Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Whatever Happened to Regina Benjamin?

Remember Regina Benjamin?

In 2009, a black woman was nominated as Surgeon General.  She was a highly qualified candidate for the post.  She ran a clinic in a poor town in Alabama and campaigned for health access for the poor.  She's been awarded the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights (1998) and was the first person under 40 to be appointed to the board of the AMA (as well as the first black woman!). She's an activist, an environmentalist, and a humanitarian by all accounts. She's a supporter of reproductive rights for women (despite being Catholic) and has reportedly worked to encourage medical schools to include abortion training that helps new doctors understand all the ramifications of the surgery.

She's also the Surgeon General of the United States.  Why don't we ever hear about it? 

When she was first nominated, there was a public freak-storm about the fact that she was a short, heavy black woman.  Even though she was a powerful force for public health equality for the poor, a highly qualified medical candidate, and an extremely active woman who did backpack treks in Costa Rica, women in our country are held to such a strict appearance standard that her nomination was delayed, then quietly slipped through, and we haven't really heard from the office since. 

So now we have a quiet surgeon general.  Is this because the administration wanted to avoid the weight debate?  Did she?  Is the cliche'd "Obesity Crisis" section on the SG website a result of the administration's decision or her own?  Why do we continue to have Newsweek coverage of women like Palin, while a real role-model for women has disappeared into the media abyss? 

Regina Benjamin was taught, by a storm of public opinion, that women in power need to either meet the aesthetic trend of the day, or STFU. No one questioned George W. Bush's BMI when he was campaigning, or whether having an overweight president would set a "bad example." Regina Benjamin, however, is a short black woman, and that makes all the difference when people are looking for an excuse.

We have a woman in a position to be a spokesperson to the U.S. on matters of health.  A woman who was quoted as saying, "You can be healthy and fit at different sizes. The real message is that you don't want to limit yourself by your dress size."

This is a message in need of a spotlight. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Midnight Train to Georgia...

It's official!  JD and I are moving to Atlanta in July of this year.  It'll be really exciting to be in a whole new place, and very stressful that it's all happening last minute and I learned about it in the middle of finals week.  I can't wait to see the billboard project first hand. 

Any FA (or other) advice or resources for Atlanta?  We hopefully want to settle where we can easily get to the Georgia Tech campus, but I hear the public transit is pretty good. 

Friday, April 13, 2012

Why I'm Not Renewing my NPR Membership

Dear NPR:

I am a long-time listener.  Last year I became a member for the first time.  This year I will not be renewing my membership.

This was a difficult decision for me because I love 90% of NPR programming.  It is thoughtful, insightful and entertaining, and I don't listen to any other radio station.

But in the last year, I have seen an alarming downhill trend in the quality of fact-checking in your stories regarding obesity, and a distinct slant against fat people in your health reporting.

Recently there has been a lot of media attention on obesity because it is a currently popular trend.  Many studies are pouring out of universities with poor methodology and low statistical significance, but if they attach the magic word "obesity" to the study they are not only funded, but seized upon as confirmation by the media. 

The most recent example, and the one that cemented the decision for me to cancel my membership, was the report linking autism and obesity.  The "health reporter" who took this up clearly knows nothing about science.  He did not consider the extremely shaky methodology (i.e. conflating three distinct bodily and metabolic states with no separate controls that would rule out specific factors, relatively small sample size, dubious self-report methods that relied entirely on the mother's memory of their health from the years before their child's birth, and failure to establish a causal relationship).  Instead, the reporter himself discussed the results as if the two metabolic conditions were interchangeable with high body weight (not true) and over-simplified the findings to, essentially, that fat women are more likely to have autistic children.

Anyone with basic college level science courses and some analytical thinking could have seen that this was not worth reporting on. 

A previous report on the new weight-loss drug pending approval from the F.D.A. suggested that the extremely dangerous side effects of the drug were fully justified by a temporary 10 pound weight loss. 

Another report spoke about how partial stomach amputation or constriction could cure diabetes (without doing the basic research that would have told the reporter that the metabolic effects of weight loss surgery are temporary, and usually return by the 5th year.)  His source was a weight-loss surgeon who makes a living by convincing people to do the procedure.

This poor reporting on health doesn't just misinform the public.  It actively hurts people.  Fat people are already facing severe health and social discrimination due to their weight.  For many personal stories of medical discrimination against fat people, see the blog "First Do No Harm"  (http://fathealth.wordpress.com/) because it expresses the problem better than statistics could.  Fat people are denied jobs, housing, health care, and have even had their children taken from the home. 

When you report a flimsy college study that claims fat women produce autistic children, it is one more excuse for insurance companies to deny coverage, fertility clinics to deny treatment, and doctors to blame the mother for a primarily hereditary disease.  NPR has such a reputation for fair, quality reporting that the harm you do with faulty reporting is greater than you would think.  People accept what you say, and that means they accept that fat people like me are inherently sick, damaged and less than human, simply because our bodies are not shaped like the cultural ideal.

Thank you for your time, and I hope that if the quality of your health reporting does improve, and I feel that I can safely listen without being repeatedly told that I am a disease to be cured, I will become a supporter again.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Series: Self Esteem Sneak Attacks (Part 4)

There are some attacks on our body image and self-esteem that are so subtle that they generally affect us without us even being aware of them.  They act as invisible weights to drag us down when we're fighting hard to stay up.  Being aware of them is the first step to defending against them, because if we are processing something consciously we have much more control over how it affects us. The series begins here on 3/28/12.
Today's Sneak Attack: The Insult by Proxy
We've all been in a situation where someone (whether a friend or someone in the media) mocks the weight of someone thinner than you.  The inevitable thought that pops up for me is, "if they think so badly of that person, what must they think about ME?"
We've also all shared the experience of someone complaining about a body feature you share, or tells a joke where the butt of the joke shares attributes with you.
Most of us have also had that moment where we're hanging out with friends or at a party and get trapped in an "uglier than thou" contest, where each person tries to outdo the other in trash talking some part of their body that they find unacceptable.
A lot of our learning comes from imitating others.  This starts in infancy with something called "gaze following," where a baby looks in the same direction as adults to learn how to discern what is important.  It's an essential element of language acquisition. 
Another important element of learning is called "modeling," which says that we learn a lot about how to act, dress, think and speak by observing how others do so.  This means that when the people around us think badly of themselves and their bodies, we experience an intense, hard-wired, instinctive urge to imitate them.
The good news is that instincts can be overcome by conscious thought and practice.  When we feel that tell-tale sense of doubt that means we want to conform to other peoples' poor body image, it is important to intervene.  Try one or all of these affirmations:
I don't have to own someone else's problems with their body
I can feel sorry for someone who thinks so badly about themselves.
My body is all right, and so is their's.  They just don't know it.
This person is trained to think that way about themselves.  I don't have to follow.
They're wrong about me and my body.
My body is fine the way it is. 
I can sympathize with their pain without making it mine.
If you can, remove yourself from the company or influence of the person who is creating negativity for you.  You don't have to make a big deal about it, but you get to decide what threats to your own self-esteem you can handle.  I have days where I have to say, "I am feeling tired and emotionally vulnerable; I can't be around this person without it affecting me negatively." On other days it doesn't bother me.  I have to do what's best for me, and avoid what negativity I can on vulnerable days.  I have to set that boundary for myself.
There is a philosophical analogy known as "Plato's Cave" that applies here.  Imagine a group of people who live their entire lives chained inside a cave, facing a blank wall.  They only see vague shadows and develop theories of what things look like and are based on the shadows (their only perception of reality).  One day a prisoner escapes the cave and goes out into the world.  He suddenly learns that things are not made of shadows and there is an entire reality unperceived by those in the cave.
One version has the prisoner return to the cave and try to explain what he has seen to the other prisoners.  They, of course, dismiss him as delusional. After all, they've known nothing but shadows all their lives; of course that's all there is. 
We spend our entire lives immersed in a culture of body dissatisfaction that medicalizes differences in how we're made and treats us as diseases.  Those who have never been introduced to body acceptance concepts are still in the cave.  They have an entirely different view of the world to the point where they may not even be able to understand what you're saying.   
From this perspective, you can understand and empathize with them.  Of course they think badly of their body; that's how it's done and it's all they've ever known.  You, however, know differently.  They may see you as a radical (or even delusional) because you are breaking away into a new paradigm, but that doesn't make them right.  It makes them not in posession of all the facts. 
The fact is that despite our instinctive urges to conform to society's body and fat hatred, we have the cognitive ability to override those instincts. We can choose to reject people with body issues as models for our own thoughts and behaviors.  We can choose to not own other peoples' dissatisfaction and be only accountable to ourselves. 
Your body, your choice.