Thursday, April 24, 2014

This Thigh Gap Thing is Bonkers

Yes. Bonkers.

Nothing has (yet) more perfectly illustrated the arbitrariness of what becomes cherished, sexualized, and desired as The Thigh Gap.

Breasts have a long and complex history of connoting femininity, fertility, blah blah blah. Wide hips meant you could bear children. There are elements of normative femaleness and femininity that I recognize as socially-naturalized aspects, but at least I understand them.

I simply do not understand the desire for a thigh gap. It doesn’t seem to be exclusively about thinness because, theoretically, a very slim person may still have thighs that touch. It’s not simply about weight, or leg shape, or even thigh thickness. 

It’s about your thighs…not touching when your legs are together.

When you really unpack what it is, when you really get to the bottom line of the desire, it’s ridiculous.

And Im pretty pissed off about the fact that when I start typing thigh into Google, “thigh gap” comes up before thigh tattoos, thigh high socks, or even just THIGH. 

This new pursuit is not only leading women and girls to diet and exercise specifically in the name of attaining one, but it’s leading advertisers (and people using PhotoShop with their eyes closed) to retouch photos to create the look of a thigh gap.

I recognize that sometimes I get so caught up in my bubble of open minded, critical people and feminist discourse that I truly do forget what’s going on. I’m also 27, and (hopefully) past the prime age for self-loathing’s critical mass. 

It takes things like the emergence of the thigh gap phenomenon to remind me about the state of body image at large.

I had to read a lot of articles and watch some videos about this phenomenon to really believe there were girls and women that cared about this.

While I recognize that boys and men can – and often do – also have negative body image and self-esteem, I’ll be referring to women and girls in this essay because I’ve found no evidence that the desire for a thigh gap isn’t a female gendered issue.
Target PhotoShopped in a thigh gap...and failed.

I admit, I can’t imagine what being 15-years-old with Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram would have been like. I remember what it was like to be 15 and to hate my body, but the utter saturation of ways to communicate messages and ideas in the year 2014 is overwhelming. 

That statement isn’t coming from a place of media-blaming or wariness. I am very multimedia-positive. I love the media. Hell, in my city I am part of the mainstream, mass media.

And if you know me or have read some of my philosophy on body image and appearance, you may think I’m coming from a place of positive-body-image privilege. But unlike other kinds of privilege, I’m not sure that anyone is really born into an actively self-conscious positive body image.

Self-loathing is learned, and can be unlearned.

This is a real book.
So while I’m something of a positive body image activist now, trust me, I wasn’t just born into this mindset. My natural psychic state in my childhood and teen years wasn’t one of self-love. I had disordered eating at 15. I dieted and exercised myself down the 95 lbs (and I wasn’t just a light, not very developed teen at this point – I was well past puberty).

I remember looking in the mirror and thinking I would never be happy because of my acne. I remember, in grade seven, deliberately trying to stand on one side only of boys I liked because I was convinced I had a good side and a bad side of my face. I sucked in my cheeks and pursed my lips for every photo taken throughout junior high.

Even after $5,000 in orthodontic work, I wouldn’t smile with my teeth. Because even after my teeth were straightened, I still saw them in my head as ugly. I still rarely smile for photos with an open mouth.

I plucked my eyebrows into oblivion because I thought they were too thick, even though they were naturally quite thin and light. Now I pencil my brows in order to have the eyebrow shape and thickness I want.

The image searching for this blog was painful.
I do take issue with articles that criticize the thigh gap ideal as unhealthy or unachievable because I don’t like to condemn or shame any body of any proportion. Through nature or through effort, many women out there have thigh gaps. And that’s totally fine! I really don’t care about the circumference of anyone’s thighs, or their hip to waist ratio, or whether or not their thighs touch when they stand up straight.

My right thigh is an entire inch thicker around than my left thigh due to an overdeveloped quadriceps muscle from my years of soccer. It’s really not a big deal.

My point: just as “The Media” and Internet messaging and images can teach people to hate their bodies, the same media can show women and girls how to love their bodies. “The Media” doesn’t have to be a negative and destructive force bringing forth airbrushed images and “thinspiration.” 

The media can also heal.

I’ve been living with a female body for 27 years now and it’s taken a long time to really get comfortable inside it. And I am.

In fact, I’m about 30 lbs heavier than I was at 15 when I first decided I had to be thinner. So my positive body image and self-love hasn’t changed because my body has “improved”– my attitude has improved.

There are a lot of harmful images on the Internet. Make some positive ones. Here’s mine:

These are my thighs...TOUCHING!!!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

How I Learned to be a Girl Vol. 2: Or, My Parents Raised a Feminist

In my last post I talked about “learning” to be a girl. The way I phrased it suggests both that 1) gender is learned through socialization and that 2) an idea of what it means to be a girl exists externally from each female person’s individual experience – both of which I think are true. But I wanted to add some more ideas to this conversation.

I don’t mean that I learned to become what society expects girls to be, although in some ways I’m sure I am. I mean that there are many ways to experience girl-ness and woman-ness and I credit my parents with allowing me to discover what that meant and never trying to make me conform one way or the other. A lot of what we “know” about gender has been learned and, in trying to unlearn and relearn, I find it useful to think about childhood.

My favourite set was the DRAGON WAGON.
I told someone how I used to play a lot with Legos as a young child, especially medieval sets – castles, knights, weapons, and dragons. Recognizing prevailing stereotypes of kids’ toys, she said “but you knew you were playing with ‘boy’ toys, right?” 

I said no, I didn’t.

I was the first child and, having a brother six years younger than me, for a good chunk of time I was the only child. 

And I didn’t know anything about girls and boys toys. 

I just knew I hated lifelike baby dolls (you know, the ones with the eyes that close when you tip them back and open like a zombie waking up when you tip them forward). 

I tried them out a bit when I was very young, but mostly I fake smiled when I received these dolls as gifts. But does that mean I didn’t play with lots of “girls” toys? Not at all! I lived for My Little Ponies. I’m fairly certain my social worth was directly proportional to the number of Ponies I had at any given time.

A new Pony was like winning the lottery to me. While I look back on my childhood as having been flush with toys and amusements, I recognize now I didn’t have that much compared to some kids, and certainly not as much as I see kids having today. I got a lot of hand-me-down Ponies, Barbies, Legos, and other toys, and I cherished it all. And while you could get these fancy plastic Pony Palaces with multiple floors and bedrooms, I had something better. My dad built me a custom made, wooden Pony barn. It had stables, hooks to hang up their accessories; it was amazing.

After all, they were horses and it was just unrealistic to make them live in a palace. Even at seven years old I was a pragmatist.

I don’t ever remember being treated differently because I was a girl. My dad taught me how to kick a soccer ball (he had been a very competitive soccer player before a knee injury, and it gave him great pride to see me become adept at soccer), he taught me how to throw a ball, he taught me how to plant things and dig and be a gardener. My fondest memory of my father is going camping together around age six or seven and being delighted because I could wear the same dirty t-shirt for three days straight, eat Fruit Loops out of the box, and carve sticks with pocket knives.

But lots of girls I know had a lot of fluidity between gendered expectations and activities. I’d like to see it get easier for little boys to experience the same flexibility in play.

Our childhood doesn’t influence our adulthood in one fell swoop – one moment or action doesn’t completely dictate who we become. But each moment is a tiny rock in a great stone wall. There are lots of things that were not so great about my childhood, others that were objectively crappy.

I’m a first generation university graduate – my parents didn’t do gender studies and feminist analysis and figure out how to raise me. They didn’t try to artificially remove gender stereotypes and expectations and go to lengths to consciously create an open minded, gender-critical person. Since age 10, I was raised primarily by my mother. 

What they did, what she did, was more so the art of not doing.

I wasn’t ever really forced into anything. I didn’t have to wear the Brownie dress uniform, because I didn’t want to, so I didn’t. I was given the option to take piano lessons, even though we couldn’t really afford them, and I took them gratefully. I wasn’t told what religion to practice, or that I should or shouldn’t be religious, so I naturally came to atheism on my own (and at a notably young age).

I didn’t rebel much as a teen, because there was nothing to rebel against. I was given tonnes of freedom, personally, emotionally, socially, and spiritually.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I personally discovered feminism despite the fact that I, fortunately, have never felt discriminated against because of my sex or gender (although I may have been, and gender stratification is real and operating insidiously every day). I never felt I couldn’t do something because I was born female. I was never taught about different jobs for men versus women or anything about a woman’s "proper" role. And although I had no conception of it as a child and even into my teens, I was born with a lot of privilege, and in many ways I am very lucky.

Things like having freedom to choose whatever toys you wanted to play with is a teeny tiny aspect of learning gender. But it matters. Gender is taught to kids each and every day in seemingly innocuous ways.


A friend of mine is having a baby shower. I was delighted by the invitation:

And this piece of text:

The best Christmas I can remember is when I received a realistic, anatomically accurate collection of dinosaur figurines.

I don’t think my mother set out to raise a feminist. I’m glad she did.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

How I Learned to be a Girl: Thoughts on “Femininity” and Those Horrible Veet Ads

10-year-old me was humiliated when her mother insisted it was time to invest in a bra. There had been one too many bra-less soccer games, and her throes-of-puberty body could not be ignored any longer. She was deeply embarrassed by her body and her femininity. Ew, boobs!

If someone had told 10-year-old me she would someday love clothes, cosmetics, hairstyling, and many stereotypically female and feminine things, she wouldn’t have believed you.

10-year-old me wore baggy green painter’s pants and an old XL t-shirt with a Newfoundland dog on it. And so many tracksuits.

More importantly, 10-year-old me only wanted to play boy roles in make-believe. My friends and I had extensive and elaborate make-believe narratives and I liked to be the prince, the warrior, Simba, the monster – mostly male or masculinized characters.

As I’ve since come to understand, this had everything to do with the exciting, adventurous roles I saw boys and men portraying, and nothing to do with not liking being a girl.

I’m taken back to my childhood only because I’ve been thinking about how we learn what it means to be masculine or feminine.

                                            One day in junior high I went to sleep the girl on the left 
                                                               and woke up the girl on the right.

In my early 20s, I would often joke with one of my close friends about how I thought “like a man.” About how I found myself behaving “like a man,” approaching romance and sex “like a man.” For a pop culture example of this concept, I think of the Sex and the City Season 1 episode where Samantha suggests the women should learn to have sex like a man.

Rewatching this episode more recently, I find it much more problematic than I did a few years ago. I love the show, but it perpetuated a pretty stagnant and unilateral suggestion of men’s attitudes towards sex and relationships (which, I feel, the show later moves well beyond with several different, well developed male characters). Of course not all men approach sex the same way, as not all women do either. It was also a completely heteronormative attitude towards gender roles.

Then one day, several years ago, something switched in my brain and I no longer saw myself as a woman who had some masculine traits, but as a woman, a feminine woman, and these elements were part of my femininity.

I recognize and appreciate that I can’t undo the legacy of male and female stereotypes and norms just because I try to personally subvert them. It’s more complicated than that. And as my partner, the sociology graduate always reminds me, there are social realities that persist outside my philosophical ideals of undoing gender assumptions.

Still, I continue to imagine that femininity doesn’t have to mean one narrow set of expectations, nor does masculinity. And note I’m saying femininity and masculinity – not femaleness and maleness. I’m talking about the concepts attributed to members of either gender.

To borrow from something I wrote for a class recently: these signifiers – masculine and feminine – denote characteristics of the male and female sex/gender. And if lots of men love baking and babies then isn’t that masculine? If lots of women love video games and beer and weight lifting then isn’t that feminine? There’s a breakdown between traditional ways of denoting male and female identity/behaviour and how these identities and behaviours actually play out in reality, in the present, in any given culture.

I think many people will quickly get on board with accepting that women don’t have to wear dresses or make-up to be feminine, but where does society at large stand on body hair?

Just this week (April 7), Veet released – and has since pulled – a sexist and ridiculous advertisement with the tagline “Don’t Risk Dudeness,” depicting women with hairy legs as repellant to men (don’t even get me started on the implicit assumption that women’s reasons for shaving are rooted in heterosexual relationships, either).

Beyond the message that hairy women can’t possibly be feminine or appealing to men, the ad was outright belittling even in its execution of the “joke.” Unlike the “real” man, who is slim and conventionally attractive (and, notably, very hairless…), the dudely woman is meant to be read as an unattractive buffoon – very hairy, bearded, out of shape.  Another, related commercial, shows a woman transforming into the same hairy man when she goes to hail a cab and – the horror! – her underarm hair is visible. 

To their credit, the Veet marketing people have apologized and were receptive to feedback. I did note, however, that they used the we're women too and we thought it was funnyapproach to legitimize the perspective. Sorry, but sexism by women against women is still sexism.

There was a tonne of outraged backlash at these ads and the suggestion that women who don’t shave their legs or underarms – or haven’t shaved today – turn into men. But let’s take it a step further – what was it saying about women who never shave? Who couldn’t care less about shaving or waxing body hair and don’t participate in the socially sanctioned practice?

And if leg and underarm hair are constructed as aberrant, what about untouched sideburns and upper lip hair on women? Are these women actually men? Why is hair in some areas OK and other regions outlawed?

To reverse it, how come men who remove their body hair don’t turn into women? Lots of men shave their chests, underarms, pubic regions, even legs, for all kinds of reasons. The man depicted in the first ad is pretty smooth. Is the masculinity of these men called into question? Or is body hair removal a choice for men and an imperative for women?

How did such “natural” elements of the human body, such as body hair, get so twisted up in notions of what is means to be a woman or a man?