Wednesday, August 19, 2009

In Control

For the last couple of weeks, I've been thinking about how to do a first post on Fat Acceptance. It's hard to sum up a social movement in a sentence, but here's my brief summary of FA. Size discrimination is wrong, and pressuring others to diet does far more harm than good. There's more to it, of course, but that's the basic idea.

Now, this all seems pretty common-sense to me. But it's a contentious topic, even among other liberal, progressive, feminist types. I'm not sure why that is. Maybe it's because the moral panic about obesity is relatively new; most of us haven't taken the time to deconstruct it. Maybe it's because weight is such an emotionally charged issues, that it's hard to have a detached conversation about it. I don't know.

At any rate, I'm still working on a good way to explain my FA convictions. In that spirit, I wanted to talk a bit about the way imperatives to be "fit" operate in our culture, and why I'm troubled by mainstream attitudes toward weight, fitness, and health.

Of course it's good to eat right and exercise. It's good to keep fit, as long as each of us can define fitness in a way that's consistent with our abilities, circumstances, and goals. But the way we think about fitness, about maintaining an "ideal" body, is completely messed up.

Diet Culture is Awful



For starters, our fitness attempts usually aren't about health--not really. They're about being "beautiful", about gaining social prestige.

But that's only part of the issue. Sure, plenty of us are struggling to imitate an unrealistic ideal, and telling themselves it's all about health. And maybe that's flawed. But what's worse is the mindset with which so many of us approach the business of keeping "fit."

In the quest for fitness, we're encouraged to view our bodies as adversaries. We use dieting and exercise to punish our bodies for their imperfections, rather than as ways to strengthen and nourish our glorious physical selves.

In our culture, dieting isn't about well-being or self-care. Yes, it's possible for some people to lose weight in a sane, healthy way; I'm happy for them. But mainstream diet culture is neither sane, nor healthy.

It's violent, scary, and hazardous to your health.

Thrift Store Adventures



I went on a thrift-store expedition this afternoon, which was highly enjoyable. I came how with a variety of cheap, tight, ruffly things*, all excellent for dancing. But, as I was browsing through t-shirts, I found something truly disturbing.

There was a shirt, with a single word on the front: CONTROL. Standing beside the text was an outline drawing of a woman, with a figure like a mud flap girl. On her lower belly, was a picture of a target.

Now, what's the implication, here? That you should "control" hot babes, by shooting them in the gonads? Seriously?

Well, not really, but almost. This was a woman's shirt, and on the back, there was the slogan for some fitness program. "Be fit. Be sexy. Be in control." That's all well and good, but I think I've found ways to be sexy, and reasonably fit (no comment on the "in control" part), without having a target on my uterus. Or a fuckton of misogyny on my shirt.

Being In Control



I don't know where the shirt came from, or what it might have meant to whoever once owned it. I've done a lot of martial arts; I know that taking a "tough love" attitude toward ones own body can actually be quite bracing.

But still, what does it say about our culture that any woman would wear this shirt? First of all, there's the implication that women need to be "sexy," and that "sexy" women are taunt, slender, and composed of at least 30% breast tissue. Women should be strong and fit, but only so they can be more perfect ornaments for men's viewing pleasure. The "in control" bit suggests that this is supposed to be empowering; somehow, I'm not convinced.

Then, we get to the oh-so-subtle belly target, next to the single word CONTROL. It's not just that women are supposed to be taut and thin. It's that we're supposed to be engaged in a constant war with out bodies. We're taught to accept that a less-than-perfect body deserves pain.

Ideally, "fitness" regimes would be about strengthening and nourishing our bodies. They would be about health. And the sort of negative self-image promoted by diet culture is profoundly unhealthy. So is the obsessive dieting and exercise women engage in, hoping to attain a "perfect" figure.

American woman are told that achieving a certain body type will make us powerful. We diet and exercise, hoping that will give us "control." But really, we're the ones being controlled. We're starving and sweating for an arbitrary ideal, when we could be using that energy to strengthen ourselves in ways that truly matter--whether by running a marathon, or reading a good book. And we're taught to view our bodies as enemies. Women are being cheated of that precious human birthright, self-love.

*Being part of Feminism 3.0, I can wear tight magenta miniskirts without feeling guilty about it.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Brows

This week, I finally got my eyebrows waxed. I've been toying with the idea for some time, but I hesitated. Like most people, I'm not terribly fond of pain. And I worried that I might not like the results. But mostly, I was ambivalent about waxing for more political reasons.

As a feminist, I'm often critical of the beauty industry. I'm used to telling conventional beauty standards to auto-copulate. So, when I was struck with the desire to have my defenseless little hairs yanked out by the roots, I felt troubled and confused. Because waxing is one of the many cultural practices that I find problematic.

What's Wrong with Waxing?



There's the racial angle, of course. I might not agree that Ashkenazi Jews constitute a "race," but let's face it: we Jews tend to deviate from the reigning beauty ideal. We're short; we have strong features, and thick, dark locks. I know Jewish girls who spend hours straightening their all-but-straight hair, girls who carefully tweeze their brows and upper lips. It's hard not to feel that these arduous grooming measures are an attempt to look whiter, to blend in. There's an undercurrent of ethnic self-hatred in these women that makes me distinctly uncomfortable.

Then, there's my feminist objections to waxing. I hate the age-old idea that women must suffer to be beautiful. For the most part, I agree with the second-wave case against the beauty industry, as stated by the incomparable Naomi Wolf. Our society pressures women--and increasingly, men too--to harm themselves for the sake of beauty. Breast implants, stilettos, bikini waxes--for some, these might be authentic personal choices. But most women engage in physically destructive beauty regimes because of social pressure to do so. Wolf sees painful beauty treatments as a subtle form of violence against women. And personally, I'm inclined to agree.

But You Still Got Your Brows Yanked Off!



Well, parts of them. Yes. Does that make my a hypocrite? I don't think so, for several reasons.

First, I didn't get waxed because I felt that fuzzy brows were some kind of terrible defect. I know lots of women who look gorgeous with thick, natural brows. Nor was waxing an attempt to look "whiter," per se. Hairy brows or no, I look distinctly Jewish, and I'm proud of it.

I didn't get waxed because I felt pressured to do so. Sure, conventional beauty standards had something to do with it. I wasn't born thinking that a wide, smooth glabella was a desirable thing. But I'm also perfectly comfortable rejecting beauty practices that don't feel right to me. (Dieting, for example.) In the end, I made a thoughtful decision to modify my appearance, in a way that seemed reasonable to me.

For me personally, getting a brow wax wasn't much of a sacrifice. The procedure was painful, but it was also brief. There were a few moments of intense pain as the stylist yanked the wax off, plus some mild soreness that lasted for about twenty minutes. And the resulting change in my appearance, while minor, made me genuinely happy. This seems like a pretty good deal.

On the other hand, from my personal standpoint, Brazilian bikini waxes seem downright inhumane. I can tolerate a certain amount of pain in a few tiny spots on my forehead. But would I want to subject my nether regions to the same type of abuse--and risk all sorts of unpleasant health complications? I think not. And frankly, I'm appalled that our culture pressures women to suffer through such a procedure.

So Where Do We Draw the Line?



How much is it reasonable to sacrifice for beauty, financial gain, or social acceptability? When does a bizarre personal choice become an oppressive cultural practice? The short answer is: I don't know. Obviously, it's a subjective decision. I have a vague sense of where the line should be, but that's influenced by my personal experience; by the value I place on beauty, and on bodily integrity; and by my personal tolerance for pain.

Then again, maybe it doesn't matter where one draws that line in the sand. The truth is, people like modifying their bodies, for a variety of reasons. It's an age-old past-time, which can be a lot of fun. I'm inclined to think that procedures which can permanently impair physical functioning (elective labiaplasty comes to mind) are inherently repressive. But, barring permanent physical harm, there's a tremendous range of body modification practices available. And each of them could conceivably represent an empowered, life-enhancing choice for some individuals.

Can't We All Just Get Along?


The things some women do for beauty seem crazy to me. Then again, I have friends who think that my decision to get my brows done is completely insane. It's not my place to question anyone's personal choices. The real issue is making sure that we have a cultural climate in which people really can make those choices freely.

I might enjoy having neatly-shaped brows, but I'm still irritated by all the cultural pressure to be groomed into oblivion. I was still intensely gratified the other day, when I saw a clothing ad the featured a beautiful, and distinctly un-waxed, female model. And if I hate the pressure to be shaved and waxed, I hate the pressure to diet, or get breast implants, or engage in hundreds of other dangerous beauty practices about a thousand times more. But that doesn't mean I can't respect another woman's right to get a boob job, if that's what makes her happy.

And if someone chooses to engage in risky beauty practices as a response to social pressure, that, too, is a legitimate choice. It may not be consistent with my personal value system, but it's still their body, and their decision.

In the end, we need to respect others' choices, even as we fight the social pressures that constrained those choices. It's a delicate balance, one that requires some fairly sophisticated thinking. But it's certainly not impossible.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Whose Fantasy?

So, I understand that pointing up the misogyny in cyber-culture is like shooting fish in a barrel. But lately, I've been seeing some internet ads which I feel deserve comment. Not because they are particularly awful, but because they're an exquisitely good example of a particular brand of sexism, one that permeates our popular culture, on-line and off.

There ads are for a virtual world know as the Utherverse. Unfortunately, I can't post the ads themselves--how exactly does one link to a banner ad? But they're thirty-second videos, which run something like this.

Two male avatars are talking. A beautiful brunette woman walks up to them. As she approaches, one of the men abruptly leaves. A thought bubble appears over the woman's head: "Why won't he talk to me?"

To find out, she reads his Utherverse profile, where he has posted the phrase "blondes rock!" Another thought-bubble epiphany ensues: "He likes blondes." The female-avatar then does a quick transformation, and acquires some extremely blonde hair. She then runs into the man from before. This time, he notices her, and says "I don't remember seeing you here before." Immediately, they start making out. At this point, some text appears on the banner: "Experience the thrill. Live your fantasy."

I may be getting a few of the details wrong, but that's the basic idea.

This Is Why I Shouldn't Surf the Internet


Now, there are some obvious problems with this little scenario. First, there's the affirmation of ethnocentric beauty ideals. Yes, this is only one ad, and they could only show one character's transformation. But somehow, I doubt it's a coincidence that they showed a brunette going blonde, and not the other way around.

Then, there's the way this ad portrays the dating game. Yes, the woman is an agent here. She goes out and wins the object of her desire, rather than passively waiting for a man to choose her. But she still has to rely on appearance alone to attract a mate. And it isn't enough for her to simply be extraordinarily pretty: she must be the exact kind of pretty this particular man prefers.

Not only that, but the man in question is not exactly a beacon of feminist enlightenment. I understand that a thirty-second clip doesn't offer many opportunities for character development, but that's no excuse. The man in question refuses to talk to our heroine, just because she has the wrong hair color. Once she becomes a blonde, he's ready to sex her up, no questions asked. To this fellow, women are interchangeable sex objects, whose desirability is determined by a few physical characteristics.

The message, overall, is that men are shallow cads, who care only about appearance, and that women should expect no better. This, in and of itself, is an excellent example of why women often feel uncomfortable on internet forums. (For an amusing take on this issue, check out this comic.)

Whose Fantasy Are They Selling?


On a deeper level, this ad is a perfect illustration of a troubling cultural phenomenon. We've all heard the expression "sex sells." But, as Lisa at Sociological Images points out, it's almost always women's sexualized bodies, and (straight) men's desires, that are sold. And the sexualization of women is sold to everyone. Even ads which seem to cater to women, or to sell women's sexual empowerment, frequently selling male fantasies, and female objectification.

I think this ad is a great example. On one level, it's targeted at women. The woman is the protagonist of the video. She's the one who gets her sexual desires fulfilled--albeit by conforming to the preferences of the man. But the story is still fundamentally about male power, male sexual subjectivity, and female objectification.

The ad instructs (female) viewers to "live your fantasy." But is this really about a female fantasy of sexual empowerment? Hardly. Instead, the narrative offers women the "freedom" to cater to men's whims. Of course, it would be nice to be able to change ones appearance at will. But it would be nicer to live in a world where women weren't judged solely based on appearance, or where men weren't conditioned to believe that only a narrow spectrum of traits could be attractive.

If I were to design a sexually-charged on-line fantasy world, things would be quite a bit different. I would play as a short, chubby, near-sighted brunette. And I would have an intelligent, devoted young gentleman friend, who loved me exactly as I was.

Actually, I just described the real world.

The Utherverse might be a fun place to hang out. (Then again, it might also fill your computer with Trojans.) But if this ad is in any way representative, the wish-fulfillment fantasy it offers to female users is an extremely limited one. Ultimately, the Utherverse ad is selling a male fantasy: that women are endlessly malleable creatures, eager to transform themselves to suit a man's taste.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Would You Like Some Perspective With That?

Last night, I was having a free-wheeling philosophical discussion with a couple of colleagues from my math program. Most of us were standard-issue social liberals. But there was one fellow who was chauvinist to the core, and was giving us an earful about it.

Now, to be honest, I felt a little sorry for this guy--let's call him J. His views were whacky, inconsistent, and in some cases, morally reprehensible. But he was surrounded by people who were doing their utmost to rip his worldview to shreds, and that can't have been fun. To be honest, I think we baited him a little; I'm not sure everything he said was a perfect reflection of what he believes in his heart of hearts.

Nonetheless, he said some things that would be thoroughly outrageous in any context. And when we called him on it, he refused to back down. The worst, I think was this: he referred to unfaithful wives as committing "the male form of rape." A cheating wife, according to J., is equivalent to a wife who rapes her husband.

Did Somebody Seriously Say That?



Unforutnately, yes. And if you don't think that's a problem, read on!

The analogy he was drawing, more or less, was that both husbands of cheating wives and rape victims are sometimes coerced into raising a child they do not want: a cuckold may end up raising the other man's baby, knowingly or otherwise, while a rape survivor may bear the rapist's child.

Now, I understand the point this fellow was trying to make, but his argument was thoroughly out of line, for several reasons.

First of all, as I politely pointed out last night, the "male form of rape" is what happens when men get raped. It still shocks me that I have to explain this to people, but male rape is surprisingly common. About 10% of rape survivors are male; and about fifteen percent of male rape victims are raped by a woman. To call wifely infidelity "the male form of rape" means denying the experience of millions of men. It means implying either that the suffering of male rape victims doesn't count, or that being raped destroys a man's masculinity.

On another level, J.'s statement glosses over the incredible physical and emotional trauma that many rape survivors experience. By equating rape with one of its many possible consequences--the conception of an unwanted child--J. is reducing female rape survivors to their reproductive capacity. The emotional suffering of rape survivors, the damage to their minds, their bodies, their sexuality, doesn't count. Rape only matters if the rapist manages to hijack his victim's all-important womb. A more dehumanizing view of women is difficult to imagine.

Finally, let's do a quick analysis of J.'s views of the relationship between man and wife. If a married woman has a sexual liaison with another man, then she has "raped" her husband. What does that really mean? It sounds like J. is saying that a married woman's sexuality is an extension of that of her husband. How else could committing adultery with the wife be equivalent to non-consensual sex with the husband? J. is implying that a married woman forfeits her right to own her sexuality--to have her own needs, her own desires, her own boundaries. Infidelity--however a particular couple defines that--is wrong. Breaking a promise of monogamy is clearly unethical. But that doesn't mean that a married woman shouldn't still be viewed as an autonomous sexual being--even after she choses to enter an exclusive sexual relationship.

The analogy between "male rape" and female infidelity is clearly inopportune, and ghastly in its implications. But even if the analogy were genuinely illuminating in some way, it would still be a reprehensible thing to say. Here's why.

Only Rape is Rape



I don't often here this stated explicitly, but I think it underlies a lot of feminist discussions. Most of the time, it is just not okay to use rape as a metaphor. It doesn't matter if their are some interesting qualitative similarities between a given situation and rape. Because what matters isn't the specific nature of a rape survivor's suffering; it is the magnitude. There are times when a rape analogy is appropriate, because it's being used to describe some atrocity. The rape of Nanking comes to mind. But those occasions are few and far between. In general, rape should never be used as an analogy for some lesser evil, (hear that, Meme Roth?).

This is not about censorship; it's not about circumscribing free speech. I'm not saying that trivializing rape should be banned by law. But I am saying that it shouldn't be recognized as a legitimate tactic in rational discourse, any more than spitting in your opponent's face should be considered a legitimate rhetorical strategy. It is just too hurtful to anyone who has been sexually assaulted, too disrespectful. It is--pun very much intended--below the belt.

Okay, So That Guy Was A Jerk--Who Cares?



Well, I care, because I have to live with him for seven more weeks. But the reason I've expended so much life force on crafting a response to this fellow's statements is more complicated than that.

I'm used to spending time with people who are more-or-less socially liberal, and more-or-less feminist. That's wonderful, and I'm glad I have such a supportive community. But the danger of surrounding oneself with like-minded people is that it's easy to forget how far we, as a society, still have to go. If everyone you interact with views women as human beings, feminism can start to seem obsolete. Why should we worry about the politics of eyebrow waxes, when their are starving children in Africa?

Talking with J. served to remind me that feminism is still necessary. J. is intelligent. He is thoughtful. He is, in many ways, a good man. And his deeply misogynistic ideas didn't come from a vacuum. He didn't invent rape culture, or slut shaming, or chauvinism. These ideas still exist, and there are still smart, successful people to whom they seem tremendously compelling.

As feminists, we've got our work cut out for us.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Ideals and Varieties

Many feminists are critical of America's standards of beauty, and with good reason.  American beauty ideals are bizarrely restrictive, bound by arbitrary rules that have little to do with aesthetic value or genuine sex appeal.  Our society is incredibly intolerant of women with an ounce of extra flesh.  We're no kinder to the very thin; slender women are belittled as weak and anorexic, and reviled by their peers as "skinny bitches."  And while the Nordic ideal has lost ground in recent decades, our beauty standards remain hopelessly ethnocentric.  

America's unhealthy obsession with beauty has damaging consequences, for women and men alike.  We live in a culture that equates beauty with virtue, sexual desirability, and personal worth, and then sets the bar for physical "beauty" impossibly high.  The result?  A lot of unnecessary misery.  While concerns about physical appearance may seem petty to some, they can have a major impact on an individual's quality of life.  Body dysmorphia, an intense preoccupation with one's perceived physical flaws, is associated with a higher completed suicide rate than that which accompanies major depression.

It's tempting to blame our culture's obsession with physical appearance on our beauty icons: on fashion models, pop stars, and anime babes.  Those icons, and the ideals they represent, are certainly problematic.  Teen modeling, for instance, is a perversely terrifying industry.  Many celebrities maintain workout routines that would be life-destroying for most of us.  But while the stars may embody an absurd and destructive standard of beauty, I don't think that's what's really undercutting American women's self-esteem.

What's the Real Problem?


The problem that is that when it comes to beauty, we compare ourselves to the stars.  This isn't something most of us do in other arenas.  I don't care that Michael Phelps gets all kinds of media attention, because I understand that I don't have to live up to his example.  My thirty-minute workouts  are no less rewarding, simply because they seem paltry compared to the exploits of olympic athletes.  In a similar vein, I don't feel the need to measure my  intellectual achievements against those of Einstein or Gauss.  We all understand, at a fundamental level, that there's no shame in being imperfect.

Except, that is, when it comes to beauty.  Many of us, particularly young women and girls, compare ourselves to people for whom beauty is more-or-less a full-time job.  We do this at least in part because the media encourages us to do so.  We're told to imitate celebrities' hair and make-up, to be disgusted by Jennifer Love Hewit's negligible cellulite--and by extension, our own bodies.  And that's insane.

The problem, as I see it, isn't just that our culture idolizes a certain kind of beauty.  Yes, there are problems with that ideal. It's genuinely troubling, for example, that our conception of beauty is overwhelmingly White. That needs to change. But that doesn't mean that its necessary or even realistic to eliminate the concept of ideal beauty. Every culture has its own ideals, its own values. The mere existence of beauty ideals is, perhaps, an inevitable feature of any society. And ideals, by their very nature, are unattainable for the majority of the population.

The trouble is that we view any deviation from the beauty ideal as some kind of terrible flaw. We're almost never presented with positive media representations of women who fall outside the range of what's conventionally attractive.  It's problematic that fashion models are all rail-thin.  But it's perhaps more damaging that a restrictive standard of beauty holds for actresses in movies and on television, even those who nominally play ordinary women.  The message, here, is that any imperfection makes a woman unworthy to be seen.

What Can We Do?



 I don't think the answer is simply to lambast the mainstream media--as satisfying as that might be.  We won't bring about the revolution by demonizing barbie, or Miss America, or Brittany Spears.  Instead, perhaps we should focus on creating and popularizing positive representations of women who fall outside the norms of conventional attractiveness.  It's all very well to say that we shouldn't slavishly adhere to an artificial beauty ideal.  But that statement is only meaningful when we have a real alternative: when we can envision a healthier, more inclusive definition of  beauty.  

That's why I get really excited about sites like adipositivity.com (NSFW).  Yes, these are pictures of fat women, and they may not appeal to everyone.  But the photographer clearly strives to portray her subjects as beautiful, strong, and empowered.  And for me, the images work.  Sure, America may idolize thin women.  But the women in these photographs refuse to be bound by those narrow ideals.  They are beautiful in their own way, on their own terms. 

I think we need to find ways to re-imagine what it means to be beautiful--regardless of size, shape, skin color, or clothing budget.  We need to recognize that everyone has physical "imperfections," and that that's okay.  Each of us is beautiful enough.

P.S. A major shout-out to any of you who caught the math pun in the title.  Commutative algebra has colonized my brain this week.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Welcome!

Hello, and welcome to Notes from a Feminist Rebellion.  I'm your host, Simone Lovelace, a rising senior at Scripps College.   Here, you will find my musings and rants about feminist issues, from women in the workplace, to abortion rights, to bikini waxes.

My goal is to provide a thought-provoking, off-beat analysis of the way gender roles operate in our culture.  I hope to encourage people of all beliefs, backgrounds, political affiliations to question their assumptions about gender and sexuality.  

This is not a feminism 101 site.   If you're looking for a comprehensive introduction to feminism, I highly recommend these resources: 


In addition, this is not a source for up-to-the-minute feminist analysis of either popular culture or current events. If that's what you're craving, check out the links below.


The opinions expressed on this blog are entirely my own.  I am not a spokeswoman for the feminist movement.  I'm a bright, thinking woman, who was taken some women's studies courses, and done a lot of reading.  If you agree what I have to say, great!  If you don't, leave me a comment, and tell me why.  I would love to hear your thoughts.   

I want this to be a safe, welcoming space for discussion, so please be courteous.  Keep the comments respectful and the language clean.

Notes for a Feminist Rebellion updates once a week, homework permitting.

Enjoy!