Do Scientists Need an Ethics Code?

The turn of the year always brings along juicy lists to browse. As a list-obsessed person, I have recently read: Barnes & Noble’s “The 50 Best Works of Historical Fiction” (the Odyssey-inspired “Cold Mountain” by Charles Frazier is in there, along with books by Alice Hoffman and Philip K. Dick); Paul Rabin’s Top 25 Christmas Song countdown (including Lou Monte’s infamous “Dominick the Donkey”); “Critically Hated Movies that are Actually Awesome” (agree about “Constantine,” disagree about “The Cell”) on; the “Top 10 Modern Love columns of 2017” outlining some of the best entries appearing on the New York Times’ wildly popular page; and Business Insider’s “The most famous books that take place in every state” (New Jersey’s book is Junot Diaz’s “Drown.”)

But here’s one list that scared me, mainly because the larger roll it draws from keeps growing. The “Top 10 Retractions of 2017” was published earlier this month in The Scientist, a magazine for researchers in the life sciences. Among the transgressions reported are an effort by editors at the Journal of Translational Science in May 2017 to republish an already retracted study linking vaccines to autism. Thankfully, the article was retracted within days. Also painful is the instance of the Cornell University food scientist inventoried whose work this year generated 5 retractions and 13 corrections.

Perhaps most spectacularly unnerving is the action by the publisher Springer to retract 107 (yes, 1071) papers from the journal Tumor Biology. This occurred when editors learned that the necessary “peer review,” a central practice of science in which expert colleagues review research papers for key characteristics such as rigor, originality, and reproducibility prior to publication, didn’t occur. As a result, the Chinese government concluded that about 500 researchers it supported who were tied to these papers were guilty of misconduct. They have been temporarily banned from working at their universities and institutes while the government continues its investigation.

Why would the number of scientists who are making the kind of ethical boo-boos leading to retractions be on the rise? Isn’t it absolutely clear what their behaviors should be? Sadly, the answer is no. Unlike physicians, who swear fealty to the ancient Hippocratic Oath with its famous provision to “first, do no harm,” scientists do not follow any clearly defined universal code. Certainly, various associations and institutions boast ethical guidelines that members and employees are expected to follow. But a more generalizable one for the folks whose activities run the gamut from inquiries into dark matter to investigations into gene patterns? No.

In an article in Science Careers, the writer Beryl Lieff Benderly described the twin public benefits the Hippocratic Oath bestows on the medical community and the larger public. “The powerful, ancient ritual of publicly promising to observe a select community’s standards has long symbolized the intense professionalism that binds physicians. It also places the obligation to ethical behavior at the center of professional identity,” Benderly wrote.

Scientists for decades have been working to establish a codified set of principles for their community. Their ideas go well beyond setting an ideal for honesty in research and attribution, the behaviors where the retractees enumerated in The Scientist fell short. In journalism, we follow a code outlined by the Society for Professional Journalists. Imperfect as the public may think we are, we journalists know our rules and our values. The case may be similar for a scientific code of conduct — to be used successfully, it should be explicit in its values and be widely known and accepted. Some advocates also believe the existence of such a statement would re-establish bonds between scientists, connections that have withered over time under the forces of a commercialism that drives labs to be larger and subjected to intense pressures to produce results.

The idea of an oath or code of ethics has been debated in the scientific community for more than a century. Philosophers such as Karl Popper wanted to find a mechanism by which scientists would consider the ethical implications of their advances. Not all have agreed in the past or now that such an oath is needed. The scientific community, opponents contend, could never agree on the wording for an oath. Others even argue that each field in science is so specialized that a one-size-fits-all code could never be constructed.

The central issue for researchers seems to be deciding for themselves the answer to this question: Is the creation of knowledge separate from how it is used? The query can be applied, of course, to the discovery of the atomic bomb and the issue of whether the Manhattan Project researchers bear responsibility for the destruction that ensued. But the question is also deeply applicable today in an era when biologists are employing CRISPR technology, a simple and powerful tool for genome-editing, and artificial intelligence researchers are developing sentient systems. I would like to believe that such scientists are aware of the implications of their actions. But wouldn’t it be better to be sure?

Should scientists follow a code of ethics? I vote “yes.” Looking to the future, wouldn’t it make us all feel better?

Kitta MacPherson


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Moving from blue to green

Here, I read my essay, Groves of Green, published in the Australian literary journal, Koru.

I tell how an ancient tree, the metasequoia, and a scientist nudged me away from the rim of grief and back to reality.

The mighty metasequoia, a fossil tree dating to prehistoric times, can be found in various spots in North America, including Princeton and New Brunswick in New Jersey and on several estates on the North Shore of Long Island.

The foliage of Metasequoia glyptostroboides, also known as the dawn redwood tree, is soft and inchworm-green.

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Zigging and Zagging in the Information Age

This New Jersey based group is announcing its top 75 intra- and entrepreneurs and brand builders.


I suppose I should not bury the lede – there is some news – I have been recognized as one of the “top 25 Brand Builders” of 2017 by Leading Women Entrepreneurs, a New Jersey organization founded by start-up queen Linda Wellbrock. The story of the honorees is being reported by NJ BIZ and NJ Advance/Star-Ledger and will soon appear in New Jersey Monthly. Brand builder, you might ask? I will explain. But first let’s back up.

A friend told me the other day that she puts in extra effort to keep regular tabs on me because I am always in the midst of change. First, she says, I was a journalist (at The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.) Then, she noted, I worked in communications at Princeton University, first as a science writer and then as director of communications at Princeton’s Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL). Now, she said (her tone growing a bit exasperated) I’m an author and public speaker. And, and (she said “and” twice to make sure I heard as I am a noted daydreamer), I teach journalism and public relations at Rutgers University and, in the fall, will also be teaching at the legendary St. Benedict’s Prep High School in Newark. (60 Minutes piece: )

Harumph, she said. What’s with all this change?

Funny. Where my good friend senses change, I respectfully disagree: I’d like to say I see continuum and growth. The information environment in which we all are swimming is in constant flux. I don’t want to live in a vacuum. I want to respond to my environment.

Like anyone else, a combination of hard work and luck gave me some career victories. In my case, they included getting a job at a daily newspaper straight out of college, earning my first front-page spot at a major daily for a police story that went from being routine to obscene, being assigned the science beat at the Ledger, landing a coveted job at Princeton, winning a management position at PPPL, getting a short story published, writing a novel, and learning from great colleagues so I could teach at Rutgers and St. B’s. Each one has led naturally to the next challenge. It’s all connected. That’s how I see it, anyway.

The best public speakers, according to one of the all-time experts, the late Dale Carnegie, are those who speak from a deep well of experience. They stand before their audience with the confidence of someone who has lived their subject, experiencing accomplishments and mistakes, proud moments and embarrassments, in times exciting and deadly dull. They have worked with geniuses, wits, pranksters, curmudgeons, martinets, lazy lumps, backstabbers, braggarts, sweethearts, gentle souls, cynics, and skeptics. Far from being a plain bolt of fabric, their worklives are tapestries, wildly and luxuriously emblazoned, sturdy to the touch.

I also enjoy talking about my mistakes, especially to my students because they look so surprised. Either they can’t believe I was that stupid or they can’t absorb the idea that I would own up to it. Indeed, there were the times I could have done much better, the times when I was blinded by knowledge rather than being set free by it, the time I believed in a journalistic subject so much I couldn’t see his deception, the times I was lax about my own safety, and the hours I wasted dreaming about winning prizes when, in the end, work is never about that.

I am, therefore, super honored about the award from the Leading Women Entrepreneurs because someone else nominated me without my knowledge and because it places me in a company of woman who I admire and who have achieved so much. I am being honored for my efforts as comms director at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory  where both the DOE and the University allowed me the privilege of building a comms team of wizards to newly produce a dynamic website, a newsmagazine, multiple social media accounts, both internal and external e-newsmagazines, and multiple other offerings. The idea was to encourage the plasma physicists and engineers and other employees of the Lab to tell the incredible story of fusion energy and convey its importance to the public. And, I’m proud to say they did and that the effort has continued.

Instigated by my brilliant colleague, Robin Gaby Fisher, I have also introduced public relations to the journalism students at Rutgers University in Newark. Fisher, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist-author I worked with at the Star-Ledger, is now leading the journalism program at Rutgers-Newark. In addition to hiring me to teach various journalism classes, she has also urged me to introduce the program’s first PR courses.  My students are flying high with this knowledge and gaining great internships.

As for me, I plan to continue walking the journalistic and communications path that strikes me as exciting and consistent, at least to my eyes!

Kitta MacPherson

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Aldous Huxley, Where are You?

Scientific advances have made genome editing easier, spurring an explosion of interest around the globe. An expert committee has weighed in on next steps, ethical and otherwise.I knew this day was coming. I had to.

I knew this day was coming. I had to.

As a science journalist, I have covered many of the major milestones in modern molecular biology. And there have been some doozies. Standing in the East Room of the White House, where Teddy Roosevelt boxed and President Lincoln’s body once lay in state, I watched President Clinton in June 2000 as he stood with scientific rivals Francis Collins and Craig Venter and announced that humankind had deciphered the human genome. Cracking the code of our genetic blueprint, we knew, would lead to much more. Since that event, I have written of other milestones, including the dazzling possibilities of human embryonic stem cells and the strangeness of cloning.

On Tues., Feb. 14, an advisory panel convened by the prestigious National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine issued a game-changing announcement: It would, with some caveats that allow for more research and discussion, support genome editing, more commonly known as germline engineering. This powerful new tool makes precise alterations to an organism’s genetic material. Everything I have written about molecular biology has pointed to this day. And yet, this is a moment I have dreaded because it will require so much of us as a society to get it right.

What’s the big deal, you might ask. Gene therapy, the alteration of the genetic material of somatic cells to treat disease or disability, has existed since the 1990s.  The big difference is this: Somatic cells used in gene therapy are non-reproductive, meaning any change made in the person’s genome would not be carried over to his or her descendants. On the other hand, the germline genome editing that is the subject of the report results in genetic changes being inherited by the next generation.

The report, “Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance,” wisely stated the challenges ahead:

(The technique) “raises concerns about safety and unintended effects. It has also been argued that this degree of control in human reproduction crosses an ethically inviolable line. These discussions move the conversation about genome editing beyond individual-level risks and benefits toward significantly more complex deliberations that touch on technical, social, and religious concerns about the appropriateness of this degree of intervention.”  

As a firm believer in science, I can see the advent of germline engineering as an opportunity of wonder, underscoring the power of research. Prospective parents who carry disease-causing mutations would be able to ensure that their genetically related offspring would be born without the burden of an inherited disease. And there are thousands of inherited genes that are caused by mutations in single genes, the committee noted.

As a career journalist who has taken to heart the role of bearing witness and safeguarding the public trust, I can smell danger. The technique not only raises concerns about harm to the subjects and genetic changes that are unforeseen. The science also makes possible the prospect of designer babies, that is, for those who will be able to afford them, as well as other eerie sci-fi scenarios.

Part of President Clinton’s June 2000 White House speech

But we shouldn’t lose our cool just yet. In the U.S., laboratory scientists are presently unable to consider conducting germline engineering research due to a Bush-era prohibition designed to limit stem cell research. Federal funds, which support most of the biomedical research conducted in this country, cannot be used for research in which a human embryo is intentionally created or modified to include an inherited genetic modification.

The concern by the committee, however, is that other countries, such as China, do not limit researchers with such prohibitions. All the more reason, the committee said, to establish a standard. While there is a need for caution, the committee recommends that germline editing research trials be permitted. Risk-benefit analyses will be necessary. And, such research could only be conducted for “compelling reasons and under strict oversight.”

One of the most important aspects to consider going forward, the committee said, is the crucial role of the public in the process of applying societal values to the risks and benefits of germline engineering. The committee concluded:

 “…broad participation and input by the public, along with ongoing reassessment of both health and societal benefits and risks, should be a condition for moving clinical trials forward.”    

We live in a country run by people who willingly ignore the solid, data-backed conclusion of most scientists that climate change is real. Entire science agencies have been gagged from speaking with the press and the public. This is a topic that calls for a national effort.

Can I be blamed for worrying about how we are going to thread this ethical needle?

— Kitta MacPherson

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How a tree and a scientist nudged me out of the morass

From the Koru Magazine blog, where I explain what drove me to write my newly published essay: "In Groves of Green, I describe what happened to me, almost from a sensory perspective, during a period a year or so after my husband’s death when simple events unstuck me and nudged me forward."

From the Koru Magazine blog, where I explain what drove me to write my newly published essay: “In Groves of Green, I describe what happened to me, almost from a sensory perspective, during a period a year or so after my husband’s death when simple events unstuck me and nudged me forward.”

I am honored to be included in the first-ever issue of a new online literary magazine, Koru, based in Australia. A Maori woman, Anjulie To Pohe, is using her people’s creation traditions to represent the endeavor of artists and writers everywhere. The image of the koru, she writes, is used throughout Maori symbology and is based on the shape of an unfurling silver fern frond. Its circular configuration conveys movement and constant change. Its inner coil is emblematic of creation.

A koru

A koru spiral is based on the shape of an unfurling silver fern frond

Koru’s first issue centers on “Beginnings,” and it includes my essay, “Groves of Green.” The piece describes in an almost sensory manner an era of my life when I was moving out of numbness and darkness to something bright and green and growing. Some ancient trees and a kind scientist were instrumental in pulling me gently back to living.

I hope you enjoy it, as well as the whole beautiful magazine!

Kitta MacPherson 


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Born with a gift: my brother, John Kirkpatrick MacPherson, was the first to discover a family trait.

Born with a gift: my brother, John Kirkpatrick MacPherson, was the first to discover a family trait.


“Memories are chemicals. Tiny tag teams of proteins and neurons. Electrically charged gobs of ectoplasm. Researchers at the University of California have watched memories, mere specks, hatched live in the brain cells of sea slugs…”

So begins my essay, “Son of Memory,” in the Fall Equinox issue of Mused Literary Magazine issued today about “eidetic” or photographic memory — a specific type of memory some neuroscientists believe to be genetically based.

My story is at once scientific and personal. It’s about a family member and the moment he — and the rest of us — discovered he possessed this trait. It’s taken me a long time to be able to write about it.

Our parents were intellectuals and raised us to be as such. We were never allowed, though,  to show off about any particular talents, mental or physical. If we had any gifts, our job was to stay beneath the radar and use them for good purposes “Never let them know how good you are until it’s too late,” could have been a family motto.

I understand now that writing about something doesn’t mean you are showing off but more that you are examining an event, the way you might study a fossil you find on the floor of a forest.

The concept of eidetic memory is still debated by neuroscientists. But, if you lived as I have, seen what I have seen, and knew what I know, you probably would be less disposed to  argument. I’m just sayin’…


Kitta MacPherson


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Novel excerpt published in Copperfield Review

The Copperfield Review, A Journal for Readers and Writers of Historical Fiction.

The Copperfield Review, A Journal for Readers and Writers of Historical Fiction.

I am beyond excited to say that an excerpt from my novel, “Mad Hatters and Glow Girls,” has been published in the Summer 2016 issue of The Copperfield Review.

The Copperfield Review was founded in 2000 by Executive Editor Meredith Allard as a way to create an online home for readers and writers of historical fiction. Since then, The Copperfield Review has been featured in Writer’s DigestNovel and Short Story Writer’s MarketKiller StartupsDuotrope, The Los Angeles Times, and Las Vegas Seven Magazine. It was named one of the top sites for new writers by Writer’s Digest and it has received the Books and Authors Award for Literary Excellence.

According to the journal’s website, “In every quarterly edition, The Copperfield Review publishes the very best from up and coming as well as established authors of historical fiction. The editors are proud that CR has been the first publication for many talented new writers from around the world. Each edition features new historical short stories, historical poems, and history-based nonfiction articles.”

The literary magazine’s new imprint, Copperfield Press, published its first anthology of historical fiction in November 2015.

— Kitta MacPherson

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Some members of the Sourland Mountain Writers Circle gather in the cottage. (Back row, left to right: Lauren Guastella, Steve Kahofer, Julia van Middlesworth, Regina Toth Wackerman and Kitta MacPher

After discussing plans for our new Sourland Writer Review anthology (available now on Amazon), some members of the Sourland Mountain Writers Circle gather for a monthly meeting in a New Jersey cottage. (Back row, left to right: Lauren Guastella, Steve Kahofer, Julia van Middlesworth, Regina Toth Wackerman, and me, Kitta MacPherson. Front: Jessica Brokaw, Vicky Evans Brand, and Elizabeth Jaeger.)

First we had the idea.

Then, like Neo in “The Matrix,” we took a leap of faith.

We called our friends. We charmed and cajoled them. We bribed them with offers of coffee and wine.

In the end, 26 people in January 2015 signed on our FB page to join the Sourland Mountain Writers Circle. Now, about ten “regulars” meet monthly in an enchanting cottage in Somerville constructed by the husband of one of our members. (This wonderful person also builds and tends a fire for us in the cooler months.)  We have just published, via Amazon’s Kindle, the first anthology of our work: The Fall 2016 Sourland Writer Review. (

The endeavor can be traced to a friendship between me, who you could describe as a journalist with a book dream, and Julia van Middlesworth, a petite, eccentric, and brilliant fiction writer. We became friends in January 2011 when we found ourselves, though normally capable, mature adults, as clueless newbies in Fairleigh Dickinson University’s low-residency MFA program. The friendship endures because it was forged with the fire of midnight brainstorms, gut-wrenching public readings, and the anxiety-producing effort involved in meeting the high expectations of our wonderful faculty. We worked our way through short stories, long-form non-fiction, research papers, style analyses, book reviews, and theses. The program is such a gift to people like me. Through twice-yearly residencies in Madison, N.J., and Wroxton, England, as well as much on-line workshopping with mentors and classmates, the program makes it possible for working stiffs to maintain their jobs and meet financial responsibilities while pursuing authorship and a terminal degree.

Upon graduation in 2013, I found that I missed my professors and the camaraderie of the poets, fiction and non-fiction writers I had met. When I asked Julia if we could sustain the momentum by starting a writing circle, she jumped at the idea and suggested we hold the monthly meetings at her house. We had, after all, learned the principles of workshopping from our FDU faculty mentors. Now we could implement the techniques of discussion and constructive criticism to advance our aesthetic ideals and further our writing careers.

There are limitless good things I could say about the exceptional talent and dispositions of the Sourland members, who, in addition to Julia and me include: Helen Branch; Jessica Brokaw; Victoria Evans Brand; Jin Cordaro; Elizabeth Jaeger; Steve Kahofer; Vibha Rana; and Regina Toth Wackerman. I’ll keep it simple – it’s a talented bunch.

Julia is leading another effort with Sourlanders and some others to launch our own peer-reviewed literary journal, the Sourland Mountain Review. The magazine, which will feature selected writers of fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry, will tap into the fascination with the unordinary that seems to mark so much of New Jersey life. We will be releasing the Review sometime this fall.

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New fiction

El Balo

Balo's garden was his future.

In his garden, Balo saw his future.

My short story, “El Balo,” will appear in print in the May/June 2017 edition of Down in the Dirt magazine (v143, released 6/1/17) and can be accessed online here:

(Find my name, “Kitta MacPherson,” among the writers’ list alphabetically organized on left, and click on it. Then click on “El Balo” under my name.)

The story is inspired by the life of a person I knew who grew up in the mountains of Vera Cruz, Mexico, in the middle of the last century. I also wanted to honor the custom of child heroes, a theme that runs deeply throughout Mexican culture and lore.

The Niños Héroes (in English: Boy Heroes), also known as the Heroic Cadets or Boy Soldiers, were six Mexican teenage military cadets. These cadets died defending Mexico at Mexico City's Chapultepec Castle (then serving as the Mexican Army's military academy) from invading U.S. forces in the 13 September 1847 Battle of Chapultepec, during the Mexican–American War. In an act of bravery, Juan Escutia wrapped the Mexican national flag around his body and jumped from the top of the castle in order to keep it from falling into the enemy's hands.[2] The Niños Héroes are commemorated by a national holiday on September 13.

The praxis of child heroes is threaded through Mexican tradition. This Gabriel Flores painting on the ceiling of the Castillo de Chapultepec depicts the Niños Héro or Boy Soldier Juan Escutia plummeting to his death while defending the castle from invading U.S. forces in 1847. He wrapped himself in the Mexican national flag and leapt to his death to keep it out of enemy hands. The Niños Héroes are commemorated by a national holiday on September 13.

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For Shame


Arriving home from a lake swim, I am summoned for a photo with my beloved grandparents and Aunt Grace. I remember thinking I was too fat to wear a bikini.

Arriving home from a lake swim, I am summoned for a photo with my beloved grandparents and Aunt Grace. Even as a college student, I remember thinking I was too fat to wear a bikini. (Allendale, N.J., circa 1980)

I sliced through the water of my suburban New Jersey condo complex’s crystalline lap pool this weekend. I sucked the sticky air. I expelled my breath under the surface and gurgled chubby, wobbly bubbles. The two-step breathing rhythm I employ for the breast stroke comforts me with its regularity.

Back and forth I went. Ten full laps! A great beginning for me to summer and efforts to exercise more.

Weirdly, however, I had the pool to myself most of the time. At one point, an elderly woman ambled across the shorter span in a path perpendicular to my track. She did not see me; I pivoted right to avoid colliding and kept swimming. The staccato sounds of splashes and happy shouts from the recreation pool mixed with the steady hum of soft-voiced parents in conversation. On this, my first visit to the pool complex, I had expected to see hundreds crammed into the area, like the municipal pools I frequented when my children were small. Instead, I spotted far less — about 25 people, a number that included swimmers and anyone else.

Within the space of the past week, two people who don’t know each other have informed me that they would never consider swimming in public. One person, a heavy-set neighbor, told me during a parking lot conversation that he had never once entered the pools in the 25 years he has lived here. “Swim?” he said. “No.” Another person, a close friend who I would not describe as overweight and who I know men find very attractive, looked at me in shock when I invited her to my pool. “Not on your life!” she said. “I have no intention of ever appearing in a bathing suit anywhere!”

What’s going on here? Swimming, whether it’s dipping your feet in the shallows of the ocean, or easing into a lap pool, is a joy of life. It’s refreshing. It’s fun. It’s a great, low-impact form of exercise. How could anyone deny himself or herself that experience?

For one thing, we have been experiencing a rise in the number of overweight Americans since the mid-Seventies. No one is sure what is causing the trend. Some say the food we eat is too fatty, salty, processed or laden with high fructose corn syrup. Others say modern life – sedentary, competitive, workaholic, overscheduled – could be causal factors. Perhaps technology, such as television and video games, is key. Contrarians point to the notion that a highly successful public health effort to stop cigarette smoking over the past few decades may have turned itself inside out, causing ex-smokers to obsess about food instead. Some have gone Biblical, attributing the rising obesity statistics to gluttony and sloth.

On one key point, however, the experts are sure: Once a person gains weight, it is nearly impossible to lose it and keep it off. And the diabolical corollary to this is that the difficulty of losing weight is directly proportional to the extent of pounds gained. Translation: It is much harder for a fat person to lose weight than it is for a lean person to do so.

On the beach in Wildwood, N.J., with some of my kids. Despite strenuous aerobics, I was unsure whether I was slender enough to wear a two-piece.

On the beach in Wildwood, N.J., in the 1990s with some of my kids. Despite strenuous aerobics, I was still unsure whether I was slender enough to wear a two-piece.

In addition to alarming health statistics, Americans also must deal with a common inner demon – poor body image. Nearly no one is skinny, toned, busty, ripped, tan, thick-haired, or blonde enough.

Daily, we immerse our minds and bodies in a soup of digital media, an onslaught of data directed at our senses, much of it highly visual. We exist in two worlds – the real and the virtual. In the online universe, where we spend an increasing amount of time, images of fat people barely exist. When they do, they are often objects of ridicule, shamed by cowardly anonymous commenters.

What we mostly see in digital regions are people who, in novelist Tom Wolfe’s words, are “starved to perfection.” There are no lumps or sags or cellulite-addled thighs. There are no Dad bods with beer bellies, and no wrinkles. Full-figured Americans, who now represent a healthy proportion of the population, earn meager representation in cyberspace. I am not arguing against good health. Standard medical practice dictates maintaining a healthy weight, though the definition of that term is elusive. The height and weight charts many physicians use are outdated and do not take into account a variety of body shapes and muscle densities.

How can we end this proclivity for shaming people about their bodies? Is it really any person’s business what someone else looks like? Why are we so affronted? We know that scapegoating is common to groups and a fixture of social media. Parents have been the latest targets, demonized for being human and looking away from their active kids for a moment or for being unable to discern danger in the shallows of a human-made lake fronted by sand and beach chairs.

When did it happen that we got sucked in to believing we are not good enough for the impossible expectations set first by the movie, TV, and fashion industries and now by the all-encompassing digital world? When did we stop distinguishing between reality and fantasy? Why is my neighbor embarrassed to swim? From whom did my friend learn that she did not meet the bar for public display?

At Manasquan Inlet last year with my dear friend, Cindy (left). We swam. We sunbathed. We had a blast.

At Manasquan Inlet, N.J., last year with my dear friend, Cindy (left). We swam. We sunbathed. We had a blast.

I know what it’s like to be overweight. I’m happy to say I am now losing some pounds I gained while attending to a family illness. With the help of some people who love me, I have finally met with success. Like many, I have made myself miserable over many years struggling with notions of body image. I look at old family photographs of me as a college student wearing a swimsuit. I look fine. No one but me would know that the young lady pictured saw herself then as too fat to wear a bikini. When I was a young mother, aerobics classes helped me work off the baby weight from multiple childbirths and I ventured into the world of wearing a two-piece. Still, I worried I was not thin enough to pull it off.

Like my college self, I’m back now to the one-piece suit, but for practical reasons – it is much easier for lap swimming. No parts shift or peel off in the water. Why do I swim when others stay away?   I do it because swimming makes me happy. While it’s still a struggle, I’ve beaten back the self-doubt that’s been present for so long.  I choose to no longer worry about whether I live up to strangers’ expectations.

I get angry when I learn that people cannot enjoy a healthy, fun activity because others are judging them. And I wish I could return to the past and tell young Kitta that she is perfectly okay the way she is. Let’s give it a try, shall we? Let’s go easier on ourselves. And let’s stop stealing other people’s joy.

Kitta MacPherson

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