A New Perspective on Bodies

By Ruth Ankers

‘You need to step away from the mirror every once in a while and look for another reflection. Like the one in the eyes of the people who love you and admire you’[1]

Stacy London’s got it right.

There have been countless articles, books and ideas created around discussions of body image and body shaming. They often conclude that we should love our bodies no matter what.

Don’t lose interest yet, this is not another one of those articles.

I’m not here to tell you to feel better by eating a bag of kale, nor am I going to assure you that “big is better”.

In fact, I think on the whole that both these types of expressions miss the point.

So what is the point?

If you ask me, addressing our bodies shouldn’t be limited to “celebrating” our different sizes and shapes. The conversation has the potential to extend in focus to consider our obsessions with the body.

I’m sure you’re ready and armed with your “healthy body healthy mind” shotgun, and yes, that would be a valid shot. But, I’m not suggesting that eating well doesn’t have a positive impact on your state of mind. However, an obsessive mind is not a healthy mind, and we need to be careful where we draw the lines.

This is a particularly pressing conversation, as millennial women are labelled by their seniors as the most ‘self-obsessed’ of any generations that have come before.

It would be pointless to open up a debate about the types of food which are right and wrong to eat. I’m not a nutritionist, although I am a good cook. I cook healthy food, I eat healthy food … and I eat cheese, bread and pasta and all the things which make my mouth water.

This article isn’t about food, exercise or diet plans. It’s about perspective.

Can we take the heat off ourselves, please? Can we eat and be healthy and well without having to plaster it all over the internet. Social media can be more dangerous than we often notice. When we jump on the public body bandwagon, we push our obsession with bodies to the forefront, keeping them in the spotlight. A spotlight which could be shifted and distributed to different issues.

I’m not suggesting you should abandon your relationship with your body. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t love and enjoy your partner’s body. After all, we are all beautiful, and deserve to be admired. But is it possible to have a time out?

Is all the chatter around bodies getting a bit much?

Stacy London thinks we should spend more time looking into the eyes of the people we love, instead of at our reflection. I agree. We need to make sure, going forward, that we save looking at our own bodies (or other bodies on the internet) and use this time to look more into the eyes of people we care about.

That’s how we find “body confidence”, no matter what shape or size you are. We can always find beauty by looking at someone we love, and recognising that they see you – your soul, your views, your experiences and your kindness. Not your jean size.

[1] http://www.thehumangathering.com/stacylondon/

About The Author

IMG_20170907_103552_343

Ruth Ankers is a Drama and Applied Theatre Practitioner and Teacher. She favours writing poetry and short plays. Ruth is a firm believer in equality of gender and is really exited to be writing for Gender + the City!

Illustration by Laura Callaghan
http://www.lauracallaghanillustration.com/
@lauracallaghanillustration

Work culture, coercion, compliance: Thoughts in the wake of Harvey Weinstein

By Tara Diaz

In light of the recent allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein, one of the biggest questions people are asking is, why did it go on for so long?

The truth is there is no single answer, but something came to me last night as I tried to force myself to sleep: What if our work dynamic is playing a small but relevant part in all this, a work dynamic that is not only anti-women, but in fact anti-people? How does work affect our well-being and why are employers getting away with such destructive behaviour? Have we created a work culture and mindset that discourages people – but women in particular – from speaking up, a mindset that purposefully belittles those who haven’t been dealt the best hand?

For over thirty years, Harvey Weinstein has coerced women who have been victims of his abhorrent behaviour while working for/with him into remaining quiet, and it all supposedly happened right under the noses of those closest to him (celebrity or otherwise). But, was there an element of denial going on? Did a toxic organisational culture based on fear, power imbalance and a false value system enable this to happen? I will come back to Weinstein later on.

We see the phrase ‘go above and beyond’ frequently in employment discourse. It’s mentioned on job descriptions, during interviews, and at meetings. But where do we draw the line with a phrase like that, a phrase that has become an emblem for good work ethic? ‘Above’ is meaningless unless in comparison to something defined and ‘beyond’ could be anything. This attitude to work is problematic because work should not be an aspect of life that always demands more, to the point of exhaustion – particularly not in comparison to family, friends and life.

People are already under a lot of pressure to succeed, especially young people at the start of their careers. This contagious ‘above and beyond’ mentality seems to be becoming a damaging epidemic that both feeds into and feeds off a shared unease over our progression in life. It’s a vicious feedback loop that legitimises people doing things outside of their job description, a loop that ends up hitting those at the bottom the hardest. And if staying within the confines of your job description seems lazy to you, consider why you feel that way. Is it fair for your employers to increase your workload without rewarding you? It is justified that they pay you less than your colleagues for doing the same work, or that they manipulate you into skipping your already unpaid lunch breaks? Is it fair or are they taking the absolute piss? I’m glad you got it. Yes, they are taking the piss.

And it doesn’t stop there, because this ‘you must do everything in your power to succeed’ approach to work also succeeds in fuelling more unjust behaviour from the people who employ you.

In many countries such as the US and the UK, putting work before your physical and mental health has become the norm. If you don’t, you are not willing to do ‘what it takes’ to go up the ladder. Let’s look at some of the things employers are getting away with today, most of which are legal.

Employers are gifted the right – pretty red bow and all – to treat employees like production machines.  In the US, employers don’t legally have to give their employees any paid leave and if they do, it’s not mandatory they take it. The UK’s zero-hour contract option means the employer does not need to guarantee their employees a set amount of hours, often challenging what should be a worker’s right to a fixed number of minimum hours and pay vital to achieving a stable livelihood. This is great for companies who experience fluctuations in trade throughout the day, such as fast food companies, because they can send their employees home or on disproportionately long breaks whenever it’s quiet and they want to save cash. The same goes for supermarket chains that, despite paying their employees a good starting salary, have been reported to call them in during out-of-work hours instead of hiring an adequate number of employees to carry the heavy workload. Again, this helps the company save money; the employees are pretty much on stand-by and work three times as hard due to the lack of staff.

I have personally been a victim of the zero-hour contract, a structure that is presented as in the best interests of employees and a way to offer flexible working patterns. The reality is very different. While working in various bars and restaurants, I often had to abide by a schedule that was packed with evening shifts. The schedules were not always dished out fairly, which meant that only certain people got to enjoy evenings off, while others were stuck doing the same dirty work, week after week. Not only were these unsociable hours, but the workload was greater because of how busy it would get in the evenings.

One time in particular, I was employed by a chain pizza restaurant in Covent Garden. Here, our manager would demand we come in 15 minutes before our shift started for a quick ‘briefing’ (if we were doing a double shift this would amount to 30 minutes for both shifts). This time was unpaid but he made it clear this was what was expected of us and even scolded us if we were late to the meeting. He had no right to force us to be there yet we were led to believe it was our obligation to attend. It might not seem like a long time but if you get a calculator out and start multiplying all those 15 minutes by the number of shifts you’ve completed, they will turn into hours, hours of unpaid work.

Similarly, the first boss I ever had as a bartender would send me on unpaid 3-hour breaks in the middle of a double shift because he wanted to ‘stick to budget’. Additionally, he would sometimes send me home early if he felt like it. This would often mean I’d end up getting to work for 10am, would go on a break at 12pm because the pub was quiet (I wasn’t even tired at this point), and I’d start work again at 3pm only to be sent home early at 5:30pm. I’d do what felt like a full day’s work for a mere 4.5 paid hours.

This degrading behaviour was not limited to treating us like robots. It extended to uncomfortable physical encounters as well. Rather than simply asking us to move if we were standing where he needed to be, the manager would put his hands low on the waists of the female staff to move us out the way and I often caught him peering at my workmate’s breasts. We complained about this in private but never felt able to directly say anything to him as we were scared; he was the kind of man who would punish you with an extra crappy rota or simply fire you. Fortunately, that particular manager was dismissed for entirely different reasons, but not one of us felt supported enough to complain about him before he lost his job. It’s ludicrous to think that the unpredictable hours he was making us do were, and still are, technically legal and that his inappropriate behaviour is widely considered the norm.

Unfortunately, this experience as a bartender was not a unique one and over time I have learned that if you’re a barmaid for over a month, it’s common to be disrespected in some way by both customers and male superiors alike. I remember another bar I worked in for instance, where a group of greasy regulars would come in all the time and lurk around the bar, gawking at the female workers or making lurid jokes and we, scared to be seen as disrespectful, would always laugh nervously before pretending the glasses needed to be polished. Again, we were scared of the consequences of speaking out.

Often when we are confronted with these types of situations, we don’t react in the way you’d expect. If your boss suddenly puts his hand on your leg, a million thoughts will run through your head and by the time they’ve removed it, you begin to question how you might be affected if you do raise the issue. You’d like to feel as though there were a safety net in place to catch you but this is not a feeling many companies want to provide or in some cases, don’t know how to.

Aside from having to accept unpredictable hours and inappropriate and uncomfortable behaviour as a female employee, ‘above and beyond’ workplace culture also normalises overtime. In Britain, it’s normal to work up to a whole day’s work more each week with only approximately 35% of workers getting paid for that overtime. Reducing the time reserved for lunch, or even skipping it altogether is not uncommon either, but in doing so, we are handing over free labour to the companies we work for because we feel it’s what’s expected of us. Often this behaviour derives from employees mimicking their colleagues in the hope of not being labelled an underachiever. Even managers and supervisors do the same thing, so the general consensus is that this is what you need to do to achieve a similar status.

In countries like Norway, there is a strict clock-out time, an example which is set by those above. In Norway, the boss-employee relationship tends to focus on the notion that both are benefited by the other. Meanwhile, in the US, if an employee is awarded holiday, they don’t always take it or only use a small portion of it. Often this is down to the companies deterring them by making them feel like nonperformers for using their entitlement. A workaholic mindset pervades many American work places, with many people feeling like they would lag behind if they went on vacation despite the earnest attempts of their employers to encourage them to do so. Others feel they would not be able to get their assignments done in time, something they are unwilling to admit to their bosses for fear of seeming irresponsible or ill-equipped to do the job. And let’s not go into all the out-of-office e-mailing, a habit that derives from having too much on one’s to-do list.

Employers need to do more to change the work value-system and instil some solid measures to reduce the amount of energy and hours we are over-dedicating to work. It’s clear that most employers don’t see the benefits of having entitled employees who refuse to work for free, but there are huge rewards from having a less divisive partnership between employer and employee. It leads to happy energetic workers who more importantly feel like they are being rewarded for their work as well as playing a vital role towards the success of the company without sacrificing their personal lives. Whether it’s 15 minutes of lunch every day or 3 hours of unpaid labour, sacrificing your personal time all adds up.

The current work code has instilled a ‘we owe them’ mentality in all of us. From employers to team leaders, from team leaders to managers, from managers to CEOs; we are all being sucked into this divisive psychology that trickles into other areas of life, including gender equality.

Circling back to Harvey Weinstein, I should say that I am not entirely laying the blame for his consistent modes of abuse remaining hidden for so long on mainstream work culture and patterns of behaviour as employees, but we must look at how this overbearing mentality might help dissuade someone from reporting inappropriate behaviour at work, sexual or not.

I cannot speak for the Weinstein victims but I can imagine that by the time they left the hotel rooms, offices, restaurants and parties where the incidents took place and exited the buildings, they were looking back on his sexual advances like a nightmare that would quickly lead to unrelenting emotions of vulnerability and anguish. Even if they’d reported the incident, which may have undeniably helped dissipate their loneliness in a situation such as this, there was no certainty they’d be devoid of any repercussions, personal or career wise.

If a woman is sexually assaulted in a working environment and then doesn’t say anything, she has unintentionally put this so-called work ethic above her happiness, but this attitude is something most of us help instigate. Even if a woman does want to speak out, support from others can play a huge part in her doing so. If I chose to talk back to those greasy customers of ours, would I have had the right support from my male and female colleagues or my manager? It’s possible some of them would have supported me, but I was already subconsciously being suffocated by this whole notion that if I ‘went against’ my role in this way, I’d seem paranoid or over the top and might even be punished for it. Time went on and it was just easier to not say anything.

We must ask ourselves why female workers are choosing to stay quiet as opposed to revealing any wrong-doing to themselves by those with more authority and what amount of blame can be placed on a divisive environment within the work place.

You don’t have to be a keen observer to notice that the women on Weinstein’s harassment list were mostly young at the time they fell victim and in the initial stages of their careers within the movie industry. Evidently, Weinstein played a status game, taking advantage of his established power and position of authority. If you put this idea into a less sinister context, isn’t that what many employers do every day? Employers don’t have to be bullies or predators to get you to do things that are not in your contract. The game of the ever-striving employee, reaching for the top, going above and beyond, seems to take over the way we think so much so that when one day our boss or a very important client decides to do something wildly improper and threatening, as women we don’t say anything for fear of stepping out of line or being viewed as disruptive, difficult or of questionable work ethic. As my own experience taught me, sometimes we can even doubt what we’ve experienced, convincing ourselves that ‘it wasn’t bad enough to report’ or ‘it wasn’t like that’ even though we know deep down it was. All too often it is just easier to accept inappropriate behaviour because to make ourselves visible in that way could damage the professional mould that has been created for us, a mould we’re often too terrified to alter because we can’t be 100% sure there won’t be a fall if we do or anyone to catch us.

Admittedly, there is a huge difference between an employer prompting you to work over-time and asking you to give them a ‘massage’, but these small injustices act as a rock on a scale that dictates the balance or imbalance in the work place. It enables those on top to take advantage of those at the bottom. But we are also to blame. We have become excellent game players willing to ‘go above and beyond’ in the name of work. We are such good players in fact, that the bar we’ve set is needlessly high, so high that we are terrified of falling beneath it.

This, in turn, has created a toxic work culture that tends to waver rather than reinforce the support placed behind a woman. When it comes to personal wellbeing, hierarchy should equal zero. A fearless work place is the starting point.

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About the author

Tara Diaz is a twenty-something film blogger who lives in London. Like many of us, she has a case of retromania and loves dissecting the 80s and 90s classics. She is also a self-professed horror junkie. She’ll watch them all: the good, the bad and everything in between. If you’d like to see more from her, feel free to read or follow her blog at www.filmfrolic.wordpress.com.

Image credit

CARRYING THE SUN UP THE HILL, ROLLING THE MOON BACK DOWN by Laura Berger (https://www.lauraberger.com/)

Editor

Lucy Wheeler

What Makes #MASSEDUCTION A Gender-Fluid Masterpiece

By Zana Wilberforce

St. Vincent, known offstage as Annie Clark, released her new single New York back in summer 2k17 and then tickets went on sale, and then her sixth album was finally released in October. Moments before the show, I listened to her album in full whilst I was jogging away on the treadmill, and I listened very intently to her lyrics. I wanted to understand everything about New York, a ballad that laments her relationship with Cara Delevingne according to various internet sources swirling around. I wanted to understand Los Ageless too when it was released shortly after New York. I wanted to give the album a theme and unravel its intricacies, a familiar practice following Ms. Clark’s latest releases.

The show itself was less theatrical than I had expected. A static image in bright pink latex could be seen flung far across the room, statuesque and sturdy in form. She travelled across the stage almost robotically through each song, from left to right, as the curtain revealed more and more of the stage. St. Vincent moved from one microphone to the next, journeying on to her next song, and then finally taking centre stage. Once she made it to the middle, she pulled out her classics: Digital Witness, Birth in Reverse. I was moving my bum and shaking my hips and loving every minute of it. Then she disappeared and reappeared in a silver dress that resembled something I imagined to be worn by the Future Female; a Martian dress with blue sleeves made out of a reflective material and a reminder of David Bowie’s gender-bending and multifaceted costume changes.

Instead of a theatrical performance, the show was verging on a spectacle. The screen revealed video clips of bums and robust breasts marked with tape across nipples. Long legs appeared from TV screens as Ms. Clark vibrated casually and oh so calmly on what might have been one of those electric massage chairs you find in a motorway stop-off. So much was occurring on a screen behind St. Vincent as she stood like a sturdy Martian. Small clips repeated in the background and the backdrop rushed from hot pink to a mesmerising galaxy backdrop.

Similar to Bowie, who would hybridise elaborate bodily movements and routines played out in theatre, music and cinema, St. Vincent often incorporates dance and theatre into her live performances (think Rattlesnake), so I was looking forward to seeing how she does this in the flesh. This time, dance and theatre were swapped for art and cinema, an experimental gesture used to subvert essentialist notions of bodies and challenge normalised gendered behaviour.

On the tube home I thought more and more about gender in MASSEDUCTION, and how St. Vincent’s live performance brought this theme to the forefront of my mind. Throughout the album, there’s a flirtatious gender-fluid voice switching roles and oscillating from one to the next, and then back again – most prominently in Sugarboy: I am a lot like you, BOYS, I am alone like you, GIRLS. Ms. Clark’s repetition in this song becomes a ritualistic back and forth movement, making her mutating personas ceaselessly ambiguous.

I am a lot like you (boys)
I am alone like you (girls)
I am a lot like you (boys)
I am alone like you (girls)
I am a lot like you (boys)
I am alone like you (girls)
I am a lot like you (boys)
I am alone like you (girls)

This oscillating fluidity was also delivered vividly in her performance. The ambiguously-gendered pre-Martian (i.e. St. Vincent before she changed into the Martian dress) standing before an audience of onlookers, appeared erect in stature and very pink. Quite naturally, you’re thinking of a penis right now, right? Except St. Vincent’s erect and pinkish form was far more abstract and alien, especially matched with lyrics that scream something along the lines of “guess what world? I’m a lot like a boy and I’m a lot like girl too.” Such fluidity challenges everything we were ever taught about those classic “phallocentric symbols” of swords and sausages in Wuthering Heights. And good riddance!

Notably, the subject’s gender is unspecified in the entire album, instead referred to as a ‘young lover’, ‘hero’, ‘motherfucker’, but never ‘he’ or ‘she.’

Young lover, begging you please to wake up
Young lover, I wish that I was your drug

By omitting gender-normative pronouns and playing around with gender roles, Ms. Clark escapes definitive labels and captures the essence of fluidity both lyrically and visually. In this sense, MASSEDUCTION is more of a celebratory masterpiece about gender fluidity rather than a lament about a past relationship – although, I too, hear a deep and dark sadness in Slow Disco as the lovers slip away from each other:

Slip my hand, from your hand,

Leave you dancing with a ghost

Slip my hand, from your hand,

Leave you dancing with a ghost

On an early morning commute the next day, I re-listened to MASSEDUCTION for the umpteenth time – excluding gender from it all; imagining a pink and sturdy Martian picking me up and carrying me home to safety. Our hands in a firm grasp.

***

About the Author

Zana is a writer based in South London. Since graduating with an English Literature and French degree from UCL, she has been writing about fashion, music, travel and tech for various publications. She cites Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes and Michel Houellebecq as some of her favourite writers, and particularly enjoys reading about gender and queer theory (preferably with a warm cup of coffee).

Editor

Daffyth Jenkins

 

Saying ‘No’ & Other Metaphors

Nota long ago I read a thoughtful article on the concept of ‘the unbearable lightness of being the ‘chill girl’. This concept bounces inside women’s heads constantly, rendering the surface of their social appearance under a heavy burden of the ‘ultimate chillness’.

By Clara Dona

Nota long ago I read a thoughtful article on the concept of ‘the unbearable lightness of being the ‘chill girl’. This concept bounces inside women’s heads constantly, rendering the surface of their social appearance under a heavy burden of the ‘ultimate chillness’. The chill girl is not emotionally bound to anyone, able to configure huge amounts of patience and, ultimately, living life without any mood change, which I, personally, find extremely abrasive (and complicated considering my hormones jump once a month). The article highlighted the importance of showing oneself as you feel, as discussing how you shouldn’t have to explain what your negative response to certain stimuli (or men) means. This idea, that concept, that monosyllabic word, is still what I consider to be a ‘leap of faith’, and the ultimate reason why this article is being written. Because whereas writing our faults might be easy, it is not easy to act accordingly. Being conscious of a mistake does not mean being proactive about it. My personal experience has taken me to consider and analyse why ‘no’ is such a difficult word to say, even in the face of a pestering presence, or the reason why the guilt overcomes my senses once I  have or haven’t said it.

I have lied, twisted my words, played with my discourse in order not to pronounce those two letters, compassionately, for the other person. I have faked, put on a mask, smiled and even kissed not to declare my rejection about someone or something. As if rejection didn’t exist. As if  I hadn’t suffered it before. And then, the guilt. The most overcoming guilt arising from the trick and the self-deception: ‘Have I done something wrong? How horrible of a person shall I be to trick someone into believe something that is not? Is not more frightening the possibility of rejecting someone than the lie? How valuable is the truth?’ and so on.

I have wondered, after these episodes, if I’ve been made into a wax figure of disposition. While being more or less of strong character, I still fall into the charade of being a pleasing presence, a character of compliance on certain issues. And most certainly, that has led me to feel like a one-sided sword, that could cut but does not choose to. And I say to myself ‘change to the other side’. And it is in vain. And it is not in vain to argue that, as society or culture or history wants us to be the ‘chill girl’, but these institutions also want us to be in gloves, soft to the touch, motherly and caring. So much that the pure possibility of rejecting something or someone feels like I am armed.

But the problem comes when a negative answer does not hurt anyone but ourselves. Because saying ‘no’, in some cases, also hurts ourselves: it falls like water on fire. This happens mostly when in the presence of the rejected. Maybe it was unexpected because it is not expected of women to be assertive (please add infinite quotation marks), but you will always be reminded of your wrong choice not to comply. And sometimes it makes us feel scared, and believe the rejected, and feel weak. Sheathe the sword.

And maybe the metaphor of the sword is more interesting to me than the wax, because it gives me the possibility to say ‘no’. I can cut with my words and I will, if I need to reject what doesn’t interest me. I need to arm myself with options, the two sides, the oppositions that sustain the equilibrium of all and my own. And please note that feminism is an arming of ourselves, in a non-violent manner, nevertheless never again passive.

***

About the Author

Clara Doña is a Spanish recently graduate MA in Comparative Literature at UCL. Her interests move from gender issues to philosophy, by the way of Judith Butler and women’s poetry. She dearly appreciates reading in the early morning and writing late at night.​

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Mind the Gap: Children and Gender Stereotypes

BBC’s No More Boys or Girls: Can our Kids Go Gender Free? confirmed many of my suspicions. Today, gender differences for young children are still significant and our supposed accepting values regarding individual creative gender expression have regressed.  

By Giuliana Friselli

BBC’s No More Boys or Girls: Can our Kids Go Gender Free? confirmed many of my suspicions. Today, gender differences for young children are still significant and our supposed accepting values regarding individual creative gender expression have regressed.  In this observational experiment girls articulated a total lack of self-confidence and boys were unable to articulate emotion at all, displaying extreme over-confidence.  But when taught under a new atmosphere of gender neutrality, within weeks vast improvements were made.  They displayed more mixed play, with boys able to show more emotion and girls showing more confidence, performing better at spatial awareness tasks.

We’re in the middle of a progressively liberal ‘gender revolution’ where young adults are thinking outside the gender box, so why on Earth are we contradicting this by polarising gender for children when it should be the last thing on their minds?

Growing up in the late eighties I was never denied playtime with my favourite He-man toy or told to stop wearing boys’ clothes.  Outdoor adventure was always readily available, with little-to-no restriction under a watchful parental radar.  Even at primary school, my gender expression came with no barriers, allowing me to enjoy a natural freedom to explore my identity, equipping the tools of tolerance for my later years.  Like many androgynous girls of the nineties – and now a seemingly endangered species – we were commonly known as ‘tomboys’.   A sleep deprived parent on the wrong side of 30, my identity is an infinitesimally small part of my life now, but had children like me been around today we’d probably be destined for the gender identity clinic.   Similar sentiments have been echoed by actor Rupert Everett: “I really wanted to be a girl. Thank God the world of now wasn’t then, because I’d be on hormones and I’d be a woman. After I was 15 I never wanted to be a woman again.”      Consequently, it has jogged recent memories of seeing parents reduce the opportunities for gender creativity to occur, from boys being reprimanded for wearing Mum’s lipstick to energy-fuelled young girls coaxed into wearing highly impractical party dresses.  Yet, the happiest I’ve ever seen kids behave at a party was when they yanked their clothes off at the end of a sunny day and proceeded to run around the garden naked, in sheer delight.

It’s baffling that modern society is exhibiting a visible downward spiral of old fashioned gender stereotypes which live at the Darwinian North and South Pole of the gender spectrum, in which females are choosy, submissive and coy and males are strong, unemotional and systematic.  Bizarrely, in our walking-on-eggshells politically correct era, we avoid using such stereotypes among adults in the fear we will be deemed ‘sexist’, but are quite happy to unleash them on children who do not have the maturity or experience to distinguish satire from reality.

Children are not simply children like we could be – they are now either strictly boys or strictly girls with no movement for anything in between.  Despite being among those parents who endeavour to avoid excessive stereotyping we recognise the neon pinkness of our daughters is a stark contrast to the muddy boots we grew up in.  My daughter is yet to attend a birthday party without all the girls garbed in en vogue sparkly dresses, where everything is centred on looking like a ‘pretty princess’ – all the time.  Whether they’ve just been glued to watching Frozen and others alike, there’s a persistent breeze of superficial gender-specific commodification whirling around.  In much greater quantity.

It may be harmless fun to the parents, but this superficial world of gender socialisation is the foundation upon which children start to build their gender identity and it’s sleuthed its way into our lifestyles, reaching the acute senses of our children and encroaching the pure spaces of their natural world.  Greater traffic on roads means children spend less than half their time outside than they did just 10-15 years ago.  An increase in smaller families and older parents together with an internet culture of shock stories has made helicopter parenting more common.  Nurturing children in such attentive measure is being done under a binary spotlight and with more screens around there’s greater opportunity for a narrow notion of gender behaviour to shine before their very eyes on a perpetual basis.  Experts suggest this cultural shift of screen-watching is a huge paradox, building an enclosure which stifles natural creativity and thwarts healthy imaginative play that they would otherwise get from engaging with nature.  The need for an expert to tell us this is worrying on its own.

Mainstream entertainment and video games project unrealistic androcentric narratives spawning degrees of misogyny.  Young women are frequently sexualised with airbrushed femininity because of instant, often uncensored, internet content and we are yet to know how the explosion of this social-media-obsessed ‘selfie’ culture will impact our children, but it’s not looking promising.  Phrases like ‘man up’, ‘you kick like a girl’ and ‘grow a pair’ to describe boys who aren’t ‘macho’ enough, still litter our language and girls as young as seven –  yes, seven – are now having spa-pampering parties for birthdays.  It’s an insipid, sickly hyperbole of masculinity and femininity, for the worse.  The latter of which has been exacerbated by the vacuous decade-long Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

Although helpful for busy parents-especially when you need your toddler on silent for half hour to catch up on endless chores-even Peppa Pig resorts to old fashioned gender stereotypes of the ‘nuclear’ family with Pepper always in pink and George, unsurprisingly, in blue.  I’m not inferring that a family of cartoon pigs is unsuitable, but reasonably, a ubiquitous reiteration of gender difference in a child’s environment will mould their brains to override a harmless nature of gender creativity.

If that wasn’t enough to convince you, the full flow of consumer capitalism and sexing scans since the ’90s has caused a hackneyed trajectory of the boys-are-blue-and-girls-are-pink rhetoric to be much more pronounced today, especially within marketing and advertising.  The colour concept was brought in to brand the genders to maximise profits for baby wear companies which is why so many kids’ companies still heavily categorise the sexes, especially in toys and clothing.  Even Clarks made archaic steps on gender by thinking it was appropriate to bring out a range of shoes called ‘Dolly Babe’ and ‘Leader’ this summer.  What next, for heaven’s sake?  For our daughters to slip back into the tight corset of a repressed coquettish Austenian character to impress their Mr Darcy?  (Well, it won’t work for John Lewis.)

It’s painfully clear that society is entrenched in a technological age where our consumer market is projecting everything but a healthy view on gender in children and is perhaps the cause for well-meaning parents inadvertently reinforcing these stereotypes, whilst naively underestimating its consequences.  It’s easy to forget we grew up with far less technology and with a better balance of outside and indoor time in our crucial early years.  With a primeval past of dial up and delayed gratification the outdoors was sometimes a revered distraction for many.

Unlike Jaden Smith and Shilou Pitt, unless children are born into the privileged and artistic realm of the super-rich elites where gender expression is unbounded then they’re set for this gendered world -a rigid binary construction which doesn’t reflect the rich tapestry and intricacy of our gender spectrum.  At all.  And in conjunction with gender identity cases soaring to unprecedented numbers where three-year olds are being admitted, it raises suspicion that this should happen in a supposedly gender-equal country.  If science shows that most boys and girls are biologically the same until puberty, then is it our environment which is partly the cause for this emergence?

Children are the most impressionable members of society and if we continue to widen the gap between boys and girls then those who creatively or innately digress from society’s expectation of their assigned gender may feel lost between two extreme worlds, possibly falling on a breeding ground of confusion and doubt.

It’s time to lessen the disparity between how boys and girls are treated.  This doesn’t mean responding with another extreme by making boys wear pink dresses or arming girls with toy guns.  Simply soften the emphasis of gender altogether by creating opportunities to encourage the freedom of individual creative expression.  It will allow for better adaptability and encourage natural talent whilst preparing children for a potentially difficult job market in the future.  Interacting more with the natural world will productively keep the inhibitive forces of stereotypes at bay whilst extending the mental wellbeing of our children in a positive and natural way.  We need to be aware of gender as a social construct and resist the temptation to pressurise children into being the extreme version of their assigned gender whilst being consciously aware of the external cues that dangerously reinforce it.

Let’s fill the gap for all children to walk freely.

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About the Author

Giuliana is studying for an MA in Politics at the University of Essex.  Her areas of interest include current affairs, gender, sexuality, the environment and political philosophy.

Read more of Giuliana’s work here: http://through-our-senses.org/

 

Another Brick in the Wall: Schools are Still Letting Girls Down

Graduating from University recently has got me thinking about my school experience. How did I make it to University? How did my education, leading up to my degree, better me as a person? How did it help me to understand the gendered world?

By Freya Turner

Graduating from University recently has got me thinking about my school experience. How did I make it to University? How did my education, leading up to my degree, better me as a person? How did it help me to understand the gendered world?

Well, quite frankly, it prepared me to live in a country where gender is rigid and sexism is not only practiced but celebrated too. There are so many things that I could say about my five year secondary (state) school experience. I could talk about the lack of class time scheduled for arts subjects, or the absence of healthy food in the cafeteria, or the neglect of a student’s autonomy and independence (as demonstrated through the archaic rules, such as having to ask a teacher to remove your blazer). But in light of recent, scary statistics that a quarter of young girls have depression by the time they reach the age of 14, I think it’s necessary for me to discuss the experience that girls at my school had.

In the UK, we begin secondary school aged eleven and are prompt thrown into a new school uniform. Cumbersome, and sweat-festering, our school’s uniform consisted of black trousers or a skirt, a white blouse, a horribly synthetic blazer complete with shoulder pads to bulk you up and appear more ‘fit for work’ – i.e. masculine, which was completed with a tie. Nothing like preparing the young for the long years of professional, misogynistic work ahead, am I right… am I right? Or perhaps it would be more suitable to ask how many of us will actually end up donning this sort of pompous attire in our careers? I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that from the first day at school, girls from my school, in fact, all schoolgirls have long struggled to identify themselves within an education that boxes them in a blazer and tie-d institution. Their education literally doesn’t fit them.

Girls don’t have to be at school long before other problems arise. The insults ‘slag’ and ‘slut’ begin to fly around on a daily basis, boys are continually lifting up girls’ skirts, twanging their bra straps, making unwanted advances on them, and girls will simultaneously feel the need to make their skirts shorter and shorter to appear attractive. Teachers will, consciously or not, tolerate boys’ bad behaviour because it’s just ‘boys being boys’, listen to boys more often, and involve them more than girls in classroom discussions. We can deny all this as much as we’d like, but in my five years at secondary school, I noticed this being very real and the effects of this were very noticeable.

If girls are going to undertake years of education, whether this is up to the age of eighteen or twenty-one, then they must be listened to and encouraged on an equal basis as their male equivalents. If they’re not, their confidence in their abilities are obviously going to be lower, and therefore, the likeliness of them pushing themselves and taking academic risks is going to be much lower. It would be an injustice to deny that this is linked to males generally outperforming females at University. After years of being encouraged to think outside of the box and think boldly, it’s no wonder that when faced with independent assignments at university, boys are psychologically better equipped at executing them than girls.

There’s the added fuel to the fire of sexism flouted at my school with teachers telling us that it was forbidden to wear coloured underwear beneath our white blouses. There was the girl who received the prom queen award because final year students voted for her on the basis of being sixteen and pregnant. You constantly had an ear out for both subtle and all out brash comments from boys about the way girls looked. There was the culture of girls not eating during the school day, or being on a diet because they wanted to lose weight. For me, there was the issue of wanting to wear a skirt, but wearing trousers instead, because I was worried that I’d wear my skirt too long (and not appear attractive), or too short and (and get criticised for the same reasons).

I went with trousers instead because I couldn’t be bothered with being scrutinised by other students, whilst getting into trouble with the teachers for looking too sexualised, on top of the already frustrating experience of being a girl at school. I knew that I couldn’t win. And this sentence really sums up the experience you have as a teenage girl.

We also experienced the painfully significant lack of professional sex education, which in my experience, was based on a shrewd, Victorian discourse of negative reinforcement, where it was all about ‘do not’s’. We had the school shows which often shared sexist, inappropriate themes and costumes. Even the teachers themselves were targets of differing treatment based on their gender. I noticed that female teachers were generally more likely to be interrupted, teased, and taken less seriously than the male teachers. It’s just the way it worked, and this happened whether people were behaving consciously or not. We are so wired to a gender hierarchy that we’re not even conscious of it a lot of the time.

We can disregard these issues as insignificant, trivial realities of British education, but to do so would be to exacerbate the problem of gender rigidity and disparity in the UK. Our younger years are so, so crucial to our development. They have a lasting impact, and to undo the discourses we have been taught in our younger years would be a challenging, if not nearly impossible feat. If schools are taking responsibility for addressing (whilst often fixating) on the ways in which students are behaving outside of the national curriculum, regarding matters such as attendance, punctuality, and ‘professional’ appearance constructed through a uniform, then why isn’t gender finally being treated as a subject worth taking some responsibility over? Why on earth are we teaching young people about criminal punishment, ancient scriptures, and STIs without even touching upon sexism- in classrooms, assembly halls or tutorial time?

Our education system needs to grow up, otherwise the same patterns of oppression and limitation will get played out again and again. But how likely will this be in a culture of academy schools with ever narrowing curriculum options, funding cuts, and 1% pay caps debilitating our teachers? Pretty unlikely. The urgency with which we need to change our education system is therefore pretty much a state of emergency.

***

About the Author

Freya is a recent English literature graduate from UEA, where she specialised in reading minority cultures, political writing, urbanisation, alongside being generally cynical about modern life. She has been curious about gender representations since a young teenager, and over the past year has experimented with writing to set out her thoughts on feminism and gender through monologue, poetry, short story, and a creative-critical style. She has recently enjoyed working in the arts, through a radio station and a national archive, publicising literary organisations and material. She is an advocate of Europe and urges students in higher education to study abroad.

The Handmaiden: Exploring Gender Roles, Relationships and Changing Attitudes

Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden – now available from Curzon Artificial Eye – is an exceptional film.

By Jack Ford

Guest Edited by Dafydd Jenkins.

Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden – now available from Curzon Artificial Eye – is an exceptional film. On a base level, it’s an expertly crafted multi-layered story that becomes far more interesting and intriguing as it goes on. Furthermore, it deals with complex, difficult and even repellent issues in a thoughtful and highly sensible manner; presenting them in a way that’s easy for audiences to engage with. Thematically, The Handmaiden is largely concerned with the roles of women and their fight to control their own destinies in a male-dominated world.

Based on Fingersmith, (Sarah Waters, 2002) The Handmaiden’s main deviation from the source material is the change in setting: from Victorian England to wartime Japan. Despite this, remaining true to the book’s intentions caused Waters to respond positively about the treatment of her work. “Though ironically the film is a story told by a man,” she says, “it’s still very faithful to the idea that the women are appropriating a very male tradition to find their own way of exploring their desires.”

One of the great joys of the film is to watch its plot unfurl, so the less detail given about it here, the better for the uninformed. At its core, it’s the story of a relationship between reclusive Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), the Korean thief hired as her new handmaiden.

Lying somewhere in the subtext of The Handmaiden is a harrowing and haunting historical event – the ‘Comfort Women’ of the Second World War, where many young women and girls were kidnapped, held hostage and repeatedly raped by the invading Japanese army during their wartime occupation of Asia. This event continues to cause tension in particular between Japan and South Korea to this day. While there is not a single mention of these Comfort Women anywhere in The Handmaiden, the film can’t help but echo this horrific piece of history.

It might be, subconsciously, investigating whether the values and attitudes at the time could have caused the event to happen. Without doubt, the characterisation of the film’s male contingents make it easier for the audience to understand the mind-set of someone who would have committed and allowed such an act.

As well as Hideko and Sook-hee, there is a con man who calls himself Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), who hires Sook-hee as part of a plot to make off with Hideko’s fortune, and the heiress’s Uncle Kouzki (Cho Jin-woong). Neither are respectful to the women of the film – approaching them with an air of superiority – and they both allude to their views on how sex is for men to enjoy and women to endure, along with a belief that women enjoy the act more when it is ‘forced.’ An alarming mind-set, yet one that will no doubt sound familiar to many of the audience.

These flippant sexual attitudes branch into much darker territory. For as long as Hideko has known, her uncle Kouzuki has threatened female family members to read graphically sexual stories from his vast library of erotica to a crowd of high-paying aristocrats. When Hideko comes of age, she is no exception. In some cases, she is even made to perform the acts she describes with a mannequin.

Both Sook-hee and Hideko eventually go on to destroy Kouzuki’s book collection, in a lengthy and gleeful montage. The sheer screen time dedicated to this sequence serves two purposes: the destruction of the wide array of antique books which emphasises how long women have been depicted as sexual objects, whilst also acting as a symbol for the two, liberating themselves from sexual subservience. When Kouzuki finds his collection destroyed, he barely seems moved – he claims they can be repaired, and those that can’t can be re-created. This is the film making the point that chauvinistic attitudes continue to exist, and at the same time asking how long will it be before they change.

As the film moves on, the female leads’ defiance of their male oppressors’ will extends to the passion they start to feel for one another. Yes, they both go nude and, yes, there are sex scenes, but these moments are not in the film for sensational reasons. They are there to show the growth of the intimacy between the characters, and the awakening of emotions that have long been dormant within them.

For Hideko in particular, her only experiences of this supposedly wonderful thing have left her feeling jaded and unsatisfied, even sad. It’s only after falling in love with Sook-hee that she starts to feel any sort of excitement. She realises that the act of sex itself is meaningless, it’s the emotions that go with it and whether you feel a deep connection with your sexual partner that makes it valuable.

The central themes sexual liberation and the gender hierarchy are some of the key elements that make The Handmaiden such an absorbing experience; these ideas linger with you long after the film has ended. The Handmaiden is generous, not only with its inventive storytelling and lavish production, but how much thinking space it gives to the audience. It allows everyone who sees it to take away as much or as little from it as they want to or feel they can, and for that it is a highly commendable achievement.

***

About the Author

Jack Ford is a charity worker, anti-rape activist and volunteer art gallery attendant from Somerset. Currently, he abides by the Hunter S Thompson quote: ‘I have no taste for either poverty or honest labor, so writing is the only recourse left for me.’ His work has appeared in Jupiter magazine, on the Bristol Sport website and he writes for The Redeem Team and Nondescript.

Wide Sargasso Sea: A prequel, for our times

I was first introduced to Wide Sargasso Sea in my second year at University. I didn’t spend much time reading it before I became aware that something different was happening within this book, and something was demanding my attention.

By Freya Turner, guest edited by Dafydd Jenkins

I was first introduced to Wide Sargasso Sea in my second year at University. I didn’t spend much time reading it before I became aware that something different was happening within this book, and something was demanding my attention. What also struck me was that if there was any time in the year to read this book, it would be summer. What is summer but a period of stretched-out days set in a shimmering daze from the heat, where we feel increased pressure to do more, where work and study breaks often feel intimidating and difficult to navigate? For me, these qualities of summer align with the ideas in this cult feminist prequel that re-thinks Jane Eyre.

The novel is set in 1830s Jamaica, and narrates the back-story of Jane Eyre that was never told; the story of Antoinette Cosway (Jane Eyre’s Bertha), Mr Rochester’s first wife. It threads together the oppressive and scarring structures of imperialism, in regards to masculinity, femininity, race, mental illness, and storytelling itself, through the eyes of Antoinette and Rochester. Written by Jean Rhys in 1966, the novel is a noted work of post-colonial fiction, and experimental in its writing style and creation of character. The novel has a breadth and depth that very few much longer novels are able to master, through writing which does not blame people, but structures in society, with a style that is at once lucid yet dream-like. Rhys makes the political a dream-space, where the narratives of lives are lost, interrelated, snowballed, and positioned in relation to ‘truth’ – whatever that may mean. Even feminism itself inhabits a new space where its purpose and discourse is called into question. For a short novel, it’s a mighty one, consistently cut through with the oppressive heat of the sun.

Antoinette is the daughter of ex-slave owners in Jamaica, and is a victim of the intolerance of both the freed black slaves and the white, imperialist aristocracy laying in tatters. She is undoubtedly liminal, much like Jane Eyre, but not in any positive sense. Early on in the novel she becomes an orphan, due to her father’s alcoholism, her mother’s mental illness, and her aunt moving to England for a year. An unnamed English man, who has connections with Antoinette’s mother’s recent and distant husband, Mr Mason, comes to Jamaica to marry Antoinette because he is bribed to by Mr Mason’s son. He is the victim of patrilineal inheritance as – being the younger son – his older brother inherits his father’s estate, meaning that he must quickly find his own financial security.

When the couple move into Antoinette’s inherited estate, the heat quickly feels more oppressive as things grow intolerable for the unnamed man (Rochester), Antoinette, and their servants. The couple are the victims of an imperialist system that prescribes roles and strips autonomy. Rochester and Antoinette’s misconnection goes far beyond communication difficulties, and their cultural victimisation is played out through anger towards one another, to the extent where the head servant, Christophine, rather ironically tries to be the mediator of this imperialist marriage. The system appears to be eating itself. It is in this part of the novel that Rhys’ writing is acutely sensitive and explosive, where it feels like each minute of their dizzying experiences hit you with a sense of loss so severe that you struggle to label what it is you are feeling or mourning.

All the novel’s perspectives create a static, with different stories harshly rubbing against each other, created not only through the first-person narrative from both Antoinette and Rochester, but through the disjointed and impassioned stories from the servants Christophine and Baptiste, and distant family members. We struggle to put our trust in anyone, and here’s where feminism is put on trial. I began asking myself whether different truths are inherent in the feminist discourse, and why this is necessary. I asked myself whether Christophine is the most plausible character, simply because she is the most threatening to the imperialist white male discourse. I also asked myself how much free choice men have in modern society, when their choice is constrained by archaic masculinity. These are interrelated thoughts that very few other novels open up so well.

It’s through the novel’s dream-like narrative that this becomes so effective, particularly in regards to Antoinette’s perspective. It is said that our dreams are a way for our brain to process the masses of tangled information that we are faced with every day, and Rhys proves that this is so. She even takes this further by touching on the uncanny of Freud, through Antoinette’s increasingly doll-like state. Rhys is continually exploring new structures, in form, character development, writing style, and even emotion, which further stresses her argument that it is the structures of imperialism and gender roles, rather than the individuals of patriarchy, that are the most important and powerful things to focus on and take action upon.

Why is the novel so relevant for our times? Jane’s ‘gilded cage’ is shown for what it really is; namely, a focus on one woman’s story, instead of other sides of the story, such as those of non-Westerners, non-whites, and poorer women. It draws comparison to the glass ceiling today, which, by focusing on it, demands us to ask whether it allows the exploitation of the majority of female labour and, if so, whether this mirrors the imperialism in the novel? We can go even further and mention other products of capitalism such as the #likeagirl campaign, and artists who use a movement to make a quick profit (I hate to say it, but Beyoncé’s Lemonade). You’ve got to give it to Jean Rhys for warning us about capitalism stunting the growth of feminism.

The other thing that rings so true to our moment now is the extent to which truth is fought over. Truth is fragmented, certain events are ignored, and jumping to conclusions and not listening are tools that are ironically used for self-protection from a societal structure that is reductive and exploitative. Our society is infiltrated with ‘fake news’, leaders and peoples who refuse to listen, believing what they want to believe, because their neo-liberal ideology tells them that’s what they’re entitled to. In this novel, you get a vision of what effect this has on gender and race, and it’s powerful.

Lastly, and most importantly, we are wrapped up in the devastating emotional effects of the imperialistic, gendered world which makes everyone suffer. Antoinette becomes increasingly hollowed out, lifeless, her mental health deteriorates, and Rochester is plagued with lifelessness, lack of empathy and passion, and dangerous anger. Both genders become bereft of the emotional range that they deserve, and this resonates strongly with the way that we are bringing up children today. Young girls very often have shockingly little self-confidence or ambition, and boys struggle to express any emotion other than anger – for just a few examples, read Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism or watch BBC’s recent documentary, No More Boys and Girls. Funnily enough, those children eventually grow up to not fulfil their potentials.

And despite all of this, the richness of Rhys’ language somehow points us towards a glimmer of hope. As if, through all of this, there is a contemporary discourse that is shouting out, encouraging us to do more and express ourselves in better ways which could eliminate the shackles of imperialism and gender roles for good.

If you’re worried about the state of the world right now, read this 124-page beauty; it’ll tell you a lot.

***

About the Author

Freya is a recent English literature graduate from UEA, where she specialised in reading minority cultures, political writing, urbanisation, alongside being generally cynical about modern life. She has been curious about gender representations since a young teenager, and over the past year has experimented with writing to set out her thoughts on feminism and gender through monologue, poetry, short story, and a creative-critical style. She has recently enjoyed working in the arts, through a radio station and a national archive, publicising literary organisations and material. She is an advocate of Europe and urges students in higher education to study abroad.

The Gendered Experience of Time and Numbers

The extent to which women are conditioned to position their identity in numbers deeply upsets me. Shopping with female friends and family often sticking to your given number. Your given identity. If women have to try a larger size, they are conditioned to feel shame. The larger size is said as if it is a dirty word. The larger size is incomprehensible.

By Freya Turner

The extent to which women are conditioned to position their identity in numbers deeply upsets me. Shopping with female friends and family often sticking to your given number. Your given identity. If women have to try a larger size, they are conditioned to feel shame. The larger size is said as if it is a dirty word. The larger size is incomprehensible. The clothes shopping experience isn’t intuitive. It isn’t about holding an item up to the body and seeing how it looks and feels. It’s instead carried out through a prescribed number with huge significance. But of course this number has no inherent human meaning. The meaning behind this number is faux, established only by the marketing, fashion and beauty industries.

Our experiences are coloured by undefinable, subjective movements that are ever changing and shifting. Our body shape alters over the course of a day due to what we’ve fuelled it with. It changes due to our cycle and hormones. We can have a different body shape from one year to the next depending on the type of exercise that we’ve been enjoying at any certain time. Why are we still finding value in a compartmentalised unit, a category, and in self-branding? We do this because it is easy; it transforms our experience into one that is recognisable and relatable to society. However, subjectivity is complex and difficult. Of course, we also find value in a clothing size because we see what sizes are available and we make judgements on where we fit in those available or unavailable sizes.

The woman’s experience is defined by a spectrum of units, where every part of our existence is precisely definable, dated, and set within boundaries, unlike the male identifying experience. The majority of men’s sizes occur in some version of small, medium or large, with trouser sizes defined in waist measurements. Men have a somewhat meaningful language to describe their clothing, along with a scale that reflects the truth. Women experience clothing their body through an arbitrary scale that is unrelated to body measurements. The industry for planners, diaries, organisers, calendars and lists is huge, and the majority of it is marketed towards women. This perpetuates the idea that women must log, sensibly plan, and organise their lives in secret, inaudible, and beautiful ways. Those who identify as men are barely a part of this world.

It used to be commonplace for women to ask whether their bums looked big in something. Now we barely hear it. Now women pay money to get bigger bums. Whether that’s through gym memberships or surgeries, people are paying to the look. Women’s ideal body types change all the time. Our bodies are commodified, dated trends.

Think about one of the most recent women’s razor adverts, where we are sold three different razors for three different sides of you. Women’s bodies, personalities, and day to day experiences are things to endlessly measure and label as if they are a material item. This is happening whilst it is becoming more commonplace for women and men’s experiences to be tracked and compartmentalised, through the spread of new technology. Myfitnesspal and fitbits have taken the fitness industry by storm. Youtubers share their daily or weekly eating and fitness routines with their followers. The same thing happens on Instagram. It seems like it is more vital than ever before to measure the productivity of our bodies and share it with others. But the way this rhetoric is shaped and used is gendered. Online influencers who are in the wellness/fitness area are predominantly women. The majority of Myfitnesspal users are women. The majority of Instagram users are women.

Women are expressing themselves through these platforms, but it is done in a way that limits their experience. For example, the language of wellbeing often involves words like ‘clean’ and a string of hashtags. Women, conscious of this or not, are believing the false idea that we must oblige to compartmentalise our experiences into single words. This is a sign that women still lack the sense of autonomy, spontaneity, and expression that men do.

Also, this ties into the issue of time. Men are more able to live their lives feeling as if they have time on their sides. Women, on the other hand, will be more likely to feel as if they are on the wrong side of time. This is because in Western society in 2017 it is still a common perception that when women age, they become invisible, resentful, and worthless. And if women decide to have children, they then risk triggering the end their own autonomy. They lose themselves, their time and even their own names as they become ‘mothers’. Employers still fire pregnant women, and rearing children still entails mothers joining an institution where it is commonplace for women to do the majority of the unpaid, intensive childcare and emotional labour. Women are painfully aware that with age comes disadvantages and distrust from others. All the more reason to get more organised and use a weekly planner.

What I have found particularly disturbing recently is what I’ve heard from women who have experienced some sort of body change; namely weight gain or loss. They find it almost incomprehensible. They feel disembodied, as if that cannot be them, and that they must revert back to what they used to be. This body change may be the result of some sort of emotional trauma, or physical illness. Regardless, she will likely punish herself, due to the guilt and shame of occupying space in a new body, through implementing a strict diet and exercise regime in order to get back to ‘herself’. God forbid that a woman does the amazing feat of having a baby and has a body which has grown in size to enable and support the entire process. She must lose the baby weight, of course! Erase your body’s ability and adaptability. Why is this still happening?

But we are societies who, in reality, are inflexible about identity. In the era of the individual, where the individual is free in the midst of a disjointed, disparate political society, it is no wonder that we are seeking to say something about ourselves in a way that is audible and comprehensible to others. We want our identities to be consistent and definable because it seems like that is the only way that they can be noticed. This works paradoxically for women, for the more that they self express through the numbers of their bodies and experiences, or reductive codes like hashtags, the more that they are exposing the instilled belief that women must be kept an eye on, tracked, and defined. A woman’s true experience is defined by subjective changes but we are not happy with this. We are playing a numbers game which cannot grant us our freedom.

***

About the Author

Freya is a recent English literature graduate from UEA, where she specialised in reading minority cultures, political writing, urbanisation, alongside being generally cynical about modern life. She has been curious about gender representations since a young teenager, and over the past year has experimented with writing to set out her thoughts on feminism and gender through monologue, poetry, short story, and a creative-critical style. She has recently enjoyed working in the arts, through a radio station and a national archive, publicising literary organisations and material. She is an advocate of Europe and urges students in higher education to study abroad.

 

Feminism and the ‘Obesity Crisis’: Production, Autonomy and Health in a Society of Guilt

By Freya Turner

At Hay festival 2017, in a talk about food with Rosie Boycott, there was a Q&A to close the session and one woman stood up to ask, ‘do you think that feminism has led to the obesity crisis?’ I don’t know whether she asked this believing it or not; I couldn’t tell. The audience responded with a loud murmur and more laughter than I was expecting. I remember my own response clearly, my heart rate surged and a cold sweat formed across my upper lip and underarms as physical manifestations of my anger. After having some time to unravel my thoughts more methodically in response to this, here is my reply to this question.

Feminism gives us the opportunity to transform subjugation into a dignified lived experience for all people. As soon as someone asks whether this movement is responsible for a loss of health, and in this case, morality (more on this later), several things are implied which need to be broken down and addressed.

In this question, the ‘obesity crisis’ is code for ill health. However, is it? There is a reason why people aren’t asking whether poor health is linked to feminism, whereas obesity is. Obesity is a moral issue that we have transfixed on for years, whereas bad health and sickness more generally is removed from the notion of morality. Feminism is entrenched with morality, and women are discriminated against for an abstract lack of moral ‘pureness’. ‘Obesity’ is a visual phenomenon, and ill-health is most often not. Visual spectacle and archaic concepts of morality therefore, underlie the woman’s question.

In the UK, it often seems that we couldn’t think of anything more frightening than a fat person. It’s no wonder that the ‘headless fat person’ trope exists, because things that we are scared of are what we turn into spectacles. A fat woman? Even worse. Why? Because she threatens what others possess. Fat people, women, and fat women threaten our money and resources, or that’s what we’ve been led to believe. The notion of feminism is threatening because it entails women getting paid equally for the services that they provide, challenging cis male privilege. Feminism in practice would radically change the rules of supply and demand. For example, the Wimbledon Tennis Tournament this year justified patriarchal rationale for not having as many women’s matches on centre court; simply because less people wanted to watch women’s tennis. Thus, sexism was maintained because of a threat to a seemingly delicate monetary infrastructure.

Fat people are presented as a drain on our resources because they are wrongly labelled as lazy, unintelligent, selfish, weak-willed, and generally unable to physically and mentally ‘keep up’. The work they do will therefore be subpar and workforces cannot afford to use people like this. Fat people are a scapegoat for an epidemic of consumption, where they are targeted as individuals who suck up our resources and give nothing valuable back. The idea of homogenising women and obese people through their monetary value is unjustified and shameful. More lives, regardless of appearance or gender, would have human value and better health if these destructive concepts were eradicated. Fat people are unhealthy, but they are also healthy. Slim people are unhealthy, but they are also healthy.

Perhaps the woman’s question suggests the flawed, illogical idea that the fact that more women are in work is the reason why there is a rise in family’s consumption of convenience, i.e. unhealthy food. Ill health is not caused by more women just going to work and cooking a bit less (are men not capable of cooking family meals?). Poor health is the product of a neoliberal society that pushes the individual to believe that it is ok to juggle a lot more of both work and play. A life is not the responsibility of the state or society, but the individual. This framework has been both producer and product of zero-hour contracts, the gig economy, overtime, home-work, cuts to public sector care work, intensive unpaid emotional labour like childcare, and the unending connection to work life from the home through emails, online networking websites and general digitisation. These common practices perpetuate the idea that work and play are naturally intertwined, and that care work, and therefore typically feminine work, has little value.

These issues have arisen through what Donna Haraway called the feminisation of work, in A Cyborg Manifesto. But this is not feminism within work. This is a society where sporadic work practices push all genders to consume and produce more. We are made to feel as if we should always be doing more, where stress and anxiety becomes our lifestyle, thanks to work and leisure getting tangled up together.

It just so happens that more women feel the brunt of it; they earn less than their male equivalents, generally undertake more unpaid work in the home, and they will be more likely to feel the effects of a poorer quality of life due to cuts in the (predominantly female) healthcare sector. They are conditioned to invest their valuable time in ‘taking care’ of their appearance and, broadly speaking, will invest more in the health and wellbeing industry in order to escape and improve the reality of everyday life. Poorer health develops as a result; the individual has been encouraged to consume more products and produce, or do more, all whilst eating less. It is coined as the culture of bulimia; a culture shrouded in an irony that is deep rooted in guilt. It is this guilt which leads to unhealthy mental and physical conditions. Feminism is our opportunity for all genders to have autonomy, free of guilt, where care is enough, eating is eating, and not a moral statement or magical drug, and size does not equate to worth.

Some women cook, and some don’t. They certainly don’t belong in the kitchen. But until we rid our homes of ‘more simple times’ Cath Kidston prints, the Scandinavian wellbeing guides advising a return to the home, along with the clean eating books from our bookshelves, we’ve got a long way to go before society will change.

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About the Author

Freya is a recent English literature graduate from UEA, where she specialised in reading minority cultures, political writing, urbanisation, alongside being generally cynical about modern life. She has been curious about gender representations since a young teenager, and over the past year has experimented with writing to set out her thoughts on feminism and gender through monologue, poetry, short story, and a creative-critical style. She has recently enjoyed working in the arts, through a radio station and a national archive, publicising literary organisations and material. She is an advocate of Europe and urges students in higher education to study abroad.

Are We Choosing Marriage Consciously?

By Taniya Shandil

“So, have you been thinking about boys and relationships then?” said Kal, one of my inquisitive neighbours. She popped over to my house for a cuppa and a catch-up, which we did whenever we met up. I was venting to her about how my dad had been hinting that I should be ‘doing certain things in time’. He would occasionally joke about posting my biodata online for some suitable matches to come through, so that he can get rid of me (quite literally is own words!). He said it teasingly, as a joke to wind me up, but to me it was more than a joke. He never said it directly but to me, but I felt like he meant there was a time to do everything, namely: a time for studies, a time for career and a time for marriage.

So, I being totally unready to even have that conversation or think about marriage at 25 was something that Kal found a bit surprising too. As we were discussing our life experiences, she said, “Well, you know, I got married at 24. I didn’t know what it would be like. But I learnt to understand how my life would change, and how to understand Ravi better. And now, two kids later we know each other well … we share our own little banter and that’s what it’s all about!”

She then went on to say, “You know marrying early is good because you can have your children, play with them and see them grow up while you’re young. I have some friends of mine who were very career-minded – now they’ve turned 32, 36 years old and they can’t have all that now!” “All what? Marriage and children?” I asked.

“Yes, you know. When you turn a certain age, it becomes difficult to have children. Also, it’s harder to marry!” she said.

I listened to her intently, yet had this strange feeling that she wasn’t entirely confident in her marriage at such a young age. Surely, we need to learn a little more about marriage before we go ahead and do it – just like you learn about the job prospects of a career before entering into it. Marriage being one of the life-defining decisions that we make deserves to be thought about, and not just ventured into blindly because it is the correct age to do so.

Practically speaking, the thought of ‘marrying at a certain age’ might be somewhat true since the biological clock exists, and has its limits. However, do we need to marry to have our children? Are we consciously choosing marriage and then kids, or is the choice being made for us?

Is it easy for a person, especially a woman, to make her own decisions without being judged? What happens if a woman decides she wants to marry when she is 40 years old, when she is filled with life experiences, financially stable and comfortable with herself as a person? Not to mention, she can emotionally support her partner better! Yes, with the biological clock ticking perhaps it would be difficult to have children. But isn’t this mind-set the stability that lays the foundation of a successful, and emotionally communicative marriage?

Why does it seem easier for men over 35 to find a younger woman to marry but not so vice versa? Logically speaking, isn’t there a higher risk of the marriage not working out when the woman is young and coming to terms with the idea of living with someone, discovering herself and trying to begin her career? Or does marriage choose her because she is of a certain age and can bare children? Is it biology, or our own conscious decisions? Do we feel incomplete if we don’t marry or don’t ‘have it all’? Is it necessary to ‘have it all’?

I am not saying that we should ignore our biology or shun marriage as an institution, but I do think it is important to question whether we looking at women as autonomous individuals? Are we accepting the fact that people will choose their marriage decisions? What about same-sex couples, are they similarly restricted by the social constructs which seem intrinsic in heterosexual couples? Are we acknowledging the fact that people will grow into more evolved beings with age who can provide better emotional, mental and financial support to their partners? Or are we associating a woman’s age as old = loss of youth = not a child bearing age?

Is the idea of ‘not having it all’ and ‘being left behind’ scary?

As I sit here and wonder about what Kal said, all I can surely say for now is that I don’t know what path I will eventually end up taking. Whether I will be ready mentally or not, whether I will find a decent partner or not, whether I end up having children or not. But one thing is for sure: whatever happens, I want to make sure that I choose it and not the other way around.

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About the Author

Taniya Shandil is a recent Chemistry postgraduate student from Cardiff University who is interested in gender and feminism issues. She has recently completed her master’s in Chemistry, and has took to writing for the purpose of self expression, creativity and making a difference by challenging perceptions of gender.

She also enjoys music, dance and reading as hobbies. One day, she wants to make a difference in the chemical industry with her work, and at the same time become a writer who can make a difference.

Taniya Shandil

Redefining ‘Woman’

By Rachael Haylock

If you google the word ‘woman’, one of the definitions states:

“a peremptory form of address to a woman e.g ‘don’t be daft, woman!’”

(Peremptory means “insisting on immediate attention or obedience, especially in a brusquely imperious way.”)

Whereas if you google ‘man’, you get:

“used, irrespective of the sex of the person addressed, to express surprise, admiration, delight, etc., or for emphasis.”

The very word given to women at birth has become an order, an aggressive and autonomous way to speak to a female. On the flip side, the word ‘man’, is the opposite, and serves as a light, friendly way to greet both men and women. From the day we are born and named ‘woman’, the first word used to describe us entrenches our obedience and subservience to our male counterparts. As women’s futures seem to be changing and shifting around us, the discourse for redefining what it means to be a woman needs to be discussed.

At birth, the first thing that the nurse probably said about us was “It’s a girl”. ‘Female’ becomes our very name and our very definition. In that moment, much of our lives are defined for us. We will probably be dressed in pink, watch Disney princess movies and take ballet classes. We will learn that to be female means to be beautiful, fragile and dependent.

As we get older there is very little change, by the time we are teenagers, all the social norms that envelope the term ‘woman’ have permeated our identity. Maybe we will start learning how to use makeup and how to lust over shoes and clothes. Maybe we will read shiny magazines with beautiful woman, maybe we will start developing a fraught relationship with our bodies. Maybe we will begin to associate society’s definition of beautiful with our self-worth. In our culture there is only one ‘Ideal Woman’, and it becomes our life purpose to try and fit that mould.

In 2015 alone there were 279,143 breast augmentations; a 31% increase from 2000 (plasticsurgery.org, 2016). This is a direct result of the notion of the ‘Ideal Woman’. She has led many women to dress the same, do their hair the same, buy the same things and even adapt their bodies so that their bodies look the same. In turn, this creates competition between women. There can only be one ‘Ideal Woman’ and we are all subconsciously trying to play that role.

In order to break down the concept of the ‘Ideal Woman’, one must realise the differences between sex and gender. Our sex is female or male, the biological composition of our bodies, however, our gender is how we chose to express ourselves. Our gender is a construct that we have the power to create. The ‘Ideal Woman’ forces a certain type of gender expression on us. She limits us, and is often subconsciously attached to much of our unhappiness. Essentially, we have been denied the freedom to choose our own truth. Our truths have been clouded by the do’s and don’ts of how a ‘woman’ should behave, dress and conduct herself.

Women (and people in general!) everywhere seem to be undergoing a transition. They are realising that the world does not exist in binaries. The traditional concepts of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are dissolving, to be replaced with an array of creative gender expressions. At some points we can almost feel like it is almost enough to just be yourself, without any kind of gender attachment. As we start to recognise that we have the ability to define our own standards of beauty, we realise that as part of human nature, the only constant in life is that we are all different ever-evolving. Everybody is different, and in our difference, everybody is beautiful. Our purpose as women emerges, unashamed in our expression of ourselves. We are unashamed of our self-expression and we can speak our own truths, inspiring others to do the same.

What if we don’t want to be a woman, biologically or otherwise? We are on a constant journey with our womanhood, always evolving and adapting. Most importantly, by redefining ‘woman’ we can also become more aware of the different struggles women everywhere face in their daily lives. We can be thankful to be in the position where we can redefine what is means to be a woman freely.

Every woman is different and every woman is beautiful and every woman should be treated as such. I believe that the future of womanhood is to encourage and support each other to express and love who they are, rather than participate in competition and rivalry. The future of womanhood is to teach our sons and daughters that all people, regardless of sex, have equal opportunities to explore and express their hopes and dreams; that beauty comes in all forms, shapes and sizes; and that your sex does not define you. Our journey as women is just beginning, and together we can redefine the cultural norms that surround our sex, and create a better future for all women.

References:

https://www.plasticsurgery.org/news/press-releases/new-statistics-reflect-the-changing-face-of-plastic-surgery

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About the Author

Rachael is a dance practitioner, yoga teacher and writer. She has a Bachelors in Dance studies, and was first introduced to gender studies at university, by looking at dance practices through gender as a cultural lens. She hopes to use her voice and movement practices to inspire and help break down habitual and cultural limitations. She is a passionate believer in expression, travel, freedom and an equal voice for people everywhere.

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