Me, Christina Hendricks, and writer’s block

I don’t know what to write about, is the honest to God truth.

I spent most of last week running around, and yesterday had the kids home for the President’s Day holiday, and while I am somewhat abreast of the news, all of it is just so… exhausting. More of the same. So being creative when too busy to breathe and sick to tears of the same-old — well, it’s rough out here for a blogger, is all I’m saying.

And of course, I haven’t had the quiet of mind to get back to Martin Luther King yet, either. This week it should happen, but I don’t want to do it until I’m really there.

But today over at Ta-Nehisi’s place, he and the commenters are talking about women and body image, in particular as regards the supremely talented and apparently sick-of-talking-about-her-body Christina Hendricks. I’m all over the thread (ellaesther, c’est moi!), but part of what makes the issue so frustrating for me is that god damn I’d like to quit thinking about it. Or, as I said in the comments, “I wish to hell that I could have the hours and mental energy that I’ve invested in reminding myself that I am, as the Psalmist says, ‘beautifully, wonderfully made,’ back.”

I thought about writing about all that here, but then got wise, realizing that, well hell: If you’re sick of thinking about it, don’t re-write what you’ve already written elsewhere! I decided to post a piece I ran in the Dallas Morning News about just these issues a while back — and in looking for it, discovered that it was nearly four years ago. Lord, lord, but this is one hell of a dead horse.

Anyway, here it is:

Our unhealthy obsession

The idea that my baby’s value is determined by her size rips me up.

July 16, 2006

EMILY L. HAUSER, Special Contributor



This being summer, we’re all showing a lot more skin, babies included. Recently, as I chatted with a stranger about our diaper-and-bathing-suit-clad toddlers, he noted that the two girls were startlingly identical. I said, “Yes, all round and chubby.” And he said, without missing a beat: “Healthy.”

I felt I might weep.

My little Maya, now nearly 3 years old, came out 9 pounds and 3 ounces, and hasn’t slowed since. She’s tall and strong and heavy to carry upstairs when her silky arms drape over my shoulders in sleep, sweet breath on my neck. We call her Maya Warrior Princess.

We call her this because it’s cute and suits her regal personality, and because for her whole life we’ve had to push back the forces that would have us see her perfect little body with the distorted vision of a Vogue-obsessed society. From infancy, Maya’s size has inspired endless versions of, “Oh, I love fat babies,” followed by, without pause, “Don’t worry, she’ll slim down.” What? Worry?

I understand that cultures develop ideas of beauty; I also understand that some of this is sheer biology. Big breasts and wide hips (Jennifer Lopez) broadcast a woman’s reproductive abilities; a certain shoulder-to-hip ratio (Taye Diggs) translates to a man’s ability to kill bears.

I also know that there are economic and political issues: If you can afford to treat yourself with Manolos, for instance, you’re less likely to do it with Ho Hos – and we generally believe it’s better to be in the Manolo set, if only by virtue of looking like you don’t know what a Ho Ho is.

Yada yada. I don’t want my baby to hate herself.

In the course of my 41 years, I’m not sure I’ve met a single woman who didn’t have to defeat (or doesn’t still harbor) some self-loathing.

I, for one, have no idea how I look. I mean, I’d recognize myself on the street, but I can’t gauge the general perception of my appearance. I’m not thin and not built to be; I don’t believe my weight is unhealthy.

Yet, I think I’m worried, in some vague way, that I’m ridiculously unaware of how truly unattractive I am – and thus, how unworthy. Of what, I’m not sure.

For a long time, I couldn’t understand it. I was raised by a strong mother who never talked about calories. My husband loves my body. I gently tell friends to stop badmouthing their essential beauty, including the naturally skinny one accused by strangers of being anorexic. Yet I cannot truly, deeply incorporate the message myself, and I see that many of the women I love haven’t either.

Now, I begin to wonder: If intelligent, equality-minded adults can look at my beautiful daughter and see a potential flaw, is our collective thinking – and not just that among misogynists and Hooters customers – fundamentally warped?

Without (I believe) conspiracy or conscious effort, we seem to have achieved unspoken agreement that a body that doesn’t match society’s current ideal is shameful, its owner a lesser human. And when a woman’s value is primarily determined by her looks, how can any flesh-and-blood female not fight an ever-losing battle?

The idea that my baby may do this battle, that she could ever doubt her value as a person because of the shape God gave her, rips me up. But isn’t that where all this “she’ll slim down” twaddle is headed?

Watching the Oscars this year, I was struck by the parade of exquisite women who looked tired and skeletal. Gossipmongers tell us the formerly shapely Nicole Richie is now too small for a size 0; she, in fact, recently copped to eating issues. Lindsay Lohan, having previously admitted to bulimia, now says it’s not so.

These are people with so much natural beauty that they’re paid for it, and yet they willingly damage themselves in a struggle to achieve anti-reality.

And these people, whether we like it or not, are held up as ideals. They decorate our public space, they illustrate our shared readings, they inform our social discourse. I don’t blame them, but I can’t help but see these women as both victims and perpetrators of a real social ill. A deeply damaging social ill from which I would shield my little girl.

Am I fighting my own battle on her back? Possibly. But when I heard that one word, “healthy,” echo in its singularity, I could only feel that, no, this is going to be her battle, too. Starting with people who warmly reassure her parents that she will, someday, be skinny.

Emily L. Hauser is a freelance writer in Oak Park, Ill.

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  1. CitizenE

     /  February 16, 2010

    I responded to your writer’s block thing on the noon open post, but I will add here it’s always good to explore in as many paragraphs as you have the “I don’t know what to say,” and you are sure to quantifiably contradict a notion of being blocked–there they are, all those words down on the screen.

    I also on the 2nd Christina Hendricks post talked about the issue from a male perspective, and I hope a human perspective. Lately, I have been listening to Thich Nhat Hahn on death and dying. Being really sick in the fall was the alarm clock ringing I needed to begin what I hope is a couple of decades long elegiac contemplation, but even if it is just my final moment’s that would be better than sweeping it under the rug for fear of it.

    In one of the mantras following the rhythm of breathing, inhalation and exhalation, Hahn suggests that one say–I will die, I accept that; I will get old, I accept it; having a body, I’ll get sick, feel pain, I accept it; I will have to abandon all that I love–I accept it (the one that is the hardest for me to say). The mantra goes on with other, more positive statements, such as I will be kind to make others happy. However, the idea here is to rather than trying to magically alter one’s fate, rather to smile at it’s inevitability, and thus take the sting out of it.

    I’ve been thin and I’ve been fat. I’ve been loved, and I’ve been all alone–whether the two have been connected or disconnected seems largely superfluous. At 63 and single, for a long time now, every day I must face the question of whether I will ever be loved again physically, and if I am will I be physically able, at least without drugs, to love in return. Strange to say this, however, being older has its advantages, that are accompanied by “if I only knew then what I know now, but I didn’t, alas.”

    Our suffering reminds us that we are alive. Our suffering compels us to listen to ourselves as living beings. Not to be masochistic or indulge in it, when suffering ceases, so do we. Be kind Ella, make other people happy.

  2. Our DNA is both our greatest gift and our greatest curse, for it is home, not just to the plans to build an organic computer capable of reason, extrapolation, and imagination, but to a body built to be adaptable and multi-functional. The human body was built to survive generation after generation of struggle and strife, to weather drought and flood, hot and cold, feast and famine. The machinery of genetics moves slowly compared to human activity, however; most of us are no longer locked in a battle for daily survival to the extent our ancestors were. As such, mechanisms that were once necessary are now bereft of normal function, and are left to operate in a world that is less laden with day-to-day struggle for survival. As such, our bounty betrays us, because our body assumes that it must continue to store energy for the future, for the day when there is no more food, even though that day rarely comes. With plenty, comes an inability for our bodies to adapt to our new circumstances. That is where the neural power of our cerebral cortex should come in, readjusting our behavior to conditions. But frankly, we are still slaves to instincts and internal processes that no longer serve us as they once did, and we cannot seem to force ourselves to exert control. Instead, our enhanced intelligence is wasted, put to the mundane task of ogling bodies and making value judgments, tasks it is over-qualified for.

    We are victims of our own success as a species.

  3. Interesting dilemma. I go back and forth on the weight issue for a variety of reasons. First, it’s important for us, as a society, to be physically healthy. Second, it’s important for us to not obsess about appearances. Do concerns about appearances help us be healthy? Is there some value there? Or is it the other way around–concerns about appearances hurt our abilities to be healthy? As always, it’s probably a question of degrees.

    Personally, I’m one of those people who thinks self-esteem comes from within. People need to be honest with themselves about who they are and what they value. Once they become comfortable with that, the Lindsay Lohans of the world will surely become irrelevant. Of course, we’re a long way away from that utopian vision. So, in the meantime, I try to focus on my own actions (body image-wise)–am I eating right, exercising enough, sleeping enough? Almost always, the answer is “no”. So, if I want to improve my self-esteem and judge myself kindly by my own standards rather than by other people’s, I work on those things because they’re important to me. And I just try to remember that what happens outside of those things is out of my control. (Of course, it helps that I don’t expose myself to the unhealthy influence of mainstream television shows and commercials, magazine ads, and other damaging aspects of pop culture.)

    But let’s be honest. I have no idea how to resolve this issue in any meaningful way. We just do what we can do.

  4. Leslie

     /  February 17, 2010

    Hey there Emily. I feel what you are going through, although I have little boys, not girls. I don’t know why so many of us smart, sensible women can’t completely shed that inner voice telling us to get thinner. But like many parenting worries, this is one you should keep in perspective. Yes, your daughters might (probably will) go though some body image struggles. Yes, they may fall prey to the same societal pressures we ourselves have experienced. But if you provide them with the right foundation of love, strength, and stability, including teaching them to love and value themselves, they should come through the fight relatively unscathed. Perfect parenting is not required, nor is it possible. Just be there for them and keep the lines of communication open so they can come to you for support when they need it. You can’t shield them from everything, but you can give them the tools to get through that difficult experience.

  5. Maya Warrior Princess 🙂 ,slim and shape are not everythings 😀