I have been thinking a lot about trees lately.
I was recently gifted a copy of the novel The Overstory from someone who (correctly) guessed that I have a thing for trees.
The book is one of the most beautifully written stories I have ever read. In the beginning of the book I paused after each chapter to just let the words sink in.
The novel has changed the way I look at trees. And I am used to looking at trees. Hiking and walking in the woods is perhaps my favorite pastime and most essential self-care activity.
There are days when I crave trees.
Moments when I know I can’t solve some problem by thinking or feeling or obsessing. And I must walk instead. Preferably, among trees.
With all the time I spend in the trees, I began to realize I often didn’t see the trees.
“No one sees trees. We see fruit, we see nuts, we see wood, we see shade. We see ornaments or pretty fall foliage. Obstacles blocking the road or wrecking the ski slope. Dark, threatening places that must be cleared. We see branches about to crush our roof. We see a cash crop. But trees - trees are invisible.”
We’ve been having such a mild winter here in Pittsburgh. I grew up with snow. Lots of snow. And never thought I was particularly fond of it. But this year, I have yearned for snow. I have judged the barren trees, thinking, “They would look better with snow on them.”
I decided to stop judging and I start looking at trees. Really looking at them. And I have become grateful for the lack of leaves. The absence of snow. The opportunity to see—well—the tree.
And I realized that trees are beautiful. Without all their ornaments and foliage. They are amazing, intricate, complex, beings.
We are so like the trees. It is when we are laid bare that our connections and branches and possibilities are made most visible.
It is hard to be made visible. To be seen. We spend so much of our time and energy and money covering ourselves. With the latest fashions. With humor. With false bravado. With attempts to be what we think others want to see in us.
In the work I do as a psychologist, a teacher, an advocate for social justice, I know that interactions with others can be contentious. Being seen means being vulnerable.
It is scary to be seen. Terrifying.
But also, the most magical experience in the world. To be truly seen by another.
Just like trees, we can not remain bare all the time. But perhaps we can learn lessons from trees. To shed those things that no longer serve us. To pause and rest, before we grow anew. To allow ourselves to be seen exactly as we are.
Some people might say I am a bit obsessed with the night sky. I have a lounge chair in my backyard that I affectionately refer to as my “stargazing chair.” Many years ago, I attended an astronomy program while on vacation in Yellowstone National Park with my parents. Astronomers from a university in Montana facilitated a stargazing event during the new moon.
So many of us live in or near cities, that we forget how much our night sky is impacted by light pollution.
Looking at the galaxy on a dark night in the middle of our first national park changed the way I have seen the stars ever since. Experiencing the stars this way reminded me of the vastness of the Universe and our connections within it.
Last December I was fortunate enough to spend three weeks in Australia—a country I have been fascinated with since my childhood. There were so many incredible moments on my trip, but one of them that stood out for me was stargazing in Uluru. I was in central Australia, hours away from the nearest town.
I felt an incredible sense of awe when I found myself lying on a bench, looking at a night sky that was foreign to me. I asked the Australian I was with to tell me about the constellations. I wanted to know—what do you see when you look up?
Tell me the story of your stars.
Over this past year, I have been especially interested in exploring the role of place and place-based knowledge in my work—as a Psychologist, an activist, and a White woman doing equity work with and on behalf of Black girls—as well as in my personal life.
I love Pittsburgh and feel at home here. But it amazes me that when I moved here 10 years ago, no one questioned whether the knowledge I had could be applied to work in a city I had only been to for my job interview. There was an inherent assumption that three little letters after my name was sufficient. Knowledge I acquired from an academic system rooted in White European philosophical values is held in higher regard than knowledge that is place-based, indigenous, rooted in communities.
This is the ongoing colonization project.
When we talk about settler colonialism in the United States, we often focus on historical events. The ways my dad’s English ancestors displaced my mom’s Cherokee ancestors and stole their land. Even when we talk about the ongoing impacts of settler colonialism—intergenerational trauma, economic disenfranchisement, institutional and interpersonal racism against Black and Brown people—we often neglect to fully examine our own participation in the ongoing project of the colonization of knowledge.
Back to our night sky.
In the United States (and it turns out in Australia) many constellations are known by Greek and Roman names—connected to myths that have no connection to the land they shine above.
There are, of course, indigenous names and stories of the stars.
These names and stories matter—they convey important cultural messages, they teach lessons about navigation, they offer guidance on how to interact with plants and animals. Star knowledge connects us—to each other, to our ancestors, to the whole universe.
In Canada, scientists are leading a project to relearn the star stories of indigenous peoples.
Star knowledge wasn’t accidentally left behind. It has been suppressed, invalidated, and erased as part of the projects of cultural genocide and forced assimilation. The colonial project harms us all, cutting us off from deep, intuitive knowing rooted in wisdom of our communities.
Decolonizing requires active resistance. It is the work of reclaiming our connection to place.
To the land.
To the sky.
To each other.
Britney G Brinkman, PhD.
“The universe is both orderly and chaotic. We understand it to a point, and then there is mystery. And that is not linear or cumulative. There is no eventual elimination of mystery. There will always be mystery. And knowledge. Humans are both understandable and mysterious.”
I have never been a big fan of the 4th of July, nor have I ever been especially patriotic. During my senior year of high school, I refused to say the pledge of allegiance because I did not, in fact, pledge my allegiance to the USA. I am sure it was against school rules for me to refuse, but luckily my homeroom teacher was the advisor of our school newspaper ( I was the editor at the time), and he decided I was generally a good kid who usually followed the rules and let me enact my principles on this one.
This year, my Facebook feed is blowing up with stories about people planning to protest today’s festivities or wondering how they can possibly celebrate America. How can we celebrate when there are children sitting in cages in concentration camps, and families trying to get by on minimum wage and no health insurance, and Black people being murdered by the police, and Indigenous communities being ravaged for oil, and reproductive rights being dismantled? How can we celebrate when we have a President who lies, rapes, cheats, and steals?
While protesting the day is certainly a viable option (and mine), I can understand why people would want to enjoy a holiday with their friends and family. In this country in particular where we claim bragging rights for working too much and sleeping too little and where we don’t have mandatory paid sick leave or vacation, I do not begrudge people the holiday.
Instead, I say—lean into it.
That’s right—if you are going to celebrate the 4th of July, really celebrate it. Take time to talk about why the holiday exists and reflect on what it means today. Read the Declaration of Independence out loud at your BBQ and ask people to discuss it. Yes, they will moan and groan as they do at Thanksgiving when you ask them to share something for which they are grateful (for thoughts about Thanksgiving, read here), but hey, that is the price of admission.
Really, though. When is the last time you read the Declaration of Independence? Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think it is a perfect document nor one written with divine inspiration. That most famous line…that all men are created equal… is rather problematic (how about us women?) and has never been realized for people of color.
Nevertheless, there are some pretty important things in the document that you should consider—including a long list of the wrongs done by the King of England, which are eerily and terrifyingly familiar.
The Declaration is also a reminder to the people that we have an obligation to hold our government accountable:
“That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
So on this day, I say, take stock. Talk to your friends, and family members, and co-workers, and children about how our nation is doing. Go ahead and honor and celebrate the things you think we are doing well—I am certainly grateful that I have the right to criticize the government without going to jail. But don’t forget that our rights are fragile. Talk about what we can do better as a nation, and how you personally are going to contribute. We each have important roles to play in improving our communities. If you are already involved in efforts to fix social problems then great! Keep it up! Talk to your BBQ peeps about it! You just might motivate and inspire them.
And if you are feeling a little overwhelmed with all the issues facing this country and don’t know where to start, just know that you are not alone. But you don’t have to solve everything at once. As Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze say in their book “Walk Out, Walk On:”
Start anywhere, follow it everywhere.
Big change starts with small changes made by people who are truly committed. Pick an issue that matters to you. Work locally. Contribute your unique talents and strengths. Build coalitions.
The Declaration of Independence ends: “We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
What do you pledge to do?
Britney G Brinkman, PhD
I grew up in an arid climate, where people wasted water to maintain grass in their yards. Because a well-manicured lawn is the hallmark of the middle class—as American as pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.
As someone who grew up in a working class family in a working class neighborhood, I know how important it is to avoid being accused of “letting my yard go”.
Now, I own a house in a city where it rains so much that I find myself empathizing with the wicked witch of the west. Maybe she wasn’t evil. Maybe she just couldn’t take
Now, I find myself defining grass as a weed. According to Good Weed, Bad Weed, a weed is merely a plant out of place. Grass is growing out of control in my vegetable garden.
But, I am having a terrible time digging it up. How can I uproot and discard (in this case, compost) a plant that was coveted during my childhood? Also, I would like to eat the sweet peas that I planted in that garden bed, whose stalks are currently being choked out.
I realized that it is time to shift my entire perspective about my garden. Instead of blindly pulling up the plants I had decided didn’t belong, I looked for a way to balance out the grass and the sweet peas. I am trying to cultivate a different relationship to the land. One in contrast to the American dream of ownership and control; and white picket fences and perfect lawns.
I sometimes joke that I am going to write a book called “The Lazy Gardener.” At my previous house, I built garden plots in my front yard because the backyard was shaded by a large beautiful tree. When it came time to plant, I was often surrounded by neighbor children, begging to help. It seemed way more important to encourage their involvement than to ensure that seeds were planted in neat rows. It was a fantastic opportunity to practice valuing relationships over perfection.
And the plants grew just fine. Because nature knows how to do her thing without us. Which is really the whole point. The less I try to control things, the better.
Despite the increasingly common and severe weather events related to global climate change, many of us are stubbornly clinging to the belief that we can—and should—own and control the land.
That belief and the accompanying behaviors is killing the planet.
This spring, I had one of my classes read the article “Decolonization is not a metaphor.” It was a tough read, but my students engaged with it deeply and openly. The authors challenge the readers to consider what it truly means to decolonize North America. To question the whole system of land ownership.
For anyone raised in a settler colonial nation, it requires us to expand the bounds of our imagination. To consider new ways of being with ourselves, others, and the land.
Perhaps avoiding weeding the garden can be the ultimate act of resistance.
Resistance against the system of capitalism that creates poverty and shames those who live in it.
Resistance against a system of capitalism that encourages us to buy, consume, control, throw away.
Resistance against a system of colonization that says some people get to “own” the land and other people are “illegal.”
Resistance against a system of colonization that encourages people to become disconnected from the land, from each other, from their own bodies.
Adrienne Maree Brown’s book Emergent Strategy teaches us to explore methods of social change informed my processes in nature.
It is poetic and brilliant and inspirational.
One of the principles of emergent strategy is that small is good—small is all. The large scale is a reflection of the small scale. How I treat one blade of grass reflects how I treat all beings in the world.
Imagine what could happen if we all stop weeding our gardens?
Britney G Brinkman, PhD
I have never been a patriotic person.
In high school, my homeroom teacher ignored the fact that I refused to stand and say the Pledge of Allegiance, although I am fairly certain there was an explicit rule stating that I should. He knew me well enough to realize I was genuinely protesting mandated nationalism, not being a teenage rebel.
Times haven’t changed much.
Recently, a Latina high school student in one of my research studies shared a story of her decision to protest anti-immigrant sentiment when she led the school-wide Pledge of Allegiance by ending it with:
Liberty and justice for some
On this 4th of July, many of my friends are asking themselves what to do with the day. They balk at the idea of celebrating a nation that seems so far from their ideals. In Pittsburgh, there are ongoing protests about the shooting--murder--of an unarmed Black 17-year-old boy by a White police officer. We are asking ourselves what we can do to end the separation of families at our borders and how to return thousands of detained children to their families. We fear the erosion of voting rights, reproductive rights, rights for LGBTQ people, the continued destruction of the environment, and so much more with the seemingly inevitable changes to the Supreme Court.
What can we possibly celebrate?
This morning my yoga teacher (a woman of color and immigrant to the US) asked our class, “What does it mean to celebrate Independence and Freedom? Who are you and who do you want to become?”
And I pose the question to all of us,
Who are we as a nation, and who do we want to become?
The problems with the United Stated did not start with the Trump administration, although certainly we must remain vigilant against racist, sexist, homophobic, and classist policies and values that appear to be core to his administration.
But if we genuinely ask ourselves who we are, we must acknowledge that we are a nation founded on state sanctioned violence against black and brown bodies. That the promises of liberty and justice have only ever been available to some.
The United States of America would not exist without slavery.
The United State of America would not exist without genocide of Indigenous peoples.
We are a nation defined by white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism.
It is easy to be disillusioned and discouraged.
But perhaps, celebrating Independence can mean asking ourselves, as a nation, who do we want to become?
Can we become a nation that truly manifests the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for ALL people? Can we become a nation where we celebrate freedom from the prison industrial complex, and the military industrial complex, and state sponsored wealth inequality, and gender inequity, and homophobia, and transphobia, and so much more?
Today, I will spend time with friends and family. Not celebrating a lie, but building community. Fostering the genuine relationships with people who encourage me to work for change, challenge me to do better, and support me when I want to give up. I will spend the day breathing, and resting, and making time to reflect on who I am and who I want to become.
And I will get up tomorrow and continue to fight to build a nation we can believe in. A nation we can celebrate.
Britney G Brinkman, PhD.
Ensuring that schools are safe spaces is essential to enable all students to learn and thrive. We appreciate that school safety and creating a positive and supportive school culture are priorities for Pittsburgh Public Schools. Safety is a top priority for us as well, which led us to engage in listening sessions with girls to hear about their experiences of feeling safe (or not) within school. During these sessions conducted with students from Planned Parenthood and Gwen’s Girls, students shared that they are not safe at school, that sexual and other forms of harassment from classmates, teachers, and staff is a daily occurrence, that this experience is pervasive and severe, and that it is interfering with their ability to thrive. This conduct is common and often unchallenged. Additionally, students involved in the Women and Girls Foundation’s GirlGov program talked with teachers in schools who said they lack sufficient information on how to effectively respond to or report sexual harassment.
Numerous national studies have shown that students, especially girls, experience sexual harassment frequently within their schools. The American Association of University Women study found that of 1,965 students surveyed, 48% of experienced sexual harassment during the 2010-2011 school year. We believe that all schools in Allegheny county can and MUST do better to prevent and respond to sexual harassment. As the #MeToo movement continues to garner national and international attention, we feel this is a crucial time to address sexual harassment and other forms of harassment within Pittsburgh Public Schools.
As the Black Girls Equity Alliance (BGEA)—a coalition comprised of individuals, community-based organizations, universities, and government entities that work with Black girls and acknowledge that their lives and experiences are unique within existing societal constructs—our mission is to eradicate inequities affecting Black girls in Allegheny County. Members working on this topic include representatives from Gwen’s Girls, Planned Parenthood of Western PA, the Women’s Law Project, FISA Foundation, GirlGov, PAAR, YUIR Pittsburgh, other organizations, universities, and government entities. We invite the Pittsburgh Board of Public Education to collaborate with us to eradicate sexual and other forms of harassment within schools that impacts all students, regardless of gender identity.
In particular, we ask that the Pittsburgh Board of Public Education:
Britney G Brinkman, PhD
Amanda Cross, PhD
Elizabeth Miller, MD, PhD
Planned Parenthood of Western PA
Women and Girls Foundation
Pittsburgh Action Against Rape (PAAR)
Women’s Law Project
Sara Goodkind, PhD
American Friends Service Committee PGH
Pittsburgh for CEDAW Coalition
Betty Braxter, PhD
M. Shernell Smith
Azadeh Masalehdan Block, PhD
Education Law Center
Melissa Swauger, PhD
Today I spent about an hour on the phone explaining to my dad why the recent event in the Starbucks in Philadelphia was racist.
If you have not seen the video of two Black men being handcuffed and taken out of a Starbucks because they were waiting for their friend before they bought their drinks—go watch it now. And watch it again.
This has become a bit of a regular occurrence with my dad since he retired. He’ll call me up or we’ll be checking in on life in general when he brings up a current event.
Maybe I should start a blog series called “Conversations with My Father…”
These conversations sometimes end with us agreeing to disagree (although we always try to come back to something positive and an affirmation of our relationship); I frequently find myself flabbergasted and frustrated; we often need to differentiate between “opinions” and “facts.”
Nevertheless, I value these conversations immensely. I know my father cares deeply about what is going on in the world. He is intelligent, and curious, and compassionate. And he is trying to make sense of his own experiences as a working class White man in a country talking about racism. With a wife and daughter whose entire work (and frankly personal) lives revolve around social justice.
What my father wanted to know was why the men didn’t either 1) buy something or 2) leave when asked.
And the thing is, my dad wasn’t asking this in a hypothetical “I can’t imagine ever being asked to leave somewhere” kind of way. In some ways, he can relate to this experience. My father worked for over 40 years for the gas company in Utah, driving a truck around the city to fix people’s furnaces, or shut off the gas in a building on fire, or check on a reported gas leak. He often needed to visit public places to use the restroom or get coffee and warm up between jobs. He and his friends had a few places where they became regulars, because it was easier. Because they got fewer questions. Because they felt welcome.
My dad has been asked to “buy something or leave.” There were places he was not welcome as a customer when he was in his work uniform. His uniform marked his as a blue collar worker and he often got dirty; crawling behind furnaces to make sure families had heat in the winter, and climbing ladders to the top of burning buildings to get to gas valves and prevent an explosion. As a kid, when my dad would meet us somewhere for dinner coming directly from work in his truck he always brought a change of clothes—usually a button up shirt.
To my dad, this is a story about social class. And his take on it was that the men should have done what he often did when questioned. Buy something or leave.
And my dad is not wrong. This is a story about social class. Would this have played out in the same way if the two Black men had been wearing business suits?? Maybe. Maybe not.
While I absolutely REFUSE to play oppression Olympics, I tried to explain to my father that he cannot compare his social context as a working class White man to the context of these two Black men. My father’s White privilege (and mine, and every other White person’s privilege) grants him access to a world where if you follow the rules (e.g. purchase something) then things will generally be pretty fair. At the very least, you are not going to be handcuffed and removed from a Starbucks.
Or arrested for having a broken taillight
Or suspended from school for being “defiant.”
Or followed around a store.
Or stopped and frisked.
Or shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop.
It’s not just Starbucks. It’s everywhere.
These United States of America are built on a system that is DESIGNED to give White people access to power and resources. Certainly those resources and power are not evenly distributed amongst White people—women, LGBTQ individuals, people with disabilities, the homeless and working class—are all acutely aware of this.
And yet, so many White people believe that this system is fair. That if you just “follow the rules” things will generally go ok. So many White people do not believe Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) when they talk about their experiences of discrimination.
Half a dozen police officers showed up to remove two Black men in handcuffs. According to their attorney they were held for NINE HOURS before being released. Because they asked to use the bathroom. In a Starbucks.
THIS WOULD NEVER HAPPEN TO MY WHITE FATHER.
Sure. There are rules. And laws. And it is probably a good idea to follow them much of the time. But the fact is that BIPOC are systematically subjected to these rules in ways that White people are not. And punished when they don’t follow them. And accused of breaking the rules, even when they are not.
Yes, I am angry at Starbucks and hope they do follow up with implicit bias training for their managers as promised by the Starbucks CEO. But I refuse to make this about that Starbucks, or that manager. I refuse to play the “a few bad seeds” game.
All White people are responsible for the system of White supremacy in this country and it is on all of us to do the work to dismantle it.
We need to listen to and believe BIPOC.
We need to talk to White people about White privilege.
We need to speak up and intervene when we witness racism.
We need to acknowledge, apologize, and work to make reparations when we engage in racism.
Because it's not just Starbucks. It's everywhere. It's all of us. And we need to do better.
Britney G Brinkman, Ph.D.
If you find yourself at the movie theater only to discover that ALL of the showings of Black Panther are already sold out (as happened to me this weekend), I encourage you to take in a viewing of the film “I, Tonya”.
I like Aziz Ansari. Parks and Recreation was one of my all time favorite TV-shows. I have a photo and quote of Ansari on my office door. It reads:
“If you believe that men and women have equal rights, and then someone asks if you’re a feminist. You have to say yes. Because that’s how words work. You can’t be like, “Yeah, I’m a doctor who primarily does diseases of the skin.” “
I love it. And yesterday I asked myself if I have to take the picture down.
A recent story posted on babe describes a woman (called Grace—not her real name) and her experience of a date with Ansari last fall during which he repeatedly pressured her for sex and engaged in numerous coercive sexual behaviors. She left the evening feeling violated and shocked.
As always happens when a woman recounts an experience of sexual violence from a beloved man (or frankly any man), people are claiming that her story is not true.
I believe her story, in all the disturbing (and somewhat graphic) detail.
And I also believe him.
Ansari has responded to the story, saying in part:
“It was true that everything did seem okay to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned.”
Now, I don’t know Ansari personally. Maybe he is a terrible guy. Maybe this incident is just one in a long pattern of sexual violence. Maybe all of his feminist talk is just a super savvy marketing scheme. Certainly some people will decide to believe all of these things based on this story alone.
But, what if he is NOT a terrible person? If he truly means his feminist rhetoric? If he is genuinely committed to supporting women’s rights?
Whatever the truth is about Ansari—which I will never really know—this is the fundamental question our culture needs to deal with.
What if good men are committing sexual violence?
I hope that the #MeToo campaign and the new Time’s Up fund continue to work to expose and disempower men who have abused their power to repeatedly sexually harass and assault women. We need that work to happen. We also need college campuses to stop turning a blind eye to repeat offenders. We need a criminal justice system that prosecutes sexual offenders. We need an intersectional anti-rape movement that awknowledges the reality that women of color and trans women face the highest rates of sexual violence.
If we want this to become more than a moment; if we want a movement to end sexual violence, we need to expand our focus beyond exposing the worst of the worst. We need to deal with the reality that good men are committing sexual violence.
In addition to challenging the truth of Grace’s story—many of the responses (including a ridiculous piece by Caitlin Flanagan for the Atlantic) have argued that the encounter wasn’t serious enough to warrant attention for a myriad of reasons. Most of the responses convey an angry tone, claiming that:
Sexual violence is not harmful because it is illegal.
It is illegal because it is harmful.
Jessica Valenti tweeted in response to the story:
“A lot of men will read that post about Aziz Ansari and see an everyday, reasonable sexual interaction. But part of what women are saying right now is that what the culture considers ‘normal’ sexual encounters are not working for us, and oftentimes harmful.”
This is not about ruining Ansari’s career. This story is an opportunity for us to have real conversations about the harm that is caused by rape culture. That people are hurt by the sexual scripts that make Ansari’s experience of the night and Grace’s experience of the night so fundamentally different.
We have to address the sexual culture we have created in the United States. A rape culture.
But, I believe in the potential of men. I believe that there are lots of heterosexual men who want to do better, who want to have respectful, consensual interactions with women. Who are uncomfortable with rape culture. I believe that men can learn to recognize the sexual scripts they have adopted, can learn to seek affirmative and enthusiastic consent, can pay attention to a sexual partner’s verbal and non-verbal cues.
I believe that if we stop teaching boys to participate in rape culture, we can raise men who don’t participate in rape culture.
I won’t speak for Grace, but I don’t want to see Ansari punished. I don’t want his career to be ruined, and him to be vilified and silenced. I want him to learn from this experience and become a role model for other men. I want him to reflect on why and how his actions made another person feel uncomfortable and violated. I want him to hear that SO MANY other women (including this writer) have had similar experiences and that they are harmful. I want him to speak out about how he is going to learn to dismantle his internalized rape myths, address any personal issues that may make it hard for him to hear “no”, learn how to read his partner’s cues and look for affirmative consent. I want to post a quote of his on my door about how he is working to end his own participation in rape culture.
And I’d really like it if other men took that journey, too.
Britney G Brinkman, Ph.D.
That’s right. It is January 3rd. Which means some of you have made (and maybe already broken) your New Years’ Resolutions.
According to the Marist Poll, the two resolutions tied for most popular are:
While there are certainly some health related reasons to consider losing weight, I am going to take this time to caution those resolutioners to avoid promoting beauty sickness in their quest for self-betterment.
In her recent book Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women Renee Engeln, Ph.D. examines the ways in which a culture that focuses on women’s appearance above all else contributes to numerous negative emotional and physical outcomes. Most girls in the US (and other beauty sick countries) are taught that their physical appearance is the most important quality they possess and that they should strive to achieve an unrealistic (arguably unattainable) beauty ideal.
Girls and women are taught that they are objects that exist for the pleasure of others.
Is it really a surprise that we are dealing with epidemic levels of sexual harassment? Boys and men are often given this same message—that girls and women are objects that exist for their pleasure.
Many arguments that promote beauty sickness are couched in terms of “promoting health.” Especially those related to weight loss. Since weight is a poor measure of one’s physical health (to say nothing of their emotional or spiritual health) intense focus on weight loss is often truly about appearances.
Even if you, the diligent resolutioner, think that you are making weight loss goals for health related reasons, be careful about how you approach these goals and how you talk to others—especially girls and young women—about them.
Engeln describes studies she has conducted that demonstrate girls often learn body dissatisfaction from observing others. In fact, in one study, women who believed their mothers were body dissatisfied were dissatisfied with their own weight, regardless of their actual body composition.
There are so many examples of girls and women criticizing their own bodies and discussing their methods of trying to change their appearance that many girls learn that this is “acceptable and normal” female behavior.
I have seen this in my own research with adolescent girls. In one study I am currently conducting with adolescent girls, we ask the participants to describe things they like about themselves and things they wish they could change. The study is a follow up to a longitudinal study I conducted in the mid-2000’s. Both then and now, girls often talk about an aspect of their physical appearance when asked what they would change.
Perhaps even more disturbing is what happened when we asked what they think most girls/young women wish they could change about themselves. Almost without exception the answer is “their appearance.” Even when girls report other aspects as being more important for self-improvement (things like, increased patience, or organization skills), they have an awareness that identifying as female more-often-than-not means being unhappy with one’s appearance.
So, what to do differently?
Well. If you really want a resolution about health—make resolutions about health. Focus on eating more fruits and vegetables or exercising more. Seek out metrics that are more reflective of health than simple weight.
And, talk differently about weight and appearance, especially around girls and women.
Engeln suggests that focusing on what one’s body can DO may help take some of the pressure off of focusing on how one’s body LOOKS. Encourage girls to track how fast they run, or how much weight they can lift, or what a better soccer player they become, or how many mountains they climb this year.
Try to avoid engaging in “fat talk” around girls and women—or really any conversation that is focused on critiquing your own or another person’s appearance. Minimize exposure to media that promotes unattainable beauty ideals. Knowing those images are photo shopped may not be enough to inoculate against them.
And, maybe most importantly, be sure to compliment girls on aspects of their selves other than their appearance. Talk about how good they are at math, or how you value their generosity, humor, curiosity, and bravery.
Ask them how they want to make an impact on the world. Ask them what they value in their friendships with others. Ask them what kind of person they want to be.
Maybe, just maybe, focus instead on the resolution to be a better person.
Britney G Brinkman, Ph.D.
EMPOWERTAINMENT aims to take a critical look at media in regards to how gender and women/girls are portrayed. From popular articles, videos, and websites, to original submissions, we want to not only examine the media and its relation to gender, but help shift it.