Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Tipping the Scales

             Recently, I’ve noticed a trend involving women and body image. It’s destructive, but the opposite of what you might expect. I have heard a lot of people describe skinny women as “disgusting” and assume that anyone who is underweight must be anorexic or bulimic. In my opinion, this is just as harmful as ridiculing women for being overweight.
            Beauty is not narrow (either literally or figuratively). There are different types of it, and it comes in a variety of sizes. Unfortunately, many people who espouse this view do not apply it to women of a slighter build. It’s true that larger women bear the brunt of body criticism, and that slimmer people are generally better received in society. This is absolutely shallow and unfair. At the same time, it doesn’t justify the judgment and degradation of smaller women.
            When I was in middle school, I was underweight. I weighed ninety pounds for the majority of eighth grade and looked completely pre-pubescent until I was about fourteen. I didn’t have an eating disorder, although many of my classmates assumed that I did. I was very self-conscious while changing in the locker room. People called me flat-chested and bulimic. Upon viewing my stomach, one girl asked if I had intestinal worms. As you can imagine, this was painful and humiliating. Locker rooms are mortifying for plenty of heavier girls, and they are often harassed by peers as well. I am not trying to trivialize their experiences. I’m just pointing out that skinny girls also struggle with body image, and bullying is never excusable.
            We’re all acquainted with the expression, “Real women have curves.” This is true, but all women are “real,” and plenty of slim women have curves. By that logic, you might as well claim that a man is not “real” unless he has a beard. I’ve frequently heard thin women referred to as “gross,” “anorexic,” or “twelve-year-old boys.” These descriptions are demeaning and cruel. Such epithets also drip with sexism. Women are predominantly judged on appearance and weight, whereas men are more assessed by their character. This phenomenon is not solely driven by the male gender. Women subject each other to this treatment as well.
            People often jump to conclusions about a woman’s character based on her weight. Bigger women are judged to be lazy and to lack self-discipline while skinny ones are viewed as neurotic or vain. We need to understand that a person’s weight can lie outside of his or her own control, and is not always a reflection of one’s behavior. It can be based on genetic factors, metabolism, or other health issues. Somebody can exercise regularly and eat sensibly but continue to be heavyset. Likewise, an underweight person does not necessarily have an eating disorder or any other disease. If someone does suffer from anorexia or bulimia, they should never be ridiculed for it. Everybody needs to be educated on the health risks of weighing too much or too little. False assumptions need to be set aside, and sensitivity must be practiced.
          Compassion and understanding are the answers. All people should be treated with consideration, regardless of physical appearance.

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Side note: You can't force anyone to change their perception of what's attractive, and I'm not advocating that. It is reasonable, however, to urge people to avoid judging a person's character by their weight and to stop making insulting comments to people about their size, whatever that size may be. Also, I didn't touch on male body image because I cannot speak about it from experience. I write what I know. It's true that underweight and overweight males are often ridiculed, and that is also unfair. Nevertheless, I think that the societal practice of body-policing has a greater impact on women.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Occupy Movement: Disentangling Fact from Fiction

             When Occupy Wall Street first broke out in the news, I was skeptical. An online article had described the protesters as a gathering of college-age coeds who publicly smoked weed. It also reported that various woman showed up topless and held signs saying, “I can’t afford a shirt.” Initially, I thought it sounded like a group of bored, immature kids trying to gain personal attention via shock value. Like many others, I assumed it would all blow over as soon as the media spotted another shiny distraction.
            This changed when several New York police officers assailed nonviolent protesters with pepper spray. A hundred cops joined the protesters’ ranks to show their objection to the incident. I believe this was when the movement really gained momentum. Otherwise apolitical Americans were shocked to see police officers use unprovoked force. We looked on in horror as a thirteen-year-old girl was arrested for demonstrating peacefully, and Wall Street executives sipped champagne while watching the events from above.
            By this point, the Occupy movement had spread to New Haven. Mike and I decided to check it out, and then attended regularly for about three weeks. We haven’t been there recently because we began to doubt its effectiveness, but we continue to support it. I learned they’ve been a lot more proactive, and plan to return soon.
            Throughout my involvement with Occupy, I’ve seen quite a bit of misinformation circulated by those in opposition to it. I think it’s generated a lot of controversy due to false rumors and misunderstandings, so I’d like to set the record straight. I can by no means claim to speak for the entire group, but I’ll share my impressions on these topics.
            So far, these are the most common complaints about the protests: “It’s disorganized and they don’t know what they want.” “It’s a radical liberal and/or socialist movement.” “It’s comprised of lazy, unemployed people who want handouts.” “The protesters are anti-American.” For the following reasons, none of these claims are accurate.
            For the most part, the Occupy events are actually quite well-organized. We plan meetings by posting them on Occupy New Haven’s Facebook wall. We contact one another by phone and email. The group is segmented into a handful of subcommittees, but they are cohesive and in frequent communication. They include Media (people who have media connections or are especially adept at speaking to the media), Direct Action (those who plan events), Outreach (members who educate others about our movement and try to recruit more people), Food (people who cook for the gathering and offer free food for anyone), Comfort (those who provide clothing, toiletries, and other necessities to the people who camp on the New Haven green), and Medical (members who offer medical attention to anyone in need). I’m probably forgetting some committees, but these are the ones which come immediately to mind. We have regular marches and general assembly meetings. We vote on our decisions and base them on consensus. There is no official leader, but it’s preferable this way. As one man said, “If one person was the face of the movement, it would be too easy for his head to be cut off. With this many heads, it’s unstoppable.”
            The belief that we have no idea what we want could not be more fallacious. We are a diverse crowd with equally diverse concerns, but there are a number of issues we can agree are central to our movement. The stock market, healthcare, house foreclosures, banks, and unemployment are at the forefront.
            Supporters of the Occupation are critical of the New York stock exchange because of its negative impact on the economy. When a company is publicly traded, the corporation makes cuts that are detrimental to the working class. Employees’ wages are lowered, and it’s not unusual for them to lay off a thousand workers so the stock will rise by a single point.
            Protesters at Occupy also frequently address health care reform, because health insurance has become unaffordable for so many Americans. Over half the people who file for bankruptcy have gone bankrupt because they couldn’t afford their medical bills. Most of them worked before they were ill, had to stop working on account of their maladies, and then lost their health insurance along with their jobs. Citizens live an average of ten years longer in countries where health care is less expensive or altogether free. In America, the CEO of a pharmaceutical company can literally own twenty Porsches while others are denied basic coverage or are underinsured.
            For-profit banks are another subject of concern among Occupy members, and some of us have transferred our money to federal credit unions instead. We’re disgusted with the fact that banks received government bailouts but still refuse to give out loans. We’re appalled that Bank of America had planned to impose a five dollar fee on debit cardholders, and that it foreclosed a man’s home after it was destroyed by Hurricane Irene. (Bank of America canceled their plans on the cardholder fee, but only after a major outcry from the politicians as well as the public.)
            In short, Occupy is fed up with our economic meltdown. We want less foreclosures and more available jobs. A number of us want manufacturing work to be outsourced less, since this has deeply dented our economy as well.
            In addition to the claim that we’re disorganized and ideologically fractured, I would like to answer the rumor that we’re mainly comprised of socialists. As I’ve mentioned, we are a diverse crowd. We welcome people of every race, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. I’ve heard Occupiers express the desire to include Republicans and facilitate dialogue with the Tea Party. Some are antagonistic toward conservatives, but certainly not all of us are.
           Specific issues within our cause do relate to socialism, such as the endorsement of free healthcare and education. However, not everyone in the movement advocates for those things. Some simply wish that those services were more affordable. We don’t hate the rich, but we despise the tremendous divide between the wealthy and poor. We believe that homeless people shouldn’t have to die of exposure, and that a basic standard of living needs to be available to everyone. Many critics are conditioned to believe that the middle class would have to pay for this to be remedied, but this is not true. The funds would only be skimmed off the income of the wealthiest one percent. The one percent does not consist of people who earn at least $100,000 a year. It’s composed of the tiny fragment that earns millions of dollars annually. Currently, millionaires pay significantly lower taxes in proportion to their income. A slight tax hike for the richest Americans would not rob them of their affluence. It would simply require them to contribute according to their ability. Some say that “the world doesn’t owe you anything,” but that seems to be another way to say “I  don’t owe you anything.” If those who are in a position to offer assistance do nothing to help, we will devolve into either anarchy or totalitarianism.
           This brings me to another common complaint about Occupy: that we refuse to work and are demanding handouts. I’ve heard a great deal of anti-Occupy statements along the lines of, “Stop sitting on your lazy asses and get jobs.” First of all, there is no one in this movement who I would describe as lazy. It takes a whole lot of time and effort to organize these events. Secondly, the idea that we should all just “get jobs” rests on several false assumptions. It presumes that everyone involved in the Occupy movement is unemployed, which is not so. It also jumps to the conclusion that anyone who’s unemployed has not tried to find work, and that everyone is equally capable of finding and keeping a job. This is a clear example of victim-blaming. Granted, there are some attitudes that can contribute to one’s own poverty. Some people really are lazy. Some expect instant gratification. Others spend impulsively, take no responsibility for their choices, or give up as soon as anything becomes difficult. However, there are plenty of impoverished people who don’t have those attitudes, and one’s poverty is not inevitably due to their behavior. Conversely, plenty of wealthy people display irresponsible and entitled attitudes because they can afford to. Not all rich people have earned their wealth by grit and good work ethic, and no one has become affluent without help. Those who started lucrative businesses have received loans and relied on construction workers, security, and countless other people to ensure their success.
            In the US, “self-made” billionaires are idolized, and wealth and fame are the ultimate goals to pursue. We’re fed rags-to-riches stories from the time we’re old enough to read. This may feel inspirational at first, but there’s an insidious undertone: these tales dangle a next-to-impossible ideal before our eyes and make us feel inadequate. They teach that our economy doesn’t need to change; that it can benefit us if we ally ourselves with corporate culture. These stories also encourage us to blame others for being poor, because they infer that anyone can amass a colossal fortune with the aid of a positive outlook and a little elbow grease.
            Not only are very few fortunes entirely earned, but not everyone is capable of earning an income. Those who are unable to work wish more than anything to be employable. They don’t relish the idea of taking “handouts.” It’s very difficult to get disability, and people often must apply multiple times before their claim is accepted. They may wait for years beforehand, and are treated as if they choose not to work. This is incredibly demoralizing. Disability money may only amount to $600 a month, and the recipient is required to account for every cent. Rent alone usually costs more than $600 per month. Those who are not disabled but earn minimum wage often cannot manage without government assistance. Most people who collect food stamps have to juggle minimum wage jobs to cover their most basic expenses. This especially applies if they have children. People don't collect welfare out of idleness, and they're not living in luxury off of government funds. They can't afford luxury. In the vast majority of cases, they work harder and endure far more stress than middle-class Americans.
            For the aforementioned reasons, many within the Occupy movement propose an increased minimum wage. This would decrease the need for welfare assistance. With additional free healthcare, medical bills would plummet. If regular checkups were more accessible, no one would be forced to wait for a dire illness before seeking medical treatment.
           These are the issues we stand for. Some may call us anti-American, but the Constitution promises us the right to assembly. By engaging in this sacred right, we’re furthering our democracy. For a great many of us, these protests are born of a love for our country. We care enough about our fellow citizens to pursue this vision. We want to polish this nation until it gleams like the beacon that we know it can become.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


A poem I wrote last week.

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If only I could freeze my reflection
And step into a mirror,
Watching passively behind protective glass
As traffic whirs by
And the sun hitchhikes on the wind,
While my world stands placid and still.

At night I slip behind the computer screen
Into a glowing dimension of vicarious adventures,
Numb mindless clicking and waiting.
I want to stitch my own words
Onto the technological patchwork
But they boil beneath my surface,
Encased by a thick sheet of ice.

I even keep friends enclosed
In glossy mental snapshots
Afraid to dial their numbers
Lest I disturb the frames.

Instead, I nestle into my old chrysalis.
Last time, I'd hoped to emerge with vibrant wings,
Fluttering from one endeavor to another,
Sampling the nectars of success.
Instead, I became a pale moth
Who haplessly chases flickering lights
And dreams of touching the moon.

I wrap myself tightly in this cocoon,
In stasis until the sun
Peeks through my layers
Once again.

Sunday, November 6, 2011


I wrote this on the day before Halloween.

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As October draws to a close, we pass numerous houses decorated with plastic zombies, grinning skeletons, and models of mummies swathed in threadbare gauze. While visions of the rising dead capture our imaginations, some peoples’ fears are resurrected as well. These anxieties, prevalent in the more conservative religious circles, are never quite laid to rest. They may be buried for a while, but awaken when Halloween merchandize appears in stores and neighbors adorn their lawns with tombstones. Many pious parents forbid their children to celebrate this holiday, lest it lure them into the occult. When asked why Halloween incites such unease, most will list the following factors: its Pagan history, its association with witchcraft, the provocative costumes, and its “glorification” of gore and violence. I would like to explore these issues and explain why I believe Halloween can actually be psychologically and spiritually healthy.
            We might as well start with its history. Quite a lot of misinformation is circulated about the roots of Halloween. Centuries ago, it was known as Samhain. This was an occasion in which Pagans donned masks in an effort to ward off malicious spirits whom they feared would damage their crops. Additionally, the participants read each others’ fortunes. Some believed that the souls of their ancestors would come to visit on this day, so they held a feast in their honor. Details of Samhain have been expanded upon to include tales of human sacrifice and cannibalism. Those rumors are often spread by well-meaning but misinformed religious fundamentalists. Ironically, such stories mimic the B-level horror films often condemned by the same people. There is also a common myth that Halloween is a celebration of “the devil’s birthday.” However, to view Satan as a literal figure is to believe he is neither animal nor human, which would entail that he was never physically born.
            Most adherents of organized religion disapprove of Halloween’s Pagan origins. It no longer entails Paganism, though.  Christmas borrows such Pagan traditions as the use of pine wreaths and fir trees. Regardless, it is no longer associated with Saturnalia or ancient Roman polytheism. In the same way, Halloween need not be tied into Pagan practices. Some may wish to incorporate them, but it’s not an imperative.
            Halloween is frequently criticized for exalting “witchcraft,” but the same point applies here. No one has to dress up as a witch. Besides, the witches displayed on cardboard cutouts are clearly imaginary. No one has warty green skin, the ability to transform foes into frogs, and a flying broomstick—although that would be far more eco-friendly than an SUV. I feel the same way about people who want to ban Harry Potter books. No kid is going to read them and then become a curse-casting agent of the underworld. At most, they’ll attempt to turn their younger sister into a gerbil, realize the futility of their efforts, and get bored. Children know those books are fictional, but some parents seem to have missed the memo (or in this case, the owl post).
            Sexually suggestive costumes are another common complaint about Halloween. Again, no one is obligated to wear a revealing costume, and there are plenty who would dress in a similar style on any day of the year. Conversely, some object to people wearing costumes that are less metaphorically revealing. They liken a costume to a disguise, as if the act of dressing up is deceitful. However, is it any less “genuine” than complying with a formal dress code when you’d rather wear casual clothing? Costumes are a way for some to express their inner nature, rather than conceal it. For others it’s simply a creative, playful, and temporary escape from the mundane.
            The fact that costumes can be used to display a hidden side of the self is worrisome to some people. Those who feel threatened by Halloween fear that the morbid costumes convey our darker inclinations. The same assumption is applied to horror movies, heavy metal music, and gothic subculture. From what I observe, though, macabre entertainment is a means of confronting the darkness.
            From what I see, Halloween doesn’t “glamorize” evil. It mocks evil, along with our shallow perceptions of it. The holiday holds a funhouse mirror up to the faces of death, violence, and all other malevolent forces. It treats them with irreverence and exposes their farce, like a cartoonist who caricaturizes a politician. When we can laugh at what we fear, it loosens its grip on us. When we exploit a personified evil and throw pies in its sallow face, it loses the power of oppression. By poking fun, we drag it out from our shadowy nightmares and distinguish between what is truly nefarious and what is merely kitsch. This aids us in a multitude of ways.
Halloween depicts threatening agents for what they are, weeding out the imaginary from the real. It belittles the banes of our existence, lessening their influence over our psyches. For this, we owe gratitude. Halloween is only one day, but it makes a significant difference.
           It helps us to conquer our fears.