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The chaotic, irreplaceable Wendy Williams
Wendy Williams speaks onstage during her celebration of 10 years of The Wendy Williams Show at the Buckhead Theatre, in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2018. | Paras Griffin/Getty Images Wendy Williams’s rise, reputation, and absence from her talk show, explained. Centuries ago, those accused of gossip, primarily women, were locked into metal headpieces that restrained the mouth. Imagine what those medieval haters would think about Wendy Williams. The 57-year-old host has been rattling off her opinions into millions of American living rooms since 2008. The Wendy Williams Show kicks off its 13th season this month. After several delays due to medical complications from Williams’s ongoing thyroid condition and a Covid-19 infection, guest hosts and panelists will occupy Williams’s seat for the foreseeable future. Season 13 was scheduled to begin on September 20, then was suddenly pushed back to October 4. In an Instagram statement, it was announced that Williams had tested positive for a “breakthrough case” of Covid-19. This came as a surprise to many of her fans, since she had previously been outspoken about not wanting to get vaccinated. (Even the controversial Dr. Oz tried to convince her to get the shot.) Then, the premiere got pushed back again to October 18, but by October 12, her team released another statement announcing that Williams would not be returning, as she remains under daily medical supervision. The Wendy Williams Show did not respond to multiple requests for comment. However necessary, the guest hosts are an attempt to replace the irreplaceable — Williams’s ranking as a top daytime host has long been solid, competing only with the soon-to-depart Ellen DeGeneres and the women of The View. The guests who will take over her airtime are merely a stopgap, and are being met with mixed feelings in Williams’s Instagram comments, where her loyal fans have been vocal throughout her latest bout of health issues. For over a decade between smirking laughter and sips from her mug, Williams has calmly eviscerated celebrity goings-on, razing their mishaps to the ground to lay at the feet of her live studio audience. She has kept her original mission through changing times and through her own struggles. Even early on, her penchant for showing no mercy was documented by the New York Times, in a 2008 article that described her as capable of being “startlingly mean-spirited.” This is what helped her amass a legion of fans, and also what has irritated her critics for so long; of late, the infractions have piled up. The tide has turned on the kind of lurid gossip Williams traffics in; just look at the way the pop culture news cycle of the early aughts is being reevaluated. Still, her mix of bravado and vulnerability keeps her on our screens. Who is this woman anyway, and who let her onstage? Wendy Williams built her career on saying things other people wouldn’t say Williams, born in New Jersey, got her start in radio in the late 1980s. She worked her way up through DC- and New York-based stations, and by 1993 had earned a Billboard Radio Award, honoring her as the R&B Major Market Radio Air Personality of the Year. She gave her listeners candid advice and shared the details of her own life dramas. Williams was known for her fiery, unapologetic personality. According to a 2005 New York magazine profile, during her run at WBLS, her interns were instructed not to speak to her unless spoken to. She bounced around different stations into the 2000s, discussing pop and rap stars on-air. She’s also struggled publicly: with being fired and ostracized, with a cheating husband who was also her manager, with substance abuse issues and her chronic illnesses. Williams made a name for herself by getting immensely personal with her listeners, which is perhaps why her fanbase is so enamored with her. Marie Nerestant, a 43-year-old in New York City, has been a Wendy fan since high school. Now, she watches The Wendy Williams Show every single day while her kids are at school. “She speaks her truth,” Nerestant told me about why she is drawn to Williams’s commentary. “She says what everybody wants to say, but is too afraid to say.” This, she theorizes, is why so many people are put off by Williams. Who is this woman anyway, and who let her onstage? “She has her flaws, and she’s not afraid to say it. She has Graves’ disease. She has lymphedema. She went through a terrible divorce. She’s said everything. What else does she have to prove to anybody?” Wendy hasn’t only spoken her own truth, though — and a fair share of celebrities have taken issue with Williams over the course of her career. In the ’90s, she had a habit of “outing” various rappers and pop stars, making claims that Sean Combs, Whitney Houston, and others were gay. These accusations were not taken lightly. Houston’s friend Robyn Crawford admitted that the pair planned to confront Williams over the gossip. Williams has also implied that Combs sent a girl group from his record label to assault her and intimated that he got her fired from Hot 97. Tupac even threw a diss at her in his music, after she made claims about his time in prison. Despite the drama, Williams’s brashness attracted television execs, and in 2008 she was asked to do a trial run of her own syndicated talk show. It was a sweeping success. Immediately the show resonated, in particular with women between the ages of 18 and 54. Fox and BET jumped on the chance to broadcast the program, and the rest is history. Her appeal to many Black women and gay men is crucial to her success, even though it is arguable that they should be most offended by her. And that is the strange magic of Wendy Williams. Aside from her talk show, Williams has done standup, acted in movies, written books (fiction and nonfiction), and appeared in a Broadway production of Chicago. Just this past January, she simultaneously released a biopic and a documentary through Lifetime. Last fall, she was revealed as a performer on The Masked Singer, costumed as a big mouth, which is, well, pretty on the nose. Williams’s daytime gig, however, is more than enough job for most. Her typically tireless schedule means that everyone with cable has likely come across her at some point or another. Stay-at-home mothers, children home sick, patients in doctors’ waiting rooms, and the like all cross paths with Wendy. Her celebrity gossip segment, aptly titled “Hot Topics,” dissects the latest entertainment news and might be the purest expression of the Wendy Williams persona. She talks, and the audience listens. Williams’s fans love her, but they don’t always agree with her The intimacy of The Wendy Williams Show is its main strength; Williams lounges in her purple armchair not just before her audience, but as if they’re sitting at the same table together. When she gossips, notoriously unscripted, it feels like chatting with a friend. She calls her fans her “co-hosts.” While a host like Ellen DeGeneres speaks to celebrities the way a friend would, Williams speaks to and about them as if she is not also a celebrity. She has no issue prying or having guests on the show that she has previously gossiped about. She separates herself from the celebrity tribe and puts herself at the level of the viewer, ignoring the tension that might exist between her role and her own fame. The format of The Wendy Williams Show has not changed much over time. Neither has its host, who remains often brutal toward celebrities. According to her fans, this is part of the appeal — but also, not always their favorite thing. “I prefer when she keeps it light,” says Tracy Turner, a 54-year-old fan who watches Wendy a few times a week. For the past eight years, Turner has been tuning in to see what Williams has to say, whether it’s for her recurring celebrity lookalike segment or giving advice to audience members. What Turner is less interested in is when the commentary turns a little nasty, as in Williams’s unsolicited “advice” on the rocky relationship of Love & Hip-Hop stars Safaree Samuels and Erica Mena. It seemed like a randomly fired shot, but in Turner’s opinion, there are some people who Williams just does not like, and it affects her coverage of them. “She used to come for the Kardashians, but then she met them, and then she changed the narrative,” Turner said. While Williams’s opinions can flip-flop — much to the annoyance of some of her fans — they also reflect a very human impulse. Her feelings are allowed to change, regardless of how forcibly she expresses them, even for, as Turner points out, sometimes indiscernible reasons. These shifts make her that much more unpredictable, which is compelling to those who have watched the nature of her fame change over time. When your audience doesn’t take you 100 percent seriously, it makes you much harder to cancel. What follows is a brief synopsis of Wendy Williams’s most-cancelable hits: There was her explosive conversation with Whitney Houston in her radio days, where she asked Houston how her drug use affected her family (Williams has detailed her own issues with cocaine). Houston hung up on her. On the radio in 2006, Williams leaked that Method Man’s wife had cancer before some of the couple’s own family members even knew. She’s had to apologize for claiming that gay men “should leave skirts and heels to women.” When Terry Crews spoke out about being sexually assaulted, she said he was “not brave.” In 2018, she complained about the Me Too movement and defended R. Kelly, who had long been accused of and was just last month convicted of sexual abuse. She later changed her mind, calling him “sick” and condemning his actions. She has misgendered a trans athlete and made ill-informed, transphobic jokes. In July, Williams implied that the marriage of actress and vegan influencer Tabitha Brown, who recently was able to help her husband financially so he could retire from the LAPD, was doomed to fail, and reminded Williams of her own situation with her ex-husband Kevin Hunter. She separates herself from the celebrity tribe and puts herself at the level of the viewer, ignoring the tension that might exist between her role and her own fame “That was out of anger. I don’t think she meant what she said,” Nerestant said. Perhaps Williams’s comments came from a place of projection due to her own romantic pains, Nerestant suggested, but said Williams was out of pocket nonetheless. “I didn’t agree with what she said. She was reaching a little bit, but she’s hurt and she’s still hurting. It’s just a process that she has to deal with.” Over the years, Williams has repeatedly mocked Britney Spears, but in a twist that was so out of left field it was comedic, she recently declared “death to them all!” in reference to Spears’s conservators. The clip has since been scrubbed from her YouTube channel but lives on in TikTok audios. Williams’s most recent and arguably worst offense was a takedown of 19-year-old TikTok user Matima Miller, known to fans as Swavy. Williams delivered the news of Miller’s murder by comparing her follower count to his and proclaiming that she had “no idea who this person is, and neither does one person in this building.” It was a stomach-turning, senseless blow to his family, who are not famous by any means. The list of controversies goes on and on. Despite Williams’s often crude commentary, advertisers don’t seem dissuaded (Chevrolet once dropped her for complaining about historically Black colleges and universities, but that’s about it), and viewers still tune in. She is simply a natural at being on television. She glides from segment to segment as if she is just catching up with her viewers — did you hear so-and-so did this? What do you all think about this, that, and the other that what’s-his-name was caught doing last week? Even if fans don’t always approve of her approach, they wholly believe in her right to have a platform, regardless of who it bothers. They may be frustrated by her, but they also feel a kinship, even a kind of ownership, over her. “She just wouldn’t be who she was today without stepping on some people’s toes and hurting some people’s feelings,” Nerestant said. The internet loves Wendy Williams ... kind of Wendy Williams, the person, isn’t very online. On Instagram, she merely posts recaps of her show, blurry photos of her meals (her commenters don’t hesitate to tell her when the food looks gross), and the occasional selfie. The account itself isn’t strictly business or personal, but it mostly operates as a promotional account for the show itself. Even if Wendy Williams isn’t really on the internet, in some ways she embodies its attitudes. Conversations about celebrities are always rude and outlandish online, with or without Wendy on the air. It is so easy to dogpile on Williams — a person who has said some awful things and has the nerve not to cower afterward, even though she is in the spotlight herself. In an interview with the New York Times Magazine back in 2019, Williams was asked why people are interested in celebrity gossip. Her response was simple: “Celebrity lives are something that people can live vicariously through,” she said. “It takes people’s minds off their own troubles. Everybody has troubles.” Williams gets paid to be judgmental, which is what a lot of people spend all day doing for free. Online, we’re all talk show hosts who can fire off a hot take tweet, go on a live rant, or create a slideshow of opinions theorizing on a celebrity romance. In fact, many online comment sections, threads, and forums use Williams as a tool — between user clapbacks and questions, her image dances, stares, and grimaces in GIF form through it all. Her relevance continues because Williams’s image has arguably become bigger and more significant than her actual show — maybe even bigger than Williams herself. Williams’s image has often been used as an instrument in that appropriation as the internet forges a world built in the likeness of Blackness As one TikTok user put it, she comes off as “a caricature of a woman.” Her baritone “How you doin’?” catchphrase is instantly recognizable. There’s the unfortunate clip of her fainting on-air while dressed as the Statue of Liberty for a Halloween episode. There’s an endless arsenal of pouty, shocked-looking photos of her, and internet users gravitate toward them as reaction GIFs and pics. There are countless edits of her body, warped to make her appear bug-eyed like an alien or contorted to make her torso as thin as a rail. Her being is primed for virality because there are so few famous people who are as theatrical or as unnerving. Her television audience is a loyal bunch, but her internet audience is much less kind. They see her as sort of a joke of a figure. Her memeification both proves and reinforces her popularity, but her meme status is complicated — there is real adoration and endearment there, but it’s also mixed in with casual, unfamiliar “fanship” which sees her as less of a three-dimensional person and more of, for lack of a better term, a human emoji. On a sociological level, it’s fascinating and revealing, but it’s also somewhat dangerous when one considers the social implications of making a Black woman so separate from personhood. As Bea Forman wrote for The Goods, the online adoption of memes and slang from Black people is “committed so casually and frequently that it feels like the default mode of shitposting.” It’s no fault of her own, but Williams’s image has often been used as an instrument in that appropriation as the internet forges a world built in the likeness of Blackness. Her prevalence on Black and gay Twitter has parlayed her into wider consciousness, as such things go. In the public imagination, she is not a person but an idea. She is camp. She is, as she once said of Lil’ Kim, “an icon, a legend, and she is the moment.” David Livingston/Getty Images Wendy Williams with her recently awarded star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The fact of the matter is that being disrespectful about a dead teen isn’t enough to take Wendy off the air. For 13 years, Williams has clocked into her show daily, guns ablazing. The public might be growing more vocal in its criticisms, but even amid health concerns, she has kept her seat onstage. Still, her onscreen future now feels in flux. Williams has only taken a few brief hiatuses before — due to Covid-19 production stops, to deal with health issues from her Graves’ disease and lymphedema, and to mourn the death of her mother. That’s why it was so unusual when the new season of Wendy was postponed. “I hope it helps to put things in perspective,” Turner said of Williams’s current health issues. “But there is a place for what she does. She is loved by pop culture.” Despite her illness, she was seen by the paparazzi vaping in a car in New York City in September, and tabloid rumors are circulating that she may have fallen out of sobriety. In 2019, after discovering that her ex-husband was having a child with his girlfriend, she checked into a sober living home to prevent herself from relapsing. Additionally, she was recently admitted to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. Her brother has stated that this time may be particularly difficult for her, due to the anniversary of their mother’s death approaching as well. It’s difficult to parse, and perhaps unfair to speculate, whether Williams is on her way off the air after a rough beginning to her latest season. It almost seems like nothing will stop The Wendy Williams Show until she decides to end it. Until then, it’s hard to completely hate the player. As long as there’s a market for casual chaos, Williams will have a niche to fill. We can moralize and debate about whether her work serves our society, but as with so much of television, it just serves to entertain — and Wendy does the job with more flair than most would dare to muster.vox.com
How screwed are Democrats in the Senate?
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speaks on the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill on August 11, 2021, in Washington, DC. | Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images The challenges the party will face in keeping its majorities in 2022 and 2024. Democrats are terrified of what the future holds for them in the United States Senate. The party currently controls half the seats in the chamber, giving them, with Vice President Harris’s tie-breaking vote, the narrowest possible majority. But some in the party — like pollster David Shor, recently profiled by Ezra Klein in the New York Times — believe demographic trends put Democrats at grave risk of falling into a deep hole over the next two election cycles. That risk exists even if Democrats continue to win more votes nationwide. “If 2024 is simply a normal year, in which Democrats win 51 percent of the two-party vote, Shor’s model projects a seven-seat loss, compared with where they are now,” Klein writes. In other words, Republicans could well get a 57 to 43 Senate majority, the GOP’s biggest in about a century, even if Democrats win more votes. This sense of impending Senate doom is the backdrop for many of Democrats’ debates right now — the messaging fight over whether the party should embrace “popularism,” the legislative fight over the reconciliation package that may be Democrats’ last chance to legislate for some time, and the frustration with a conservative Supreme Court majority that looks likely to be entrenched for years to come. Democrats’ main problem is that they’ve been doing poorly among white voters without a college education, who are spread out across many states, while Democrats’ voters are concentrated in fewer, bigger states. (This is why Shor has been arguing that the party needs to change its message to better appeal to such voters.) Recent presidential election results show how Democrats’ votes are packed into fewer states. When Biden won about 52 percent of the two-party popular vote in 2020, he won 25 states. But when Trump won about 49 percent of the two-party popular vote in 2016, he won 30 states. (If GOP Senate candidates had managed to replicate Trump’s map in 2018 and 2020, they would have won a 60-vote supermajority.) Democratic presidential candidates’ struggle to win more states isn’t entirely new — George W. Bush won less than 50 percent of the national vote in 2000 but still won 30 states. What was different back then was voters were much more willing to split their tickets, voting for a presidential candidate from one party and a Senate candidate from the other. Ten states split their results like that in 2000 but zero did in 2016 and only one (Maine) did in 2020. The increased polarization and nationalization of politics are producing more uniform results. To get a better sense of this, though, it’s worth delving into the specific seats that are in play. There are three Democrats representing states Trump won in 2020, all of whom are up in 2024. But there’s a second tier of vulnerability in the 10 Democrats representing states Biden just narrowly won. There are fewer Republican senators in comparable positions, and those that do exist seem to be on safer ground than their Democratic counterparts. The mismatched senators After the bitterly fought 2000 election, 30 of the 100 senators represented states that their party’s presidential nominee did not win. Since then, that number has gradually dwindled, as red-state Democrats and blue-state Republicans have retired or gone down to defeat. When Trump took office, there were 14 such senators remaining. Now, there are only six. The Senate has sorted by partisanship. So to understand the map going forward, it’s useful to start with those six “mismatched” senators. There are three from each party, but that seeming parity is a bit misleading. Two of the Republicans, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) and retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), represent genuine swing states that went narrowly for Trump in 2016 and narrowly for Biden in 2020. Both of these seats are on the ballot in 2022 and represent promising opportunities for Democrats if the party can avoid a midterm slump. Regardless, these seats will probably stay competitive in the future if these states remain competitive on a presidential level. The third mismatched Republican, Sen. Susan Collins represents a bluer but not always overwhelmingly blue state (Biden won it by 9 points, Hillary Clinton lost it by 3 points). Collins won convincingly last year, becoming 2020’s sole split-ticket Senate victor, and isn’t up again until 2026. The three mismatched Democrats, meanwhile, all represent states Trump won solidly both times. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) might be compared to Collins (Trump won Ohio by 8), but Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Jon Tester (D-MT) represent much more deeply red states than Johnson and Toomey (Trump won West Virginia by 39 and Montana by 16). All three of these Democrats survived the Trump midterms of 2018, even as several of their red-state Democratic colleagues went down to defeat amid a strong year for Democrats nationally. But these seats will next be on the ballot in 2024, a presidential year. To survive, they’ll likely have to count on split-ticket voters. That was a plausible path to victory during the Obama years and before, but in the two presidential cycles since, only one senator, Collins, has managed to pull this off. The overall takeaway is that the three Trump state Democrats will all start their 2024 races as deep underdogs (if they run again). Meanwhile, one Biden-state Republican is safe until 2026. The other two seats face some danger in 2022, but their states are inherently closer and they could be aided by the traditional midterm backlash against the president’s party, if that materializes. That adds up to unfavorable math for Democrats. But it’s not their only problem. The close states The next tier of vulnerable senators represents states that their own presidential candidate just narrowly won. If we define a narrow win as “less than 3 percentage points,” there are 10 such Democrats: Sens. Raphael Warnock (D-GA), Jon Ossoff (D-GA), Mark Kelly (D-AZ), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Bob Casey (D-PA), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), and Gary Peters (D-MI). There are only two such Republicans: Sens. Richard Burr (R-NC) and Thom Tillis (R-NC). Expanding the definition slightly, to a 3.5 percentage point win, would also bring in Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rick Scott (R-FL). That’s a very big discrepancy. A slight shift in the national winds — a relatively minor deterioration of Biden’s and Democrats’ position — could knock out a whole lot of Senate Democrats. A similarly sized improvement of Democrats’ position doesn’t have the same upside because there aren’t as many Republicans representing close states. It’s also useful to break these down by cycle. In 2022, Kelly (Arizona), Warnock (Georgia), and Cortez Masto (Nevada) are up for Democrats; Rubio (Florida) and the retiring Burr (North Carolina) for Republicans, plus Johnson and Toomey, Republicans in states that Biden won. That’s a relatively balanced map, meaning that Democrats’ biggest problem will be defying historical trends that the president’s party tends to lose voter support in the midterms. A bigger shift, or unique circumstances specific to the candidates, could also put other races in play. But 2024 could be an utter debacle for Democrats in the Senate if the election goes poorly for them. Sinema, Baldwin, Casey, Rosen, and Stabenow are all up, along with the Trump-state Democrats Manchin, Tester, and Brown. Meanwhile, Rick Scott is the only Republican in a close state up that year. Coalitions shift over time, and future elections could bring demographic changes few are yet anticipating. And none of this makes Democrats’ defeat inevitable. The Senate map for them looked rough on paper in 2012, but they walked away from that presidential year netting two seats. But the structural disadvantage appears deep and real — it means Democrats, with their current coalition, have to clear a higher bar to win even a small majority. It also means the bottom can fall out quite quickly for them.vox.com
Fake rhino horns were supposed to foil poachers. What went wrong?
An official with Malaysia’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks holds one of 50 rhino horns that it seized in August 2018. Together, the horns were worth $50 million. | Manan Vatsyayana/AFP via Getty Images Why buzzy tech often fails to protect wildlife. Several years ago, a Seattle-based tech startup called Pembient turned heads when it announced a plan to 3D-print rhinoceros horns to help combat illegal poaching. The idea sounded simple: Hunters are killing rhinos for their valuable horns, so flooding the market with synthetic but otherwise identical horns could undermine demand for the real thing. It’s a creative approach to the plight of rhinos, a problem that conservation groups have longstruggled to solve. “Can we save the rhino from poachers with a 3D printer?” read one headline in 2015. Fast-forward to today and neither Pembient nor any other tech firm has disrupted the market for rhino horn. The startup is out of money and far from developing a commercial product. A few other similar efforts have popped up here and there — most recently in 2019, when scientists said they could make synthetichorns out of horsehair — but these products have yet to catch on. At the same time, companies like Pembient have stoked a debate among scientists over the value and ethics of synthetic animal parts in the campaignagainst poaching. Some researchers argue that selling fake horns could disrupt the market and help save rhinos, while a more vocalgroup of organizations says doing so could subvert law enforcement and prop up illegal trade. The debate also raises questions about the role of tech in wildlife conservation. Though often perceived as a scientific problem, the biodiversity crisis is equally a social, political, and economic issue. Experts told Vox that high-tech approaches sometimes overlook the roots of the crisis, from the economic drivers of poaching to the political underpinnings of habitat loss. Cutting-edge tools canhelp, they say, but only if they’re developed to address the whole picture of biodiversity — and in partnership with those who are directly involved in conservation. James Warwick/Getty Images A rare black rhino in Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya. The big idea: Flood the market with fake rhino horns Earth is home to five rhino species, three in Asia and two in Africa, and most of them are threatened with extinction. The number of Africa’s critically endangered black rhinos, for example, is down more than 90 percent, from around 70,000 in 1970 to roughly 5,500 today. (That’s up from an all-time low of about 2,400 rhinos in the 1990s.) Poaching is a major force behind these declines. Hunters kill rhinos and saw off their horns, which are incredibly valuablein the underground market, selling for roughly $4,000 to $8,000 per pound, raw, according to one 2019 report. Many horns, which can weigh several pounds each, are sold in China, Vietnam, and other East Asian countries. Some people consume rhino horn powder as a salve for various ailments, such as hangovers and cancer, or carve them into valuable trinkets that tend to signify wealth, according to Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes, an economist and wildlife trade expert at the University of Oxford. For decades, environmental groups have sought to fight poaching with law enforcement and campaigns to change consumer behavior around rhino horn in East Asia. Some of these efforts have helped — poaching rates are down from their peak in the mid-2000s — but rhinos, which play a key role in the ecosystem and help maintain African grasslands, continue to perish. Pembient sought to tackle the problem head-on when it launched in 2015. “By creating an unlimited supply of horns at one-eighth of the current market price, there should be far less incentive for poachers to risk their lives or government officials to accept bribes,” Matthew Markus, Pembient’s founder, wrote on Reddit not long after the company launched. Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images A cup carved out of rhino horn from the early 17th century in China. SSPL/Getty Images To this day, rhino horns are carved and sold as trinkets in markets in East Asia. Here, another cup, possibly from China. The company originally focused on developing synthetic rhino horn powder — the substance that some consume for its perceived medicinal properties — but it eventually pivoted to developing physical synthetic horns with 3D printing techniques. Solid rhino horns are much harder to replicate than powder, Markus told Vox, and people looking to buy carvings are less likely to care whetherthey’re sourced from the real thing. A handful of other companies with similar ideas have sprung up over the years, including US-based firms Rhinoceros Horn LLC and Ceratotech. None seem to have infiltrated the market in a serious way. Huyen Hoang, the co-founder of Rhinoceros Horn LLC, which set out in 2012 to make a synthetic horn powder, told Vox his company “pioneered” the concept of synthetic horn and actually got its product into stores. He declined to say how much of it the company sold or whether it's still on the market. The company has no online presence. Hoang suggested that Rhinoceros Horn LLC clashed with conservation groups, which saw the poaching crisis differently. “Too much politics for me and my co-founder,” he said. The founder of Ceratotech, Garrett Vygantas, said his company still plans to grow rhino horns from scratch in a lab, but it needs more money to develop the product. “A viable prototype will require a sizable investment, which is where I’m held up,” he told Vox. Meanwhile, in 2019, researchers at Oxford and Fudan University in Shanghai published a paper showing thatsynthetic rhino horns can be made by bundling together tail hairs from a horse. “We leave it to others to develop this technology further with the aim to confuse the trade, depress prices and thus support rhino conservation,” Fritz Vollrath, a professor at Oxford and a study author, said in a statement. Ruixin Mi, et al./Nature A drawing of a rhino with two microscopic views — length-wise (B) and a cross-section (C) — of a real rhino horn, which consists of tightly packed hairs. Would synthetic horns curb poaching? There’s not a ton of research into this question, but two studies suggest that identical fakes could, in fact, lower the cost and undercut the supply of authentic horns. “Economic principles tell us that the availability of synthetic horns can reduce the supply of wild horns — and even drive out wild horn sellers completely from the horn market,” Frederick Chen, an economist at Wake Forest University, wrote in one of the studies, published in the journal Ecological Economicsin2017. (Chen is also a co-author on the other study, along with ‘t Sas-Rolfes, which similarly suggests that synthetic horns could reduce poaching under certain conditions. It was published earlier this year.) According to Markus, trust among consumers would erode if they learned the market was full of fakes, which in turn would reduce the value of authentic horns. For example, if a would-be buyer thinks there’s a 50 percent chance that a horn product might be fake, they might pay 50 percent less for it. “They are going to be much more hesitant to transact,” Markus said — and that could ultimately limit the incentive to kill rhinos. But many conservation and animal welfare groups aren’t convinced. They say the situation on the ground is far more complicated than what economic models can tell us — and that making fake horns, let alone with 3D printers, is simply a bad idea. David Talukdar/NurPhoto via Getty Images Government officials in India burn rhino horns at a stadium near Kaziranga National Park on September 22, 2021. Burning horns is a controversial but widely used approach that aims to suppress illegal wildlife trade. One of the most compelling arguments against the technology is that it could stymielaw enforcement and possibly even provide a legal cover for illicit trade. Under a global treaty called CITES, which regulates the trade of thousands of plants and animals, transporting rhino horns internationally is illegal. It’s not clear whether the treaty would apply to synthetic horns, if they’re indistinguishable from the real thing. And if it doesn’t, enforcement officers would need a way to tell real horns from fake ones in order to determine what is and isn’t illicit. Poachers trying to transport wild horns could otherwise claim that their haul is fake. “It gives a cover to poachers,” said Jonathan Kolby, a wildlife trade consultant and former wildlife inspector at the US Fish and Wildlife Service. “Their alibi can be, ‘Oh, it’s a fake and therefore not a crime.’ One possible way around that issue, according to Markus, is to insert a biomarker, or hidden signature, into fake horns that customs officials can detect. But, as he acknowledges, that opens up an avenue for consumers to tell them apart, too. Research suggests that those consumers are willing to pay more for wild horns. Major conservation groups like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) also worry that even fake horns could fuel the market for wild animal products and thus fuel poaching. “Creation of a synthetic rhino horn still props up the demand of rhino horn,” Colby Loucks, vice president of WWF’s wildlife conservation program, told Vox. In other words, it’s hard to say if more fake horns would truly shrink the market for the real stuff. According to the conservationists and scientists who spoke to Vox, so-called high-tech solutions often neglect the intricate web of social and political forces that they exist in. Carl de Souza/AFP via Getty Images Felipe Spina Avino, a conservation analyst at WWF, uses a drone to map part of a nature reserve in the Brazilian Amazon in 2017. When tech does and doesn’t work Over her 20-year tenure at the nonprofit Save the Rhino, Cathy Dean, the group’s CEO, has reviewed a number of ideas proposed by tech companies to stop poaching. From making rhino powder to building secret cameras to hide in horns, these products are often disconnected from the reality on the ground, and from the needs of people who manage rhino populations, Dean said. “I have a rather cynical belief,” she said,“that the rhino poaching crisis has created a commercial market for companies to try to come up with solutions that desperate and possibly gullible rhino site owners feel compelled to try, because they hope it might be the solution to all of their problems.” In one case, she explained, a company contactedSave the Rhino with an idea for a tracking device that would be inserted into rhino horns. Dean asked the company for some additional information on their product — how big was the device, how long did its battery last, etc. — that she said would help determine whether something like it could really work. In response, Dean went on, the company simply pointed her to a rendering of the device. “It was literally a computer drawing of a doughnut,” she said, with no measurements or sense of scale. “I use it in lectures as an example of how science needs to be better informed by people on the ground.” The good thing is that tools developed in collaboration with local communities, law enforcement, and park rangers — that is, people who actually face the challenges of conservation directly — can help limit poaching. Take, for example, WWF’s work in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve. Originally, the group had planned to use small surveillance drones to help park rangers prevent poaching. After spending a few nights with rangers in the reserve, however, Eric Becker, a conservation engineer at WWF, realized that drones wouldn’t be that helpful after all. What the rangers needed instead was simple night vision, said Becker, as poachers tend to operate under the cover of darkness. WWF provided the thermal imaging equipment — and it worked. “Parachuting into a place with a solution and trying to fit it around their problem,” he said, “doesn’t ever work.” Broadly speaking, drone technology has largely failed to deliver on the promise to help curb poaching, WWF’s Loucks added. Groups hoping to help should also consider that poaching, like other drivers of biodiversity loss, is a social issue, not a matter of science or technology, according to ‘t Sas-Rolfes. If people consume wild rhino horn because they believe it has medicinal properties, then a synthetic version may not be an adequate replacement. Patronizing those who consume rhino horn based on their beliefs — as Western media sometimes does — is probably not helping either, ‘t Sas-Rolfes added, noting that negative attitudes toward using rhino horn can provoke a backlash. “You’ve seen some consumption that’s almost conspicuous,” he said. Trying to transform the views of people who believe in traditional medical systems, such as traditional Chinese medicine, is not only challenging but risks “charges of insensitivity, cultural imperialism, or even racism,” Hubert Cheung, a researcher at the University of Queensland in Australia, wrote in a 2020 paper. Conservation would be more effective if scientists had a stronger understanding of traditional Chinese medicine and engaged with people who practice it, he wrote, “to ensure that interventions are culturally appropriate and socially compatible.” At least for now, the prospect of flooding the market with synthetic horns remains a hypothetical scenario. Pembient doesn’t have enough money to invest in the next stage of development, Markus said, and so far it hasn’t seen “great results” in the lab. That’s to say nothing of the controversy surrounding these products and the regulatory hurdles they’d have to clear. “It doesn’t leave us in a very good position,” Markus said. “But, you know, we’ve yet to call it quits.”vox.com
The past, present, and future of body image in America
Amanda Northrop/Vox Millennials grew up hating their bodies. Does Gen Z have to be the same? For Isheyla Elena Ariza, the body-shaming started in middle school. At her predominantly white school in California, “I was a part of a small minority group of Latinos, and a lot of us looked different,” Ariza told Vox. “We weren’t petite, you know, didn’t have blonde, straight hair.” Ariza was bullied again and again over her curly hair, her skin tone, and her weight. “I’d get called ‘elephant,’” she said. One year, “there was a rumor that went around that I was pregnant, but I was just chunky.” Soon Ariza started skipping meals and taking diet pills. Sometimes she’d go days without eating. “I was so focused on how heavy I was, and I wanted to change that because I wanted to be like other girls,” she said. Ariza is 21 now, solidly part of Generation Z, a group that’s supposedly growing up in a better environment for body image than generations past. Today’s teenagers and 20-somethings can follow influencers and writers like Gabi Gregg and Aubrey Gordon who dismantle fatphobia and show what it’s like to be confident and joyful at a variety of sizes. Popular brands like American Eagle offer sizes 24 and beyond, advertised by models and activists like Saaneah Jamison. Once a radical movement, the term “body positivity” is now mainstream, espoused by celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Jameela Jamil. With a little curation, you can fill up your Instagram feed with messages of self-love and health at every size. View this post on Instagram A post shared by Aubrey Gordon (@yrfatfriend) But as Ariza’s experience makes abundantly clear, bullying over weight and appearance is far from a thing of the past. In some ways, it might be worse now: The sheer number of images young people have to deal with every day has multiplied a thousandfold, and those images are often manipulated with Photoshop or filters that create a homogeneous appearance that’s unattainable for many people. “They manipulate your features to become Eurocentricized,” Reanna A. Shanti Bhagwandeen, a freshman at Bates College, told Vox. “It gets rid of, I guess, me.” Meanwhile, many young people today say the term “body positivity” has been coopted by thin, white, or light-skinned celebrities and influencers — the same people whose looks have been held up as the beauty ideal for generations. What’s more, some of those influencers celebrate features once stereotypically associated with Black women, like full lips, even as Black women themselves remain discriminated against for their appearance. Given all this, perhaps it’s no wonder that Instagram apparently makes body image issues worse for one in three teen girls, according to Facebook’s internal research. Or that eating disorders, far from disappearing with the advent of body positivity discourse, are actually on the rise. Indeed, the history of body image and appearance culture in America over the past 40 years can feel like an endless dance: two steps forward, two steps back, with little progress in any direction. Where once beauty standards were enforced by a handful of magazines and consumer brands, that enforcement has now been outsourced to individual users of Instagram and TikTok, who have more than filled the void of “aspirational” images that require extensive body modification to achieve. And those who have always profited from people’s insecurities about their bodies — namely, the weight loss and cosmetic surgery industries — are making more money than ever. Breaking that cycle is easier said than done. But young people and educators say what’s needed most at this particular stage in the body image wars are guides to help people navigate the torrent of information they now get about their appearance. Teens and kids especially need regular education about “social media and what healthy relationships look like, and what body image means,” Pascale Saintonge Austin, who oversees the Just Ask Me peer education program at the New York nonprofit Children’s Aid, told Vox. “There just needs to be more of a conversation with our young people.” Fatphobia in America has a long history that’s inextricably tied to racism Debates about body image in America go back long before today’s millennial versus Gen Z divide. Indeed, the ideal of thinness first came to this country through the European slave trade, according to Sabrina Strings, a sociology professor at the University of California Irvine and author of Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia. Beginning in the 18th century, Europeans were looking for ways to draw distinctions between themselves and the people around the world they had enslaved and colonized. They could no longer rely on skin color alone, since generations of rape by colonists had led to a wide continuum of skin tones among people that European powers still wanted to control. So they started talking about weight. NYU Press The cover image of Sabrina Strings’s book is a 19th-century illustration by Sebastien Coeure that depicts Saartjie Baartman. Baartman was an enslaved woman whose physique was displayed in exhibitions in England and France. Europeans, primarily the French and English, began making the racist and pseudoscientific claim that “Europeans have a great deal of self-control,” which gave them the right to manage not just themselves but others, Strings told Vox. By the same token, they claimed that Black people couldn’t control their appetites, loved food, and tended to be heavier. “This began the whole idea that Black people, as a race, were prone to what was considered a low form of corpulence that should be avoided,” Strings said. These ideas took root in the US in the early 19th century and sparked a movement to “push for thinness as evidence of racial propriety, and also Christian propriety,” at a time when white Protestant Americans were responding to increased immigration from places like Ireland with anxiety and xenophobia, Strings said. The racialized ideal of thinness faced pushback from its inception — “we can start to see some people questioning these ideas even as they’re being promoted,” Strings said. However, the coordinated movements toward body acceptance and against fatphobia that are better known today didn’t begin until the 1960s and ’70s. In 1969, Bill Fabrey and Llewelyn Louderback founded the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) in response to weight discrimination their wives had faced. In the 1970s, two members of the group, Judy Freespirit and Sarah Fishman, created the more radical Fat Underground, inspired by feminist and queer activism. Black writers and activists were also linking weight discrimination and racism, as Briana Dominici notes at Zenerations. “I’m a woman,” welfare activist Johnnie Tillmon wrote in 1972. “I’m a Black woman. I’m a poor woman. I’m a fat woman. I’m a middle-aged woman. In this country, if you’re any one of those things you count less as a human being.” Despite such bold statements of the problem, the racial politics of fatphobia got less attention than the connections between gender discrimination and misogyny, Strings said. And overall, American culture was slow to change. The 1980s and ’90s were “an age of monoculture,” Marisa Meltzer, author of This Is Big: How the Founder of Weight Watchers Changed the World — and Me, told Vox. In that pre-social media era, beauty “was dictated kind of top-down by mega-conglomerates” that would anoint celebrities from Cindy Crawford to Christy Turlington to Gwyneth Paltrow as the ideal du jour. “It was always aspirational, and it would always be people who were unbelievably perfect,” Meltzer said. And perfect, in those days, meant thin. Frank Micelotta/Getty Images Back row from left, models Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Lauren Hutton, and Beverly Johnson; front row from left, Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell in 1993. It was the age of Jenny Craig, the weight loss empire founded in 1983. It was the age of Oprah’s famous wagon moment, when the host wheeled out 67 pounds of animal fat to represent her recent weight loss (she later said she’d lost the weight by eschewing all solid food for four months). It was the age when what passed for body diversity was putting a model who was maybe a size 4 instead of a size 0 on the cover of Seventeen magazine, as Anne Helen Petersen recently recalled — and some readers still wrote in to complain that the model was too fat. Convincing ordinary people they were too big, too flawed, too something was also a booming business. In the early ’90s, Jenny Craig was bringing in more than $400 million a year, with a big chunk of that channeled right back into advertising. Ads for diet supplements and other weight loss aids — along with ads featuring very thin women selling all manner of products as a path to an impossibly narrow beauty ideal — boosted magazines’ bottom lines as advertising revenue soared during the 1990s. The monoculture enforced and policed by media and diet companies, of course, didn’t affect everyone in the same ways. Black readers of teen magazines, for example, were more likely to critique teen magazines and less likely to see them as representations of reality, Petersen wrote. At the same time, Black Americans and other Americans of color were affected by the ideal of thinness put forth in such magazines even if they didn’t personally buy into it. The same racist ideology developed to excuse slavery and colonialism has continued to play out in weight discrimination across American history. “If you are a fat Black person, particularly a fat Black woman, you are more likely to receive worse medical care, you’re more likely to be discriminated against at your job,” Strings said. “There are all these ways in which having more than one identity characteristic that Americans deem to be coarse will put you in a position for facing greater amounts and different forms of oppression.” In the 2000s, “body positivity” started to go mainstream Even as these forms of oppression have persisted, movements opposing fatphobia have grown in visibility and strength. In the 2000s, for example, bloggers and writers like Marianne Kirby and Lesley Kinzel helped bring fat acceptance closer to the mainstream, as Evette Dionne notes in her history of the movement. Beginning around 2008, body positivity advocates, many of them women of color, began posting photos, essays, and poetry on Tumblr and Facebook in an effort to “normalize being bigger and being happy, or being bigger and just being comfortable in your skin,” Stephanie Yeboah, a blogger and author of the book Fattily Ever After: A Black Fat Girl’s Guide to Living Life Unapologetically, told Vox earlier this year. The body positivity movement at that time was predominantly led by “larger fat Black women,” and functioned as “a safe space for marginalized bodies to come together and celebrate and normalize ourselves,” Yeboah said. As activists and writers have been pushing for change, mass culture has been evolving, too. In 2004, Dove launched its now-famous Campaign for Real Beauty, which featured a diverse group of women posing in their underwear. All of the women had hourglass figures, were relatively young, and appeared not to have physical disabilities — still, none was conventionally model-skinny, and a campaign showcasing even somewhat larger bodies was revelatory for the time. “I feel like that would seem really anodyne now,” Meltzer said, but “that, to me, seems like it was a turning point.” Nothing happened overnight — in 2012, when writer and influencer Gabi Gregg posed in a “fatkini” and wrote about it for xoJane, the image of a size 18 woman proudly modeling swimwear was still unusual enough to go viral. And swimwear options for women Gregg’s size were still few and far between. The winds of change were blowing, however, as companies realized they could make money selling to the millions of American consumers who were being ignored or alienated by ultra-skinny models and restrictive size ranges. In 2016, Sports Illustrated put its first plus-size model, Ashley Graham, on the cover. In 2019, brands like American Eagle and Anthropologie began expanding their sizing. The rise of direct-to-consumer brands advertising on Instagram also meant a wider array of sizes and a more diverse group of models appearing in customers’ feeds. Meanwhile, whether through TV shows like Girls or even the (then less derogatory) archetype of the girlboss, “third-wave feminist-style thoughts were becoming very mainstream,” Meltzer said. Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated Ashley Graham was the first plus-size model to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, in 2016. FilmMagic Lena Dunham gained attention for unapologetically baring her non-model body on Girls. In the age of putting “The Future Is Female” on T-shirts, it was no longer “aspirational” for brands to embrace a restrictive, skinny-only aesthetic. Instead, projecting at least a veneer of inclusivity became the norm. “These ideas that were once a little more fringe, or a little more academic, or like things that you had to really explain to people, are now very normal,” Meltzer said: “that clothes should be made for everyone, and that beauty should be for everyone, and that representation is important.” Indeed, body positivity, once a movement for and by people living in marginalized bodies, has become ubiquitous, a watchword routinely blazoned across Instagram and TikTok by ordinary people and popular influencers alike. On a recent search, #bodypositivity had 15.2 billion views on TikTok and 8.9 million posts on Instagram. With a few clicks, anyone can access memes saying things like “every body is a bikini body” or “work out because you love your body, not because you hate it.” Or you can find TikTok stars showing off their bellies and proclaiming that fat rolls are normal. We’ve come a long way from the days when a size 4 model on the cover of a magazine could be the subject of controversy. And, in many important ways, we haven’t. Social media brought an onslaught of information about our bodies and other people’s Maybe the biggest difference between the media environment today and in the ’80s or ’90s is that there’s just more now, of everything. Growing up, magazines were dominated by super-skinny models, but “you could take a break,” Austin said. “There was no Facebook or anything like that,” and “it’s not like you had Netflix or DVR.” Today, by contrast, “it’s so much information,” Austin said. That information can include body-positive messages, but it also, increasingly, includes images of people who have had plastic surgery or use filters or Photoshop to look a certain way. “Everything is so enhanced,” Austin said. That includes non-Black people trying to attain features once stereotypically associated with Black women, such as full lips or a large butt, Austin said. The appropriation of such features is all part of the same racist tradition that gave rise to fatphobia in the US in the first place, Strings, the sociologist, said. “There are many people who are saying disrespectful things about fat people on the internet,” and especially about fat Black women, she said. But “you will also see a lot of these same people trying to get butt injections or lip injections.” “It’s not just the fear of Black people,” Strings explained. “It’s the fear and desire of Black people that keeps racism going.” Even those who supposedly embrace a more inclusive ideal also participate in such appropriation. “Body positivity — I’m not quite sure how it sits with me,” Bhagwandeen said. She points to celebrities like Kim Kardashian, who has championed body positivity in the past but who is also “capitalizing off of BIPOC culture, aspects, identities.” Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images Kim Kardashian with Kanye West at the 2019 Met Gala. Meanwhile, some say the current embrace of body diversity has its limits. As a child, Wendy Marroquin, now a high school junior in Los Angeles, always saw “white, blonde, thin women who didn’t eat much” held up as the ideal, they told Vox in an email. Things have changed, but only a little: “Curves are in now but the slim waist stays.” “These ‘ideal’ bodies pushed by the media made me feel insecure about my body and at one point I even hated my body, the body that does so much for me,” Marroquin said. Moreover, many complain that the ideals of body positivity have been watered down to the point where the supposed “movement” is now dominated by relatively thin women who get praise for showing belly rolls when they sit down or other small deviations from the stereotypical ideal, as Vox’s Rebecca Jennings reported earlier this year. “A lot of fat people have rolls 24/7,” said TikToker @sheismarissamatthews. “Contorting your body so that you have rolls when you don’t naturally have them is not helpful, and taking the face of a movement that is not meant for you is also not helpful.” While social media can provide positive affirmations, it can also just be a distributed version of the old magazine- and TV-driven culture of insufficiency and insecurity. Instead of a few editors and advertising firms driving the image choices, now it’s a larger number of influencers and TikTok stars — and while the details of the preferred aesthetic may change, the pressure to attain it arguably does not. Nor do the ultimate beneficiaries: The diet industry was booming pre-pandemic and is poised for a rebound, with companies like Noom gaining in popularity. Meanwhile, after a lull when many elective procedures were canceled in 2020, cosmetic surgery is by all accounts roaring back — even with lockdowns, Americans spent more than $9 billion on aesthetic procedures last year. Social media platforms have given rise to their own plastic surgery trends — consider the Brazilian butt lift, which, as Jennings puts it, “attempts to recreate the way we look when our bodies are filtered through the internet.” Now, just as in the past, constantly seeing images of supposedly ideal bodies can invite comparison and self-judgment, making young people feel worse about themselves. According to internal Facebook research presented in March 2020 and obtained by the Wall Street Journal, “thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.” Body positivity has been watered down to the point where the supposed “movement” is now dominated by relatively thin women who get praise for showing belly rolls Those feelings, in turn, can have real mental health consequences. Among teenagers who had suicidal thoughts, 13 percent of British users and 6 percent of American ones traced those thoughts back to Instagram, the Journal reported. Meanwhile, rates of eating disorders appear to have increased in recent years, despite the rise of body positivity rhetoric. According to one 2019 study, the lifetime prevalence of these disorders went up from 3.5 percent from 2000-2006 to 7.8 percent from 2013-2018. Though many factors are surely at play in this rise, other research has found an association between social media use and concerns about eating. The images on social media can have a psychological impact beyond eating disorders as well. “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” said one slide in the internal Facebook presentation, according to the Journal. “This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.” Despite such concerning findings, it’s important to recognize that social media platforms don’t exist in a vacuum. Indeed, they’re reflecting back and amplifying messages that young people are also getting, just like in generations past, from their family, their peers, and everyone they encounter in a culture built on racist and fatphobic ideas. Bhagwandeen, for example, started struggling with her self-image when she was a young child after her uncle told her that a famous Bollywood actor would “never like you” because “you’re too dark.” Over the next few years, she began using skin lightening creams and internalizing the idea that “Eurocentric features were better than mine.” Today, she’s in a better place, embracing her brown skin, curly hair, and “just myself, holistically.” But “it’s still hard for me,” she said. “I don’t really like looking in the mirror still, or even looking on Instagram and stuff like that,” Bhagwandeen explained. “It’s still in the back of my head that, like, I’m not good enough.” You can find real body positivity today — but you have to look for it For Bhagwandeen, what’s helped the most is “surrounding myself with people who look like me,” people who “really reaffirm that I am normal.” If there’s a way through this particular fraught moment in American body image discourse, many say it’s finding a way to cut through the negative messages to find the role models, peers, and resources that can support you and lift you up. Perhaps more so than in generations past, those resources are out there — they just have to be found amid all the noise. “I thought for a while that I was too fat or too short because all I ever saw everywhere I looked was slim and tall women,” Marroquin recalls. But “I’ve slowly unlearned that through various different representations in the media like Savage X Fenty’s ad models, Lizzo and different women in media just being at peace with their bodies.” Marroquin has also channeled their experiences into helping other young people. As a volunteer with the nonprofit Peer Health Exchange, they helped design the app selfsea, which provides first-person videos of teens talking about issues including body image, sexuality, mental health, and more. They got involved because they wanted to make sure other young people got to see representations not just of all body types but of all genders, “because at times the body positivity movement is more directed to women-identifying folks but fails to shed light on male-identifying and nonbinary folks or even intersex folks,” they explained. “We as young people need to see people from the whole spectrum so our future generations don’t develop an unhealthy relationship with their bodies.” Roy Rochlin/Getty Images For Amazon Studios Guests attend the Savage X Fenty Show Vol.3 on September 25, 2021. JOCE/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images Lizzo in October 2021 in Los Angeles. For some, getting involved with education and advocacy can lead to healing. Ariza, now a senior at California State University Dominguez Hills, struggled with food and body image issues until she joined Peer Health Exchange in college and started sharing her feelings about her body with other volunteers. They encouraged her to seek therapy, and she was able to find a therapist through the group’s website. Today, “I really have developed and changed my perspective on myself, especially with my body,” Ariza says. “I feel more confident and more secure.” Not all young people have access to something like Peer Health Exchange, however. That’s why many advocate for lessons on body image and social media to be part of regular public education, much the way health class is (or used to be). “It needs to be integrated into schools, into after-school programs,” Austin of Just Ask Me said. Unfortunately, health services and after-school programs have seen cuts in New York City and around the country in recent years, especially as the pandemic led to budget shortfalls. That’s especially shortsighted because such programs “raised young people’s self-esteem, gave them a sense of community,” Austin said. “If all of that is being cut, what options are we giving our kids besides phones?” Then there’s the question of what’s on the phones. In the wake of revelations about Instagram’s impact on young people, Congress has shown an appetite for increased regulation of social media platforms. Frances Haugen, the former Facebook employee who helped bring the company’s internal research to light, has suggested a number of reforms, including increasing congressional oversight, greater scrutiny into Facebook’s algorithms, and increasing the minimum age for users from 13 to 17. It’s too soon to tell whether such reforms will pass or whether they’ll have a meaningful impact on the kinds of messages young people get about their bodies. But in the meantime, young people themselves are navigating the confusing sea of contemporary body image discourse, offering guidance and inspiration for others along the way. Ariza’s advice is to “unfollow accounts that make you feel like you need to compare yourself or you need to change,” she said. “Follow people who are going to influence you to go on a 30-minute walk or read a new book or go visit this exhibit.” For Marroquin, too, avoiding comparison is key. “I’ve started to accept my body more and have tried not to compare myself to other people,” they said. “I really like to remind myself that my body has done nothing wrong.”vox.com
What to know about the latest fight over Trump’s executive privilege claims
Former White House strategist Steve Bannon exits the Manhattan Federal Court in New York City on August 20, 2020. | Stephanie Keith/Getty Images Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon is facing a contempt vote by the January 6 committee. The House select committee investigating the January 6 attack on the US Capitol will vote Tuesday on whether to hold Steve Bannon, an adviserto former President Donald Trump, in contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with a congressional subpoena. The result of the vote will determine what further action the committee can take to secure testimony from Bannon about his role in the riot, and how much Trump knew about or encouraged the attacks. It will also help determine the efficacy of Trump’s claims of executive privilege over his conversations with Bannon, who had no role at the White House after 2017, and other aides, as well as over documents the committee has requested from the National Archives. Bannon, along with former Trump officials Mark Meadows, Dan Scavino, and Kash Patel, was subpoenaed by the committee in late September. Of the four, only Bannon is currently facing contempt proceedings — potential depositions for Meadows, Scavino, and Patel have been delayed. Should the committee vote to hold Bannon in contempt — which it is almost sure to do, as a bipartisan majority on the committee has indicated they would take such measures to secure testimony — it would also signal the renewed power of a congressional subpoena, which members of the Trump administration repeatedly flouted during his tenure. “This potential criminal contempt referral — or will-be criminal contempt referral for Steve Bannon — is the first shot over the bow,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), who serves on the committee, told CNN’s Jake Tapper on State of the Union Sunday. “It’s very real, but it says to anybody else coming in front of the committee, ‘Don’t think that you’re gonna be able to just kind of walk away and we’re gonna forget about you. We’re not.’” Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who serves on the Jan. 6 committee, says it’s appropriate for Pres. Biden to say the DOJ should prosecute those who defy congressional subpoenas.“It’s appropriate. The President has every right to signal and make it clear where the administration stands.” pic.twitter.com/BuL7jiOO9K— State of the Union (@CNNSotu) October 17, 2021 Ifthe committee does vote to move forward with contempt proceedings, the motion will then go to the whole House for a vote to determine whether Congress should refer the matter to the Justice Department. That vote, which could come as soon as this week, is also likely to succeed, according to Politico’s Betsy Woodruff Swan and Kyle Cheney. What the Department of Justice will decide to do from there, though, is a bit more opaque. “The Department of Justice will make its own independent decisions in all prosecutions based solely on the facts and the law. Period. Full stop,” DOJ spokesperson Anthony Coley said Friday in response to Biden’s suggestion that the DOJ should prosecute Bannon and others who defy congressional subpoenas. DoJ responds to Biden: “The Department of Justice will make its own independent decisions in all prosecutions based solely on the facts and the law. Period. Full stop.” — @AnthonyColeyDOJ https://t.co/hubxYMG95M— Katie Benner (@ktbenner) October 16, 2021 Bannon’s defiance is creating such an uproar because his testimony could prove particularly significant to the committee. He reportedly spoke with Trumpin late December prior to the insurrection and urged him to focus his varied efforts to overturn the 2020 election on January 6, the day Congress convened to certify the election results. As CNN reported in January, Bannon also told listeners of his podcast War Room on January 5 that “All hell is going to break loose tomorrow.” Should Bannon be held in contempt of Congress, consequences could include, potentially, jail time, but only if the DOJ pursues charges against him. Technically, according to Reuters, Congress also has the authority to arrest witnesses who refuse to comply with subpoenas, without the involvement of the DOJ. That hasn’t happened in nearly 100 years, however, and it’s unlikely that Congress will pursue this tactic. Trump is trying to assert executive privilege — even though he’s no longer president As ABC reported Wednesday, Bannon’s attorney, Robert J. Costello, has written to committee chair Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) that his client won’t comply with the subpoena. “Until such a time as you reach an agreement with President Trump or receive a court ruling as to the extent, scope and application of the executive privilege, in order to preserve the claim of executive and other privileges, Mr. Bannon will not be producing documents or testifying,” Costello wrote. Steve Bannon team has fired off another letter to Jan 6 committee repeating that they will not cooperate citing Trump executive privilege claims. Letter obtained by @ABC below —-> pic.twitter.com/BU0F9MuFv0— John Santucci (@Santucci) October 13, 2021 In addition to Bannon and other Trump officials, the committee has also issued a subpoena to Jeffrey Clark, a DOJ official who backed Trump’s false claims of voter fraud. Trump attempted to install Clark as acting attorney general when Jeffrey Rosen, who was in the role from December 2020 to January 2021, refused to involve the DOJ in efforts to overturn the election. Trump has also been attempting to apply this argument to documents sought by the committee. Earlier in October, as Politico reported at the time, Trump attempted to block 45 specific documents from the committee, citing “executive and other privileges, including but not limited to the presidential communications, deliberative process, and attorney-client privileges” in a letter to national archivist David Ferriero. Trump’s letter is not an official invocation of executive privilege, as PBS NewsHour’s Yamiche Alcindor points out. In these cases, the sitting president — Biden — has the final say over whether the privilege should apply, unless the courts say differently. The Biden administration blocked that request, with White House counsel Dana Remus writing to Ferriero that “President Biden has determined that an assertion of executive privilege is not in the best interests of the United States, and therefore is not justified as to any of the documents.” As the AP reported last week, Trump does plan to challenge Biden’s decision in court, and it could go in his favor — other former presidents have been able to exercise executive privilege. However, given the extraordinary nature of the January 6 riots, the norm of confidentiality, which covers former presidents’ records for five years following their term, may be subverted, as it was during Watergate and after the terrorist attacks of September 11. That won’t stop Trump from attempting to use the same defense to shield other documents from the committee; he has indicated that he will try to protect much of the informationthey subpoena by invoking executive privilege. It’s unclear whether Trump actually has any grounds to claim that privilege, particularly when it comes to his communications with Bannon. Trump is no longer president, and Bannon was acting as a private citizen and not an official White House adviser during the period the committee is investigating. Specifically, as University of Kentucky law professor Jonathan Shaub wrote for Lawfare last month, Trump can’t actually compel anyone to withhold information from the committee; Bannon and other former officials are private citizens now, and the Trump administration has no legal authority over any documents or knowledge in their possession. And as former federal prosecutor and Brown University professor Jeffrey Robbins told the New York Times, Trump’s arguments for executive privilege are “patently bogus” and lack justification, such as protecting national security. “It’s open contempt of a subpoena without an apparent basis,” Robbins said. The actual validity of Trump’s arguments, though, might have less bearing on events than their ability to slow down the process. “Really what Trump is trying to do, he’s trying to run out the clock on the January 6 select committee,” Punchbowl News co-founder John Bresnahan told MSNBC’s Jonathan Capehart on Sunday. “And they need to move as quickly as they can on this.” “The question is really what Trump is trying to do, he’s trying to run out the clock on the January 6th select committee. And they need to move as quickly as they can on this,” @bresreports says of the Jan. 6 investigation. #SundayShow pic.twitter.com/AWAZDkMBe0— The Sunday Show with Jonathan Capehart (@TheSundayShow) October 17, 2021 Trump’s behavior shows why the January 6 investigation is critical Trump’s attempts to stymie the January 6 investigation underscore exactly why the committee’s efforts are so crucial. Months after Biden took office, Trump and his allies are still using the same tactics that led up to the insurrection to try and propel him back to power. At a recent rally in Richmond, Virginia, for example, Trump persisted in claiming that the 2020 election was “stolen” from him, the AP reports. Attendees also pledged allegiance to a flag that was reportedly carried at the January 6 Trump rally that preceded the attack on the Capitol. This month, Trump also recorded a birthday message for Ashli Babbitt, who was shot and killed attempting to storm the Capitol on January 6. “Together we grieve her terrible loss. There was no reason Ashli should have lost her life that day,” Trump said in the video, which was played at a gathering of Babbitt’s friends and family last week. “We must all demand justice for Ashli and her family.” In the video, Trump also called for the DOJ to reopen an investigation into her death; the department declined to bring charges against the officer who shot Babbitt as she climbed over a barricade near the House chambers during the attack. As the tempo of Trump’s ongoing rhetoric demonstrates — as recently as Friday, he was calling for 2020 election results in Arizona’s second-most populous county to be decertified — neither he nor his allies intend to stop amplifying the kind of lies that led to the January 6 riot. And lawmakers say that is the reason the January 6 committee’s work, including in securing testimony from former Trump officials, is so important: to establish the truth of what actually happened before, during, and after the attack. “This is about the 10-year argument,” Kinzinger told Tapper on Sunday. “What are our kids going to think when they read the history books? Who’s going to win that argument? And I’ve always believed since I’ve been a kid in Sunday school that truth needs to win out.”vox.com
The best $160 I ever spent: A session with a Black therapist
Dana Rodriguez for Vox I hadn’t realized how important for my mental health it was to talk with someone like me. Four years ago, during a sticky New York summer, I anxiously sat in the lobby of the clinic waiting to meet my new therapist. Glued to the torn pleather couch in front of the rattling AC (which did nothing to relieve the heat and I was convinced was only there for show), I wondered what this mysterious person would be like. Will they be nice? Will we get along? Will they really listen? I saw a psychiatrist every week at the clinic, which also required me to attend talk therapy. I didn’t have any say in who was assigned to me. I’d been going there for six years. In that time, I’d been with five therapists. The first therapist I saw for only six months. The last one I visited for a year and a half. Some therapistshad helped a bit. There were others who were just doing a job, biding their time until a better opportunity presented itself. The last person had been okay; I didn’t go deep. I mostly spoke about the everyday surface stuff: I’m overworked. I need to take time for myself. I’m concerned about money.She was more like an acquaintance getting paid to listen to me vent. The old clock in the waiting room chimed 3 pm. “She’s late,” I thought. “Is this what I have to look forward to? Someone who’s perpetually late?” Just then a woman appeared at the door, smiling. “Sarah?” “That’s me,” I said, peeling myself from the couch. “I’m Malika,” she said. (For her privacy and mine, I’m not using her real name.) I cocked my head. I hadn’t been expecting this. She was a Black woman, like me. Her 3C curls sat on her shoulders and were at least four inches high on all sides; her hair wasn’t as big as mine, but it was close. Standing there, side by side, we filled the waiting room with Black, natural-hair pride. I took in her brown rimmed glasses with a slight cat-eye and her short, striped summer dress that showed off her toned thighs. Her freshly painted blue toenails peeked out from her strappy sandals. I already felt closer to her than I had to my previous therapist. “I love your outfit,” I said. “Thanks. It’s hot. I couldn’t do pants.” That look was about much more than surviving the heat. It was “I dare you to tell me I look unprofessional”attire. “Follow me. My office is a bit tricky to get to,” she said. We left the lobby, crossed past the main desk, and ascended a flight of stairs. Another welcome desk and two narrow hallways later, we arrived. She opened the door: “After you.” I found myself in a space that made my bathroom feel like a master suite at the Plaza. Somewhere, someone was very bitter about giving up their supply closet. A large rusted fan was shoved into a corner of the windowless room. There was no desk. Instead, a dented metal file cabinet leaned lazily against the wall. Crammed into the remaining space were two yellow cafeteria-style plastic chairs. “Take your pick,” Malika said, gesturing to the seats. I sat in the one the backs of my legs were already touching. Once-white paint was peeling on the opposite wall. The buzzing fluorescent light brought me back to my eighth-grade science class. “I’m sorry, there’s no air conditioner,” she groaned. “If it gets too hot, we can leave the door cracked.” “I’m fine,” I said. It was hotter in here than outside. Yet, I really was fine. She closed the door and sat down across from me, our knees nearly knocking. Our first session was underway. “How do you feel about having a Black therapist?” Well then. The small talk was over. “What kind of question is that?” I blurted. We looked at each other and both laughed. “Have you been asking that of all your patients?” I wanted to know. “I have been, yes. People aren’t used to it.” She was right. It was the first time I’d had a Black therapist and I’d been in therapy more than half my life. I thought about the question again. “I feel relieved.” With white therapists, I couldn’t talk about racism without it being a “teaching moment.” Often that “moment” would take up the entire session. It was exhausting. I would feel worse going out than when I came in. What was I supposed to do about that? Go to therapy to deal with my therapist? As it turned out, that’s exactly what I needed. My partner and I began couples counseling at the same time I started seeing Malika. Our psychologist, who I’ll call Agnes, was nice, experienced, and white. My partner was also white. Once, after attending a party with some of his coworkers, we both came into the appointment with our grievances. “I feel like Sarah was taking it out on me,” my partner complained. “That guy told a joke, and the punchline was that all Black people look alike,” I said as the anger once again welled up within me. “When I told him that was racist, he actually said that he had a Black friend.” I looked at Agnes. Even in her lily-white Long Island world, surely she knew how outrageous this was. “Couldn’t you have avoided him?” she suggested. So much for that. I let out a long sigh. “I didn’t have to. He avoided me,” I said. “So, what was the problem?” she asked. Seriously? “There were no other Black people there. There weren’t even any other POC.” “I don’t see how that relates to the situation,” she said, looking perplexed. Had my partner paid her on the side before the session? “That was the situation,” I explained. “I’m not following,” Agnes replied. “How long before someone else made a remark?” I asked rhetorically. “Did they?” “No. But they could have. I was on edge. And I had no backup. No one alongside me if they did.” “I was alongside you,” my partner interjected. Agnes nodded in agreement with him. “I mean someone who would understand,” I glared. Agnes leaned forward. “Why don’t you help us understand?” Feeling outnumbered, I rolled my eyes, crossed my arms, and sank into the couch. Two days later, I recalled the ridiculousness to Malika. “It’s not our job to educate,” Malika said. She was not frustrated for me; she was frustrated with me. “They can try to understand but will never fully get it. They can’t know what it’s like to be Black.” That is what I needed to hear. She got it. It was “our,” not “your,” and “us,” not “you.” I left feeling strong, supported, and seen. For two years, we congregated in the converted closet. I always felt safe and never judged. Every time police murdered another Black person, Malika already knew what the conversation would be. In those sessions, it wasn’t only me needing her. We needed each other. As our relationship grew, I learned we had more in common than being Black women. We were both queer in heterosexual relationships. We each had white partners. We shared the same sense of humor, practiced similar self-care, and enjoyed the same bad TV. I often wondered what people thought as they passed her office and heard loud laughter escaping under the narrow door. Wednesdays were my refuge. One day as I sat down ready to dive into our session, Malika remained standing. She looked anxious, sad, and excited all at once. “What is it?” I wanted to know. “I have some news,” she began. I took a deep breath and held it. My insides knotted. I knew what was coming. I’d been there before. It was the “It’s not you, it’s me” of therapy. “Noooooooo,” I moaned. “Yes. I’m leaving. I’m going into private practice.” Without hesitation, I made the decision. This wasn’t a relationship I was willing to leave. “I’m coming with you.” She pressed her lips together and slowly shook her head. “Unfortunately, I can’t take your insurance. One session is $160.” “I’ll make it work,” I said, determined. “Are you sure? I know that’s a lot for you. I could help you find someone here ...” But she was already smiling, and the anxious energy had dissipated. She didn’t want us to end either. “If I can follow my hairdresser to an expensive salon, I can follow you into private practice,” I said. “Having someone I trust with my mental health is even more important than finding someone that can do my hair.” If you’re Black, you know what a huge statement that is. Any doubts she might’ve had vanished after that. Malika was right, $160 is a lot for me. As soon as I decided that I was staying with her, I started thinking about how to cut costs. So long, Aunt Jackie’s $10 conditioner. Hello, 99-cent Suave. My shoes could make it another season. Rather than get a new coat, I sponged down my old one, sewed on new buttons, and replaced the broken buckle. I put a hold on my student loans. I didn’t give up my hairdresser completely (I have my limits). I did, however, extend my cuts from every three months to every six. I now left the salon with drip-dry hair rather than have it styled for an extra $25. Two weeks later, I sat with her for the last time at the clinic. I signed the discharge papers and said goodbye to the bleach-mopped lobby, the geriatric air conditioner, and the free Metro cards. At the end of our session, Malika and I both stood up. For the first time, we hugged. It was a long, strong, embrace. “See you on the other side,” I said. The main reason Malika wanted a private practice was so she would be able to work exclusively with Black women. I was one of the chosen ones. Sitting in her new waiting room the following week, I relaxed into a cushioned chair that had yet to be broken in. I leafed through a Psychology Today magazine that not so coincidentally had a Black woman smiling on the cover. My sandals tapped the Pine-Sol polished floor as I walked over to the far wall and checked my makeup in the full-length mirror. I made my way down the hall and fingered through an assortment of herbal teas. Sipping spearmint, with only two minutes to spare, I hurried back to my seat. Right on time as always, Malika came out and greeted me, “Come on in.” Sarah Doneghy is a writer, actor, and activist. She lives in New York City.vox.com