A long time ago I made the decision not to have any magazines that accept advertising lying around my waiting room. This is because most magazines (not all but most) that accept advertising end up answering to the advertisers. This is why you’ll see an article about spring allergies next to an ad for prescription allergy medication.
I used to work for a magazine and my editors made me aware of certain things I couldn’t say and certain things I ought to say to make the advertisers happy. One memorable morning my boss put me on the phone with an advertiser who had some “suggestions” for an article I’d written because he didn’t feel I’d done a good job of representing his company’s point of view on the issue.
Glossy mags don’t depend on subscribers for their money — especially now that most of us read on the internet instead of waiting for the latest issue in the mail — they depend on advertising. Publishers will even give away subscriptions to increase their numbers (sign up at freebizmag.com and you’ll get regular invites to grab free subscriptions). But they don’t really answer to us, their readers, they answer to their advertisers.
Magazine publishers may pay lip service to the idea that they want us to feel good about ourselves but if we felt too good about ourselves then we likely wouldn’t buy their advertisers’ products. We wouldn’t buy special anti-aging serums if we thought our smile lines were fine or weren’t worried about age spots. So they rev up our worry. The writers and the editors of the magazine (and lots of magazine-type web sites) write articles with titles like, “The Best Anti-Aging Tips and Tricks” with a list of fancy-shmancy moisturizers that so happen to be made by the company with an ad on the inside back cover.
They make it sound like everybody — all of us — already agreed that we are all without exception anti-aging. If we happened to not really worry about it then we might feel like, oops, I’m missing something that everybody else already knows. And just maybe the little bit of anxiety they inspire in us will stick with us when we head to the grocery store and maybe we’ll stop in the make-up aisle and look at the latest moisturizer (the one featured in the magazine) and we’ll buy it and the manufacturer will have more money to spend on advertising.
This is why we don’t get articles saying, “The pros and cons of looking your age” because they don’t want you to know that that’s even an option. No, they want you to worry about your laugh lines and the crow’s feet around your eyes; they need you to worry about it.
I think the counseling office ought to be a place where there’s no chance of picking up a magazine that’s going to tell you all the things you’re doing wrong (or at least could be doing better). I think my waiting room ought be a “no anxiety production” zone. So. No magazines are in my waiting room.
I don’t really feel one way or another about Martha Stewart because I’m not crafty and I’m not interested in having the best most perfect ice cubes on the block, which is also why I don’t read many magazines and why I have never done a very good job of hanging out on Pinterest. But anyway, I was watching it a long time ago because my daughter’s cold was making her cough and I had to hold her while she napped to keep her upright so I was stuck in the rocking chair staring at the television.
(This was a very long time ago. My daughter has not been small enough to be rocked in my lap for years.)
It was her “commit to be fit” or “fit to be tied” or some such week where she’s lecturing about what she eats for breakfast and how she does two hours of Ashtanga a day and I’ll admit the bit of bossy, oblivious Martha was amusing me but then this poor woman gets on and they do a moving video of her sad trials as a woman who wants to get healthier for her kids and who wants her kids to be healthier, too. The woman, however, has some daunting challenges. One is her reliance on convenience foods. Two is her lack of exercise routine. But the biggest — and what plays into both of those things — is that this woman gets up at 6:30am to get to work and doesn’t get home until after 7pm.
Well, now things are getting interesting. I’m looking at this woman’s life, which is making my life look positively leisurely, and I’m thinking that Martha is really going to pull some Martha-magic. I’m waiting for some really useful info because this is Martha and she’s going to give us something original, some Good Thing that really will improve this woman’s life and I can’t wait because I could use a little more healthful living in my own life so I’m just about ready to take notes except for the deadweight of a snoring toddler on my lap.
You want to know what they told this woman? Are you ready? Here it goes:
Cook more, exercise more, eat more whole grains. Oh and here’s this magazine subscription, here’s another magazine subscription, here’s a membership to a gym, and here’s a whole spiritual take on connected eating or some such.
You know, some of that is helpful. You want to get more fit then I’d say cooking more and exercising are the way to go. And when the special guest (some doctor-type) said that one reason they were giving her a subscription to one of the magazines was to reset her thinking, I thought that was ok. After all, reading about cooking veggies can help you start adding veggies to your menu, right? But the big piece missing is when in the hell is this woman going to do all this? When is she going to hook up with her new trainer? When is she going to fix these healthful meals for herself and her kids?
And there’s all this shame underlying their messages to her because they’re not acknowledging how busy she is; they’re just acting like she’s lazy.
It’s one thing if they’re just saying, “Hey, if you don’t know how to cook vegetables or whole grains that’s all right because that’s what cookbooks are for.” But it’s another thing when they’re saying all that and not acknowledging that when you’re gone from home for 12 hours a day and probably getting ready to leave for a couple of hours before that and then getting everyone settled in for a couple hours after (because she has kids and they have homework and she has a home and it needs vacuumed and people need laundry and she probably needs to stare into space now and then just to stay sane), it leaves precious little time to peel carrots.
So I was watching and wondering when they were going to help her find some time in her day. Like how old are her kids? Can they take on some of the work? Does she have a partner? Could her partner help? Could she join a cooking co-op? Can she afford housekeeping help? Could Martha buy her housekeeping help and a cook and maybe a vacation so she could catch her breath before making major lifestyle changes?
It’s like when I was teaching at a daycare and went to a mandated training about handling stress. The leader took us to our “happy space” (the usual suspects: ocean, breeze, sun, etc.) and said that the next time the kids were giving us fits we should go to our happy spaces. Great. But who’s going to watch the class of 21 preschoolers while we’re deep breathing in the supply closet?
That pretty much sums up what I think when I see most of this “improve your life” advice in magazines and magazine-style television. I think that a lot of the time the little bits of information they give us are just more flotsam and that becomes more jetsam when we get next month’s issue inevitably about decluttering.
Here’s a way to declutter: Stop buying the magazines. Stop hoarding the tips. Stop thinking, as we are all prone to think, “If I could just figure out how to clear out this junk drawer I might finally have a handle on my life.”
Life is messy and that’s fine. Small children are hectic. Twelve hour days are a problem and it’s way bigger than any gym membership will solve. Small steps are big enough and you don’t have to solve everything all at once.
There you go. Go easy on the Pinterest, people, because a little goes a long way.
This post was originally published in a slightly different form on my old blog, this woman’s work.
First of all, you need to watch this wonderful video. OK, did you do that? Great! Now we’re on the same page. Let’s talk.
I know a lot of us limit our kids’ access to media, especially women’s magazines and Go Daddy commercials, and that’s terrific but our kids hang with other people’s kids and so when you watch this video, think about how often the influence of that media bleeds through even when our children aren’t explicitly exposed to it.
39 seconds into this excellent video you’ll learn that after 3 minutes of leafing through a fashion magazine, 3 out of 4 girls feel terrible about themselves:
And then you discover that about half of them have strong feelings about how women ought to look:
Maybe it’s not enough to limit our children’s access to media. Maybe we also need to remember that most people aren’t going to so that we can remember that we also need to talk about the messages our children might get from the friends they love and cherish.
Nearly half of the little girls in first, second and third grade want to lose weight. That means nearly half of our daughters feel like their bodies need improving on before they turn nine. It’s going to take more than hiding magazines and fast-forwarding through commercials to innoculate our kids from feeling “depressed, guilty and shameful” for being regular human beings instead of photoshopped figures of perfection.
We need talk to our children about the messages they are likely going to hear from other children. How many of us can remember sitting in gym class or at a slumber party or in the dressing room and critiquing our and each other’s bodies for sport? That’s why we need to talk about body image in the same way we talk about sex and drugs and all that other hard stuff that comes with growing up. We have to say, “Lots of kids worry about being thinner/having bigger msucles/etc. and you’re going to hear that. How will you handle it when someone tells you that there’s something wrong with your body?” And we need to start talking about that early and often. Please don’t wait until your daughter starts going through puberty to have these discussions because those adorable 8-year olds on the playground are already telling each other it’s no ok to be fat.
We need to help our kids get ahead of those messages especially when self-hate is seen as a way to fit in:
Maybe that video I shared at the top should be subittled: How the Media You Don’t Consume Can Still Change Your Life
My article on adoption disruption and dissolution is up at Brain Child (and of course on newsstands now):
When we adopted our daughter, Madison, six years ago, the judge was clear. Legally, adoption bound our daughter to our family as if she had been born to us. She would have the same rights as our biological son. We owed her the same level of commitment. A few weeks later, Madison’s amended birth certificate would arrive, with my name as her birth mother and my husband’s name as her birth father. All of her original birth records would be locked up, sealed away, inaccessible. At the end of the brief ceremony, the judge banged his gavel and officially pronounced us—in the language of the mainstream adoption community—“a forever family.”
That ceremony lawfully inducted us into the myth that adoptive families are expected to live by. Our families are supposed to be “just like” biological families. That’s why we adoptive parents roll our eyes when celebrity magazines talk about Angelina Jolie’s “adopted children” instead of just calling them her kids and we swear up and down that we are the “real parents.” Some hopeful adoptive parents even wear T-shirts that announce that they are “Paper Pregnant,” as if they feel the need to validate their way of building a family by equating adoption with a fundamental physical experience.
In many ways these adoption myths serve us and our kids well. Children should not face discrimination for how they arrive to a family. They should have inheritance rights. Adoptive parents should never question their obligation to the children they commit to parenting.
But in other ways, adoption myths betray our children by giving lie to their origins. They are not born to us. We do not create them. They arrive to our families with histories that precede their lives with us. Embracing our children means embracing their stories even when they are difficult to hear.
The hard truth is that adoption is not just like giving birth. It is rarely as straightforward. And as much as we would like to think otherwise, not all forever families are forever.
There was A LOT of great discussion that could not make it into the article, which I am very sorry about. I also talked to families who ended up not feeling comfortable being quoted for the piece but whose experiences informed my process. You can discuss the article here (at the Brain Child discussion blog) and I’ll be checking in there. I’ve also invited the people I interviewed to weigh in but they are busy people so we’ll just have to see.
This was a hard but rewarding piece to write and I just hope that I did justice to the topic.
One more thing — whenever I write about my daughter’s sealed-away birth certificate and the new fake one that she has, the editors stop me and ask me if I’m SURE about that. The editors at Salon even said, “Is that legal?” So many people outside of adoption get that it’s insane, which makes it more bizarre that it’s controversial to people inside adoption.
Now that the piece is done and out there, I am thinking about the edits. And about the letters the piece is getting and how some of what I meant to say maybe didn’t get said although I’m mostly happy with it. Well, actually I am absolutely happy with it.
There were a lot of style edits in the piece (they changed all of my “I would” to “I’d”, for example) and those are par for the course because most magazines want their writers to sound like they fit in the rest of the magazine. So Brain Child made me sound smarter, Salon made me sound more casual, and Parenting made me sound like a Parenting robot. I don’t take issue with this — if I wasn’t willing to sound like the magazine I was targeting, I wouldn’t target it. If there comes a time where I don’t get edited that way, I’ll know I’ve hit the big time where it’s expressly my voice they’re wanting. I haven’t hit that yet (I may never) and that’s fine. I’m content right now to it being my voice through their stylistic filters. It certainly doesn’t change what I’m trying to say — it just makes it sound more cohesive when held up against their other articles/essays.
The big changes were adding more information to the piece. Some of this was practical (for example, the addition to “Per US Law” to the line about Madison’s amended birth certificate) and some of it was more in depth (for example, the first meeting with Jessica at the restaurant). The original essay was around 1500 words and this is at least 1000 words more and most of that is background.
The hardest thing to contend with within the edits was the ideas that people have around adoption. The editor (who was incredibly patient and thorough and kind) wanted to know why Jessica chose adoption. I couldn’t tell her that. For one, I would be afraid of misrepresenting Jessica. For two, I think that that part is Jessica’s story to tell. For three, I don’t think there’s anyway to effectively tell it without getting into a whole different essay. It’s a big piece to be missing there and I can see through some of the letters that other additions to the piece confused people or led them to think wrongly about who Jessica is and so I better understand why the editors wanted more about Jessica’s decision.
The big thing, it looks like, is the mention that the family reunion/wedding happened at a country club. It is very very very interesting to me that at least one reader immediately tied that (I think, his letter is confusing) to Jessica’s race. And then someone else assumes that Jessica’s wealthy parents must have bullied her into the adoption. The only thing that anyone can really know from reading the essay and seeing the mention of the country club is that we were at a country club. That’s it. But unfortunately, that doesn’t stop people from making those wrong assumptions. As the writer, I think that placing the event somewhere else would have helped but there you go — we weren’t someplace else. Probably I should have chosen another anecdote to end but I really do have those pictures (snap, snap, snap — three pics of Madison and Jessica in the sandtrap) and they really do sum it up for me. (I wish I could share them on my photo blog but it’s enough that Jessica gave me permission to share so much already.)
This is the challenge in writing memoir — how do I cast the truth in a way to reveal a more personal truth? Inclusion of the country club — while true — may have detracted from the more personal truth. But the irony is that I chose that in part to combat stereotypes about women who make adoption plans. I knew that it would strike people as inconsistent but I hoped that it would do a small part to illustrate the complexity of any adoption story. How many of us have personal stories that are consistent?
What the editor asked directly was, “She was sort of young but still, why adoption?” When Jessica and I discussed this I said, “They want to be able to sum it up so it’s a story they can neatly tell themselves.” I know this because this is just what I wanted to do. I wanted Jessica to have a Reason. It would have been easier for me if Jessica had a clear reason that I could say, “Here is her reason and I deem it good.” (I pretty much say this in the essay.) But I only had Jessica’s word on it. (Only, I say, like it’s the least important piece of it!) This is one of the things we discussed when we talked about the essay.