Clothing sizes are arbitrary. Stop fretting over them.

The dress was too small, so I wouldn’t buy it. It came in a larger size, but I wasn’t about to wear that size—in my mind, it was “too big.”

We’ve all been there, inordinately focused on the size number on the label. Women have fretted about their sizes—and how sizes differ from brand to brand and garment to garment—since standardized sizing was created. One reason the current sizing system exists is to prevent women from having to admit their objective measurements and weight to salespeople.

Photo courtesy Taz via Flickr Creative Commons

Photo courtesy Taz via Flickr Creative Commons

Recently, the tabloids reported that reality star Kim Kardashian, who gave birth last June and has since lost 70 pounds—is losing yet more weight. She works out for three hours a day and subsists on grilled fish and steamed vegetables because, says a friend, “She’s desperate to be a size-0 bride” for her upcoming wedding to rapper Kanye West. The couple hopes that the wedding will be featured in Vogue.

A relatively recent invention, size zero has become a topic of controversy with some people, including British model Katie Green, who’s calling for its abolishment. A contemporary size zero, “depending on brand and style, fits measurements of chest-stomach-hips from 30-22-32 inches to 33-25-35 inches.” In 1995, a person with those measurements would’ve worn a size 2. Remarkably, in 1958, similar measurements corresponded to a size 8—the smallest size then available. Today, sizes such as double zero exist. Perplexingly, some labels (such as former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham’s) even offer negative sizes.

{from my most recent post at Christianity Today’s her.meneutics}

Once Upon a Time, We Knew How To Die: Katy Butler’s Astonishing New Book

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There was a time when I hoped—and even prayed—that my friend’s death would come very soon.

That’s a statement easily misconstrued, the kind that validates the cliché that “context is everything,” which itself affirms the ancient wisdom of Ecclesiastes. “For everything there is a season,” including “a time to be born, and a time to die,” “a time to heal,” and, if I may presume to expand on the preacher’s line of thought, a time to refrain from attempts to heal.

I love that part of the Bible, commonly known as the “wisdom literature,” for its keen awareness that what would be hateful in one situation may well be loving in another. I hoped that my friend would die soon because he was old and “full of years”—to use another beautiful biblical phrase—and his suffering had become very great. I would miss him sorely, as I still do, but I prayed that God would grant him what people used to speak of gently as a “good death.”

“Once upon a time,” writes Katy Butler in her astonishingly beautiful new book, Knocking on Heaven’s Door, “we knew how to die.” We knew how to sit with the dying and learned from their passing what a good death might look like. Once upon a time, there were books on ars moriendi—the art of dying—and through firsthand experience, stories, and religious ritual, people acquired an understanding of a “good death.”

Butler’s book, which grew from the seeds of a New York Times Magazine article published in 2010, charts the path along which contemporary Americans have largely forgotten or misplaced the art of dying. In Butler’s own words, the book is a “braid”—part memoir, part medical history, part investigative journalism.

At heart of the book lies the tragic narrative of the prolonged suffering of Katy Butler’s beloved father. Jeffrey Butler, a South African born historian who lost an arm in World War II and earned a doctorate from Oxford before emigrating to the U.S., lived a remarkable and full life, but lost much of his capacity for speech, understanding, and self care after a stroke in his 80s. Butler’s mother, Valerie, suffered under the burden that millions of unpaid family members in the U.S. bear: taking care of her incapacitated husband with little outside help—determinedly, loyally, capably, and fiercely, refusing to surrender his care to others.

{This is an excerpt from my latest post at her.meneutics. To continue reading, please click here.}

Does One REALLY Have to Give Up Wine, Coffee, Sushi, and Dyeing One’s Hair…

…just to have a healthy baby?

I really wanted to like University of Chicago economist Emily Oster’s new book, Expecting Better. I’m well aware that many of the things that are standard procedure in American pregnancy and birth are not supported by good research (for example, continuous fetal monitoring during labor and the gestational diabetes test don’t seem actually to help either mothers or babies). But I was supremely disappointed by this book, not only because it has an annoying, “economists-know-best” tone, but because it seems fairly obsessed with what I’d consider trivial things and–like many American pregnancy books, actually–has no sense of where these things fit within the larger scheme of things. I do realize the danger of judging a book by what it doesn’t talk about, but the broader trend of things that were once matters for public reform and collective action becoming all about individual choices and personal ‘empowerment’ is troubling.

And it’s troubling when things like giving up wine or dyeing your hair for 40 weeks–even if the risks to the baby are minimal is construed as an unreasonable limitation on a woman’s freedom.

Or maybe I’m just a cranky-pants.

Anyway, here’s a bit from my review of the book at Her.meneutics. And no, I am not pregnant.

I’ll admit that I’m a little bit of a health nerd. I sometimes read through studies on websites such as PubMed and Cochrane Reviews to discuss medical decisions more intelligently with my doctor. (These sites post reputable medical information and analyses, with much less speculation and snake oil than many health websites.)

During my first pregnancy, I occasionally checked my doctor’s advice against the most current recommendations of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. When she told me to monitor my heart rate during exercise to ensure it did not go over 140 beats per minute, I nodded my head but continued to follow the more current ACOG recommendation, which didn’t list a specific heart rate but instead indicated that I could exercise moderately. On the whole, however, I trusted and followed my doctor’s recommendations—even a few that turned out not to be supported by the newest and best research. Oh, well.

Emily Oster, an associate professor of economics at the University of Chicago whose work was featured in Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s second book SuperFreakonomics, has written a new book, Expecting Better, that urges women to wrest control over their pregnancies from the partially incompetent hands of their doctors and other conventional sources of pregnancy advice, from the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology to the omnipresent and imperious What To Expect When You’re Expecting.

The subtitle of Oster’s book—Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong—And What You Really Need to Know—might lead you to expect something along the lines of Ricki Lake’s Business of Being Born, but Oster does not wage war on the medical establishment to the point of suggesting that you eschew doctors entirely.

Instead, she contends that the typical American pregnancy is “a world of arbitrary rules.” She uses her training as a health economist to sift through the medical literature, attempting to separate the wheat from the chaff of pregnancy advice; to help women “take control and to expect better.”

{Continue Reading…}

The World is No Disposable Ladder To Heaven: RIP, RFC

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Until 2003, Father Robert Farrar Capon served as an assisting priest at the Episcopal church fewer than 300 yards up the street where I grew up. I can remember learning to ride my bicycle in shaky circles in the parking lot of the historic (circa 1830) Baptist church that my father pastored, next to the parsonage where we lived. When I was ready to brave the sidewalk, I pedaled confidently until, passing Holy Trinity Episcopal, I’d invariably begin to totter. “Why do you always go wobbly when you pass the Episcopalians?” my father teased. “Do you find their theology wobbly?”

In truth, I was drawn to Episcopal worship before I had words to explain why. In my own church we sang songs that promised that if we turned our eyes upon Jesus, “the things of earth/will go strangely dim/in the light of his glory and grace.” I was weak in the knees for a way of worshiping that did not pit the “things of earth” against the “glory and grace” of Christ, but was capable of seeing them—the humblest of elements—charged with such glory. This is what makes The Supper of the Lamb remarkable both as a work of theology and as a cookbook: “The world is no disposable ladder to heaven. Earth is not convenient; it is good; it is, by God’s design, our lawful love,” Capon wrote. For Capon, discussing the physics involved in the preparation of a perfectly smooth gravy—down to the details of what sort of whisk does the job best—was of a piece with celebrating the goodness of God who created it all for delight, who means to lift all the good things of this world to grace, to that

unimaginable Session
In which the Lion lifts
Himself Lamb Slain
And, Priest and Victim
The City

Robert Farrar Capon’s writing is charged with an intense love for God and for all that God has made; it is deeply opinionated, utterly unique, and saturated with grace, reflecting the quirky appeal of the man himself, who, though now lifted to glory, leaves behind a warm invitation to taste and see that the Lord is indeed good.

{Read more of this piece, which originally appeared at Christianity Today here. Spoiler: RFC once asserted that all mothers should be plump, and he once burned a $20 bill in the pulpit!}

My Top 5 Books on The Body

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The September print issue of Christianity Today has my recommendations for the ‘top 5′ books on the body. It was really hard to pick only five, but here they are. They’re diverse: some are about sex, some are about food, some are explicitly focused on Christian belief and behavior, some are totally secular.

All come highly recommended by yours truly.

(Click for the full list at Christianity Today.)