So, last night I found out that I am going to be working away from this weekend until mid-August. Although I will take my computer with me, this is a kinda ridiculously full time job and I think it unlikely I will have time to post more awesome things on my blog like I promised. Oh time flies. So this is me signing out until mid-August barring the possibility of spontaneous flashes of genius. You never know.
In my post Burlesque: Sexy or Sexist? I made the argument that the pressure to be thin and its resultant effects on women’s bodies was similar to the experiences of a body in the Holocaust. That the anorexic body and the body in a concentration camp experienced a similar kind of starvation. Some of you guys found this comparison insensitive to those affected by and killed during the Holocaust, and argued that comparing anything with that genocide is inexcusable.
Rereading that article, I can see how phrasing this argument using the words ‘fun fact’ was insensitive and seemed to belittle the Holocaust. This was never my intention and the words were meant to be sarcastic, but they were a bad choice of words. As a non-Jewish person I can also accept that it’s not my place to use the Holocaust as an analogy in my contemporary feminist argument. I sincerely apologise for any pain caused.
I would also like to draw your attention to The Beauty Myth, the original source of this argument which I replicated. While I take full responsibility for my use of this argument in my own writing, I think Naomi Wolf addresses the history of starvation in a far more eloquent and sensitive way. As an American of Jewish descent, maybe she has more right to this language and history than I do.
Hey guys, here’s a bit of Sunday lazy listening for you. It’s an interview with the Dresden-based radio station, coloRadio, recorded last weekend at Ladyfest Leipzig. Thanks to Antje for interviewing me! We recorded at 2 in the morning outside a queer punk party after I had drunk a lot of gin, but I think I still manage to make quite a lot of sense. Click here to listen.
Don’t forget to tune in tomorrow for my lowdown on the anti-sexism workshops I have run over the past few weeks. Yay for fem(me)inist activism!
Hey lovely readers, just wanted to give you a heads up that I have a brand spanking new article up on awesome feminist website Feminists India. It is a summary of my arguments that question group norms in the queer community. What do you guys think? Have the assumptions of masculinity, hypersexualisation and polyamory in queer circles created a false hierarchy between the ideal queer and the realities of lived queer lives? Go check it out.
Part 2 on women in the workplace. From fat to periods to dressing for work; the effects of misogyny on women’s bodies and self-esteem.
Hello! So, I know some of you are dying to hear all the juicy gossip from the sexism workshop I ran at Ladyfest Leipzig. No fear, I plan to fill you in very soon! But as I am also running the same workshop at the Antifee festival in Göttingen this weekend, I thought I would give you guys a summary of what I learnt next week. Do come say hi to me in Göttingen if you are around! And, for those of you who live in Berlin, there is a Femmepowerment workshop next Monday as part of TCSD. It’s gonna be run by some femme activist colleagues of mine and I think it is going to be great. I’ll see you there!
Lastly, feel free to get in touch with me and let me know if you agree or disagree with my theories, and why. I want to make this blog as interactive as possible, so feed me back! Phew! On with the ideas:
In part one on women and careers I wrote how we undermine our achievements in order to appear more socially acceptable. In a society in which we are still the second sex, women are taught to be modest and are habitually self-deprecating in contrast to a lot of men’s seemingly innate self-confidence. Men are nurtured from birth; women are not.
Maybe this refusal to encourage a woman to develop her abilities comes from a kinda ‘what’s the point’ attitude. I mean, women are still very much valued by our relationship to men. Our lives are only given meaning by our relationship status. You can see this attitude in the spinster shaming of successful single women. Wow, she wrote a book on feminism, became the CEO of her company, worked for the UN, but does she have a man? Lesbians, too, are not exempt from the pressure to mate. We experience a kind of second-best relationship pressure. It would be better if we were with a guy, but, failing that, anyone will do so long as we are in some kind of relationship! Cue false pity and ‘worrying’ about the woman who is happily single.
So, maybe in a world that only values women in relationship to our, er, relationships, we don’t bother to nurture the talents of our daughters. If all we are grooming are girls for is wife- and motherhood, there’s not really much point paying for violin lessons or a maths tutor, is there? I mean, you can’t be a touring musician or an astronaut and have a family, can you? It’s one or the other, and the family always wins.
“Wow, she became the CEO of her company and worked for the UN but does she have a man?”
I recently listened to a guest on BBC’s Woman’s Hour who explained that, of course women find it impossible to balance a career and children. The system was never set up for female workers in the first place! Whether or not this is completely true (I remember learning about whole families that worked in factories during the industrial revolution, and this probably still happens in the sweatshops of today), it makes a lot of sense to me. There’s nothing ‘natural’ about a system in which the most important years of your career fall at the exact same time most women have babies. Maternity leave is still only a temporary hiatus from the world of work (one year in the UK) and it’s not surprising that many women choose to leave their careers in order to care for their children for longer. It’s not only that childcare is extremely expensive, it’s also that of course you want to see your children grow up! Why do we have a working life that peaks in a person’s thirties? Why do we have a working day that ends 2 hours after school? Nothing about these structures is inevitable. They are all manmade.
Manmade. Ha! It’s almost as if the dudes are trying to keep us out the boardroom!
In addition to being excluded by the very structure of working life, it is pretty clear that women in the office stand out in other ways. Not only are we expected to be falsely modest, but we are meant to try and ‘blend in’ at the same time. How, exactly, we are meant to blend into an environment that is inherently foreign to us, I don’t know, but I am maybe I am getting too feminist theory on you guys here.
According to my imperfect knowledge of European history, the industrialisation of the working world created a system that depersonalised the individual. It was no more about individual skills, only the presence of a physical body. Any body would do. The invention of the conveyor belt and its innovative use in the manufacturing of Henry Ford’s cars is now symbolic of the extent to which capitalism just doesn’t care about the individuality of its workers. You only have to read Jonathan Safran Foer’s account of the Mexican workers in the US meat industry to understand that, to the big capitalist machine, individuals are completely dispensable.
“Women are are expected to be better than men and to look better while doing it.”
So it should come as no surprise that all workers in the office are expected to wear a uniform. For men, it’s kind of easy. Trouser suits and ties are made in all sizes and look kind of comfy. Women, however, are not only supposed to conform to a certain look, they are meant to do it with style. That’s part of the problem of being a woman. We are not expected to be as good as men, we are expected to be better, and to look better while doing it. Phew! And then of course we’ll be called vapid sexpots for it and not taken seriously. Oh, man, sometimes it sucks being a girl.
Women are caught in a double bind when it comes to appearances. We are fetishized as sex objects and expected to dress the part. Yet, we are routinely overlooked for promotions. It’s as if, in the context of work, we are not even seen. And this is after we’ve been made to stand out in the first place! And of course, this isn’t really about what we look like at all. Butches, who pretty much look like the guys (apart from being much hotter!), don’t exactly melt into the background either. They, too, are ridiculed for being women and then for being masculine on top of that. I mean, we really can’t win, can we?
Fun aside: I remember reading an article about butch dress sense in the workplace in British lesbo magazine Diva. I kept this issue under my bed as porn (shh! Don’t tell anyone!). Years later, I went on a date with one of the featured butches but it didn’t work out. And, no I didn’t tell her! Turns out pin-ups don’t necessarily make great dates after all.
I really believe that, faced with women in the workplace, the working world of men doesn’t know what to do with us at all. It sees us as a problem to be solved. ‘She’s dressed inappropriately, she must be mad.’ ‘Dammit, her ideas are better than mine, let’s laugh at her legs.’ It’s almost as if, threatened with our increased economic power and intelligence, they are desperate to keep us out. Ever heard of the glass ceiling?
“as a tall woman I often hunch my shoulders and slide down in chairs in order to not seem as big”
Industrialisation’s desire to make us disappear into the crowd affects all of us, men and women both. It comes from the depersonalisation of work by the mentalities of mass-production. However, women have it worse.
Women are asked to disappear in so many contexts. We are meant to dumb down, so we don’t threaten the dudes with our obvious intelligence. We are meant to fit into a dress code and simultaneously asked to stand out from it, and ridiculed for both these attempts. And we are meant to avoid, at all costs, the terror of being fat.
Women are always seen in terms of our physicality. To me, this seems like an excuse to not take us seriously on any level. Just think about the extent to which our bodies are abhorred. Fat, which is necessary for our health and an inherent part of the female body, is seen only in terms of how it can be made to just go away. Periods are, still, taboo. I remember how annoyed I was even as a child by TV adverts for menstrual products. In contrast to the loudness of the other ads that literally shouted their products at you (did you know that TV stations actually turn UP the volume for the ads? Listen next time.), these ads would suddenly be wordless and play soft musak while amorphous flowery (read feminine – argh!) shapes float on the screen and the word ‘period’ or ‘blood’ is never even mentioned. I remember being confused watching one particular advert because I had no idea what it was about until the box of sanitary towels came up on the screen at the end. Even these days, the ‘blood’ is still blue. I mean, what is that about? It’s blood. It’s natural! Get over it!
Fun aside number 2: recently, even after sterilising my Mooncup by boiling it after my period, the person I was staying with insisted on then sterilising the pan I had used again. Hello? I just sterilised it, you idiot! Yup, periods – and by extension all women – are dirty.
(See below for a hilarious spoof of tampon ads, albeit by Kotex, who are far from innocent in this respect.)
So women are physical, in touch with nature, dirty; men are intellectual, civilised and clean.
This abhorrence of female bodies extends to all the ways we are present in society. It’s no wonder that, being told we are unwanted in every way possible, women try to make ourselves as physically insignificant as possible. I have often been told that my wacky dress sense makes me easy to spot in a crowd, and I like that. However, as a tall woman I notice I often hunch my shoulders, sit in the corner and slide down in chairs in order to not seem as tall. When I see myself in photos, larger than my friends, I often cringe at my own bigness. The happy expression of my personality in loud clothes is counteracted by my own desire to make myself smaller. This longing to be smaller reminds me of what Princess Di said about her anorexia and bulimia; that she “just wanted to disappear.”
Although the desire to escape a world which is so misogynist is not the only interpretation of anorexia and bulimia, for me, that quotation has always made a lot of sense. It relates to the fact when the US clothing market introduced size 0 for women, it caused an uproar among feminists. Now that less-than-zero sizes are available, it seems an unconscious expression of the social wish for all women to just disappear. Get off our street. Get back in the kitchen. Get out of here! To me, this size system expresses a similar logic to that of the Burqa. It wants to efface us.
(And, btw, before y’all start to say how it is Muslim women’s choice to wear headscarves, I totally agree, and they shouldn’t be outlawed. But you have to admit, the original patriarchal logic behind covering-up women’s bodies is pretty darn misogynist.)
So, it turns out the big ole’ patriarchy has a finger in every pie. It’s in our offices, in our pants and in our heads. Good thing we’re so clever and get to deconstruct it.
Lastly, I am interested in writing about eating disorders as an (albeit ineffective) expression of female rebellion. What do you guys think? Do you know any feminist takes on anorexia, bulimia and over-eating?
Oh, yeah, and here is a Marxist anthem for y’all. It comes from all that writing about industrialisation:
Coming soon: fascinating subjects such as, how Disney stops me from getting laid, what the terms ‘women’ and ‘men’ mean in my writing and workshop-inspired femmepowerment.
Pertinent to that little article I retweeted which questions whether in-fighting hurts feminism, I am going to be giving a workshop about sexism within the queer community at Ladyfest Leipzig this weekend! Yay! This is a workshop for feminine queers to share the ways in which we feel left out of the left-wing queer scene and brainstorm ways to make it more inclusive. It’s all about fem-me-powerment and LOVE. I look forward to meeting you all! Workshop is in English with a German translator.
Sexism in the Queer Community – feminine queers only
Saturday 9th June, 12:30 – 14:00
Have you ever felt excluded from the queer community because of your gender expression? Discussion-based workshop that aims to share experiences of sexism and form femme and queer-feminine community. I’ll also introduce my zine project on this subject and talk about femme activism. Open to all feminine-identified queers, of whatever sex or gender. Workshop in English with the possibility of German translation
Part 1 of two pieces on careers and women. Why women are expected to be more quiet, speak less, and be more self-deprecating than men.
I’m a pretty shy girl. Well, maybe shy isn’t the right word. I can often be quite friendly and steer conversations in a social setting. I sometimes even introduce myself in a self-confident and open manner and continue to an interesting topic of conversation such as ‘what do you think of the bunting?’ and ‘isn’t the selection of desserts great?’ like I did at my friend’s wedding party this weekend. But as soon as I admire a person, as soon as I think they are talented, interesting or, let’s face it, hot, I clam up. I start to put myself down and insist that I am a less worthy human being than them who doesn’t deserve to kiss the ground at their creative/innovative/sexy feet.
I find myself jealous of people who are able to speak about their career with confidence. Men, in particular, seem to have the gift of the gab. An ability to find the right words and have an unashamedly self-confident attitude that will make their listener believe that their companion is a man worth listening to; a man who knows his stuff.
“I’m pretty much a nobody really. You should probably talk to someone else. “
When I meet people, I am often frustrated at my own inability to, as it were, big myself up. When asked what I do I generally freak out and put myself down as if to insist, contrary to my own belief, that I am a really boring and unsuccessful person with no talents whatsoever. Although I am a pretty fucking clever, talented and well-travelled person with plenty of strong opinions the way I describe myself gives off the subliminal message ‘I’m pretty much a nobody really, not worth talking to. You should probably talk to someone else. ’ I’m pretty much a self-confidence train wreck, really, akin to Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns before she gets transformed into back-from-the-dead Catwoman.
The conversation usually gets off to a good start. I say ‘I am a writer’ to which people respond in a genuinely interested way. Faced with this positive reaction I invariably to continue to make sure my conversation partner knows just how unsuccessful a writer I am by stressing that I ‘only’ write on my blog and the internet, and that I don’t get paid for it. That my zine is only an amateur home-printed publication.
It all depends how you spin it. While the above information is true, it doesn’t mean that I am less talented or successful than the self-confident guy who ‘has a studio’, ‘exhibits worldwide’ and ‘is currently exploring a way to replicate soundscapes in a digital application’. I can either say I am an unpaid blogger with larger writing aspirations, I give workshops on sex and sexuality and I teach English to German kids or I can say I am a self-employed writer with a moderate online following who is currently experimenting with her creativity while living in Berlin. I can say how I conceived, edited and promoted an 80-page bilingual publication and recently organised and performed in a cabaret attended by over 600 people.
See, I even had to insert the word ‘moderate’ there. I AM SO TERRIBLE AT SELF-PROMOTION!
While I think I have always been insecure and afraid of bigging myself up, I do think this tendency to downplay is more common in women. A lot of the British career women I know, no matter how brilliant, habitually talk in a way that puts themselves down. We undermine our achievements in order to appear more socially acceptable. We make ourselves seem more stupid, smaller, less significant in order to cater to the subconscious idea that a woman is meant to have a lower place in society than a man.
A man is encouraged from birth to inhabit his personality and develop his abilities. He is nurtured in a way that women often aren’t, who are taught to hide their brilliance and pretend that they are somehow lesser than they are.
I see this attitude in my parents’ celebration of my intelligence along with their desire to push me into a ‘normal’ job. Any job will do, no matter how unsuitable, so long as I fit into the mainstream idea of acceptable-things-to-do-with-your-life. They would rather I were a miserable secretary, employed in a job that uses none of my creativity, than a happy, unknown artist (if I were famous like JK Rowling, as my Dad points out, that would be another matter).
It is now my project to stop apologising for myself when asked what I do for a living. I am going to proudly claim my artist / writer label and not say, ‘but don’t worry, I’m really brainless and broke and what you do is way more important anyway’. I’m going to be proud. Go get ‘em girl.
On why I can’t fit in and how I’ve learnt to admire women who choose to.
My best friend is getting married tomorrow. Well, she’s already married (in a registry office) and is having a party tomorrow. When she told her boss she was going to celebrate her union by wearing black, not shaving her armpits and have an online gaming competition with some of her geek friends (I am not cool enough to know what this is called) her boss had to lie downon the floor because she felt faint. “You’re a loon, darling, a complete and utter loon!”
My friend may be getting married, but if she’s going to do it, she’s making damned sure she is doing it on her own terms.
“if you’re a girl there’s no pleasing the patriarchy anyway”
Author, journalist and brilliant feminist Elizabeth Wurtzel wrote the famed Prozac Nation. It is the autobiography of a brilliant girl who nearly dies because she is too much – too sexy, too clever, too alive – for this world. She has depression and takes tonnes of drugs and has some messed-up affairs and tries to kills herself but, thank God, survives to be the wonderful thinker she is today. How did she do that? As I remember it, the book doesn’t really tell you. But I think she must have learnt the art of survival. Of learning to play by the rules sometimes so that she doesn’t get punished for living an otherwise unconventional life. She has probably learnt to find the intellectual relief she craves in her journalistic writing and job as a corporate lawyer. A way to rant and let off some steam without totally self-destructing. You should read Prozac Nation. It’s depressing, but great.
I want to read this book as a story of compromise. Compromise has been given a bad rep. Teenagers think of it as a bad thing, a failure to be yourself, and that’s why they laugh at adults in our jobs and relationships worrying about what bed linen best compliments the curtains and which sofa fits in the living room. And that’s why we adults hate teenagers back. For showing us the compromises we have had to make in our lives. We laugh cruelly back at them, because we know they will have to make the same choices or suffer the consequences.
Feminists can also judge women. When a woman has a big white wedding, or decides to have babies at the peak of her career, it is easy to call her a cop-out. It’s easy to assume that when she chooses a career in business over being a self-employed artist or in some other manner follows the heterosexist, capitalist pattern of life she is not thinking for herself. But what if this were her choice?
I think that compromise can be a feminist choice. Choosing to compromise demonstrate intelligence. It shows an ability to adapt and survive. It can be a strategy, a weighing up of the odds. The act of assessing your situation and decide how you are going to survive.
I used to think that the choice to take the path of least resistance was a sign of weakness, of failure, but now I have come to see it as a position of strength.
Compromise can be feminist because it means you’re clever and you’ve worked out the odds. You can’t have the baby, marriage and the promotion. You can’t live in a squat, work for free and still fund your artwork. Compromise means you’ve assessed your situation and you know something has to give. It’s up to you to decide what. For Wurtzel, she found some institutions in which there was the least restraint/most space for her to write out her crazy ideas. For my best friend, a career in art sales gives stimulation and a good relationship helps her to negotiate the craziness. For another old friend, getting married and earning good money in a banking job helped her survive the demands of her own massive intellect and some shit parenting. Me, my compromise is different. I may have to sacrifice children and financial stability, at least for a while, in order to follow my art. And this is a compromise because maybe I do want kids, and I definitely want a partner and a stable home, but I have learnt that I just can’t survive this world if I don’t follow my creativity. A 9-5 job, a ‘normal’ relationship; that is what nearly killed me.
It is of great importance to create alternative communities and imagine how to construct a society that is not inherently sexist, racist, classist, transphobic etc. But each person also needs to balance their feminist dreams with the necessity of living in the here and now.
“to survive in this world you have to know how to play your cards right, and you know women started off with a shit hand”
I am terrified of following my own path. Because I know it will take me to some pretty radical places and I am afraid that I won’t be allowed to survive. That they won’t let me survive. My parents and friends and the world who tells me to get a proper job, have a baby, your biological clock, tick tock. And when I don’t do these things, what will happen to me? It’s lucky that I’m queer really, or I might already be married, in Brittany, with lots of babies. (Yes, that is my parallel life.) But behind my desire to be a writer, I know that I want the option to have a baby and yes, realistically, I have maximum 10 years to do that in and I don’t even have a partner so what the hell am I going to do? Being queer stresses me out because it makes having a baby far less obvious, a much harder option. Goddammit, this life is so unfair! And this fear of the future contradicts my knowledge that now, right now, is the time for experimentation, for my art. I need to follow my own path but I know that path might lead me away from some other options. I know I couldn’t have a baby now. I know I wouldn’t survive, body and mind intact. That it might just kill me.
Thank God for wonders like Patti Smith who not only survive they do so whole and well and seem to find the support for their wanderings. She’s a Buddhist. Religion probably helps.
The fact that so many brilliant women I know compromise and appear to fall in line – get a job, a nice boyfriend, have babies, do the normal thing – doesn’t make them anti-feminist or failures. They don’t do it because they’re stupid and brainwashed by patriarchy, they do it because they’re clever and they know that living this hard and fast life outside of the rules is a sure path to death and/or madness. They do it because they know they couldn’t survive otherwise.
Women who form this kind of compromise are fucking intelligent and have a strong skill for survival. Because to survive in this world you have to know how to play your cards right, and you know women and queers started off with a shit hand.
“It doesn’t matter, really, what anyone else thinks of you”
In these past 2 years of depression I have learnt the trick of survival. Faced with the knowledge that I can’t have everything in this life, I have also made my choice. Just as my best friend chose a husband, babies and a career, I have chosen art and adventure. This may mean I won’t have time to have kids (I’m 40 in 10 years!), but I think I will survive this sadness. And I nearly didn’t survive the other option, so it seems I don’t have much choice anyway. It must be possible to be a healthy artist. Self-destruction is awfully glamorous, but no matter how cool it sounds in a biography, I don’t want to endure that kind of pain. This is why I like Patti Smith when she sings about revolution and then says ‘and don’t forget to brush your teeth.’ She remembers that in order to be a healthy artist you need to take care of yourself. Art and sleep. Art and sobriety. Art and sanity. It doesn’t sound that sexy, but it works.
Go to bed on time, eat well, do exercise and see a shrink. ‘An artist’s job is to balance mystical communication with the hard labor of creation’ (Patti Smith, Just Kids). Or maybe that’s balancing artistic work with the hard labour of keeping your mind.
I know that we all think there is a set of rules to do things properly. And not only in the mainstream. In queer communities you are expected to have multiple lovers, live communally and not get paid for your work (anti-capitalist). For me, none of these things feel right. But I am still queer and I am still a feminist.
It doesn’t matter, really, what anyone else thinks of you. We all know, deep down, that conforming to anyone’s standards just to be seen to do the ‘right’ thing won’t really please anyone (if you’re a girl there’s no pleasing the patriarchy, or anyone else, anyway) and it won’t make you happy either. So whether you’re a radical queer or a pregnant married woman, it doesn’t matter, so long as you are living by your standards and not anyone else’s. Remember, only you know what’s right for you and only you can decide what you need to do in order to get on in in this world.
By the way, when Patti Smith walked over me, down the aisle of a Catholic church she was giving a concert in, I had to restrain myself from rugby tackling her. From grabbing hold of her ankles and holding her and never letting her go. Good thing I have more common sense than that.