Monday, January 27, 2014

Who Gives a Hoot? Not Necessarily Feminists (or I'm OK with Hooters and here's why)

So Hooters is coming to St. John’s. I still can’t picture it, probably because the whole branding has a tacky ‘80s feel that has become so mythologized, I came to doubt these restaurants actually existed. It appears they’re real – and they’re spectacular. *

* requisite Seinfeld nod

So, those ardent defenders of such an establishment often suggest it is The Feminists that will have a problem with Hooters. I find this puzzling, because there are many ways to participate in the project of feminism and many of them aren’t overly concerned about privileged North American women wearing tight tank tops and short shorts.
In other words, revealing one’s body does not necessarily correspond to degradation. In fact, it’s my belief that there is nothing inherently or universally degrading or belittling about showing the contours of one’s body.

Most (remember, I study trans issues) women have breasts, of some size or shape, and frankly I get pretty annoyed about having to pretend I don’t in most of my waking life. Are my nipples visible? Is this too much cleavage? Is the polka-dot pattern of my bra showing through? I grin and conceal it, but only because I get that most of society hasn’t caught up, yet, to the possibility that a women’s body, and being able to see its shape, does not have a direct correlation to A) self-worth and self-respect or B) “sluttiness” (I cringe to even use that word in print).

As for who wants to be a Hooters Girl, we have socially constructed a belief system that suggests that women who portray themselves thus are vacuous vessels succumbing to societal pressure to please men.

And if your resistance to Hooters has to do with the open solicitation of women employees who look a certain way and fit a certain socially prescribed model of beauty and sexiness, well, I agree it’s problematic and definitely brazen. But, on the other hand, Hooters is just openly admitting to and branding a restaurant / bar culture around a norm that is enforced by many other franchises and restaurants / bars, many of which will probably never admit to it.

Also, their website is really interesting and approaches or “handles” the branding in very fascinating ways.

Not to name names, but many bars and restaurants, yes, including here in NL, require or encourage a certain attire or even uniform (khaki short shorts anyone?) And while many bars and restaurants may not openly admit to seeking a certain look or body type in their hiring, who’s to say they aren’t enacting similar rigid standards based on a pre-defined standard of appearance and sex appeal? The same goes for clothing stores, in which, depending on the store, the sales associates are expected to buy and wear the clothes and thus double as models, promoting a brand and look while you shop.

As a feminist issue, I suppose it has to do with the gendered nature of those pretty faces serving you wings and beer – women. There is no “Hooters Boy” from what I can tell, and since I imagine you have to be legal drinking age to work in one of these places and serve alcohol, I’m guessing these Hooters Girls are really Hooters Women…which really doesn’t have the same ring to it. I also appreciate how, to many women, “girl” is an annoying diminutive term.

I really don't care about the requirement of "in your face" boobs. The questions I'm more concerned with are along the lines of: Does Hooters hire girls with short hair? Does Hooters hire open lesbians? Would Hooters hire a trans woman? On a less gendered topic, would Hooters hire a woman with piercings or tattoos? I want to know how deep the creation of a bizarro tacky-meets-wholesome image goes.

It’s all about context, isn’t it? Burlesque is a form of entertainment in which women are scantily clad and strip yet I’ve yet to hear an argument levelled about the lack of self-respect or disempowerment of burlesque artists. So, logically, can’t we imagine that Hooters Girls are there because they want to be? Because they want a job in the service industry and have, by choice or fluke, taken one at Hooters? That, hopefully, they feel good about themselves and their bodies while earning a pay cheque?

The counter argument would be one about the diverse body types that participate in burlesque as opposed to the rigidly defined “All American” icon required by Hooters, but I would also suggest that the handpicked few on their website do not and cannot possibly represent every Hooters Girl everywhere. I anticipate that there is actually more diversity of image among the employees than a glance at their website would suggest.

I also encourage you to imagine if a man, hired to work in a service / entertainment position because of his perceived attractiveness and sex appeal, would be similarly judged as lacking in substance and self-respect? HMMM???

So, now for the part of every blog post where I reiterate what I’m not saying:

- I’m not saying that there is no argument to be made against Hooters from a feminist or any standpoint. Frankly, I think Hooters is a silly and outdated brand concept (that is, perhaps, becoming so anachronistic that we’ll keep it in business based on nostalgia). The Internet allows you to look at the male or female body of your preference in an instant, so the novelty of eating generic sports bar food while being served by a woman in orange hot pants seems unnecessary.

- I’m not saying it’s “fair” or “right” that employees are hired based on fitting a narrow frame of heteronormative, male defined sex appeal – but this is a problem / reality / annoyance across the board and is not unique to Hooters by a long shot. The regimentation of acceptable bodies and “looks” is systemic and can be found in film, television, shopping malls, and magazines.

- I’m not saying there aren’t potentially damaging and generally pervy outcomes to being a Hooters Girl and thus being evaluated for your customer service and your appearance as part and parcel of your work.

What I am saying, is, there are many potential reasons to disagree with the establishment of a Hooters in St. John’s, but I implore those who assume all feminists take issue with it to recognize that feminists have many priorities and commitments, and keeping willing women from earning money while wearing a skimpy uniform isn’t necessarily one of them.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Girl Stuff / Boy Stuff: Survey of a Greeting Card Aisle

There are many weird and insidious ways in which we are taught gender norms. For all my self-aware criticism and reflection on gender performance and how these norms function, I still find myself wondering which of my preferences are authentic and which are a result of years of subconscious programming. Do I really love unicorns? Or did I just receive unicorn toys and posters as a little girl and come to believe that this was a genuine interest?

The tension between gender norms and gender analysis / activism affects me in this way: as most people who know me know, I am all about the atypical.  At times, you could even call me a contrarian. By no means a gender traditionalist, except, perhaps, in appearance, in that my appearance is typically female and “feminine,” it would not surprise most to know that:
- I never, ever plan to change my surname to that of my (potential future) husband’s (to use a Seinfeldian phrase, “not that there’s anything wrong with that” – and I mean that, I’m not judging, it’s just not for me).
- I believe in deciding on the surname of children, as opposed to assuming that they take the father’s.
- I love gender neutral / androgynous names, and feel inclined to name my future children as such.
- I don’t believe in girl colours and boy colours – I believe in colours, and they’ve at times come to be associated with different genders. 
Interestingly, it’s really only in infancy / childhood that anyone cares about and enforces this. Women can wear any and every colour, and it’s cool and fashionable for men to wear pink and purple. And yet somehow people don’t police what girl children wear as much – frilly dresses or corduroy overalls, pink and blue outfits, both made it onto my late ‘80s baby body. But boys don’t wear dresses…they just don’t. 

The photos of the above child are both me, but you could be convinced that the one on the left is a boy and the one on the right is a girl. But I was two-years-old, I had no real gender.

These ruminations on the contradictions of gendered children’s fashion is really just a segue for a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about: gendered greeting cards. I like to imagine that ALL greeting card writers are as sensitive and quirky as Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 500 Days of Summer, but since that’s unlikely, I accept that it’s an industry that appeals to certain mass assumptions about gender and gender relations.

For many people, understandably, the gesture of giving a greeting card can’t possibly be a reflection of all your beliefs on a certain cultural norm, but rather, it’s just a socially mandated custom. You have to get a card for a five-year-old girl: you grab a card from the little girl section, maybe even one that says “FOR FIVE-YEAR-OLDS,” to make it really easy, and who can blame you? When, eventually, I am a parent and have to buy cards for my kid’s friends’ birthdays, would I be tempted to show up to a five-year-old girl’s party with a Superman card? YES! In fact, I’ll probably do it, for badness. And depending on the parent, they may or may not even take note. But could I give a Barbie themed card to a little boy?
On a recent glance through a typical greeting card selection in a supermarket, I gave a second look to things that we all already know about how these products are displayed. You don’t have to be able to pick out the text to know, just know, which section is “for girls” and which is “for boys.” We are simply conditioned to read the codes, the codes of colour, content, and themes that situate one message and image as appropriate for a girl child and another as appropriate for a boy child.

I have mixed feelings about all of this. My immediate reaction, in keeping with my distaste for (what feels now, in 2014, to be arbitrary and silly) gender coding causes me to be annoyed by this stuff. Number one, at a certain age the cards aren’t even really for the kids, they’re for the parents. Do the kids care what the cards say? Number two, are the kids even going to be impacted one way or another by the gender coding of the card? Maybe. But it seems silly to be to continue to perpetuate mythical gender expectations onto children in a day and age when we are, as a society, largely aware and often even accepting of the fact that there are many options for boy and girl children to experience their gendered selves.

So what do I get from a randomly selected “girl” card?

I see:
- pink and purple
- cat in a throne and crown
- cake
- emphasis on princesses / queens (“a crown just for you!”)
- jewels and sparkles
- “little lady”
Note, this card is for a two-year-old, so they’re not reading any of this, anyway.

And what do I get from a randomly selected “boy” card?

I see:
- a pig
- the pig is in a labcoat and has a microscope (is science for boys? Are boys pigs?)
- the colour blue
- in the interior, the word “awesome” (as opposed to pretty, cute, or more typically girly compliments)
- the greeting doesn’t even throw in a “happy birthday little man” or something similar - just “awesome one.” Most of the “girl” cards I looked at had a more direct reference to the recipient of the greeting AS FEMALE.

Interestingly, except for the fact that this card is listed as FOR BOYS, I get nothing gendered from it, except the absence of overt female gendering.

An overview of this particular stores boy section shows me Disney Pixar Cars, dogs, Spiderman, Thor (and other Avengers), and Star Wars.

An overview of this particular girl section shows me Disney princesses, teddy bears, cars, Minnie Mouse, Happy Feet* (…), and Justin Bieber.

*Mumble, the protagonist from Happy Feet, is a boy.

So, am I criticizing little girls liking pink and ponies? Not at all. You never saw a kid prouder than me lining up my My Little Ponies. But I would then switch to my medieval Lego sets and capture dragons with Lego knights on Lego horses. It’s not about traditionally female gendered toys or norms being inherently negative, because they’re not. As a 26-year-old adult, I love pink, flowers, ponies, lace - many girly” things. My problem is the socially enforced mandating of what constitutes boy and girl, male and female interests and thus behaviour. My problem is any parent teaching their child that theres toys for boys and toys for girls, and those toys are different.

I plan to have children, and I plan to let them play with normatively gendered toys, but I will never let them assume that to do otherwise would be abnormal.

It may seem trivial, but a greeting card store / aisle is really a fascinating and disturbing microcosm of the messages we write about ourselves as gendered beings, especially how we control how our littlest gendered beings – children – understand themselves and others in a gendered world.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The No Woman's Land Between Fat and Thin Shaming

New words and concepts are being coined all the time. 2013 was the year of “selfie.” I can barely remember a time before “Google” was a verb. Well some such coinages that have entered our linguistic imagination in recent years are “fat shaming” and “thin shaming” and, subsequently, “thin privilege” (I haven’t really heard “fat privilege,” but logically this term could exist). I’ve read great articles and blogs about fat shaming, and consequently taking on the problem of thin shaming, as two sides of the same coin. The problem here is body shaming, of any sort, and the fact that every body carries some kind of privilege.

I’ve read about “larger” or “heavier” women owning their social status as such and celebrating their bodies, and I’ve read about “naturally” slim (or effort-fully slim) women proposing their validity as equally representing the so-called and greatly exalted Real Woman, and in the end this struggle just creates an impossible dichotomy between two, often subjective, extremes.
Another problem, as I see it, is that no matter how you socially and critically present your body to the world, others will judge and evaluate the sincerity of your position. In other words, the “fat” person who says “I love my body just the way it is,” is often judged, by others, as having developed a positive attitude as a form of coping, as having accepted their lack of success in losing weight or obtaining a different shape, and thus their seemingly healthy body image is viewed as a form of posturing. And less frequently, but still possibly, is the thin woman who we judge as celebrating her figure only because she has been divinely deprived of “curves” and has no choice but to accept her shape. Why is it so hard for a woman to convince other women THAT SHE ACTUALLY LIKES HER BODY AS IT IS? Why are we - men and women - skeptical of other men and women's claims of satisfaction?

No matter how much we talk about fat shaming and thin shaming, being fat is still vilified and thin shaming is seen as existing only as a form of rebuttal.

And no matter how much we applaud celebrities, such as Jennifer Lawrence, who tell people who tell her to lose weight where to go, there is still a prevailing ideological preference for slimness. While physical preferences and ideals of beauty and sexiness evolve over time, and change in relation to the popularity of celebrities and other figures who represent different body types, I sense that confidence and self-love in the so-called “plus sized” woman continues to be judged as a form of reluctantly accepting that which one cannot change.

I come to this hot topic as a woman, with a body, who feels ultimately in between and exposed to potential attack from either side. One person who reads this may think “how can Zaren think she’s in between – she’s fat!” while another may think “I can’t believe she doesn’t consider herself slim, she’s so small!” but the point is, I am both and neither, and it doesn’t matter which one I really am. My self-image is one of a woman, who has a body, a body that is small and slim from one perspective, and fat from another’s (or “voluptuous,” if you will). I come to this topic as a woman who wears short spandex shorts to the gym (when I infrequently go) and don’t care if you notice that I have cellulite. I also recognize that, to some readers, you may consider me to have enough slim-privilege to wear spandex and go to the gym, at all.

I come to this topic as a woman who cares about her body and her physical appearance, but is not obsessed with it – in terms of having the perfect figure, or in terms of chastising myself for every Cheezie consumed. And that’s my point – body obsession is often viewed as the privilege of the slim, healthy, and active, and thus my denigration of “obsession” suggests I’m ridiculing those who are serious about weight management and fitness. Not at all. I’m saying it may not be psychologically healthy to be obsessed with your own body, regardless of how it looks.

My point, is that if you can build your character towards a goal of true self-acceptance, it ceases to matter which category you belong to, or who evaluates you as belonging to one category or the other. There are objective benefits to exercising and eating healthily, but there are also objective detriments to fostering an attitude of shame and low self-esteem.

And how does this apply in my every day (non-Gender Studies classroom) life? Well, for one thing, I’ve endeavoured to “opt out” of self-denigration and collective body ridicule. I have days where I wish I could corral my thick (and quite, almost awkwardly, muscular) legs into certain pants, or when I feel a twinge of self-loathing that I succumbed to my latest tater craving, but I’ll rarely share it. And this certainly isn’t because I’m a secretive, private person, because I’m not. It’s because I’ve found little to no relief or catharsis through telling another woman that I hate my body. I feel like we've all been programmed to believe that self-loathing is the norm, and self-acceptance is aberrant. Thus, we're reluctant to admit, you know what, I'm happy with what I've got.

While we may mythologize this practice as a female-bonding ritual, part of our psycho-social group behaviour, I find it destructive and unnecessary. Because while I complain about my sometimes unruly and frustrating body, I don’t know that the conversation isn’t causing you to feel worse about yours.

So women – opt out of shaming others about their bodies, and then opt out of shaming your own.