Archive | January, 2011

Feeling Good Means Healing Good

13 Jan

So it’s January and the weight loss advertisements are literally flooding in.  Like two days into the new year Bobby Flay was in a warm up suit talking healthy eating when October-December he and all his foodie buddies on the Food Network and the new Cooking channel were all about indulgence. But the ad that really caught my eye was the Jennifer Hudson Weight Watchers ad.

As usual I was behind the times because I TiVoed Black Girls Rock, which was taped in October and aired in November, but I did not watch it until December.  So I literally watched her amazing performance with Ledisi, Jill Scott, and Marcia singing Nina Simone’s “Four Women” thinking wow she has gained a lot of weight since I saw her last. Then a few weeks later saw the WW ad. (Correction: I was alerted to the fact that the fourth singer at Black Girls Rock was Kelly Price not Jennifer Hudson)

I must admit I don’t keep up with the latest as much as I should, but I figured I was not seeing her much because she was focused on trying to recover/heal after the tragic loss of her mother, brother, and nephew. What concerns me most is that the new ad manages to do a lot of work while still tricking the public into thinking that weight loss will solve all your problems.  So first off the use of the song “Feeling Good” is amazing because Jennifer Hudson is being read through many lenses.  She is an American Idol runner-up turned super famous celebrity and a black woman who has had to overcome extreme adversity.

But here are a few behind the scenes details to know.  First, CDC statistics indicate that nearly 1 in 4 Black women are “overweight” so we are being actively targeted as a major consumer market by Weight Watchers.  Second, Jennifer Hudson would have been considered overweight in October 2010, but has loss considerable weight in time for a January 2011 ad campaign–that’s fast.  (Correction:  See above).  Third, there is no clear indication in the commercial of how much weight she lost or how she lost it, just images of her body in a skin tight white dress and a powerful song.

I don’t buy into the Body Mass Index formulas because they were not meant to be used outside of the context of your family medical history and your personal medical history.  I believe, like Surgeon General Dr. Regina M. Benjamin, that we should be talking about being healthy at any size or weight. In October 2009 the Federal Trade Commission published guides for celebrity endorsements making it difficult for weight loss advertisements to include all kinds of statements while putting in small light font on a light background “results not typical.”  What Weight Watchers has done is effectively maneuver around these restrictions by using images alone.

Rewatch the commercial and you will see that it is just an encoded music video for Weight Watchers.  What we see is a smaller Jennifer Hudson singing “I’m Feeling Good” and Weight Watchers Points Plus.  What we don’t see is her personal trainer, nutritionist, psychiatrist/psychologist/therapist, potentially a cosmetic surgeon, or her hair stylist.  Furthermore every time she sings this song, Weight Watchers gets to tag along.

If Jennifer Hudson is feeling good I am happy about that, more power to her.  But the way she is using her body or the way her body is being used to promote weight loss-for-all can be devastating for women broadly, and Black women in particular. So here is my “talk back.”
#1 Being thin or losing weight does not equal “feeling good.”  I know because when I am most stressed, confused, upset, what have you my tendency is to not eat as much as I should, lose weight, and get compliments for it.  That is ridiculous!
#2 Talk to me about Jennifer’s support group, her girls who helped her through it all, her supportive partner, therapist, dance teacher, minister, or whoever has helped her to recover.  Weight loss=feeling good–really? What about recovering from the unbelievable loss of her immediate family?
#3 The true winner is Weight Watchers because they managed to get around FTC rules and while they may be “inspiring” people individually, when you think about the shear number of weight loss ads on television in the last two weeks alone it’s more like collectively “shaming” people into saying “if J Hudson can do it after what she has been through then what is my excuse?”

When I say feeling good means healing good, I mean let’s feel good because we are taking care of ourselves inside and out “at every size and every weight”, loving ourselves “at every size and every weight,”  NOT because we are Watching our Weight (ourselves) through someone else’s eyes trying to look like Jennifer Hudson in December 2010.  Let us “feel good” responsibly. I officially name and claim January-March as “Love Ya Body Quarter” starting NOW!

Again I apologize for the Jennifer Hudson/Kelly Price error, but I believe the larger points still hold.


Watch What You Say: On The Accountability of Words

10 Jan

In a communication course last year my students and I reached an impasse when they insisted that words have no power.  When I challenged their overuse of popular, yet problematic, slang that is potentially offensive and harmful (i.e., saying something is “gay” or “retarded”) they claimed that words don’t mean anything, they are “just words.”  As a communication scholar and professor I offered theoretical and practical evidence to dismantle their argument but I felt I could better show them than tell them.  I continually challenged their thinking and came to our next class meeting with a list of offensive terms that I went on to read and call out to them.  My performance was not as effective as I would have liked but I did succeed in forcing them to think about the emotional impact of language and how we are all complicit in the rhetoric we use.  Words are not innocent, regardless of intent. 

I was devastated on Saturday when I learned about the shooting in Arizona.  I have been preparing a syllabus for my Communication & Diversity class and the incident reminded me why our communication practices have to be ethical.  Sheriff Clarence Dupnik was not off base when he insinuated that hateful vitriolic political rhetoric is not blameless in this despicable event.  While I set out to teach my students to respect and appreciate difference, I am fully aware that we live in a society that seeks to punish people who don’t look/think/act/talk/believe/worship/live like the majority.  I struggle to establish a space for reconciliation, particularly when the loudest voices are generally the ones of dissent and disrespect, echoing from the far right and the far left.

My life and work has always challenged canonical narratives of what is right, normal and moral—but as a black woman no one ever uses my existence or positionality as a standard by which to compare other lives.  The words and act of naming, or lack thereof, of experience is paramount.  And it is relevant to note that the stories and realities of people who are “different” are oftentimes dismissed.  Our stories, and lives, are made to seem insignificant, like we don’t count.  Initially, media reports of the victims from the Arizona shooting elaborated on the Congresswoman, federal judge, and nine year old girl but the other victims, particularly the ones who died and were over the age of 70, were grouped together as “and others.” (How many news stories have focused on them?)  I realize that focusing on the ‘big names’  is a strategic tactic of the news media, but it deserves critique.  Were the only lives worth talking about those of the elite, the young, the rich?  All of their lives, all of our lives, count regardless of age, ability, political affiliation, religion, education, skin color, sexual orientation, etc.  We all matter!  As a feminist I am invested in human rights, respect, and equality.  And I constantly check myself because I know that for every representation/experience I highlight, another voice/story is being ignored.

Having recently read my mentor, H.L. Goodall’s book Counter-Narrative: How Progressive Academics Can Challenge Extremists and Promote Social Justice, I am invested in a narrative of hope, not fear.  Goodall challenges progressive professors to “teach propaganda theory and critical approaches to combating it in our classes.”   He urges his readers to be informed rather than utterly dismissive of extremist narratives so that we know how to dismantle them.  In many ways his book predicts the dangers of radical, extremist ideologies and introduces the reader to some of the extremist thinking that has framed a space for literal violence.  He offers strategies for a counter-narrative to hate and a move towards social justice.

I want to think that I live in a world where anything is possible—and that there is far more good than evil, far more love than hate.  I have to be hopeful because that is the narrative I want to live out, the future I would want my children to inherit. I am hopeful but I am also wide awake and with my eyes fully open I recognize that we have a long way to go.  But I refuse to be silenced by fear or held hostage by ignorance.

My students’ assumption was misguided.  Words are not “just words,” they are seeds.  We need to be deliberate about how and where we plant them.

Does This Make Me Look Fat?

6 Jan

I own the movie Phat Girlz and I’m not ashamed.

Starring a pre-Oscar Mo’Nique, Phat Girlz is part Cinderella-story, part conventional rom-com about a big girl searching for some love. It’s not remarkable in terms of budget, plot, or acting. In fact, a fair bit of it is cringe-worthy. (What immediately springs to mind is the fetishization of Nigerian men. Good Lord).

Still, despite its shortcomings, the  film works for me for some fundamental reasons.  I appreciate the fact the big girls are not sassy sidekicks, but they are stars of the show. And while it was billed as a romance, the theme of self-love was perhaps just as important as the romantic plot line. And positive portrayals of a thick sister having sex?! Yes, please!

But perhaps one of my favorite moments in the movie happens in the beginning. Heroine Jazmine Biltmore (played by Mo’Nique) is working in a department store when a customer asks her if the outfit she has just tried on “makes her look fat.” Peep the scene in the trailer.

The film makes this into a funny moment, but oftentimes this type of interaction is no chucklefest. If I had a dollar for all the similarly inappropriate and downright hurtful invocations of the word “fat,” I’d be a wealthy woman.  If I had a dollar for all the times thin folks with complexes (bred by the impossible social standards of the mythical norm, I know), wanted me to soothe their fears by letting them project their disdain for fatness onto my larger body…you get the picture.

A lot of this behavior is born out of self-loathing and the public shaming that comes along with being even remotely associated with being overweight.  I understand. I get it. At the same time, being large, fluffy, plus-sized, Rubenesque or whatever does not make one equipped to be the counselor for a family member, friend, coworker, or random stranger’s fat-bashing.

It’s Resolution season. Celebrities are endorsing weight loss products (have you seen Jennifer Hudson lately?), gyms are offering discounts, and “getting healthy” is a on a lot of people’s minds. Another season of the weight loss-makeover-cry-fest reality show, The Biggest Loser, began this week.  I remember the first time I heard of the show. I couldn’t believe my ears. “The Biggest Loser?!” I thought. Great. I teach English. I get the play on words. But a loser is a loser. Can’t nobody tell me that the title is simply about losing weight. <Side eye.>

More and more folks are becoming obese, especially poor folks of color who don’t have access to reasonably-priced fresh food. This is not a trivial matter. I think living a healthy life is an admirable goal. Losing weight might be an admirable goal for some folks too. Putting folks down or assuming the right to police another person’s health (e.g., through fat-shaming) should not be a part of this.

So, in light of all this, I’d like to make a crunk public service announcement:

Fat does not equal ugly.

Fat does not equal weak.

Being thin does not make one morally superior to those who are not.

Leave your judgment at the door.

Feel free to bring your love right on in.

Do Good Guys Always Finish Last?: Thoughts on Dating in the New Year

2 Jan

Happy New Year!

If you are over 30, highly accomplished and yet still single, perhaps you are breathing a sigh of relief at having survived another holiday season of prying questions, inappropriate remarks, and even, loneliness. This year, all of my aunties informed me at Christmas that they needed to know if I had a man, because they were diligently searching for one for me. Lol. Sigh. Where’s my drink?

Even as a New Year dawns and a brigade of single sisters marches forth declaring boldly that “this is gonna be the(ir) year,” I am easing in, like one dips a toe into potentially frigid water, hoping to find the dating scene warm and inviting, but fully prepared to bail if conditions are not favorable.

I really am an optimist, and I have never wanted to be a bitter black woman. But [you knew it was coming] after having my feelings hurt for the umpteenth time at the end of last year, I’m struggling to stay open.

I want to give brothers a fair shot, because I want them to do the same for us.  And I definitely believe there are some good brothers out there, just like there are loads of excellent sisters.

The problem, of late, however, is that good guys seem to be my problem.  Take my most recent prospect:

We met in graduate school, but lost touch after he moved away. When he found out I was in town for a conference, we met over dinner. At dinner he revealed that he had a huge crush on me in grad school, a fact to which I was totally oblivious. This interaction led to months of text-based flirtation (initiated by him), good phone conversation, and a very sexy rendevous the next time I was in town.  For several weeks after, he texted me every morning, followed by mutual texting throughout the day, long phone conversations on weekends—conversations in which he revealed deep hopes, dreams and goals. Conversations in which we talked about negotiating gender roles because he’s a self-avowed feminist.  I thought we were moving in a particular direction, not because of the sex, [we had agreed that the sex did not equal commitment] but because of all of the emotionally intimate interactions, which followed it.

Like a sucka, I began to feel something. And because we had a renegotiation clause in our verbal contract, I broached the subject, only to be quickly, if sweetly rebuffed. Dude did not want a long distance relationship, was emotionally incapable of it, he claimed.

What then was I to make of all his conversation about marriage and relationships, and personal likes, needs, wants?

When I explained that I felt misled, he was quick to whip out the terms of our verbal agreement. He cared about me, yes. But our deep emotional interaction should be understood only as friendship, not intimacy. When it came to anything more, he had stuck to our agreement. In fact, he had been explicit about the terms, because he didn’t want there to be confusion. He didn’t want to be in his words, “that n*gga.”

He’s a good brother. A good brother who suffers from what I call Good Brotha Syndrome. I have encountered two types of it.

Type A manifests in the dude who has degrees, a stable level of income, material means, and decent conversation. He knows that he is a commodity in this dating market, and based on the above assets alone, he feels that Black women should do his bidding. Since he holds a job, can take care of a household, and can be taken to professional outings without fear of embarrassing one’s colleagues, he does not believe that he should have to do much in the way of emotional work. He wonders why sisters aren’t falling all over themselves to be with him, although he might be totally emotionally effed up. He reasons that he’s a good brother and any woman that doesn’t want him has unreasonable standards or is herself emotionally effed up.  This dude looks good on paper, but his fatal flaw is that he tends to believe his own press release.

Type B manifests slightly differently.  This dude recognizes and doesn’t want to be a brother with problems. He acknowledges sexism, claims to like powerful women, and surrounds himself with a fair amount of them. He’s thoughtful, understanding, and can offer a certain level of emotional support. This is a brother that you can call and commiserate with, and he will listen, affirm you, and generally offer good reasonable advice.  He’s fairly self aware and gives the appearance of being introspective. Because he’s  committed to being “one of the good guys,” he often becomes decreasingly self-reflective, mistakenly believing himself to be incapable of the immature sh*t dudes often do. So when this dude engages in actions that are clearly problematic [treating you as a conquest, jumping ship in the middle of the ocean, blurring emotional boundaries and invoking y’alls “agreement” when he’s called on his b.s.] he refuses to acknowledge it. Why? Because he’s a good guy and good guys don’t do ish like that. So, in his mind, the problem must lie with you or your interpretation. This dude puts you in the mind of the classic white liberal do-gooder type who abhors racism, so much that they can’t see when they themselves are being racist.

My former “friend” is definitely a type B.

Reader, I know that I am not without responsibility or agency in this matter. I recognize that I agreed to nebulous terms and that I allowed the emotional engagement to continue long after it was productive for my needs. I have rectified that.  But the problem does not lie entirely with me.

I love myself. I know I am worthy of being treated well. I didn’t play games, but communicated my specific needs and desires to this brother explicitly.  I think there are good guys out there who I can reasonably expect will treat me well.  I, in turn, treat brothers well, am thoughtful, willing to grow, emotionally generous, respectful of boundaries, etc. And I have enough sense to walk away if I’m not getting what I need.

I have done and am doing the work.

And yet, I’m still a magnet for knuckleheads. So before I don my blind optimism and charge boldly into the New Year, I need some help figuring out what to do differently.

In the words of Iyanla Vanzant, “What’s the lesson when you think you have figured out the lesson, and you really haven’t?”

I’d love to hear your thoughts…

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