Whose bodies?: On public harassment and victim blaming

(Originally posted on tumblr, here.)

A few weeks ago a man approached me while I was downtown waiting for the bus. We both had just exited the 150, which runs from my campus and the Veteran’s hospital (both in La Jolla) to downtown San Diego. I was listening to music on my phone as I usually do, sunglasses on, unsmiling. I was not mad or unhappy in any way, just keeping to myself. The man walked up to me and waved his hand in my line of vision, smiling.

“Hey lady!”

I smiled back, and then looked down at my phone.

“Lady!” He motioned for me to take off my earplugs.

“Can I help you?” I asked.

“You should smile more often, you’re awfully pretty!”

“Thanks,” I said, again looking back down at my phone.

“But I saw you on the bus though. You know what the problem with people is these days? You people don’t interact. You don’t smile! You just listen to your music and tune out the rest of the world! You should talk to people, honey, c’mon.”

I sighed. He went on. I smiled. I even agreed with him. I did and said anything I could think to do or say to indicate (politely) that the discussion was over and I didn’t want to talk anymore. But he was oblivious, or just didn’t care. I was basically stuck there, with all the women near me silent (probably thankful that they were not the subject of this dude’s tirade), wishing I could just tell him to shove it and walk away. I didn’t say anything like that though; it wouldn’t be polite. He eventually walked away and I chalked it up to a minor annoyance. Continue reading

On the fringe: Fat countercultures and a BBW club

(Originally posted at riotsnotdiets)

This is a follow-up post to my other post about BBW culture, and Jessica’s latest about our experience at a San Diego BBW night club.  For those with no time to re-read, here’s the long story short: Jessica and I wrote about our negative experience at what ended up being a recruitment event for BBW porn.  The women involved in “The Community” (as it is called by them) ended up reading both of our blog posts, and there were some hurt feelings.  Nevertheless, we were invited out to one of their club nights in San Diego (I know, I know, cue the pig’s blood, right?)—with some reservations, I went with Jessica, and… we ended up having a fantastic time.

Previously, I wrote that:

[…] most of the women [at the porn site recruitment event] seemed to be of the BBW persuasion—there was even a BBW night club doing some promotional raffling, along with the aforementioned photographer and her BBW porn site.  Although I’m all about fat people having “safe” spaces, as a fat activist I am not inclined to find these spaces helpful if they 1) don’t allow/accept the word “fat”, 2) reinforce an “us vs. them” mentality between fat people and non-fat people, and/or 3) cater to a group of people (typically heterosexual men) who fetishize fat and thus objectify (however unconsciously) the very people they purport to love.

After being invited to the BBW club and experiencing a super fun night of dancing with a bunch of beautiful fat chicks, my stance remains relatively unchanged. After talking to a few of the women there on Sunday night, I deduced the following:

  1. While the word “fat” is not totally unacceptable, it is certainly not embraced.  It still holds a lot of negative power over people here, which is why they prefer being called “big” (as in Big Beautiful Women) to fat.  Marianne Kirby recently wrote an amazeballs post about the importance of using fat over other euphemisms, which sums up my opinion on the matter perfectly.
  2. If there is an “us vs. them” mentality here, it’s most likely unintentional.  I didn’t hear anyone dissing on skinny chicks, nor did I hear any weird platitudes about “real women”… but this doesn’t change the fact that this kind of language is used on their flyers (“where skinny jeans aren’t allowed”).  I’m not inclined to say that JUST because a safe space exists for fat people and fat people alone (give or take a few thin “fat admirers”) it MUST be divisive.  Again, “safe” spaces are super important, especially when someone lives in a culture that constantly devalues their existence.  Many other oppressed groups turn to similar kinds of “safe” or private spaces for support and community building.  I get that.  I just don’t think the process of turning to these spaces for support should reinforce an “us against the world” mentality—THAT does not help anything, does not foster understanding between groups, does not lead to a world where we can coexist happily and peacefully.
  3. While the BBW porn site certainly caters to those who fetishize and objectify fatness, the club itself DEFINITELY caters to fat women who just want to have a good, sexy time.  That’s awesome.  YES there are some self-described “fat admirers” there, but that doesn’t take away from the amazingness that is walking into a room full of fat bodies having a great time and loving life.  THAT was overwhelming (in a good way), and I’d give my left tit to have something like that available to me that isn’t associated with the BBW “lifestyle”.
  4. Some people are really, really mad at us for expressing our opinions and criticisms about the website and BBW culture at large.  Many people’s feelings were hurt.  It was kinda like being back in high school—you know all those scenes in the movies where the girl that everyone hates (for whatever reason) shows up at the big dance anyway and people look at her like “WHAT IS SHE DOING HERE, OMG”?  It was like that.

Despite all of this, I had fun.  Jess and I danced, drank super cheap drinks, and *someone* (not naming names) may have walked away with a phone number or two.  Some of the women there (including the owner of the club) were super nice, and even seemed to agree with some of our criticisms.  But they were all super protective of the porn site, perhaps because many of them modeled for it.

People accused us of “looking down” on them, for trying to force body acceptance on them.  Dude, it’s totally true that a woman of any size can do porn and still hate herself, for whatever reason.  It happens often.  I don’t “look down” on women who are made to feel bad about themselves, I feel sad.  Not pity, just sadness.  Because I’ve been that girl before.  I haven’t done porn, but I’ve done stupid shit to get people to like me (to get guys to like me).  I’ve projected a self-confident facade when inside all I wanted was to be someone else.  What bothers me about a lot of BBW porn is that it actively plays on the insecurities of fat women, often portraying (and playing into) the worst stereotypes about what it means to be fat.  As Jessica pointed out, this particular site and its sister sites have videos you can pay to watch like “BBW attempting to walk upstairs”—this video (at least what is insinuated by the title) is intended to titillate the type of person who gets off on a fat person’s inability to perform what is considered a “normal” task.  If that is not dehumanizing, I don’t know what it.

I am not mad at the woman in the video.  I am mad at a culture that fosters this kind of attitude toward fat bodies.  I am mad at whatever societal forces pushed these women toward this kind of fat performance.  A response from one of the models to these objections?  “But that’s what the viewers want to see.”  Not “but I LIKE doing this” or “doing this gets me off”—the excuse was “but that’s what people want me to do”.  And that makes me SO SAD.  AND MAD.

~

Recently I read an article by communication scholar Catherine Squires titled “Rethinking the Black Public Sphere: An Alternative Vocabulary for Multiple Public Spheres”.  In it, Squires uses examples from the African-American public sphere(s) to explore the various forms oppressed groups’ spaces take and the various conditions under which these specific types of groups form.  The three types of groups she names—the enclave, the counter-public, and the satellite—perfectly map onto what is happening today in fat-positive counterculture.

For brevity’s sake, I’ll include the helpful diagrams from the text and say this: FA (what I do: fat activism, body acceptance for all, fat rights work, etc.) is sometimes an enclave, and sometimes a counter-public.  BBW culture (much like the Amish, or Black Separatists in Liberia) is much closer to a satellite group.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with this in theory, it’s just not for me.  And, just like religious extremists can give well-meaning religious folks a bad name, BBW culture can (but certainly does not always) negatively affect FA’s fight to be taken seriously, to be considered equals, to be treated fairly.

Enclave Publics (Squires, 2002, p. 458):

Counterpublics (Squires, 2002, p. 460):

Satellite Publics (Squires, 2002, p. 464):

‘Can Rachel Zoe get pregnant?’ Is that really any of our business?

(Originally posted at riotsnotdiets)

I don’t watch The Rachel Zoe Project, but I know her thin size (and apparently questionable eating habits?) have been the topic of much debate in the past couple years.  While I’m certainly interested in—and critical of—how exposure to extremely thin bodies in the media can skew young girls’ perception of their own bodies and how they should look, I’m not really interested in body-shaming people of any size, regardless of whether or not they are “healthy”.  This doesn’t mean that I don’t think eating disorders or disordered eating in general shouldn’t be discussed… they really should, and I think it’s important for young people to understand the extreme lengths their celebrity role models go to to ensure that they stay a certain size.

But it’s not helpful for us to sit and hypothesize about the relative health of someone we don’t know.  When the media does it to fat people, berating celebs I love like Gabby Sidibe “for the sake of their health”, I get fucking pissed.  Because the fact of the matter is, YOU DON’T KNOW that person’s life experience, or lifestyle choices, or medical history.  So many people look at me, as a fat person, and make assumptions about all of these things and more based on negative stereotypes they learn (at least in part) from the media.  It’s not right, and it’s not fair.

So what is Jezebel (one of my fave feminism-meets-pop-cultural-analysis type blogs) doing with their latest post, “Can Rachel Zoe Get Pregnant”?  Because to me, it looks a lot like body-shaming, even if they swear up and down that that’s not what they’re doing:

This season of Rachel’s show has focused on whether she can make time in her schedule for her ticking biological clock. Yet nobody has addressed the elephant in the room: whether or not she weighs enough to get pregnant.

and

This is not an attack on Rachel’s appearance, nor is it a criticism of her own engagement in body snarking, and it’s not a comment on her highly-publicized association with size-zero actresses. Yes, those elements are all in the Zoe Ether. But what we’re concerned with discussing is the practical question of fertility, and in what condition a woman’s body needs to be in order to conceive.

Really?  Is that all your concerned with/discussing?  Then write an article about THAT, and if you must use a celebrity as an example to entice your readers, why don’t you write about a celebrity who has actually talked about it openly instead of calling out someone who hasn’t and concern-trolling them.

Thankfully, a lot of Jezebel’s commenters have already pointed out the obvious: that this is really none of our damn business.

The “power” of beauty

(From Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty,” before and after photo retouching.)

 

(Originally posted at riotsnotdiets)

Recently I’ve had a couple of experiences that have given me cause to think about the concept of beauty more often than I usually do.

This is not to say that I don’t already think about beauty, in some form or another, on a daily basis.  I think about beauty a lot, in fact, as well as my own super complicated relationship with the idea of “being beautiful”.  As a feminist, I struggle with my desire to be pretty and my “need” to put on makeup (however little or much) before I leave the house.  As a feminist and a fat activist, I understand how Western beauty ideals contribute to the societal oppression not only of “unpretty” women or fat women or women of color or women who, for whatever other reasons, do not “measure up” to these ideals, but to ALL women, regardless of physical appearance.

But I’m not writing to dissect beauty in this way, to ask WHY it’s important (in part because I think it’s pretty clear why it’s important).  I’m not writing about how, if only we had better representation and visibility of all kinds of women, beauty wouldn’t be so darn oppressive (even though I think this at least partially true).

I’m writing, I think, because beauty is dangerous.  Loaded.  It is simultaneously unimportant to—and paramount to—the daily lives of women (and non-women).  And, like I said before, I have had some recent experiences that have given me the chance to think through beauty in different and unusual (for me) ways.

Recently, a friend and I started talking about the concept of “beauty,” about whether it is necessarily damaging, or whether its “powers” can be used for good.  An argument that she raised, which is one that is invoked often by post-feminists, non-feminists, and even some feminists, is the idea that women can be empowered through beauty.

The last time this particular friend and I talked, I recommended The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women by Naomi Wolf.  It has also occurred to me, although I have not yet recommended it, that a viewing of Jean Kilbourne’s Killing Us Softly 3 might be helpful, at least in understanding how images of beauty are problematically deployed in the advertising world.  I’m not sure if she’s read the book I recommended, but I do know that at least one of the books she read is The Power of Beauty. A book that, I have since learned, would lend a certain kind of authority to the claim that girls can be “empowered” through their own physical beauty.

The author, Nancy Friday, argues that women are NOT brainwashed by popular culture’s obsession with beauty, but by “evolution, by nature. There’s one thing we all respond to, and that is the natural desire, the natural attraction, to youthful beauty.”  She goes on to agree that “there is an obvious natural hierarchy of beauty in the world — physical attributes aren’t evenly divided, biology isn’t democratic.”  I don’t necessarily disagree with ALL of these claims (I’ve taken at least a few classes on evolutionary psych, and there does seem to be evidence that we are inclined to certain physical traits that display “healthiness” in general), but what Friday totally ignores is the absolutely constructed nature of these ideals. We may be “predisposed” to partners who are “attractive” (read as: healthy enough to reproduce with), but what we read as “healthy” or “attractive” varies widely across place and time.  Western beauty, that is the thin, white, conventionally pretty woman, is a creation, one that is re-produced and re-presented throughout popular culture.

Some “post-feminists” (and I think I can include Nancy Friday here) want to say that “yes, we understand that beauty is this thing that is imposed upon us, but why don’t we use this to our advantage?  Why don’t we assert ourselves—get what we want—through our beauty?”

There are so many things wrong with this kind of argument that I don’t even know where to start, so for the sake of brevity I will bullet-point my thoughts:

  • If beauty=empowerment, and only some women get to be conventionally “beautiful”, then only some women get to be empowered.
  • How should women who don’t “measure up” (too fat, too ugly, too dark-skinned, too manly, too hairy, too disabled, too whatever) find empowerment, if not through beauty?

OR, in other words:

  • Who is this “we” that is invoked when some women purport to speak for all women?  Who is left out?
  • This argument uncritically accepts that there is something we “want” that we can get by manipulating people (men?) with our looks, or our sexuality.
  • What do women “get” when they use their looks to obtain power?  Attention?  Visibility?  Money?
  • This “power”, as it is based on Western notions of beauty and a decidedly male gaze, isn’t really power at all—it only serves to reinscribe the very unequal power dynamic it purports to equalize.
  • Why should women have to “use” beauty to get what they want?
  • Furthermore, and this is perhaps a non sequitur, why do we see rich and powerful but conventionally “ugly” men dating and/or married to super “hot” women and never vice versa?  Are we supposed to use the “power” of our beauty to attach ourselves to successful older men for whom we are merely a fetish or “trophy”?

UGH.  At some point I’m not sure if this is even worth arguing, because I know this has all been said before. But then I’m reminded of the very real women for whom these ideas about “beauty as empowerment” have been enormously damaging. This is what I am referencing when I say that beauty is “dangerous”.

The following is the story of someone who is very near and dear to my heart.

For the sake of anonymity, I’ll call her Jasmine.  I’ve known Jasmine almost all my life—we grew up in very similar worlds, with some few key exceptions.  For some of the people who knew us growing up, I was the “smart” one, and she was the “pretty” one.  This in itself was damaging—for the longest time I believed that my smarts were all I had going for me, and I know that Jasmine learned to prize her beauty above all other aspects of her identity.  (For what it’s worth, I was not smarter than Jasmine—she was incredibly intelligent, creative, caring, and loyal—everything I could ever want in a best friend.)

Our relationship was complicated, in part because we did envy each other’s “best” attribute—I wanted desperately to be pretty, and was crushed when Jasmine had her first boyfriend at 12 and I had to wait until I was 16.  Jasmine, even though she was three years younger, did almost everything before I did—wearing makeup, kissing boys, showing her cleavage in low-cut tops.  She was even hit on before me, at age 9.  (And as fucked up as this is, I was proud the first time I was cat-called walking down the street at age 12).  For her part, Jasmine was jealous of my natural abilities in school.  Although she was smart, she did struggle with schoolwork (most artistic geniuses do), and I think she felt like she never “measured up” to me or my expectations of her.

The older we got, the further we grew apart.  Once inseparable, we soon felt that we lived worlds apart.  She hung out with the pretty girls who were into indie music, heavy eye makeup, and cocaine (although it’s still a mystery to me whether or not she ever took part in the drugging aspect of this lifestyle) while I stuck to my crowd of honors kids and musical theater geeks.  The older I got, the more my future seemed certain—college, career, family.  I don’t know if Jasmine ever had an idea of what she wanted from life.  Mostly, it seemed, she just wanted to be loved, and the best way she knew how to feel loved was through her looks.

The boys at school were gaga for her, and at 14 she had a 28-year-old madly in lust with her.  She learned how to manipulate men, how to “get what she wanted” from them.  All it took was a low-cut top, a mischievous look in her eyes and a pointed smile, and they were putty in her hands.

At 12, Jasmine was molested by an older boy she should have been able to trust.  At 14 she was “dating” a guy twice her age.  At 18 she was raped.  At 19 she was being regularly abused by her partner.  I very recently received a frantic call from one of Jasmine’s family members when, following a fight with her most recent boyfriend, Jasmine cut herself so deep she needed stitches.

How did this happen?

Even today, in this moment, I am at a loss.  Just listing it all out like that is enough to knock the wind out of me.  I want to cry.  I want to scream.

Doesn’t Jasmine know she’s better than this?  That she deserves more from men?  That she is beautiful, yes, but that her beauty doesn’t define her?  What happened to the girl I once knew?  She is a shell of who she used to be.  Every time I think about her, and what she is doing now, it’s like mourning the loss of a loved one even though she’s still, technically, alive.

I know some people will argue that it’s a huge leap to say that “beauty”, as a concept, as a physical attribute, as a whatever, did this to her.  Beauty did not hit her, did not climb on top of her, did not violate her.  But she is definitely a victim of beauty, of the mentality that a woman’s strength or ability to get what she wants lies in her beauty or her sexuality.  Even today, perhaps especially today, when we walk down the street together I catch her looking at the men we walk by, giving them that look, the one where she emphasizes her “bedroom eyes”, because she has been taught to crave the attention that follows; because she has been taught that her worth is caught up in and defined by this attention.

Before leaving the house, she will spend hours in front of the mirror, even if this means making everyone else late.  I have seen her cry because she didn’t feel like she looked good enough to be in public but, for whatever reason, was forced to be out and about.  If I didn’t know her better, I would think she was the vainest person in the world, but here’s the ironic thing: the more attention she gets from men, the more she allows her self-worth to be defined by what others think of her, the uglier she feels.

And this is totally common, right?  Most of us have at least one or two friends who are conventional beauties and appear super confident who are actually the most insecure of us all.  If they’re lucky, they get away with just having low self-esteem and some disordered eating habits.  If they’re unlucky, they’re like Jasmine, who has suffered—and continues to suffer—from all that and more.

But what’s the point of all this?  Yeah, Jasmine’s story is incredibly sad, and she might have had a better life if she were uglier, or lived in a world where beauty wasn’t considered a legitimate route toward female empowerment.  But she’s just one person, right?

Except that Jasmine isn’t really that unique.  I know of so many women who have similar experiences with beauty, men, and power.  We’re all taught, in this crazy way, that beauty is important because we can use it to get things.  For some women, like me, who actively try to work against traditional notions of beauty, the ideals are still so ingrained that it’s a struggle to rid ourselves of the “need” to put on makeup before leaving the house.  For others who struggle with weight, for example, so much of who they want themselves to be is so tied up in an idea of themselves as thinner that they don’t really “live life”, instead putting things off until after they’ve lost that extra 10 or 50 lbs. For others, beauty ideals manifest themselves in other ways.  But they’re there.

No one, in America at least, is able to escape the Power of Beauty—this power, of course, does not lie in beauty’s ability to empower, but to do quite the opposite.  And while it’s certainly admirable (and I think, important) to try to expand definitions of beauty so that they are more inclusive, to teach young girls that no matter what they look like, they are beautiful, the idea that one can be unproblematically empowered through physical attractiveness is the greatest beauty myth of all.