Tag Archives: Women

Selfies, Beauty and Objectification

A big collage of my selfies!  I am: looking off to the side, drinking a slurpee in the car, showing off a new bra, poking my tongue out, smiling in front of books, wearing makeup and a quiff, looking downcast, eating ice cream, displaying elaborate eye makeup, smiling outdoors, wearing a hat and sunglasses, bug eyed in smeared makeup, wearing a blue santa hat, looking dismayed by One Direction branded conversation hearts, showing off another bra, wearing purple makeup and a floral headdress, wearing gold lipstick and making a kissy face.

A big collage of my selfies! I am: looking off to the side, drinking a slurpee in the car, showing off a new bra, poking my tongue out, smiling in front of books, wearing makeup and a quiff, looking downcast, eating ice cream, displaying elaborate eye makeup, smiling outdoors, wearing a hat and sunglasses, bug eyed in smeared makeup, wearing a blue santa hat, looking dismayed by One Direction branded conversation hearts, showing off another bra, wearing purple makeup and a floral headdress, wearing gold lipstick and making a kissy face.

This post was inspired by two different conversations, a facebook thread following a friend’s post of an old quote from The Reclusive Leftist and the wider conversation about feminism and selfies that’s going on across various locations at the moment.

Here’s the quote. The discussion that followed was out of context of the post it came from, but for the sake of attribution see this 2009 blog post.

“Look, if posing naked were empowering, then the rich men who run the world would be lining up for it. We would be awash in naked dick shots of Warren Buffet and Bill Gates and Barack Obama; magazines would be filled with male politicians and financiers and moguls with their bits hanging out. Softly lit, perhaps; head coyly tilted, bunny tail on the ass. Power.”

It’s a zingy little paragraph. I laughed out loud and nodded my head when I read it, and was deeply entertained at the mental image of powerful men acting coyly flirtatious on the covers of magazines. But even so, men in image-based industries do appear as sex symbols. Consider David Beckham in H&M underwear or “Sexiest Man Alive” articles in magazines or images like this. The difference is that apparently women’s power is diminished by being seen in this way and men’s is increased.

The reason, of course, is sexism. In a patriarchy men who follow the rules always win and women always lose, no matter how little the rules make sense. I’ve never heard a man accused of “objectifying himself” for sending dick pics, but women whose nude texts are leaked get lambasted as fools for daring to think they could trust a lover or a device with their privacy. When a man shows someone a photograph of himself naked it is an act of aggression, but when a woman does the same thing it is seen as an act of submission, and even of consenting to become less than a person. Or consenting for all women everywhere to be seen as less than people. A woman who accepts money to pose nude in a men’s magazine is setting the cause back decades for all women everywhere because she’s colluding in the objectification of her own body, and theirs by extension. A woman who photographs herself and posts it on the internet where people can see it is vain and obsessed with her looks, and therefore also setting the cause back decades for all women everywhere because she’s colluding in the patriarchal plot to define women by our appearance.

I agree that culture where being sexy or beautiful is the only or most important way a woman can be accepted or have power is awful, and clearly excludes some women as well as limiting all women; even the conventionally attractive are always more than just conventionally attractive. But I do think it is possible for feeling sexy or beautiful to be a positive, empowering and not objectifying experience, working within the confines of the society we live in, and I also think that looking at yourself and inviting others to look at you doesn’t have to be about beauty.

Tumblr is full of women who do not fit into the mainstream beauty paradigm – whether because of race, body shape or size, disability or gender presentation – taking selfies and posting them to a public viewership, including naked ones and sexy ones and glamorous ones. There’s even a photography challenge along these lines, the 365 Feminist Selfie Project created by Veronica Arreola of Viva La Feminista. The project challenges participants to take a selfie every day for a year, at least partly in rebuttal to that infamous Jezebel article about how awful women who take selfies are (no linking for that one, google it if you’re curious).

Not unexpectedly, plenty of people are upset or concerned about women photographing themselves under the banner of feminism. I think there are interesting things to be said about how an act qualifies as “feminist” as opposed to simply “not anti-feminist” – for example feminism means women can choose whether or not to shave their legs so shaving isn’t anti-feminist, but it isn’t a feminist act either – but that’s not the discussion I’ve seen happening about selfies. The discussion about selfies seems to be much more focused on vanity, and on beauty and whether or not women should care about it. Take, for example, this article from concerned father-of-girls Black Hockey Jesus:

Put simply, all I’m saying is this: I see your need to redefine beauty and raise you one need to question the female defined by her appearance. Women can be more than how they look and deserve to be. Step away from the cameras. Seek new ways to appear. As you explore new adjectives through which to be defined, you will emerge as more complicated nouns than pretty ones. This is perhaps the direction toward a feminism beyond beauty.

Now, I recognise that Black Hockey Jesus is trying to be supportive here. He worries about the future in store for his daughters and wants women to be comfortable as complex, nuanced human beings. And I agree with him, women are more than how we look and the mainstream beauty paradigm does harm us, even those women who are privileged by it. I’m not even referring to this guy’s article so I can crow “Look at the white guy shaming feminist selfies!” as he fears (poor darling) but because that quote right there demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the reality of a bunch of people that is being repeated over and over in the handwringing over “selfie culture”.

See, if the great diversity of women who participate in internet selfie sharing like the Feminist Selfie Project “step away from the cameras” a lot of us are plunged back into a world still saturated with images of beautiful women who don’t look like us, where we are not only told that we are not beautiful, but where it’s implied by the mainstream culture most of us are immersed in that we don’t even exist. We don’t have control over that to a great extent, that is the kyriarchy at work, and the capitalist beauty industry. And living in that world where we never see our own bodies or faces reflected back at us doesn’t make it easier to let go of the idea that beauty is a woman’s most important or powerful attribute, it makes it harder. Because beauty, a very specific and limited idea of beauty, is the only attribute of womanhood that we ever get to see.

What taking selfies and sharing them does is fill our immediate environment with a far more diverse visual language of bodies than we have access to otherwise. If I turn on the TV or open a magazine I’m lucky to see one or two fat people and a scant handful of POC. Maybe one person with a disability (more likely a currently able bodied actor pretending to be disabled) or one trans person (more likely a cis actor pretending to be trans). To Black Hockey Jesus, who appears from his photo and blogging history to be a thin white cis man, it probably wouldn’t even register that this is something which happens, because people who look like him are the default template from which all other people on TV diverge. If a person who looks like him is portrayed as a villain, an idiot or a joke it doesn’t matter, because the next person over looks like him too. It’s similar but a bit more limited for thin, white, cis, able bodied women, because most of the versions of themselves they see are hollywood pretty. But for anyone who doesn’t fit that mould, representation – especially neutral-to-positive representation – is hard to come by.

Black Hockey Jesus urges women to “seek new ways to appear”, but we already are doing that when we take selfies. In selfies we simultaneously determine the method in which we will be seen by others and get used to seeing ourselves in different ways, unlike looking to popular media where we are always portrayed in the same ways. If you take the time to trawl through the #365feministselfie hashtag on Twitter, or the Feminist Selfie Project pool on Flickr, you’ll notice women appearing in a lot of different ways. Rock climbing, watching TV and pulling faces with a friend were among those at the top of the Flickr page when I wrote this. And you should see the camera roll on my phone!

Assuming the Feminist Selfie Project or any enthusiasm for selfies is just about feeling beautiful is very limited. The thing about taking a photo of oneself every day is that sticking to glamour shots gets boring and time consuming, so the participants are increasingly photographing themselves doing things, or just being themselves as is, no makeup, pyjama clad, unstyled, whatever. Maybe when you just take one selfie for your facebook profile picture you’re going to be concentrating on looking pristinely pretty, but if you do it all the time you get used to your own face and (in my experience, anyway) get a lot more relaxed about beauty and whether or not you have it. Taking self-indulgent pictures of myself had a large role to play in the fact that I can now look at unflattering photos of me that other people post on facebook and laugh my butt off instead of feeling ashamed and miserable.

Two unflattering photos of me.  In one I'm sitting cross-legged in a yellow dress and appear to be mid-sneeze.  In the other I'm making a surprised face and look remarkably like George Takei.

Two hilariously unflattering photos of me. In one I’m sitting cross-legged in a yellow dress and appear to be mid-sneeze. In the other I’m making a surprised face and look remarkably like George Takei.  What even is my face.

Returning to the original quote about posing naked, another issue occurs. Ultimately, it’s not appearing naked or being sexy on purpose that makes women into sex objects, because women are objectified even when they’re not doing those things. Consider my friend and fellow fat blogger Kath, who gets angry hate mail from trolls complaining “you’re ugly and I don’t get a boner when I look at you.” That’s objectification based on the premise that to exist she should appeal to the sexuality of those trolls and their boners. Gross. What about the many stories of female gamers and sci-fi geeks who get harassed at conventions and online by male geeks and gamers? Those guys are casting women in their fandoms into the role of sex object. And then there’s young female performers like Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus and Emma Watson, who all had websites dedicated to counting down until they were 18 and “legal”, because the only consent you need to have sex with a woman is the law’s, right? In a patriarchy, women are objectified whatever they do. Blaming women for making sex objects of themselves by posting naked selfies comes dangerously close to blaming rape victims for dressing provocatively. The people responsible for the objectification of women are not the women who are objectified.

You might say that’s all well and good for fat girls, but those who are conventionally attractive and take pictures of themselves or pose for sexy shots are just adding to the flood of images that I lamented earlier in this article! How can that be ok?  Well, I know plenty of women who I would expect to be serenely confident in how well they fit the mainstream beauty paradigm who actually have poor self esteem (up to and including eating disorders and other mental illnesses) because the approval of the patriarchy is fickle and impossible to live up to.  If it’s ok for fat women – or other women who’ve been excluded from the mainstream beauty paradigm – to feel powerful by controlling the image of themselves, which I think it’s pretty clear I believe, can we really say it’s not ok for women who are conventionally attractive to do the same thing? Who gets to decide which women fall on which side of the line? Patriarchy certainly doesn’t agree. It comes down to the leg shaving argument for me, in the end. While the act of appearing nude, sexy, beautified is not necessarily inherently feminist in every context, individual women have a right to make themselves feel good in the ways that are available to them.

For me, taking and sharing selfies reminds me that I can challenge the received narrative of beauty my culture has given me and either place myself in it – which I’m not supposed to be allowed to do – or discard it completely as the situation warrants. If I look at my collection of selfies I certainly don’t think I look beautiful in all of them, and that’s frequently deliberate. Being able to look in a mirror or at a photograph of myself – even an ugly or unflattering one – and like the person I see there after a lifetime of being literally afraid to see my own reflection, that feels very powerful.

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Behind the Scenes

An old and slightly overexposed photo of me with short black hair.  I'm standing outside in a leafy environment, wearing an orange and green floral dress and a mint green leather jacket, smiling down at the skirt I am holding out to either side.  I'm wearing glasses and orange lipstick too.

A slightly overexposed photo of me with short black hair. I’m standing outside in a leafy environment, wearing an orange and green floral dress and a mint green leather jacket, smiling down at the skirt I am holding out to either side. I’m wearing glasses and orange lipstick too.

It’s Fatshion February! A month where the fat blogosphere focuses on clothes, not just pretty photos (although there are lots of those and they are delightful) but thoughtful discussions about beauty culture, clothing access and other social justice issues that relate to fat people clothing ourselves. I freaking love it.

A quote from Melissa McEwan’s recent Shakesville post on fat fashion has been making the rounds of tumblr and it’s had me nodding my head every time I see it go past. I recommend you go read the whole post (and the one about high heels linked therein that the quote actually comes from!) but here’s a teaser:

For fat women, being stylish isn’t a luxury. It’s often a necessity to get hired, to get access to healthcare, to get treated like a human being.

Fat women have all kinds of narratives about sloppiness, laziness, dirtiness to overcome. Sometimes heels are a crucial part of looking “put together” in a way that sufficiently convinces people that we care about ourselves, that manages to counteract pervasive cultural narratives that fat people don’t care about ourselves. That we have “let ourselves go.”

Being “put together” is part of the way many of us convey to a judgmental world that we are worth caring about.

It’s undoubtedly true that all women are expected to put more effort into their appearance than men in order to be taken seriously (and that submitting to these cultural requirements is ALSO used against us as evidence that we are superficial and obsessed with appearances). But I feel the pressure to look “put together” very keenly as a fat woman, and it’s different as a very fat woman than it was when I was smaller. I don’t always feel compelled to dress up, but I do have a far less casual everyday wardrobe than some of my friends. And when I do feel compelled to go the full fatshionista – makeup, styled hair, accessories and so on – it’s usually because I feel vulnerable in the situation I’m going into and I need the additional defence of looking well-dressed.

Reading Melissa’s post, I was reminded of an experience I had several years ago when I was complaining about the trouble I had buying clothes in my size.  A friend told me I must be either lying or exaggerating because I always looked well-dressed to them. This was a weird kind of backwards compliment and I didn’t really know how to respond. It was a long time ago and I was thinner than I am now, but I was still firmly within the plus size range and besides, plus sizes were – forgive me – slimmer pickings than they are now. It is still true, though, that I like pretty much everything in my wardrobe. I don’t tend to settle for clothes that I personally think are ugly (unless I have to for uniform or costume purposes), and I did and do always look well put together when I go out in public. That isn’t an accident.

I do it on purpose, but not because I think that’s the way things should be done, or that I have some kind of belief that women owe it to the world to look pretty at all times, although it has taken me many years to unlearn the Rules of Dressing While Fat that my well-meaning mother instilled in me as a chubby child. I do it because not only is it almost impossible to find comfortable jeans and cute t-shirts in my size, but also I have those “narratives about sloppiness, laziness, dirtiness to overcome” that Melissa mentions. I dress up in part because I’m scared of how I’ll be treated if I dress down.

The other side of my friend’s comment that I was “lying or exaggerating” is that they underestimated how much time, effort and money I put into always looking well-dressed to them. It can be true that there are few decent and affordable plus size options AND true that I dress well, because I track down and buy all the decent and affordable options that fit me, as well as some that are not so affordable. I spend a lot of my free time looking at and shopping for clothes, and a large percentage of my available funds go towards clothing. And any time I see a clothing sale at a major store (online or off) where I know they stock my size and ship to Australia, I look at everything in the sale, even if I haven’t got much money, even though a lot of it will be ugly, on the off-chance there is something there I like and can afford.

Every time. Do you look at every item in every sale of every major store that stocks your size and ships to your country? If you do it’s probably either because you are a hardcore fashion blogger or because you have as few stores that fit this bill as I do.

Evans, Autograph, ASOS, Yours, Target, Kmart, Old Navy. That’s it. And I buy almost nothing from Old Navy because their plus size stuff turns baggy or falls to bits after the first wash.

Part of the reason I do this is because it’s fun for me. I find clothes shopping enjoyable, especially online, although I know a lot of women my size hate it. I collect pictures of cool plus size clothes on Pinterest and Polyvore. I even like looking at clothes I can’t wear because they don’t come in my size; I sized out of City Chic years ago but I still follow them on facebook because I enjoy looking at the regular drops of new stuff. Of course, this would be more fun if I had a hope of wearing any of it, but it’s still something I enjoy.

But part of it – a large part – is because if I want to have nice clothes on my budget and with my body, this is what it takes. So yeah, decent plus size clothes do exist. But they are few, inconsistent, expensive and difficult to find in my size. And the ones that do come in my size don’t always fit.

For every couple of items I buy online that I love, there’s a few that are not quite right and require adjustments, and one that outright does not fit. Shipping returns to the US – where most of the larger plus size clothing industry is based – costs a bundle for a return of nothing, so I tend to just keep the things that don’t fit and pass them on to other fatties who are smaller, a different shape or just like a different fit than I do. This is a pretty expensive kind of altruism, but it balances out when they do the same, though it’s rare that you find the labelled size is too big instead of too small, and I don’t personally know many women bigger than me.

Thin ladies scrimp and scour sales for basics they need (for work and so on) and for fancy stuff that makes them feel good, I know this. But it’s worse when you’re fat. Just ask any size 26+ woman who’s just been invited to a wedding with a formal dress code. Panic stations! It’s difficult even when the items in question are so bog standard you’d think they’d be everywhere. For example, a few years ago I got a job that required me to wear black suit pants as part of my uniform and I spent over a month looking for any that would fit me, no matter how daggy, no matter how expensive, from anywhere at all. I found one pair of pants, and they were too short, but I had to wear them anyway. My choir performs Christmas carols every year with a dress code that involves a white shirt, and every year I panic that my one white shirt (which doesn’t quite fit the code anyway because it has no collar) won’t fit or will be missing, because you cannot get a plain white shirt in my size for love nor money.

Thin people and smaller fats just flat out don’t believe me when I say it is impossible for me to find a white shirt or a pair of black pants that fits me. They must either think I’m lying or that I’m too lazy or stupid to have checked out the super obvious thing they always suggest when I complain about this (“Have you tried Target? I got a white shirt there yesterday!”). But it’s true. I have lost many hours and shed many frustrated tears over these things. I’ve scoured websites you’ve never even heard of. If I sound bitter it’s because I really, really am.

I’m lucky I’m femme, because if I were seeking masculine style clothes in my size and shape I’d be doomed.

On that note, as well as shopping relentlessly, another way I ensure I always look put together is that almost every item of clothing I own is a dress. The handy thing about a dress is you put it on and you have an instant outfit! No need to match anything, and they’re usually fitted, a shape that typically reads to others as more tidy or dressed up than loose clothing (though there is a fine line for fat women to walk between “that’s loose, you look sloppy” and “I can see your rolls, quelle horreur!”). The dresses I buy are usually stretchy, because stretchy fabrics are comfortable and forgiving, not in the sense that they cover up “flaws” but that a stretchy dress that isn’t quite the right size or shape can still look good, whereas a fitted dress with no stretch is far more likely to just not fit, or to look “sloppy”.

When I talk about all the work I put into dressing myself, I don’t mean to say I am forced to do this or that it isn’t pleasurable for me (well, apart from the uniform stuff, that sucks). I like clothes and I enjoy shopping for them, thinking and talking and writing about them, looking at them and looking a certain way in them. But it’s not an unweighted choice, either. I could wear black skirts and loose t-shirts every day, like I did when I was in high school and internet shopping wasn’t a thing (and the only plus size stores in Australia were My Size, Maggie T and the BIB – “Big Is Beautiful” – section at Myer) but I would be treated differently if I did.

And while you ponder that, bear in mind that I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to do this at all. Fat women who are poor frequently struggle to be taken seriously as job seekers, as parents, as healthcare consumers, as human beings because they can’t afford to wear the defence of “dressing well” that makes others think you care enough about yourself to be worth caring about. Fat women who are bigger than me struggle to find any clothing at all, let alone anything that others will read as stylish, professional or even neat. Fashion is great fun for many of us, but the extent to which participating – or not participating – in it can determine what kind of treatment, jobs and care you receive is seriously fucked up, especially when you are a fat woman.

Looking well-dressed is a whole lot of work for a fat woman, even if she makes it seem effortless. Just like a swan swimming on the surface of a lake, there’s a whole lot of paddling going on beneath the stylish exterior. Remember that before you presume we must be “lying or exaggerating” about how few clothing options there are for us.

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On Fat Mandi And Being In On The Joke

A pale pink unfitted tshirt with a cartoon chocolate donut over the place where each breast or nipple would be.

A pale pink unfitted tshirt with a cartoon chocolate donut over the place where each breast or nipple would be.

So, Rebel Wilson released a “clothing line” (two printed tshirts) in January called Fat Mandi. I saw info about it recently on WTF Plus, a tumblr I follow about the horrors of plus size clothing, and was linked to this article on Jezebel from back when it first came out.  Says Madeleine Davies:

Cool news! Rebel Wilson, beloved star of Pitch Perfect and everything she touches, has created her own plus-sized t-shirt line called Fat Mandi. Less cool news, you’ll only want to wear the t-shirt if you’re a bigger girl who’s really into food motiffs, which — hey! — of course you are! You’re fat therefore your eyes are only drawn to things you can put in your mouth.

Similar things have been said about the tshirts elsewhere as well, as I discovered when looking around for more information. Like this commentary on the WTF Plus post from Filmme Fatales:

Another example of the singing, dancing, inoffensive fat girl whose movie roles (and now clothes) don’t let you forget that “she’s Fat first, Amy second”.

Every time I see this commentary I think: do people not get it? And then I stop and wonder: do I not get it?

What’s the matter with not letting people forget you are fat? What’s the matter with taking the inevitable mockery that being fat is likely to attract in the sizeist entertainment industry and shoving it in your detractors’ faces?

I’ve written about Rebel Wilson here before, right after seeing Pitch Perfect. The strategy Wilson’s character Amy uses in Pitch Perfect – of calling herself Fat Amy so “twig bitches” can’t call her fat behind her back – is the same strategy Wilson appears to use herself to get by as a fat woman in the entertainment industry. By making fat jokes before anyone else can, she limits the ability of other people to make fat jokes at her expense; she’s already in on the joke. Filmme Fatales describes her as an “inoffensive fat girl” but honestly I don’t think Wilson is trying to be inoffensive or make the status quo feel good about her. She’s trying to embarrass fat haters by demonstrating just how few fucks she gives about their opinion of her body.

But even if she is trying to be a funny fat girl just so she can get work in Hollywood, who am I to judge her for that? Magda Szubanski made fat jokes at her own expense on Fast Forward. Melissa McCarthy seems to be doing the same thing now with films like Identity Thief. It makes me sad to see McCarthy having to take shitty fat joke riddled roles after first seeing her as Sookie StJames on Gilmore Girls, where her weight was never ever ever not once mentioned in all seven seasons, but if they are the only major roles made available to her I understand why she takes them. The people at fault here are the writers and producers and casting directors who only offer “Fat Girl” roles to fat actresses, not the actresses themselves who are just trying to make a living.

The author of the Jezebel article doesn’t seem to be aware of the origins of Fat Mandi and is assuming the clothes are merchandise based on Fat Amy from Pitch Perfect. In fact, Fat Mandi was one of Wilson’s stage comedy characters, and can be seen in episodes of The Wedge, a now defunct Australian comedy show that I admit I don’t know much about except that the ads all seemed to be about how funny “bogans” are. I never watched The Wedge because classist comedy is really not my cup of tea, but I have now watched the 12 original segments about Fat Mandi on YouTube, out of curiosity. Mandi is a fat british teenager who is (unwillingly, and originally unwittingly) on a fat camp reality show called “Fat Crackers”. She is unapologetic and proud about being fat, originally thinks fat camp is a place to celebrate fatness, and eventually leads the other campers in rebellion against the trainers. Her mother is shown as cloying and coddling, and her father is an abusive jerk who seems to hate her.

I’m really not sure how to feel about the Fat Crackers sketches. On the one hand, they features things I find genuinely funny and subversive, like the trainer’s absurd suggestions of how people can “easily” add movement into their everyday lives (0.30 in part 6). Mandi occasionally reminds me of Will from the delightful but short-lived Huge in that she’s a fat positive rebel in a fat-hating system. In the last episode, everyone at fat camp has actually gained weight and it causes “the demise of fat camp”, which they celebrate as a victory. The celebrity weight loss expert who runs fat camp complains that he hates fat people, and the fatties cheer.  I love that bit. It shows EXACTLY what is lurking behind the caring helpfulness facade of weight loss reality shows. For all the “experts” and trainers talk about wanting to help poor fat people live better lives, I really see nothing but contempt for the participants in the way these shows are produced and marketed. If they really believed extreme weight loss was the only way to save these people’s lives, rather than the way to make money via their exploitation, then competition and elimination would not be part of the process.

But on the other hand other characters in Fat Crackers (especially Mandi’s father, the voice-over narrator, and the head trainer of the camp) are constantly cracking jokes about Mandi eating everything (usually animals, for some reason?) and her father’s constantly hateful comments are definitely played for laughs at Mandi’s expense. In the first episode the father makes what seems like a joke about her eating the family cat, and then in the last episode it’s shown that she actually really did eat the cat, and then ate the new cat as well. I mean, WTF. Is this a hipster sizeism thing about how hilarious it is that people would make such wildly offensive assumptions about fat people?

Ultimately it’s hard to work out what, if anything, these sketches are trying to say. They’re mocking weight loss reality shows like The Biggest Loser in a way that demonstrates a pretty critical view of received ideas about weight(loss) and health. But they’re most certainly – regardless of intent – mocking fat people as well. And that does colour my perception of the Fat Mandi tshirts. The sketches from The Wedge were on (Australian) TV six years ago, and the promotion of the tshirt line this year has been on the coattails of Pitch Perfect rather than The Wedge, including references to Fat Amy jokes like “horizontal running”, but the tshirts are clearly a spinoff from Fat Mandi and not Fat Amy. The donut shirt is actually one of Wilson’s costumes from The Wedge (she’s wearing it as a nightie in part 9 of the Fat Crackers sketches) and she also wears another shirt with a single cupcake in the same style as the cupcake shirt while playing Fat Mandi.

Having said that, it can be a powerful strategy for an individual person to put a barrier between themself and fat jokes by highlighting their own fatness and embracing fat stereotypes, and there are lots of fat activists I know who do this sort of thing as well, famous or not. Check out But What About Your Health and the #obeselifestyle tags on Twitter and Tumblr. But is it potentially damaging for fat women in general when one of the few figures who “represent” us (ugh, ugh, ugh) in the public eye appears to be playing up to stereotypes about fatness rather than defying them?

Perhaps. I’m really not sure what the answer to that is, because I, like Rebel Wilson, am in on the joke. But yes, these sorts of jokes can make non-fat people think it’s okay to laugh at fat people, when the jokes aren’t really for them (it makes me think of a great tumblr post by agnesgalore I recently read, about white people and race-based comedy. It’s not the same thing, but you should read that post anyway). But I’m inclined to resent the suggestion that individual fat women have a responsibility to be fat in the right way if they’re famous, to be “role models” of fatness. And I also resent the way the Fat Acceptance community’s sometimes frantic desire to distance itself from fat stereotypes throws those of us who embody some (or many) fat stereotypes under the bus. While I would love to see more fat characters in TV and movies (in general, but also) who are like Sookie StJames – fat incidentally, and not as a key part of their character – I am concerned about the implication in demanding ALL of the fat characters be like that. The implication that fat people only deserve civil rights and freedom from abuse if they don’t make fatness look bad, if they are not too lazy, or too uneducated, or too interested in eating. Only if they’re inoffensively, prettily, quietly fat and eat all their vegetables. A fat woman who hates exercise, didn’t graduate from high school and lives on welfare in a trailer park eating nothing but fast food deserves civil rights just as much as a fat career woman who grows her own vegetables and runs marathons for fun on the weekends, because she’s a human being and shaming her for any of those things is wrong.

Of course, there’s another reason not to like the Fat Mandi tshirts. That reason is the size range, 12-18, and the thin models wearing the shirts on the photos page. What’s the point of a fat clothing label that most actual fat people can’t wear?

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In Defence of Feminism

I was recently linked to this article on the Independent about the unpopularity of feminism amount younger generations – Can Feminism Survive The Next Generation?

It’s a somewhat old article, from September last year, but it’s a topic that comes up again and again: the idea that feminism needs a makeover to make it more relevant or appealing to younger women. I disagree that this is a major concern facing feminism today, and here’s why.

I can actually completely understand why some people don’t want to align themselves with “feminism”. I think this can happen because they have been misinformed about what it is, because goodness knows there’s a wealth of misinformation about who feminists are and what we believe. But I also think it is the case for some people because they and others like them have been historically disenfranchised and marginalised by mainstream feminists.

The people who label themselves womanists aren’t going to stop being womanists and become whatever we decide to call feminism if feminism gets a new name. Their concerns with feminism are not superficial or image-based, they are systemic. And of course there are many different feminisms within the overarching school of thought and activism that is referred to as feminism; plenty of self-identified feminists have beliefs I disagree with and beliefs I think of as harmful, such as those who claim all heterosexual sex is rape or that trans* women aren’t really women. But since I am not the arbiter of language or of feminism, I don’t get to claim they’re not the real face of feminism. Feminism has plenty of faces.

But then the Independent article isn’t about appealing to people who have serious and legitimate anger about the way feminism has treated them. That article was about appealing to young people who believe feminists are man haters. But I honestly don’t think changing the name will help there.

For one thing, a lot of the words suggested as alternatives to “feminism” are either already taken or don’t really represent the thing I see as most important about feminism, which is the specific position of women in society and the struggle against misogyny. I like that feminism centralises women, women’s experiences and women’s liberation, because so much of the rest of the world does not and I think it’s important to have an ideological space that puts women at the heart of the conversation. “Equalism” and “humanism” are both perfectly good things, but they don’t centralise the specific struggles of women like feminism does. “Womanism” is already a term coined by Alice Walker to talk about the experiences and social realities of Black women who had been largely excluded from mainstream feminism. To appropriate that term would be obnoxious in the extreme. And since feminist is an identity label, there are a lot of people who are very fond of it and won’t be letting go of it any time soon. I’m one of those people!

I know a lot of women and girls in my own sphere of experience are or have been uncomfortable with the feminist label, and I have encountered plenty of women, especially teenage women, who seem to believe the “bad press” about feminism that the article describes. I never experienced that, myself. I suspect it is because for as long as I can remember my mother has described herself to me as a feminist, and has been proud of being a feminist. My mum and I don’t agree on all aspects of feminism, and I think some of my politics are more radical than hers, but she was a woman I admired growing up who talked openly and proudly about being a feminist, and I think that made a difference to how I perceived feminism as a teenager compared to many of my peers. I hope if I ever have a daughter I’ll be able to model proud feminism to her in the same way.

Returning to the idea of giving feminism a makeover, I am troubled by the argument that because misinformation has been spread about feminists based either on a very small minority of feminists or outright fabrications – see man hating, bra burning, etc – that it is the responsibility of feminists in general (a huge diversity of people with often very different views!) to “reinvent ourselves”. I demonstrate every day that I am not a man hater, and people who claim that my feminist identity means I hate men are, quite simply, liars. I shouldn’t have to prove that malicious lies spread about me are false in order to convince young women that things like campaigning against rape culture are good and will make the world a better place for them. Nor should any other feminist.

I am especially upset by the implication – not explicit in this article, but a point that always comes up when talking about feminism’s image – that we need to prove to young women that feminism doesn’t have to mean being a fat, angry, ugly lesbian with hairy legs who never wears high heels or makeup. As a fat, angry, hairy bisexual who never wears high heels, I’d really like feminism to support me in those things, not ask me to hide them to make myself and my politics more palatable. If a woman doesn’t want to call herself a feminist simply because she doesn’t want to be associated with women who look like me then, to be honest, I don’t really want to call her a feminist either. My feminism will not ever be one that centralises the experiences and ideas of conventionally beautiful, thin, heterosexual women over all other women, because I became a feminist in the first place to get away from that bullshit.

Where feminism is hurting people by being racist, transphobic, ableist, fatphobic or otherwise propping up systems of oppression and abuse, then feminists definitely need to work to change this. Note that I say work to change this, not work to make it look like we’ve changed this. We need to constantly reflect to make sure we’re not stomping all over other women and other marginalised people in our own fight for liberation. But we don’t need a makeover so that more girls will want to call themselves feminists. I’m not concerned about feminism being trendy, I’m concerned about it continuing to do good and not doing harm. And changing what we call it isn’t going to make a difference if we’re not willing to check our privilege and listen to the criticisms of women who feel like feminism is failing them.

Finally, I think social justice movements SHOULD rock the boat. I’m not saying I think we should work to be unpopular and reviled, but I do think that if feminism is doing its job then there will be backlash, unless we have achieved perfect equality when I wasn’t paying attention (*checks* nope, we haven’t). Feminism takes many forms, but I think it should be radical and subversive and transgressive. I see no point in a feminism that has been done up nicely to appeal to and not ruffle the feathers of non-feminists. Feminism is meant to ruffle feathers. And I don’t intend to begin shaving my legs or calling myself an equalist so the cool kids will like me.

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IT HAPPENED TO ME! I Changed my Mind About Wanting Kids.

A very young pale-skinned child is sitting in a pink car seat, apparently asleep, and cuddling a large marmalade cat (almost as big as the child!) who is also apparently asleep.  Awww.

A very young pale-skinned child is sitting in a pink car seat, apparently asleep, and cuddling a large marmalade cat (almost as big as the child!) who is also apparently asleep. Awww.

It wasn’t because of that image, but I really wanted to post it because it’s SO CUTE, and this is probably the only post for a while on which it will be relevant!

When I was eighteen, I decided I was never going to have children. I did not like kids very much. I didn’t feel comfortable around them, find their antics cute, or want to cuddle other people’s babies just because they were babies. I didn’t think I would be a good mother and, furthermore, I had no desire to become one.

I heard all the responses you can imagine. You’re so young, you’ll change your mind when you get older. Oh, when you find the right man, you’ll want to settle down and have a family. It’s different when they’re your own kids. I’m sure you’d be a great parent! At the time I developed a really negative attitude towards children and parenting that I’m not terribly proud of today; children are human beings who are learning how to be part of society, and “hating” them all en masse is pretty bigoted, even if you don’t want to be involved in raising them yourself. But I think this attitude was largely a backlash against the way everyone refused to take my decision about future parenthood – or rather, non-parenthood – seriously.

They were all missing the point. Like Christina Yang says in Grey’s Anatomy, “I’m not a monster. If I had a baby, I’d love it” but I did not want one.

I saw, and still see, parenting as something you shouldn’t just assume will happen to you eventually, but something you make a deliberate decision about. Sometimes it does come unexpectedly, and that doesn’t mean that unexpected parents can’t be wonderful parents, but I knew at eighteen that I did not want to be a parent. And a few years later when I started having sex with a man for the first time, I knew that if I accidentally got pregnant I would have an abortion, and I made sure he knew that too.

As our relationship got more and more serious, my feelings about having children did not change, but my position was complicated by the kind of relationship I was (and am) in. I’m polyamorous, and my partner had – and still has – another serious relationship with another woman. Over time we have developed into a family unit, and in the same time it became very clear to me that while he wasn’t so invested in having kids that my stance on parenting was going to be a problem, she was.

Even so, it wasn’t a matter of me thinking “well, my partners want a baby so I’ll just have to give in”. Parenting is an enormous, life-changing thing. I don’t think anyone should ever enter into it as a matter of compromise. I suspect that way lies resentment and horrible emotional trauma for everyone involved. But it did mean I needed to think about the situation again.

My perspective also changed, interestingly enough, as my lack of desire for a baby became less of an issue for the people around me. I got a new gynaecologist who was much more relaxed about me not wanting to get pregnant. I got older, so people in general were more inclined to believe I had given the issue real thought, and if not accept it, then at least leave me alone about it. I found I had other friends who did not intend to have children, so the assumption every woman will one day be a mother was less prevalent in my social group.

I also had friends who did have children, and got to meet some kids who weren’t just generic sticky babies that I resented because I was expected to love them (purely because I had a womb and they came from one), but individuals that I got to know and like as cool little people. The idea of my family creating a cool little person started to seem like it would be okay. And then from okay, it started to seem like it would be really wonderful.

But that troubled me a bit too, because it made me feel like a Bad Feminist. That’s not to say that mother are Bad Feminists, but that I felt as if I were capitulating to a sexist paradigm of what I was supposed to want. When I went to pick up something from my partner at his work and had a weirdly vivid daydream about walking into the office with a toddler on my hip to visit her daddy at work, I felt like I had crumbled under pressure and given in to a fantasy of a womanhood that I had never wanted. I worried that I was only entertaining it now because I wanted to make my partners happy, and most of all I was worried that everyone I’d ever told “I don’t want to have children” would suddenly shout “AHA!” and take my change of heart as proof that all ladies really want babies after all.

But that’s not what it means at all. It’s okay to change your mind. People aren’t ideas, we’re messy and complicated and we’re subject to all kinds of influences. Of course my decision – not to “give in” to the idea of being a parent, but to WANT to be a parent, and even daydream about it – was influenced by the world and people around me, because every decision I have ever made was so influenced. But that’s okay too. I have thought about this a lot and I don’t feel like I’m giving anything up. I feel like I’m looking at a new opportunity.

I still don’t want to be pregnant. It’s complicated.  If I were to get pregnant by accident (all but impossible for a number of reasons) or my partners were unable to conceive for some reason, that would be a serious issue that would require some soul searching for me. It might seem bizarre for me to tell you that although I now actively want to help parent my partners’ baby – and will think of that baby as “mine” also – I might still want an abortion if I myself were to become pregnant, but there it is. Pregnancy is not something I have any desire for, nor is it something that would be good for me, physically or psychologically.

I’m impatient to meet our baby, and that baby hasn’t even been conceived yet. It is a very odd place to be, when five years ago I did not want a baby at all, and felt really uncomfortable holding or talking about other people’s babies. I still occasionally wonder whether I am giving in to some broader social pressure, that on some level I am aware that the pop cultural narrative assigned to people like me – in a stable romantic relationship and nearing thirty – involves babies around this point and that is what’s driving me. But I don’t think that’s true (or the whole truth, anyway), and in any case I don’t think it matters too much. The decision I’ve made has changed the course of my life, of course it has, but it hasn’t changed me very much. I still applaud other women who have chosen not to have babies, and support their right to exercise autonomy over their own bodies and lives. I am certainly not about to start telling women who don’t want kids that they are “selfish”, because that’s ridiculous, or that they’ll change their minds like I did, because they probably won’t. I think I am actually quite unusual in this.

If for no other reason than to spare other people the angst of wondering if their decisions are their own, I’m quite happy with that!

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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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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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