Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Haircuts and the Obligation of Attractiveness

How I've presented myself, my clothing and haircut and all of that physical appearance stuff, has changed significantly over the nearly 21 years I've been around, which isn't really surprising.  I grew up unschooled, and as with most kids who don't go to school, I wore an eclectic and often colourful mix of clothing made up of whatever it made me happy to wear, with very little awareness of what "in style" even was, let alone whether I was doing it right.  My hair was worn long, curling and tangling down my back.

Once in my teenage years, I hit a patch where I really wanted to fit in, and I wore at least vaguely fashionable clothes, make-up, bought some real bras, and presented in a very "typically" feminine way.

Then my sister instigated our two-woman bra-burning, razor chucking revolution, and I cut my hair.  Not just the fairly short haircuts I'd had in the past, but really short: mohawk-ish style, with the sides shaved and a wide strip down the middle left to curl and tangle. As with my young self, my hair and clothing choices were once again based on what made me happy.

And I started noticing an interesting shift in how people reacted to me and what people assumed about me.  Suddenly, a lot of people were asking "are you lesbian?" Once when I was walking through a park, some dude-bro type teenage guy yelled "I just saw a lesbian!!" as I passed.  To be fair, it probably wasn't just the hair. The loose jeans, "smash the state" t-shirt, and plaid button-up shirt might also have fed into his stereotypical ideas around sexuality.

Suddenly I wasn't a "nerd," as I'd felt I was classified as for years, but apparently "lesbian" instead.  This is a weird thing to me, in part because being read as queer (and I feel I'm often read as queer by queer people, as well, not just asshole guys in parks) feels somehow dishonest to me, since though I don't identify as straight, I also don't identify as queer, and feel pretty conflicted and uncomfortable with any labels when it comes to my sexuality. It also seems really strange to me that people think so instantly that they've figured out a large part of my personal identity because of, what, the way I cut my hair? As the amazing Andrea Gibson, queer activist slam poet extraordinaire, says in her poem The Jewelery Store: "I can guarantee a haircut will never tell you anything about someone's gender, who they love, or how they fuck."

And I started thinking about the reaction people often have to me and other women (and people perceived incorrectly to be women) who don't shave, don't wear bras, wear "un-feminine" clothes, have "un-feminine" haircuts or similar things, the reactions of anger, indignation, disgust, and I started trying to figure out where that was coming from. People are always punished socially (and sometimes institutionally, as well) for deviating from the norms dictated by the dominant culture, but I find it interesting and eye-opening to track down what exactly is the root emotion or idea the negative reactions are stemming from in each case, since though people are punished for not "dressing like their gender," not sending their kids to school, practicing Wicca, or a large variety of other things, how and why people react negatively differs in each instance.

So why, I wondered, is the reaction from men to women dressing in "un-feminine" ways one of indignation?

And here's what I came up with as at least part of the answer: this culture rewards and centers around white-cisgender-heterosexual-males above all else. Those men are told from the time they're small how much they're worth, how much they're owed, and that that they have the right to own others, among many things. And women, well, we owe (white-heterosexual-etc.) men our bodies, and our attractiveness. We have an obligation to attempt to be attractive to heterosexual men. So when we fail in our cultural obligation, the reaction from men is not just anger, but literally indignation. "How dare they??"

Other women also often react very negatively when some women choose not to try and draw the male gaze by attempting to fit culturally-sanctioned ideas of attractiveness, but when it comes to women, I feel like the emotion is usually more akin to resentment and sometimes disdain. It's anger at a reminder that all the effort, work, and possibly misery that goes into their own shaping of attractiveness is being dodged by others. I guess it's a bit of a "how dare they?" reaction as well, but one spurred by anger at what's expected of them instead of a sense of an obligation left unpaid.

I guess it's nice to know that the very way I've presented myself is, in a way, a big "fuck you" to some people who really deserve it. 

But ultimately, the way I choose to dress/present myself has less to do with giving people the finger and more to do with what's personally comfortable, what makes me feel good and confident and like I'm expressing my true self. The fuck-you's are just sometimes a happy bonus. And at this point, I'm no longer as happy with my haircut. I used to smile every time I looked in a mirror, liking what I saw, but now I'm more likely to grimace. Now I want to be presenting as more feminine than I feel I have been, not because I'm caving to any societal pressure to do so, just because that's how I feel right now and I know that will make me happiest. So I'm impatiently waiting for my hair to grow out, at which point I'll shave one side, and put purple streaks in the long hair which will then be braided. Now that will make me happy.

And hey, the shaved-side-of-head-and-purple-braids can still come across as a bit of a fuck you to mainstream ideals of beauty, right?

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The zesty joy of weight loss

The other day I saw a particularly squicky ad. Of course, advertising is one of the worst places to look in terms of rampant negative stereotypes and terrible messages, and unfortunately I'm so used to seeing women in bikinis flocking to men because they have the right beer/cologne/shampoo/high speed network that I just can't feel angry every time. But sometimes it's the more subtle, insinuating messages that seem worse to me, personally, and that was the case with this Special K cereal ad that I saw. It starts by showing the feet of many women standing in front of their scales, nervous about stepping on. Then, as each of them steps up onto the scale, instead of showing numbers the little digital screens read 'joy', 'spirit', 'freedom', etc.
So let's start with a simple fact: losing weight isn't a magic wand for making life better.
It doesn't make someone become a happier, more confident, better person. There's definitely the societal notion that weight loss makes a person healthier (an often blatantly untrue generalization), but the interesting thing about this and many other commercials is that they don't even mention health when trying to market weight loss to women. So the question then becomes why is losing weight, even if it's a choice that has nothing to do with health, considered to be a good thing by default?
I think that a lot of it comes back to the fact that society expects women to be objects of beauty and sexual desirability for (heterosexual) men. Women are taught that their worth as a human being is inherently linked to their sexual desirability, and the current final word in beauty is being skinny. Women are inundated with messages that thin is beautiful, and since we've been taught that beauty defines us as people, that means that being 'fat' is something that makes you less of a person, and being 'thin' makes you a better person.

These messages about the inherent benefit of weight loss are, of course, everywhere. The hosts of celebrity gossip shows ask actresses what diet they're currently on with no doubt as to whether they are indeed dieting; because no woman in the public eye could possibly consider not striving to be 'beautiful', and no woman striving to be beautiful could eat with no regard for becoming/remaining thin, right? All the time, in TV fiction, in ads, in reality shows, we see people complimenting women on their weight loss, with the inherent assumption that the woman in question wanted to lose weight and is happy about her weight loss. No one ever considers whether the weight loss was intentional, whether her previous weight was healthy and suited to her, whether the weight loss might be caused by stress or illness. A simple congratulations seems to be all that's needed, and the woman in question is, of course, flattered (not upset that people are scrutinizing her weight and making judgements based on it, which is how I'd feel if someone tried to congratulate me on losing weight). And so we see, once again, that the attitude has nothing to do with health and everything to do with societal beauty standards. The woman is skinnier, and therefore prettier, and therefore it is a good thing.

Weight loss is just one more way of stripping women of choices regarding their own bodies, one more way to shame and control them, and one that's not only emotionally damaging but also incredibly physically damaging.

It took me awhile to realize why I found this particular ad so disturbing. There are the obvious issues of selling weight loss to women as a way to improve their lives, but I see that a lot in advertising. What really got to me was the imagery of the scale reading confidence, joy, zest. This commercial literally defines the entire character of a woman by a single number: her weight. And that is just fucking disturbing.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Food, Gender Roles, and the Feminist Ideal

I have something important to say: I like food.  As in, REALLY like food!  I like farmers markets and getting free food and going to restaurants (though I can rarely afford to do so).  When I travel, some of my highlights often include meals at friends houses, all of us crowded around a table talking and eating.  Few things make me feel more happy and satisfied.

And you know what I really, really like?  Cooking.  I love creating delicious food, love cooking with new ingredients, love the challenge of cooking at someone else's house with their selection of ingredients, and love sharing the food I make with others.

You know that old saying?  Something about it being good to keep women pregnant, barefoot, and in the kitchen?  People often say that derisively when they deem someone to be obviously, over-the-top sexist.  And my mother made a similar comment, once.  Something involving barefeet and kitchens, in a rather derisive way, and I was rather insulted.  Really, mom?  I'm usually barefoot (as soon as it's warm enough in the spring that I won't freeze, and until I start freezing in the autumn) and in the kitchen (aforementioned love of creating with food), and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that (or the pregnant bit).

My friends had to practically drag me out of the prize veggie barn at a country fair we went to.

As long, of course, as those choices are made freely.

I was thinking the other day that I'd like to start a food blog at some point.  Not right now, as I've just started writing this blog with my sister, have been feeling guilty about how much I've been neglecting my unschooling blog, and have also been feeling guilty about having not finished the first draft of my unschooling book that I'd planned to finish the back in November.  But sometime when I had a bit more time, maybe this coming summer or next fall.  It would be great if I could call it Barefoot in the Kitchen, I thought, with some catchy and clever sub-title that made it very clear I was someone who was very happy being barefoot in the kitchen, but also a cool radical person who was using that title to be clever.

I searched it though, and it's already taken, by a homemaker who identifies as a Mormon, so somehow I think she meant it less tongue-in-cheek than I would have, though I could be wrong.

I'd think it would be obvious, and accepted by the vast majority of feminists, that choice, made freely and with all the options that should be available to every person, was the important thing, but somehow it often seems like that isn't the case.  It seems like many feminists have some idea of The Perfect Feminist, though because feminism isn't a secret club with an entry exam different feminists have a very different idea of what the feminist ideal is.

Yet there seems to be a disturbing commonality with what many self-described feminists seem to consider that ideal to be.  Most glaringly this ideal is extremely white, middle class, "well educated" (a university education is a must), able-bodied, and childless.  And if  that's the ideal feminist, what they're also saying is that that is the ideal woman.

I'm quite sure that this is largely subconscious, but it's come about precisely because so many feminists have remained unwilling to examine their own privileges and prejudices, and to think long and hard about how their privilege affects their feminism.

This seems like a very good time to acknowledge my own very substantial set of social privileges, and to recognize that I most definitely fuck up sometimes (quite possibly often).  I just feel it's important, as a person with a lot of privilege, that I confront and address other very privileged people when they're refusing to acknowledge or think about their privilege and how that privilege is expressed and affects other people.

I've mentioned the most obvious and seriously problematic aspects of what's often held up as the feminist ideal, and there are so many more things about it that I could discuss (mostly and especially quotes from and resources by people who experience marginalization in those above ways that feminists often don't discuss).  But in sticking with the topic of food and my own penchant for hanging out in kitchens, what I want to talk about now is the issue of feminism creating it's own gender roles.

Sometimes, it feels like someone took a list of all the things expected of women: all the things women are supposed to do, and like, and ways they're supposed to feel, according to the dominant culture, and then decided that feminists should do and be the exact opposite of everything on that list.
(Of course, they didn't do all that good a job, since they kept key oppressive things in there like talking about white women as if they're the default, same as the dominant culture does, but you get the idea).

Women shouldn't want or have kids, and if they do have them, they certainly shouldn't want to spend too much time with them, or heaven forbid, become the primary caregiver and/or become a stay at home mother.  Women should want to have a "good career," regardless of whether they're much happier being a homemaker, or unworking, or one of any other non-career things you could do.  Suddenly, it starts to seem less like a fight for equality and more like an attempt to gain "equality" with men by taking on the gender roles traditionally considered male, instead of challenging the existence of gender roles entirely.  Trying to be more like men (are supposed to be), instead of wondering why men couldn't be more like women (are supposed to be), and wondering where in this binary mess people who don't identify as either men or women are supposed to fit.

I see this especially with more old school feminists, but I also see a slightly more subtle form of this with feminists from my generation.  Especially when it comes to having and raising children, the feminist movement as a whole is rife with child and mother hatred (those things almost always go hand in hand).

But with other things, too.  Like being barefoot in the kitchen.

Maybe it seems strange that I'd choose, for one of the very first posts on what is basically a feminist blog, to criticize feminism, but I really wanted to talk about food, and when I think about my love of food and feminism combined, I think of one of the many problems found within feminism.

Because feminism is supposed to be about equality, about choice, about recognizing, challenging, and dismantling systems of oppression.

You know what it isn't supposed to be about?  Following the "right" rules to be a part of the feminist club.

So now, I think I'm going to take my feminist self to the kitchen, where I'm going to cook supper.  Yesterday I made pita bread, falafel, and hummus, and I still have some leftover dough, so I might just make some more pitas and maybe some lentil dahl to go with it...