40 for 40 #4: Thongs

I have always thought that flip flops are ugly and uncomfortable. But there are times that they prove to be quite convenient, like during strolls along the beach and after pedicures. I once bought a pair of Minnie Mouse flip flops while staying at a Disney resort for a family literacy conference, and thus ends my adult thong allowance. This year, I indulged in a beautiful pair of gold orthopedic flip flops. They were very expensive, and I don’t often tend to splurge on things like that for myself, but I figured they would be useful on certain occasions. I now find myself wearing them at other times, when they aren’t even necessary, and thus I have joined the legions of modern women around the world who swear by the thong sandal. I even wore them on a semi-lengthy neighborhood walk and afterward my aging, arthritic feet did not ache one bit. The thrill of thong underwear shall have to wait for my 50th birthday.

Unloading a Weighty Taboo

This post originally appeared on Huffington Post on June 16, 2015.

I can wrap both of my legs behind my head. My triglyceride level recently registered at 62. My favorite food is kale. And in addition to all of these glorious qualities, I am overweight.

In American culture, weight is one of the most frequently used and faulty indicators for beauty, happiness, wellness, and success. It is a part of me that I can’t hide, nor would I want to do so; therefore, my mere presence provokes unsolicited reactions — both negative and positive — from friends and strangers alike. These reactions have varied from being called a “giant marshmallow” by a pre-tween visitor while walking my college campus as a body image-conscious student to a former boyfriend who had an almost neurotic fondness for my Rubenesque figure which, while a welcome antidote to the damage done by others who were less appreciative, similarly left me feeling judged and objectified.

Yet many other people view me, and my size, within the range of normal. A good friend, who I have known for nearly 10 years and with whom I often do yoga, was in total shock when I recently said something about being overweight. I have received several sincere compliments about various body parts, and the whole package, throughout my life. My own self-perception echoes the full range of what I have been told about myself, the insecurities, vanities, fears, and judgments of others which I have internalized in addition to their openness, love, and appreciation for aesthetic diversity.

This post was provoked by a recent conversation in which a self-proclaimed sensitive man asked if my stated weight was really accurate because I sure didn’t look it. Was this a backhanded compliment? A condemnation of other lovely women of impressive stature? Or a revelation of a particular form of ignorance that has occupied the collective conscience of western men and women alike, destroying our sense of common decency and furthering an all too common tendency to divide and conquer?

It is natural to respond to the world around us by evaluating what we see in comparison to prior and anticipated experiences; this phenomenon is part of the learning process. But when we make a judgment about another person or situation based on immediate observations, we have stopped learning; in fact, we are asserting that our gut reaction is all that could possibly be good and true. And when we take it a step further by placing a label on another person, derogatory or otherwise, then we have infringed upon that person’s humanity in a fundamentally harmful way.

There are many stereotypes about people who are overweight, reflecting the accumulation of these reactions over time. Being overweight is often viewed as a fault in character, a lack of self-control and discipline. Women who are overweight violate the quickly dying arrogant assumption of a social agreement that women ought to serve men in blissful subservient docility. Weight is a means of control and oppression, an expectation for all genders to conform to a sometimes unrealistic norm. It serves as the basis for a huge money making scheme that generates $20 billion in direct economic activity each year in the United States alone. It is also a political issue, as people may be denied opportunities because of this aspect of their appearance.

Last week, I went to see a brilliant community theater production of The Full Monty. This play, adapted from the popular 1997 movie, demonstrates the power that weight-related assumptions hold over people in our society. The build up to the strip scene at the end is provocative, not just because of the public nudity, but even more so because those who are going to remove their clothes do not perfectly represent social expectations for body size and shape. People who are overweight are expected to feel ashamed and to hide those supposedly undesirable features from public view. During several trips to the beach, I have heard comments about people who reveal themselves, along with their cellulite, ripe bellies, and gravity-affected breasts, by wearing a bathing suit. “She shouldn’t be wearing that.” These comments are almost always about women. Overweight people are expected to deny themselves of the pleasures taken for granted by others so that those others may enjoy their day without the inconvenience of viewing and sharing their space with people who do not reflect mainstream ideas about our bodies.

We have a lot of words to describe the body parts of people who are overweight, like muffin tops, thunder thighs, saddle bags, and love handles. We also have a lot of euphemisms to describe people who are overweight, such as chubby, pleasantly plump, and full-figured. A fellow student in my high school had a shirt that simply stated, “I’m not fat, I’m fluffy.” The language we typically use to describe weight, and all of its manifestations, is not very advanced. We rarely talk about strong, healthy women who passionately indulge their desires. We forget to think and talk about people in a holistic way that celebrates the totality of their human existence.

Rather than directly confront people who are prejudiced, I prefer to provoke deep, meaningful thought and then offer my love and support to others when and if they choose to confront their own demons. I anticipate getting a few “you’re so brave for talking about this” messages upon publication of this post. I sincerely appreciate the acknowledgment and support of others, I really do. But please save your accolades and continue the conversation instead. Nothing will change unless we destigmatize this topic by normalizing an open, honest, fair, and thoughtful discussion.

40 for 40 #3: Beautiful Bathroom

When I first moved into my 150 year old house almost eight years ago, I immediately began the process of cleaning up and updating the house. The initial cosmetic work to be done was endless, from painting the walls to ripping out carpet and urine soaked floorboards to removing asbestos tiles in the hallway. I did not anticipate the amount of work and money getting my house in order would require, particularly because I did not anticipate my kitchen ceiling falling in three times due to plumbing problems, a furnace that completely stopped working because it had a hole in it which the pre-purchase home inspector failed to find, and all of the other little bits and pieces that add up over time. I also did not anticipate that when I removed the ugly, peach-colored, seashell-themed wallpaper in my upstairs bathroom that the disintegrating plaster walls behind would come along with the wallpaper as I peeled it away. In addition, the tub accumulated mold due to a poor caulking job (that of the prior owner followed by my own) and the tile floor became more and more cracked as time passed. Not to mention the ugliest medicine cabinet ever, its look finished off by an unhealthy dose of rust. Finishing the bathroom was cast aside as I dealt with the more immediate needs in my home. But this year, despite earning much less than I have in all the years I have lived in this house, I decided that enough was enough. I could no longer live with a half torn apart, uglier than ever, possibly unhealthy breeding ground of a bathroom. And so, with some of my own work and the help of a contractor, I have transformed that bathroom into the loveliest room in my house. Everything has been redone — the floor, bathtub, lighting, and, of course, the medicine cabinet. It makes such a difference in my everyday life to wake up in the morning and take a shower in a beautiful space that has a bright and natural, rather than a depressing and decaying, feel.

Brilliant, Beautiful, and Bipolar

This post originally appeared at Huffington Post on 5/26/15.

I feel most comfortable in a classroom. Whether I am the instructor or sitting in a chair soaking up intellectually tantalizing ideas, I love to be surrounded by wisdom and to be immersed in the process of learning. I have received many compliments from teachers and other students about my academic contributions, and it is something that greatly contributes to my identity and sense of self-worth.

I have also been complimented about my appearance — from my natural endowments to my penchant for quirky, retro fashion with a modern twist. Due to both ingrained insecurity about my appearance and an almost neurotic vanity, I delight in these suggestions that I exhibit the type of physical beauty which would inspire such commentary.

Brilliant and beautiful are subjective terms. Both have been used to describe me on several occasions throughout my life, suggesting sufficient evidence for me to accept such claims. But I have also been called air-headed and ugly, among other unsavory things — and I have felt the full range of just about every characteristic in-between.

Perhaps to your surprise and to the dismay of many an objective psychologist, I also believe that bipolar is a subjective term. Bipolar disorder is a mental health diagnosis that, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, affects nearly 4 percent of the U.S. adult population at some time in their lives. But as a person who has experienced this specific type of mental illness, I strongly feel that each of us — the more than 5 million Americans (Treatment Advocacy Center) who will struggle with bipolar disorder this year — experiences this emotional disease in our own way that defies simplistic definition.

Bipolar disorder was not my first diagnosis. I have been labeled using at least three very different diagnoses in the past 25 years, and with each came a new host of medication and other treatment. Like the social constructs of brilliant and beautiful, bipolar was attributed to me, or not, differently based on others’ perceptions of me at a particular time in my life. Yet my unique brain chemistry and wiring has not diverged quite to this extent.

Perhaps those perceptions were based on other factors, like my appearance and cognitive ability. The convergence of those attributes, along with my personality and demeanor, may have served as a disguise that masked my true nature. In fact, people are often surprised to learn that I have a diagnosis — and I suspect this is because it hides behind what people immediately recognize and subsequently identify with me. It is also likely due to the fact that I have, intentionally or not, used my strengths to create a specific type of public perception as a survival mechanism to fit in and move forward in my career.

All of this makes getting the right kind of help very difficult. Mental illness still carries with it a huge stigma, and even though I am publishing this to a broad audience I do so with the fear that it might hinder my future professional prospects. Mental illness and professionalism are seen as discrete variables; this is just one manifestation of society’s silly insistence that mental illness is akin to a deficit in character or will — and the fear that it will no doubt lead to unethical or even criminal behavior if it hasn’t already. It is wonderful that bipolar disorder is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, but employers, colleagues, and others can easily find another excuse to exclude in order to protect themselves from the potential manifestations to which those fears allude. Even when we finally find the courage to stand up and say, “Here I am, this is me, I need help,” this only invites the judgment of others, who even with the best of intentions may say or do something that is more harmful than helpful. And when we have obvious strengths, when we are “making it,” when we don’t fit those social expectations for a person who is experiencing mental illness, it is difficult to convey how much we are truly suffering, and how much others’ compassion and understanding would mean to us.

It is no wonder that less than half of Americans who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder are receiving treatment (National Institute of Mental Health). There are other challenges, such as expense and accessibility, which are far too complex to fully address here. But a good first step to creating a culture of emotional wellness in our country would be to cast aside our preconceptions and open up to the depth and range of experience and needs that we all have.

40 for 40 #2: An Evening with Andre

OK, so it wasn’t the first time I had ever seen Andre Watts. Nor was it the first time I ever saw him at New Jersey Performing Arts Center. And it really doesn’t compare to that magical night in the conservatory at Longwood Gardens last spring. But my yearlong celebration of my 40th birthday would not be complete without a night with Andre. No one can play Rachmaninoff like he does, except of course for the maestro himself. Hearing Andre play is always an ethereal experience during which I feel suspended somewhere between reality and a magical world where I embody my idolized purple pegasus and soar around the world at least 20 times. I always need to constantly remind myself to be present, to be focused on the experience, when I hear him play because, no matter if he is playing Rachmaninoff or a less favoured composer, he takes me to another world.

Interconnected Self-Sufficiency

The concepts of interconnectedness and self-sufficiency may, at first, seem incompatible. Interconnectedness implies that all living things have a special, spiritual or natural relationship through which states of being, experiences, and consequences of action are intrinsically linked. In contrast, self-sufficiency … Continue reading