Monthly Archives: October 2012

Hogwarts for the Fat Chick

One of my relaxation techniques is listening to audiobooks.  At the moment I’ve been (re)listening to Stephen Fry reading the Harry Potter books.  They’re delightful!  His reading voice is both soothing to listen to and engaging at the same time, and he does all the voices 🙂  Another thing I like to do to relax is put together imaginary outfits, not just coveting individual items of clothing or jewellery but composing looks I might put them together in if I had an infinite wardrobe.  Polyvore is fun for that.  To bring the two things together, this afternoon I’ve been listening to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and composing outfits out of plus sized women’s clothing based on the four houses of Hogwarts.  I thought they might be fun to share!

For the most part, they should be possible to replicate in the real world if you want to track down and buy all the individual items (Polyvore gives links direct to the items where possible, and I think everything but the snake necklace has a link).  Feel free to share your own fantasy outfits, Harry Potter inspired or otherwise, if the whim takes you!

Hufflepuff

Top
46 AUD – evans.co.uk

Boots
125 AUD – evans.co.uk

Charlotte taylor
270 AUD – coggles.com

Badger of Honor
49 AUD – etsy.com
Slytherin

Sequin top
63 AUD – evans.co.uk

Biker jacket
100 AUD – evans.co.uk

Jeans
46 AUD – evans.co.uk

Ankle booties
62 AUD – evans.co.uk

Earrings
12 AUD – evans.co.uk
Gryffindor

Top
42 AUD – evans.co.uk

Legging
22 AUD – evans.co.uk

Ankle booties
87 AUD – evans.co.uk

Ravenclaw
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Science, Expertise and the Production of Knowledge

No, you’re not entitled to your opinion

Interesting! The above is a thought-provoking article that I started off agreeing with and then got more and more conflicted about as I read on. The following is not so much a critique of Patrick Stokes’ article as it is my thoughts about science and authority, as inspired by his article and the comments on it.

On the one hand, I hate the phrase “well, I’m entitled to my opinion” when it is used to shut down debate, as a shield against being made to face reasonable criticism. As Stokes argues, such claims seem to be confusing taste – such as holding the opinion that strawberry is better than chocolate – with views on issues that are contentious and require a measure of evidence to support one’s arguments (and, I would add, that have a significant impact on individuals or society) such as politics, science, justice and so on.

However, Stokes and his supporters in the comments are putting a lot of faith in the authority of “technical expertise” – that is to say, people who have officially recognised training, a degree, or a job in the field of concern. Stokes uses as an example the case of anti-vaccination lobbyists vs. medical scientists, a case that is difficult to argue against because anti-vaccination lobbyists are relying on research that has been debunked and have failed to come up with any alternative critique or evidence that supports their claim vaccinations are dangerous.

But what about critiques from non-expert sources that are legitimate? I don’t believe scientific knowledge is infallible simply because a scientist has created it; not even scientists believe that. There are many examples of “scientific facts” that have gone out of favour over time as different ideas were tested and rose to prominence, and there are historically and culturally specific biases in the sciences as there are in every sphere of human society. The endeavour to remain as objective as possible in scientific research needs to be tempered with the understanding that complete objectivity is not possible while human beings are doing the research and interpreting the results; our internalised received knowledge and our own embodiment must necessarily be involved in observing, analysing and reporting data, and also reading and interpreting the reports. That doesn’t make science meaningless, but it does have an effect on the meanings we ascribe to data and the way we construct “facts”. Appeals to authority in the vein of “your argument is invalid because science!” ignore the many and varied ways that knowledge is produced, and the fact that scientific knowledge is produced too, not merely revealed.

Scientists can get it wrong, I don’t think many people would disagree with that. Furthermore, scientists can focus on the wrong things – and the problem there is that often all the scientists in a particular field are so fixated on the theory or topic that is popular at the time that few people even in that field of expertise notice it’s happening. Well-established knowledge can be internalised and taken for granted even by scientists. People outside of the field – and even outside of “science” altogether – can have an understanding of scientific method and accepted scientific knowledge and can notice flaws in research design or reporting. And often people outside of “science” are focused on additional areas (such as axes of oppression, for instance) that interact with the science in ways the scientists may not have realised or anticipated.

An example of this that is obviously relevant here is fat positive rebuttals to the accepted knowledge about “obesity”. There are legitimate critiques that have been made in and out of academia against claims that fatness is in and of itself an indicator and cause of poor health, against claims that calorie restriction and bariatric surgery are helpful and appropriate “treatments” for fatness, and against public policies and opinions based on those claims (and based on poor media reporting of those claims, too). Those critiques are legitimate even when they come from commentators who are not medical scientists.

Of course, Stokes does say that what one is entitled to is not opinion but argument – if you can back up your assertions with evidence then the critique may be valid. I can agree with that with the caveat that I think it’s important to recognise valid and relevant evidence may not be scientific in origin (although that kind of evidence can be both valuable and a useful way of dealing with opponents who do not believe information that doesn’t come out of a university or research institute). Lived experience may be readily dismissed as “anecdata” by some, but it is important. A person with an illness or disability who has made an effort to educate themselves on their own care is able to be just as much of an expert about their own health as a doctor who is not living in their body, if not more so. There’s even a great deal of research into the phenomenon of the expert patient, the “third shift” of working to maintain one’s own health with a chronic condition, and the frustrations chronically ill and disabled people have with medical experts who do not take their knowledge about their own bodies seriously.

To look at fatness as a topic again, fat people frequently face poor treatment from health practitioners who refuse to treat their symptoms and want to focus solely on their fatness. This has happened to me personally on multiple occasions, such as the physiotherapist (!) who claimed I ate too many carbs despite my reported food intake giving the opposite impression, and the women’s health clinic GP who told me my chronic abdominal pain (which later turned out to be caused by endometriosis) was diverticulitis, without a pelvic exam or a colonoscopy, and then told me I didn’t need to do anything except watch what I ate. Of course, even if it had been diverticulitis, I would have required more than an admonition to “eat better” to relieve the pain (eat better than what I don’t know – she never asked me what I actually ate). Neither of these health “experts” thought they needed to pay attention to my reports of my own behaviour or experiences because my fatness told them all they needed to know. Fat people’s expertise on their own bodies and their own health-related behaviours is frequently questioned, ignored or outright dismissed.

Furthermore, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, people don’t have an obligation to live up to current standards of good health in order to be treated with the basic human respect afforded to thin people. Fat people have no extraordinary responsibility for “healthy” behaviour over that of thin people. Regardless of the validity or otherwise of scientific claims about fat being unhealthy, it’s perfectly okay to be fat. Fat people shouldn’t have to prove how obedient we are to escape victimisation; that kind of grudging acceptance is no victory at all. And we should all resist the temptation to demonstrate what good fatties we are by trotting out blood pressure stats and daily food-and-exercise diaries and report cards from our GPs while fighting for fat liberation. Don’t play by the rules that have been made by fat-haters. Don’t bend to the demands on you to prove your worth. Your worth is self evident.

I don’t think the reason that claims about the dangers of vaccinations should be dismissed is because they come from laypeople, but because they are flawed claims that don’t appear to hold up to scrutiny. I do think that deifying SCIENCE! and SCIENTIFIC EXPERTS! as the fount of all meaningful knowledge is silly. Science is great, and I appreciate those science communicators and educators who are working to improve laypeople’s understanding of scientific method and terminology so as to improve science reporting and knowledge in the non-academic community. But it’s not the only valuable source of information in the world, and a focus on scientifically produced knowledge as more valuable than any other kind seems to work more often in favour of the privileged than the oppressed.

Embodying Bravery? Really?

So apparently Lady Gaga is speaking out against body shaming in the wake of being a recent victim of public body shaming herself. That’s pretty cool, but might benefit from a view through a critical lens. Here’s an article on Bitch about it:

Body Revolution: Is Lady Gaga’s New Project Resisting Beauty Standards or Reinforcing Them?

Wait a minute. Sorry Bitch Magazine, but did you really seriously use the phrase “it’s wonderful that this conversation is even happening at all”? Did you somehow forget about all the fat positive blogs and size acceptance activists?

Let’s make one thing very clear. Lady Gaga is not “starting a revolution” here regardless of whether or not she uses the language of traditional beauty ideals to praise the “flawed” bodies she is trying to “redefine”. The revolution has been going on for DECADES.

I think everyone should jump on the size acceptance bandwagon, and I’m sorry for Lady Gaga’s eating disordered history and glad if her signal boost of the size acceptance message is reaching people who had not heard it before. But I’m heartily angered by the trend of pretty, thin women being praised for how brave they are in “finally speaking out” against fat hatred when they are not. fucking. fat.  Jezebel’s article on this so-called body revolution even has a headline image of Lady Gaga’s photos of herself in her underwear emblazoned with the heading “EMBODYING BRAVERY”.  Um…how?  By being thin and conventionally attractive in your undies?  It’s true that it can be scary to show people what you look like semi-dressed, especially if you have an eating disorder or body image issues, but it’s not like Lady Gaga is a stranger to being semi-dressed in public.

And here is a newsflash for you: PEOPLE ARE ALREADY SPEAKING OUT ABOUT THIS. Fat people like me and fat people before us have been speaking out against fat hatred for a very long time. Famous fat people like Gabourey Sidibe and Camryn Manheim are already talking about this.  Fat Acceptance websites already have galleries where people proudly show off their supposedly socially unacceptable bodies.  What Lady Gaga is doing here is not even a tiny bit new.

I do not wish to imply that pretty, thin women aren’t welcome in size acceptance, or aren’t welcome to spread the message. Any signal boost is a wonderful thing! Women of all sizes are subject to body policing and that is an important issue for anyone who is committed to improving women’s lives. But the body policing that happens to thin women and the body policing that happens to fat women are not identical, and it hurts fat women to suggest that spotlighting thin spokeswomen for body acceptance is somehow revolutionary.

Even when thin women are being defended from body policing, the policing of fat bodies comes into it; how many times have we heard feminists decry media claims that celebrity women are “too fat” because they are not really fat? The Jezebel article about Lady Gaga’s “body revolution” includes this delightful aside:

“Last week, a smattering of very misleading photographs were published by various outlets; the singer looked significantly wider, chubbier, fleshier than she has in the past. She was called “meaty” and and the “news” was that she had “piled on the pounds.” As some have noted, the photographs did not reflect her real, true shape — whether they were stretched in Photoshop or flattened and distorted by a long lens is unclear. But video from the same show demonstrates that this woman is by no means fat — though she has admitted to gaining around 25 lbs. recently.”

Excuse me, but what does it matter if the photographs were “misleading”? Sanctioning a woman because she has “piled on the pounds” is wrong whether she has actually gained weight or not. It is true that Lady Gaga (or America Ferrera or Christina Hendricks or Kim Kardashian or whichever famous woman is being criticised by the tabloid media for her big hips today) is not fat, but that isn’t the point. If she really was fat, would the scrutiny of her body in the press be okay? We really need to stop defending against fat hatred by saying “but she’s not fat at all!” When you say that, you are propping up the belief that it is okay to hate on people if they are really fat. When you say that, you are hurting fat people and setting back the cause of body acceptance, not supporting it.

Actually, maybe the fact that Lady Gaga isn’t really fat is salient here. It begs the question: why do actual fat people’s voices not seem to count when we’re talking about fat hatred? Why do we need to hear the message from a thin woman who is being called fat “unfairly” – along with a lengthy explanation as to why the allegations of fatness are untrue, as if fatness were a crime one needed an alibi for – before it can be taken seriously?

Hearing young fans of Lady Gaga thank her for helping them find the strength to try to recover from eating disorders is one thing. I am glad for them. But Bitch is supposedly feminist media. Jezebel is a website “for women” which has had the very famous Fat Acceptance blogger Kate Harding as a regular writer, and has encountered conversations about fat before. They should damn well know better.

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Teach Your Kid Not To Be A Jerk

When I walked into the doctor’s office this morning, a little kid of about three or four yelled across the room:

“Mummy, Mummy, that girl is HUGE! That pink girl, she’s really big Mummy!”

Kids of that age often do make embarrassing or awkward observations about other people. I suppose it is possible that this particular child had never seen anyone as fat as me, and I’m comfortable enough with my own body these days that I wasn’t upset by such a comment from a little kid.

But while their mother spent a lot of energy shouting at her two young children for running around the waiting room – and even said “what have I told you about the doctor’s office? We don’t run around”, suggesting she is quite capable of instructing and reminding her kids about antisocial behaviour – she said absolutely nothing about one of them loudly commenting on a stranger’s size in public, where that stranger could obviously hear them.

Dear Lady and other parents, please teach your kids that some people are bigger than others and there is nothing extraordinary about this fact that needs to be remarked upon. Furthermore, whether or not it sinks in the first time, please teach them that is is rude and inappropriate to make comments about other people’s bodies, whether or not they can hear you. A useful rule is “Not your body? Not your business.”

I am pretty appalled that this woman thought running around like a normal little kid deserved sanction but judging a stranger based on their appearance required no comment. Your children’s behaviour towards strangers sometimes says more about your attitude than theirs.

Childhood Memories, Fashion and Play

A grainy photo of me at five years old, a round faced, pink-cheeked white girl with brown hair standing in front of a classroom blackboard. I am dressed as an angel in a voluminous white tunic-style robe with gold tinsel tied around my waist and a wreath of gold tinsel on my head.

When I was little, my mother used to find things in op shops that I could play dress ups with. Costume jewellery, hats, a frothy lace wedding dress with a long veil, and once a truly thrilling find: old dance costumes that had been discarded by a calisthenics troupe. There were three, white, pink and yellow shiny lycra leotards encrusted with rhinestones and adorned with floaty chiffon skirts. The yellow didn’t fit me, but was donated to my best friend and we got hours of play out of them. I loved jumping and twirling and dancing in them, feeling the skirts drift around my bare legs and watching the rhinestones sparkle.

I’ve always been drawn to the sparkly and frilly and lace-covered things in life. If an outfit is covered in ruffles and encrusted with glitter, well so much the better. When I was a five years old and begged to be allowed to take ballet lessons, there was nothing that filled me with more delight than trying on costumes for the clumsy concerts we performed to adoring parents and sitting to have thick stage makeup applied by the mothers who volunteered to chaperone us back stage. When we had been in the class for long enough, we were allowed to graduate from the little sheer skirts that went over our leotards to big frothy blue tutus with fabric roses sewn to the waist. I would take any excuse to put on my tutu and bounce around the house, loving the drama and theatre of it, feeling for all the world like a real ballerina.

There are many treasured clothes and accessories remembered from my childhood. The pink and white party dress I got for Christmas one year, that I insisted on wearing at every opportunity. The plush koala handbag that was lost at a shopping centre and replaced with an almost identical bag that was, nonetheless, never the same. The rustling plastic grass skirts brought home by my parents from a holiday to Dunk Island. The Minnie Mouse ears on a headband from our trip to Disneyland when I was seven and the I Love Lucy t-shirt (with its enormous red glitter heart) picked up at Universal Studios on the same holiday. And when remembering America, one mustn’t forget the 1950s rock-and-roll outfit from the hot rod show; a frilly white top and pink skirt with a poodle appliquéd onto it, complete with a matching pink scarf, puffy petticoat and and elastic belt with a big gold buckle in the shape of a poodle. There’s still a photo of me on the desk in my parents’ lounge room standing on a paddle steamer in Louisville wearing the poodle outfit and grinning fit to burst.

As a chubby, somewhat awkward and occasionally weird kid, having clothes that made me feel fabulous was thrilling, because I felt dumpy and a bit embarrassed a lot of the time. Slightly too tight bottle green uniform bloomers under a netball skirt that cut into my belly made PE even more uncomfortable than it usually is for a not terribly coordinated fat kid. Our school dresses were short and I just could not get the hang of sitting with my knees together, constantly flashing my floral undies to all and sundry. During a period of bullying during grade three, I have a vivid memory of launching into a panic attack at the prospect of having to find something suitably cool to wear to a free dress day at school. My poor mother carted me around the shops for hours until we found the perfect outfit and I felt devastatingly grown up in my cream coloured leggings, brown oversized t-shirt with SPORTSGIRL emblazoned across the chest and cream scrunch socks…until I got to school, saw all the other girls were wearing floral sundresses, and realised I’d hopelessly misjudged the fashion of the day.

These aren’t universal experiences, but I think a lot of women – and other people too – can probably recall vivid emotionally charged memories to do with clothes they loved or hated or longed for when they were kids. I’ve been reading a book called “It’s So You: 35 women write about personal expression through fashion and style” (you can find it here on The Book Depository) and it’s full of stories just like mine. The essays within touch on fat, feminism, wrangling with one’s own gender identity and politics and the painful, awkward experience of growing up girl in a world where everyone has an opinion on what you should wear and how you should look. They tell stories about the authors using clothing as children and teenagers to explore their identities, to try on new ones, to try fitting in and standing out, to test out being grown up and what it might mean to be a woman. It really brings home to me the power of clothing and bodily adornment in our lives as a signifier of so many different things, and as a vehicle with which to not only express but explore, play with and try on identity and gender.

Today, more and more, I find myself injecting that sense of play into my fashion choices. Dying my hair outlandish colours, switching between – or co-mingling – the elegant and the crass or tacky, finding new parts of my body I can adorn with nail polish or makeup or jewellery. I enjoy making merry havoc with the “rules” of fashion for fat women, and while I am still usually presenting a high femme version of myself – with my cat’s eye eyeliner, squeaky giggle and flippy blonde hair if not with the clothes I’m wearing at the time – it is fun to mess around with how I feel and how others see me depending on what I’m wearing. Putting on makeup and picking which necklace to pair with which dress almost always feels like putting on my Girl costume, and I like it that way.

Do you remember any treasured – or loathed – pieces of clothing from your childhood? Are your memories of clothes and accessories as vivid and charged as mine? I am curious to hear how different this experience is for people who are less femme than I am. Perhaps fashion has been particularly salient for me because it is one of the ways in which it is “acceptable” to explore and flaunt a high femme identity, but I suspect clothing and adornment are significant (perhaps in different ways) to those who aren’t femme and/or aren’t women as well.

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On “Cyberbullying”

I have a problem with the term “cyberbullying”. I think it minimises behaviour that is very serious and allows us to take it less seriously.

Despite the increasing pervasiveness of computer mediated communication in our everyday lives, we have a persistent tendency to see online interactions as somehow less real than face-to-face communication. I’ve always found this strange, as the same attitude is not held towards phone conversations or hand-written letters, even though a lot of online interaction has more in common with face-to-face socialising than, say, writing and reading a postcard.

The interactions we have online are still processed by our physical body – our eyes and brains and the visceral whole-body responses that can come from particularly intense experiences. Reading things online can make you laugh, feel loved, feel joy. I believe it is very possible to feel real attachment and love for a person you only, or primarily, communicate with via digital means. Likewise reading things online can make you cry, feel sickened, feel frightened, anxious or depressed.

“Cyberbullying” and trolling have gotten increased publicity recently in the wake of TV personality Charlotte Dawson’s experience with abusers on Twitter (more detailed coverage available on Mamamia). Dawson was subjected to eight hours of attacks from Twitter users, the creation of a hashtag called “#diecharlotte”, and was eventually so traumatised by the abuse that she ended up in hospital. It seems remarkable to me that twee names like “cyberbullying” and “trolling” are used to describe the actions of attackers that seriously threatened a person’s health in this way. What happened to Charlotte Dawson was systematic, vicious abuse, and it was not an isolated or even particularly unusual incident but one that drew attention because it happened to a celebrity.

To bring the topic closer to home, social justice bloggers of all stripes are constantly being attacked in this way online. A friend of mine has been a target of repeated abuse online because she dares to speak out proudly about her life as an unapologetically fat woman. She has been subjected to insults and threats and had her image stolen and used to victimise her. Most recently, some vile person created a twitter account impersonating her (again stealing her image for the purpose) and labelled it “angry fat worthless piece of excrement”. This is not bullying. This is not a harmless troll. This is serious, harmful emotionally violence. This is abuse. On a facebook group for a feminist panel discussion about fat last year, I and other attendees were repeatedly subjected to graphic sexual threats from a pair of anonymous commenters until the offenders were eventually reported and banned. I was nervous to attend the (public) event the following week in case those men were there and I was subjected to more abuse. They were not, but the fear for my safety engendered by their comments was very real.

The advice given to victims of online abuse is to just ignore it, to not “feed the trolls”, to not take it personally. But how can you not take it personally when people are repeatedly telling you to kill yourself, that you are worthless, that they wish awful things would happen to you, threatening you with rape and other violence? How can you not take it personally when people are stealing your image and even impersonating you to heap abuse on both your person and the causes that you hold dear? Worst of all, victims of online abuse are told to stay off the internet if they can’t handle it, as if the responsibility for avoiding attack lies with the person being threatened and not with the abusers. As if the “free speech” of abusers trumps our right to feel safe (hint, even if Australians had a constitutional right to “free speech”, which we don’t, that right wouldn’t protect illegal behaviour).

Emotional abuse that happens online is not “cyberbullying”, it is abuse, no different from abuse that happens offline. The effect it can have on the people who are being abused is just as real. It is dangerous, serious, and illegal. We need to stop behaving as if online abuse is less significant than abuse that happens face-to-face, and we need to stop telling people who deserve our support, protection and outrage that their presence online is less valuable than that of anonymous abusers.