Courtney E. Martin

The Abstraction of Poverty Is Making Our Policies Poor

No ink has been spared and no caricature avoided as columnists and pundits have discussed the wealth stockpiled by GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney.

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How to Make the World a Better Place Despite the Roadblocks and Naysayers

Adapted from  Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, by Courtney E. Martin, Copyright © 2010. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.

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What Should a Feminist Man Look Like?

"Machismo!" shouted a young college student in the third row.

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A Powerful Movement Puts Mothers at the Helm of Social Change

The public image of motherhood has certainly gotten a political makeover in the past decade or so. What started with all that punditry about "soccer moms" and "security moms" as the voters du jour in the 2000 and 2004 elections got real with the March for Women's Lives, during which radical moms pushed strollers alongside the dykes on bikes. Then Code Pink emerged as an anti-war force led in large part by angry moms.

Today all the buzz is about "mommybloggers," an unfortunate name for an explosion in women writing online about not just diaper brands and nanny worries but public policy, military spending and a million other topics. A new anthology edited by one such "mommyblogger," Shari MacDonald Strong, is just out on Seal Press, appropriately titled The Maternal Is Political: Women Writers at the Intersection of Motherhood and Social Change. It documents this fascinating shift -- from June Cleaver to Cindy Sheehan -- through essays by some of our time's greatest writers and politicians, including Anna Quindlen, Anne Lamott, Barbara Kingsolver, Nancy Pelosi and others.

AlterNet caught up with Shari MacDonald Strong between family vacations and laptop explosions to find out what this radical mom learned from putting together such an exquisitely written and deeply felt collection.

Courtney E. Martin: The mothers' movement is referred to frequently in these beautiful essays. For those who aren't familiar, can you define exactly what the mothers' movement really is?

Shari MacDonald Strong: I don't know anyone who can, actually. That's one of the biggest challenges facing the movement.

Does a mothers' movement exist? Absolutely. The phrase refers to the fact that over the last decade in the U.S. there has been an increasingly active and passionate effort on the part of mother-centric political groups, and on the part of mothers as individuals and as a broad political demographic, to increase awareness about the importance of mothers' work and to fight for legislation and representation that accurately reflects the needs, values and priorities of mothers in our society. This movement is impossible to define, however, because there is no single political leader, no self-proclaimed "Leader of the Moms," who is calling the shots; there is no one political organization that is dictating exactly what the needs, values and priorities must be for mothers in our society.

As movements go, the mothers' movement is a complex one -- one that is bringing about vital change on many different fronts at once. It's not as targeted as, say, the suffrage or civil rights movements. Countless moms are fighting together to bring about change in such areas as paid sick leave, health care coverage for all children, paid family leave -- something provided by every developed nation in the world except the U.S. -- the provision of quality childcare, equal pay for equal work particularly as it relates to mothers.

At the same time, many other mothers view different issues as being just as important as, or even more important than, these. The mothers' movement assumes that mothers are intelligent and passionate and discerning enough to decide for themselves what is for them the top priority and what they are willing -- especially amid the unending demands for clean laundry, hot meals, etc. -- to expend the energy, and put in the time, to fight for.

CEM: In the introduction you write, "Mothers carry a heavy enough burden without being told we need to do more in the political realm." It reminded me of the Marxist idea that the proletariat -- the working class -- was somehow going to have the energy to rise up and start a revolution, when really, they were totally exhausted after a long day's work. Is the mothers' movement one more example of women taking on too much of the burden?

SMS: Absolutely, it is. And at the same time, who else is going to do it? We've been waiting a long time, for example, for our government to "get" -- and to do something about -- the fact that women still don't get paid equally for the same work as men. Mothers make even fewer pennies on the dollar than single women do, and for the same work -- and single moms make the least of all. Who's going to fight the battle to change this picture, if not moms? Who else is going to notice the problem? It goes back to that old Women's Studies 101 issue of power: It's not just that people with power don't want to give it up; they're often quite clueless about what life is like for those with less.

Putting all this work on mothers' shoulders is a burden. It would be much more fair if far more non-mothers joined us in the fight. To be fair, many non-mothers have, and hopefully, many more will. But until then, and even after that, as we moms say to one another time and time again: We do what we have to do, because it has to be done.

CEM: Another theme that I found throughout The Maternal is Political is the notion of self-respect. Marrit Ingman writes, "We need not apologize for our efforts to recover; when we struggle with the beast, we send our children messages of self-respect -- that we are people, and people matter." So often mothers are entirely focused on the welfare of others, neglecting themselves in the process. How is the mothers' movement encouraging women to value self-care?

SMS: First, at the bedrock of self-care are the issues of being seen and heard. These are two of the most basic needs, for any of us. And, of course, many of the political issues mothers fight for fall under the category of "self-care." Roughly half of all employees of private companies don't get any paid sick days; that number rises to 80 percent for workers in the service industry. How do you practice "self-care" when you're a mother with no paid sick days, and one or more children who inevitably, and on a regular basis -- surprise! -- get sick. Do you save up your sick days for yourself, save your sick days for your children's illnesses or send your children to school while sick so you don't risk losing your job? Obviously, no one should have to make choices like this, but mothers do make hard choices like these, every day. Some choices relate to sickness, some to child care, some to breast-feeding -- the list is endless. This lack of support leaves little room in mothers' lives for self-care. This is a significant piece of what we're fighting to change.

CEM: Tracy Thompson writes, "Becoming a mother made it clear to me that I had become a member of a boundary-free global statehood of women united by a profound common interest: the welfare of the next generation." Where are fathers in all of this? Why is it that mothers seem to feel this call, this sisterhood, but men are absent from the conversation in much of these pages?

SMS: I put this book together because I was longing to hear other mothers' voices speaking about motherhood and politics. I think that women and mothers have largely -- with a few exceptions, like attention paid to "soccer moms" or so-called "security moms" in recent elections -- been either ignored or underestimated in the political realm, and this felt like the most overlooked group of voices. But it's not the only overlooked group. You're right: Although men's voices have dominated politics for a long time, fatherhood rarely enters the political discussion. It dumbfounds me that politicians of both genders, who are also parents, don't speak more overtly about their politics as viewed through the lens of parenthood.

As much as I love this volume of stories about politics, written by mothers, I think a compilation of stories about politics, written by fathers from a father's perspective and not simply from a man's perspective, is just as needed and could be just as powerful and world-altering.

CEM: I was so moved by Violeta Garcia-Mendoza's essay about the personal and the political with regard to global adoption. She writes, "Adoptive motherhood bears the secret that the lines we erect to partition ourselves off from others, to protect ourselves against the heaviness of the human experience, are arbitrary." Do you see that maternal as inherently political, in part, because it provides us with an undeniable experience of our interconnection?

SMS: Absolutely. None of us lives in true isolation, much less parents in isolation. The struggles that you face, that I face, other families also face. No one is powerful enough -- or smart enough, and connected enough, etc. -- to single-handedly solve every problem that arises. Child care, health care, a sinking economy, national security -- if one of us could "fix" the problems, that person presumably would do so. But of course, it doesn't work that way. We need one another.

As a parent, I'm constantly interacting with people who are different from me, who cause me to step outside of my comfort zone. Some of these people, I enjoy immensely; others grate on my last nerve. In these cases, I suck it up and find a way to work with that teacher or that other parent, because that's what my child needs. That's what mothers do. It isn't about seizing an idea about how things should go and then sticking to it; it's about engaging with others, and questioning, and engaging again, and then re-engaging some more, and together doing whatever needs to be done to facilitate our children's well-being.

CEM: Most of the essays in the anthology are written from a left-leaning political point of view. Do you see room for conservative mothers in the mothers' movement, or is it limited to women who are pro-choice, Obama lovin', and likely to be driving hybrid cars? What about economic diversity -- do you see many women of low-income backgrounds getting involved in this burgeoning movement?

SMS: The book leans left, in large part because I do -- but the mothers' movement club isn't exclusive, and membership isn't limited. I do see the mothers' movement as being very progressive-driven, but it would be a mistake to think that only self-defined "liberal" moms are involved. Finding common ground often starts with thinking for ourselves and voting our consciences, instead of our parties.

As for lower-income mothers, there are many lower-income mothers who are doing some of the most vital work in the movement. But it's also unrealistic to expect that they can carry a large portion of the burden. Many are working multiple jobs, getting even less sleep than the rest of us other mothers, barely hanging on by a thread. Activism is both a basic, primary need and a luxury that not all of us can afford. The wisdom and insight and passion and hard work of lower-income mothers is something the mothers' movement needs, but these mothers' need for the passion and hard work and connections and string-pulling of those of us who have the often meager, but still-present energy to give it may be even greater.

CEM: How do you see mothers influencing the 2008 election?

SMS: I wonder sometimes which group(s) of mothers the candidates will identify and target this election season. "Soccer moms" and "security moms" have been courted in the past. The political pitches these mom-groups field are discouraging, precisely because they're so obviously manipulative. I can understand why a politician would want to identify a group s/he sees as being sympathetic to her or his political positions. But I get frustrated when I see the media getting on the sound-bite roller coaster. I don't want to see a bunch of news stories about "moms who care about national security" advertised this year. After all, what mom doesn't care about her kids being safe? Such angles are disingenuous, and they break us down into groups whose lines are arbitrary or don't even exist.

The reality is, the candidates are going to have to seriously address issues that moms care about, and the smart candidate will do so proactively and overtly, directing his comments to all mothers. Considering how tight the last couple of presidential races have been, I realize that, as a group, mothers could easily decide the 2008 election. The bigger question right now is, will the candidates take us as seriously as we deserve to be taken, address our concerns and give us solid, family-related reasons to get up and do it?

What Makes Female Suicide Bombers Different?

Last week four more Iraqi suicide bombers struck, leaving the mainstream media dumbfounded. Anchors from Atlanta to New York asked pundits: "What do you make of this?" "What could the motivation be?" "Who put them up to it?"

After five years of a war filled with attacks of this nature, you wouldn't expect the media to be so shocked and awed, but there was one critical factor that had the anchors stumbling: all four suicide bombers were female.

Female suicide bombers are, in fact, not a new phenomenon. According to Debra D. Zedalis, author of Female Suicide Bombers, the first known attack by a woman is traced back to 1985, when 16-year-old Khyadali Sana drove a truck into an Israeli Defense Force Convoy, killing two soldiers. Since then women from Sri Lanka, Chechnya, Palestine, Turkey, and Israel (among others) have participated in suicide bombings. In fact, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka use women between 30 and 40 percent of the time when carrying out such attacks.

Starting in 2003, Iraq has experienced over 50 suicide bombings carried out by women, 20 of them just in the last year. It is no longer justifiable for the media to act aghast when another woman turns up with blood on her hands.

How could a woman do this? As doctoral student Lindesy O'Rourke argued in her New York Times op-ed last weekend, women appear to have the same motivations as their male counterparts -- as O'Rourke puts it, "a deep loyalty to their communities combined with a variety of personal grievances against enemy forces." Women, like men, have the capacity for ideological extremism and retaliatory violence.

A more important question is, what conditions make suicide bombing a viable option for human beings -- be they men or women? And, further, what is our role, as Americans, in perpetuating these conditions?

The majority of suicide attackers, of either gender, are young. CNN reports that the U.S. military has a 14-year-old would be suicide bomber in custody, indeed a woman. Averagely, they are in their early 20s, an age known for exploration and ideation.

These young people get pulled into nationalistic or ethnically-based organizations (no woman, to date, has been involved in an independent suicide attack) that promise them a way to make their lives meaningful. Many, though not all, of them come from economically depressed families, towns and cities ravaged by long and bloody war, and relationships that have left them psychologically vulnerable.

In one of the best investigations of female suicide bombers to date, journalist Jan Goodwin secured an interview with Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) failed suicide bomber Menake, currently awaiting sentencing in Sri Lankan prison. Menake's alcoholic, abusive father killed her mother when she was just three years old and brutally raped her at the age of seven. An excerpt from that interview, which appeared in Marie Claire magazine:
Menake wrote to the LTTE secretariat. "I'm willing to become a Black Tiger," she wrote. "It would be an honor. Please let me have your permission to join."

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Generation Y Refuses Race-Gender Dichotomy

I was born on the last hour of the last day of the last year of the '70s. So, like so many of my Generation Y peers, I was raised on Free to Be You and Me, hip hop, and feminism. I was 11 when Anita Hill changed the world and just about Monica Lewinsky's age when her blue dress dominated the headlines. So that just gives you some perspective on where young voters like me are coming from when we consider race and gender in the political environment, the topic of a panel I had the honor to speak on today at The Paley Center titled "From Soundbites to Solutions: Bias, Punditry, and the Press in the 2008 Election" (co-sponsored by The Women's Media Center, The White House Project, and The Maynard Institute for Journalism Education .

According to PBS News Hour, 5.7 million people under the age of 30 voted in the primaries, a 109 percent increase from the last presidential election. There's no question that young people are excited about this political moment; there's no question that we care deeply about issues of race, gender, class, and religion; we are not, however, endeared to partisanship. Chalk it up to Facebook, competitive college admissions, or all of the other phenomena that influence us to see ourselves as individual project, but it's clear that we resist groupthink. We shy away from taking on any sort of movement identity, preferring to vote for the individual candidate and his or her policies, and preferring to be seen as individual people -- not a texting, IM-ing mass of technologically superior and socially inferior sons and daughters. As my peer Keli Goff put it in her wonderful book of the same name, we're into "party crashing."

When we do take the leap to identify with a movement, as I have in the case of feminism, we still seem to buck against the idea that our affiliation determines our vote. I, for example, am an Obama voter, but was and will continue to be an avid Clinton supporter. I hate the sexist coverage that she endured, and have written and spoken out about it widely, but that doesn't change my vote. My feminism is not just about gender equality in government, but also about racial justice, global security, community ethics, etc., and I resent being made to feel as if there is a "right" way to vote if I am a feminist. I'm grateful for being challenged to justify my choice to pull the lever for Obama by feminist friends and mentors, but only when it's initiated in the spirit of dialogue, not a litmus test.

Our tendency towards thinking and acting solo isn't such a surprise when you consider the ethnic and cultural origins of this generation. The country is becoming more and more interracial, thanks to the increasing incidence of interracial pairings like Obama's parents, as pointed out by public education projects like Loving Day. And further, genealogy and genetic efforts like Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s The Root are pointing out that even before interracial unions had been destigmatized (at least in urban centers), plenty of our ancestors were crossing the color line behind bedroom doors. It's not so strange these days to meet a Chinese-Chilean guy living in Brooklyn or a Vietnamese Baptist in Houston. How could we affiliate with one party/movement/organization when we contain such a multitude of loyalties in our own little legacies?

The million-dollar question: How, with a generation bent on individuality and multiplicity, do we confront racism, sexism and all the other insipid -isms that have been brought to light by this unprecedented campaign? To my mind, we must continue to use novel interventions -- like the Women's Media Center's great montage "Sexism Sells, but We're Not Buying It," the brand-new blog Michelle Obama Watch, and the evergreen experts at Racialicious -- to educate people. We must use humor -- as my group blog Feministing often does, as the brilliant Sarah Haskins does on Current TV, as Ann Telnaes does through cartooning over at Women's eNews. (Note: It's not just the boys -- John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and the Onion crew -- that know the power of a laugh.)

We must take our roles as media consumers dead seriously, calling television executives and newspaper editors on their misguided choices and celebrating them when they get it right. In an increasingly corporatized media landscape, it is your dollar, not your disgust, that will most readily get big-wig attention. Don't buy sexist magazines, don't tune into to racist radio, and don't watch reductive, recycled infotainment being pawned off as news.

But most of all, it seems to me, we must continue to push for a deeper, more authentic conversation overall. We must let the mainstream media know that we don't want to debate "reject" or "denounce" for 24 hours or go on witch hunts for Geraldine Ferraro or Samantha Power. We want to understand what these women were trying to say. We want to explore the real issues. We want to, as my co-panelist Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now so brilliantly put it, call into question the whole idea of empire. The debate shouldn't center on the quandary: How can we make our empire more effective? But, do we want to be an empire in the first place?

And we must demand that our candidates rise to the occasion, as I believe Obama did so beautifully with his speech on race following the Reverend Wright controversy. He brought that conversation to a new level, and we are all better off for it. We need to continue to push for that kind of brazen truth-telling -- about gender, certainly, about class, for sure. That's what politics is supposed to be about -- not partisanship or strategic spinning, but honesty and uplift. Call me naïve, but that's what the young are supposed to be, right?

Admitting the Complexities of Abortion

Planned Parenthood was packed on a Thursday in the frigid Colorado dead of winter. I remember giving up my seat to a woman who looked to be in her thirties and totally unfazed by the crowded lobby on abortion day. She alternated between gabbing on her phone and yelling at her toddler. I flipped through a magazine without really looking at the pages and hated her a little.

It wasn't that I thought she was an evil person. I am not, nor ever was, a conservative Christian -- despite having grown up just miles away from Focus on the Family. In fact, I was at that Planned Parenthood, in order to support a pregnant neighbor. After a condom-break and twist of fate, she was too scared to tell her parents, but too determined to protect her own future. We marched past the pro-lifers with their gruesome placards and went inside, arm in arm.

I was unequivocally pro-choice, but I hated that woman in her 30s because she seemed (I didn't ask) to have such an uncomplicated relationship with abortion. I was jealous. Past my conviction that abortion should be legal and safe, my own feelings were a mess.

I felt that way again at a screening of Jennifer Baumgardner and Gillian Aldrich's film, I Had an Abortion, a couple of years ago. After a riveting film collage of real women who had experienced the complexity and power of abortion, a rather one dimensional discussion took place where older feminists expressed their disappointment in younger women's ambivalence over the issue. A young woman spoke about her conviction that abortion should be legal, but not easy, and another woman, who looked to be in her 50s, immediately yelled out "Abortion is a form of contraception!" Another feminist veteran teared up talking about her misguided students who expressed shame over abortion, but there was a hint of patronizing mixed in with the sadness.

The truth is that my generation (Gen Y, Third Wave, whatever you want to call us) doesn't have the black and white zeal of second-wavers when it comes to abortion. Some of my friends believe that abortion should absolutely be legal, but that they, themselves, would not get one. Some of my friends have already had them; they don't regret it, but a few have seen therapists and healers afterward, aching to make peace with their decisions. I've had heart-to-hearts with many a guy friend trying to support his significant other through an abortion and feeling inadequate and confused.

I see abortion as a very grave and complicated personal decision, and one that every woman is entitled to make for herself. Even though I am pro-choice, I am pro-admitting the complexity of that choice. The fact that so many older feminists are unwilling to even entertain my generation's ambivalence over the psychological or even spiritual implications only serves to squash potential dialogue.

As we celebrate the 35th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade this week, I hope we can remember a bit of the spirit at the Women's March for Choice in Washington, D.C. -- a gathering of over a million people according to some estimates -- back in 2004. Surrounded by men, women and children of all ages, I felt empowered to stand up for every woman's legal right to reproductive choice (not to mention health), but also free to disclose my complicated feelings over the issue. There was space for transformational dialogue as we lay in the grass, listening to the diverse speakers. There was time to look women of all ages in the eyes and say, "This is where I'm coming from. How about you?"

Too often women's studies academics and veteran feminists end up preaching to the choir, cutting off contention, being exclusive with their language. I have sometimes felt like I would be disrespecting my legacy, or worse, personally offending various older feminists that I have deep respect for, if I initiated a conversation about abortion that didn't stick to the movement tag line. Does it really weaken the argument that it should be legal, just because we admit it is also fraught? Divorce is legal and it can cause depression, regret, and animosity; it can also free women up to fulfill their potential, live their fullest lives, have some control over their fate. No one would ever claim that it was unfeminist to acknowledge these potential complications.

I recently taught Introduction to Gender Studies at Hunter College, an affordable city school in New York City with a great reputation, largely populated by recent immigrants or first-generation Americans. In one of my small, discussion courses, a young, working class woman from Far Rockaway raised her hand and said, "I always try to avoid saying this in my women's studies classes because I am afraid I'll get beaten up, but I kinda think abortion is bad."

I urged her to feel free to speak her mind, that this, in fact, was the point of coming together in learning communities. And she did. And, yes, sometimes it made my skin crawl, especially when she said that she "understood how people could want to bomb abortion clinics." Perhaps I experienced a bit of what some older feminists feel when a young woman in their midst wants abortions to be "safe and rare" or expresses concern over its mental health effects. Belief exists, after all, on a spectrum.

It wasn't comfortable for me to listen to that student's opinions, but it was necessary. We created a space where people of very different religious and moral persuasions came together and had a really tough conversation. Pro-choice -- as a stance -- had been personalized for my student; she liked me, how could she ever again hate or advocate violence against "my kind?" (I've known, and am even related to, many a pro-lifer, so that wasn't a new experience for me).

None of us changed our minds, but we left enriched, informed, and, most critically, fully owning our ideas. This respectful exploration, not the intimidating zealousness of some pro-choice veterans, is the ultimate aim of feminism.

How to Address Obesity in a Fat-Phobic Society

A friend of mine -- I'll call her Ellen -- recently went to her regular medical clinic after realizing that she was newly suffering from an old family problem: acid reflux. Her doctor was out on maternity leave, so she met with a replacement. Without asking Ellen any questions about her relationship to her weight (she is overweight and well aware of it), he launched into a robotic exposition about dieting.

Ellen explained to him that she worked out regularly and also did her best to eat healthy, but had a philosophical problem with turning food into the enemy. He simply retorted: "The only way you're going to lose weight is to cut the carbs. So ... cut the carbs."

"When he brought up my weight I wanted to have a real conversation with him, but instead he gave me his version of my 'problem'," Ellen said. "It made me really angry."

My friend's experience is not an anomaly. In fact, it is representative of a still unchanged attitude among too many medical doctors and nutritionists that fat people are problems to be solved; if they can just come up with the perfect equation, they figure, BMIs can be lowered and the supposed obesity epidemic eradicated.

This attitude shows up in doctor's offices where overweight and obese patients are often subjected to inquisition-like questioning. Yet they are rarely asked other, arguably more important questions: What's your experience of your body? How is your quality of life? How do you feel about your weight?

It also shows up in obesity intervention programs throughout the country, where a person's culture, class, education, or even genetics, are overlooked in the dogged pursuit to motivate what too many clinicians see as "lazy Americans" to lose pounds.
It's not as if we don't have the evidence that these factors -- culture, class, education, genetics -- matter. Yet another study just came out by University of Washington researchers who found gaping disparities in obesity rates among ZIP codes in the Seattle area. Every $100,000 in median home value for a ZIP code corresponded with a 2 percent drop in obesity.

Adam Drewnowski, director of the UW Center for Obesity Research, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer,"If you have this mind-set that obesity has to do with the individual alone, then ZIP codes or areas really should not come into this. But they do, big-time."

This is not to say that individual behavior doesn't play a vital role in our country's obesity rate, but we too often neglect to think about the cultural and institutional influences on a person's behavior when it comes to eating and exercise.

You would never look at a working class, single mother driving a jalopy with three kids crawling around in the back and say, "Gees, what's her problem? Why can't she drive the Lexus hybrid like me?" You understand that she doesn't have the means, and furthermore, probably doesn't have the peer influence that would make it seem like a viable option.

Our judgmental, fat-phobic society seems even more ridiculous when you consider that there is a strong genetic component to weight. We now have ample scientific evidence suggesting that we are each born with a set point within which our metabolism will automatically adjust no matter how many calories we consume. It's like our working class mom could be dedicatedly saving up for that hybrid, but the money just keeps disappearing from her bank account.

Instead of vilifying fat people, this country needs to look long and hard at the roots of our obesity epidemic. While we can't change someone's genetics, we can work to change the institutional disparities that make maintaining a healthy weight difficult for people with less money. Encouraging supermarkets to open up in poor neighborhoods by adjusting zoning laws and creating tax-incentive programs is a start. More funding for public schools in low-income areas would translate into better quality food in the cafeterias and more nutrition and physical education.

In addition to addressing these classist systems, we need to do some soul searching about our own attitudes about fat. Until those of us who care about public health can truly separate the potential health risks of being overweight from our own internalized stigmas about fat, we won't be effective. We have to learn to distinguish between those who are satisfied with their current body size and those who wants to lose weight, and then, learn to provide complex guidance that takes societal and genetic factors into account.

Those in the field of public health need to remember how motivation really works (hint: not by coercion or humiliation) and rethink how quality of life is measured when it comes to overweight patients. It is not the clinician's -- often prejudiced, frequently rushed -- point of view that matters most, but the individual's.

Dr. Janell Mensinger, the Director of the Clinical Research Unit at The Reading Hospital & Medical Center, also recommends shifting the goals of obesity intervention programs: "Focusing on health indicators such as blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar would serve to de-stigmatize obese individuals and help them engage in better eating habits and physical activity for the purpose of healthier living as opposed to simply being thinner. Although I see some programs shifting in this direction, I don't think they have gone far enough."

Mensinger adds, "We have to avoid promoting the dieting mentality! Encourage acceptance of all shapes and sizes while promoting the importance of physical activity and eating well for the purpose of living and feeling better, mentally and physically. The people that most successfully achieve this goal are those with an expertise in eating disorders as well as obesity. They know best what can happen if the message is misconstrued."

Whether you are a primary care provider, a nurse practitioner, a nutritionist, or a community health advocate, I urge you to treat your next patient like a living, breathing human being with complicated feelings, economic concerns, and cultural affiliations. Weight loss isn't the ultimate goal; economic equality, cultural diversity, wellness and happiness are.

Rethinking Antidepressants and Youth Suicide

Rosa Rodriguez,* now a college student, recalls her suicide attempt at 13 years old: "I decided I couldn't take it anymore, so I took some pills and went to bed early. I threw it all up within 20 minutes, and thinking back, I'm glad it didn't work out."

She goes on: "I share my bed with my sister, and it would have been really selfish of me if I did that knowing that she was lying next to me. I obviously wasn't thinking rationally."

While Rosa looks back with remorse, she does not look back with confusion. She has continued to struggle with depression throughout her life, a disease that affects 5 percent of adolescents and children. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 90 percent of those who attempt suicide have a significant psychiatric disease. Rosa is not an anomaly.

Two new studies confirm that the suicide rate among young people has increased, particularly among girls between the ages of 10 and 14. The numbers have researchers, health advocates, parents, educators, and teens debating the potential causes -- the most controversial of which is the corresponding drop in antidepressant use among youth after U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warnings in early 2003.

The first study, conducted by the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control confirms that between 2003 and 2004, the suicide rate among children and young adults rose 8 percent; the suicide rate for girls ages 10-14 jumped 76 percent. CDC researchers are quick to point out that, though they are interested in the corresponding drop in antidepressant use, the study doesn't prove a causal relationship.

Robert Gibbons of the University of Illinois at Chicago, the head researcher on the other study, believes he has that proof. His study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, found that the youth suicide rates in the United States rose 14 percent between 2003 and 2004 and 49 percent in the Netherlands. Youth antidepressant prescriptions fell 22 percent among children aged 0 to 19 in both the United States and the Netherlands after the 2003 warnings were issued.

The study, however, has come under scrutiny recently because two of its eight authors, including Gibbons, have ties to big pharma. Gibbons once served as an expert witness for Wyeth, maker of Effexor; J. John Mann, a neuroscience professor at Columbia University, has received research funding from GlaxoSmithKline, creator of Paxil, and has been an adviser to Eli Lilly, which sells Prozac.

Still, these conflicts of interest do not necessarily mean the study's conclusions are wrong. Any way you slice it, these numbers are alarming and worth a closer look. Especially when you consider that prior to 2003, the suicide rate among youth aged 10 to 24 had fallen by 28.5 percent over a 13-year period. Dr. Ileana Arias, director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control told reporters: "We don't yet know if this is a short-lived increase or if it's the beginning of a trend."

Rethinking antidepressants
Though the FDA has never approved Zoloft, Paxil or most similar drugs (with the notable exception of Prozac) for use by younger patients with depression, many doctors prescribe them. According to the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry approximately 1.4 million pediatric patients are currently taking antidepressants.

In the FDA review, no completed suicides occurred among nearly 2,200 children treated with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) medications. However, about 4 percent of those on the drugs experienced suicidal thinking or behavior, including suicide attempts -- twice the rate of those taking the placebo.

In 2003, following this review and lengthy hearings, the FDA issued a warning that the use of antidepressants -- particularly the very popular SSRI type, including Prozac and Paxil -- could increase the chances of suicidal thoughts or actions in children and teenagers. The warnings were added in a "black box" on the medications in October 2004.

The FDA posted a revised warning on its website on Feb. 3, 2005, changing the wording to say only that the drugs "increased the risk of suicidal thinking and behavior in short-term studies of adolescents and children" with depression and other psychiatric disorders.

This significant change came after several months of aggressive lobbying by the pharmaceutical industry, a fact that remains in many health and consumer advocate's minds.

Vera Hassner Sharav, for example, president of the Alliance for Human Research Protection, testified in many of the original FDA hearings and is not convinced that the new studies point to antidepressants' ultimate safety. As she told NPR: "You cannot determine a causal affect because you're not looking at other circumstances."

She suggests that other factors, like the use of antipsychotic drugs, could also be affecting the spike in the suicide rate. Sharav is concerned that news of these studies will give consumers the spurious idea that antidepressants are, indeed, no longer potentially dangerous for children and teens.

But other experts, while saddened by the rise in the suicide rate, are heartened by evidence that antidepressants really do have the potential to save children and teen lives.

Dr. Benjamin Shain, co-author of a clinical report on teen suicide by the American Academy of Pediatrics, explains, "There is no treatment that is 'safe,' as even talk psychotherapy, another important treatment for depression, has risk. The risk of serious side effects from antidepressant medications, however, is low and must be balanced against the risk of inadequate treatment of depression: lower grades, difficulty with relationships with family members and friends, loss of ability to have fun and enjoyment, and just general misery, as well as a much higher risk for suicide."

Dr. Brad Sachs, a psychologist specializing in clinical work with children, adolescents and their families, explains, "When it comes to treating childhood and adolescent depression, clinicians should leave no stone unturned, and that includes the possible use of antidepressant medication. There is no question that antidepressant medication has relieved the unnecessary suffering of numerous children and adolescents, and has saved lives in the process."

From Sachs' perspective, however, writing a prescription for an adolescent to take antidepressants is never a simple matter. For starters, many of the newer medications have not been studied longitudinally, so we don't yet know about the long-term impact. Second, children and adolescents have been known to misuse medication. And, as Sachs explains: "In addition to whatever physical side effects these medications stimulate, there are also nonphysical side effects, such as conveying the unfortunate message that all of one's problems can be solved by 'taking a pill.'"

Demographic shifts
These findings raise many new questions: the most urgent of which is, Why the rise in suicide among young women, and particularly among such young women (aged 10-14)?

Patti Binder, who has worked with girls from this age group for over seven years in various nonprofit capacities and blogs at What's Good for Girls, has a hypothesis: "Middle school girls are not ready for adult pressures, including those that come with the sexualization of girls that we are seeing today." She refers to the American Psychological Association's 2007 Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, which found that increased pressures to appear and act in a sexually explicit way at a younger age were linked to mental health disturbances in teen girls. Mental health disturbances, of course, are linked to suicide.

Dr. Roni Cohen-Sandler, psychologist and author of Stressed out Girls: Helping Them Thrive in the Age of Pressure, also believes that there is an important link between the pressure girls face and the rising suicide rate: "I am seeing an increase in such desperation among young teens. There are more mixed messages in this culture, fewer opportunities to conform to societal ideas of success, and sometimes a lack of support in families, which are experiencing increased stress and dissolution."

The rise in suicides among tween, or pre-teen, girls may also have something to do with weight issues, some experts speculate. Abby Ellin, health writer for the New York Times, reports that the single group of teenagers most likely to consider suicide are girls who think they are overweight. In a recent study of 11,000 American adolescents by UT sociology professor Robert Crosnoe, for example, he found that obese girls often engage in negative behavior to cope with isolation and social stigmatization, like skipping school, using alcohol or drugs and considering suicide.

Eating disorders, such as bulimia and anorexia, also on the rise among tween girls, may be contributing as well. Shain stresses the need for more research in this area, but points out that the malnutrition associated particularly with anorexia typically leads to depression.

Looking towards healing
The spike and demographic shifts are motivating those in the long-established field of suicide prevention to rethink some of their strategies, but they are also adamant that the public not overgeneralize based on these new numbers.

Chris Gandin Le, an expert on suicide prevention and technology, explains: "Suicide is complicated by cultural factors and outside influences, but it is such an individual decision."

Thanks to the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, passed in 2004, more money is being spent on suicide prevention -- particularly among teens -- than ever before. Gandin Le is hearted by the efforts he sees to incorporate social networking sites, like Facebook and MySpace, into the widening and varying approaches to keeping kids aware that they have options.

He also points out that progress is being made with regards to "postvention" -- intervention efforts into communities, both physical and virtual, to prevent suicide clusters (the devastating phenomenon where multiple suicide attempts or deaths follow an initial loss.)

In 2004, about 161,000 youth and young adults between 10 and 24 received medical care for self-inflicted injuries in hospital emergency rooms across the nation, proving further that being aware of the warning signs for child/teen depression is critical.

Sachs sums up the task ahead: "When we shrink and distill our conversation regarding adolescent depression and suicidality down to whether or not to prescribe medication, or which medications to prescribe, we miss a crucial opportunity to examine and evaluate our collective priorities, and to perhaps begin redesigning them so that not only adolescents, but adults as well, discover new ways, or rediscover old ways, to bond, care, grow and heal."

*Indicates a pseudonym.

Fox and CBS Refuse To Air Condom Ads

The first time I met 23-year-old Marvelyn Brown at a Washington, D.C., luncheon celebrating young women's achievements, she reached for her lemonade and I noticed a tiny red ribbon tattooed on her hand. Marvelyn and I got to talking, and I learned that she had been diagnosed with HIV at the age of 19. She contracted it from unprotected sex with a boy she described as "prince charming" back in her hometown of Nashville, Tenn. Her mother, whose only attempt at sex education was "just don't get pregnant," begged Marvelyn to tell everyone she had cancer instead.

I thought of Marvelyn when I heard that Fox and CBS networks recently refused to broadcast condom advertisements. Had they somehow missed the memo that there are 19 million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases (STD) each year or that HIV and AIDS are now the leading cause of death among black women between the ages of 25 and 34?

Marvelyn, as scrappy as she is beautiful, eventually made her way to New York City and became a spokesperson for AIDS awareness. She has been on BET, MTV, and even sat on the all holy couch of Oprah. She told me, "The weird thing is that if I hadn't gotten HIV, I think I would have ended up like so many of the girls in my hometown -- pining for a man and raising babies on welfare."

In fact, the networks are OK with playing a role in preventing fates like Marvelyn's, but not those of thousands of teen girls pregnant with babies instead of their own potential. According to The New York Times, FOX's decision was based on their policy that condom ads "must stress health-related issues rather than the prevention of pregnancy." In other words, TV execs feel entitled to glorify sex, but not educate viewers about the realities of it.

This is not just about network skittishness over abortion politics. It's not even about reproductive choices and education more broadly. This is about the battle over who controls women's lives.

When women have the power to choose when they conceive, they also have the power to lead healthier, more effective and ethical lives. They have an essential tool to be contentious about where they put their energy, how they forward their causes and careers, and when, if they are so inclined, they bring a very wanted and valued baby into the world. Birth control is nothing less than the key to composing a fulfilling, female life in the 21st century.

Take Marvelyn. HIV positive and only 23-years-old, she is discovering who she is away from home for the first time. She is making connections with the AIDS education community all over the world. She'll spend much of September on a fully-funded speaking tour in South Africa. Marvelyn may have the misfortune of having contracted HIV, but she is managing it with the help of dedicated doctors and advanced pharmaceutical therapies. And importantly, she is fulfilling what she sees as her divine purpose on earth -- to educate people about HIV and AIDS. Were she raising a young child, she would have never been able to follow this demanding path.

Marvelyn remembers being judged by women at home, women with babies born from unintended pregnancies, and she remembers thinking, "We reached in the same grab bag and pulled out different fates. I'm no worse than you." In fact, in some ways, I believe Marvelyn has it better. She hopes to one day have a child, but today, right now, she is free to discover more about herself and the world, and in the process, make it a better place.

Imagine the energies that are thwarted, the potential that is squandered, by teen girls who aren't educated about preventing unwanted pregnancy.

Approximately 750,000 American women between the ages of 15 and 19 get pregnant each year. Of course some of these young women come to adore and enjoy their roles as mothers, but they had the rest of their lives for that. The opportunity to be independent, focused on self-improvement and intellectual discovery, and career-driven without complications, has been lost.

It is inexcusable that television networks, one of the best public sites for widespread education about safer sex, is acting coy at the cost of these young women's fullest lives. Until all women understand their reproductive choices, none of us can be sure that we are benefiting from the full range of gifts -- intellectual, spiritual, and otherwise -- that one half of the population has to offer.

Why Feminists Fight With Each Other

Deborah Siegel -- writer, feminist and entrepreneur -- doesn't strike one as the type to dredge up old fights. Though she's 38, she looks about 18 as she sits happily in the grass at Union Square in a green and brown print dress, sandals thrown to the side and her legs curled under her, and tells me about the anticipation she feels about her new book coming out. Sisterhood Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild (Palgrave) is essentially a historical tour of the last 40 years of ideological, and sometimes sadly personal, battles for the soul of feminism.

Siegel is an apt guide as something of a renaissance feminist. With her Ph.D. in English and women's studies from the University of Wisconsin, she connects with academics. With her large network of New York-based feminist authors and nonprofit gurus, she connects with cultural critics and feminist celebrities. And with her Midwestern roots -- she was born and raised near Chicago -- she connects with the average girl.

Sisterhood Interrupted is the kind of book that will draw them all in, not just because it is ripe with controversy, but because it provides historical context for contemporary infighting: the overblown mommy wars, raunch feminists and their older, horrified detractors, and bloggers virtually ripping one another apart. Siegel and I took our own dialogue to the net, as the sun was too bright and Siegel had things to do.

Courtney Martin: What inspired you to write about feminist fighting?

Deborah Siegel: I wrote Sisterhood, Interrupted because I grew tired of hearing women -- both across and within different generations -- blame each other for feminism's failures. It started in the early 1990s when Katie Roiphe blamed 1970s-style feminism for turning women into victims, and it's going on today in the form of women accusing each other of being "faux feminists" on their blogs.

Of course, fights were hot during the late 1960s and 1970s, too. Today, we're repeating past battles without even realizing it. There's so much left to do -- it's such an unfinished revolution -- and I believe we long ago lost sight of our common ground.

Martin: Did you worry that opening old wounds would lead to more fragmentation in the movement instead of less?

Siegel: You can't talk about feminism and not talk about conflict. I wrote about the stands and splits within the popular women's movement across 40 years as someone seeking to understand them -- not to titillate readers, and not to air dirty laundry. For those solely interested in a catfight, my book is going to disappoint!

Martin: What do you hope older feminists get out of the book? Younger feminists?

Siegel: I wrote the book I wanted my younger cousin, my mother, and my great aunt to read: a road map to the feminist past for a younger generation and a guidebook to the present for women who have been calling for change for years.

I want women across the generations to understand that, in important ways, we're more alike than we are different. Older and younger feminists are often depicted at odds, with veterans cast as relics of a bygone era and younger feminists portrayed as unaware of or ungrateful for the work their mothers did. But younger women aren't abandoning the movement -- they're reinventing it. This is our legacy. Feminists have been creating, imagining and reinventing since day one.

Martin: You write, "Across the generations and at the heart of the battle to articulate feminism as a movement with mass appeal has been that singular tagline: The Personal is the Political." Why is this phrase still so damn powerful?


Siegel: The idea behind this truly brilliant slogan transformed the way Americans thought of the politics of private life. In the book I write about how these words launched a movement, then quickly morphed into a philosophy and a blueprint for action that meant different things depending on where you sat.

Today, we're smack dab in the middle of those conversations -- whether we realize it or not. But there's a new hitch. In the absence of a visible, organized, and powerful mass movement and in an era that's far more conservative and individualistic, younger women are less inclined to see our problems as shared.

We blame ourselves for not being able to be it all, when the problems are still systemic -- and the very notions of "it" and "all" are changing. Older women can point their fingers at us, the so-called "opt-out generation," all they want, but it's not getting anyone anywhere. Women across generations need to work together to bring the political, structural issues that shape our personal lives -- pay inequity, lack of affordable childcare and so much more-back on the national agenda.

Martin: How much of these fights centered around the question of whether feminism is a movement grounded in collective action, or an ideology pushed forward by very individual, often lifestyle-oriented, choices?

Siegel: In the early days of the second-wave women's movement -- and actually all the way through the 1990s -- feminists debated whether the best way to make serious, lasting change was by changing the world outside or changing ourselves. Today, we're debating the merits of "choice feminism" and "Sex-and-the-City"-style empowerment, but we're asking ourselves the same question: What needs transforming, our head or the world? Depending on your answer, feminism becomes a culture or a cause.

Martin: How much of these fights centered around the question of whether feminism should be radical, regardless of the loss in membership, or inclusive, regardless of the loss in progress?

Siegel: Betty Friedan worried that radical feminists were alienating suburban housewives with their talk of "orgasm politics" (cue raging vibrators). Radical feminists worried that the National Organization for Women was alienating twentysomething hip chicks with its "tame" emphasis on working within the system (cue respectable ladies picketing men's eating clubs).

We're having the same conversation again -- is sexual empowerment radical? Who is feminism leaving out? But it's differently inflected, as I show in the book, because the players, and the zeitgeist, have changed.

As for inclusivity, generation is the newest form of difference that we're dealing with now. In the back of Sisterhood, Interrupted there's a discussion guide, which I wrote with the hope that women of different ages might read and discuss the book together. If women who support gender parity in this country can't talk to each other, then feminism's grandchildren are going to pay the ultimate price.

Martin: Do you see these conflicts as fundamentally healthy for the movement, or are you calling for somewhat of a ceasefire?

Siegel: Ceasefire. Some conflicts are healthy. Others -- like the current round of intergenerational warfare -- are not.

Martin: Betty Friedan is a central character in this story. She sadly passed away last year. If you could have interviewed her, what would you have liked to ask her?

Siegel: I'd be so curious what she thought about the latest bruhaha around books like Leslie Bennetts' The Feminine Mistake, which has stay-at-home moms up in arms. You know, Friedan coined the term "the feminine mystique" to refer to ... well, you'll have to read the book! But I think it's interesting how things get replayed. You know, Friedan's third book, The Second Stage, was a call to restructure the workplace and to make this part of the American political and economic agenda -- something we have yet to really do, though we've certainly made enormous strides in the right direction.

Martin: What can those embroiled in the mommy wars learn from old examples of infighting?

Siegel: You know, I'm not a mom yet, but my best friend, who's an active professional and a mom, keeps telling me how peacefully SAHMs and moms who work outside the home coexist in her social circle. The media really has the whole "war" thing overblown. It's a great distraction from the real work that needs to get done (and that groups like MomsRising and the Mothers Movement Online are, thank goodness, now doing).

So what can we learn from the past? Not to believe the hype. Mainstream media have been historically lame about truthfully covering women's realities. Other lessons from the past: Read books like Adrienne Rich's Of Woman Born.

Martin: Why do you think these ideological battles tend to turn personal? Is this unique to women or do you think movement turmoil among men also devolves into character defamation?


Siegel: Definitely it happens among men. The early civil rights movement was as divided as the women's movement. I think it's more of a visionary thing than a gender thing. Visionaries can be difficult, impatient people by nature. Still, I think women are slightly better at going for the jugular when we take each other on.

Feminism is about passion, and the strength of conviction among women fighting for change is going to be intense. But just think how much more could be accomplished if that passion was unleashed solely at targets external to ourselves! We'd be unstoppable.

Martin: Who is the new "face of feminism," in your mind? Is it possible to have the same kind of leadership in a time of such intensified culture and hyperspeed technological and social change?


Siegel: You! Jessica Valenti and Samhita Mukhopadhyay over at Feministing and all the women at Third Wave Foundation, all those who started the REAL Hot 100, and all the others who are forming their own organizations across the country, speaking out on blogs, volunteering in record numbers, and using technology to reinvent radicalism in an era, as you say, marked by hyperspeed technological change.

Gen X and Y women are reinventing feminism in our own image -- and that image is more ideologically inclusive and racially diverse.

Martin: You write, "From its inception, the movement known as feminism has been one of the most internally fragmented and outwardly controversial -- perhaps because so many have so much to gain." What does the next generation of feminists have "to gain?"

Siegel: I think we get confused a lot by the illusion of progress -- or by the reality that there's been tremendous progress in some areas, but not in others. There are now 7.7 million women-owned businesses in the U.S., but we still make 77 cents to the male dollar.

Women now earn more than half of all bachelor's and master's degrees. But we're still only 16 percent of Congress, 2.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, and worldwide, we're still way poorer than men.

The dilemma of my generation and those behind me is that we're caught between the hope for a world that no longer degrades women and the reality of a culture that is degrading. We see a few women breaking into the upper echelons of power, and we think things are great. It's confusing to be a daughter of feminism in a culture only half transformed.

Martin: What else are you doing, besides publishing this book, to take this call for intergenerational understanding to the streets?

Siegel: In the fall, I'll be touring campuses and elsewhere as part of an intergenerational panel called "Sisterhood, Repaired." It's time that women of all ages talked and listened to one another instead of rehashing the same cliquish complaints in isolation. We want to reopen the dialogue about women's lives, power, entitlement and the future of feminism, but this time, with a cross-generational understanding. This conversation is also taking place through the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership, where I'm currently a fellow, and where older and younger women mentor and learn from each other.

But I've also started offering women scholars and researchers -- which is the world I come from -- a course on blogging. The course is a kind of reverse mentoring. Because blogging, of course, is the new vehicle for consciousness raising. It's where the liveliest debates about feminism are happening, but it's also, for many, young and old, the new "CR."

Separating Fact from Fiction in the Age of Obesity

Feminist theorist Susan Bordo once wrote, "People used to try to develop a better self and act out all the projects of transcendence, transformation and purification in the context of community or religious work. Now they go to seminars with diet gurus." If dieting has become the new religion, then we are not only financially daft but spiritually bankrupt. The good news is that there is a growing movement trying to wake us up from our calorie-counting hypnosis and target the fat-pocketed CEOs behind the swinging crystal.

The pathetic success rate of diets isn't news, but what is groundbreaking is the growing awareness of just how unethical the $34 billion-a-year (some estimate as high as $50 billion) diet industry is. Organizations like the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance and books like Laura Fraser's "Losing It: America's Obsession with Weight and the Industry That Feeds It" and the just published "Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss -- and the Myths and Realities of Dieting" by New York Times health writer Gina Kolata, reinforce that it is not a lack of willpower that is standing between the average American dieter and her perfect body but a corrupt industry that keeps so many of us -- women in particular -- unsatisfied, obsessed and misinformed.

Separating fact from fiction in the age of obesity
If you've just emerged from an ashram or a remote cave, let me fill you in: The last few years have seen a wild spike in the media coverage and public conversation of all things fat. The obesity epidemic became the topic du jour for every nightly news program, sending America racing off to Weight Watchers meetings and downing diet teas in terrified droves.

Most of the diet industry big-hitters toe the party line between quick-results dieting and long-term lifestyle change (Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, etc.), but there is a whole underbelly of the industry chock-full of dangerous schemes. These fast-fix pills, exercise and diet plans promise rapid weight loss -- sometimes at medically unsafe levels -- to desperate consumers.

There have been two dozen deaths from ephedra-based products in the last decade. Americans take 6 billion doses of PPA (what Fraser calls a "close chemical cousin" to amphetamines) every year even though it can causes a rise in blood pressure, anxiety and stroke; it is a common ingredient in diet pills like Dexatrim, Acutrim, Thinz and Appedrine. Many of the makers of these drugs have profited from the seemingly ubiquitous public conversation about fat in America.

J. Eric Oliver, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, asserts that the advent of the obesity epidemic story was less about fact and more about funding. In "Obesity: The Making of an American Epidemic," he explains that the hullabaloo was the result of "a relatively small group of scientists and doctors, many directly funded by the weight-loss industry, [who] have created an arbitrary and unscientific definition of overweight and obesity. They have inflated claims and distorted statistics on the consequences of our growing weights, and they have largely ignored the complicated health realities associated with being fat."

Instead of talking about the food industry, genetic predisposition, or sedentary, fast-food lifestyles, nightly newscasts featured fat, headless B-roll edited with voiceover from the nation's doomsday celebrity nutritionists spreading fear and misinformation. Being slightly overweight raises risk of death! Life expectancy plummets for the first time in two centuries!

Thanks to books like Oliver's -- and "The Obesity Myth," by Paul F. Campos -- public hysteria over the obesity epidemic seems to have finally come to a more sober summit. The truth is that many of us are overweight -- according to Scientific American, six out of every 10 of us, in fact. After decades of speculation, and let's face it, downright discrimination when it comes to fat Americans, researchers are finally finding out how genetics, environment, and psychology play into our overweight millions. And they are finally asking the question that women, pulling on waistbands and frowning in mirrors, have been asking for years: "Why doesn't my diet ever work?"

The set point makes diets obsolete
The world's largest study of weight loss by a group of researchers at the University of California has proven that two-thirds of those who diet gain the weight back. The study confirms what many researchers have already postulated -- that rapid weight loss and gain is actually more unhealthy than simply being overweight. Yo-yo dieting puts women at risk for a range of scary side effects -- like heart attack, stroke, diabetes and eating disorders.

A host of studies covered in Kolata's new book indicate that, in part, diets don't work because they can't override the body's innate "set point." Dr. Susan Albers, author of "Eating Mindfully: How to End Mindless Eating & Enjoy a Balanced Relationship with Food," explains: "According to the 'set point' theory ... your body has a genetically predetermined weight range. Your body tries to keep your weight within that range and will automatically adjust your metabolism and food storage capacity to keep you from losing or gaining weight outside of that range or set point."

The set point theory was thought to be just that -- a theory -- until now. Too many studies prove its legitimacy. For example, Dr. Ethan Sims of the University of Vermont found that a group of svelte prisoners who increased their weight by at least 20 percent over six months also saw their metabolism increase (by 50 percent!), making it impossible for them to continue to put on weight even with their whopping 10,000-calorie-a-day consumption. Flip the coin and you get the same results: Rockefeller researchers found that genetically fat patients who were put on strict diets actually went into psychological and physiological starvation mode even though their body weight was still technically very safe.

In our extreme makeover culture where women are led to believe they could look like Halle Berry if they just had enough will power or money, this is a powerful conclusion. Your body is genetically predisposed to exist in a certain range of weight. Your range might be higher than Paris Hilton's, or your next door neighbor's, or even your sister's, for that matter, but it doesn't mean anything about your character. In fact, you can diet with utmost determination and your body will continue to adjust your metabolism to fit its genetically determined size.

The frightening power within
Americans have poured themselves into dieting for decades. From Atkins to South Beach to Fat Busters, we've actually spent the gross national product of Ireland each year on trying to slim down. It turns out, it was free all along.

Susan Levin, a registered dietitian at the Physicians for Social Responsibility, explains: "What nobody talks about is that being healthy is not a matter of dieting, it is a matter of changing your life forever, eating healthy forever, moving your body, everyday, forever. No one wants to talk about that because it scares people to have that much control."

Levin recommends rejecting the pharmaceutical therapies and unhealthy diet plans (cutting out whole food groups, she asserts, is undeniably unhealthy) and seeing food as medicine instead. She described a patient with a stomachache who arrived at his doctor's office begging for a pill to make it better. In typical American quick-fix fashion, the patient hadn't even considered what food he had put in that stomach to make it ache in the first place.

Medical schools, it turns out, aren't much help either, as most of them don't require any kind of curriculum on nutrition. So the average American is not only being bombarded with false advertising and hyperbolic weight-loss claims in magazines, on television, radio, the internet and billboards, but often faces a similar fate at his or her own doctor. The "expert" may have little training in talking about weight loss without plugging a pill. Worst-case scenario, that doctor may even be paid to testify to its effectiveness by the pharmaceutical company that makes it.

With the potential of manipulation at every turn, where does the American look for the truth about health? Of all places, inward. "Let's talk about eating that makes good, intuitive sense," Levin insists. "Let's look at countries that eat high plant-based diets like Japan and Greece. These are the healthiest people on the planet, and they don't portion control or calorie count. They eat a natural, close-to-the-earth kind of diet."

The notion that we have everything we need to be healthy (or in diet industry parlance, "lose weight") within renders an entire industry impotent. If only we could believe it. Levin says, "People are afraid. They ask, 'So you're telling me I have that much power?'"


Feminists vs. the diet industry
It is hard to believe that the power to be healthy is so simple and internal, after decades of complex, contradictory, and profit-driven messaging on the part of multimillion-dollar corporations.

The dominant script of diet industry parlance is that, first and foremost, we are inadequate, and only they have the unique cure for our inadequacies. Commercials preach the gospel of thinness and equate it with success, happiness and love -- the thin girl waltzes through a sunny day with a handsome man on her arm and stacks of her own money in the bank, all a not-so-subtle result of her recent weight loss. The chance to slim down becomes more than a dwindling number on the scale in the world of weight-loss marketing. It becomes an answer to all of life's problems.

The obsession and self-hatred that the diet industry engenders has long topped feminist academics and psychologists' list of evils. Clinicians like Catherine Baker-Pitts, LCSW, and her colleagues at the New York and London-based Women's Therapy Centre Institute, encourage patients to look at the ways that "eating problems" are both internally (upbringing, personality) and externally (media, patriarchy) shaped. Baker explains: "Obviously the morality surrounding women's appetites is entirely loaded and connected to female identity -- messages to be less powerful, less emotional, less hungry, and to assume less space in the world."

Efforts to reclaim the beauty of the natural body have been numerous. Love Your Body Day now occupies a celebrated space on most college campuses in late October, as do feminist theory classes on body image year-round. Off-Broadway theaters have recently become a hot spot of plays -- like "Beginner at Life" and "Beauty on the Vine" -- both pushing audience members to come to terms with their inner critics and participate in dialogues afterward (ala Eve Ensler's "The Good Body.")

A wealth of literature, ranging from the academic (Susan Bordo) to the talk show-oriented (Jessica Weiner), urges women to stop pouring their critical time, energy and money into dieting. (Note: I have recently published a book that deals with many of these issues, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body.) But for all of our go-girling, expose-writing and finger-pointing, the diet industry marches on as lucrative and deadly as ever.

Some feminists are considering taking the rallying cry against dieting out of the classrooms and into the courts. Given recent research that proves the ineffectiveness of diets as a whole and the inaccuracies, therefore, littered throughout diet advertising -- are there legal grounds to take down the industry? Can the diet industry be prosecuted into warning labels and public education efforts the way the tobacco industry has been?

Prosecuting the magic pill makers
Susie Orbach would like to think so. The British psychologist and author of the 1978 classic "Fat is a Feminist Issue" has been threatening to sue 40-year-old company Weight Watchers International, which she views as merely a symbol of the diet industry as a whole. She explains, "Dieting has a 97 percent recidivism rate. Where does that appear in the advertising? The failure rate is crucial for the profits of the diet industry. If it worked, there would not be return customers and no profit. It surely contravenes the Trade Descriptions Act."

The Act Orbach referred to prevents manufacturers, retailers or service industry providers in the United Kingdom from misleading consumers as to what they are spending their money on. It empowers the judiciary to punish companies who make false claims as a strict liability offense.

Here in the United States, the Federal Trade Commission recommends a "healthy portion of skepticism" to those evaluating weight-loss products, but has done little since 1990 and 1992, when congressional hearings on the diet industry led to a spurt of crackdowns on outlandish weight-loss claims. Around the same time, the Food and Drug Administration created a list of 111 ingredients used in over-the-counter diet aids that were ineffective or unsafe. In 1992, a National Institutes of Health task force declared that diets don't work.

Since then fraudulent weight-loss schemes have flourished. The Dietary Supplements Act of 1994 put the burden on the FDA to prove that a product is fraudulent -- as opposed to on the manufacturer -- so most diet drugs simply slip through the cracks due to a deluge of undone paperwork. And consumers' rights groups appear to do little when it comes to exposing diet rip-offs.

It does seem like class-action lawsuits -- ala the tobacco industry takedown -- may be the most effective answer. In recent years the number of lawsuits against drug companies, in particular, have skyrocketed. Dr. Phil's reputation was sufficiently tarnished when he was sued three times over his bogus diet supplements. Before Anna Nicole Smith's untimely death, she and TrimSpa were the target of a lawsuit alleging their marketing of the weight-loss pill was false or misleading.

These individual cries for restitution and truth are chipping away at the industry, but it remains to be seen if fed-up physicians, feminists and anti-diet activists can band together to demolish the whole glittering mirage.

The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body

This article is excerpted from "Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters" by Courtney E. Martin. Copyright 2007 by Courtney E. Martin. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster, Inc.

There is a girl, right now, staring in a mirror in Des Moines, scrutinizing her widening hips. There is a girl, right now, spinning like a hamster on speed in a gym on the fifth floor of a building in Boston, promising herself dinner if she goes two more miles. There is a girl, right now, trying to wedge herself into a dress two sizes too small in a Savannah shopping mall, chastising herself for being so lazy and fat. There is a girl, right now, in a London bathroom, trying not to get any vomit on her aunt's toilet seat. There is a girl, right now, in Berlin, cutting a cube of cheese and an apple into barely visible pieces to eat for her dinner.

Our bodies are places where our drive for perfection gets played out. Food is all around us, as are meals and the pressure that goes with them. Well-intentioned after-school specials teach us, from a very young age, how to purge our snacks. We are inundated with information about "good" and "bad" foods, the most effective workout regiments, the latest technological advancements in plastic surgery. We demand flawlessness in our appearance -- the outer manifestation of our inner dictators.

To some degree, this makes sense. People in general like to look at a pretty face -- which means they also like to be friends with a pretty face, do business with a pretty face, and marry a pretty face. Attractive people are desired and coddled in our society; they have an easier time getting jobs, finding boyfriends and girlfriends, getting parts in music videos, simply getting the average waiter's attention.

Even smart girls must be beautiful, even athletes must be feminine. Corporate CEOs, public intellectuals, and even accountants must be thin. Lorie, an 18-year-old from Portland, Maine, wrote, "Everyone wants to be skinny, because in life the skinny one gets the guy, the job, the love." A 10-year-old I interviewed in Santa Fe, N.M., broke it down for me even further: "It is better to be pretty, which means thin and mean, than to be ugly, which means fat and nice. That's just how it is."

The body is the perfect battleground for perfect-girl tendencies because it is tangible, measurable, obvious. It takes four long years to see "summa cum laude" etched across our college diplomas, but stepping on a scale can instantly tell us whether we have succeeded or failed.

The cruel irony is that although we become totally obsessed with the daily measures of how "good" or "bad" we are (refused dessert = good; didn't have time to go to the gym = bad), there is no finish line. This weight preoccupation will never lead us anywhere. It is a maniacal maze that always spits you out at the same point it sucked you up: wanting. We keep chasing after perfection as if it is an achievable goal, when really it is the most grand and painful of all mirages.

Beauty is the first impression of total success. Social psychologists call this the halo effect: We see one aspect of a person -- such as her nice hair -- and assume a host of other things about her -- that she is wealthy, effective and powerful. Looking good indicates control, dedication, grace. If you are beautiful, we learn, you are probably rich, lucky, and loved. You are probably sought after, seen, envied. You probably have ample opportunities for dates and promotions. Our generation does not generally equate beauty with stupidity the way our parents or grandparents sometimes did. Beautiful, to us, has come in savvy packages -- Tyra Banks creating her own empire, Candace Bushnell writing her way into found-hundred-dollar Manolo Blahniks.

If you are beautiful we have concluded, you can construct the perfect life -- even if you are not brilliant, well-educated, or courageous -- because the world will offer itself up to you. By contrast, if you are overweight -- even if you are brilliance, dynamic, funny and dedicated -- you have no chance at the perfect life. Thinness and beauty are the prerequisites for perfection, which to my generation appears to be the only road to happiness.

From a very young age, we see weight as something in our control. If we account for every calorie that we consume, if we plan our fitness schedule carefully and follow through, if we are exacting about our beauty regimen -- designer makeup, trendy clothes -- then, we conclude, we will be happy. And we can be beautiful if we are just committed enough -- no matter our genetics, our bank account, or our personality -- as we have learned from advertising and the American Dream ethos. This logic leads us to believe that, if we are unhappy, it is because of our weight and, in turn, our lack of willpower. We are our own roadblocks on this road to 21st century female perfection and happiness.
The Jungian psychologist Marion Woodman has our number:

In an effort to be mature and independent ... a woman tries to be more and more perfect because the only way she can alleviate her dependence on that judgmental voice is to be perfect enough to shut it up. Thus the opposites meet in a terrifying contradiction. As she runs as fast as she can for independence via perfection, she runs into her own starving self, totally dependent and crying out for food.
Was I just your average temperamental, overcommitted teenage girl in the middle of America? On some level, yes. I grew up in a middle-class household with a lawyer daddy, a homemaker/community volunteer/consulting therapist mommy, and a Nordic-looking, overprotective older brother (captain of the tennis, lacrosse and basketball teams, and a math genius). I rode my bike around the neighborhood, sold lemonade on the corner, and sneaked out of the house at midnight to toilet-paper big Victorian houses. The first time I told my boyfriend, who is from Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, that I used to get to middle school by carpool, he scoffed: "I thought those only existed in television sitcoms. Oh my god, you really do come from the Beaver Cleaver family!"

Colorado Springs, Colo., was suburbia to the nth degree, home of strip mass, chain restaurant heaven, and Focus on the Family. Normal doesn't begin to describe how homogenous my hometown was.

Perfect girls

But as in any American town with picket fences this white, something dark lurked underneath. Like American Beauty's psychopathic real estate agent, the mothers I knew were often grinding their teeth and trying to outdo one another in landscaping and SUVs. The fathers -- mostly doctors and lawyers -- were socially accepted workaholics who attended big games and graduations still in their suits. The sons were out on the field 24/7, dreaming of Big Ten schools. And the girls ... were perfect.

Yet these perfect girls still feel we could always lose five more pounds. We get into good colleges but are angry if we don't get into every college we applied to. We are the captains of the basketball teams, the soccer stars, the swimming state champs with boxes full of blue ribbons. We win scholarships galore, science fairs and knowledge bowls, spelling bees and mock trial debates. We are the girls with anxiety disorders, filled appointment books, five-year plans.

We take ourselves very, very seriously. We are the peacemakers, the do-gooders, the givers, the savers. We are on time, overly prepared, well read and witty, intellectually curious, always moving.

We are living contradictions. We are socially conscious, multiculti, and anticorporate, but we still shop at Gap and Banana Republic. We listen to hip-hop, indie rock, and country on our iPods. We are the girls in hooker boots, wife beaters, and big earrings. We make documentary films, knit sweaters, and DJ. We are "social smokers," secretly happy that the cigarettes might speed up our metabolisms, hoping they won't kill us in the process.

We pride ourselves on getting as little sleep as possible and thrive on self-deprivation. We drink coffee, a lot of it. We are on birth control, Prozac and multivitamins. We do strip aerobics, hot yoga, go five more minutes than the limit on any exercise machine at the gym.

We are relentless, judgmental with ourselves, and forgiving to others. We never want to be as passive-aggressive as our mothers, never want to marry men as uninspired as our fathers. We carry the world of guilt -- center of families, keeper of relationships, caretaker of friends -- with a new world of control/ambition -- rich, independent, powerful. We are the daughters of feminists who said, "You can be anything" and we heard "You have to be everything."

We must get A's. We must make money. We must save the world. We must be thin. We must be unflappable. We must be beautiful. We are the anorectics, the bulimics, the overexercisers, the overeaters. We must be perfect. We must make it look effortless.

We grow hungrier and hungrier with no clue what we are hungry for. The holes inside of us grow bigger and bigger.

This quintessentially female brand of perfectionism goes on all over America, not just in suburban enclaves but in big cities, mountain towns, trailer parks. And perfect girls abound in Vancouver, Rio, Tokyo and Sydney. Their compulsion to achieve constantly, to perform endlessly, to demand absolute perfection in every aspect of life is part of a larger, undeniable trend in the women of my generation all over the world.

I satisfied my hunch that this was the case by consulting more than 25 experts in the fields of food, fitness, and psychology, interviewing twice as many girls and young women about their personal experiences (sometimes multiple times), and conducting focus groups with girls on the topic across the country. When I sent out an informal survey e-mail to all the women I knew and asked them to forward it to all the women they knew, I got more than 100 echoing responses in my in-box. Here are just a few:
I am DEFINITELY a perfectionist. To the extreme. Everything I do has to be perfect -- whether it be school, gymnastics, working out, etc. I do not allow myself to be the slightest bit lazy. I think if I heard someone call me lazy, I would cry! -- Kristine, Tucson, Ariz., 22
Perfectionists were rampant at my all-women's high school, as were eating disorders. I think I can remember two women in my class who really didn't have body issues, and I always admired them. I never had an eating disorder, but I definitely didn't get away without disordered ideas about food. -- Tara, Beirut, Lebanon, 27
I have always been and always will be a perfectionist in almost everything I do. It creates a struggle within me to truly define or determine when I will be good enough. -- Melissa, McKinney, Texas, 21
I do not consider myself a perfectionist, but others describe me that way. There is always room for self-improvement with my body, no matter how thin I am. -- Kelly, Denver, Colo., 28
People who know me call me an overachiever. I am hard on myself. My body fits into this mentality because I'm tall, long, lean, but that is the result of strict diet and lots of exercise. -- Kathleen, Jersey City, N.J., 28
I am quite a perfectionist. If I put on weight, I would be very upset. I would see it as a sign of failure on my part to control myself. -- Michelle, Dublin, Ireland, 24
Our bodies, our needs, our cravings, our sadness, our weakness, our stillness inevitably become our own worst enemies. It is the starving daughter within who must be shut down, muted, ignored ... eventually killed off.

Does Being a Feminist Mean Voting for Hillary?

The race for 2008 has just begun and already I am feeling giddy with hope. The majority of Americans recognize that the war was botched, and larger numbers than ever are questioning the morality of preemptive violence in general. Edwards sounds like he's sampling JFK in his twang about individual responsibility. Obama is sweet-talking a nation with his audacious authenticity. And Clinton -- mother, wife, and badass -- is a front-runner to become the first female president in the history of the United States. It is almost enough to restore my college-era idealism.

Yet one question keeps lurking menacingly beneath the surface of my excitement: am I obligated, as a young feminist, to support Hillary Clinton for president?

Exploring the answer gets me into a political twister game of identities. As an engaged citizen, I am obligated to comprehensively review and analyze the candidates' values and plans, their histories and qualities, and then choose the one I believe to be the most enlightened leader. Though I sometimes distrust the electoral machine, which makes it harder and harder to distinguish candidates' real ideas and passions from their fat-pocketed spin master's magic, I find my ways.

As my mother's daughter, I feel obligated to support and vote for Hillary Clinton. For the first time in history, a woman has a real chance at moving into the Oval Office.

According to one poll conducted by GfKRoper Public Affairs, Americans believe that a woman president would be as good as or better than a man at leading on the issues of foreign policy (78 percent), homeland security (77 percent) and the economy (88 percent). According to another -- the Times Union/Siena College First Woman President poll -- 66 percent of Americans think the U.S. is ready for a woman president and 81 percent would vote for one.

My mother, and the second-wave feminist movement she was a part of, fought long and hard for this kind of paradigm shift. I imagine myself the honored carrier of a feminist flag that has been flown from many a neglected pole, hoisted up by many a big-hearted (and often big-haired) feminist -- women like Victoria Woodhull (1872), Shirley Chisholm (1972), and Winona LaDuke (1996). I don't want them to think I have forgotten, that I take for granted, not only the right to vote, but the right to vote in a country whose culture has shifted so dramatically as to finally treat a female candidate as a serious contender.

And this is where the trouble starts. The feminist movement coaxed the country into believing that a leader is not defined by gender. Period. And in some ways, the pressure to support Hillary Clinton -- by virtue of her being a female -- feels regressive. As a young, fed-up progressive, I want to vote for someone who seems real, who strikes me as outside of the old guard and its outrageously overblown campaign spending. I want to support a candidate who doesn't compromise on certain issues -- violence, the constitution -- and understands the wisdom of the "middle path" in others -- taxes, social security. This part of my identity, the hungry-to-be-surprised part, is looking for a leader who reminds me of nothing, who only conjures up a kinder, wiser future. That person is not looking much like former first lady, current Senator Clinton.

So where do my deepest loyalties lie? Do I prioritize my commitment to wholesale progress -- no gender qualifiers attached -- or do I focus on the importance of this historical moment for women?

The White House Project, a non-partisan nonprofit, makes a strong case for the latter, arguing that a critical mass of women in leadership positions -- no matter what their specific politics -- will make the world a better place; it is essentially a feminist "tipping point" ala Malcolm Gladwell. They help female candidates of all sorts of persuasions raise money, in addition to promoting girls' leadership and doing powerful media activism.

As much as I respect this organization -- and others, like Code Pink -- I believe that they dance dangerously on the line between advocacy and essentialism. The former is well-intentioned -- get women in office and they will tip the country toward more egalitarian, more peaceful policies. The latter is an inversion of the same old bullshit -- now it's not men who are more inherently fit to lead and save the world, but women.

Lisa Jervis, founder of Bitch Magazine, wrote a brilliant essay on what she calls "femmenism" -- "the mistaken belief ... that female leadership is inherently different from male; that having more women in positions of power, authority, or visibility will automatically lead to, or can be equated with, feminist social change; that women are uniquely equipped as a force for action on a given issue; and that isolating feminist work as solely pertaining to women is necessary or even useful."

She brings up examples that progressive feminists would prefer to forget -- Condi and the Abu Ghraib gals, Ann Coulter, etc. Has having female editors at the helm of mainstream women's magazines made them any less self-hating or focused on conspicuous consumption?

Further, part and parcel of contemporary feminist thought is the idea of "intersectionality" -- that race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, and disability cannot be analyzed as separate, autonomous strands when one looks at the tangled web of oppression. This theory suggests that being a good feminist might also mean supporting a minority candidate, or a candidate from a working class background, and not automatically favoring a woman for gender's sake. As someone from a white, middle-class upbringing, maybe my most pressing duty is to vote for someone as unlike me as possible, someone who didn't have the privileges of white skin or financial stability.

So here I am, twisted into a pretty wicked knot of loyalties, affiliations, and philosophies of social change. If I go with Hillary, I respect my legacy but neglect my fiercest politics. If I support someone other than Hillary, I may vote with a vision of the future, but lose the opportunity to participate in a critical moment in feminist history. Until election day comes, I'll keep watching and listening, trying to let myself feel the pull of my wisest self.

Is Overachieving Bad for Girls?

Dan Kindlon's new book, "Alpha Girls: Understanding the New American Girl and How She Is Changing the World," begins in the pastoral setting of a typical suburban New Jersey high school. The students read excerpts from "Reviving Ophelia," Mary Pipher's 1994 bestseller that painted a Modigliani-esque portrait of teenage girls -- depressed, anxiety-ridden, self-mutilating and self-loathing.

But 12 years after the publication of Pipher's book, Kindlon and the Jersey girls he is chatting with are convinced that American girls have had a real psychological makeover. Sarah, a sophomore, asks, "Who are the girls in this book? I mean, I feel sorry for them, but they're pretty much losers."

Kindlon holds up young women like Sarah -- girls with high GPAs, stacked extracurricular resumes and Ivy League dreams -- as the new Athena archetype. An alpha girl, he explains, is "a young woman who is destined to be a great leader. She is talented, highly motivated and self-confident." Through interviews and an impressively large survey (900 girls and boys across the United States and Canada), Kindlon concludes that alpha girls have an "emancipated psychology." They are no longer slowed down by empathy or emotionality, and are now free to pursue success with rabid dog competitiveness.

Unlike Kindlon, I don't see Sarah's dispassionate reaction towards those in pain or her peers' full throttle drive towards achievement as cause for celebration. What are we teaching young women about success and well-being? How has the baby-boomer legion of superwomen influenced the way a new generation of "alpha girls" envisions their worth in the world? How do we measure progress?

Kindlon and many others cheer at the idea of a nation of young women resembling Reese Witherspoon's character in the movie "Election": hard-working and high-strung, taking classrooms and boardrooms across America by storm. A flurry of feminist self-congratulation followed Jennifer Delanhunty Britz's March 23, 2006, New York Times op-ed, "To All the Girls I've Rejected," in which she admitted practicing affirmative action for boys at Kenyon College because there were simply too many qualified young women.

I am more inclined to sound a word of warning. Ambition that is not tempered by wisdom is dangerous. It can lead to a soul-sucking, endless search for a sense of satisfaction that will never come from blue ribbons or promotions. It can lead to loneliness, secrecy, disease. Contrary to our very American disposition, achievement, accumulation and public recognition are not tantamount to true progress.

During the course of researching my book, "Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body," I heard "Sarahs" across the country voice their suspicion that to be a success, they had to be infallible. Under this impossible pressure, many of them developed eating and anxiety disorders that they kept secret from even their closest friends. In a 2001 survey of Duke undergrads, the overwhelming concern of young women was to appear not just perfect, but effortlessly perfect.

It's true, my generation of women has broken records and taken names. Women now outnumber men on college campuses by at least 2 million. A recent report by the National Council for Education Statistics concludes that girls consistently outperform boys on reading and writing tests, and are more likely to have taken algebra II, AP/honors biology, and chemistry than their male peers. They are also more likely to participate in music, performing arts, belong to academic clubs, work on the school newspaper or yearbook, or hold office in student government.

Here's the big "but": 7 million American girls and women have eating disorders. Panic disorders and depression are twice as likely in women and 75 percent of autoimmune illnesses affect women. This is not progress without pain.

Kindlon's alpha girls are symptomatic of a larger trend in outwardly high-achieving and inwardly self-hating young women. This is not the feminist dream realized. This is a Gen Y version of the Puritan ethic -- work hard enough, long enough, look perfect enough, and you will finally be thought of as successful (even if you are also sick.) As opposed to being "emancipated" from what others think, as Kindlon attests, these girls are obsessed with recognition. As opposed to being equal and free, as 1970s feminism envisioned, these girls are better than and ensnared in an unenlightened more, better, faster ethos.

Later on in the book Kindlon tells the story of Holly, a depressed, anorectic with an alcoholic father who pressures her to be the best. Her story could star in Alyssa Quart's smart new book, "Hothouse Kids," where she too raises the red flag over all this over-zealous ambition. Like many of Quart's characters, the parents appear to be vindicated for their vicarious aspirations. Holly appeases her father by getting into Harvard. Apparently Kindlon is won over as well: "Holly's problems didn't keep her from excelling in school."

OK, great. Holly goes to Harvard. But is Holly well? Is she happy? Has she defined success for herself? Had these crimson pom-pom-waving men listened to Holly's version of her own story, they would have heard that despite her academic triumph, she is suffering. Isn't her tenuous mental health more important than her guaranteed place at one of the nation's most notorious destinations for "alpha girls"?

Kindlon ends with Calvinist commemoration: "One of the deepest impressions the alphas left me with was how hard they work." It's true. The young women I have known, the ones I have grown up with, interviewed, befriended, taught, are not afraid to set goals and do whatever it takes to reach them.

I couldn't be more proud of all that my generation has accomplished. We are award-winning musicians, documentarians and doctors, trailblazers in academics and politics, leaders in the independent media movement, transformers of corporate culture. But I don't mistake this accomplishment for health. We still have a long way to go if we are to realize our dream of being successful and well.

Is the American Dream a Delusion?

"My uncle came to this country with nothing. Nothing. And now he has a lucrative carpet business and season tickets to the Mets," says one of my students, a wide-eyed, 18-year-old Pakistani immigrant, on a Monday evening in room 605, the light just disappearing behind the Manhattan skyscrapers through the windows.

As a gender studies professor at Hunter College -- one of the most ethnically diverse schools in the nation -- I am used to provoking passionate and often personal reactions in my students. We drift onto some fairly dangerous ground -- abortion, rape, love, war -- but after two and half years of teaching this material I have realized that I am never so uncomfortable as when class discussion turns to the American Dream.

You know the story: Once upon a time there was a hardworking, courageous young man, born in a poor family, who came to America, put in blood, sweat and tears, and eventually found riches and respect. But knowing the statistics on social mobility and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, I just can't stomach this "happily ever after" scenario. It is too clean. Real life is fully of messy things like racism and the wage gap and child care and nepotism.

The working-class students in my class are often struggling, and sometimes failing, with full-time jobs and full-time academic loads. You might predict that they would welcome the idea that if you're born poor, no matter how hard you work, sometimes success is still outside your grasp.

But semester after semester, student after student, when I suggest that the American Dream might be more fairy tale and less true story, I encounter the opposite reaction. As if by gut survival instinct, students hold up their favorite uncle or a distant cousin, or my personal favorite, Arnold Schwarzenegger, as evidence that the American Dream is alive and well.

Part of me wants to cringe, lecture them about how one success story is dangled in front of a struggling public so they won't get angry enough to revolt against an unfair system. How oppression can so easily be mistaken for personal failure. How many employers won't even look at their resumes if they don't see an Ivy League college at the top. But another part of me wants to keep my white, upper-middle-class mouth shut.

Many of these students' parents -- some of whom have left behind mothers, friends, respect and status in their countries of origin -- have sacrificed their lives on the altar of the American Dream. Some of my students are recent immigrants themselves, so relieved to have made it out of violent and poverty-stricken places like Haiti and Colombia that they aren't ready to criticize the country that is their haven. Others, American as apple pie, are the first to go to college in their families and believe ardently that this guarantees a better life. At what cost do I ask them to question their beliefs? What right do I have to deconstruct one of the foundations they stand on?

Discomfort produces learning; Piaget taught me that. When I ask my students to read about intersexuality, I know that they will be surprised and "weirded out," as they often put it, that sex may be more accurately thought of as a spectrum rather than a binary. This, of course, shatters their previous understanding of male and female, blue and pink, penis and vagina, but I find that they can usually process this exploration with a bit of distanced wonder. It doesn't appear to threaten their sense of self, as much as expand it.

But when it comes to exploring the validity of the American Dream, I find myself -- perhaps too sensitively -- afraid of breaking them. I can see that their feverish daily schedules from home to daycare to work to school to daycare to home, repeat, are running not on caffeine or a love of learning, but on potent "someday" dreams. They have landed in my class not by accident, but as one more small step in their destiny to make it big, they believe.

And maybe this is the crux of it after all. "Making it big," for my wide-eyed, 18-year-old Pakistani student, is not Bill Gates or Bill Clinton or even Bill Cosby. It is getting to see the Mets whenever he wants. For him, the American Dream is not so damaging because he has revisioned its scope.

But at the risk of falling into the same trap that my students sometimes do, I have to attest that he is not the rule. Many have dreams of Hummers and fame and multiple vacation homes. I don't want to be the pinprick that lets the air out of the swollen balloon of hope, but at the same time I desperately want them to see that their wholehearted belief in the American Dream is actually doing more to benefit people far richer and whiter than they are.

As long as they are distracted by their own dedication, they won't stop to question why the richest people in this country pay far less in taxes, proportionally, than the middle class. They won't have the time to organize against elitist candidates because they will be too busy working dead-end jobs. As a friend once explained to me, "The proletariat didn't rise up like Marx predicted because he was too tired after work. All he wanted to do was watch TV and have a beer."

I want to give my students an intellectual tool that can serve as an emotional cushion, convincing them that it isn't "all their faults" if things don't work out exactly as planned. I want them to imagine living in a genuinely more equal society, not just one that pays lip service to it. What could they accomplish if it didn't take a million-dollar budget to run for political office, and if people didn't hire their friends' kids, and if college was free?

So I push. I push beyond my own comfort zone. I certainly push beyond theirs. In fact, I put faith in my own version of the American Dream -- that dialogue makes people smarter, kinder, happier -- and hope that my students don't prove it a myth.

Megachurches Court Cool to Attract Teens

Five suburban kids -- three boys, two girls -- sit at a circular table in a cafe eating gooey chocolate chip cookies and responding frequently to one another with the all-encompassing "totally." All of the signs of adolescence are there -- the pimples, the flirty giggles, and yes, the angst. One of the girls leaps up from the table and rushes off, shouting over her shoulder, "I just need some time to digest!" The remaining girl shrugs both her eyebrows and shoulders in the guys' direction coquettishly, then runs after her friend. The guys immediately bow their heads and begin praying like crazy.

Despite the cushy chairs and mainstream decor, this is not Starbucks. This is New Life Church -- some say the most politically influential site of evangelism in the nation. Kids come to this megachurch on the outskirts of northern Colorado Springs not only to be saved but also to sip mocha lattes. They come, sometimes in the thousands, to this megamall of worship to praise Jesus, not through quiet, mannered prayer, but through the gut-vibrating baseline of the three electric guitars that begin services. In the words of the lead singer, who sports flip flops with his white button-down shirt and gelled, hipster hair, the kids come because: "God, you are so awesome!"

God's "awesomeness" aside, I came here to understand what it is that churches like New Life are doing so successfully to appeal to teenagers. Generation Y (of which I am a part) is notorious for its dependence on nonhierarchical, virtual communities: music downloading sites, YouTube, Wikipedia and the big momma, MySpace. When it comes to the real world, we are largely apolitical, unorganized and skeptical of authority -- as evidenced from books like Robert Putnam's 2000 bestseller Bowling Alone and Jean Twenge's more recent Generation Me.

In dramatic contrast, the National Association of Evangelicals, whose 45,000 churches and 30 million believers make up the nation's most powerful religious lobbying group, continues to successfully recruit teenagers into its fold.

In this climate of isolation and cynicism, how have evangelical megachurches like New Life gained such a strong youth following? And more importantly, what can progressives -- feminists, democrats, civil rights defenders -- learn from their methodology? "The left" is looking a little winded, a little wrinkled and a lot in trouble if it doesn't figure out how to appeal to a youth accustomed to MTV, MP3s and incentives. After spending one long Sunday evening at the New Life Church, I had a better sense of how the evangelical right pulls it off.

The Christian rock band played about five songs, showered in red, white and pink state-of-the-art lighting and periodic rolling clouds from the fog machine. Teenagers knelt down, stood in the aisles with their hands raised and rocked out at the foot of the stage, singing along; the lyrics of each song were projected on three giant television screens. One young woman spontaneously choreographed some kind of contemporary praise dance off in a corner, mixing Twyla Tharp modern with the Harlem shake as the spirit moved her. The lights were very dim, as if to visually indicate to every insecure 14-year-old around that, for once, no one was watching or judging.

It makes perfect sense -- teenagers are naturally emotional, bent on constructing their own unique individuality and deathly afraid of being judged for both. The angsty lyrics and dramatic delivery mirrors their internal world, but the dark, to-each-their-own vibe is in direct contrast to the cruel, external world.

Eventually the music faded into a soundtrack as a young pastor took the stage and translated the idea of God's glory for his "American Idol" audience: "We ask that you would make God famous in our city." Worship Pastor Ross Parsley, in his boot-cut jeans, short strawberry blond hair with pronounced sideburns, delivered his sermon from a Smartphone, throwing in frequent references to Hollywood movies. In fact, over the course of his 30-minute sermon he compared God's glory to the red pill in "The Matrix," the ring in the "Lord of the Rings," and, yes, the lion in "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." God's wrath, he explains, is like the melting face in Indiana Jones.

When he asked "Does anyone remember the First Commandment?" and was met with only nervous giggles, he didn't miss a beat before responding: "Bueller? Bueller?" -- a reference to the famous '80s movie "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."

Though Pastor Ross does sprinkle in some classic Valley Girl language (using "like" as a noun and referring to Obed-Edom as an "obscure dude�), he doesn't talk down to his following. He incorporated words like "behooves" and "arbiters" and phrases like "geopolitical woes," which seemed to send the message that, yes, he is one of them, but no, he doesn't consider them stupid. At one point he drew a parallel between one of the Philistines and the government, saying under his breath, "Maybe he consulted our Congress on passing the buck."

Though I would guess that many, if not most, of the teenagers in the crowd have no clue what he is referencing, they laugh knowingly; they felt part of an insider's club of people who "get it." This delicate mix of pop and politics makes kids feel cool and righteous -- not wonky, out of touch or nerdy.

And just when his sermon was skirting the edge of patronizing, Pastor Ross got tough: "WWJD bracelets and Christian contemporary music don't entitle you to the glory," he said. "Cut the garbage -- we must humble ourselves. Every one of us has to do something." The teenagers in the audience nod their heads in dramatic agreement, some raise their open palms, one pounds his fist into his thigh a few times.

You can't buy "cool" -- teenagers know that all to well. They respect a big brother-figure who is giving them the straight dope that you can't buy "glory" either. And what's more, this is action-oriented. Pastor Ross warned that "you never know what blessing you might miss" if you sit idly by. This God -- albeit a definitively Republican, homo-hating, pro-life God -- wants you to stop talking and start doing.

After Pastor Ross finished, Senior Pastor Ted Haggard, who consults with President Bush once a week and masterminded the New Life movement, took the stage and gave his protege a warm greeting. They both sat on tall stools for the Q&A. Pastor Ted encouraged his congregants to ask questions "regarding anything at all." He called on people by their first names and answered their diverse inquiries with what I can only describe as a frightening mix of damnation and Dr. Phil. One moment he was describing young people possessed by the devil writhing on the ground like snakes at a Mississippi gather, the next he explained, "The moment that I feel that God is using me to judge and punish, I hit the prayer closet fast to negotiate." I looked around at the teenagers, wondering if they were as confused as I was. They looked similarly bewildered. Some of them were even covertly text messaging their friends.

But he ended with a comforting idea: "God loves those who wrestle with him." The New Life Church has made God a man to both fear and love, a classic example of what George Lakoff calls the "strict father" model. For the New Life Church, worship is both a mandate and an individual expression, contemporary culture is both an evil and a celebration. But unlike the brand of confusion produced by electoral politics that promises a "stronger America" or health care for all, New Life Church promises concrete rewards. Both pastors spoke often about the payoff for those who are faithful; Pastor Ted even referred to "the toys" that those who pray will undoubtedly receive, holding up Sam Walton of the Wal-Mart fortune as the quintessential example.

For teenagers, unlike aging adults, the ultimate reward is not yet heaven � it is being "cool,� being entertained, being inspired. The teenspeak-talking evangelists assure these insecure kids that if they pray hard enough, they will not only be loved, but rich. Unlike the hell that is junior high, at New Life, they are resolutely on the side of the powerful and popular.

As Pastor Ross looked around at the nodding, foot-tapping teenagers filling the stadium seating, he triumphantly shouted, "We are growing the church young!" Unless progressives can figure out a way to reach that same audience, I fear he is right.

For more on the making of this story, see AlterNet's video interview with Courtney Martin at the top of this page.

Letter to My Mother

Editor's Note: Underneath the greeting card/flowery industry hype of Mothers' Day and the media buzz about the "mommy wars" is a real conversation between mothers and daughters about what it means to be a woman, a feminist, and a mother. Here, Courtney Martin and her mother, Jere, tell each other what drives them crazy and what they most admire about the other.

You use words like "patriarchy" and "crone." You have a dream group, two book clubs, a medical psychic. On your bathroom wall, you have a photograph of a middle-aged naked woman stretched out in the curve of a leaning tree. I love you, but sometimes your ideas of feminism seem sappy, sentimental, unproductive.

I am not one of those Sophie Kinsella fans who likes my heels high and my man Cro-Magnon. In fact, despite my teasing, you are the most powerful person I have ever known. You founded the longest running women's film festival If you like a book, 10,000 of your closest friends immediately buy it. You can sense that I am sad from thousands of miles away. You gave me feminism, and when I was old enough to comprehend the profundity of that gift -- 18 years old and watching all of my friends fall apart from eating and anxiety disorders -- I embraced it with a vengeance.

On Mother's Day, I first and foremost want to say thank you. It is clearly not said enough by the women of my generation, the inheritors of Title IX and day-care centers and gender studies programs. Thank you for getting us these things, and thank you for doing away with others -- girdles and sanitary belts immediately come to mind. Thank you for teaching us to speak truth to power. Here I speak, not just to my all-powerful mother, but all second-wavers.

Your version of feminism sometimes feels like what Bitch Magazine founder Lisa Jervis called "femmenism", an idea that "female leadership is inherently different from male, that having more women in positions of power, authority, or visibility will automatically lead to, or can be equated with, feminist social change."

We have witnessed Abu Ghraib and Condoleeza Rice and Paris Hilton. This to me is evidence enough that women aren't inherently better or more just. We don't believe in goddess worship or that getting just any old lady into office will make the world a better place.

What we do believe in is education and choice. We believe in pleasure. We believe in humor. God knows, OK, Goddess knows, we believe in ambition; too many of us are unhealthy, perfect girls -- faithful, if unconscious, imitators of our supermoms.

Sometimes your legacy feels like a ten-ton weight, like we can never accomplish enough. Sometimes your adoring gaze feels like a critical stare -- as if our moments of frivolousness movement is dead. Sometimes your well-intentioned advice feels like a dooming prophecy. One feminist writer told me that she could not bear to connect me with her agent because the publishing world was inhumane. I was 24 with a mountain of ideas and hope that wouldn't pay the rent. Let us earn our own bitterness. Stop shaking your heads at NOW conferences because "the youth" don't show up. We are trying to maneuver a new path towards social change, and it has less to do with "everyone say aye" and more to do with blogs, networking sites, the hostile takeover of pop culture. Watch Pink's new video "Stupid Girls" (http://popsugar.com/5256) or read Feministing (www.feministing.com) if you want a sense of where we are fighting the 21st-century battle.

We want to fight the good fight, but we want to make sweet love too. We want our partners -- girl, boy or something radically in between -- beside us. We want boys to be less buttoned-up and more down for parenting and dancing to stupid '80s music in public; if they pay for dinner, unlike Maureen Dowd's hyperbolic claims, it doesn't mean we are riddled with '50s-era nostalgia. We just don't take some things as seriously as you do.

I can hear a chorus of Eileen Fisher-wearing women now -- wait until you have kids. I surrender. I have no clue about how I am going to realize my equal parenting dreams; I watched my own idealistic parents fail. My mom and I joke that she has grandmother Tourette's these days -- she shouts, "Babies would solve that," and then looks over both shoulders and asks, "Who said that?"

But for all our laughing, we know that the still-unsolved problem of work-family-gender balance is grave. I am scared of compromising my cherished independence, deathly afraid that I will wake up at 40 with an indistinguishable fire of bitterness in my guts. Sometimes I find myself standing over the sink washing my boyfriend's dishes even though I made dinner, and it scares the shit out of me.

When I recently came across second waver Cynthia Horney's rare message, it made me breathe a deep sigh of relief: "We got nowhere close to Having It All. But here's what I think … we had an awful lot of it. My point is simply that this turned out to be the very life I wanted: not my mother's life, not my husband's life, but a patched-up-some-of-both model that I worry is in danger of being cast aside as unworkable by people who have listened to too many women like me despair over what we are missing. We didn't make enough noise celebrating the great parts, did we?"

No, you didn't. But it is never too late.

Paradox of the Perfect Girl

It's college admission season, that time of year when high school seniors and their parents await the day's mail with all the hope and dread of one awaiting the results of a pregnancy test.

To further the anxiety, Kenyon College Dean of Admissions Jennifer Delauhunty Britz recently wrote a New York Times op-ed, glibly titled "To All the Girls I've Rejected." It is an apology-of-sorts for the recent trend of what might be called "reverse gender discrimination" in college admissions. While a surplus of supergirls armed with ambition, impressive CVs, and expressive personal essays are knocking on the ivy-covered front doors of America's best colleges, admission officers are letting their slacker boyfriends and sheepish brothers slip through the backdoor.

Though Britz dresses this very public statement up in personal reflection about her own college-bound daughter's disappointment upon receiving a thin envelope, don't be fooled. This is not a quaint maternal reflection on the end of her daughter's innocence. It's the beginning of a national conversation, or at least it should be, about the legal and cultural implications of the growing imbalance.

The 2003 Supreme Court decision concerning U. Michigan's law school admission upheld previous rulings supporting admissions processes that aim at creating diverse communities on campus but outlaw formal quotas or point system admissions policies that privilege certain races. They argued that there is inherent social value to having diverse classrooms, and that an informal effort to encourage that composition is sound.

The Title IX Education Act of 1972, however, may prove more challenging to institutions, especially public, that are incorporating gender preferences into their admissions policies. It states, "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance."

Well-intentioned admissions counselors trying to create gender-balanced learning communities may find themselves in deep water if they can't prove that their policies don't violate Title IX. Unequal athletic programs that have been tried in courts and transformed are proof of that.

The cultural implications of gender-based college admissions is no less complicated. Britz writes, "We have told today's young women that the world is their oyster; the problem is, so many of them believed us that the standards for admission to today's most selective colleges are stiffer for women than men. How's that for an unintended consequence of the women's liberation movement?"

Some of us with feminist parents were told "You can be anything." Somehow we heard, "You have to be everything." The unintended consequences of the women's liberation movement aren't just informal and possibly illegal college admissions policies, but the oppressive paradigm of the perfect girl.

The perfect girl is everywhere. She is your niece, your daughter, your friend's genius kid. She is the girl who makes the valedictorian speech at your son's graduation and the type-A class president in the skimpy black dress that he brings to the prom. The perfect girl is thin and hungry, not for food, but for honors, awards, scholarships, recognition. The Princeton Review book is the perfect girl's bible. Her appointment book, even at 14, is filled morning to night with scheduled activities. She speaks three languages. She has five varsity letters. She never stops to breathe. She is voted most likely to succeed. She knows she will because she devotes every last iota of her energy, and then some, into achieving.

I know, because I was one. In 1998, when I applied to college, I struggled through the night to cut my list of accomplishments down to the tiny space provided on my college applications. How do you abbreviate captain, editor, president? Should I emphasize the child abuse prevention work or the magazine publications more? Though two years earlier my mother had typed every last comma onto my brother's college applications (what an anachronistic clacking that now seems), I refused to let her even look at my finished packages. I was unhealthily driven and fiercely independent.

When I got to Barnard College, I met a skyscraper dorm full of women just like me -- perfect girls incurring a variety of eating and anxiety disorders via their rabid-dog achievement orientation. Zoloft and Paxil were doled out like candy. Girls traded all-nighter tales like war stories. Eight hours of sleep was considered weak. We spent our Fridays in competitive internships and our Saturdays volunteering at soup kitchens. I lost my roommate for days once, only to find her passed out on a library carrel, highlighters and empty coffee cups strewn about, drool dripping onto her thesis paper -- 50 pages longer than the requirement.

My friends and I were accomplished, no doubt. We were also horribly unhealthy. Theresa Foy DiGeronimo and Richard D. Kadison describe "a steady and alarming rise in the severity of student's mental health problems" in their new book "The College of the Overwhelmed." In 2000, almost seven percent of college students reported experiencing anxiety disorders within the past year. Women are five times as likely to have anxiety disorders. Eating disorders affect 5-10 million women with the highest rates occurring in college-aged women. According to the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 12.3 percent of women ages 18-24 report frequent mental distress. According to a recent UCLA survey, 38 percent of college women report feeling frequently overwhelmed.

While there is an ethical question about whether or not to push aside all of the Reese-Witherspoon-ala-Election applicants in pursuit of a gender-balanced student body, I'm more interested in the larger question raised by Britz's editorial: Is it physically, mentally, spiritually ethical to push young women (and turn a blind eye when they push themselves) to be accomplished, imbalanced, anxiety-ridden perfect girls?

My answer, after seeing my friends crumble under the weight of their own expectations, is definitively no. Of course it is important that girls today know how to work toward our goals. Of course Title IX has taught us to be competitive and strong. The hallmark of feminism, as far as this third waver can tell, is educated choice. We need women getting college educated so they can choose to do anything they damn well please. But we neglect to tell young women that one of those choices could be "no" to a traditional list of accomplishments, and that, even if they chose to achieve in traditional ways, they may not necessarily be rewarded for it.

Despite all the buzz about the trouble with boys -- the latest of which was a Newsweek cover story -- I think they have a few things figured out in terms of self-preservation. In my experience, young guys are pretty good at saying no. They are also better at taking risks, resisting gratuitous guilt and excessive caretaking, and brushing off imperfections. Most of the perfect girls I know would have to pencil in "fun time," but only if it became a real priority in their action plan for self-improvement.

The second wave of feminists -- our mothers and teachers -- created a world in which we feel entitled to accomplish anything we set our minds to; which, it turns out, includes just about everything. Now the task of the next wave of feminism is to turn the tide of this unhealthy achievement drive. Yes, women can be anything. But we don't have to be everything.

One Big Fat Lie

If you watch any mainstream news, you know that apparently America is in the midst of an obesity epidemic. Fear-producing news segments feature footage of overweight men and women, cut off at the heads like criminals, lumbering along the streets in Anytown, U.S.A. Ads with skinny women touting weight loss miracles as they look disdainfully at old pictures of their fatter, sadder selves run on a continuous loop on daytime television.

The scare tactics are working. Americans continue to pump billions, and blood, sweat, and tears into their "body projects," convinced that if they are fat, they are doomed.

Conflating fat with sickness is a dangerous delusion. The truth about fat, reinforced recently by a $419 million federal study involving 49,000 women, is that it does not automatically indicate unhealthiness. Many thin people, who don't exercise or eat balanced diets, are at a greater risk for disease than those with some extra padding who work out and eat relatively right. Your health can only be improved by movement and moderation. That's it. The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last month, concludes that low-fat diets do not, despite all of the hype, reduce a woman's risk of cancer or heart disease.

Being fat is not equivalent to being unfit. In fact, being underweight actually kills over 30,000 Americans a year. Equating weight loss, instead of lifestyle changes, with improved health is "like saying 'whiter teeth produced by the elimination of smoking reduces the incidence of lung cancer,'" argues J. Eric Oliver, author of Fat Politics: The Real Story Behind America's Obesity Epidemic. Even a group of CDC researchers admit that "evidence that weight loss improves survival is limited."

So why do highly educated, media-savvy Americans continue to buy into the idea that the thinner one is, the healthier and happier one is? The mammoth diet industry, not to mention the exercise, beauty, fashion, and cosmetic surgery industries, certainly has something to do with it. In America, alone, we spend $40 billion annually on diet products, even though diets prove to be ineffective 95 percent of the time. Not only is our stupidity disturbing -- those stakes wouldn't even lure the drunkest of Vegas gamblers -- but the implications are foreboding.

There is a slippery slope from dieting to disease, as the 7 million girls and women suffering from eating disorders in this country will attest. Thirty-five percent of those who diet go on to yo-yo diet, dragging their bodies through a cycle of weight gains and losses far more unhealthy than just being overweight; 25 percent of those who diet develop partial or full syndrome eating disorders. Mindfulness advocate Susan Albers writes: "The dieting mindset is akin to taking a knife and cutting the connection that is your body's only line of communication with your head." There is little hope for long-term health improvement with this vital line severed.

Cut off from our ability to listen to our authentic hungers, we ride a roller coaster of marketed cravings and emotional upheaval -- overeating, then guiltily undereating, then overeating again. But unlike brief and thrilling amusement park adventures, we can't seem to get off the ride. The explosion of coverage on "the obesity epidemic," though well-intentioned, has not served as the emergency break nutritionists and doctors so hoped it would. Instead, the sensational news spots on the dangers of obesity have often fed misperceptions about the direct link between fat and unhealthiness, or worse, fat and unworthiness.

Hyperbolic reportage on the expanding waistlines of America's children, in particular, has created a damaging hysteria. Fat camps are flooded with applicants who are solidly within their recommended body weight. In 1995, 34 percent of high school-aged girls in the U.S. thought they were overweight. Today, 90 percent do. And those who really are fat, and yes, there are many, are subjected to increasing scrutiny and scolding. The fat kid in school, once the butt of mean jokes, is now the target of a societal assault. A recent survey of parents found that 1 in 10 would abort a child if they found out that he or she had a genetic tendency to be fat.

We are being brainwashed by sensationalistic news segments and the 250 ads we see a day that tell us, not only that fat is unhealthy, but a sign of weak character. In a recent poll by Ellegirl magazine of 10,000 readers, 30 percent said they would rather be thin than healthy. Over half the young women between the ages of 18 and 25 would prefer to be run over by a truck than be fat, and two-thirds surveyed would rather be mean or stupid. The single group of teenagers most likely to consider or attempt suicide is girls who worry that they are overweight.

The messages are coming in loud and clear, and they are riddled with disempowering dichotomies -- all or nothing, feast or famine, disgustingly fat or virtuously thin, deeply flawed or triumphantly perfect. There is no talk of what Buddhists describe as "the middle path," no discussion of the pleasure of walking, eating homemade food, slowing down. There is no permission to say "no" sometimes and "yes" sometimes, and have those no's and yeses be simple answers, insignificant scores on a Scrabble board, representative of nothing more than a mood. Instead our yeses and no's signify our desirability, our life expectancy, our self-worth.

It is not fat itself that is unhealthy, but our hypocritical attitudes and compulsive behaviors that are. We drive two blocks to the grocery store and then spend 20 minutes circling the parking lot so we can get a close spot. Once inside we load up our carts with low-fat, microwave meals and diet shakes filled with artificial everything. In the checkout line, we read about the latest fitness trend in Men's Health or Self, then get back into our cars, drive the two blocks home, and sit in front of the television all night eating Pizza Hut while drinking a liter of Diet Coke. We go to bed late, wake up early, head to work -- in our cars, of course -- where we will spend the next eight hours stationary and bored. Rinse. Repeat.

We don't need expensive, genetically engineered foods or state-of-the-art exercise equipment. We don't need fancy doctors or pharmaceutical drugs. We don't need the latest diet craze book or even the latest medical study -- they all seem to contradict each other anyway. We don't even need Herculean willpower.

We just need to leave our cars in the garage, stroll down to the park, and play some softball with our neighbors on a Saturday. We just need to enjoy every last bite of our home-baked birthday cakes, then have some oatmeal for breakfast the next morning. We need to resist the pressure to overwork and underenjoy. If we want to live long, healthy, happy lives, then we need to stop believing the hype. We need to rediscover our own wise instincts that know far more about well-being than a whole country of experts.

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