The Myth of the “Perfect Recovery”

Want to know a secret?

I run a recovery blog. I bring conversations about sexism and gender equity to places they aren’t wanted, from my fiction writing workshops (“Are you really sure ‘attractive’ is the only adjective you need?”) to the movie theater (“Seriously, why is Kiera Knightley’s role always to stand around in a corset and look confused?”). The constant fat-shaming in Game of Thrones is about to give me a tiny heart attack.

Basically, what I’m driving at is that body positivity isn’t a throwaway for me. It’s a big deal.

And this evening, I’m sitting on my couch, looking at the wall of my apartment and wondering Why the hell can’t I just lose XXX pounds? I’d be happy then. And tonight isn’t the only night recently this has happened.

Some days I’m desperate to change my body. My wonderful, badass body. The one I put through so much in college when recovery was a project for after finals, or after I passed physics, or after I got just thismuch skinnier. The body that got me through a half marathon in September, and a full marathon of all four seasons of Blackadder two weeks ago.

That body. Sometimes I still hate that body.

Part of me thinks this makes me a fraud. A failure. The voice in the back of my mind, the one that sounds eerily like Lord Tywin Lannister (in the film version of my life, my eating disorder will be played by Charles Dance), that voice always has something to say.

Aren’t you the one supporting others?

Aren’t you supposed to know better?

Fraud.

Stop pretending you know what you’re talking about.

If you read that to yourself in Charles Dance’s voice and aren’t at least a bit intimidated, you’re braver than I am.

Am I allowed to call myself within spitting distance of recovered and still occasionally wonder if I shouldn’t go on a three-day cleanse to make my old pants fit like new pants?

Of course. Of course. It’s okay.

The whole point of body positivity is taking outside standards about how you should present yourself for a nice long walk off a short pier. That includes any bullshit notions of perfectionism or infallibility. That means being okay with yourself, just as you are, right this minute. Triggers and doubts and days almost-seriously-considering diets and emotional experiences with your jeans and all.

Recovery and life after would fail any “walk this straight line” DUI test. It’s a nonlinear cycle that doubles back on yourself when you least expect it. There’s no such thing as a “perfect recovery,” and mine is no exception. Progress isn’t when bad days stop happening  — as far as I’m concerned, they might not ever stop completely. But when the good days start outweighing the bad, and when life begins to revolve around something other than what / when / how to eat …

That’s still something to celebrate.

But coming to terms with a perfectly imperfect body-positive life — without the guilt of “failure” — is easier said than done. Here are three things I’m trying to make it through the rough patches, and back into the light.

1. Check Out Those Dark Shadowy Places

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(You knew this was coming. If a day ever comes for an obvious opportunity to quote The Lion King and I don’t take it, send help. I’ve probably fallen and I can’t get up.)

There are certain situations I know will still spark my inner negative monologue. Pants shopping, for instance. Or eating a meal at a different time than usual. Although I know, logically, that there’s nothing at all wrong with eating a bigger lunch one day, that doesn’t always make the residual discomfort go away. But leaning on logic gives a reliable handhold to turn back to.

Figuring out the root cause of an ED-related reaction — and eight times out of ten, that cause has nothing to do with food — is a crucial step for regaining a sense of understanding and power.

There’s a world of difference between “I hate my body because it’s ugly / gross / terrible” and “I’m feeling uncomfortable about how I look because the people in the cubicle next to me are talking about their 30-day cleanse / I have a big presentation tomorrow I’m nervous about / final exams are coming up and I don’t feel adequate / I didn’t sleep enough last night.” One places the blame on your body; the other shifts focus back to where it belongs. One feels dispiriting and impossible; the other makes sense. And recovery is making sense out of the chaos, and putting anxiety and discomfort in their place.

That place, by the way, is way the hell off on the sidelines.

So get up there on Pride Rock the next time the voices start. Everything the light touches is your recovery journey. Once you figure out what’s really going on in those dark shadowy places, it might not be as overwhelming and confusing as it seemed.

2. Catastrophize for a Reason

You’ve probably heard the phrase “Fat is not a feeling” as a rallying cry before. And while it can be tough to take that statement at face value when you’re absolutely sure you’re feeling fat right then and there, grammatically it’s just fact. “Fat” is a noun, describing the necessary collection of cells and tissue that protect our organs and let our bodies move through the world.

Would you argue that on a bad day you feel “muscle” or “cartilage”? Because that’s what I’m hearing when you say you feel fat.

But “fat” is also an adjective describing a certain body type. The fat acceptance movement is rightfully returning this word to its original meaning, removing the moral and value judgments society put on it and calling it for what it is. For the record, even though fat is a body type, that still doesn’t make it a viable feeling. You can’t feel “blonde” or “high cheekbones” emotionally. That’s not how emotions work.

I keep this as a kind of mantra for when weight panic sets in. It cuts the anxiety out of ruminating on weight, little by little, step by step.

I feel fat I’m so fat I’m gaining so much weight I’m so fat —

Okay. So. Maybe. What’s the worst that could happen if I was fat?

Am I going to hate or love my job any more? Are my friends going to care about me any less, and will I care about them differently? Is the sunrise on my commute down 55 going to look any less beautiful? Are nachos going to be any less delicious? Is the sexism on Netflix’s Marco Polo going to make me want to punch a hole through my wall any less?

Nope. Literally the only thing that changes is that I would be fat.

Any other negative consequences that might arise are a direct result of society’s fatphobic underpinnings, which my panic about weight gain is (albeit unwillingly and painfully) perpetuating.

Will this knock off the thoughts once and for all? Almost certainly not. But it helps stop you in your tracks for at least a moment to see the larger picture.

And the big picture is almost never as scary as the close-up, particularly when the close-up is that distorted.

3. Lower Your Expectations

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Ah, Amy Poehler. Speaking the truth my soul needs.

I’m not saying “don’t expect recovery.” I’m not saying “don’t expect you’ll ever feel completely happy and in control of your life ever again.” Of course I’m not saying that. I believe it’s possible. I’ve seen people do it. It’s what’s keeping me going. Recovery is possible, and we can do it.

But no one expects you to have it all together all at once. And telling yourself any differently reveals a whole different problem that has nothing at all to do with your weight.

If you haven’t read this article by the amazing s.e. smith about impostor syndrome yet, go read it. It’s cool. I’ll wait.

For the click-averse, impostor syndrome is the feeling that, despite all evidence to the contrary, you are inherently less-than. You’re not living up to others’ expectations of you. You don’t deserve to be where you are. You aren’t qualified. You’re just faking it, and everyone around you already knows it. Even when you know, objectively. 0% of this is true, that doesn’t help.

This summed up so much about my life, both personally and professionally, when I read it that I needed to take a step back and reframe. No one expects me to have it all together. No one is scandalized and horrified when I make a mistake at work, or when I have a lousy body image day and call my support system to vent and yell a little. No one, that is, but me. I’m holding myself to standards that I’d never impose on anyone else.

It’s not fair. It’s doing me way more harm than good. And it’s not easy to stop.

But I’m working on it. I’m cutting myself some slack. Lowering my expectations, so to speak. I’m trying not to feel totally deflated when something goes badly, because things go badly for everyone all the time, every day. Even the most active body image activists need support, help, self-care, and a little slack now and then.

That Amy. So wise. One more piece of wisdom for the road:

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And so we keep on. I’ll keep trying. And on the bad days, I’ll take a shower at a weird time, curl up in bed with a book, and wake up in the morning to try again.

And again.

And again.

Until, maybe next week, maybe in fifteen years, one day I wake up and never need to think about trying again.

But today is not that day.

Today, I’ll keep working.

Owning Up to “Guilty Pleasures”

Will I ever pass up the chance to have Tom Hiddleston's name on this blog? No. The answer is no.

Will I ever pass up a chance to reference Tom Hiddleston on this blog? No. The answer is no.

This sounds like a departure from my normal topics, but it isn’t, really. Hear me out. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and the reason has a lot to do with Olive Garden.

Yep, Olive Garden. Here’s where I’m coming from. I moved recently, from one unreasonably cold Midwestern city to another slightly more unreasonably cold Midwestern city with a significantly higher number of Walgreens. In my new neighborhood, there’s an Olive Garden across the street from my apartment. When driving past with a friend who came into town to visit, he pointed out the restaurant and said, “I see you’ve got the height of class in this city.”

I looked at the off-yellow stucco, then back at him. “What’s wrong with Olive Garden?” I asked.

“Well, you know. It’s not exactly high Italian cuisine, is it?”

High Italian cuisine? What was this, an episode of Chopped? Was I going to be docked points for inappropriate plating?

“I,” I said, drawing myself up to my full (seated) (not very impressive) height, “love Olive Garden.”

Maybe it doesn’t have the makings of the Next Great American Novel, but this micro-conversation made me think. Should my ever-abiding love for Olive Garden be a “guilty pleasure”? Is there such a thing as a “guilty pleasure”? Is anything that makes us happy really anything to feel guilty about?

In my personal history, the answer has generally been “yes.” Of course we should feel ashamed about the things we like. Isn’t the fact that we like them a marker of our own poor taste, the signature on the death warrant of our worth as human beings? I could be immersing myself in hour upon hour of of The Roosevelts or sitting down to read the copy of Infinite Jest that has been collecting literary dust on the bottom of my shelf for months now.

But what am I doing? I’m watching back episodes of New Girl and reading 1500 pages of Game of Thrones in three weeks. I don’t even like Game of Thrones that much. I don’t think it’s well-written, and the intersectional feminist side of my brain is having a small aneurism every single time Melisandre appears (because come on guys, hasn’t the evil demon seductress with a mystical pregnancy been played out enough?). And yet, I’m midway through Clash of Kings and I’ve had that book since New Year’s Day.

Isn’t all this just a demonstration of my poor taste? Shouldn’t I hold myself to higher standards than this? Shouldn’t I at least make an effort to like authentic Italian food and David Foster Wallace?

Well, no.

Because why is it anybody’s business what I enjoy? The point of pleasure is that it’s supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to feel good. I can like crappy food and poorly written novels and TV shows without any semblance of a plot. It’s not a reflection of my worth as a human, or a being who enjoys culture. It’s just something that I like … because I like it.

It took me an embarrassingly long time to come around to this conclusion. And I think the reason for it is that pleasure, in and of itself, is something we’re conditioned to frown upon. Think about it this way: If you let your reptile brain take over for a day — side note, I hate the phrase “reptile brain” because it is gross — what do you think you would do? For many of us, the answer probably follows the “eat, sleep, and have sex” kind of model. (I recognize that for the asexual community part of this may be inaccurate, but forgive the generalization for the point.)

Now consider how we’re told to think about those instincts.

You like to eat? Selfish. Greedy. Lazy. Unhealthy and worthless. We’re in the middle of “New Year, New Pointless Diet” New Year’s resolution season, we shouldn’t have to stretch to think about how food and immorality are linked.

You like to sleep? Lazy. Unmotivated. Never getting anywhere. Get up and do something productive. Go to work. You’ll get a jump on that useless competition who’s asleep while you’re already at the office plugging formulas into an Excel spreadsheet like a madperson. You want to win, sleep when you’re dead.

You like to have sex? Slut. Whore. Straight to Hell for you. Have fun burning, lascivious monster who enjoys making your body feel good. Explain that to the Devil for me.

It’s odd, isn’t it? That the things our bodies naturally want are the very things we’re shamed for enjoying? That we’re bombarded with guilt for “indulging” in these things, even though we’ve been programmed to want or need them? Odd to say the least.

We’re told we’re supposed to want things that are difficultTaking the easy way out is for people who won’t ever get anywhere in life. Why go to sleep at 10pm when you could stay up all night and get a little bit more work done? Why flip through a magazine when you could pour over Grey’s Anatomy or every individual paragraph of The Goldfinch, regardless of whether or not you like it? Why make yourself a grilled cheese sandwich with the kind of cheese that’s individually wrapped in plastic when you could do something fancy with gruyère and chèvre and other words containing the letter è?

It’s another version of the “not good enough” mentality that hounds us every single day. It hounds us about our bodies – not thin enough, not fit enough, not tall enough, not pretty enough, not anything enough. It hounds us about our minds — not smart enough for this job, not hardworking enough for that promotion, not worthwhile enough for a raise, not worth anything to anyone.

And I want it to stop.

Once I finish writing, I’m going to open up Netflix and pop on the next episode of whatever show is at the top of my list. It will, doubtless, be rated one or two stars. It may actually be targeted toward five-to-eleven-year-olds (you do know about my Disney thing, right…?). And I’m learning to be okay with that.

As a side note: I had Olive Garden leftovers for lunch at the office yesterday.

And they were delicious.

Confessions of a Former Writer of Sexist Fiction

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In the process of moving to a new state for a new job, I spent a whole mess of time packing up all my stuff into cardboard boxes. This led to the discovery of every writer’s waking nightmare: those short stories and novellas you wrote before you had any idea what “narrative structure” or “scene setting” meant. If you ever want to spend an afternoon alternating between sheer horror and vague retrospective enthusiasm, try reading those notebooks. It’s a trip.

Sometimes, when you take a nostalgic writer’s trip, you discover some things. I found two:

1. A sentence from a totally useless story that I immediately cut and pasted into my current manuscript, because it was perfect and I re-fell in love with it instantly, and

2. The following realization: “holy shit but I wrote a lot of misogynistic patriarchal sexist bullshit between the ages of 13 and 18.”

You want to know what kind of cultural tropes and baggage society gives us? Check out the way you thought about gender roles as a child. No filter, no sociological un-learning, just straight regurgitation of the dominant worldview.

Here are two of the most popular tropes I found myself using over the course of my youthful forays into fiction. The sad thing is, these are not exclusive to children. They’re everywhere: in movies, in TV, in mainstream fiction, in video games, everywhere. And the sooner we start breaking them down, the better shot we’ve got at stopping them.

1. Women as Plot Devices

Uncomfortable truth be told, it seems I’ve always been more comfortable working with male protagonists. I don’t know why this is. Well, I kind of do know why this is. Despite the steady diet of female empowerment my parents and I sought out, from Tamora Pierce (guys I don’t care how old you are go fucking read Tamora Pierce) to Little Women (#JoMarchForever), most media produced in America is phallocentric.

There’s a reason we invoke the Bechdel test as often as we do: because so many things fail it.

You know what the test is: the film must have two or more female characters, both of whom have names, and who have a conversation with one another about something other than a man. Should be a given, right?

Check out this list of which 2014 movies passed and failed the test. Then think about how many of those passing films were billed as “blockbusters” or “must-sees.” How many of them got heavy advertising? How many of them weren’t dismissed as genre films like “young adult” or “teen girl” or “chick flick”? I count maybe ten. And that list has 159 movies.

And this is fucking 2014.

No, this doesn’t make me feel any better about the number of variations I wrote on this story: charming yet disadvantaged male goes through dramatic adventures (piracy, vampirism, the Napoleonic Wars) only to discover that the only female in the story is the love of his life, and that he’ll do anything (kill the captain, commit suicide in a vampire/hunter street fight like West Side Story with fangs, feed the rival suitor to a hungry bear) to obtain her.

Easy Solution: Start telling women’s stories with the same authenticity as men’s.

Obviously, I’m not saying that we should throw out all male protagonists. (#notallmen.) But all I’m saying is that we have to make an effort to even the playing field. Women make up 50% of the world’s population. Asking for a few stories about women who aren’t only focused on marriage shouldn’t be so much to ask, but apparently is.

It’s also worth pointing out that bit parts like scene-setting servants, whores, crowd characters, or personality-less mothers don’t count. Female presence is not the same as female representation. As writers, we need to get as deeply into the heads of the women in our stories as we do the men. It’s especially disappointing to me as a woman that even I frequently did not do this. But it’s never too late to re-correct.

2. Objectifying and Sexually Skewed Adjectives

Guys. Guys. I can’t make you understand on an emotional level the number of times I referred to the female character in the aforementioned nonsense vampire novella’s “emerald-green eyes.” (I know, I know, I’m selling this vampire novella really hard.) I blame this partly on Harry Potter: flip through the series and see if you can find a color adjective unmodified by another adjective. But the sum-total character development I gave this girl was deciding she had “emerald-green eyes.”

Occasionally, “shockingly emerald-green eyes.” Though how this could possibly shock anyone after I’d already written it forty times is beyond me.

She wasn’t the only one to receive this treatment. I’ve read through at least nine stories written between 2004 and 2010 recently, and nowhere in any of them is there a female character of any plot importance who isn’t the most beautiful woman the narrator has ever seen. Statistically speaking, that’s not exactly likely. Worth noting that there are male protagonists, in my writing and elsewhere, who look all kinds of ways. Yeah, I skew toward a type (okay, yeah, I skew toward this type). But it’s not the only goddamned type.

There’s a reason that an unattractive female protagonist (and not a “you don’t know you’re beautiful” type, a genuinely unattractive female protagonist) still feels like a revolutionary idea.

Women don’t have to be “classically beautiful” to be important. Beauty isn’t the only trait that determines a character’s value to the story. If we don’t spend all our time describing the male protagonist’s jawbones or the way you can see the shape of his pelvis through his pants, we sure shouldn’t be constantly talking about a woman’s body more than about what she’s saying.

Easy Solution: Kill your adjectives with fire.

I’ve become super highly attuned to the work my adjectives are doing. Specifically the patriarchal work. Description is great, guys. I once spent an afternoon doing nothing but drinking iced coffee and writing descriptions of various rooms, just for practice.

But when description replaces your characters’ agency, you’re leaning too far in the “show, don’t tell” direction, and it’s high time for you to come back to us.

Also, please delete every time you describe the color of something with more than one word. Every. Damn. Time. There is nothing wrong with “green” or “blue.” Take it from me, your future self will thank you for it.

I feel a little weird outlining my shortcomings as a writer, especially when I haven’t been called out on it by anyone else. (This is because no one is every allowed to read that vampire epic. It should be clear by now why.)

But I really think it’s important to be honest about the way writing works. Feminism isn’t a banner you take up one day and then never do a sexist thing again. Writing isn’t a skill you pick up at Target and then deploy perfectly heretofore. Both are processes, and both require training and continual sensitivity.

Constant vigilance, even.

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I Passed Up a Career in STEM for an English Degree—Here’s Why That Doesn’t Make Me a Bad Feminist

Yep, that's my copy of The Waste Land. Guys, go read that poem. I'll wait.

Yep, that’s my copy of The Waste Land. Guys, go read that poem. I’ll wait.

 

As a feminist, sometimes a newly minted humanities degree can feel a bit like a scarlet letter. After all, one of our current battlegrounds is proportional representation in STEM fields (that’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math for the acronym-disinclined). If you have the privilege to attend a four-year university, shouldn’t you dedicate yourself to closing the gender gap in these historically male-centric professions? And besides, don’t you ever want to have a job? Or do you like Starbucks that much?

Thanks, imaginary questioner of my life choices. Some advice: never tell a recent graduate they should’ve chosen a different field, particularly not when 40% of the unemployed are Millennials as of June 2014. That’s 4.6 million recent graduates who don’t find your faux-concern helpful.

But I can’t dismiss these concerns out of hand. As feminists, we protest—and rightly so—the lack of diversity in major Silicon Valley firms and startups. According to USA Today, the gender divide is pretty pathetic: from Facebook to Apple, Google to Twitter, they hover at around 70% male. (For reference, the total US population is 49% male.) Mind you, race is an additional issue here, since tech industries range between 70-90% white and Asian. And, of course, the intersection of race and gender provides a different lens with which to view the problem.

Yes, girls should be encouraged to pursue their passions in mechanical engineering or computer science or microbiology. We should promote toys that allow children all along the gender spectrum to experiment with what they like and what careers they might pursue. This means making female scientist play sets, and not just as a limited edition, LEGO. This means more products like Goldieblox that urge girls to develop problem solving and spatial reasoning skills, even though such toys are still generally marketed toward boys. I’m all for programs like Girls Who Code, and think that STEM education should be as gender-neutral as building blocks.

But I think embracing social sciences and the humanities can be just as much of a feminist choice as attending MIT to study programming.

Here’s the thing: in high school, I was pretty good at math. I could graph cosines and tangents. At one point, I even knew what cosines and tangents were, conceptually. (Alas, those days are gone.) Had I gone on to get a degree in computer science and work for IBM, I probably would have done fine. Guidance councilors and teachers certainly thought so, from the extent they pressured me to go for it. But I knew I would have been miserable.

So I didn’t. I took creative writing instead of chemistry, Romantic poetry instead of the “hard sciences.” Four years later, here I am, proud owner of a BA in English and Creative Writing (and so many gently used classic novels it’s probably a fire hazard). Yep, that’s right, folks: the humanities aren’t dead. Even if sometimes it feels like I’m single-handedly keeping them alive. Chat with me for thirty minutes and you’re bound to hear a Shakespeare pun slip into our conversation. Most likely, more than one.

Why is maintaining the “feelings and humanities are for the ladies, numbers and science are for the menfolk” status quo not mean I have to turn in my Feminist Card? Glad you asked.

Logically, we have to start by defining what we consider feminism. My working definition, inspired by the one, the only bell hooks: the practice of combatting gender-based oppression, or oppression based at the intersection of gender and other aspects of identity.

Gender-based oppression includes many things, but the one I want to focus on here is the devaluation of things deemed “feminine.” You know what I’m talking about. The phrase “throw like a girl” is an insult because if a girl does it, it’s got to be bad. Female emotion is trivialized, because if a girl is upset, she’s either hysterical, not to be taken seriously, or on her period. (Worth noting how cis-sexist that last one is. Even if the seat of emotion was the uterus, not all women have menstrual cycles, folks). Our society shames boys who cry, play with dolls, or wear pink, because those are all associated with something no one should ever be, if they can avoid it: feminine.

Literature, sociology, philosophy, languages, history, all these social sciences and humanities deal with subjects and experiences we’ve categorized as female. They treat the human psyche, the experience of emotions. They discuss theories of love and value and motivation and behavior. They talk about interpersonal relationships and social phenomenon. Humanities and social sciences are cultural: science and math are universal.

Does this make them less valuable?

Don’t we need the ability to look at a text or an advertisement or a speech and see its latent meanings and influences? Media literacy and awareness of social biases are crucial, and that skill set is almost indistinguishable from that of a humanities major.

Does the ability to develop complex, abstract reasoning and express it in clear, lucid prose have no place in our society? Well, if we look at the incomprehensible emails in our inbox or that poorly fact-checked web article we read this morning, we might think so. But identifying a need for change goes nowhere without enabling others to understand your point.

Feminism isn’t (or shouldn’t be) about privileging one type of life plan over another. Pro-choice feminism isn’t about making sure everyone gets an abortion, but rather making sure everyone has the possibility of having one if they so choose. The workplace equality movement isn’t about making sure every stay-at-home mom morphs into a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, but that social and bureaucratic barriers preventing her from doing so are removed. Same with feminism geared toward STEM parity. The point isn’t that girls pursuing science-based careers are more valued than those interested in marketing or grant writing or fashion design, but that it shouldn’t be systematically more difficult for them to do so than for men.

We need scientists and engineers and mathematicians and astrophysicists, perhaps more than ever. No one’s questioning the dire need for reformed climate policy (well, some people are, but I digress) or infrastructural improvements across the globe. But we also need writers and thinkers and philosophers and journalists and artists. Let’s value “feminine” traits as well as “masculine” ones, soft sciences as well as hard ones. Let’s make our feminism inclusive, where the most important thing isn’t the differences in our interests, but the force of our passions that destroys all boundaries placed around them.

Photoshop: A Downloadable Public Health Crisis?

 

There’s a new dystopian sci-fi event coming soon to screens near you—and no, I’m not talking about The Hunger Games. I’m calling it Photoshop: The Final Frontier. And, unfortunately, it’s taken the leap from speculation to reality.

For something that comes standard in an expansive set of computer utilities, Photoshop (when used with reckless and patriarchal abandon) has been proven to have negative social effects on the very audiences it’s targeting as potential consumers. Among these, as a very partial list…

  • Artificially slimmed-down bodies are impossible without the magic of a cursor, but these bodies are placed in women’s health and fitness magazines (okay, Women’s Health and Fitness magazines) and advertised as the totally obtainable “after” image. We go to more and more drastic lengths to obtain these fantasy results, crash dieting or engaging in unhealthily intense exercise regimens. Which, as we know from research into orthorexia, exercise bulimia, crash dieting, and the fact that diets don’t work, is wildly detrimental to health, whatever the magazine covers say.

So if studies, facts, statistics, and general common sense all tell us that Photoshopping our bodies into vaguely alien-looking plastic-people is a generally terrible idea, why is it standard business practice for the advertising industry? Because… well, not to get too Econ 101 on you, but because capitalism.

You know, capitalism? That handy economic system where profit is driven by a free-market economy in which whatever sells can be distributed at incredible prices to support the accumulation of wealth?

Here’s the thing: in our world, shame sells. Body hate sells. The diet industry (weight loss plans, pills, supplements, shakes, surgeries, and all the rest) sells, and sells, and sells, to the tune of $60 billion every year. Yup, every year.

Wonder why you feel worse about yourself after looking at endless images of tall, thin, white, symmetrical, pore-less models? Then notice, every time you open your browser or turn on the TV, the promo for the latest root/flower/seed/unicorn blood that melts fat like candle wax. Bam. That’s the one-two punch.

This isn’t to say that all advertisers are deliberately driving a Photoshop-sized hole through our self-esteem for profit. There’s our screwed-up, one-dimensional, stretched-to-the-breaking-point beauty standards to consider, too. Advertising firms are made up of humans, and it’s hard to find a human completely unaffected by the social pressure to slim down and shut up. (And be five foot nine, able-bodied, and white. You know, if possible.)

I’m not blaming any one company, firm, or person for this phenomenon. We aren’t responsible for how we’ve been socialized, just like we aren’t responsible for certain levels of cultural privilege we may or may not be born with. But, just like with privilege, we are responsible for the impact of our actions, and of our inaction. Faced with a sociocultural monster like this one, it’s that inaction that’s most destructive.

So what can we do to fight inaction with activism? A few suggestions to get you started…

1. Understand When a Product Invents the Flaw It Fixes

Show of hands: how many of us even knew what our pores were before those commercials convincing us we could shrink them with expensive creams (and Photoshop, to hide the fact that said creams invariably do nothing)? Same goes for forehead wrinkles, vaginoplasty (yes, really), or whatever can be the hell wrong with our underarms now.

Women make 85% of all consumer purchases in the US. However gender stereotypes make you feel about that, it’s a fact. If we decide we don’t want, need, or even have the ability to look like Photoshopped models, companies will have to adapt their business models to thrive in the new consumer landscape. And even if the change isn’t immediate on a cultural scale, it will be on the personal. I can’t begin to tell you how much more progress I’ve made on my writing when I decided time spent worrying about my uneven skin tone could be better spent on revisions of Chapter Twelve.

2. Take Political Action

Don’t let my Econ digression scare you; I’m not asking for a total dismantling of the capitalist system by tomorrow. (Though people always seem to say “dismantling the capitalist system” like it’s a bad thing…) But there are political actions you can take, in addition to voting with your dollar.

Sign the Truth In Ads petition, urging lawmakers to support H.R. 4341, the Truth In Advertising Act. This proposed legislation would require all advertisers to indicate when substantial, body-altering Photoshop has been used on an image. Substantial changes, mind. We’re talking shaving off ribcages or manufacturing thigh gaps, not smoothing flyaway hairs or shopping Benedict Cumberbatch’s Oscar photobomb into great moments of history. Think of it as a Surgeon General’s Warning for the body image of America.

Sign the petition and share it with your friends, family, and colleagues. Urge companies who claim to support “real beauty” to do the same. Modcloth is already on board, but companies like Dove and Aerie could stand to put their cursor where their mouth is. Put the pressure on: email, Facebook, Twitter, anything. Just make your voice heard.

3. Promote Media Literacy in the Children in Your Life

We grew up in this twisted, exploitative beauty system. We’re already pretty messed up by it. But there are kids right now who could maybe, possibly, learn a different way. So share every critical thinking muscle you’ve got.

Encourage others to call out Photoshop alterations when they see them. Give airtime to celebrities like Lorde and Lady Gaga who push back against our culture’s obsession with alteration.

Compliment young girls—and boys—and everyone—more about who they are and what they do than what they look like. Who wouldn’t want to be valued for what they had some control over, verses some genetic fluke?

Prompt kids to find the subliminal messages in ads. “Why do you think they’re selling this product?” “What is this ad really trying to say?” “Why do you think all models look like this?” Make media literacy as important as any other school subject, and kids will get better with practice.

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Photoshop: The Last Frontier might be approaching quickly, but that doesn’t mean we have to sit down and accept it. Stand up. Push back. Agitate for change. Because if we don’t, who will?

Four Ways to Put Body Image Issues in Their Place

Trying to live a body-positive life can feel like a full-time job. Add the demands of daily life, from your day job to stressors like friends, family, and relationships, and sometimes it can feel like you’re pulling 90-hour weeks. No wonder recovery isn’t linear. No wonder sometimes we feel burned out. No wonder some days are better than others.

If we were allowed to take a break from life and focus exclusively on coming to terms with our bodies and our selves, maybe the process would be faster and less painful. We’d all hike into the woods, climb a mountain, and look out over a beautiful valley into a clear lake, where we would think about those things that need thinking. After a time of self-reflection, we would all discover peace.

Yeah. That’d be excellent.

Life never chooses one thing to toss at us. It’s a juggler, not a MLB pitcher. Weight or body discomfort come simultaneously with fights with friends, family illnesses, financial worries, or unemployment on a longer term than you’d planned on. (*quietly raises hand*) All too often, these added stressors only make body discomfort worse.

Not that I’ve figured out a foolproof way to separate external stressors from internal body-image problems, but here are four tips that might help get through a rough patch.

1. Compartmentalize

Easier said than done, I know. But on a day when you’ve shouted at your significant other for thirty minutes, totaled your car, or discovered you didn’t get that promotion you totally deserve, realize that negative thoughts about the way you look can be a reflexive reaction. It’s what you’ve been doing, possibly for years, without thinking. Getting angry with yourself because you’ve gained/lost/maintained/[insert verb]ed a few pounds is easier and more familiar than trying to manage new, external problems.

Realizing that you’re deploying a destructive reflex isn’t going to make those feelings go away instantly. But it helps take the edge off if you can think rationally about what’s going on. Feel your feelings, but realize where they’re coming from and why.

2. Find the Distractions You Love

On bad days where body image is a symptom of another problem, I like to shine a spotlight somewhere else. Hopefully that spotlight lands on a piece of aluminum foil or a disco ball or something. Because the point of a distraction is basically to find a shiny object to look at instead.

To stop thinking about body discomfort or job-search stress or whatever else, I like to have a long-term project on hand. If it’s large enough, there’s always something there to occupy me for an hour. I don’t need to think about it. It’s the go-to that replaces destructive behaviors or brooding with the door closed. I’ll open up the draft of my novel and hack away at revisions of Chapter 14, again. (Why must you resist me, Chapter 14? *shakes fist*) I’ll curl up on the couch and watch the beginning of season 4 of Game of Thrones. Anything to turn my focus somewhere else.

Does this solve the underlying problem? In a way, kind of. Running away from your problems sounds like the cheater’s way out, but if your problem has dissolved a little or feels less manageable from four miles away, isn’t that a solution?

3. Find Something You Can Change

It’s been said probably a million times before, but the idea that eating disorders are an effort to assert control has something to it. When your boss gives you a scathing performance review or your best friend betrays you in a way straight out of a soap opera, you want to know that the world isn’t spiraling totally out of control. There’s something you can do. There’s something you are good at. For me, that something was food. Or rather, not food. I was really good at not-food.

But we all know where that kind of controlling behavior gets us. Nowhere good. That’s not a place we want to be. So how can you get the feeling of being back in control without damaging your health, physically or mentally?

It doesn’t have to be huge. So what if you can’t stop climate change or create world peace before 5pm? Start small. Empty out your email inbox. (If you’re like me, an out-of-control inbox is like walking around all day with a sharp rock in your shoe. The worst.) Cook a few days’ worth of delicious, recovery-approved meals and put them in your freezer, so you don’t have to think about it for a week. Finish up that homework assignment that’s been nagging you. Call your mother/father/grandparents. They miss you.

However crazy life might seem, remind yourself that you took charge of and accomplished one valuable thing today. Sometimes, one is enough.

4. Remember How Kick-Ass You Are

I used to think there was something about looking in the mirror and saying, “You’re smart and strong and gorgeous and clever and awesome” that belonged more in Zoolander than my daily life. And personally I’m still not big on mirror affirmations. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t try to pump myself up every so often.

Our minds have become wired to replace negative thoughts about things happening in our lives with negative thoughts about our bodies. Not much of a replacement. It’s not easy, but a real substitute would be a positive thought. And this takes practice.

My goal is that when a negative thought pops up, I’ll counter it with a positive one. My strategy while it’s still a new process is something like the improv technique of “Yes, but…” – that is, take what comes before it without questioning, but immediately counter it with another thought. Example:

Negative thought: I’ve gained so much weight, and now my pants don’t fit.

Response: Yes, but you had a really nice text conversation with a friend last night, which objectively is more meaningful than what your butt looks like.

Maybe someday I’ll advance to the point where instead of “yes, but…” I can counter with “nope, bullshit.” But for now, any movement towards a positive response counts.

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Have you ever caught yourself on a body-negative day and known that those feelings were a symptom of a larger problem? How did you cope on that day? How do you cope going forward?