Tag Archives: women

Race and Reproductive Freedom in the Childfree Community

This is a direct response to Melissa McEwan’s post at Shakesville today about being childfree, but it’s also something I’ve been thinking about for quite some time in regards to mainstream feminist views about “reproductive choice”, the recent attention being paid to teen parent shaming, and re: the Reddit Childfree community.




Melissa McEwan’s article detailed her personal experiences as a “childfree” individual– someone who consciously chooses against being a parent for any number of personal, cultural, financial, environmental, or political reasons. Being “childfree” is not a new phenomenon, but those who identify as such are becoming more vocal, demanding an end to the endless questions about their reproductive choices, swapping tips for finding “childfree-friendly” doctors, and using feminist and reproductive justice rhetoric to articulate their identities and struggles. They are fighting for rights that students of second-wave feminism might recognize: the right to be sterilized on demand, without question, without waiting periods, and without needing a spouse’s permission; the right to define themselves as other than mother, father, or parent; and the right to absolute reproductive freedom and to make their own choices about their lives.

McEwan identifies the societal pressures to reproduce that she and other childfree individuals are subjected to as “cultural reproductive coercion”. And it certainly is a very specific form of cultural reproductive coercion– coercion to reproduce. The childfree community makes me uncomfortable (even though I do identify myself as “childfree… for now!”) because it often fails to apply an intersectional approach to this idea of “cultural reproductive coercion,” choosing only to focus on the pressure to reproduce– a pressure that is a result of white privilege and the fact that society wants you to reproduce.

I previously brought up the second-wave feminist fights for abortion rights and against sterilization restrictions, and again, if you’re familiar with those fights this may all begin to sound familiar. The “mainstream,” white, educated, cis, upper or middle class feminists of the second wave were fighting against “cultural reproductive coercion” to reproduce because society wanted and expected them to. Many of these women found their liberation through rejecting society’s call, putting off motherhood by fighting for birth control and abortion access.


At the very same time, black, Latino, and indigenous women in America were suffering extraordinary rates of forced sterilization and forced removal of their children by social welfare agencies, while the leaders of certain groups in the Black Power movement forbid its female members from using birth control because it was akin to genocide. For these women, “cultural reproductive coercion” looked very different. Society told them not to reproduce because they would not, could not, be good mothers, and some among their own people told them they must reproduce because their people were dying out. Many of these women fought against the mainstream feminist movement’s goal of removing waiting periods and other restrictions on sterilization because those same restrictions helped prevent them from being sterilized without their consent or knowledge after a cesarean section or a routine operation. For many of these women, having a child on their own timing, by choice, and to parent that child in their own culture and communities without threat of removal by the state was liberation.

McEwan does mention race in her post about being childfree. She writes:

“…And when I still didn’t change my mind, I was subjected to all manner of shaming narratives trying to convince me there is something wrong with me if I choose not to parent. I am a traitor to my womanhood. I am an incomplete woman. I am a selfish woman. I am a frivolous woman. I am barely a woman at all, if I refuse to use my fertile, cis, female, male-partnered body for what I am told is its natural (and only) purpose. I am a traitor to my race—a white woman partnered with a white man refusing to have white babies when the white birth rate is dropping in the US. I am a traitor to my country—an educated middle-class woman refusing to make a contribution to the future of the great society which has provided her with so much. The ultimate taker among makers….”

By the end of that paragraph, McEwan finally hits the most important part of her argument: the fact that she experiences “cultural reproductive coercion” to reproduce because she is a white woman. When we (as feminists, or as childfree individuals) talk about reproductive justice, freedom, and respect, we must also talk about white privilege. The majority of those who identify as “childfree” are white, highly educated, urban, secular individuals with higher-than-average incomes. The childfree community, specifically as it exists on the popular website Reddit, is often home to young parent shaming,  welfare shaming, and the propensity to call those who choose to parent “breeders,” which to me sounds weirdly… eugenicist.

Are the endless assumptions about a married white couple’s eventual fertility and the patronizing tone of a doctor trying to talk a young white woman out of voluntary sterilization a barrier to complete reproductive freedom? Absolutely. But we must remember that these barriers are a result of white privilege, and that poor, uneducated women of color continue to bear the brunt of our society’s “cultural reproductive coercion” not to reproduce.

A few weeks ago while spending my usual weekly morning at Planned Parenthood as a clinic escort, an older, friendly, liberal, all-around “good person” who is a fellow clinic escort said something that made me very uncomfortable. We were standing together watching one of our usual protestors who frequently chases passersby down the street to hand out anti-abortion pamphlets. Many of the escorts have noted and remarked that this protestor seems to run harder and faster after people of color, particularly young women of color, and especially young women of color accompanied by children. As we watched this fold out in front of us, the clinic escort I was standing with began to shake her head and said something similar to this: “You know, I live in [the city] so I often see these young black women walking around with three, even four kids in a stroller, and I think ‘Why don’t you just go to Planned Parenthood!’“.

Defenders of reproductive justice are not immune to the subtle and not-so-subtle racism and classism that constantly influences who we (as individuals and as a society) deem fit to reproduce. Feminist and reproductive justice activists along with the childfree community need to be proactive in removing oppressive “cultural reproductive coercion” against everyone.


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Filed under feminism, privilege, reproductive justice, reproductive rights, sexism, sexuality, social justice

Fashionable Objectification? #NotBuyingIt!

A few nights ago I realized I was in desperate need of a pair of shorts to help me deal with the oncoming humidity of Northeastern summers. So, I rushed to my local H&M right before they closed. I had about ten minutes to search for cute shorts, find them in my size, and try them on before the store closed (which is quite a feat if you’re familiar with H&M’s mysterious sizing sorcery). Though I was literally running for the register while clutching my cute new floral patterned high-waisted shorts, I managed to snap these pictures of some ridiculous graphic tees I found in the “Men’s” section.




There were more of these “graphic tees” featuring close-ups and odd angles that cut off women’s heads and focus solely on sexualized parts of their bodies. As I expected, a quick look around confirmed that there were no analogous women’s (or men’s) tees featuring men in spandex or close-ups of their sinewy muscles. Driving home, these shirts occupied my thoughts. I was trying to figure out what bothered me about them. There was the obvious implicit male gaze of the photographs, the objectification of a woman’s body, and the slicing up of that body into only its desirable parts. But there was something else that was bugging me about the photographs. It was their voyeuristic quality–the idea that they were literally taken without the knowledge of their subject from a vantage point of behind or below her. It reminded me of the “Creepshot” community on the popular website, Reddit, which featured “upskirt” photos and pictures of women taken without their consent. I wondered whether the model whose body was on display knew she would be reduced to her butt covered in a patriotic bikini on a tee-shirt for men? With the retail clothing industry’s history of stealing images without the knowledge of their rightful owner, this didn’t seem like a far reach. I also wondered who this tee-shirt was being marketed to–who was the man that would see this disembodied female body on a tee-shirt and think it would look really cool in their summer wardrobe?



H&M was recently celebrated in some zones of feminist media for their advertisement for “normal” clothing featuring a “plus-size” model. Though I was far from cheering at that excuse for progress, it reinforced for me the vigilance we must have as feminist consumers. Companies are not in the business of making a feminist revolution (obviously,) they are in the business of making profits (capitalism, people).  So, get on Twitter and tell H&M you are #NotBuyingIt!


Filed under advertising, body image, feminism, human rights, identity, politics, privilege, rape culture, sexism

The Only Thing You Need To Know About Dove’s “Real Beauty” Campaign

I have tackled Dove’s “Real Beauty” Campaigns before, challenging their appropriation of body positivity and the assumption that their brand is somehow better at tackling body image issues than other brands, like Victoria’s Secret. This week, Dove came out with a new video as a part of their “Real Beauty” Campaign. It shows an FBI sketch artist drawing women as they describe themselves and then again as a “new friend” describes them. The video’s purpose is to demonstrate what most people already know: women have low self-esteem and think they are uglier than they actually are.  Alexandra Brodsky over at Feministing has covered some really important points about Dove’s new marketing campaign–mainly the fact that it reinforces standard Western beauty standards and prescribes to the “One Direction” formula for beauty: “You don’t know you’re beautiful…that’s what makes you beautiful.”

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Dove is one brand that is owned by the massive multinational corporation, Unilever, whose dozens of brands make everything from soap to ice-cream to cleaning products to teabags. Unilever owns brands like TRESemme, Vaseline, Suave, Noxzema and most noxiously, Axe. Each brand owned by Unilever markets itself individually– of course, this is why we see such faux body-positivity when Dove is advertising soap and such blatant teenage-boy level sexism when Axe is marketing its shower gel.

Dove launched their “Real Beauty” Campaign in 2004 and consumers are still buying it, despite numerous criticisms of the brand’s methods and messages. They are buying it because it is good marketing. It is targeting the people it aims to target–everyday, “average,” (mostly white) women who feel like they do not live up to society’s beauty standards. While we’re on the subject, let’s return back to Alexandra Brodsky’s point that Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign reinforces Western beauty ideals like thinness, whiteness, and small features (to name a few). Dove’s campaign also targets mostly white, middle-class women. “Real beauty” only applies to a specific kind of beauty–and we can bolster that argument with the fact that Unilever also owns the brand Fair and Lovely, which makes skin-lightening creams that are popular in India because of the globalization of Western beauty ideals.



The solution to the problems and contradictions of Dove’s ad campaign is not to stop buying soap, to protest all Unilever products, or even to reform marketing, as I’ve previously suggested. I’m pretty sure I am drinking tea made by Unilever as I write this. The problems with Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign are created by monolithic issues like capitalist ideologies, market monopolies, racism, sexism, and the like. But as consumers, we must challenge Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign by pointing out the contradictions in Unilever’s marketing strategies and telling them that we are #NotBuyingIt!


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Filed under advertising, body image, feminism, gender

Medicalizing Morality: Virginity Testing in KwaZulu-Natal

           Among the Zulu-speaking people who live outside the city of Durban in South Africa, girls as young as six line up on straw mats to have their sexual purity certified with a grade of ‘A,’ ‘B,’ or ‘C’. A grade of ‘A’ means she is a virgin. A grade of ‘C’ means she is not a virgin. A grade of ‘B’ places her somewhere in-between. This grading occurs systematically at virginity testing events in many Zulu-speaking communities, where the tradition of virginity testing has resurfaced as a localized response to the region’s growing HIV/AIDS epidemic.

            In The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault argues that sexuality became an increasingly important part of individual identity in Western society, despite the repressive discourse that suggests otherwise. Foucault explored the religious, medical, and psychological institutions in which societies theoretically repressed sexuality while actually bringing these issues into the forefront of Western culture. Foucault’s theoretical framework dealt exclusively with the West, but in the context of an increasingly globalized regime of health, I will use this paper to explore his ideas as applied to the phenomenon of virginity testing in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa.

            KwaZulu-Natal has a thirty-nine percent prevalence of HIV infection, the highest among all the South African provinces. In response to this quickly growing threat to public health, many communities in KwaZulu-Natal have seen a resurgence of traditional virginity testing of young girls. Though this return to tradition began in a grass root, bottom-up fashion, it has garnered the support of government officials and many NGOs concerned with the region’s growing HIV/AIDS epidemic. The practice of virginity testing enforces sexual purity by searching for the physical evidence of the nontangible idea of virginity.  This custom is legitimized within the community and in more expansive institutions through a lens of public health.

            Virginity testing also highlights related fears about the perversion of traditional gender roles. As I will explore in further detail later on, framing the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the context of changing gender roles of youth cultures permits communities to moralize a medical crisis. This allows communities to deal with suffering actively and from within the community, in a context where medical solutions may be either unavailable or ineffective. Within a patriarchal culture, virginity testing simultaneous reinforces and is reinforced by cultural notions of certain bodies as polluters and others as vulnerable to pollution.

Advocates and Opponents of Virginity Testing

            In the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, virginity testing, or ukuhlolwa kwezintombe, is a public event. The virginity of the girls in each community thereby reflects the purity, and health, of the community as a whole. The girls are systematically examined in large numbers without much privacy, reinforcing the idea that women’s sexuality is of public concern. The way in which virginity testing is conducted also enforces the idea of a collective sexuality, whereby the “health” of the community is located in the sexuality of a group of certain kinds of bodies.

            Virginity testing advocates are found among the well-educated government and NGO officials who are dedicated to the idea of an “African Renaissance”.  This idea of cultural revival supports the rediscovery and application of indigenous African systems of knowledge to the problems facing Africa today, most notably, the HIV/AIDS epidemic. (LeClerc-Madlala, 536). Seeing that foreign intervention often does more harm than good, advocates for an African Renaissance encourage localized, community solutions to issues of poverty, disease and education. While the attempt at cultural revival is well founded, it also raises many questions. Specifically, it brings up the conflict between tradition and modernity—a conflict that is pervasive in the discussion on modern virginity testing in KwaZulu-Natal.

            The biggest opponents to virginity testing have been a largely female group of officials from South Africa’s Human Rights and Gender Commissions, who argue that virginity testing constitutes “a new form of violation of and violence against women” (LeClerc-Madlala, 536). Challengers of this tradition argue that familial and community coercion plays a role in the virginity testing events, especially for the youngest girls who may not even realize why their genitals are being examined. Furthermore, opponents argue that virginity testing events go against South African constitutional rights to privacy and bodily integrity. These concerns about social oppression are largely framed by the debates over tradition versus modernity, “whereby culture is equated with tradition and the democratic constitution is equated with Western-style modernity that… espouses foreign ideas” (LeClerc-Madlala, 536).

             The most outspoken supporters of virginity testing are older South African women who are often heads of their household, supporting children or young relatives orphaned by HIV/AIDS. These rural women often “see virginity testing as the only way to reinstill what they view as the lost cultural values of chastity before marriage, modesty, self-respect, and pride” (LeClerc-Madlala, 535). The role of these women in virginity testing is contradictory and intriguing. While their involvement in advocating for and organizing virginity testing events empowers an age-set whose voices are often overlooked in larger society, these women simultaneously enforce a social oppression of the next generation of women. By bringing back the idea of virginity testing, they are allowing a cycle of oppression to continue.

            It may also be noted that these older women have economic reasons to support virginity testing. As previously stated, the most outspoken supporters of virginity testing are women who are in charge of an extended kinship unit due to HIV/AIDS deaths. Their desire to prevent the disease within their own families may be closely tied to the economic hardships they already face. Simultaneously, many of the older women who organize virginity testing events become “experts” in testing and earn a living by teaching women in other communities their profession. Their advocacy of the procedure then reaches beyond morality and tradition and opens up an economic sphere of “medical professional” that is very often closed to rural women. Their involvement has become a way to “empower older women in a society where women’s voices have been historically muted but where women… have always held power and authority over younger women” (LeClerc-Madlala, 547).

            The arguments for and against virginity testing are compelling on both sides. In The History of Sexuality, Foucault writes that “the sex of children and adolescents has become… an important area of contention around which innumerable institutional devices and discursive strategies have been deployed” (Foucault, 30). The choice in KwaZulu-Natal to focus on the sexuality of the community’s youngest women in order to combat a disease that does not discriminate by age or gender reveals specific conceptions about vulnerable bodies within those communities. Virginity testing moves society away from locating identity within individual sexuality and instead establishes a collective compulsory moral and physical purity for specific bodies. This collective purity theoretically ensures the health of the community as a whole, enforcing virginity testing as a localized, gendered response to the enormity of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.


Locating Purity in the Body

            The results of the public virginity tests are shared with all who attend the event on an alphabetical grading system. The three tiers of virginity are labeled ‘A,’ ‘B,’ and ‘C’. While a C-grade certifies a failure of the test and an A-grade guarantees a girl’s purity, it is the bridging B-grade that tells us the most about the values that such a system is enforcing. A grade of ‘B’ is given if the testers determine that the girl “may have had intercourse once or twice” or “may have been abused”. Consequently, “active complicity in the sex act” bears weight on whether a ‘B’ or a ‘C’ grade is given. Though the physical requirements for being given a B-grade all imply that vaginal penetration has occurred, the real bearing of virginity seems to be a purity of mentality, ensuring that even if a girl has had sex or been touched inappropriately, it happened in the context of the girl’s own passivity (LeClerc-Madlala, 540).

            Within biomedical frameworks, there is no institutionally agreed upon medical definition for virginity. Therefore, the criterion that certifies “purity” in virginity testing in KwaZulu-Natal reflects the “folk constructs of the body and ethnomedical beliefs of health and illness” of that culture (LeClerc-Madlala, 539). While virginity is often considered a medical and physical state of the body, there are non-biological aspects that are considered in virginity. For example, an important factor in virginity testing in KwaZulu-Natal is that “a girl’s eyes… reflect virginity in that they ‘look innocent’” (LeClerc-Madlala, 540).

            The virginity testing phenomenon in KwaZulu-Natal reflects a collective awareness of the roles of certain kinds of bodies in the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In many areas of South Africa, traditional “notions of pollution are associated with sexually active women and their bodies” (LeClerc, Madlala, 541). This reference of sexual pollution within the body lends itself to an understanding of the HIV/AIDS epidemic as not only inherently sexualized, but also inherently gendered. To inform her own fieldwork, LeClerc-Madlala refers to the research of Ingstad (1990). Ingstad, conducting research on HIV/AIDS in Botswana, found that “informants often used female sexual anatomy as a point of reference when describing women as unclean and as potentially carrying more disease than men” (LeClerc-Madlala, 545).

            Moral conceptions about female sexuality are reflected in how female biology is symbolically conceptualized in certain communities. In Zulu-speaking areas of KwaZulu-Natal, the vagina is seen as a site of potential disease associated with its “’nesting’ qualities: not only do babies grow there, but potentially deadly ‘germs,’ including HIV, may also ‘grow’ and ‘hide’ within them” (LeClerc-Madlala, 542).  Consequently, “dry vaginas are conceptualized as ‘clean’ and disease-free, the imagery reflecting the moral character of its owner” (LeClerc-Madlala, 542). The standards of purity in the virginity testing event reflects these ideas about bodies and pollution.

            The control of female sexuality is also framed by traditional Zulu expectations of femininity. The ideal Zulu woman is “demure, soft-spoken… serves her husband, her children, and her in-laws” (LeClerc-Madlala, 543). Many of the older women in these communities are fighting against the “popular perception of the modern young woman as…assertive and active in pursuing her sexual interests” (LeClerc-Madlala, 543). This behavior is often seen as women attempting to act like men, a set of behaviors that fall outside the boundaries of accepted gender morality. While virginity testing explicitly controls bodies, it simultaneously controls systems of values.


            In South Africa, there is a “pervasive ‘national denial’ of the enormity of the AIDS problem during an era that most people expected to reflect post apartheid promises of ‘the good life’” (LeClerc-Madlala, 534). With this constant threat to the health of its citizens, the communities in KwaZulu-Natal have allowed traditional rituals such as virginity testing to resurface as a way of preventing another generation of ill bodies. However, opponents to the virginity testing events argue that while the tradition claims to be an attempt to fight HIV/AIDS, it is a rather ineffectual way of doing so. If the resurgence of virginity testing truly is a sexualized response to the threat of HIV/AIDS in South Africa, why are boys and men not included in the tradition?

            Virginity testing in Zulu-speaking communities of KwaZulu-Natal represents a medicalization of sexual control and traditional gender roles. Its resurgence, while claiming to be in response to a growing HIV/AIDS epidemic, also coincides with an era in which young women have been liberated on a global scale in terms of their own bodies and sexuality. In response to rapidly changing gender roles, communities have drawn lines of causality between the liberation of female sexuality and the increasing prevalence of HIV/AIDS. Virginity testing reemerged as a way to bridge these simultaneously threatening forces, one that is located in a cultural consciousness, the other located in a world of illness and biology. Virginity testing shapes the meaning of “health” for specific bodies in these communities by labeling sexual purity as healthy and sexual activeness as unhealthy.

            Virginity testing is supported as a way to suppress childhood and adolescent female sexuality. However, as Foucault hypothesized, it actually reveals how important sexuality is to the identity of Zulu-speaking communities in South Africa. Rather than being confined to a private sphere of the home and marriage, female sexuality is, quite literally, laid out and examined in public in order to guarantee the purity and “health” of a community. While post apartheid South Africa is often influenced by Western modernity, the trend of virginity testing reveals that anxieties about female bodies and sexuality continue to influence many community’s responses to modern epidemics such as HIV/AIDS. The contributions of tribal traditions, state modernity, and biomedicine are all revealed in the medicalized morality enforced by virginity testing.

                                                                                           Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. New York: Vintage, 1988. Print.

LeClerc-Madlala, Suzanne. Virginity Testing: Managing Sexuality in a Maturing HIV/AIDS Epidemic. Medical Anthropology Quarterly. 15 (4): 533-552

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Filed under feminism, gender, medical anthropology, reproductive rights, sexism, sexuality

Hysteria: A Double Take

Editor’s Note: Sorry for the delays in posting this week. Today I am featuring an awesome guest post by Marissa. 

I wonder why it is rare in film to see women partaking in rebellious activities, rather than activities that are not rebellious whatsoever, but somehow claim to be. Hysteria, a newly released film directed by Tanya Wexler, examines the invention of the vibrator during Victorian England, and depicts female orgasms as the cure for the contrived illness of “hysteria”. Why is female sexual desire– especially the idea of a woman having an orgasm– still something that feels so taboo?  How is it that a film such as Hysteria can exist based solely on the shame surrounding the idea of a woman as a potentially sexual being, the comedic elements relying on shame-induced laughter? And lastly, why do we continue to tell the offensive and oversimplified story that all an uptight woman needs in order to feel liberated is sex?

Hysteria centers around Mortimer Granville (played by Hugh Dancy), a young and educated British fellow, who wants to innocently dedicate his life to helping others (and also make lots of money).  Granville is portrayed as a progressive/liberal character, because he believes in “modern medicine” and specifically the futuristic idea of germ theory. He favors all things modern and looks down on those he believes to be stuck in the past. The beginning of the film depicts him struggling to find someone who will bless his naïve eagerness and hire him. The only person who will give him a job is Dr. Robert Dalrymple (played by Jonathan Pryce), a “women’s doctor”. Dr. Dalrymple has two daughters, Charlotte (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Emily (played by Felicity Jones).  Charlotte is “feminist” because she is loud and reactive, while Emily is quiet, obedient and clearly missing out the exciting life that Charlotte the feminist leads.  Charlotte punches men in the face when she is angry, and Emily just doesn’t get angry.  Dr. Dalrymple treats hysteria by giving women orgasms via pitching a puppet-show-like tent around their waists. Then, while they’re lying down so they cannot see him, he rubs them off. This is all unbeknownst to the women, who are depicted as having no idea that they are even feeling sexually aroused, and furthermore may not even know that they are capable of these sensations.

A major reason that I wanted to explore this film was because I find it simultaneously troubling and fascinating how we all too often underestimate the psychological strength of medical labeling (for example when words such as “sick” or “crazy” are used to describe a person). Labels like these carry much weight, and can easily encourage the formation of intense, dominant/submissive relationships (between friends, family, doctors and patients, whoever). This film is shocking because it does not portray hysteria accurately, but attempts to make light of it.  It does not depict the pain and suffering that many women experienced during Victorian England. It does not do justice to what hysteria really was—a contrived medical diagnosis that gave men the power to oppress women, to strip them of their rights and to delegitimize the way that women felt. I argue that the film reflects how many of these misogynistic ideas have still managed to linger around. The female characters in the film are not complex individuals, and as a viewer, I wondered how they really felt about what was going on. Obviously, if we cannot acknowledge past suffering we cannot honestly move on.  The diagnosis of hysteria was never humorous, and fully worked to further sexism and the violence against female-identified bodies. Hysteria may aim to lovingly mock the past, but in reality, it winds up inadvertently displaying how little feminist and queer efforts have impacted the major film industry and society at large.  I realize that Hysteria was not meant to be a “serious” film, but the point is precisely that it is grappling with very serious topics. Although it may have intended to be a retrospective, tongue-in-cheek look at the invention of the vibrator, it fails to tell the whole story, which I also realize is generally difficult (if not impossible) to do.  The danger is that the film masks itself as feminist, telling a story pitched to female viewers, intending to give women more power by telling us to just laugh off the past. We absolutely cannot laugh off the past, especially when it comes to issues of inequality.

Hysteria uses similar logic to beauty magazines: a woman must suffer and sacrifice in order to be considered worthy. I would like to seriously question this: should we really always suffer for what we want, or even need? I’m not arguing against the concept of hard work, but I am arguing against the idea that abuse, self or culturally inflicted, is okay if there is a positive outcome. In Hysteria, Charlotte is financially dependant on her father (whom she despises), and in the end she is only satisfied when Granville gives her money so she can pursue her dream. However, in order to get Granville’s money, she had to go through hell. There are plenty of feminists who are not simply reactive—they are thoughtful, brilliant, and yes–often very angry, but for the most part (if they have the financial means to do so) rely on themselves and their support systems for their needs rather than the forces that oppress them. Why is it that there are not more movies made about women starting revolutions, loving each other, and achieving their goals without requiring the approval of men?

In Hysteria, a woman can quite literally only have an orgasm at the hands of a man (until the end when the portable vibrator is invented) and the film completely disregards women who might use their own hands to induce orgasms. Hysteria pities women who are not like Charlotte, who may actually be comfortable in their submissiveness (such as Emily). What about those women who fully embrace their positions of submission and subordination and might even enjoy it?  Are those women considered less worthy of respect? How does this film account for them, besides including a character that is a former female sex worker, and who is often the unfortunate subject of jokes?

The medical diagnosis of hysteria is not taken seriously within the film, and this creates a lack of acknowledgment that distorts the very real, very serious, and very legitimate feelings that women experienced (and still experience!). Consider the trouble that would occur if a comedic film were made depicting the logic of a group of oppressive people? It would not be funny at all! This film fails to show how women really felt (and feel), and furthermore, the ways in which patriarchy is still alive and kicking today, just in a slightly different form.

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Childhood Innocence and the Emergency Imaginary

The following academic paper is a criticism of the film Born Into Brothels (which can be watched by clicking the image above) as a form of visual ethnography.

In this paper, I will define the term emergency allochronism and explore how the child subjects of the humanitarian documentary film Born Into Brothels embody it. This film represents a semi-autoethnographic project that is complicated by traditional binaries of ethnographic representation. While anthropologists attempt to represent the lives of their subjects through ethnographic films, autoethnographic projects focus on reflexivity, allowing typically marginalized subjects to represent themselves and reverse the binaries that have historically played a part in their oppression or misrepresentation. In Born Into Brothels, director and photographer Zana Briski originally takes on the role of the anthropologist, attempting to represent the lives of the women through her own lens. However, the project expands when Briski meets the children who also live in the brothels. Briski begins teaching the children photography and asks them to take photographs of their surroundings in an attempt to “see this world through their eyes”.

The product of Briski’s autoethnographic initiative for her child subjects is twofold. First are the photographs produced by the children, which were then sold in order to help finance their educations. Second is the film itself, which chronicles Briski’s experience teaching the children photography, but also doubles as a traditional ethnographic documentary that shows the lives of the children. The film Born Into Brothels will be the focus of this paper. Though the film incorporates self-reflexive interviews with its subjects and displays the photographs taken by the children, it remains bound by the problems of traditional ethnographic films, namely, allochronism. I argue that the film fails to reverse ethnographic binaries merely because its focus on children enforces allochronistic mediations of its subjects. By “allochronistic mediations,” I mean to refer to the way the film’s stylistic and dialectical choices activate an allochronistic understanding of its subjects. Allochronism, a term coined by Johannes Fabian, refers to the tendency of anthropologists to place the subjects of anthropological discourse in a temporality other than their own. I will discuss how allochronism becomes linked to the emergency imaginary in the context of this film. I will also discuss how innocence is inherent to representations of children in anthropological discourse. I will explore the film’s reliance on visuality and how its themes of prostitution further activate ontologies of childhood by focusing of issues of gender and sexuality.

In his book “Time and the Other,” Johannes Fabian argues that in “anthropology’s temporal discourse…there is no knowledge of the Other which is not also a temporal, historical, a political act” (Fabian, 1). He defines anthropology’s ontology of the Other as being dependent on relationships of time. Fabian calls this relationship a “denial of coevalness,” or “allochronism,” which he defines as “a persistent and systematic tendency to place referents of anthropology in a Time other than the present of the producer of anthropological discourse” (Fabian, 31). Allochronism is one of the binaries of traditional ethnographic discourse that autoethnographic and self-reflexive initiatives attempt to reverse and distort.

The temporality of the other is typically understood only in the concepts of a “present” and a “past,” where the producer of anthropological discourse exists in the present, and the referents of anthropology exist in the past. However, the “emergency imaginary” is another form of time that is often applied solely to those deemed other. The term was coined by anthropologist Craig Calhoun, who writes: “…the emergency is a sudden, unpredictable event emerging against a background of normalcy, causing suffering or danger and demanding urgent response” (Calhoun, 30). The emergency imaginary is typically evoked in humanitarian crises: anything from natural disasters to AIDS outbreaks to genocide. The emergency imaginary is a new temporality of the other, one that is not bound by the internal culture of the other, but rather by circumstances outside of the other.

How does Born Into Brothels activate the emergency imaginary when the “emergency” that the film attempts to save its subject from is not concurrent with Calhoun’s definition of emergency? The problem that the film attempts to solve is literally that children are “born into brothels”. Briski’s initiative is not attempting to save the children from something that affects them currently, but rather to prevent them from entering into a life that she believes is unsuitable for them. The goal of Briski’s project and film is not to represent her subject’s lives, but to help them remain “children” in the Western definition of the word. The film is actively engaged in maintaining the potential of its subjects. The emergency of Born Into Brothels is the impending point in time when the child subjects of the film will become completely corrupted by the life of prostitution that surrounds them.

I argue that the form of allochronism activated by the film is inherently linked to the temporality of emergency. I call this “emergency allochronism,” which points to the way that traditional ethnography speeds up time for the subjects of anthropological discourse when their surroundings are understood within the emergency imaginary. In emergency allochronism, the lives of anthropological subjects are not represented in stagnation or an ahistorical past, but in terms of a rapidly approaching, politicized future. Emergency allochronism is most likely to affect our mediations of child subjects because of the sharp contrast between innocence and corruption that is created by Western narratives of childhood.

The function of visuality in Born Into Brothels enforces the assumption of innocence on its child subjects.  In the opening credits, the camera focuses in on the eyes of children as they take in the sights of a brothel. They watch women undress, put on make-up, and stand outside the brothels, presumably soliciting sex. This moment in the beginning of the film cements visuality as an important sense for the film’s subjects. Similarly, Briski explains that her goal in working with the children became, “to teach them and to see this world through their eyes [emphasis mine]” (Born Into Brothels). Framing vision as the dominant sense allows the film to use the eyes, photography, and that which is seen to highlight or hide corruption of childhood innocence.

Briski’s desire “to see this world through their eyes” activates a humanitarian trope of childhood described by Liisa Malkki as “children as seers of truth”. Malkki writes that children are often hailed as “small humans with the capacity to see through ‘barriers’ of culture and nationality, race and class (Malkki, 67). With the assumption that the ability to see through barriers of culture is an asset, the visual focus of Born Into Brothels removes its subjects from their sociopolitical surroundings. This is exactly what the film attempts to do, for it also relies on the argument that childhood is a universal experience that should not affected by political realities. Emergency allochronism holds the threat of corruption of innocence through a politicized future over the heads of the children in Born Into Brothels. The film links children with cameras (as a visual medium) to emphasize their ability to “see truth,” and to recognize the universal childhood that they are missing out on.

Briski’s project to teach the children photography also emphasizes visual epistemologies of truth. The fact that the photographs were taken by the film’s subjects within their world assumes that the photographs reveal the reality of the subjects’ lives. The photographs taken by the children, which are shown throughout the film, act as an anchor into childhood. Because the photographs must be taken, then developed, then viewed by the children, the time that elapses before the children can view their own photographs could be the difference between their innocence and their corruption. In the film, the photographs, which naively depict friends, siblings, bedrooms, and animals, are proof that the children’s innocence has remained intact since their last roll of film. The photographs prove that they are still “seers of truth” (Malkki, 67).

When innocence becomes mandatory in considering anthropological subjects who are also children, these discourse create the ways in which children are allowed to be autonomous subjects. Erica Burman describes the way in which a focus on innocence for child subjects coerces them into passivity. Burman writes:

“Alongside the dominant cultural distribution of innocence and experience… runs a parallel discourse of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ children. Children who work are unnatural, as are children who do not live within recognizable cross-generational family units…. If the price of innocence is passivity, then the cost of resourcefully dealing with conditions of distress and deprivation is to be pathologised. Notions of knowledge and responsibility are so intertwined that we seem to find it difficult to treat children who ‘know’ as children, since their innocence has been compromised” (Burman, 244).

Burman illustrates the relationship between innocence and potentiality. I define potential as a form of active innocence. Children carry an assumed innocence, yet their potential is not inherent: is earned by avoiding compromising their innocence through knowledge.

The marriage between mediations of innocence and allochronism are described by Liisa Malkki, who writes: “The attribution of innocence to children suggests two things about innocence itself: first, that it is allochronic, somehow timeless, innocence; and second, that innocence is a form of not-knowing, of not being ‘worldly’” (Malkki, 63). In Malkki’s argument, the allochronism of innocence is not that it is located “in the past,” but that it is located in a stagnant passing of time.  Traditional allochronism assumes that children do not learn from experience, but remain innocent merely by virtue of being children. When placed in the context of the emergency imaginary, the allochronism of childhood innocence becomes threatened by a focus on the future. In Born Into Brothels, this traditional allochronism and the emergency allochronism I describe come into conflict with one another. Allochronism expects the child subjects to represent a passive innocence, where emergency allochronism becomes engaged in the active protection of potential against a rapidly approaching politicized future.

The child subjects of Born Into Brothels are aware that their innocence is part of their potential as human beings. During many interviews in the film, the children communicate to viewers that they remain mostly ignorant to the details of the prostitution that surrounds them. Reflecting on her mother, Tapasi says: “I know what she does for work and I feel bad talking about these things. Shanti explains, “In our room there is a rod and from there we close the curtain. That way we don’t see anything that’s going on.” While the threat of prostitution is the main source of corruption for the child subjects, even the knowledge of sexuality has the potential to corrupt the innocence that creates the image of an innocent child subject.

Malkki argues “from this pedestal, it is nearly impossible for actual children to act in the world as political, historical subjects” (Malkki, 79). Rather than granting the children any agency over their situation, Born Into Brothels enforces the idea that their innocence and potential must be guarded and that they can only be saved from their situation by others. Similarly, Malkki writes that while “figurations of the child and the human are putatively universal, they are in fact both culturally Western and quite Christian” (Malkki, 59). By framing the children of Born Into Brothels in the Western universalism of childhood innocence, the film erases and rejects the political and historical realities surrounding its subjects.

In the film, potentiality is almost solely focused on the girls. Erica Burman notes: “…little girls are the quintessential child victims. Femininity and childish dependence are here collapsed to evoke sympathy. This reinforces assumptions of children’s passivity, and reproduces patriarchal relations, both within and between donor and recipient countries” (Burman, 242). The female subjects of Born Into Brothels function in the way Burman describes. Their femininity is often played up in order to evoke sympathy. For example, there is an interesting moment in the film when one of the boys, Gour, begins speaking for his female friends. We see footage of Gour playfully tugging on Puja’s hair or chasing her around, while he reflects: “I like the way Puja behaves… I wish I could take Puja away from here” (Born Into Brothels). In these scenes, Gour creates both a patriarchal relationship and an almost romantic narrative between him and his female friends. In both of their functions, Gour’s reflections reproduce concepts of femininity and childish dependence for the girl subjects, emphasizing their passivity.

However, the representation of the young girls in Born Into Brothels is further complicated by the sexual nature of the threat against them.  The active struggle to maintain their potentiality is represented as futile as it faces something so inevitably corruptive. Briski narrates: “One of the girls was already married off at age eleven. Another one was forced into prostitution at age fourteen.… They have absolutely no opportunity without education”. Briski’s statement suggests that once a girl is married or becomes a prostitute, she has lost her fight against sexual corruption and can no longer be saved. The narrative created about Suchitra, who is eleven and one of Briski’s oldest students, also represents the futility of the struggle against sexual corruption. Puja says about Suchitra: “I know about her family…she has pressures on her. All the girls in Suchitra’s house are in the line…. Suchitra’s aunt will put her in the line because she’ll make money on her.” Gour also says “Suchitra’s mother is dead, but her aunt wants to send her to Bombay to work ‘in the line.’ She’s talked to me about it many times and asked me not to tell anyone.” Finally, Suchitra gets to speak for herself. Someone behind the camera asks her if she sees a solution to all of this. Suchitra hesitates and sadly answers, “No” (Born Into Brothels).

Suchitra’s dramatically framed yet simple statement embodies the passive innocence and lack of agency that is afforded to her as a subject. As a young woman being represented through emergency allochronism and being faced with the threat of sexual corruption and prostitution, Suchitra is not allowed to reflect on much else about her life. The swift movement of time that emergency allochronism creates narrows the amount of time a subject has before they are corrupted. In Born Into Brothels, this fact contributes to the lack of agency afforded to the child subjects. As the threat against them looms, the solution — which in Born Into Brothels is ‘education’—becomes the only thing worth thinking or talking about. This mediation, affected by the temporality of emergency, contributes to the failures of the film as an autoethnographic project because it does not allow its subjects to represent their own lives.

The failures of Born Into Brothels as an autoethnographic film highlight some of the prevailing tropes that exist in humanitarian narratives. Evoking the emergency imaginary is often a very political move. When it interacts with anthropological discourse of representation to create emergency allochronism, the results can be detrimental to ethical representation and self-reflexivity. Similarly, the focus on child subjects within the emergency imaginary enforces very specific understandings of childhood and innocence. I have proved how representation through these ideas failed in the case of Born Into Brothels, but we must be aware how the child subject functions politically in other forms of media, particularly when gender and sexuality play such an important role in the establishment of the problem. Child subjects function uniquely in ethnographic films, representing potentiality as well as a collective humanity. We must be wary, however, of how such representations limit agency and self-reflexivity. The connections between the assumed innocence and potential of a child and the universal threat of an emergency are harmful representations not only of children, but also of emergency situations. They assume that corruption is not reversible, and that only subjects with potential are subjects worth ‘saving’.

 Works Cited

Born Into Brothels. Dir. Briski, Zana and Ross Kauffman. 2005. Film.

Burman, Erica. Innocents Abroad: Western Fantasies of Childhood and the Iconography of Emergencies. Disasters Vol. 18 No. 3. (1994): pp. 238 – 251. Print.

Calhoun, Craig. “The Idea of Emergency: Humanitarian Action and Global (Dis)order,” Didier Fassin and Mariella Pandolfi, eds., Contemporary States of Emergency. The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions. Cambridge, MA: Zone Books (2011): pp. 18 – 39. Print.

Fabian, Johannes. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York: Columbia UP, 2002. Print.

Malkki, Liisa. Children, Humanity, and the Infantilization of Peace. In the Name of Humanity: The Government of Threat and Care. Duke University Press (2010) Print.

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Filed under children, cultural anthropology, gender, Uncategorized

Sexist Ad Saturday: Bikini Bodies?

“Women’s magazines” have a way of inspiring body hate year-round, from featuring tips on how to avoid gaining weight over the winter holidays to their fixation on “bikini bodies” from the first moment Punxsutawney Phil pokes his head out of a long winter.

In my teenage years I dreaded bathing suit situations, especially when I’d be around other girls who were constantly comparing bodies. Since I ditched the women’s magazines at the beginning of 2009, my skepticism of the alleged “perfect bikini body” has grown. What exactly does a “bikini body” look like? Why do women need to change their bodies just to wear a functional (if revealing) piece of clothing? Why must our bodies be first and foremost something to be seen?

Why are “bikini body” diet and workout tips often linked to “confidence”? This phrasing implies that we should only be confident about our appearances if we are perfectly thin, toned, and hairless. Can’t we be confident about our bodies without changing them or fitting into some arbitrary body norm?

When we put all our energy and concern into how we look for the pleasure of others, we lose that energy that wants to do, help, create, and change the world around us. Don’t fall for the futile search for the perfect body. Cast off harmful media like women’s magazines and body-negative health and fitness blogs and learn to love your body for what it does rather than what it looks like.

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Internet Threats Against Sarkeesian and Green Shut Down Debates

Misogyny against women on the internet has received increased attention in the past few months in response to Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter project “Tropes vs Women in Video Games“. Sarkeesian runs Feminist Frequency and makes videos about feminism and sexism in popular culture. She made a proposal for a video series about sexism in video games and used Kickstarter to raise the $6,000 to fund her project. Sarkeesian met her goal in no time, but she also met widespread threats of death and rape from members of the online gaming community. Sarkeesian writes about the image-based harrassment and visual misogyny that was created against her, from wikipedia vandalism to the creation of an online game whose objective is to beat up her likeness.

A controversy on Tumblr today is another example of threats against a woman on YouTube. Vlogger Laci Green, who runs the Sex+ channel, received threats of violence and death in response to certain opinions she expressed on her YouTube and Tumblr.

The controversy seems to have been started over the questions below, in which Green apologizes for an uninformed mistake she had made in the past.

Another aspect of the controversy was sparked by Green’s evangelical atheism and an opinion she expressed about Islam in a video about why she is no longer a Mormon. Green said that Mormonism is “probably one of the most sexist [religions] that I’ve come across, beside Islam.”

This is the question, and Laci’s answer, in regard to her comment on Islam.

“Q: Sorry if you already answered this, but I came across your other channel and just watched the video where you say Mormonism is “probably one of the most sexist [religions] that I’ve come across, beside Islam.” Since you are white and have never been Muslim, could you issue an apology, or update the video with an apology in the description? I am an atheist too, but there is horrible sexism in many religions, and in secular culture as well. It’s not right to single out Islam. It’s Islamophobic.

A: You’re right, it’s not right to single out Islam. Many religions and cultures are extremely sexist and I despise them all equally. This wasn’t the intent of my statement and I apologize if it came off that way.

The video (which is kinda old and came before I learned how to be fully “PC”) is about my experience, and in my life, Islam has perpetuated more gendered violence and sexism toward the women in my life and family than mormonism ever did. Both these religions have wounded me and my loved ones deeply, much of which was on the basis of sex and gender. Just writing about this makes my heart sink. No amount of screaming “Islamophobia” will change that, and it’s actually a wonderful example of how childish and ignorant religion makes people out to be. People get so wound up in defending anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-human, piece of trash organizations that they can’t hear criticism for what it is: a human experience that is real, that is valid, that is unjust.

Yes I am white and no I am not Muslim nor have I ever been. There are certain experiences I can never speak about, such as actually being Muslim or being a person of color. I can, however, speak about my own, and to argue that I must have dark skin or have been a practicing Muslim in order for me to do so is more of the same oppressive bullshit.

I grew up in a multicultural family. My dad’s side of the family immigrated from Iran 20 years ago. My dad himself immigrated to America when he was 16. My family is Muslim on my dad’s side and Mormon on my mother’s (although my dad eventually converted to mormonism). I grew up in a climate where these two religions dominated my life in a really painful way. 

I don’t owe ANYONE explanations of why I feel the way I do. I don’t need to rehash things that have hurt me and that I’ve moved on from. My feelings and experiences are perfectly valid on their own. If you want to call it “Islamophobia”, I’ll call you ignorant.This isn’t about quantifying pain, this is about my own experience with that pain. Calling that “Islamophobia” undermines what Islamophobia really is and how it operates. I fucking hate organized religion, including Islam, and all the pouting in the world won’t change that.”

Much of this controversy has been playing out on Tumblr and involving the community of social justice bloggers. I agree that Laci’s comments, especially those regarding Islam, were unnecessarily negative and probably emotionally-charged. I think the right thing for Laci to do would be to conduct her research on what her critics have been saying and make an informed apology for her comments. However, everything that Laci’s critics (and Anita Sarkeesian’s critics as well) are calling attention to can no longer be the main concern of these controversies. Nobody is going to listen to or engage in informed debate about the problematic aspects of Sarkeesians’s project or Laci Green’s comments once a threat has been made against their lives. This anger, while it may be well-meaning or deserved, is counter productive to informed discussion about identity, race, religion, gender, and sexuality. These are sensitive topics, but reacting with anger, stalking, and threats completely shuts down the important conversation that needs to be happening about such sensitive topics.


Filed under feminism, gender, identity, politics, pop culture, privilege, sexism, sexuality, social justice

Weighing In (or, I’m Not Aphrodite; also She’s Dead to Me)

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a new series of posts on The Feminist Anthropologist in which I am featuring guest posts from other talented writers and bloggers. This wonderful post on female body image is by my friend Charlotte Marriott, the immaculate poet and author of The Smallest Island. If you have an idea for a guest post, please send it to brenna.mccaffrey(at)gmail(dot)com. 

DON’T LOOK DOWN, don’t look down, don’t look down: the epitome of which, since I was first coming into womanhood, has been the bathroom scale. I used to be weighed frequently as a precocious member of Weight Watchers—a group in which my middle school French teacher was also enrolled, as she informed my seventh grade French class, much to the unutterable despair of myself and my twin sister. I’m not naming most names in order to protect the innocent…and the not-so-innocent.

At twelve, did I really need Weight Watchers? I wasn’t overweight. My mother thought that my sister and I would learn valuable life lessons about eating right, having not realized that the program of 1975 is completely different than that of 2003. W.W. in 2003, as well as today, is all about “Points” and to get into the mandatory weekly meetings (which, though in the same enormous room, were barricaded by a seemingly soundproof screen), everyone must “Weigh In,” and a lot of times there’s an overtly amused old “Weigh-In” lady there to prey on the young and announce whatever number comes up like it’s a lottery jackpot, or tell you something stupid, or compare you to your gorgeously slim mother when said mother isn’t looking. Needless to say, Weight Watchers was not my scene. Long story short, seventh grade saw me defying my mother by throwing a handful of Betty Crocker’s cake mix into all of the two-Point shakes and smoothies she bought, and still charging myself only two Points. A downward—or shall I say, upward spiral had begun to take shape.

But you can’t blame Weight Watchers, my mother, Betty Crocker, or the French teacher for any bad feelings that may have arisen, because a large number of those feelings were innate, and I don’t know why. I can recall, as early as the age of two or three, feeling like I didn’t measure up to the neighbors’ granddaughter, Lisha, in terms of beauty. She wasn’t thinner than my sister or myself, but she had straight hair whereas ours was tightly curled, so her hair looked a lot longer, and as much as I enjoyed playing with her, there was always a dark cloud hanging over me, whispering that I wasn’t as much of a girl because I didn’t have hair to my shoulders. My convoluted idea of where these comparative feelings started: a combination of the fact that I am blonde while my mother has dark hair and Disney Princesses. I get it that Jasmine, Tiana, Pocahontas, and Mulan were groundbreaking for Disney, but I’m still waiting for the Princess who looks like me, and I think Disney would probably require a lot more persuasion to make my Princess. All Disney Princesses are ideal figures. Ideal figures are easier to draw and of course, they comply with the big screen’s Papal bull of female beauty: they are thin and perfectly shaped, they have giant eyes, and perfect busts. Because they are animated, they also tend to have giant heads (to minimize their respective bodily girths) and tiny feet, like living Barbies. A child of 1990, I am much too old for Tiana; Belle, Pocahontas, and Mulan were my Princesses. They were the most intelligent and the least “girly” as far as I was concerned, yet their looks became significant as I internalized these cartoon goddesses and pretended I was them, but never swanned into them.

This brings me to my hair. In terms of appearance, I most revered the dark-haired Princesses, and of riders on the Magic Schoolbus, identified most with Phoebe, the white girl character who came in brunette (you know what I’m talking about). My hair in real life is frizzy and dirty-blonde. Under a microscope lens, it looks like six different colors. I have secretly tried, over the years, to appoint Carole King as my new paradigm of beauty, because her hair is similar to mine in many ways, but I’m still so awfully self-conscious, especially when I’ve fluctuated up in terms of my weight, that within ten minutes of entering a room with my hair down, I have a brief anxiety attack before pinning it up with anything I can find—if necessity dictates, I’ve even tied my hair to itself…using itself. But I have resolved to make a point of never altering it. One day it will be white. Another, it may not be there at all. But I’m going with what I’ve got. I feel silly enough just putting on makeup sometimes without changing or faking my hair.

One thing that makes my self-consciousness worse when comparing myself to other women is my failure to match the heteronormative paradigm. Whether I’m attracted to someone or not, regardless of another person’s gender, there is always the sinking feeling that I am being judged through a sexual lens because of my own instincts, and it makes me awkward. I don’t feel like this when I know someone particularly well, or maybe I do, because I know that my life would be very different if I were shaped a bit more like Belle or Pocahontas or Mulan. This is where my overcompensation factor comes in. I try to build up confidence in another area, normally my intellect, reminding myself that my IQ is in the genius range (not Stephen Hawking genius, but up there) and I am the author of three books. Guess what? We’re not talking about intellect. We’re talking about the societal paradigm for beauty, and I don’t fit there, not for lack of trying, and it breaks my poor little genius heart all over again.

I have a friend from college who I’m very proud to know; she is a plus-size model and she is absolutely gorgeous. Fashion has never held much interest for me, much less modeling, but I do have a ritual of my own. I don’t know if this helps the 8-and-up community in general, but it surprisingly helps me. I have literally been every size from 2 to 18 since I stopped growing, always wishing to be smaller, but no matter what I am today, every morning when I get up, I go in the bathroom, take off my shirt, and stand in front of the mirror. I give myself a couple spinsies and tell myself that I am beautiful, even if I don’t think so. I tell myself that I am smart. I tell myself that I am proud to be a virgin by choice. I try to look at my body with admiration, because it is beautiful, because I did not design it or create it, because I am a greater Artist’s creation and that Artist must have meant it. God doesn’t make mistakes. I fluctuate without even trying, and I am learning that that is fine.

In the cultural climate at hand, “fat” becomes the new mother F word, and to be described as such becomes the boggart lurking in millions of cupboards today. Personally, most of the men who have passed judgment on my own body have done so from a deep hypocrisy, as, though I’ve never solicited opinions, I have been deemed subpar by not only those Apollos freshly sprung from the Ken doll mold, but also the beer-bellied, the balding, and the shamelessly hairy. Likewise I have been judged by all manner of women: the older women at Weight Watchers meetings who preyed upon the confidence of the young, one of my aunts who described fourteen-year-old me as a stack of tires in my black bathing suit, my peers in high school and even one or two in college, and even the director of my tenth-grade musical when I weighed a whopping 140 pounds, which I think I wore well, told me that I was fat and that I couldn’t sing. (This is neither here nor there, but I am an amazing vocalist.)

Another early memory involves sitting beside my friend Theresa at lunch in the first grade. I distinctly remember noticing how tiny her wrist looked in comparison to mine and thinking to myself that I should not eat the pizza I had just bought. Nobody did that to me outright. My feelings were the product of subconscious exposure to something I could never be. It was not until much later that I realized my…shall we say, organic person could still be attractive. Either that or attractiveness didn’t matter. As I moved into high school, I struggled with my weight to the point of panicking during trips to the mall.

A beloved family member who saw me fluctuate so extremely during high school has since moved hundreds of miles away, and my visits with him are now few and far between. When he tells me that it looks like I’ve lost weight, even if in actuality I’ve gained 20 pounds since I’ve seen him, I know that he thinks he is complimenting me. He thinks women must be thin, and he thinks “you’ve lost weight” is the right thing to say to one. I simply thank him, inwardly enraged at what his experience has taught him about vanity, but that’s another story. He is like a lot of men; he has been taught that compliments on the physical, superficial self are what we as women are desperate to hear. Because he thought I probably didn’t receive many compliments on my looks, and because I know that he loves me, his comments have always registered with me as innocent: a misspent kindness.

But there’s definitely a dark side to men’s perception women as desperate for approval, and it’s probably more widely realized than my uncle’s compliments. This dark side is easy enough to highlight. All you need to do is find someone to hit on you. There are actually men (and women, if you’re LGBTQA) out there who think that we’re desperate to be loved to the point of offering ourselves sexually. And while I’m not one of those women, I know that those women do exist. It hurts me to know that there are emotional predators who hope our self-esteem is so low that they can use us to get off. Don’t be one of those women who gets used. I’m not saying that there aren’t nice, normal men and women out there who would genuinely like to be your partner, but I urge you to please figure out the difference first. One woman’s newfound courage of her convictions is a great victory for us all, and there are billions of us.

It would be erroneous to assume that average- and plus-size women are the only women who struggle with the issue of body image, and unfair not to mention that apparently there is such thing as thinking oneself too thin. Not scary thin, which is a separate beast entirely, but to view oneself as aesthetically flat or even boyish. The stark standardization of female beauty also hurts male-bodied transwomen, our too-frequently forgotten sisters, who are often excluded from the range of what is considered an acceptable expression of femininity. Where I struggle to minimize my D-cup breasts, I have had friends, female-bodied and not, who felt that their bodies were not womanly because they were not curvaceous. In the past I have joked that I would happily donate to a few skinny girls until we were all the same, but is sameness the quality we seek? Doesn’t that sound a little…Orwellian? Must we all assimilate to the same end, the same goal, the same form? Are we becoming Doctor Who‘s Cybermen? Are our bodies the current frontier for some nouveau perversion of Marxist thought?

I wish that gender was as invisible to the rest of the planet as it is to me, because the concept of “real women” is not one that I understand. I have always held that anyone who declares herself a woman is in fact a real woman. We are naturally diverse, but because we notice those differences, must we eliminate them? Every time I read an interview with someone who has suffered an eating disorder, I notice how many survivors point to wishing they had attended Catholic schools, or anywhere that supplied a uniform. I do think that sameness is the goal, so while I sprint for fitness on the elliptical in the basement, I can’t help but feel a little guilty for falling into the same bad feelings about my body, exactly how it is today.

I am very intrigued by the idea of reclaiming negative words, normally related to race, gender, and LGBTQA issues. Similarly, I think one universally understood word needs reclaiming. It’s not the word “fat,” however. “Fat” is nasty and too far-gone. As grateful as I am for Fat Pride activists and the work that they do, it’s not a word that I want applied to me, and I think most women and people in general would agree. The word that needs reclaiming is “beautiful.” Personally, I think everyone is intrinsically beautiful. It’s a given, like life. However, beauty should not be reclaimed as a positive, because then it is gauged by superficial means. In the wake of competence, intelligence, integrity, creativity, and that old standby basic human dignity, “beauty” must be reclaimed as an afterthought.

So this one goes out to to all the girls who ordered a dressingless salad because some idiot said, “You don’t need onion rings,” even though you were secretly jonesing; this is a shoutout to everyone who heroically avoided chocolate on her last period. You know whether or not you’re healthy. You know what weight(s) you like best on yourself. But whether you are currently in that comfort zone or not, label yourself with universal positives even if you have to work to believe yourself. Nobody else gets to weigh in.


Filed under body image, feminism

“How To Be A Woman,” or Why We Like Gender Rules

    From inspirational quotes and images on Tumblr and Pinterest to the strict gender roles enforced by many religions, it is clear that many people like being told how to perform their gender. Self-help books like “Men Are from Mars…”, “Rules of a Lady” graphics, and even gendered advertising create the gender rulebooks that surround us. They tell us how to be a man or a woman, alienating all other expressions of gender and creating an environment in which people are punished for violating these societal codes. Though working against these gender rulebooks has been a major project of the feminist movement, it is not always easy to write off such deeply inscribed roles.

A Crystal Light ad clearly targeting women: “Finally energy for the gender who invented ‘multi-tasking'”.

I am an atheist who fully understands why so many people believe in a higher power. I sometimes wish I was not so vehemently areligious, because I am able to recognize and understand the benefits that religion has for many people. Gender rulebooks have a similar pull for me. Challenging gender roles that have been surrounding you since before you can remember is exhausting, and sometimes all I want is for someone to tell me what to do so I don’t have an identity crisis every family holiday when I realize that I’m helping my aunts and grandmother in the kitchen while all my male relatives are sitting on the couch watching sports on television.

As a feminist, I am supposed to abhor the rules and the stereotypes the society has created for women, but there are many times when I have wished that I had a gender rulebook. We see this struggle play out in popular culture. The rise of appreciation for the 1950’s and 1960’s, influenced by shows like Mad Men and a focus on vintage fashion comebacks, has brought a similar rise in sexism nostalgia. Many people express a desire to go back to a certain era when things were “simpler” and “men did x” and “women did y”. Though we recognize that the Mad Men era was not a particularly good one for a black lesbian woman in New York City, that nostalgia through rose-colored, sexism-blind glasses does illuminate the conflicting struggle of feminism and our personal feelings about gender roles.


It is important for the feminist movement as a whole to recognize this struggle within every individual. We all identify as feminists in different ways.  Our own personal gender expression is often influenced by the gender rulebooks that we either choose to follow or work against. My fourteen year-old sister will not call herself a feminist or accept the feminist ideas that I introduce to her. When I asked her why she doesn’t like feminism, she replied: “I like being girly. I like pink and sparkley things.” If that continues to be the roadblock between young women and feminism, I believe we have a big problem in the growth of the modern feminist movement.



Filed under feminism, gender, identity, pop culture, Uncategorized