The Joys of Neutrality

Hey look, its Lane! He’s posting again!

For about six months, I was dating a guy with very strong opinions. I also have very strong opinions, but through my relationship with him I discovered something else; my opinions are often strongly neutral. Those aren’t two words that often go together, but nonetheless they are an accurate description of my views, at least some of the time. He often seemed frustrated, possibly reading neutral stances as me failing to be involved or to care, which was not generally case. There are many types of neutrality, some of which are very involved in their own way.

True Ambivalence

As the word lovers out there know, ambivalence correctly used is not synonymous with indifference. Ambivalence suggests two views, both strongly held, which contradict each other. Its a common human experience; wanting something while being afraid of the consequences, agreeing with a political stance while being morally appalled by the actions of extremists, being angry with someone while loving them deeply. Ambivalence is complicated, scary and frustrating. It exists because the world is complicated, because things can’t be neatly divided into good and bad, pleasurable and painful, and those complications are part of what makes living interesting. In the end, you typically have to make some kind of choice; to go for what you want rather than be held back by fear, to hold to your beliefs despite how others might sully the image, to leave the person because its healthier for you in the long run. Still, even after making a decision, ignoring the other side of how you feel is unhealthy repression. It takes a lot of strength to accept both parts of a contradictory feeling, and in my view its worth it.

Waiting to See

When I watch a preview, sometimes I can see ways the premise could be handled well, or badly. When somebody proposes a course of action, I can think of ways it could succeed or fail. When I meet someone, I have an impression of them, but it will take time before I know whether that first impression is correct or not. In all of those cases, I can lean one way or another, but its too early for me to really know whether I’m right or not. There is an advantage to taking a guardedly neutral stance. Any scientist is aware of the tendency for an initial hypothesis to bias later observations and conclusions, and in real life you typically don’t have the advantage of setting up blinds studies, taking data, having peers review your results and so on. The conscious choice to take a neutral stance until you have solid information can prevent erroneous ideas from taking root too early.

Seeing Both Sides

This is similar to ambivalence, but I see it as being more purely intellectual, whereas ambivalence is often emotional or rises from conflict between reasons and feelings. Sometimes two political stances both have good points and bad. Sometimes both friends in a conflict were wronged. Sometimes neither solution is completely satisfactory. Being willing to take the neutral stance can earn a lot of ire from both sides, but at the same time it allows for compromise, for alternatives to be considered, and for new ideas to be generated.

That is not to say that neutrality is automatically the best choice. That’s the Golden Mean fallacy. What’s more, neutrality is often taken as an assumed stance, to avoid excessive conflict, to allow someone to suck up to both sides without being willing to challenge either. I have no love for neutrality that exists simply as a get-out-of-conflict free card. That said, there is an authentic kind of neutrality which I find very admirable. When neutrality is part of an attempt to consider a question fully before coming to a conclusion, or an effort to be honest about the ambiguities within one’s own thoughts and feelings, it is something to be encouraged, not dismissed. When that kind of neutrality happens in resistance to others’ attempts to push someone into a clear stance they are not ready to take, or incapable of fully embracing, it can be as strong and controversial as any other stance.

Birth control!

Hey everybody! Want to read a post about birth control choices? If not, may as well click away now!

Since realizing that I was going to become sexually active as soon as I found someone I liked enough, I’ve thought a lot about birth control options. I’m the kind of person who likes to weigh choices over and over, considering them from every angle, so it was a pretty natural thing to do. But I never hear other women talking about their own birth control choices; at most maybe they mention what they’re using, or something they had a bad experience with.

Methods I have used
Condoms: Still a part of my life in the poly world: like many poly folk, we have a rule about using condoms with new partners, and not stopping using them without discussing it with the other partners. It’s primarily about preventing infection, not preventing pregnancy, but when I wasn’t on any other form of birth control it served double-duty. The interruption in spontaneity doesn’t bother me, but the increased dryness does. Still, sex with a condom is way better than no sex at all: it’s a price I’m quite willing to pay.

Withdrawal: A much-maligned strategy, for couples where the male partner knows his body and can exercise control. You’ll still hear conflicting reports about whether there’s sperm in pre-ejaculate: there isn’t conclusive evidence, but the most likely answer is “sometimes, from a previous ejaculation.” Either way, it is possible to get pregnant from perfect use of withdrawal, but the odds are low: the perfect-use rate is 96%, which is close to the perfect-use rate for condoms. I like it because it’s free and doesn’t require me to do anything, not even go to a doctor every few months. I would like it less if I didn’t trust my partner’s “perfect use” abilities, and I would never, never recommend it to teenagers. The biggest disadvantage is that it might be less fun for the man: it is for mine, which is the primary reason I went on to a different method.

Fertility awareness: Another much-maligned strategy. As with withdrawal, its effectiveness depends on how well you know your body and how good your self-control is. I used a lazy-but-cautious form of fertility awareness, keeping only a very small window of “safe” times. For this reason, I probably won’t ever use it as my primary form of birth control: to do it effectively, you should be charting your temperature and all your cycles and cervical fluid, and while I like the idea of knowing my body that closely, I’m not disciplined enough about daily tasks to carry it out.

The Sponge: I liked this one. It was easy to use, I had control over it, and I didn’t have any comfort issues. The major downside was the cost: something like $12 for a pack of three. That would be okay if I was single and only occasionally having sex, but not something I wanted to consider long-term.

You’ll notice that all these methods are non-hormonal. For a while I was dead set against using hormonal methods of birth control: I was afraid of undiscovered side effects, and I didn’t like the idea of constantly medicating my body when it’s just operating the way it’s supposed to. My take on this changed somewhat as I learned more about reproductive biology: it became less “don’t disturb the magic and mystery of the reproductive cycle!” and more “here’s why the body does these things at this time, and here’s all the things that can change that, and just because it’s natural doesn’t mean that it’s the healthiest thing for you.” (Kate Clancy writes a lot of good stuff about women’s reproductive physiology: this post contains links to a lot of great information, by herself and others.) This ideological shift, combined with what I learned about some other non-hormonal methods I was considering (more on that in a minute), got me looking at hormonal methods again. And so we come to…

What I’m using now
NuvaRing: I just started it, which is what prompted this post. In a month or so I’ll come back with a fuller report on how I like it. It’s the first hormonal birth control I’ve taken, and I chose it for two reasons: it’s lower-dose than any of the others, and it’s instantly removable. If I find I don’t like its effects, I can take it out and the hormonal effects start breaking down after several hours. Also I like that it can be used continuously, without a withdrawal bleed every month. If I’m going to be messing with my hormones, I’m going to enjoy the full benefits, goshdarnit! I like it so far: I don’t feel it at all, insertion was no problem, and I’ve noticed no other effects.

What I’ve considered using
Diaphragm/cervical cap: This was going to be my method of choice once I finally made it to a doctor. Both methods are very similar to the sponge, which I liked, but more cost-effective for someone who has sex more than once a week. What changed my mind was learning that spermicide may increase risk of HIV infection: frequent use can cause minor abrasions which make HIV transmission easier. The risk given my circumstances is pretty low: while I’m non-monogamous (risk factor), none of my partners are hugely promiscuous, and I trust them all to use condoms with outside partners, and I’m not going to be exposing myself to spermicide every day. But low risk isn’t no risk, and gosh it’d suck to get HIV, so I bumped any spermicide-dependent birth control methods down several rungs on the preference ladder.

IUD: This one I might go with after I’ve had all the children I want to have. Several years ago I was planning on using the copper IUD once I became sexually active: over many years it becomes cost-effective, I liked that it was non-hormonal, and I liked that I wouldn’t have to do anything about it once it was placed. Non-monogamy, and my late onset of sexual activity, changed my calculations here too: some people don’t recommend the IUD for the non-monogamous, as it can increase the risk of complications if you do get an STI. Also, I’m now thinking it will be less than five years, not more, that I decide it’s babytime, so it makes less sense financially. And finally, my calculations of “prefer less hormonal interference” and “prefer less menstrual difficulty” have flip-flopped: before, I wanted no hormones even if it might make my periods heavier and more painful, and so planned on using the copper IUD. Now, I’ll probably opt for Mirena if I do get an IUD.

So! Now you know all you’d ever want to know about my ruminations about / experiences with different forms of birth control. If you’d like to share your own, please do! I’m genuinely interested to hear other people’s experiences and considerations… which is why I posted this in the first place.

Why a sex strike is not a helpful response to attacks on reproductive choice

I’ve seen a couple of calls for a sex strike of some kind, in response to the many recent attempts to restrict availability of women’s reproductive choice services (both abortion and birth control). I get where they’re coming from, and I think their main argument is correct: before birth control, women and men alike had much less sexual freedom, and the further our access to it is withdrawn, the less sex people will be having. The posts I’ve seen about sex strikes are a well-meaning attempt to confront men with the reality of this consequence before it’s too late. (There could very well be calls out there employing a nastier, “they’re trying to screw us so let’s not screw them!” tone, but I haven’t encountered them yet.) The problem is that tactics like this aren’t paying close enough attention to who is pushing this legislation, who is supporting it, and how a sex strike is going to affect them.

Historically, sex strikes have been effective when the women of a single community took a strong position against actions or policies that the men of their community were embracing. That’s not what’s going on here, though. Pulling back access to reproductive choice services is not something men are doing to women: it’s something political conservatives are doing to everybody. And while political conservatives do tend to skew male, the difference is not dramatic (For an example, look at the demographics of voters in the 2006 elections.) My experience is that people tend to run in social circles with similar political beliefs, so women who vote conservative are more likely to date men who vote conservative. And how likely are women who vote conservative to participate in a sex strike? My guess is… not very likely?

A lot of conservative voters have very strong beliefs around sexual morality, believing sex should only take place in monogamous heterosexual marriages. Needless to say, a sex strike is not going to scare them: unmarried, unready-for-children people having less sex is exactly what they want. So the success of a sex strike depends on the existence of a significant population of conservative voters who are relatively neutral on sexual morality and who enjoy non-procreative sexual activity. And even if that population is large enough to affect election results, the men of that population would have to be dating / married to / hooking up with women that are politically motivated enough to engage in a sex strike. I just don’t see that as likely. I think conservative-voting, apathetic-on-social-issues men are mostly dating (etc) apathetic-on-social-issues women, who aren’t going to participate no matter how hard a strike is pushed.

So I think a sex strike is going to have a negligible effect on conservative voters, who are, after all, the ones who place and keep these politicians in power. What about the politicians themselves? Will they suddenly find themselves unable to get laid and reconsider their stance on birth control availability? Not likely. Rich and powerful men play by different rules, in sexuality as in many other things. Rich and powerful men have nothing to lose by returning to the sexual dynamics of the pre-birth-control era. Do you really think a successful politician in the 40s had a hard time getting laid? It’s the average men and women who gained from the availability of effective birth control, and it’s the average men and women who will lose as that availability is withdrawn.

It’s pretty popular these days to pooh-pooh attempts at grassroots activism on the grounds that they’re ineffective. In general, this irritates me: why discourage people from trying? But in this case I have philosophical objections as well as pragmatic objections. A sex strike encourages women to use their bodies as a bargaining chip, and haven’t we seen enough of that? It supports a “battle of the sexes” mentality, and haven’t we seen enough of that? It makes sex once again about power and control, and not about joy and connection. If I thought it was going to be an effective tactic, maybe I would think all this a worthwhile price to pay — maybe. But I don’t think it is, so I would rather see us support the right to reproductive choice by continually affirming sex as a healthy, joyful, and mutually beneficial part of human nature.

Ask the Sexologist: Recommended reading on the sources of kink

Hi Ginny,

just spotted the new post on the Brunettes…. So, figured I’d ask a simple question, which is: what books would you recommend for a layman to get acquainted with the current state of sexology/sex research? I’m prompted to ask because I’d been reading this excellent article:

and reading the comments I came across a reference to A Billion Wicked Thoughts. Alas, even a quick check of that book & some online reviews (e.g. at Figleaf’s site) confirmed that it was pernicious dreck. So I’m left wondering what I SHOULD be reading…. In particular, I was curious about how people’s sexual identities are formed–how does one end up being “submissive” or having a particular fetish? And what about cultural differences–what does “kink” look like in other cultures? Are dom/sub, top/bottom binaries pretty much universal or do they have a more recent, specific history?

As you know, there’s a stereotype in popular culture that people who are into S/M have had damaged childhoods or were raped; I gather the BDSM community often hates this stereotype (perpetuated e.g. in the otherwise S/M-positive film Secretary). There’s probably a grain of truth to the stereotype (in my anecdotal observation, anyway) but I was wondering where to go for a more reasoned, empirical study of the topic.


Hi N,

“Why we like what we like” sexually is one of the toughest and — if judged by my cohorts’ research interests — most intriguing questions in sexology. It’s hard to study for a number of reasons: how do you recruit a good representative sample on such a sensitive topic? How do you measure all of the possible variables, both genetic and environmental? How do you gather reliable information about subjects’ childhoods, possibly including pre-memory stages of life? And how do you get funding for a study on the origins of fetishes in our sex-negative political environment?

To have a really solid answer even to the simple question “Does childhood abuse make one more likely to develop BDSM inclinations?” you’d want to do a longitudinal study, starting with a large sample of abused and non-abused children, and follow them through life, interviewing them about their sexual interests in adulthood. I can think of half a dozen reasons such a study would be hard to pull off, just off the top of my head.

SO. I’m sorry to say that I can’t give you a definitive answer, or even point you to resources that have one: as far as I’m aware, it’s not out there yet. But there are some theories being tossed around. One book I found interesting is Arousal, by Michael J. Bader. His basic thesis is that fetishes and fantasies all have the purpose of making us feel safe enough to be sexually aroused. Based on the different insecurities and anxieties we have, some people get that feeling of safety from exhibitionist fantasies, some from submissive fantasies, etc. It’s an interesting read and a valuable theory: I wouldn’t say I’m completely sold on it, but it’s a contender.

For cross-cultural information, Exotics and Erotics, by Dwight R. Middleton, is a great overview on desires, practices, and identities across cultures. The World of Human Sexuality by Edgar Gregersen is longer and more in-depth, and very scholarly in tone, but if you can handle a little dryness in your prose it’s fascinating reading. Neither one of these have a psychological focus: they describe rather than attempt to explain. However, knowing what sexual tastes and practices are considered normal or abnormal in other cultures helps to shed light on our own.

Good job rejecting the Ogas and Gaddam book, by the way. Their work is not entirely meritless, but their research practices are really lousy. I can sort of understand the temptation to do bad research when good research is so difficult and ridden with obstacles, but there’s no excuse for giving in to it.

Let me know if you have further questions!

Weddings! And symbolism, and lavish spending

In terms of gender role performance, I think I’m about 30% girl-typical, 25% boy-typical, and 45% neutral. One of the ways in which I’m girl-typical is that I’m interested in weddings. When I was little, I read all of Emily Post’s Etiquette multiple times, but especially the wedding section. I would draw dresses and come up with exact, detailed plans for what my flowers would be, and what the wedding party would wear, and what our invitations would look like, and all of that. Sometimes it was a breezy casual beach wedding, sometimes it was an elaborate formal affair with 25 pearl buttons on my dress. I didn’t ever think that what I was planning was the actual wedding I would actually have someday; I just enjoyed making the plans. (I did the same thing with families, planning how many kids and their names and how I’d space them and where we’d live and which kids would be musical and which would be introverts and all of that.)

To be actually planning my actual wedding gives me a weird, disjointed feeling: kind of like when you rehearse a performance over and over, and then you finally go on stage and it feels entirely different from the rehearsal, but also weirdly the same, and you can’t quite convince yourself that this time it’s the real thing.

To me weddings, like a lot of rituals, provide a unique opportunity to express yourself in the context of your culture. Each wedding is a blend of “things you do because that’s what your culture does” and “things you do because it appeals to your individual taste.” Rituals are all about symbolism, and being, as I am, something of a junkie for symbolic self-expression, I think a ton about what the symbolism of each aspect of the wedding ritual is and how I want to embrace, reject, or modify that symbol. It becomes a very particular expression of identity. Planning my hypothetical future wedding was about trying on different possible identities; planning an actual upcoming wedding is about settling on one; looking back on my wedding as I attend other people’s will be about comparing and contrasting what my wedding said about me with what their wedding says about them.

So! If all of that sounds ridiculous and/or boring to you, you can skip this and any other post tagged “wedding” I may write in the future. If you’re still here in the next paragraph, I am going to assume you have at least a passing interest in in-depth discussion of contemporary US wedding customs and the symbolism therein.

First contemporary US wedding custom: Spending a ton of money.
It’s easy to dismiss this one as out-of-control advertising and rampant materialism and whatever else, and that’s all certainly part of it, but let’s eschew the knee-jerk dismissive response shall we? What I see in the “obscene cost” aspect of weddings is a desire to play rich for once in your life. It’s like your own private Oscar ceremony, your chance to live like a movie star for one day, where all attention is on you and everything is lavish and decadent. Most Americans can’t afford to do this more than once in their lives, and the wedding has become the time when you do it: live in glorious splendor, spend like a millionaire, and remember it all your days.

I am not uncritical of the lavish-spending custom; in fact I have been known to throw around words like “ridiculous” and “insane” as well as the above-featured “obscene.” And, as I’ll discuss in a minute, I am entirely not on board with it for my own wedding. But I do understand, I think, where the desire comes from, and I can see my way to conceding that once in a lifetime, spending half a year’s salary on a really great party could be a good choice for some people. The downside, of course, is that the market created by people who want to have the star-for-a-day wedding experience makes it rather difficult for people to have a less expensive wedding if they choose. “Wedding” anything can be expected to cost more than the same thing NOT intended for weddings, just because the producers know that consumers will pay it. A modest wedding still costs thousands to tens of thousands of dollars, depending how you define “modest.”

My personal spin on this custom: laughing in its face as it speeds by.
I don’t really have an option here: we’re broke and pretty much on our own for footing wedding costs. But even if I had money to spend, even if I had quite a lot of money to spend, I’d be shooting for the four-digit end of the wedding-cost spectrum. The idea of a big, expensive wedding last appealed to me in early college years: since then I’ve been thinking of my wedding as “celebration with friends” rather than “chance to live it up big.” We have a lot of people who love us and are excited to participate and contribute, so we’re drawing on their various talents, and letting it be a pretty homespun affair. I’m keeping track of all our expenses, so that when people ask me “How can I possibly throw a wedding for less than $X?” I’ll be able to tell them how we did it.

Happy Phillyversary!

A year ago today we moved to Philadelphia. Hard to believe. Going through that moving process (and then having to move again a few months later) was one of the things that made me confident about marrying Shaun, from a daily-life-compatibility perspective. It was a hard, intense, stressful experience, and we both hated it, but we didn’t hate or resent each other at any point, and I take that as an excellent indicator for our future.

We decided to drive through the night — I think to avoid traffic? So we didn’t get up terribly early in the morning, but when I woke up I went to get the moving truck while Shaun got all his boxes ready to load. Oh, yes, I should also mention that two days earlier Shaun had gotten sick, and when Shaun gets sick (which, thankfully, is rare), he gets a high fever which leaves him completely flattened in bed for a day or so. I’d had visions of having to do nearly all the box-carrying and truck-driving myself, but fortunately he was at least mobile and generally functional by moving day.

We loaded up his stuff, then took a lunch break, then drove to my place to load up all mine. I hated driving the moving truck… driving big vehicles makes me nervous anyway, but the killer was the car-towing rig on the back. When turning I just didn’t know how it was going to move, and when driving straight I couldn’t see it at all, so I just had to take it on faith that the car was still behind me. In retrospect, we should have just gotten rid of the car in Atlanta… it was near breaking down already, and the guy who showed me how to operate the towing rig didn’t fasten it right and did some pretty severe damage to the undercarriage of the car. I don’t think we ever drove it in Philly, so we wasted the money for the rig and whatever fuel usage it added. And the people we were living with somewhat resented its presence in the driveway, and it’s not like we were lacking in other sources of resentment there.

I think we left in the evening sometime. Saying goodbye to Atlanta was sad for me; it’s the city I became an adult in, and I’ve always felt an uptick in confidence and independence just being there, with all the associations it has for me. Then, too, we were leaving a place where I had a strong network of old friends, and going to a place where I knew nobody. I was excited about the move, but very sad too.

One of the cats pooped about fifteen minutes after we hit the road. I have since learned that he can be relied upon to do this any time I put him in his cat carrier. Fortunately I had put pads down in the crates and brought along extras, so I could just change the pad out the first time we stopped. This was the first time I’d moved with pets, and I was anxious about that. George wanted nothing more than to curl up in his crate and pretend this horrible thing wasn’t happening to him, but Paz wanted to get out and explore, and after a while we let him. I was very nervous about letting him get to the driver’s side, but Shaun said not to worry about it — until he walked across the dashboard right in front of Shaun’s line of sight and Shaun shouted “Get him down! Now!” and it was all very scary for a few seconds, and then I pretty much made Paz stay on my lap and look out the window.

We stopped in Columbia, SC for a break: Shaun and I have a very similar philosophy on road trips, which involves taking prolonged stops in cities you drive through, and trying to get right into the center of the city instead of just stopping at a Cracker Barrel on the outskirts. So we each had one beer, and walked around for a while. I had a little bit of a hunger crisis, because the kitchen of the bar we went to had just closed, and there wasn’t a lot open at that time of night, and I was in that state where I’m too hungry to be rational and couldn’t stand the thought of eating pizza or a pita wrap, and was near tears because I was so hungry but couldn’t find appealing food, and I’m sure the stress was a contributing factor too… and then we spotted a street vendor and I had a kielbasa and it was the most delicious thing ever, and happiness was restored. And I got excited about moving to a city that has street vendors.

We actually did sing the entirety of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” Somebody called us in the middle, I forget who, but when we were done chatting we picked up where we’d left off. Shaun suggested doing 999 Bottles next, but I said NO.

At some point in the wee hours of the morning we stopped for fuel and there was an issue with Shaun’s debit card (I think the problem turned out to be that he’d used it so many times in so many states that day). That was a definite low point, as we were both exhausted and had a very low tolerance for frustration. I just had to remind myself, “Of course we’re frustrated and unhappy: we’ve been driving all night after a day spent loading furniture, we have hours left to go, and one of us is sick. Life Overall is not horrible, just this particular moment of it.”

Things picked up quite a bit, of course, when the sun rose and we had less than two hours to go. And Shaun, who had been pining for his home city pretty much every day since I’d met him, was very happy to be there, and my general “new place! new things!” excitement was considerably augmented by my knowing how happy he was.Image

On the down side, we still had all of our earthly possessions to unload before we could rest. The bed was at the very back of the truck, which I had very mixed feelings about: I wanted nothing more than to lie down RIGHT NOW, but I knew it would be better to get the unloading over with before we slept, and I also knew that I would never have had the motivation if there’d been an option not to. (Shaun probably would have, because he’s much better about the “work now, rest later” thing than I am, so then I probably would have resented him for making me work, instead of accepting it as an inevitability. So, bed at back of moving truck: good plan, would use again.)Image

Then we slept into the afternoon, which was amazingly wonderful. Then we got up and left the house to begin exploring our new neighborhood… where, as it turned out, we lived for less than three months. I had my very first pizza steak (which is a cheesesteak with marinara and which exceeded my expectations for deliciousness.) We made plans to eat at all the tiny authentic-looking Ecuadorian and Vietnamese and Korean restaurants, very few of which we actually fulfilled. Life now is very different than we thought it was going to be, that day. Mainly awesomer. Also more expensive, and with the sting of resentment and broken relationships attached to a couple of people… but mainly awesomer.Image

Happy anniversary, Philadelphia! I like you a lot, and I think we should stay together. How about you?

New feature! Ask A Sexologist

(This, along with a few other posts, is being cross-posted at our new website, which has three active contributors and counting! I have a chronic problem with starting and trying to maintain multiple blogs; I’ve tried various solutions to this problem but nothing seems to be taking. For now, at least, I’ll be posting more personal stuff exclusively at this blog, more controversial stuff exclusively at the other blog, and a lot of things to both blogs.)

Several years ago, when I was frantically catching up on all the information on sexuality I avoided learning in my youth, I discovered Savage Love. I read through every single archived column, and then went back and did it again. It was around that time that I started to think, “This human sexuality stuff seems pretty endlessly fascinating to me… perhaps I will devote my career to it?” So now I’m about a third of the way through a M.Ed in human sexuality. It’s still early days, but I’m very happy with that decision so far.

So now I want to share the riches of my extensive knowledge. Got a question about sexuality? Ask away! If it’s a factual question, I either know the answer or know how to find it (or can tell you “we don’t know yet, but here’s the fascinating history of the investigation so far!”) If it’s advice, well, as Dan Savage points out, the only qualification necessary to give advice is having been asked for it. I will disguise any personally-identifying information, and I will be nice to you: as much as I enjoy Dan Savage’s caustic style, I’m constitutionally incapable of emulating it.

I’ll run the feature from one to three times a week, depending how many questions I get and whether I have a paper due. If you have a question email me: lirelyn at gmail dot com.

The number on the scale: yes, I’m going there

A fit of madness has seized me, and I am going to talk about weight. Normally this is a subject I do not discuss. I don’t like when people talk about their weight; I don’t like when people compliment me on looking “thin”; and I really, really don’t like it when people talk about other people’s weight. I had a relatively brief phase of body-image self-loathing crap in college, and it was bad enough that I maintain pretty rigid defenses against those kinds of thoughts entering my world.

It’s important to me that I look good, and I think there are a lot of ways to look good, and I’m comfortable with my own way, which is soft and curvy all over, but still within the socially-accepted range of figure types for the most part. (Which is another reason I don’t like to talk about weight, by the way: I have some privilege here, and there are other people much more qualified to talk about body-size stigma and body-image disorders and the like.) It’s also important to me that I be reasonably healthy, and the way I do that is make sure I’m maintaining a moderate amount of physical activity, and eating lots of nutritious food, and not going completely overboard on junk food. I never weigh myself for my own benefit: the number on the scale isn’t going to tell me whether I look good, or whether I’m healthy, so I don’t do it.

Now I have two elderly cats, though, and as part of keeping an eye on their overall health, I’m weighing them on a regular basis. And by far the easiest way to do this is to pick up the cat, weigh myself holding the cat, and then weigh myself without the cat and subtract. Which means that, for the first time in many years, I know what I weigh.

Which brings me back to one of the reasons I never weigh myself for my own sake, because the number on the scale is invariably way, way higher than I think it should be. Which is stupid, because I have no reasonable basis for judging what that number should be. When I was a teenager, and too young to realize the multiple levels of stupid involved in this task, I went through an article in a magazine talking about different stars and how much they weighed, trying to get a sense (by comparing myself to the ones who were about my height) of how much I should weigh in order to be perfect. Like I said, stupid. Anyway, the number I came up with was around 130 pounds, which I then upgraded to 135 because, you know, these magazines exaggerate stuff (oooh, look at me being a critical consumer *cough*), and then found that I still weighed a full 15 pounds more than I should! The horror! At that time my body-image issues had not kicked in yet. I thought I looked pretty good, but this little exercise sowed the first seeds of doubt: I thought I looked good, but the magazine told me I didn’t, and proved it with math! Clearly, it was time to start fretting about my body.

Anyway. Fast-forward thirteen years, and what strikes me is that never, in all that time, have I heard a (non-pregnant) woman admit to weighing more than 130 pounds. Sometimes it’s a lot less. Like I said, I don’t listen to or participate in a lot of weight talk, but on the few times I’ve heard a number mentioned, it’s always been 125. Or 120. And often it’s “Yes, I’m 125, I really need to drop a few pounds.” So somewhere in my mind there’s this anchoring effect around the number 130, that that is a good and normal and attractive weight to be, and that I know I’m a little plush so I probably weigh more than that, so probably I weigh around 135 or 140. Which is what I’ve given my weight as every time I’ve needed to do so in the last decade, because that’s a number I can say that fits my self-image.

Well, I actually weigh 160. Which, when I discovered that, sent me into a little mental panic spiral that I had to firmly talk down, with only limited success. (I’m still firmly talking it down.) In my mind, 160 is way too much. Not because I have any idea what a doctor who didn’t have their head up their ass would say about my body’s health, not because I have any idea what’s average for my height, just because the only women who talk about their weight loud enough that I can hear claim to be 30 to 40 pounds lower than that, and because I read this magazine feature once. I have to actually remind myself that my body looks the same as it did before I stepped on the scale with my cat, and if I was happy with it then it would be stupid not to be happy with it now, just because I now know a fact I previously didn’t know.

So I wanted to post this just to correct the information imbalance that I, at least, was suffering from, even though I think the whole number-on-a-scale thing is bullshit. Apparently some fabulous-looking women weigh 160, and I bet some fabulous-looking women weigh a lot more, but I have no idea because I don’t know their number, I just know I think they look fabulous. The point here is that a number cannot tell you whether you look good or not. It just can’t. And for too long, I’ve let a number have that power, and only my elderly cats’ health has forced me to confront that little brain parasite and try to eradicate it. And this post is part of my attempt to do that.

(Admin note: this post has a zero-tolerance policy for fatphobic comments, or any comments that imply that a woman has an obligation to tailor her body to someone else’s satisfaction. I rarely delete comments but that shit will be deleted without apology. My blog, my rules.)