We need to talk about how social and economic structures impact health.

lake in the woods

Within the fat acceptance and HAES movements, there has been a growing realization that health is much more complicated than personal diet and exercise choices–that we can’t talk seriously about health without talking about the social and economic barriers that affect it on both the personal and public levels. I’m really glad that we’re talking about these structural forces, and I’d love to see more in-depth discussions, both within and outside of our communities.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, especially after a wonderful hike I went on last weekend. I just feel so in my element when I’m in the woods, and I get a great workout without consciously trying. There’s something so peaceful, so natural about being surrounded by trees, coming across everything from tiny frogs to wildflowers and heart-shaped leaves. There’s magic in the woods, the kind that doesn’t go away when you grow up.

Coming home from a simultaneously exhilarating and relaxing hike, I couldn’t help but think, contrary to conventional wisdom, how little of my health is actually within my control. Yes, healthy habits are still our best shot at improving and maintaining health. Yes, there are certainly things I can do differently, and I’m working on them. But there are so many structural limits that impact my health, and I imagine how they could be different:

– If working about 20 hours/week were standard, I could work mornings and then hike most afternoons. Or, during the winter, snowshoe or cross-country ski. I live in the city and don’t have a car (and don’t want one)–but if there were high-speed, frequent, reliable trains from the city to the woods, I could easily get out into nature on a regular basis, or even live out there and commute into the city. This would make it a lot easier to engage in the types of exercise that feel easy and natural for me, and I have a feeling I’d feel better all-around if I were getting a higher dose of Vitamin Nature. Continue reading

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Fatness is double-plus ungood.

Last night, in my internet travels, I came across this New York Times op-ed from a former hedge fund manager who left the world of finance when he realized it had turned him into a greedy, wealth-addicted jerk.

Although I couldn’t wrap my mind around the sheer enormousness of the numbers the author, Sam Polk, was talking about (multimillion dollar bonuses? It’s like a completely different reality), I liked some of his observations. Like this one:

I made in a single year more than my mom made her whole life. I knew that wasn’t fair; that wasn’t right. Yes, I was sharp, good with numbers. I had marketable talents. But in the end I didn’t really do anything. I was a derivatives trader, and it occurred to me the world would hardly change at all if credit derivatives ceased to exist. Not so nurse practitioners. What had seemed normal now seemed deeply distorted.

And then I got to this part:

But I was lying to myself. There were plenty of injustices out there — rampant poverty, swelling prison populations, a sexual-assault epidemic, an obesity crisis. Not only was I not helping to fix any problems in the world, but I was profiting from them. 

Right, because fat bodies are an injustice, not the stigma and discrimination we face. Not the $60 billion industry devoted to eliminating us. Nope, just the fact that we exist.

Let that sink in for a second. Fat bodies. Are an injustice.

The exorbitant salaries of the financial sector that the author left behind aren’t the only thing that’s deeply distorted.

And when he left it, guess what he did? Did he devote his life to helping people who had been harmed by Wall Street’s predatory practices, perhaps by fighting foreclosures or supporting living wage campaigns?

No, he started a non-profit “to help poor families struggling with obesity and food addiction.”

Food addiction. Food addiction. Not hunger, or food insecurity, or lack of access to nutritious food options, but food addiction. And fatness. Because heaven forbid poor people ever enjoy food or be anything less than thin. Because clearly what poor people need isn’t money, but rich people telling them how to eat.

I just …my head spins trying to make sense of it.

All the sense I can make is that power distorts thinking, twists the urge toward compassion into condescension. Into a sick sense of superiority and a savior complex.

Polk says he finally feels as if he’s making a real contribution. Well, he’s certainly contributing to fat hatred, to a toxic culture of moralizing about food, and to the lack of respect for poor people as humans with intelligence and agency.

Note #1: Chris Maisano has a great analysis of what’s wrong with the op-ed, which he calls “chicken soup for the neoliberal soul”: an individualistic approach that erases the need for collective action.

Note #2: Hedge funds always make me think of hedgehogs. The world would be a much better and cuter place if we could replace all hedge fund managers with hedgehog managers.

Another thing money can buy: time

Money doesn’t buy only job opportunities, kindness, and compassion: it can also buy time.

Last night, I was poking around the Transition Lab‘s website (because yes, I still have fantasies about doing it, even though I probably won’t for a whole bunch of reasons), and I noticed an announcement about two new work-exchange scholarships they’re offering:

At Transition Lab, we face an irony: While building a new economy, we still need to charge tuition in order to pay our bills in the old economy. Yet, the students who would benefit the most from our program don’t have a lot of money, because the traditional economy isn’t working out for them. It’s a double bind that is preventing the new economy to take off.

So we are going to take an innovative leap to break this cycle: We are offering the two remaining slots in our 2014 Co-Creator Program as gifts in exchange for the gifts that students can offer our program. That’s right- full tuition to two students in exchange for what they can gift us in return. Really? Yep. Gifts for Gifts.

It’s great that the people at Transition Lab recognize this double bind and are working to make their program more accessible.

But it reminded me how easily money can serve as a substitute for time and energy. People who can afford TL’s tuition can just go, no strings attached; those who can’t have to come up with a skill that’s useful to others, and then spend their time and energy practicing it throughout the program.

It’s similar to all the festivals and events that offer volunteer slots in return for free or reduced admission. Those who can afford tickets have the luxury of spending their time however they want; those who can’t, don’t. Volunteering isn’t necessarily bad–it can be fun if you do it with a group of friends. It can be a good way to practice your skills and learn new ones. But it can also be exhausting. Sometimes you just want to relax and enjoy yourself without having to work.

And that’s not even getting into the many, many people who work multiple jobs just to make ends meet, who wouldn’t have the time to go to festivals or events if they wanted to.

I want a different world: a world in which free time isn’t a luxury, but a right. A world in which people have the time and energy to explore who they are and what they want to do.

Reducing the standard work week to 21 hours, spreading out work more evenly across the population, and instituting a basic minimum income would go a long way toward making that possible.

Speaking of which, Alyssa Battistoni’s recent essay in Jacobin Magazine, Alive in the Sunshine, is a must-read. She argues that reducing the workweek and instituting a basic minimum income is necessary to achieve both economic justice and environmental sustainability–and would also give people the time to build communities and enjoy life.

Her analysis reminds me of my favorite book, Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy, condensed into a form that’s both more succinct and more specific about policy goals. It also reminds me of this great video about visualizing a plentitude economy, made by Juliet Schor (whom Battistoni quotes) and the Center for a New American Dream:

This is the world I want to build.

(Note: just to be clear, I think Transition Lab is going great work toward building that world, and I’m not disagreeing with or attacking their decisions at all. I’m just using them as an example to illustrate my train of thought about the ways in which, in our current system, people with less money often end up with less free time and less control over how they spend their time.)

It’s time for a pro-life economy (no, not that kind of pro-life)

From the tragic story of adjunct professor Margaret Mary Vojtko’s death to my own adventures in job insecurity, everything I’ve read and experienced has convinced me that we need a pro-life economy.

Not in the traditional anti-abortion sense (ugh), but in the sense of putting human lives first, and profit second. And since our lives are inextricably tied to the health of our planet, we need to prioritize that too.

We need jobs. Green jobs, well-paid jobs, jobs with benefits (or government systems to provide those benefits).

We need an end to the ideology of infinite growth–which, in a world of finite resources, is quite literally unsustainable–and a focus on human health and happiness.

We need an end to the casual cruelty of corporate capitalism–the callous profit-seeking that allowed an adjunct professor to die penniless, near-homeless, and uninsured while the university’s president received a $700,000 salary.

Bill McKibben succinctly summed up what’s wrong with our economic system in his 2007 book Deep Economy: the Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future:

Alongside the exhilaration of the flattening earth celebrated by Thomas Friedman, the planet (and our country) in fact contains increasing numbers of flattened people, flattened by the very forces that are making a few others wildly rich.

His observation is even more true now than when he first made it, back in the less-shitty days before the Great Financial Crisis.

Continue reading

Some updates on life and stuff

1.) My birthday party on Sunday was amazing! I’ll put up some pictures from it eventually. We went to the beach, which was beautiful and full of shallows and shifting landscapes; then to one of my favorite restaurants for dinner; and then back to my apartment for general merriment.

One of my friends baked me a pink cake that was intended to look like Kaylee’s dress from the Firefly episode Shindig; another gave me three pins featuring My Little Pony, an angry cupcake, and Hello Kitty.  My friends know and love me, and they are wonderful.

I am so grateful for my friends, for this community that I have.

2.) I am tired. I’m working long hours at my current temp job, which is also physically exhausting, and leaves me with little energy to do anything but crash when I come home. I miss yoga and running errands and generally having a life.

3.) Due to aforementioned exhaustion and long hours, I won’t be able to make it to the Energy Exodus next week.

I barely have the emotional energy to care that Yosemite is burning. I’m mostly just trying to get through the day, put one foot in front of the other.

I hate feeling like I’ve flaked out on all the people I started connecting with in the climate movement.

I hate that there are so many things I want to do, for both myself and the world; so many ways I want to contribute to building a stronger, more equal, more durable society. There are posts I want to write, projects I want to collaborate on, actions I want to attend, art I want to make, places I want to see. Instead, I just have to survive.

4.) This is how unjust systems perpetuate themselves: by making people too tired to act up and change things.

5.) I could write a million posts ranting about the economy, the job market, the insecurity and instability that’s being sold to us as normal. It’s not normal.  It’s not ok. It’s chronic, life-force-sucking, soul-grinding stress.

6.) At the same time, I’m aware that I have a lot of privilege. I’m luckier, economically and otherwise, than a lot of people. I know that what seems like a new, harsh reality for middle-class people like me is nothing new to those who grew up poor and working class.  I know that having shitty options is nothing new to people who never expected anything better. I know that even when the economy was “good,” a lot of people were hurting.

7.) I want that to change. There is so much promising work being done to work toward a better and fairer society (and oh yeah, to ward off planetary destruction).  I wish I had the energy to plug into it.  I wish that there were jobs that addressed all the work that needs doing. Hell, I wish there were jobs.

8.) I’m tired.