Thursday, May 29, 2014

Breasts of Burden: Wear a Bra, but Wear it Secretly

Today some students at a high school in this province were sent home for dress code violations. Reports indicate that one such violation included visible bra straps. I am not aware that any nipple, cleavage, or “underboob” was spied, but I am certain that bra straps were spotted. And bra straps indicate the presence and existence of bras.

Now, I understand that bras are mysterious garments and may be a little scary to the un-indoctrinated so I’ll defer to the great Frank Costanza for help explaining:

Frank: “You know about the cup sizes and all? …They have different cups.”
George: “Yeah, I know about the cups.”
Frank: “You got the A, B, C … the D. That's the biggest.”  

I’m not going to get into details about the high school or the news stories or speculating about what exactly transpired or whether or not there were other elements of these students’ outfits that were inappropriate or too revealing, if there is, or can be, such a barometer (the revealing clothing barometer!) That’s not as important to me as the conversation it should provoke about how girls’ and women’s bodies, and breasts particularly, are monitored, and the kind of messages young women receive about the appropriateness of the bodies they cannot help having.

I will note that of the approximately 30 students sent home, two were males who violated the code in different ways, so it wasn’t exclusively girls.

This is just the latest publicized example of young adults, particularly young women, having their bodies policed. There are many stories online about similar situations.

And just today, Scout Willis went topless in NYC to protest Instagrams ban on (female) nipples in photographs while using the hashtag #FreeTheNipple. The female breast is excessively sexualized, and certainly disproportionately to male chests and nipples.

So let us interrogate all the hoopla about breasts.

First of all, I sympathize with the task at hand for educators and school administrators. I respect that they want to foster and maintain an environment conducive for learning. I recognize that students do, indeed, need to put clothing on their bodies to attend high school. Even as a resister of excessive regulation of clothing, I recognize that there have to be some limits and parameters, as difficult as they are to define. Our current social acceptability model in North America says women’s nipples shalt never be seen and men’s are OK sometimes, but no nipples shall be seen in the classroom. That’s a norm I can accept. I’m not advocating for the complete abandonment of dress codes or norms for attire in different environments. 

This post isnt calling for the utter removal of dress codes, but I think its important that all people, especially people working with young adults such as in a school environment, defamiliarize themselves from the long accepted and unchallenged notion of womens bodies as needing to be hidden.

But the fact that, according to students, the school’s reasoning to the dress code-infringing girls included that their attire was distracting to male students and male teachers is deeply disturbing. Not only for its heteronormativity (which isn’t all that surprising), but for the mere suggestion that people, male or female – being distracted or aroused by a girl or woman’s body is her fault and her problem.

Rather than spend some time talking to students and young people about being comfortable with their bodies and also respecting other bodies by not ogling, let’s just remove the temptation – make it easier. It sure doesn’t give high school boys (again, heteronormative) much credit. And I don’t even know what to say about how it reflects on male teachers.

As a breast-having person, it’s not my responsibility to control whether or not you look.

This is my take on bras, broken down logically:
- I did not choose these breasts. I was born biologically female, continue to identify with that gender identity, and I have breasts. In fact, I’ve had them, in some noticeable form, since about Grade 5. And yes, I found it humiliating at the time. Because at that age, even if boys like the girls with boobs you still feel hypervisible and hyper-embarrassed about your body.

- High school girls are young women. Many of them may also have breasts.

- Women often wear bras to support these breasts. But bra-wearing is not just for support and (for many) comfort – they’re also about concealing. Bras conceal the size and shape of breasts and ensure the nipples are less or not visible through clothing.

- Bras require straps to work.

- Bra straps may become visible in the course of clothes-wearing (consider yourself warned).

- If bra straps, in and of themselves, are inappropriate, then are bras inappropriate? Should students – and women generally – forego bras?

Bras are not fashion, not an accessory – they are utilitarian garments that are useful and have purpose. If, ostensibly, going bra-less would also violate dress codes and social norms, then shouldn’t the wearing of bras be supported? Shouldn’t young women not be given the message that “your breasts as OK, but keep them a secret.”

Try juggling bras. Try it.
I also think it is important that written, easily available dress codes exist so that organizations have the difficult task of actually articulating what they envision as good and bad and why. Students at least deserve to know what’s expected before their bodies and appearances are policed. To their credit, this school does have a well documented and accessible dress code.

I’ve never read a nuanced and thoughtfully written dress code that actually states why any given item isn’t considered acceptable. I want to see dress codes that aren’t vague and euphemistic but will take the time to describe which areas of the body are off limits. “Revealing” isn’t descriptive enough to cut it for me. Revealing what? Some people find feet extremely sexy – should open toe sandals be banned too?

I realize that some body parts have a long legacy of sexualization but high schools – safe, supportive, learning environments – are not the place that girls should be sent the message that their simply having breasts is deviant or embarrassing.

It seems to me, that its OK for girls and women to have breasts and mandatory that they physically support and contain them in clothing, but NOT OK that you catch a glimpse of the apparatus through which that support and concealment is made possible.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

5 Sexist Words and Phrases I'm Banishing from my Vocabulary

Words matter. I spent seven years studying English literature and I really, really believe that. Interestingly, it’s my work in gender studies that has made me more palpably aware of how and why words matter. There are many ways to express the same sentiment and often it’s not your ideas that will enlighten and delight or outrage and offend so much as how you communicate them.

In everyday conversation, we all say things offhandedly that we don’t mean or wouldn’t want to communicate if we thought more about the implications of those words and phrases. I’ve started noticing some of these idioms and I’ve started to interrogate them. 

And I mean interrogate in the most dramatic sense of the word: I’m staring these words and phrases down and deciding whether or not they belong in my vocabulary and my life.

One of my internal tests is “is there an ‘opposite’ gender equivalent? If not, you’re gone!”

Here’s a few I’ve banished or am working on eradicating from my daily discourse:

1. “Be a man” or “man up”

There’s not one way to be a man and I’m sure I don’t know how to be one.  I am sure, however, that these expressions are thoroughly sexist and unfair to both men and women. Where is this Platonic ideal of manhood we’re comparing men to? These kind of phrases presuppose a normative definition of masculinity that is sexist and outdated. “Be a man” or “man up” are actually code for any combination of “don’t show weakness,” “don’t show emotion,” and “please uphold a narrow and normative definition of maleness based on machismo strength” or, “don’t be woman-like” (automatically raising all woman-ish qualities as inferior to man-ish ones and ultimately undesirable).

I’ve noticed, lately, some prostate cancer awareness commercials telling men to “man up” and go get checked. I appreciate that, statistically, perhaps men are less willing to go to the doctor for screenings than women, and particularly keen to avoid something so invasive. The intentions are good – encourage men to get checked and catch cancer early, and do it by appealing to men’s internalized notions of “being a man.” 

We don’t tell women, however, to “woman up” to go get screened for breast cancer or ovarian cancer. And I’m sorry – how does a man’s prostate exam require strength and manliness while my breast exam (being medically groped) or pap test is considered easy? Until ads tell me to “be a woman” or “woman up,” I’m not into the male version. 

This is less about pointing out that being a woman isn’t valued or exalted in the same way and more about pointing out how unfair and ridiculously sexist it is to reify traditional notions of masculinity, completely limiting and prescribing the range of acceptable behaviours for the male-identified.

2. “Rape” – used in any other context than sexual assault  

“The government is raping our resources.” “We’re going to get raped in the playoffs.”

Sadly, rape is used in all kind of contexts to describe violently taking something from someone else.  Now, the Oxford English Dictionary does list as the secondary definition of rape: “The wanton destruction or spoiling of a place: the rape of the countryside,” however, the prevailing cultural connotation of the word rape is unequivocally one of sexual assault of a person by another person. So talking about resources and lands getting raped is extremely insensitive. It lessens the meaning of a word that matters, because rape victims matter. Don’t throw the word rape around.

3. “Man-whore”

This commentary is skipping over all the reasons I don’t like the word “whore” (pssst I don’t like the word whore) and jumping right to all the problems with the term “man-whore.” First of all, don’t say man-whore – say whore, if you must. That dude is a _______. 

Why man-whore? Is “whore” one of few generics where woman is the default and the modifier man is needed when it’s a man? Mankind, spokesman, manning the fort – man, man, man. Yet when we come to the label whore, we can somehow assume it’s a woman, because promiscuity is historically intertwined with femaleness. 

So while man-whore may seem like a win for applying a derogatory word to both genders, it’s not. Linguistically, it only serves to reinforce women’s sexuality as deviant and shameful.

The same goes for “slut.” I’m as bothered by women calling other women sluts as I am by men saying it. Most of the time when people use the word slut they aren’t even referring to a woman's alleged sexual promiscuity; it’s her clothing, her demeanor – something entirely divorced from and irrelevant to her number of sexual partners. As though that’s up to you to police, anyway.

4. “Bitch”

When we call women bitches, we’re usually criticizing a few specific characteristics. Here are just a few that come to mind:
- assertiveness
- feistiness
- self-assuredness
- competitiveness
- no-nonsense, calling-you-on-your-bullshit-ness
- not-interested-in-you-ness

Yet, somehow, when we call men bitches we’re actually comparing them to women, yet in none of the aforementioned ways. Somehow, calling a man a bitch suggests that he is weak, small, afraid, effeminate, un-masculine. So, in essence, the term is doubly offensive to women.

I’m not advocating for “proper” derogatory terms – mean names are mean. But I’d rather be called a jerk or an ass than a bitch.

This term is the one I’m most self-conscious about. As those who know me know, I’ve never been much for name-calling rampages, but I have referred to people as bitchy or bitches. This is something I hope to never do again if I can help it.

5. “Grow some balls,” “grow a pair,” and “ballsy”

Do we say grow some ovaries? (Hey mom, grow some ovaries and tell me to my face!) No. And using “grow some balls” to women isn’t the solution. That isn’t gender equality. No matter who you say it to, the expression still holds balls – testicles, of all earthly things – up as a pinnacle of strength and fearlessness. No thanks. I may be all the things you infer when you say “ballsy” but I'll take another adjective.

Once you start defamiliarizing what we say and how we say it, our colloquial speech can leave a lot to be desired.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Why I Won’t be Taking Off My Feminist Spectacles: Gender Literacy

Gender norms operate sort of like gravity and other physical phenomena – they have exceptional power and force but most of the time you’re completely unaware of them and their perpetual impact. 

That is until you become, what I am calling, gender literate.
I picture my feminist spectacles to be outrageously fabulous.

There are many excellent terms and phrases to describe being able to see, read, and interpret the pervasive gender roles, norms, stereotypes, expectations, and assumptions around you. 

Feminism is one term I choose to use in relation to myself and what I do. But various feminisms have long and complex histories and legacies and not everyone is necessarily committed to this kind of work in theory or in practice.

While I think anyone who cares the slightest about human rights should be thoroughly engaged in women’s rights, I recognize and appreciate that not everyone, including many women, care about feminism, per se. It doesn’t matter that I think they should. 

But I think everyone, regardless of their academic or political engagement with capital ‘F’ Feminism, needs to learn gender literacy.

In feminist and gender studies, we talk a lot about seeing through feminist lenses or applying a feminist lens to an issue. I call those my feminist spectacles. 

Like many things, once you see you can’t un-see. Many feminists I know (and many I ‘know’ insofar as I read their work on the Internet) will joke about how feminism has ruined their ability to enjoy anything without analyzing the gender stereotypes and sexism at work. That being said, I think most of them truly are joking, because not-knowing is really not that appealing.

So what is my conception of gender literacy? Simply, it’s being able to read and critically interpret how gender operates in society. This includes but is not limited to seeing, recognizing, interpreting (and, hopefully, in many cases challenging):

- sexism
- oppositional sexism
- benevolent sexism
- cissexism
- cisgenderism
- heteronormativity
- heteropatriarchy
- homophobia
- biphobia
- transphobia

…pretty much any discourse that privileges and or normalizes one gender identity over another, one sexual behaviour (or “orientation”) over another, and certainly, discourses that normalize and naturalize disparities between men and women or the male-identified and female-identified.

Gender literacy, on the individual level, is the first step towards recognizing and ultimately rejecting inequality.

Gender literacy – as well as the ability to read and interpret other kinds of privilege and oppression – is crucial to denaturalizing assumptions and norms about males and females, boys and girls, cisgender and transgender people, straight and gay people.

Yet gender literacy is not taught in schools.
A bit of light reading.

Like the best kinds of learning, there is not a simple state of being in the dark and then being suddenly enlightened after reading one book or taking a course. The more I read and talk to people and begin to wear my feminist spectacles in daily life, the more I learn and the more I strengthen and refine this sense; maybe gender literacy is the real sixth sense.

The next step after beginning to notice the mysterious and sneaky ways gender norms operate in our society – as though they’re normal and natural – is to start challenging them.

I wrote a previous post about not tolerating intolerance (and unpacking all the challenges of that contradiction). This drive, I identify within myself, to shut down the gender illiterates in society is growing steadily. It becomes harder to say “oh, they don’t understand” or “they don’t mean it” or “they don’t know better.” Like when I, with a rapidity that was almost unconscious, told off a man who called the Newsroom where I work and asked to speak to a man when I couldn’t satisfactorily answer his sports question.

These people, to borrow from Kate Bornstein, are the Gender Defenders.

“The Gender Defender is someone who actively, or by knowing inaction, defends the status quo of the existing gender system, and thus perpetuates the violence of male privilege and all its social extensions. The gender defender, or gender terrorist, is someone for whom gender forms a cornerstone of their view of the world. Shake gender up for one of these folks, and you’re in for trouble” (“Gender Terror, Gender Rage,” The Transgender Studies Reader).

And what kind of fun can one have once they start reading gender? For one, you can call BULLSHIT on all kinds of silly gendering and sexism. In case you missed it, here’s a great project the Vagenda magazine launched with the help of their Twitter followers: rewriting ridiculously gendered headlines about women into fair, normal (and hilarious) headlines.

 Here’s an example.

There is nothing natural/normal about subjecting women’s bodies to more scrutiny than men’s.  Wear your feminist spectacles.

See sexism. Fight it.