Sunday, January 30, 2011

Redefining Rape...20 years ago

A friend of mine recently linked me to this article from Mother Jones. At first I thought it was a joke. Federal funding to be limited only to cases of "forcible rape," without ever defining that term? Federal funding for abortions is already quite limited, but has never specified what kind of rape is necessary for someone to qualify. After some searching around, though, I discovered that H.R.3 is a real proposal. It's not overly long, and not overly specific- which is part of my problem with it. Guess who's currently left out by the term "forcible rape" and the bill's exceptions?
  • Someone who is raped while drunk
  • Someone who is raped while drugged
  • Someone who is raped by a family member, but is over the age of 18
  • Someone with a mental health condition that affects their decisionmaking skills
  • Someone who freezes instead of fighting
  • Someone who is raped by an acquaintance
  • Someone who is the victim of statutory rape
The list continues. There are so many things wrong with this bill, I get a headache thinking about it. The important thing at the moment, however, is the way this bill could drastically limit the options for people who are pregnant as a result of a rape that it doesn't recognize- and the way this could negatively shape future legislation that deals with rape.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Glee and the Anonymous Comment

I just stumbled upon an anonymous comment from last month. I initially overlooked it because an anonymous reader added it about four weeks after everyone else had stopped commenting, but this anonymous reader brings interesting insights to a discussion Erica and I simultaneously posted about last month: Glee.

In fact, I appreciate this viewpoint so much I'm reposting it below:

Some disclaimers : I am a female who as worked in the entertainment industry, as such I will say that yes, it is a very sexist business and has issues with people of color. It is at heart a business, and they sell what sells; what the public wants to buy.

I have major issues about how Glee writes and treats it's female cast.

But I disagree with many of your points. Glee was cast pretty well; it is a band of misfits chosen for voice and acting. The plain fact of it is that Tina and Mercedes were always small support roles and will never be front and center. Not everyone is a lead. Glee is not an ensemble show. It isn't everyone gets a solo day. There is plot and story going on (except for the second season which is an unstructured crapfest)

Quinn got to sing season 1 for a good reason; the main plot concerned her and Finn, and they needed to support the conversation that was happening about the baby and the inherent secret keeping. It wasn't race, it was plot. Kurt/Puck/Artie didn't get chosen as lead male either even though they are better singers than Finn. It was plot. The actors service the story.

The story always should come first, and I really didn't have an issue with the first season in that regard. Glee was the story of Will and Rachel primarily, and Finn and Rachel symbolize the merging of the different high school worlds. Those are (or were) the leads. It's the structure of the show. 

There is also the issue of the different levels of acting ability amongst the cast. Some really would not do well with larger more complex roles. I really don't want to single anyone out as they all haven't actually trained or worked as actors. That is an honest assessment. 

All casting is about how the actor looks. That has been a fact since the beginning of showbiz, and all actors/actresses know this. 99% of being an actor is being rejected. Paul Giamotti, though white, is never going to get the roles that Will Smith does. 

In the second season , the writing has been a mess. I don't even want to get into everything thing that is a problem, there is just too much, but the overall issue is that they are just not writing for the girls. Any of them. Even the adult women have disappeared, except for Sue, who is written as a man, and Coach Beiste, who is a new toy. None of the girls have much story.

They need female writers, or someone who can write for a character that isn't male/white/gay.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Disclaimer: NAW Writers Don't Always Agree

Some issues carry enough weight that it's important to us as individuals to make it clear where we stand. Erica's recent post, Porn, Porn, Porn, addresses just one such issue.  Erica's post lays out her views in a nuanced and interesting way, providing a great deal of solid evidence behind her arguments. However, it should be clear to all readers that other contributors may not support such a positive view of pornography. I, for instance, take a particularly anti-pornography stance that will be hashed out in a later post.

It is important to us at NAW that all views be respected and discussed. If you disagree with something we say, please feel free to take a leaf out of our book and either write a guest post or a thoughtful comment. Controversial issues are worth discussing, which is why we at NAW are always willing to share views that other contributors may disagree with.

My post on pornography will be forthcoming in the next couple weeks (a post as thoughtful and as well-supported as Erica's merits an equally well-supported and well-thought response). In the mean-time, please read Erica's post and enter into the debate. Let us know your thoughts on pornography.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

All dolled up

I just came across this link on Fark, and just about fainted. Essentially, the article asserts, the recent absence of Mary-Kate and Ashley's finished cosmetics line on the shelves at WalMart is going to be filled by makeup that's targeted at cis girls in the 8-12 age range. Yes, you read that right. 8-12.

I think Emily's post from November does a great job of unfolding some of the personal, cultural, and political questions raised by the spectre of makeup, so I'm taking a leaf from her book to give a quick reaction to the WalMart marketing plan.

My first thought was a knee-jerk "WHAT?!?!", followed by a total-body sense of outrage. Eight, from my perspective, is far too young to be thinking that your skin needs specific products to make it attractive. For that matter, any age is. When I thought about it a little more, though, and remembered myself at ages 11 and 12, I (an admittedly flirting-and-sexually-interested-at-an-early-age person) realized that that was the age that my friend Maura and I used to go to drugstores, buy any beauty products we could, and give each other "spa treatments" and makeovers during late-night sleepovers. Of course, wearing makeup out of the house at that point was a major no-no, so my (teenaged) response was to put on just enough to make myself feel defiant before leaving for school. End result? I doubt the makeup was noticeable on me. But at age 12, wearing makeup felt empowering because it meant rebelling against my parents' rules and being "all grown up."

Now, looking at this WalMart line and juxtaposing it with my own late-tween idiosyncracies, I find myself less angry at the fact that 12-year-olds are being sold makeup (though 8 years old still makes me feel ill) and more outraged at the fact that this is how cis girls are taught to grow up. And when I say "grow up," I don't mean "behave when they become adults," but "behave now to appear grown up." In other words, what that marketing campaign is communicating is
-The primary function of women is to look beautiful.
-Makeup makes you look beautiful.
-Therefore, you need to wear makeup in order to look beautiful.
An addendum, of course, is that since these logical steps apply to women, this is the process that girls must undergo to become women (or to grow up).

It makes me wish that the makeover saleswoman described in Emily's post had made everyone push the button on the mirror before the makeover happened, so they were told that it's not the makeup that makes them beautiful. But then...that wouldn't be marketing.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Porn, porn, porn

Between the themes for January (bodies) and February (sexualities), there lies an ages-old feminist conundrum that was briefly mentioned in Emily's recent post: porn. Emily's post cast all porn in a negative light, but I'd like to suggest a more nuanced view of porn. Whether it's a Playboy subscription, some time spent at Live8, or meeting sex workers in Vegas, there are thousands of options for people curious about, excited by, or interested in working in the sex trade in some capacity. It's a ridiculously diverse facet of human culture- and I do mean human, since some form of stimulation-for-hire exists in every human culture on the planet. For this article, I'm planning on talking exclusively about porn- video and print stimulation- and I'm planning on starting with some rather sharp retorts to the ridiculous assumptions in Twisty's article.

First and foremost, before I start getting into feminist and cultural theories, I want to clarify a glaring error that Twisty made when she stated that "The masturbators you describe [men fantasizing about attractive women] are porn addicts." This statement is so many kinds of wrong that I was actually up late fuming about it. Sex addictions come in many forms, including addictions to pornography. The key term is addict. By definition, someone who is an addict experiences an overwhelming compulsion to perform their addicted behaviour whenever triggered by circumstance- in this case, by sexual arousal. In the last six years, I've seen some pretty impressive types of sexual addiction, including someone who spent $700 on internet pornography instead of buying his children new eyeglasses and winter coats. THAT is a porn addict. Simply fantasizing about the attractive people you meet, which is a behaviour that's common to men, women, and folks all along the gender spectrum all over the world, doesn't constitute a porn addiction. Calling it one does a disservice to the folks out there who really do become consumed, as it were, by porn. It minimizes the seriousness of actual addictions.

Moving on.

Is porn an inherently anti-feminist and oppressive commodity? I don't think anyone has The Correct Answer for this- we all just think we do, myself included- but personally, I don't think it is. For starters, porn is incredibly diverse, as commodities go. How many of you are big enough internet nerds to have heard of Rule 34? Simply put, the Rule states that "if you can think of it, there's porn for it." It doesn't just refer to behaviour (i.e. "I'm thinking of two people having sex in a wagon in a tower!"). It refers to every aspect of your fantasy or thought, to the extent where you have to specify what the people look like, what the sex is that they're having, what the wagon looks like, what the tower looks like, if it's day or night, etc. It gets more creative from there. Add a third person. Or add a sex toy. Add a food. Add some onlookers. All too often when we talk about "porn," what we mean are the things I referred to in the beginning of this piece: Playboy, Hustler, Girls Gone Wild, and anything involving Tila Tequila or Jenna Jameson. It's way too easy for feminists in the mainstream (and, for that matter, a lot of non-feminists) to forget that judging porn by these mainstays is akin to judging the entire comedic film industry by the works of Will Ferrell. They might be wildly popular, but it's such a limited sample that any conclusions drawn from it are really invalid.

Let's consider some examples of how pornography is used to further ostensibly feminist goals. One of my favourite podcasts of all time, Dykes on Mykes out of Montreal, dedicated a fabulous episode to interviews with porn director Shine Louise Houton and DIY web porn director Bren Ryder, both of whom focus on making pornography that appeals to audiences that aren't always acknowledged by the mainstream porn industry. Ryder's company, Good Dyke Porn, in part addresses the fact that lesbianism is often co-opted by mainstream porn; rather than exhibiting lesbians for consumption by a heterosexual male gaze, Ryder's lesbian porn is made to titlillate lesbians. I think this is important for two reasons. First, it really draws attention to the fact that sexuality can be used in porn in multiple ways and to attract the attention of multiple audiences, but second, and possibly more importantly, it does a lot to change the terms of the Great Porn Debate.

Think about it. When Twisty was discussing porn as a commodity whereby individuals were consumed by a viewer's gaze, she presumed that the individuals being consumed were women, and the consumers were men. Why does the consumer/audience/gazer have to be male? Furthermore, why does it have to be heterosexual male? When Jacques Lacan first brought the concept of the Gaze into discussions of cultural texts and subsequent meanings, and Laura Mulvey posited the concept of the Male Gaze, the presumption was established that film, in particular, is only marketed to a male audience, and females or women who happen to be part of the audience aren't permitted to Gaze upon the film as active, independent agents. Mulvey essentially states that all contemporary films are inherently exploitative because they set the male viewer up to "take" a film's female star as his own personal sex object, and female viewers are required to adopt the male viewer's perspective in order to enjoy the film. In some ways this has been a very useful theory for film analysis, including analysis of porn films, because it highlights the ways in which male privilege invisibly makes the rules for expected storylines and behaviour of both characters and audiences. After all- the Bechdel analysis exists for a reason! At the same time, however, it really doesn't allow for new spaces to be created in the film industry in which other arrangements are explored and set up for an alternative audience. This is where sites like Good Dyke Porn challenge Mulvey's Male Gaze and offer us opportunities to try new viewing structures- complete with reenvisioned (and potentially infinitely flexible) power dynamics. It's rather difficult to have a Male Gaze when a film and its audience are Female.

This is another point in feminist porn debates that has bothered me repeatedly. When discussing pornography in a negative light, it's very easy to talk about exploitative working conditions, distributions that are beyond the actors' control, unrealistic body standards, and the setting of dangerous expectations about human sexual behaviour. These aren't unrealistic arguments, by any means- exploitation in the sex industry is definitely a problem, and it's something that a restructuring of the industry (such as what's happening in the fringes of porn) could do a lot to redress. Above all, however, the anti-porn narrative tends to focus on the power that (male) controllers of the industry exert over (female) employees, and how that dynamic plays out beyond the studio or DVD. What about the power of being a performer? What about the power to "normalize" bodies that are often ostracized or desexualized? What about the simple power that comes from being sexual and enjoying it? What about the power of changing definitions of good vs. bad female behaviour? What about the power of being a female director in a male-dominated portion of film industry? And so on and so forth. There are too many types of power involved, with too many complicated dynamics, to assume a simple one-sided power dynamic that inherently victimizes women. ESPECIALLY when that assumption denies voluntary porn participants the ability to decide for themselves how they feel about and perceive their industry.

Finally, I'd like to address the challenge that moral codes pose to pornography- what I think Twisty was probably intending to address with her comment about so-called "porn addicts." One of the best qualities of porn as a totality, in my opinion, is that it does a lot to dispell the myth that there's only one human sexuality, or that sexuality is only defined by who you like to sleep with (meaning gay, straight, or bi). Lacan's discussion of fantasy, as explained by Zizek, is a useful tool for unravelling this:
For Lacan, fantasy provides an answer to the enigma of Other's desire. The first thing to note about fantasy is that it literally teaches us how to desire: fantasy does not mean that, when I desire a strawberry cake and cannot get it in reality, I fantasize about eating it; the problem is rather, how do I know that I desire a strawberry cake in the first place? This is what fantasy tells me. This role of fantasy hinges on the deadlock of our sexuality designated by Lacan in his paradoxical statement "there is no sexual relationship": there is no universal guarantee of a harmonious sexual relationship with one's partner. Every subject has to invent a fantasy of his or her own, a "private" formula for the sexual relationship - the relationship with a woman is possible only inasmuch as the partner fits this formula.
Essentially, Lacan argues, everyone fantasizes because it's scary for us to admit that our "perfect match" doesn't exist. The reality of relationships, particularly sexual ones, is so "traumatic in its breath-taking intensity" that "a sexual relation, in order to function, has to be screened through some fantasy." Moreover, upon an apparent attainment of that fantasy, we tend to lose interest- in part because the thrill of the fantasy is that we secretly believe that it's unknowable and unattainable.

I use this as a tool for understanding human sexuality because porn plays a very particular role: namely, that of fantasy. Actors are hired to portay parts and perform acts in settings that viewers find arousing simply because they aren't what we have. In this way, porn offers an opportunity for viewers to identify with actors in multiple ways. One way, of course, is the classic interpretation of "males are the sexual aggressors, females are the sexual passives." Another way to interpret it, however, is that it's an opportunity for any viewer to identify with the director, or the person guiding and controlling the fantasy as played by the actors. Viewed in this light, porn is what's already happening in our heads. Let's face it: everyone fantasizes about something, sexual or otherwise, and part of the point of fantasizing (say, about a promotion) is that the fantasy is entirely what you, the fantasizer, desire- whether or not it's about reality. In that sense, fantasies of any sort are always inherently exploitative because the people doing the fantasizing are dreaming of a world where no one besides themselves has any volition whatsoever. Another way of looking at this, of course, is to say that fantasy isn't reality for a reason: it's an escape from reality, an opportunity to relax from the constant rule-making and -breaking that we live with.

The rebuttal, of course, is the argument that there's a link between amount or type of porn watched and subsequent behaviour. I'd like to see the studies (please, nothing done prior to 1995). When people point to porn as their reasons for exploiting or assaulting or raping someone, or when a real-life assault mirrors a magazine spread (as has happened), we're doing our communities a disservice by blaming the porn. The magazine spread may have inspired the setting, but the fact remains that the people who committed the rape were sexual predators looking for an(y) opportunity. Currently, the data that exists from studies, as compiled by the National Online Resource Centre for Violence Against Women, makes conflicting observations. One author, Dr. Robert Jensen, notes that "men predisposed toward violence are most likely to show effects from viewing pornography and that men not predisposed are unlikely to show effects," suggesting that porn is exacerbating and not causing the problem, but then goes on to cite narratives from individuals he's interviewed who pointed to porn as a component of their abuse or assault. Additionally, his article focuses on specific types of porn- heterosexual, violent, male-aggressive- and doesn't examine how different types of porn interact with personalities and predilections. Finally, of course, he doesn't emphasize the key of his quotes: that the people who were citing porn in their accounts of abuse were talking about situations where porn was used as a weapon. On that point, I think all feminists can agree: sex, sexuality, and fantasy should never be used as a means of hurting or controlling someone. To me, this research suggests a need for a new discourse on fantasy, instead of suggesting that particular expressions of fantasy (read: porn) should be outlawed.

On a final note, I'd like to reemphasize that we need to stop demonizing people who watch porn as "addicts" or as though they're all sexual predators, and we need to stop patronizing porn actors and models as though they're all victims. I watch porn. My partner watches porn. My friends watch porn. Many of them even make porn. None of us are addicted, sick, perpetrators, or victims. We're adults who enjoy particular forms of fantasy engagement. Our dialogue about porn needs to stop this cycle that makes porn bad and villifies individuals for their predilections. It needs to take a more honest look at porn: one that includes condemnation of exploitative working conditions and unjust laws, but one that also includes a celebration of the empowering aspects of porn. It also needs to take an honest look at how we relate to porn- blaming it, hiding it, using it as a weapon- and start a discussion of how we can change that.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Bodies and the Blogosphere

I've been linking Womanist Musings alot lately, and there's a good reason: Renee and the other writers all write great posts, and they are particularly effective at grounding their discussions in the physical - that is, in the body. So, here are a few more posts.

Child Labor and Cigarettes describes the working conditions of the children who work to produce cheap cigarettes. Pro-smoking activists promote cigarettes as a personal choice that hurts no one else, but in addition to endangering others through second-hand smoke, purchasing cigarettes promotes inhumane and dangerous working conditions for children. And while I see the logic in the argument of "the kids are taking the jobs for a reason - their families need that money," there are better ways to bring 17 cents a day to those families. My goodness, that's not even a quarter!

Womb for Sale addresses the downsides to women selling their eggs and their wombs in order to help other couples reproduce. As with the article on child cigarette labor, this article points out the inherent flaw in celebrating the fact that single moms can earn $7000 through a painful and exploitative process: it may seem like the best solutions for the parents and for the woman, but it shouldn't be necessary. Adoption should be a simpler, less-expensive process, and single moms like the one in the article should have access to resources to help her get through med school, without having to sell part of her body.

Black and Latina tells the story of a contributor who identifies as both black and Latina but who often encounters skeptical individuals who refuse to accept the possibility that her identity includes more than one of the traditional labels found on the census.

And we have another revelant post from I Blame the Patriarchy, Pornsick Dudes Give Blamer the Screamin' Mimis. In this post, Twisty shares an email from a feminist who is disgusted by how common pornography has become and by how casually both men and women treat this topic. Even self-proclaimed feminists sometimes promote pornography, and I have read blog posts by authors who celebrated emerging outlets of homosexual pornography. As Twisty responds, however, and as I fully agree, pornography is always damaging, and it is never okay. Reducing human beings to reproductive organs is never acceptable, and I see everything about pornography as antithetical to the core aims of feminism. If you think ads objectify women, then you must also admit that pornography does so even more. If sexist language dehumanizes women, pornography goes ten steps further. Just don't.



Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Politics of Bodies

When I told a friend that NAW's theme of the month was body image, she said, "That's original." It was of course sarcasm. Initially, my only response was, "Well, it's original for us. We've never had that theme before." But as I thought it over, I considered just how fundamental the body is to... well, everything.

Consider, for example, how one woman's life is altered by her chronic pain. Or how people respond to her pain and question whether it's real. When a person frequently calls into work sick, it's not uncommon for co-workers to wonder if they're lying, or maybe imagining that they're in pain. It's not as if we can ever really understand what someone else feels. In my family, for instance, we have more pain sensors per square inch of skin than the average person. Which I only know because three of us consistently discovered these results in a middle school science class. But I coudn't convince my childhood dentist of this fact. When he was extracting an impacted wisdom tooth and I told him it hurt, he said, "I know. You feel the pressure."

A few years later, I went to a different dentist to complain about a toothache. The dentist accused me of being a hypochondriac, only to apologize when he found a cavity underneath an old filling done by my incompetent childhood dentist. When I went back to this new dentist to have my remaining wisdom teeth removed (all impacted), he didn't question my judgment for an instant. When he tugged on the tooth and I gasped - he gave me as much Novocaine as he was legally allowed to. At the end of the procedure, he gave me an extra shot "for the road."

But not everyone can convince people that they're truly in pain. An old friend of mine said that each time her autistic brother went to a doctor in NYC, the doctors saw a tall black man and assumed he was high. Our bodies factor into the way people perceive us even when it's not a question of what we're truly feeling inside. Recently, for instance, I heard a woman explain that she didn't find an article we were discussing very credible because the author used diction that made him sound "like a black man in the ghetto."

What this woman didn't know, of course, was that for a few years I roomed with a black woman from Queens who was one of the most intelligent people I've met, or that I once dated a black man from Brooklyn. So she didn't know that I have encountered people from the backgrounds she described, with the skin tones she described, who were in no way unintelligent. But at the same time, this woman picked up on something about audiences in general - they consider a speaker's appearance when they determine whether to be persuaded by that speaker's rhetoric.

Bodies have always been in politics, of course. Rape, murder, and torture are long-standing traditions in war and in government, and appearance has only become a bigger factor in elections over the last several decades as a result of media projecting images all over the place. Just consider how attractive Obama, Bush and Clinton are, compared to some of the earlier presidents. Appearance can determine a lot about where your life goes.

Which is not to say that we should all be obsessed with our appearance or with our bodies. First of all, the things that make people look like movie stars usually aren't healthy. And second of all, there's no reason why we have to accept a world of shallow people. Along with increased advertising and a cultural obsession with appearance, we find movements that promote accepting your body the way it is and learning not to judge people by their appearance. Take the TV series How to Look Good Naked, for instance, in which women with all sorts of body types are encouraged to love their bodies as is. Like Erica, I find it very sad that despite Raven Symone's belief that she looked great as a big woman, others didn't agree. But I still find hope in the fact that she thought she looked great.

And if this post hasn't already convinced you that body image is worth discussing, just watch Killing Us Softly.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Fox Uses MLK Day to Promote Reaganism

The headline on Womanist Musings today is, "Fox Nations Asks: 'Was Reagan more of a friend to blacks than Obama'?"  Most people who have even one iota of racial sensitivity know that it's insulting and dehumanizing for white people to refer to black people as "blacks," so Fox undermines itself even in the title. I hope you'll click on the above link and read through Womanist Musings's list of reasons why Reagan was not in fact more of a friend to black people than Obama is. Please especially note, "As President, Reagan cut funding for civil rights enforcement and opposed a Martin Luther King holiday." 

You can also check out the original article, written by Reagan's son, Michael Reagan. 

That's right. Fox really did manage to turn MLK day into a day about a white man. 

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Reader Q&A: Asking a Woman to Lunch or Dinner

The writers at Not Another Wave recently received an email from reader CM, who wanted to know, "What is a great verbal statement when asking a woman out to LUNCH or DINNER?" Below, please find Erica's and Emily's answers. Hope this is helpful, CM!

Erica: My first thought is to ask you what your relationship is like with this woman. Are you friends? Are you colleagues or classmates? How often do you talk? The reason for all these considerations is that no two women (and no two people, in general) are alike. It's difficult to come up with something that'll work for every single woman you're interested in because every woman will be attracted to different things and interested by different things about you. Her background, culture, personality, and previous dating history will affect what she will find respectful and interesting. For me, for example, the direct approach is best. If we're already friends, I prefer that you simply ask, "Do you want to go out to dinner?" and see what I say. If we don't already have that connection, taking the time to chat a bit first- if we're already classmates, let's say- is a chance for both of us to see how well we fit in light conversation. Then it's less startling to hear you say "I'm enjoying talking with you. Want to go get a bite to eat?" Essentially, from my perspective, it's less important to have a prepared, flourishy statement than it is to gauge how the conversation is going and be able to work from there. I understand that that's often easier said than done- but it's also the most effective way to show your interest, give her an opportunity to decide if she's interested too, and see where that lunch or dinner takes you.

Emily: Like Erica said, the way you ask this woman to lunch or dinner will depend on how well you know her and what she looks for in communication. Like Erica, I prefer a direct approach, but some women prefer subtlety. Here's another question, though: do you want to ask her out, with romantic potential in mind? Or is this just a friendly lunch or dinner? Either way, it should be clear to the woman whether you're asking her on a date. A simple, "Do you want to grab a bite to eat?" could send mixed signals if she doesn't know whether it's a date. When a friend asks me on what appears to be a date, I usually assume we're just going as friends. If he then dresses up and opens doors for me and in general acts like we're on a date, things can get uncomfortable. Personally, I see no problem with dropping in phrases like "date" or "go out" when you ask, if that's what you're looking for. If you're just looking for friendship, it's not a bad idea to drop in the word "friends." Making that clear up front can save a lot of heart ache. Trust me, I speak from experience on this one. But, bottom line: don't over think this. Just figure out what you want to communicate and how you can best communicate it.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Parts in the Press

In keeping with the theme of the month, I thought I'd post some articles that deal with a body image and weight loss topic that always seemed ridiculous to me: pregnancy and weight gain. Sure, too much weight gain during pregnancy and a person can develop gestational diabetes- not fun- but too little weight gain and that person isn't really doing their future child (or themselves) much good. But since most countries in the "West" are obsessed with weight, high expectations are often set by the media and enforced by our peers (and, lamentably, our own inner voices) about how our bodies should look before, during, and after pregnancy. Here are some links, with commentary.

First, commentary from Amy Adams about pregnancy and her upcoming movie revealed more than intended. Not only did she play up the uber-motherhood angle (especially being "vulnerable" and "softer"), but she also revealed that she loved the physical changes she underwent while pregnant: "The whole purpose of my body was no longer to fit into a sample size. It was to nurture another being. So I always felt great, no matter what I was wearing." Hooray for admitting that being bigger felt good! Unfortunately, that message is quite lost in an article that's filled with photos of her looking skinny and quips from the author about "just how much weight" Amy's lost.

Second comes the "let's conceal the pregnancy bump!" from Natalie Portman. The article lauds Portman's choice of dress at a recent awards show because it "artfully" conceals her baby bump. To this I have to ask: when someone's pregnant, what's wrong with their baby bump? Are they not allowed to have a bump because they're a celebrity or because they're human? Since when is it considered a wise choice to try and hide a pregnancy that's already been announced to the world? If you're pregnant and announcing it, why bother?

Third isn't really a news link, but an example of how hegemony culture has valorized skinniness to the point where doctors and nutritionists have to warn us not to try and lose pregnancy weight the way celebrities seem to. Unfortunately, the article still focuses on "getting your body back," as though pregnancy and childbirth aren't things that can alter your shape forever. Think about it: the process of being pregnant stretches your skin, loosens your ligaments, and even alters your bone structure. Looking the same as you did before pregnancy not only hides the fact that your body's done something incredible, but also buys into a culture that suggests that the physical act of becoming a parent turns your body into something shameful because it's no longer been used just for sex. Remember: bodies are pleasing and fun, but bodies do a lot more. Valuing your body for all that it's done (and will do) is a much better idea than lamenting the fact that the hegemony doesn't categorize you solely as a sex object anymore.

And beyond pregnancy, I bring you a very exciting article from (of all places) the Daily Mail, in which Raven Symoné of "The Cosby Show" and "That's So Raven" says that she liked her figure better when she was heavier. Read that again. She liked her figure better when she was heavier. How many people can claim that, both publicly and shamelessly? I think it's especially encouraging that she pointedly talks about the gazes she receives, and how before she lost weight people "were actually looking at me for a real reason" instead of just looking at her body. While I'm not sure I believe her story about why she lost weight- she claims a lack of stress- I like what she has to say. Wouldn't it be great if we could all like our bodies the way they are?

This concludes our brief journey through bodies in the news. If you're wondering why so much of this article is celebrity-focused, think about it: not only are celebrity bodies a constant topic of conversation in the gossip press, but in a world where Americans are surveyed to find out which celebrities they want to get plastic surgery to look like, how celebrities are shaped and talk about their figures- and how newspapers, tabloids, and we talk about their figures too- has a great deal of influence over how we view our own.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The "Perfect" Size

The Daily Mail- the British rag I love to hate- has a piece out today about size 12 women (approximately the equivalent of a U.S. women's size 8) and whether this is the "perfect" size. It features short pieces from five different cis women who fit that size, with their height, weight, and waist measurements listed, and then gives each of the women an opportunity to comment on her feelings about her body.

I'm somewhat ambivalent about this article. On one hand, why is it that articles like these are always about bodies? Why can't articles like these focus on other body shapes and sizes- including bodies that are considered plus sized? On the other hand, there's part of me that was excited by the display of measurements and photos...because it emphasized the diversity that bodies create. Not all people wearing the same size are built the same. I'd have loved to see more emphasis on that.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Sitting at the Table with Women

Everyday I come across dozens of advertisements, posts, articles and discussions that involve the issue of women in the workforce.

Statistics still indicate that despite the progress we've made in the past 40 years, there are still far fewer women in upper-level management positions. Sadly, many of these women are still considered to be unfeminine and anti-family: a fact that I find to be a gross mis-assumption. Beyond that, it really irritates me that so many people feel it is fine to judge and treat a woman's aspirations as somehow going against the forces of nature.

Naturally this topic is sensitive and usually very personal, however, I seem to rarely encounter a good and helpful consideration of the issue. I recently ran across a lecture given by Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of facebook, where she discusses some of the problems she's encountered by being a powerful woman in the workforce. I'd like to thank my friend Peter for finding and showing this excellent lecture to me; I think it deals with a lot of the current issues surrounding career women with grace and sensitivity.

The below video is one that I think is WELL worth everyone's time, she gives a lot of good suggestions for helping women attain their goals. Hopefully, you find it as enjoyable as I did.

I love the advice she gives about sitting at the table, about not selling ourselves short. So often we as women push our successes unto others, or don't see how talented and able we are. After listening to this lecture it's now my goal to both foster my own self-confidence and boost the self-confidence of the women around me. We need to see ourselves as we truly are, and stop undervaluing our abilities.

I also think it's especially interesting when she mentions how successful women are usually seen as "unlikeable," an unfortunate societal projection. Quite often these women are seen as "over-compensating" when they are probably just trying to do what we all are, be the best that we can be at the things we've chosen to do.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Racist Body

This image comes from and no copyright infringement is intended.

I've talked in the past about my experiences with diet and body image, and included in there a little bit about how my cultural and racial identities shape it. But I don't think we at Not Another Wave have contributed much to conversations about how body image- particularly how it's marketed, and to whom- shape and influence a general culture in the US that perpetuates racist body norms and expectations.

In western Europe and its subsequent colonies, it's been a long-standing tradition to compare the bodies of African and Indian slaves and indigens with the bodies of the culturally declared norm, the White European. This happened (and continues to happen, but we'll get there in a moment) to both cis men and cis women, in efforts by the imperialists to prove European superiority over the Other. Where European men were classified as intellight, African men were childlike. Where European men were tall, Indian men were short. Where European men could be gentlemen and restrain themselves around European women, African men were hyper-sexual. As an article in The Western Journal of Black Studies put it,
Colonial invasive powers bring with them their own myths, beliefs, and forms of colonial ordering which create a bifurcated form of hierarchy that is designed to distinguish between the natives and the colonizers, a form of hierarchy where the colonizer (white, good, intelligent, ethical, beautiful, civilized) is superior in all things, while the native (dark, exotic, sexually uncontrollable, bad, stupid, ugly, savage, backward) is inferior.

The discourse of opposites, of lauding the "Us" and demeaning (and even criminalizing) the "Other," was justification for invasion, dominance, and control. Rudyard Kipling went so far as to refer to it as "the white man's burden," explaining that it was a "moral imperative" that Europeans colonize the Other, for the sake of the Other.

The discourse of Us vs. Them that the European colonists applied to their subjects was also, of course, applied to female bodies and the identities of women. Similarly to the discourses used to subjugate African and Indian men, European discourses painted African and Indian women alike as childlike, subservient by nature, and hyper-sexual. African and Indian women, in the colonist eye, represented the constant threat of temptation into every sin the Christian European imagination could come up with. To support this discourse, European soldiers actually kidnapped a woman from South Africa, nicknamed her the "Hottentot Venus," and paraded her around as a sideshow attraction in Great Britain and then in France. Of particular interest to spectators were her butt and her labia, which were both described as "abnormally large." Think about it: in the day when a person's cranial shape was supposed to determine intelligence and personality, an "abnormally large" pubic and posterior signalled a lot about supposed sexual appetite when compared to the "normal" physique of European women and their "normal" sexuality.

I go through all this because I think it has bearing on current discussions about bodies and their shape here in the US. There's a lot of publicity given to the "majority" culture pressure that is put on White women to be thin, which has a whole field of feminist research devoted to it. As one blogger rightly puts it, "This is about power. It's about wanting women to be small in the world, to take up less space, literally and metaphorically." It also relates to sexuality. Twiggy became popular among White women during a period of time when White women's sexual options were expanding drastically, thanks to advances in hormonal birth control and the emergence of the second wave feminist movement. While everyone's figure is different, the overall effect of weight loss is a body that's contained, restrained, and thus- depending on your build- significantly de-sexualized. The use of clothing to highlight curves only goes so far to refute this argument; accentuating one's breasts, hips, or butt is acceptable and often encouraged, but if a woman's breasts are "too" big, or her hips "too" full, she's "too" sexual. As another blogger put it, "It is...crucial to mention the mental anxiety caused by constant badgering by the chauvinists of the world, and the sexual harassment that seems to find large breasted women because of the stigma that goes with large breasts; and that is that those women must be 'easy'." Essentially, the loss of weight to maintain a minimally curvy body feeds directly into an ages-old series of assumptions about White women- particularly that they shouldn't be "overly" sexy.

What I'm trying to get at is that the whole "thin is in" movement really is a very White-centric movement. While pictures of women laughing alone with salad- one of the trademarks of the weight loss movement- occasionally include a woman who's presumably of African descent, the vast majority are White. And those who are Black have been, for lack of a better term, "whitenized," with light skin, controlled hair, and Romanesque features. Essentially, they are the Other as the European colonists wanted them to be: under control, "saved" from themselves, and "just like Us."

This brings me to the topic of another, less marketed-by-health-companies body standard: the standard of Thick (or Bootylicious). We've all heard it mentioned, either by rappers (especially in Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back"), activists, our friends and families, or our partners. Instead of pushing the ideology of thin, the Thick movement promotes curves and planes that would make fashion designers fall over. It's the idealization of a body that's slender (but still curvy) through the breasts and waist, and flares into a round, perky set of hips and bum connected to a pair of muscular, curvy legs. Is it a hard ideal to live up to? You bet, and don't ask me how hard I worked before I discovered that my butt wasn't built to be perky. But I digress- the point is that the ideology of Thick has become a high-held standard for many women, particularly Black women, instead of the skinny White body. And while I'm thrilled that women of any race could reasonably look to that shape as an example of how many body types are sexy, I'm also concerned about the cultural influences, both from Black and White sources, that have given shape to the Thick ideal.

Latoya Peterson on Racialicious gives a great breakdown of the idea of Thick and the meanings and validation it can carry for the women who identify with it. The valorization of a large butt, for those whose basic body shape involves one, is hugely liberating in a world that's dominated by images of bodies with flat or hardly existent butts. At the same time, however, I find it hard to forget the features that Sarah Haartman was famous for- particularly her posterior- and I have to wonder how much influence the earlier European readings of Black female bodies has had on the current uplifting of Thick. If large breasts on a White woman still read as a measure of her sexual appetite and ability to consent, does the size of a Black woman's butt get interpreted that way too? If so, is the valorization of a Thick body type simply a marketing scheme designed to re-sell the image of the Other? One of the authors of Colonize This!, Serina Riley, addresses the same problem:
"As much as we get praised for loving our full bodies, many young white women would rather be dead than wear a size 14. They nod their heads and say how great it is that we black women can embrace our curves, but they don’t want to look like us. They don’t adopt our presumably more generous beauty ideals. White women have even told me how lucky black women are that our men love and accept our bodies the way they are. I’ve never heard a white woman say she’s going to take a cue from black women and gain a few pounds, however. In a way it is patronizing, because they’re basically saying, 'It’s OK for you to be fat, but not me. You’re black. You’re different.'"
For me, the fact that Thick is so strongly associated with Black women and Black identities is the part that's concerning: while I understand the desire to have ideals and cultures separate from those of the White hegemony, I also have a hard time believing that the Thick ideal in particular is really all that liberating.

The counterargument, of course, is that many cultures in the US find great pride and power in reclaiming images, ideals, and vocabulary from their discriminatory pasts. Words like cunt, nigger, queer, and bitch have all been reappropriated by cultural movements to confront the bigotry that used to dominate them, and there's merit to the argument that the current chart-toppers of hip-hop, who valorize overindulgence in sex, drugs, and violence, are manipulating stereotypes about Black men to gain power over the White imaginations that created them. Sex workers forming unions and declaring pride in their trade are refuting the myth that they're the victims of pimps and johns. In theory, if the stereotype is being used and evolving in the hands of the people it's supposed to harm, its creators- the ones doing the harming in the first place- lose their weapons. In theory. Whether or not it actually works that way is a debate that merits its own article.

Regardless, the point remains that the "ideal body" that's promoted in magazines, billboards, newspapers, TV, and movies that are marketed towards the hegemonic (predominately White) culture is really only intended to be ideal for a specific group. The current popular ideals for White women and Black women, I think, retain a lot of the racist and sexist assumptions that were prolific during Europe's imperialist years, and contribute to a culture that still believes Black women have uncontrollable sexual appetites as compared to White women. Furthermore, the notion of separate ideal bodies is offensive in its own right- that anyone from any culture should be expected to live up to a standard based on a small percentage of the population. Even if it were unproblematic to assume that Black and White women should have completely separate body goals, the fact remains that not all Black women are built to be Thick any more than all White women are built to be skinny. Instead of idealizing bodies based on stereotypes and minorities, we should be idealizing the people who are happy and comfortable in their natural shape. Instead of buying into a diet industry that's upholding racist ideals about bodies and appetites, we should be investing our time and energy in other ways to improve ourselves, such as challenging the idea that self-fulfillment comes in wearing a particular dress size. Let's do away with the Madonna vs. Hottentot Venus dichotomy once and for all.

Note: this article has been notably Black-and-White focused, while leaving out ethnicities and identities that also have stereotypes associated with female bodies (i.e. the "skinny Asian" stereotype). I'd love to hear from you what your perceptions of these are, as well as how you think they fit into a global history of domination and subordination.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

January's Theme of the Month: Body Image

It's clearly that time of the year again. Bookstores are bringing out diet books and salad cookbooks, while every retailer is selling diet pills and scales. Gyms are filling up with business that they know will disappear within a few months. And while I know that men are part of the new years weight loss rush, I'm mostly hearing from women that they want to lose 15 pounds or 20 pounds or 30 pounds over the next six months. And I can't help but wonder for how many women (and men) this is an emotionally damaging goal. Even after successfully losing weight through a New Year's goal, some women remain conflicted. We can't ignore the underlying issues that factor into the weight loss.

I'm all for healthy lifestyles, and I understand that no matter how much I wish everyone would stop focusing on numbers (in terms of weight and clothing sizes), people nevertheless do. Personally, I refuse to buy a scale, but I'm narcissistic enough to want to step on one the instant I see it. I just have to know everything about myself, including that silly number that is my weight. While I was home for the holidays, I stepped on the bathroom scale nearly every day and watched my body gain 7 pounds in just two weeks. So, I understand that resting and eating during the holidays does a lot to make a person feel extra bloated, and that extra bit of worry, combined with the yearning for a fresh start with the new year makes a New Year's weight loss goal seem pretty appealing.

But how many people who go on diets actually experience long-term health benefits? I'm no expert on health and nutrition (in fact, I rather hope Whitney will jump in here), but it's my understanding that research shows no health benefits for people who go through diet-gain-diet-gain cycles, compared to people who just stay at one weight. According to Whitney, some recent research even suggests that the process the body goes through while it loses weight may make weight loss a bad idea for some people - especially if it's frequent.

I also know that many people lose weight, thinking that they'll be healthier, happier, and more confident - only to suddenly want to change something else about themselves. Maybe the loose skin from their weight loss bothers them (I had a roommate who was convinced she was fat, because she had loose skin from losing weight). Maybe they're too terrified of gaining weight to enjoy their body after the loss. Maybe they don't like acne, or how small their hips and breasts are, or the way people in a crowd tend to push thin people aside.

And really, let's consider just how arbitrary the numbers are that we attach to our health. Unless you're big enough that your size directly impacts your health (and that is the case for some people), chances are you're better off buying bigger clothing and going for a holistic health approach. If you're making your body healthy through exercise, a healthy diet, and regular doctor appointments and your weight/dress size/appearance isn't directly hurting your health... then why lose weight? Why tell your body that it has to change just to suit fashion or social expectations or the incredibly flawed BMI?

This is obviously a sensitive topic, and obviously what you do for your body health-wise is between you and your doctor. Maybe a New Year's weight loss goal really is the best thing for you. Or maybe some other kind of New Year's health goal is a good idea (such as changing what you eat or exercising more frequently, though for some people that of course may not be enough). But I hope you'll think twice before you jump on the weight loss band wagon.

And that is why this month NAW is focusing on body image. We welcome posts on any related topic. Tell us your frustrations with what people expect from your body. Tell us how much you hate to see commercials that treat people like products. Tell us how much you love your body. Tell us how sad you feel about your body and how happy it makes you. Whatever you do, talk. We need to work through the psychological issues that have us all obsessed with our bodies.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

News notes of late

Here are a couple of things that've been popping up in the news lately that I'd like to share with more than my facebook page.

First, there's the report of DNA evidence exonerating people who were sentenced to long prison sentences for crimes such as murder and rape. This article from NPR discusses the most recent, a man who has served 30 years in prison for a rape he didn't commit. There's a lot to consider with this story, including the impact that these false convictions might have on the ability of police and jurors to believe a victim or survivor who attempts to identify the person who raped them, but of note to me as well is the fact that the statistics and background provided by The Innocence Project point to racism as a primary factor in the wrong convictions. Is it any wonder that the majority of death-row inmates released in Texas have been Black men?

Second, Justice Scalia had a conversation with California Lawyer, in which he stated that the 14th Amendment doesn't protect women. This shouldn't be too surprising- read any of Scalia's opinions that deal with social justice issues and you'll understand what I mean- but is still troubling. The 14th Amendment was created to rectify the severe injustices that slavery of African captives had wrought, but doesn't specifically state that it applies only to particular types of injustice (racism, in this case). One of my graduate school classmates sided very strongly with the sort of opinion that Scalia expressed here, arguing that applying an amendment intended for racism to sexism diluted and conflated the issues. It was a viewpoint I was new to, and found interesting and not entirely without merit, though I continue to disagree. Not only are the two not separate issues to begin with, and not only did a sex-focused Equal Rights Amendment fail to pass, but the 14th Amendment is also used to seek justice in cases of commerce. COMMERCE. How is THAT not diluting the issues of racism?

Finally, this article about an intersex dog receiving genital restructuring surgery comes to us from the UK's Daily Mail. Apparently, it's imperative that anyone whose sex or gender identity isn't perfectly aligned with cis expectations- even if they're a dog- undergo surgery to change that.

With that, I head off to start my workday. Let us know as you come across noteworthy (for better or worse) news!