Thursday, January 22, 2015

Fifty Shades of Elmo

There was a time when I thought I might go into marketing, when I imagined myself to be a real-life Peggy Olson, feverishly writing copy for floor polish or instant coffee while Don Draper thoughtfully paces the room. While Don Draper loosens his exquisite tie. While Don Draper pours me a scotch. While Don Draper unbuttons his shirt, lets me stroke his chest hair, and asks me if I'd like to "pull an all nighter."

Sadly, drinking on the job is frowned upon these days, just as "all-nighters" are frowned upon by the parents of young children. My husband is deadly handsome in a suit and tie, but no amount of scotch and sexy floor polish banter could convince me to stay up past 11.

Now I pause our regular programming to share with you some sexy floor polish banter. (This is my blog. I can do what I want.)

Peggy: I was thinking, "You'll be waxing poetic about our floor polish!" How's that? Too cute?

Don: Well, Peggy, [unbuttons his jacket, places hands on hips] I'd rather polish the sword than polish a floor.

Peggy: So, a Medieval theme? You're thinking "knight in shining armor"? Appeal to the romance-starved housewives? Something like that?

Don: [runs hand through lustrous hair] No, no. I mean polish the family jewels, Peggy.

Peggy: Wait, in this scenario, is the linoleum the jewel?

Don: [grabs Peggy by the shoulders] God damn it, Peggy! I'm talking about waxing the Buick. 

Peggy: What? We got the Buick account? Oh my god, Don, that's, that's amazing.

Don: [sighs, turns away, gulps from a tumbler of scotch, glares over his shoulder] You're fired.

Still, advertising is, for me, an endless source of wonder. A well-made commercial can make us forget to hit fast-forward on the DVR. And who hasn't stared in rapt delight at a clever billboard only to realize that you've not only missed an exit, but that you're also driving at 65 miles per hour on the shoulder of the highway?

In the Internet age, however, marketing has taken a decidedly creepy turn. Shop online for a pair of tennis shoes and suddenly Facebook thinks you should become BFFs with Nike.

Anyone with a Gmail account can certainly attest to a feeling of being watched. When I got engaged, I sent out a flurry of emails announcing the news. In turn, my sidebar, once packed with ads for restaurants and clothing stores, was suddenly crammed with links to bridal boutiques, tanning salons, and cosmetic surgery centers. Cosmetic. Surgery. Centers. Better yet, shortly after sharing news of my pregnancy, I opened my Gmail account to find not one, but three ads for "small animal removal services."

Recently, a friend mentioned that Google has been inundating her with ads for both Viagra and diapers. This same friend is gainfully employed, has an active social life, and is in a serious relationship, but Google's marketing exec knows just how to fix that problem.

In short, I thought nothing in the Great Gang Bang of Advertising could surprise me. Since the dawn of printed media, boobs have been used to sell everything from beer to cars to sexy hot dog Halloween costumes. It was foolish of me, then, to think Elmo's World would be a safe haven.

When my husband travels out of town for work, dinner for my son and me is a harried affair. Pork Chop tries to climb one leg while our dog curls around the other, both in anticipation of the leftovers warming on the stovetop. It would be generous to call me klutzy. I once cut my own bellybutton open while trying pull my pants down. So I sweat a lot during my "single mom" dinners, tense with fear that I'm about to drop a bubbling pot of sauce all over my kid and pet.

Lately though, my son has discovered this magical thing called TV. One 20-minute episode of Curious George gives me just enough time to fold and put away laundry. But, at heart, Pork Chop is an Elmo man. And the 14-minute episodes of Elmo's World on YouTube mean that I can park my kid at the kitchen table in front of the laptop while I heat up dinner at a safe distance.

And that's just what I did last week: Cue up the "Play Ball!" episode of Elmo's World while I stirred a pot of soup and sliced fruit. Fourteen whole minutes of no one touching me!

Unfortunately, the stirring and slicing took 15 minutes.

From deep within my peaceful moment of communion with the soup, I suddenly heard Beyoncé putting a slow-jam spin on "Crazy In Love." Then I heard breathing. Deep, adult breathing.

This episode is brought to you by the letter "Oh shit!"

It's a little embarrassing to admit this, but Pork Chop knows how to select and start the next YouTube clip of Elmo's World by himself. And when my cooking took exactly one minute longer than anticipated, he moved on to the "Birthday!" episode, which is to say, the episode that featured a trailer for Fifty Shades of Grey.

Thank you,, for providing me with the
creepiest Elmo photo ever taken, next to maybe . . .

. . . this photo of me wearing Elmo's skin like a hat

I skidded across the kitchen to find my not-quite-2-year-old sucking his thumb and clutching his stuffed elephant just as the camera zoomed in on Mr. Spanky's hand snaking up Miss Dumb-Dumb's skirt. I slammed the laptop shut.

Pork Chop didn't know what the hell was going on. He's not even 2. French kissing is still 30 years off. What really freaks me out is that, in a dark back room jammed with computers and empty cans of Monster energy drinks, some asshole came up with the algorithm that suggested light BDSM and a Muppet make for a winning combo.

Yes, modern moms love their erotica — or whatever the hell you call a story that makes liberal use of the term "butt drawer." And, yes, moms are also the ones pressing play on the latest episode of Elmo's World. But, damn it, I'd rather not hear Bey's musical pump-and-grind in my head while Mr. Noodle tries to wrap a box or catch a ball or do any of the other innocent Sesame Street things that will, forevermore, sound like euphemisms for dirty, dirty sex.

I looked down at my son, whose brow was furrowed. He popped his thumb out of his mouth, and squealed, "No, mama! Elmo. Elmo!"

"Sorry, kid. Elmo's in a time out," I explained. "He's been a very naughty boy."

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Fat Is Not a Feeling

Tuna salad with mayonnaise on white bread, one can of Coke, one bag of potato chips, one chewy granola bar, and one banana: my very first "diet lunch." January of 1995. The spring semester of my freshman year of college. I'd packed on the “Freshman 15” and then some. When I whined that my jeans seemed too tight, no one disagreed. So I made a New Year's resolution: lose weight.

Tuna salad with mayonnaise on white bread, one can of Coke, one bag of potato chips, one chewy granola bar, and one banana. With 20 years of perspective between me and that lunch, I can laugh about it now — the token banana, the doom.

New Years' resolutions can be a sly and dangerous bunch. If not given proper forethought, they'll compel you to sprint toward some vague achievement before you've even laced up your shoes, before you even know which way to run.

For the record, in 1995, I ran hard and I ran blind. I didn’t know how much weight I wanted to lose. I didn’t even know if I truly needed to lose weight. Obviously, my grasp of good nutrition was tenuous bordering on delusional.

I didn’t know where my mad dash would take me, I just knew I needed to get as far away from "fat" as possible. My resolution to “lose weight” was really just shorthand for “I feel fat,” which was really just shorthand for “I have lost control of my life, but at least I'm still the boss of my own body.” It’s amazing how quickly a tuna salad with mayonnaise on white bread can turn into coffee with a side of diuretics when you never look past your own nose.

A year later — after I’d been released from the locked unit of an eating disorder clinic but long before I could face a meal without crying — a therapist would repeatedly remind me that “fat is not a feeling.” I would counter by saying that, “Fat feels like shame. Fat feels like sadness. Fat feels like failure.” To which she would respond, “Then what you feel is shame. You feel sad.” But that was never quite right. Even the word “shame” lacked the proper weight of self-loathing, the particular shade of disgust.

There is a small, strange comfort in kneading a wound, in nursing pain. Like a sore tooth that you prod with your tongue. In the pastoral days before social media, I clipped photos of heroin-chic supermodels from magazines and tucked them into my notebooks so that I could taunt myself during classes. Nowadays, there is a World Wide Web of hurt, always just a click away.

Every January, my Facebook feed is packed with friends’ New Year’s resolutions. Everyone is “gonna lose the baby weight in 2015!” or “drop 10 lbs this year, so help me God.” The vast majority of those folks just want to be a little healthier, to feel a little better about how they look. But who, I wonder, among them, might be sitting down to her version of a tuna salad with mayo on white bread? Who, come summertime, won’t be able to look at the token banana without fear of its devastating effect on her thigh gap? Who is clicking through red carpet photos, dissecting the actresses, lingering on a clavicle or slim hip, prodding her secret hurt with their bones?

If that person is you, this post is going to be a disappointment. Maybe you’re hoping that I’ll tell you what I ate or refused to eat. You might be combing through the essay, wondering when I’ll get to the part where I tell you how much I weighed or how often I exercised. You’d like to know what size I wore and how many pills I took.


I’m not going to be the weapon you use against yourself.

I did not want to write this post. I do not want to be a woman who, 20 years out, still “feels fat,” even as she goes about her bland day — parenting, cleaning, writing, not starving herself, not puking until she bursts the blood vessels in her eyes. I don’t want to admit that the self-flagellation of an eating disorder still tempts me, still sometimes tricks me into thinking of it as a purifying rite rather than a death march.

As an adult, as a feminist, as a mother, I still “feel fat,” and that makes me feel ashamed, sad, like a failure, like a snake eating its own tail and regretting the calories. But self-destruction doesn't care how old you are, how liberated you are, or who you have to tuck in at night.

When I was hospitalized, there were 15 other patients in my unit, give or take 2 being admitted or discharged. If you came here for shocking statistics, here they are:
  • They ranged in age from 12 to their mid-50s
  • 3 were nurses
  • 1 had a PhD in physics
  • 1 was a physical therapist
  • 1 was an artist
  • 5 were gay
  • 1 was a straight man
  • 3 were Black
  • 1 had just moved to the U.S. from Iran
  • 4 could no longer control their bodily functions
  • 2 had heart attacks
  • 1 had permanent brain damage
  • 3 were mothers, of which, 1 died

How's that for thinspiration?

I am not who I was 20 years ago. The hurt still lingers, yes, but I don’t starve it into submission: I walk the dog. I take a nap. I read my son a story. 

So this year, for the 19th year in a row, I resolve to read at least one book per month, to put money in my rainy day fund, and to write — to sit at my computer, slowly putting one word in front of another, carefully plotting a course toward healing. 

Need help? Click here for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)