Monday, December 22, 2014

Hating Women Together and for Sport: The Dalhousie “Gentlemen” and Misogyny in the University

Increasingly, I am seeing the word “misogyny” being deployed in all kinds of mainstream media. It’s no longer a concept relegated to feminist, alternative media spaces. Misogyny, and transmisogyny, as social and cultural illnesses, are being talked about more and more. But, as the word often used in conjunction with other terms and phrases – sexism, assault, harassment, violence against women, patriarchy – I sometimes feel that its meaning becomes less clear.

I’m not saying we are overusing the term misogyny, not at all. Sadly, we are probably not using it enough to diagnose things happing in society and, certainly, online.  Rather, through using it we shouldn’t forget what it means, at the core level of the word.

misogyny:  a hatred of women

origin: Greek misogynia, from misein to hate + gynē woman

Another definition:

dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women: she felt she was struggling against thinly disguised misogyny

origin: mid 17th century: from Greek misos 'hatred' + gunē 'woman'

Misogyny is more than thinking women to be inferior to men. Misogyny is more than judging someone on the basis of sex or gender. Misogyny is about hating women.

I want to focus on what the word means and how that meaning hurts people – women – in society. Not everything that is oppressive to women is automatically misogynistic. There are some forms of sexism that, while still sexist, are not based on an actual hatred of women (some may argue with me on this point and say that all sexism is undergirded by misogyny but I think subtle distinctions are worth making).

So in the case of the Dalhousie Dentistry“Gentlemen’s Club” secret Facebook group – where meme photos about chloroforming women were posted, a poll asking "who would you hate fuck" was created and names listed, and other sexually explicit, violent, and degrading discussions about women and female classmates took place – what are we talking about? Hopefully no actual drugging or assaulting of women took place and maybe none of the members ever planned to do such things. 

Maybe it was a place for male students just to have rape fantasies and mock women.

I’ve noticed some media coverage mentioning that “hate fuck” could be construed as rape. Yes, I think so. I think that’s exactly what “hate fucking” is.

Basically, I’m really pleased that media outlets have been using the word misogyny from the start. This isn’t just men being sexual and inappropriate. This is well beyond harassment. This is more than a patriarchal circle jerk.

It was a place for male students – men – to derive pleasure and entertainment from the communal hating of women. To hate women together and for sport.

And it was all done in a way that was explicitly linked to a faculty and a university – and now Dalhousie University is tasked with deciding how to take a stand against the proliferation of misogyny, sexism, and rape culture on its campus.

While I would be disgusted and outraged to learn of the existence of any similar group associated with any academic school or faculty, it merits pausing for a moment to think directly about who it was – fourth year dentistry students. Male students set to graduate in 2015 – very soon – and start their professional lives as dentists.

There are many academic programs in which one doesn’t train for a specific job they expect to start upon graduation. Dentistry is not one of them. Not only were these soon-to-be-dentists joking about chloroforming women and regaling each other with hate-fuck preferences, they were being schooled to become people in health care, in positions of not only ethical responsibility, but power and trust.

Situations like this are a good reminder of the false correlation that we often imagine between certain programs and career pursuits and morality. There are many, many “good,” caring, decent people that pursue medicine and related fields (thankfully!) There are also many others who could not easily be defined as moral or showing good judgment. Many untrustworthy, negligent, even hateful people are also attracted to prestigious helping professions.

I strongly believe at least some aspect of the shock of this story has to do with the fact that it involves students in a prestigious program that is in the healthcare sphere.

We want to believe that anyone who wants to help people (and be paid well for it, let’s not forget) wouldn’t joke about raping women. That is not the case here. 

So what will the university do? Many are calling for their expulsion. Talking about this with some people, I said I empathized with the position of the university in terms of the challenge of how to handle it. It could be precedent setting, and the administration would need to carefully consider how they would deal with similar, perhaps arguably “lesser,” but still serious cases in the future. 

How will they decide what is bad enough, what is hateful enough, to warrant failing and being expelled from the program? Will they hold certain programs to different standards? 

If the behaviour was not so closely linked to and branded with the school’s identity, would it matter? They have an important decision to make in choosing a course of action.

There is also the challenge of deciding what level of participation would warrant being expelled. What about the student who posted nothing but “liked” a post? What about the students who never posted or participated but knew what was happening and never got involved or tried to stop it? 

Aside: For men who want to be feminist allies, think about all the situations you may find yourself in where you can speak up against other men. Speaking up can be hard, but sometimes silence is permission.

The University – in all its physical and virtual spaces – should at the very least keep students safe from harm, discrimination, and threats of sexual violence. To go a step further, it should be a place where critical, anti-oppressive, sensitive thinking is taught and cultivated. University should be a time to become more respectful and open-minded, rather than a time to learn how to denigrate women with your peers.

I think the students who participated in the club’s misogynistic posts and discussions should be expelled. While sometimes forgiveness seems preferable, I think certain transgressions warrant serious, life-changing consequences. 

These men need to know that hating women – and talking about and encouraging it – has actual academic and professional repercussions.

Maybe they will learn to respect women, or maybe they won’t. But at least they won’t be dentists.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Beyond Bottom Pinches and Sexist Jokes: Gender Harassment and Workplace Toxicity

"You have to be so careful these days."
"You can't say anything to anyone anymore."
"No one can take a joke."
No, no, no. Workplace sexual harassment is not about people being “oversensitive” or unable to take a joke. It’s about your conduct making your coworkers uncomfortable to the extent that it has a negative impact on them, their work, and the whole work environment. If you can’t imagine a comment, a gesture, a look making you feel uncomfortable in your workplace, consider your privileges. What privileges do you bring to work everyday that may cause you to feel a bit more immune?

The kind of conduct coming under intense scrutiny isn’t only now unacceptable. It isn’t that times have changed – the conduct was likely always deeply inappropriate and alienating but workplaces weren’t effectively setting standards for conduct and properly protecting the rights of workers.

There seems to be a lot of misconceptions or confusion about sexual harassment, what it is, who can commit it or be the victim of it, and how to go about dealing with it.
Google image search "sexual harassment."
This is how stock images represent it. Not so much.

Discussions of sexual harassment are circulating constantly in Canadian media at the moment, following the last two weeks since allegations of sexual violence (outside of work) as well as workplace misconduct and creation of a hostile environment broke about former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi (see my most recent blog post about Ghomeshi here). More recently, two Liberal MPs, including a Newfoundland and Labrador MP, Scott Andrews, were suspended from the Liberal caucus pending an investigation into alleged “misconduct” (the term sexual harassment has also been used in regard to this situation) reported by two female MPs.

When someone says “I was sexually harassed” or “so and so has been accused of sexual harassment,” what kinds of things do you think of?

I think the most important thing about sexual harassment that people need to remember is that it’s far more than the old-fashioned, stereotypical improprieties that usually come to mind – unwanted touching, sexist jokes, leering, offering someone a promotion, an advancement, a good grade in exchange for sexual favours or dates (called quid pro quo sexual harassment).  Sexual harassment goes well beyond grabbing asses or asking a coworker out repeatedly. All these things are absolutely sexual harassment, both inside of and outside of the workplace, but it goes further.

I want to proffer the terms “gender harassment” and “gender-based harassment” as useful to always keep in mind when discussing the broader umbrella term of sexual harassment.

First, there are issues with reducing everything to sex, sexuality, and the biological “sexes.” I’m sure most people interested enough to read this essay know that sex and gender are related but different concepts. While sexual harassment is still a useful, overarching term, and currently the accepted term to convey these types of misconduct, I find it can cause people to overly focus on the blatantly sexual or sexualized forms of harassment and conflict between the so-called “opposite sexes,” and thus focus less on harassment on the basis of gender.

This would include treating someone unfairly or disrespectfully on the basis of their gender (as you perceive it). This would include being rude or belittling to a woman who is not perceived as adequately feminine or a man who is not perceived as adequately masculine (harassment based on gender expression). This would include misogyny and general sexism. Gender-based harassment would absolutely include transphobia and discriminating against or creating a hostile workplace because someone is trans (harassment based on gender identity).

To borrow from the Memorial University Sexual Harassment Office overview: “Comments or conduct of a sexual nature and/or abusive conduct based on gender, gender identity, sex (including pregnancy and breast feeding) or sexual orientation directed at an individual or group of individuals by a person or persons of the same or opposite sex, who knows or ought reasonably to know that such comments or conduct is unwelcome and/or unwanted.”

It seems a lot of people can’t imagine someone in power, like an MP, being so careless as to sexually harass a peer. It seems like an obvious thing to avoid, right? 

The thing to remember is that a lot of behaviour falls under sexual harassment, some of which happens so carelessly and continuously in a society that is still quite sexist and patriarchal that many claim to be ignorant that they have committed it.

To again borrow from the Memorial University definition:
Sexual Harassment includes but is not limited to:
    unwelcome sexual invitations or requests;
    demands for sexual favours;
    unnecessary touching or patting of a person's body;
    leering at a person’s body;
    unwelcome and repeated innuendos or taunting about a person’s gender, gender identity, sex (including pregnancy and breast feeding) or sexual orientation;
    unwelcome remarks or verbal abuse of a sexual nature;
    visual displays of sexual images perceived to be degrading or offensive;
    unwelcome remarks or verbal abuse based on gender, gender identity, sex (including pregnancy and breast feeding) or sexual orientation which are demeaning or degrading;
    threats of a sexual nature;
    sexual assault and;
    any other unwanted verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.
So, as you can see, abusive behaviour about one’s gender and gender identity absolutely fall under sexual harassment, but I find, through public conversations about these issues, people often forget or overlook these aspects and assume every sexual harassment complaint is something uniquely and specifically based on sex and sexuality.

Another crucial conversation to have is the idea of intent versus impact. Yes, perhaps you made a comment about my body or a joke about my gender and didn’t mean it to be offensive or alienating. Perhaps, you were trying to give me a compliment. That doesn’t matter if I’m uncomfortable. My impact trumps your intent.

This doesn’t mean you can never touch a coworker again, never make a joke, never give a compliment; it’s about using good common sense and learning to be intuitive about the feelings and personal autonomy of your coworkers. It’s about checking your privilege (your male privilege, your straight privilege, your cisgender privilege, your able-bodied privilege, etc.) and taking time to really consider how your words and actions affect others. 

This is all the more crucial if you’re a manager or boss and have to try to foster a safe and healthy work space for your employees, as well as ensure you aren’t complicit in any harassment or workplace toxicity.

For example, it’s really important that men step outside their unearned privilege as men and imagine how something they want to do or say might make a female coworker feel. Maybe, as a man, you’ve never had your personal space or bodily autonomy invaded or threatened. For many women, this is commonplace.

You also need to think about your individual relationships with people you interact with. Maybe you have a rapport with someone and you have gotten to know each other’s senses of humour. Maybe you are friends outside of work. Maybe you’ve gotten to know each other as friends enough in the workplace that you feel confident that to offer a hug on a special occasion would be OK. Avoiding sexual harassment isn’t about avoiding ever speaking to or interacting with coworkers on anything other than work again – it’s about keeping at the forefront of your mind how something you might do would affect them.

Here are some questions we can all ask ourselves in the workplace to make it a better, healthier place:
  • I want to make a joke. From what I know, is there a chance this joke may negatively impact someone around me? Is it possible I don’t know enough about the personal lives of each of my colleagues to bank on the fact that this won’t hurt someone?
  • I want to offer my coworker a hug on their birthday/ promotion/ they’ve lost a loved one. How well do I know this person? Do they seem to be comfortable with hugs and those kind of interactions from what I know? Is there a way I can offer sympathy or congratulations that I’m sure doesn’t risk transgressing boundaries of personal space?
  • I kind of want to make a disparaging remark about a group of people that shouldn’t offend anyone in this office because no one belongs to that group. Do I know for certain that no one belongs to that group? Should I refrain from making disparaging remarks about groups anyway?
  • I want to compliment a coworker on how they look. Based on our respective social and power locations in this office, how can I do that while remaining professional and not making them self-conscious? 
  • If I make a comment about gay, lesbian, bisexual, or queer people, do I know for certain none of my coworkers are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or queer people (HINT: Don’t make the comment). 
  • If I make a comment about transgender or gender non-conforming people, do I know none of my coworkers are trans or gender non-conforming? (HINT: Don’t make the comment). 
  • (The same applies for discussing disability, mental illness, and so much more. Dont assume no one in the room is affected by your remark. So much of identity is invisible.)
  • If I would do/say this to a woman, would I do/say this to a man? 
  • How would I feel if someone made me uncomfortable on the basis of my gender, sexuality, or through making me the object of sexualized scrutiny?
This isnt about being politically correct just to avoid insulting people. Its about being respectful because people deserve respect.

Everyone will make mistakes. It’s OK to screw up as long as you can recognize it and apologize. No one expects you to never misspeak, but to be open minded and self-reflexive enough to consider how your actions impact others. We should all try to do this.

Sexual harassment in the workplace doesn’t only become “true sexual harassment” once there’s a complaint or grievance – it happens all the time and may never get reported. There are a lot of factors that can make a workplace toxic or hostile. A little more self-reflection and thinking before speaking on the part of every single person would make a big difference.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

What will the Jian Ghomeshi revelations mean for sexual assault reporting?

A lot has happened in the last week. When I wrote my first post on Jian Ghomeshi, on Monday, Oct. 27, it was about 24 hours after reading his Facebook post that set out to discredit the allegations that (he knew) were forthcoming. Now, it’s hard to even remember what I thought about Jian Ghomeshi, if anything, before a week ago.

At that point, when I jumped into the conversation to try to articulate my frustration with how discussions were focusing on the titillation of “unusual” / BDSM sex practices instead of non-consensual sexual violence, I didn’t have much information about the alleged victims and tried to refrain from writing the commentary as though Ghomeshi was guilty of the allegations of sexual violence.

A little over a week later, I feel quite confident writing as though he is guilty.

The defenders and, to a lesser extent, the neutral zone commentators, thought to even discuss the situation in terms of the alleged victims’ presumed innocence was unfair to Ghomeshi because criminal charges had not been filed. For some, the absence of a criminal investigation delegitimizes the validity of the complaint. I have a deal of faith in Canada’s justice system, but I know it is imperfect. I know whether or not a formal police probe exists can be irrelevant to whether or not a crime has been committed.

But in the short time since the allegations came forward, first with four anonymous victims, then with some women putting their name and faces to the allegations, and then the count rose to eight alleged victims, the Ghomeshi fiasco has snowballed considerably. The suggestion of a nefarious jilted ex being the reason he was fired from CBC no longer seems even remotely plausible.

I find myself wondering if he is deliberately deceptive, consciously trying to exert his power over women for sexual pleasure and get away with it, or a deluded narcissist so wrapped up in his own image that he has, somehow, convinced himself that he was entitled to do these things and, somehow, consent was granted.

Of course, entitlement to women’s bodies is a larger symptom of toxic masculinity.

I believe the way many media outlets, commentators, blogs, and individuals approached the topic – as crucially important to discuss and analyze critically, as connected to serious issues of sexual assault and abuse of power – may have helped more people come forward. And now everywhere we listen or read we can find more personal testimonies of encounters with Ghomeshi ranging from awkward to blatantly inappropriate, of journalism interns or grads being warned to stay away from Q, of people who heard about his behaviour but thought they were just rumours. 

Suddenly, we can see that the revelations that stunned so many of us who don’t know him were not so surprising to former dates, coworkers, and others in the industry.

Imagine if all those who believed the women, who believed sexual assault is horrendous and not the victim’s fault, and who believed that CBC must have had ample justification to fire him based on complaints and evidence, had just decided not to discuss it because “innocent until proven guilty” is one of our core values?

Imagine if the absence of a named woman coming forward and filing a police report was enough to believe Ghomeshi’s elaborate post and pre-emptive plea for forgiveness?

It’s telling that Navigator, the crisis management PR firm, no longer represents him. It’s telling that we haven’t heard a peep out of him since Thursday (Oct. 30) about his plans to confront allegations “head on.”

But more important than Ghomeshi’s guilt or innocence, or the possibility that, in order for him to indeed be innocent and truthful, several unconnected women would have had to coincidentally reveal fabricated allegations of his sexual and physical abuse, is what this case may mean for victims of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment.

Although it may seem minor by comparison to physical violence, I deliberately include sexual harassment, especially workplace sexual harassment, in this list. I think navigating reporting a coworker (who may also be more influential, more securely employed, and maybe even your boss or someone you report directly to) as a perpetrator of sexual or gender-based harassment is a similar although unique quagmire. 

Often, there are no criminal charges to seek, no police report to file, in a workplace harassment / hostile work environment case. Why? Because so much of how men treat women in the workplace has been normalized to the point that it may not even be seen as a transgression.

There can be a lot of pressure for complainants of sexual harassment to determine the solution – do you want to sit down, face to face, with the perpetrator and explain how you feel with the help of a mediator? Then you can feel awkward for the rest of time and dread going to work while the perpetrator ostracizes or, perhaps, increases the intensity of their harassment. No thanks.

I hope the revelations of these brave women – survivors of sexual assault and abuse – coming forward to report their experiences with Jian Ghomeshi helps more women come forward. I hope this story, which has astonished the country, is a tipping point for adjusting and reframing how sexual violence is understood in society.

There are so many reasons why victims feel they cannot report, and we need to cultivate a culture that lets them. I hope that, at least, comes out of this.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Fifty Shades of Ghomeshi: Why this isn't about his "private" sex life

Normally, I wouldn’t invoke the link to E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey franchise. Normally, I would worry that such a link would appear to trivialize or make light of the fact that women have come forward alleging sexual violence during personal encounters (including romantic/ sexual encounters) with former CBC broadcaster and host of ‘Q’ Jian Ghomeshi.
However, Ghomeshi himself invoked a Fifty Shades of Grey reference in his pre-emptive official Facebook post on Sunday.

“We joked about our relations being like a mild form of Fifty Shades of Grey or a story from Lynn Coady’s Giller-Prize winning book last year.”

This reference really arrested my attention. Reading this, not long after absorbing the breaking news that CBC had parted ways with the host, yet long before reading the startling and detailed Toronto Star report this morning, I kept coming back to the decision to make this reference.

Of course, we know Ghomeshi has hired a crisis management PR team and, since his intentions to file a lawsuit against CBC were immediately stated, we can assume PR professionals helped sculpt and refine his lengthy and candid statement, which can only be interpreted as an effort to put his side of the story out there first. Fair enough.

Without a doubt, the mainstream success of Fifty Shades of Grey has made it easier to talk about BDSM publically – and regardless of what you think of the books (here are a few thoughts I put together after reading the first book in 2012), I think being able to talk about sex is a good thing. 

Still, I found myself wondering if Ghomeshi could have so readily made public some tidbits of his sex life in a pre-Fifty Shades world. I read Ghomeshi’s subtle but deliberate reference to the book as an attempt to garner sympathy by resorting to something that everyone knows of, even if they don’t know much else about BDSM. As though presenting his situation in a Fifty Shades context somehow neutralized the allegations by framing himself in the terms of this cultural product. After all, Fifty Shades is first and foremost a, bizarre, improbable, over the top romance interspersed with intricate descriptions of sex; elements of violence may be involved, and people may dislike its depiction of a young female submissive, but the sex is consensual. The reference, somehow, frames the message in easy-to-digest terms.

Also, Ghomeshi’s invitation to think of him as Christian Grey is nothing if not self-aggrandizing.

In the day since all this started breaking and since Ghomeshi’s first-out-of-the-gate Facebook statement dominated everyone’s newsfeeds, there have been some excellent articles tackling different aspects of this controversy.

Elizabeth Hawksworth’s blog post was particularly compelling, an astute excerpt of which I’ll quote at length here:
“Women everywhere are sexually assaulted by men in power. Many don’t bother to speak up because of reactions and consequences like this: Ghomeshi is a man in power and he is also well liked and well known. Chances are, he will be almost universally believed, while she will be accused of lying to get something from him. And while there is an extremely small percentage of women who do accuse men of sexual abuse in order to get something from them, the majority of women don’t. The majority of women speak up because they want justice. And right now, we don’t know what the real story is – but as someone who never spoke up when a man in power put me through hell, for a variety of reasons – I believe her until further notice.”
Anne Theriault tweeted eloquently when the news broke. It’s hard to choose just one tweet to highlight, but this one particularly resonated.

For my part, in this post I want to focus on an alarming and, so far, less discussed and analyzed aspect of this emerging story: the notion of sexual privacy and freedom.

It is highly unlikely, as others have noted, that CBC would dismiss Ghomeshi, a hugely popular and beloved show host, without significant deliberation and compelling evidence that his behaviour is, indeed “unbecoming” and, possibly, illegal. It is highly unlikely that they would risk the success of an eminent show and invite a tangly, high profile lawsuit based on being prudish or simply finding his bedroom practices unpalatable.

If you wouldn’t make the same argument to defend an accused consumer of child pornography – that what one does for sexual pleasure is private and not grounds for firing or legal recourse – then don’t make it here.

One of the most pervasive reactions I’ve encountered so far is the rush to condemn the employer, in this case CBC, for peeping into the proverbial bedroom and invading Ghomeshi’s private sexual life. I’ve read many takes on “what he does in his own home is his business” and “CBC has no place in the bedroom” as well as commentaries that masquerade as being sexually liberal and open-minded when really theyre overlooking the allegations of sexual violence that cannot and should not be lumped into part of that BDSM stuff.

This is not about discrimination against BDSM sexual practices. This is about women coming forward with allegations of sexual violence and non-consensual aggressive acts. I’m surprised by how many people are focusing solely on the salacious details of Ghomeshi’s sexual revelations, only to be distracted from the real issue here: the potential that sexual violence occurred. The titillation of learning about a celebrity’s sex life, of wrapping one’s head around what BDSM and, to quote Ghomeshi, “rough sex” means, is redirecting attention from the sexual violence that has been alleged.

It is important that this conversation doesn’t result in characterizing BDSM as deviant. That would be, frankly, untrue and certainly unfair to all the consenting adults who engage in BDSM or kink. For some, who equate rough sex and practices of dominance and submissions as inherently violent and deviant, they’re going to pass judgement on Ghomeshi’s admissions about his sexual preferences, and that’s too bad.

BDSM does not equal sexual violence, yet sexual violence and non-consensual practices can arise out of otherwise healthy, consensual BDSM practices.

I’m an ardent supporter of personal autonomy and sexual freedom. I don’t think anyone should be dismissed or have repercussions in their public / professional life because of their sexual tastes and practices, as long as those preferences are consensual and legal. As Ghomeshi stated in his post “sexual preferences are a human right.” 

I’m not condemning Ghomeshi. I’ve never met the man. I was neither a fan nor non-fan of ‘Q’ before all this. I don’t want a prominent Canadian radio personality to be a sexual aggressor. 

Just because we don’t know what “really” happened and may never know, and just because we don’t know who is telling the truth, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t analyze and discuss this scenario, and the frenzy of varied reactions that have resulted from it. Sexual violence, victim-blaming, and the very real reasons many women cannot come forward, least of all publically and online, are conversations that need to happen.

When discussing this let’s remember: the “unbecoming conduct” that CBC supposedly learned about isn’t Jian Ghomeshi’s participation in rough yet consensual sex; it is alleged sexual violence.

What happens in the bedroom is private – until it breaks the law or hurts or exploits a person.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Booties, Body Love Anthems, and Skinny Shaming: or, What We're Not Saying About Fat

Considering that a lot of pop music and pop music imagery (because, let’s face it, it’s pointless to analyze the songs without also looking at their videos) promote normative images of compulsory femininity and beauty, it’s refreshing to see the emergence of self-love and body positive jams. Especially when they make it to the mainstream.

 Sir Mix-a-Lot’s magnum opus, “Baby Got Back,” definitely makes me feel good about my “junk in the trunk” (à la Fergie) but I’m definitely more enthused when a woman pens an anthem about women’s bodies.

Since most of the music I consume is online, I usually listen to a new song while simultaneously watching the video. When I heard about a song called “All About That Bass” by, previously unknown (to me) Meghan Trainor, I went to watch the video.


I’ve had a lot of evolving reactions to this piece, and other subsequent body-focused songs by women, and I’ll walk you through them now.

First, of course, I’m wide-eyed dazzled by pastels and awesome hair bands. How could I not like this song? In terms of content, it’s promoting self-love and body positivity. In terms of music, its very catchy and fun to listen to. Still, some aspects of both the lyrics and the video bothered me. Why is the only ostensibly fat person in the video a man, when the song is all about women’s body image and self-love? And, of course, while Meghan Trainor isn’t super thin, I wouldn’t consider her “plus-sized” by any means. 

And whats up with no treble?If bass = booty, I can only deduce that treble = boobs. I mean, I know booties are super en vogue in the mainstream now (hint: You didnt bring booty back, it was never gone, read more here) but are breasts uncool now or something?

Also, there has to be a way to celebrate curves” (and other euphemisms were more comfortable with) without dissing those who are thin.

And finally, although this observation isn’t the focus of this blog post, the song is both heteronormative (typical for pop music but still bothersome) and suggests mens physical/sexual preferences as a justification for a womans bodily self-acceptance (Yeah, my mama she told me don't worry about your size/She says, Boys like a little more booty to hold at night).

This leads to my overarching issue with any such body anthems and how fat is constructed in culture generally: we are OK with body fat, as long as the fat is located in certain places and not others.

JLo's bootyliciousness, captured here.
A song that emphasizes a woman’s stomach fat would not be so palatable as those that focus on bums and booties. 

Jennifer Lopez can draw attention to the mesmerizing (I couldn’t look away) contours of her booty in her aptly named video “Booty” (because it isn’t so much of a song as a video with some accompanying music) but she’s still fit and toned as hell overall.

Due in large part to feminist media, we’ve come a long way with getting beyond weight. Images such as the one below highlight that a woman of any given numerical weight can look very different from another of the same weight. So maybe we’re smashing scales and ditching obsessing about BMI but, visually, we can’t deny that body image and self-love anthems come with limitations.

As Chloe writes for Feministing, even if Trainor’s “skinny bitches” line was a joke, it still poses problems for a song steeped in body acceptance. I largely agree with her analysis, so will quote it at length:
“Calling thin women bitches isn’t helpful, at all. Calling women with curves ‘real women’ isn’t productive, at all. So stop it. If every inch of you is perfect, curvy women with boom boom and junk, then every inch of the skinny girls is too. They just have fewer inches. Trainor has said that the ‘skinny bitches’ line is just a joke, and that she’s alluding to the fact that even a lot of ‘skinny bitches’ think they’re fat, but that merely assumes that being fat is, in fact, bad… which pretty much contradicts the entire message of the rest of the song.”

Of course, if we want to talk about the problematic valences of “skinny bitches,” move over Meghan, enter Nicki.

In theory, Minaj’s new song “Anaconda,” with its resounding chorus of “Fuck the skinny bitches” should make me feel great. I mean, I don’t know precisely where I fit into the taxonomy of women’s bodies, but I’m fairly certain I’m not “skinny.” So I should love “Anaconda” I guess. Maybe play it when I slow-strut down the street in tight pants.

No. By the time we reach that awkward lap dance with Drake and the deluge of lyrical skinny shaming I’m just deeply uncomfortable.

Do I appreciate what Minaj is doing? Yes. But as mentioned above, our obsession with fat has little to do with someone’s weight on the scale and everything to do with how that fat is distributed. 

Nicki Minaj may be stacked on top and have a gloriously large butt but her waist is small and her stomach is flat. Im not saying there isnt a degree of bravery in depicting yourself as "big" in the music industry, but anyone with eyes can deduce that Minaj has a body that is culturally celebrated rather than castigated.

Body parts are culturally loaded – fat in some places may be reviled while an ample ass is revered.

So let’s go back to “All About That Bass.” Basically, in the course of thinking through my issues with the song and its shortcomings, and discussing it with some friends over wine, I realized that I tend to hold songs that may show some sort of explicit effort to inspire positivity to a higher standard than others that simply do not. I mean, I think it’s a natural tendency that many share, but still, why should I slam Trainor’s song and video’s deficiencies when, still, it’s endeavouring to spread something good, something well meaning. 

I realize I don’t hold JLo’s “Booty” or Minaj’s “Anaconda” accountable in the same way for the limited scope of their, arguably somewhat, body positive concepts.

“All About That Bass” isn’t perfect by any means. Certainly neither is excluding the “skinny bitches” from the club in the name of celebrating large booties.

If you want lyrics that declare body positivity for fat in less socially exalted places, I’ll end off with Missy Elliott’s “Lose Control:

“I’ve got a cute face
Chubby waist
Thick legs in shape
Rump shakin' both ways
Make you do a double take”

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

There is No 'Face' of Depression

Like many people, I am deeply saddened that Robin Williams has died by suicide. Not because he was an amazing actor, whose movies I grew up watching, and whom I remember from so young an age that the name “Robin Williams” was synonymous with “movie star,” but because he was a person, a person whose depression was unbearable.

When people say they are surprised by Robin Williams' death, and to learn that he suffered with depression, I think to myself, “what did you think depression looked like?”

People who say “why would you be depressed if you’re rich?” or “why would you be depressed if you’re an academy award winning actor?” don’t understand depression.

And I can’t blame them; depression is really hard to understand.

This is the story I’ve been trying to tell for 15 years. That’s more than half of my life.

I have eight years of university education and am a “writer” and I can barely explain what depression is, how it affects me, or what it feels like. I’ve been reading self-help books since my tweens. I’ve voraciously consumed everything that might give me the tools and language to articulate the experience. And yet I still often find myself more able to respond to and ease the struggles of others than to take care of myself. I’ve often been the person people turn to when they’re struggling with something.

I can’t precisely articulate what depression is but I can tell you that “I have it.”

I’m not ashamed to tell you that I have depression, because I don’t think depression is shameful.

I was not bullied in high school. I always had friends and boyfriends. I had endless activities and opportunities to feel good about myself. I won many awards and competitions. I was student of the year when graduating junior high, high school, and at convocation for my undergraduate degree.

But still, I had depression. And I have it today.

I recently told someone who doesn’t know me that well (like, on a deep human being level) very casually that I have depression and anxiety. They seemed very surprised. I guess I don’t look like the face of depression. And most people dont expect it to be a casual revelation but, for me, that's step 1 of breaking down stigma.

Mental health advocates often make comparisons to the more straightforwardly “physical” ailments to help people understand mental illness. No one claims to not understand how cancer or diabetes might affect one’s life.

As such, I recently thought of a way to describe my depression that makes sense to my partner, a non-depression-haver. He does, however, have asthma.

I explained how just as sometimes his asthma is bad and very irritating, and sometimes it is barely noticeable and doesn’t bother him, he still “has” it regardless of the symptoms. The asthma hasn’t healed or disappeared just because he’s had a good month of minimal symptoms.

That’s what depression and anxiety are like for me. They aren’t gone just because my symptoms are minor and my treatments and coping mechanisms effective.  Over time, as I’ve gotten older, the intensity of my experience of these things has naturally subsided, which doesn’t happen for everyone, unfortunately. In fact, I’ve often wondered if it might be "harder" (if you can qualify and evaluate that sort of thing) to develop major depression in adulthood.

I can have days, weeks, months, of feeling nothing that is linked to anything beyond the regular everyday issues and upsets, but I know I still “have it.”

I’m more comfortable saying I have depression than I am depressed – the latter is too finite for me. Because, well, I’m not always “depressed.” Sometimes I rarely am. But I still have depression.

The outpouring of reaction pieces to Williams’ death was immediate and vast. I read as many articles as I could, but a few stand out.

This one by James Rhodes provides a powerful description of depression that resonated with me, as well as this observation: 

“When we misuse words like ‘depressed’ something insidious and destructive happens. They become part of our vernacular, their meaning is diluted, it becomes much harder to give weight and necessary attention to those who really are suffering from depression.”

This led to a virtual discussion with some friends, during the course of which I realized and stated that there is not one way to be depressed. If we see suicide as the ultimate expression of an inability to cope, that doesn’t mean many people, people for whom suicide may never be a consideration, aren’t depressed and hurting. There are many people who experience depression but may never really show its impact.

They might not miss work, or stop being “productive,” or lose friendships and relationships. They might, rather, push themselves to do and be more in order to cope. Their depression may never (or rarely) manifest itself in a way that resembles an inability to function.

There is a long continuum between “functioning” and “non-functioning” and there’s no clear consensus on what constitutes either state of being. I want people to realize that there is no definitive way to experience, and thus show, being depressed.

This article by Tom Clempson astutely observes that Williams died from depression, not suicide: 

“But, just as a Pulmonary Embolism is a fatal symptom of cancer, suicide is a fatal symptom of Depression. Depression is an illness, not a choice of lifestyle.”

Thích Nhat Hạnh talks of cradling your sadness and pain like you would a newborn baby. The idea behind this is to care for and be gentle to this part of yourself. You may sometimes hate the part of yourself that causes you to experience mental illness, but you should take care of it. You deserve to show yourself that compassion.

There is no one face of depression, but many. I am one of those faces.

“Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.” 
― Thích Nhat Hạnh

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

"Women Against Feminism" Really Need Feminism

I expect that this blog entry is likely preaching to the choir (odd reference for me as an atheist?) because I don’t anticipate that this scenario is currently happening:

Woman who believes she doesn’t need feminism: “Hmm, maybe I’m misinformed or am misunderstanding what feminism is. Maybe I’ll look for some helpful resources.”


“Oh! Now I realize what feminism’s all about and I’m in!” *thumbs up*

Yeah, probably not. Feminist blogs and magazines (including this column by Jessica Valenti) have extensively covered reaction to the imagined absence of a need for feminism in 2014 as seen in the very upsetting tumblr Women Against Feminism and other anti-feminist or “post-feminist” proclamations.

I expect that anyone reading this is well aware of my implied conviction in the need for feminism, as I’m undertaking a Master’s degree in gender studies, write a feminist blog and for a feminist online magazine, and, more importantly still, attempt to be a feminist activist in my daily life. Still, with so much attention lately on the problem of not only men’s rights activists, but fellow female-identified people disputing feminism as valid or useful or good, I thought now might be a good opportunity to explicitly decry those sentiments.

You all need feminism, even if you don’t realize it.

As a point of entry, I’ll respond to a few against feminismsentiments I’ve come across online.

“I don’t need feminism because I don’t hate men.”

How is this misconception even still kicking around the cyber gutter? It’s disconcerting to realize that anyone – any women – is conflating feminism and women’s rights with a hatred of men. I don’t hate men either. I love them. Especially men who are also feminists :)

“I don’t need feminism because my husband is my best friend and he treats me like a queen.”

BENEVOLENT SEXISM ALERT. OK, so feeling loved and revered is great but does he treat you like a person? I, as a woman person, like to feel loved and treated well by my male partner, but his respect of my personhood is much more important to me. Another poster on this tumblr said she doesnt need feminism because she likes to treated like a lady by a gentleman. Yes, and feminism will strip you of your coveted ladyhood!

And who cares about all those other women who are abused, raped, and murdered.
“I don’t need feminism because it’s just another trend.”

BAHA! Trends don’t span centuries, continents, and cultures. Feminism doesn’t hibernate and then flare up a decade later like bellbottom jeans.

“I don’t need feminism because I want my boys to grow up knowing what TRUE equality is.”

Yeeeeeah that would be feminism. Equality is kinda the whole point.

“I don’t need feminism because I am the sum of my deeds not just my body.”

And yet eons of patriarchy has often reduced you to your body and perceived biological difference and completely erased any interest in your deeds!

“I don’t need feminism because my husband and I respect each other. And I’m the breadwinner.”

And the work of feminists and women’s rights advocates has made it possible for you to work outside the home at all! Not to mention vote and be a citizen.

“I don’t need feminism because they reject femininity but try to feminize men, and demand equality but ask for special treatment.”

I can’t even. Ok, if I must: There is no correlation between feminism and rejecting femininity. Feminism isn’t about whether or not to wear pink and like flowers (which is, in itself, an asinine reading of what it means to be “feminine”). There is not one way to be feminine and redefining and challenging notions of how femininity and masculinity are constructed and reinforced is part of the point of feminism. 

Recognizing the rights of and valuing the needs of oppressed groups is not the same as special treatment. Groups and persons that have been historically and systemically denied rights (because of the privileges of non-oppressed groups and persons) deserve to have their needs addressed. Taking action to address gender stratification and make up for the unnatural (socially constituted) subjugation of women isn’t special treatment…ya fool.

I could go on but there are hundreds of these and it’s a bit painful. My main point is that many women, whether it be a celebrity who denies she’s a feminist or a woman who submits to such a tumblr, don’t seem to be making the connection between their perceived rights, freedoms, and lived experiences and the work that feminism has done. 

As women, we’ll never know what our lives would be like in an alternate universe had history proceeded similarly but had what we now know as “feminism” never arisen, never taken root, never had an impact. It is ignorant and naive that these women – the very persons that feminism aims to make recognized as equal persons deserving of respect and dignity – are so unaware of what feminism means and how it has served them. This isn’t my way of saying “feminism helped you, be grateful” – it’s not a debt repayment thing. Although, I do often feel quite privileged to have been born into this era of life on planet Earth as opposed to others.

Unlike men’s rights activism and the like, women against feminism disturb me on a deeper level. I’m used to (some) men being completely unable to recognize that feminism is not about, in and of itself, being divisive and pushing men down so we can “rise up” (and take over!) That’s utterly foolish. 

Still, I want to make a call to action to my fellow female identified persons and feminists to stop being afraid of being perceived as radical.

For years, my own feminism as an ideology was passionate but diplomatic to a flaw, so concerned about avoiding alienating others that I avoided confrontation, kept some criticisms to myself, and silently mused condescending critiques of the sexists I encountered but avoided engaging with. I can’t truthfully say I always speak my mind today (that would be a constant and unrelenting diatribe!) or that I don’t, almost daily, let something slide because I’ve decided it’s not worth my personal discomfort. 

Still, daily, although I live a life that enjoys several locations of unearned privilege, I recognize the faint odors of sexism, misogyny, and patriarchy around me.

Now, to conclude, I’m sending a big virtual bouquet to the local women with the St. John’s Status of Women Council who made their own, excellent tumblr about why they need feminism.

Feminism is not done.Its not outdated and its not finished. And if you or someone you know is ever having trouble with the definition of feminism, remember: