Tag Archives: Feminism

Will the Netherlands Be the Next Country to Greenlight Nationalism?

12 Mar

 

 

Dutch voters go to the polls this coming Wednesday for the general election, and long-time nationalist candidate Geert Wilders has a better chance of coming in first or second than ever before. A first-place finish would be no guarantee of his becoming prime minister thanks to the multi-party coalition system in the Netherlands, but it would prove surging support for his policies. On his agenda is leaving the EU, closing the border to all refugees as well as all immigrants from Muslim countries, closing mosques and Muslim schools nationwide, and banning the Koran. He was convicted of hate speech by a Dutch court earlier this year for his utterances in the video above.

No candidate will ever be endorsed on this blog, but politicians who promise to roll back the rights of minorities will be called out and the danger assessed. In the ongoing debate over the best counter-strategy to the rise of xenophobia in Europe and the U.S., James Traub argued earlier this week in The New York Times that calls to simply celebrate diversity are partly to blame for the crisis. He views right-wing nationalism as a backlash against “the unquestioned virtue of cosmopolitanism,” writing:

The answer to xenophobia cannot be xenophilia. For mobile, prosperous, worldly people, the cherishing of diversity is a cardinal virtue; we dote on difference. That’s simply not true for many people who can’t choose where to live, or who prefer the familiar coordinates of their life. That was the bitter lesson that British cosmopolites learned from Brexit.

Other critics have demanded similar compassion for the little old white lady who reports feeling uncomfortable when her daily bus ride has her surrounded by people speaking Arabic/Farsi/Somali and wearing headscarves. Yet is she much different from the little old lady who reports feeling uncomfortable when her daily bus ride has her surrounded by people talking in slang and playing techno/hip-hop/k-pop/whatever the kids are listening to these days? Indulging such concerns with legal action quickly devolves into infringements on freedom of expression. Society does best when citizens simply shrug at the sight of new piercings or the sound of a foreign language.

Yet no society has managed to rid itself of the Fear of the Other that convinces a good proportion of its citizenry that the new immigrants will never integrate or that youth culture is more depraved than theirs ever was. A hippie friend’s parents were regularly told in the 1970s, “If my kid ever dressed like that, I’d break his legs!” It feels strange when Americans my age try to imagine that the Beatles were ever considered a moral threat or that jazz was once branded “devil’s music.” It feels just strange when we hear comedian Dara Ó Briain tell of a British shopkeeper who suspected him of being an IRA terrorist based on his accent, or to see the 19th-century scientific articles that claimed the Irish were biologically closer to apes than humans.

Indeed, fear of the Irish was once rampant in Britain and the United States, based on the assumption that most were poor, uneducated, prone to violence at home and in the street, and/or terrorists. Their religion was also deemed a threat on both sides of the Atlantic. History has shown that isolating the Irish both as a nation and as immigrants would not have solved the crisis. On the contrary, Ireland has been one of the EU’s greatest success stories, transforming from the poorest country in Europe to one of the richest. This has coincided with an expansion of democratic reforms and human rights, including gender equality. Ireland was just ranked far ahead of the U.K. and the U.S. on the Democracy Index, and in 2015, what was once one of the most religiously conservative countries in the world became the first country to legalize marriage equality via national referendum in a 2 to 1 vote.

The Netherlands, meanwhile, has long led the continent in LGBT rights and, unlike most nationalist politicians, Geert Wilders has weaponized this, arguing that Muslims threaten these rights. His late predecessor, Pim Fortuyn, was openly gay and based his right-wing populism on the same ideology.

Many voters will be tempted by Wilders’ promise to protect Dutch gender equality by expunging Muslim extremists from the country. But such a policy is not only racist and undemocratic, but hazardous and hypocritical because a) it disregards both the work and rights of feminist and LGBT Muslims, and b) it says nothing about expunging non-Muslim  groups that oppose gender equality like the Christian Reformed Churches of the Dutch Bible Belt or the Neo-Nazis. If Wilders and his supporters are sincerely concerned about threats to LGBT rights, they would do well to partner with the Maruf Foundation and the European Queer Muslim network, rather than the right-wing populists of Europe and the U.S. who are far likelier to dismantle Western laws protecting gender equality than any Muslim extremist group.

Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland and Sweden’s Sverigedemokraterna argue for a return to traditional gender roles. Marine Le Pen pledged last week to nullify all same-sex marriages in France. The former and current leaders of Britain’s UKIP have repeatedly galvanized homophobic sentiment. Donald Trump used the Pulse night club massacre in Orlando last summer to argue for his proposed Muslim ban while at the same time partnering with Mike Pence and other leading members of the American Religious Right, who have been blaming feminism and LGBT equality for most of society’s problems since the 1980s.

Any gender equality movement must protect and support women and LGBT citizens of all ethnicities and faiths. This can only be done with a humanitarian immigration policy. The best hope for combating misogyny and homophobia anywhere is to support human rights activists everywhere. The best hope for successfully integrating immigrants is to learn from the past how it was done before. And to understand that xenophobes throughout history pick different targets but always say the same thing.

In 1751, Benjamin Franklin issued one of the very first warnings of the dangers of immigrants arriving in the United States, asking:

Why should [they] be suffered to swarm into our settlements, and by herding together establish their languages and manners to the exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to … never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion?

He was talking about immigrants from German-speaking regions of Europe, whom he did not consider “white people,” classifying them along with Italians and Swedes as “swarthy” and dismissing them as “generally of the most ignorant stupid sort of their own nation.” The influx of Germans into the U.S. did end up flooding the country, but it did not end up destroying democratic values. The resilience of the fear of immigrants has proven time and again to be the greater threat to universal human rights. A strong showing for Wilders on Wednesday would, too.

 

 

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From the Frontlines of the Women’s March in Berlin

22 Jan

berlin-00

 

German newspapers currently estimate 2.5 million people worldwide—on every continent, including Antarctica—took part in yesterday’s Women’s March.

Earlier this week there was a debate about the mention of disability in the official platform of the March on Washington. Disability advocate Emily Ladau wrote:

My heart sank when I read it.

The first time the word “disabilities” is mentioned, it shows zero recognition of disability as a social justice issue:

We recognize that women of color carry the heaviest burden in the global and domestic economic landscape, particularly in the care economy. We further affirm that all care work — caring for the elderly, caring for the chronically ill, caring for children and supporting independence for people with disabilities — is work, and that the burden of care falls disproportionately on the shoulders of women, particularly women of color. We stand for the rights, dignity, and fair treatment of all unpaid and paid caregivers. We must repair and replace the systemic disparities that permeate caregiving at every level of society.

I also recognize that women of color disproportionately take on the caregiving as a job, that caregiving can be extremely demanding work, and that fair compensation is imperative. But you know what it says to me that this bullet point is one of only two places where disability is mentioned in the entire platform released by the Women’s March? It says that my existence as a disabled woman is a “burden.” My existence as a disabled woman is “work” for someone else. My existence as a disabled woman does not matter.

Disability is mentioned only one more time in the entire platform… And considering that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 1 in 5 Americans have disabilities, disability rights deserve more than a cursory mention in the official Women’s March platform.

This touches on two problems: the vast swaths of feminism that ignore the discrimination burdening disabled women, and our macho culture’s fear of men taking on caregiving roles or any jobs done primarily by women. While feminists continue to fight for mandated paid maternity leave, mandated paid paternity leave is widely considered a bridge too far in the United States. Only 12% of American men offered it by their employers take it. Some economists have tried to explain away the election of Donald Trump by talking about the emasculated feelings of male workers facing a paucity of management opportunities in the American Rust Belt and that the only way to appeal to them is to give them jobs that make them the primary breadwinners in their homes once again.

While fair wages and economic inequality should be a paramount concern of any human rights movement, the insistence that men must be the primary breadwinners and will never be satisfied turning to “pink jobs” like caregiving is not highlighting an indisputable truth about all men – it is highlighting a problem in white male American culture.

Those who say the male ego simply cannot budge on the issue need only look to American black men, who pursue caregiving jobs at a rate 3 times higher than white American men do. Or look over here to Germany, where 1 in 5 students in caregiving programs are male. (Eighty percent of German men also took some form of paid parental leave—which is mandated by the government—in 2013.) Or look to the the Dulais Valley coal miners whose true, history-making story was the inspiration for in the 2014 film Pride. In that film, the problem of emasculation is recognized when one of the strike leaders argues against accepting donations from a gay and lesbian group: “Think of the men! It’s bad enough that their wives are financially supporting them, but now they’re relying on a bunch of gays and lesbians?!” Spoiler alert: By the end, the men they’re talking about open their minds. Or demonstrate that they were never concerned about it to begin with.

The Women’s March stated loud and clear that it’s on all of us to open minds about gender roles until our entire culture changes. We feed the denigration of women—not to mention all other forms of xenophobia—when we agree that white men should feel denigrated to do anything traditionally done by women. We need women who would be embarrassed to date a man in a traditionally feminine job to abandon such thoughts. We need men who are tempted to belittle a guy for going to nursing school to prove he is braver than that, until the man who does snicker is the one feeling out of place. And everyone needs to agree that caregiving is freakin’ hard and deserves to be compensated accordingly.

Yesterday’s Women’s March was a resounding success. Despite Ladau’s valid complaints—as well as earlier reports of friction among some white, middle-class feminists and feminists belonging to other minority groups—the day ended up awash in calls for combating injustice faced on the basis of disability, gender, race, sexuality, class, nationality, ethnicity/religion, immigration status, and appearance. In Washington, Gloria Steinem demanded a moment of silence for those who could not be at the March because they had to work in underpaid jobs. Tammy Duckworth got up out of her wheelchair and onto her crutches to demand unwavering defense of the Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Angela Davis seemed determined in her speech to mention every single marginalized group in the United States and overseas. And when the crowd in Berlin began chanting, “Black lives matter!”, one black woman at the center began singing for joy with tears in her eyes.

There were many signs and songs that not every protestor immediately embraced. One marcher who identifies as queer told me he disliked the portrayals of Donald Trump in drag because being trans or feminine should never be a source of shame. Plenty of marchers of all political stripes expressed unease with blatantly owning the sexualized slurs so many women are the target of. Those of us who are fans of cyborg feminism cringed at gender essentialist references to “Mother Earth” or “natural” womanhood. Others winced at all the swear words. But democracy is hard work. And it was a victory for democracy that millions were willing to march together and engage in an international conversation that sometimes made them uncomfortable. A willingness to leave one’s comfort zone is the first step toward fully embracing and protecting universal human rights.

 

 

The Easiest Way to Avoid Saying “He” or “She”

2 Nov

Sexism abounds(Image used under CC 2.0 via)

 

A linguist will have a hard time if he tries to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

A linguist will have a hard time if he or she tries to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

A linguist will have a hard time if he/she tries to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

A linguist will have a hard time if s/he tries to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

A linguist will have a hard time if they try to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

A linguist will have a hard time if zhe tries to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

A linguist will have a hard time if zie tries to come up with the perfect gender neutral pronoun in English.

Depending upon your political leanings, you may find one or more of the sentences above ridiculous. Many people find the very idea of gender neutral pronouns preposterous to the point of sending death threats to those who have dared to formally enter them in style guides. In the middle of the last century, Strunk and White dismissed any linguistic adaptations motivated by gender equality because, they argued, the word “he” becomes gender neutral, not androcentric, when referring to everyman, mankind, etc. This argument has failed to hold up since the women’s movement, and most Western periodicals agree that such language is archaic with male chauvinist undertones, hence the plethora of proposed alternatives.

This can get harder in other languages. In German, everyone knows right away if your best friend is a girl or a guy because you have to call a female your “best friendess.” A troll gives away her gender in Russian or French the moment she types, “I’m smart/rich/European.” A Japanese speaker would give it away at the word “I.”

But wherever there are strict rules about gender, there is deep confusion about gender. A “girl” in German (“Mädchen,” from which we get “maiden”) is technically gender neutral because all words ending in –chen are. Thus, German kids grow up on stories like Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood containing lines such as, “The prince took the maiden home to his castle and married it.” English isn’t any more logical when considering that almost all of our modern caricatures of ducks—ducklings, rubber duckies, Donald, Daffy, and Duckula—are automatically associated with boyishness, yet the word “duck” is technically as female as the word “cow.”

Most people on earth speak a language that distinguishes between “he” and “she” because most of the languages of the former colonial powers do. But a study of several hundred of the 6,000+ languages on earth found most do not. Whether you’re speaking Finnish or Farsi, you can talk about your best friend, your teacher, your doctor or your least favorite coworker for hours without letting anyone know anything about the person’s gender identity. No “his” and “hers” bath towels, no needing to find out your baby’s sex for linguistic ease.

So while The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage now urges its writers to avoid gendered pronouns, it appears the best solution would be to avoid English altogether.

 

 

Will Dove’s New “Selfie” Film Redefine Beauty?

26 Jan

 

In another installment of its positive body image campaign, Dove has released an 8-minute documentary called Selfie that premiered last week as the Sundance Film Festival.  For those of you who can’t watch it, the film can be summed up thusly:

***

Mothers with their teenage daughters talk about their insecurities about their own bodies.  One girl reveals that her mother’s urging her to wear cosmetics makes her uneasy. 

Cut to a high school gym, where a professional photographer addresses female students, telling them, “I’m here to talk to you about beauty.  You have the power to change and redefine what beauty is!  … The power is at our fingertips.  We can take selfies.”

Cut to her workshop about self-portraiture. “I’m going to ask you to take a risk that could change the way that people define beauty.  What if we find a way when you guys are taking your selfies to actually incorporate the things about us that we don’t like?” The girls list what they hate about themselves: braces, glasses, round faces, rosy cheeks. 

The photographer points out that mothers often pass on their own insecurities to their daughters, to which one girl vociferously agrees.  The girls then are given an assignment to teach their mothers how to take selfies, because “Your mom can redefine beauty just like you can.”

A touching montage of mothers and daughters learning to embrace their least favorite features plays, culminating in an exhibit of the selfies, where visitors leave Post-Its complimenting the girls on their looks.  The girls then smile at how good the compliments made them feel.  The mothers declare that social media is redefining beauty by putting the creativity in the girls’ hands.    

***

I absolutely love the way the film takes mothers to task, especially in light of this week’s report that parents are googling “Is my daughter ugly?” three times more often than they are posing the question about their sons.  We cannot teach our young women that they should not obsess over their looks if we don’t believe it ourselves.

I also like Dove’s idea of promoting the anti-duckface selfie, the least-favorite-traits selfie.  This film will do some good.  But does it truly redefine beauty for everyone?  Does it include everyone?

What about a girl with muscle spatisticity?  What about a girl with the physical markers of Down Syndrome?  What about a girl with scars, burns or chronic skin discoloration?  And, perhaps most importantly, what about that girl who is silently—obsessively—counting and comparing the compliments on her selfie to the compliments on others’ selfies?  Hierarchies survive through feelings of competitiveness.  What about the girl who ends up with the fewest or the least glowing compliments?  Does the project teach these girls how to deal with that, or does it leave them to their own devices?

This is not criticism for the sake of cynicism, but for the sake of empiricism.  The Love Your Body movement has been around for over 30 years, yet eating disorders are on the rise and our mainstream standards of “beauty” have not deviated from tradition at all.  (Go ahead and google “beauty” right now in an image search and see how diverse the results are.) 

As with so many Love Your Body projects, the girls in the video are not beautiful under the sociological definition of “super-normal” (strange and considered exotic), but they are far from the sociological definition of “abnormal” (strange and considered repulsive).  Everything they hate about their bodies—cheeks, glasses, eyebrows, braces—still falls smack in the middle of healthy human appearance.  It’s the equivalent of adults in the middle-middle class and lower-middle class discussing how “poor” they feel for not having made it into the top 1%.  Such insecurities are valid, but repeatedly restricting the discussion to those who only just barely challenge society’s definitions of “success” or “beauty” is safe to the point of almost seeming scared of rocking the boat too hard.

This is not to say that girls with more abnormal looks deserve more sympathy than those closer to average.  On the contrary, in my experience low self-esteem does not correlate to appearance.  I know many women who, being a few pounds overweight, are far less happy with themselves than other women with severe and rare deformities.  Perhaps parents are more dedicated to boosting self-esteem when their daughters more noticeably deviate from the norm. 

Or perhaps being excluded from the game from the get-go helps a girl to see how dumb the rules are to begin with.  Returning to the analogy of class, researchers have found that wealthier parents often have a harder time handling severely disabled children because they upset their need to be in control (“He breaks things!”), whereas parents living below the poverty line are more accepting of life’s unreliability (“Eh, there’s nothing in this house that wasn’t broken long ago!”)  Similarly, girls and the parents of girls whose looks could possibly near the standard of super-normal beauty may be more likely to spend time, money and anxiety trying to reach it than those who give up trying to wow the crowds and instead laugh at the delusional nature of it all.

Either way, I don’t think the Selfie project would be hurt one bit by a truly diverse sample of beauty.  (Let’s get some felfies in there, while we’re at it.)  Rather than monologuing about our own individual fears and demanding strangers allay them with compliments, we need a dialogue between the girl on the far end of the spectrum who’s been trashed for her looks and whoever it was who gave in to the temptation to trash her.  We need a dialogue between those who want to meet an elite standard of beauty and the type of people who support that standard.  We need a dialogue between the ugliest person you can imagine and your reasons for deciding they’re ugly.

That would redefine a lot.

 

 

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They Don’t Care That We’re Angry

29 Sep

Capslock is NOT persuasiveHere’s a shocker: North Americans don’t like activists, especially feminists and environmentalists. Results from a study featured in The Pacific Standard show that these groups are associated with an abrasive, in-your-face approach to politics, and this repels more people than it attracts. Reporter Tom Jacobs urges these groups to change their tactics if they want to get anything done, while Alexandra Brodsky at Feministing has taken umbrage at any call for women to “hush up.” Jacobs has my attention. As someone who’s constantly clogging her Facebook friends’ Newsfeeds with social justice editorials, I’m happy to hear from anyone who can tell me how to entice more people to join the discussion.

Activism is recognizing injustice and inequality when you see it, and taking the time to ask, “Why?” It doesn’t have to be angry. But several of my friends echo the results of the study, saying they’re turned off by the way so many activists—feminists in particular—walk around like ticking time bombs, ready to explode at anyone who dares disagree with a woman ever. One of these friends cited a feminist who once told her, “The problem is people don’t like my writing because I’m just too controversial for them.”

I can see how that kind of self-righteousness would fail to impress, and I can also see where it comes from. Emotions run high whenever we try to talk about injustice and inequality because these are issues that threaten personal safety and pride. Debaters on both ends of the political spectrum all too often tend toward the obstreperous, topping off their arguments with the age-old threat: “You don’t want to make me angry.”

To which I must say, You’re right. I don’t. Because you can be rather boring when you’re angry. Speaking up requires some degree of bravery, but simply getting angry requires no talent whatsoever. A toddler can get angry. (Calling someone a Nazi requires even less skill.) Hollering until your opponent cowers may feel like you won the debate, but it usually means you’ve humiliated them, which will cause them and their supporters to hate you and your beliefs more than they did prior to the encounter. If you’re concerned with no one’s opinion but your own, then your activism isn’t about seeking justice. It’s about seeking attention. And anyone can play that game.

That said, it is unfair of anti-feminists to use a few belligerent narcissists as an excuse for dismissing an entire movement, for denying inequality and injustice exist, for refusing to listen to anyone who speaks up about it. In reaction to this year’s spate of female celebrities claiming “I’m not a feminist, but—”, the great Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote:

Ladies, it is OK to say that you’re a feminist, full stop. You don’t have to twirl your hair and stamp your toe delicately into the ground and sweet-talk that maybe you guess it’s OK that men and women be treated equally…

You can call yourself or not call yourself whatever you want, but consider this. Nobody enjoys it more when a woman says she’s not a feminist than a misogynist. Nobody gets more gloatingly self-congratulatory about it, or happier about what “real” women don’t need than someone who doesn’t like women very much…

A woman will usually strike me as rather petty if she trashes the entire feminist movement just for the sake of making sure no one thinks of her as unattractive or unlikable. And a man will usually strike me as rather creepy if he downplays the importance of women’s rights or refuses to see the ways in which feminism benefits men tremendously. Complacency is just as self-righteous as belligerence.

There are many people who opt out of activism for very good reasons. Some have had terrible experiences with prejudice and for them, avoiding political discussions means avoiding deep and harrowing pain. I myself have had days—sometimes years—when I just did not want to think about my dwarfism in any political way. Constantly reminding yourself of all the narrow-mindedness out there is not a lot of fun. To those on the receiving end of bigotry, it’s perfectly fair to want a break from the tough stuff.

It’s also fair to take a more nuanced approach to politics, to believe in an idea but not the execution, or to question the usefulness of labels like “feminist” or “environmentalist.”  But we would look cock-eyed at anyone who said, “I’m not into human rights, but—” And so I react with the same “WTF?” to anyone who goes out of their way to disassociate themselves with feminism, or any other social justice movement. In the words of my husband, “Why would anyone explicitly say they don’t like feminism? That’s like saying you don’t like democracy.”

And to those who still think feminism is inherently humorless and activism is overly serious, I direct them to a story featured in The New York Times in 1990, wherein feminist activists broke into toy stores and switched the computer chips of Talking Barbie and Talking G.I. Joe, which left the blonde roaring, “Vengeance is mine!” and the soldier musing, “Will we ever have enough clothes?”

(And for those of you who like your jokes a little bluer, there’s this and this.)

I very much want to reach those participants in the study, that majority of North Americans who associate activists with repugnant rage. This issue is of particular concern to me because, among my closest friends and family, no one has ever called me soft-spoken.

Toward the end of my senior year in high school, I got wind of a rumor that I was going to be voted “Most Argumentative” in the yearbook. As soon as I heard about this, I campaigned for it. “You’re not voting for me? Why the hell don’t you think I’m the most argumentative?!” In jest, of course.

But not without truth. I had published my first angry letter to the editor at 14, followed by a couple more over the years. I spoke at school board meetings and political rallies. When I heard a speech I gave described by a family friend as overflowing with “righteous indignation,” I could not have been more pleased. It felt in part like a revolution against old-fashioned gender roles—because everyone knows a woman who talks too much is castrating, while a guy who can command the room is powerful—but mostly it just felt like me. When I like something, I love it to pieces, and when I don’t, everyone braces themselves for a rant. Assertiveness over insecurity. Honesty over likability. I don’t care what you think, anyway. I am woman. Rar.

Years later, as I began writing for wider audiences, I began wondering if my Medea-like rage had ever changed a single mind. Righteous indignation sounds passionate to those who already agree with you, but what if my I-HAVE-NO-TOLERANCE-FOR-INTOLERANCE approach had actually scared off someone who may have been willing to hear my argument in lowercase letters? I refuse to back down, but I don’t want to threaten anyone, either.

Make no mistake, I still love to argue with righteous indignation at all hours of the day with anyone willing to engage me. (As I explained to my sleepy-eyed partner in the middle of a rant about cultural appropriation one morning before work, “Sorry, honey, but you married a walking manifesto.”)  But whenever it comes to public debate, I try to remember to put on the brakes and ask myself, Do I want to silence my opponents or convince them?

And if the answer is the latter, then Desmond Tutu certainly said it best: “Don’t raise your voice—improve your argument.”

 

 

The Parents and the Childfree Are Ignoring A Very Important Group

11 Aug

Hay que reorganizar los cuidados

(Image by gaelx used under Creative Commons license via)

 

“Now I’m going to ask you something that you officially don’t have to answer, but I’m going to ask you anyway…”

I was in the middle of a job interview, and the résumé splayed out on the table betrayed my age. I knew exactly what was coming.

“Do you have kids?” the interviewer asked.

“No,” I smiled, remembering that German law protected me from having to tell him if and when I ever planned to.

“Good,” he smiled back, glancing to the side as if afraid of being overheard. “Because I hate to say it, but employees with kids will not be able to do this job.”

It was clear to me he wasn’t being sexist or anti-family – just honest. The job in question involved shifts at all hours of the day that would change from week to week. There wasn’t any room for developing a schedule of any regularity, or for excusing oneself repeatedly during flu season. And it wasn’t the only profession I’d heard of that demanded flexibility while offering none back. This year has seen study after study reveal that childless women are heavily favored in academia and the corporate world, while men in any field face miserable stigma if they dare prioritize paternal commitments over professional ones. Parents have it so hard.

But then again, so do childless employees. Yet another study out this year revealed that middle class childless women in the public service sector face stigma and sometimes even harassment in the work place for defying traditional gender expectations. In these jobs, working moms are sometimes accommodated more readily than single ladies, leading Amanda Marcotte to complain at Slate of “women missing dates, exercise classes, and social outings in order to cover for the mothers they work with.” In New York magazine, feminist Ann Friedman argued:

Many corporations now strive for a veneer of family friendliness, so it’s not likely a woman will get the stink-eye for leaving early to catch her kid’s soccer game. Which is a feminist victory. But if a childless employee cops to the fact that she’s ducking out for a yoga class? It’s seen as downright indulgent and may even show up on a performance review.

If you’ve ever waded into the debate between childfree adults and parents, online or off, you know they tend to be rather resentful of one another. I usually find myself playing devil’s advocate to both. At this time last year I wrote about the depths of the pain self-righteous parents can inflict on others. But for every supercilious mother I’ve witnessed flaunting her offspring like Olympic gold medals, I’ve also seen huffy child-freers rolling their eyes the moment a toddler enters their field of vision, having no qualms with letting everyone know that the mere existence of a child in their presence is an assault on their personal freedom. Which brings new meaning to the word “childish.”

It’s a shame because the childfree movement has many excellent points to make about society and gender bias. Summing it all up to the inherent undesirability of children is the worst possible political tactic because no one who believes in human rights can write off an entire group of people who have no choice about belonging to that group. Would we tolerate anyone saying, “I can’t stand the elderly”? Or “There is no way I am ever going to learn to like mentally disabled people”?  And anyone who trashes someone else’s reproductive decisions in order to justify their own will never, ever convince the skeptics they need on their side. They’ll just come off as intolerant and judgmental.

And while mothers hit a wall if they insist that theirs is the hardest job in the world, I don’t think we’re going to get very far arguing that employees should have just as much right to leave work early to make it to yoga class as they do to make it to their kid’s soccer game. In the choice between work versus yoga, nothing but my own happiness is riding on the decision. Because it’s me-time. In the choice between work versus my nephew’s soccer game, someone else’s happiness is also at stake. Because it’s caregiving.

This is not to say that single people have less important lives than those with children. Nor do I intend to suggest that parenting is the hardest job in the world. (As mother and feminist Jessica Valenti pointed out in Why Have Kids?, can anyone say with a straight face that being a parent is harder than being a firefighter or an oncologist?) But those who dedicate a large chunk of their time to others in need of care should always be accommodated more readily than those who don’t. Because helping others in need—whether it’s your kids, your parents, your friend’s kids, or anyone you know who is dependent due to age, disability or illness—is work in itself. It’s often a labor of love, but it’s labor nonetheless. And usually it increases your need for me-time, while leaving you with even less time for it.

As a childless woman, I have occasionally been an unpaid caregiver and frequently the one in need of care. I’ve taken time off from work to babysit my neighbors’ toddler, to bring my nephews to the pediatrician, to pick up a friend’s daughter from kindergarten, to help organize a funeral and sort through an estate. And my parents, relatives, husband and friends have taken time off from work in order to take me to physical therapy, to check-ups and procedures, to be at my bedside before and after surgery. The ideal family-friendly workplace would accommodate any employee’s need to help someone in regular need of assistance.

And maybe if we extend the value of good parenting to the value of good caregiving, we’ll be able to have more discussions about how freakin’ hard it can be. Caregiving isn’t just about having a big heart and finding joy in knowing you helped someone. It’s about sacrifice. It’s about reading a book for the fourth time no matter how much you want to throw it out the window. Or rubbing someone’s feet to distract them from the pain no matter how little sleep you’re running on. Or missing out on parties and events no matter how badly you want to go. Or suppressing your gag reflex as the one you love spits up something absolutely gross. Or mustering the strength to decide whether you should endure the anger being vented at you because everyone needs to vent, or whether you should call your loved one out on their self-pity lest their anger become an abusive habit. Caregiving is about testing your patience until it inevitably wears thin and you make a mistake or lash out, ensuring you’ll be up the next several nights wondering whether you just scarred someone for life. Caregiving is work and, regardless of whether it is paid work, it is one of the most psychologically taxing kinds of work there is.  And some are naturally better at caregiving than others, regardless of gender.

But why is taking time off for your child’s recital more generous than taking time off for a date with a friend? Isn’t a childless peer just as valuable as a family member? Of course, but let’s not fool ourselves. Sitting through an entire school recital is a lot less fun than fine dining. (Hence the rule at Springfield Elementary: “No leaving after your kid’s part is done.”) And helping a friend through a typical young adult “crisis” like a breakup will never require the same sort of patience, empathy and thick skin that you need for helping someone through serious illness, severe injury, death or divorce. Commiserating, while still noble in its intentions, is simply saying, “I’ve been there!” and swapping sob stories within the boundaries of our comfort zone. Empathizing is forcing ourselves to stretch our imaginations and open our hearts to someone whose experience frustrates us, or maybe even scares us, because it is essentially different from our own experience. Because empathizing is so much harder, it is undeniably more noble.

Young, childless, upper/middle class adults like me will probably always be seen as the most self-indulgent because our stage in life is the least likely to involve illness or dependency. But those who volunteer after work to play with underprivileged children or tutor illiterate adults or regularly call their lonely relatives demonstrate that social segregation is in part a choice.

This is not to guilt everyone into feeling that our lives are meaningless unless we start volunteering. But we should be honest, not touchy, if our lifestyles are in fact more self-centered than others’. This year, unlike years past, I find myself only occasionally dedicating my time to someone else. My husband has been the giver, exerting himself to maintain the work-life balance constantly threatened by the pressures of his job and my medical needs. And for that he deserves accommodation from his employers, and both gratitude and admiration from me.

 

 

Does GoldieBlox Break the Box?

9 Jun

 

After its Kickstarter fundraising campaign (see above) proved to be a success, GoldieBlox is here and available for retail.  Designed by an engineer appalled at the 1 to 10 ratio of female to male professionals in her field, the toy is the latest in a series of efforts across the West to combat the gender gap and get girls excited about scientific concepts from the earliest possible age.  Questioning the stereotype of women as “naturally” less competent in math, science and visual-spatial thinking is always admirable.  But does GoldieBlox really amount to anything more than simply painting science pink?    

Parents who want to conscientiously ensure their daughters feel every option is available to them will probably already have bought them Legos and Erector Sets.  But parents and relatives and neighbors who rely more on tradition when picking out presents may be swayed by the color-coding GoldieBlox employs.  As in: “I need a present for a cute girl.  Look, this is pink and cute.  I’ll take it.”  Having worked in early childhood education as well as social justice, I wish every adult responsible for stocking a child’s toy box would be conscientious enough to consider the value and purpose of their every purchase—or at least read the picture book all the way through—before heading to the cash register.  But plenty of adults who want to make kids happy don’t share my interest in kids’ things.  They truly appreciate age recommendations on the boxes, and the pink and blue color-coding.  It is these adults and their beloved little girls who will benefit tremendously from the GoldieBlox expansion of the world of pink into the realm of engineering. 

But why do we need to color code anything to let people know which gender it’s for?  Do we need to rename it GoldieNASA to get more women to work there?  Last year, when Bic introduced pens for women (“Easy glide – feel the smoothness!”), its Amazon page almost crashed under the weight of sarcastic reviews:

 

No Good For Man Hands

 

And then there were the appropriate reactions in November to the Honda She’s, a car marketed to women in Japan with special light and air-conditioning features to prevent wrinkles.  Feminists asked:

 

26

 

Indeed, the most offensive aspect of the pink-is-for-girls mentality is the antiquated belief that women need a softer, daintier, less intimidating variation of the standard, which was built for men by men.  Any woman who stops posing for a portrait and approaches that standard is an accident waiting to happen!  Right?

Pink cars and laptops and cell phones and building blocks trigger my gag reflex because they seem to be so obviously marketed as the deviation from the more serious male standard.  But is it fair of me to assume this?  Would GoldieNASA really be so bad?  A friend who works as a software engineer and buys so many Hello Kitty products I suspect he accounts for half of Sanrio’s market share would say no.  He agrees with me that Barbie and the Disney Princesses inappropriately introduce pre-schoolers to sexual self-objectification and viciously narrow beauty standards.  He is both irritated and concerned about those of any gender identity who think they should use their vulnerability to get what they want.  But his kitchen cupboards are brimming with cups emblazoned with pink hearts and daisies and butterflies.  He would love to work at GoldieNASA.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the color pink or with girls and boys, and men and women, being cute.  In fact, trashing the color pink and all things marketed at girlie-girls is often motivated by a powerful misogynistic tradition: the belief that things for girls are dumb and frivolous because girls are dumb and frivolous.  This is usually why boys and girls watch films and read books marketed to boys—like Harry Potter or Star Wars or every Pixar film but Brave—while only girls watch films and read books marketed to girls.  Some misogynists and feminists uphold this disparity by uniting in their belief that twirling around in ball-gowns is silly because it’s not a skill needed by the average adult in modern life.  Indeed, it is not.  But then neither is sword-fighting.    

For this reason, it is imperative to teach kids that the value of a toy or story derives from its content, not its color.  Within this lesson lies the truth that there is more to being a girl than dressing up and being cute, just as there is more to being a boy than being stoic and winning every competition.  Every child should feel every option is available to them because the most innovative minds approach the world with the least reliance on tradition.

GoldieBlox will have succeeded when it is ubiquitous in any child’s room because it will signify that adults are picking their purchases based not on color but on this simple rubric:

 

 

 

PINK!

19 May

(Image by Monika Tugcu used under CC license via)

 

This holiday weekend I’m sparing you my deep and profound thoughts about the Barbie Dreamhouse exhibit that opened this week in downtown Berlin and the protest that accompanied it.  Instead, I’ll let the issues and problems of beauty standards and femininity and sexuality and body image and fashion and pink and sparkles be summed up by a little story I discovered this year:

In 1999, Jon Stewart was invited to be featured in People magazine’s annual list of 50 Most Beautiful People.  (I’ve written about the List before in The Body Image Series, highlighting Michael Chabon’s excellent reaction to it.)  Stewart agreed to be featured but insisted on wearing a pink prom dress and a tiara for the photo shoot.  Why? 

I feel pretty!

 
 

Who You Telling To Wear Makeup?

28 Apr

fashion show(Image by Alex Craig used under CC license via)

 

While chatting with colleagues over coffee this week, I ended up “outing” myself as a dwarf who’s had limb-lengthening.  (Experience has taught me some people notice right away when they meet me that something is up, while others go a long time without the slightest idea, especially in the wintertime when my scars are hidden under sleeves and pants.)  We arrived at this topic by discussing fashion—and the recent scandal in Sweden that’s left me almost speechless—and then beauty and self-confidence.  Several of my colleagues pointed out that every person they know who’s undergone cosmetic surgery never struck them as unattractive before the fact.  Only an idiot would think that there’s only one kind of beautiful nose or mouth or whathaveyou.  And only a jerk would tell someone to have cosmetic surgery.

As you may have guessed, I agreed wholeheartedly.  But what about telling someone to wear makeup?

This week, a man writing to Slate’s Dear Prudence advice column confessed he feels simultaneously guilty and helpless about the fact that some of his female friends are unlucky in love because “their looks are probably the only thing holding them back.”  Prudence tends give good, progressive advice, but this time, instead of telling him the ladies should move in less superficial circles, she suggested he pair them up with some similarly “average-looking” male buddies.  She then added, “If the problem with your female friends is not their intrinsic looks but the fact that they dress like schlubs or never wear makeup, then a guy’s perspective that they aren’t doing everything with what they’ve got could spur them into action.”

Ugh.  Say what you want about clothes, but the makeup debate is as messy and gunky as makeup itself, which is why I’ve avoided it up until now.  But am I the only one who thinks telling someone to start using makeup is entirely different from giving them your opinion about the way they dress?

Everyone, from my partner to my grandmother, rolls their eyes at certain fashion choices and, as I’ve said before, anyone who denies they ever do it is lying.  It betrays a pathetic insecurity to trash others’ dress for the sake of your own self-aggrandizement—e.g. “I wouldn’t be caught dead in that!”—but it is fair to say what just isn’t your cup of tea.  We can snark a little about someone’s clothes, hairstyles, accessories, headgear or makeup style (if they have one) without too much malice because someone is probably snarking about ours.  No one on earth dresses in a way that is universally attractive because there is no such thing as a universal beauty standard.  And as the saying goes, there is no arguing taste.  Someone thinks this is kick-ass, and someone else thinks it’s sloppy:

Captain Jack Sparrow

Someone thinks this is dreamy and someone else thinks it’s one big yawn:

Jason Straatmann Actor Japan Suit Tie Cufflinks Model

Someone thinks this is sexy and someone else thinks it’s garish: 

Untitled

People find beauty in this:

Traditional Korean dance

Or this:

Ethiopia, Mursi woman

Or this:

Bollenhut-Gutach

Or this:

4601942293_27f40e0122_o

Or this:

Namibië, oktober 2008

Or this:

 
And that’s just a tiny sample from around the world. There is even more variation across time because, as Oscar Wilde said, “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.”  I think some of my friends, like some of the subjects above, have a great sense of style, while others do not.  They in turn probably think the same about me.  But if any of them thought I should wear makeup more often than I do—which is almost never—and told me so, they wouldn’t be my friends.  But what if they’re my supervisors?      

In January, a study featured in The New York Times revealed that (American) women who wear makeup are considered more competent and more likable in the workplace.  A panel of stylists and professors made various points about this that basically all boiled down to, “It’s a choice.  If it makes women feel more confident, they should go for it.”  But if the study indicates that their confidence would result from garnering more positive attention for their looks, then their lack of confidence without makeup would result from a fear of not getting attention for their looks. 

Many modern women, especially lipstick feminists, repeat, “Empowerment is all about being free to choose!”  There is truth in this.  I know guys who were bullied in school for wearing concealer or plucking their eyebrows.  Women meanwhile are often forced into a nearly impossible balancing act wherein no makeup = plain Jane, but too much = slut, and kudos to anyone who refuses to play that game.  Good girl culture, as well as the results from the study, assert that “less makeup is more – you should look like you’re not wearing any.”  This rule seems potentially problematic to me because it is insidious.  If someone gets used to just slightly “improving” their face every day, it is more likely they’ll feel insecure without these improvements.  I occasionally enjoy wearing heavy makeup bordering on the outrageous (like glitter), but it feels like a mask and everyone knows it’s a mask.  When it’s so obviously part of a costume, there’s not much danger that I’ll start considering it an inalienable component of myself.  But the subtle makeup seems to be a lot harder for people to let go of.  I know women who refuse to be photographed without their makeup on—and you probably do, too—and if that doesn’t sound like an unhealthy insecurity, I don’t know what does.

In any case, it doesn’t sound like they are “free to choose,” as lipstick feminists advocate.  As I’ve written before in explaining my choice to have my limbs lengthened, we should be free to make complex decisions about our bodies without others making snap judgments about our motivations.  Anyone who does is a coward.  But it is also cowardly of us to voice hatred for our natural faces and simultaneously deny that this has any impact on others.  In the words of philosopher Arthur W. Frank, “When we make a choice, we confront others with that choice.”  The freedom to choose diminishes when a strong majority bends in one direction, because majorities create social pressure.  In a society that literally rewards women who wear makeup—i.e., with higher salaries—it is undeniable that many do so in order to win these rewards, ultimately playing by the rules under the guise of empowerment.  The cosmetics industry, like any industry, always aims to make their customers feel that they cannot live without their product and so they too have embraced the slogan of “Empowerment!”  Leading The Onion to smirk, “Women Now Empowered By Everything A Woman Does!” 

It would be obnoxious of me to assume that every woman with a compact in her purse does it to acquiesce.  I know and admire selfconfident women who love putting on bright red lipstick and self-confident men who wish they could, too, without being gawked at.  Primping can be fun.  Painting your skin certain colors can make you feel fine and refreshed, like slipping into a brand-new top or getting a new haircut.  Or brushing your teeth after a hangover. 

But it’s not quite the same thing, is it?  Once again, it’s a mask.  A friend of mine who loves dressing up but hates wearing makeup recently said, “I guess, ultimately, it’s weird looking in the mirror and seeing something that doesn’t look like me.  I don’t really like makeup on other people either though, so perhaps it’s a general class of trying to hide oneself that bugs me.”   

Indeed, that is one of my many reasons for rarely ever using cosmetics, why I graciously declined friends’ offers to do me up on my wedding day, why I cringe at the idea of anyone pressuring women into it.  I also like being able to rub my face without having to worry about smudging.  I’d rather spend the money on a million other things.  My partner hates the taste of cream, gloss or powder—“Kissing someone wearing foundation is like kissing a sandbox!”—and I must say I don’t blame him.  Most importantly perhaps, I don’t understand why our culture believes that women’s faces require some paint in order to be attractive but men’s faces don’t.  If I can’t compensate for the plainness of my natural face with my charisma, then no one should be able to.

Of course, almost all of us conform to our culture’s beauty standards to some degree.  I’ve worn concealer for blemishes and plucked my eyebrows to make them even, but I feel a strong attachment to my scars and so I’ve kept them.  I don’t always like my face—don’t we all have those days when we look in the mirror and just feel yucky and dissatisfied?—but even if I thought putting on some modern Western style of makeup would make me look “better,” it wouldn’t look like me.  Experience has also taught me that a dissatisfaction with one’s looks is almost always rooted in something more substantial: feeling not very fit, feeling overtired and stressed, feeling lazy because there’s been too much or too little to do.  And even if it’s not, I often feel very satisfied with my face, so on a bad day why not simply walk away from the mirror, focus on something a little more profound than my appearance, and have confidence that the feeling of self-satisfaction will return?

As psychologist Nancy Etcoff wrote in The Times:

Women who feel that makeup use is obligatory but unwanted, that it requires a forced confrontation with the mirror when they’d rather put their attention elsewhere, do not feel more confident after using it.  Research suggests that women can feel objectified by makeup, and for such women, any potential advantage may be offset by the emotional labor of wearing it.

And, in an excellent article on weddings, Ariel Meadow Stallings of Offbeatbride.com writes:

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the pursuit of authenticity versus the pursuit of attention.  The first feels very internal, like you really have to look with-in yourself with a lot of introspection and thought to determine what’s important … while the other feels very external, like you’re hunting for other people’s eyeballs.  And why does one seem like so much fun, while the other seems like so much work? …

I guess it comes down to this: Attention gives you the cheap high of other people’s energy focused at you … but authenticity gives you that deep, long-lasting satisfaction of knowing that you’re on the right path and you’re doing the right thing.  While the quick high is more fun in the short run, the deep satisfaction is ultimately more filling.

This is why it is fine to wear makeup but wrong to tell someone else to.  Not only is it a ludicrously presumptuous, boundary-crossing thing to say—like telling someone to switch careers or leave their spouse—but it’s vacuous because it has nothing to do with matters of justice or morality.  It is sheerly a matter of beauty standards.  The worst thing about beauty standards is that they create peer pressure based merely on taste.  The best thing about them is that, as seen above, there are millions of them, and they are constantly changing.  If humans are capable of thinking the lip-plate is attractive, then surely we are capable of thinking a woman without makeup is attractive. 

Women and men should feel free to smear their faces with whatever they wish or go without, to pluck their eyebrows or leave them be, to shave any body part or refrain.  (Bearing in mind doctors have recently explained the cringeworthy risks of shaving certain parts.)  But the moment they say that someone should do the same in order to feel better or lure lovers or advance their career, we have a problem.  And it’s not physical.

 

 

Props to The Observer for (Finally) Doing the Right Thing

20 Jan

a bit of controversy surrounding the transgender flag: san francisco (2012)A little background: A while ago a British journalist named Suzanne Moore, who specializes in women’s rights, made an offhand transphobic comment in an article about body image:  “We [women] are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.”  There was an ensuing backlash from many in the trans community, especially on Twitter.  Her friend and fellow writer Julie Burchill penned a column in her defense titled, “Transsexuals Should Cut It Out,” which appeared last week in The Observer.  Without ever saying what exactly the trans activists in question had said to Moore that was so horrific, Burchill just called them names: “A bunch of dicks in chick’s clothing… bed-wetters in bad wigs… trannies…  They’re lucky I’m not calling them ‘shemales.’  Or shims.”

(Oh, really?  They’re lucky you don’t use the most dehumanizing terms you can think of?  Even though you just kind of did…  But I guess every member of every minority really should feel grateful to anyone who refrains from attacking their freak qualities with the worst slurs.  And in that case, thank you, Julie Burchill.  Thank you for not referring to people with dwarfism as midgets or Paralympic athletes as cripples.  I know the temptation is always there to vomit in disgust at people who are physically different and it takes a will of iron to keep the insults from dribbling out.  You are truly strong.  Anyone less magnanimous than you would mouth off.  You have shown yourself to be the paragon of generosity.  I for one am now going to get up every morning and feel grateful there are people like you saintly enough to walk down the street and not spit at those of us who truly belong in the circus.)

The Observer received a barrage of emails and commentary from horrified readers and promptly demonstrated that a small group of thoughtful citizens can indeed change the world when it pulled the column from its website.  The editors have issued this apology (emphasis mine):

This clearly fell outside what we might consider reasonable. The piece should not have been published in that form. I don’t want the Observer to be conducting debates on those terms or with that language. It was offensive, needlessly. We made a misjudgment and we apologise for that.

A newspaper shouldn’t reject writing that merely argues against trans rights or any sort of human rights.  As awful as bigotry is, dialogue between opposing sides is the only way to change minds and spur progress.  But any publication looking to host productive debate should always be able to discriminate between substantive reasoning and a pointless list of pejoratives.  I wouldn’t oppose printing Burchill’s piece because her argument was chauvinistic, but because she failed to be civil and because she wasn’t even addressing the trans activists’ stance.  She was simply snarking about their bodies.  And I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: If you can’t make your point without trashing traits your opponent has no choice about—their gender identity, ethnicity, biology, sexuality, or class background—then your argument doesn’t have a leg to stand on.  At worst, it’s abuse, and doesn’t even belong in high school.  (Indeed, that’s what anti-bullying policies are all about.)  At best, it’s meaningless.  (Would anyone try to convince the world to depose Saddam Hussein by ranting about the ugliness of his moustache?)

Upon first discovering Burchill’s piece last week, I assumed the only reason the editors would publish such an uninhibited temper tantrum was because they’re a business and believe feuds sell papers.  It is a relief to see now that they do not want their readers thinking that’s the kind of business they’re running.

Unsurprisingly, The Telegraph and others have bellowed, “CENSORSHIP!” and—you can see it coming a mile away—“PC police!” and have joined up with Burchill in republishing her piece.  They apparently have no qualms about profiting from the attention a semi-famous writer’s bad manners will grab.  Which is why it is so important to commend The Observer.  A week ago, I was deeply depressed by their descent into yellow journalism.  Their current endeavors to wipe off the self-inflicted stains are better late than never.

 

(Via)

 

 

The Year In Review

30 Dec

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

 

When I launched Painting On Scars at the beginning of this year, I had loads to say and almost as much worry that few would be interested in issues of disability and physical difference.  As the year comes to a close, I look back and see that the posts about ableism and lookism have generally been the most popular, followed by my spring article about family planning, reproductive rights, and privacy.  This hasn’t been the only surprise.

Lots of people find this blog by googling “dwarf + woman + sex.”  I have no idea who these people are.  They may be fetishists, they may be researchers, they may be women with dwarfism.  Your guess is as good as mine.

Since March, Painting On Scars has been read in over 100 countries.  To the surprise of few, no one in China reads it.  To the surprise of many, at least one person in Saudi Arabia does.  So have people in St. Lucia, Jordan, and Benin. 

Thanks to blogging, I’ve discovered there is a considerable online community committed to combating ableism with its own terms and tropes such as “supercrip” and “inspiration porn.”  I love such communities.  I also love bridging communities.  Because responses to my blog have shown me, perhaps more than anything has, that I want to talk to everyone.  And I really don’t care what your label is. 

I don’t care if you consider yourself Republican or Democrat or feminist or anti-feminist or religious or atheist or socialist or libertarian or apolitical or intellectual or anti-intellectual.  Well, okay, I do take it into consideration.  Somewhat.  But there is rarely consensus when we ask that everyone define these terms.  And none of them carries a guarantee against nasty personality traits like narcissism and defensiveness and aggression and cowardice.  Novelist Zadie Smith noted that we are told every day by the media and our culture that our political differences are the most important differences between us, but she will never be convinced of that.  When lefty comedian Jon Stewart was asked earlier this year if there’s anything he admires about right-wing hardliner Bill O’Reilly, he said, “This idea that disagreeing with somebody vehemently, even to the core of your principles, means you should not engage with them?  I have people in my own family that make this guy look like Castro and I love them.”

This is not to say that it’s all relative and I see no point to social justice or politics.  On the contrary, difference continues to be marginalized by the tyranny of the majority, as evidenced by the fact that the number one Google search term that has brought readers to my blog is “freaky people.”  And far too many kind people will more readily lash out at a person or group whose recognition demands they leave their comfort zone, rather than the forces that constructed and defined their comfort zone.  Well-intentioned friends and parents and bosses and classmates and leaders and partners and siblings and colleagues are capable of the vilest selfishness when they are scared of a power shift.  (As the Christian activists pictured above acknowledge.)  This is heart-breaking.  And it is not okay. 

But on the flipside, people are constantly smashing the prejudices I didn’t even know I had about them.  Every day friends and family and strangers demonstrate strengths that highlight all the mistakes I make, proving to me that politics are tremendously important but they will never be the most important element of a human being.   That may be a political idea in itself, but regardless of the divisions, most people on earth do seem to believe deep down inside that everybody matters.

And that’s what makes the struggle for social justice worth it.  If you are friendly and well-mannered and generous and honor your commitments and don’t let your self-doubt make you self-centered and try to listen as much as you talk and are honest about your problems without fishing for compliments and are big enough to apologize when you’ve screwed up, I respect you and admire you and am humbled by you.  I want to do the best I can because of you. 

 And since you’ve read this far, it’s more than likely you’re good at listening.  Thank you and happy new year!

 

 

Wear Whatever You Want – We Can Handle It!

2 Sep

(Via)

 

This family portrait of a father and son in a small town—deep in the province and deeply religious—in Southern Germany has been traveling around the world.  When his five year-old boy expressed a love for dresses but found himself alone on the playground, Nils Pickert writes in Emma magazine that the only way to make sure his son knew that he supported him 100% was to be a role model of self-confidence and don a skirt himself.

“Yeah, I’m one of those fathers who believes in liberation when it comes to parenting,” he writes.  “I am not one of those academic dads who ruminates and lectures about equality between the sexes, and then, the moment a child arrives, slips back into the old comfortable gender roles: He does his own thing by having a career, she takes care of the rest.”

When he switched to a new kindergarten, the teasing got to be too much and the author’s son stopped wearing dresses to pre-school.  But he turned to his father and asked, wide-eyed, “Papa, when are you going to wear a skirt again?”  So Dad made sure to keep wearing his skirt out in public.  He writes, “I’m very grateful to the woman who stared at us on the street until she walked into a lamppost.  My son roared with laughter.  And the next day, he fished a dress out of his closet again.”

I don’t have much to add to this story besides the smile it brought to my face.  And a hope that someday these two will be models for a poster that will take its place in history alongside Rosie the Riveter.

 

 

 

Germany Rules on Male Circumcision

26 Aug

Justice(Image by Viewminder used under CC license via)

 

We’ve been waiting all summer for this decision.  On Thursday here in Berlin, the German Ethics Council ruled that male circumcision is legally permissible without a doctor’s order, but several conditions must be met:

    • Both parents must be in full agreement.
    • All possible risks to the procedure must be explained in full detail.
    • Local anesthetics must be an option.
    • The procedure must be certified by a medical professional.

Some of these requirements, especially the last two, go against what some fundamentalist religious leaders mandate.  Why all the fuss?  In Europe, where female genital cutting is illegal, male circumcision is only common in Muslim and Jewish communities.  Last year, a German court in Cologne ruled that the circumcision of an underage male constitutes aggravated assault and battery, and the debate has been raging ever since.  It has split the nation into two parties: Those that see the procedure as cosmetic at best and mutilating at worst, carried out on patients too young to give consent, versus those that believe any ban on age-old rituals and tribal markers constitutes religious and/or ethnic persecution.  That the ritual German lawyers sought to ban is a Jewish custom makes it a particularly sensitive case here.

When we hear stories of female genital cutting in Africa, Westerners are generally horrified.  But few in the United States understand that many Europeans gape at our 60% rate of male circumcision and consider it to be of course not quite but almost as cruel.  “How on earth could parents do that to their baby boy?!” is the reaction I get from the vast majority of Christian and non-denominational European males I talk to.  They are much more prone to believe studies citing the problems it can cause—for example, a supposedly higher rate of dyspareunia for women who have intercourse with circumcised men—than studies that downplay such fears.  I usually admit to them that, because it is so very common where I come from, I’d never given it much thought beyond those pop culture jokes about what looks better.

Which just goes to show how powerful cultural customs and values can be.  One culture cringes as the other shrugs.  Both female and male genital cutting involves groups that say we should protect the parents’ right to choose what they think is best for their children without government interference, while the others say the government should protect children from procedures that offer no medical benefit before they are old enough to decide for themselves, regardless of what their parents want.

I’ve written before that as someone who’s undergone limb-lengthening, I know how complex decisions about body alteration can be.  Determining an appropriate age of consent for surgery can be even more complicated.  But also due to my experience, I wince along with Jessica Valenti when parents choose procedures for their children that offer no real medical benefit.  While discussing circumcision, my European friends argue that patients should reach the age of consent before undergoing any procedure that, unlike limb-lengthening, does not become more medically complicated with age.  Should courts ever rule this way, this will inevitably lead to bans on juvenile nose-jobs like the one Valenti cites.  But then what about ear-piercing? 

Years ago, I was a panelist at a conference called “Surgically Shaping Children” at the Hastings Center, a think tank for bio-ethics, where we addressed elective procedures such as limb-lengthening on dwarfs and determining a gender for intersex children.  After a two-day debate and a resulting book, we concluded that the best way to prevent parents from making decisions that could be damaging to their children is to keep both the parents and their children as informed as possible about every issue that’s at stake: medical facts, cultural identity, individual identity, and agency.  The German Ethics Council’s ruling also implies that such comprehensive understanding is necessary. 

I think a ban on circumcision would have created more cultural resentment than understanding.  But the scientific community, and society as a whole, should take the place of the legal system in helping parents understand all the complexities of altering a child’s body without a medical purpose.  There may be no easy answer, but the discussion has got to keep on going.

 

 

When It Comes To A Boy In A Dress, The Question Is: What’s Wrong With Us?

12 Aug

When I was about 10 years-old, a friend of mine with achondroplasia was being teased at her school for being so short.  After being shunned at lunchtime repeatedly—“No freaks at this table!”—her mother finally called her local chapter of Little People of America, which sent a spokesman into the school to give a presentation.  After he read Thinking Big to the class, explaining thoroughly in an age-appropriate manner why my friend looked the way she did, one of the biggest bullies raised his hand.  “So, you mean, she’s little because she’s a dwarf?” he asked.

The spokesman offered to let my friend answer the question herself and she replied, “Yes.”

The boy who had teased her so much suddenly had tears in his eyes.  It later came out that his new baby brother had just been diagnosed with dwarfism.  He had had no idea until that moment that his brother was going to grow up to look just like the girl he’d targeted. 

To anyone who insists, “He couldn’t have known,” he could have.  We could have let him know.  What is school for, if not the pursuit of knowledge?  With the exception of women, all minorities risk marginalization not only by others’ lack of empathy but by the lack of visibility automatically brought on by their lower numbers.  Any place that prides itself on learning should pride itself on learning about other perspectives, other identities, other behaviors, no matter how rare.

So “What’s Wrong With A Boy Who Wears A Dress?” asks The New York Times magazine on its cover this week.  Despite that the flippant headline sacrifices sensitivity for saleability, at least it’s shedding light on the subject.  I know so many men and boys and trans individuals who wear dresses for so many different reasons, and they do it a lot more than mainstream movies, TV, and advertising suggest:

 


When asked why he likes regularly wearing his wife’s nightgowns, one man shrugged, “It’s comfy.”

The Times article has its flaws.  When discussing how boys who wear dresses turn out later in life, the article stuffs them into three overly simplistic boxes: a) gay, b) heterosexual, and c) transsexual.  Such labels do not encompass all the ways and reasons people of various gender identities and sexualities wear dresses into adulthood.  As one friend observed, “The path of least resistance for so many is to wear dresses in secret.  By using these limiting categories, the article implies that and also does nothing to change that.”  The use of the categories also implies that these individuals owe us a clear-cut, sex-based explanation for their behavior, which is itself a symptom of narrow mindedness.  No one demands a woman explain why she likes wearing jeans.

And yet the article also keeps its subjects silent.  While documenting the struggles of both conservative and liberal parents, the author would have been wise to include the perspective of adults who wore or wear dresses.  In the absence of their agency, their nervous parents are essentially speaking for them.  (Rule Number One in Battling Intolerance: Never, ever let a minority’s agency be ignored.)

But for all these errors, the article concludes with those who ultimately support their sons as best they can.  One dad heard that his five year-old was being taunted in kindergarten for wearing pink socks, so he bought himself a pair of pink Converse sneakers to wear in solidarity.  The kindergarten teacher jumped in, too, opening up a class discussion about the history of gender rules and shocking the kids with the information that girls were once not allowed to wear pants. 

Whenever reports on “different” children list the anxieties parents have about their kids not being accepted, the message often starts to get muddled.  Sometimes the article is clear that we as members of society need to get over our hysterical hang-ups and start accepting these children as they are so that they and their parents no longer have to worry what we and our own children will say.  Too often, however, the article spends so much time quoting the parents’ fears that the source of the problem starts to sound more and more like the child’s disruptive identity, not others’ clumsy reactions to his identity.  And that’s wrong.

Whenever a child is made fun of for being himself, it’s our problem, not his.  Biologists can say what they want about a fear of difference being an evolutionary adaptation, but our culture values differences two ways, either as “abnormal” (i.e., strange and pitiful) or “super-normal” (strange and admirable).  The Beatles’ mop-tops were abnormal to parents of the time (“They look like girls!”), and super-normal to their teenage children.  In the nature vs. nurture debate, we need to stop saying “nurture” and start saying “culture,” because changing the environment a child grows up in means changing the behaviors of more than just one set of parents.  Mine never once told my younger brother, “Only sissies cry,” but his little league coach told the team just that.

This is our culture and we are the ones shaping it as the creators and consumers.  By making and watching films and TV shows that state what’s “gay,” “wimpy,” “ugly,” “freaky,” or “gross.”  By stating, “Guys just don’t do that,” or letting such remarks go unchallenged.  By repeating traditional views of minorities—e.g. the dwarfs of Snow White and Lord of the Rings—and failing to provide more realistic portrayals with greater frequency.  As adults, we bear so much responsibility for shaping the world the younger generation is trying to navigate.   (As this German Dad proved so well.)

Since the Sixties, many parents and teachers and educational programs have embraced books that promote understanding of ethnic diversity such as People and of disability such as I Have A Sister: My Sister Is Deaf to broaden our children’s perspective and nurture empathy toward people they do not encounter every day.  Yet books like My Princess Boy or The Boy In The Dress have yet to break into the standard curriculum.  There seems to be an unspoken assumption that such books are primarily for the boys they’re about.  (Buy them only after your son starts actively asking for a tiara.)  But everyone should be reading them, for the same reason everyone should be reading Thinking Big.  By waiting to address the idea of free gender expression until a little boy gets bullied, we are cultivating the assumption that the problem never existed until that little boy came along.  The problem was always there.  

Critics have argued The Boy In the Dress is unsuitable for any boy in real life who feels the like the protagonist because any school he attends in real life is far less likely to rally around him so enthusiastically.  But that’s exactly why this book needs to be read and discussed and picked apart by school classes around the world, not just by boys alone in their bedrooms. 

As a teacher, babysitter and relative, I encourage the little boys in my life to play dress-up, house or princess with their female playmates because I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument as to why it’s any different from encouraging the girls to get down and dirty in the mud with their brothers.  Sure it’s radical—just as my mother’s wearing jeans to school 42 years ago was radical—and the last thing I want to do is turn a child into something he’s not.  But as with a girl, I want him to feel that every option is open to him, despite any hang-ups tradition has about it.  And if it becomes evident that he truly has no interest in anything soft or sparkly, I at least want to do my best to ensure that he never, ever makes fun of any boys who feel otherwise.

 

 

When It Comes to the Sexes, Ignorance Is Bitterness

1 Jul

 

“Men and women can’t really be friends, can they?”  In the wake of Nora Ephron’s passing on Tuesday, there’s been a revival of this When Harry Met Sally question.  And you can probably guess what my answer is.  With no disrespect intended to the late feminist, I’m really hoping this is one of her contributions to pop culture whose staying power will erode with time.  It’d be easy to dismiss it as no big deal, nothing more than a cute gimmick, but an excellent NY Times piece from earlier this spring asserts what I have always suspected: Our society’s lack of faith in cross-gender friendships signifies its traditional lack of faith in men and women being able to understand each other.  And that’s a big deal.

According to tradition, men and women view each other as the Other and only meet for the sake of mating and family, hence the cultures wherein women were banned from being seen with any man who was not their husband or relative.  Western pop culture promotes vestiges of this in its assumption that any regular contact with a member of the opposite gender will lead to you falling for them, especially if you’re a guy.  As Jeff Deutchman writes in this several-volume Slate article, “It’s called having no standards.”  When Harry Met Sally says, Fine, maybe as a guy you don’t fall for every woman who crosses your line of vision, but it’s your only motivation for maintaining a friendship with one, and attraction will always poison friendship.  Oh, puh-lease.

“Only worth it if I get laid” may be the rule for a Hollywood character, but it is a very bleak view of the other gender.  Friendship may be impossible if you are set on maintaining that view, but in that case, too bad for you.  And everyone else around you.  I’ve seen friendships survive unrequited love, illicit feelings, romantic trysts and break-ups, and go on to rival any sisterhood or buddy bond in depth.  Men and women can sure as hell be friends, and I don’t mean friendly chit-chat at dinner parties.  I mean call-up-and-confide-your-deepest-fears, ask-for-advice-on-your-most-serious-problems, make-you-laugh-in-a-way-almost-no-one-else-can friends.  Instead of Harry and Sally, they embody Jerry Seinfeld and Elaine Benes, or Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew, nurturing an allegiance that says “So what?” to any sexual tension, past or present.  They are anathema to the “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” folklore, just as international relationships are anathema to racist myths. 

It is true that men and women are culturally conditioned to think and behave differently, just as Germans and Americans are culturally conditioned to think and behave differently, as are New Yorkers and Texans, Berliners and Bavarians, Long Islanders and Upstaters.  But there is always far more variation in the thoughts and behaviors within cultures than across them.  Our traditional categories ignore this, suppressing any details that throw themselves into question, no matter how critical.  Arguing against male-female understanding by emphasizing the traditionally recognized differences is disingenuous because it relies on an extremely narrow, heteronormative perspective. 

Social conservatives often cite hormonal and genetic differences as wedges between men and women, straights and gays, but such arguments are cherry-picking the facts to prop up the antiquated gender binary.  In a New York magazine article on transgender children appearing last month, a theory presented by Dr. Jean Malpas breaks down the concepts of sex and gender into not two but four parts, visually represented on a stick-figure:

  • Biological Gender: your chromosomes and genitals.  Indicated on the stick-figure’s crotch.
  • Sexuality: your romantic attraction to others.  Indicated on the stick-figure’s heart.
  • Gender Style: sometimes called Gender Expression, your preferred self-presentation in matters such as fashion, posture, speech patterns and hobbies. Indicated by a circle around the outside of the stick-figure’s body.
  • Gender Identity: your innate sense of being male or female or androgynous, regardless of biology or style or sexual interest.  Indicated on the stick-figure’s brain.

We are so much more complex than Harry and Sally, and so much deeper than they give us credit for.  Just as an international relationship requires at least one if not both partners to be bilingual, a cross-gender friendship requires at least one if not both friends to be intellectually curious, empathic and uninterested in the stereotypes they have been taught regarding both their own gender and someone else’s.  Indeed, the author of the Slate article claims that cross-gender friendships work best between individuals who are “less gendered.”  (Guys who are unafraid to enjoy movies like The Joy Luck Club, no matter the risk of looking effeminate; women who are unafraid to make asses of themselves, no matter the risk of looking unladylike… )  Bonding over common experiences is easy.  Considering a different point of view despite cultural pressures signifies genuine respect, the very sort needed to fuel any kind of progress.  This is why having close friends of all kinds of gender identities, styles and sexualities can be so awesome. 

Friendship, unlike politics, requires the participants to not just listen to each other but hear what the other is saying.  As a woman who wants a career, I am still expected to juggle it with almost all the responsibilities of childcare because mothers who focus more on their success than their family are negligent.  Many guyfriends are sympathetic to this, while pointing out to me that with or without a family, they are expected to focus more on their success than their emotional fulfillment.  Discussing such ambivalent feelings with friends of the same gender identity can be very helpful, but peer pressure can impede it.  Discussing such feelings with a romantic partner is very important, but it carries the burden of how these feelings will affect the relationship.  Discussions that take place outside of a romantic relationship are more likely honest than resentful because the problem can be identified without having to be solved right away.  That’s what friends are for.   

But it receives little support from tradition because Harry and Sally insist that straight men and women are doomed to fall in love, and traditional notions of love have very little to do with respect.  In passionate romance, possessiveness trumps respect, and while overt jealousy may now be seen as uncool, the tendency for men and women to break off along gender lines at parties seems to correlate directly with the number of monogamous couples.  Pursuing a new friendship with a man your husband doesn’t like—who isn’t gay—can still be judged as inappropriate.  But it’s a double standard, because many men and women strongly dislike their partners’ same-gender friends, yet to try to quell such friendships would be seen as Yoko Ono tyrannical. 

As partners, we should understand that cross-gender friendships more often indicate open minds than loose morals.  Navigating the complexities of life-long commitment is where men and women need to be able to understand each other most.  People whose primary or only close communication with the other gender is through their partner are more likely to assign misunderstandings to their partner’s entire gender.  (“Women are incapable of being on time!”  “Men can’t be trusted for the life of them to buy Christmas presents!”)  The more opaque we consider the Other to be, the less likely we are to try to understand their perspective, as well as the perspectives of those who don’t fit into our stereotypes.  It’s no coincidence that the cultures that place the most restrictions on male-female interaction afford the fewest freedoms to women and LGBT individuals.

But things are getting better.  Cross-gender friendships are more accepted now than ever before because men and women of all gender identities are communicating and understanding each other at record levels.  Not only are new mothers freer to nurture an identity outside the home, but new dads are more likely to hug their children and tell them they love them now than at any other time in modern history.  Attraction and the possibility for it will probably always complicate relationships—and politics and life—to some degree, but open dialogue continues to prove that the Other is never as impenetrable as we have been told.  In the words of researcher Kathryn Dindia, “Men are from North Dakota, women are from South Dakota.”  Our friendships are both the cause and the result of this.

 

 

Body Image Part IV: My Choice and Your Choice Entwined

24 Jun

Copyright Folke Lehr(Image ©Folke Lehr)

 

I began The Body Image Series with this question: If we were fully convinced that no one else cared one bit what we looked like, how much would we care?  Would we have any reason to envy conventionally attractive people?  Would weight loss have anything to do with waist size?  Would limb-lengthening still touch on the idea of “blending in”?

 ***

Ten years ago, I attended the premiere of HBO’s Dwarfs: Not A Fairy Tale along with the other subjects of the documentary.  Upon seeing me, one of the men with achondroplasia asked his friend, “What’s she doing here?  She’s not a dwarf.”

“She had limb-lengthening surgeries to make her taller,” his friend murmured.

 “What?!” he exclaimed. “She cheated!”

I felt myself blush before I could think of what to say.

Immediately, a woman with diastrophic dwarfism, the shortest of all of us, turned to me and said, “I’m on your side, Honey.  No way did you cheat.”

Part of me finds it hard not to laugh when others dismiss limb-lengthening on dwarfs as a “quick fix.”  Breaking bones, stretching them over a three-to-five-month period and then waiting for them to heal for another ten months is not exactly comparable to a boob-job done over the weekend.  Then again, you’d better have a damn good reason to be willing to go through something so intensive and risky.  So, did I do it to function better or, as a former president of Little People of America insisted, to “blend in”? 

I did it to access public facilities—desks, shelves, cars, bikes, kitchen counters, cash registers, ATMs, exercise equipment—without any modifications.  I did it to use public seats—classroom chairs, restaurant chairs, theater seats, train seats, plane seats, toilets, friends’ furniture—without needing foot stools to keep my legs from dangling and falling asleep.  I did it to correct some of my lordosis, so that I wouldn’t need to carry backrests with me to every desk chair I sat in.  I did it to have the extra leverage enabling me to lug more around: bigger suitcases, bigger shopping bags, bigger backpacks, bigger children.  I did it to take bigger steps when walking, so I could cover more ground before I got tired.  I did it so that my weight would be slightly more evenly distributed, making spinal compression less of a danger.  I did it to stop straining to reach the back of my head when brushing my hair.  I did it because the patients I met who had done it were just as happy as those who had not.  Looking back on it all, this was definitely reason enough for me, regardless of whether or not it is for others.  But I can’t just leave it at that.

In my last post, I argued why there is no right way to hate your body.  In my experience, you can take dramatic measures to alter your body without hating it.  Indeed, the work you put into it can and should be an act of love, not desperation.  The night before my first limb-lengthening surgery, I kissed my old legs goodbye.  I was willing to let them go, but I kissed them all the same.  Yet many if not most outsiders assume that dwarfism is a visible difference the patient must want to erase.  After all, trying to argue that you don’t want to blend in, even though you will blend in, sounds like you’re trying to circle a square. 

So why not just say that limb-lengthening was my personal choice and my choice doesn’t affect anyone else?  But it does.  By blending in, I automatically relieve myself of a good deal of prejudice, of stares, of awkward reactions.  I have fewer questions to answer from people on the street and fewer chances to educate them.  By blending in, I’m breaking ranks with the dwarf community to some degree.  That’s nothing to sneeze at when considering that before the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, dwarfs had an unemployment rate of 85% in the U.S. all because of lookism.  By blending in, I am contributing to the trend that may make limb-lengthening a fashion for people with dwarfism.  Both politics and beauty standards measure strength in numbers. 

In the late 90s, my first femur surgery was filmed for a feature about limb-lengthening on the American news show 20/20.  The interviewer asked a 12 year-old patient with dwarfism, “Did you do it to look normal or to function better?”

Without missing a beat, the boy answered, “So that I could function better.  I don’t care how I look.  I just want to do what everyone else can.” 

Sitting at home watching, I raised my fist in solidarity and whispered, “Right on, kid.”

In the follow-up commentary, Connie Chung reported, “He has since finished the procedure to combat his dwarfism.”

I shot up in my seat in disbelief: “COMBAT?!” Was that the automatic assumption?  I wasn’t in a battle against my dwarfism, and obviously neither was this patient.  I was working with my body, not against it!  I realized then that it was important that others knew this if they were going to know that I chose limb-lengthening.

We may someday live in a world in which every candidate for limb-lengthening makes the same decision I did and in doing so, makes the world a less physically diverse place.  I will accept such a world, since my own efforts to function better have helped contribute to it.  But I won’t make any arguments advocating such homogeneity.  If my dwarfism and limb-lengthening have taught me anything, it is that it’s far more important for me to argue that beauty is about so much more than blending in. 

Deep down inside, every one of us wants to be conventionally attractive to some degree, because life seems easier that way.  We love the idea of throngs of people admiring us, envying us, falling hard for us at first sight.  It makes us feel fantastic on a visceral, heart-thumping level to be praised for our looks.  But if everyone agrees that there’s more to love and romance than conventionally good looks, what is the point of having broad appeal?  During the years when my curly hair reached my backside, I enjoyed the compliments but they were always the same, regardless of whether they came from friends or strangers.  My short, round achondroplastic hands, meanwhile, have garnered a lot more attention to detail.  My dad always called them “starfish hands.”  A guy in college examined them and disagreed: “They’re Maggie Simpson hands.”  Another amended it with a giddy squeal, “They’re finger-painting hands!”  When I began my final limb-lengthening procedure, a guyfriend in high school nicknamed me “Legs” because I had the most expensive pair around.  Who needs broad appeal when you have genuine affection?  What better proof is there of such affection, of people’s capacity to look beyond convention than their fearlessly falling in love with features they’ve never seen before?

If I deeply regretted having dwarfism, then limb-lengthening would indeed be an extreme measure taken to offset severe personal insecurity, and that would be a major cause for concern. Hating my looks so profoundly would impact other dwarfs’ perception of their own looks.  This is why I blog.  I don’t want to live in a world where anyone is pressured to change their body just to be accepted, and I don’t want my story to be misused to contribute to the forces pushing the world in that direction.

This is not to say every person who is born on the margins should turn their life into a 24-hour political cause.  Trans individuals should never have to answer invasive questions about their bodies any more frequently than cis individuals should.  LGBT people should never be pressured to come out.  Black Americans shouldn’t have to put up with strangers and acquaintances trying to touch their hair all the time.  The right to privacy is a human right. Your sex life, your income, your medical records, and your body are all matters you shouldn’t ever have to submit to anyone’s microscope if you don’t wish to.  But if we do open our mouths, we have to take responsibility for the consequences.   

When I choose to talk about my body and my choices, it feels to me like I’m talking only about myself.  But others are listening for how it all affects them.  If they don’t care about me personally, it’s their only reason for paying attention.  It’s the only reason we read novels and newspaper articles and blogs about strangers’ lives.  We’re searching for something we can relate to, and if we can’t relate, we at least want to know how other people’s choices are shaping the world we live in.  Opinions such as “I was so gross when I weighed x pounds,” or “I can’t wait to get rid of these hideous scars” both reflect and influence the society comprising us all.  We love taking credit for our words when others agree or are inspired by them.  But if someone raises the possibility of our statements having a negative impact on others, the temptation to shirk all responsibility for others is strong.  But we can’t ever shirk it.  That’s cowardly.

This doesn’t mean we must accept others offhandedly judging our most complex decisions.  Unfortunately, no matter what we say or how carefully we try to shape the argument, there will always be those out there who judge before hearing the end of the sentence.  Putting more energy into brandishing our opinions than admitting what we don’t know is also cowardly. 

A friend I met in the hospital was ten years-old and in the midst of limb-lengthening when a woman with dwarfism approached him at a train station and told his mother, “You are RUINING your child’s life!  How could you do this to him?!” 

When the conversation was over, my friend’s mom asked him, “So what did you think of that?”

He replied, “I think you shouldn’t talk to strangers.” 

We are talking to strangers when we publicly discuss our personal decisions, and the Internet is blurring the lines between public and private discussions faster than ever.  As decision-makers, we cannot discuss our choices and our views free from any responsibility for the effect they will have on others.  As observers, we cannot accurately judge others’ decisions at face-value, free from the burdens of learning. 

During the seminars I taught about dwarfism and limb-lengthening to classes of middle school and high school students, I would write the following quotation on the chalkboard, paraphrased from a French magazine article in which I was featured as a child: 

Society does not physical accept differences easily.  Without a doubt, that is society’s fault.  But who should change?  Society or the dwarf?  For the dwarf to change, she must undergo years of painful surgeries and intensive physical therapy, risking many complications.  For society to change, it must alter its way of thinking.  Who suffers more in the change?  Which change is harder to achieve?

Every single one of the fifteen-odd classes I taught gave the same answer.  To the first question: The dwarf suffers more.  To the second question: Society is harder to change.

But my experiences with dwarfism and limb-lengthening have inspired me to try to change both.  As best as a bossy girl from Long Island can.

 

 

Body Image Part III: Mirror Etiquette

17 Jun

mirror(Image by Trixi Skywalker used under CC 2.0 via)

 

After picking apart the unhelpful things we often say about others, I now move on in the third installment in the Body Image Series to the unhelpful ways in which we talk about ourselves…

 ***

Two moments in the Wonderful World of Body Image:

ONE: A woman sitting in the waiting room at my surgeon’s office reveals a leg perfectly tanned, as well as dotted and streaked with fresh scars from an Ilizarov fixator.  Our surgeon walks by on his way to radiology and flashes her a grin: “Lookin’ great there with that fixator finally off!”  She calls after him without a hint of joking in her voice, “Yeah, but God!  What am I supposed to do with these hideous scars?!”  She has about a quarter as many scars as I do.

TWO: One of my mom’s oldest friends flips through a photo album with me from back when she and Mom were my age.  Every other photo of herself elicits a moan:  “God, look how fat I was!  Omigod, look at that tummy.  Ick, what a fatso!”  In every photo, she was thinner than I’ve ever been, save for my limb-lengthening years spent on heavy painkillers.

Trashing one’s own body in front of others is so commonplace in Western female culture, I’ve yet to meet a single woman who hasn’t done it at least a dozen times since puberty, if not yesterday.  But it should come as no surprise that whenever you talk about something as self-centered as your body image, your listeners instantaneously have a self-centered reaction, wondering how they fare in your line of judgment.  If you hate it on yourself, why would you think it looks good on others?  (Indeed, there are scores of studies showing that mothers who vocally criticize their own bodies have daughters with unhealthy body image.)  This is why trashing your own body is perhaps the most impolite, if not irresponsible, of all our social customs.

Eating disorder survivor Chloe Angyal has given us the revolutionary battle cry: “There is no right way to hate your body.”  This has to be true if we believe that everyone is beautiful in their own way­.  If we can’t swallow it, it means we can’t let go of competing with others.

In 2002, Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon declined the invitation to be photographed for People magazine’s List of 50 Most Beautiful People, arguing that fitting the magazine’s criteria for the list shouldn’t in any way be considered an achievement: 

I don’t give a shit [about it] … I only take pride in things I’ve actually done myself. To be praised for something like that is just weird.  It just felt like somebody calling and saying, “We want to put you in a magazine because the weather’s so nice where you live.” 

I know only a few women who would pass up the opportunity to be rewarded for their looks as he did. 

Women usually trash their bodies in front other women not out of malice but because we are culturally conditioned to build close friendships by sharing our most personal feelings.  The (liberal) mantra, “Don’t bottle it up inside!” is a constant hammer to the floodgates.  And so we hear: “I can’t be seen without my makeup!”  “Why can’t my gray hair grow in evenly?”  “I’m so fa-a-a-at!”  Yet with all this sharing of body-oriented self-hatred, no one manages to make each other feel better. 

If I say, “God, I talk loud on the phone,” or “Yuck, you can tell I had no time to brush my hair!” anyone who disagrees with the complaint can say so, and anyone who agrees can tease: “Eh, we’ve gotten used it.”  If, deep down inside, my self-deprecation was a circuitous check to see if I really am that bad, I can consider if the teasing is a reason to try to change my habits.  Life is, after all, about learning how to be both a happier and a more tolerable human being. 

But bodies are different.  Any choices we have about changing them are limited, and they are entangled in visceral feelings about our attractiveness.  If I say, “Ugh, my dwarf cheekbones are so low!” or “My nose is so ugly!” no one should agree with me out loud.  Even if silently they do.  (I didn’t notice how low they were, but now that you point it out…)  The only acceptable confirmation of these statements must come in the form of protesting praise: e.g. “I love your nose, it reminds me of [insert name of famous and attractive person here].”  Otherwise, etiquette demands protesting the statement altogether: “No!  Your cheekbones aren’t low at all!”  This may or may not be a lie, but in any case, it supports the idea that low cheekbones are something to lament.  Anyone who wouldn’t think the cheekbones in question are low because theirs are lower suddenly feels paranoid, if not miserable.  So all this body trashing is an obstacle to honest sharing, rather than a path to it.    

And to complicate matters more, some share their deepest body image issues with each other and then use them against each other when feeling competitive.  (“I can’t believe he went for that fat/bony slob!”)  Anyone who obsesses about her body secretly knows how harshly she herself judges the bodies of others in moments of weakness (“At least I don’t look like that!”) and fears that others judge her the same way.  This is, of course, a chicken and egg scenario: maybe the self-hatred comes from judging others or maybe the judging others comes from self-hatred, but in any case, the only end to the cycle is to stop trashing bodies, both others’ and our own.

During my limb-lengthening procedures, my friends at the hospital would commiserate about all the things our bodies were going through.  (“Are your legs getting hairy, too?  The doctor says it’s because of the increased blood-flow caused by the healing.”  “Can you see inside your leg when they remove a pin?”  “Would you have your torso lengthened if you could?  I wonder how that would work…”)  But our complaints never touched on our looks.  Even in therapy group, all our venting was about pain, nausea, restrictions on movement, living away from home, dependency on others, or the procedure taking longer than it was supposed to.  All our jealousy was directed at those who had less pain or a quicker recovery.  Perhaps it was because we had enough to worry about trying to reach our physical therapy goals, keeping infections at bay, forcing ourselves to eat, and constantly trying to get comfortable.  Or perhaps it was because so many of us were pre-pubescent kids not yet initiated into the adult world of body competition.  Or perhaps beauty standards are automatically less restrictive for groups with true body diversity.  In any case, the woman in my surgeon’s office—who looked to be anywhere between 30 and 45—was the first patient I heard complain about what the procedure did to her looks.

We all want to be attractive, but the only way to avoid insulting others is to expunge everything that makes beauty a competition.  The editors at Offbeat Bride ban all discussions about weight loss or body insecurity on the forum, and I don’t think anyone has suffered as a result.  Celebrating more progressive, inclusive and creative beauty standards can be helpful—more on that next week—but minimizing the attention and importance we afford our lookist insecurities should be a goal, if anything because all this self-scrutiny is fantastically vain.  As Peggy Orenstein has said, mainstream girlie-girl culture too often mistakes self-absorption for self-confidence.  The most self-confident women I know obsess over their bodies at about the same low frequency self-confident men do.  And like the men, they don’t bristle or burst into tears at any form of affectionate teasing.

A healthy ego owns its fears instead of demanding others allay them.  Pointing out our own supposed imperfections can be constructive as long as it’s intended to elicit nothing but giggles, with no hint of fishing for compliments, of shaky self-esteem, or of competition.  In our high school yearbook, a friend listed under his Wishes For The Future, “Smaller ears, bigger teeth.”  And so I threw “Tiny Teeth!” back at him whenever he would shake his head at me and sigh, “Once again, you smile and your eyes get all thin and pointy!”  The harder I laughed at him, the pointier they got.      

As said before, when we tell our loved ones how beautiful they are, it’s a testament to the sum of their parts, to the combination of their perfections and imperfections.  When we’re mad about someone—not just attracted to them, but truly mad about them—their beauty makes them entrancingly divine and their flaws make them adorably human.  Perfect lips enveloping crooked teeth create the tension and contrast that makes the human body a work of art. 

Two moments in the Wonderful World of Healthy Relationships:

ONE: A friend is leading a seminar about American immigration and heritage.  “People from Scandinavia tend to be blond-haired and light-skinned, but they tan.  People from the British Isles are so pale, they look like they just crawled out from under a rock.”  She smiles at me.  “You’re British, aren’t you?”  My laughter is drowned out by my classmates’.

TWO: A friend was told by her fiancé: “You have such huge eyes and a round face.  It’s like Thomas the Tank Engine.”  She prints out a photo of the train and mails it to him while he’s away on a business trip, so that he won’t forget her.

 

 

Pfingsten

26 May

 

It’s Memorial Day weekend in the U.S., Pentecost weekend here in Germany, and seeing as I have now gone way longer in broadcasting consecutive new material without a single re-run than The Simpsons ever has, I’m taking the day off and leaving you with the above revelation.  Till next week!


The Gender Police

5 May

(Image by Stephen Alcorn © 2003 http://www.alcorngallery.com)

 

Last Sunday, Pastor Sean Harris of the Berean Baptist Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina gave a sermon on gender:

So your little son starts to act a little girlish when he is 4 years old and instead of squashing that like a cockroach and saying, ‘Man up, son, get that dress off you and get outside and dig a ditch, because that is what boys do,’ you get out the camera and you start taking pictures of Johnny acting like a female and then you upload it to YouTube and everybody laughs about it and the next thing you know, this dude, this kid is acting out childhood fantasies that should have been squashed.

Dads, the second you see your son dropping the limp wrist, you walk over there and crack that wrist. Man up. Give him a good punch. Ok? You are not going to act like that. You were made by God to be a male and you are going to be a male. And when your daughter starts acting too butch, you reign [sic] her in. And you say, ‘Oh, no, sweetheart. You can play sports. Play them to the glory of God. But sometimes you are going to act like a girl and walk like a girl and talk like a girl and smell like a girl and that means you are going to be beautiful. You are going to be attractive. You are going to dress yourself up.’

Harris used the sermon to voice support for an upcoming proposed amendment to the state constitution that would define marriage as between a man and a woman.  North Carolina law already prohibits same-sex marriage.  The constitutional amendment would simply make it ever more so, as well as ban same-sex civil unions.  Update on 9 May: The amendment passed.

The hostility Harris invoked is one of the absolute best arguments for the opposition.  Play his sermon on a loop next to the 2010 study finding American children of lesbian parents report the lowest rate of abuse and repeat: Who’s advocating happy, loving families here?  But it should concern not only those who believe in same-sex marriage or non-violent childcare, but anyone who believes in equality and a non-threatening approach to character development.  Because, unfortunately, Harris was merely saying directly what children, teens and adults are told stealthily almost every day.  

In the 2007 documentary For the Bible Tells Me So, religious scholars and sociologists conclude that the reason socially conservative religious groups target same-sex marriage so passionately is because it disrupts patriarchy.  Indeed, Harris’s rant embodies the two most arbitrary, constricting rules for heterosexual women and men in dating that endure today.  That is, nothing is worse for a guy than seeming effeminate, and nothing is worse for a woman than being ugly.

Most readers may agree that these rules exist but certainly not to the extreme that Harris advocates.  Rarely does Western society openly invoke the violent, threatening imagery he did.  But these rules take various forms, often masquerading as indisputable facts about innate gender differences, and are reinforced in films and magazines, and as mantras in everyday conversation. Many of the following probably sound familiar to you:

1) Women constantly want to constantly shop the way guys constantly want to get laid.

2) A woman should ultimately let the guy pursue her lest she emasculate him and, in any case, she should want to be pursued.  Because every woman is a princess and every guy is a hunter.

3) Guys can’t be sexually assaulted by women.  They can only be grossed out by the advances of ugly women.

4) She can play sports or join the army, but she needs some makeup to be attractive and should always take care of her looks more than a guy should.

5) But she shouldn’t wear heels if it makes her taller than her man.

6) While many men can expect conventionally attractive women to overlook their gray hair, baldness, wrinkles, and/or chubbiness for their success or sense of humor, a woman cannot expect a conventionally attractive man to do the same for her.  Beauty and the Beast was about the woman seeing past her lover’s looks, not the guy! 

7) Guys don’t cry, but women do.  A lot.  Because guys use assertiveness to get what they want, while women show their vulnerability to get what they want.

8) Guys don’t cuddle with each other.  That’s gay.  But women cuddling is either sweet or hot.

9) He’s castrated if she asked him out, she’s physically stronger than he is, he earns less than she does, he takes her surname, or she talks more than he does at parties. 

10) And he’s gay if he’s interested in dresses, skirts or makeup.

11) Or if he enjoys books or films about women’s experiences.

What silliness. Exiling the very real horrors of LGBT persecution to the peripheries for just a split second, how many of you nearly choked yourself laughing at Harris’s order to “get outside and dig a ditch because that’s what boys do”? 

Nothing should be off-limits to anyone unless they honestly, independently have no interest in it.  Most of us are probably disinterested in or uncomfortable with some of the aforementioned behaviors, but the disinterest should arise from self-awareness, not authoritative training.  And I’ve met enough self-aware, self-confident individuals to know that these behaviors do not fall along gender lines, but personalities. 

My neighbor loves ponies as much as she loves repairing cars.  My husband’s buddy plays rugby and knits.  My guyfriend loves arranging flowers and wearing skirts as much as he loves target-shooting and watching Formula One.  I love arguing politics and watching figure skating with my mom and dad as much as I cringe at discussing shoes or watching football.  All of us are encouraged by our partners, demonstrating that our fears of persecution for such gender-bender are usually reinforced not by the opposite sex but, as Ashely Judd so eloquently pointed out last month, by our peers. 

Many men try to talk their girlfriends out of wearing makeup, while many women are supportive of—and often intrigued to the point of being attracted to—men who adopt traditionally feminine activities.  (If it weren’t the case, “Too bad he’s gay!” wouldn’t be the famous expression it is.)  Despite this, women thrust ludicrous beauty standards upon themselves, making catty comments about each other’s supposed failures, while men police one another with gay slurs.  That these cultural rules bear so much repeating signifies that they are indeed rules, not facts.   A glance at history and across cultures demonstrates that they are fashions.  That enforcing them requires scare tactics—“You’ll never get laid!” “You’ll never land a man!”—should land the final blow to their credibility.

 

 

Female Privilege

14 Apr

(Rates of violence worldwide, used under CC license via)

 
 
Recently at Feministing, Cara Hoffman wrote about violence that targets men, setting off an angry debate. Most commenters rightly supported the idea of feminism openly discussing the ways in which men are specifically victimized, but there were some who said this had no place in the movement. Such a women-only approach to feminism is indeed sexism that, like male chauvinism, will never be successful as long as it is determined to concern itself with only one half of the population. The hero and heroine gender tradition oppresses men, women and those who identify as neither. As women, we should never be so insecure as to ignore anyone’s true disenfranchisement or to deny the privileges patriarchy automatically bestows upon us.  

Yes, being female comes with certain privileges under patriarchy. (And no, I don’t mean Phyllis Schlafly’s you-get-your-restaurant-meals-paid-for-so-be-happy-staying-out-of-the-workforce sort of “privilege.”) Privilege is granted by society to certain people based on things we had absolutely nothing to do with: our gender identity, our ethnicity, our sexuality, our physical traits, our mental capabilities, our class background. That is why any privilege—like any form of disenfranchisement—is the essence of injustice. 

Men face oppressive double-standards in dating and the family unit that I will address in a later post, but, in the wake of the arrest of Trayvon Martin’s killer, I want to focus for now on prejudices against men that are truly life-threatening. Beginning at the personal level, my husband has been beaten up twice by strangers. My brother and several guyfriends have been attacked outside clubs by strangers. Others were shoved down the stairs and slammed against lockers in school by bullies. I’ve never once been challenged to fight as they have, just as they have never experienced sexual harassment as I have. Of course far too many women are beaten by both men and other women, just as far too many men are sexually assaulted by both women and other men, but my personal experience and my husband’s are representative of the increased risk each of us face for certain kinds of attack in our society. There’s no need to try to decide which is worse: the threat of sexual assault or the threat of coming to blows. Both can end in the worst possible way, both are always inexcusable. Both target people based on their apparent gender. 

As a woman, I am far less likely to be challenged to fight or to be suspected of violence by authorities. As a woman, I am automatically more trusted to be around children. As a woman living in the United States and Europe, I have never been asked to die for my country.  As a woman, I can express more affection to a member of my gender without fear of gay bashing than a man can. As a woman, I can buy products of any color without fear of gay bashing. As a woman who’s not physically strong, I don’t have to worry as much as a man does about being picked on by bullies looking for an easy target. As an achondroplastic woman, I’ve always been less likely to be confronted by an assailant looking to engage in dwarf tossing than an achondroplastic man is. As a woman, I am permitted to choose emotional fulfillment over professional success without being considered a failure. This is why homeless women attract less contempt than homeless men. And part of why men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women. 

In a previous post discussing female sexuality, I quoted Chloe S. Angyal’s point that traditional gender roles consider sexuality a no-win situation for women, that any type of behavior we choose can be seen as an invitation to sexual assault. For men, the same Catch-22 can apply for men regarding violence. Looking tough? You’re a threat that needs to be knocked down. Looking vulnerable? You’re the perfect victim to pounce on. If you are identifiable as a minority through your appearance or behaviors, you’d better make sure you avoid the wrong parts of town, which, in some cases, may include your entire home town or country. Or shoot first. 

Like the virgin/whore cycle with which women are encumbered, men are confronted with the brute/wuss standard from the earliest of ages. You’re a monster if you use your fists to solve your problems, but you’re a sissy if you can’t. Non-violent young men must endure society’s suspicion that they are prone to be violent while at the same time enduring their own vulnerability as a victim of violence. The reality of violence against women can never be denied or downplayed, but neither can violence against men, who are 2 to 4 times more likely to be killed by violence than women. Because of the pressures of the traditional model of masculinity, men are far less likely than women to seek help after being threatened or assaulted. 

Most violence enacted upon boys and men is by other boys and men, and this proves that, as with violence against women, the solution is not to condemn a gender, but to condemn an attitude. Googling “female privilege” results in some very creepy websites, wherein men rage about women who won’t sleep with them after they held the door for them, and patriarchy relies on this polarization of the genders for survival.  Despite what so many of those misogynistic websites claim, women who identify as feminists demonstrate less hostility toward men than women who embrace traditional gender roles because we know that those traditions screw everyone over, including men.  That’s why we unite with men against them, taking them apart bit by bit, non-violently.