Body of Truth by Harriet Brown

One of my reading goals for next year is to read books that feature body-positive themes.  I don’t know about you, but as I approach my fortieth year, I’m exhausted by battling my body.  I’m exhausted by viewing foods as “good” and “bad” and feeling either virtuous or full of self-loathing depending on which I eat.  What I seek is clarity on what really matters, peace with myself, and the pursuit of health even if it doesn’t result in weight loss.  I want a healthy relationship with food and I want to move my body in ways I enjoy. Sounds simple when you read it yet (for me) it’s actually anything but.

519rtaeemkl-_sy344_bo1204203200_So I began my reading resolution a bit early with Harriet Brown’s Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight – and What We Can Do About It. It’s a slim book, just 274 pages, including 60+ pages of notes and index.  You can tell that she’s done her research.  But you can also feel how deeply personal this issue is for her, both as a woman and as a mother of a daughter who battled anorexia.

A sixth-grade “wellness” class kicked off both her anxiety about eating and her interest in health.  Though her weight was normal, she started to worry about being fat.  She cut out desserts, telling us she’d learned that sugar was unhealthy.  Over the next six months or so, her restricting took on a life of its own, and eventually turned into full-blown anorexia that nearly killed her.

What I really liked about this book was the way Brown made me rethink my assumptions about weight and health.  I’d already thought that being overweight does not automatically equate to poor health, because people can still be active and have healthy blood tests yet still carry extra weight. Conversely, some people are naturally thin but don’t exercise at all; they may have chronic health problems too.  The first chapter is devoted to chipping away at the four most common myths (or lies, as she puts it) about weight and health:  1) That we’re all getting fatter and fatter; 2) Obesity can take at least a decade off your life; 3) Being fat causes heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other illnesses; and 4) Dieting makes us thinner and healthier.  The last one gets its own full chapter.

Dieting can make people thinner for a while – six months, a year or two, maybe three.  Which, coincidentally, is about how long most studies follow dieters, and how they claim success.  In reality, your change of maintaining significant weight loss for five years or more is about the same as your chance of surviving metastic lung cancer: 5 percent.  …only 3 to 5 percent of dieters who lose a significant amount of weight keep it off.

You’d never know any of this from reading the weight loss research, or talking with most researchers in the field.  In fact, when I asked the University of Alabama’s David Allison about dieting research, he insisted that studies do show success after five years, ‘just less than what we’d push for.’  I told him I was aware of only one research project that followed dieters for five years or more, the Look AHEAD project, a ten-year study of people with type 2 diabetes.  I asked Allison to point me toward other studies that followed dieters for five years or more, regardless of their findings.  He couldn’t come up with any.  

Brown wants her reader to question what they think they “know” about weight and health.  Who controls the purse strings for weight loss drug research?  Do doctors feel and exhibit obesity bias towards their patients?  Does yo-yo dieting eventually destroy a person’s metabolism?  Is prodding kids and adults into weight loss by any method necessary, including shaming, worth the emotional and physical risks involved?  These are some of the issues Brown addresses.  Besides including her own life long experience being 50-ish pounds “overweight” and yo-yo dieting over the years, and her daughter’s experience, she also includes interviews from people who have struggled with unhealthy behaviors and attitudes about weight, both their own and those of others around them.

The big takeaway for me from this book is the pursuit of health at any size.  “Normal” eating includes a range of foods and behaviors, and is much more flexible than most of us allow for ourselves.  We should all be giving ourselves permission to enjoy food, to seek a balanced diet, to engage in fun ways to move our bodies.  There is a lot of money to be made by the diet, pharmaceutical, and medical industries, not to mention women’s magazines, in keeping people dieting and hating themselves.  Brown wants us to be able to think critically about weight and health, not blindly swallow all that the diet and medical industries tell us.  As she points out, there is still that science simply doesn’t know about weight loss and the human body (like how to keep us thin, for one.)  It is a highly individual process.

I consider this a good, solid book to put in your body-positive arsenal.  There are so many passages I jotted down from this book that I’d love to share with you, but in the interest of brevity I’ll end with one of my favorites:

We’d do better for ourselves and our children if, instead of pushing diets and surgeries and medications, we looked at real-world strategies for eating more fruits and vegetables, getting enough sleep, dancing and playing sports, and other joyful physical activities.  And especially if we supported those things for everyone, no matter what they weighed.

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Mini Review – Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde

It seems that my reading speed is far outpacing my blogging speed right now, so I decided to write a mini-review..  I feel like this is a book that I must share.  Based on my Goodreads friends, I know many of you have read it, or read selections from it.  If I borrow a book from the library, and I think it’s one that I’m likely to write a post about, I take notes in a medium-sized magenta  notebook.  While reading Audre Lorde’s collection of essays and speeches, Sister Outsider, I ended up with four pages.  It took me quite a while to get through this, because I did not want to rush it.  I wanted to sit with the essays for a while.  I’d read Lorde in college in my women’s studies classes, but that was almost twenty years ago, and honestly, I can’t remember half of what I did back then (other than make midnight trips to Taco Bell with my friends and pine obsessively for boys who weren’t into me.)

img_0322This is a collection written in the 1970s and early 1980s, but (sadly) so much of what Lorde writes feels relevant and fresh for today’s reader.  Bookended by insightful travel pieces about Russia and Grenada, the bulk of Lorde’s essays are about speaking , writing, and owning her truth, and the power of words, language, and poetry to unite women who may lead different kinds of lives but who are all oppressed by patriarchal structures.  There were so many powerful passages that I noted, so many sentences that spoke to me and that I wanted to share.

I was reminded of Lindy West and her excellent book Shrill when I read this from “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action:”

What are the words you do not have?  What do you need to say?  What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you sicken and die of them, still in silence… And where the words of women are crying to be heard,we must each of us recognize our responsibility, to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives.  That we not hid behind the mockeries of separations that have been imposed upon us and which we so often accept as our own.

This stunning passage is from “Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response:”

I wish to raise a Black man who will not be destroyed by, nor settle for, those corruptions called power by the white fathers who mean his destruction as surely as they mean mine.  I wish to raise a Black man who will recognize that the legitimate objects of his hostility are not women, but the particulars of a structure that programs him to fear and despise women as well as his own Black self.  For me this task begins with teaching my son that I do not exist to do his feeling for him.  Men who are afraid to feel must keep women around to do their feeling for them while dismissing us for the same supposedly “inferior” capacity  to feel deeply.

And finally, this passage on guilt from “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism;”

Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own action or lack of action.  If it leads to change then it can be useful, since then it is no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge.  Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.

Oh man, I felt that.  Did you feel that?

I wish I could be more eloquent in my appreciation of Lorde’s poetically devastating prose. While some of the essays in the book spoke to me more than others, this is a book to be shared, discussed, and pondered.  It is the kind of book that can change lives, that can galvanize action, that can inspire a woman to speak her truth and seek out common ground with others who are speaking theirs.  I am so glad that I read it.

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West

I freely admit to not being the most plugged in person on the planet, so before my book group chose Lindy West’s Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman as our choice last month, I hadn’t heard of her.  I am grateful that a fellow member brought this book to our attention, and I now consider myself a Lindy West fan.  Our group certainly had a lot to talk about.

You may have heard of West from her appearances on NPR’s This American Life.  She’s done two episodes in the last two years.  In one she gets an unexpected and heartfelt apology from the internet troll who impersonated her recently deceased father (episode 545.)  In the other (episode 589) West talks about how she started embracing her identity as a fat woman.41L6cVdMOFL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Shrill is a book of essays and also a memoir, although our group couldn’t quite decide if it felt more like one than the other.  West writes about the lack of positive, sexy, young fat women role models in entertainment, her period, her abortion, growing into acceptance of her body, internet trolls, not fitting into a seat on an airplane, misogyny in stand-up comedy, and her father’s death.  Some of her writing is funny and brave, some of it is heartbreaking and raw.  All of it is infused with a passionately feminist, body-positive perspective.  I marked many passages as I read.  I’d like to share a few.

On vicious internet harassment (in the brilliantly titled chapter “Why Fat Lady So Mean to Baby Men?”):  “Why is invasive, relentless abuse – that disproportionately affects marginalized people who have already faced additional obstacles just to establish themselves in this field – something we should all have to live with just to do our jobs?  Six years later, this is still a question I’ve yet to have answered.”

On the pressure to be a thin and beautiful woman in our society: “Women matter.  Women are half of us.  When you raise every woman to believe that we are insignificant, that we are broken, that we are sick, that the only cure is starvation and restraint and smallness; when you pit women against one another, keep us shackled by shame and hunger, obsessing over our flaws rather than our power and potential; when you leverage all of that to sap our money and our time – that moves the rudder of the world.  It steers humanity toward conservatism and walls and the narrow interests of men, and it keeps us adrift in waters where women’s safety and humanity are secondary to men’s pleasure and convenience.”

On rape jokes in comedy: “Comedians regularly retort that no one complains when they joke about murder or other crimes in their acts, citing that as a double standard.  Well, fortunately, there is no cultural narrative casting doubt on the existence and prevalence of murder and pressuring people not to report it.”

I feel like Lindy West is such a necessary writer and a strong and relatable feminist voice.  I found her to be funny and insightful and fierce.  I marvel at her hard-won confidence.  I’m angry that she has to endure such hateful vitriol online for speaking her mind and loving who she is.  Shrill is a great choice for a book club – it provides so many avenues of conversation.  This was a very good collection of essays – powerful and brave in a way that women in our society definitely need.

 

 

All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes by Maya Angelou

You know who was awesome?

Maya freaking Angelou!

Many of you have probably read her classic memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  I first read that in high school and loved it.  But I wasn’t aware until just a few years ago that she had written an entire series of memoirs – six of them total, in fact!  I read the third memoir, Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas, in 2014.  And now I’ve read the fifth one, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes.  I honestly don’t know why I’ve read these memoirs out of order!  (Usually I’m such a stickler for reading things in order.  So be it.)

IMG_3255This book chronicles Angelou’s experiences in Ghana in the early 1960’s.  She had separated from her Egyptian husband, who is barely mentioned at the outset.  Three days into their new life in Ghana, her teenage son, Guy, is in an automobile accident, and is hospitalized.  Angelou is understandably beside herself.  Friends in Ghana, African American ex-patriots, bolstered Angelou’s spirits during the difficult time of Guy’s recovery.  They took her to the Flagstaff House, the seat of government.  Angelou writes,

Seeing Africans enter and leave the formal building made me tremble with an awe I had never known.  Their authority on the marble steps again proved that Whites had been wrong all along.  Black and brown skin did not herald debasement and a divinely created inferiority.  We were capable of controlling our cities, our selves and our lives with elegance and success.  Whites were not needed to explain the working of the world, nor the mysteries of the mind.

I was very much interested in Angelou’s exploration of the ways in which her African American community did and did not fit in with Ghana culture.  Many of the immigrants chose Ghana, Angelou writes, “because of its progressive posture and its brilliant president, Kwame Nkrumah.  He had let it be known that American Negroes would be welcome to Ghana.”  Her circle was hungry for connection to a place that they desperately wanted to feel like home and in which they wanted to be embraced.

We had come home, and if home was not what we had expected, never mind, out need for belonging allowed us to ignore the obvious and to create real places or even illusory places, befitting out imaginations.

As the mother of one son (who is about to turn five) I was particularly touched by Angelou’s observations about her son growing up and not needing her as much anymore.  Guy recovers from his injuries and starts attending university, moving away from home.  At one point a Ghanaian friend tells her that Guy is dating a thirty-six year old woman, and Maya kind of freaks out.  When confronted by Angelou, he says, “Oh, Mother, really.  Don’t you think it’s time I had a life of my own?” Angelou writes,

How could his life be separate from my life?  I had been mother of a child so long I had no preparation for life on any other level…His existence defined my own…

She realizes that she needs to find her own identity as more than Guy’s mother, as painful as the realization is.

In the last third of the book, Malcolm X comes to Ghana and is embraced by the ex-pats as well as the Ghanian people.  Maya’s characterization of Malcolm is so nuanced.  I felt like I really got a sense of him as a person, in a time of great personal change for him, as he had just broken with the Nation of Islam.

I really enjoyed this book. It is very much a book about finding a place that feels like home and Maya coming into her own as a woman and not just a mother.  It was fascinating to get a glimpse of 1960’s Ghana, a country I knew nothing about.  It was fascinating getting a glimpse of the intellectual, driven people who left America just as the Civil Rights movement was coming into its own and searched for a place that (they hoped) would welcome them with open arms.    All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes is an engrossing portrayal of a vibrant country, community, and above all, the compelling Ms. Angelou herself.

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead

This book surprised me, which is kind of fun.  I didn’t know much about it going in, other than it was about a 40-something British woman and her relationship to the classic George Eliot novel Middlemarch.  I expected it to be more of a memoir, perhaps linking certain passages in the novel to single instances in the author’s life.  What I found instead is mostly a very well-written, very readable biography of George Eliot herself, with a smattering of memoir and some very insightful literary criticism of the classic thrown in.

Mead first read Middlemarch when she was seventeen, and yearning to leave the bucolic English countryside next of her parents’ making.  She wanted culture, museums, an academic, intellectual life, and she was pursuing an Oxford education.  Her high school friends were similarly bookish, each with their own favorite classic novel that informed their being, like Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night and Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.  Of those teen years Mead writes,

Books gave us a way to shape ourselves – to form our thoughts and to signal to each other who we were and who we wanted to be.  They were part of our self-fashioning, no less than our clothes…Though I would not have been able to say so at the time, I sought to identify myself with the kind of intelligence I found in Middlemarch – with its range, its wit, its seriousness, its erudition, its deep feeling… I loved Middlemarch, and I loved being the kind of person who loved it.

But this book is not really much about Mead herself.  She travels to Eliot’s former homes (some of which no longer exist, one of which is now a hotel and bar) and travels to libraries to read some of Eliot’s manuscripts and letters, but Mead doesn’t reveal much more about herself as the book progresses.  George Eliot is really the star of the show.  We see her in her early thirties, living and working in London as a journalist and editor.  We see her inspiring true love story of the “middle aged” romance with George Henry Lewes, a man who is married to another woman and whom Eliot does not marry, but spends many happy years with in a committed partnership.  We see Eliot assume the role of a caring stepmother to Lewes’ three boys, already teenagers when she and Lewes get together.  There’s a fascinating section about a mysterious young Scottish man named Alexander Main, who essentially writes Eliot a fan letter and somehow charms her into a lengthy correspondence.  He ends up collecting passages and quotations from her works into a volume he edits called Wise, Witty, and tender Sayings in Prose and Verse, Selected From the Works of George Eliot.  Many have portrayed him as a stalker type, wondering how Eliot could have allowed her works to be used in such a manner.  Mead explores this question at length in a very sensitive characterization of both Main and Eliot.

I find it interesting that the British version of this book is titled The Road to Middlemarch.  It makes Mead’s role in the book seem less front and center.  If you’ve read another biography of George Eliot, this book may not hold much new information.  Regardless, this is a book-lover’s book.  If you’ve not read Middlemarch, or if it’s been years since you’ve read it, I still think you may enjoy this book.  (Although if you’ve not read it before, you may want to finish it before you finish this one, as Mead definitely reveals the entire plot.) Her experience of passionately loving a book for all of her life (so far) will likely resonate with you.  I very much enjoyed learning more about an author whom I had not before studied in depth.  Eliot emerges as a vibrant, kind, idiosyncratic woman, ahead of her time.  Perhaps it will inspire you to revisit the novel.  Perhaps it will inspire you to question which books have an equivalent hold on you.

A Catching Up Post, and The Oregon Trail

The first week of December was a really crappy week.  There’s no other way to put it.  My uncle, my mom’s brother, passed away unexpectedly.  And I was sick as a dog with stomach trouble.  I couldn’t be there for my mom physically when she needed to travel to Nashville to tend to my uncle.  The whole week sucked.  I loved my uncle, even though I hadn’t seen him in almost four years.  He was a kind person, funny, always sweet to me.  He was a passionate animal lover and rescued many cats and dogs over the years.  But he had a lot of problems in his life, even before I came along in the family.  I miss him, though, and despite my sadness will always have good memories of him.  Mom and I are working on finding ways to honor his memory and will have a service in January.

Needless to say my reading and blogging has been off pace to end the year.  But I’m getting back in the swing of things.  I finished a work of nonfiction last night  – The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck.  It’s an interesting mix of memoir, history, and travel writing.  Ricker Buck and his brother have a wagon custom made, acquire a team of mules from some Amish folk, attach a pup tent for gear, and make their way down the Oregon Trail.  I was kind of surprised at how much of the old trail is actually still there; just a few sections have been paved over by interstate and highways.  I was also surprised by the age of the brothers. I admit that when I put the book on hold at the library, I assumed that they would be young men.  Wrong!  They’re both over 60!  The work of the trail was very physical, so I can say that these men are in much better shape than I am!

IMG_2839I enjoyed the historical information and excerpts from pioneer journals and letters, but my favorite sections were the interactions the Bucks had with strangers along the way.  Turns out word spreads fast in the West, among ranchers, farmers, and small townspeople who take an interest in the Trail and keeping it alive.  People flocked to the wagon, the mules, as well as Rinker’s brother Nick’s Rack Russell terrier, Olive Oyl.  There were so many instances of goodwill  and generosity, people giving the brothers and their mules a place to rest, rides to town when mishaps occurred, and tips on the best ways to proceed down the trail.  It made me feel good about humanity to read about just how doggone nice people were to them.

It could use a bit of editing, and there’s a surprising amount of profanity included, which in and of itself doesn’t bother me.  I skimmed a few paragraphs here and there that went into too much detail about wagon and mule harness information.  Buck also has a lot of issues with the legacy of his father and their complicated relationship to work out; his father’s ghost sort of haunts the trail at times.  I admit that these sections didn’t hold my attention as strongly as the other parts.  But all in all, this was an interesting and entertaining work of nonfiction.  I certainly admire the courage and spirit that the brothers maintained throughout their adventure!

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

I was attracted to Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year because it is a book about books (my genre kryptonite!) and it is set in New York City (always a plus.) I knew it had gotten good reviews, and that it portrayed the publishing world in the late 1990s.  I obviously knew it involved J.D. Salinger in some way, but this wasn’t necessarily a draw for me, as I’ve only read one of his works.  What I didn’t know was that it would be so damn good.

The memoir details a year Rakoff spent working for The Agency (unnamed, but obviously venerable, as it represented writers like F.Scott Fitzgerald and Agatha Christie.)  While other literary agencies are well into the digital age, The Agency operates almost out of time: typewriters and dictaphones are used instead of computers, people smoke in the office.  A young woman, fresh out of a long-term relationship and grad school in England, Rakoff falls into the position of assistant to one of the senior agents, a woman with a reputation of being somewhat difficult.  Essentially a secretary, Rakoff is assigned the duty of responding to Mr. Salinger’s voluminous fan mail – with a formal response letter.  But as she reads the letters, from all ages, teenagers and World War II veterans alike, she takes the liberty of responding with more personal kindness or advice.  She’s also not supposed to have much contact with Salinger, but as her boss suffers a personal setback, she is forced to engage on a more meaningful level, forming a deeper understanding of the author and his work.

This book is only partly about Salinger and The Agency, though.  It’s also a coming-of-age story, about dingy, freezing apartments, awful, pretentious boyfriends, having no money for lunch, having to face paying back student loans, growing apart from former best friends.  Rakoff writes with such grace about ordinary moments, vividly capturing what it was like to be young and broke in the City.  Take this passage, where she rashly spends money she shouldn’t part with on a sandwich.

I walked directly and purposely to the elegant food shop on Forty-Ninth from which the agents obtained their lunches.  Around me, the Masters of the Universe ordered frisee salads, rubbing elbows with their female counterparts, thin tanned women with Cartier bangles dangling from their thin, tanned wrists.  The sandwiches sat like pastries on silver cake stands.  After much deliberation, I chose a slender flat of bread with some sort of pink cured meat.  At the register, I grabbed a chocolate cookie, ordered a coffee, and handed over a crisp twenty.  I was not, at that exact moment, overdrawn, but my heart still sped up as I placed my meager change in my wallet.  Sandwich in hand, I walked over to Fifth, sat down on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral with the tourists, and took a bite, a dense, salt, oily bite.  It was, there was no doubt, the most delicious sandwich I’d ever tasted.  I ate half, planning to save the remainder for the next day, then went ahead and devoured that too.

IMG_2634I loved this book.  I love the cover, with its vertical title on the spine (we learn in the memoir that Salinger apparently liked that style.)  I love that it’s a memoir that read likes a novel.  I love that it evokes nostalgia for the late 1990’s, before cell phones and tablets and social media took over our lives.  I love that it makes me want to read everything that J.D. Salinger has ever written, when before I was content with my one high school reading of Catcher in the Rye.  Most of all I loved Rakoff’s voice, so elegant yet so compelling, the wistful tone, the portrait of a young woman finding her voice and her strength.