Nick Beard reviews Year of Yes by TV producer Shonda Rhimes and finds her thoughts on motherhood and weight loss brave and thought-provoking
One of the most ironic things about Shonda Rhimes is how modest she seems in her book, Year of Yes. Often, memoirs by successful people can seem like barely concealed boasts on their unique crafty ability to spot opportunities and understand complex concepts foreign to most of their audience. Rhimes, unsurprisingly, writes a bit differently, producing less of a book of answers and more of a study of how she was able to push her own boundaries and expand her comfort zone. The book is incredibly specific to the author’s experience (unlike Rhimes, most of her readers aren’t being asked to deliver commencement addresses across the world), but in her stories are echoes of the ways in which plenty of other women have let society, or their own fears, push them into a narrow place, surrounded by seemingly insurmountable boundaries.
Rhimes has noted how much she hates questions about her perspective as a black woman (she describes herself and other notable women from minority backgrounds such as Mindy Kaling as being “FODs,” meaning first, only and different.) It is worth noting that Rhimes has been a revolutionary force in increasing diversity on television. Unfortunately, television showrunners who are not straight white men are still a minority in the industry. Rhimes has used her platform to introduce several series, such as Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder which have been lauded for their diverse cast (unfortunately again, unusual in television.) Rhimes is outspoken about the importance of diversity, writing that “If you never see any of those people on TV . . . What do you learn about your importance in the fabric of society? What do straight people learn? What does that tell young people? Where does that leave them? Where does that leave any of us?”
While Rhimes does mention several anecdotes about her career in television, her “year of yes” focused on expanding her personal boundaries and meeting some personal goals while running three television programmes and raising three children as a single mother. Some of her thoughts could still be seen as revolutionary and unusual for women to admit – for example, Rhimes describes her realisation that, while she enjoyed being in a relationship, she had no interest in getting married, finding herself reluctant to share her space and her time. It’s a brave admission – too many women are still pressured into believing that success in life requires marriage and family.
She also focuses on her feelings regarding the pressure placed on mothers. After seeing a tweet reading that “sleeplessness is a badge of honour for moms,” she began to question the language used to erase women’s needs once they became mothers. Rhimes argues that while sleepless nights can be a necessary evil, they are certainly not something to be sought out! Mothers are praised for erasing their own needs: for extreme self-sacrifice. Instead, she argues, mothers should be praised for modelling boundaries and self-care, strength and compromise. It’s an important point. Motherhood is often full of judgement from family and strangers – women are constantly given conflicting information and told that they aren’t sacrificing enough, aren’t doing it all and aren’t making it work. It is important to recognise the sexism of this cultural ideal – and consider its effect on both mothers and children – as Rhimes argues, she is a better mother when her own needs are met.
Most controversial is Rhimes’ account of her desire to lose weight during her year of yes. She admits to feeling embarrassed about her goal, feeling like a failure as a feminist for being unhappy with her body or for viewing it as something other than simply a container for her brain and personality, and yet she felt uncomfortable and unhealthy within it. It’s one of the first times I’ve heard that dilemma verbalised, but it is no doubt something that many readers (myself included) have experienced. As feminists, we try to resist patriarchal beauty standards, and it can feel like a betrayal of our ideals to seek to lose weight. It is thought provoking to consider the complex interplay between health, beauty standards and confidence. The time in my life when I was least healthy, living on nothing except soda, was also the time in my life when I best met patriarchal beauty standards. As an adult, I had to learn to feel more comfortable within my body, and came to the uneasy compromise of valuing strong as much as skinny. What Rhimes identifies is that all women, including feminists, are on lifelong journeys with their bodies. It is a relationship that continues to evolve over time. Rhimes’ honesty allowed me to better examine my relationship with my body and my comfort with myself.
Rhimes is a trailblazer, not only for her work in television, but for her honesty about her experiences as a woman of colour and her determination not to paint a rosy, perfect picture which will intimidate or frustrate other women. She admits that a nanny is essential for organising her family life. She admits that when it is her turn to bring baked goods into school, they are store bought. She admits that sometimes, spending time with her children makes her late for work commitments. And for myself, starting a career, it’s reassuring to know that while Shonda Rhimes doesn’t have all the answers, she has a lot of good thoughts and questions – and it is up to me to find the answers for myself.
Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes is published by Simon and Schuster and is available to buy HERE.
The picture used is an image of the book cover and was found at Goodreads.com. The background is pale blue with the title, “Year of Yes”, picked out in red. Underneath the title is the sub-title “How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person”. Above the title is an illustration of a person jumping into the air with their hands up and their legs bent at the knees beneath them.