Thursday, June 13, 2013
We hear quite a lot about the ‘childhood obesity epidemic’ these days. From Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign to healthy school lunch initiatives by celebrity chefs, we as a culture are concerned about our children’s eating, exercise and well being.
As well we should be.
The problem is, these health concerns are too often framed in ways that are psychologically and culturally unhealthy for young people. The phrase ‘epidemic’ conjures images of risk and contagion, and usually is accompanied by a fear of or anger toward certain populations associated with these bodily ‘failings’. Consider, for example, that historic public health campaigns against tuberculosis became ways to marginalize poor or immigrant communities, who were associated with this disease threat, and therefore became considered ‘diseased’ altogether. ‘Health’ here became a way to justify/disguise classism and xenophobia. Similarly, public health campaigns addressing the ‘childhood obesity epidemic’ (such as this horrific Georgia advertisement) too often use the moralistic shaming and blaming of individual children and their families rather than critiquing systems, such as the food service industry, which makes it difficult to access affordable fresh foodstuffs in urban areas. Here, ‘health’ becomes a way to reinforce stereotypes and prejudice about poor communities, communities of color, and of course individuals of size.
In her essay, “Fat panic and the new morality,” which appears in a 2010 collection entitled Against Health, Kathleen LeBesco analyzes the “obesity epidemic” as a “moral panic.” In her words: “our insistence on turning efforts to achieve good health into a greater moral enterprise means that health also becomes a sharp political stick in which much harm is ultimately done.” So in addition to waif-thin images in beauty magazines, and the pervasive sexualization of even, say, young girl’s clothing, public health itself is a part what’s been called our pervasive toxic body culture – a culture which contributes to everything from self-hatred to self-harm to disordered eating and more. A culture which connects a young person’s appearance, size and/or weight to their worth, their very humanity.
The notion of obesity itself has come under some scrutiny by scholars and activists. Consider that recent research suggests that lower mortality might actually be associated with being overweight, that an entire scholarly discipline of Fat Studies has arisen, or that campaigns such as the Health At Every Size Campaign , the Endangered Species: Women movement, and websites such as Adios, Barbie seek to address toxic body culture.
As a pediatrician, parent, and writer of middle grade novels, I know that stories are an important way that culture gets shaped. Middle grade novels have the power to either reinforce or counteract the harmful messages sent to young people through both the commercial and public health media alike.
Rebecca Rabinowitz recently wrote a wonderful piece called, “Who’s that Fat Kid? Fat Politics and Children’s Literature” for the Children’s Book Council Diversity Blog. In it, she critiques the stereotypes and tropes of fat children in children’s literature: as either bully (ie. Dudley, Crabbe and Goyle in the Harry Potter Books) or a victim of bullying (ie. Judy Blume’s classic Blubber). Fatness often becomes code in children’s literature for gluttony, greed or other moral failings — just consider Augustus Gloop from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; the Oompa-Loompa song says it all: “Augustus Gloop! Augustus Gloop! The great big greedy nincompoop! Augustus Gloop! So Big and Vile! So greedy, foul, and infantile.”
To read the rest of this post, please visit "From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors!"
Thursday, May 16, 2013
In most countries, there is a culture of taboo and secrecy around menstrual health and hygiene. Just think of all those ridiculous commercials for sanitary products that allow you to engage in activities ‘without anyone knowing’ you are menstruating – even if you are wearing white spandex or leaping in the air or whatever. Last year, a British company named Bodyform made this brilliant commercial to try and debunk some of the secrecy around ‘period talk’ but still, we persist in treating menstruation like a hush-hush taboo:
This doesn’t seem like such a big problem until we realize that menstrual supplies – and their lack – is a critical issue of dignity, mobility, and human rights for girls and women around the world.
Take the importance of menstrual supplies to girls’ education.
During a meeting for an upcoming TEDx event at Sarah Lawrence College, I was listening to a graduate student named Ellie Roscher describe a successful educational model in an impoverished slum outside Nairobi, Kenya. Run by a local man who wanted to make sure that girls from his community could get the same opportunities as boys, The Kibera Girls Soccer Academy understands the local pressures that keep girls from higher education, including the fact that a free education is not actually free. Families who chose to send their girls to school in deeply impoverished communities around the world are losing their labor – either in the form of outside income or domestic labor taking care of family members and cooking meals. At the very least, families have to pay for the food and supplies that their school-going children require.
And so, The Kibera Girls Soccer Academy not only provides the girls with what they need to study, but offers all students and teachers one meal every day, as well as sanitary supplies. This last fact may seem startling. Sanitary supplies? How can that be as important as pencils, or books, or a warm, nourishing meal? Yet, without sanitary products, girl students in the Global South are often prevented from leaving their homes and attending school. Why? Firstly, and most obviously, many women living in poverty cannot afford good quality products and make do with rags or other non-absorbent materials, such as bark or grasses.
But there are local initiatives addressing this problem. For instance, a project in the Amuru and Gulu regions of Uganda has students staying after school to make sanitary pads using cheap, readily available local materials. These absorbent pads can be washed and used again, and their availability has helped curb the rampant absenteeism from school that is common among adolescent girls during their menstrual periods. Another example is the sustainable health enterprise (the she28campaign), which is developing a franchise model to make and distribute ecologically-friendly sanitary products made from local materials like banana fronds.
To read the rest of this essay please visit Adios, Barbie!
Dear Virginia [comma, space, enter, I write]
Regarding the issue of being a woman writer, [pause, fingers poised over keyboard]
I am so screwed. [Appropriateness of using profanity with dead literary legend? Unknown.]
I am all asunder. [??]
It’s not easy, that’s all I’m saying.
Not only do I not have a room of my own (I’m typing this perched on the King size bed, legs tucked, computer leaning against my pelvic bone and the deep grooved C-section scar that seems made to help balance a laptop), but the room I do have is stuffed to the brim with:
1. books [nonnegotiable]
2. dressers [necessary]
3. a drying rack draped crookedly with a red and yellow kitchen tablecloth.
4. toys that are not mine
5. a husband that is
6. [most distracting] endless baskets of unfolded laundry
The heaps of tumultuous clothing whine and tantrum at me, but I force myself to ignore them [the parenting guides say you shouldn't reward bad behavior]. To them, I am that very bad mother in the grocery line, at the park, on the street, who is able to look smoothly away even when a small, lost voice begs her to come make everything tidy again. But I know it’s a temporary respite; I can’t ignore them forever. Already my accursed third floor washing machine is swooshing and bucking in its closet down the hall, promising the birth of more chaos into this room which is where I write.
I have to write quickly, Virginia, before these pebbles I have been rolling around in my mouth all day, repeating and reciting and reforming, lose their nuance and their groove, and smooth over, becoming blank faced and heavy. By tomorrow these words will become inarticulate stones in my pockets, dragging me down into distraction, so that I will snap unnecessarily at my children, break my own rules about junk food snacking to keep them quiet, and most shockingly, turn on the television just because they ask, as I desperately scribble with pen, pencil, crayon — anything I can find — on the back of grocery receipts, cell phone bills, and yellow sticky pads which I’ve taken to keeping all around the house just for this purpose. I will write feverishly until my hand aches and still, like one of those dreams where your leaden feet cannot outrun the hungry wolves, the phrases slip through my fingers, sliding off the page into puddles on the floor, leaving me drowning and bereft.
Tonight, I’m losing the battle before I’ve begun. Soon my son will start to cough, cough, cough, the sound echoing with gaps through my fancy baby monitor that circulates through three separate stations even though I only have two children. Cough, static, static, cough. I will try and coax him to drink a little water from a sports bottle. Even in sleep he will protest at a sippy cup – “I’m a big boy.” But I know if I leave a real cup of water by his bed, it will spill and soak the bedclothes like the day I delivered him, when my water broke, as if in the movies — whoosh — all over everything, and then this mother-writer was born.
To read the rest of this essay please visit Victoria M. Johnson's Creative Spaces Blog Series!
This essay was originally published at Literary Mama
Tuesday, April 16, 2013
I was preparing to give a talk at The Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, on a panel called “Ferocious BMI! Women Artists and the Body.” There I was, before the panel, innocently having a coffee with a dear friend, when I learned something shocking about her child’s otherwise progressive school: that they do yearly BMI (body mass index) measurements on their students.
Let me just clarify. These people are putting their students on scales. In school.
Real life hit me in the face. Was this Brave New World? Big Brother is Watching? I had recently read about CVS measuring their employees’ BMI, a move which, in my mind, puts in jeopardy employees’ right to health privacy, as well as potentially their jobs and health insurance. All it truly accomplishes is discrimination. As the writers as Jezebel put it, “Heads up, Corporate America, punishing employees for being fat won’t make them skinny.”
Here I was, about to go give a talk about how the BMI is not only a problematic and perhaps spurious way to measure health (just check out this recent NYT article about a study which suggests that there is in fact a LOWER risk of death for the overweight), but how the ‘obesity epidemic’ in general has been framed as a ‘moral panic’ – a threat to the very social order. My talk focused on the cultural contexts of such perceived threats: the fact that ‘fat panic’ also reinforces hierarchies of class, race, and sex, and how such threats are used to shame and blame individuals and hold some bodies up as ‘normative’ and others as ‘deviant’, rather than holding systems accountable (like the U.S. food industry for their use of GMOs or the market glut of processed foodstuffs).
And there was my friend, telling me how her child’s public school had not only bought into this mentality, but was using it as a measuring stick to evaluate children – sending home ‘friendly’ notes to families whose children’s numbers weren’t ‘right’ with advice like ‘curb down on those sodas!’ (Never mind if your family didn’t even buy soft drinks!) Even worse, because these measurements were done in school, elementary school children themselves were comparing themselves to one another – whispering about a girl who was 103 pounds, regardless of her height, and learning, oh, so young, to use numbers like weight and BMI as proxies not for health, but for self-worth, popularity, beauty, and desirability.
And my friend’s school is not alone. CNN reports: ”According to the National Association of School Boards of Education, about a dozen states require some sort of weight recording and reporting as a means of combating childhood obesity.” While the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended, in 2003 mind you, that BMI be tracked regularly, what they did not recommend was that schools do that tracking.
And so, although I may be a voice shouting into the wind, I wanted – no NEEDED – to say something. And say it loud:
There is no excuse — NO EXCUSE – for putting little boys and girls on weight scales in school. Responsible administrators should not be doing it. We educators and parents cannot allow it.
To read the rest of this essay, please visit Adios, Barbie!
Wednesday, April 3, 2013
Controlling portions, controlling pregnancies: Race and class panic in New York City public health campaigns
This month, New York City launched a new campaign called “The True Cost of Teen Pregnancy.” The 4,000 bus and subway posters, which reportedly took two years of planning and cost the city $400,000, feature wailing toddlers and babies (mostly of color) next to captions such as Honestly, Mom, chances are he won’t stay with you… and I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen.
Yes, teen pregnancy is experienced disproportionately by girls of color and girls living in poverty. Yet data shows that national teen pregnancy rates across ethnicities are dropping not rising, including in New York City. So why this public health campaign? And why now?
The race and class politics behind the “True Cost” campaign become more obvious when one considers that over the past years, the city has released several public health campaigns that have been critiqued as specifically targeting working class and poor communities of color. Indeed, public health campaigns are never value neutral, and are often used to orient social hostility toward marginalized groups.
While “True Cost” was quickly criticized, most of the pushback has focused on the problems surrounding the use of shame as a health promotion tool, not explicitly around its race and class message. For instance, the New York City Coalition for Reproductive Justice launched a ‘No Stigma! No Shame!’ campaign in response to the ad, and Planned Parenthood of New York City released a statement denouncing the posters, saying they perpetuated “gender stereotypes, stigmatizing and fear based messages” while ignoring the ‘structural realities’ impacting these young women’s lives (Code for racism and classism? Perhaps).
Then there is Richard V. Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, who defended the use of stigmatization and fear as motivations for healthy behavior in a column for the New York Times, arguing that “shame is an essential ingredient of a healthy society.”
But Reeves’ voice has seemingly been an outlier. Even TED talk ‘shame and vulnerability’ rockstar Brené Brown has gotten into the conversation, arguing against Reeves’ conclusions by asserting, “Shame diminishes our capacity for empathy. Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”
But I don’t think the issue is purely about shame. The question is: who is being shamed and for what purpose? It is not a coincidence that New York’s current campaign shares a lot in common with a Georgia hospital’s 2011-2012 campaign against childhood obesity. Like the “True Cost” ads, these black and white photos of morose looking children were accompanied by fear-filled captions like WARNING: Chubby kids may not outlive their parents and WARNING: It’s hard to be a little girl if you’re not.
Both campaigns use children (the universal “innocent victims”) to blame parents – a strategy seen often in international development projects, such as Invisible Children’s problematic KONY 2012 campaign. In these narratives, entire communities, or countries, are portrayed as incapable of, or uninterested in, protecting and caring for their own children, or themselves. (Which then justifies everything from domestic governmental regulation to international interference in, or invasion of, other countries)
To read the rest of this essay, please visit Racialicious!
Friday, March 29, 2013
Her coat, her boots, even fingernails seem to be dirt-magnets. She comes home from school in her mis-matched clothes (picked out by her self of course), with her face flushed and her ponytails crooked or falling out. And I have to stop myself from obsessing. Most of the time I fail, bemoaning,
“Why is your coat dirty again?” “Yuck, go wash your hands,” or “Those boots are NOT getting into my car!”
The funny thing is, she’s not a particularly sporty girl — not someone who would be called (if you use this sort of anachronism) a ‘tomboy.’ Rather, she happens to go to a school where children are allowed to be children. Where she builds fairy houses out of moss and sticks at recess, brews ‘witches potions’ out of mud and leaves, run around and does cartwheels. These are all things I believe are good, and important for both girls and boys. And when my son comes home in the same filthy state, my first reaction is to say “Well, looks like you’ve been playing hard.” Yet, my instinctual reaction is not always the same for my daughter.
So, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our cultural expectations for girls to be clean. Not just clean, but prim, proper, quiet, well behaved and well presented. And I’m realizing it’s part and parcel of the ‘pinkification’ of girlhood – what Peggy Orenstein wrote about in her book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie Girl Culture. Now, don’t get me wrong, as a pediatrician/mom/writer, I’m certainly not recommending we don’t wash hands before meals or skip showers. But there is already such a psychological pressure on young girls to interact with the world and present their bodies in certain ways — ways that have to do with cultural expectations for female sexuality, not a hearty, healthy and body-loving girlhood (or womanhood!). These expectations of perfection aren’t just unrealistic, they’re potentially damaging of self esteem and psychological as well as physical well being, as Courtney E. Martin asserts in her groundbreaking Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women.
Yet, there is a cultural pushback happening. Consider that in 2012 Maine eighth grader Julia Bluhm circulated a petition asking Seventeen Magazine to stop Photoshopping and airbrushing images of models, arguing that photographs of perfect skin, hair, and rail thin bodies were unhealthy for young people’s self-esteem. Her petition gained national media attention, and even inspired a protest in front of Seventeen’s offices. Pro-body image websites like Adios, Barbie urge young women to join the ‘body loving revolution.’ Other sites including Princess-Free Zone and A Mighty Girl do everything from posting parenting articles, to making lists of ‘independent princesses’ in media and books, to selling empowering clothing, including superhero undies, for ‘smart, confident and courageous’ girls.
And of course, there’s always the world of middle grade books! I mean, who can forget the fantabulous role model of Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking, the ultimate brave-hearted, strong, adventurous, horizontal braided, mis-matched stocking wearing middle grade heroine? Part of Pippi’s appeal (and Lindgren’s ‘before her time’ genius), in fact, is her ability to shirk feminine conventions, arm-wrestle grown men, rescue animals, climb roofs and out-smart dastardly pirates.
To read the rest of this essay please visit From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors