October 2011


A year or two ago I got fed up with the sexism of The Huffington Post (intentionally not linked). Try this and you’ll see what I mean: On any given day, go to their homepage and just scan your eyes down the page for stories about women. More often than not, they’re not actual news pieces, but gossip or polls dealing with some sensational tidbit meant to increase the website’s click count.

Today (for ‘research’ purposes I went there, though it makes me want to wash my hands) we have stories about Gaddafi aids, Bernie Madoff, and Lawrence O’Donnell, all accompanied by a picture of the man in question in a suit. For stories that feature women, we have ‘Jessica Simpson Tweets Photo of Herself from NYC Bathroom,’ ‘Kelly Clarkson Reveals Why People Think She’s a Lesbian,’ and ‘Jenna Lyons’ New (Female!) Love Interest Revealed.’ You get the idea. Today Name It Change It, a project of the Women’s Media Center that calls out sexism in the media, especially toward women in politics, called out HuffPo’s sexism toward Hillary Clinton.

Yesterday Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Peruvian Prime Minister Salomon Lerner. Instead of focusing on diplomatic issues between Peru and the United States, the Huffington Post created a poll to gauge how readers are “feeling (about) the Hillary scrunchie.”

I know I shouldn’t be surprised any more. But this one irked me a little more than usual because just minutes before the scrunchie post caught my eye, I was reading about Clinton’s views on the limits of power and its implications for advancing the U.S.’s interests abroad. That’s some heavy stuff! And hair accessories don’t come into the piece at all. It takes time and brain power to analyze Clinton’s beliefs, especially in the broader historical context of the U.S.’s reliance of military might. It’s much easier to focus on an aspect of her appearance and urge readers to vote on it. But that serves to minimize what comes out of her mouth as secondary to what she looks like. This is a message women and girls receive loud and clear everywhere they turn, but I wouldn’t expect to be sent by a popular ‘news’ outlet founded by a woman (Arianna Huffington – voted 12th Most Influential Woman in the Media by Forbes).

The media, as we all do, make choices about what’s important and who’s worth listening to. Huffington Post’s choice to focus on Hillary Clinton’s scrunchie, or Kelly Clarkson’s sexuality, rather than their newsworthy contributions to society, reinforces the notion that women are not to be taken seriously. That women are there for a good laugh, or a sexy picture, not relevant to the business of ‘real’ news, which is exclusively the realm of men. This carries over into our daily lives. Are we subconsciously giving people permission not to listen to what women say when they open their mouths?

Another choice the media makes involves the photo that accompanies their stories. More often than not, especially during the 2008 campaign, the photo that accompanied articles about Clinton where less than flattering, to put it mildly. The pattern continues through her tenure as Secretary of State, as Melissa McEwan of Shakesville highlights here. Clinton was at a press conference talking about the Somalian famine. She was urging the Shebab militants to stop preventing aid from reaching children during Ramadan. And what Getting Images photo was chosen to accompany her statement? The photo is after the jump with McEwan’s spot-on analysis below.

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I wanted to share an example with you of what I was referring to in my previous post, where people brag about fitting into smaller sized jeans. This example showed up on my friend’s Facebook page two days after Love Your Body Day (with names and faces blocked for confidentiality):

This friend of mine has an eating disorder. We’ve known each other since we were very young and I’ve watched her struggle with it for more than a decade. So to see her ‘friends’ uniformly praising her for losing weight is quite upsetting, though not surprising. Isn’t there one of them who knows, deep down, that her thinness is not a sign that she is more healthy? Isn’t there one of them concerned for her health? Not one who chimes in to tell her she is a beautiful person no matter her size?

In contrast I’d like to share this article that encourages you to think twice before praising someone for weight loss.

So when we actively and publicly praise someone for his or her weight loss (especially young women/girls), are we praising someone for a healthy and balanced approach to living or someone who is facing a critical, mental health crisis? Are we mistakenly encouraging someone to continue a process that has allowed them to lose weight, a process that will, if gone unchecked, lead to their death?

So will you be the dissenting voice on the Facebook thread that chimes in with something other than praise for pounds shed? You may be surprised at the reaction you get (not always positive). But perhaps you’ll awaken someone else who is in the habit of affirming problematic, even dangerous, behavior. It’s fast and easy to click “like” or to chime in with the crowd. But consider what you’re affirming and whether it’s what you value most about your friend.

Today is NOW’s Love Your Body Day. Check out some great posts in their blog carnival here.

In honor of LYBD, I’m reflecting on how lucky I am to truly love my body. I was never one to stare at myself naked in the mirror and pick apart my flaws. But I’ve stood next to friends countless times who have done that. They grab on to a fold of skin or point to a blemish and then they say something about its ugliness. These same friends brag about squeezing into their size X jeans again or waking up before dawn to torture themselves in a boot camp.

To be honest, I don’t know why I’ve never been overly concerned about my body. I think it must come, in part, from the unconditional acceptance I received from my parents. After a dance concert in sixth grade, I overheard my friend’s mom ask her why her stomach wasn’t flat like X’s. At the time I remember feeling mortified for her, but also knowing that I would never hear such criticism from my own mom. As an adult, my mom told me that she was always very conscious of what she said to me with regard to my appearance, knowing that any one comment could stick with me for years.

My comfort in my body must also come from being taught to be a critical consumer of media. For as long as I can remember I have known that the images I see in magazines or advertisements weren’t what women actually looked like. I can’t remember looking at my Barbies or teen magazines and wishing I looked like someone else. My mom explained to me at a young age that trends changed frequently so that people would go out and spend money. I never felt much desire to keep up with the latest fashion and instead looked for clothes that I felt comfortable in.

I attribute my appreciation for my body in great part to playing sports. I have always participated in team sports. As an only child, being part of a team taught me the ups and downs of relying on others and required me to spend a lot of time with other girls my age. Playing sports taught me the frustration of losing, and they helped me learn to cope with unfairness and team politics. They also taught me confidence in my abilities and awe in what my body could do. When I was 12 or 13, I came within one pitch of pitching a no-hitter. I was a leader on the field and my body performed when I needed it to. Research shows that sports can be a mixed bag for girls when it comes to body image. The Girl Scout Research Institute finds “The more physically active girls are, the greater their self-esteem and the more satisfied they are with their weight, regardless of how much they weigh. Eighty-three percent of very active girls say that physical activity makes them feel good about themselves.” On the other hand, many girls refuse to participate in sports because “they do not feel skilled or competent (40%) or because they do not think their bodies look good (23%)”. I am fortunate that neither of those last two reasons prevented me from playing sports.

And finally, my body acceptance obviously comes from a place of great privilege. I am able-bodied and of more-or-less average size. I grew up seeing people that looked like me (fair skinned, blonde hair) in the media, so I was not made to feel that the way I looked was undesirable. My parents could afford league fees for recreational softball teams, and when I was older, travel teams that played year-round. I have decent health care that allows me to care for my body when it is sick and practice preventative care when it’s not.

I am deeply thankful that I can look at my body non-judgmentally. I am thankful that my body gets me where I want to go. It tells me when it needs something. I strive to listen to my body.  I feel strong. I am grateful.

In honor of LYBD, I want to share ‘Phenomenal Woman‘ by Maya Angelou.

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