There’s an insidious epidemic in our midst. It’s in boardrooms, coffee shops, parks, classrooms, fitness classes, spas, and living rooms on every continent. It’s the cause of depression, low self-esteem, and feelings of isolation at record levels—and women are especially susceptible.
I've seen it happen before, but it hit me with renewed force at a recent charity event. I was in a room full of established, insightful, smart, beautiful women, so the common theme was especially surprising.
At every table, the conversations were not focused on accomplishments, celebrations, and ideas, but on self-deprecation, insecurity, frustration, and shame. Reaching for another cucumber sandwich, one woman said, “There are so many carbs here, I'll have to eat only protein for the rest of the weekend to balance this out.”
The problem isn’t the food. The problem is that we’ve been taught that how we look is more important than who we are.
Another woman was eyeballing the cookies and said, “I shouldn’t have another one. I will have to work out even longer just to burn it off.” In my ear, a friend was telling me how much weight she'd lost on her new diet.
I sat there wondering how we let it get like this. At what point in history did women start to shame themselves for eating, enjoying food, for just plain living? Food shame is at an all-time high, and it has the destructive effect of making us feel inadequate.
I've spent the last few years pursuing self-love and trying to accept myself for who I am. The more I seem to love myself, the less I feel I need to change.
I don’t want to participate in conversations like this anymore. Why are we shaming ourselves for being human? Why do we make ourselves feel bad for eating what we really want? Food is energy. It is nourishment. So why are we labeling our food with negative emotions?
The problem isn’t the food. The problem is that we’ve been taught that how we look is more important than who we are or even what we do.
Women especially seem to have an obsession, a preoccupation, with talking about food, diets, and rules around what we can, should, and shouldn't have. The natural vernacular is “I need to change myself in order to be OK.”
American women have reached the point that we feel like we aren't making progress unless we're actively trying to lose weight. We lose our sense of purpose if we aren't trying to change ourselves physically. We judge our worth by how we look. But self-love is about not wasting time on negative thoughts. Self-love is about knowing that you are good enough exactly as you are.
Many of us feel broken, so we we try to fix an internal problem with an external solution. That's impossible. We can only fix the problem of disliking ourselves by working on the problem itself—not the symptoms. The solution is internal.
In my private life-coaching practice, I work with many women who have issues with their body and food. I always ask, “What was your mother’s relationship to food and her body?” and without fail, my clients tell me they grew up with an unhealthy model for relating to food and to their bodies.
They all had mothers who were always on diets or saying, “I can’t eat that. That will make me fat. This will go straight to my thighs.” Their mothers might've complained that daddy can eat whatever he wants while mommy has to skip the dessert. These mothers accidentally passed down to their daughters the belief that they are only as valuable as they are pretty.
Your worth is not dependent on the number you see on the scale.
Of course our mothers would also tell us we are beautiful and that we can do or be anything, but their actions contradicted these statements. Parents not being happy with their bodies sends a message to children that they need to always be on a diet in order to feel good about themselves.
Women today are less happy than women in the 1970s (who had fewer opportunities and less freedom), and an estimated 95 percent of women are unhappy with a part of their lives.
Women are teaching women that we are not OK until we change ourselves physically.
Without realizing it, fathers contribute to the issues as well. When I was 12, my father called me "Thunder Thighs." I grew up thinking I was flawed because I had big legs. I have a coaching client whose father made similar comments about her body when she gained weight during puberty. Today, she is afraid to date because she is terrified to imagine what men might say about her body.
Fathers, please stop making comments about your daughters' bodies. Just love them as they are.
Mothers, please stop talking about what you can and can’t eat. Food is nourishment and love.
We are teaching our children that their worth is only dependent on their looks. Our mothers and fathers learned this behavior from their mothers and fathers, but we can break the chain.
We’ve been conditioned to focus on what is wrong with our bodies and ourselves. We think we are flawed because we look different. We try to fit into an impossible mold. Stop trying. Be who you really are.
Stop putting down your partner when they gain a few pounds.
Stop judging yourself if you gain a little weight. You are human, and your worth is not dependent on the number you see on the scale.
Women who confide in other women, please stop feeling bad for eating food. Please stop judging yourself for the way you look.
And to you, dear reader, please stop mentally picking yourself apart. Look in the mirror and celebrate your uniqueness. You are beautiful and enough, just as you are.
""""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