Category Archives: Politics & Current Affairs

Tomorrow Belongs to Me

Here is a chilling scene from the musical Cabaret by composers John Kander and Fred Ebb. In this first week of the Trump presidency, when our freedoms are already being ripped from us and a dark, xenophobic hatred is settling on our nation, sharing this troubling work of art feels particularly and horribly apt and important.

Kander and Ebb wrote a number of musicals, including Chicago, together. Their biggest hits were stories of darkness and decadence in which the music, though catchy and clever, eloquently underscored the sordid qualities of the worlds in which their stories took place. Their songs (including “Cabaret,”  “New York, New York,” “Maybe This Time” and “All That Jazz“) are so pleasing that they can be pulled from their context and enjoyed as great tunes whenever and wherever you like. But in context, Kander and Ebb’s songs enrich and amplify the plays’ messages and power and make them two of the most important creators in the musical theater canon.

As Jews and homosexuals born in the 1920s, both Kander and Ebb had seen and experienced antisemitic and homophobic bigotry personally. One imagines that those difficult experiences can only have deepened their understanding of and sympathy for the characters for whom they wrote.

Please watch this clip to the end to experience its full, chilling power. Far from being a simple musical comedy, Cabaret is the story of life around a Berlin cabaret during the rise of the Nazi party during the early 1930s. It shows how evil infiltrates a cultured and cosmopolitan nation, and how no amount of retreating to the cabaret for distractions can keep the evil truths of the outside world from overtaking a once-beautiful culture.

Avoid Bullies During (and After) the Holidays

As the holidays approach, I’m reminded of multiple painful Thanksgiving dinners years ago during which I felt forced to spend time with a relative who repeatedly bullied me. She insulted me in my own house, picked fights with me in front of others and blamed me for actions I hadn’t taken and words I never said. Ultimately, I refused to be treated that way anymore, and stopped spending holidays with someone who insisted upon picking fights, telling lies and attacking me for things I did not do. Having to set boundaries with her and refuse to see her at holidays was very painful, but spending time with someone who claimed to love me yet also berated, insulted and lied to and about me was worse.

If you find yourself in a situation in which you are dreading holidays because you fear that you will be insulted or attacked, or worry that you will feel trapped and helpless, remember: there is no rule that says you must be with other people at holiday time. We have all been told that spending a holiday alone is terrifying and awful, and that holiday solitude means we are bad or worthless, unloved or unloving. None of that is true.

If you dread the holidays because you fear you have no alternative but to walk into the lion’s den and be eaten, know that it is perfectly okay to stay home (or go away someplace) and celebrate the day in your own way. You can be thankful and be a good person even if you eat a bowl of soup by yourself or with only your partner or immediate family, then take yourself out to a movie. You can sleep in and catch up on your novel, or binge watch your favorite TV show, or listen to podcasts while you do puzzles, or take a long walk with your favorite dog. You can eat spaghetti instead of turkey. You always have options.

The biggest concern about opting out of powerfully painful social interactions is often about how others will view you afterwards: will they shun you, punish you, talk about you behind your back if you don’t attend? They might. Your refusing to attend an event could cause a family rift. Not attending Thanksgiving with your in-laws or sister or dad might mean getting angry phone calls about it later, so there is a trade-off and a risk of future pain. But if you are miserable being with other people because they treat you with contempt or disregard, is that a healthy dynamic to perpetuate? If they (or you) become abusive when provoked, especially in the current political climate when so many of us are fragile, thin-skinned and worried about the future, engaging with others in anger after one too many glasses of holiday wine could be not only emotionally but physically unsafe.

If being with a person, even one whom you love, makes you feel sick, sad, worthless, angry or frustrated and efforts to interact in a healthier way haven’t worked, clinging to that relationship even though it brings out the worst in you and others can be very damaging. Being unwilling to accept another’s bad behavior just because it comes from a family member does not make you monstrous. Avoiding abusive situations is just good self care.

Depression is often exacerbated over the holidays when we compare what we think we need to feel fulfilled with what seems to be available to us. We may be reminded of past hurts, losses, shame and regrets, and they may overwhelm our feelings of love, happiness or safety. If you fear that being with certain people is not safe for you and will bring on destructive feelings toward yourself (or them), remember: you don’t have to engage. You don’t have to attend events. You can have a quiet holiday on your own without falling apart. Others may respond with hurt feelings, and you may have to deal with your own feelings of guilt (often not deserved) if you prioritize your own mental health above placating those who cause you distress. But if you’re an adult, you do have a choice about where you spend your time and with whom. Please don’t put yourself or others in harm’s way.

 

The Myth of the Ever-More-Fragile College Student

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Photo by Matthieu Spohn for New York Magazine: Science of Us

New York Magazine’s Science of Us website, which features articles related to human behavior, shared this article  by debunking what has been a creeping assumption among media outlets, college counselors and other alarmists that Millennials are fragile, anxious and unfit for the “real world,” and have been coddled and weakened by our overweening, infantilizing society.

Cultural critics posit that today’s college-aged young adults are becoming more stressed, anxious, depressed and generally emotionally frail than ever before, and they say that colleges and society in general are babying them and causing increased neuroticism. This long, extremely detailed and well-researched article points to evidence that those who believe that today’s youth are going to Hell in a handbasket rely too much on their own confirmation bias; undervalue the importance of huge socioeconomic changes over the past decade (including a deep and damaging recession); and, most importantly, ignore actual metrics and provable data that show their negative assumptions about Millennials to be overblown at best and highly inaccurate at worst.

Those who deride Millennials often extrapolate from small samples while ignoring actual, repeatable results from larger longitudinal studies at colleges across the nation. I highly recommend this article for a more factually based and nuanced perspective.

Why the Boston Globe’s Trump Satire is Good Journalism

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The Boston Globe’s satirical front page warning of life under a Trump presidency, published in their opinion section on April Fool’s Day

This morning the Boston Globe shared a brilliant piece of satire in their opinion section: a mock-up of what their paper would be like one year from today if Donald Trump were to win the presidency. Predictably, social media is blowing up with explosions of outrage from people who don’t know the particulars or the place of opinion pieces in journalism and have no awareness of the importance and history of satire in affecting political change. They say they are appalled and offended and that the Boston Globe has lost all credibility. Let us pause to consider some important truths.

The mocked-up pages of the newspaper did not take over the front of the newspaper. Those who go to the Boston Globe will find the satire in the opinion section, the same section in which other political positions are taken every single day in thousands of newspapers and news sites across the nation and around the world in the form of editorials, op-ed pieces and political cartoons.

For those who cry “Outrage!” that the Globe would stoop so low as to share a political opinion in the form of satire, I ask them: does your favorite news source publish opinion pieces? Have you never seen a political cartoon? Do you not read infographics which selectively choose which facts to highlight every day? These tools have been used to sway popular opinion and have been integral pieces of journalism for hundreds of years. Newspapers and journals have always taken stands; very few of them do not endorse candidates for president. The best of them present their opinion pieces in the clearly labeled opinion section; they do their best to report the facts with little adornment throughout the rest of the paper and then put the opinions of their editorial board and columnists in a section expressly labeled as a place where people take sides and try to persuade. The Boston Globe did exactly this with their publication of their “Donald Trump’s world” satire.

Confused and misinformed modern readers often erroneously believe that it is the job of the media to be completely without bias at all times. Ironically, this idea is most often promulgated by followers of extreme-right news media whose every pronouncement has conservative political overtones. There is not a middle ground to every question, and the correct journalistic response to opposing views is often to refuse to sit squarely in the middle and pretend that there is no right or wrong answer when facts point clearly to one side over the other. In many situations, there is a clear and fundamental truth at stake, and not just a matter of opinion. Vaccines do not cause autism, for example, and sweeping worldwide climate change is real. Reporting on such issues as if they were controversial and unanswerable questions would be to mislead readers into thinking that established facts are mere opinions.

When trained journalists turn their well-informed and often cynical eyes on a world full of opposing opinions, murky details and obvious facts, it is their job to not only gather and separate facts from misstatements but also to ask questions about where those facts will lead us. It is their job to think of the likely consequences of a world in which each of the presidential candidates went on to be elected and then ran their administration according to their stated beliefs. Usually they do this in words or cartoons. In a world in which newspapers are quickly dying for lack of readership and most people gather the bulk of their news from online sources, the most effective way to get attention for their opinions is now to take chunks of information and spread them via Facebook or Twitter or Instagram alongside punchy visuals.

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Another page from the Boston Globe satire

By creating a stunning visual parody mini-newspaper as a warning of what could come, the Boston Globe knew that they would be able to get attention for their opinions and get people to consider consequences in a more visual, visceral and immediate fashion. They knew that they were taking an editorial risk, but that their message would be carried and discussed by thousands of news outlets and social media platforms around the world. They decided to present an editorial in visual form to get attention, yes, but they buttressed their opinions with facts, quotes and context in the way of a warning. This is their Orwellian admonishment to those who will not bother to read newspapers or consider facts anymore.

The job of any editorial board is to get attention and sway opinion by asking people to consider the consequences of their choices. Those who raise the alarm that the Boston Globe has now shown itself willing to trick people with fake news are the same people who haven’t bothered to actually look at the well-produced parody itself, nor to consider that they get much of their own information from avowedly conservative sources with axes to grind who are more than willing to publish opinion and pretend that it is fact.

As has happened throughout history, a large proportion of the population is bored by and tired of politics and won’t read the facts about the candidates’ actual stances on substantive issues. The average citizen of the U.S. only thinks of the candidates in broad, cartoonish terms without thinking through what the consequences of our electoral choices may be. People justify their political agnosticism and ennui by saying that all candidates are equally corrupt and evil and all of them will lead to the same bad outcomes, so their votes are meaningless and futile. This is demonstrably false.

Being a good citizen requires mental effort and a willingness to expend some time and expose one’s opinions to rigor. Lives and livelihoods depend on it. Rights are won and lost over such things. People starve or go without medicine or surgery because of politics. Wars begin and end, countries are invaded and people go to jail or are freed or executed based on the choices we make at the polls. The stakes are so incredibly high that those who spend their lives following politics obsessively and who report on these issues feel they have a duty to use every tool they have in order to get us to sit up and take notice when it’s time for us to make life-changing, world-altering decisions. The Boston Globe has done this using pointed and potent (and clearly labeled) satire. I applaud them for it.

Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself

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President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made the following statement during a campaign speech in November 1940, just over a year before the U.S. entered World War II:

“We are a nation of many nationalities, many races, many religions—bound together by a single unity, the unity of freedom and equality. Whoever seeks to set one nationality against another, seeks to degrade all nationalities. Whoever seeks to set one race against another seeks to enslave all races. Whoever seeks to set one religion against another, seeks to destroy all religion. “

This is a noble statement, but the president himself made the grave error of rounding up all people of Japanese descent and imprisoning them in internment camps during World War II on the baseless assumption that they would be less patriotic, loyal or law-abiding than people of other ancestries. He was wrong. Not one single Japanese-American was determined to have committed a treasonous act anywhere in the United States before, during or after World War II. Not one.

Indeed, many of those same Japanese-Americans fought nobly for the U.S. and Allied Forces during World War II, even as their families were imprisoned at home. FDR’s words quoted here are right and beautiful, but even he was blinded by fear. He had said at the outset of his presidency that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself, and fear is certainly the source of hatred for people and ideas other than our own. Fear makes us turn inward, and that allows us to remain ignorant, to refuse to empathize, ask questions or try to figure out how it feels to be one of those people who frighten us.

Fear keeps us from facing the humanity of our enemies, and makes us see enemies among our friends. It makes American governors look at orphaned Syrian toddlers and see danger; it makes Trump rally audiences look at a single African-American man who asks to be treated as if black lives matter, and then beat him to a pulp because he peacefully but loudly speaks up about bigotry in public. It is only by seeing others as human first that we can figure out how to talk to and deal with them honestly, honorably and peacefully.

[Image source: missrevolutionaries.com]

Einstein Was a Refugee

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When Albert Einstein came to the U.S. to escape persecution by the Nazis, prominent Americans like Charles Lindbergh were warning the nation of the dangers of letting outsiders into the country. He and many popular politicians, religious leaders and businessmen (like Henry Ford) got on the radio, lobbied politicians, published antisemitic books and pamphlets and joined with white supremacist organizations to spread fear and hatred toward Jews. Many said that Jews were communist agitators without morals who would infiltrate the American way of life, degrade American culture and destroy Christian values. So this supposedly Christian nation turned away Jewish refugees out of irrational fear based on a lack of understanding of others’ religious and cultural beliefs. And it’s happening again. One state government after another is shutting its doors to Syrian refugees, describing them as dangerous jihadists and assuming that Muslims are all wild desert people without morals. ISIS/ISIL/Daesh wants a religious war, and we’re playing right into their hands. Don’t let us harden our hearts against refugees based on irrational fear. Don’t let the terrorists win.

Child of the Sixties

Laura in GG Park, March 1969

The author in Golden Gate Park in the late 1960s

Among my childhood photo albums are pictures of me wearing daisy chains and sitting on the grass in Golden Gate Park. I have vivid memories of spending time with my father and his friends in the park and in the adjoining Haight-Ashbury district when I was a very little girl. I was tiny, but I remember San Francisco, the epicenter of the hippie movement, during 1967’s legendary Summer of Love and in the years thereafter.

Though I grew up in the suburbs, I often visited what people in the Bay Area refer to simply as The City. All my life I have felt a special pride in my connection to San Francisco. My mom gave birth to me there, in a hospital just a few blocks’ walk from the famous intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets. My dad (whom I only lived with for the first few months of my life, and only saw occasionally from babyhood onward) brought me to various hippie happenings there during his visits with me from the time I was about three years old. He hoped to make up for what he saw as the soulless bourgeois childhood I was supposedly experiencing in the Bay Area’s eastern suburbs.

The PBS American Experience documentary on the Summer of Love shows a San Francisco very much as I remember it during that time, albeit from about three feet off the ground. As a young child, I found San Francisco’s hippies often scary and off-putting. Even as a very little girl I had a sense of the importance of personal space and a desire that things be done safely, with purpose and according to plan. I was much more of a cautious goody-goody than even my mother, a high school teacher whom my father denigrated for being too suburban. I followed rules; my father and his friends generally did not. My dad hated authority, rules and The Man, so he and his friends would take joy in challenging the establishment whether or not I was with them.

I was always the only child present on visits with my father, and was usually ignored, so I spent a lot of time in watchful anxiousness, hoping not to be put in harm’s way. I was frightened by his and his hippie friends’ lack of concern with their actions or with me; they were lackadaisical, careless, loudly vulgar and sometimes stoned, so I felt ill at ease and unprotected with them.

People often talk about how loving and peaceful hippies were, but I saw also an enormous amount of anger directed by them toward rules, history and authority. That anti-establishment anger was often channeled for good in such campaigns as the fight for full and equal rights for African-Americans, women, Native Americans and homosexuals, among other downtrodden groups. The often strident and unpleasant but necessary challenges to the entrenched establishment gave young people in particular the courage to question the wisdom of their leaders and force their government to justify its wars. They gave the populace the courage to stand against unjust laws and corrupt political practices. It was this movement that eventually gave journalists the courage and necessary establishment backing to bring down a powerful sitting president during the Watergate scandal just a few years later.

While the nation often benefited from the outspoken challenges of those who had felt stifled by government, big business and the limiting social mores left over from the 1950s, there was also an upsurge in more generalized antisocial behavior. The rise of the hippies led not only to social activism, peace and love, but also to huge numbers of (mostly) young people breaking rules just for the hell of it. Many wrapped their destructive or selfish behavior in a cloak of righteousness. Some took advantage of the new social openness to examine their psyches and motivations honestly and to try to relate to others in more direct and healthy ways; others just found this newly socially acceptable preoccupation with self an excuse for narcissistic behavior.

The ensuing decade of the 1970s was dubbed “The Me Decade” with reason. During the 1960s, modesty had lost favor while self-regard and constant awareness of one’s own needs and desires became viewed as positive things. Exuberant self-expression and in-your-face sexuality went from being shocking in the early 1960s to being surprisingly common within a decade. In the early 1970s, when I visited the high school where my mother taught (and which I would later attend), obvious bralessness was very common not only among the students but even among teachers. Some of the younger teachers wore hot pants to school. Overt sexuality was, however, considerably less evident in high school teachers’ fashions by the time I myself entered high school later in the seventies.

To be fair to those who were part of the laissez-faire San Francisco hippie culture of the 1960s, I saw plenty of self-absorption and self-aggrandizement even among more establishmentarian suburbanites during that time and in the decade that followed. Social boundaries were not well respected in general in the late 1960s; millions of people (not just hippies) were sharing their formerly private thoughts (not to mention their bodies and lots of adult-themed talk and media) with great abandon and carelessness, and we kids were often exposed to too much knowledge too soon. Those of us who appreciated having some boundaries in our lives were often ignored or denigrated by people who felt superior because of their mod, carefree sensibilities. Some, like my father, mistook the desires of others (like his young daughter) to follow laws, keep order or avoid conflict or offense as being necessarily conservative traits. They are not.

There was a middle ground in which people challenged the status quo more gently; they didn’t want social anarchy but still believed strongly in the promise of liberalism. Yes, many San Franciscans, hippies included, sought peaceful, meaningful, respectful social change and worked hard for it. But from my own perspective, as a very young person, I saw measured, realistic and inclusive social activism in the suburbs, too, even among those whom my dad and his friends found so hopelessly square.

Fat Shaming: Socially Acceptable Bigotry

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Fashion designer and Academy-Award-nominated actress Melissa McCarthy, second from left, shows off pieces from her new 7Seven fashion line, Summer, 2015

When gifted comic actress Melissa McCarthy was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award, she went searching for an appropriately elegant evening gown to wear to the ceremony. “I asked five or six designers,” she told Redbook magazine. “Very high-level ones who make lots of dresses for people — and they all said no.” The designers demurred because Ms. McCarthy does not conform to the fashion world’s size-two-to-size-six ideal. Designers had no interest in having her wear their dresses, even though over 40 million people in the U.S. alone saw Ms. McCarthy on their TV screens in one night, because designers feared that being seen to create clothing for larger women would actually harm the reputations of their design houses.

It’s ironic that designers think designing for women size 14 and up degrades and debases their brands since fully two-thirds of women in the United States fall into that category. Over 90 million women in the U.S. alone wear size 14 or larger, yet they are relegated to smaller, sadder “plus-size” clothing departments. They are made to feel that they are not only unimportant but not worthy of attractive, comfortable clothing even though they purchase and wear billions of dollars worth of clothing and accessories each year. They are shut out of many stores and designer’s lines completely, and stores that cater to them often offer them less flattering products for more money. The funny but maddening WTF Plus Tumblr blog shows the range of hideous, sexless, embarrassing clothes designed for larger women that smaller women would never be expected to buy, let alone wear.

While Emmy-winning actress Melissa McCarthy is best known for being a popular comedian who is willing to bear the brunt of jokes about her large size, she actually started out as a fashion and textile design student at New York’s prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology before her career in entertainment took off. In August 2015 her new line of clothing, 7Seven, debuted a line of clothes ranging in size from 4 to 28. The line is in a relatively affordable price range that matches or meets the prices of retailers like Ann Taylor and Banana Republic. With her inaugural collection, McCarthy shows a great eye for proportion, fit, pattern and texture. Her designs are fashion-forward and very wearable.

McCarthy dislikes the term “plus-size.” “Seventy percent of women in the United States are a size 14 or above, and that’s technically ‘plus size,’ so you’re taking your biggest category of people and telling them, ‘You’re not really worthy.’ I find that very strange,” she says.

In response to the news of her fashion line’s availability, Internet trolls came out en masse on social media and news sites to denigrate McCarthy and others for “enabling” and celebrating larger women’s rights to enjoy their bodies. As always happens when women with bodies larger than a size 6 dare to show comfort or confidence in their appearance, people took to their computers to accuse McCarthy and others of glamorizing unhealthy lifestyle choices. Those self-elected arbiters of appropriate body shape and size would like all people size 8 and above to go about in sack cloth and ashes until they starve themselves down to a single-digit dress size.

Disapproval and disrespect shown toward plus-sized people doesn’t obviate their need to find clothes that fit, feel good and look attractive. Those who respond to Ms. McCarthy’s new business venture by denigrating those who are larger than themselves are essentially saying that allowing people to clothe themselves attractively, affordably and comfortably  is the wrong tack—that we should instead shame them into looking the way we want them to and tell them that having the bodies they have is a moral failing. I wonder whether these self-appointed body shamers go out of their way to shame smokers and alcoholics, too. Those who drink or smoke bring on early death from their habits in even greater numbers than overeaters do, but our society shows them more understanding. They have the option of giving up their habits and avoiding people and places that trigger their dangerous behaviors, but EVERYONE has to eat, and every metabolism is different, so larger people can’t just stop the behavior (i.e., eating) that disrespectful trolls find offensive. 

Many larger people are actually regular exercisers who are quite healthy—you can’t tell from looking who is truly unhealthy inside. Large people have higher rates of some deadly diseases, but so do coal miners, house cleaners and beauticians because they choose jobs that expose them to carcinogenic chemicals. Police officers and soldiers die in greater numbers and intentionally choose work that causes great stress that often requires taxpayer-funded medical and psychological intervention later. Do we judge them for putting their lives at risk? Do we denigrate them for their choices? 

Melissa McCarthy is a multitalented woman who designs chic, comfortable and fashion-forward clothing, much of it aimed at a market that comprises over two-thirds of the nation’s adult female population. People who want to shame those women into conforming to their personal preferences are nothing more than hateful bigots who spew venomous tirades in the self-righteous belief that their discomfort over seeing bodies larger than those featured in Vogue magazine justifies their using their supposed concern about health and setting bad examples for youth so they can clobber those with different body types and sizes over the head, shaming and shunning them and telling them that they are unlovable, undisciplined and unimportant, none of which is true.

An ever-growing body of scientific literature points toward the fact that people who are deemed overweight to obese usually have very different gut biomes (intestinal ecosystems) than thinner people do, and that the varieties and sizes of bacterial colonies in their guts have an enormous impact on the speed and effectiveness of their bodies’ metabolic rates, the intensities of their cravings for food, the ways in which they metabolize medicines, and their propensity toward depression, anxiety and other emotional and psychological disorders that may manifest in a compulsion to eat in order to find comfort.

In short, the gut biomes of larger people may send intensely powerful and frequent signals to their brains telling them what, when and how much to eat. We live in a culture in which almost everyone has taken multiple types of  antibiotics that distrupt gut biomes, sometimes with disastrous, even deadly results. We are also regularly bombarded with ads for unhealthy foods and drinks that further disrupt our gut biomes and our endocrine systems, making permanent weight loss exceptionally difficult for even the most determined people. But we are also surrounded with Photoshopped images of impossibly thin, unrealistically proportioned people on TV, in movies, in pornography and in computer games, making it easier to believe that there are actually many more “perfect” bodies in existence than actually occur on this or any other planet. So we compare ourselves to these pretend people we keep seeing, and to make ourselves feel less bad about our own imperfections, we glom onto the perceived failures of others and build ourselves up by ripping them apart and smarmily saying that we’re shaming and shunning them for their own good. How preposterous. It’s cruel, and it doesn’t help people to lose weight.

What does help? Making people feel confident and attractive enough to get up, get out and exercise and take good care of themselves. Helping them to feel less anxious or depressed about themselves by giving them access to clothes and accessories that allow them to feel more attractive, confident and appealing. Success breeds success; those who feel shame are more likely to retreat into self-defeating behaviors that compound difficult habits, while those who believe in their inherent worth and who have hope for a positive future are more likely to get up and take the actions that lead to healthier, happier lives. Shaming and shunning those who are heavy tends to push them toward habits that make them heavier still. Helping them to find attractive outfits for every occasion, including athletic and exercise wear, gives them ways to love the bodies they have and helps them to believe that their bodies are worth effort and care.

Yes, being obese is not healthy, but being slightly overweight actually leads to a longer life expectancy than being slightly underweight. Furthermore, many people who are significantly overweight exercise regularly and do not have either diabetes or high blood pressure, just as some very fit and thin women have serious diabetes from childhood onward and need daily insulin injections. You can’t tell by looking, and even if you could, others’ dietary habits are not your business.

Should we encourage healthy dietary and exercise habits throughout society? Yes! Should we work to eliminate junk food dispensaries from schools and increase the quality of school lunches and discourage teachers from using sodas and snacks as rewards for good work? Yes! But it does not follow from these societal goals that encouraging health requires disparaging and defaming those whose habits or bodies don’t conform to cultural ideals.

Rather than fat-shaming those among us with larger bodies, let us celebrate women like Melissa McCarthy who make larger women feel freer to be active, positive and comfortable in their bodies while living happy, productive, healthy and engaged lives.

Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds Admit Impediments

Laura Pride

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

—from Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare

All year long, I’ve anxiously and hopefully awaited the Supreme Court’s decision on the question of marriage equality, wondering every day for months whether they would do the just and proper thing by all LGBTQ citizens of the United States at last. This week, as the nation awaited the decision with bated breath, I hoped that the answer would come on Friday, June 26, since that was my late mother’s birthday, and I could think of no greater honor to her memory than to have a landmark civil rights decision giving millions of people financial, emotional, legal and medical protection be announced on her natal day. On Friday, my dream came true.

I’m a straight woman who has already been afforded all the benefits of legal marriage more than once. I have never had to worry that a partner would be excluded from my hospital room, disallowed from taking custody of our child in an emergency, denied inheritance rights or social security or medical benefits, or publicly humiliated, shunned and mocked for calling himself my partner without benefit of marriage. I have lived a privileged life because I happened to be born with the prevailing sexual orientation during a time and in a place in which I could choose my partner of my own volition without being abused, threatened or punished for my orientation or my choices. But while I am heterosexual, I also cherish a number of gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans friends and family members, and my life would be pale and hollow without them. Since childhood, many, at times most, of my nearest and dearest have been and continue to be homosexual or bisexual men and women. They always will be. To watch them be denied basic honor, dignity, respect and rights because of their orientation has sickened and disturbed me since I was a girl, and I have been a devoted ally to my darling LGBTQ loved ones (and to all the millions of LGBTQ strangers out there) for decades.

I cried with joy and relief early on Friday morning when I read the news minutes after the decision was announced, and I look forward to shedding more tears of joy at the weddings and anniversaries of my friends for decades to come. The world is so much brighter, fairer and more hopeful each time we extend justice and equality to those who have been denied it. We are so lucky to be alive to witness this beautiful day.

What Makes a Woman “Feminine”?

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Caitlyn Jenner‘s photos were published in Vanity Fair earlier this week, as we all know by now. She looks beautiful in them, and I wish her only happiness in her life as the woman she has always felt herself to be.

Since she seems to have taken charge of all aspects of publicizing her transition from Bruce to Caitlyn, we must assume that Ms. Jenner had the final say regarding which of the photos taken by top celebrity portraitist Annie Leibovitz she wanted to have featured on the Vanity Fair cover. Of all the photos from that spread, the one on the cover shows Ms. Jenner in the most vulnerable possible state: sitting in white underwear with arms pinned behind her and her strong, beautiful legs awkwardly pressed together. All the others show her looking more in-charge and comfortable with herself, not to mention in prettier clothes. For example, here she is relaxing:

Sofa

Here she is about to drive her $180,000 sports car:

Red Dress

In each of these images, she shows herself to be in command of the moment and of herself. In one, she looks away from the camera as if unaware and unconcerned about its gaze; in the other she wears sunglasses and a body-conscious red dress, and she exudes power and control. Compare these to the cover image in which her wrists and ankles could be bound for all we know; they’re certainly pulled tightly back and out of the way, and she looks directly at the camera, unsmiling and very aware that she is being appraised by the viewer in her half-naked state.

After a lifetime of being lauded for physical strength and power, which were so often conflated with her appearing to many to be the epitome of manly attractiveness, it is understandable, but I think a bit disturbing, that she and Vanity Fair should see the opposite—a physical position of seeming powerlessness—as the apotheosis of feminine beauty. While it is true that stripping away clothes could also be taken as a symbol of stripping away what she felt were the public lies about her private self, both she and photographer Annie Leibovitz knew full well that by portraying her without clothes or visible hands or feet they were also using visual shorthand to get across the idea of her vulnerability as part and parcel of her newly-public femininity.

She is in fabulous physical condition, as one would expect a disciplined gold-medal-winning Olympic decathlete to be, and one can understand that she might want to show that off—it must feel great to show the world that she can look so conventionally attractive as a woman. And, of course, Vanity Fair wants to sex up the cover as much as possible to sell more issues. But I wonder: did Ms. Jenner or Vanity Fair think that placing her in as vulnerable a state as possible was a necessary part of making her look most feminine?

If people think that what makes Ms. Jenner appear to be “feminine” is the fact that her near nudity and constrained pose leave her looking vulnerable and fragile, that saddens me, since in that case the choice is clearly not about glamour (which can be strong and empowering) per se; it is instead about playing up weakness as a womanly trait. Caitlyn Jenner is plenty glamorous in all the photos, so the choice must have involved what she and Vanity Fair think makes her look most like a woman, and that appears to be weakness, vulnerability and the impression of greater sexual availability (i.e., fewer clothes, direct gaze, body seated rather than standing and legs and arms out of the way). I’m concerned about underlying sexist and disempowering messages about femininity and beauty that could be sent to the world by this photo spread when the most fragile and powerless-looking of all photos taken becomes the image chosen to symbolize feminine beauty out of all the beautiful, powerful images available.

I am not denigrating Caitlyn’s choice to transition from male to female, nor her desire to share her story and her first photos of herself in a beautiful and powerful way. I support and applaud her in this. I am merely questioning what this episode in popular culture tells us about how we may conflate powerlessness and vulnerability with ideals of female beauty.