Archive | Health and Beauty

What Swedish Mannequins Reveal About Body Image

Sometimes, all you need is an Internet hoax to generate a “teachable moment.”

I refer here to the photo of two “plus-sized” mannequins — allegedly from an H&M store in Sweden, but actually lifted from a photo of a different Swedish department chain in 2010 — that went viral earlier this week when a blogger at Women’s Right’s News posted them on Facebook to an overwhelming response. Last I checked, the page had 57,000 likes and17,000 shares.

H&M has subsequently denied using these fuller-bodied, scantily clad mannequins at any of their stores, in Sweden or anywhere else. But that doesn’t really matter. Because, authentic or not, the visual representation of “zoftig” models in the fashion industry — even fake ones — has clearly struck a chord.

Let’s face it. Part of the mannequins’ viral appeal was no doubt the illusion that they came from Sweden, that Nordic bastion of pushing-the-envelope cultural fare that brought us the likes of Ikea and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” We all secretly want to take our lifestyle cues from Sweden. (Okay, maybe that’s just me.)

But the excitement and interest generated by the mannequins run much deeper than that. “Call it a hunch, but I think we could have quite a discussion here,” wrote the popular syndicated columnist Connie Schultz on her Facebook page, where I first viewed the image. Which is clearly what Women’s Right’s News was after in posting the photos: “Store mannequins in Sweden. They look like real women. The US should invest in some of these,” read the caption.

Read the rest of this post at The Washington Post’s She The People blog


Image: By at

Pro-Choice and Pro-Conscience in Grand Rapids

The first and only time I went to Grand Rapids, Mich., I was accosted in the zoo while walking with my then two year-old daughter by a grown woman dressed as a princess.  Assuming that I lived close by, the princess lady asked me if I would like to sign my daughter up for etiquette lessons.

That was six years ago and etiquette lessons were about as foreign to my M.O. as training to be a mechanic. And yet, the fact that some little girls in this city were clearly expected to grow up to be polite, pretty and perhaps not much else did make me wonder at the time whether there were other scripts available for females in Grand Rapids.

I’m pleased to say that there are. In an election year in which woman power may well decide the presidential election, an inter-generational group of 12 women has launched its own chapter of Stop the War On Women Grand Rapids. They range in age from 30 to 75. They are nurses, lawyers, artists, and social workers. Some are married. Some are not. Some are parents. Some are not. Some are gay. Some are straight.

They aren’t protesting etiquette training. Instead, as my longtime friend Kathleen Ley put it to me, they were initially motivated by the “stunning avalanche of disdain and distrust for women in Michigan and in the United States and the legislation at the state and federal levels intruding on women’s health care choices.”

Read the rest of this post on The Washington Post’s She The People blog…


Image: Got Women? by billb1961 via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

Vidal Sassoon: Thank You For My Bob

In a week in which we’ve said good-bye to one of the great authors and illustrators of our time, Maurice Sendak, we also mourn the passing of another great artist: fashion designer Vidal Sassoon.

It’s hard to think about 20th century fashion without thinking of Vidal Sassoon. Back in the 1960’s, he revolutionized women’s hairstyles – and lifestyles – by popularizing a “wash and go” approach to hair-styling, liberating ladies of all social classes from the onerous, time-intensive beehive and bouffant looks that had dominated the 1950s.

Sassoon had many famous clients and admirers including the Duchess of Bedford, actor Terence Stamp and fashion designer Mary Quant, who called him the “Chanel of hair.” He knew he’d hit the big time when he was flown to Hollywood from London, at a reputed cost of $5,000, to create Mia Farrow’s pixie cut for the 1968 film Rosemary’s Baby.

Like Sendak, Sassoon endured a childhood of hardship. His father left his mother and younger brother when he was five years old, at which point his mother put both boys into a Jewish orphanage in London’s East End, where he spent the next seven years. In an interview last year on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Disks program, Sassoon confided that he once ran away from the orphanage to find his father, who promptly returned him. “I decided there and then that I didn’t love him,” Sassoon explained matter-of-factly. He only saw his father once or twice after that.

But Sassoon insisted that he doesn’t regret the orphanage experience, which he claims made him a fighter.

Read the rest of this post at The Washington Post’s She The People blog

Image: asymmetrical bob with fringe by kiwinky via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

Tips For Adulthood: Five Trends In Exercise

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Having just spent five days hiking up in England’s glorious Lake District, I’ve got a new found commitment to exercise. True, we spent a fair bit of our holiday touring pubs, napping and watching movies. But it was really invigorating to wake up every day and take a long hike as a family.

Which got me thinking – again – about exercise. I’ve noted before that I’m not a fitness freak nor naturally athletic. But my husband is and that – together with recent research showing that middle age is a critical time for preventing physical health declines in later life – has made me increasingly aware of just how important it is to exercise regularly.

So I’m always keen to learn about new strategies for keeping we mere mortals healthy. To that end, here are five new trends in exercise:

1. Barefoot Running. Not surprisingly, perhaps, I learned about this one from my husband. Apparently, the new rage in running is to do it barefoot. Why is that, you ask? According to the experts, one of the reasons that running is such an injury-prone sport is that when we wear running shoes, we are actually training our feet to run in a way that is neither natural nor good for them. Specifically, while running shoes force your heel to hit the ground first with a force equal to as much as three times your body weight, “natural” – i.e. barefoot – running encourages a low-impact strike on the ball of your foot. Among other things, this natural running technique explains why Kenyans have consistently been such great distance runners. Barefoot running provides comfort, safety and best of all…it’s free!

2. High Intensity Training. Here’s another new trend in exercising, also courtesy of my husband (Coincidence? Maybe.) New research suggests that many of us could benefit from as little as three minutes of high intensity training (HIT) a week. That’s right, three minutes. So, for example, you get on an exercise bike, warm up by doing gentle cycling for a couple of minutes, then go flat out for 20 seconds. Then wait a couple of minutes and do another full-intensity 20-second work out. Then take one more break and a final 20 seconds going all out. Why does this work? There are two reasons. On the one hand, when you do HIT, you are using not just the leg muscles, but the upper body as well (including arms and shoulders), so that 80% of the body’s muscle cells are activated, compared to 20-40% for moderate intensity jogging or cycling. Active exercise also helps your body break down its stores of glucose (sugar). Great news for the time-pressed among us. And really, who isn’t pressed for time?

3. The Nano Workout. In a similar time-saving vein, but engineered to induce far less sweat, is the Nano Workout. The Nano Workout is the brainchild of Joakim Christoffersson, and is premised on the idea that many of us don’t have the time, energy or ambition to spend hours on end at the gym. Instead, Christofferson offers a series of exercises that are “based on the situation you are in and using the natural conditions the situation provides.” The idea is that by breaking down your day and analyzing the most common situations you find yourself in – whether at the desk, in the kitchen, or on the bus – you can achieve a more healthy life, no matter what your day looks like. So the next time you’re watching TV, try that hip flexor. There’s no time like the present.

4. Folding Bikes. I’m a huge fan of the collapsible bike.  But according to Cassandra Daily, the fondness that the Millennial Generation has demonstrated for cycling has led to a whole new breed of folding bikes that correspond to the nomadic, minimalist lifestyle that Gen Y leads. My own personal favorite? The Bergmönch – a bike that doubles as a backpack-slash-bicycle. Best not tell my husband about this one.

5. Perineal Strengthening. Yeah, that’s a fancy word for strengthening your vagina, particularly after childbirth. Guys may wish to look away at this point or stick their fingers in their ears, although I’d advise them first to read this fantastic post by Claire Lundberg in Slate on her own vaginal re-education classes in France. (Yeah, I know. Where else?) There are all sorts of things women can and should be doing to maintain the health of their pelvic floor, which becomes increasingly weak as we approach middle age, leading to all sorts of encumbrances, incontinence chief among them. Perineal strengthening  is something I suspect is going to get more and more play in the U.S. and elsewhere over time. After all, it benefits everyone. (Hint, hint…)

Image: Run free by Today is a good day via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.



Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons Girls Should Play Sports

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I spent this morning at a cross-country race at my daughter’s school, watching kids aged seven to eleven run their hearts out on Hampstead Heath.

I’ve had a change of heart recently on sports. As a die-hard drama-geek growing up, I neither played a lot of sports nor cared very much for them. My view was that pretty much all of the main benefits you got from sports were easily replicated in other activities. As a result, and as I’ve fessed up here before, I‘m really not a sports mom in any way, shape or form.

But lately I’ve been rethinking the value of sports for my kids. Part of this is that my son is an avid soccer (football) player and fan. But a lot of it has been watching what being good at sports has meant for my daughter.

Women’s Sports Foundation research shows that boys and girls between the ages of 6 and 9 — and their parents — are equally interested in sports participation. However, by the age of 14, girls drop out of sport at a rate that is six times greater than boys.

That’s a real shame, because there are all sorts of reasons that girls, in particular, should be playing more sports. Here are five:

1. It boosts their self-esteem. It’s no secret that, on the whole, girls tend to have lower self-esteem than boys. Girls’ self-esteem tends to peak at around nine years old and then drops precipitously, while boys’ self-esteem tends to plateau in adolescence. Girls are also particularly likely to be critical of themselves, with one-quarter of older girls reporting that they did not like or hated themselves. In contrast, only 14 percent of boys said they felt this way. Sports builds confidence because, as a friend of mine put it recently, it teaches you how to improve your “personal  best.” Girls who are active also tend to be more optimistic, which has a direct bearing on motivation, and therefore achievement. In a recent study, 80 percent of female Fortune 500 executives identified themselves as former “tomboys.”

2. It teaches valuable life skills. Sports also teaches valuable life skills. When you work with coaches, trainers, and teammates to win games and achieve goals, you’re learning how to be successful. Above all, you’re learning how to function within a unit, and to work collectively with others towards the achievement of a goal. That skill is crucial for success in the work place; it’s also crucial to success in family life. My own view is that girls tend to rely excessively on one or two friends when they’re young, while boys tend to have more diffuse friendships. Sports is one way of countering this “best friend” bias in girls, while at the same time teaching them how to be both cooperative and loyal to the friends that they do have.

3. It keeps them healthy. In addition to being fit and maintaining a healthy weight, girls who play sports are also less likely to smoke. Later on in life, girls who exercise frequently are less likely to suffer from breast cancer or osteoporosis. As little as four hours of exercise a week may reduce a teenage girl’s risk of breast cancer by up to 60%. And in a world that’s obsessed with female body image, sports is a healthy way to keep yourself in shape, rather than starving yourself or endlessly dieting.

4. It improves academic outcomes. Being good at sports also has positive spill-over effects for school. Girls who play sports have, on average, higher grade point averages, better SAT scores, lower high-school drop out rates and a better chance of staying in college. Indeed, one study from the University of Pennsylvania showed that government policies aimed at directing more resources towards female sports may have been responsible for roughly one fifth of the 50 percent increase in female college attendance and college graduation between 1980 and 2000.

5. It’s fun. Again, no glass ceiling here. But as I watched the cross-country races this morning, I couldn’t help but be taken with the pride, satisfaction and ear-to-ear grins on the faces of the girls as they crossed the finish line, even if they didn’t win. And that, in and of itself, was worth the price of admission.

Image: Girls Soccer 18 by via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.


‘Doonesbury’ On Ultrasound As Rape

How does Garry Trudeau really feel? This week, the creator of the popular “Doonesbury” comic strip launched a new series depicting vaginal ultrasounds as GOP-approved rape.

The strip, which will run all week in newspapers around the world, is a response to the law passed by a Republican-majority Texas legislature last spring that requires a woman who wants an abortion to first have a vaginal sonogram so that she can hear the heartbeat of her fetus.

Similar, albeit less extreme, bills have been passed in Virginia, as well as in Oklahoma and North Carolina, where they are on hold pending legal battles, and are being contemplated in Alabama, Kentucky, Rhode Island and Mississippi.

In the comic strip, a woman turns up at an abortion clinic in Texas and is told to take a seat in “the shaming room.” A state legislator then asks if she’s been at the clinic before and, when she says she’d been there to get contraceptives, he replies: “Do your parents know you’re a slut?”

Read the rest of this post on The Washington Post’s She The People blog


Image: Doctor by jscreationzs via

Abortion Research: Is It Ever Unbiased?

In an election year in which women’s reproductive health issues are already front and center, allow me toss one more log onto the fire. A new study has been released challenging the notion that abortion has long-term mental health effects for women.

The study – which was published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research – is actually a refutation of an earlier study in the same journal which purported to show that mental health disorders (like panic attacks, depression, substance abuse and post traumatic stress disorder) were higher in women who had terminated their pregnancies.

This initial study was used to inform a number of recent state efforts to restrict abortions, including – most recently – the controversial Virginia proposal that would have required women to undergo a transvaginal ultra-sound before going ahead with the procedure.

But apparently, the methodology in the original study was deeply flawed. By including all lifetime mental health disorders of the women in their sample – rather than only those instances occurring after the abortion took place – the study’s claims were utterly unsubstantiated.

Read the rest of this post at The Washington Post’s She The People blog


Image: I had an abortion by Willem Velthovenen via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

What Downton Abbey Teaches Us About Teen Sex

At a moment when the popularity of the British TV melodrama, “Downton Abbey,” seems to have hit its apex in the United States, I’m hopeful that we Americans can take another cultural cue from the Brits.

Last week, a controversial bill calling for teenage girls to be given compulsory lessons in sexual abstinence was pulled at the last minute from the House of Commons order of business.

It was proposed by Nadine Dorries, a Conservative member of Parliament who is concerned that British society is “saturated in sex.”

“Teaching a child at the age of seven to to apply a condom on a banana is almost saying: ‘Now go and try this for yourself,’” Dorries told the Guardian when the bill was first proposed.

The bill was taken off the agenda before a protest by a coalition of feminists, humanists and abortion rights activists assembled outside of Parliament could even begin in earnest. It had already been roundly criticized by members of all three major political parties in the U.K. , including many Conservatives.

The general sentiment seemed to be that — however you feel about abstinence as an effective means of birth control — there wasn’t much sense in confining sexual education to only one gender. As one columnist in the Guardian noted, “And what about those boys? Should they just sit quietly in a corner with their fruit and their Durex Extra Safe?”

Read the rest of this article at The Washington Post’s She The People blog


Image: Untitled by Riley Alexandra via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

Tips For Adulthood: Five Determinants of Emotional Health

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I’ve been thinking a lot about middle age of late, and what it is – exactly – that makes us more or less happy as we round this phase of life.

It might be that my 46th birthday looms on the horizon next week, which makes me feel like I’m already entering the second half of my existence. (For reasons I can’t explain, I have apparently decided that I’m going to live to 90.)

Or it might be that Blue Monday (the third Monday of January, purported to be the saddest day of the year) just passed. Fictitious or not – that milestone always prompts me to reassess my emotional state and decide if I’m happier or sadder than I was at this time last year.

To that end, I’ve taken a keen interest in recent research on emotional health in adulthood and what makes for happier grown ups:

1. Maternal Care – While the research is still confined to rats, it looks like maternal care influences brain chemistry into adulthood. Most of us would probably agree that this statement is likely true. But scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg have demonstrated that intensive maternal care during infancy promotes the development of a specific hormone in the brain, which in turn controls the development of anxiety and stress responses. While the study still needs to be extended to humans, the preliminary results suggest that how much your mother dotes on you when you’re very young may be key to understanding things like post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders as you age. Ditto the adverse effects of maternal favoritism.

2. Religiosity – Another important factor in determining emotional well-being in adulthood is how religious you are. Modern happiness research leaves no doubt that religious people are happier than their contemporaries. This is something that has been born out both within societies and across them. Interestingly, however, American Jews scored the highest of any religious group on a “well-being” index within the United States, even though more than half of Jews are non-religious. So disregard all that kvetching and moaning; behind it all, Jews are actually feeling OK. (Perhaps that’s why I identify so much with them?)

3. Imaginary Friends – Oh! How excited I was to learn this:  a recent study out of NYU shows that having imaginary friends in childhood lays the groundwork for a more stable emotional adulthood. And that’s because through these imaginary friendships, what you’re actually doing is practicing how to express your emotions without fear of censorship or derision, all the while bolstering your creativity and verbal skills. As someone who grew up with a best friend called Con Brick Chair – and must listen endlessly to my own daughter chattering away in her imaginary play – I’m so pleased to hear that this behavior may actually be functional!

4. Early Sex – On the less encouraging end of things, research also suggests that early sex could trigger mood swings in adulthood. Again, the research has so far been conducted only on animals. But it implies that there may be an appropriate “age” to begin having sexual relationships, and that adolescents begin too young, this may have negative consequences for anxiety and depression later on. (Interestingly, being sexually active doesn’t seem to affect their school performance.) Something tells me that – if born out on real teens – these results might be of interest to politicians!

5. Choosing Happiness – I was delighted to happen upon a summary in the New York Times of a new book by Karl Pillemer called 30 Lessons For Living Well. In it, Dr. Pillemer – a human development scholar at Cornell University – interviewed more than 1,000 Americans from different economic, educational and occupational strata to get their personal views on what has made them happy throughout life, ranging from marriage to careers to aging itself. The article is fascinating on many counts, but one particular result stood out. Almost every single one of the interviewees concurred that happiness is a choice, not the result of how life treats you. So regardless of what happens to you early on in life, the consensus from those who’ve been there is that you are in charge of how you react towards those stimuli and for adopting a pro-active approach to being happy.

It’s nice to end on a positive note, no?


Image: Self Portrait by kasi metcalf via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Diet Books Dumped in U.K. Protest at Parliament

“There’s not a single part of my body that I’d want to change, even if I could,” a woman commented to me the other night at dinner.

“Liar,” I wanted to say back.

It wasn’t that I didn’t agree with the tenor of her remark. We were discussing the ongoing breast implant scandal in the United Kingdom, which has the government and private medical clinics here squabbling over who should pay to replace faulty silicone breast implants: the companies that put them in, or the government that certified their safety.

My dinner partner correctly observed that the real culprit in the scandal was body image: the idea sold to all of us that we’re meant to look a certain way. And the horrific lengths to which we go — vomiting, starving ourselves, paying inordinate amounts of money to plastic surgeons to add or subtract a curve — to comply with that ideal.

But I don’t really think there’s a single one of us — certainly not female — who hasn’t fallen prey to the lures of an Atkins Diet, a Slim Fast regime or a Weight Watchers program at some point. I have one friend who couldn’t contain her delight when she discovered that her anti-depressant doubled as a dieting pill. “A twofer!” she exclaimed to me giddily over the phone.

Read the rest of this article at The Washington Post’s She The People Blog


Image: scale by vividBreeze via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.