The most horrifying vehicle personalization I’ve ever seen had nothing to do with politics.

Hello, friends.

Question for you: What’s the most disturbing vehicle personalization you’ve ever seen? I’m talking about vanity license plates, bumper stickers, license plate frames, decals, magnets, and the like.

I’ll cut to the chase and tell you about mine, because I still can’t believe it.

[TRIGGER WARNING FOR E.D.]

I’m one of those people who reads everything in front of me while in my car. I’ve seen it all, and I’m here for it, even if I don’t always like it.

I’ve gone through every emotional state looking at other peoples’ personalized vehicles. They make me smile. Roll my eyes. Nod in agreement. Throw up in my mouth a little. Some of them restore my faith in humanity, while others obliterate any hope I had for the human race. I laugh at a lot of them, too. My personal favorite: “Proud parent of a kid who’s sometimes an asshole but that’s okay.” I’ve gone home and Googled musicians and bands and other organizations, or acronyms on vanity plates, just out of curiosity, so I’ve learned a few things from these personalizations, as well. It’s all interesting to me in some way or another.

But then there was the day, not long ago, that I found myself stopped behind a certain car at a red light on my way home from work. Its vanity plate number started with the letters “ANA,” followed by a space, so those three letters stood out… and then a number followed by a capital “K” like something-thousand, and then a final single digit after that. I couldn’t decipher it as a whole, but those first three letters.

I didn’t want to assume what it meant, but of course my mind went immediately to the dark side. Because when I see ANA, the automatic association in my mind is pro-ANA, or pro-anorexia.

It couldn’t be, though, right? Pro-ANA lives online as a dark, shadowy alley of a subculture. Pro-ANA does not drive around town in real-life broad daylight in a pretty little red car.

Unless it does.

I really wanted to think that “ANA” was the name of the car’s owner, but then I noticed the butterfly decal placed with perfect precision at the top center of the tinted rear window, the white of the decal contrasting boldly with the dark window. A cold skeleton finger tapped along my spine when I also noticed that the “ANA” license plate was fitted into an elegant chrome frame, a simple piece adorned only with two butterflies, one at each of the frame’s two bottom corners.

Might it have been a coincidence? So a woman named Ana likes butterflies, I reasoned with myself. Big deal. But the innocuous possibility wasn’t convincing. I couldn’t know for sure, but from where I was sitting, it looked like a pro-ANA car.

I’m familiar with the horrifying online world of ANA/Pro-ANA. If you didn’t know, “ANA” is slang for “pro-ana,” short for “pro-anorexia.”

Eating disorders are fetishized in the ANA community. Members encourage each other in their starvation journeys, giving each other advice, tips, tricks, and hacks. They share pics of themselves, they share thinspiration (“thinspo”) pics, and they watch ANA “thinspo” (“thinspiration”) “role models” on YouTube. They make their own videos, body-checking and showing off their bones. And they’ve adopted the eating disorder recovery symbol of the butterfly as their own symbol.

Now in my view, it’s normal to share your personal and political convictions, beliefs, and ideologies on your vehicle. Festooning your car with the obvious intention of antagonizing people and riling them up is normal. Putting the letters “ANA” with butterflies on your car, however, is not normal. It’s saddening. It’s sick. It encourages like-minded people to their slow suicides. I’m surprised that a vanity plate submission could pass review and make it onto a vehicle at all.

The sight of the car shook me. Five minutes later I pulled up to my driveway feeling unnerved. It was like I’d come face-to-face with an urban legend, and not the good kind.

That was what I wanted to share: that the personalized vehicle that’s horrified me the most was the one with a few dainty little butterflies and three letters that could very well by the car owner’s name. I could be wrong. I hope that I was. But the sight of the car got me thinking.

If you or a loved one are struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders hotline for help.

Thank you for reading and for just being here, my friends.

Intensity before our eyes. (July Favorites!)

Most of this list is stuff we watched. I tried no new products in July. Two of the three food items here aren’t even new. I’ve just never mentioned them.

That being said, that which we watched in July made for some intense entertainment, some of it difficult to watch. It wasn’t all weighty and dark, though.

Let’s take a look!

 

1). To the Bone (film, Netflix)

 

 

I don’t know what life is like inside an eating disorder, but I would guess that this film captures a realistic glimpse of what it might be like… for both patients and their family members. To the Bone focuses on a young woman struggling with anorexia nervosa. We were surprised to find ourselves laughing a bit, which felt awkward at first – I would never expect to laugh while watching a film about eating disorder patients – but we’re supposed to laugh. To the Bone is a fine example of a dramedy, deftly scripted with humor to help make a serious and uncomfortable subject more understandable.

I’m not sure that I would recommend this film to everyone, as it may be triggering. Watch with caution.

 

2). Ozark (T.V. series)

 

 

What’s this?! It’s another Netflix original crime drama/thriller. Atmospheric Ozark stars Jason Bateman, whose outstanding turn as the desperate protagonist should earn him Best Actor nominations throughout the 2017 awards season next year. We were impressed when we saw the trailer, and with the cast including Laura Linney, we marked it on the calendar. Bateman was great, Linney didn’t disappoint. If you’re a fan of crime thrillers – thrillers such as Breaking Bad, let’s say – then you’ll likely enjoy this one.

 

3). Black Mirror (T.V. series) – S3 “Hated in the Nation” and “San Junipero”

 

 

Netflix’ sci-fi thriller Black Mirror is the series we watch when we’re in the mood to have our brains scrambled. I’m thinking particularly of season 3’s “Playtest,” followed by “Shut Up and Dance.” Season 2’s “White Bear” did it, too, as well as season 1’s “Fifteen Million Merits.” Never before had we encountered a series whose episodes made us say “Well that was a mindf*ck” so consistently.

This series is unique in that I couldn’t binge-watch it. That would be a bad mental health decision.

Black Mirror episodes are written as stand-alone stories, so they can be watched in any order. We haven’t seen them all, but of the episodes we have seen, the above-mentioned ones were made more disturbing by their very excellence. Two other season 3 episodes, though, stood out. They weren’t disturbing so much as they were just plain successful at being mysterious (“San Junipero”) and thrilling (“Hated in the Nation”).

I think it’s safe to say that if you like The Twilight Zone, you’ll dig Black Mirror.

 

4). The Handmaid’s Tale (T.V. series)

 

 

The Handmaid’s Tale takes Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel and brings it to chilling life in this outstanding Hulu original series. Elisabeth Moss may well have secured herself major awards nominations for her performance as Offred. There was also stunning beauty before our eyes in the town of Gilead: anywhere we hit “pause,” the image on the screen could’ve been a Vermeer painting. The use of color and music play strong roles in the telling of this story.

Sidenote: Callaghan found The Handmaid’s Tale to be so unsettling that we took a long break from it… we started it in June and finished it in July. We returned to it after we saw The Keepers (next on this list), which made The Handmaid’s Tale seem mild.

 

5). The Keepers (T.V. series)

 

 

I honestly don’t know what to say about this Netflix docuseries. I think it’s important to watch, but I would not call it “entertainment.”

Two middle-aged women – former classmates at a Catholic high school in Maryland – continue their efforts to solve the case of their teacher Sister Cathy Cesnik’s murder. A priest and the Archdiocese of Baltimore come under scrutiny, and horrors are uncovered in the process. By the end of episode two, we were disgusted and enraged into speechlessness. We watched the seven episodes over the course of a week, and when it was over, we immediately signed the petition. I do recommend this docuseries, but again, my recommendation comes with a trigger warning (this one for sexual abuse).

 

6). Gypsy (T.V. series)

 

 

Admittedly, it was only Naomi Watts’ name that drew our attention to this Netflix series; we had no idea what Gypsy was about. Turned out we’d gotten ourselves into a psychological thriller, which we kept watching because of its intrigue… from beginning to end (of the season), we never stopped asking, “What is going on, exactly?” Naomi Watts plays a shrink whose behavior, um, deviates from the norm. I’ll just leave it at that! We did enjoy Gypsy, though, and I would recommend giving it a try if you’re looking for a different sort of ride.

 

7). GLOW (T.V. series)

 

 

I’m finishing this part of the list with GLOW, an offbeat Netflix dramedy that gave us a respite from the heavy intensity of the rest. GLOW was a treat. It’s smart and satirically (sometimes crudely) funny. It combines combat sports, misfit women, and the 80’s. There are a few turning-point situations in the women’s lives, and there’s some outlandish and creative problem-solving… solemn moments and hilarity held together with Aqua Net. An original, indeed!

Now let’s get into the food….

 

8).  Pearls pitted Kalamata Greek olives.

 

Pearls pitted Kalamata Greek olives

 

I love these olives in my salads. I always have, but now I have them on hand at all times, and I eat a few of them every day. I’m sure I’ll cycle through this olive phase eventually, but it’ll be one of those recurring phases. I can tell.

 

9). Nectarines.

 

Nectarines

 

All of a sudden, in the third week of July, I realized that I hadn’t eaten a single summer stone fruit since the cherries my parents brought when they visited in May. It was like I’d had blinders on in the grocery store. How could it be that I’d been so intent on finding the red grapes, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, pears, oranges, and bananas that I’d failed to see the plethora of peaches, nectarines, plums, and apricots right before my eyes? I’m still eating those other fruits, but I’m also making up for lost time. At the moment, I’m swooning over the white nectarines. Better late than never!

 

10). Trader Joe’s extra virgin olive oil.

 

Trader Joe’s extra virgin olive oil

 

There’s actually nothing new about Trader Joe’s extra virgin olive oil in our house. It just occurred to me, as we went to pick up yet another bottle, that it’s one of our staple foods, and I’ve never mentioned it in a “favorites” list. We eat salads at least four days per week, so we go through these big bottles of Trader Joe’s olive oil pretty quickly. It’s a good, dependable favorite, and the spout that comes with it makes it friendly to use, as well.

 

This brings us to the end. Heading into August! Much to anticipate already!

Body Image and the Great Strip-Down

When I sat down to write about body image, I found myself mired in writer’s block before my fingers even touched the keyboard. Where could I begin to talk about this issue? It’s intimidating in its vastness, and thousands of articles on the subject have already been written. So many of us struggle with our self-worth where our bodies are concerned.

What came to mind first was the following incident:

When I was in Arizona, I had a boyfriend whose family lived in a large house in a semi-rural suburb. The lot on which it sat had a modest expanse of lawn and a scattering of shrubbery fringing the perimeter around the front yard. Though it could have used some work, the yard was by no means ill-maintained; still, the neighbors took it upon themselves to show up one day with hedge-trimmers, weed-whackers, gardening shears and the like. They stood on the front porch (I was there to witness it), ready to work. They exuded good intentions with the sort of self-satisfaction that goes with donating precious resources to a charity case.

You see, that yard just had to be brought up to “standards,” and if the occupants of the house weren’t going to do it, then by god, someone else had to. The yard was an eyesore, they figured. It was bringing down the neighborhood. Maybe the appearance of the yard would even decrease the value of their homes. This is all speculation; I don’t know what they were thinking, exactly. People can be persnickety.

My boyfriend’s parents were mortified. They stood on their side of the security screen door at a loss for words. “Thank you,” they murmured… because what else could they think to say at that moment? What do you do with unsolicited volunteerism to correct something of yours that you never knew was wrong?

Good intentions aside, the neighbors came across as critical, maybe even judgmental, and their collective action seemed more insulting and intrusive than akin to a random act of kindness. They actually took time out of their weekends to impose their aesthetics on someone else’s house. “We thought we’d get together and work on your yard,” their spokesperson announced in so many words, full of vim and vigor. I couldn’t believe the nerve. Plus, the yard really wasn’t that bad. In fact, I’d thought I’d seen the same or worse here and there throughout the neighborhood. It wasn’t like this was a shabby yard surrounded by “perfect” ones.

So what about this memory brings to mind the issue of body image? The concept of aesthetic “standards.” Other people’s standards, and the pressure placed on us to meet them.

In this era of obsession with physical perfection, very few of us feel that we look “good enough” to count as worthy. So how to overcome the persistent messages that being attractive (according to other peoples’ definitions) should be a paramount goal in life? How to become impervious to the messages of society-mandated physical perfection plastered all over the media? How to not care?

I thought about it. For me, I found that the answer lies somewhere in this truth: My body is my house, and it’s prime real-estate… because it’s mine to do with as I please. It’s the only thing I truly own, me, by myself. I live here, I want to shout to the tentacles of the media. Get off my lawn!!

The space I inhabit within my body is the same as the space I inhabit within my home, and it’s no one’s business what I do with those spaces. Those spaces are sacred to me. I’m not okay with “good neighbors” on my doorstep telling me what’s wrong on the outside, and I’m absolutely against the idea of intruders coming in to dictate what will happen on the inside.

It seems that we’re fixated on altering our bodies for the gratification of others and to match the innumerable images of what “desirable” looks like. Though men aren’t entirely exempt from the bombardment of these subtle and not-so-subtle directives, women remain the central targets. Focus on women’s bodies far exceeds the focus on men’s bodies. Feelings of physical inadequacy aren’t quite the equal opportunity demons they should be.

My thoughts keep returning to that house and its yard. How the neighbors came with their gardening tools to trim, shape and prune the vegetation until its contours resembled their own ideals of not only acceptability, but desirability. When did it become permissible to judge the exteriors of our homes to the point where others will come to impose their ideals on us? The problem is that when any space we inhabit is regarded with a critical eye, it’s difficult to avoid self-consciousness… and self-consciousness brings us down. It can lead to irrational thinking about how we can “fix” ourselves. It can lead to self-starvation and self-mutilation in our quest to comply with the beauty ideals of our time.

It’s like comparing our living spaces to those of others. We find ourselves examining the walls that surround us, becoming as critical of them as our critics… maybe even more so, since it’s true that we’re often our own worst critics. Suddenly, what we have isn’t good enough. Where we are isn’t good enough.

Then we think about it. We take stock of what we need, compare it to what we have, and then realize how lucky we are. We have a functional structure in which to live.

We have somewhere to lay our heads when we’re tired. Somewhere to bathe our bodies. Somewhere to sit and think and be alone. Somewhere to spend intimate time with others when we don’t want to interact in public. Somewhere to store, keep, admire, use and enjoy the things we have.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could feel this appreciative and secure within the homes that are our bodies?

Now that current economic realities have somewhat stifled the “keep up with the Joneses” mindset that influenced our sense of self-worth in the extravagant ’80’s, why can’t we nudge ourselves out of that same mentality where our bodies are concerned? Why continue trying to “keep up with” anybody in terms of how we look?

There’s just no point in comparing ourselves to others.

So I ask myself this question: If make a list of things I need in order to feel good about myself, what would it look like?

I came up with this: Lasting harmony, growth and passion with my life partner. Mental, spiritual, physical and emotional health. Contentment and joy. Accomplishment and satisfaction. Triumph and progress. Acceptance and dignity.

The list isn’t without its “oh my god impossible” factor, but it’s invigorating nonetheless. I feel motivated for the right reasons. It’s time to separate my body from my self-worth, and I can start by trying to shrug off the bullshit messages of our body-centric society. In doing so, I’m freeing myself to nurture and enrich other areas of my being and my life. I’m happy with my aspirations to focus on interiors, rather than exteriors.

For one thing, I know that when I look in the mirror, there are more terrible things I could see than my physical “imperfections.”

I wouldn’t want to look in the mirror and see money I don’t have, and feel poor. I wouldn’t want to see what’s gone from my life, and feel a desperate vacancy. I wouldn’t want to see what’s been taken away, and find ghosts where my reflection should be. I wouldn’t want to see the pride I can’t swallow or the temper I can’t control. I certainly wouldn’t want to look in the mirror and find a guilty conscience in the aversion of my gaze, because above all, I have to be able to look into my own eyes. That is where I should see beauty. And that’s where others should see it, too.

What feels healthy and good on the inside diminishes the importance of what people see on the outside, and that renders them impotent. My self-worth becomes immutable.

So this is the strip-down, the way I see it. I’ll make a point of baring myself to the elements every once in a while, just as a reminder of the value of what’s really there. I could stand in my entryway completely naked while I’m at it. Come and tell me what needs to be fixed. I might hold a mirror up to your face before I quietly close the door.