We Know What the College Admissions Scandal Says About Aunt Becky... But What Does it Say About Us?

Well look at how smug we are. Nothing inspires schadenfreude like rich celebrities getting their comeuppance. This essay isn’t meant to detract in any way from the heinous allegations in the college admissions scandal. Our system has been exposed as beyond broken and the hypocrisy of critics of Affirmative Action is more glaring than ever. I also don’t want to compare the downright ridiculous and illegal lengths these parents went to, to get their kids into the right schools to the general overparenting we’re all mostly guilty of.

But what keeps coming up for me is that there is something in this whole mess that feels uncomfortably familiar. That obsessive desperation these accused celebrities have with their children’s “success” is a generational norm at this point. I’m looking at you, upper middle class white America.

We—present company included—have become enmeshed in our kids’ futures in such an unhealthy way. Much has already been written about what kind of messaging this behavior sends to kids. That their parents think they will absolutely fail without their intervention. Let’s be clear, children ingest our truths. They are so in tune to how we feel, that our intentions and opinions come through much earlier and louder than whatever it is we say to their faces. If you think your kid is incapable, and your money and connections are their only hope, an international scandal isn’t necessary to expose that. They got the memo long ago. 

But what has really been weighing on me is the other message. The one that says: You must succeed and you must succeed on my terms. That’s the only option. These parents, and many, many like them essentially think if left to their own devices—whether their kids work so incredibly hard but can’t quite manage to get good enough scores, or if they don’t bother to work hard at all—the outcome will be positively catastrophic. There will be no way these kids will ever recover from going to a sub-par college or (gulp) not going to college at all. So, they justify these massive interventions lest their children’s entire lives be blown by 17, or earlier depending on where you live. Here in New York City parents have been known to bribe their way into Pre-K programs.

How did this happen? Remember how we were raised? Playing outside all day unsupervised with no sunscreen. Good times. But looking back I see with clarity that the best thing about my generation’s childhood was how we were allowed to fail.... and Fail. We. Did. We lost games, competitions, got cut from teams, watched our friends surpass us, we got picked last or not at all. Other kids had things we didn’t. Our parents didn’t flinch. They might not have even noticed! Because this was such a normal part of our lives. But somehow it doesn’t feel normal anymore. 

By now we’re all familiar with the term helicopter parenting but I was recently introduced to the idea of the lawnmower parent. Someone who mows down the obstacles in front of their child, swatting away anything inconvenient so their precious offspring can walk through a perfectly manicured life. Ouch. 

My oldest child recently worked really hard for something she wanted and it didn’t go her way. She was heartbroken and truth be told, so was I. When I think back on the months of preparation I am truly embarrassed by how obsessed I became in the process. It was unhealthy for me and it was sure as hell unhealthy for her. After we got the news, the best thing someone said to me was, “There might have been great value in having the experience she wanted, but I promise you there is more value in learning this lesson at 13: That sometimes you work so hard, you do everything right and you just don’t get what you want.” The growth and resilience my daughter has shown since then has been incredible. 

I think there is a reason the Operation Varsity Blues scandal is hitting such a nerve. Yes, it’s uncovering what most of us already know, that the game is rigged. Privilege and wealth play an even bigger part in what is supposed to be a great American meritocracy than we thought. But I think for a lot of parents of teenagers today, it’s triggering because while we’re not photoshopping our kids’ faces onto other athletes’ bodies (!!) —we are overly invested in where they go to school, what teams they are on and how talented they are. We have to face the fact that the waters between their success and ours have gotten muddied. America is so fascinated by this ridiculous situation not because it’s so shocking but because it’s really not shocking at all. 

Complaining about millennials has become a national pastime. They quit their jobs when they become inconvenient, they are entitled and have no work ethic. How did an entire generation get that way? Maybe because we are so scared that our children are going to “fail” that with the best of intentions, we’ve co-created their actual inability to succeed.

I know this kind of parenting is born of luxury. The luxury of both time and money and there are millions of parents struggling to feed their children much less worry about their far-off college education. But some of us need to take this extreme example as a wake-up call. We need to step back. Way, way back and let our children grow into who they want to be. If I’m being honest, giving up control is not my strong suit, but I’m going to try and I hope for the sake of our children you will too.



Becoming Body Positive—For Real

To say that I was late to the body positivity party is a gross understatement. Why would I accept myself? I loathed the way I looked. Plus, I was on a new diet and just 3 (or 6 or 12) short months away from being thin again and never gaining another ounce— so why bother learning to love this body even if I could?

Or so I thought. But as the years turned into decades, the only thing that ever changed was the name of the diet I was on and how much shame I had at the end for failing. Again. Still, I resisted giving up dieting. Giving up dieting felt like giving up hope. 

I watched the body positivity movement take shape and I looked at these strong women who radiated beauty and self-worth, but I could not relate. Lesley Kinzel, a writer I had been following for years was a self-proclaimed badass fat activist and she was genuinely the first writer I ever read that wrote about being fat and just being, living, living joyfully without trying to lose weight. She had such a huge impact on me. But while I read her writing religiously, I was still in denial about my own ability to ever accept my body as it was.  

When I finally realized it was a therapist I needed, not another juice cleanse, I knew I had to confront what had become a binge eating disorder, and more painfully, the cause. My therapist, Dr. Alexis Conason told me that real change would never come until I accepted myself first as I was. I had to be the most resistant to this line of thinking of any patient she ever had. I hate to give in and I hate to lose (ask anyone that’s ever played a board game with me) and accepting myself without ever getting thin meant losing the battle. But eventually, as I chipped away at my issues, I started to get it. I made room for the possibility that I could love myself.

I started writing about my journey to self-acceptance. Like everyone who commits to a new way of life I was annoyingly vocal about it. I wrote about it and encouraged others to give up dieting for good. I learned about eating mindfully and took up other passions that I was too scared to try when I lived in total shame about my body, I started feeling happier, lighter. The side effect of all of this: I did start to lose weight. And while I criticized the hypocrisy of people for complimenting me on it – I honestly got off on it. When I pictured myself at a party in the future, my default was still to envision myself thinner. I still felt shame when I was eating noticeably more than everyone else at a dinner with friends.

Then recently I read something that Kinzel wrote and it stopped me in my tracks: “You can’t be in favor of fat positivity for others if you can’t also extend that same compassion to yourself. Because as long as you fail to include yourself in that space of acceptance and forgiveness you will inevitably wind up participating in the institutions that oppress other fat people.” Jaw meet floor. I felt like she was speaking right to me.

While I’d come so far on this journey, at the end of the day I still had all this undeniable baggage about my body. I was still secretly hoping it was going to magically change. True story: I still own two scales. And I use them both! When I broke my foot I was worried about a lot of things, but gaining weight back from having to be so sedentary was most certainly one of them. I knew I had a lot more work to do.

I think back to the LGBT movement of my youth and I remember a common refrain used to be some version of, “I don’t care what ‘they’ do, I just don’t want it flaunted in my face.” Thank God those days are over. But with body acceptance we are in a similar stage of mixed messages and conditional acceptance – the same media outlets that love to talk about size inclusion and body diversity, still run 100 weight loss articles a day. 

When women talk incessantly about their diets and about their own disdain for the slightest imperfection in their physiques, can they then truly call themselves body positive? And it’s not just thin women, as women in larger bodies we not only participate in this, we are happy to lead the charge. We hate ourselves and have been so drenched in this conditioning that when other people hate us we not only don't resist it, but we think we deserve it. 

So, what can we do to propel this movement forward? For ourselves and for the next generation of girls and women? What if we lent a fraction of compassion that we give to each other to ourselves? What if we started to authentically accept the body we have now? Or at least stopped criticizing every single aspect of it...?

I know I can’t really elicit change with my writing without authenticity. When you marinate in the contempt for your body that diets produce, you can’t just immediately change. So, my call to action is for every woman who is calling for size inclusion, for representation of different bodies, who is truly excited by the movement toward body positivity, if you want something different for the next generation of women, even if you simply call yourself a feminist, you have one job today: Start with yourself. 

Show yourself the same kindness and tolerance you would show another woman you respect. Start to love your own body the way you would want your own daughter to love hers – regardless of what size jeans she wears. Begin by just allowing yourself to be seen, to be visible without apology. To send some love your own way. To let yourself feel fucking sexy. 

Because this chronic criticism and deprivation will never make you skinny anyway, I promise. It will only perpetuate this never-ending cycle of self-hatred and shame, and worse it’s contagious. Stop telling yourself you are not enough – or you’re too much. And when you can’t, forgive yourself. Check yourself when you criticize your body—out loud or in your head. Imagine what it would feel like if you just gave it all up. All. Of. It. The obsessing and the deciding and the talking about your food choices. Oh my God it’s all so boring anyway. Set yourself free.

Who Is Allowed To Love Themselves?

Wellness. Man, when did that word become so loaded? As a veteran of women’s media, I’ve had a front row seat to the wellness evolution. But as a woman who lives in a larger body, I’ve also been relegated to the sidelines.

The ubiquitous criticism of the movement—especially the pervasive face on social media—is that it’s only for rich, thin, white women. And that is incredibly valid. But there is another glaring hypocrisy: while one of the biggest tenets of wellness is self-care and self-acceptance, so many aspects of it aim to try and change us. The rigid extremes can make most women feel like they’re failing. Especially those of us that don’t fit into the mold.

Recently a wellness feed for teens (for teens!) did a post called “eat this/not that.” The not-eat category included ice cream and nachos. If teenagers can’t enjoy ice cream and nachos in peace, what chance do the rest of us have for happiness? When the brand was accused, rightfully so, of giving young girls a complex about eating, they shook it off. Their stance was that nowhere did they mention weight. It was all in the name of (you guessed it!) health and wellness. 

Diet has become the latest 4 letter word. But there are still a million new cures for being fat that pop up every day. But don’t call them diets – they’re lifestyle changes. Breaking news: If you are counting every calorie, weighing what you eat and eliminating huge categories of food or only eating them at certain times of the day—that’s a diet. Still, you can’t manage a 5-minute scroll through Instagram without seeing a post about loving yourself and loving your body. But if you’re constantly, incessantly trying to change your body, do you really love it?

I understand the roaring criticism in the other direction. Everyone is fat, everyone is obese, people are unhealthy, women should care more. More? God, how much more can we possibly care? Gluten, dairy, sugar, carbs, keto, paleo, Whole30… we’re left with our heads spinning and our bodies starving. You know what’s more toxic than processed foods? Self-loathing. Having your self-worth so contingent on the size and shape of your body, that you’re robbed of the very joy this this whole revolution claims to promote.

If you want to change your body, go for it. No judgement at all. I spent half my life trying to change my body and I don’t think everyone who tries to lose weight shares the issues I struggle with.  But where I do take issue is the idea that getting thin will finally give your life purpose, that you will only then be able to embrace who you are. 

The truth is this popular brand of self-love is conditional. Celebrate yourself, as long as you fit into a very narrow definition. You are positively not allowed to be free and happy if you are overweight. That’s dangerous. The message is clear: “Take care of yourself so you can look better and thinner. You really aren’t enough just as you are. Or you’re too much. Once you muster up the will-power to change yourself, then you will be considered worthy.”

Tune into the way women talk about the way they’ve eaten: “I was bad today, I’m going to be good tomorrow” or “I’ve been so good, I deserve a treat” or the famous “I was terrible this weekend but I will be good again on Monday.” These statements seep into our pores and become part of us. Just as if we told ourselves we were stupid or ugly, these declarations are value judgements based on the twisted relationship we’ve all developed with food. 

You know what really strengthens self-worth? Eating what makes you feel good. Celebrating the journey—fuck-ups and all. Forgiving yourself. Learning what self-care means for you today—whether it’s taking a break from drinking or taking a break from your kids to drink. Breaking habits that no longer serve you. Saying no. Giving up guilt instead of gluten. Ending mindless apologizing. Allowing yourself and everyone else, no matter what they look like, what they believe, or what size they are, to just be. Loving yourself and empowering everyone around you to do the same. That’s wellness.