Counting calories in the office

You know what I fucking hate? Moral judgements around food.

The office I work in has recently relocated, which means I have been forced out of my antisocial hidey hole into an open plan nightmare. Not only does this mean no more cute videos of bulldogs on skateboards, it’s also forced me into contact with a couple of colleagues who are obsessed with counting calories.

“This is so naughty,” “How many calories are in that?” “I shouldn’t. Oh, go on then.” This is what I hear around me every lunchtime and afternoon. This kind of food talk between women is so common it feels trite to claim it’s noteworthy. But we should pay attention to this language; we should notice it.

I’m so mad at this situation that I’m finding it really hard to come up with coherent thoughts about it. Hearing this kind of language at works reinforces a lot of negative beliefs I have about my body, but have also been trying to de(con)struct for some years. I think I look quite good, with my round tummy and pencil skirt, munching on a chocolate, but then I hear a colleague joking about how she’s going to be “naughty” and have a cookie, and I think – “wait, am I supposed to be feeling bad about this? Am I supposed to be hating myself? Oh God I am, aren’t I!” and descend into a bout of self-hating that, as we well know, contributes to an obsessive relationship with food and, paradoxically, comfort eating.

OK, this isn't office workers on a donut, it's police on a donut. But I thought it sufficiently similar to be funny. Thanks, Tumblr.
OK, this isn’t office workers on a donut, it’s police on a donut. But I thought it sufficiently similar to be funny. Thanks, Tumblr.

It’s not like these thoughts aren’t already there. I’m not blaming individuals at work for my insecurities, but I am certainly blaming an anti-feminist work culture that fails to support its colleagues by excluding this kind of moral language from the office. I guess this is what is meant by triggering. Although I am leery of the culture of excessive trigger warnings I see around me in lefty, queer, feminist online spaces, I can appreciate their use in this situation. I just want to yell SHUT THE FUCK UP YOU ARE MAKING ME FEEL BAD ABOUT MYSELF AND NOW I CAN’T CONCENTRATE ON THIS DAMN PROOFREADING! Hearing them talk about their own insecurities remind me of, and contributes to, my own.

I have enough internalized fatphobia as it is, I don’t need people at work making me feel even worse. When are we going to learn that internalized misogyny is just as harmful and pervasive as the racism and homophobia that we already (mostly) know is not OK in our workplaces?

I know I could take the feminist high ground here and empathize for these people who have such a complicated relationship with food. But, you know what? So do I! And I don’t need to be exposed to anyone else’s.

So, the next time you joke about being bad because you’re going to have one of the chocolates in the kitchen, spare a thought to the rest of us who don’t need to be reminded of our own body hatred and difficulties with food.

And now it’s time to turn to you, dear readers. I would appreciate your advice. Do you have any strategies for dealing with this language at work? I really don’t think pointing it out to them would be productive, or supported, as it is the management team who talks like this. Any advice would be great.

Lastly, here are a couple of resources that I’ve found helpful:

Navigating assumptions about weight loss as a fat positive person

Self-hating feelings about fat and their transformation into FAT ACTIVISM AWESOMENESS

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Is burlesque just a fancy word for stripping?

As you know, I’ve joined the ranks of featured bloggers at Rabble.ca. Come and check me out there as I will be publishing exclusive content on both ye olde blog site, and ye newe conglomerate host. As always, please let me know what you think as ask:

Is burlesque a new-wave feminist performance or a throwback to a misogynist tradition? I try to pin down the pin-ups and find out if burlesque really is just stripping.

When Dita von Teese was asked if burlesque is just a fancy word for stripper, she replied, candidly, yes.

Often touted as the mother of a movement that has been lauded by fourth wave feminism as ‘liberating’ and ‘empowering’ for women, for von Teese to equate burlesque with stripping flies in the face of many of her female fan’s pro-burlesque arguments.

Burlesque is, for feminism, a controversial issue. Feminists of the anti-porn persuasion might argue that taking your clothes off in public means you are buying into the illusion that women only gain power through the lens of male objectification. Sex positive feminists might counter that by taking control of the ‘male gaze’ the burlesque performer is cultivating her* own subjectivity. As she determines what sexual  image she presents, she is the agent. The latter is the viewpoint of a fourth-wave feminist audience who are eager to claim that burlesque is anything but stripping.

My own view of burlesque is a bit more ambivalent. I don’t think burlesque is inherently feminist or inherently sexist. I have been to well-known burlesque clubs in London (the European one) and Berlin, where i failed to find much that is feminist in the performance. On the other hand, seeing performers with various body shapes and genders create performances around fraught subjects such as fat, eating and the politics of hair removal, I found their burlesque intellectually stimulating and 100% bona fide feminist.

© Sara Svartan Persson.Simson Petrol
© Sara Svartan Persson.Simson Petrol

Personally, I’ve found that the difference between a conventional strip and a feminist performance often lies in the appearance of the unexpected. As an audience member, I often find myself wondering if the performer is reproducing stereotypes of femininity, or exploring gender and making me see it in new, unpredictable, ways.

Another ingredient that can turn sexist assumptions on their head is the appearance of the performer. If she has a non-normative body or chooses to present it in a non-normative way, this can challenge the expectations of the audience and thereby convey a thought- provoking message. Performers with bodies that are culturally scapegoated, such as fat people, trans* folk, or people of colour can use these to present a new glimpse of what sexy can be. Performers with culturally “normative” bodies can present them in an unusual way (by strapping on a dildo, for instance) and thereby challenge our notions of gender, sexuality and a “woman’s place.”

It would, of course, take a PhD level of inquiry to explore the distinction between burlesque and stripping satisfactorily, and I just don’t have space to do that in 1500 words or less. However, it is safe to say that burlesque goes beyond a purely titillating performance when it is naughty in other ways. The radical nature of this burlesque lies in its cheeky challenge to sexist norms.

Now, if you’re a really radical feminist, you might be wondering “What’s so wrong with stripping, anyhow?” My, and most people’s, use of the word stripping implies a moral judgement. Stripping is for stupid women and those who don’t have any other choice. Stripping is a bad thing, a last resort.

For the purpose of the article (and perhaps because I am chicken), I haven’t been trying to make a moral distinction between burlesque and stripping. As Dita von Teese said, things are more messy than that, and where’s the fun in being PC anyway?

© Sara Svartan Persson/Simson Petrol
© Sara Svartan Persson/Simson Petrol

Many feminists’ desire to distance burlesque from stripping is symptomatic of the ideological messiness that von Teese argues is inherent to the medium. Not only is burlesque an art form, it also is stripping. Perhaps even the most radical feminists won’t be able to argue away the sexist conventions that are upheld even as they are parodied on the stage.

However there is a difference between burlesque and stripping. If for nothing else, the difference between the two can be boiled down to class. As my very wise partner said, burlesque is a privilege. And as I am very wisely going to elaborate, that means it is a choice. Every single burlesque performer I have met does it as a hobby. There may be a few well-paid professional burlesque dancers out there, but the majority do it purely for fun. I doubt anyone would perform in a strip club for free. Stripping is most definitely work, and burlesque is something only the privileged can afford to do.

As much as I would like to tie up the loose ends of this article in a neat little bow, I don’t have the recipe for what makes a burlesque performance feminist or not. As an amateur burlesque performer and a stringent feminist, I hate to hear that other feminists consider my performances inherently sexist. Although I agree that aspects of the burlesque tradition are sexist, I think these conventions can also be turned upside down to give the audience a new idea of what sexy can be. Burlesque, it seems, is hard to pin down.

N.B. I sometimes refer to the burlesque dancer as “she” in this post. I realize men, genderqueer and trans* folk can and do perform burlesque, but I have chosen to address the sexist dynamics of burlesque mainly in relation to its female, cisgendered performers.

The Obesity Debate: What’s It Really About?

Having listened to yet another radio programme that brainstorms ways to tackle the ‘obesity epidemic’ I decided it was time for a little Fat Hatred 101. I argue that our ‘concern’ about fat on our own and other people’s bodies has nothing to do with caring for anyone’s health. It’s about a system that deliberately fosters self-hatred in women.

I just listened to a recent Freakonomics podcast, ‘100 Ways to Fight Obesity.’ Listeners eavesdrop on a think tank, made up of field ‘experts’ who take as a given that obesity is unhealthy and think up ways to discourage unhealthy eating.

I guess it will come as no surprise to regular readers that this really pissed me off. The participants of the think tank and the creators of the podcast were well-intentioned. But when discussion of obesity spends so much time discussing ways to prevent eating – such as bottling the smell of human vomit to sniff when you are hungry – and none discussing the meaning of cultural attitudes towards fat, it becomes problematic.

My own attitude towards obesity is complicated. I don’t believe our societal concern with obesity has anything to do with concern for the health of our fellow humans, but everything to do with trying to control the bodies of our renegade citizens. I believe that, as this study shows, obesity as a concept affects women more than men. When fat women are afraid to eat in public because we think we will be judged, we are being denied our right to pleasure and to public space. When fat women spend more energy on trying to control our rebellious bodies that we do on pursuing our dreams, we are living less full lives.

Me being fat and awesome with my zine and vulva cupcakes at Berlin Zinefest.
Me being fat and awesome with my zine and vulva cupcakes at Berlin Zinefest.

Obesity rhetoric and fat shaming are two of the most effective ways to control women’s mind and bodies. Get us to spend our energy chasing a skinny pot of gold (beauty) and we won’t have enough calories to work up the physical or mental energy to rebel. Diet not riot, baby.

My argument here is not so much whether or not the obesity epidemic exists, which I am sceptical about, or even if being fat is unhealthy. I argue that we, as a fat-fearing society, aren’t actually concerned with the health status of our fellow citizens. Our aversion to fat doesn’t come from a desire to be healthier. We don’t care if we are healthy. We care if we are pretty. That is, we care if we are thin.

Fear of being fat is misdirected self-hatred

Now, of course, I realise I am referring more to the reality of food- and fat- fearing women than the experiences of fat kids or fat men. While both children and men are undoubtedly concerned with how they look, fat hatred is targeted at and affects women more than men. It is fat hatred directed at and internalised by women that I want to think about here.

Now for the hard truth. When we say that we think we are unlovable because we are fat, we are deliberately misdirecting our energy. Let’s face it: this isn’t about being loved by others, this is about loving yourself. The reality of the world is that we are all beautiful and your boyfriend will love you if you are size 10 or size 24 because he loves you, as you are, in your body. It’s not your boyfriend who finds it hard to look square at your naked body. It’s you.

Quite frankly, I don’t think my boyfriend gives a fuck that I am a size 16-18. He thinks I’m hot and he loves me just as I am. This is about how hot I think I am and how much I love myself. He’s not the one who has a problem making love to me. I do. I’m the one who hides under the covers and imagines I have a thinner, more ‘Hollywood’ body when I jerk off.

This isn’t about being considered attractive, getting a lover or even getting laid. This is about low self-esteem. This is about not being able to love ourselves and blaming it on our fat. Fat women get laid less, not because we are less sexy, but because we think we are.

This is about a billion-pound dieting industry of slimline food, shakes, and ‘slimming medication’ that profits from your unhappiness. This is about you being able to live your life to its full potential without being haunted, every hour of every day, by eating or not eating food. This is about not feeling shame or guilt every time you eat something fatty and pride when you don’t. This is about breaking the cycle of public food denial and private bingeing that sustains the myth that not eating is virtuous and eating is bad and shameful.

Charlotte Cooper: swimming in activism
Charlotte Cooper: swimming in activism

Fat hatred isn’t actually about what we look like. Fat hatred doesn’t concern itself with our health. Fat hatred is about cultural attitudes. It is, simply, that we think the fat on women’s bodies is disgusting. When we see a fat person we don’t worry for their health, we react with disgust to their overflowing body. Fat hatred uses the idea of health to legitimise its hatred of women’s bodies and the consequent cruelty it enacts on us.

You don’t need to be a doctor or a health expert to see that fear of fat and its expression in dieting behaviour is the opposite of healthy. And even if you do believe that public health campaigns will affect the ‘obesity epidemic’ (which I don’t), you have to acknowledge that the perceived solution to obesity for many women and men – dieting – so often leads to more obesity. Dieting fucks the body up and makes you fatter.

So, whose fault is this epidemic of fat hatred? Who can we blame for the proliferation of eating disorders and low self-esteem and what can we do to stop it? Unfortunately, when a prejudice becomes so widespread that it’s part of our culture, we can’t blame it on one person. There’s no such thing as a point of patriarchal origin.

Luckily though grassroots activism and re-education works! Although I doubt I will ever have a 100% healthy relationship with eating, reading and learning from awesome fat activists has taught me how to deconstruct some of the self-hating bullshit I’ve learnt.

To that end, below I have compiled a list of fat resources I have come across doing my research for this article. Thank you so much to all my friends who have provided me with these links and the bloggers who put their kick-ass opinions out there. If you haven’t already, also click on the links in the post because they are the bestest. Lastly, you can also find more about my thoughts on fat by clicking on the ‘fat’ category in the toolbar.

FAT STUFF:

The. Best. Fat. Myth. Busting. Resource. List. Ever.

Blaming weight for differences in mortality isn’t scientifically supportable.

Being fat can have some health benefits

Unhealthy as well as healthy people deserve access to civil rights

Everyone deserves to be treated like a human and, yes, you can be healthy and fat!

Assigning blame and fault has no place in healthcare 

But you have such a pretty face!