I was writing quietly at my desk when suddenly I heard my 15-year-old daughter cry out. When I went to her, it was as if she had morphed into a 7-year-old. She looked demolished as she reached out for me.
"Mommy!" She cried out.
"What is it?" I asked anxiously.
"I'm fat! I can't fit into my jeans!" she said.
In the United States, we consider it the greatest sin, the greatest defeat, the greatest failure of a girl to be fat. Though we claim to value women for their smarts, their power, and their presence, everywhere you turn, evidence to the contrary is on display.
I sat down on the edge of my daughter's bed and placed my hand on her back. I could feel my heart beating and my hands shaking. An image of myself at her age popped into my head: At 15, getting on the scale was a terrifying experience, charged with meaning. I vividly remembered feeling desperate if the number on the scale had not budged—or worse, had gone up. After a disappointing weigh-in, feelings of self-hatred would consume me, and I'd often spend the day judging my entire young life by that number—and bingeing to soothe the pain.
As I wrote in my book Wide Open, my issues around food and body image originated from significant trauma during my childhood. Although my daughter had not been exposed to trauma, I still worried for her. It took me a good 10 years to unravel my impulses to use food and obsessive attempts to achieve the perfect body—I did not want my daughter to go through that same hell.
I managed to collect myself and put my thoughts in the present. I looked at my daughter, who was staring back at me with confused eyes—she hadn't seemed this vulnerable in years. I told her what I wished someone had told me many years ago:
"Sweetie, you are gorgeous, and you are perfect. Everyone needs to learn how to take good care of themselves and their body. I will help you through this."
Most teenage girls around age 14 or 15 have a hormone surge that prepares their bodies to be able to get pregnant. This can also portend a metabolism that makes it easier to put on fat—nature's way of ensuring a good baby-making environment.
I explained to my daughter that we'd need to work together to learn about nutrition and healthy choices in terms of food and exercise. The challenging part would be to resist the toxic message of our culture, which measures the success of women on how well we fit the mercurial and often insane cultural standards of beauty.
At 15, I started dieting. This turned into a cycle of starving myself, then bingeing, followed by compulsive exercising for hours. This negative pattern stopped only when I began to separate myself from the cultural obsession with controlling female bodies.
Reclaiming my body on my own terms was a wily journey filled with twists and turns. One of the tools I found was weight training. Although bodybuilding culture is also somewhat obsessive, it did have something I needed—it encouraged eating healthy foods and getting very strong. This dual focus slowly got me out of the negative pattern of bingeing.
I also worked diligently with a therapist over several years to decipher what caused a binge. To my surprise, triggers could range from having something wonderful happen to being bored. A binge could also be triggered by a self-hating thought like, "I am such a fat loser!"—something I would never say to a friend but was routinely saying to myself. Noticing and interrupting critical thoughts, a regular weight-training program that grounded me, and other positive habits like meditation or calling a good friend when I was down slowly replaced food.
A huge revelation for me in my 20s was realizing that I was replicating the way my parents treated me as a kid: neglecting myself, yelling at myself, and shoving my needs away. I needed to re-parent myself better. Accepting that I had to do the parenting for myself—which included setting up a positive community, learning to cook, and figuring out how to soothe myself when I was overwhelmed and afraid—was often challenging.
In this age, when even a presidential candidate can boast about predatory behavior that involves objectifying and groping women, women and girls are still at risk of ingesting the prevalent and demeaning beliefs about who we are. In Susan Faludi’s famous book Backlash, she talks about the insidious ways that women are tripped up to make them feel that they are inherently wrong.
Struggling with my own eating disorder, I felt that all my intelligence and life force energies were being used to simply stay afloat. That's a brilliant strategy to keep someone from getting ahead: Convince them that they are inherently wrong, then put the onus on them to fix themselves. But deciding to stuff ourselves with junk food as an act of rebellion does not solve the problem either. Neglecting our health does not make us strong—in body or spirit.
According to the National Eating Disorder Association:
2. Don't go on fad diets or encourage your daughter to go on fad diets.
3. Do learn about nutrition.Michael Pollan's book is a good source. Also look at scientific journals, not literature from the diet or even the food industries. The billion-dollar diet industry is out to make money, not help people have a healthy body image. Healthy nutrition can be very simple.
4. Do separate exercise from diets and food plans. Encourage exercise every day for the pure joy of it—not to burn calories or to be skinny.
5. Do help your child find ways to move her body that feel good.Endorphins are a biochemical gift from nature. Exercise can aid in alleviating stress, anxiety, and depression. It's a natural high. A vigorous hike, yoga, or Pilates are exercise options that can promote body awareness, relaxation, and self-care.
6. Do love your own body with all its imperfections.Be aware that your daughter is watching what you do—it can be easy to criticize your body. It's something women are trained to do—but striving for self-acceptance is a daily goal.
7. Do educate your daughter on how magazines, Instagram, and other media present images that don’t represent reality.Real women have stretch marks, birthmarks, and cellulite.
8. Do encourage your daughter not to be ashamed to talk to you or to a doctor if they feel like they are obsessing about food or their body image. It is important to teach our daughters that self-hatred and self-criticism are signals to ask for help. Not just the status quo.
For more info, email Gracie X at www.GracieX.com.
""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson