My Body is Not a Moral Issue

I know this thing is extremely long, but I don’t want to put anything behind a cut, because I kinda like the damn thing. Semi-sincere apologies for that. 

I was once talking to a guy I didn’t know very well who was in the process of getting over some serious illnesses. I commented that he was looking ‘good’ – meaning ‘healthier’, ‘stronger’, etc. He was the kind of guy who is not comfortable with the kind of vulnerability and humility that comes with accepting a genuine, heartfelt (albeit extremely simple) compliment like that, so his immediate response was to tell me that I was looking good – meaning ‘hot’, with an accompanying leer. I attempted to deflect/move past the gross feeling with a simple ‘thank you’. He put his hand on my elbow, paused dramatically and said “No – thank you“.

Simple incident, but the ick factor on that one has stuck with me, partially because it comes along with a sense of indignation that he would thank me for looking a certain way, as though of course my appearance is a favour I give to the men I encounter.

Was he conscious of that? Of course not. Was he trying to assert power over me more than anything else? Obviously. But in this case, his attempt to do so contained an explicit version of the near-constant message that women’s bodies are subject to scrutiny in a way that makes looking conventionally attractive a moral virtue. Shapely Prose and many of the other “fat acceptance” blogs say this over and over and over. To wit, the new addition to the Comment Policy includes a quote from hypothetical Skinny Person A:

I really respect what you’re doing here, because people comment on my body and my eating habits all the time, and they assume I’m unhealthy just because of my weight. I don’t know what it’s like to be fat in this society, but I know what it’s like to have my body treated as public property and be judged negatively because of my size.

(emphasis mine). The rhetoric around food and fat-themed body commentary is, of course, that people are only concerned for our health. Shapely Prose is generally fantastic about emphasizing the serious flaws in the science used to back up the ‘obesity epidemic’ health care crisis, as well as the disingenuous way that this health-based altruism somehow only ever seems to show up with respect to women who don’t fit the standard mold.

Fat is not a moral issue, even if we (read: marketers) talk about chocolate as “sinful” and the cultural standard dialogue around women and food inevitably involves a quick round of “oh-I-shouldn’t” and “I’ll just have to cut back at dinner” prior to just shutting up and eating already. The way we talk about getting enough exercise and having a healthy diet does not emphasize the possible benefits of increased energy, mental health and ability to sleep – instead, we talk as though even God will love you more if you do these things, so go right ahead and take that holier-than-thou self-satisfied tone as you lecture someone about cutting carbs. You’re doing it because you’re a Better Person, and somewhere, somehow, there’s a high-falutin’ moral explanation for how that’s the case. Nobody ever bothers to suggest that it might just be plain, simple, totally natural selfish self-interest, whether that interest is based on a healthy desire to feel better and have more energy or social pressure to look better and conform.

My mother identifies a weight range with maybe 5-10 pounds of leeway on either side of “target weight” in which she will tell me I’m “healthy”. Above that, I’m too fat, below that I’m too thin. Every time I visit, she comments. Too fat. Too skinny. Just right – stay right there, don’t move. If I object to what she says, an argument ensues – she’s only worried about my health, and if I’m not concerned about the way I look, it must be because I have no self-respect and don’t even want to try to be a better person.

No. It’s not. Because see, my body is neither public property nor even, really, a personal, private moral issue. My body is pretty much just the interface my brain uses to interact with the world. I’m not doing the boys a favour if it looks good enough and I’m not letting them down if it doesn’t. Nor am I betraying my commitment to God, my family and my mother country if I’m not skinny and “healthy”.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject, I’m also not betraying my feminist moral principles by wearing a low-cut top, having sex when, with whom and in what manner I feel like, or, in fact, by being a young, skinny, conventionally attractive straight woman. What I do with my body is a moral issue only if I am using it to hurt other people, in which case we’re back to that interface thing again. Dressing in a way that gets me that “thank you“? Not a sign of my weakness in capitulation to patriarchal norms or willingness to conform any more than it’s a generous favour I’m doing for the men in question. The number of dates after which I will have sex with a new partner, if at all? Also not a moral issue. Whether or not I like role play, traditionally female submissive sex roles, bondage, whatever? Not a moral issue and none of your goddamn business until we get to the number of dates after which I’ll consider having sex with you. The fact that I, personally, tend to only like sex with men, rather than women? Ditto. If I pretty much figure that I never want to have sex or be in a relationship at all, ever again, because the complicated interrelations with other people are just not worth it? Nope, not that, either.

What I’m talking about here is not hypothetical. So much rhetoric goes into asking whether it’s possible to be a feminist who likes a certain kind of sex – right down to whether it’s really okay for a feminist to like het sex, or whether she’s inevitably being coerced by the strong invisible arm of the patriarchy literally every time she has it at all (the people who say these things probably won’t believe me, and I won’t be the first to say it, but let me just be totally clear when I emphasize that I’m not).  While the general public is out there sending me messages about how my body is a moral issue on one side of the equation – must look good enough, must please the boys, must make Mom assume I’m ‘healthy’, even if I’m not – many feminists in here are writing theoretical pieces on what it’s okay to like, how it’s okay to dress, what it’s okay to be in my body.

My body, last I checked, is not theoretical. My body is used against me by people who want to ‘keep me in my place’ and it will be whether it’s a conventionally attractive body for which I’m being thanked or I end up wrinkly, fat and hairy two years from now. It’s also appropriated as a topic of discourse – what it looks like, what I do with it – among people who see their own bodies being used against them for political purposes and want to use those bodies to make different political points.

My body is not a political point.

Using my body to do stuff, whatever that stuff may be, is not about being “empowerful”. It’s just about being me, interacting, interfacing. It’s about the stuff that I’m doing. The reason that watered down Spice Girls faux-feminism is problematic, to me, is because that kind of “empowerment” still accepts that it’s okay to make my body into a moral issue and political statement. And the reason transphobic, lesbian separatist feminism is problematic, to me, is the exact same one. You’re still working out your arguments using, literally and figuratively, other women’s bodies, including mine.

Memo from me: My body, in and of itself, is not a moral issue. No matter who you are, I kindly ask that you please stop treating it as such.

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What Privilege Really Looks Like (Plus: Purposeful Subversion Means Playing in the Box)

My titles are just getting longer and longer.

There’s been tons of discussion on transphobia by feminists/radfems around the blogosphere recently. There’s a thread over at Feministe from a couple of weeks ago, filled with everything from awesomeness to throw-hands-up-in-hopeless-despair, and certainly a few things in between. This comment by miss sophie, exemplifies a lot of the extremely problematic “in between”:

There’s a part of me that as a person wh doesn’t really feel like they have a gender apart from the one society imposes on me and as a feminist is uncomfortable with how much many transwomen don’t just seem to be using socieities gender norms to provide cues to society but appear to wholly buy into them. But I do understand that this just my perception as non-trans and hey we are all operating within a flawed system.

This is not all that different from a post on the F-Word (UK) that a lot of people have been referencing, in which Laura Wodehouse quotes an article by a transwoman who said

people who are not transsexual and who have only ever experienced their subconscious and physical sexes as being aligned

Laura’s immediate response is to say

I have never experienced this. I have never consciously or subconciously perceived myself as a woman. I just am (I just exist).

It strikes me as exceptionally obtuse to put those sentences next to one another. “It’s not that I’ve only ever experienced by sense of self and physical self as being aligned. It’s just that I’ve always been aligned”. My working definition for “privilege” is “The ability to be unaware of a certain feature of your self for any period of time”, meaning essentially belonging to the semantically/socially “unmarked” category on any feature. As I’ve said before, the world does not regularly remind me that I’m white, straight, cis, and I can go through a day without remembering those aspects of myself unless I choose to do so.

The idea of being ‘cissexual’ – and the resistance to the terminology, the statements by some that it is not okay for others, you, the colonizing oppressive force, to name us – drives this point home. People can, with absolute authenticity, deny the existence of this category because they’ve never had to recognize that it exists. When other people tell them that’s a privilege – because these others have had to recognize that it exists, what with being conscious of belonging to the “marked” category – they continue to deny the existence of the category based on never having to recognize it exists at the same time as acknowledging that apparently the opposite experience is real for others, but there couldn’t possibly be any privilege in having remained blissfully ignorant of something all one’s life.

The aforementioned miss sophie, later in the same thread also said:

I do call people out on this kind of thing [playing up to gender expections] all the time, from boycotting tv shows, talking about my beliefs, to purposefully subverting my gender presentation to challenge peoples conceptions about this etc etc so it’s not something I only do to trans people

So in our “flawed system”, she’s extremely conscious of gender expectations and of how she’s supposed to work within them. She is also conscious of the ways she doesn’t mesh with the expectations and of the existence of a binary that she finds problematic because it creates a system that lines up features and assigns them only to one pole or the other. What is completely missing from that comment is any apparent awareness that “purposefully subverting” gender expectations simply for the sake of doing so (I don’t mean to sound uncharitable, but it sounds an awful lot like a teenage rebellion kind of “do exactly the opposite of what I’m being told I should” mentality) is giving power to those expectations. Analogously: rejecting the rigidly defined notion of what makes a “good girl” (ie. the virgin half of ye olde dichotomy) by going out and self-consciously, publicly and aggressively asserting yourself as the “bad girl” in order to prove that dammit, it’s okay to be “bad” means that you’re still operating within the good/bad dichotomy. Taking on new roles in the same box means you’re keeping the same goddamn box.

This is fundamentally different from behaving or constructing your appearance in a way that brings you a sense of harmony. To get all hokey spiritual on you for a sec, I don’t really think there is anything deeper to search for than harmony and unity – in self, in creation, with God. At various points in my life, I’ve tried to make myself into the “perfect” version of who it was I thought I was supposed to be, while at others I’ve completely given up, gone radically in the other direction and essentially said “fuck it, and you, all”. Neither made me happy, neither made me whole, neither brought me peace, and needless to say, neither really did anybody around me much good either.

Extrapolate relevant conclusions as possible.

I *Knew* I Should Have Gone for Easter Lilies

Natalia Antonova has performed for us the truly arduous task of wading through misogyny in Russian just so we can all appreciate this brilliant piece of analysis highlighting one of the many, many problems with celebrating International Women’s Day:

Women are given flowers, and the givers know well that a flower is a plant’s genital organ, opening up to be fertilized. A flower is a symbol of tempting lust. This is actually why having little flowers on your balconies is a sin, an innocent-seeming bouquet is an honest symbol of orgiastic sin, of group sex, and any interest or delight one might take in flowers is therefore sinful.

Seriously, the givers all know this? Why was I not let in on the fact that I’ve actually, unwittingly been enabling an orgy every time I’ve accepted flowers as a gift? This certainly explains the way my mind keeps drifting onto the fact that my apartment has been depressingly barren of flora lately…I mean, sure, if I had known this earlier, I would have had to cast all those auspicious, flower-carrying suitors from my stoop with an appropriately godly “Back, creature of Satan!”, but I’m sure it would have been okay if I’d kept the flowers themselves, right?

All I’m saying is I’ve been missing out on a *lot* of orgies that have apparently been going on all over my kitchen table over the years. And I don’t think that’s very fair.  At least this explains why women are naturally so inclined to garden – it seemed like it was a good, gender essentialist thing to do, when in reality, it was foreplay.

Almost Like the Borders are Not Where We Think They Are At All

Via matttbastard, I discovered “Hidden from History”, exposing the too frequently ignored/denied story of the genocide of indigenous peoples in Canada, and it’s fucking frighteningly recent components. Full length documentary included via google video – I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet, but I hope to shortly. During the same tour of my feedreader, via Ampersand, I come across this essay on the bullshit that’s being doled out re: Barack Obama’s affiliation with an “angry black preacher man”. Choice quotes:

What Jeremiah Wright knows, and told his flock–though make no mistake, they already knew it–is that 9/11 was neither the first, nor worst act of terrorism on American soil. The history of this nation for folks of color, was for generations, nothing less than an intergenerational hate crime, one in which 9/11s were woven into the fabric of everyday life: hundreds of thousands of the enslaved who died from the conditions of their bondage; thousands more who were lynched (as many as 10,000 in the first few years after the Civil War, according to testimony in the Congressional Record at the time); millions of indigenous persons wiped off the face of the Earth. No, to some, the horror of 9/11 was not new. To some it was not on that day that “everything changed.” To some, everything changed four hundred years ago, when that first ship landed at what would become Jamestown. To some, everything changed when their ancestors were forced into the hulls of slave ships at Goree Island and brought to a strange land as chattel. To some, everything changed when they were run out of Northern Mexico, only to watch it become the Southwest United States, thanks to a war of annihilation initiated by the U.S. government. To some, being on the receiving end of terrorism has been a way of life. Until recently it was absolutely normal in fact.

But white folks have a hard time hearing these simple truths. We find it almost impossible to listen to an alternative version of reality. Indeed, what seems to bother white people more than anything, whether in the recent episode, or at any other time, is being confronted with the recognition that black people do not, by and large, see the world like we do; that black people, by and large, do not view America as white people view it. We are, in fact, shocked that this should be so, having come to believe, apparently, that the falsehoods to which we cling like a kidney patient clings to a dialysis machine, are equally shared by our darker-skinned compatriots.

Country names, specific historical references and current event anecdotes interchangeable. It’s a great essay, but it should be a simple concept – my country is not the country that exists for First Nations people, or other POC. What I learned in history class is not their history. Why anybody finds it shocking to figure that out is beyond me.

Gender Essentialism from All Sides

This is a very long essay that I’ve written mainly for the purpose of connecting dots in my own head, so it goes from some broad “Feminism 101” analysis to a more specific point about the theoretical treatment of gender essentialism within (some) radical feminist circles. I don’t think it really has a target audience, as such, except for, you know, me.

One of the standard tropes employed when creating a strawfeminist is to imply that she thinks men and women are exactly the same. Bonus points to be added based on the number of times the author describes him/herself as a countercultural rebel braving unfriendly waters by merely suggesting that there are any differences at all, and holds him/herself as someone who just wants truth and science to win out over all this political rhetoric.

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How Did You Know?

I say this a lot, but it bears repeating – as cynical as I may appear, I can still be incredibly naive and optimistic about people. I’ve come to actually be proud of that, because it’s not a naiveté borne out of not having bothered to live or open my eyes, and certainly not one borne out of having been sheltered or lucky (though I know that, in many ways, I am).

Sometimes, my illusions get shattered, in small ways as well as big ones.

Relatively speaking, I’m extremely open with people about my experiences of rape. I don’t generally go into detail, but I often reveal that I’ve been raped and revictimized several times, by different individuals, all of whom were known to me. I was talking to a woman yesterday who I’ve known for about six months, and I alluded again to those experiences (unemotionally, just as a statement of fact in contextually understanding other things that had happened to me and the timelines of my autobiography).

She interjected to say “I can’t believe you’ve been raped so many times.” I sort of shrugged and nodded. She said “And they were all strangers?” I responded “Oh no, all of them were acquaintances, people I trusted at least on a basic level.” And then she asked my illusion-shattering question “But…if you knew them, how did you know it was rape?”

I stayed calm and think I actually managed to avoid showing just how shocked I was to be asked this question by a 29 year old, intelligent, well-educated woman (she just graduated from teacher’s college, so she’s going to be passing that education along to the next generation shortly), but I shattered some illusions back with some gentle force.

(trigger warning behind the cut)

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Seriously, When Did This Become Revolutionary?

Amanda at Pandagon has a post entitled “We have nothing to lose…” that reads, in its entirety:

By letting sex workers have a voice in the feminist movement. Surely we can disagree on the best practices for reducing the male abuse of sex workers without excluding people from the movement? I have to register my disapproval of the exclusion of sex workers from the International Women’s Day March in London.

Thoughts?

My thoughts: gee, you think? Notes came up in comments about the specifics of that situation (ie. whether we were talking about “exclusion” or simply “not being invited”) and whatever–I don’t think that’s the important point.

Hmm…you know, now that I think about it, maybe it isn’t a good idea to categorically exclude people from ‘the movement’, even if we don’t really agree on everything. I mean, it’s not like they can really hurt us, can they? Yeah, there’s a thought…maybe I should ask some of the other board members, though, because I’m not really sure.

No, seriously, when did this become such an earth-shattering thought that it can be said with this tone of “aren’t I being gracious?”, not to mention the tentative “I might be wrong here, but…” question at the end of it.

Newsflash: “We” — and by ‘we’ I mean the whole fucking human race–have plenty to gain by stopping to listen to voices that have practically always been marginalized. The way power works, and the way power has always worked, has been to silence and marginalize and limit and remove sanction from certain voices that weren’t coming from the “right” kind of people. And the way power can be maintained while presenting the appearance of graciousness is to dole out little tidbits of sanction toward those voices, providing tiny spaces where it becomes okay for those people to say their bit–as long as they’re not hurting anyone, really.

To listen to someone sit back and congratulate themselves for having this fucking revolutionary idea to not silence people categorically while publicly acknowledging the belief, however tacitly, that there is some kind of “we” who have their hands wrapped around the reins of the movement and who get to bestow speaking rights to others and on topics as it suits them literally makes me feel sick to my stomach.