Bystander Education is Not a Silver Bullet

Bystander intervention education is great. I really believe in its power to make the world a better place, and to make college campuses safer and more welcoming for all. But I also believe that bystander education won’t do much to prevent sexual assault until we agree that sexual assault is a gendered issue, and that sexism is still a big, fat, effing problem.

Let me explain.

Bystander education teaches students how to step in and intervene when they see or hear something that’s not okay. When they witness someone in trouble. But it will never be effective at combating sexual violence or harassment if we can’t even agree on the basic premise that yelling at women on the street is not okay. Or that having sex with a really, really, blacked-out, drunk person is not okay. If that’s where students are stuck, then bystander education is a waste of everyone’s time. Those students don’t need bystander education. They need Sexism 101.

But do students get taught Sexism 101? Ever in their 12 years of grade school? Nope. Not one bit. Why not? Because we – the adults – can’t even agree that sexism still exists.

DESPITE THE FACT that most women experience street harassment on a daily basis. DESPITE THE FACT that most women would love to “Lean In,” except for that whole bit about how it so often backfires because nobody likes an assertive woman in the workplace. DESPITE THE FACT that most women have experienced being groped by a stranger at a dance club. DESPITE THE FACT that even the supposedly-feminist “girl’s” toys are pastel pink. DESPITE THE FACT that news about women is a separate category on news sites as if women were a special interest group instead of half the population. DESPITE THE FACT that intimate partner violence is a leading cause of death for pregnant women. DESPITE THE FACT that Game of Thrones Director Alex Graves thinks a textbook rape scene isn’t rape. DESPITE THE FACT that rape-threats and death-threats are “just another day at the office” for female bloggers. DESPITE the wage gap, slut shaming, “BLURRED LINES,” and multiple pro-rape Fraternities, we still can’t reach consensus that women are marginalized in America.

Hades angry gif

Despite all evidence to the contrary, respectable, educated people still argue that sexism isn’t a thing anymore. That we are living in a “post-sexist” America. (Just like we are living in a “post-racial” America, amirite?) But not only are they arguing that feminism succeeded and we’re fine now, they’re giving space in publications like the New Republic to voice the concerns of MRA’s who think that men are now the primary targets of gender discrimination, and who have been known to harass, stalk, and bully feminist writers and activists to further their cause.

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Some college students respond really well to bystander intervention education. They recognize the problem and want to help. Other college students think that bystander education is unfair and “biased” because sometimes men are the aggressors or perpetrators in various scenarios.* Try telling them the truth – that even though most men do not rape, 99% of rapes are committed by men – and they argue back that that’s one-sided. Biased. Unfair. Demonizing. The only sexual assault prevention education they’re interested in is one in which men and women are “equal,” regardless of the reality.

Equal?

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*The scenarios I use feature men, women, and the gender-neutral “Jamie” as aggressors, yet that special minority of students will still accuse me of bias against men.

As an educator, you have two choices. You can pretend that men and women are “equal” when it comes to sexual assault, thereby validating this inverted thinking and perpetuating the fallacy that women are just as likely to rape men as men are to rape women. And you can rationalize it by telling yourself “Well, if that’s what I have to do to get them to come to the table and talk about this stuff then it’s worth it.” You could do that. But you’d be wrong.

Sexual harassment and sexual assault are not equal. They are not even. They are not fair. They are gendered issues. Who are most likely to be victims? Trans people and women. Who are most likely to be perpetrators? Men. Sorry. That’s the reality.

Am I suggesting that men are evil? That men are hardwired to be horrible, violent, abusers? No. Not even close. Men and women are shaped by the society they live in, and our society is one that tells young men that women are asking for it, that drunk women are “DTF,” that women lie about being raped because they regret having sex, and that real men want sex all the time no matter what. That a boy being raped by a woman at age 8 will help him grow up to be a “beast” at sex. That being offended by homophobic slurs makes you a “pussy.” That the worst thing you can ever be accused of is being feminine – or gay, because it’s basically the same thing.

And even so, men who grow up in that society, espousing those hideous, sexist beliefs, usually don’t rape people. Except for a small few. But those hideous, sexist beliefs of the majority allow the violent few to rape with impunity. Because who would ever believe that drunk slut anyway, right? 

All the bystander intervention skills and techniques in the world won’t make a damned bit of difference to a student who won’t accept the simple premise that rape is real, and it is gendered. That “false rape accusations” are not happening as frequently as actual rape. That sexual harassment is actually harassment, and not a compliment.

The White House recently created a Sexual Assault Task Force and handed down a bunch of new mandates for colleges under VAWA and the Campus SaVE Act and Title IX. One of those mandates is bystander education. And I think that’s good and right and important. But nowhere in that recent White House report did it say anything about addressing sexism. Nowhere is anti-sexism education mandated. Some colleges have Women’s Studies programs and Women’s Centers and those are amazing. But plenty of schools don’t. And at those schools, no one is standing up and acknowledging that sexism plays a major role in campus sexual assault. No one is mandating that first year students take an anti-sexism seminar.

What about primary and secondary education? Grade schools have taken up the anti-bullying flag, but still, no anti-sexism flag. It’s okay to talk about being an active bystander and standing up to bullies, but it’s not okay to talk about sexism because the grown-ups still can’t agree that it exists.

Until we start teaching anti-sexism, bystander education can only do so much. When it comes to primary prevention – actually preventing sexual assault from happening – bystander education is not our silver bullet.

Until our students understand what sexism is, what it looks like, and the role it plays in perpetuating sexual violence against women and other marginalized groups in our global community, bystander education will not be effective as a primary prevention strategy to combat rape. Unless our students can understand and identify situations of sexual harassment and assault, bystander education will remain a solution to a problem-they-don’t-believe-is-actually-a-problem.

As an educator charged with the task of bystander education, I am frustrated. I love doing bystander education because when students are ready for it, it is the most fulfilling and inspiring and uplifting part of my job. But lots of students aren’t ready for it because they have no understanding of sexism or gender discrimination or gender violence. And who takes responsibility for that? Where is the accountability for that?

My Breakup with Exercise

In November, I met the amazing Ragen Chastain at a conference. She was the keynote speaker and blew the minds of college health professionals about Health at Every Size. During one of her talks she explained that many people are currently experiencing a “bad breakup with exercise.” That phrase was a gift to me – I finally have the  words to describe my fraught and complex relationship with exercise.

I was never an overly active kid. I loved to read, play with plastic dinosaurs, and find salamanders in the woods. I hated gym class. I did not like sports. Nor did I like hiking or cross-country skiing, my parents’ favorite activities. Once I hit puberty my body became soft and pudgy and my dislike of physical activity was no longer just a personality trait – it became a flaw. It became an indicator of my laziness and bad attitude, or at least, that’s how my parents seemed to interpret my spirited protests. I quickly understood that I was being forced to go hiking because I was fat. My mom encouraged me to go to the gym with her. I felt out of place there and embarrassed. My presence in this dark, smelly, scary adult space was punishment for being a fat and lazy kid.

I didn’t touch exercise again until my junior year of college. My university required everyone to take a certain number of gym credits and I signed up for a step aerobics class I had heard good things about. I loved it. The instructor was an athletic female coach who was all about strength and fitness, not about appearance. She wore a giant t-shirt and long, baggy gym shorts. I started coming to the gym a few times a week and doing the elliptical machine, crunches and pushups. I signed up for Pilates and a strength-building classes even though I had already fulfilled my Phys Ed requirements. It felt good. It was a happy time for me. I finally was developing some positive experiences with exercise.

In 2009, I moved to Boston to begin my first full-time job.I got myself a gym membership. I started doing Weight Watchers with a coworker, and religiously tracked every morsel I ate. I signed up for personal training. I went to the gym at least 5 times a week. My sessions at the gym now lasted about 2 hours. I would start with 15 minutes of cardio on the elliptical to warm up. Then I would do 30-45 minutes of strength training. Then I would do 45 mins-1 hour of cardio – rotating between the elliptical, stairmaster, and bike. Then I would stretch for 20 minutes. For a month or two, I added another 15 minutes of ab work each night before I went to bed. I turned down offers to go to dinner or evening events in order to go to the gym. I knew that I needed at least a 3-hour block of time to do my regular workout, shower, and change; there was simply not enough time to do anything else on a weeknight. I had no hobbies to speak of, besides working out. I did this for about a year.

Everyone thought I looked great. I lost 25 lbs and fit into size 8 pants for the first time since high school. For a brief period, you could actually see my ab muscles when I flexed. I could wear really short shorts. I ate mostly processed frozen dinners, raw vegetables, and Greek yogurt (no time to cook). I got compliments from friends, coworkers, and my family. Guys asked me for my number. My parents no longer chided me for my behavior; now they were asking me for tips. They soon signed up with personal trainers themselves.

I was down to 145 lbs, but I was convinced that I needed to get to 125. I believed that was considered “normal weight” or “healthy weight” for a woman of my height. I was excited and happy about the changes I felt and saw in the mirror, but I in no way considered myself “done.” I was in the best shape of my life, but I still thought I was fat. And according to my BMI, I was technically still “overweight.”

This too can be yours! Just eat hardly anything and exercise 2 hours a day for the rest of your life!

This too can be yours! Just eat hardly anything and exercise 2 hours a day for the rest of your life!

Then I started grad school. I was working full-time and taking a full course load at night. Suddenly, there was no time to go to the gym. I had night classes and homework. I still tried to go as often as I could, but if I wasn’t able to complete my full 2-hour workout, it felt like failure. A waste. Moderation was simply not in my vocabulary. My new body was slipping away.

Soon I become so mentally exhausted that I had no room left for tracking Weight Watchers points. I had no time to go grocery shopping. I started living off of cafe sandwiches, takeout, and Red Bull. My beloved trainer experienced some health problems and had to retire. The trainer assigned to replace him was a douchebro jock who kept talking about getting me a “hot bikini body” and I hated him. Eventually, I stopped going to the gym altogether. And, naturally, I started to gain weight. Like so many people, I ended up gaining more than I had lost.

Three years later, I am the heaviest I’ve been in my life. My parents have expressed their concern, and I have pushed back on their well-intentioned but incredibly painful statements with every ounce of spirit in my body; I will not feel like a worthless fat girl again. And no, exercise is not so simple as “Just do it.”

For most of 2013 I was sedentary. I had multiple false starts as I tried to “get back into the gym.”  Each time I returned, there was a new manager at the personal training company who would spot me on the elliptical and approach me, saying “Congratulations on taking the first step towards a better you!” or some bullshit like that.

I wanted to punch them every time. I am already a better me. I have hobbies now. I have friends. I have a life.

Then the manager would encourage me to try personal training because “beginners always need someone to show them how to do things properly.”

“FUCK YOU, I am NOT a beginner,” I would think.

“If you only knew me when…” And then my anger would dissolve into shame. I was embarrassed at failing so spectacularly.

But looking back on it now, I wonder how could I have done anything else but fail. My Biggest Loser-esque workout regime was extreme and unsustainable. Dieting was unsustainable. My abs were unsustainable. And no matter how thin or muscular I got, I always thought I was fat. I always needed to lose more. I was never not unhappy with my body. Losing weight did not improve my body image whatsoever.

In 2013 I vowed to stop dieting forever and began the long process of making peace with my body. Though I was making progress on the eating and body image fronts, I was still having a really hard time with exercise. Friends would say, “Couldn’t you just go to the gym for like 20 minutes? Couldn’t you just take the stairs? That’s better than nothing!” The thought of going to the gym for 20 minutes or taking the stairs was foreign and confusing. How could you do anything worthwhile in 20 minutes? I would never get my abs back by going to the gym for 20 minutes. I would never lose 40 lbs by taking the stairs. It became obvious that thinking of physical activity in moderate and sustainable terms was going to be extremely challenging for me.

I spent a lot of time thinking of ways to get active that would be fun and sustainable. I didn’t come up with any radical new ideas. There was yoga and hiking, which I have learned to like now that it isn’t mandatory and I can choose to do it on my own terms. But I haven’t found a yoga studio I like yet and hiking is difficult to do on a regular basis when you live in a northeastern city. I kept coming back to the gym – the first place I ever really enjoyed exercise.

But I was, as Ragen deftly stated, going through a bad breakup with the gym. The gym had ghosts of my thinner self in every mirror. The gym was full of people who would assume I had never worked out before. And I still never had enough time to do the kind of workouts I felt were necessary. “Do it right or don’t do it at all” would echo in the back of my head.

I took my time. I thought about things. I let myself get comfortable with tenets of Heath at Every Size. I practiced self-compassion. I forgave myself for “failing” and gaining weight. But most importantly, I worked on letting go of the idea that I could someday be 125 lbs or “get my abs back” or achieve the extreme physical transformation I did back in 2010. This has been, and continues to be, the hardest part. There is a very real sense of loss involved in abandoning the idealized, aspirational vision of yourself that’s been in your head since you were a teenager.

Then I agreed, for the first time in my life, to participate in a fundraiser stair climbing challenge. I knew this would force me to get back to the gym, and it did. The stair climb event is two days away, so last week I forced myself to return to the gym for the first time in many months.

Walking in the door was really hard. I could barely finish my first 20-minute cardio workout on the cross trainer. Five days later, I can do 30 minutes without too much difficulty. I think it’s amazing that my body can adjust back so quickly after so long. I am grateful for its strength and responsiveness. I suppress the faint urges to pull my scale out of storage.

This time, I’m trying to commit to realistic goals. 25 minutes. 30 minutes. Mostly cardio, with some Yoga Meltdown or free weights every now and then when I want to work on building strength. No more than 45 minutes per workout, 3-4 days a week.

Workouts that will help keep me active and give me the health benefits I’m looking for, but won’t consume me. Workouts I can squeeze into my busy life without having to sacrifice other hobbies or time with friends. Workouts that have absolutely nothing to do with losing weight or achieving a “hot bikini body.” Those are the kind of workouts I am aiming for now.

I’ll have to wait and see how it goes, but I’ve got a good feeling about this “moderation” thing. Maybe it could work for you too.

Size 14 and that’s okay.

One Year of Not Dieting

In December, 2012, I made a New Year’s resolution to stop dieting. Forever. I’m proud to say that I have kept my resolution and for the first time in my adult life, I have gone a whole year without tracking a single Weight Watchers point. Why? Because dieting does not work for me.

Each time I committed to dieting I would lose weight and then, whenever I needed to focus my energy on other goals (like grad school) or went through a stressful time, I would gain it all back plus more for good measure. In addition to my personal experience, I have been reading a lot about the science of weight-loss and finding that it’s really not so simple as “calories in, calories out.” I could go into more depth about the research and what I believe, but that’s for another post. For now, I’ll share that it is my belief that thanks to dieting, I weigh much more than I would have had I just left my body alone.

Here are some reflections after a full year of not dieting:

Image1. Fat talk is everywhere. People who are concerned and self-conscious about their eating habits (read: most people) insist on ruining every meal you have together by exclaiming how unhealthy the food is or reassuring you that they never eat like this at home, etc. etc. At first it was hard to stop fat talking, but now – a year after breaking the habit – I find it profoundly annoying and intrusive because I’m still expected to join in. What I choose to eat at any given time is none of your business. I don’t need to justify or explain my choices to anyone, and I certainly don’t need to apologize for my choices.

My decision to stop dieting was, in some ways, a promise to stop judging myself every time I ate some food. But thanks to all the fat talk everywhere, I became hyper aware of how much everyone else is judging themselves or others based on the food they eat. If you are trying to retrain your brain not to associate these negative judgments with food, it’s really annoying to hear everyone else do it constantly. It starts to feel like everyone’s out to sabotage you – or at least your next meal.

2. Real food tastes amazing. Have you tried non-diet yogurt lately? Or coffee with milk and actual sugar? Holy crap. Turns out, food doesn’t have to taste like a chemical sundae. The other day I was eating a big, fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie that was given to me at a work training. And believe it or not, I couldn’t even finish it. Can you remember a time when you were not able to finish a diet cookie? Those things are about as filling as a celery stick and they taste like cardboard. And even though they taste like cardboard, you end up eating the whole box anyway because you’re so hungry and it’s either the cookies or a salad, but you’re so goddamned sick of salads and your bowels are a wreck because Weight Watchers prizes foods high in fiber and apparently the secret to weight loss is pooping all the damned time. So basically, you’re sitting there, choking down cardboard cookies, mentally exhausted from decision fatigue over whether or not to eat the cookies, feeling like a total failure because you ate the cookies, and wondering if anything makes any goddamn sense in this world anymore.

Dieting! Huzzah!

3. I am finally learning how to cook. I was never that interested in learning to cook, and dieting made cooking really simple to avoid. After all, it is much easier to buy pre-made, processed foods with the nutrition facts and portion sizes clearly labeled than it is to cook a dish and figure out how many Weight Watchers points it is if you used 3 sprays of non-fat cooking spray and substitute non-fat greek yogurt for everything else that might possibly contain fat and my god how does this bland, sorry excuse for food add up to 16 points per serving when there are no goddamned calories in it?

You know what I did instead of cooking? I ate Lean Pockets. Lean Pockets. If anyone wants to know the deep, dark truth about how low dieting can bring you, just tell them “I know someone who actually ate Lean Pockets.” Now that I’m not dieting and focusing on other healthy goals (like not eating so many chemicals) I am learning to cook. So far this year, I have learned to cook African sweet potato peanut stew, chicken marbella, stuffed tomatoes, mini Greek-style meatloaves with arugula salad, brussel sprout breakfast hash, sweet potato spinach mac and cheese, black bean enchiladas, escarole and orzo soup with turkey meatballs, and more! And even though most of these dishes didn’t turn out perfect and I had to do a lot more cleaning up, every single one was better than a fucking Lean Pocket.

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Yep. I made this.

I’m beginning to be able to eat more intuitively. I used to be just like Louis CK.

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Party food was the worst; if there was a bowl of chips or tray of mini quiches in the room, those savory treats would just not leave me alone. I’d be thinking about how many I could have, and once I’d had those, how many more I could have, and when I could have them again. Now, I am much less obsessive about food at parties. I have some if I want some – and more importantly, I know that I can have them if I want them. Now, I can actually stop when I don’t want them anymore. I actually don’t want them sometimes! It doesn’t sounds like a big change, but it feels super different. It’s like I’ve been granted a restraining order and I am no longer being harassed by bowls of chips.

Of course, this is a slow and gradual process. I still overeat sometimes, by accident and also not by accident. Still, I have started to be more in tune with how food makes my body feel. I’ve realized and accepted the fact that certain foods make me feel bad and other foods make me feel good. That may sound obvious, but while dieting my stomach was always off (so much fiber, why???) and so I focused on ignoring my body’s signals, cravings, and reactions rather than listening to them. Until recently, I didn’t know that mozzarella cheese turned my stomach or that big servings of meat made me feel gross. I knew what full felt like, but I didn’t really know what “satisfied” felt like. I never felt satisfied when I was dieting because I was never satisfied. How can you feel satisfied when you’re eating weird, calorie-free versions of food instead of actual food? Now that I can recognize satisfied, and enjoy that feeling, it’s easier to stop.

5. I haven’t lost weight. Yet. I won’t lie. I was really hoping that after I stopped dieting, my body would revert back to whatever it “naturally” would have weighed. That didn’t happen. Let’s be real. After years of dieting, the initial freedom to eat all the things was so novel and exciting that I definitely ate all the things. Unsurprisingly, I gained a little bit. (I stopped weighing myself when I stopped dieting so I am blissfully ignorant of the numbers.) This part has been hard and disappointing. But after more reading and reflection and discussion with health professionals, I’ve been reassured that this takes time. Longer than one year. After all, I’m just beginning to eat intuitively. I’ve also started working on my relationship with exercise – something just as complicated as my relationship with food. It’s a process, and I’m still at the beginning of that process.

I do have hope that as I develop new, healthier relationships with food and exercise, my body will respond accordingly. In the meantime, I’m working on my body image. I’m learning to let go of the idea that being thin will make me happier or my life better. I am accepting the fact that I will never be a size 4, and exploring the possibilities of being happy, fit, and confident with my body as it is.

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After a year of not dieting, I am confident that I’ve made the right choice. I feel healthier in body, mind, and spirit. I’m excited to discover where another year of not dieting will take me. And most of all, I’m grateful to finally be in touch with my body.

As it happens, my body is exhausted and telling me to just post this already and go to sleep. And I’m going to listen to it.

*** Edit ***
I made these. Enjoy.

Weight Watchers 1

Weight Watchers 2

Sexual Violence, the Patriarchy, and the Government Shutdown

Sometimes current events that don’t seem related begin to overlap and parallel in weird and uncomfortable ways. Earlier this year I wrote about a string of oddly connected stories in Connecting the dots: Nice Guys™, MRAs, mass shooters, and aggrieved entitlement. I discussed how the thread of aggrieved entitlement (an unfortunate product of a deeply patriarchal culture) underlies the Nice Guy™, MRA, and mass shooter phenomena. This time, the release of a groundbreaking new study on young people and sexual assault, Chris Brown’s childhood rape, and the government shutdown feel eerily connected.

This week, a groundbreaking study on sexual assault among young people was published in JAMA Pediatrics.  The study found that 9% of young people have committed sexual violence: 8% reported that they kissed, touched, or “made someone else do something sexual” when they “knew the person didn’t want to”; 3% verbally coerced a victim into sex; 3% attempted to physically force sex; 2% perpetrated a completed rape. (The numbers don’t add up because some perpetrators admitted to more than one behavior.)

Perpetrators reported having higher exposure to violence pornography (non-violent porn had no correlation to sexual violence). They also found that 98% of perpetrators who committed their first perpetration at 15-years-old or younger were male, whereas by the time they reached 18- or 19-years-old, perpetrators were more evenly split between men (52%) and women (48%). Perpetrators who began perpetrating later in life were also less likely to get caught. To top it all off, 50% of all perpetrators said that their victim was responsible for the sexual violence committed against them.

On October 4, Chris Brown (notorious for his violent assault against his girlfriend Rihanna) told the Guardian about “losing his virginity” at age 8 to a teenage girl. Many outlets have appropriately acknowledged that this is rape. Olivia A. Cole deftly explained why Brown’s framing of the event is problematic: “Chris Brown was raped, but to hear him tell it, that experience was positive, healthy. Something to brag about. “At eight, being able to do it, it kind of preps you for the long run, so you can be a beast at it.” Cole writes:

Can you imagine being sexually abused and then growing up being told that this is a good thing? That your sexual potency has been enhanced? That rape was a “head-start” into the wonderful world of sex? The damaging system that tells girls they are worthless after rape has a disgusting flip side for boys: you have worth now. This violence has made you a god.

Then we have the government shutdown. The Tea Party and their conservative Republican friends are being the worst kind of sore losers — the kind that decide to flip the table over rather than play the hand they were dealt. The Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) is law, and shutting down the government is not a rational, reasonable, or in my opinion, legal way of trying to “undo” a law whose constitutionality was upheld by the Supreme Court.

Robert Parry suggests that this is about more than Obamacare. He places the debate over Obamacare within the historical narrative of federalism vs. state’s rights, which was, notably, a big deal when the country was divided over the constitutionality of slavery. He writes:

The relevance of this history to the present is not only that the ideological descendants of the Confederacy are now up in arms over the election and reelection of the first African-American president but that they are insisting on the slaveholders’ distortion of the Constitution, over its truly “originalist” interpretation and the plain reading of its words.

The overwhelmingly white Tea Party, with its foothold in the overwhelmingly white Republican Party, has now developed a new variation on the theory of “nullification,” asserting that the Tea Party’s Confederate-style interpretation of the Constitution must be accepted by the rest of the nation or the country will face endless political extortion.

Through this lens, the Tea Party’s hostage-taking stance is, in effect, a tantrum over the looming loss of privilege and power for white men.

So where is the connection?

A small but significant percentage of America’s young people are perpetrating sexual assault at alarming rates. They are most commonly using verbal coercion (including threats) and manipulation to do so, all the while while believing their victims were responsible for their assaults. A small but significant percentage of America’s adult leaders are using coercion, including threats, to shut down our government – an action resulting in harm to our nation’s most vulnerable populations. Populations that these same adult leaders believe to be responsible for their own poverty or vulnerability.

Chris Brown’s story reminds us of the role that aggrieved entitlement has to play here.

Aggrieved entitlement inspires revenge against those who have wronged you; it is the compensation for humiliation. Humiliation is emasculation: humiliate someone and you take away his manhood. For many men, humiliation must be avenged, or you cease to be a man. Aggrieved entitlement is a gendered emotion, a fusion of that humiliating loss of manhood and the moral obligation and entitlement to get it back. And its gender is masculine.

Patriarchy hurts men as much as it hurts women by eliminating any space for men’s victimization. It does not allow male victims to let themselves feel victimized, or allow the rest of us to take men’s victimization seriously. Instead, it teaches men to get revenge by victimizing others.

Unfortunately, sexual coercion has become a “normal” part of teenage sexuality. Aggrieved entitlement flourishes in a culture that treats sex like a commodity: we teach men to measure their worth by how much sex they “get” from women, while conversely we teach women that their worth is determined by what they “give away.”

Likewise, the patriarchy teaches men that their worth is derived from power. It does not teach young men how to share power, or how to put the needs of others before their own. It teaches men to lash out in revenge when they lose power. Today it seems our Tea Party politicians are fighting — the way they learned in the backseats and bedrooms of their adolescence — to regain their power through coercion, threats, and ultimately, the victimization of others.

It’s generally not a good idea to use “rape” as a metaphor, but in this case, the comparison is disturbingly apt.

Your Fat is Not Your Fault 2: Blocking Out the Noise

Sunday night I returned from a long camping weekend off the grid to find a whole slew of angry comments on my most recent post, Your Fat is Not Your Fault. Apparently people get really mad when you deign to suggest that it’s okay to be fat on the internet.

Most of the comments were mean and/or stupid in that predictable way people like to be mean to fat people. Those were, and will continue to be, deleted. There were also some typical interweb lols like “I lost 100 lbs eating Paleo. Have you considered that everyone should just eat Paleo?”

There were, however, some comments written by actual thinking, feeling, people critical of  my assertion that dieting almost always fails, and that obesity as a social problem that must first and foremost be addressed on a systematic, societal level. While I won’t address all of those arguments right now, I feel that they are secondary to (and distracting from) my overall point. My point–that it’s okay and important to forgive yourself for being fat–unfortunately got lost in the politics of fatness.

I’m not here to debate whether or not obesity is unhealthy (at least not today). I am here to argue that guilt, shame, and self-hatred are unhealthy. If it makes me a  radical to suggest that guilt, shame, and self-hatred are significant problems then so be it. Body image disturbance (the term for all types of body image issues including dissatisfaction and distortion) is associated with eating disorders and low self-esteem. Self-hatred and low self-esteem keep people from reaching their full potential; they keep people from participating fully in their own lives and becoming productive, contributing members of society.

Think obesity is a drain on the healthcare system? Well, body image disturbance is a drain on every system.

Last year I wrote a post called Positive Body Image Won’t Make You Fat: The Case for Body Positive Health Promotion. Read it.

Having a positive body image won’t make you fat. Letting go of the guilt and blame will not keep you fat. In fact, it will help you begin to heal and one day embrace self-compassion and fun as motivators for healthy eating and fulfilling physical activity.  And once you’ve embraced self-compassion and let yourself have fun-while-fat,  you can start to make those positive lifestyle changes that will allow you live your life to the fullest, whether or not it results in weight loss. If you’re looking for help with this, there are some amazing books on the subject like Kate Harding’s Lessons from the Fat-O-Sphere and Linda  Bacon’s Health At Every Size, as well as coaches like Isabel Foxen Duke and Sarah Jenks.

But forgiving yourself for your fat is especially hard when everyone wants you to fix it, apologize for it, or suffer for it. It’s especially hard when when everyone acts as if it’s as easy as “putting down the cheeseburger,” when in reality it’s a gargantuan, exhausting, and wholly demoralizing task that requires strict self-regulation of every thing you eat or do for the rest of your entire life. It’s not helpful to listen to the noise, ever, even if you do want to lose weight.

Unfortunately, fat shaming trolls can be found just about everywhere, including the medical and public health establishment. I’ve recently learned that they are especially virulent among the uber-libertarians (“fat people are destroying our economy because they’re lazy and looking for handouts just like homeless people are lazy and looking for handouts”)  and men’s rights communities (“feminists are destroying my game by telling fatties it’s okay to stay fat”). Add ’em to the bingo card, boys.

In order to “become healthy” — whether that means getting fit, raising your self-esteem, having more fun in your life, etc. — you need to practice self-compassion. Treat yourself the way you would treat someone you love. That means looking backwards and thinking about when you “became fat.”

  • Were you a child? Not your fault.
  • Were you a teenager? The teenage world is one of desperate insecurity; you coped the best you could.
  • Were you in college? You were stressed and not sleeping and maybe partying a lot and still feeling invincible – it’s okay. As my fellow college health professionals often say, it’s “developmentally appropriate” behavior.
  • Were you pregnant or did you just have a baby? Were you coping with depression or another mental illness or maybe a disability? Were you working long hours with no time for yourself? Were you dealing with an eating disorder?

You are not to blame for all the circumstances of your life. Give yourself the compassion and respect you deserve. You would not blame your best friend. Don’t blame yourself.

If anyone out there wants to make you feel bad about your body or feel bad about yourself because of your body correctly identify them for what they are: a troll. If they act concerned for your health, they are a concern troll.

Only you know what’s best for you. Only you can determine what it means for you to live a healthy, happy lifestyle.

Block out the noise. Delete the comments. Do you.

And if anyone has any questions about my comment policy, this is basically sums it up:

Your fat is not your fault

Your fat is not your fault.

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You are not lacking willpower.

You are not lacking willpower because you can’t stick to your diet. You are fine; it’s dieting that doesn’t work. No really. Diet and exercise DO NOT CURE BEING FAT. They may help you lose weight for a few months to a year to six years… but, according to a massive analysis of every long-term weight loss study, no one — statistically speaking NOT A ONE PERSON — has kept off a significant amount of weight (i.e. more than 15-20 lbs) permanently. There is a lot of emerging evidence that when a person goes on a diet, their chemistry changes so that they’re bodies will continue to fight against weight loss long after the dieting has stopped. As David Wong from Cracked put it, “It’s like being an addict where the withdrawal symptoms last for decades.”

You are not lazy.

You are not lazy because you choose to focus your time and energy on things other than losing weight. To quote David Wong again, “The people who successfully [lose weight and keep it off] are the ones who become psychologically obsessive about it, like that weird guy who built an Eiffel Tower out of toothpicks.” So congratulations, you aren’t spending every waking moment of your life focusing on your waistline. You are doing amazing things, whatever they are. Seriously! Whatever you are doing with your precious time and brainspace (reading, writing, working, creating, studying, caretaking, being nice–contributing to society in any small way) is worthwhile and meaningful and more important than spending it obsessing about your weight.

If you want to be more active, then cool. Go for it. Hopefully you’ll find some activities that will bring you pleasure and joy. But don’t think that being more active is going to make you lose weight. It’s not. (See above). So don’t force yourself into a lifestyle that doesn’t work for you–you’ll only end up making you feel worse.

tumblr_mab2gzHeHb1qm339ko1_500You are not unhealthy.

You are not unhealthy just because you happen to be fat, I mean. Isn’t that great? Your weight and your health are two different things. You can be healthy at any size.  Health is determined by your behaviors, luck, and genetics (more luck). Your behaviors are up to you. And they are NO ONE’S BUSINESS but yours. For whatever reason, being “healthy” has been equated to being moral or being “good” in our society. Let me blow your mind for just a second by throwing this nugget out there: You have a right to be unhealthy. For any reason. It’s YOUR body and you can treat it however you wish. But if you choose to be healthy, eat nutritious food and try to sleep for 8-10 hours a night. Find some active things to do that you enjoy and quit smoking. But don’t conflate your health with your weight. Losing weight probably wont improve your health, and improving your health often times doesn’t result in weight loss. This is okay.

You are not stupid.

You are not stupid for trying that juice cleanse or hoping that trying Weight Watchers or eating paleo or forcing yourself to go to the gym every day would “fix” your fat. Our society believes that diet and exercise cures fat. This is what our doctors tell us. This is what the medical and public health arms of our government advise. They are wrong. They have failed us.

Instead of focusing on fixing the real, structural, environmental problems that cause people to become overweight, like poverty or food deserts or lack of sleep or being overworked/overstressed, food advertising, agricultural subsidies, high fructose corn syrup and processed flour…. public health officials have spent millions of dollars and time and energy telling you to diet and exercise. Why? Because it’s easier. It’s much, much easier (politically) to tell individuals to diet and exercise than it would be to fight the lobbyists or make any real headway in regulating the food industry or addressing poverty or our tradition of overwork in America. As Gary Taubes wrote in The Daily Beast, “…the reason the anti-obesity efforts championed by the IOM, the CDC, and the NIH haven’t worked and won’t work is not because we’re not listening, and not because we just can’t say no, but because these efforts are not addressing the fundamental cause of the problem. Like trying to prevent lung cancer by getting smokers to eat less and run more, it won’t work because the intervention is wrong.”

You are not weak.

You are not weak. In fact, your strength is incredible. You are living in a world that does not make it easy for you. You are living in a world that tells you you have to look a certain way in order to be loved, and at the same tells us food is love. You are told to resist eating foods that are scientifically engineered to be literally irresistible — as in, they trick our senses in order to make us physically unable to resist eating them. You have struggled with stigma and shame and guilt and survived. You are alive and you are living.

So let me say this one more time: Your fat is not your fault.

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Give yourself permission to forgive yourself.

Go out and live your amazing life.

Addressing the sleep deficit, NOT one person at a time

The more I learn about health and wellness, the more convinced I am that sleep is magic.

Not only does getting the recommended 7-9 hours help you feel awake and refreshed in the morning, it also helps regulate your metabolism and improves your memory, focus, judgment, problem solving, and athletic performance.

New and terrifying research links not-enough-sleep (the 5-6 hours most Americans currently get) with weight gain, increased risk of cold/flu, diabetes, cancer, and ADHD-like symptoms. Additionally, not getting enough sleep results in poorer cognitive abilities (lack of focus, concentration, ability to remember what you’ve learned), poor judgment, and impaired driving on par with drunk driving. It’s also correlated with depression, anxiety, and other mental illness.

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When I saw this New York Times post basically summing it all up (and providing links if you want to check out the research) I was ecstatic and all “That’s what I’ve been saying!” Then I read the comments.

“You assume it’s a choice, that people actively choose to get less sleep and, if they want to, can choose to get more. That may well be true of upper class people who can hire others to do their work for them – housework, tutoring, etc. As for me, a middle class shlub, well, I would LOVE to get more sleep. But I am a single mom. I have to get up at 5:30 am for my job. And I have to work or I will land in the street with my kids. ANd I have to stay up at least until 10:30 pm most nights to get this or that child hither and thither, help with homework, and son on. I cannot hire anyone to do any chore– lawnmowing, housecare, homework, driving, shopping, bill paying, college planning for kids, etc etc etc etc. Basically, I work from the moment I get up until the moment I sleep. I have no time to exercise either.”

And it hit me. The sleep deficit is a lot like the obesity epidemic; it is a systemic problem that cannot be solved by encouraging individuals to make healthier choices.

I work with college students who probably could get more sleep if they spent a couple fewer hours playing videogames.

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Shit college students say.

Of course, some of my students work more than the recommended 10 hours per week and can’t choose to sleep more. But in general, I feel okay about trying to encourage them to prioritize sleep over partying or more time on Reddit because they can usually make changes without too much trouble. For the general adult population, however, this really isn’t the case.

The comments on the New York Times post read like a laundry list of reasons why Americans are not sleeping. Parents are kept up by new babies. Physicians-in-training are working 28-hour shifts. People who travel constantly for work (flight crews, journalists, musicians, etc.) are forced to keep irregular schedules in different time zones. Single parents are working full time jobs in addition to the “second shift” just to make ends meet.

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But it isn’t just our jobs, families, and full schedules that are keeping us up. The world has changed. Energy drinks and caffeinated latte drinks are sold on every corner and and marketed either as health supplements or entertainment. We are constantly connected, if not tethered to, our phones, tablets, and the internet — whether it’s for work, entertainment, or connection. A recent study found that the light from backlit screens can disrupt sleep by suppressing melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate our circadian systems. But this is even bigger than a gadget issue.

Our circadian rhythm, which is how our body knows when to sleep and when to wake, is informed by both light and temperature. Darkness and cooler temperatures let our bodies know it’s nighttime, and therefore bedtime. So what happens to our circadian rhythm when we live in consistently temperature-controlled environments? And about that darkness thing? Yeah. We don’t really have that anymore. Just check out these NASA images of the world at night.

Captured in 1994

Captured in 1994

Light pollution projected growth

Light pollution projected growth in 2025

So basically our artificial environment is  really screwing with our circadian systems, and we wonder why no one can sleep? Some scientists are even concerned that light pollution is killing off wildlife.

Animals need sleep too.

Animals need sleep too.

It’s no wonder that the New York Times post, which encouraged readers to get more sleep and discuss the issue with their doctors, made some people angry. For so many of us, sleep is simply outside our realm of control. Before I’ve made the argument that our obesity problem should not be addressed through individual behavior change because it is a systemic problem that can really only be solved through systemic changes to our environments and our policies. When we try to treat obesity as if it were simply an individual problem, it manifests as shaming people for things beyond their control. When we consider that sleep and weight are inextricably linked, it’s not surprising that the same thing happens when we tell people they need more sleep.

And, just like weight shaming can cause people to develop eating disorders or depression/self-esteem issues that lead to further weight gain, warning people about the health risks of sleep deficit can actually make the problem worse:

“As a law school graduate studying for the New York Bar and planning an impending move to NYC–without yet a job, praying to find one in public interest law–I lie awake every night, worrying.  But at least now I know all of the harmful things that are happening to me.”

“Constantly counting the number of hours of sleep I got each night hasn’t been good for my mental health either. It’s like counting calories. It made me obsessed. So I stopped.”

“One thing that would help me sleep is not being constantly told how awful it is not to get it.”

The Health Belief Model of behavior change tells us that if you scare people about a health issue without providing a clear solution for how they can prevent or treat it, they are not going to respond well. Telling folks the dangers of not getting enough sleep without providing realistic solutions will cause them to feel like it’s hopeless and shut down. This issue cannot be solved by telling people to try to get more sleep.

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So how can we address the sleep deficit at the systematic level? In college health we have an advantage because we have a fair amount of control over the environment our students inhabit. We have the ability to provide a campus that encourages and supports healthy behavior. We can close down our libraries, gyms, labs, and campus centers at 10 pm. We can ban 8 am classes to let our students sleep in later. We can mandate quiet hours in our residence halls. We can ban Red Bull and 5 Hour Energy from promoting their goods on campus. It’s a little more complicated in the real world.

tumblr_inline_mmq91iJGyJ1qz4rgpWhat could some of those systemic changes look like? Is it even possible to regulate light pollution in urban areas? How would we accomplish that? We could tax the crap out of energy drinks like we tax cigarettes. We could create similar disincentives for 24-hour service availability. For example, in Spain, most businesses are closed during siesta in the afternoon. People simply have to run errands another time, and they make it work. We could also place stricter regulations around the “full time” (read: eligible for benefits) work week, reducing it from the standard 4o-45 hours to something closer to 35. (Again, a lot of Europeans do it this way.)

But beyond regulation, true systemic change requires a culture shift. We need to foster a culture that doesn’t reward employees for putting in extra hours, or make anyone feel like they need to put in extra hours to keep their job. In industries where it’s possible, like in most office jobs, we need to institutionalize flex time and let workers telecommute in order to snooze that extra hour it would take to commute. We need to change the norm from one where we lie in bed with our phones checking email to one where that kind of behavior is uncommon. We could stop creating reasons for people to stay up late, like scheduling evening events earlier and no longer airing popular TV shows after 10 pm.

But this kind of societal change takes decades and requires tireless efforts from public health folks and other advocates. Perhaps the first step of that work is recognizing that the sleep deficit is bigger than you and your insomnia, her and her new baby, or him and his ridiculous work schedule. For those who can make the choice to sleep more, doing so will definitely improve their health. But the focus of public health messaging and health journalism should not be to scare or shame people who, for whatever reason, can’t get enough sleep.

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TL;DR sleep zombie friends?

What I’m really trying to say is that the only way to really address the issue is to treat society’s sleep deficit as the gigantic, systemic, clusterfuck of a problem that it truly is.

Goodnight.

Goodnight.