Is This Real Life? The Reproductive Rights Version

My support of a woman’s right to choose is well-documented. I champion a woman’s freedom to make a decision about whether or not she should be carrying a fetus, and the availability of resources for her to safely and quickly terminate a pregnancy if she sees fit.

We are in  troubled times. Ceaseless efforts to deny women these rights are abound, and I could link to hundreds of articles that document this, but the handful I’ve chosen certainly upset me enough. I, along with scores of women’s health advocates, have tried any number of measurable ways to fight back – raising more money; drafting opposing legislation and striking down initiatives; testifying before hearings; writing op-ed pieces that detail our positions and rationally lay out the reasons why these reproductive rights are essential to women’s health, well-being, and even economic prospects; explaining that abortions and contraception are also necessary for reasons far beyond prevention pregnancy, and that all reasons are valid and worthwhile.

We’ve been insulted, condescended to, systematically stripped of essential healthcare resources.

I’m tired. I’m tired of the hypocrisy of the anti-choice wing. Tired of the false rhetoric. Tired of their offensively misguided and false claims to care about women as much as they care about fetuses, tired of the aggressive push to force women to maintain pregnancies that they are unprepared for and do not want, and further impact their educational and economic statuses. Tired of the trumpeting of false information about contraception that is subsequently followed up by happily taking money from the very creators of products that prompted their supposed moral outrage. Tired of their total disregard of the reality of many of these women who make the decision to have an abortion. Tired of total disregard of the statistics that undermine their arguments about the United States valuing children and their yet-to-be-realized lives. Tired of the total disregard and dismissal of real ways that abortions could be prevented – complete and comprehensive sexual health education and easy access to a variety of contraceptives. Tired of the complete disdain for women as sexually independent beings, tired of their disgust of the sexual lives of women while giving men and their sperm an unlimited free pass and the ability to impregnate and take off without even a slap on the wrist. Tired of the inability to empathize and simultaneously mete out punishments to the half of the population they deem fit the ostensible crime of engaging in sexual activity. If you want to harp on the issue of responsibility, then it is essential to ensure that both parties are equally responsible in every way – and as about half of the links I have put in this post show, that simply does not happen. Women are disproportionately – vastly so – shouldered with the entire burden of and the entire blame. That’s the reality, and it can’t be separated from the issue.

I’m tired but not worn out. I remain entirely committed to this cause, and won’t be sidetracked by opponents who use everything from personal insults to false science to shaky numbers to try to distract me. Nancy Keenan, the president of NARAL, recently announced that she is stepping down – largely due to the fact that she feels millennials need to begin steering the abortion rights ship, to combat the intense dedication of anti-abortion activists. Over 50% of anti-choicers maintain that abortion is a primary issue for them in elections, while only about a quarter of pro-choicers say the same. Well, I’m here. This remains my number one issue. Are you with me?

A friend recently sent me yet another HuffPo article, that I certainly enjoyed, but that for some reason was the straw that broke my camel’s back in many ways, as I saw her argument struggling mightily to encompass all of the above reasons why we should protect contraceptive access for all women. I’m so tired, in fact, that my response to these attacks has been harrowingly brought down to the essential core that I never thought I would need to stray from when I first realized what being pro-choice was; stripped of the attempts to rationalize (issues of medical necessity outside of pregnancy prevention aside, issues of risk to the mother aside, issues of childcare concerns and education concerns aside) with those who are, in fact, irrational about these issues. What happens in my uterus is my business alone. If you want the babies that these fetuses become, that women made the decision they cannot care for, then there should be no difficulty in deciding that you should take them. Take them all. Take them lovingly and fully, not cynically or begrudgingly. Cultivate them for 9 months, care for the baby when it’s born, love her, feed him, clothe her, educate him, without any help from me. If your goal is to punish women who you think have made flagrantly immoral mistakes, let us air all of your dirty laundry as well, and dissect every single decision you in your life made, and force you to pay for it as we see fit. And by all means, find a way to keep the men who didn’t use condoms, or bullied their partners into not using contraception and subsequently fled, or who threatened or coerced their partner, sitting firmly next to a baby’s crib. Come up with solutions to the myriad of complex social and economic issues that contribute to reasons women get abortions. Re-educate yourself on the fundamental fact that it is not your right to dictate the decisions of another person, and while that lack of control may infuriate you, it’s the way it is.  What happens in my uterus is my business alone. Wherever I go, the uterus goes. You don’t get to stake your judgment flag in my sex organs selectively at will, running “protectively” towards it when it suits you, and fleeing from it (and from what it carries) when it doesn’t. You don’t get to be there at all!

So don’t tell me that we have a collective duty to care for these unborn babies when what you are actually doing is attempting to control the freedom of women while doing everything you can to make sure that no true collectivism actually does benefit women or their babies.

The Changing Face of Development in the Fight for Gender Justice

As International Women’s Day approached, I was thrilled to attend a panel at the United Nations, “Youth Approaches to Funding Gender Equality and Women’s Human Rights,” with the Executive Director of an organization I am very excited to be a part of, Spark, as one of the speakers. Shannon Farley was joined by Mia Herndon from the Third Wave Foundation and Amina Doherty from the Young Feminist Fund. These dynamic leaders provided what turned out to be unique though complementary perspectives on engaging youth in development strategies, and I came away feeling revitalized and encouraged that Spark’s work is at the forefront of essential evolution in philanthropy and development.

While powerhouse young women lead each of these organizations, their differences should be noted. Spark, at 7 years old, is the middle child of the organizations, and the only one that operates within a member-driven framework, allowing those active members to vote on grantees and possible themes. Granting more than $1 million since its inception, a great feat since most gifts are seed money of the couple thousand dollar range, Spark’s offering of extensive pro-bono services to granting organizations also sets us apart – that and statistic of having nearly 50% male members. FRIDA is the new baby in the gender equality, women’s rights development world, and they interestingly refer to themselves as a “learning fund,” as each organization that applies for funding does some fairly in-depth research on other groups with whom they are competing for funds. Of the more than 1,000 applications from over 120 countries this year, FRIDA selected 125 ‘short-listed’ groups who then voted for a group in their region other than themselves who they felt deserved the grant based on their work and application. Lastly, the Third Wave Foundation, which has been around for 15 years, funds work that benefits 15 – 30 year-old women and transgender youth. They emphasize leadership development and advocacy, and given their size, are also able to offer multi-year ‘arc’ grants, supporting groups as they get off the ground, giving them a big financial push during subsequent cycles, and tapering off as the group begins to grow.

Despite these differences in age, funding history, and model of grant making, one can see the overlaps. My favorite element of the panel was discovering throughout the presentation how similar the roots of the missions of these groups are – interactivity, democratic funding policies, involvement of the grantees and groups for whom they are advocating, and leadership that represents the interests of the grantees. Each of these groups – and this is what I think draws many to Spark in the first place – emphasizes the input of passionate members or supporters who are emotionally and mentally invested in working for justice, and who may have previously been rebuffed in other volunteer development efforts. Equally important, they value the participation of those on the ground seeking to be funded. Panelists actually articulated how important the flow of communication was in the funding process, not only to ensure that the funding organizations were really sound in their understanding of the grantees, but also so the beneficiaries feel as though they are being heard and understood throughout the process. This is actually fairly empowering. This kind of communication between funding agencies and grantees used to be unheard of – grant applications would be filled out on one side, and grant-making decisions would be made on the other side, often with grantees not feeling as though they were making meaningful connections with funding organizations that would enable them to better articulate their needs.

These newer models can bring up questions of validity for some, and this query was posed by an audience member who asked the panel about issues of monitoring and evaluation (M&E), and how that was considered within these newer frameworks. This garnered perhaps my favorite answer, which was that one of the ways M&E can be handled is by changing the definition of what a successful program or initiative looks like. One of the ways these newer development organizations does this is by defining at the outset what success looks like to the grantees and how that will be measured, and emphasizing those goals in the evaluation process as opposed to adhering to strict, traditional methods that may not be appropriate measures for many of the newer, innovative groups that are seeking funding.

Piggybacking on this part of the conversation, panelists were asked about what they saw as the primary benefits and drawbacks of not working within the more traditional development models. Luckily, and unsurprisingly, these leaders focused mainly on the positive. Working within newer models allows them to take risks; to explore relationships with new groups and leaders that older, more established organizations may not have the time or framework to take on; and to nurture long term relationships with groups that can use the leadership guidance and seed money granted by organizations like Spark to get off the ground and be ready to present themselves to progressively larger funds. Essentially, these groups – Spark, the Third Wave, and FRIDA – are building a foundation to get a foot into the door of the local and global conversations about eradicating injustice for groups that may have been historically overlooked.

As the landscape for women’s rights and gender disparities shifts, this kind of risk-taking is essential in assisting burgeoning efforts of organizations that may have been traditionally ignored.

While each of these organizations emphasized the need for young women’s leadership and articulated how their models centered on the unique and essential perspectives of young leaders, the speakers also championed the importance of inter-generational work. When concern was raised by an audience member over being dismissive of the work of older activists and development organizations, panelists were adamant about the fact that their communities were grateful for the work that had come before them, and the wisdom that is often culled from creating partnerships with leaders who have been involved in gender equality development work for years.  The experience of these more senior leaders is not only valuable in gaining insight into what isn’t working and why within traditional giving pathways, but collaborating with them often leads to grant-making opportunities for these newer funding organizations. Shannon’s remarks specifically about how larger, older funds had passed on applications to Spark that are more suitable for our funding model than theirs was met with nods of appreciation from many in the audience – an audience that was in and of itself diverse in age and funding experience. And of course, having big voices in the field champion the work of newer organizations for their innovation certainly doesn’t hurt when trying to increase our donor circles.

I encourage my readers to check out Spark, and consider becoming a member. It’s an incredible organization that offers great opportunities for young leaders to get involved. In light of International Women’s Day, I’d also encourage you to check out these other fantastic on-the-ground groups doing fantastic work for gender equality and justice (some of them Spark grantees!):

The Komera Project: Education for girls in Rwanda, financial and mentoring assistance, started by Margaret Butler.

CAMFED: Investing in girls’ education in Africa

She’s the First: Education investment in the developing world

Plan International: Children’s rights and development around the globe

No coincidence that these organizations tend to focus on education access! Have organizations that you’re passionate about and want me to include in this list? Send ’em my way!

Sebelius Caves, Girls Pay the Price

By now, I’m sure you’ve all heard that Kathleen Sebelius, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, has blocked the recommendation of the Food and Drug Administration that the over the counter (OTC) drug Plan B, commonly known as the ‘morning after pill,’ be made available without a prescription for girls of all ages. It is currently available without a prescription to girls ages 17 and up, and requires a prescription for girls ages 16 and below.

It is worth noting that this is the first time a Secretary of HHS has overruled the FDA. This is not insignificant. The purpose of HHS is to promote the health, safety, and well-being of Americans. The FDA is an obvious component of this. While the FDA is an agency of HHS, the purpose of the FDA is to promote and protect public health, through the regulation of OTC and prescription medications, vaccines, food safety, medical devices, and more. They do this through clinical trials and testing, which is how we come to know of drugs’ side effects as well as how significantly they aid in the relief of what they purport to treat. The FDA recruits researchers who understand both the purpose of and execution of this research. Attempts have been made to loosen the regulations of the FDA; for example, some terminally ill patients have petitioned the FDA to allow them to access experimental drugs after Phase I of a trial – the FDA has denied these requests due to the lack of research regarding a drug’s long-term effects post- Phase I. The FDA is not without criticisms; they have been accused of being both too hard and too lax on the pharmaceutical industry. Members of the FDA have also expressed feeling pushed to present certain results. Scientists at the FDA complained to Obama in 2009 that they felt pressured under the Bush administration to manipulate data for certain devices, and the Institute of Medicine also appealed for greater independence of the FDA from the powers of political management.

The commissioner of the FDA, who is a physician, reports to the Secretary of HHS. Sebelius’ job is not one of medicine or research, and requires a background in neither. It does require a background in politicking, which is exactly what we’re seeing here. The purpose of pointing that out, and of articulating that this is the first time a Secretary of HHS has overruled an FDA recommendation, is that Sebelius’ refute would not be based on differing scientific results, or research that opposes the FDA’s recommendations – because there is none. The override has different drivers, and the assumption floating out there – for good reason, since there is little alternate explanation – is to appease social conservatives and the anti-abortion contingents.

Plan B is not the abortion pill. It is the equivalent of an increased dose of a daily birth-control pill, and has no effect on already established pregnancies – it prevents pregnancy from occurring. Scientists within the FDA unanimously approved the access of the drug without a prescription for girls of all ages, after an expert panel put the recommendation forward. It is, to quote a USC pharmacist, one of few drugs that is so “simple, convenient, and safe.”

The conservative Family Research Council claims that requiring a prescription will protect girls from sexual exploitation and abuse – I fail to see how requiring a girl to get a prescription will protect against sexual violence, especially since girls may be attempting to get Plan B because sexual violence has already occurred. This comment is also a flagrant indication of misunderstanding of sexual violence and abuse – a young girl is not likely to disclose to an unknown physician that she is being sexually abused or assaulted and that’s why she needs a prescription for Plan B. Make no mistake, this ban is a victory for anti-abortion rights activists. If a girl cannot prevent a pregnancy from occurring, she is subsequently faced with trying to terminate an existing pregnancy (again – that could have been prevented!). Given how reproductive and abortion rights have been systematically chipped away at for the past few years, this girl who did not want the pregnancy and tried to prevent it from happening but was denied because she is shy of 17 years, will be in an even worse position. This is what anti-abortion activists are counting on – that once she is pregnant she will have to carry to term.

Plan B can prevent abortions from happening. HHS, with its mission of protecting the health and welfare of all citizens, should do everything they can to protect the health of girls’ reproductive development, which includes the prevention of unwanted pregnancy at its earliest stage. The girls under the age of 17 who need Plan B the most are the ones who also need it to be as easily accessible as possible. Much like requiring parental permission for abortions for girls under the age of 18, this ban actually can put girls at risk. Many girls will not have the family support, financial means, or healthcare to manage a pregnancy; some girls may face parental and familial abuse if they have to admit to needing to prevent a pregnancy with Plan B. What if a girl is a victim of sexual assault within her family? Should she be forced to deal not only with this trauma, but also have to determine how to prevent herself from being forced to carry a fetus to term as a result of this tragedy? Most girls under the age of 17 do not have easy access to clinicians and hospitals on their own, nor are they able to navigate our increasingly complex healthcare system on their own, which they would not only need to do to access Plan B, but would need to do within 72 hours for the pill to be effective. Girls whose bodies are not ready for pregnancy, girls who were victims of assault and rape and incest, girls whose futures will be dramatically changed and opportunities truncated – they all become casualties of this ban. Before we start sex-shaming and proclaiming that they shouldn’t have had sex if they didn’t want to deal with the consequences, let’s remember that these girls were not miraculously impregnated. Whether consensual or not, a boy was involved. This is a gendered issue – the girls are the ones who will have to deal with the lack of access to Plan B, physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Originally, advocates in 2003 successfully petitioned Plan B to be available OTC for girls 18 and up (after having been available with a prescription since 1999), but a judge overruled that decision and lowered the age to 17 after he deemed the decision had been made politically, not for scientific reasons. It appears that history is repeating itself.

Thanks, KMart

…for making sure I didn’t actually take a few days off this holiday week!

What a charming little undergarment you were planning on selling to the masses this Black Friday:

Courtesy of the Sydney Morning Herald

Every 7 year-old girl needs a thong (like, I could end the sentence there!), an article of clothing designed for the sole purpose of sexually exciting others, that also broadcasts to the world that they’re diggin’ for gold before they’re even old enough to have a checking account of their own.

The perfect holiday gift for your first grader. The message that baring their buns will be rewarded with a wealthy partner. Cheers! And happy holidaze.

Feminism in Zambia: Finding an Unexpected Champion

Our last guest post this month is by Stephanie Reinhardt. Stephanie is a Program Officer with Jhpiego and is currently working to support HIV/AIDS and maternal health programs in east and southern Africa. Growing up in San Francisco and joining forces with Larkin Callaghan at the age of 4 has left her overly opinionated and easily distracted by all the exciting things around her. Hey look – a baboon just walked by my office window! When she’s not bouncing around the globe, she’s very busy procrastinating.

Gabriel, a Zambian taxi driver who works outside an overpriced hotel in the capital Lusaka, drove me to a township on the outside of town last week. We started with the usual conversation.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“California,” I responded, “though I’m starting to feel like Zambia is my second home”.

I’ve been to Zambia six times in the past four years supporting public health programs run through Jhpiego, an affiliate of Johns Hopkins. After some discussion about various locations in the US he had learned about from other passengers, he jumped into his favorite story about American history to see if I knew it as well.

After slowing his taxi to traverse a particularly rough patch of potholes, Gabriel looks at me and said, “Well, you know about the Gremich sisters?” (Upon further research, I learned the correct spelling of Grimké sisters). I shook my head no, which gave Gabriel the green light to dive into his story:

“During the time of slavery in America (perhaps in California, or Texas or wherever), there were two sisters who wanted to put an end to slavery.”

I jumped in to briefly describe (with my best recollections from high school) the divisions between the north and the south that eventually led to the civil war, which I explained, for future reference was on the east coast of America, so I would guess that the Grimké sisters were probably from a state like New York. (Turns out they were from South Carolina, but later joined abolitionist circles in Philadelphia, New York and New Jersey.)

Gabriel gave me a polite nod, but the civil war was clearly not his target conversation. With the eagerness of a school kid sitting in the front row, he continued his story, which he credited to a book he had read called, No Fear of Trying. Gabriel’s eyes grew large as he told the story of these sisters’ amazing bravery to publicly speak out against slavery. He looked at me and repeatedly tapped the top of the steering wheel with his palm to emphasize the profundity of this story. “These were the first women to speak at a podium…to men. Women did not do that at that time.” He described the message of equality and freedom that they took all the way to the US government. “People thought that women should not give public speeches to men. Lots of people threatened them and told them to stop, but these women were so brave, ” he continued. I was nodding in agreement, but apparently not giving the reaction he wanted.  “Isn’t that amazing?” he exclaimed. “It’s great!” I responded.

Despite a few factual inaccuracies (that the Gimké sisters final speech ended slavey, and this all took place in the 1950s), Gabriel’s story is pretty spot on. The Grimké sisters grew up in South Carolina with all the advantages of a privileged class awaiting them.  Unlike many other northern born abolitionists, the Grimké sisters had seen slavery first hand and felt compelled to not only put an end to the practice, but to put an end to racial and gender discrimination – an idea radically progressive for their time. They promoted extremely advanced messages for both racial and gender equality. Angelina Grimké letters demanded “educational reform, equal wages and an end to other forms of discrimination against women.”

What fascinated me most about Gabriel’s story was not that I was previously unaware of this significant historical biography (I am never shocked by the amount of information I don’t know or frankly, don’t remember). Rather, I was completely taken aback by his emotional response to this story. He loved these women for their bravery to stand up to men and wanted to share it with anyone who got in his cab.

Zambia is not a country known for its progressive gender relations. Women unfortunately still live very much as the mercy of their husbands, cultural laws and the State. As explained in a 2002 OMCT report on violence against women in Zambia:

Women in Zambia currently face many obstacles to the realisation of their human rights including high rates of violence against women in the family, in the community and by the State, discrimination in the application of customary laws relating to family and inheritance rights, low levels of representation in political and other decision-making structures, a lack of access to education and employment opportunities, poor health care services and the limited availability of affordable contraception.

The 2007 Zambian Demographic Health Survey (DHS) included an assessment of women’s empowerment by asking questions on employment and decision-making.  While great variations exist with regard to education level and location, overall 37 percent of men think that decisions about how to spend the wife’s cash earnings (if she has employment outside of the home) should be made mainly by the husband.  These views extend to a woman’s body as well – 46 percent of men think that the husband alone should make the decision on the number of children to have.  Only 64.8 percent of currently married women responded that they are the primary decision makers or make joint decisions with their husbands regarding their own health care.

So, given this context, I was baffled. I wondered if I had stumbled into the cab of an outspoken Zambian male feminist. As Gabriel’s taxi approached our destination, I probed him on his thoughts on women’s rights in Zambia. “Oh,” he responded, “we have learned a lot from Americans. Everyone is equal here.” Then he dropped the famous development buzz word “gender” and it was all over. “Yes, we have learned gender is important, so now we are all equal.” Ack.

I was hugely disappointed. My image of this Zambian male taxi driver in a superhero outfit championing women’s rights quickly vanished. I thanked him for the ride and started to get out of the car. As I was about to depart, he pulled out a small piece of paper and said, “You work in health? Can I ask you a question?” I nodded, and he continued: “My wife has decided that we should only have three kids, and so we want to stop now that we have three. Can you look at this list and tell me what you would recommend?” On the piece of paper was a list of family planning methods that they had received from their local clinic. I sat with him and explained the differences between some of the short term methods and the long term methods. I also described the vasectomy process should he be interested in the procedure. I explained that if his wife wants no more kids, a long term method, such as an IUD might be best, as it offers protection for 5-7 years. He smiled and responded, “Great, thank you. I will tell my wife this information and see what she wants to do.”

Maybe we have our champion after all.

99 Problems But A Gay Ain’t One: A Look at Gay Men and Reality Television

Our next guest post is by Zel McCarthy. Zel is a media professional and blogger based in Los Angeles. He tweets about music, politics, and nail polish at @ZelMcCarthy.

On a recent episode of Bravo’s show Most Eligible Dallas, likable girl-next-door Courtney told the camera about how much she enjoys her friendships with gay men. As she put it, paraphrasing Jay-Z, “I’ve got 99 problems but a gay ain’t one.”

In the following episodes that would prove to be true, even as one of her gay friends, Drew, picked a public fight with her over some mysterious and vague issue loosely regarding a lack of attention. That’s how friendships work on reality television: paradise to category 5 in a single episode. Truly, Drew is never a major problem for Courtney. While she hates when anyone dislikes her, Courtney’s biggest issue is (of course) finding a husband, who may or not be her best friend Matt.

It’s always bothered me when someone converts the word “gay” from adjective to noun. Comedian and Bravo star Kathy Griffin practically pioneered the noun-ing of “gay” by frequently referring to her homosexual friends, fans, and followers as “my gays.” Even if it’s not being used pejoratively, it’s always reductive. Instead of a person or man or even a self-obsessed reality TV personality, he is merely a sexual orientation. (Mind you, the phrase is never used to refer to gay women. They are excluded almost completely from Bravo’s narrative of gender and sexuality in society.)

Even more bothersome, however, is that gay characters on reality TV are so marginalized and stereotypical that they never get to be someone’s problem, much less have problems of their own. In fact, aside from fueling the on-screen drama necessary for its programming to function, gay men on Bravo’s slate of shows, like Drew from Dallas, are ubiquitous but never problematic because they are never the central figure of a story.

Whether watching the Real Housewives franchise, The Rachel Zoe ProjectPregnant In HeelsMiami Social, or Bethenny, the message is clear: if you are a gay man, you can be a human accessory in a rich woman’s life. From Jill Zarin’s “gay husband” to Kyle Richards’ “ladysitter” to the coterie of hairstylists, decorators, and event planners orbiting around an endless supply of narcissistic women, gay men are written to serve two functions: enhance the aesthetics of their mistresses, and act as a stand-in for the straight men in their life.

Even gay designer Jeff Lewis, star of Flipping Out, whose caustic outbursts at his employees pull focus from the window treatments, doesn’t get to be the star of his own life. He’s constantly appeasing the whims and fancies of the rich white ladies who hire him to revamp their homes. Through several years on the show (and a rough economy), we’ve watched the once successful house-flipper turn into a driveling decorator so desperate for the next job he’ll screw over his best friends to get it.

Meanwhile, the straight men (husbands, boyfriends, that sort of thing) serve as a foil to these flamboyant and endlessly problem-free gay men. The straights, such as they are, are coded as “real men.” They are fully sexualized, integrated into society with jobs, off-camera friendships, hobbies far beyond the confines of the feminized reality TV world, and comical only when they don’t understand the flurry around the importance of a pair of shoes or lighting at a party. On the axis of characters, they’re the rational yin to the emotional yang of gay men. Cheapened to stereotypes, gay men on reality TV become little more than well-dressed, occasionally articulate, placeholders in the lives of women.

These supporting characters of Bravo have become the reality embodiment of an archetypal role writer and comedian David Rakoff once named Fudgey McPacker. Without a life of his own, Fudgey stands on the sidelines, cheering on the leading lady, occasionally offering sassy retorts and painfully obvious tokens of wisdom. He gets to tell his girlfriends things like “girl, don’t you know he loves you,” before she runs to her leading man’s arms and they live happily ever after while Fudgey presumably disappears or finds another lady to devote his life to. Like Fudgey before them, the Brads, Dwights, LTs, Joeys, and Shawns of Bravo don’t get to have many independent storylines of their own; their on-screen characters don’t have their own essence. When they try to, they’re quickly jettisoned off the show (see Cedric from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills).

While all media reflects the values of its culture, we look to reality TV to see our culture reflected, however misguided that notion is. I have often said to my friends that the gay community is so desperate for recognition it accepts any representation of itself on screen, no matter how negative. A glance at Logo’s The A List would prove that point handily, but also, consider how fervent Bravo’s gay audience is, despite the continued marginalization of its gay characters. I’d even say that there’s a certain comfort in seeing a stereotypical gay character; it validates one singular version of gay identity without straying beyond a previously accepted boundary.

Does anyone think that’s good enough?

We all know by now what reality TV is (scripted, sensational, entertaining) and what it isn’t (reality). Perhaps it’s a sign of progress that gay men have become a secondary staple of the genre and a lynchpin of nearly every Bravo series. But let there be no doubt about the space these characters inhabit: the periphery in the lives of a cadre of superficial women.

Ain’t that one bitch of a problem?

Looking for More Attention? Drop Some lbs.

At least that’s what Skinny Water is promising in their latest advertisement, which I spotted yesterday. The ad shows a woman facing a throng of cameramen snapping her picture, elegant earrings dropping to the top of the headline which says: “Skinny Always Gets the Attention.” Take a look:

Thinspiration, thanks to Skinny Water

A close-up, to see all the text:

Close-up, for good measure.

Below the headline and photo of the various flavors, it also says “Zero calories, Zeor sugar, Zero Carbs, Zero Guilt.” With all that’s not in this water, you might wonder what it does offer. The website tells me that depending on the flavor of water, they’ve added vitamins B3, B5, B6, B12, C, A, and E. They’ve also thrown in magnesium, folic acid, calcium and/or potassium.

Despite trying to market itself as healthy, Skinny Water is instead perpetrating the cultural message that the best – nay, only – way to ensure that you get attention is by being skinny. This of course positions them well to try to push their product on those women who have been pulled into this lie. This ad tells us that the best way to skinny is not through healthy food choices and exercise and an understanding of what “skinny” means for our particular body type and shape, but essentially through fasting – which is what zero calorie drinks are the equivalent of.

In fact, Skinny Water is doing precisely the opposite of what a health-conscious company and product should be doing. Promoting the idea that those who are skinny deserve attention more than those who are not creates communities that support harmful diet-related behaviors and disordered eating for the goal of a wispy appearance . Not to mention reinforcing the ever-present undercurrent of disapproval of those who are overweight – or even normal weight! – and do not bow to the hierarchy of beauty that says those who are thin are the best. It’s just one more item in the laundry list of products that tell women their size and appearance are what is most important and will attract loyal friends and fans.

In defiance of that, let’s use our brains to remind ourselves why Skinny Water is wrong. While the website details the added vitamins and dietary minerals of each drink, it’s far better to get your needed supplements through a healthy diet rich in cruciferous  and dark and leafy vegetables, fruits, whole grain and lean proteins. Washed down, in fact, by regular old water that keeps you hydrated and helps your body process and absorb nutrients. Skinny Water is telling its buyers that by adding these vitamins and minerals to their product, one can cut out food entirely and survive on a calorie-free but vitamin-rich manipulated water diet. Don’t be fooled! (I know you aren’t. Hopefully, you’re equally horrified.) For example, the“Power,” “Sport” and “Fit” drinks are all fortified with calcium, magnesium, and potassium – to help activate metabolic enzymes, keep your blood regulated, and support strong bones and teeth. Do you know what else can do that?  Bananas, yogurt, kale, almonds and cashews, and quinoa. Frankly, there seems to be little difference between the “Power,” “Sport” and “Fit” drinks despite the claim that they each support different “goals” of the drinker – which lends support to the conclusion that these are madly marketed products that don’t substitute a healthy, well-rounded diet and instead are capitalizing on the now-entrenched notion that women care more about being skinny than anything else.