you set off a stink bomb (literally) in the Homeboy bathroom like the kid in Fr. Greg’s story, or you bought stretchy big-size pants at Target yesterday like the woman in, um, my story. Or maybe you got schooled by someone you thought was a good friend, or lied to get out of a co-worker’s husband’s funeral, or had a one-night stand when you swore you wouldn’t, or committed a felony or five.

Oh LiLo. Oh humanity.
A long time ago, I had an epiphany about the uselessness of shame. I was thinking about Lindsay Lohan (like I said, a long time ago) and I imagined her talking to her therapist. She wouldn’t stop passing out in front of paparazzi lenses by realizing “Oh, I’m a sloppy drunken floozy”; she would stop once she realized that she’d been treated like shit by her parents and that she deserved love. Until that point, I really thought that self-improvement started with self-flagellation. If you could just realize how awful you were!

My short stories at the time were usually about spoiled rich girls getting their comeuppance at the hands of a Dust Bowl heroine or a (cringe) magical negro-type. I know. I’m ashamed! But also not. You write, you live, you learn.

So yeah, I would like to lose about fifteen pounds. I would like to eat more vegetables and not let my exhaustion get the best of me. But in the meantime I would like to rock my big Target pants, because while I want to model a fondness for carrots, I want to model self-compassion too.

Monday, July 06, 2015

i don't just want my kid to be happy

“I’m in heaven,” I told AK yesterday.

We’d just sat down in creaky-springed seats near the back row at Highland Theatre to see a matinee of Inside Out. Dash was already getting sleepy in his carrier (see previous post re: bringing infants to the movies). There was a cardboard tray of popcorn and a mini bag of M&Ms next to me, because we’d just discovered that while a small drink and small popcorn cost $10, a kid’s combo containing the same items plus M&Ms only cost $6 (and you didn’t have to be a kid to order it). It was all of my favorite things.

Joy and Sadness ponder a memory.
The movie, as you probably already know, follows the inner workings of an eleven-year-old girl named Riley as she navigates a move and a new school. Thus far, Joy has been the main driver at the control center of her mind, but all of a sudden Sadness—a bespectacled blue girl in a turtleneck—is popping up in the most unexpected places, even tainting pleasant memories. Assuming that you yourself are over eleven, I’m probably not giving away a lot to say that they discover life is a bittersweet blend of emotions, and that you need all of them for balance and sanity. When Joy tries to keep Sadness in a tiny little circle, she (and Riley) fails. When Sadness copilots, Riley becomes vulnerable, expressive and mature.

Guess who's manning the controls in my head.
Anthony Lane wrote one of his condescending reviews of the movie in the New Yorker, implying that Riley had first-world problems (because she had a lot of sunny childhood memories, I guess) and that the whole endeavor was a bunch of self-esteem-movement mumbo-jumbo and a denial of Reason.

I think he missed that it’s first and foremost a coming-of-age movie, and that being eleven is a fairly universal problem. And just because Reason isn’t a character doesn’t mean it’s totally devalued. There’s a spot-on moment when Joy opens a box on the Train of Thought and a jumble of what look like mahjong tiles falls out.

“These are Facts, but they’re all mixed up with Opinions,” she laments.

Inside Out is an imaginative, funny, sweet movie, one that could, I think, actually act as a non-didactic guidepost for kids trying to understand adolescence, if not Anthony Lane. The animation and landscapes aren’t quite as fanciful as, say, The Lego Movie, but they get the job done.

Riley on the ice.
(Side note: I love that such a big, non-princess movie features a girl as the protagonist. A girl who happens to love hockey and have two male personality traits [Fear and Anger], even though quick glimpses into other characters’ heads reveal traits that match their external gender.)

Shortly after their move, Riley’s mom muses that she (Riley) is the one thing making her father happy right now. Later, her parents wonder “What happened to our happy girl?”

This is a bit of a soapbox of mine: When parents say “I just want you to be happy,” they’re not always doing kids a favor. Sure, it’s better than pressuring a kid to become a doctor or to marry Jewish or whatever, but happiness is actually a huge demand. When kids feel responsible for their parents’ emotional well being, they can crumble under the pressure, as Riley nearly does.

Happy baby pose.
AK and I took this cautionary tale very seriously. We knew our mission, and we chose to accept it. Dash, in his five months of life, has shown himself to be an extraordinarily happy baby. Like, so happy that I can’t even relate to parents who talk about the blood, sweat and tears of parenting (exhaustion, yes, but not a lot of tears). So happy that I feel like I could learn a lot from him. So happy that, if he didn’t engage so actively with his surroundings, I might wonder if he was a little bit dull in the head (in which case I’d love him no less).

But that doesn’t mean he’ll always be happy, or that he has a responsibility to be. AK and I can rejoice in his happiness without making it an obligation. He is entitled to the full range of human emotion. As long as he becomes a cardiologist.

Friday, July 03, 2015

the strip mall on memory lane

There is a Big Lots! around the corner from Dash’s daycare. I’d been meaning to check it out since he started daycare last week; you’d think it was a museum or something, and in a way I approached it as such (hey, you take your thrills were you can).

I hadn’t actually been to a Big Lots! before, but I grew up going to Pic ‘N’ Save, its eighties counterpart (Wikipedia tells me that Big Lots! actually bought Pic ‘N’ Save in 2002, although by then it was called MacFrugals). Pic ‘N’ Save occupied most of a down-and-out strip mall in Hermosa Beach. This was back when there were still down-and-out parts of the beach cities. My mom always speculated that the other businesses in the strip mall—an Indian restaurant and a couple of stores that kept heavy curtains drawn at all times—were fronts for something.

The price was right.
Pic ‘N’ Save was full of cheap crap that regular stores hadn’t been able to sell, but we were a family of bargain hunters. If a brand of kids’ shoes had briefly flirted with making shoes for adults, you might find the fruits of the company’s failure in a bin at Pic ‘N’ Save. There were also aisles of make-up and slightly separated nail polish, resin figurines, off-brand cookies and weird old-lady bras.

When My Little Pony attempted re-launches a few times before the Friendship is Magic era, you could find those ponies at Pic ‘N’ Save.

What do you mean you don't remember Pinkie Pie's predecessor, sorta-off-looking Pinkie Pie?
By fifth grade, brand consciousness had hit my elementary school. I knew that cooler kids shopped at Kidsmart and the coolest kids shopped at Nordstrom. By sixth grade, I started saving for a pair of red Guess jeans with zippered ankles. But in fifth grade, I hadn’t quite caught on. I had a pair of white cotton pants with pink polka dots from Pic ‘N’ Save, which I liked to wear with a teal-and-white striped shirt that had a square of splatter paint on the front, like a Jackson Pollock framed by an awkward ten-year-old.

I was wearing this outfit one day, walking up the hill from class to the school library where my mom worked, when an older girl named Carrie called out, “Hey, where do you shop?”

I assumed she was envying my look and I said with pride, “Everywhere. From Nordstrom to Pic ‘N’ Save.” I was high-low before there was high-low. But the words were barely out of my mouth when Carrie exchanged a look with her friend and I knew, instantly, that she’d been making fun of me. She would not be running to Pic ‘N’ Save to get her own stripes-and-polka-dots ensemble.

Now I can love my ten-year-old self—whose fashion icons were (and are) Pippi Longstocking and Punky Brewster—so easily it almost feels like a scene in a bad movie. The Poor But Creative Girl Gets Made Fun Of By The Rich Popular Girl. But I can just as easily transport myself to the shame of the moment, and I brought all of it with me as I entered Big Lots! on Thursday afternoon, Dash strapped to my chest.

I was one makeover shy of being a pop culture cliche.
My primary thought was, I could have saved so much money if I’d gone here for the past ten years instead of Target or Trader Joe’s, not to mention all that kombucha from Whole Foods when I was going through cancer treatment and indulged my needy, semi-anorexic self with pricey health food. 

Cereal for $2! Shampoo for $1.50! Mattresses for $249! Was I certain I didn’t need any patio furniture right now?

Oh, snap!
The orange shelf labels advertised bargains and the fact that food stamps were accepted here. Regular grocery stores never seem to advertise this fact. Just liquor stores and places that sell things like hot wings-flavored cracker sandwiches.

Food-adjacent food.
In the toy aisle, a dad was asking his daughter to promise—really promise—she would clean her room if he bought her a Frozen doll. The little girl could barely concentrate long enough to nod vigorously.

“Look at me,” he said. “Look at me. Do you promise? Are you going to keep it clean?”

Yeah yeah sure Dad gimme that Elsa.

I bought cereal, coconut water, pasta sauce, conditioner, tissue paper and a plastic bin to put AK’s records in. The clerk at checkout said of the latter, “It’s $6—is that okay? You still want it?”

I did. The clerk said hi to Dash. I commented that Dash had been sleeping: “He just woke up and is kind of looking around now like ‘Where am I?’”

“Better than waking up at the movies,” the clerk said.

I’m making a generalization here, but I have a hunch that the Venn diagram of people who take infants to the movies and people who shop at Big Lots! may have significant overlap.

Case in point: AK and I took Dash to see Fast and Furious 7 when he was less than three months old. He was not the only baby at our local $6 theater, not by a long shot. When the school-aged kids next to us complained to their dad about the baby behind us making noise, he said amiably, “Stop whining. You guys were the same way at movies when you were that age.”

That scene where Letty had to go undercover and fight a boxer chick in a ballgown. Because Fast and Furious.
Dash’s daycare is in South Pasadena, an upper-middle-class city that borders several working class cities and neighborhoods (Alhambra, El Sereno) and a city that, at least at one point, had the nation’s highest per capita income (San Marino). After our Big Lots! adventure—one part Memory Lane trip, one part ethnographic study—we walked through San Marino. Or maybe it was the fancy part of Alhambra, I’m not sure. The streets were lined with trees and well maintained bungalows painted in cool dark colors. Rain gutters dripped into eco-friendly barrels. Or they would have if there’d been any rain. The kids playing soccer at the park had brand new equipment.

In my last post, I mentioned my economic schizophrenia. Is it me or the times? Or the place? In a city, you always butt up against the Other, meaning you are always the Other.

Fireworks are already going off, so I guess this is my Fourth of July post. I raise my $1 Mexican coconut water to you, America. 

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

burden of proof

Friday morning I was pulling into CVS to buy baby sunscreen in anticipation of the Homeboy Family Picnic. A basic errand, but compare it to the day of last year’s Homeboy Family Picnic, when I was trying to finish four grants and text with a potential birthmom who ended up dumping me later that day, all before getting on a plane to New Zealand. I mean, the New Zealand part was good, but I was appreciating this year’s hard-won simplicity.

My coworker Sierra with two-year-old Marla. Sierra claims to hate kids. Clearly.
I turned on NPR just in time to hear Barack Obama say, “…and then there are days when justice comes like a thunderbolt.”

As he continued to talk, and I sat in the same CVS parking lot where I’d once called AAA for a dead battery, I soon found myself in tears, the kind that come when a weight you didn’t even know you were carrying is finally lifted.

People say this about finalizing an adoption: Sure, you’re out of the danger zone as soon as your child’s birthmom signs her papers, but there’s nothing like a court saying that you are your child’s parent and no different from any other child’s parent in the eyes of the law. No more agency visits, no more limbo, no more wondering if the mosquito bite on your baby’s shoulder will prompt his daycare to call DCFS, which will then open a case, and how would that look to a judge?

Same-sex marriage has been legal-ish in California for years. It’s hard to keep up with the laws and court cases, but it was clear that we, and the rest of the country, were moving in the direction of LGBT acceptance. There were fits and starts, but there was It Gets Better and Laverne Cox, and Ellen DeGeneres had long ago stopped being the face of controversy and become shorthand for soccer-mom TV.

The enormity of being able.
But Friday’s ruling was nevertheless a thunderbolt: Now the burden of proof was on them, the homophobes. Now, homophobia becomes like racism in America—still pernicious and pervasive, but even the worst practitioners have to say, “It’s not that I’m homophobic/racist, it’s just that I think [something ugly and homophobic/racist].” Now, being homophobic is the cultural and legal crime, even if it’s one people will no doubt get away with for years to come.

I think I learned the phrase “burden of proof” in high school, probably when we were studying the supreme court. I use it more than the average non-lawyer. I was raised by a highly logical engineer who himself grew up being told to keep quiet and stop asking so many questions and just eat your oatmeal please by stiff English grandparents. So he thought he was doing me a favor—and he was—by letting me argue my case as much as I wanted, so long as I could make a case. It turned me into a good mini attorney and a good critical thinker, but it also instilled in me a sense that the burden of proof was always on me. Doing something or being something because it appealed to me wasn’t enough; I had to prove it was a Good, Responsible Idea.

In L.A., this house would go for somewhere in the low 400's.
Most recently I’ve been trying to explain to my dad why I don’t want to buy a house, even if he helps with the down payment. Such is the nature of my first-world problems. But still. Do I really have to make a case why I don’t want to be a homeowner? (Because I just spent years wanting something big and difficult and it’s positively glorious to exist in a place of satisfaction for a while. Because C.C. and I don’t want to spend our weekends building a deck. Because, aforementioned down payment aside, we can barely make ends meet paying for part-time daycare, and sometimes I feel completely schizophrenic economically, like the world’s poorest rich person or the world’s richest poor person.)

Anyway. Once you are your child’s parent in the eyes of the law, his adoption will still and always be part of his story, his life, his identity. But it belongs to him and to you. Maybe there will always be a part of you that feels a little less legit than women who can talk about their epidurals or say He has his father’s ears, but there will also be a part of you that feels more legit, for having fought. And while you might feel like you have to prove yourself, technically you won’t. I think there are parallels here, with all struggle.

Stephen and Pedro at brunch, the meal of our people.
On Friday afternoon, our friends Pedro and Stephen got married. They’d been engaged for a while. We’d joked about them getting giant bedazzled rings in the shape of their pit bull, Sugar. When Pedro texted us a photo of his actual ring—a simple but chunky/asymmetrical band—and said “Something happened today,” we thought the thing that happened was that they got rings. No. The thing that happened was that they both left work early and went to the courthouse and got married. Their marriage, and the burden of its upkeep, belongs to them, not to the state or country. And that is the privilege and the right. That is the unburdening.