Museum walks, and other thoughts

This weekend, I took a study break. A rather long study break actually — some friends and I trekked uptown to the American Museum of Natural History! When there’s promise of a Titanosaur, we really do have to go and see the beast for ourselves.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Of course the plan began with food.

We decided to take brunch uptown as well; it’ll be convenient to go right to the museum, and it would be a nice change of scenery from West Village. We ended up with The Ribbon.

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After some missed subway transfers (in which we ended up 50 blocks away from our intended destination), we finally made it to The Ribbon, ensconced in its dark wood interiors.

We shared pumpkin bread with cream cheese filling to start

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Warm, buttery, delicious.

They got ham and cheese toast and chilaquiles (both of which received rave reviews), while I went with smoked salmon eggs benedict. It didn’t photograph well, but trust me when I say it was wonderful. The hollandaise did not bury the smoked salmon flavor, and the egg was poached perfectly.

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We left full and utterly happy.

And then walked to the museum in the relative warmth (it is still February after all!).

I confess that art museums are more my thing, but it was a fantastic decision to visit the AMNH. I haven’t been since high school, so it almost felt new to see it again.

The old favorites retained their glory. Space and dinosaurs will always hold a fascination for me. There’s so much that we will never know, but our imaginations will always yearn for more. (One thing my imagination cannot do is to imagine dinosaurs laden with feathers; doesn’t look as intimidating.)

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New things captivated me. Seeing the detail in the animal arrangements, learning new things, and saying hello to new favorite animals — all lovely surprises.

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For example: I found out that female moose, when courted by an unwanted male moose, will seek out the male they want to battle the unwanted male. And otters spend hours preening and fluffing their fur.

Seeing the faces of amazed little children, often accompanied by harried parents, offered their own amusement.

We spent about three hours walking around the museum. It was respectable, especially considering that it was only a “study break,” and lots of fun.

When planning this outing, we knew that there would be food to go with the museum trip. I ultimately decided to go with brunch before the museum, so we could “walk it off” later.

Walk it off — that can be very good for digestion. When I was younger and living with my aunt in Malaysia, she’d tell me to go play after meals, so that I would be active, rather than slumping on the sofa in front of the television, to aid the digestion of the food. Even now, I try to walk around or stand a little after eating a full meal.

But it also speaks to something else. The need to “walk off” a meal isn’t based solely in the workings of our organs. It is also a reflection of vanity.

When you walk off something after eating, it’s like you are atoning for the guilt of being full, that you must do something good to balance out the indulgence you just enjoyed. Indeed, food can sometimes be an indulgence. Thanksgiving Dinner would probably be the best example of that. But treating all food as something to repent for has detrimental ramifications.

I know because I fall victim to it.

There are times when I relish in hunger, that I see my ability to go on despite wanting food as a sign of how strong I am. There are times when I want that extra dessert so badly that I devour it, the guilt nagging me with each bite. There are times when I lament that my stomach isn’t flat after I just ate, or that the jeans I got in the 8th or 9th grade are too snug for comfort, or that my clavicles or cheekbones or hip bones aren’t visible enough.

There was that time where I, at 5’6″, weighed 101 pounds the week before Thanksgiving, and then didn’t eat anything except dinner the night before, and then lied and claimed that I did indeed eat breakfast and a small lunch.

101 pounds at 5’6″ isn’t the most extreme story one can hear, and I would not claim that. It was my personal extreme. It only stopped then because I realized the insanity of it as I manically logged my calories and felt panic when I ate more than 900 a day. It only stopped then because I sent a long email to my parents about constant calculations and justifications I went through in my mind when deciding what to eat and planning out meals far in advance.

But before that point, I was swept up in the throes of contradictions. I loved when people remarked that I lost weight; I hated the concern of people asking me about my weight. I was relieved when people didn’t say anything and carried on as normal; I despaired when no one even noticed enough to ask me if I was eating.

One can make all sorts of judgments, psychoanalytic or not, about this. I can say that it wasn’t a cry for help, and I’m unsure if it was a desire to control things. But I can say that it started from vanity. For me, it started from gaining weight during my freshman year and then wanting to go back to my old weight…and then keep going. (Again, this is why I say that I am not the most extreme story.)

Now, I like to think that I have better eating habits. I listen to my hunger cues, I indulge sometimes, I do daily stretches and opt for stairs when I can, and I’m honest with myself. But the vanity part still hits me. I still want to put on my size 0 dress and have it fit seamlessly against a taut stomach and narrow hips. But the truth is that I have narrow-ish hips, but they aren’t narrow enough; and I don’t have a flat stomach, but it’ll do. The truth also is that these are imperfections that I see, and if someone else sees them, so be it.

Women, as a whole, face challenges. There are questions about the strength and capabilities of women in the workplace; there are whole legislatures ostensibly “protecting women’s health” without consulting our voices or even real medicine; there are restrictions we place on ourselves due to imposed social cues; there are double standards for men and women in the workplace (the only time I will defend Sarah Palin is for having to deal with questions about how she would do her job effectively while raising her children; no male politician was asked that [and the thing preventing her from doing her job is, frankly, not her children]).

On top of all of that, women must deal with heightened and unrealistic beauty standards. The examples are cliche, but I’ll recite them anyway: old actors are silver foxes while old actresses are witches; a man with facial blemishes is perfectly acceptable but no woman should ever be seen in public without makeup; women are often sexualized by the male population, but then punished for being sexual in their own right; you can never be thin enough, even if you’re only 18.

Beauty standards may seem superficial, but they are part of a larger matrix of issues that women face. The debate on the presidential stage right now is about women’s health as it relates to abortion and Planned Parenthood, and it is a debate about which I am extraordinarily passionate. But we should not forget in our fight to control our bodies on the inside, that we should fight to control our bodies on the outside. It is incredibly easy to brush the latter aside as “vanity.” But vanity has repercussions and consequences. Vanity doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Vanity isn’t always straightforward.

It’s easy to dismiss eating disorders as something for weak people, or vain people, or control-freaks, or women on the fringe. But the reality is that it isn’t a fringe issue, and that it is also an issue that stems from a system that places high standards for women that no man would ever have to face. Let’s keep that in mind in the conversation.

But let’s also keep in mind that these women are not weak; they are strong for acknowledging the disorder. And they, too, deserve kindness, understanding, and empathy, as all humans do.

Besides, let’s also be kind to food and treat it like the joy and treasure that it is. Not something to be repented for, like a sin. The real sin would be to not enjoy the food.

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