Take Up Space Revisited

Two years ago, I wrote about the need for women to take up space and claim their power in a room. Now, I’m realizing that the issue is much larger.

This issue of body politics extends to food and body image. The smaller women are in body weight the more confident we are supposed to feel. When we make ourselves thin we are beautiful. When we make ourselves small at the dining room table, we are beautiful. We do not reach for second helpings. We do not take first at meals.

I never feel more visible and aware of being a woman than when I am eating. From how I hold my fork to when I sip my water to what is on my plate, I feel exposed. Eating makes me feel guilty and gluttonous. Eating can become a cause of anxiety (when to eat, what to eat, how much to eat). When I eat, I want to be invisible and shrink myself down to nothing. From my own experience, I take up the least space when I am at the table.

Not every woman has the same experience, and I cannot claim to speak for others. But before I can spread my legs on a bus seat or tuck my shoulders back and straighten my spine when I enter a room of men, I must first take up space with food.

We must choose to be visible in all aspects of our lives, even, and especially, the ones we are shamed for. Eating becomes a political statement: a chance for women to claim our right to exist! If we are shamed for surviving and told to gain confidence by making ourselves small and invisible, there is no space we can inhabit as full human beings. To take up space physically, we must start at the source and claim food and eating as a stance of political power.

10 steps to positive body image.png

 

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Saying it Simply

As from an earlier post, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a teacher, an educator, a mentor or whatever you wish to call a job working with young people.

While driving a few students back to the high school, one young man played a song on his i-pod for the car and the lyrics came down to: women make up rape, don’t believe them.

I wanted to tell him this was rape culture, that he is perpetuating a system which tells the world women lie and dismisses sexual assault as just another way women seek to harm men. And for about thirty seconds I tried to formulate this thought.

But the student is a sophomore in high school. He doesn’t know the term rape culture and I realized I didn’t want to lecture him or turn the car ride into a space to shame him for something he most likely just doesn’t understand yet.

Instead, I said, “Do you mind if we listen to something which doesn’t say women make up rape? It’s making me really uncomfortable.”

He immediately turned it off, apologized and we asked the other students in the car what they wanted to listen to.

And while I’m not sure he understood why I was offended, he respected the fact that his choice was harmful to others. I’m very proud of his maturity. I’m also proud of myself because I didn’t defer to academic language or language only people within the feminist community know. A few months ago I would have used terms like rape culture and tried to explain as if I am the expert. But I’m not.

It’s not that academic language and important terms like rape culture cannot be discussed with high school students and I don’t believe I was dumbing something down for him. I believe I was making a choice to say what I needed to say simply so it could be understood by everyone.

What good is social change if it is not accessible to all?

You’re Either First Second or Dead

To be blunt, I hate competitions. I stopped watching The Food Network when nearly every show became a contest over who could be better than the guy next to them. Cut Throat Kitchen. Guy’s Grocery Grab. The Next Food Network Star. Can’t you just show me how to cook?

I hate how I am in competitions, knowing that if I let myself, I whoop and holler on the frisbee field, shouting and exclaiming sounds of adrenaline when an opponent drops the catch or misjudges their throw. Whenever possible I avoid these moments because I don’t recognize that person on the field who can cheer for someone else’s misfortune and who believes that scoring a point ahead of your opponent is worth fighting for. On a smaller level, I avoid games like Monopoly, Uno or Scrabble.

monopolyman

What if I win and feel great about beating someone else? What if I lose and have to acknowledge that I am imperfect?

Competition is patriarchy. The competitive capitalist culture tells us that the goal is to win and you win by beating everyone else. There is no way to share resources or wealth. You win or you lose. You take or what you have is taken. The logic here is not logic at all, but pervades our understanding of the world. If women have equal rights, men must lose rights. Except, this is not the case at all. Men will lose privilege, but we will all have equal rights. You don’t have to knock your opponent down to get up.

At the restaurant where I work, a co-worker approached me to test my knowledge about superheroes. He heard I know about superheroes and here he was ready to challenge my knowledge and put me in my place. He asked me questions about Jean Grey and Cyclops and Emma Frost. He asked me questions about Wolverine. This wasn’t a friendly conversation or a way to initiate an exchange of ideas on a topic we both enjoy: this was meant to shame me and make him a winner. A few servers stopped to listen and throw in their knowledge, but I didn’t want them there. I didn’t want to be a spectacle to increase someone’s self esteem at the expense of my own. I stumbled through some answers (many of which were wrong or incomplete) and went away from the conversation feeling like an idiot.

I spoke with my co-worker a few minutes later and told him that the conversation made me uncomfortable. And though he said he didn’t mean to put me on the spot, that was exactly what he was doing. He needed to assert dominance over me and be the winner. I didn’t even want to compete.

When we foster and allow competitive patriarchal culture to flourish everyone loses. The losers lose self esteem and become the under caste–on every level from small conversations to larger issues of systematic oppression. The losers lose dignity and then have to fight and climb over others to not be the bottom of the bottom. The winners lose ideas of cooperation and knowledge that a life without oppression and dominating others is possible. The winners lose security because they must constantly defend their position of dominance and power through aggression.

I met an American naval officer in the airport a few months ago and she said we live in a world where “You’re either first, second or dead and you’ll never be first.” As long as we are in competition with each other, we cannot work together to overcome or analyze what keeps us divided. We see it in racism where poor white communities are pitted against communities of color, or middle class communities of color are pitted against poor communities of color, where straight women are pitted against the queer community, where women are pitted against trans women. We see this needless competition everywhere, this mad scramble to be first.

And, unfortunately, Patriarchy and the culture of competition is first, and the rest of us claw and spit and climb over each other for the scraps to be second. When we think about competitions, think about who’s dead.

Explaining Sexism to the Oblivious

I knew it was going to be a long conversation when a male co-worker, upon learning I graduated from a women’s college, asked me, “So you hate men?” I told him that it has nothing to do with hating men but with believing in equality and valuing myself and others no matter their gender or sexuality.

I’m busing tables in a restaurant. I’m not part of the waitstaff. I didn’t think I would need to deal with this much blatant and oblivious sexism immediately, especially not two days into the job. How I was that naive, I don’t think I’ll ever know.

everyday sexism

The man who asked me this question told me he never had to think about sexism before. He said, “I can’t really say much because I’m not a woman but in my mind men and women are equal.” If you did, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. “Women might even be smarter than men. Men suck.” That’s an appeasement tactic. You’re throwing me a bone thinking that by praising women as greater I’ll believe you’re one of the nice men. The gentlemen who think holding the door for a woman means you’re not a misogynist. Try again, sir. Try again. “I just think that women only think men treat them differently. I think most men believe women are equal.” Tell that to the wage gap. 

“No.” let me say that again: NO. I told him that everything about our culture praises traditionally masculine qualities and devalues traditionally feminine qualities.

“Do you have an example to prove your point?”

The English language is inherently misogynistic. There are more ways to describe women than men and most of these terms are sexual and insults. The female equivalent to male terms always go the way of insults. For instance, a master is in command, but a mistress is a sexual being. Boys will be boys, but don’t hit like a girl/run like a girl/throw like a girl.

I laid out one or two examples as we stood in the back of the kitchen peeling potatoes. It was a moment of pressure because I was defending all women and all feminists. My answer would be the answer. I hated his smug white face as he nodded occasionally, but clearly didn’t believe me. He did not see sexism in the world because he never had to deal with it, only reap the benefits.

Just the fact that he needed proof is evidence enough that he valued my opinion less than a man’s. I had to defend myself. I had to explain sexism, knowing he wasn’t interested in anything more than being polite. I’d rather he wasn’t polite. I don’t want feminism to be tolerated and on the margins. Tolerance is far from acceptance.

I told him, “Feminism is more than just equal rights or thinking you treat women equally. You have to act on it. Feminism is active and you have to want it. You have to want to tear down the structure of male privilege.”

You have to seek out equality, not just ask about everyday examples of sexism too numerous to count. You have to want it more than anything else in the world.

and that I (gasp!) wanted to be there

Books by Women: Doomsday Book

I’ve taken the challenge to read only books by women (and non cis men) for a year. Though one of my favorite authors is female (Sarah Monette and her Doctrine of Labyrinths series), most of my other favorite authors are male. David Anthony Durham, J.R.R. Tolkien and when I browse in a book store my eye wanders to the titles I’m interested in and most of them are written by men. The covers of the books written by men are typically darker, grittier, and appear more intense and riveting: exactly what I want in a novel or story collection.

But I want to take the time to read female authors. Otherwise, I become part of the culture which ignores the work of female authors as chick lit, fluff or all about emotions. Especially because I blog for Luna Station Quarterly, a spec fic journal dedicated to emerging female writers, I need to support these writers as writers and not just female writers. Ideally, women would not be marked in every profession they enter.

One of my best friends explained to me that she can’t get interested in super hero stories because the stories are nearly all written by and about men. The industry isn’t interested in telling the stories of women because women are considered a niche market. Stories are dominated by men in the movies (take a look at movie trailers for instance–most women in the trailer are taking off their clothes and rarely have any speaking lines in the trailer), books (even books written by women tend to have male main characters) and television (programs meant for both genders have male leads). We are essentially saying that women’s stories and women’s voices have no value.

And so I’ve taken the challenge to read books by women for a year. This is a simple way to show support for female authors and the stories they create. Even if you’re still in school and cannot commit to the challenge for a full year, try it for a summer. Build your summer reading list around female authors.

I’ve started off with Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book (1992) winner of the Nebula and Hugo awards. It’s a blend of both science fiction and historical fiction. The novel is comprised of parallel stories one in the future where historians are sent back in time to conduct research and the other where a female historian Kivrin is sent back to the Middle Ages. I would recommend it for its plotting and pacing though the writing is not always the strongest.

Doomsday_Book

I’ll be keeping an updated list throughout the year with each new book I read. Keep a look out for future posts. Next up: Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.

Who are your favorite female authors? What books can you recommend? I’m especially interested in finding female-led comic books.

“Are you Muslim?” “Does it matter?”

This past weekend I was at the 2015 Hunger Walk benefiting the Atlanta Community Food Bank. I’m there through my internship, a non-profit that works with the Hizmet Movement (AKA the Gulen movement)–a peaceful civic interpretation of Islam that fosters understanding and dialogue between all faiths, based on the ideas of Turkish scholar Fetullah Gulen.

In such an environment I wasn’t expecting to have the conversation that I did. Before the walk begins, I was speaking with a middle aged woman who, upon learning I’m at the walk through my internship, asked: “Are you Muslim?”

I told her, “No.” I’m not Muslim. I din’t tell her I’m Jewish because I distrusted her.

She attempted to backtrack but didn’t apologize because she didn’t realize she had done something wrong. She then told me, “I know not all Muslim girls wear a headscarf.”

This is true, but it doesn’t justify her question. If she had to ask if I was Muslim it meant she would view me differently based on my answer. She needed to know to satisfy her own curiosity and prove her own goodness and accepting diversity. It’s the same way that by telling me she knew not all Muslim women wear hijabs, she was really telling me was: I’m a good liberal woman, I swear. I’d accept you even if you were Muslim.

And I’m sure she’s a good person, but she didn’t need to prove how liberal she was to me. I talked with her throughout the walk and found out she routinely does walks for Breast Cancer, that she supports gay marriage and that she’s aware of issues of race. These conversations came up naturally and we were having a discussion. I felt more at ease because she wasn’t trying to prove anything.

I’ve been having a lot of conversations with one my friends lately about the “good liberal on the street” who thinks that listening to NPR, voting for the democrats and supporting gay marriage or having a gay friend makes them radical and leftist and somehow helping the world. But if this is all a person is doing, if this is all a person sees as making a difference, and if a person is willing to stop there and congratulate themselves on their good liberal lifestyle they’re still part of the problem.

NPR is tame. Gay marriage is the tip of the iceberg.

As long as liberal people feel the need to prove how liberal they are with questions like “Are you Muslim?” then we’re stuck in an unfortunate definition of liberality. We’re stuck with liberals but not activists.  I’m not saying these “good liberals on the street” are bad people, or that being radical somehow makes someone more moral, but we need more than surface level change. We need to arrive at a day where the answer to the question “Are you Muslim?” is “Does it matter?”

The Positive Language of Feminism

Nearly a month into 2015, but it’s not too late to add a New Year’s resolution. This year, I will be a positive feminist and use my language to uplift women.

I’ve noticed an unfortunate trend in my speech this past year: when speaking about feminism, social justice or human rights I fall into the category of one who sees some of the problems but frames my responses from a negative outlook. Instead of saying “Women’s voices have been devalued by patriarchal culture,” I say, “Women are told their voices don’t matter and that we’ll never matter.”

The difference is in the tense. It is true that women’s voices have been devalued in the past, and that in the present women still struggle to be heard, but that does not mean WE’LL NEVER MATTER. If I frame our current struggle as a losing cause I keep my self down, I keep others down and surround myself with the fear that nothing I can do or say will matter because the past=the present=the future.

Not true.

In a conversation with a group of women of color at my university the other day, many of them spoke about how their mothers and female role models never told them that they were worth less as women. Looking at my own background, my mother never told me that I was worth less for my sex. I was telling myself this lie because to be a feminist and to be a part of feminist culture and debate means to drop into a fist fight and always keep your arms up for defense. You will be attacked.

Maybe I wanted a lost cause. Maybe it felt good to rant in absolute statements that said negative words like NEVER.

But feminism is not a lost cause.

With your arms up you are also on the offensive and you choose how you fight. This year, I choose to fight with positive language. Women’s voices are valued. Women’s voices are valued because I value them. And I am not alone.

When  I was home in CT for winter break I met up with a friend I’ve known since elementary school. The year before we both went off to college we were both afraid of the word feminism and wouldn’t listen to a mutual friend begin to question the patriarchy. We only meet up once or twice a year, and in 2013 we sat in Barnes and Noble and laughed at the articles in Seventeen Magazine for its portrayal of young girls as sex objects in a heteronormative world. I was a feminist then but was too afraid to say so to my friend and she was a feminist, but was too afraid to say so to me.

This year, I followed her facebook page as she posted about Ferguson and the fight for human rights across differences in race, sex, gender and sexuality. When we met up this year, she told me that as a creative writing major, “I’m tired of reading stories by and about men.” Wow, did I understand the feeling! Finally, we came together as the feminists were always terrified to be, but we lifted each other up through our bravery. Feminism is a positive language to make positive change and connect individuals for a more just and peaceful world of equality.

In 2015, I will be a positive feminist.