Monthly Archives: September 2011

We Few, We Happy Few…

Lynne Murray says:

I was recently discussing with a friend I’ve known for 40 years what it is that makes life worth living. In my case, I listed few of the usual things that people rely on at my time of life. I could say with absolute certainty that knowing what I want to do, doing what I want to do makes me happy. Joining in with people I admire to help people learn to respect and accept themselves and their bodies as they are makes me happy. Even though it’s an all-volunteer, loosely organized, occasionally cranky group, I enjoy an affectionate sense of community based on shared goals–working with each other to promote a positive view of our bodies and ourselves.

Every one of us shares the frustration of watching the diet industry continue to expand to its most recent total of $60.9 billion per year. Yet still we stand to tell truth to power even when it seems like there’s little chance of succeeding. And we do succeed–one person at a time.

The small band of sisters and brothers working for sanity around body issues are better connected now, communicate more quickly using every tool the Internet has to offer, and mobilize with such efficiency that the mass media is more often starting to listen.

One case in point is the response to a potentially damaging children’s book months before its publication date (it’s scheduled for October 2011).

Associated Press describes the reaction to this book as a “flash mob.”

[W]hat’s the deal with all the attention for a not-yet-published rhyming picture book about an obese, unhappy 14-year-old named Maggie?

The title, for starters: “Maggie Goes on a Diet.”

For seconds, like-wildfire circulation of a blurb describing how the bullied girl is transformed through time, exercise and hard work into a popular, confident and average size soccer star. And cover art showing her wistfully holding up a Cinderella dress as she stares at her imagined, much slimmer self in a full-length mirror.

And an inside page, the only one most people have seen, that shows her hunched over the fridge during a two-fisted eating binge.

Thirds? Real teenagers have long moved on from rhyming picture books and the reading level for Hawaii dad Paul Kramer’s amateurish, self-published effort is recommended on Amazon for kids ages 4 to 8.

The online mess for Kramer began recently with outraged commenters on Amazon, where pre-orders haven’t propelled Maggie anywhere near the top of the rankings. There’s now a “savemaggie” hashtag on Twitter, a “Say No to Maggie Goes on a Diet” Facebook page, calls for a boycott and demands that Amazon and Barnes & Noble pull the book.

The outcry on Amazon, Facebook and Twitter was accompanied by heartfelt blog posts such as Ragen’s on Dances with Fat:

Teaching six year olds that dieting is the way to like yourself and become popular? At first I felt sure that it had to be some kind of (really bad) joke. I did not think it possible that anybody would actually write a diet book targeted at first graders. Nobody could possibly be that stupid/cruel/desperate for a quick buck, right?

Wrong. Paul Michael Kramer is. Sir, may I just say that this is sheer jackassery.

And Maggie might go on a diet, but Ragen is going on a rant:

He made sure that the book is “written in rhyme [so it’s] easy to read and fun to learn at the same time”. And thank god for that, because I would sure hate for kids to have to struggle to learn to hate their bodies. That’s definitely the kind of message that we want to be easy to understand and implement. I think he’s going to have trouble with the sequel though, because not that many things rhyme with “treatment for anorexia.”

I was delighted to see the creativity behind some of the responses, such as this one by Michelle May, M.D.

The description from the author’s website for Maggie Goes on a Diet, a children’s book (for ages 6 and up) slated for publication in October 2011 reads:

“Maggie has so much potential that has been hiding under her extra weight. This inspiring story about a 14 year old who goes on a diet and is transformed from being overweight and insecure to a normal sized teen who becomes the school soccer star. Through time, exercise and hard work, Maggie becomes more and more confident and develops a positive self image.”

Inspired by the above, click here to enjoy Michelle Goes on a Diet…that lasted 20 years.

Then there were some literally graphic alternate creations envisioning an empowered Maggie from Brian Stuart at Red3Blog:The imagery of the cover really struck me for how tactless it is. It reinforces so many notions of there being thin people just waiting to come out of our fat bodies, a cliché which mostly serves to dehumanize fat people. We aren’t actual people, just something covering up thin people. While a lot of mainstream critics were blandly attacking the book for not promoting fat stigma the right way, I kind of kept thinking to what happens after the book.

See, most fat people have dieted and lost weight in their lives. Maggie’s story is one I’ve heard time and time again in fat accepting communities. Growing up fat and getting teased. Finally being able to maintain a low weight for some brief period of time before the inevitable swing of weight cycling brings their size up higher than it was to start. Indeed, its a cycle most fat people experience over and over. Maggie’s story rings true to many fat people. Its just not the whole story.

So, as I had been dabling with Tumblr, I saw an opportunity for an art project and several weeks ago started posting my own book covers for sequels to Maggie’s first story. Starting with “Maggie Gains Back the Weight and Learns to Accept Her Body”:

A more thoughtful response to the situation of being a fat kid comes from an actual six-year-old, LaNiyah Bailey, who also wrote a book. It’s called Not Fat Because I Wannabe and it’s about her own experiences being teased by other children. The book has found an appreciative audience. Ironically her book has a more mature view of the situation than Maggie Goes on a Diet.

“[It]’s done so well that the Chicago schoolgirl, who has a hormonal condition which affects her weight, has legions of fans on her website and has even appeared on national television.”

I was very encouraged to see so many resourceful people responding to negative situations in positive, creative ways.

The quote from Shakespeare’s Henry V which I used as a title, is how the king rallies his troops before the Battle of Agincourt, where a seriously outnumbered English army defeated a French army on its home ground.

Historians argue about the actual numbers at Agincourt, possibly 6,000 English versus 30,000 French. No matter how bad their odds are, ours are much worse–certainly the number of fat activists is in the thousands versus the millions of dedicated dieters and people who believe in the worth of dieting despite any evidence to the contrary.

And yet I love it when we imitate the action of the tiger–once more into the breach, dear friends, once more!

Menstruation: Unclean! Unclean! (Well, Maybe Not)

Debbie says:

Steven Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, published in 1981, was a formative book for me. I’ve always thought of it as two books at once: first, it’s a book about the history of IQ studies and the false belief that Africans have smaller skulls (and thus, by inaccurate extension) less brain capacity than white people. Second, it’s a book about how scientists’ biases affect their results, even when they are working in complete good faith.

This story of the history of menotoxin, by Kate Clancy, is exactly the same kind of doubled account. She recounts the scientific history of the belief that menstruating women secrete toxic substances:

Dr. Bela Schick, a doctor in the 1920s, was a very popular doctor and received flowers from his patients all the time. One day he received one of his usual bouquets from a patient. The way the story goes, he asked one of his nurses to put the bouquet in some water. The nurse politely declined. Dr. Schick asked the nurse again, and again she refused to handle the flowers. When Dr. Schick questioned his nurse why she would not put the flowers in water, she explained that she had her period. When he asked why that mattered, she confessed that when she menstruated, she made flowers wilt at her touch.

So, rather than consider the possibility that the nurse was offended that her skills and expertise were being put to use to put someone else’s flowers in water, Dr. Schick decided to run a test. Gently place flowers in water on the one hand… and have a menstruating woman roughly handle another bunch in order to really get her dirty hands on them. The flowers that were not handled thrived, while the flowers that were handled by a menstruating woman wilted.

See how this goes? Schick doesn’t have to have been evil, or a woman-hater. He just has to have had a belief that affected his experimental design. The nurse doesn’t have to have been trying to get out of handling the flowers; she may well have believed that her skin wilted flowers when she menstruated. It’s so easy to observe what we’re told to expect.

After taking a little side trip to the vile De Secretis Mulierum, a 10th-century misogynist text which was popular for several centuries, Clancy jumps to the 1970s and relates some strange experiments, including “growing plants in venous blood from menstruating women to determine phytotoxicity; the sooner the plants died, the higher the quantity of menotoxin assumed in the sample.”

The people who studied the menotoxin really, really wanted to believe in it, to the point that they would ignore negative results and overstate the power of their anecdotes and case studies. The study of the menotoxin spans at least sixty years, maybe ninety depending on which references you consider legitimate, debated in Lancet letters to the editor, and published in several medical journals.

Next, “menotoxin” becomes something that all women between puberty and menopause carry. And then it becomes the cause of some diseases that women have.

“Dr. Schick and I discussed the possibility that the adult female diabetic out of control, the depressed adult female psychotic, and the adult female in the premenstrual phase secreted some common substance in their sweat.” [Reid 1974]

This, of course, is the same as the fat person’s answer in the doctor’s office: what would you tell a thin person with this condition? what would you tell a diabetic or depressed man?

Clancy finishes up with the best-accepted current thinking on menstruation:

Thankfully, the most accepted idea is that menstruation did not evolve at all, but is a byproduct of the evolution of terminal differentiation of endometrial cells (Finn 1996; Finn 1998). That is, endometrial cells must proliferate and then differentiate, and once they differentiate, they have an expiration date. Ovulation and endometrial receptivity are fairly tightly timed, to the point that the vast majority of implantations occur within a three-day window (Wilcox et al. 1999). So it’s not that menstruation expels dangerous menotoxins, but rather that menstruation happens because the endometrium needs to start over, and humans in particular have thick enough endometria that we can’t just resorb all that blood and tissue.

It’s time to dump the idea that menstruation is dirty. It’s blood and tissue that you ended up not using to feed a baby, and that’s all.

Interestingly enough, this is roughly what I was taught back in the 1960s; I’ve only come into glancing connection with menotoxin theories and I didn’t know until I read this how seriously they have been taken even during my lifetime.

Science is always going to be affected by preconceptions, assumptions, and expectations. A truly radical change we could make would be to err on the side of expecting human variation, preconceiving equality across a wide variety of ethnicities, genders, and abilities, and assuming that no group of people is inferior to another group.