It's Complicated


Christian Feminism: Litmus Tests And a Seat at the Decent Human Being Table


Before I go on hiatus, I wanted to post some quick thoughts on Christian Feminism since Sarah Bessey’s book just came out and there have been quite a few posts about it this week.

I joined in a conversation over on this post by Tyler Braun (see my responses here and here) and shared some thoughts about ways that Christian Feminists and Complementarians (who adhere to traditional gender roles to different degrees) can dialogue and move the conversation forward.

I very much appreciate what Tyler was trying to do, and most of the comments on that post offered some really good insights into how we can approach each other better on this very emotionally fraught issue. But here’s what I wanted to add based on some of the negative comments that I’ve seen on both sides in this discussion.

First: Quick-And-Dirty Litmus Tests

As I said in my comment, there’s not really a middle ground between feminism and complementarianism. One (in the best cases) believes in full equality between the genders and the other promotes in structural, if not always inherent, hierarchy. As such, there’s not really a way for complementarians to have a full seat at the “feminist” table or vice versa, just like you wouldn’t expect a group of libertarians to give a dyed-in-the-wool liberal an “equal” platform on their docket. They can dialogue, they can respect each other, and they can learn from each other, but if they disagree on some fundamental things, in this limited context, they’re not going to give equal weight to words from people holding the other perspective. This is actually normal and to be expected when groups disagree. This, to me, is not the same as the “demonizing” form of polarization that admittedly often takes place.

Unfortunately, feminism (by which I mean promoting full equality, not matriarchy) has also been turned into a quick-and-dirty litmus test for “decent human being” in many circles. And I’m not a huge fan of quick-and-dirty litmus tests, regardless of whether it’s skirt length for conservative evangelicals or fair trade chocolate for mainliners or labels like this for feminists. Life’s too complicated for that. Heck, feminism’s too complicated for that. It’s a diverse movement with many parts, and most people just remember the bra-burning part from the 60s or the man-hating subset and haven’t kept up with where the movement at large is today.

Second: The “Decent Human Being” Table

I do think equality, the inherent worth of all human beings, and individual agency are pretty important ideas, and feminism was what taught me the most about them, so  I will always be indebted to this movement and the men and women who came before me. But even if your rhetoric sometimes diminishes one of those three things, I’m not going to start by assuming you’re a terrible human being. I’m going to assume that either there’s a misunderstanding, you’ve been badly taught, or you’ve been badly wounded. I’m then going to offer you a seat at my personal “decent human being” table so we can have a discussion.

I’ve had surprisingly good results doing this. A lot of people with really terrible rhetoric are surprisingly nice people, and I’m not going to trample their humanity when there’s a good chance they’re actually on my side and they just don’t know it yet. For better or for worse, I’m a bridge-runner, not a bridge-burner.

That said, I’m also rather naive and optimistic, and that’s not always a good thing. I’m learning to be a little more careful. That means if I join you at the table and you start putting what I think is damaging rhetoric into practice, dehumanizing people or depriving them of agency even verbally, the conversation will be over. I’ll leave room for you to come back one day, but ain’t nobody got time for that right now.

Summing Up

A) You don’t have to label yourself a feminist to believe in and fight for equality. Those of us who do label ourselves that way are trying to fix many of feminism’s problems, but we have a ways to go. I’m not willing to lose a potential ally over a label that has genuinely hurt many good, decent people in the past. The label as a quick-and-dirty test just doesn’t work for me (although inherent equality of all, across gender, race, ethnicity, income, etc. does come a little closer for me as an idea).

B) You can be a kind, respectful, loving, decent human being even if you don’t always believe in functional equality. My criteria for decent human being includes things like showing respect for people you disagree with, being willing to examine evidence and change if necessary, and being kind, loving, and generous to those around you. I do think it’s harder to be a decent human being when you don’t believe in functional equality (and maybe impossible if you don’t believe in inherent equality). In that case, you’re trying to balance ideas that naturally lend themselves to harm with a desire not to harm. Soft complementarians have put a lot of things in place to try to protect women from harm within the hierarchy they advocate, like servant leadership, and that’s a tough tension to walk out. I respect that. I used to believe that, so I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt in the DHB category.

I’m also willing to give individuals a few chances to demonstrate other decent-human-being-type qualities, like treating people with with respect. Do that, and we can disagree on some of the finer points of feminism and all still be decent human beings (which doesn’t mean we’re perfect, just that we’re trying to get better).

One final (rather long) note on hurtful terminology:

I think I have the privilege of seeing some middle ground in this discussion because I haven’t been hurt too badly by either side (and both sides have wounded people). I have the luxury of being able to be more analytical about this issue. Some people don’t. Those people need time and space and friendship to heal, even though they don’t always act like healthy decent human beings all the time. They act like wounded decent human beings, and that’s OK. We have to allow for that. We also don’t get to set a timeline saying “you should be over this by now.” It’s what we would want for ourselves. It’s not OK to call them whiny or shrill or misogynistic pigs while they work through these issues.

Lastly, when people talk about privilege and structural inequality or racism or sexism and say that some ideas or perspective have been shown to be harmful to certain groups of people, they aren’t always automatically denying you a spot in the decent human being club. Sometime they are - see quick-and-dirty-litmus-test-issue above. But those terms don’t automatically mean that, and many of us don’t use them that way. If you’ve been called racist or sexist, or told that your attitudes are racist or sexist, I know that’s pretty hurtful. It brings up pictures of lynchings and riots and the KKK.

But if your ideas have been called that by a feminist or activist, I would ask you to give us a second chance. Many of us don’t mean those words in a hurtful way. We use them to identify underlying attitudes that perpetuate certain injustices and inequalities. Quick example - I had to use a wheelchair at a theme park last year so I could be with my family despite my chronic fatigue. I had a hard time with it because I thought it made me look “weak” and “disabled” to the people around me, or that they were judging me because I didn’t look sick enough to deserve a wheelchair. Those are able-ist attitudes. Despite the fact that I have never been even a little bit mean to a disabled person in my life, I clearly had some prejudices and poor attitudes about what it means to be strong and whole or to need assistance. I had just never examined them.

There are some terrible, hurtful, violent discussions about inequality and privilege and racism out there on both sides, mostly because there are a lot of hurting people out there. There are also some people who just like to hurt others or don’t know another way to communicate. It makes me sad that those discussions are usually the loudest. But there are good discussions taking place, and although they use some of the same words, they aren’t about putting people down or making anyone feel guilty. They’re about examining these underlying attitudes in our society that we may not even know about. They’re helping us look at our social structures to figure out where we are perpetuating negative attitudes or structural inequality and what we can do to change that.

This does not excuse those who have used those words to hurt others, stifle conversation, and dehumanize their opponents. Ever. I’m so sorry if that’s happened to you. But I think there is something valuable here. If you would like to know more about positive discussions around these terms, I can share some links that might help you get on the same page with the better conversations so you can be a more educated participant.

But if you have been hurt, I want you to know that you can take all the time you need to heal before educating yourself and participating in these discussions. Some of these conversations can be really painful when you’ve been treated badly, so I understand if you don’t want to join in right now. You’re still a decent human being in my book, and you’re still welcome here in the meantime. In fact, I’d be honored to hear your story.

Short Hiatus

I’m taking a short hiatus during the holiday season. I may post a few things I come across, but I need to take some time to relax and enjoy everything coming up (including our new dog! And a vacation!). I am a thinker - analyzing things is part of who I am and will always be - but I think I need to practice just “being” for a little while.

I’m also about to start an exercise program which will hopefully help me figure out what kind of fatigue I have after this visit to the Mayo Clinic, and maybe even help me improve, but it may make me more tired at first. I want to give myself room to rest! And watch lots of cheesy Christmas movies!

I have over a hundred links and posts saved to share later, and I’m planning a couple of projects for next year, so I’m pretty sure I’ll be back. I also have one post I may put up this week on a recent issue I’ve been thinking about. But if not, have a great holiday, and see you back next year!

Photo by EricaJoy Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0 / Quote from Serious Eats

Photo by EricaJoy Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0 / Quote from Serious Eats

The Romance & Adventure of Eating Whatever You Want by Morgan Day Cecil

A New Approach To Health Food

I recognize that “health food” is only one small part of the food issues we face in our world. But due to chronic fatigue, it has been a focus of mine over the past couple of years. If you want an overview of where the science is right now, this guy wrote a pretty good, basic analysis of where health and nutrition science is right now. Even if you don’t agree with his conclusions, it’s a pretty good introduction.

But as far as I can tell, we don’t fully know why all these things work (or don’t). Our methods aren’t sophisticated enough to take into account all of the incredibly complex systems that work together to process our foods. And all the examples we have seem to cancel each other out – if phenols are so bad for you, then the fruitarians should all be sick. And if nobody needs a lot of protein, the Paleo people should be dead. And if we really do need the phytochemicals from fruits and vegetables, the Soylent guy shouldn’t feel as good as he says he does.

Until we know more, I suggest these things:

1. Experiment. Find out what makes your body really feel good (not just give you a temporary high) right now and eat that. Find things that give you energy, that bring you joy, and that help you connect with your body and others. See if you can figure out if particular foods are causing you problems - I used to ignore the fact that I had stomach aches and bloating all the time because I thought it was normal!

Experimenting may require temporarily restricting your diet. You could try taking common a allergen like dairy, nuts, or gluten out of your diet for a few weeks and see if it makes a difference. Repeat with whatever other food groups you want to test, like FODMAPs or sugars or nuts. Try reducing your carbohydrate intake or upping your vegetables. Alternate your protein/fat/carbs balance to see if you have more energy or start losing/gaining weight. But find what works for you and your unique physiology.

If you are already experiencing poor health, more dramatic interventions like SCD or GAPS or Paleo might be helpful. But if you just want to make some positive changes or avoid “bad stuff,” try making one small change at a time and see if it makes a big enough difference to be worth the hassle. But remember that the goal is to figure out what works for you, across your whole life, not win self-control brownie points.

2. Balance. Eat some foods raw and some well-cooked. Eat some meats and some vegetables if they make you feel good and you like them. Soak your grains and nuts if you want to, or don’t eat them at all, or eat what you can tolerate. If you have the ability to reduce the “toxin load” on your system by eating some organics or you want to increase your fat-soluble vitamin intake by eating grass-fed beef or poultry, do it - it probably can’t hurt - but don’t expect it to be a miracle cure. Each small change is “a part of this complete breakfast,” not the whole thing.

3. Don’t stress. Foods are not “good” or “bad.” Nothing is that simple. You might find you’re allergic to kale for crying out loud – which makes it “unhealthy” for you! Food is not evil. Some foods may not be the best for your body, but only you can find the best balance for you. Think about eating a variety of foods instead of stressing over which ones are “allowed” or not (unless you’re intentionally testing a new way of eating for a set amount of time).

4. Ignore all those articles with titles like “the five healthiest vegetables” or “the six miracle berries that can cure cancer and make you fit and sexy.” They’re all lies, or at least hyperbole. Scientists don’t actually know enough to make those claims, even if preliminary studies are promising. And eating only asparagus for the rest of your life will eventually have negative consequences that will probably outweigh the benefits (hello, asparagus pee). Is it worth doing some research to find out what options are out there? Absolutely - but don’t be surprised when you find a lot of contradictory information, and try to avoid the inflammatory fear-mongering. It will only make you more stressed, and as we know, that’s bad.

5. Enjoy your life. In my humble opinion, I think we just don’t know enough about what causes cancer or heart disease right now for us to make ourselves sick with worry over our futures because we ate a slice of cheesecake today. Life is bigger than that. On a grand scale, we can start making changes to our food supply systems to provide better options health- and ethics-wise, and we can support better research that will help us figure out how to live better. But as individuals, we need to figure out for ourselves what helps us live well today. That’s the only thing that’s guaranteed.

Of course I don’t mean we should gorge ourselves on high-calorie, low-nutrition foods that give us an instant emotional boost (although I don’t think those foods are always bad, and sometimes convenience helps us reduce stress). I do mean that we can give ourselves permission to feed ourselves well and intentionally with things that we enjoy. All the “healthy eating” guidelines will probably change in the next ten or fifteen years anyway as people become more aware and research gets better. At least, we can hope it will!

Bottom line? Take everything with a grain of salt – even salt.

And just for fun… art meets comfort food.

The very best spicy chai | witchin’ in the kitchen

And just for fun… art meets comfort food.


The very best spicy chai | witchin’ in the kitchen


WALTER: Oh, don’t be ridiculous. You were abducted. Of course you need crepes!

Sometimes, you just need crepes. Nice to find a show that recognizes that.


WALTER: Oh, don’t be ridiculous. You were abducted. Of course you need crepes!

Sometimes, you just need crepes. Nice to find a show that recognizes that.

David Berreby: The obesity era

This is a pretty thorough analysis of the issues surrounding obesity - and how it may be much, much more complicated than any of us realize. Granted, some of the hypotheses are on the fringe, but it’s interesting to consider other causes nonetheless. I thought the conclusion was quite helpful.

What are we onlookers — non-activists, non-scientists — to make of these scientific debates? One possible response, of course, is to decide that no obesity policy is possible, because ‘science is undecided’. But this is a moron’s answer: science is never completely decided; it is always in a state of change and self-questioning, and it offers no final answers. There is never a moment in science when all doubts are gone and all questions settled, which is why ‘wait for settled science’ is an argument advanced by industries that want no interference with their status quo.

Making policy, as the British politician Wayland Young once said, is ‘the art of taking good decisions on insufficient evidence’. Faced with signs of a massive public-health crisis in the making, governments are right to seek to do something, using the best information that science can render, in the full knowledge that science will have different information to offer in 10 or 20 years.

The issue, rather, is whether the government policies and corporate business plans are in fact doing their best with the evidence they already have. Does the science justify assuming that obesity is a simple matter of individuals letting themselves eat too much? To the extent that it is, policies such as Japan’s mandatory waist-measuring and products like the Hapifork will be effective. If, on the other hand, there is more to obesity than simple thermodynamics, some of the billions spent on individual-centred policies and products may be being wasted. Time, in that case, to try some alternative policies based on alternative theories, and see how they fare.

Today’s priests of obesity prevention proclaim with confidence and authority that they have the answer. So did Bruno Bettelheim in the 1950s, when he blamed autism on mothers with cold personalities. So, for that matter, did the clerics of 18th-century Lisbon, who blamed earthquakes on people’s sinful ways. History is not kind to authorities whose mistaken dogmas cause unnecessary suffering and pointless effort, while ignoring the real causes of trouble. And the history of the obesity era has yet to be written.

Warning: Your Food Is Trying To Kill You!

I’m going to come right out and say it: I’m a bit of a food nerd. I love trying new cuisines and learning new cooking techniques (I’m currently experimenting with sourdough). I love the science behind food (thanks in no small part to Alton Brown, and of course my chemistry degree). And being a perfectionist, I am of course a little obsessed with finding the “best” way to eat, especially if it can help me get past chronic fatigue.

But if you’ve spend any time in the dark underbelly of the internet known as “Health & Nutrition,” there’s only one conclusion you’ll eventually reach.

All your food is trying to kill you.

GMOs. Oils. Fats. Meats. Plastics. Microwaves. Salt. Sugar. FODMAPs. Polyphenols. Phytates and oxylates and don’t even get me started on the goitrogens. THEY’RE ALL EVIL. And they are in EVERYTHING.

This is terrifying, of course, and fear + the internet are a terrible combination. If your goal is to make some positive, healthy changes in your life, google is not the place to go for answers. And if you do dare to enter the fray and try to find some sense, it only gets worse.

Because although everyone agrees that some foods are dangerous, nobody agrees on which ones, exactly, are the least worst option.

It really depends on which online neighborhoods you frequent. There’s the “real food” camp, where you can just see the happy families growing their own tomatoes and canning jams every autumn. There’s the paleo/crossfit crowd of super tan, super buff superhumans who eat like cavemen and diss anything made of grain. There are the traditional health-foodies who follow FDA guidelines and advocate reducing salt and fat and increasing whole grains, and the fringe health-foodies who presumably eat nothing but wheatgrass smoothies and the dew off eucalyptus plants.

The Weston A. Price, Nourishing Traditions, and SCD/GAPS folks are another group who go against a lot of (modern) conventional wisdom and have some really interesting ideas. Their theory says that plants may pose as healthy, but they are secretly plotting to destroy us.

They say that plants have all sorts of evil hidden compounds that are meant to protect them from pests like us (or they have really, really tough seeds so that we’ll eat them and then, you know, “plant” them elsewhere). Compounds like salicylates, polyphenols, phytates, and others may cause leaky gut and other digestive issues if you eat too many at once. Of course, you can boil your vegetables and soak, salt, or ferment all your nuts and grains to remove some of these compounds, but boiling also kills the enzymes and removes a lot of the vitamins, so it’s kind of a catch-22.

At least animals are honest about wanting to kill you, amiright? They have like teeth and claws and stuff. They’ll try to kill you to your face.

So what’s a health-foodie girl to do? What drives me particularly crazy as a scientist is that you can pretty much ONLY find articles on one side or the other – very few people take the time to actually weigh the two sides against each other and help us poor folk sort through the differences. You have to pick a philosophy and go all the way to see if it works for your body – there is very little room for in-between.

Even the traditional FDA food pyramid is apparently pretty controversial. There really is no “neutral” source of information on food, because all research has to be funded, and the people with the most money are the people that produce our food.

Honestly, in my opinion, despite knowing a lot about how our bodies work, we just don’t know enough about the effects of different foods on our bodies to say one way or another. And people are very different some athletes thrive on a mostly-fruit diet. Others swear by Paleo. Some people with sensitive guts can tell when they’ve eaten too much fructose or gluten. One guy even abandoned eating altogether and drank nothing but a homemade sci-fi concoction called Soylent, and guess what? So far, it seems to be working for him.

Perhaps worst of all is that trying to figure out how to eat “right” has a tendency to ruin food altogether. At least, it did for me. As a former scientist, analysis is pretty much my thing, but even I found that reducing food to a list of “good” and “bad” misses the point. Food keeps us alive, yes, and some foods may be able to make us healthier than others. But it’s so much more. It’s connection and family. It’s history and culture. It’s poverty and privilege. Wars have been fought over spices and salt. There are complex psychological issues associated with the whys and hows of our eating. For better or for worse, food is complicated, and it’s worth exploring some of the meanings associated with the things we eat.

On Friday I’ll post some suggestions based on the research I’ve done if you want to try to navigate some of the different health food ideas out there. But bottom line? Barring a particular sensitivity or underlying medical condition, if you’re eating even a remotely balanced diet and you’ve worked through some of your own psychological issues related to eating (and you take a walk every once in a while), then stressing out about what you eat is probably worse for you than eating the wrong thing.

What we eat does have a big impact on our well being. But despite our lack of certainty as to which ways are best, we live on. And that’s something to celebrate, regardless of the confusion… and outright propaganda.

What are your experiences with health food?

Sweet Nothings, Bitter Truth

This week, I want to talk a little bit about food. Well, actually, a lot about food, because I’m pretty passionate about it. I love cooking. I love eating. And I love learning about how food works and the different issues surrounding it’s production in our society. Unfortunately, when you’re sick (especially with something chronic and hard to diagnose), there’s a lot of pressure out there to eat a certain way - and a major lack of information as to what really constitutes a healthy diet and/or healthy attitude towards food.
So this week, I’ll be sharing some articles that relate to the history and culture of food as well as our current state of “food wars” in the US. And I realized how privileged I am that I can even have this conversation - but it’s already occurring, often very badly, and I thought it was time we recognized how complicated it is.
Here’s a discussion starter, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts this week! Click the link above to read the full article.
Our culture doesn’t want to hear that the active ingredient in broccoli is broccoli — it wants to know what supplement it can take. The fast pass to fame and fortune in our society is a magical promise of effortless success based on one simple thing. As fate would have it, just today I heard a radio commercial asserting that some particular teeth-whitening method was “like magic — because it works!” When magic has become the standard of what really works, you’re in serious trouble.

The reality, alas, is that the state of our health is not about any one thing. We can cut fat, and get fatter and sicker — by eating more starchy, sugary junk. We can cut carbs by switching from beans to baloney, and get fatter and sicker. And we can cut sugar and consume ever more artificially-sweetened, starchy, fatty junk — and get fatter and sicker. There are many more ways to get this wrong, than right.