Sunday, April 22, 2012

Striving for thinness, and the toll it can take

Last week, I saw lots of uproar over news about brides-to-be taking on extreme measures to lose weight, the most recent of which includes putting a feeding tube through one’s nose for 10 days while refraining from eating anything through one’s mouth.

Ridiculous, right? Crazy, like, who would do that, besides the most vain, shallow people looking to throw money down the tube (no pun intended)?

To avoid blaming the victims, let’s look at the culture and at the industry. The wedding industry is set up under the assumption that brides will want to lose weight for their wedding—no matter what their present weight actually is. I had one friend who told me that a salesperson had actually encouraged her to purchase a dress that was too small because “obviously” she would be losing weight before her wedding day.

A few months after I got engaged, I was visiting an old friend of mine at her parents’ house. They were ordering pizza and her mom offered me a slice. When I turned it down she said immediately, “Oh! Of course! You have a dress you need to fit into.” Wait, what?

When I started looking for wedding dresses, I very quickly recognized the game of “does this dress make me look fat” and “does this one emphasize my small parts in all the right ways.” Personally, I was more interested in “does this dress make me look like myself” and “does this dress let me hug and dance and jump in all the right ways,” but such questions seemed secondary to those trying to sell me their products.

What does this industry-wide focus on bridal thinness teach young girls about love and romance?

The industry of bridal thinness is part of a culture conflating thinness with goodness and desirability. Young girls are taught to dream of the perfect marriage as the height of their personal accomplishments—and in a culture in which weight is a sign of a woman’s success or failure, weight becomes a key aspect of her success or failure at being a bride. Furthermore, as the wedding industry—and the brides themselves—play into the idea that a bride’s weight is of utter relevance on her wedding day, the sexualization of women becomes reinforced. By “sexualization” here I mean the reduction of a woman to the value of her body as a sexual object. Another meaning of sexualization includes reducing a body to specific body parts, and in many of the articles I see references to a stomach that is flat enough, thighs that aren’t too wide, and biceps that aren’t too flabby. It’s not just about the size of the body, but the “perfection” of the pieces. Women are taught to pick themselves apart. Aren’t there so many other ways in which women could eagerly prepare for marriage?

How do dieting and sexualization set up a bride to participate as an equal partner in a healthy relationship?

Um, that might be a trick question. Well, I will offer five brief thoughts on how it hurts her and holds her back from her partnership and her other close relationships:

1. Sexualization—Being sexy for someone else is different from being sexy with someone else. Does she need to feel thin enough in order to feel worthy of receiving and enjoying sexual pleasure? Studies have found a connection between self-objectification (which includes dieting behaviors) and lower sexual agency and sexual assertion. If her focus is being diverted towards being sexy for someone else, is that diverting or otherwise compromising her focus on her desires and what she deserves?

2. Inauthenticity—How does this pressure to diet and be thin affect her ability to advocate for her own needs and desires not just in her sexual relationship, but in all her relationships? Planning a wedding is a complex process of negotiating a lot of different people’s values and opinions. A bride being pressured to turn away from her natural appetites and instincts may also learn to turn away from her needs and instincts in other contexts, thus compromising her ability to be present and genuine in already tense relationships, including with her partner and with close friends and family.

3. Energy drain—Food provides energy. Calories=energy. A person needs calories to think, to get things done, to move around and make decisions and be assertive. Reduced calories means reduced energy means reduced action. Not to mention the spiritual drain that guilt and shame around weight and eating can take on a person.

4. Performance—I didn’t like to think about how many people would be looking at me throughout my wedding day. Seeing me; viewing me; thinking about how I appeared. I made an intentional decision that I didn’t want my wedding day to be about performing for others. Instead, I wanted it to be about my experience of my own life, joy, friends and family. And I think this choice needs to be made every day, and it starts at home before we leave the door. Do I consider myself and my body as something that performs for others and is viewed by others, or do I get to embody myself through my own experiences throughout the day?

5. Beauty as power—the princess/queen for a day fantasy. In the wedding industry it’s about looking like a princess. In Jewish tradition, brides are to be treated as queens for the day. So if the bride’s job is to be thin, what does this say about women entering positions of power? Is power only earned through the achievement of thinness? Are only thin women worthy of power? Or maybe it’s simpler. Maybe it’s thin=powerful. Except that directly contradicts #4, above, reduced calories=reduced energy. So what is it? Maybe women are pressured to be thin in order to divert their power from that of a true leader to that of a figurehead. A bride may be the face of the wedding, the body front-and-center in all the photo opportunities, but where is her true power? And for what can she use her power, on that day and in the future?

I would love to hear your thoughts on these questions and tensions.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Why am I still crying over my registry?

I thought I could be everything that other people needed me to be, but I can’t. There’s no way I can.

So why am I still crying over my wedding registry?
a) Because I didn’t originally want to make a registry at all
b) Because I worked so hard to make my registry look right to others that I didn’t make it right for me
c) Because I feel it’s my responsibility, even though it’s really our responsibility
d) Because I had assumed I could make the right decisions in the right moments, and then I didn’t
e) All of the above

In my series analyzing the role of capitalism, patriarchy, and materialism in the process of wedding planning, how could I overlook this one ever-so-obvious element: the wedding registry? Well, when I was blogging in the month leading up to our wedding, I actually wasn’t thinking about the registry at all. Sure, I was enjoying our beautiful gifts—some of which I certainly remembered choosing myself—but I wasn’t facing head-on my experience with the registry process. No, the registry process began far earlier, more than a year before the wedding itself.
And now that we’re approaching our first anniversary, I’m learning that the registry is also an element of wedding planning that lasts long after the event itself. (At some point I’ll also share my thoughts on the wedding photos…)

What is the registry really about? No, scratch that, what is a wedding present really about? Is it about the couple and their wants and needs? Is it about the friends and family and what they want to get for the couple? Is it about the wedding-industrial-complex playing off the insecurity of couple and guests alike, creating and exaggerating need and want on all sides?
And what about the narrative of “you may not think you need it now but you will love having it later”? In all fairness, I don’t know that this narrative is definitely false, but it seems suspect. It seems all about creating need where there is none. If I have something that I’m not using, I will return it, give it away, or create a need for it so that I can start using it. But that doesn’t mean I actually needed it—or wanted it—in the first place.

I hesitate to rant and rave too much because I am so grateful for the loving, generous support of the many people who helped me put together my registry. After all, they were truly trying to help. And I am so grateful for the loving, generous gifts I received from friends and family, both gifts from my registry and off-registry surprises. And while I am nitpicking a few specific decisions that I probably would do differently if I had another chance, I totally understand the practical nature of producing a registry during a year when you expect lots of people to want to buy things for you. However, the nature of the market is not simply practical. In my first round of registry-producing, I tried to really focus on things we needed (e.g., pots and pans, plates and bowls, cutlery) and things we wanted (e.g., games, electronics). But then people told me that it wasn’t enough. I simply didn’t have enough items on the registry, enough things for people to choose from, enough nice things. The registry wasn’t fancy enough, apparently, and people would want to buy us “nice” things whether we wanted them or not. Things we really needed, like an iron and ironing board, we still don’t have. And a lot of people went off registry—maybe that would have happened anyway, or maybe indeed they were not satisfied with the range of items on our registry. I don’t know. There seem to be many different forces at play in these dynamics, but too many of these forces feel like they are working against me/us and what we really want.

A note on gender dynamics. As I’ve written about, I am a female who married a male, and while in our partnership we commit ourselves to addressing structures of power both at home and in the world, we certainly got to experience some of the workings of the patriarchy first-hand through the process of wedding planning. When it came to the registry, he had the privilege of not having an opinion. Not wanting to decide. What made this even more complicated at the beginning is that he is the one that does all the cooking. So when I made the first pass at registering for pots and pans, it seriously made no sense. He did come to Crate and Barrel with me one day to use the zapper, and we sat down together to create our Amazon registry. But when it came to the border-line calls, the hardest elements, and the pressure from friends and family—those decisions felt like they fell on me, because he would look at me with “BORED” written all over his face, honestly not knowing even how to try to have an opinion, and let me make the decision on my own.

And you know what? I LET HIM. He was actually the one to point this out in a recent conversation: “Mimi,” he said, “Sometimes, you need to tell me that I need to have an opinion. Just shake me until I engage.” He recognized the ways in which male privilege gave him the space to back away, leaving me with the burden of decision and diplomacy. And he honored me with this invitation to call him out in such future occasions—to say no to his boredom, to tell him that I need him as a full partner. I needed to tell him to go figure out how to have an opinion, how to think with me. I wonder what was going on in my psyche when I didn’t do this last year: was I protecting him? Did I so dislike the task of registry management that I thought I might as well deal with it on my own, leaving him free of that one source of stress? Of the many things I learned from wedding planning, I think one of the lessons I learned is not to “put up with” stress that seems unfair. I had the right to ask for him to be a partner on my side; I had the right to say “no” to tasks I didn’t want and didn’t value; we have the right to try to do our life our way, even when it means we can’t be what other people think they need us to be.

I thought I could be everything that other people needed me to be, but I can’t. There’s no way I can. So now, I’m trying to be what I need me to be. And that’s hard enough as it is.