I rarely, if ever, write about politics -here, or anywhere. You are far more likely to read a story of mine in Redbook about the first successful U.S. ovary transplant or an article in Women's Health about some wacky sexperimentation my husband and I undertook in the name of science, or a blog about the difference between men's and women's "ideal" body image. But when Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was recently announced as the likely VP-candidate to accompany John McCain, I found myself seething for a number of reasons, the least of which is she doesn't believe women should have the rights to control our own bodies.
Now news has emerged about Palin's 17-year-old daughter being pregnant and has "decided" to keep the baby and marry the father. (A boy who, BTW, proudly refers to himself as a "f---in' redneck who likes to snowboard and ride dirt bikes" on his MySpace page and lists himself as "in a relationship," but doesn't want kids. That should work out well.)
So I asked myself, what do I as a body image blogger have to add to the frenzy over Palin's daughter's pregnancy?
It turns out, I have a lot.
First, let me lay out a bit of my background: I have a Master's degree in Public Health - a field which deals with the physical, emotional, and psychosocial repercussions of sex education (or lack thereof), of abortion (or what happens when women are denied access) and all other sorts of crucial women-centric issues. While enrolled in my program, I conducted my thesis at a Chicago-area Planned Parenthood. I worked in the abortion clinic, where women entrusted me to speak with them and guide them through one of - if not the - most difficult decision of their lives. Quite often, I held their hand while they underwent the procedure. Am I a doctor? No. Am I a politician? Certainly not. But I am a woman with ample experience in and dedication to this arena and a staunch advocate for reproductive rights. Oh, and I believe women should have control over their bodies. Call me crazy.
It is with this background that I am about to embark into unknown territory - politics - while trying to tie it into something I am considered a nationwide expert on: Body image. Here goes.
The government defines body image as "The way a person thinks about his or her body and how it looks to others." If you read Weighting Game or were drawn to my book, Locker Room Diaries, I would assume you are someone who has either struggled with the way you feel about your body or grown tired of the media's ceaseless emphasis on looks or are, I dunno, sick of pornography, soft or hardcore, and its wayward infiltration into the minds of little girls who now think having a triple-D augmented chest and shaved vagina are necessary to being popular, happy and successful in life.
What, you might be asking, could possibly be the link between a shamelessly looks-based society which messes with our perception of our bodies, promotes a fertile environment for eating disorders, and makes millions of women feel like crap because they have cellulite or a "muffin top" or aren't blonde/tall/thin/bog-lipped/Botoxed...and our right to choose to keep or end a pregnancy?
Here it is: If women are taught by an anti-choice government that we cannot trust our bodies, that we are in no condition to be in control of what goes into or comes out of our vaginas, that it is not up to us whether they carry a child to term and then must face the repercussions of a baby we are ill-equipped to care for, then how on earth can we ever learn to LOVE our bodies? To accept them the way they are? To be proud of our strength or ability to run and dance and work? If I, as a young girl, am raised in a culture where I am taught from day one that my reproductive rights are not mine to control, that my uterus and what it bears is a decisions best left to a 72-year-old man who has opposed proposals to spend federal money on teen-pregnancy prevention programs and voted to require poor teen mothers to stay in school or lose their benefits, then how am I can I be expected to mature into a woman who is sure of myself, who trusts myself to make my own decisions and chose my destiny and tell the Establishment to screw themselves, I don't need to mold or starve my body in order to conform to what you tell me is best? If I, as Palin purports, don't know enough about my own body and mind and needs to make a decision as serious as whether or not I am ready to be a mother, how do I trust myself to look in the mirror and love what I see? Or feel pride and ownership over the image staring back at me?
Isn't there a strong parallel between other people dictating my right to reproduce and other people dictating what I should look like? Both involve power being taken away from us, being undermined and treated like infants, being dis-emboldened to live the lives we want. A happy life. A life in which we decide on our own what we should look like (thin, curvy, chubby, strong, pregnant) - not our government. Not to mention both lines of thinking - the anti-choice movement and the societal movement towards an unattainable physical ideal - involve hiding bumps or physical flaws of any kind. (Anyone seen the picture of Bristol holding her mom's youngest child, Trig? It's a politically-reconnoitered version of, say, Halle Berry disguising her baby bump with a stack of magazines.
I am not the only one to make this link. In 2002, Brown University made it a point to include pro-choice messaging in its campus-wide Love you Body Day Event. Love Your Body Day is a campaign organized by the National Organization for Women in response to the unhealthy and exploitive images of women in the media. The goal: To promote positive, healthy images of women and girls, protest harmful and offensive advertisements, and raise awareness about women's health issues. Brown University's then- Feminist Majority Leadership Alliances Katie Del Guercio explained, "We will be talking about the right, politically, to respect your body." Campus orgs like the Domestic Abuse Advocacy Project, Students for Choice, Planned Parenthood, women's athletic teams, sororities and representatives from Campus Health Services all came together to promote this joint mission.
As Jessica from the inimitable and stellar jezebel.com points out, Palin's daughter should not be shamed because of the decision she made to have sex or judged for her decision to keep the baby. But I have to wonder...was it her decision? And what will happen when the days comes where, as Bristol's mother would have it, that decision doesn't belong to girls anymore? Forget the angering and humiliating "J. Love has a lumpy butt!!" tabloid spreads and media extravaganzas over how Nicole Kidman lost all of her baby weight in 14 days and impossible-to-live-up-to reports of Jennifer Lopez competing in a triathlon while simultaneously breast-feeding her newborn twins. That kind of news won't even warrant angry blogging anymore. We'll have far bigger fish to fry...and the ubiquitous phrase, "I hate my body" will take on a whole new meaning.
This article is cross-posted at The Weighting Game.
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