Monday, April 29, 2013

"Your MIND Never Goes Out of Fashion" (Thanks to About-Face!)

My favorite city: 
San Francisco (CHECK!)

My favorite nonprofit organization: 
About-Face (CHECK!)

My favorite cause: 
Healthy Body Image (CHECK!)

So it should be of no great surprise that I LOVE this image. I hope it inspires you too . Happy Monday!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Why I’m Breaking Up With The World’s Most Beautiful Woman: Gwyneth Paltrow Was My Thinspo

Yesterday afternoon I was interviewed by a news reporter who is interested in possibly reviewing my book, Mirror Mirror Off the Wall. I was nervous about the interview, partially because being interviewed is always stressful, partially because it felt like a “big deal” interview, and mostly because I was 10 minutes late. I hate being late.

I think (hope!) I made up for my tardiness by being a pleasant-enough person to speak with for an hour or so. I also think (hope!) that the interview went well. Or, good enough, I should say. But a few of the questions threw me for a loop. One, in particular, left me muttering alternative answers to myself as I drove away.  

It wasn’t the question about my relationship with Sherry, my mother-in-law (though I got a bit verklempt when describing what it felt like to worry that Sherry wouldn’t like me.) It also wasn’t the question that started with, “So I found it interesting that you were so open about your sex life in the book.” (I was!? Shit.) Nope, the question that left me almost speechless was this one: “So you probably know that Gwyneth Paltrow was just named the World’s Most Beautiful Woman by People Magazine. What do you think about that?”

What did I think about that?

The question was innocent enough, and certainly on topic, considering the body-image theme of my book. But Gwyneth Paltrow isn’t just any celebrity to me. She was my “thinspo” celebrity – my anorexic drug of choice – for almost a decade. Hearing her name randomly pop up as the new “Worlds Most Beautiful Woman!” felt like it might have felt if I’d been told that an epic-ex, the he-who-shall-not-be-named kind of ex, was going to be the next Bachelor, “didn’tcha know?”  It was a great question, and I got through it with a generic “hate the beauty game, not the players” kind of answer, but my head was spinning on the inside.

There are hundreds of female celebrities who are very thin and stereotypically “beautiful,” but Gwynie was the one I became attached to, almost 15 years ago. She was 25 and earning an Oscar; I was 15 and developing an eating disorder. We were both pale-skinned natural blondes with thick straightish hair. Sure, she had blue eyes and mine were brown, but I still imagined that she was the gracefully thin girl living inside of my unruly and not-thin-enough body, just waiting to come out.

A snapshot from my college "look book."
(Otherwise known as retro Pinterest.)
It wasn’t just her looks, but also her presence that so captured me. I was frantic, anxious, and insecure; high-achieving, yes, but never satisfied. I blurted out answers in class (very unladylike) and feared that my appetite for food was insatiable and out-of-control. Gwyneth, in contrast, seemed characterized by an aura of calm entitlement, i.e.,  the opposite of frantic insecurity. The pleasure of being privileged in every possible way that a woman can be, and feeling as though you deserve it.  This is what I saw in Gwyneth Paltrow, and I wanted it for myself. (Never mind that by most standards I am quite privileged, but I wanted her privileges too, those of great wealth, old-ish money, and extreme slenderness – sans guilt.)

So I saw her every chance that I could. I tore out magazine photographs of her and pasted them into my journals. I watched all of her movies, starting with Se7en, The Pallbearer, and Emma. At first it could have been any teenage girl’s celebrity worship, but when I started restricting food – during the same year as Sliding Doors, Great Expectations, A Perfect Murder, and Shakespeare in Lovemy worship of Gwyneth’s graceful physical perfection helped me get sicker, and helped me stay sick.

I don't want to be quite this harsh... hate the game not the player, right?
Hate the pedestal, not the woman you've put on it.
In 1999, when Gwyneth played Marge, the cultured and unattainable fiancĂ© character in The Talented Mr. Ripley, I imagined an entirely different movie; one in which I played a female version of Tom Ripley, managing to take over Marge’s privileged life. (Of course in my movie I didn’t have to beat her to death with a boat oar to take her place; she just gracefully handed over her identity, saying that I deserved it more than she did!) Funny, yes. But this fantasy was also a symptom of darker times; I really wanted somebody else’s life. Gwyneth Paltrow’s would have suited me just fine.

By the time The Royal Tenenbaums came out I was in therapy but still struggling. I’d started to worry about my fascination with Gwyneth by then. It had seemed so normal to want to be her, but suddenly I was getting kidney stones and osteopenia, learning about feminism, and fighting to come to terms with the fact that I was never ever (like, ever) going to look like GP.  So it was a godsend for her to finally play a character who was weird, sexual, and somber, instead of pure and perfect. I had renewed hope that I could take her with me into recovery.  So I had my hair cut into a Margot Tenenbaum bob and kept going to therapy.

And then GP (in a fat suit) starred in Shallow Hal, the movie that was supposed to be about inner beauty, but instead had dozens of misogynistic fat jokes. The nice women were all ugly and the mean women were all gorgeous. It ended with Jack Black’s character heroically “accepting” the fact that the wonderful woman he’d thought looked like Gwyneth Paltrow was actually just a fat blonde chick who he was still in love with, but, like, bummer about the fat chick thing.

It pissed me off. A lot. So finally I gave up Gwynie. Cold turkey.

It was a clean break in the sense that I avoided seeing her, but I never completely got over her, or what she meant to me. Gwyneth was the “one who got away,” I couldn’t talk about because the loss was still painful. But when she started talking about her extremely restrictive macrobiotic diet I knew I’d made the right choice.

Since 2001, I’ve only seen three of Gwyneth Paltrow’s films: Proof (which I loved, as I love most films that deal with mental illness), Iron Man (which I didn’t realize she was in, but dealt with it with the bewilderment of running into an ex at the grocery store), and Contagion (I loved the movie and felt proud that I'd finally seen Gwyneth on film without having a strong emotional reaction.)

The story should have ended there, but it didn’t. Gwyneth is still all over the media, and has become quite the fashion maven with "Iconic Style." She’s become a fitness expert freak and a cookbook author. Oh, and she can sing! And dance! She’s even a blogger. Bit-by-bit, this new (improved?!? MORE perfect?!) Gwynie slipped back into my life.

It’s okay. I told myself, I’m recovered now, and she’s just so cool! It’s not thinspo anymore, just good old-fashioned inspo!

A year ago, on Day 314 of my no-mirrors project, I decided to give myself Gwyneth Paltrow hair a few days before visiting family for the holidays. It went disastrously. I guess GP doesn’t color her own hair from a $5 box of drugstore hair dye. (Shocking, I know.)

And a few weeks ago reality swooped in again, and I’m so, so grateful.

First I learned that she’d modeled several spring fashion “must haves” on her website, and that the cost of purchasing all of them added up to $450,000. This was not reality; it was comically absurd. Gwyneth had finally made a serious gaffe. That calm privilege was certainly going strong, but I suddenly realized that I’d been worshiping someone who is so privileged that she was completely out of touch with reality. I guess I had been too.

Then she published her second cookbook, It’s All Good, and, let me tell you, it ain’t all good. It was like reading a manual for orthorexia: no caffeine, alcohol, dairy, eggs, sugar, shellfish, deep-water fish, wheat, soy or any processed foods. Now, I respect food allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities; these are real things that cause a lot of discomfort, pain, inconvenience, and ill health to those who can’t eat foods with common ingredients. But this wasn’t touted as a cookbook for people who had to avoid these ingredients, but for people who want to “LOOK GOOD and FEEL GREAT!” Note the order. There are more pictures of Gwyneth in the book (usually eating, or contemplating eating), than images of food. As one author wrote: it reads like “the manifesto of some sort of creepy healthy-girl sorority with members who use beet juice rather than permanent marker to circle the ‘problem areas’ on each other’s bodies.”
This creeped me out. I simply could not ignore a book like this. This was Shallow Hal but worse. So Gwyneth had to go. Again. She was the the pair of skinny-jeans I hadn't been able to throw out, even though the mere thought of trying to fit into them made me feel bad about myself.

I literally penned a break-up letter in my journal. It was all like, “Dear Gwyneth, It’s not you, it’s me. Well, actually, it’s me having a problem with you.” There was profession of love lost, what she’d meant to me at different times, and admitting that we never actually knew each other at all. It’s funny how so many breakups end with these words. I apologized for objectifying her for 15 years (because that’s what thinspo is, really), and accepted responsibility for putting her on a pedestal she didn’t ask to be put on. (Well, I’m not actually sure whether or not she likes being put on pedestals, but you have to say some nice things in breakup letters. Karma and all that.). Finally, I wished her health and happiness and said goodbye. "I'm sorry but just can't see you anymore."

So what do I really think of Gwyneth Paltrow being chosen as “The World’s Most Beautiful Woman?” It makes weary. Mere days after I finally took her off of my pedestal, she was hoisted onto another one, a bigger one. I admit to being a little sick of GP right now, but I know that it’s the pedestals, not the women on them, that are the problem.

But what do you think? 
Have any of you had to give up a thinspo celeb to be healthier and happier? 

Friday, April 19, 2013

Science vs. Dove: Thanks, But We Are NOT Our Own Worst Beauty Critics...

So there's this new Dove 'Real Beauty Sketches' ad campaign, and I'm finally ready to say my piece about it. I watched the 3-minute version and felt emotions swelling in my chest. I liked this cathartic feeling, so I immediately watched the 6-minute version, which moved me to tears (they welled up in my eyes but didn't fall. I now think my tears knew better than I did...). My thoughts hadn't yet sorted themselves out, but my emotional reaction was pretty straight-forward; I'm pretty sure I reacted EXACTLY the way these videos were intended to make women feel: emotionally understood, connected to women-of-the-world, and grateful to Dove for taking the time to do something so, so nice, just because they (make a shit-ton of money and therefore) could.

But something nagged at my conscience. The video made me feel soooo flipping warm and fuzzy that I didn't trust it. I wanted to watch it over and over again, to revel in that bittersweet symphony, but instead avoided it like the plague Jennie Craig. Perhaps my contrarian skepticism stepped in, or maybe I just never got over the whole "real women" concept (read my last post on "real beauty" here).  I've given far too many About-Face media literacy workshops to allow myself to simply react to media without (over)analyzing both my reaction and the media itself.

My suspicions were validated when other body-image bloggers pointed out some major issues with the video. You can MUST read these thoughtful and passionate critiques here, here, and here. These essays rightfully describe the ad campaign as being a heck of a lot better than what we're used to seeing in the media, but still falling short of our vision for inclusive body-positivity, in which being physically "beautiful" or "ugly" (or "real," for that matter) doesn't determine women's paths in life, or feelings of self-worth. 

This is all serious stuff, but I've got another bone to pick.  Are the claims and assumptions characterizing this ad campaign scientifically supported? I'm a researcher; Show me your data, and I'll show you mine!

Below, I outline 4 science-y assumptions/claims that have been made in this campaign, along with my reasearch-y assessments.
I tried to find a version of this in which a woman taught a man, but nothing. :( 

1) "Only 4% of women around the world consider themselves to be beautiful."
Meet Dr. David Frederick!
Dove offers this statistic - a product of "company research" - in the paragraph explaining the video on youtube.  Okay, fair enough. I'm actually tempted to believe this number, purely based on semantics. You see, most body image researchers don't ask research subjects whether or not they consider themselves to be "beautiful." Why? Because "beautiful" is highly subjective (particularly if you're asking women "around the world" who may have different cultural understandings of beauty.)

I contacted my favorite body-image-expert and co-author, Dr. David Frederick (who was the friend who came up with "Mirror Mirror Off the Wall" as my blog title!). I asked him to share some of his latest research, from a 2013 paper titled Understanding body dissatisfaction: Social comparison, objectification, and sociocultural factors. I asked him for insight on this 4% number. He offered the following:

"In a sample of over 24,000 men and women, we asked "how satisfied are you with your overall physical appearance?" using a 1-7 scale. (1 = very dissatisfied, 4 = neutral, 7 = very satisfied)" Here are the results:
28% of women are dissatisfied with their appearance.
15% of women are neutral about their appearance.
58% of women are satisfied with their appearance.
If you're wondering how 4% became 58%, it's, again, a matter of semantics. David explained, "There are studies that find most women want to change their weight, but this doesn't mean they necessarily are feeling 'dissatisfaction.'" If we follow the same logic for that 4% number we can imagine that even if 96% of women don't consider themselves to be beautiful, many still (gasp!) manage to be satisfied with their appearance. 

Dove: not wrong, but not quite right either. I'll let you decide!

2) Other people view us as more attractive than we view ourselves; "We are more beautiful than we think."
This statement incapsulates the entire "point" of the video, if it is possible to do so in one sentence. The sketch artist "social experiment" seemingly "proved" this statement to be true. But can the finding be generalized? Let's look at the numbers. I couldn't find one single study that answered this question, but have of several that, when combined, help give us the full picture.

In Dave's 24,000 person study, women ranked their own attractiveness on a scale of 1-10. In another large-sample study, participants were asked to rank the attractiveness of others, pictured in photos, using an almost identical measure of attractiveness (1-5 instead of 1-10). Here are the results, side-by-side

65% of women consider themselves to be "above average" 
32.5% of women were rated by others as "above average" 

25% of women consider themselves to be "average" 
52.1% of women are rated by others as "average"

10% of women consider themselves to be "below average"
15.4% of women are rated by others as "below average"

Are you seeing what I'm seeing? Even if we give some wiggle-room between these two studies, the pattern above suggests that our positive illusions lead us to view ourselves as more attractive than others view us. Does this mean we're all delusional? No, we're actually illusional. Psychologists use the term "positive illusion" to describe our tendency to view ourselves and the people closest to us as more spectacular than objective reality (if there is such a thing). Yes, this means that most of us believe ourselves to be above average in attractiveness (and intelligence, and kindness, and honesty), even though this is mathematically impossible. Yet, this also means that our romantic partners view us with similarly "positive" illusions (warm fuzzies again!). Oh, and another great concept, the "mere-exposure effect" predicts that the more time we spend with a person (i.e. "mere exposure"), the more we like that person. Thus, strangers are likely to view our looks more favorably simply by spending a few minutes chatting with us... kind of like the women who were asked to "get friendly with" the women whose portraits they were about to describe!

Dove blew it on this one. Big time. Which brings me to the next core assumption:

3) Dove's "social experiment" is experimentally sound.
No. Not in my opinion, at least. Why? I have a few reasons, but the major one is this: from what I could see from the videos, this social experiment was set up in such a way that the "findings" were almost certainly biased in favor of what they set out to prove. Here are three issues I noted (there may be more):

a) The "real women" being drawn seemed primed to provide negative statements about their bodies. For example, one woman was asked "if you could change anything about your looks, what would you change." She responded by saying "wow, I've never thought about this before..." before deciding she'd like fuller lips. Later, the same woman is asked to describe her chin and remarked "I guess I haven't really compared it to anyone else's chin...." before deciding that her chin stuck out too much. How might the results have been different if she had been asked to name her favorite features?

b) The presence of cameras and interviewers likely caused heightened feelings of self-awareness. This, in turn, would have increased the likelihood that the women participants acted in gender-conforming ways. In other words, the women being drawn were more likely to be properly self-deprecating ladies, and the women recalling the others' features would act like properly sweet and kind ladies. We were basically watching an over-dramatized version of plain old everyday fat talk discourse. Boooooring! (and predictable)

c) Finally, and most damning, the "real women" chosen to be drawn were reportedly selected based on fairly exacting criteria. Here are some choice phrases from the craigslist ad used to recruit them: "FLAWLESS SKIN, NO TATTOOS OR SCARS!" "FIT Not too Curvy Not too Athletic," "Beautiful HAIR & SKIN is a MUST!!!" "Well groomed and clean,"BEAUTIFUL ARMS AND LEGS AND FACE"   If this report is true, then the social experiment wasn't poorly planned, but strategically rigged. Want to make sure the women sketched won't be described as ugly? Pick "flawless" "real women" with "beautiful hair and skin." BRILLIANT!

(FYI - Dove has released a "blame the intern" cop-out by claiming that the craigslist ad "wasn't approved." In other words, the ad came from within Dove's walls, even though somebody is about to get fired for it!)

4) Women are their own worst beauty critics.

Seriously. Seriously?

OMG NO! THIS IS A BOGUS CRAPPY ANGERING LIE! Turn on the TV! Open a magazine! Watch a movie! Walk through a mall!  

We face a multi-billion dollar beauty industry that DEPENDS on women's insecurities. We don't come up with this insanity ourselves. There is nothing inherent to womanity that destines us for insecurities. Instead, we're force-fed it through the onslaught of media we encounter every single day of our lives.  

Hey Dove, do you still sell that cellulite cream that doesn't work? No? How about the "firming" body lotion, or that deodorant that reportedly reduces my "underarm dark spots"? Yeah. That's what I thought.

I'm still trying to figure out what all of these varying data points and interpretations mean for me. On the one hand, I think it's good news that so many women are satisfied with their bodies. And I also love knowing that positive illusions are probably boosting my husband's view of my attractiveness. Do I like the idea that I probably view myself more vainly than "reality"? I'm not sure! I know it's good to HAVE positive illusions about yourself, but is it good to know about them.  (Is this blog post going to make you wonderful readers feel more insecure about your bodies?!? Scary!) Does it matter if Dove's ad campaign is a biased social (non)experiment? I think it does matter (frankly, I feel suckered and resentful. That damn mood music!), but I'd rather see it replicated more scientifically, rather than dismissed. 

As much as I complain about Dove's "real women" campaigns, I think they do more good than harm. Yes, they reify ideologies that make women focus on their looks and buy more stuff, but nobody else is coming anywhere close to encouraging women to love their bodies, and certainly not  with as much energy or commitment. But I need to stop rambling...

What do YOU think of all this? 
What's more compelling to your psyche: scientific research or emotional experiences?
Tell my why you love/hate/tolerate Dove!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

How To: DIY Mirror Confrontation Therapy (Kate Upton & Sports Illustrated, Take Notes)

Mirror Confrontation: Like this, but with a full length mirror (flip-flops optional).
Thanks to MaleFeminist for posting this beautiful image!
Next in my series of Bodacious Body Image Activity Wednesdays is a DIY version of "Mirror Confrontation," a therapy exercise often used in eating disorder treatment. Some folks describe this activity as "Body Exposure," while others call it "Mirror Confrontation" therapy. I prefer "Mirror Confrontation," not only because this exercise helped me to confront mirrors again after my no-mirrors project ended, but also because "Body Exposure" sounds a tinge exhibitionist and makes me imagine freezing to death in Antarctica - stark naked, of course.  (Note to self: post my rant about Kate Upton's controversial Sports Illustrated photo-shoot in Antarctica some other day... Brrrrrr!)

The term "Body Exposure" reminds me of this Kate Upton SI cover. Don't get me started!
Anyway, mirror confrontation therapy is designed to help people confront the reality of their bodies, while reducing self-objectification. While all versions of this therapy involve standing in front of mirrors repeatedly and for prolonged periods of time, my DIY-able version involves some guided thinking; one must look into the mirror and describe his/her body as precisely and neutrally as possible, while carefully avoiding subjective and negative statements. 

Here is an example of a precise and neutral description: 
"I have straight blonde hair, brown eyes, and a mole under my right nostril." (all true!) 
"Oh, and I also have a rounded belly that sticks out a little bit." (true again.)
Here is an example of a subjective and negative statement:
"I am a big fat ugly unloveable loser." (see the difference?)
Over time, and with repetition, "mirror confrontation"will help you view your body - and the different parts of your body - as neutral facts rather than as subjective signifiers of your moral character and/or entire identity!

How would SHE/HE/IT describe your body?
(1) SOMETIMES it helps to imagine yourself as a curious and judgment free child. Alternatively I like pretending that I am a space alien visiting Earth with abolutely no sense of cultural mores about attractiveness. (Oooh! Oooh! How about "curious and judgement free alien child"?? I digress...)

(2) IF a subjective and negative judgement pops into your head during this activity, write it down, followed by a neutral and precise statement you can use to challenge that thought the next time it shows up! (For bonus points, I like adding, "and who the hell cares anyway?!?" at the end of the neutral statements, i.e. "I have a rounded belly that sticks out a little bit and who the hell cares anyway?!?" Try it.)

Okay, so now go for it! 

Let me know what you think.
For those of you who try it once, would you do it again?
Anyone willing to share their notes?

Friday, April 5, 2013

Were You Once a Bossy Little Girl? Quote of the Week From Sheryl Sandburg

I still haven't made it through (ahem, started!) Sandberg's book, Lean In, but it's already inspiring me! As a former "bossy" little girl, this quote resonates deeply. Please spread the message!

Were YOU a bossy little girl? 
What messages were you given from the grown-ups in your life?

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Call To Action: "Day Without Mirrors" Blogger Challenge!

I ended my year without mirrors just over 1 year ago, and on May 2nd, exactly 1 month from today Mirror, Mirror Off the Wall (MMOTW) will hit bookstore shelves. To celebrate the release and help spread the word, I'm proposing something fun and adventurous for all you other bloggers out there: 

a "Day Without Mirrors" Blogger Challenge

If YOU are a fellow bodacious blogger and this sounds remotely intriguing, here's what I want you to do:  
1) Contact me via email to request an advanced copy of MMOTW. (Read it! Love it! Share it!)
2) Embark on your own "Day Without Mirrors." (C'mon you can do it! Just one day!)
3) Share your experience with your readers by posting about the challenge/the book during the week of May 6th.
4) (OPTIONAL) Host a book giveaway of MMOTW.

***Also, any bloggers who decide to not participate in the challenge can still request an advanced copy of Mirror, Mirror Off the Wall for review or coverage on your site. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the book!***

Alright blogging friends! 
Don't leave me hanging. 
Who's in?! 

(Oh, and is there anything - anything - you'd like ME to do as a complimentary challenge? It would only be fair.)