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}

How Social Media Are Like Willy Wonka’s Gum

Just 10 or 20 years ago, I could not have imagined how easily I could use social media—and applications like Skype and Facetime—to stay in touch with people on the other side of the globe. Decades ago, I wrote letters to missionaries on onionskin paper to keep the mailing weight low. Today, I send and receive such letters with the touch of a button. I can find and purchase obscure movies and books without leaving my chair. The Internet has changed everything. We can have almost anything we want.

Those who’ve read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—or who’ve seen the popular film adaptations—may remember that the gum experiment doesn’t end so well. Greedy Violet Beauregarde is so grasping and eager that she doesn’t bother to listen to Mr. Wonka’s warning (it’s “not quite right yet”) and chews away, turning herself into a giant blueberry at the end of the otherwise delicious gum-meal. I wonder if social media are something like that gum: satisfying to a point, but also harmful in unexpected ways.

Screen shot 2013-12-10 at 12.27.47 PM

Moving beyond the meal metaphor to actual meals for a moment, it occurs to me that while many different studies have indicated the importance of eating meals with others to our physical, emotional, and social well-being—and especially that of children—we often interrupt those meals by interacting with people who aren’t physically in the room.

{Taken from my most recent post at her.meneutics, which you can read 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…}

Edith Schaeffer and Biblical Womanhood

So I know it’s been out for a while, but I finally got around to reading Kathryn Joyce’s Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement, which I found fair, well-researched, and illuminating. In it she names Edith Schaeffer–rightly, I think–as one of the people responsible for the ideal that women shape society via the home, an idea that, of course, goes back deep into the 19th century at least, but one that Edith certainly helped to solidify in the twentieth century. Joyce called Hidden Art “perhaps unintentionally, a landmark book for proponents of biblical womanhood.” I have conflicted feelings about that, and about Edith herself and the ways she chose to present and edit her life and work in her books, but at the end of the day–at the end of her life (she died a few weeks ago)–I am grateful to her for teaching me many so things.

When I was growing up, my dad had the hardback, rainbow colored Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer on his bookshelves; Edith’s books—What is a Family?, Common Sense Christian Living, The Hidden Art of Homemaking, and of course, L’Abri, were scattered throughout the house. Elementary days homeschooling often began with an object lesson from Everybody Can Know; before I was out of high school I’d read every Edith Schaeffer book in the house, studying what it meant to be a good Christian woman. As a college student living in decidedly ugly dormitories, I read and re-read a library copy of Hidden Art trying to bring an aesthetic sensibility to my everyday life: writing out my notes neatly and beautifully, artistically arranging the loathsome cafeteria food on the unaesthetic plates and trays, and, occasionally, bringing in fresh flowers. Seeing the copy of Hidden Art tucked into my bag, a friend who also felt the aesthetic deprivations of college life remarked, “Yes. That book is nourishment.”

During college I had periods of depression in which just living—never mind the aesthetics of the enterprise—felt like a nearly impossible task. I put on a little weight; my face broke out, and I was sure that no handsome, intelligent seminary man would ever find me appealing. When I did in fact marry a handsome, intelligent seminary man just after graduating, I was haunted by all the ways that I didn’t seem to measure up. Edith dropped out of college before marrying Francis and worked to put him through seminary; I was determined to go to graduate school. Edith made sure that she was looking serene and beautiful for her husband after the birth of her child (in the days when fathers weren’t allowed to attend deliveries); my husband had to take care of me for months while I struggled unattractively with all-day morning sickness. Edith seemed to have been serenely content during difficult domestic times; I had a temper.

Of course, Edith didn’t really let us in on the secrets of the Schaeffer family; her son, Frank, did that later in his books Crazy for God and Sex, Mom, and God, telling us of Francis’ fits of abusive rage and apparent sex addiction, Edith’s periods of manic activity and her obsession with maintaining the impression of her family’s perfection, and his own drug use and sexual activity with the pretty hippie girls who dropped by L’Abri, all of which his parents knew about and carefully cloaked. Even as I would’ve been helped in my early adulthood by knowing that she wasn’t really that perfect, I had to sympathize with my dad’s response to Crazy for God: “If for some reason you need to write a tell-all about me, could you please wait until I’m dead?”

Still, in Sex, Mom, and God, Frank lets us in on a telling conversation with his mother: “Mom, the only reason I’m a writer is because of all those books you read out loud to me. You were a good mother… You opened the doors to everything I love most.”

Edith was from a different time; a time when people didn’t air dirty laundry and where maintaining outward appearances was considered an important part of being a good “witness for Jesus.” I will not defend her self-abnegating vision of Christian womanhood (to the point that she seems to have tolerated abuse), nor the fact that she presented a picture of family bliss that was not, according to her children, at all accurate.

But acknowledging her shortcomings doesn’t diminish the fact that this creative and thoughtful woman opened doors not just for Frank but for many of us in the evangelical world, helping us to realize that things like literature, music, dance, good food, and beauty aren’t unspiritual or worldly, but pathways to enjoying God and God’s good gifts, a message we might today take as a given, but one that was, in her time, a spirited rejection of the status quo. And for that energetic conviction, I will remember her with gratitude and admiration.

{Adapted from my post at Christianity Today’s Women’s Blog, her.meneutics. Read it all here.}

How the Beauty Culture Blasphemes Our Bodies

this is the kind of beach image i'm okay with
this is the kind of beach image i’m okay with

In her memoir Bossypants, Tina Fey claims that everyone knows Photoshopped images aren’t real, but she also acknowledges that the culture of beauty has changed significantly since she was a girl. Back then, “you were either blessed with a beautiful body or not. And if you were not, you could just chill out and learn a trade.”

Today, however, “if you’re not ‘hot’ you are expected to work on it until you are… If you don’t have a good body, you’d better starve the body you have down to a neutral shape, then bolt on some breast implants, replace your teeth, dye your skin orange, inject your lips, sew on some hair, and call yourself Playmate of the year.”

I understand this implicit cultural expectation so well; for years, I struggled to remake what I was in the image of all I thought I should be. As I’ve written in my new book, Eat With Joy: Redeeming God’s Gift of Food, for years,

I absorbed magazines, TV, and movies uncritically and prescriptively […] everything about my appearance seemed wrong. But in America, the possibilities of individual determination are endless—you can become as rich and as thin as you determine to be!—and so I sought to change my body through all the ways that advertisements teach us is possible: the chromium picolinate supplements, the protein shakes, the NordicTrack, the chirpy aerobics videos, the Velcro-fastened ankle weights.

All that effort toward getting a certain look adds up to big business—more than $20 billion annually in the U.S. on cosmetics alone. It comes at a high price in terms of mental health, as numerous psychological studies have suggested what discerning parents have known for a long time: the more media images of stylized, retouched models a woman views, the more likely she is to become depressed and disordered in her eating.

That was me.

{Read this piece in its entirety at Christianity Today, where it originally appeared on Feb. 19}