How Can We Decide What Makes A Female?

20 Sep

This week the world lost one of the greatest warriors against discrimination on the basis of sex and gender – the very same week that the World Athletics track and field authority ruled that South African champion Caster Semenya will not be allowed to compete in women’s sports in the next Olympics unless she agrees to take medications to lower her testosterone levels. This ruling raises not only issues of bioethics, but—as you can see in the video from Vox above—the plain fact that who belongs to what sex entirely depends upon your definition.

Sports obviously matter to Semenya almost as much as her identity as a woman does, so I am in no position to say what she should do. I can only contribute to the views of a public that honors sports and competition so highly that participants have been and are willing to all but torture their bodies for them. Semenya qualifies not only as a minority by virtue of her intersex features, but by her determination to refuse to take whatever body-altering treatments the authorities demand. Perhaps she understands on a deeper level that sports are are as made up as anything else in human society. From the judging in gymnastics to the disputed calls of referees, little is objective and everything is up for debate. I get the joy of being wowed by what the human body can do and the feeling of vicariously living through an athlete’s victory. But I also get Emma Gingerich, an Amish woman who left her community and, when asked to name something in modern American life she could never adapt to, replied, “Definitely, games are overrated. I don’t like playing games. I think it’s such a waste of time. I would rather pick up a book.”

Sports and its ever-changing rules aren’t going away anytime soon. Nor is sexism. But the more the world opens its eyes and ears to the many, many people whose bodies defy traditional definition and have until now been marginalized for it, the deeper our discussions of fairness become.

Defeating Five Centuries of Racism Is Hard Work

7 Jun

 

No child is born a racist, but every child—from Toronto to Tokyo to Tasmania—is born into a world containing messages about race that were used to justify 500 years of colonialist white supremacy. Before the civil rights and decolonization movements that emerged in the decades after World War II, such messages were explicit. Progress has been made, but we are far from finished. Just watch people flip out over the idea of changing the story of Santa Claus into a penguin to be more universally inclusive. (I’ve yet to hear anyone who steadfastly claims that a Black Santa Claus is historically inaccurate argue with the same fervor against illustrated bibles teaching kids that Adam and Eve were white.) Or listen to the far more depressing defenses of the London School of Economics paper that argued white and Asian women are “naturally” more attractive than Black women. Arguments for The Bell Curve and its controversial author are in no way difficult to find. And it gets worse from there. Much, much worse.

Hence the ongoing protests that have blossomed on every continent on earth.

White people of today didn’t create colonialism and its pseudoscience of race. But we reveal how deeply we have come to believe in it if we can’t handle the idea of seeing the system change. I’ve asked before and I’ll ask again: How many of us are willing to strive for racial justice beyond the boundaries of our comfort zones? How many of us are willing to listen more than we speak? How many of us are willing to endure this as often as necessary?

I don’t want to take up too much space at a time that truly belongs to people directly targeted by racism. Police are far more likely to treat me like Amy Cooper than Breonna Taylor. I am grateful to those who have done the hard—often personally painful—work of arguing why and how we can work to expunge the poison from the system. Here is a tiny selection of those who have helped to open my mind:

We Need to Talk by Celeste Headlee
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum
Other People’s Children by Lisa Delpit
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Want wit along with wisdom?
How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston
Born A Crime by Trevor Noah
You Can’t Touch My Hair by Phoebe Robinson

Want something more academic?
Whistling Vivaldi by Claude M. Steele
The Lies That Bind by Kwame Anthony Appiah

Online resources are almost countless, but for now I’ll just say thanks to this news source and this call to action.

History changes when you change the perspective. And that is the only way to change the present or the future:

This Universal Pandemic Proves Our Diversity

19 Apr

Hidden Object (Image by Hans-Jörg Aleff used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Most of the world has been asked—if not ordered—to stay at home and only socialize online. Almost immediately the divisiveness inherent to social media was out in full-force. My friends and family have been venting almost since Day One about the posts and tactics they find most distasteful:

“I can’t go online anymore if it means finding out another one of my friends is blaming this on Chinese people, black people, or city people.”

“There SO many high-horses out there right now – people trying to shame anyone who goes to a bakery or uses public transportation or orders online and therein endangers delivery workers.”

“Be grateful your friends at least are committed to social distancing right now! Half of mine are still convinced anyone who does so is a sissy.”

“I’m gonna unfriend the next person who lectures about how we should be avoiding chocolate or shampooing with strawberry jam because it’s good for your brain cells and therefore your immune system. It’s hard enough to get people to listen to the clear-cut facts. We don’t need the airwaves clogged with theories!”

“I can’t take the memes that tell everyone to stop whining. ‘All we’re being asked to do is stay on the couch and watch Netflix’?! Complaining is helpful in a crisis!”

Indeed, orders to immediately have perspective and shut up sound crotchety at best and ice-cold in light of the escalation in unemployment, mental illness, domestic violence, and child abuse under lockdown. We absolutely owe it to seniors, disabled and chronically ill people, and every essential worker to do what we can to slow the spread of the virus and lessen the danger they face. But that doesn’t mean shrugging off even smaller problems like loneliness, cabin fever, or the obliteration of the work-life balance. A single mother of toddlers who works as a journalist said every minute of her day is a choice between neglecting her job or her children, and leaves her feeling every night that she failed at both. The U.K. reports an increase in custody battles over children since the lockdown. Less acrimonious legal procedures like immigration and adoption procedures are now in limbo.

Not since the last pandemic a century ago has everyone on every continent faced the same exact enemy. Earthquakes, bombings, hurricanes, and even World II occurred in specific locations. Some if not most people on earth lived far away from those catastrophes and only knew them as news reports. Right now I can ask my friends and family in every time zone the same question: How is it for you? I live in Germany, which so far has one of the lowest death rates of any of the infected countries and, at the time of this writing, has more residents recovering from the virus than infected by it. While that is some cause for hope, the diversity in international infection and death rates pretty much ensures that non-essential international flights are a long way off. For so many parents like me, seeing our kids hug their grandparents is almost certain to be the very last thing governments will allow. I know I am still partly in denial over that.

Social media is a hard substitute to accept. Unlike speaking to friends in very small groups or one-on-one, social media (like mass-emails) excludes the extremely helpful ways in which we each alter our speech and tone according to whom we’re addressing. And so we speak to everyone at once and too quickly alienate those whose experience we forget. Posts about what to read or watch now that we all have so much time at home alienate those whose workload has tripled. Or evaporated. Posts that overemphasize the dangers of the virus in order to try to frighten people into staying home make those with at-risk loved ones burst into tears. Posts trying to point the finger at wet markets or the Chinese government (or U.S. Democrats or cell phone towers) prove that the blame game is always poisonous and always fraught with fallacies. Scientists and journalists from Nate Silver to Bill Bryson had long been warning that humanity was due for a pandemic. The differences in how states have handled it proves that our political choices do ultimately determine how many will be in danger.

We all face the same virus and what it means for each of us is as diverse as humanity itself. Recognizing the wide range of experiences is necessary. It will degrade us if it is done with jealousy instead of empathy. Solidarity means no one is more expendable than I am and bravery in the face of a worldwide threat means overcoming the urge to think only of my experience.

Escaping social media and moving to the phone, I’ve found friends and family to be overly gracious. Jeez, I thought I was inconvenienced, but it’s nothing compared to what you’re going through! they say so often to each other. We vent and then edit ourselves, counting our blessings and privileges without humblebragging, and express sympathy for each other’s individual plights. For all the vile xenophobia that is but a Google search away, online organizing shows that many are ready and willing to aid people in poverty, African-Americans, refugees, homeless citizens, and prisoners, all of whom are a greater risk. The applause from balconies for health care professionals across Europe and North America has been heartening, and in many places it has been followed by concrete efforts for increased funding.

And who keeps even more people alive in a hospital than the doctors? The cleaning staff. This crisis has shown the need for paying our workers based on the necessity of their labor, not the skill-level. It has shown that childcare is absolutely and always a job in itself, worth as much as any other. It has shown how difficult it is to communicate simple but scary facts to over 7 and a half billion people. And it has shown we do have some choices about our responses and we can let the better angels of our nature prevail. When this is over, history will tell whether or not we did.

 

U.S. hotline for domestic abuse: https://www.thehotline.org/

U.S. hotline for the Deaf for help in domestic abuse: https://thedeafhotline.org/

U.K. hotline for domestic abuse: https://www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk/

German hotline for domestic abuse, in several languages plus German Sign Language: https://www.hilfetelefon.de/

German hotline for depression: https://www.deutsche-depressionshilfe.de/corona

 

 

Quarantined? Use Your Screentime to Learn about a Health Revolution

5 Apr

 

Blogging for the first time in half a year has me starting up again in a brave new world. COVID-19 has brought most of us indoors and gone on to show that a worldwide, nearly universal phenomenon results in a profound diversity of experiences. More on that soon.

For now, I urge anyone with the time and a Netflix account to watch Crip Camp, a documentary about some of the founders of the modern disability rights movement in the U.S. that is on par with anything Ken Burns or Tavis Smiley has shown you. The film starts at Camp Jened, a Catskills retreat that slowly evolved into a community run by hippies fiercely dedicated to understanding the adolescent campers and recognizing their agency. Many of those campers went on to be central figures in the national fight for equality – from issues of accessibility to sexuality. (Irony of ironies, the word “quarantine” is uttered at a particularly giggly moment.) In true American fashion, adult topics and language have landed the film an R rating, which is unfortunate because it should be shown in high schools across the country. Everyone with the faintest interest in history needs to know what the ADA and Willowbrook were.

I have written before about the failure of many progressive circles to embrace disability rights with any meaningful sincerity. Despite dedicating themselves to challenging harmful stereotypes, progressives too often hail youth as an ideal, which can lead to overvaluing independence and physical strength. Crip Camp shows that not all radicals need fall victim to such narrow-thinking. Will self-proclaimed conservatives like the film? I can’t say, but the fact that Barack and Michelle Obama are the executive producers will surely attract as many viewers as it repels.

I only cried once, but for a long time: at the line “If it takes me all night!” It’s uttered by a kid in Washington, D.C. in 1990, and he could easily have been one of the kids I lived with at a rehabilitation center in that era. If you’re at all familiar with this blog, you know I was born with dwarfism and I have always been profoundly aware of that fact. But I had never considered myself disabled until I used a wheelchair and lived with other kids representing a rainbow of diagnoses for nearly half a year. I was a pre-teen then. The institution was primarily pediatric and thus not nearly as fun as Camp Jened appears. Barney the Dinosaur was the only artist whose record played on a loop, not Bob Dylan. But there was community and there were some very good caregivers. Crip Camp shows what a difference can be made by having a great community and excellent caregivers who are ready to fight for the right to self-actualize and become no longer a cute kid but a full-fledged citizen with a voice.

The film is brutally honest, but also a story of success, and so in the time of the coronavirus it can serve as both a salve and a wake-up call. One movement leader speaks of the hard truth that a world that ignores disabled people’s rights ultimately condemns them to go away and die. The very same truth holds for decision-makers whose actions imply that those most at risk of dying from the coronavirus are expendable. As filmmaker Nicole Newnton told Slate, “This health crisis is impacting people who are vulnerable, and this film shows how a lot of that vulnerability is systemic. We want people to see that it is possible to change things and make the world a better place for everyone. This film shows that a small committed group of people can make a huge difference. We need to ask ourselves, when this is over, how will we rebuild the society that we want to see?”

 

Because We Gotta Keep Telling the True Stories in Dwarf History

1 Sep

Anthonis_van_Dyck_013(1)

(Public Domain Image used via)

 

Leaving you this week with a must-read feature in the New Zealand Herald: “The Civil War Solider with Dwarfism Who Was Gifted to the Queen.” Following the extraordinary life of British man Jeffrey Hudson, the article quotes historian Dr. John Woolf who points out that Hudson’s being handed over to Charles I’s wife as a present was not unusual at the time:

Dwarfs were around in the courts of Ancient Egypt, China and West Africa. Alexander the Great (356BC-323BC) gathered a whole retinue of dwarfs. The Romans collected dwarfs as pets, placing some in gladiatorial rings to fight with Amazons, and tossing others across the amphitheater for entertainment. By the Middle Ages, dwarfs were kept side-by-side with monkeys, sometimes traveling between royal households in birdcages.

I never learned that in school.

Through resources provided by Little People of America, I became aware around the age 12 of the circus freak tradition in the 20th century to which so many dwarfs were left to turn. This made me increasingly suspicious as a teenager when watching period films and documentaries romanticizing the days of beautiful people darting between horse-drawn carriages and candlelight that none of what I saw would have been imaginable* back then for someone who looked like me. My own research later confirmed those suspicions. It’s time the rest of the world start to talk about it.

 

*Aside: As noted before on the blog, period films rarely depict what life truly would have been like for any of us. Invariably Victorian women are portrayed wearing makeup while too many pre-Victorian kings are portrayed without. Not to mention a third of us would have been more likely to die in childhood than survive long enough to make it into the history books alongside Charles I. During his reign, you were most likely to die of small pox. Play this game to find out what long-forgotten diseases would have killed you in other time periods in the West.

 

 

Can A Princess Ever Set Us Free?

18 Aug

Crown (Image by Andriy Baranskyy under CC 2.0 via)

 

Human rights activist and fashion critic Sinéad Burke is on the cover of Vogue for its September issue, along with 14 other women picked by tongue-twister of the moment, the Duchess of Sussex (aka Meghan Markle). Burke has achondroplasia, like I do, and has become the first woman with dwarfism to bring the issue of fashion for all to the highest levels: from the Met Gala earlier this year to the Council of State in her home country of Ireland. 

Many in the dwarf community are excited about the Vogue cover, reporting that such representation is doing wonders for their and their children’s self-esteem. As with all firsts, I am curious as to how much staying power it will ultimately have. The fashion industry is notorious for embracing differences as novelties. And as Helen Lewis writes in The Atlantic, we should be very careful about reading too much into what a fashion magazine edited by the wife of a prince can do:

There are sharp limits on the activism of royals… one of their major causes is mental health, where they stay safely away from making policy demands. Prince Harry has bravely spoken about undergoing counseling to deal with the death of his mother, but the charity he and his brother support, Heads Together, focuses on “changing the conversation” and “reducing the stigma.” It cannot, say, criticize the lack of government funding for mental-health services…

All of this adds up to a form of activism in which there are problems, but no villains. Markle can talk about marginalized women who struggle to find clothes for job interviews—and the charity SmartWorks, which she supports—but she cannot address the causes of poverty… 

As a royal, Markle is particularly constrained in what she can say. Other activists make the same bargain of defanging their criticisms to avoid causing upset for less compelling reasons. Identifying general problems—old-fashioned consciousness-raising—is worthwhile and helpful. 

But it isn’t the same as solving them. That requires politics, which is messy and divisive.

Too often, feminism—even when not championed by a beautiful, wealthy aristocrat—gets stuck in this toothless, villain-free zone. It is easy to champion diversity and urge girls to aim higher, but awkward to bring up the lack of state investment in child care and, well, the small matter of the class system.

While I loved princesses a child, I’ve been trying to figure out if the real-world ones have any reason to exist in a democracy. (I’ve only ever lived in countries that made no bones about kicking theirs out long ago.) With more documentaries and period films about the Windsors under my belt than I care to count, it seems to me that we in the modern world have three options: a) Barely notice them, b) Admire them in a way no one who has done so little deserves, c) Gossip about them in a way no one who was simply born into the spotlight deserves. The first option seems the least unreasonable.

But the desire to twirl about in a ball gown (or any of the clothes featured in Vogue) has never been about reason.

Yes, Sinéad Burke made it to the cover of Vogue at the invitation of a duchess, who made it to the palace at the invitation of her then-boyfriend, who lives there only because he was born into a family that, until very recently, was for Whites Only and is still off-limits to Catholics and adopted children. But Burke has certainly done the work to deserve her place on the page. May it have lasting effects on the world – lasting even longer than, dare I say, the monarchy.

 

 

Will Banning Scars on Bad Guys Bring Out the Scars on Princesses?

11 Aug

 

Of all the recent reviews of The Lion King, old and new, film critic Doug Walker’s sums it up best: “I blame bad parenting for [Scar killing his brother the king]. Because when you name one kid ‘Mufasa’meaning ‘king’and you name the other kid ‘Scar’meaning ‘scar’aren’t you just begging for something like this to happen?”

It’s been nine months since the British Film Institute made a pledge regarding films like The Lion King: No more funding for films featuring villains with facial deformities. Ben Roberts, the BFI’s deputy CEO, told The Telegraph, “Film is a catalyst for change and that is why we are committing to not having negative representations depicted through scars or facial difference in the films we fund.” The decision was in support of the #IAmNotYourVillain campaign by the British advocacy group Changing Faces, which is “for everyone with a scar, mark or condition on their face or body that makes them look different.”

Filmmakers and artists could argue that banning any portrayal (no matter how stereotypical) constitutes censorship. Which is why a more productiveand, arguably, radicalmove was the BFI’s simultaneous pledge to promote stories that portray disfigured heroes and heroines. This included funding for this summer’s critically acclaimed Dirty God (see above), about a woman facing prejudice both public and private after an acid attack. Perhaps the most groundbreaking aspect of the film is the main character’s portrayal by newcomer Vicky Knight, who has had burn marks on a third of her body since she was 8-years-old. This is an utterly extraordinary break in the long, long history of conventionally attractive, non-disabled actors slapping on makeup and prosthesis to portray deformed and disabled characters. And win awards for it.

And can I just SQUEE! for a moment over the fact that the Dirty God is also brave enough to make viewers watch and learn to empathize with a disfigured woman? Stories about learning to find true beauty within have existed before. But rarely has this been applied to a non-disfigured man meeting a disfigured woman. To quote a spot-on meme of Beauty and the Beast: “Appearances don’t matter. What counts is what’s in your heart. Unless you’re the girl.” As I’ve written before, tremendous progress will have been made when we as filmgoers can name numerous scenes wherein a heroine unveils a severe facial deformity and her strapping lover says, “I think it’s intriguing. And I wanna knock boots with you. So. Bad.” 

Is that too much to ask of the industry? The public? To quote Wonder, the best American film about a facial deformity of the past several years: “He can’t change how he looks, so we have to change how we see.”

 

 

Summer Body Challenge

4 Aug

embedded  bodies(Image by Camil Tulcan used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Yes, I know summer is halfway over. No need to tell me.

And it’s been seven years since I hailed eating-disorder survivor Chloe Angyal’s truism that there is no right way to hate your body. And in those seven years, I have come to see more and more what a pillar of everyday conversation body-bashing is, particularly in social circles dominated by women. Someone complains about their weight-gain since pregnancy. Another bemoans the physical signs of aging. Another comments on how fattening someone’s lunchtime meal is, which is why they opted against it. Another talks about some new product they love intended to combat certain bodily features. Another knocks a body part on someone they dated/are dating/want to date. Like insecurity, it’s everywhere.

I’m not going to pretend that kicking this habit is a quick fix. It’s far from easy to accept your every single physical feature despite how unfashionable the society you live in currently considers it. But if many of us enjoy challenging ourselves with strict diets and exercise regimens, why not challenge ourselves to stay off the body-bashing? At least until September 21st?  Until then, only positive or matter-of-fact observances about your physical features. And those that don’t belong to you. Discussing pain, illness, or disability is fine, but that should never link to comments on physical appearance. Discussing fashion preferences is fine, as long as they never link to comments about whose body can “pull it off”. Do you think you can join me in this? If not, why not?

Additional Rules for the Super-Disciplined Who Want to Push Themselves Even Further:

  • Food is to be enjoyed, not criticized. Don’t voice why you don’t like something or how it doesn’t fit into your diet, unless you have a dangerous allergy and traces of a given food could send you to the emergency room. If you don’t like something, quietly leave it to the side or request it be left off your plate. In turn, when you’re the cook, never comment on how much or little a guest ate.
  • Exercise, on the contrary, is to be complained about. Why do so many of us rave about how good we feel after an exercise session, but not, say, a hot bath? Is it possibly to garner attention and praise for having spent time on something so boring and uncomfortable? When I exercise, I groan and swear a good deal of the way through and I glare at any instructor who’s too perky. I’ve found that reiterating this afterwards makes people laugh – as opposed to bragging about my achievement, which might inspire some to follow my routine, but will certainly make some others feel worse and/or resentful. Some form of exercise is generally good for most of us on earth. But, like doing the laundry or taxes, we don’t have to pretend to like it. Those who sincerely do like exercising are blessed and therefore have all the more reason to be happy without needing external validation. They can curl up with their self-satisfaction and write about in their journals. The ones not posted online.
  • Do you have any suggestions to up the challenge? Tell me in the comments.

What’s the reward for those who meet this challenge? That’s for the winners to find out.

 

 

In School I Learned the Story of Emmett Till, But Never the Story of How Many Still Try to Destroy Him

28 Jul

Emmett Till(Image by Trending Topics 2019 used under CC 2.0 via)

 

This week the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting uncovered a photo of three fraternity brothers posing with guns next to bullet holes in a sign commemorating the spot on the Tallahatchie River where 14-year-old Emmett Till’s body was found in 1955 after he was tortured and murdered. One of the fraternity brothers posted the photo on his Instagram account, where it garnered hundreds of likes before it was drawn into the national spotlight. The fraternity has since expelled the men in the image.

Like many Americans my age, I first learned about Emmett Till in school when I was 15-years-old as part of a lesson on the Civil Rights Movement during Black History Month. I remember the eruption of “WHOA!” among my classmates when we first saw the image of Till’s battered face in the documentary Eyes on the Prize. We learned that Till’s mother insisted on an open casket to show the public what the murderers had done to her son for whistling at a white woman. We learned that this moment helped launch the Civil Rights Movement onto the national scene. And then we went about our day. As with most history lessons, we filed the tragedy as “in the past” and all but said, “Isn’t it good that  this doesn’t happen anymore?”

The memorial sign to Emmett Till would not be erected for another 10 years. I hope students today learn in their Civil Rights lessons that it has been repeatedly riddled with bullet holes ever since. My classmates and I didn’t learn in school where the opponents of the Civil Rights Movement ended up – not only the politicians and the Klansmen, but the white students in the South and the North who threatened their first black classmates. We watched the film version of To Kill A Mocking Bird with its fictional schoolgirl protagonist shaming a lynch mob into backing down simply by showing up at the last minute with her innocent face. We did not learn about the very real photographs of families smiling with their children next to lynched corpses that were turned into postcards and distributed as souvenirs at the time. When it came to such horrors, we learned that there were Bad Guys but there was the silent assumption that they all died off or had a change of heart because it was In the Past.

And it all had nothing to do with America’s Glorious Past. The way we learned it, the abolitionist and Civil Rights movements both cropped up randomly for some reason in the middle of the 19th and 20th centuries. We didn’t learn that the Supreme Court slowly began overturning racist laws at the same time that more and more atrocities of the Holocaust were coming to light, making overt racism less and less widely accepted. We didn’t learn that slavery was such a contentious issue among our Founding Fathers that it had to be jettisoned to the state-level lest it break up the United States before they could even form a country.

Since the very beginning of the United States, talking about racism has remained a quick and easy way to divide our citizenry. Our only hope of solving this gargantuan problem is not to merely condemn and expel individuals, but to fully admit and understand the scope – how far back it goes and how widespread it still is. That’s how you start to solve any serious problem really.

 

 

“Somebody Was Doing the Lion King Thing…”

2 Jun

 

Leaving you this week with the above BBC video of Things Not to Say to People with Dwarfism. With candid personal stories ranging from awkward jokes to physical abuse and assault, discretion is advised. This is not your typical the-only-disability-is-a-bad-attitude public service announcement. Kudos to all involved for the honesty. And to the rest of us, what are we still doing that allows these incidents to continue and pervade?

 

 

For A United Europe

26 May

Europe(Image by Niccoló Carranti, used under CC 2.0 via)

 

It’s Election Day in the European Union and I haven’t I witnessed so much pro-EU spirit here in Berlin since fireworks were going off to welcome 10 new countries into the Union 15 years ago. Today blue star-spangled flags are hanging from balconies. The E.U. anthem blasted down my street from speakers strapped to bicycles. My social media feed is flooded with European friends urging each other to get out and vote. A good number of these friends are reminding anyone who will listen that they were born in countries under the rule of dictatorships. Democracy can never be taken for granted.

Brexit has scared many into realizing that the E.U. may very well be fighting for its life. Conversely, the disastrous Brexit negotiations have also scared many anti-E.U. parties into changing their tune. No longer are the Sweden Democrats, the Alternative für Deutschland or the Front National pledging to end their countries’ membership in the E.U. but instead calling for reform. The reform they advocate of course is fiercely nationalistic, threatening open borders and the rights and freedoms of minorities. As I wrote three years ago when the vote for Brexit first set shock waves across the continent, nationalism is at best an illusion.

At the March for a United Europe last weekend, the atmosphere among the 25,000 who showed up was as celebratory as it was serious. Omas Gegen Rechts (“Grandmothers Against the Right”) smiled amidst bubbles and balloons, telling reporters about having been called lousy Nazis as children whenever they traveled through Europe. (If you ever want to hear older people worrying out loud that kids these days just aren’t anti-war enough, just head to an E.U. demonstration.) Of all the signs I saw that day, my favorite read: Migration is the mother of humanity beside a historical map.

This afternoon I’m accompanying my extended Berlin family to the polls. Of the four adults and four children among us, only one of us does not owe their existence here in Berlin (or on earth) to immigration. Mother of humanity indeed.

 

 

Mother’s Day & All It Touches

12 May

Mother and Son(Image by Andy415 used under CC 2.0 via)

From the Archives, updated

A very happy Mother’s Day to all the wonderful mothers I have had the pleasure of knowing, not least of all my own.

And to those of you who have lost your mothers,

And to those of you who have lost a child,

And to those of you who had to take care of your mothers (and yourselves) much earlier than the rest of us had to,

And to those of you who have tried hard to become mothers despite what neighbors (or politicians) may have said,

And to those of you who have tried hard to become mothers despite what nature ultimately decided,

And to those of you who bravely chose to have someone else become a mother in your stead,

And to those of you who are not mothers but have raised a child as well as any mother could,

In gratitude and with the deepest respect.

 

 

Six Months After Becoming the First Country to Ban Street Harassment, France’s Minister of Equality Declares the Law A Success

5 May

 

In August of last year, France became the first nation on earth to ban street harassment – that is, “sexist and sexual violence.” While the #MeToo movement can certainly be credited with getting the law passed, many have pointed to a single video that helped in the final push (see above). In the video, a man punches a woman in the face after she swears at him in retaliation for having cat-called her. Since August, France’s police have issued just under 450 fines for street harassment. Marlène Schiappa, the Minister of Equality, says this proves both the success and the necessity of the law. As the law came into effect, she declared: “We want to preserve seduction, chivalry, and ‘l’amour à la française’ by saying what is key is consent. Between consenting adults everything is allowed; we can seduce, talk, but if someone says ‘No,’ it’s ‘No,’ and it’s final.”

I have written before about street harassment, particularly in the context of disability. Some of my first experiences with it as an adult were in France when I landed there as an 18-year-old community service volunteer, away from home for the first time. After learning the hard way that my American proclivity for smiling at strangers was almost always taken as an open invitation for aggressive men on the prowl, I asked a French woman a decade older than I was how she dealt with unwanted attention and pushy propositions. “Well, I have a fake wedding ring I often wear,” was not the solution I had been looking for.

The problem is larger than a single law can solve, but I applaud this step forward. As so many women have said before, the reason most women do not want to be approached  by strangers with any hint of aggression is their well-founded fear that the perpetrator will not take no for an answer, as in the video. And to those who worry that this prevents straight men from being real men and that seeking clear consent kills the romance, I issue more crowd-sourced wisdom from the better angels of the Internet: Straight men understand consent when they go to a gay bar. Though I might add “suddenly” to that statement, when discussing the sort of men who defend street harassment.

 

Aaaaand We’re Back: “I’m Disabled, But I’m Not…”

28 Apr

 

Ending the blog’s six-month hiatus with Part 2 of Germany’s Deutschland3000 program on disability featuring yours truly. Like, share, spread the word. (Once again, English subtitles are available with Auto-Translate via the tools icon.)

I look forward to providing you with more content about differences, delusions of normalcy, and what we mean when we say democracy each week again from now on. And I thank you all sincerely for reading Painting On Scars these seven years now.

 

 

 

Enough with the Myths about Disability

27 Oct

 

Here I am discussing some of the most common misconceptions about people with disabilities on Germany’s Deutschland3000 program. Like, share, spread the word. (English subtitles available with Auto-Translate via the tools icon.)

 

 

Banned Books Week Should Fight Censorship & Simplistic Thinking

23 Sep

 

Today the American Library Association kicks of its annual Banned Books Week to spread awareness of the dangers of censorship. Each year the ALA releases a list of the top ten books that were most often requested to be removed from U.S. libraries—usually school libraries—by parents and political activists alike. In 2017, the majority of the most challenged books were stories about LGBT acceptance. However, as with nearly every year, a few titles on the list were targeted for use of racial slurs.

I love Banned Books Week if anything because discussing these issues is crucial. I do believe every public library should be free to contain every book humanity has ever brought forth. But, as examined before, those opposed to censorship should not assume the solutions are simple like censors do.

When it comes to kids, you’d have to look hard to find someone who believes that no one should ever take a child’s age and developmental level into account when selecting stories for them. I save many of my favorite books for the children in my life until they are old enough to appreciate them fully because infants, toddlers, and pre-schoolers can get scared or—more likely—bored if they can’t follow along. Most children in primary school do not understand sarcasm, which is why Stephen Colbert did not let his kids watch The Colbert Report.

Children are a diverse group, so of course many kids will be ready earlier than others to handle mature topics. But just as I believe it takes a mature mind to understand the  BDSM portrayed in Fifty Shades of Grey, I believe there is a world of a difference between an older child who is ready to learn about the nuances of racism and a young child who will likely repeat the N-word without giving it much thought, and think it’s funny if it elicits shocked expressions among grown-ups.

With all this in mind, Banned Books Week should be about debate, endless and free.

 

 

“Midget-Wrestling” Events Canceled in the UK

16 Sep

Learn respect (Image by Duncan C used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Thanks to an online public outcry organized by members and supporters of the Restricted Growth Association, a handful of “midget wrestling” events have been canceled in the United Kingdom. The objectification of people with dwarfism in freak shows spans from the Early Modern Era’s court jesters well into the present day at dwarf-tossing events, “mini” cover bands, dwarf theme parks, and on reality TV shows. This is the first time in recent memory a certain freak show has not simply been condemned by human rights activists but in fact terminated. 

As Erin Pritchard writes in The Independent: “We do not put people who use wheelchairs, people who are deaf or blind, or people with learning difficulties on a stage and laugh at them.”

Then again, let’s not give the reality TV producers any ideas.

 

 

#MeToo Has to Support Men, Too

26 Aug

 

 

What a month. Asia Argento, one of the first women to speak out against Harvey Weinstein and lead the #MeToo movement last year, was accused this week by a younger man who claims she coerced him into sex when he was underage. Argento denies the charges.

Early last week, Professor Avital Ronell, who is lesbian, was found guilty by New York University of sexually assaulting one of her students, who is a gay man. Throughout the university’s investigation, many feminist academics–including superstar Judith Butler–defended Ronell and slandered her accuser in ways reminiscent of how so many women of the #MeToo movement have been.

The next day, a grand jury investigation into six Pennsylvania dioceses was released, which is the largest study by a government agency of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church to date. The investigation found abuse of over 1,000 children by 300 priests over the course of seven decades. Most of the victims were boys.

In a rant that now appears astoundingly prescient, Samantha Bee kicked off the month of August by pointing to a fact that is as harrowing as it is simple: we are really bad at talking about men as victims of sexual abuse. Even if you don’t like her humor, her argument is rock-solid.

Studies range widely in the estimate of how many men and boys are raped or sexually assaulted. The CDC says 1 in 71 men in the U.S. have been raped; the National Crime Victimization Survey found in 2013 that 38% of victims of sexual violence in the U.S. were male. As with all cases of sexual assault, statistics are muddied by the vast problem of under-reporting and by variations in definition. In many jurisdictions around the world, it’s not considered rape if your partner did it, and it’s not rape if you begged your partner to stop after sex began, and it’s not rape if you’re not a virgin, or anything less than a flawless human being, etc., etc., ad nauseam.

Even the more liberal estimates confirm the already widely held belief that more victims of assault and rape are women and girls rather than men and boys. But that doesn’t mean we should only afford male victims a cursory mention. Human rights means justice for everyone, no matter how rare their experience, and if you believe in equality for minorities, then you know fighting for their rights demands particular rigor because minorities are so easily shoved to the margins.

For almost a year now, the #MeToo movement has shed much-needed light on the horrors wrought up on straight, white, cis, non-disabled women. But its failure to communicate the horrors wrought upon victims of other demographics with the same frequency has been disturbingly persistent. And it’s not just because straight, white, cis, non-disabled women are the most common victims. They’re not. As shown earlier this year, disabled women are far likelier to be victims of sexual assault than the general population.

Before anti-feminists joyously insist that this just proves women’s rights activists are a bunch of dumb hypocrites, it’s important to realize that almost no one has done a very good job of talking about rape victims who are men. It’s traditional gender roles that say that guys can’t be raped by women because we should assume guys are constantly horny and would never turn down a chance for sex. It’s traditional gender roles that, at worst, find it funny when a man is raped by a man because it means he’s either weak or gay or both. It’s traditional gender roles that, at best, recoil in horror at the idea of a boy or man being forced but ultimately have no idea what to say about such a thing.

Two years ago, Raymond M. Douglas published a book, On Being Raped, about his experience and the failure of modern society to equip boys and men with the appropriate language to talk about it. Mainstream feminism has failed to tackle this problem. Now’s the time if ever.

As #MeToo founder Tarana Burke wrote on Twitter last Tuesday:

I’ve said repeatedly that the #metooMVMT is for all of us, including these brave young men who are now coming forward. It will continue to be jarring when we hear the names of some of our faves connected to sexual violence unless we shift from talking about individuals… and begin to talk about power. Sexual violence is about power and privilege. That doesn’t change if the perpetrator is your favorite actress, activist or professor of any gender.

And as Douglas told NPR in his advice to other victims, “The most important thing: You’re not alone. There are so many more of us out here than you think. Don’t give up.”

 

*I use the term “victim” in deference to Douglas, who says, “One of the reasons that a lot of people are a little squishy about the word ʻsurvivor,’ is that it seems to imply that once you’ve attained that status, it’s all done and dusted, it’s all safely in the past. And for a huge number of people, it isn’t and it won’t be, it won’t ever be.” It is imperative to note, however, that many other people prefer the term survivor.

Dwarfs in Art & Shakespeare

19 Aug

 

Leaving you this weekend with a tip to watch Dwarfs in Art: A New Perspective, which airs tomorrow night on BBC 4. I’ve long documented portrayals of dwarfs throughout history on the blog and this documentary promises to go into greater detail. Several of the portrayals of dwarfism are well-known enough to have become stereotypes dwarfs must combat with regularity – which is quite absurd when you consider how rare the condition is.

Featured in the documentary is academic Tom Shakespeare, who regularly writes about disability and bio-ethics, and has achondroplasia like I do. He is a professor at the University of East Anglia and a frequent contributor on the BBC with thought-provoking arguments on issues ranging from physician-assisted death to religion vs. spirituality to bucket lists. I’ve featured an interview with him from his project Disability and Sexuality (see above) because he deserves recognition far beyond the British Isles.

 

I Still Don’t Believe in Leagues

12 Aug

matrioschka (Image by Maria Zaikina used under CC 2.0 via)

 

One of the most harmful and ubiquitous of all impulses is the desire to have someone to look down upon in order to feel better about ourselves. When we are worried that we’re not winning at life—at work, at love, at health & fitness—we too often look for those we think could be ranked below us and use the idea At least I’m not like that! as a salve. Occasionally indulging in such thinking privately in our weaker moments is human, but to assert it out loud or act on it is to descend into the cowardice of a high school mean girl. It’s both socially poisonous and wholly ironic that the fear of not ranking high in a given hierarchy too often inspires us to buy more and more into the idea of the hierarchy, instead of inspiring us to question it.

Firm belief in hierarchies is the fastest path to hate and the fact that it feeds on human insecurity is reason enough to question it, as I recently did at a dinner party, attacking the idea of natural hierarchies of beauty: “Attractiveness is always a matter of personal taste. There are no universal rules. I for one don’t find Dwayne Johnson or Tom Cruise or Jon Hamm attractive at all, despite what any magazine editor says. Johnny Depp, now he was once cute—”

“No, he wasn’t!” rebutted a friend.

“See? Attractiveness is always a matter of personal taste. There’s no such thing as being universally attractive.”

I’ve encountered lots of arguments to the contrary, but little evidence, which is why I looked upon the recent Atlantic article about “dating out of your league” with narrowed eyes. Upon closer reading, I realized the study it featured wasn’t really saying anything new. The phrase “out of my/his/her league” is generally used to mean people can be objectively divided into ascending ranks of beauty or sexiness and that only people in the higher ranks have a chance at those in the higher ranks. It’s one of pop culture’s biggest myths. That certain people attract more people than others in a certain social setting, however, is a fact that can be corroborated by evidence. And that’s what The Atlantic was talking about, noting: “dating ‘leagues’ are not different tiers of hotness, but a single ascending hierarchy of desirability… [and] people do not seem to be universally locked into them…”  

If you follow this blog, you know I frequently use the term “conventionally attractive” instead of “beautiful” or “hot” because there is no objective measure of anyone’s looks around the world and throughout history. The phrase “conventionally attractive” means your looks and/or style are considered attractive by the current mainstream fashion of your culture. It does not mean that you will be desired everywhere by everyone, which is why people disagree over Johnny Depp and are often bewildered by the fashions of their ancestors/teenage children.

In a world that’s produced the corset, foot-binding, neck rings, teeth-blackening, and the bagel head, it’s clear any body type or feature can be striking, intriguing, wonderful. And any body type or feature can become suddenly hideous when ruined by a sickening personality. When Polish-Danish tennis player Caroline Wozniacki mocked an African-American competitor’s body, I agreed with those commenters who noted that pink Northern European skin can be pretty, but it can also make you look like a pig.

Pop culture asserts that the inordinate attention conventionally attractive people receive is always positive, leading too many of us to think that being conventionally attractive corresponds directly to being successful in love. Doesn’t a throng of smitten people lined up outside your door mean that you can have your pick?

Yet if we listen to conventionally attractive people—instead of just look at them—the contemplative among them often explain how upsetting it is to have to face lots and lots of personalities they have pretty much nothing in common with but who are passionately convinced they do. As one conventionally attractive friend put it, “I am sick of casual dating.” Another spent years wondering if he had deep personality flaws since so many of his dates seemed to only want one thing. As said before, being desired by someone who doesn’t love you at all can get really creepy. Really fast.

When we first fall for someone, we pretty much always let the thrill of romance project great expectations onto the object of our affections. But lasting partnerships are not built on the intoxicating joy of first attraction alone. Psychologists are divided as to how long the limerence phase of a relationship lasts—some say between 6 to 18 months, some say up to 3 years—but they all agree that it does end at some point. Celebrity divorce rates alone indicate we all need something more than our partner’s face, body, and charisma to keep us interested. Broadening our concepts of beauty can only help us with that.

The primary reason I don’t believe in leagues is because I know too many conventionally attractive people who have fallen hard for those who are anything but. Mainstream fashion ignores all that to our detriment. The study in The Atlantic of online dating sites in Boston, New York, Chicago, and Seattle found white people, black men, Asian women, educated men, and very young women are considered far more conventionally attractive than black women, Asian men, women with higher education, and women over 18. Other studies have added to the list of types mainstream fashion seems to be too narrow-minded to handle like shorter men, people with disabilities, and women of color with skin tones considered “dark.” There is no good reason to let such disparities continue.

A friend recently asked me, “What if you’re just not into blondes?”

It’s fine to occasionally note your tendencies and tastes. The weakness lies in believing they are immovable or should be turned into rules. If you’re just not into blondes and date accordingly, you are simply more likely to lose at the game of love if there are one or more blondes out there who share your values, sense of humor, and idea of fun. And because values, sense of humor and hobbies do not correlate to physical features, it is statistically likely that there are such people out there in the very bodies you’ve vowed to avoid. When you decide you can’t possibly open your mind to love in a wide array of bodily forms, you miss out.