Arlene Green

Arlene Green
Clearlake, California, USA
January 08
Geek girl, mother of more children than human beings should be allowed, owner of a snake named Plissken, several dogs, a plethora of cats, easily annoyed, easily overjoyed, will work for books.


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JUNE 2, 2008 10:15AM

On Being Bird-Girl

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There has been some interesting conversation this week about fat being the last acceptable prejudice and one really fine rant from an Angry Fat Chick. Which started me thinking about the flipside to the fat as a moral failing mindset. Growing up in my family it wasn't being fat that got you grief; it was being thin. I grew up listening to my maternal relatives, a rather large Italian family, complain about media messages, fat-prejudice and misconceptions about what healthy really was. And they weren't wrong. All those things exist, and they are a constant in our society at this juncture and have been for quite some time. However, somewhere along the line, there was a disconnect about why those things are wrong. It isn't just about picking on fat people; it is about something much more general and insidious.

In a family full of well-padded women I was a mutant. I was scrawny even in infancy. I got my dad's genes, where some of the women are bird-people. None of the people in my mother's family failed to point this out to me growing up. I was too thin, I didn't look healthy, I needed to eat more. Some of the nastier dispositions amongst them wondered aloud if perhaps I was imbibing in illegal substances or had an eating disorder when I hit my teens. It was not at all pleasant, and it never stopped.

Now, I know that someone reading this is going to be thinking they were just jealous or somesuch nonsense. Or that I ought to be grateful that I was born with the metabolism of a gerbil and just shut up about it. That somehow all those things that were said to and about me were compliments because being told you are too thin is a good thing. To which, I have to say, no they weren't, no I shouldn't and no it isn't. It was painful and mean and didn't do much to foster a healthy body image in a young girl.

How would you feel if some relative earnestly sat you down and told you that your thinness was going to screw up your kid because they take after their side of the family and really you ought to stop dieting or whatever it was you were doing? As if as a parent I didn't have enough stuff to worry about?

What I could never understand was they had seen me eat.  Some of them had lived closely enough with me to know that I wasn't using the finger down the throat dietary method. Yet, still, they persisted in the constant harping on my weight, and never once considered that the thing that they did to me was the same exact thing that they righteously bitched about society doing to them. Nor did they get that just as much as theirs was a genetic predisposition, so was mine.

These days they don't go there. Not because they have seen the light but because I had cancer and after that and a couple times through chemotherapy they thought maybe it would be rude to comment on the state of my thinness or my health. That's my theory, anyway. My mother still natters at me about it, but my mother will be nattering at me about something from beyond the grave.

It really doesn't matter what society or culture you grow up in, there is always something. Some trait or preference that people have no problem pointing out to other people that they have. Something that they see as a problem, and oft times a failing, even when it is an accident of birth and/or genetics. And you are expected to listen attentively and suck up your hurt feeling because they are telling you for your own good. If you don't you are over-sensitive.

I don't know what is wrong with our species that we do this to each other, but we certainly do have a talent for it. Hopefully someday we'll evolve out of it. I doubt it though. Even if we evolve to the point that we no longer have physical bodies we will probably pick on some energy clouds because their pattern/color/molecular structure isn't what we'd like. And that is a crying shame because the world and the people in it would be much more pleasant without this kind of crap being universal.

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body image, culture

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I wasn't too thin or fat growing up. My relatives never commented on it. But...I had glasses starting in second grade. I can't tell you how much that sucked. I had friends and I wasn't completely miserable but I never thought I was cute or in any way attractive because of the constant comments from other people - "four-eyes", etc. I'm over it now (now I'm fat, hehe) and I know I have great hair, good skin, smarts and many other fine qualities. I would never want to repeat those childhood years though, unless I could have contacts or perfect eyesite.

There's always something - comments and criticism don't help anyone.

Of course, well nigh everyone gets teased as a child. Usually about something we can't help. Children, as much as I love them, can be evil little blighters.

There is a whole 'nother layer of sophistication that adults add to what amounts to the same behavior. Adults justify it by telling themselves and their victim that it is for their own good and they are merely being helpful.

I really wanted glasses when I was a kid. Now I have them and I can't stand them because they bug my nose. But I can't wear contacts so I'm stuck. All that 8 year old longing....little did I know.
A very dear friend has spent his whole life trying to overcome the trauma of being sent away as a child to some kind of mental health facility because he was... thin. His mother thought it pathological that he didn't eat enough and she sent him to some place where he had to drink fattening milk shakes all day and was punished for failing to do so.

Whether fat or thin or some other physical attribute, the damage we do to each other by harping on it, nagging on it, pressuring each other to change our ways, is considerable. So let's all just stop it now, dammit. (If only it were that simple.)

I taught a college course on Women and Health way many years ago. One of my students asked how one could escape the messages that we get about what we should look like. You don't, I told her. And it is true. So any time we are about to say something to someone else about their physical appearance, eating or exercise habits, etc., we should give it a wee bit of thought before we blurt it out.

My own weird body image story: I have a quite considerable gap between my top two front teeth. Had it since my permanent teeth came in. I was probably in my late 30s when my mom said, out of nowhere, "I don't know why we didn't ever get that gap in your teeth fixed." I was floored, flabbergasted--and really wounded. It has haunted me ever since, taken something I gave almost no thought to (and certainly never considered "broken") and tainted it somehow. I'll never be wholly comfortable about my gap again.
Research shows that when given the chance, most people make choices that bring another's standing down, vs. improving their own situation. In the study I read people could accept a raise for themselves or, unbeknownst to the other study participants, decrease their salary. Most chose to decrease their co-workers salaries. Scientists speculated that this was an age-old 'view others as a competitive threat for resources' reaction that is no longer relevant in our society of plenty, but our lizard brains haven't evolved out of it yet.

So maybe this explains why we identify an 'other' to denigrate and attack, whether based on gender or color or adiposal tissue.

Your relatives remind me of my grandma, in a way. Grandma was a product of the Great Depression and she was never happy unless you were eating. It didn't matter what you weighed - she had no interest in that. She wanted to be able to feed you and see you eat - it made her feel successful and safe. You'd eat and eat and eat, and she'd still get her feelings hurt and wring her hands if you turned down a third egg or a second hamburger.
Ohhhh. Mothers. At least mine and yours. Mine told me out of the blue when I was 16 or so that if I used make-up that was slightly darker on the sides of my nose it would make it look smaller. Which is by no means the worst thing she ever said to me along those lines but it was the one that stuck with me the longest. I was going to get a nose job right up to the point I broke my nose and discovered that I wasn't vain enough to go through rhinoplasty after the after effects of having an emergency fix-up job and all the discomfort that caused.

We are still such lizard brained little monkeys, aren't we? Sometimes I'm amazed that we can come together enough to do anything for the greater good.

I think with my relatives there is some element of Depression Era sensibility. My grandmother and her 15 brothers and sisters grew up in that era and with that many kids and that kind of destitution food becomes a thing. Poverty, or even fear of poverty, does weird things to people. My grandmother, for example, had more shoes than 20 people could wear in a year. One of her sisters told me that it was because she was one of the younger girls and thus never got new shoes. Footwear was her version of a security blanket to keep the boogey-man of her childhood at bay.

A couple of my grown foster kids have similar issues. I don't think most people's lives are truly insecurity free, but a certain level of hardship and instability, when it is pronounced enough, tends to exacerbate that.
Ever since I read that Schaudenfreude-ish research study I have made a really big effort to congratulate, in person or at least just in my head, anyone who is succeeding at something I really want for myself. I just never, ever want to be guilty of tearing other people down to build myself up -if we all did that al the time we'd all be standing in holes 10 ft deep (only yours would be 12 ft deep of course). This little exercise has forced me to confront the 'why' of my little insecurities like never before, and it's been weirdly freeing.
That's not easy to do, is it? It sounds simple enough. But it just isn't.

A friend of mine recently had a book she'd written published which is something I've always wanted since childhood. And even though I know that the main reason I haven't is that I am lazy and a procrastinator extraordinaire, the thought that ran through my mind when she told me? She can't even frickin' spell. I know this because I've proofread her prose.

Even being happy for her and knowing that some people just are not born with the spelling gene...I was still all full of snark inside. When even our good friends can trigger that kind of response it isn't any wonder that study proved to show what it did.

I may have to take a page from your book and try to be consciously more gracious about such things. Practice tends to make that kind of thing easier.
I agree. I've been working on that since my twenties. I'm mostly successful but still need some work, of course. I aspire to be perfect but accept that it won't ever happen. :-)
Arlene, I was shocked in college when I met a girl that was envious of my glasses. She couldn't believe I preferred my contacts. I was just floored since I hated my glasses. Of course, I can't wear the contacts anymore but now I'm okay with it. The glasses with the nose-pieces are so much better.
I wanted glasses so bad. You don't even know. My friend's mother, whom as was as in love with as a gradeschool kid could be, had glasses and she was the epitome of sophistication and style to me.