Using God as Backup for White Middle Class Standards of Beauty

Usually for your weekend reading I post something of interest from around the web. This week I enjoyed reading the HuffPo listing of the 10 most polarizing foods–foods that people either love or hate–but some of your responses to this weeks’ earlier posts made me think you might enjoy this one, originally posted in August, on using God as backup for enforcing white middle-class standards of beauty and grooming.

Recently I read back through just a bit of Disciplines of the Beautiful Woman by Anne Ortlund–because I vaguely remembered that there was something in there that had once had a grip on my mind–and I only had to suffer through 43 pages until I found it:

“..my advice to all is: when you first become conscious in the morning, get decent. I know some people say [pray] first, but don’t you sort of feel sorry for God when daily he has to face all those millions of hair curlers and old robes? What if you were the Almighty, and got prayed to with words spoken through all those unbrushed teeth? It seems to me like the ultimate test of grace.”

(Hm, so I should have compassion on God and look good before I pray?)

She goes on to pose a number of questions like these:

“How are your hips, thighs, tummy?”

“Do you need to get into that jogging suit and run?”

“How is your hair?”

“What kind of program are you on to stretch, bend, and stay supple, to stand tall; to be a good advertisement of God’s wonderful care of his children?”

(So I have to look good not only for God but for everyone else, too?)

From about age 15 or so, I used to get up early to use the NordicTrack or to do some idiotic aerobics routine before school, for 2 reasons:

1. I didn’t think I deserved to eat breakfast until I’d exercised

and

2. I didn’t think God wanted to hear from me unless I was ‘disciplined’ enough to exercise regularly.

Being a typical American teenager, it didn’t even occur to me that God might have bigger things to worry about than whether I reached my target heart rate or ate too many grams of saturated fat. I’m pretty sure 1996 had enough injustice, war, natural disaster, famine, and other stuff going on that God wouldn’t have minded hearing the prayers through unbrushed teeth or from girls who chose to do something with their spare time besides fitness and beauty maintenance.

surely I’m not the only one who had a caboodle?


I’m pretty sure that somewhere, deep down, I knew that God didn’t care what I looked like. Nonetheless, pleasing God by looking good was bound up in my mind and body with actually doing good in the world.

In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf argues that the pressure on women to attain to an unrealistic standard of beauty has  increased along with women’s freedoms in other areas of society. A study of archived letters from students at Smith College suggests that women before suffrage (1920) were more likely to worry about needing to GAIN weight, while women after, almost universally, worried about needing to LOSE weight.

{Why? To take up less space? To look better in the ‘flapper’ style? To eschew feminine curves for a more androgynous appearance?}

This problem, it’s not unlike my Audrey Hepburn problem. But it’s worse in some ways, too, because claims like Anne Ortlund’s use God as backup for enforcing white middle-class standards of beauty and grooming.

And her book isn’t the only one to do that. Lots of the ‘Christian’ diet books out there do the same thing. And that’s what had me so upset about the article in Relevant last week.

Because what’s good? And what does God want from us?

{100 sit-ups and 100 push-ups every morning? Detoxification ‘cleanses’?}

NO–

To do justice.

To love mercy.

To walk humbly with God.

{I’m no longer posting on Sundays. See you all on Monday!}

Getting Ready for Thanksgiving

I don’t know about you, but I love Thanksgiving–a day for feasting and giving thanks for God’s good gifts.

Since there are relatively few truly American food traditions, Thanksgiving has always appealed to me–even though I realize that, of course, the historical origins of the holiday are not as clear-cut as they appear in the Magic Tree House Thanksgiving book:

(A very different story that’s actually true is Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving. It tells the story of writer Sarah Josepha Hale, who wrote letters to American presidents to ask for the creation of Thanksgiving for 40 years!)

Anyway! Now that I’ve said that about loving traditional Thanksgiving food, I might as well confess that I’m not cooking a turkey. No one in my family likes turkey all that much, and they’re expensive, especially if you buy a free range heritage bird (which I’d like to try.)

I’m going to make a chicken instead, which I’ll brine for 1 hour in 2 quarts of water + 1/2 cup each of sugar and salt.

The other traditional Thanksgiving dishes–cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, stuffing, and sweet potato casserole–I can’t give up. Occasionally I read about “updating” Thanksgiving with steamed veggies tossed with toasted nuts, or roasted sweet potatoes tossed with olive oil, and it just makes me feel depressed. I don’t go so far as to include mini-marshmallows on my sweet potatoes–everyone, including me, is just as happy with some pecan streusel on top–but my green beans must be lovingly bathed in a cream sauce or Thanksgiving is not complete.

What makes your Thanksgiving complete, food-wise?

Here are some links to recipes very similar to the ones in my Thanksgiving recipe file:

Green Bean Casserole (Cook’s Illustrated)

Cranberry Fruit Conserve (Ina Garten)

Classic Bread Stuffing with Sage and Thyme (Cook’s Illustrated)

Sweet Potato Casserole with Pecan Streusel (Cook’s Illustrated)

And I wish you and yours a peaceful Thankgiving full of joy and gratitude!

(See you on Friday.)

A Mouthwatering Work of Culinary Genius

So between my birthday (last month) and Tim’s (yesterday) and the book contract, we had the opportunity to do some serious celebrating.

Not far from us is one of the very finest restaurants on the East End. We’ve eaten there twice before (well, three times if you count the time we went only for dessert) but only during ‘Restaurant Week,’ during which they feature a different menu with smaller portions.

Each time was nonetheless thrilling–to put it in the form of an analogy:

GREAT HOME COOKING : NORTH FORK TABLE’S FOOD ::

is as:

is to:

The food at the North Fork Table is kind of in a different category from other food. There are a lot of reasons why that’s so, but all I can say for sure is that when I eat it, I’m thinking, “this is so good that it can hardly be for real.”

And this time–with the fuller menu–it was, if possible, even better. It’s almost embarrassing to admit how enjoyable this is because I think our culture doesn’t allow us to speak lyrically about food without branding us ‘foodies’ or ‘snobs.’ Improbable though it may seem, the atmosphere and presentation is unfussy. It’s just really good food.

And without further ado:

the atmosphere is beautiful...the champagne is beautiful...even the menu is beautiful!

tuna tartare for tim
house-cured charcuterie for a between-course treat
a second course of squab on butternut squash for tim
and a second course of locally caught striped bass atop brussells sprouts and parsnip puree for me
long island duck for tim
and humanely raised veal for me
I forgot to take a picture of the dessert before I decimated it...
and they sent us home with house-made mallomars.

One of the things I love about going there is how serious, yet joyful, everyone is about their work. They’re artists, and creating things of beauty–even if those things are edible and consumable and fleeting–consumes them. I love that. I’m grateful for them. I’m grateful for the bounty of where we live.

I’m grateful to the Giver of All Things.

No Peace at the End of Anxiety

So I signed a book contract this week.

I don’t want to share the details widely (yet) but I do want to tell you that the book came before the blog.

[If/when] you read it, you won’t be all “but this is all stuff I’ve already read on the blog!”

At least, I hope not. But I’m trying not to worry about that.

I’m trying not to worry about all of this.

Because I think I’ve learned something important this week:

there is no peace at the end of anxiety and worry.

I’m basically a happy person. I want to ‘live with joy’ all the time.

But even though I’m happy, it’s easy for me to fall into worry-traps–and worry is a trap.

I get a contract with the perfect publisher for my book…and then I’m thinking:

“what if I can’t finish this book?”

“what if my sales numbers are bad and I can never publish another book?”

“what if I never have another idea for another book?”

But the ability to read, to think, to write? Are they really mine, anyway?

Are the things I do merely a product of my own efforts?

No: my life–right now–is a gift.

There’s no peace at the end of a worry-strewn journey; there will always be more to worry about.

(Ha! Because just a short time ago I was worried I’d never get a book contract!)

So I’m trying to be grateful in this moment, and the next, and the next.

Because how much more does the God who clothes the lilies and feeds the birds delight to care for us?
{Um, readers? I didn’t suddenly turn into Rob Bell, although I realize that the style of this post might’ve confused you on that point.}

Why Eating Together Matters

All right, I was a little fired up yesterday.

(My mom’s response? “You’re like that critic in Ratatouille. Authors will be afraid of you reading their books.”)

Actually, I try hard to be generous in my readings. This may sound corny, but a number of years ago a teacher said that we ought always to “love the author”–as in, “love your neighbor,” and the author is your neighbor–and that has always stuck with me. But sometimes? Sometimes there is just nothing good to say about a book, and yesterday was one of those times!

But if I rack my brain, there is one good thing to say about the book: it brings attention to something that matters a lot: eating together. It’s something close to my heart, something I’ve written about quite a few times (here, here, and here, and also in several undisclosed locations.)

And it’s something that I try to live daily: ever since my husband and I married, we’ve made eating together a priority in our lives. One of the reasons I’m so passionate about it is because eating together with him is one of the things that helped me heal from years of disordered eating and thinking.

But even before that–in my tortured starvation years, when the thought of eating clenched my stomach and filled me with fear–I could eat heartily with my mom. Once, when I was 17 and just a few days away from a very serious operation, she came home from work to find me curled up, filled with anxiety, and very hungry from a day of self-inflicted fasting. She took me straight to the diner for a Belgian waffle topped with ice-cream, which I ate with gusto. In her presence, and hers alone, I could eat with childlike abandon, even if elsewhere I was disordered as ever.

Interestingly, numerous studies have confirmed what I have experienced: that meals eaten together are good medicine. People’s eyes tend to glaze over when you start talking about “studies,” so I’ll keep it brief and name just a few:

  • A University of Minnesota study published in The Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that frequent family meals led to better nutritional intake, and a decreased risk for “unhealthy weight control practices” (read: eating disorders) and substance abuse five years after the initial study.
  • A Harvard University study published in Archives of Family Medicine showed that eating family dinners “most” or “all” days of the week was associated with eating more “healthfully”–families eating meals together ate meals that were lower in fat, higher in fiber, and richer in important nutrients than families “never” or “only sometimes” eating together.
  • Another University of Minnesota study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that children who ate family meals consumed more fruits, vegetables and fewer snack foods than children who ate separately from their families.
  • Other studies (like a Lou Harris-Reader’s Digest national poll) showed higher scholastic scores among students who frequently shared meals with their families; another survey of high-achieving teens showed that those who ate a lot of meals with their families tended to be happier and more hopeful than those who didn’t.

Sadly, in our society, shared meals of any kind are quickly becoming a rarity—many people regularly eat alone and on the run. A few years ago, the BBC presented a magazine article titled “Portrait of the Meal-for-One Society,” reporting that half of all meals eaten in the UK are eaten alone. The article attributed this trend, in part, to the ubiquity of ready-to-eat meals and to the dramatic rise of single-person households. Although I was not able to find data suggesting just how many meals are eaten alone in the US, current research regularly reports a steady decline in the number of meals that children eat with their parents; in a 2007 study, for example, just 39% of 12-17 year olds reported eating with their parents 6 or 7 times per week; 30% ate with their parents three times a week or less.

Every culture attaches high significance to eating together. I’ve read of cultures in which it’s considered inappropriate for engaged couples to eat together before being married. Thought of in this way–as an act of serious intimacy–it’s no wonder that Jesus came under fire from the religious folks for eating with sinners. In that act, he was getting dangerously close to them, dirtying his hands with their stains, so to speak. But for Jesus’ followers, sharing meals became very important. It became one of the primary ways of celebrating their unity and of reaching out to other people. In the early church, the oddity of people of various backgrounds eating together constituted, for some, a “proof” of the gospel.

Eating together is what people do. I think it’s kind of what we’re made to do; it’s one of the things that helped human culture develop. It’s only specialization (and, you know, things like microwaves) that makes eating alone feasible at all. And we don’t really need university studies to tell us that it’s just good to eat with others.

{look at all the people THEY can fit around the table!}

But that makes me think: there are plenty of people who, for various reasons, eat alone. If you’re one of them–or if you know one or more of them–why not find a way to create a ‘family’ for sharing meals with? In our own home, this has meant extending our table often, but in a casual way, as in “join us for whatever we’re eating, even if it’s just noodles and broth.” It’s the kind of sharing that, to me, is least like charity, because whether we’re the ones accepting or extending the invitation, we’re going to be blessed.