Friday, July 18, 2008

When I am an old woman I shall give young women compliments
(I already wear purple)

I’ve been seeing more and more comments about women and appearance around feminist blogland recently (not that this is a topic that ever goes away for long) and I find myself feeling rather irked about the whole thing. This is one of those issues where I feel fundamentally out of step with most of my fellow feminists. I don’t have an instinctive distrust of the very idea of conventional beauty, as it seems many feminists do. I don’t distrust or resent women more attractive than myself. I don’t hate younger women for having tighter asses. In fact, what is it with the constant “perky boobs” references from so many feminists? Seriously, what is that about? Are they under the impression that those women in possession of such boobs have chosen to tweak their own genetic make-up in such a way as to make their boobs perky on purpose, just to spite the less perky? Why is this being used as a dismissive insult by feminists?

This is one of those moments where I bless the fact that I didn’t grow up in America or the UK. I grew up mostly in the Middle East. In all honesty I think that growing up there influenced my feminism in all kinds of ways, but one of the clearest ones is that I find this sort of constant ranking of other women in terms of their appearance and inability to empathize with those women who fall at different points in the ranking absolutely baffling.

I like looking at beautiful women. Now, admittedly this is probably in part because I am attracted to women. I think it’s more than that, though. My mother also loved looking at beautiful women and she was as straight as a ruler. Most of my mother’s friends were the same. I remember my mother’s friend Elizabeth, a gorgeous woman who looked like Natalie Wood, who I spent much of my childhood observing. As a little girl I always thought that it would be great to grow up to look like Elizabeth, but even knowing that I wouldn’t (I always wished that I could have really dark eyes like her, instead of the light brown I ended up with), I still always found her fascinating to observe simply because she was really, truly beautiful. And I wasn’t the only one. I can remember my mother’s much older friend Theresa, whose house felt almost like mine as a kid and who used to cut my hair till I was in my teens, fussing over Elizabeth, doing her hair and helping her with her make-up. It was always clear to me that she took pleasure in having young, beautiful women in her home, and that part of the reason was that she had three sons and no daughters or granddaughters. When I hit puberty, it was those two women, Elizabeth and Theresa, along with my mother, who taught me how to take pleasure in my own appearance, how to see personal adornment as a game, as something fun and creative that you did because you felt like it, and that if you didn’t feel like it on any given day you just didn’t do it. That was how I grew up, with the idea that beauty is a fun thing, something to be enjoyed, a way that women bond with each other.

I was always aware that there was another way to see things, but it seemed sort of blessedly irrelevant to me, cocooned in the warmth of my mother’s circle of friends (a circle, by the way, in which it was always clear that men were essentially peripheral – they were allowed to share part of us, but there was another part that we all reserved just for each other). That other way never really hit me full-force until I went away to school, and was confronted with just how much ugliness British and American culture is able to create out of women’s beauty, how it poisons the pleasure that we take in our own appearance and that of other women, how it teaches us to rank ourselves and hate those above us on the scale, and despise those below. And every holiday I would go running back to my mother for reassurance that things didn’t have to be that way. I would sit cuddled up in a big chair with Elizabeth’s daughter (my pretend baby sister since I never had a real one) and watch her putting on her make-up and re-learn the fact that beauty could be a game, sit at Theresa’s kitchen table and let her remind me that food is supposed to be a source of pleasure too and wish that she really was the grandmother that she felt like to me (my own paternal grandmother was a horrible, bitter, angry woman who never had anything good to say about another woman in the entire time I knew her). And then I would go back to school, and try to shut down and not take in any of the poison that was being fed to me, and deep in my heart refuse to learn to hate other women just because some of them were prettier than others, because I knew that it didn’t have to be that way.

It wasn’t until my thirties that I realized that there was a term for what I was doing, the way that I talk about women and beauty around the women that I grew up with and the women that I trust who I know now (Mr. C’s mother and his brother’s wife, a few close friends) and the different, more careful way I talk around all the other women who I don’t feel it’s safe to be honest with. The term is code-switching. Like most other people who code-switch, most of the time I do it without even being consciously aware of it, pick up subtle cues about which people I can be my real self around and which people I need to be wary with and adopt the way of speaking that is expected of me. I still think that the mainstream American way of talking about women and beauty is poisonous, and I go out of my way to avoid people who gulp down the poison and insist on feeding it to others, but really, it’s impossible to avoid completely. It’s too pervasive. All that you can really do is to observe which people are completely invested in that framework, which ones automatically rank all other women and either envy or scorn depending on that ranking, and try not to get too close to them.

It hurts me to see that poison coming from feminists, though. It hurts me no matter which target it’s being aimed at. Every time I see someone making generalized comments about “blonde bimbos” or “fuckbots” on a feminist site I lose a little more of my faith in the ability of the movement to effect any lasting social change. Every time I see the term “collaborator” being used in a way that makes it clear that the judgment being made is being based purely on the appearance of the woman being described, I wonder where it all went so horribly wrong. How can we possibly achieve anything if we don’t learn not to hate each other? How can we work together if we can’t learn that the fact that a woman doesn’t look like us doesn’t mean that she can’t be trusted? The anger that some women are treated differently by society than others based on their looks is a valid anger, but why the hell are feminists directing it at the women who happen to fit the preferred look rather than the system that insists on ranking all of us?

So, this whole thing has been bothering me. Of all the odd things to bring it back to me, it was actually a random meeting with a stranger that did it. I was on the train on my way to meet a friend for dinner and there was an older lady sitting in the seat in front of me. She wasn’t familiar with the train system and asked me how many stops there were until the place she was going (presumably because I was the only person around who looked like they might speak Spanish…which I actually don’t very well, sadly, but I do know enough to give directions so we managed). So we chatted back and forth for a while, and I was trying to explain that I was getting off at the same stop and could show her where to go, but my Spanish sucks so I wasn’t able to say it properly. So, we get to the stop and she gets up, and she doesn’t realize until we’re actually getting off the train that I’m getting off too. The she sees me and smiles and we get on the escalator together and I lead her over to the map and try to explain where she needs to go. And then I realize that I’m running late and that I have to get going, so I say goodbye and I’m trying to explain in my crappy Spanish (I understand what’s said to me a lot better than I can speak myself), and I feel bad for having to run off and not just walk her over to where she’s going, because she’s an old lady and it’s kind of a rough neighborhood if you don’t know your way around. And then she smiles and pats my cheek and says “mi nina linda, esta bien”. And you know what? That little comment made my day. Hell, my week. Because it’s been so damn long since I had to leave the warm safe little cocoon that I grew up in where women were actually nice to each other and we gave compliments just because we could. And I want to live there, and not in this alternate hell-world that is mainstream America in which older women hate younger women for their perky boobs and fat women hate thin women and thin women look down on fat women and everyone seems to hate tall skinny women just because the fashion industry loves them. And the fact that that hell-world of ranking and competition and constant sniping has infected feminism breaks my heart, because we of all people should know that hating other women because of something as random as how they look is poison, and yet I see it all the time. Why do we do this to each other? Can we please just stop?

When I’m an old woman I want to be like the older woman I met on the train. I want to be like my mother, and her friends. I refuse to hate younger women because they have perky boobs, and I refuse to participate in this system where we cut each other down based on where we fall in some stupid ranking system that’s almost totally arbitrary anyway (this season big boobs are in! next season, super straight hair!).

When I’m an old woman I’m going to randomly tell young women they’re beautiful, just to make them smile. In fact, I may just start now.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Finally, a serious post!

This (links to Feministe) really pissed me off. First of all, the idea of using scanners that show what essentially looks like a picture of a person’s naked body on women in a Muslim country? Culturally tone deaf at best, actively intended to provoke at worst. I commend the people who broke this story, and the reporter who allowed herself to be scanned so that people could see exactly what the scans look like. Now the question is, what can we do about it? Because forcing Iraqi women who work in the Green Zone to go through those scanners is classic colonialism at it’s worse, and it needs to stop.
Also, why do they need to save the images? Anyone have a good explanation for that? And, given that the technology exists to replace the individual’s body with a generic torso and only show security personnel non-body items that might represent a breach of security, why is that technology not being used?
To add yet another layer of fucked up, the same scanning process is also apparently being used in airports in the USA. This is an unacceptable breach of privacy in general, but it’s especially problematic for women, and for trans men and trans women who may not want potentially hostile strangers alerted to their trans status. Invasive, open to abuse, a clear overreach of government power…I’m not seeing the upside here.
So the question becomes, what can we do about it? In the case of Iraq and the Green Zone, who do we need to put pressure on to make them switch to a system that replaces the images of people’s actual bodies with generic torso images? In the case of the USA, is it possible to start a campaign to force to TSA to do the same?
I’m not kidding, people, this is a fucking outrage. If they must use these scanners (and I’m not convinced of that either, but putting that aside for a moment), why can’t they use the ones that prevent images of people’s naked bodies being shown to whoever happens to be operating the machine? And why the hell do the images need to be saved once the person has cleared security? This needs to be stopped.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Controversial admissions (hat-tip to Octogalore for the idea)

1. I love the fact that I look younger than I actually am. I am also willing to take steps to maintain that illusion, up to a point and if and when they become necessary. Though probably not surgery, because I’m a wimp and fear pain.

2. Although I was properly Marxist in college, I have since come to the conclusion that Marxism is incompatible with human nature. People are competitive, fractious, uncooperative creatures, and attempts to impose Marxism on them always seem to end in nasty infighting and a trail of dead bodies. I’d rather people just be openly grasping and competitive – far rather a challenge to my face than a knife in my back.

3. I am not attracted to men who are even the slightest bit overweight. Most of the men I am attracted to barely make it into the “normal” range on the BMI scale, and none of them are past the middle of that range. I have nothing against fat people in a general interpersonal sense, but in terms of men and sex, the leaner the better.

4. With women I’m much more flexible on weight, but I’m only attracted to women who’re pretty femme. Not ultra-femme, but the slightest hint of butch and my libido is dead in the water. I’m also not attracted to women who don’t have fairly substantial breasts.

5. Lack of intelligence irritates me. I don’t mean lack of formal education – some of the smartest people I’ve met have had little formal education – but lack of genuine, biting intelligence is a friendship deal-breaker for me.

6. I eat lots and lots of tuna. I know that it’s bad for the environment, and that tuna (and most other big game fish) are overfished and endangered, but every damn time I go to eat sushi I order maguro and tuna sashimi. Given my choice of (barely) cooked fish I’d choose ahi every time if it wasn’t so damn expensive. I am a bad environmentalist.

7. I have no respect for ideological purity. I’m a pragmatist. If I want to get something done I’m willing to work with whoever can help me attain that goal (within some limits…rapists and child abusers I’d draw the line at). I think that the general leftist tendency to insist on ideological purity and refuse to work with people who don’t meet that standard is a big part of why we expend so much energy and end up with so little to show for it.

Anyone else want to join in? C’mon, you can tell me – what are your controversial admissions?

Friday, July 04, 2008

Ah, Miyavi...

You know, I'm sure this is just a case of his trademark peace sign being rather unfortunately placed. He couldn't possibly be giving the universal signal for...well, you know.

The girls on LiveJournal are going to have so much fun with this picture.

Yes, I will at some point return to real blogging. Eventually. For now please continue to enjoy the pretty pictures.