If You Are New To This Blog…

Amy Julia Becker asked me to write a little introduction to what my blog is about (it appeared on hers yesterday) but it occurred to me that it is a good introduction to those of you who may be new to the blog.

Plus, here’s a new picture of me that I haven’t yet uploaded to my “About Me” page:


When I started my blog (almost exactly!) two years ago, it was called Eat With Joy, which became the title of my book. The blog started out as being mostly about issues related to food and body image from a Christian perspective, and I usually have posts related to some aspect of these at least once a week.

One of the most popular posts from the early days of my blog is called “My Audrey Hepburn Problem.” In it I discuss my youthful admiration of the film star, and how I (very unfortunately) conflated her reputed kindness and philanthropy with her (very unusual) good looks.

Another post that gives a good sense of the kind of writing I do on the blog is “The Cultural Evolution of Candy Land.” It all began when I laid out my old Candy Land game (circa 1980s) next to the 2010, and was shocked by how thin–and sexualized–the characters had become. It grew into a series including My Little Ponies and Polly Pockets as I noticed the trend in other toys, more or less concluding with a post on why it matters whether a toy is thin and sexy (or not.)

I write about the books I’m reading at least once a week (Mondays often feature book reviews) and sometimes post simple, family-friendly recipes.

And because I’ve been living and working in Malawi, Africa–where my husband and I teach at a Christian seminary, and where I occasionally volunteer as a labor doula–there are occasional posts about the state of maternal health globally, pictures of animals seen on our travels, and thoughts on wealth, poverty, and gratitude for all of God’s gifts: not just the edible, but the beautiful, the hilarious, and the eminently re-readable.

Is That Bikini Video–and the ‘modesty’ movement–really about nostalgia?

Nostalgia is big right now. From Michael Pollan’s new panegyric on “traditional” food preparation, Cooked, to ModCloth.com, all things Mad Men (or previous) seem to be ‘in,’ down to hula hoops, bright red lipstick, ‘vintage’-style, well, everything, and grave suspicion of some of the best that modern science has had to offer, like vaccines and antibiotics.

While I love a beautiful mid-century style (dress, phone, desk) as much as the next twenty- or thirty-something, I really don’t love other aspects of nostalgic thinking.

Reading Michael Pollan’s latest—where he bemoans the overly sterile condition of the modern world, where our ‘guts’ are no longer properly ‘colonized’ by all sorts of ‘friendly bacteria’—I couldn’t help thinking that his was a longing that could only be experienced by someone with good health insurance in a developed country who gets to engage bacteria (friendly or otherwise) solely on his own terms. It’s a little harder to be starry-eyed about the benefits of the friendly bacteria and the evils of pasteurization when you are living in a place that still regularly sees outbreaks of typhoid and tuberculosis.

It’s equally difficult to see vaccine suspicion sympathetically when every time you go shopping you pass by people who’ve been permanently disabled by polio, only a few of whom have ‘luxuries’ like wheelchairs and crutches.

Recently I read and reviewed two very different books that deal with forms of popular nostalgia: Emily Matchar’s Homeward Bound, about the “new domesticity,” and Valerie Weaver-Zercher’s Thrill of the Chaste, a study of the popularity of Amish romance novels. Each points out the ways in which consumers (of products and of ideas) pick and mix elements of a longed-for culture to create a kind of bricolage, a nostalgic quilt of comforting impressions to curl up under.

But, to do this, we have to ignore un-picturesque or unsavory aspects of the culture(s) from which we’re borrowing. One can wax nostalgic about the virtues and protective benefits of friendly bacteria when one hasn’t buried a child (or children) from a strain of unfriendly bacteria.

Really, doesn’t this happen all the time? John Piper seems terribly nostalgic for the time when, as Archie Bunker sang, “girls were girls and men were men,” and many evangelical values touted as ‘biblical’ are really just grounded in nostalgia for “how we think (certain) things were” in the 1950s (or the 1850s, as the case may be), all while seeming to forget—or at least, to compartmentalize—elements of culture that went right along with ‘traditional gender roles,’ like Victorian gentlemen’s tendency to keep wives ‘pure’ by visiting mistresses, child labor, and Jim Crow.

I do wonder if something similar is happening with the ‘modesty’ movement in evangelicalism these days, and I was particularly intrigued by the popular Q talk on the ‘evolution of the bikini,’ where the alternative to contemporary and ‘immodest’ bikinis is presented as…you guessed it…50s and 60s inspired vintage styles. You can check out my contribution to a her.meneutics group post here, but first, can someone tell me how Audrey Hepburn in a bikini is less modest than Marilyn Monroe in a one piece?

I mean, besides the fact that she’s wearing a coat over it.

(Kind of proves the point my friend Caryn makes in the post…)

You may also like to see:

my review of Emily Matchar’s Homeward Bound.

my post about Michael Pollan’s new book, Cooked.

my friend Tim’s (another Tim…not husband Tim!) post about the “Ungodliness of Nostalgia”

Thursday? Oh No–It’s Too Gruesome.

I really do think that Truman Capote was pretty brilliant, even if his latter years were embarrassing and even if he was an ungraciously jealous friend to Harper Lee, and the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s is just…something. My favorite Capote piece is actually “A Christmas Memory” (if you haven’t read it, you should. With a hankie handy.) but Tiffany’s has something in it that I love, something that the Hollywood version totally erases. I’m not going to give it away, so you’ll just have to get it from the library or download it or whatever people do these days when they want to read a book.

(Random side note: Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Hyde Park mansion had something like 5,000 leatherbound volumes in the sitting room. I can’t decide if I’m jealous of that or simply grateful that I’m not the housemaid who had to dust and tend all those.)

The movie adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s is lovely in its own way as well, and I can still make my dad laugh with my Audrey Hepburn impression. (“If I ever find a real, live place that makes me feel like Tiffany’s, why, I’ll buy some furniture, and! Give the cat a name!”) The film does have a choppy, episodic feel, but one of the episodes I love is when Holly Golightly awakes suddenly, realizing she’s late for her weekly visit to a mob boss at Sing Sing, and she says something like:

“Thursday! Oh no, it’s too gruesome!”

and then she goes on to say that the thing about Thursday is that she can never remember when it’s coming up. That’s how I feel about Thursday. It’s just odd. I’ve never liked it, and I never seem to remember when it’s coming up, and I don’t even know why that is or why I don’t like it. Last week a friend posted on Facebook that she generally hated Thursdays, and I was surprised by how, when I come to think of it, Thursdays do, generally speaking, are not my happiest days.

Image via Wikipedia; used under CC license.

Image via Wikipedia; used under CC license.

Why could that be? Is it a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Do you have a day of the week that isn’t your favorite, for whatever reason? Or have you figured out a secret for being happy no matter what day it is?

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.

Doing Good or Looking Good?

How I terribly misconstrued and made poor use of a talented actress’s work.

{An edited re-post of what has, strangely enough, become one of this blog’s most popular posts. So in case you missed it…}

From about age 15 or so, Audrey Hepburn was my idol. I worshiped the iconic film star, watching her movies again and again, poring over books about her life, and searching for images of her online.

I could have done worse. Hepburn was, by most accounts, an extraordinarily lovely person, both inside and out. In Roman Holiday–my favorite Audrey movie–she’s lovely without trying to be, and the beauty and dignity of her character is apparent even as she portrays a very convincing princess in disguise. In her later years, she was a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, having once herself been on the receiving end of emergency food aid as a child in post-WW2 Europe.

Sadly, although I admired Audrey’s humanitarian legacy and reputed grace and kindness, I was most inspired by her thinness. In the days of my Audrey obsession, her brilliant film performances were less important than the visibility of her long, lovely bones in her various stunning Givenchy and Edith Head designs. That her thinness was likely due to an eating disorder rooted in the wartime starvation she suffered as a child did not dissuade me; neither did her struggles with depression and self-loathing (which are demonstrated side effects of starvation.)

No. I saw a thin, beautiful, kind person who didn’t need to eat AND STILL had the energy to save the world. I wanted to be thin, most of all, and then be kind and save all the starving kids with the food I didn’t eat. After all, Audrey herself loved a poem that seemed to make this connection (“for a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.”) When I looked in the mirror, I saw broad shoulders and curves. I berated myself for being unable, like Audrey, to subsist on next to nothing.  ‘That’s the end of me doing anything worthwhile,’ I’d think–‘what good can I do if I don’t look like Audrey? Surely that figure was the fount of all her goodness?’

The Audrey-style of this dress only pointed out to me my (real or imagined) flaws.

Of course, this sounds crazy now. It didn’t then, partly because I was not incredibly well nourished (needed some brain food!) and partly because the idea that “you are worth something only if you look great” is a message that’s broadcasted endlessly and ubiquitously–especially to girls. Do a little experiment–listen to what people say to girls, even little ones. How many comments do you hear that are related to appearance (whether of clothing, hair, or whatever)? Do the comments that affirm (or simply call attention to) character outnumber the ones doing the same for appearance?

There are all kinds of beauty, and all kinds of ways of doing good in the world. I still like Audrey Hepburn’s movies, and I can enjoy them now without obsessing about the difference between Audrey’s figure and my own, but I still regret Hollywood’s move (beginning, some say, with Audrey) toward ever-increasing unreality in the area of women’s bodies. And so, for years now, I’ve actively looked for female role models who embody beauty that I find compelling and unusual and unrelated to body size, like Wangari Muta Maathai–women I can imagine sitting down to a meal and eating with–with gratitude and goodwill, and no guilt.

Because I want people like this girl to know that she can save the world, be beautiful in every way, and eat a great meal–and maybe all at the same time.

my niece Elli, helping pick an early spring salad