I am 99.999% Sure That You’ll Never Look Like Audrey Hepburn and Also That it Doesn’t Matter

One of the most consistently popular posts on this blog has been one called ‘My Audrey Hepburn Problem,’ mostly thanks to Internet searches like “Audrey Hepburn skinny,” “Audrey Hepburn eating disorder,” “how to look like Audrey Hepburn,” etc. The post itself, of course, was on how, as a teenager, I conflated Hepburn’s talent and humanitarian efforts with her beauty and thinness, assuming, foolishly, that it was her good looks and apparent ‘self-discipline’ (because doesn’t a 20-inch waist come from ‘self-discipline’?) that gave her the strength to be a good person. Because, really, in our culture, you can be a great person, but if you don’t keep your weight down and look good for pictures, no one cares.

A few years ago, my hometown newspaper featured, in the same issue, a story on the teenage winner of a local beauty pageant, and another about a teenage girl who had conducted some serious fundraising efforts to help save the chronically under-funded shelter program in our area. The second girl—the humanitarian—had the big goofy glasses, oversized teeth, and frizzy hair that make most of my high-school photos cringe-worthy. No prizes for guessing which story (and photo) landed in the best spots in the newspaper layout.

In our culture, being overweight or otherwise nonconforming to an extremely narrow ideal of beauty is often talked about as if it were a moral failing. So it’s not really that odd that I would have conflated Audrey’s outer beauty with her inner beauty: there are thousands of messages out there telling you that you can’t really have one without the other. In this telling, wrinkles and gray hair are shameful, normal body odor is embarrassing, being overweight is a sin, and so on. Think, for a moment, about all the things we do in a day—and all the products we use—to shore up our bodies and make them more presentable, acceptable. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with deodorant (a product I happen to like very much indeed.) I’m just saying that it’s worth considering, now and again, the almost moral superiority we sometimes feel when we, ahem, encounter someone who doesn’t engage in all the shoring up that we do.

There is no good explanation for this. I use it as a illustration of "awkward."

The best photo I could think of to illustrate “awkward.” To clarify, that is an awkward adolescent me with my parents. Holding a rifle. I have no idea why.

Of course, most of us with fully developed prefrontal cortexes (or is it cortices?) know, rationally, that buying a certain overpriced lotion or following a certain new exercise program or diet plan or consuming a new ‘miracle’ food supplement—won’t transform us into someone else. We know—or we should know—that Michelle Obama’s arms look like that not just because Michelle Obama works out (a privilege conferred on her by her social and economic status, let us remember) but because she was born with those arms. I always wanted calves that were defined, rounded, separate from the continuous line of my leg. I knew on some level that those were not the legs I was destined for, but still, I could try, and try I did, doing calf-raises by the hour while I read books, looking hopefully in the mirror for signs of a change that never came.

I’m not sure the conviction that we can drastically change ourselves is confined to our outsides, either. We worship the possibilities of re-making ourselves into smarter, better-read people who read the instruction booklets cover to cover, never forget to floss or to flush, and never, ever snap at the people we love the most, much less at dim-witted clerks in a Rite-Aid or truly awful drivers. This is a theological hope that nothing in this world—neither pharmaceuticals nor self-help gurus nor Dr. Oz nor Joyce Meyer nor cosmetics nor counseling nor any amount of determination and self-discipline can fulfill. And that is just so frustrating, because we want to change. We want to be transformed.

I am 99.999% sure that you won’t ever look anything like Audrey Hepburn, and even more sure that if you did, that wouldn’t do it for you. It didn’t do it for her: she was actually quite insecure about her looks—thought herself funny looking and awkward, if you can believe it; she struggled with marriages and miscarriages and probably a lot more than we’ll ever know about. The thing you think will do it for you probably won’t. Isn’t that how it works already? You get a thing that you thought would really do it for you, and you go, “well, that’s not quite it, is it?” Whatever it is, it is always just out of reach.

This is awful and frustrating looked at one way, but looked at another way, it’s freeing. It means, maybe, that we can safely stop reaching and just be right here, right now, with our goofy glasses and scrambly teeth and awkward, mismatched selves and, say, share a cinnamon roll with a child or start a fundraiser for the homeless people in your city—to stop worrying so much about what you’re doing with your life and what you, and it, look like to other people and just get busy living.

Carpe Hieme! Seize the Winter! Easy Chewy Peanut Butter Cookies

From all that I’m hearing from Facebook and Twitter and, you know, good old fashioned e-mail, it’s a pretty cold winter there in the Northern Hemisphere, which to me means perfect for hot chocolate, cookies, and curling up with books. I know, I know; there’s work and school to be attended, intractable cars to get started, and so on, but six months from now, when you’re sweating and roasting, you MIGHT say to yourself “why didn’t I bake some cookies back in January when adding extra heat to the house from the oven would have been nice?”

So carpe hieme. Seize the winter! (I know, I know–easy for me to say, right? I’m in sub-Saharan Africa!) Still, even though it’s 80 plus degrees every day, to me, it’s still cookie season. And peanuts (and peanut butter) are local food here.

Seize the Winter Easy Chewy Peanut Butter Cookies

Preheat the oven to 300F

Cream together:

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup peanut butter

Beat in:

  • 1 egg plus one egg yolk

Mix together separately:

  • 1 1/4 cup flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Blend the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients and mix until just combined–but don’t overmix. The key to cookies that are not too dry or crumbly is to have the oven preheated and everything completely read before mixing the wet and the dry, and then, not overmixing.

Drop by rounded teaspoonfuls on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 300F for 15 minutes and cool on a clean counter to maximize chewiness.

Enjoy with hot chocolate. (And open the oven when you’re done to enjoy the extra heat!)

Sometimes In Spite of Your Best Preparations, The Thing You Hope Doesn’t Happen Happens.

We have the best sort of bed nets, treated with insecticide that’s harmful to bugs but not humans.

We have the best sort of malaria-prevention drugs, the kind with few side effects, and we take it every day.

We have treated our clothing with the spray that’s harmful to bugs but not humans (see above.)

{You could say that, like my father before me, my motto is “trust God and be as prepared as humanly possible.”}

Even so, our son Graeme (age 4.5) came down with a mild case of malaria this past week, along with some sort of infection that sent his white blood cell count a-soaring and gave him a fever.

There’s nothing like your children getting ill to make you feel powerless. Oh, you take them to the clinic or the doctor’s office or the hospital, or some combination thereof, you fill prescriptions, and you Google various treatment options.

(I used my husband’s computer for a moment, and when he came back to it, he remarked, “you know it’s a hard day when your most recent Google search is “oral rehydration solution recipe.” True enough.)

But even with all our efforts at healing and comfort, we are not fully in control. We can’t filter out the p. falciparum or the streptoccocus or whatever strain of influenza is making the rounds. We can’t wave a magic wand and make it all better now!


I hate this so much, because I like to believe that all my good preparations (see above) and even, to some degree, my worrying, will keep bad things at bay. When the lab test came back showing that Graeme had malaria in his blood, well, it was as if the universe was laughing at those plans. I do not like this one bit.

Of course, we were able to make sure that Graeme was getting the best possible treatment, and to monitor him carefully and offer him lollipops in a variety of flavors to take away the bitterness of the quinine syrup and so forth. We are the lucky ones, the unimaginably blessed ones, at least materially speaking.

He is already feeling much better, but I can’t stop thinking of those mothers and fathers who don’t have the luxury of phoning tropical disease experts and consulting with different doctors to optimize treatment plans. I can’t stop thinking of how grateful I am not to be in that position, but also, of how, even with all these advantages, there’s very little I can control, and I find myself still just begging God to be merciful, and to give me the grace to extend that mercy to those who don’t have those luxuries.

Why ‘Modesty’ in 1 Timothy Has Nothing To Do With Showing Off Skin

I have a piece up on “Rethinking Modesty” at Catapult magazine’s CLOTHE YOURSELF issue. Don’t worry, I’m not advocating showing off more skin…

Here’s the beginning:

When I was growing up, the only thing that could be said about clothing was that it should be “modest,” and ideally not too “worldly.” “Modesty” was proof-texted from 1 Timothy 2:9: “I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.”

Not looking “worldly” usually meant not being too fashionable — neither dressing in accordance with what was popular in the mainstream nor wearing anything with strong counterculture associations: no skater pants for boys, no ripped jeans for girls.  This is what was meant, apparently, by 1 John 2:15-17: “Do not love the world, or anything in the world.”

While it seems that fewer churches are pushing the second issue — except, perhaps, to offer OMG-wear and other Christian versions of whatever is popular — modesty continues to be a topic of interest.  Most American Christian definitions of modesty involve “not showing too much skin.” The question of male lust is often a part of the discussion. But in context, that doesn’t seem to be what Paul is talking about at all: modesty, in 1 Timothy 2:9, is about not flaunting your wealth, which is a surprisingly important thing in the Epistles as well as the Gospels. Braids and gold and pearls have nothing to do with not looking like the other, non-Christian, worldly women. The opposite of “modest” is not “sexually provocative,” but “flashy.”

Perhaps contemporary readers are tempted to regard 1 Timothy 2 as irrelevant anyway; that’s the place where Paul says he does not permit women to teach or have authority over men, and where he says, weirdly, that they will be “saved through childbearing,” a phrase no one has ever explained to my satisfaction. But what Paul says about modesty doesn’t seem particularly idiosyncratic or easily dismissed. What did John the Baptist call people to do in preparation for Jesus? Give away your extra clothes. What makes it hard to enter God’s kingdom? Wealth. What causes quarrels and fights in the various churches? People segregating themselves on the basis of social status and marginalizing those who are poor. Modesty in 1 Timothy 2 has more to do with dismantling social class divisions than keeping your skin covered.

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The Problem With “Unreal” Candy and Nutrition Facts Labels

I have a new post up at Huffington Post Food, about this crazy new “healthy” candy called “Unreal” candy.

Screen shot 2013-01-01 at 1.49.04 PM

Here’s the heart of what annoys me about the candy, and about the marketing of processed products more generally:

Unreal candy is probably better than most of the garbage that kids get on Halloween, but it’s already positioning itself in ridiculous ways, with it’s “Yes we candy” ads and the helpful little chart in which Unreal is compared unfavorably to peanut M&Ms and favorably to ORANGES. Can we agree that attempting to imply that any candy (whatever its merits) stacks up favorably, nutritionally speaking, to oranges is just silly? But the magic of nutritional lables is that they somehow level ground that can’t actually be leveled. I’m not against candy, and I’m certainly happy to see candy available that’s not full of artificial whatevers, but it’s just so annoying when a product like this — a sugary, processed treat, let’s face it — is marketed as healthy, more like an orange than peanut M&Ms when, clearly, the chocolate and candy coated peanut is a lot more like a peanut M&M than like an orange. This same strange leveling happens when a dieter forgoes from-scratch brownies baked by a friend but will eat a diet-plan-approved, supposedly low-glycemic packaged SuperChocoBrownieSlimBlastBar (or something like) because the latter is ‘healthier’ somehow.

(It isn’t. It never is.)

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