“We Deserve to Look Like Ourselves”

Debbie says:

I’ve been a fan of Michelle, the Fat Nutritionist, for some time, and in fact have recommended her to people looking for nutrition advice. Last week, she wrote an extremely important essay about the relationship between body image and photography.

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As most journeys to self-esteem do, Michelle’s starts with her history of being called “ugly.” She had a brief foray into “pretty” in her mid-teens, and then she got fat.

I didn’t look in the mirror for a long time, still believing in the misogynist fever-dream of “vanity.” For a long time, after I gained weight, I felt I didn’t have the right to leave the house or exist in public, that maybe I was too ugly to even deserve to live — even though I knew that, intellectually, to be bullshit. I took steps to fight against it, but it was a long, slow battle.

I started to come out of it around age 27, and took the first photos of myself in a long time. A couple years later, I got my first webcam and began taking more self portraits. When I was surprised by the way I looked in the pictures, I realized that I wasn’t actually familiar with how I looked, because I avoided looking at myself so much. This disturbed me; I deserved to carry a self-image in my head instead of a vague, dread-inducing void.

Later, as I took more pictures, this thought changed slightly: I also deserved to show other people what my image of myself looked like, how I saw myself. Whether or not this matched up with how they saw me was almost irrelevant — their image of me was no more objective or true than my image of myself. I deserved to be able to say, with my photos, to other people, “Hey, I know you see a crude barometer of my social status when you look at me, but this is what I, a human, actually look like.”

Laurie is on vacation, so I can’t get a comment from her, but all of this is right down the center of what we believed when we started working on Women En Large, and what we both believe even more now.

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Here’s Michelle again:

I have weighed a lot of weights in my life, and looked a lot of different ways, and I have been human the whole time.

For reasons I shouldn’t have to spell out, this is really, really important for people’s health and well-being. We need to be allowed to see ourselves as human, at any size, and to see ourselves represented alongside other humans. We need to be able to share our images in public, if we want, and push the recognition of our humanity. Mostly, we need to be allowed to have images of ourselves imbedded in our brains, alongside everyone else. When we see nothing but images of people who don’t look like us celebrated and represented by our own culture, little by little, it degrades our sense of being human. It is a form of systemic emotional abuse.

The end of Michelle’s essay goes into what happens to us when the images we deserve are digitally altered, or mocked, and what that means.

I don’t have much to add. Michelle has, very effectively, nailed why Laurie and I do what we do, and why we think body image is not just interesting, not just important, but critical to living in a better world.

Barriers to Breastfeeding: Disappointing but Not Surprising

Debbie says:

I was born in 1951. My mother wanted to breastfeed me, but breastfeeding was completely out of fashion among affluent white people. Her doctor said, “Well, go ahead, I guess, but I can’t help you. I don’t know anything about it.” So when she ran into issues, she asked the the Black women at the bus stop, waiting to go home from their jobs as cleaning ladies and maids in the Jewish neighborhood of Baltimore where I was born. They apparently thought she was kind of dumb, but were very helpful. (I never asked her why she didn’t ask her mother …)

Breastfeeding_paolopatruno9Photo by Paolo Patruno.

Things change. Now breastfeeding is what affluent White mothers do, and harder for working, unemployed, or impoverished Black mothers. And bearing in mind that not every mother can breastfeed, and not every  mother wants to breastfeed, there’s no doubt that parents and babies are well served by having breastfeeding as an option.

According to the United States Breastfeeding Committee, one of the leading experts
on the current state of breastfeeding in the U.S., breastfeeding is the “most effective
global public health intervention for child survival.” Breast milk provides critical
nutrients to babies when they need them the most, supporting a variety of early
developments in the body, including brain development. It also transfers necessary
antibodies from mother to child that protect against disease, and wards off other early
childhood dangers such as SIDS and asthma.
The Center for Social Inclusion has released a long, detailed report in .pdf form, detailing the issues that contribute to making breastfeeding challenging. Two things make this report especially important: first, the focus on structural racism:
Often, when we think about racism, we focus on individual attitudes or behaviors,
which is important. Sometimes, we look at how particular institutions treat people of
different races differently, which is also important. But to truly understand the root
causes of racial inequity and thereby produce solutions that work for everyone, we
need to take a structural race approach. That means looking at the First Food system
through the lens of policies, institutions, and people—together.
and second, the storytelling style, focusing on three fictional mothers:
Sarah is White and lives in a suburb of Detroit. Her husband is a doctor at the nearby
hospital, and she volunteers full-time for a local nonprofit. Nicole is Black and lives in a
small town in Alabama. She is a teacher at the middle school and her husband is earning
his MSW through online classes at the University of Alabama. Lara is Latina and lives in
Los Angeles with her husband and mother. She and her husband both work for (and met
through) the city’s transit agency; her mother runs the home and receives Social Security.
The report follows all three women through their breastfeeding journey, interlacing their stories with statistics and information about breastfeeding in their various communities. The information is detailed, clear, and excellent, and the conclusions are convincing.
At each stage, smart policy interventions with robust implementation can make it easier
for all women to choose to breastfeed if they want to.
We seek policy interventions that truly address the root causes that are linked to
breastfeeding outcomes, especially lower rates for women of color. We know that
no single policy alone can dismantle structural inequity. This takes reform, including
diversification of the medical sector and those providing services, as well as changes to
and better implementation and promotion of existing policies like the ACA breastfeeding
provisions. But it also takes transformation, including directing funding streams to
challenge all barriers at the neighborhood level. We therefore need a variety of policy
and practice interventions that support women and communities of color to truly achieve
higher breastfeeding rates for all mothers.
The report goes on to detail these interventions; read the whole thing.
Why is breastfeeding a body image issue? For me, it’s because breasts have been fetishized, banned, turned into objects of the male gaze, commodified, judged, and generally objectified, often at the expense of remembering their biological function. So it’s important to me to remember what breasts do and more important that anyone who wants to be able to provide food for their babies from their breasts should be supported in doing so.