I’m thrilled to announced that I’m now a contributing writer at the Bello Collective, where I just published my first piece: 18 Episodes About Gender Transitions. Check it out and subscribe to Bello’s newsletter for more.
A deep dive into the current state of the US welfare system and how a 1996 bill made it what it is today. This first, six-episode season explores the many ways that states use welfare money—including on relationship advice and crisis pregnancy centers—and the people who benefit from the system, whether they know it or not.
A deep dive into raising a transgender daughter, from picking the right elementary school to meeting Laverne Cox. Often devastating and always impactful, this is the anonymous story of a mother who’s struggling to raise a strong, proud young girl in a world where many don’t accept her, and of a young girl who’s navigating which friends can be trusted and whether it’s safe for her to be herself.
3. More Perfect
A deep dive into the Supreme Court from the magicians who brought us Radiolab. The show’s first season explores the Court’s role in U.S. history through six landmark cases you may never have heard of, from the loopholes in jury selection to the harrowing decision to redistrict.
A deep dive into gentrification in New York City, from the thoroughly gentrified Williamsburg to the recently rezoned East New York. Each of the nine episodes focuses on one of gentrification’s issues, examining what a changing neighborhood means for business owners, developers, recent transplants, and longtime residents—both those who are forced to move and those who decide to stay.
5. Us & Them
A deep dive into controversies that divide Americans, from the war on Christmas to the war on drugs. Host Trey Kay interviews folks on both sides of the issues to explore how deeply held beliefs shape our country, making the show one of the few places where both right-wing Republicans and leftist liberals get a voice.
6. Science Vs.
A deep dive into what science says about the things we have strong, scientifically unfounded feelings about. Is fracking really so bad? Is attachment parenting the answer? And what about guns? While host Wendy Zukerman’s jokes can be goofy, the issues are serious and the explanations thorough.
After the success of my crime show list, I’ve decided to continue the trend with another playlist. This time: the sex talk.
1. “Mom, It’s Time We Had the Talk”, The Longest Shortest Time
In which a mom talks to her eight-year-old son about sex—or rather, he talks to her. All. The. Time. And she answers him openly and honestly (up to a point). This is a great primer on how to have a transparent, but still mostly comfortable, conversation about sex with an elementary schooler.
2. “The Sex Talk”, Out in the Open
In which families from various cultural backgrounds navigate the sex talk—from Christian parents who preach abstinence until marriage to the head of the Native Women’s Association of Canada who talks to her daughters about the risk of being trafficked. Also, host Piya Chattopadhyay belatedly discusses sex with her own parents and realizes that they have a very different idea of what The Talk is all about.
3. “How Do I Talk to My Kid About Molestation?” How to Get Away With Parenting
In which host Malaika Dower talks to sex and family therapist Courtney Watson about how to talk to her kid about sex, bodies, and staying safe. As I wrote before, it’s also about how to deal with your own issues so that you can raise your kids to respect their bodies and others’.
4. “Birds & Bees”, This American Life
In which we learn where kids get their information about sex and how colleges work to correct that information. (Also in which adults speak to kids frankly about death and in which parents grapple with how to teach their kids about racism.)
A two episode series in which host Trey Kay talks to an education historian and a specialist in Sex Health Ed about how and when Americans learn what they learn about sex. In “The Talk”, we learn how the history of sex education in the United States was shaped, and how it has changed. In “Sex Ed for Grown Ups”, doctors learn to talk to their patients about sex—because for many Americans, nobody else does.
6. “Talking to My Kids About Sex in the Internet Age”, The Moth
In which writer Adam Savage talks about talking to his kids about porn. This is an oldie but a goodie—funny, awkward, realistic, and a story I still remember after three years.
In 1972, a five-year-old Canadian boy went missing during a fishing trip with his dad, brother, and dad’s friend, and no trace of him was ever seen again. What happened?
In 1990-1991, three Aboriginal kids who lived on the same street of the same small, Australian town were murdered. Who did it? Was it…Jay? (Yes, actually. No, not that Jay.) [CW: Sexual assault]
3. Charles Manson’s Hollywood (You Must Remember This, episodes 44-55)
First Charles Manson was a child, then he started a cult, and then, in 1969, he and his followers murdered a bunch of people in Hollywood. What happened? Also, what does this have to do with the Beach Boys?
The body of a Jane Doe was found in a cornfield in upstate New York in 1979. She was a teenager from a warmer climate who was dressed in a unique-looking jacket—but other than that, officials know nothing. Who is she? What happened? Can the internet solve this mystery?
5. In the Dark
A new serialized murder mystery you can actually listen to week by week!
Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped in 1989. For 27 years, his disappearance remained a mystery, and then—right before this podcast was set to release—his killer was arrested, and the story came out. Why did it take 27 years to find a man who lived so close? And how did this case change the way Americans police and parent? [CW: Sexual assault of a child]
A high school sophomore disappeared from school in 1976. Eight days later, his body was found in a park. What happened? Who did it? And why has this case gone unsolved for so long? [CW: Sexual assault of a child]
Another new serialized murder mystery you can actually listen to week by week!
In 1978, 23-year-old Elizabeth Andes was murdered in her apartment in Oxford, Ohio. Her boyfriend was charged with the crime. Under police pressure, he confessed, but then recanted. After two juries found him not guilty, police stopped searching for other suspects. What happened? And why didn’t police follow more leads?
A few weeks ago, the podcast How to Get Away With Parenting released an episode called “How Do I Talk to My Kid About Molestation?” That question, which host Malaika Dower puts to her guest—sex and family therapist Courtney Watson—is quickly overtaken by a bigger issue: How do I talk to my kid about sex? And yet another struggle overtakes that: How do I talk to my kid about sex when I am still working through my own sexual issues?
The root of Malaika and Courtney’s conversation is that yes, a parent can help their child develop a healthy, shame-free attitude toward their body and sexuality, but the parent also needs to process the impact that rape culture has had on them. After all, we can’t teach healthy attitudes if we can’t model them, and we can’t model them if we don’t deal with our own problems. In order to raise a child in a culture we didn’t grow up in—a culture we’re working to create—we have to deal with the trauma of growing up with the cultural norms we’re trying to dismantle.
Courtney emphasizes one strategy in particular: establish a support network for the caregiver as well as the child. Parents can combat secrecy and shame by building a network of safe people that a child can go to if they’re having an issue, but parents also need a community to lean on. “If you have an issue with sex—definitely if there’s some sort of sexual trauma in your past and you feel yourself being triggered in raising your child—get help,” Courtney says. “You don’t have to do this alone.” Courtney stresses this point a few times, including when Malaika asks about helping a child to heal from sexual trauma. She speaks specifically about going to therapy, but the larger point is that raising a child doesn’t happen in a vacuum and that caregivers come to caregiving with all of the cultural baggage they had before they were in charge of a kid.
Malaika enters the conversation asking, “how do I make sure my kid isn’t molested?” And Courtney replies, basically, you can’t. “Rape culture tells us that there’s something we can do to stop someone else from perpetrating against our children,” she says. Here it is, folks: our old friend rape culture. Or, rather, here’s victim blaming, one of rape culture’s favorite henchmen. Victim blaming tells us that if we had worn a different outfit, gone home earlier, or not drunk as much, we could have avoided our own assault. And rape culture tells parents that they’re responsible for protecting their kids at all times. If something happens, victim blaming rushes in to remind parents that it’s their fault. Here’s the cycle in action: the parent must keep their daughter covered/watched/inside because otherwise the daughter may be assaulted. If the daughter doesn’t internalize this message and subject herself to its rules, and someone assaults her, then she was asking for it. Courtney won’t stand for this: “The only person that is responsible for sexually assaulting your child is the person that does it,” she says. “Not your child, not you—it’s them.
There are, of course, things we can do to try to keep children safe, and there are things we can do to support them if anything does happen. Malaika’s kid is just over a year old, so Courtney focuses on developing an open and honest atmosphere that’s free of shame. To start with, she says, call body parts by their proper names. When diapering, when bathing, when playing the “where’s your ____” game. “Society, or we, or whoever, puts that shame on those body parts,” Courtney explains. “At the end of the day they’re still just body parts.” By honestly and openly identifying body parts that we usually shroud in euphemisms, we can show kids that a vulva is no more shameful than a fingernail. (As an added pro, a kid who can accurately name their body parts will be able to communicate what happened if anyone does touch them in a way that they don’t like.) Courtney offers many more strategies for talking to older as well as younger kids, and for talking about sex explicitly as well as bodies and consent. She has included most of these in an article on how to talk to young kids about sexual assault that she posted on her website soon after the episode aired.
The roots of rape culture start in our conversations, expectations, and attitudes toward our own bodies and the bodies of others, and we develop those attitudes from infancy. Anyone who interacts with kids—which most if not all of us do at some point, in some way—has the capacity to help them develop healthy attitudes toward their bodies and sexuality. Today’s kids will grow into tomorrow’s adults, who will respect or blame victims, will ask for or disregard consent, and will treat their partners and themselves with love or contempt. Today’s conversations lay the framework for tomorrow’s actions and attitudes. But to help our kids develop healthy sexual relationships, we have to have a healthy relationship toward sex ourselves. We owe it to our children to take care of ourselves. This is how we combat rape culture. This is how we change the conversation.
Once or twice a year, This American Life, a consistent favorite of mine, hits home with a punch-to-the-gut episode, and I remember just how great their work can be. This week’s episode, “Tell Me I’m Fat,” hit home hard.
The show starts with Lindy West, whose book, Shrill, sparked the episode. The book, and this segment, are about her journey from a hyper-ashamed fat person to a fat person whose advice includes, “At a certain point you just have to be like [jack-off motion] and do you.”* The segment’s underlying conflict is the feud between Lindy and her boss, writer Dan Savage. Dan wrote insulting, disparaging things about fat people, and Lindy wrote back—all while they remained friends and colleagues at the Stranger. Dan, here, speaks in the Voice of Society at Large, a voice that claims to care about things like fat people’s health. But, as Lindy says, “You’re not concerned about my health—because if you were concerned about my health, you’d also be concerned about my mental health.”** And there we have, more or less, the thesis of this episode.
The second segment is told by one of my favorites, Elna Baker, whose story is based, in part, on an essay she wrote for Refinery29. Unlike Lindy, she dealt with her weight by losing it, rather than by accepting it. In the segment, she comes out as a person who struggles with her body image, and who uses questionable methods to keep herself looking how she feels she must. New Elna also struggles with Old Elna. Old Elna was fat but happy (although I wonder how happy she was, given that she lost 110 pounds for the expressed reasons of getting a job and a boyfriend). New Elna is thin, and has a job and a partner, but she’s not as good a person. And here, too, we have the Voice of Society, which gives New Elna everything that Old Elna wanted: “[Old Elna] tried so hard for everything that [New Elna] now got so easily. New Elna didn’t have to be a good person. I just had to be thin.”
In the next segment, Ira Glass talks to Roxane Gay, who wrote about weight in Bad Feminist and whose forthcoming book, Hunger, delves deeper into the topic. She puts fat people into three categories: “20 pounds overweight,” or a Slim Fast diet away from not-fat; “Lane Bryant fat,” or able to fit into a typical plus-size clothing brand; and “super morbidly obese,” like Roxane herself. She talks, mostly, about what it’s like to constantly think about and navigate her size. Here, the Voice of Society appears through physical structures. At a certain size, one’s body is prohibitively large, so that, as Roxane says, “This whole nonstop anxiety conversation happens in my head all the time for just basic life functions…Before I will go out to eat, I research a restaurant extensively on Google…And if I don’t think I’m going to be comfortable, I simply won’t go.” Roxane is talking, here, about the size of chairs, the spaces between tables, the presence or lack of armrests. But this sentence could so easily apply to any number of issues. Wheelchair accessibility, for example, or the amount of light, or noise, or any other physical navigations one must make when spaces do not generally cater to one’s body. Will this space accommodate me? the anxiety asks. Am I welcome here?
The last segment explores Oral Roberts University’s weight-loss policy. Our guiding voice here is not the victim of fat-shaming, but its perpetrator. ORU, a Christian college founded in 1963, twisted the idea of holistic education—educating the mind, body, and soul—and used it to justify sizeist discrimination, as what started as an exercise requirement turned into a weight-determined suspension policy. Too fat? Get out. Lose five pounds and pray and maybe you can come back next semester. The ORU approach—and the approach of the Christian weight-loss movement in general—was, basically, as Lindy West would say, “Eeeewwwww.” It’s this approach of institutional fat-shaming that makes up the current backbone of America’s attitude toward weight. Luckily, the story ends happily, with the physical education director realizing that kicking a student out for being four pounds over the university-sanctioned goal weight can either drive the student to action, or drive them into the ground—and deciding that that isn’t a risk worth taking.
I am not fat. I have never been more than maybe ten pounds overweight. But I am a woman, and I have struggled with my weight, and I found all of these segments very relatable. As much as they’re about being fat, they’re also about being a person in a body—a person who does and does not want to be seen; a person who cares more about maintaining her size than about maintaining her health; a person who kills a part of herself to get what she thinks she can only have if she’s thin. The anxiety that Roxane references, the lengths to which Elna goes to alter her body, the emphasis on physical health (or looks) at the expense of mental well-being that Lindy describes—these are not only fat people issues. Because, as Lindy says, the idea of overweight only works if there is a correct weight. And anybody who has an idea of their correct weight can come to build their life around it, and to value their body in relation to others.
While “Tell Me I’m Fat” has the format and scope of a typical TAL episode, it has the impact of “Three Miles” or “Abdi and the Golden Ticket,” two other examples of the show at its finest. It’s episodes like this that remind me of the effect that personal stories can have. A society that decenters and dehumanizes people—particularly women—it deems too big must hear their stories. It is, as Lindy says in Shrill, “like medicine” to see fat women “wearing outfits and doing things and smiling”.† It’s medicine to hear and see fat people loving themselves. And it’s an antidote to self-ridicule to hear other people—both still-fat and now-thin—struggling with their bodies. Log this under required listening.
*Shrill, page 48
**This and all future quotes are from “Tell Me I’m Fat”
In the five-ish months since I last wrote, I’ve repeatedly exhausted my podcast list and gone searching for more, and have deleted most of the photos on my phone to make space for the new additions. Among these additions are:
Us & Them: Stories from America’s Cultural Divides
This show goes deep into polarizing issues: Democrats vs. Republicans, whistling Dixie vs. banning Dixie, sex ed vs. abstinence-only ed, Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays—that kind of polarizing. It’s kind of like Embedded means Scene on Radio, and is quickly becoming one of my favorite shows.
If you like Undisclosed: The State vs. Adnan Syed or other very technical accounts of murder cases, you will probably like Breakdown, which, each season, follows a single case through the court system. Season One is about a possible arson that killed the accused’s neighbor, and Season Two, “Death in a Hot car: Mistake or Murder”, covers the trial of a man accused of killing his toddler son. It definitely gets gruesome, and it’s more court reporting than the narrative journalism of Serial, but I keep wanting to know what happens next.
This is the only show I’ve finished listening to and said, “Wait…what?” As in, what was that? It’s non-narrated—or, like, the opposite of narrated—nonfiction. Perhaps I would call it documentary audio collage, or experimental storytelling through sound. Whatever you call it, it alters and remixes the tape itself as well as adding music on top. More atmospheric than plot-driven, it nontheless conveys stories that stick with you.
How to Get Away with Parenting
This is a conversation-style parenting podcast by a black mom of a mixed-race baby in Brooklyn. If you’ve complained that The Longest Shortest Time isn’t diverse enough, try this.
Speaking of diversity, I found this great site called Podcasts in Color that lists hundreds of podcasts, in every category, by podcasters of color. It’s an awesome resource that has led me to many new shows. However I’m still looking for more documentary/nonfiction podcasts by diverse hosts. If you have any suggestions, please comment below or let me know @galenbeebe.