Body Hatred, Raising A Daughter, And Real Recovery From An Eating Disorder

Each Wednesday, my daughter and I put on our swimsuits and walk into the community pool until the water gets so deep I bend down and carry her. It is a long ramp into the deep end. Packed benches and risers span the perimeter and they are crowded with parents and siblings. It is quite a catwalk for those initiated into the lethal art of body comparison and body hatred.

My history with an eating disorder is one of the coolest and shittiest things about me. Cool because you recover from anorexia like I did, and no one can fuck with you. Overcoming my demons has given me a fearlessness and strength that stuns even me. Shitty because there is no intrinsic value in a bullying voice that tells you to stop eating and lose all the weight.

As it pertains to parenting a girl, it’s terrifying to know personally the reality of eating disorder culture taken to its logical extent — the acts of fainting, obsessing, and starving turning into a body that elicits jealousy, praise, and near-death experiences that blur into a loop of hospitals, treatment, and crying your damn eyes out because it hurts so much. It starts with pink onesies that ask if this diaper makes you look fat, and turns into magazine covers asking for twenty fucking years if Jennifer Aniston is pregnant because she is a woman and has a stomach. It is friends and family saying they are good or bad depending on what they ate or how they exercised. Eating disorder culture is everywhere, and it is unavoidable.

So as this swim class taught my daughter to swim, it taught me to wear a swimsuit in public without holding in my gut. It taught me to throw my towel over my shoulders instead of wrapping it cautiously around my waist or under my arms. It taught me to sit on the floor because the benches are too packed and let the rolls bunch over my bikini bottom. I want her to breathe, and walk, and sit like this. Being her role model helps keep me clean. The best way to teach her to love herself is to show her that I love her, and myself.

I consider myself fully recovered from my eating disorder. But the reality is, my actions don’t always match my thoughts. I eat regular meals, don’t restrict my food, and exercise only when I have time, which for someone who fits my work/life profile means not so much. I have a gut, two thighs, and a body that reflects this. My actions are good. My thoughts can be brutal.

Recently I have had a series of conversations with someone who is struggling with an eating disorder. She will often ask me how I moved past nasty eating disorder thoughts. This would be a different answer for anyone, since everyone’s thoughts and motivations are different, but I do think the one commonality is that we all need professional treatment to break free (this is my regularly scheduled reminder that I do not believe it’s possible to self-help your way out of an eating disorder, and if you are struggling I urge you to seek professional treatment).

But more important, it has helped me to realize that these thoughts may diminish in frequency and severity, but they actually do not go away. I’m not going to tell you what I think because I am not here to provide instructions for how to be an anorexic (you should live because it’s cool!), but let me tell you that I’ve been recovered like solid for close to 15 years and still have ridiculous thoughts every day about a new diet plan I should follow. What has changed is that they float in and out in seconds. I don’t listen to them. I don’t follow their instructions. Most of the time, I don’t even register what’s happening.

Until I did a few weeks ago. There I was in Pilates class, being physically strong when I started beating up on myself for the bulge above my elastic waist. It was in this moment of strength and sweat when it all registered. “Oh my gosh,” I thought in a high, indignant voice rising to my own defense. “That’s so meanWhy would you say that to yourself?” I did this the way a friend would chase away the worst bully. The release nearly made me cry, realizing that I had been holding this self-hatred in my muscles and I could be a good steward to myself and sweep the toxicity out with a non-self-blaming admonishment and a huge exhale.

Having been to hell and back, I can verify the basic building blocks of self-hatred have never gone away. The best I can do is acknowledge them, ignore them, and rise above them. It feels good when I demonstrate loving my body for my daughter, and it feels good when I insist upon it for myself. I’ll see you at the pool and I’ll be walking in real slow.

Goodbye, Yoga: On Parenting And Perpetual Loss

My daughter’s yoga studio is closing, and I am sad. Before I became a mother I would have sneered at that — it is particularly easy to sneer at women doing trivial things (basically just about anything) and having feelings about them.

But as I’ve written about here, starting baby yoga classes when she was 10 months old was a self-esteem boost I desperately needed at a time when I was working half-time, and feeling a diminished sense of accomplishment. I needed to get out of the house. I needed to have something on my calendar, somewhere to be. I needed to say I did something. Yoga gave me that.

But it also taught me how to play with my kid. I was not entirely comfortable singing goofy to her in front of other people before this class. We would do imaginative things alone together, but I still felt like I needed to be “cool” in front of adults. It was these classes that started opening my eyes to the joy of giving no fucks about looking mature while parenting.

I watched my daughter shift from being the youngest, most afraid, infant in the class to the girl who ran over to pull the parachute out before it was time. She sings and dances her yoga songs around the house. She does a terrific down dog for a kid who is two years old. Watching her learn — and to wait her turn to walk on the train and get a stamp, or have her name sung and chanted, or ring the chime and pass it to another child — filled my heart with pride. These were things I couldn’t have taught her at home.

As time went on, our life circumstances changed. My daughter enrolled in school (day care) full-time, and I went on to start a new organization. When you love what you do, it’s easy to work all the time, as I do and basically always have save my one brief stint as a half-time, stay-at-home mom. Suddenly our late Wednesday afternoons took on a new import. Whereas we had first started because I needed something to do, now I was continuing because I needed to carve out 45 minutes every week (or even third week) to not do, to invest in moving and being silly with my daughter.

More time passed and the late Wednesday family class was cancelled; not enough interest. It was replaced with an adult playtime yoga class, with kids encouraged to play with toys during the session. I was skeptical. How could I justify leaving work early not to enrich her, but me? This, too, was a learning experience. I told myself to be open — I had a few paid up classes, after all. Perhaps there was something of value in the new regime.

I considered the discomfort I felt in investing in myself versus doing something explicitly for my daughter. I still consider it, and find myself learning every time.

But also I challenged myself to take to heart what I’ve been saying for years: That sometimes we need to let one thing end in order to create space for something new and wonderful to enter our lives. Actively creating space has worked well for me in the past. The glamorous notion of leaping from one fully formed thing to another can often mean that the next thing is not nearly as interesting as giving yourself the mental space to dream up a new paradigm, then create it. This is why I have left multiple jobs without the next one lined up. Applying this to my personal life and my parenting life was challenging.

But it bore fruit. The new class was also quite nice. We had just hit a stride. I was getting that great yoga high and she was loving the chance to play with new toys in the studio. She would bring me plastic fruits as I breathed and did warrior poses. Sometimes she would ask to sit on my knee during a pose. Other times she’d be off in the playroom chatting with the other kids while I did a headstand, my shirt over my ribs and my round belly flopping exposed in the air — and me feeling a mega-triumph over the eating disorder that no longer controls my life.

When I learned the studio was closing, I wanted to cry. We went to our last class Saturday, and this time my daughter was the biggest kid there. The teacher announced it was the last class she was teaching there, and she might have to cry.

One of the most difficult parts of parenting is realizing that just when you think you’ve got it figured out, just when you’ve found your sense of anchor and permanence in a challenge that doesn’t play by rules written anywhere, it’s all gone. Your kid has grown out of the stage and the world no longer offers the same antidotes for younger kids now living that stage. Brand new becomes memory with alarming speed. Not just the pride and the giggles, but also the fear and the difficulty.

I am telling myself to enjoy the space that is being created by the end of something I love. I am digging deeper and telling myself it’s okay to grieve and create space at the same time. We can hold many things.

Loving My First Gray Hair Is Political

Yesterday I got my first gray hair. It’s beautiful and light, hugging the soft space to the side of my forehead. I love it.

I have been waiting for this day. I am 35. Gray hair was going to happen. Years ago I made a conscious decision to continue loving myself as I grow older. This is an act of self-preservation, and defiance.

This is about my feminism — hatred of women is intimately tied in with dangerous, racist, and unrealistic expectations of beauty that we are expected to internalize. We must reject that as much as we can (real talk: this can be a day-by-day thing, and feeling like crap about your looks doesn’t mean you don’t get to be a feminist).

This is personal — I almost died of anorexia. Gray hair is a victory! I am fortunate I made it to my 18th, 19th, and 20th birthdays. I am both grateful and proud I did, because damn that was a lot of work. My personal interest extends beyond having overcome nearly lethal negative self-talk related to my appearance; I’ve reached an age where too many peers have died for no good reason. I’m lucky to get old.

This is about parenting, too — my daughter deserves the example of a woman who dares to look like herself and love herself.

As a social justice activist and organizer, I struggle with the decision to write posts like this sometimes. Today yet another video has surfaced of a Black person losing their life to police violence; his name was Sam DuBose. Racism is one of the most pressing issues of our time.

And so, I ask myself:

Is it indulgent to be introspective about the first freaking gray hair on my head at a time when people are dying, when politicians fail to acknowledge that Black lives matter, when terrorists are targeting abortion providers because they dare to help women?

I struggle with this question, and yet this post speaks for itself: Here I am, writing. My firm belief is that self-love is radical. You cannot fight effectively for equality, dignity, or justice when you are unable to treat yourself with respect. You cannot find the courage to accept difference in others if you’re unwilling to accommodate difference for yourself. Loving yourself is not ego or dominance (those are rooted in insecurity, after all); loving yourself is about compassion. Best part? Inner compassion is compassion, and both are contagious.

So, when I embrace my gray hair, what I am also saying is that we should embrace ourselves and one another as we are. We must treat our fragile lives with respect and love, and break every convention necessary.

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Parenting, Self-Esteem, And Toddlers Holding One Leg Up

My self-esteem kind of fell to the shits some time after my daughter was born. It wasn’t postpartum depression; I’d made it okay through the weeks of shifting hormones and months of endless infant crying. I cried twice after she was born; once in frustration that I wasn’t getting to hold her as much as I wanted during what felt like a never-ending cycle of visitors, and once that first day after my husband went to work and everyone was gone. Other than that, I was fine.

Until I wasn’t. I started losing confidence. New parenthood can be isolating, physically: You just can’t leave the house as easily as you used to.

To compound matters, I had less to say about work, because I was working half-time. I had been used to connecting with people on the basis of work.

Sometimes it’s said that people who talk about their kids are boring. Emotionally, I bought right into that, while intellectually I still know this is a feminist issue that angers me. Frowning on kid-talk serves as a way to silence and trivialize women since we often find ourselves serving as primary caregivers to any children we may have.

All of this meant I became more isolated still.

I realized in the grocery store that I was getting out of tune with myself; it was becoming too hard to buy basic things like pasta or peanut butter. I would look at multiple varieties and not know which to pick. I didn’t trust myself. Decisions that should have taken three seconds were taking 10.

So I wrote an email to two of my closest, dearest friends, telling them that I felt my self-esteem was hitting a lower patch and asking for advice on what they thought I should do. I also asked my husband for ideas.

I think, honestly, it surprised some of them, although they all rose to the occasion, were supportive, and offered awesome ideas. There is some taboo in admitting when you don’t feel great. There shouldn’t be.

Our security in ourselves and the way we feel about the world are hardly static. You could even be the strongest person in the world and still hit rough patches. Admitting the crap times when you have them is a really helpful step to tossing them down the Litter Genie.

Through conversations with my lovelies, I came to realize that what I was really missing was a sense of accomplishment, and that was what was decking my self-esteem. When I had been working around the clock, I had stacks of achievements in the detritus of my to-do lists. People recognized my work. I had the ability to write for pleasure 20 times more often than before the baby, and get feedback in the process.

Motherhood didn’t feel like that. Every time I changed her outfit, my dear sweet daughter seemed to spit up profusely again. Even putting her down for a nap wasn’t much accomplishment, since she’d usually wake up and start crying almost immediately. What I needed, bluntly, was something new that we could do. I knew it had to be us and not just me, or I wouldn’t get the accomplishment near often enough.

So we tried a baby yoga class. And we started coming back, week after week. We’ve been going for almost a year and a half now. Thing is, it worked, and actually fairly quickly. I just needed something new, something I could point to as something I was getting done. As time went on, and my daughter grew, the class became irresistible fun. I love to watch her sing, dance, and do a tree pose (A DEAD-SERIOUS TODDLER DOING A TREE POSE!).

Recently I shared this story in a workshop I facilitated on pregnancy after an eating disorder, as an example of how it’s totally cool to speak up during the divots of life and work toward your own mental health. A doctor who was also leading the workshop responded to my claim that probably none of the other parents in the room knew how important that 45-minute class is to me. She said: It probably is for them, too.

We need to be honest that parenting is not always easy, that life is not always easy, that it’s okay to experience ups and downs and talk about them. It’s actually a sign of strength. At least, that’s the message I hope I’m teaching my daughter.

No More Bad Hair Days And Skinny Clothes

I’m done with bad hair days, they don’t exist. Men don’t have bad hair days; those few who say they do are distinctly in the minority because bad hair days are about sexism, not appearance.

Bad hair days are a way of trivializing women and making us feel like we aren’t good enough as we are. It takes hours for a woman to get the kind of hair that graces magazine covers — time that could be spent getting more sleep. Death to bad hair days!

My hair is neither curly nor straight nor wavy. I had been thinking of it as kind of this perpetual bad hair day. Except it’s not.

Recently I realized how much time I’d been spending beating myself up for not having time to blow dry my hair, since my mornings are about walking dogs, feeding dogs, changing diapers, and then getting a toddler dressed and fed before encouraging her to brush her teeth (good luck). I’m fortunate if I get in a shower before starting to work.

Thinking negatively about my hair had started to invade my space. I started thinking I didn’t look “professional” enough to see colleagues or “good” enough to see friends. I had all this self-imposed stress in the mornings to meet this goal to blow dry my hair.

Wait, what?

When I started unpacking it, I realized I have the same hair that I used to think was totally hot on guys I used to date. (I focused a good chunk of my single life on men who look like Jesus.) This made me realize — hey wait, that’s bunk! I’m not having bad hair days. I’m feeling bad about not measuring up to impossible standards for women. Perhaps, even, my natural hair looks good.

Well, okay then. Bye-bye bad hair days.

On a similar note, the other day I purged my closet of small (skinny) clothes. It felt wonderfully empowering. Leaving clothes that are too small in my wardrobe implies that I need to lose weight to get dressed. No, thank you. Clothes are supposed to fit people, not the other way around.

Self-esteem is not fluff, y’all. When we are able to stand tall, we are able to insist others respect our bodies and our minds. We can dare to be vulnerable, and we can dare to change. Creating the world that should exist is actually a hell of a lot of fun.

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On Hating Women, Or Respectability Is Not Dignity

We are conditioned to hate women.

We hate ourselves for being too fat, too thin, too curvy, too flat, too flaky, too serious, not smart enough, not fun-loving enough. We are rarely just right, and that’s political. The problem is set up as personal — allegedly there is something wrong with us (all of us) and we should be ashamed — rather than a society that criticizes women. You can be aware and still fall into the trap.

And how we hate other women! I am tired of being expected to hate Gwyneth Paltrow, or Sheryl Sandberg, or slacker moms who supposedly get to work less than everybody else, or women who are pregnant and on public assistance, or even other feminists who see things differently.

Which brings me to my next point: I’m not sure most feminists, let alone most people, understand how radical it is to accept women as they are.

I am still on a tirade against Dos and Don’ts Feminism, or the policing of women’s personal lives and choices, as a way to evaluate whether they deserve to be equal. But I’d like to push this critique a step further, because one of the core issues at stake is whether we are going to accept women as they are and allow them to take up space, or not.

It is radical to not question women for who they are, or what they need. It is radical to support women as the people they are now, rather than the people we might wish them to be. It is radical to not use women as a yardstick to measure the inadequacies of other women.

One of the areas where this becomes crystal clear is the losing fight over abortion. For too long advocates for abortion rights have focused relentlessly on the sad and regrettable reasons why some women have abortions. Those stories exist and the point is not to minimize them; rather, it is to say that trying to make abortion relatable to people who don’t agree with it fails to attack the root cause of why abortion is controversial in the first place … we don’t believe women are good decision-makers, and we think that only if women are good decision-makers will they deserve dignity and control over their lives.

So, actually, it is very radical to accept women in all aspects of their lives, perfect or imperfect. Because accepting women “as-is” is a necessary precondition to dignity, equality, and justice for women. Dignity is not respectability.

It’s not respectability under the terms of rape apologists who believe that if only women would stop drinking that and wearing that they wouldn’t get raped.

For that matter, it’s not respectability under the very different terms of some feminists who believe that only women who buck the gendered expectations of femininity, like wearing make-up or caring for children or washing a husband’s laundry, are situated to claim equality.

Sometimes I’ll hear my radical belief against hating or criticizing women dismissed as “choices feminism,” or an idea that feminism is about allowing women to make choices and be whoever they want to be and that’s it. Nope. I want women to be equal. But they are not going to be equal so long as we demand a fixed set of behaviors from them, whatever those behaviors may be.

Supporting women as they are is radical, and a first step to greater political and social gains. If political and social gains come at the price of constricting women who do not fit a particular mold, we are simply applying a new shade of paint to an old straitjacket.

My Pregnancy, My Eating Disorder

Among other things, recovering from my eating disorder meant I could get pregnant. Me. Pregnant. It’s a stretch for many of us to imagine getting excited about growing a big belly, but add a history of eating disorders into the mix and it’s downright weird.

Eating disorder culture is an unhealthy, relentless focus on unrealistic standards of beauty and physical fitness, along with the presentation of hunger and food as pathologies, or demons, to be conquered. This culture of body hatred is inescapable, whether you have struggled with an eating disorder or not.

We are supposed to feel bad about our bodies, no matter what they look like.

We are supposed to judge our food and exercise choices as “good” or “bad.” It is considered totally normal to say “I was good today” in reference to starving, or to say “I’ve been so bad” to refer to the act of not exercising. This happens so much it is considered commonplace; but it’s shocking when you think about the fact that food and exercise are used as shorthand to convey our entire worth as persons.

Body hatred, negative self-image, and eating disorder culture are so relatable because they are everywhere. They are not the exclusive provinces of women, but it’s true that women are disproportionately impacted. The pressure to be less is profound; it is not just about bodies. It is about the devaluing of an entire gender. It is a pressure, placed strongly upon women, to take up less space in the world. To be seen and not heard. To be airbrushed into something that is non-human. These unattainable standards are labeled “perfect.”

And yet, how to explain the endless fetishization of pregnant women? The pressure to turn pregnancy into a spectator sport, complete with photographs that everyone you’ve ever met can comment upon online? The relentless messages about “getting your body back” after pregnancy is complete? The magazines, the stars, and the stories about how they lost (or didn’t lose) the baby weight?

Through the process of my pregnancy, and through my lens as an eating disorder survivor, I came to see pregnancy voyeur culture as an important component of eating disorder culture. The specifics may be different, but many of the pressures and root behaviors are the same.

Whether a woman is pregnant or not, her body and physical appearance is seen as appropriate for comment by strangers.

Whether a woman is pregnant or not, it is considered appropriate to discuss how much weight she has gained or lost, and these numbers are taken to signify something more than simply what she weighs. They are taken as a way for others to assess not just whether she is acceptable, but whether other women are acceptable.

Whether a woman is pregnant or not, the shape of her body is taken as an immediate assessment and announcement of her sexuality.

Whether a woman is pregnant or not, strangers feel they can touch her, from rubbing a belly to rubbing an arm.

Whether a woman is pregnant or not, her body is treated as a piece of public property. That body may be commented upon, or have laws placed upon it.

Pregnancy can be a profoundly alienating and centering experience. My pregnancy was both. It was shocking to me that my body could create my baby, and also that during the process of pregnancy I could feel totally new things. That foods I had loved no longer tasted good. That foods I hadn’t desired in years were sudden, urgent cravings. That aches could develop in areas of my body I had never considered.

It was also centering, in that I had to surrender to what my body would do. When it came time to give birth, I had no choice. I was operating on my body’s timetable. Not my mind’s.

When I realized I was going to have a girl, I thought hard about the body image struggles I had gone through in the past. I thought about the hospitalizations of my youth, and the days when, at rock bottom, I accepted that anorexia meant I was probably going to die. I thought about not wanting to pass that along to my daughter, and more specifically taking active steps to not model any body destructive behavior in front of her.

And so, as with my recovery, I ate. I ate and ate and ate. I grew. And this time, so did she.

This original essay first appeared in DISORDERED a zine on eating disorders feminism and anti-oppression…

The Push To “Lose The Baby Weight” Is Bunk

The social and psychological push to “lose the baby weight” is among the crappier things we do to new moms. There is, even during pregnancy, a fixation on “getting your body back” that leads to pregnancy fat-talk, or the push to share how much weight you have gained. I have written before about why I chose not to participate in that talk, as well as my story navigating pregnancy after an eating disorder, and on having a new sense of body image after having a baby.

By now, I’m fairly good at resisting negative body image-type things. In fact, I can often completely shut down internal and external messages that conflate my worth with taking up less space. If I hadn’t — painfully — learned how to do this through the course of various medical interventions, I do believe anorexia would have prevailed and I would be dead. This does not mean I don’t hear the pressure to lose the baby weight. I hear it loud and clear. And I find it irritating.

Yes, losing the baby weight is most definitely something other people do and do care about, and my eating disorder culture police siren isn’t chasing after them. It is not feminist to judge others in a different lane in life. I can appreciate the drive to want to fit into more of your old clothes, and to “feel like yourself again.” But I would, again, like to push back against a broader frame that asserts that a pregnant body and a body after giving birth belongs to anyone but the person in it.

There is strong overlap between eating disorder culture, voyeur culture, and an anti-modern fundamentalist culture that denies the existence of reproductive rights. I have written about this before in the context of why I chose not to post pregnancy photos to Facebook. To boil it down more essentially, modern pregnancy is a spectator sport, socially, and an increasingly church- and state-controlled sport, physically, and these two phenomena support each other. At the core is a belief that having a baby is an other-worldly condition, something that doesn’t belong to a woman herself, which is rather funny as the process of giving birth is, once initiated, an unavoidable, unstoppable total body experience for women.

In this context, body hatred and shame, within the frames of losing the baby weight and getting your body back, operate to support the idea that your body does not belong to you right now. Before birth, during birth, and even after birth. It is as if, with regards to pregnancy, a woman’s body is not allowed to change, and if it does, that woman’s true body is seen as a state in the past, captured in photographs or pant sizes gone by, while the state of present is simply a misshapen shell to be rejected.

Body hatred as a general state operates to keep women in a second-class status by making us prisoners of our appearance; by obliterating our self-worth; by robbing us of time, energy, and in many cases nutrients; by pitting us in competition with what appears to be other women but what is actually an unattainable state for all; by caging us from within. All of this continues with the fixation on the pregnant and post-pregnant body. But there is an additional punch: The social and psychological rejection of a pregnant body as “that woman’s body” from a hot-or-not standpoint operates to support the increasing violation of pregnant women’s civil and human rights. If that body isn’t yours now, then it’s easier to suggest that a statute written by a pen passed between politicians and clergy should trump you in moments of life, death, and great weight. This is one way that the psychological rejection of the pregnant and post-pregnant body is so serious.

But it’s most of all serious in the immediate experience of women who find themselves under pressure to not accept their bodies as they are now, before, and after giving birth. Having a new baby means you are usually tired all the time; if the pressure to lose weight is followed to its logical end of dieting and restriction, new moms may feel starving as well as tired. Giving birth is a moment of profound strength. It’s simply disgusting that a woman who has given birth should, as a matter of cultural expectation, then look at her body and reject it. This year I intentionally chose not to make a New Year’s resolution to lose my remaining “baby weight,” which I am reminded, when I look at my adorable daughter rolling on the floor, is actually “my weight.” She deserves better goals from me, and I, like any woman, deserve to accept myself as I am today.

P.S. – I feel it is nearly inevitable that this post will receive a comment about “health.” We are trained to equate less weight with “health,” and I not only reject that, but also identify it as a critical Jenga piece in eating disorder culture. Concern-trolling about health as a means to push weight loss upon post-pregnant people (or anyone else, for that matter), is not legitimate in a cultural context. Your doctor can credibly claim you need to lose weight for health reasons but the peanut gallery is not qualified to do so.

Feminism Goes Mainstream: The Obligatory Lean In Review

I saved Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead until these final moments before my maternity leave because I like to match books with times in my life to the extent practical, I was reading other things first, and I’m not as mainstream as the feminists who received advance copies that allowed them to review the book in a more timely fashion.

Within 10 pages of reading, I started getting misty-eyed with happiness. Sheryl Sandberg is not another generation’s replacement for Gloria Steinem — nor, for a variety of reasons, is it particularly relevant or useful in this modern feminist era to try to anoint a new one — but what she and coauthor Nell Scovell have created is a game-changer: Feminism has gone mainstream. Specifically several feminist ideas have gone mainstream. They are being read and talked about by people outside the women’s movement and outside the progressive movement. Lean In is sparking much-needed conversations, some of them uncomfortable, within settings where everyone otherwise politely agrees that women are equal while men hold most of the power, as if no disconnect exists between professed ideals and glaring reality. This is huge.

In the form of a memoir peppered with statistics and practical advice, Sandberg gives other women permission to say to themselves, I’m going to step up and believe in my professional ability. Not every woman has a fear of sitting at the main table, or negotiating a salary, or taking on a leadership role when they know they might want to have kids someday. Not every woman, many of them due to multiple discriminations that cannot be mitigated by a change in attitude, can even dream of having these problems. But for those who do, and there are a lot of them, Sandberg’s message is inspirational. We must believe in ourselves.

Self-esteem is an irreplaceable ingredient in any march toward justice. When you are taught to believe that women have not achieved equality and parity — that you are getting paid shit, that you got raped and your military commander dismissed the charges, that the president has taken multiple breaks from running the country to force you to show a driver’s license before you can buy a birth control pill — not because of systematic discrimination against women but rather because there’s something wrong with you, personally (oddly, all of us), believing in yourself is a radical act.

A great deal of internecine debate exists within the feminist community, I think partially from a fear that Lean In will be seen as a canon on modern feminism, which it is not. Sandberg is a business leader who wants to help other women overcome self-doubt and fill executive leadership roles. This is not a book that was written to advance feminist theory, and, unsurprisingly, it doesn’t. So many feminists have criticized this book that I don’t need to feel the need to recap all of their criticisms. A few: Systemic change requires institutional-level solutions (not negated by Sandberg’s book). This book is more relevant to upper class, heterosexual white women (yes, this is true, but Sandberg wasn’t trying to speak for all women; if anything Lean In suggests that women who don’t fit Sandberg’s profile, especially women of color, need to be supported by the feminist community in publishing mainstream-level books, and sign me up as someone willing to help).

My primary criticism of the book is that in a few places, Sandberg asserts that women in power will help bring other women up. That’s simply not true. How many years has it been since Sarah Palin stepped into the cement shoes of that outdated liberal feminist assumption and threw it into the river? A feminist agenda must include law and policy, which may be acknowledged by Sandberg herself as outside the scope of the book, but that doesn’t mean she gets a free pass to claim something that’s untrue. Women who lead often don’t bring other women up with them, and it’s routinely suggested that’s because it’s easier to admit a token woman who displays patriarchal behaviors, or women want to make sure other women don’t crowd them out of their uniquely successful position (what I call the ‘there’s only room for one smart girl in the room’ theory). In the first place, we shouldn’t promote women for the purposes of resolving sexism for other women. It’s not fair to let men currently in power off the hook like that. We should have women represented equally in leadership because we as a society have a moral obligation to do so.

Lean In is an easy, quick read designed to bring feminist ideas that women should believe in their potential to a mainstream audience. On those grounds, it has succeeded wildly. I’m happy to celebrate that from my maternity leave, whenever it begins. Many of the issues she wrote about are becoming realer to me than I could have imagined just one year ago.

A Preliminary Observation On Lean In

Encouraging women to believe in themselves and their own power? Yes. In what universe should we not?

From my own experiences as a manager and mentor, as well as employee, I can tell you some of the best returns on human capital investment I’ve seen come from encouraging younger women to believe in their worth. That they deserve to be in the room. That they should air differing perspectives. That they must be treated (and compensated) fairly.

Needless to say, I’m really looking forward to reading Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In. I want women to be openly ambitious. No, I don’t think ambition alone is going to end sexism, along with racism, homophobia, class privilege, ableism and other discriminations that interact with  sexism to hold women down. But it is a necessary ingredient.

In the short term I would like to make the preliminary observation over how perplexing it is to see that the feminist blogosphere and feminist publications have been lit up with a “controversy” over whether or not Sandberg’s book is “good for women.” Meanwhile, the cover of Time magazine asks if we shouldn’t hate Sandberg because she is successful. And a few nights ago Bill Maher had four men and one woman discussing the book. It was its own joke. No one said the punchline.

As someone who has held a variety of big feminist titles, something I started doing from a pretty young age, I’ve had a number of young women ask me how I did it, because they want to “lead feminism.”

My primary piece of advice for anyone who wants to “lead feminism” is to take your ambition and “lean in” to the real world. Generational shifts, owing to the work of older feminists, have made a strong feminist leader’s options much larger than running a women’s organization, which is always going to be more insular in reach.

Go lead a business. Go become a creative director. Go run for public office. Go become a school principal. Go follow whatever your heart tells you to do, but go out into the real world, and do it where women feminists are not the only leaders. I wish we saw more feminists on Bill Maher, discussing women in the workplace with a broader group, than we are seeing discussing, in many cases, themselves within a smaller group.

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