Category Archives: Uncategorized

Let Me Communicate Something to You…

A video everyone needs to see. An extremely important life lesson for our youth. One of the most vital messages that everyone needs to hear. We need to spread this message before it’s too late!

It’s total click bait, and the “vital message” could be anything really, from the deadly truth about plastic bottles to the three weird foods that will make you stay young forever. In this case it’s the deadly truth about the internet and an urgent request that you “take in your surroundings and make the most of today” instead of going online. It’s a video of a spoken work piece called “Look Up” by Gary Turk and it is absolutely everywhere along with very serious remarks about how important it is.

Look up what? You mean like on Google? [A screencap of the title screen from Look Up, a white background with the title in black capitals]

Look up what? You mean like on Google?
[A screencap of the title screen from Look Up, a white background with the title in black capitals]

I said on Facebook – where I saw dozens of friends sharing the video – that I wasn’t going to watch it, but I figured if I was going to write a blog post about it I probably should. Maybe it would contain something surprising that I hadn’t heard before and completely change my perspective.

Guess what? It didn’t.

I found the emotional appeals very heavy handed (and I enjoy sentiment; I regularly cry at baby shampoo commercials and episodes of Grey’s Anatomy) and the overall message pretty boring and unoriginal. The sheer hilarious irony of a moral panic about social media going viral aside, this stuff is not even a little bit new. We’ve been lamenting the way new technologies will destroy us all since time immemorial, particularly with appeals to romance, nostalgia and fear for The Children™. To highlight the ubiquitousness of such panics, a friend of mine shared this great collection of quotes on Language Log [http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2177] from older people lamenting the good old days and the decaying behavioural standards of contemporary youth throughout history. I especially love the last one, a diatribe against obnoxious youths acting up during a lecture in Ancient Rome. Roman kids sound like jerks.

For the most part, the isolation and lack of authentic interaction that Look Up describes isn’t actually happening. Do you know what most of the internet is full of? PEOPLE. COMMUNICATING. People writing blog posts and commenting on blog posts, people posting their thoughts, jokes, photos, experiences on social media of all kinds, people sharing and discussing news, hobbies, craft projects, parenting advice and everything else you can imagine. It’s hugely social. Social interaction with the aid of a computer is still social interaction, and it is perfectly authentic and perfectly capable of moving people and conveying emotion. If Gary Turk really didn’t believe it was possible to convey emotion and meaning through the medium of a computer or phone screen, he would not have made a deliberately emotive youtube video to express his message. Look at that, guy expresses opinion on internet, thousands of people all over the world receive his message and have feelings about it, then express those feelings to others! Just look at all that communication going on!

For some people online communication may be the best interpersonal interaction they have, whether because they’re geographically isolated or have anxieties or other conditions that make it difficult for them to access face-to-face interactions. Or because they’re just extremely shy. For others, it may augment their daily face-to-face socialising and expose them to people and ideas they might not have had a chance to encounter locally.

It’s probably true that there are some people who lose themselves in the internet and find it overwhelming, isolating and a drain on their lives, and that’s unfortunate. But it is not true that everybody who expresses love or caring for each other via a Facebook post or a text message is getting less out of that interaction than they would do in person, nor is it true that nobody expresses authentic emotion online. The outpourings of sympathy and support that come through avenues like Facebook when someone gets fired from their job, has a breakup or loses a parent or a child are proof of that. Nobody ever worries that a handwritten letter is incapable of conveying true feeling. What’s the difference? That letters take longer to arrive?

It’s reductive and plain silly to presume that because somebody talks about something online they never talk about it in person, or in more depth than the brevity of a tweet.  Supposedly Gary Turk has 422 friends, yet none of them really know him, which is baffling because you’d think someone who feels so passionately about communication would talk to his friends offline as well.  I’m pretty sure at least half of my modest 282 Facebook friends really know me, because I tell them about myself all the time, and I even see some of them face to face!  It’s very romantic to think that people who didn’t have the internet were more emotional and connected than people are now, but it’s just not true. If anything they might have been less connected, because it took more effort to talk or write to someone. Today if I am feeling depressed and spend the day in bed I will probably talk to a dozen people across the course of the day and some of them will respond immediately. Twenty years ago it might have been nobody, and I would have ended the day feeling worse than I started.

This is me right now, but I'm fatter and the room is much messier. [A screencap from Look Up in which a slim white woman sits on a bed staring blankly at the screen of her macbook]

This is me right now, but I’m fatter and the room is much messier.
[A screencap from Look Up in which a slim white woman sits on a bed staring blankly at the screen of her macbook]

And honestly the idea that you might miss meeting the love of your life because you’re texting and don’t bump into them on the street is idiotic. Most people do not meet the love(s) of their life in some romcom meet cute, they get to know each other through a shared interest or job or mutual friend. As a matter of fact, I know far more people who met their beloved partners on the internet than met them by knocking them down in the street.

Don’t you dare tell me socialising online doesn’t count, or dismiss the additional access it gives people to all kinds of information – including non-mainstream ideas – that they would never have encountered otherwise. The internet gave me the Fat Acceptance movement (which saved my life), taught me to be a better anti-racist ally, made world news and politics into topics I felt competent discussing and forming opinions on, and made me a better writer and communicator, two skills for which other people often praise me. The internet has given me many new friends – whose friendship is extremely real and important, even if I have never seen them in person – and made some of my face-to-face friendships deeper by facilitating more frequent and in depth conversations.

The internet is not evil any more than it is without flaws. It’s a tool, and an extremely effective one for a lot of things.

I’ve been commuting on public transport since before smartphones and Facebook existed, and people didn’t talk to each other then, either. If anything, commuters were less social when their travel entertainments were music, books and newspapers, because smartphone users are probably communicating with someone somewhere, just not the complete stranger sitting next to them. I don’t want to talk to strangers on the train. I want to talk to people I know, or meet new people in contexts like special interest groups (both off- and online) where there’s a chance we’ll have something in common.

Children still play outside. They do. My street only has a couple of young families, and their kids are always outside making a racket and dashing out of the way of cars. When I was a kid I didn’t play outside very much myself (although I did sometimes). You know what stopped me going outside when I was a kid, in the nineties, when our house didn’t have an internet connection? Reading books. I spent hours reading. I read at the dinner table. I read while walking around. I read under the desk in boring classes. Can you imagine if the Look Up video were about the evils of reading? Better yet, can you imagine if someone wrote a novel about how reading too much is ruining children’s lives and tried to get it on the bestseller list?

Sounds about as sensible as trying to get a video that says social media stops people from communicating to go viral.

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A Letter to Adam Hills

An animated Gif of comedian Adam Hills pointing angrily at the camera with the subtitle: "If you make fat jokes about Adele, YOU'RE BEING A DICK.  I'm referring to you Joan Rivers."

An animated Gif of comedian Adam Hills pointing angrily at the camera with the subtitle “If you make fat jokes about Adele, YOU’RE BEING A DICK. And I’m referring to you Joan Rivers.”

Dear Adam,

As a longterm fan of yours and a fat woman myself, I was really pleased and grateful to hear you slamming Joan Rivers on The Last Leg for her obnoxious comments about Adele. There are precious few women in the public eye who do not conform to Hollywood’s ideal body type, and as you said yourself Adele is a wonderful role model for young women. I was glad to know there are people like you who are willing to stand up for people like Adele – and, by extension, people like me – despite not being fat yourself.

You’ve always been one of my favourite comedians because while you tackle issues that can be taboo in comedy, such as disability, you don’t take cheap shots at vulnerable people. Your comedy is funny and insightful, rather than cruel, and you often use jokes to stand up for people who are marginalised or treated badly, as you did with Adele.

Then I saw last night’s episode of The Last Leg and your segment on the so-called “obesity epidemic” and Britain’s move to tax soft drinks, in which you said:

“I want to see an ad featuring an overweight diabetic with pizza stains on his top, pressure sores on his arse, looking like he’s three sips away from kidney failure. And then at the end he just looks at the camera and says ‘I haven’t seen my penis since 2003’.”

There was nothing insightful about that “joke”. It was just a tired old stereotype of fat people dragged out for cheap laughs. It was cruel, and contributed to exactly the kind of dickishness about fat people that you harangued Joan Rivers for not so long ago. A week after you took someone else to task for making cruel fat jokes, it was frankly shocking and disappointing to see you falling back on such cruel fat jokes yourself. It really undermines what you were saying in defence of Adele, and makes it look like you only disapprove of insulting and abusing fat people when they are pretty young women.

I hope you think about your joke in Wednesday’s show in the context of your own response to Joan Rivers and consider how hypocritical it was.

Disappointedly yours,

Sarah

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Rebel Wilson’s Fat Girl Comedy

Rebel Wilson playing Fat Amy in the movie Pitch Perfect.  Amy, a fat blonde white woman, sings into a microphone on stage in front of a group of other singing women.  She has ripped open her white shirt to reveal a tight white tank top underneath.

Rebel Wilson playing Fat Amy in the movie Pitch Perfect. Amy, a fat blonde white woman, sings into a microphone on stage in front of a group of other singing and dancing women. She has ripped open her white shirt to reveal a tight white tank top underneath.

“Even though some of you are pretty thin, you all have fat hearts, and that’s what counts.”

So says Rebel Wilson’s character Fat Amy at the climax of her recent film Pitch Perfect, an ensemble comedy about college competitive a cappella singing (kinda like Glee, but without any backing instruments).

From what I understand, a lot of Amy’s lines in Pitch Perfect were ad libbed on set by Wilson. That’s how she does her thing, she’s a comedian rather than a comic actor per se. A lot of comedians do movies this way; Robin Williams is famous for it, and check out the out takes for Scrubs to see some of the bizarre ad libs from the Janitor that didn’t make the final cut (hilarious!).

And actually, knowing that is really awesome, because it makes me realise that the fat jokes in Pitch Perfect – and there are a LOT of fat jokes – aren’t comedy at Amy’s (and Wilson’s) expense, they’re a great big Fuck You to fat stereotypes.

The line in Amy’s introductory scene says a lot about what Wilson is doing here, and often does with her particular awkward deadpan brand of comedy. When she introduces herself as “Fat Amy” and uptight Aubrey replies “you call yourself Fat Amy?” she explains: “Yeah, so twig bitches like you don’t do it behind my back.” That’s what Wilson is doing throughout the whole movie when she slaps her belly as she sings “I got game by the pound”, when she yells “I’m going to finish him like a cheesecake” and when she says “yeah, don’t put me down for cardio”. Those fat stereotypes are ridiculous, and she’s showing up just how ridiculous they are. She’s not making fun of fat people with Fat Amy, she’s making fun of the people who think real fat people are food-obsessed and prefer “horizontal running”.  She’s thrusting her fatness in their faces and forcing them to look.

And she totally owns her body, too. I know Wilson has expressed a desire to lose weight before (she was a Jenny Craig spokesperson at one point), and I don’t know if that has changed or not, but Amy the character loves being fat, she doesn’t shy away from it or act self-conscious at all. It’s wonderful to see a fat character on screen who calls herself fat unashamedly, and who is so physical. Unlike the fat chicks in Glee, she doesn’t get relegated to the fat lady versions of the costumes (gotta cover those arms!) or background dancing. She moves, she throws her whole body into the performance, and she rips her clothes off on stage, too.  And she’s funny!  There are definitely some jokes – from her and other characters – that made me cringe, like the “deaf Jews” bit, and the film isn’t at all without problems.  But, perhaps surprisingly, the fat jokes aren’t the bad part.

In fact, the only person who ever insults Amy’s appearance is the guy we are absolutely supposed to hate from the first moment we meet him.  For a while I was worried he was going to be a love interest for Amy, but while there’s an in-text hint that she may have used him for sex, it’s not one of those stories about a fat-hating douchebag being the best the fat girl can hope for.  Amy has lots of boyfriends (whom she is “bored with”), and we see her lounging in the pool with several conventionally attractive, muscle-bound guys on Spring Break.

In general, I do wish awesome fat comedians like Rebel Wilson, Magda Szubansky and Melissa McCarthy got to play more roles that weren’t centred on how fat they are. They are talented women and they can do more than that. But I really like what Wilson does with the fat jokes in Pitch Perfect. They really made me laugh! I hope it’s as confronting and embarrassing to fat phobic audiences as it is clearly meant to be.

And I hope you all appreciate how hard it was for me to avoid making a “rebel with a cause” pun in the title of this post.

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Sex, Desire and Self-Critical Analysis

The idea that beauty has any kind of objective meaning is rubbish. The cliché says that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and it’s partly right – the eye, mind, culture, taste and social conditioning of the beholder are all at play when it comes to determining whether or not something is beautiful. Even beyond the variations of individual preference, even “mainstream” beauty ideals are culturally and historically specific, and socially constructed.

I know what you’re thinking. But Sarah! What about hip-to-waist ratios and symmetry and the biological imperative to produce healthy babies! To you I say that the visual measures of health and fertility that some scientists claim determine what most people find attractive only go so far in explaining who is attractive to us as individuals and why. Such scientific measures of attractiveness may have some basis in human evolutionary history, but they prop up compulsory heterosexuality and exclude a whole host of people as just “naturally” unattractive including people with disabilities, intersex people, trans* and genderqueer people and people with infertility. They don’t explain same-sex attraction, or how people who don’t want to procreate experience attraction either, nor do they adequately explain why people recognise and praise beauty in others they are not attracted to. To claim that the sole function and meaning of physical attraction and the concept of human beauty is the selection of an appropriate mate for procreation is to ignore thousands of years of human social history in favour of biology. Attraction and beauty are far more complex and culturally mediated than just determining who has whose babies.

It strikes me as somewhat odd that we’re perfectly happy to accept personal taste when it comes to being a dog person or a cat person, or preferring The Rolling Stones over The Beatles, but we’re determined to get physical attraction between people down to a science. The reason, I think, is that if we can point to a scientific study and say “but I can’t help preferring thin people/young people/currently able bodied people/cisgendered people/etc. etc.” then we get a free pass on leaving one area of our internalised biases unexamined. And I think that if you are invested in intersectional social justice, you have a responsibility to examine all your biases as often as you can.

What I’m not saying here is that people are obliged to find everyone attractive, obliged to date everyone or obliged to be sexually intimate with everyone. Nobody is entitled access to anybody else’s body. If I received incontrovertible proof (if there is such a thing) tomorrow that people will die if they do not have a minimum amount of sex with another person, I would still believe this. The right to personal bodily autonomy is at the core of quite a lot of my beliefs!

BUT.

I think we could all benefit from a self-critical perspective on the issue of attraction and desire. There’s a great post about this topic on gudbuy t’jane from back in 2011 that partly inspired my own post. Here’s a quote:

“Understandably, who we are attracted to is a very sensitive topic for most of us. We want to believe our desires are our own, unshaped by the media, patriarchy, racism, ableism, transmisogyny, or other oppressive systems. This is even more challenging when one’s identity is based in ideas of activism, social justice and equality; We don’t want to feel like we’re upholding oppressive standards, or engaging in systems which sometimes violently desexualize marginalized identities.”

So when I say I think it’s odd that we’re so much more invested in rationalising our biases when it comes to dating and sexual desire, I guess what I really mean is that I think it’s unfortunate, because I can certainly understand why people are quick to defend their desires as something innate and beyond their control. Desire is so intimate and personal, it feels natural to get defensive when your desires are challenged, and may feel comparable to being asked to check your privilege for the first time. People – especially people who identify themselves as activist in some way – don’t like the implication that they are prejudiced. But just as it is worse to experience racism than it is to be called racist, it is worse to be unthinkingly dismissed as a potential lover solely because of your membership of a marginalised social group than it is to be (or feel like you are being) called shallow.

Because it’s not about being shallow, not really. There’s the danger in this discussion to stray into areas of the Nice Guy (TM) and the ridiculous concept of the Friend Zone – I do not wish to associate my argument here with the feeling of entitlement certain men seem to have to sex from their female friends and acquaintances. As I said before, you’re never under obligation to have sex with ANYONE, and as the above article says, we can’t “simply reprogram our desires for the sake of a more egalitarian community”. But this claim that attraction is innate and beyond our control seems pretty empty to me when you consider the changing face of beauty across time and cultures, and even within the same culture. As a frivolous example, let’s compare my lust for Jason Segal (he’s big and huggable and funny, and he can sing) with many of my friends’ fancy for Tom Hiddleston (who’s very cool and a great actor, but doesn’t spark any sexy-type feelings in me at all). If attraction can differentiate that far, why not further?

In fact, I’ve noticed something in the last few years. Ever since I started being involved in Fat Acceptance, reading blogs and looking at pictures of fat people (mostly women), I have started to find more fat people attractive. In a book on self-image in teenage girls I once read about the idea of visual languages, and that the images we are frequently exposed to (as well as their positive or negative context) shape our ability to think in certain ways. In that study the author was exploring how the limited range of female bodies that are visible to young women in media images affects their ability to accept deviation from the media ideal in their own bodies, and promotes bad self esteem. In turn, that theory can be extended to talk about how we think about bodies in general, the ones we find attractive as well as our own. It has certainly been the case for me; expanding my visual vocabulary to include images of fat women – in the context of them being attractive, stylish and sexy – has enabled an expansion of what is desirable to me. Not just fat women but fat people in general, including fat men and genderqueer fat people (both of whom need more visible/visual representation online).

When I was younger – not that much younger, I guess, but we’re talking ten years ago – I was a fashion design student. We did not learn how to design for fat bodies, or how to draw clothes on fat bodies (although weirdly we did have a fat life drawing model who was always nude – when we drew clothed life models they were always thin) and the vast majority of the teachers and other students were thin. We designed for thin models and used designers who exclusively made clothes for thin people as inspiration and research. I sketched people, particularly women, all the time even outside class, and they were always long and thin and catwalk-model-shaped. At the time, I was rather more attracted to women than men, and would you believe it, all the women I found myself attracted to were likewise long and thin and catwalk-model-shaped.

Needless to say that since I was not a long, thin, catwalk-model-shaped woman myself, internalising this idea that only those sorts of women were attractive really hurt my self-image. There is a lot more to self-worth than attractiveness, and more to internalised fat-hatred than feeling unattractive, but that was a big part of it for me at that time, and precipitated my initial descent into an eating disorder. It also led me into some awful abusive situations where I felt like I should be “grateful” for any (sexual) attention I got even when I didn’t want it, because I was so undesirable it wasn’t guaranteed to come around again. I still live with the baggage of that – while I now find other women who resemble me attractive, and even like the way I look a lot of the time, I don’t think of myself as a “desirable” person. I tend to be dismissive of anyone who tells me otherwise, and even got angry at a friend once when he counted me among women he found attractive, because I felt he was just trying to humour me or something. I even feel weird and embarrassed writing that down, because surely people will scoff at the idea anyone would find me desirable!

It’s pernicious stuff. It hurts us to not be self-critical about attraction and desire, because what we find attractive affects how we feel about ourselves, too. Before I thought about desirability as something socially constructed, it was completely impossible for me to try and counteract this learned idea that I was an innately unattractive person, and with that came a deep sense of shame and worthlessness. Of course, someone not finding you attractive is not something you should ever feel ashamed of, and I would like to dismantle the idea that worth is connoted by attractiveness, too, because not everyone is interested in sex and sexual relationships, and there’s more to all of us than sex. But I do think that analysing our own prejudices should include those that are imbedded in the idea of beauty and desire, and that we will be better, happier, more egalitarian communities for it.

When you find yourself wanting to reply to this post with something like “I’m not racist, I just don’t tend to find Asian guys attractive”, pause a moment and ask yourself why you are willing to dismiss an entire (and enormous!) group from ever being potentially desirable. Are you sure internalised racist ideas, assumptions or connotations are not lurking behind that thought? When you think “I just don’t find fat bodies beautiful”, follow that up with a question. Why not? Are you assuming anything about fat people when you think that?

Hell, I even think straight people should critically analyse their straightness instead of assuming humans are heterosexual by default.  That may sound radical, but I don’t mean you need to “experiment” with your sexuality or that you’re a bad person if you identify as straight.  I mean that compulsory heterosexuality is a received idea that most of us never challenge.  It’s perfectly okay to think about it and decide that you are, in fact, straight.  But thinking about it is a good thing!

The take home message of this post should not be “if you are marginalised, people owe you sex”. Nobody owes anybody sex. But I do hope that people will consider looking at and thinking about different kinds of bodies and thinking critically about where their own desires – or lack thereof – come from.

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NSFW: Dancing time!

A cartoon (drawn by me) of a fat, naked white woman with wavy yellow hair, dancing.

A cartoon (drawn by me) of a fat, naked white woman with wavy yellow hair, dancing.

As you can see, I cannot draw hands 😀

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Wishing My Christmas

Well, I said my next post would be about cake or dresses, and here we are!  I’m working on a few more serious posts at the moment, but the hectic holiday season and an irritating injury have been getting in the way of my focus somewhat lately.  Instead, prompted by being tagged (by the ace Fat Heffalump) in a meme, I am going to keep this blog alive by indulging in a little materialistic frivolity.  Hurrah!  You may assume that my Christmas wish list also includes a lifetime supply of Moët et Chandon and Peace On Earth And Goodwill To All, but these are more the sorts of things that Santa can wrap up and put under my Christmas tree:

  1. A PhD scholarship.  OK, so that’s not going to be wrapped up and put under the Christmas tree, but still, the seasons coincide!  I find out really soon.  Oh please, oh please, oh please.

    A slim white woman with long dark blonde hair wearing jeans, a white tshirt and a mint green leather biker jacket with large lapels and quilting on the shoulders and waistband.

    A slim white woman with long dark blonde hair wearing jeans, a white tshirt and a mint green leather biker jacket with large lapels and quilting on the shoulders and waistband.

  2. This leather jacket from ASOS Curve.  YEAH, THAT’S RIGHT, A MINT GREEN LEATHER JACKET.  How awesome is that?  It’s on my family Christmas list so this one may even come true *crosses fingers*  And hey look, the model is wearing matching nail polish!  I’m totally doing that if I get one.

    A slim white woman (head mostly cut off by the photo framing) wearing a long rust-coloured jersey dress with long sleeves and a wrap bodice.

    A slim white woman (head mostly cut off by the photo framing) wearing a long rust-coloured jersey dress with long sleeves and a wrap bodice.

  3. A Rachel Pally maxi dress.  I don’t even care which one, they just look so comfy!

    A small dark blue clutch decorated with appliqué, sequins and embroidery depicting a circus elephant and a circus lion behind gold bars.

    A small dark blue clutch decorated with appliqué, sequins and embroidery depicting a circus elephant and a circus lion behind gold bars.

  4. This circus clutch from Irregular Choice.  I am a sucker for the cute, the silly and the irrepressibly sparkly.

    A somewhat slim brown-skinned woman with long dark hair, wearing a white tshirt.  The tshirt is printed with a cute cartoonish illustration of a fat white girl with blonde hair and the caption "Fat and Sassy Blonde".

    A somewhat slim brown-skinned woman with long dark hair, wearing a white tshirt. The tshirt is printed with a cute cartoonish illustration of a fat white girl with blonde hair and the caption “Fat and Sassy Blonde”.

  5. A Tiny Hobo fat positive tshirt.  So cuuuute!  The only question is whether to get Fat and Sassy Blonde (my current hair colour) or Fat and Sassy Brunette (my real hair colour)?  Given that the aforementioned lack of focus means I haven’t retouched my roots in ages, I’m kind of both at the moment anyway.  And I got an actual genuine compliment for how cool my unwashed, half-grown-out roots looked yesterday, so I am pretty sure I am rocking it.  Lazy femmes FTW!

    On the left, a rubber stamp depicted alongside an impression of the stamp inside a book.  The stamp shows the following hand-lettered message, inside a circle: "from the library of oritgat if found, return. oritgat@gmail.com".  On the right, a rubber stamp depicted alongside an impression of the stamp on paper.  The stamp shows a curling ribbon banner that reads "EX LIBRIS" and leaves space for a name to be added.

    On the left, a rubber stamp depicted alongside an impression of the stamp inside a book. The stamp shows the following hand-lettered message, inside a circle: “from the library of oritgat if found, return. oritgat@gmail.com”. On the right, a rubber stamp depicted alongside an impression of the stamp on paper. The stamp shows a curling ribbon banner that reads “EX LIBRIS” and leaves space for a name to be added.

  6. A lovely Ex Libris stamp like this lovely hand-lettered one by plurabelle on Etsy (on the left). Or this one by extase (on the right).  Actually I’d really like one that says “I belong to Chrestomanci Castle. And Sarah.”

    A haphazard stack of old books with various coloured and textured covers.

    A haphazard stack of old books with various coloured and textured covers.

  7. And, on that note, BOOKS!  Novels and non fiction and poetry and comics and the works.  There are an extraordinary number of academic type books I want and need to get my hands on now that the whole PhD thing is starting to loom, and academic texts are ludicrously expensive.

I’m not going to tag anyone in because…I have no idea who I would tag, but if you feel like posting your own list do share a link!

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Anorexia Jokes and Derailing

TRIGGER WARNING: Eating Disorders

I really don’t want this place to be about thinness. I don’t want to have to keep being distracted from the issue of fat liberation to talk about defending thin women, because that isn’t the point of this blog and it’s derailing and distracting. The whole world is about thin people, and this place shouldn’t have to be.

But eating disorders are part of my history and part of what has led me here, both my own and the experience of seeing far, far too many of my dear friends struggle with anorexia and other eating disorders. So when I see yet another stupid, ignorant comment about force-feeding someone a hamburger because she looks too skinny, I blow my top. Not because thin women have it harder than fat women, but because eating disorders are not a fucking punchline.

Have you ever sat at the dinner table with a loved one and begged her to eat just one more bite? Have you ever followed someone to the bathroom after lunch to make sure she didn’t throw up? Have you ever felt with crushing certainty that someone you love is really, actually going to starve herself to death? Sadly, I suspect plenty of you have.  I have, more times than I care to count. I’ve done these things while struggling with my own demons regarding food and weight, and felt the grotesque and horrifying combination of fearing for a friend’s life while simultaneously envying her for getting further along the path to killing herself than I had.

It’s not a joke, and it’s certainly not something that people who have never experienced an eating disorder – personally or from close by – should feel smug about.

The only time “force-feeding” someone who is anorexic is ever helpful is when they are actually about to die of starvation, and even then it’s not going to do a thing to “cure” the illness, it’s purely about keeping them alive long enough to find something that works.

Joking about force-feeding a person so her body won’t offend you, even if she is starving herself, is disgusting.

A person’s body is their home and who they are in one. Our bodies are how we constitute our experience of the world and our identities, whether our identity is in sync with the way the people around us code and interpret our bodies or not. And as the saying – now famous in body positive circles – goes, there is no wrong way to have a body.

Pause and let that sink in for a moment.

THERE IS NO WRONG WAY TO HAVE A BODY.

Of course, it’s certainly possible to feel like your body is wrong, and that feeling is perfectly real and perfectly awful. As a fat woman I have definitely experienced the feeling that my body was wrong – inside every fat woman is a thin woman wanting to be free, amirite ladies? – but the fact I felt that way certainly doesn’t make it true. That sense of wrongness is externally imposed rather than self-evident.

You cannot cannot CANNOT forward the cause of fat liberation by making cruel jokes about other people’s bodies.  One of the first things we all need to do in order to achieve body liberty for everyone is let go of our judgements about other people’s bodies.  Even thin women. Even women who are thin because they are starving themselves.

And – here’s the important bit – until we can stop bandying about bullshit like “give that girl a hamburger” we will never be able to decentralise the thin, young white woman from our discussion of body image, body shaming and beauty idealism. We will never actually get to the task of dismantling the systems that keep most women preoccupied with their bodies and marginalise fat people, disabled people, trans* people, intersex people and people of colour on the basis of their bodies and their looks. Because as long as we keep making ignorant jokes about force-feeding people and walking skeletons and models who look like boys and “real women” and other such nonsense, we’re focusing the whole conversation on thin women. We just keep having the same fucking arguments about whether or not it’s okay to pick on thin women, and some of us will keep having to defend thin women instead of working to liberate anyone else.  You know what that is?  It’s derailing.  And I won’t have it.

Hopefully now I won’t ever have to write about this again and can get back to talking about fat some more.  I think my next post should be about cake.  Or dresses.

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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.

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.

Why I Will Not Calm Down: Relentless Challenges and Righteous Anger

I will not keep calm and you can fuck off

White block text on a black background reading “I will not keep calm and you can fuck off” below a stylised white crown, in the style of British World War II propaganda posters.

Today I was involved in a discussion on Facebook about Australian Greens’ leader Sarah Hansen-Young’s recent statement on the Greens’ policy regarding polyamorous marriage (they’re agin’ it!).  This post isn’t about that, but the discussion did raise something that I keep encountering over and over again; the idea that people from marginalised groups or with radical ideas have an obligation to tread softly and not push the status quo too far, because if they do it will backfire and nothing will ever change.

The older I get and the more reading and thinking and arguing I do, the more I realise that this is absolute bullshit.  If the status quo is unfair and you are in a position to challenge it, then you should challenge it, vigorously and vociferously and relentlessly.  If being loud and radical is too much, how could saying nothing at all possibly make people more likely to listen and take heed?  This theory of taking political change “one step at a time” is, to my mind, akin to the dreaded “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” argument.  To paraphrase a friend from my Facebook discussion, marginalised people should not have to earn the things that privileged people take for granted by being meek and inoffensive, or by begging for scraps of recognition and respect.  Please sir, may I have just a little more dignity?  MORE?!  MORE?!!?  I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU’RE ASKING FOR MORE, DIDN’T WE JUST GIVE YOU PEOPLE SOMETHING YESTERDAY??

Yes, actually, I do expect you to respect the relationship choices of both same-sex-attracted people AND polyamorous people (hey, some of us are both!).  Yes, I expect you to recognise that fat people can be just as fit and healthy as anyone else AND not vilify those fat people who are not perfectly fit and healthy.  Yes, I expect you to make special allowances for people with disabilities to make their lives easier AND respect their bodily autonomy enough to not interfere with their lives.  Yes, I expect you to let women make their own choices about whether or not to raise children AND still support and respect women who choose to be full time mothers.  And I’m not going to shut up about one thing while I wait for you to grasp the other one.  I’m especially not going to shut up about the things that directly hurt me and affect the way I live just because my demands push your boundaries more than is comfortable for you.

Social change is necessarily uncomfortable.  Sometimes the political demands of others make me feel uncomfortable and defensive and I often find that when I dig a little deeper the reason is because they are challenging beliefs and stereotypes I’d taken for granted, or challenging my own unexamined privilege.  And since I don’t believe in a hierarchy of oppressions, I don’t see why I should have to wait for one to be resolved (haha!) before starting in on another one, nor do I think it is reasonable to assume that I do not value the steps forward that have already been made if I am still demanding more.  I think we can always demand more of ourselves as a society when it comes to listening, learning and understanding, and I intend to.

My number one pet peeve when discussing social (in)justice with people who perhaps think about these issues less constantly than I do (which is perfectly reasonable; I must admit being outraged and disappointed full time can be pretty exhausting) is being told to calm down.  I’ll calm down when there’s nothing left to be angry about, and I don’t see that moment coming any time soon.