Friday, July 24, 2015

Stop Body Shaming Serena Williams

Amazing Serena
Professional tennis star Serena Williams is beyond compare. Yet tournament after tournament it feels like when she wins big, her incredible playing ability and achievements get diverted or deflected. It’s nothing new, but front and center this time is body shaming.

              After winning last week at Wimbledon, Serena was subjected once again to disrespectful remarks. The worst were on social media like Twitter where it’s easy to lob hate bombs. I’m talking vulgar stuff. It showed up in mainstream media too, though the rhetoric was more carefully worded.

              Most comments were centered on Serena’s race to be sure (she’s African American), but also her gender and body type. Hecklers and haters launched scores of taunts, barbs and criticisms. Instead of celebrating her exceptional physicality, there were references about her, “Looking like a man” and “Playing like a man.”

              Sportswriter Ben Rothenberg’s recent New York Times article, “Tennis’s Top Women Balance Body Image With Ambition” is telling, for a lot of reasons. In it, he attempts to examine the topic of body image in the context of women’s professional tennis. Unfortunately, the piece misfires. Instead it quickly devolves into a not so subtle reinforcement of the same tired sexist narrative that ultimately results in oppressive judgment of how women’s bodies should look.

              Perhaps the most glaring example of this in the story is embodied by this passage: “’It’s our decision to keep her as the smallest player in the top 10,’ said Tomasz Wiktorowski, coach for tennis player Agnieszka Radwanska. ‘Because, first of all she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman.’”

              “…she wants to be a woman.”

              This seems to infer that women who have or want to possess powerful, athletic bodies do not want or cannot be women. Sickening.

Caster Semenya -- all woman
              Not since Amélie Mauresmo, a former No. 1 player in 2004 on the women’s tour, has a tennis professional been forced to endure the kind of gender hating vitriol hurled at Serena. Such scrutiny happens in other sports as well.

              Take the woeful case of South African track star Caster Semenya. She made headlines around the world in 2009 when it was discovered she was coerced into undergoing gender tests before winning the 800 meters world title as an 18-year-old. Her crime? Being fast and not having “the right kind of look and body” for a woman. The media-fueled controversy nearly cost Semenya her career and forced her to sit out of competition for nearly a year.

              The Sports Illustrated “Swimsuit Issue” hasn’t helped matters over the years either. Launched in 1964, the annual pictorial of female swimsuit models is a mainstay of the publication, though not without criticism from several quarters. Among them conservative subscribers, sports purists, parents and feminists. The portrayal of women as thin waifs in that sports magazine over the years has done much to narrow the perception of what constitutes an “acceptable” female athlete’s body.

              In 2009, ESPN The Magazine launched its own annual “The Body Issue”. In it are pictorials of both male and female athletes that depict more diverse portrayals of the human body. Ironically, the best-selling version of the six debut covers was of, you guessed it, Serena Williams.

              At the root of this identity mayhem is a complex tapestry of issues that span sexism, homophobia and racism. The consequences of this plays out on and off the court.

              It comes as no surprise that as many product endorsements as Serena gets, Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova (tall, slim, white and blond) gets twice as many. According to one report, Sharapova received almost $22 million in endorsements last year. Compare that to $12 million for Serena. This despite Serena winning 21 Grand Slam titles versus four for Sharapova.

              Taking swipes at natural body types that don’t conform to media, fashion and modern cultural standards is injurious – psychologically, mentally and even physically. Instead of divisive shaming, let’s instead embrace and celebrate the vast diversity of what constitutes an athletic body.

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

Monday, July 13, 2015

Confederate Flag a Symbol Tattered by Contradictions

Sunset on a hurtful Southern symbol
It hardly seems real. The Confederate flag; an iconic symbol of the Old South has flown over the statehouse grounds of South Carolina for generations. It has finally come down. What does it mean for that state and for our country?

              Just a few days ago, the South Carolina House approved a bill to remove the Confederate flag from its perch on its own grounds. After more than 13 hours of debate, the House approved the Senate bill by more than a two-thirds margin. The bill then went to the desk of Republican Governor Nikki Haley, who readily signed the measure.

              Like all flags, the Confederate one is a symbol. Arguments over what it represents continues to rage. For some it signifies a Southern way of life that was romantic and gentile. For others, it embodies the proud lineage of relatives from generations past. For still others, the Confederate flag is a scourge – a despicable reminder of a part of the country that sought to preserve chattel slavery and spread the institution to the Western territories.

              Now that the flag is down, what’s changed? Not much apparently. The sublime nostalgia for Southern days gone by is still here. The patriotic memories of dearly departed ancestors who were Confederate soldiers remain strong. Racism and oppression still exist. Yet at least in one place, a very important place, a symbol representing that place and time has been removed. Good riddance.

Friendlier Southern symbol
              Symbols. They can characterize ideas. Ideals. There’s power in them, often a living force. And there’s a lot going on regarding the Confederate flag, in terms of its symbolism; the flag itself and from where it was recently removed.

              South Carolina was the first state to secede from the United States of America in 1861. That move, followed by 10 other states and an attack on Ft. Sumter, plunged the country into a bitter Civil War. It was a conflict that killed from 625,000 to 850,000 human beings. From the North and South.

              Symbolism. For me, removal of the Confederate flag at the South Carolina capitol was nearly as profound a symbol as Barack Obama being elected President. That’s because I always have considered that southern state to be ground zero for racism in our country. And now it’s gone.

              At the same time make no mistake: my home state of Michigan and all our other states – particularly the ones up north that historically have escaped more intense scrutiny – they are equally culpable when it comes to the harmful and enduring legacy of individual and institutional racism.

Symbol of hope
Back to Obama. His first election symbolized a growing tolerance, if not acceptance among some white people for black people. At least at the individual level. Politics aside, and that’s a big aside for many, the President brought with him a skill set, resume and other assets that would be the envy of anyone running for office. Harvard law degree, president of Harvard Law review, U.S. Senator, great communicator, social justice bend, wife Michelle Obama.

              Obama’s professional and personal pedigree made him palatable in a way no previous black presidential candidate was. In short, a significant symbol. When he first ran for president I didn’t buy it. Back then, I, along with others, considered his election bid a pipe dream. I was wrong.

              It’s the same regarding the likelihood of the Confederate flag ever being removed from the shadow of the South Carolina capitol. Wrong again. In the end most would agree it’s just one flag coming down in one place. However, it’s more than that. Its removal from this particular location at this particular time in history is a symbol of something greater: change. And healing.

 Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Size Matters in our Culture, and it’s Oppressive

What's wrong with this picture?
One of the most enduring forms of oppression targets persons considered overweight. This persecution is so culturally entrenched in society, that you can have a healthy body size and still carry unhealthy shame and guilt regarding your body size.

              I identify as “long and lean,” which means I enjoy advantages others do not. Unlike many possessing a greater body size, I have zero problems finding stores that sell a wide variety of clothes I can fit. I never worry about sharing space with others – on buses, planes, trains, automobiles, in theaters or classrooms. I also never wonder whether the person staring is judging me for my size.

              I wasn’t regularly teased about my weight, as a kid or adult. I can always watch TV, movies, surf the Internet and magazines and regularly see images of people my size who are depicted in a positive light. Folks close to my body type in media are never discussed in negative ways. In fact it’s rarely commented on at all.

              There’s more. If I haven’t eaten all day (or even if I have), I can order a “super-sized” meal and nobody will judge me or think much more than, “Boy, is he hungry.” That is, if they even notice my meal portions. In movies or on TV, my size is rarely, if ever, the butt of some joke. And if it is, there are a thousand other examples out there in which my size is considered favorable.

              In short, my experiences as a slim person are positively reinforced. As a result, I hardly think about my body size because it doesn't impact my day to day living.

              Contrast that with a person who is large. Either through no fault of their own (i.e., genetics, lack of access to good food or quality health care, illness, medication, etc.) or if they do voluntarily consume a lot of calories. All that stuff mentioned above is the opposite for them.

              I’m told by many who consider themselves overweight that not a day goes by when they're not reminded they're “fat,” “different,” “less than,” “unworthy.” That something is “wrong” with them. Every day, 24/7, 365 days a year. It can be a hurtful, stifling, unjust existence. Oppressive. And the messages are everywhere.

              I can't imagine what it feels like to be, or considered to be, overweight. What I do know is that our Culture of Slim as a standard is horrendous. It's also hypocritical. At the same time we're promoting slim-is-in, we're aggressively selling, serving and consuming high calorie food products. These foods are high in sugar, fat and salt – ingredients our nation has learned to covet. Check that: they are all ingredients that are scientifically proven to be addictive, physically and emotionally.

              The insidious thing about this is not just that it's occurring on a systematic level, though that in and of itself is morally criminal. The really low down and dirty part of it all is that most folks don't even realize this heinous form of oppression is happening. Instead most wrongly believe, “It’s the individual person’s problem; society isn’t to blame for what folks eat.”

              And by society, I don’t just mean you and me and our complicity regarding hurtful fat jokes. I’m talking food corporations, their advertising, marketing and PR muscle. I’m also casting my stink eye at our fashion industry. They project unrealistic images about what body sizes and types are beautiful (and which are not) via runway shows and media propaganda. It’s all centered on garments worn by models that only a small minority of people look like. Reality check: few women these days wear size zero, or are a 41-long with a 33” waist, if you're a man.

              Time to interrupt business as usual when it comes to fat phobia. One-size-fits-all just doesn’t work when it comes to human beings, no matter what media tells you. Or what you try to tell yourself.

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

Monday, June 29, 2015

Dehumanizing People who are Different is No Joke

What's the big deal?
It’s so easy to make fun of people who look, think, talk, act or have abilities different than you. Those smile-in-your-face comments are meant to be funny but are ultimately demeaning. Being the constant butt of jokes is not only hurtful but can also be harmful. Even traumatic – especially when society largely accepts, affirms and promotes them.

              Most of us have at one time or another participated in such ridicule: through active speaking, passive listening and/or communal snickering. Thank film, television and social media for our collective conditioning. Those aren’t the only place we learn it. There’s also the bantering as youth on playgrounds, in classrooms, and at home listening to and mimicking parents, siblings, relatives and friends.

              The effect is additive; the more you hear the joking, the more acceptable it becomes. Especially when accompanied by that notorious accountability deflector, “I’m just kidding”.

              I have a 20-month-old son. That means I’ve watched the animated Dr. Seuss flick “The Lorax” more times than I can count. Several scenes and themes in this G-rated movie are disturbing. Things I doubt the writers thought were harmful. Yet they are.

              One centers on the notion that all women should look and behave a certain way. The scene in question involves a woman bearing what many would describe as stereotypic masculine characteristics. She is tall with broad shoulders, a stout torso and tough, fierce demeanor. In a seminal moment one of the characters quips with indignation, “That’s a woman?”


              Another series of scenes carry an equally marginalizing theme. It features a character who is physically much larger than the others. Each scene he’s involved in promotes a message: it’s okay to judge and ridicule people who are overweight. One scene depicts the larger character as lazy, compared to the others who are leaner. In another, we discover him hold up in the fridge slowly sucking down raw sticks of butter as if they were strands of spaghetti. Yet another has him huffing and puffing while trying to keep up with others who are on the run.

              There’s more. This one involves a play for humor at the expense of the elderly. An adult daughter berates her mother time and again in front of her young grandson, suggesting grandma is senile and outdated in her thinking. The message is clear: the elderly are irrelevant, useless burdens to society.

              It should be mentioned that the Dr. Seuss book features none of these insensitive displays.

This movie was funny to me... until I woke up.
              “The Lorax” isn’t the only movie saturated with stereotypes and systematically harmful social commentary.

              The standard rebuttal among ignorant and uncaring folks, those characteristically lacking empathy, is that political correctness is “out of control” and that people these days “just can’t take a joke.”

              The sad thing about it is that the harm doesn’t just stop at the person targeted on the receiving end. It also damages the one making the comment. With each barb, people who regularly do this are chipping away at their own humanity. Dehumanization is a precursor to prejudice, which leads to all sorts of nasty things. Like ableism, body shaming, racism, sexism, classism, homophobia – the list is endless.

              What to do? The obvious solution is to stop with the harmful jokes. Interrupt them when they’re happening. Sometimes in the moment, the teasing doesn’t seem so bad and only later do we realize someone might have been hurt or offended. In such cases, deep reflection is in order. Moving into your own feelings in an effort to experience empathy is also helpful. Another option might be to circle back around to the targeted person to check in with their feelings.

              Yes it can be risky. In some cases the person may vent their frustration on you. More likely, a targeted person will respond with something like, “No harm, no foul.” In others, you might find that your concern over the occurrence is just the soothing balm a person needed. In which case, it will all have been worth it.


Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at Lorax

Friday, June 26, 2015

More Than One Way to be a Father

All in the Family
I’m the luckiest father in the world. Biologically speaking, I have three children. Legally, that number rises to four. Socially, I claim yet another, which boosts my total to five. Three males, two females. These different ways of being a father have widened my perception of what fatherhood and parenting means. But the road to acceptance of those approaches hasn’t been easy.

              In addition to having fathered biologically, I have adopted. I also have assumed a self-described fatherly (okay, grandfatherly) role thanks to a close relationship with a very dear friend’s grandson. I have fathered married and unmarried, interracially and intra-racially. I’ve engaged in under-the-same-roof fathering and cross-country fathering. I have been an absent father as well as one who has been all-in.

              These various experiences have changed me. They’ve revised my perceptions of the role a father plays and helped shift my beliefs about what is possible and what is not. This includes revelations concerning my relationships with mothers.

              Over the years I have evolved from the quite inflexible position of not even considering partnering with women who had kids to wholeheartedly embracing the concept, even preferring it. And in the process kicking myself for ignorantly thinking otherwise.

              Credit all the wonderful moms who have touched my life. Each had critical roles in maturing my understanding of how (and how not) to be a father. Especially, my wife. Her fierce, nontraditional way of being is challenging me to rethink all I have come to understand about raising kids.

              Take adoption. Before my parenting journey began, adoption seemed a radical, if not unnatural option. Today, I realize it’s possible for a person to embrace an adopted child with the same depth and breadth of love as any biological son or daughter.

              Another former struggle for me was how I perceived a parenting environment should be structured. I grew up in the classic, traditional two-parent home with a sister. We all were biologically related.

How I used to react to dating moms with kids - stupidly.
              Naturally I gravitated to and envisioned such a family system for myself when the time came. Embedded in my mind were internal cultural pressures to conform, along with external social and media conditioning along the same line. Together, it indoctrinated me to reason that there was only one right way a family system should be structured.

              The result? A rigid, inflexible belief system that held monolithic values and one-dimensional thinking. Sadly, this came at the expense my rejecting alternative systems, concepts and possibilities. So much for progressive sensibilities. Even now I still struggle and consider myself a work in progress.

              This formed the basis for unfairly judging one family model to the detriment of others. Models that might be just as viable and healthy, or in some cases more so, as the prototypic one man/one woman/one house family formation – the one firmly rooted in biological association and our nation’s collective psyche.

              Back then, I had no hard data on whether one family system was better than another. Instead, I relied on close-minded prejudice that was informed by my own personal experience. It was reinforced through an effective mind-scrubbing by old school television (remember “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best?”). This mindset kept me from even considering other ways of parenting and there are many.

              On reflection, I wouldn’t change the way my family system operated growing up. My mom and dad raised my sister and me in a manner that was safe, stable and nurturing. It worked for us. That said, I now realize it was by no means the only possible manner in which to be raised.

              The multiple dimensions through which I am experiencing fatherhood has blossomed my mind to many beautiful possibilities through which familial relationships may thrive. Acknowledge and celebrate your way of growing up. But don’t let bias keep you from considering all the other wondrous models in which family systems can operate and thrive.


Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

Friday, June 19, 2015

Give First Responders Training to Overcome Biases

This is someone's actual day job

There are people who, because of societal pressures and traditions (in some cases, institutional policies), are not allowed nor expected, to show their emotions. But emotions nevertheless do show up – often in unintended and harmful ways.

              Fire and rescue crews, police, Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs). All are first responders to often life-threatening situations. All are expected by the public to perform perfectly, without error and without displaying emotion. That is, except for the so called “good ones” (i.e., happiness, joy, euphoria, etc.).

              What must it be like to be a human being who works in such professions? Jobs in which danger is a daily reality yet be expected not to have or show fear?

              I can’t imagine.

              It’s hard to conceive what it’s like to arrive at a structure fire to fight it, knowing I may have to enter that inferno, and possibly run into suffering, dying or dead people. Or that I may not leave that place myself in one piece.

              I have no idea what an EMT or other rescue unit must feel when faced with the carnage of a traffic accident. To extract broken bodies from wreckage, provide emergency treatment only to have victims die before your eyes.

              It’s beyond my comprehension what goes through a police officer’s mind when, alone on night patrol, he/she receives a “shots fired” call. Then on arrival being swarmed by persons at the scene – all excited by what just occurred.
Rewarding work, but at what cost?

              How can anyone not have at least some level of fear in these very real cases? I’m told by veterans of such emergencies, “You don’t have time to feel.” “Your training kicks in.”

              Training. It’s important in all vocations, from human resources professionals to factory workers. It is especially critical to the success of first responders. Acquiring quality training can spell the difference between fumbling a rescue and saving a soul. Life and death stuff.

              I’ve been forced to respond in crisis situations a time or three in my life. So I appreciate how being well-trained helps you respond to fear in ways that are manageable. That said, it’s still unlikely most can get the fear trained out of them.

              It must be emphasized that I don’t associate fear with cowardice. I believe it’s possible for a person who freezes in one scenario to take heroic action in another. Few are the first responders I’ve spoken to who willing speak of fear; fewer still admit it exists in them. Which brings us to another often ignored topic: bias.

              We all have it. That’s a fact. To deny it is to refute one of the basic tenants of what it means to be perfectly imperfect human beings. Ask around and most will insist they have no biases when it comes to groups of people different from their own. That’s a problem because they do; we all do. A lot of folks are simply not good at realizing how and when bias showing up.

              It can be problematic when first responders possesses one bias or another but doesn’t own up to it or are even aware it exists. Or maybe they are mindful enough but haven’t received the training needed to effectively understand and manage it. Add fear to the mix and what you have is a noxious recipe for poor decision making in the moment that can lead to ugly outcomes.

Rogue cop or battle fatigue
              If you’re tasked with being a first responder in crisis situations, you tend to move reflexively. You often have mere seconds, not minutes to take life-preserving (or life taking) action. So if you don’t know where your biases are outside of emergencies, when you’re in them those biases will surface, often in unintended ways.

              Witness the recent McKinney, Texas, pool party debacle in which an amped up police officer cursed at unarmed teenagers, pointed his weapon at them and wrestled some to the ground, including a 14-year-old bikini clad girl. The officer’s actions were condemned by superiors and he subsequently resigned.

              All of us consciously and unconsciously participate in a cycle of bigotry and oppression due to power, prejudice, and privilege. In the case of first responders, such ways of being can be reduced through specific training around bias. We owe it to them. We owe it to ourselves.


Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

Monday, June 15, 2015

Forget the Past and Future: Live the Six Inches in Front of Your Face

Reflecting and envisioning - peering backward and forward in time. Bookends of the human life process. Each are essential elements for understanding reality. Yet if you’re not careful, both hold trapdoors that will plunge you into delusional Neverlands of what never was or what never might be.

              Consider what matters most to you in life. Your relationship? Your profession? Family, safety, comfort? Whatever the priority, when it boils down to brass tacks, it’s what's happening right now – the six inches in front of your face – that’s most important. Not what happened in the past; not what might happen in the future. Today is where your head and heart should be rooted. In the present.

              Mental feedback loops. We’ve all been there. Playing and replaying in your head those vivid, but ultimately unconstructive narratives. Scenarios mentally repeated over and over to the point of obsession. Yet like some artificial foodstuff packaged as healthy, in truth it’s devoid of nutritional (or in this case, spiritual) benefits. Like margarine.

              Nobody’s arguing to ignore the future. Like most folks, I know how Aesop’s fable “The Ant and the Grasshopper” ends. Hint: it ain’t pretty for the grasshopper. So sure, keep an eye on the future. It’s vitally important. In fact, it’s common sense.

              What’s less apparent, thanks to our oppressive cultural norms, is the rate of diminishing return for the poor, hard-working ant. And its corresponding quality of life. Compulsively toiling for a future it may or may not even be alive to experience. As such, there’s more to living than planning for a distant life that hasn’t happened and may never will.

              Instead, it’s prudent to remain rooted in the present. In the end, it's the only place that matters. And just like obsessing on the future, the past can also hamper your way of being if you’re not careful – even if your past was a bright and shiny one.

              See, a sunny past is addicting. Recalling your glory days as if they were yesterday when it was five, 10 or 20 years ago. A bright and successful past can cause folks to cling to an illusion. One in which what was comes to matter as much as what is.

              Same with a dark past. It can be so bright that its glare overshadows the possibilities of what could be. And it can definitely swallow whole what is happening now, in the moment.

              What to do?

              Only you know the answer to that, but here's a clue. Look in the mirror. But get up close because sometimes that looking glass reflects back falsehoods. That's the trap.

              Just like those warped circus mirrors, it can magnify and distort impressions of past successes and failures.

              In the end it’s helpful to take note, celebrate or mourn what you see. But ultimately let them go. Instead of reliving the past, look at today's you. The right now you. Be the one seeking what is. Not what was or might be.

              How do you achieve this? Listen close, really close.

              If you do, you'll hear something. That something is a voice telling you how you feel. What you need to do. How you need to be. Where you need to go. And how you might get there. Just get quiet and you'll hear it.

              Listen and discern. Then start walking. Even if, on the surface, it doesn't make sense at first. Trust yourself. Sometimes the obvious choice is the wrong one. Comfort can go stale (or run scared) in crisis. Keep that truth in mind. Then go out there and claim today’s self. It’s your destiny.

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at