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Portfolio Cover Sheet
Shannon Hurd
5/3/99

Context Analyses

Piece 1: Essay for 1999 Writerís Digest Writing Competition: The Anatomy of a Weight Obsession

Purpose: What am I hoping to accomplish by writing this piece?

I want to throw my point in the faces of the general public - that obsessions with exercise, diet and weight are stupid and harmful. I want to get them to think about the ways in which they might be helping to promote societyís "thin is in" standard without even recognizing it (like by criticizing their children for "pigging out" or constantly remarking how pretty the Victoriaís Secret models are, for example), and most importantly, I want to give a more complex and in-depth view into the mindset of someone who is weight-obsessed to prove that what is going on in their head is a lot more complicated than "Oh, I want to be as thin as Kate Moss because she is so beautiful". I believe that a lot of people have the misconception that weight obsessions and consequently eating disorders are the result of a desire to "look like a movie star" when in fact there is a lot more to these serious problems. My purpose is not to deny the importance of the mediaís influence, but to expand upon it, to add some depth to a subject that is usually given only superficial treatment at best.

It makes me so mad when people walk down the street and, upon seeing an anorexic girl, make some snide remark like "Well, why doesnít she just eat? Doesnít she realize how gross she looks?" As if itís that easy. If weight obsessions were simply about wanting to look a certain way, hundreds of thousands of people would not be dying from them each year. The desire to transform body shape is only the outward symptom of a much deeper psychological problem, and I think itís high time I go and share this revelation with the world.

Subject: How do I want to approach this? What will be my focus?

This has completely changed since I first began this piece. At first, I wanted to do a more universal piece; I thought it would help prove my point if I used a lot of shocking statistics and surveys, but after struggling for well over 25 hours with that pain-in-the-butt draft (it was like a cross between a bibliography and a newspaper article), I realized it would be much more effective to write from the heart, using my own dangerous past obsession with weight as the "proof" of the piece. Instead of just recapping my experience, I attempted to analyze what was going on in my head. That is, why was I starving myself? What gratification was it bringing to me? What percentage of influence did the mediaís messed-up ideal really have over my actions? I used very specific examples to prove my credibility; the focus was internal, complex and detailed, providing an answer to a question that has long needed one. I guess in a way, I made a generalization that everyone who is concerned with weight has some deeper issues, but I really believe this is true, so I have no problem with this assumption. I believe that my evidence speaks for itself. I was careful to use extreme examples so that my audience will realize that I am not addressing those individuals who exercise occasionally to relieve stress, or those who skip a donut because they overate the night before. With everything in life, moderation is key and my target audience is the one who has either been down a similar road as myself, or else knows somebody who has. However, while they are the focus, overall, I think this piece will appeal to most everybody. It seems to hold true that because this is such a large issue in our society, people can never read enough about it!

Audience: Who am I trying to reach? Who wants or needs to hear this?

I guess I already stated this above. My primary target audience includes all of the weight-obsessed people in the world; those that struggle with eating disorders, those that know somebody who does, those that are simply curious on the issue. I guess someone could say that Iím only pointing out the obvious (after all, wouldnít these people know why theyíre starving themselves already?), but the truth of the matter is that I had no idea why I was doing those horrible things to my body during the time when it was happening. If losing a lot of weight has taught me one thing, itís that your entire mental process is effected - you just donít have the strength to recognize things that used to be important to you any longer. It wasnít until I had gained back the necessary weight to be healthy and had undergone extensive psychotherapy that I begin to understand what "void" in my life my weight obsession was filling. Maybe Iím trying to provide cheap mental therapy for my audience? That said, I have a secondary audience in mind that is equally, if not more important than my first: those people who are so critical of body-obsessed individuals. They need to recognize itís not a superficial disease. They need to understand that theyíre not doing anything to help when they throw out casual, critical comments and laugh. But most importantly, they need to understand what they can do to help, and only by having a comprehensive understanding of the mentality behind starvation can they do so.

In addition to the reasons I believe my audience needs to hear this, I also believe they will want to hear it; like it or not, body obsession plays a huge role in society today. Almost any spin off of the topic captures attention (this was kind of what I had in mind when I selected my title); I think my article will have a major twofold advantage when it comes down to publication consideration. One, because almost everybody is interested in the topic, and two because my take on things is unique and meaningful, which will set my piece far apart from all of the competitors out there.

Author: Why am I writing about this? What are my specific qualifications and interests in the subject? (What makes me a credible source to talk about this subject?)

This topic has plagued my mind for six years, ever since my own body-image issues began at the tender age of fifteen. I was anorexic for a year (severely, as in 110 pounds on a six-foot bigger-boned frame), an obsessive binge-eater on two separate occasions, each lasting about four months, a tried-but-failed bulimic, and even still today, a little bit exercise-obsessed. Iíve experimented with diet pills, syrup of ipecac, laxatives and structured diets; Iíve alternated between periods of obsessive body attention and periods of caring less; Iíve dealt with a hyper-critical mother and a modeling agency who loved to say "if only you could lose fifteen more pounds, youíd be a supermodel"; altogether, Iíd say my experience makes me more than qualified to discuss the issue. Plus, my obsession has had severe consequences on my life - Iíve lost out on jobs, boyfriends and many great opportunities because I was too busy structuring my eating life around someone elseís rules, my health and fertility have suffered, and my self-esteem has taken a severe beating. Obviously, something that has consumed and effected my life to such a degree is going to be of great interest to me, and it is my firm belief that it is also a subject that effects many other peopleís lives in a similar manner that motivates me to write this piece.

I want to stop the insanity. I know itís kind of a cliché, but peopleís eyes have got to be opened somehow. I guess Iím hoping that by stating my case, people will understand that this issue is more than just a vanity case, and those who view it as nothing but such are wrong with a capital "R". (Oops, I guess thatís a "W"; oh, well no one is perfect). An underlying purpose is to get my own mother to stop starving herself on that stupid Dr. Atkins diet (I mean really, no carbohydrates? How healthy is that?), and get people to realize that all body types are okay - in fact it is this variety that helps make the world such a beautiful place.

Piece 2: An article for Newsweekís "My Turn" column: "Putting My Life On Hold"

Purpose: What am I hoping to accomplish by writing this piece?

I want people - especially college administrators and all types of employers - to recognize that a majority of the college curriculum is totally ineffective, and in fact harmful. They have us so bogged down with totally irrelevant classes such as Shakespeare or 18th century British Drama that there is no time left to concentrate on the things that really matter, such as resumes, internships, writing pieces to get published (thank God for this class), or interviewing skills. When you get out in the real world, people donít ask you how good your academic paper-writing skills are, they ask you which publications you have appeared in, who you know, and what practical experience you have. We are being totally misdirected for the future; the English degree (at least the way the requirements are structured at CSU) is nothing more than a piece of paper; I am not learning anything practical by being forced to take loads and loads of BS classes, and I am in fact harming myself. After a long day of working hard to "make the grade" I have barely enough energy to crawl back home and flip on the television, much less whip open a notebook and start writing for pleasure. The result? An impressive transcript with absolutely no substance to back it up. I was recently looking at the requirements for a job that I would absolutely love, and I know that I would be perfect for (Associate Editor for U.Magazine located in LA); oddly enough, they require two-years experience at a print publication, one year of desk editing experience, at least one major publication nationwide, and five references from sources outside your academic surrounding. Some of this I have (and trust me, it was like pulling teeth trying to achieve it while I was still in school), some of it Iíve had no time to try and achieve due to mounds and mounds of BS schoolwork. Iím totally afraid that Iím going to be screwed when I get out into the "real world" because I will be lacking the necessary experience. Plus, Iím missing out on great opportunities to write and publish now, and this is maddening! I guess my ultimate goal would be to have the college administrators think about re-working their curriculums to incorporate more practical stuff, although my piece will not be a call to action. Plus, I want all of the students who read this to agree with me. Power in numbers, you know!

Subject: How do I want to approach this? What will be my focus?

Bombard them with personal examples! I had at first considered a survey, but I recently vetoed this idea because it really does not fit within the context for my target publication; the focus will be personal. I will include some facts about CSUís English major requirements, but only to give readers a clearer picture of what I have been spending so much time on. However, the bulk of my piece will focus on the profound effect this misdirection of requirements has had on my job search (and possibly book contract, although I'm not sure that 1: I'll have room for it, and 2: that knowing I won a book contract will help convince my audience how bogged down I am). I feel like Iím putting my life on hold (look, my title!) for stuff that wonít ever help me. I guess my goal here is similar to the goal of every other "My Turn" column Iíve read; to use personal experience and voice to make an opinionated statement about the nation as a whole, this particular part of the nation Iím focusing on being the college community. I want business people to be concerned, I want college administrators to think twice and I want students to be mad. The key to this will be powerful personal testimony and maybe a couple of statistics, although in proportion with the rest of my article, said evidence will be outweighed by my voice.

Audience: Who am I trying to reach? Who wants or needs to hear this?

Again, primarily college administrators, future employers and students. Secondarily, the rest of the nation needs to think about it, but I could probably have the same desired effect if the only people that picked up my piece were members of my primary audience. More than anything, I want to voice my opinion rather than get an actual reaction, which is the focus of "My Turn". I really feel this piece will be a strong candidate for such a publication, the challenge will be striking the right balance between personal experience and wider generalizations. Thatís what I most noticed about other "My Turn" articles - they effectively used a personal scenario (such as the man who suddenly became blind) to make a larger observation of society as a whole (like the way in which we treat those with handicaps). What can my experience have to say about society? Well, letís see here, let me think. How about that weíre so obsessed with the presence of some little piece of paper that we stop to think about what it means. It's a superficial symbol in a materialistic society. The classes are mostly BS; by the time I finally graduate, I will be no closer to understanding how the magazine publishing industry works, and I will most certainly be behind on my book contract, but at least Iíll have a real good understanding of Chaucer and the technique of irony in his work.

Note: The challenge will be confining my discussion only to the English degree; I do not want my audience to think Iím suggesting potential brain surgeons throw away their books and papers. Like most normal people, I want the guy who comes at my head with a scalpel to have a pretty damn good understanding of what it is heís about to do. I'll accomplish this by making it clear that I'm an English major; since the focus is on me, this should take care of it. There is one part where I bring up my friends' general frustrations with their majors, but the suggestion that follows (a better balance) hardly seems to advocate that classroom education is unimportant!

Author: Why am I writing about this? What are my specific qualifications and interests in the subject? (What makes me a credible source to talk about this subject?)

Well, letís see now shall we? Iím a senior English major (no check that, a frustrated senior English major), Iíve got a lot of bottled-up potential that I have no time to unleash on the real world, and I am beginning to get some first-hand experience as to what "real" employers are looking for in potential employees. The result? I realize that CSUís department has mal prepare (French for bad preparation) for their students and I want everyone to know. So many people talk about how important college is to your future, but this is just a line to speak if you want to sound intelligent and serious-minded; in reality, certain aspects of college are no more helpful than a kick in the shin and the people that praise these aspects are naive. If I come out sounding really strong right now itís because Iím personally frustrated, but I feel that I am mature enough as a writer not to turn my piece into a bitch session. I believe I have a valid point. I think that if I can achieve the right combination of personal experience and rational reflection, others will agree with me as well. If nothing else, at least my piece will stand out. Sometimes, whether or not the editor agrees with your opinion, they are simply looking for a new take on things. And I can guarantee you this topic is one not yet explored. At least in Newsweek.

Comparison / Contrast of the Pieces: How will my style/word choice/evidence differ between the pieces? (Largely due to different audiences, of course). How will they be similar?

Most obvious difference: my first piece will be targeted toward an audience that will already be in agreement with my stance (again, who can argue about the presence of a body-image problem in our society?), whereas the second piece will automatically assume the defensive position because I can imagine there are quite a few people out there who will be strapping on their guns and ammo, ready to take to the battlefield the issue as to whether college is important. Consequently, I am going to need a lot more personal, concrete support in my second piece. However, by concrete support I do not mean strictly facts, but rather that it will be increasingly important for my to specifically show how the structure of CSUís English program has harmed my potential at a prosperous future. The most obvious example I have is the recent problem I am running into with my job search. NO EXPERIENCE. Why canít we substitute one or two of those science or Shakespeare courses with something that will give us real-life experience? Why not give college credit for working at the Collegian? Why not let us do more of these portfolios for other classes (but not too many more or Iíd have no ammunition for this piece! - just a joke)? And on the positive side, WHY focus so much on irrelevant stuff? Maybe once I explain to my audience the specifics of how much time I put into school (45-50 hours a week minimum), and the lack of where this has gotten me, theyíll better accept my position. Also, while I recognize that my excess studying makes me the exception rather than the rule (and thus suggesting that maybe more "normal" students would have more time to devote to outside stuff), my counter argument to this is that itís because Iím the exception that I am so concerned with my future. Iím not going to sit back and let someone else dictate it falsely for me.

The strength of the body-image piece with be its ethos, or emotional appeal (is that the right word for that? Itís been three years since SP200), whereas the strength of my school piece will be its logos, or logical appeal (again, right word?). I need much more heart-breaking stuff in the first one (such as what it felt like to hear those comments, and what was going through my head), and more rational argumentation in the second (like above all else, the fact of the matter is that I will NOT be able to sell a single Shakespearean essay to the New Yorker, no matter how hard I try), therefore the focus of my evidence will differ.

On the similar side, both pieces stem from personal experience, therefore they will both have that power punch in them that will fuel my talent to write, so Iím not really worried about the quality of either. In both I will have to be careful about striking the right balance between personal experience and enough reflection to make sense of it. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the goal of both pieces will be to open eyes and introduce a new way of looking at things, to give people something new to chew on, and NOT to propose a solution. I guess I want to create that nasty part of your conscious that is so good at making you feel guilty when you donít act, that any relatively concerned reader will come up with the action part all on their own.