On ‘struggling to be normal’: the personal is political and the dangers therein

So, I’ve just been to vote.

I was uncertain about who I’d be voting for almost to the moment I walked into the polling booth. I spent an unending amount of time on Fullfact before the election, and it sometimes didn’t help much. Much to my relief, I’m in a safe Labour seat (56%, followed by LibDems 16%, Greens 12%, Others 7%, Tories 4% and UKIP 3%, well done Sheffield). Whilst I am (clearly) a raging lefty at heart, the Greens lost me over their changes to copyright law (although I do applaud their willingness to adapt in consultation with those affected), I have some doubts about their economic policy (although I applaud its general drift) and there have been obviously problematic local candidates . It’s a shame, because the vast majority of their policies I am ideologically right behind. I considered the LibDems; I am sympathetic to the narrative outlined here, and indeed it’s one that several of my nearest and dearest appear to subscribe to. A relatively well-intentioned LibDem party falling on their swords to mitigate the worst excesses of the Tories is plausible – and the Independent’s Who Do I Vote For thingy suggests I agree with a lot of their policies  – but I also have (understandably) reservations about their commitment to the policies I actually care about. My doubts of Labour are manifold, particularly regarding Trident, immigration (that mug. Why?) and Owen Jones pretty much sums up my feelings here. But I looked at the voting record of my incumbent Labour candidate, which tallies pretty much with my wishes with a couple of exceptions (I WOULD LIKE MORE TAXATION KTHXBAI, although he was very strongly in favour of the mansion tax…), and he seems a pretty decent guy. I went for him in the end – although I split my vote – and don’t really have any regrets.

So what sold me? Ironically enough, it was Piers Morgan.

I’d already been pretty horrified by the tabloid front pages yesterday. My personal favourite is clearly the Mail – don’t let the class-war zealot ruin our country! and btw the NHS is fucked for REASONS ENTIRELY UNRELATED TO THE PRESENT GOVERNMENT!  –  but the Sun’s questionable anti-Semitism is horrendous, and don’t even get me started on the Times’ insinuation that any Labour-led government would be unconstitutional. (As if we have a constitution. And David Cameron swept to victory on a wave of popular acclaim, obviously.) As for the Express, I don’t even.

(Just incidentally, where does the myth of the British media having a left-wing bias come from? And the BBC? I mean, what?)

Obviously, the mainstream media immediately before an election have never been much fun. But this time round is something special. This campaign against basing you political decisions on ‘fear and smear’ is brilliant, although possibly too little too late; this article discusses the truly problematic level of fictionalising involved, and none other than, um, Alastair Campbell has a go here.

I’ve always been disturbed by the tabloid take on Miliband. (In fact, that article covers most of the stuff I was planning to bring up here.) All the North London geek stuff (like, that’s a bad thing? Are we supposed to disapprove because he seemingly has principles and lectured at Harvard?). Mocking his facial expressions and his clumsiness. (I don’t really see the problem with his facial expressions. He looks a lot less porcine than David Cameron. A friend has a theory that he’s mildly dyspraxic, which may or may not be the case. Either way, I’ve always liked clumsy – that strange combination of awkwardness and grace – and really, truly do not see much political insight in the way he eats a bacon sandwich.) Jeremy Paxman’s hardline insistence that he’s not ‘tough enough’ to be PM merely serves to solidify my desire that he should be – I’d like a PM with empathy and awareness, actually, maybe even some tentative, humanising, admirable degree of self-doubt, one who might actually (as Miliband has promised, questionable as leading politicians’ promises always are) listen to the suffering and the wishes of those in his power. I’m not quite Milibae, although I have a sneaking suspicion that adolescent me might have been; I’ve always had a soft spot for the underdog.

Anyway, Piers Morgan. He wrote some godawful screed yesterday I’m not going to link to that derided Miliband for ‘struggling to “be normal” and eat a bacon sandwich’, and I just thought…well, okay then. I called him out on Twitter for sounding like a schoolyard bully (and the curious may inspect the results for themselves here. Twatnav is go.) Fuck that. Obviously, playground name calling is symptomatic of an idiot mind and no evidence of political insight, but that does sum up the media attitude to Miliband – and actually, for me, that’s a good thing. I don’t want to be ruled by someone who takes being ‘normal’ for granted and thinks everyone should be the same (and punishes them for not being). If Ed Miliband is ‘struggling to be normal’, then he is my people. If that’s the inaccurate result of a pathetic smear campaign, then I am still all in favour of him having emerged from it with purpose and courage undimmed.

Sure, gut instinct for resisting bullies and coercion may not be the best basis for electing our future leader. I’m not particularly proud of it as a gut response, although fortunately it tallied with my intellectual judgement. But it’s better than ‘because Murdoch says so and I don’t see the need to examine the facts or the context for myself.’ I’ve done the thinking and I’ve read the analyses and I’ve examined the figures, and I would generally welcome a Labour-led left-leaning coalition government, and I am in fact pretty grateful to Mr Morgan for summing up so eloquently just what it is I like so much about Ed Miliband.

As for what I think will happen? Owen Jones, again:

‘We are sleepwalking into a dangerous moment. If there is a left-of-centre, anti-Tory majority in parliament then the Tories must fall, however many seats they have won. Left-wing parties will have won the election and a left-of-centre government led by Labour must take office. And yet it would be deemed “illegitimate” by the Tories and most of the media. That really would be a situation with few precedents in an advanced democracy: where the opposition and media refuse to accept the democratic legitimacy of the national government.’

Taking bets now…

EDITED POST-RESULT TO ADD:

urghhhhh.

My partner described Ed Miliband as ‘a leader only Labour people and clever people will vote for’. Which is a savage indictment of our political system and the electorate of this country to boot, not to mention the media. (It also inclines me to reflect with fear on how much cleverer than most people my friends and my social bubble must be. Urgh.)

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Leaving London: a love letter

I fucking love London. My heart lifts when the train crosses the M25. I love its old streets and its big windows and its shiny new skyscrapers and its grimy pavements, its sluggish river and grumpy people and gorgeous skylines, its ridiculous wonky alleyways and windy parks and graceful domes and smoky corners. I love its blocky council housing and its homicidal taxi drivers and its glorious libraries and scattered rambling universities and hidden unexpected churches. I love the magic sky train and the grubby underground. I love its rickety hoarding and its constant regeneration, the new buildings sprouting unexpectedly from the sudden ruins of the old. I love its hipsters and its horrors, its goths and its gardens and its queers and its magical misfits, its pushy businesspeople and messy art students and constant flow of annoying tourists. I love its suicidally cyclable streets, its endless roadworks and delayed tubes and looming buses that arrive just often enough to keep the nascent, fragile spark of hope they’ll show up when you need them alive (but has nevertheless spoilt me for what any other city considers ‘public transport’). I love it all, with a big aching magnetic love that cracks my heart and clouds my vision and created much more of me than anything has any right to.

And soon I won’t live there any more.

Oh, I’ll still be around – Iots of people I love are there, and you won’t get rid of me that easily – but I won’t belong there any more, at least not in the same way. The ties are looser than once they were, or at least stretchier – spending three or four nights a week somewhere else with one’s partner will do that – but it’s still home, and I suspect to some extent always will be. It’s home because you can drop me almost anywhere in London and I will know how to navigate, how to get home and find bathrooms and swimming pools and the way to the library. I am who I am because of London, the opportunities it gave me and the networks I built, UCL and the BL and the brilliant, beautiful, kind and fierce and righteous folk who are my friends. I am who I am because of London’s not giving a shit, that marvellous big-city freedom to do your thing and let everyone else do theirs, its sinkhole pull for subcultures and specialists and seekers and the crazy and the brave. I am who I am because I was lucky enough to land there and run with it, to be swept up in London’s close-weave weight of thousands upon thousands of people living their lives in and around and among one another, the collective, creative, cumulative wealth of thought and growth and trying and loving and learning. The freedom to make the attempt. I am who I am because every day for over a decade I’ve tramped the streets of London, from pool to people to library to lunch, breathing in and bound to London’s stories and histories and horrors and the everyday dramas of a million people getting on with it and trying to get by.

I’ve lived surrounded by art and ideas and people who think they’re important and people who think only money matters and tried to eke out a fragile existence somewhere in the middle. That Samuel Johnson tired of London, tired of life thing? Totally, and (for once, if not unprecedentedly) I am tired of neither.

And somehow I’m still leaving, because it’s expensive and I’ve been avoiding or turning down full time work down there and so I might as well put my money where my mouth (and, y’know, other bits) are and move up. At least try. Have the courage to make the attempt, and I’ve never been short on courage.

And yet.

I love it and it made me and I’m leaving. I don’t know what to do with that. I’ve always been as passionately tied to places as I am to people (although obviously the two overlap) because I have an abandonment complex and places stick around. No amount of loving relationship and book-writing time and generous London hospitality and cheap rent can quite disguise the sense of loss, although obviously they mitigate it somewhat. London is the only place I’ve ever lived and been happy as an adult on my own, and leaving it behind – even only two hours away – is a massive, troubling, ridiculous and unthinkable idea.

It may be a terrible mistake.

But it also might be an adventure, a chance to learn about who I am and what I need from the world around me, a chance to balance my energetic self and habits and work and ideas with a city that doesn’t take that pace for granted, a chance to focus on writing a book and spending time with my partner and building a life that will admittedly involve running down to London to do cool stuff and visit the BL at least one week in four, but might also give me some breathing space to sort out book and work and earning money and having a relationship and how these things might coexist.

These two may not be mutually exclusive.

But I suspect on some level I am a Londoner to the bone, and it will take some time before the cultural dislocation starts to bite.

Posted in Culture, frivolous wittering, London, Love | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

In which other people’s psychological experience is not your casual symbolism

So a couple of people I love and respect have posted this article this morning. It’s a relatively decent article about self-loathing and measuring yourself according to flawed and impossible criteria that ensure you’re always going to lose and hate yourself. Unfortunately, fairly early on this line appears, and the article proceeded to lose me forever:

It’s [in context, professional or personal achievement] about finally, finally being good enough. Being the best. It’s the new anorexia (and also the old anorexia).

Which is so much bollocks in so many ways I don’t even know where to start.

Okay, fuck that, I do know where to start, and it is this:

If there is one thing I’ve learnt from my own experience and from the last decade of studying and writing about and talking to people about anorexia and eating disorders it is that they mean and represent profoundly different things to different people.

Both ‘the old anorexia’ and, I suspect, ‘the new anorexia’ are multivalent and complex and cover a vast range of sociocultural and personal and psychological and gender-relevant dissatisfactions and traumas and torments. Fuck you author (Nicki Lee, whoever that may be) for denying and erasing all aspects of that real lived thing which don’t apply to your point here. For some people anorexia is about trying to be ‘the best’; for many others it’s about trying to be ‘good enough’; and for many other people it is neither or both or not conscious or simply the only way they know how to survive in the world or prompted by other deep-seated personal or psychological drive that may be tangentally-related-if-you-squint-a-bit to those concepts and impulses. But the only way to impose sufficient unity of motivation to validate your shitty and ill-thought-out symbolism is to render every aspect of anorexia and it’s lived experience so reductive it’s meaningless.

Even if you’ve suffered from anorexia yourself, you STILL don’t get to say what it means to other people, still less use it as a throwaway line as if there was some sort of agreed cultural universal psychological motivation going on. There isn’t. Anorexia (and other eating disorders) are a language, not a message. They’re a common language, because we live in a culture that tells us (particularly if we’re women) that our bodies are externalisations of ourselves and some kind of index of our personal cultural worth (women should be pretty, slim is good, fat is bad, lose weight and ‘be yourself, only better!’) and that hands us dieting and exercise as means of being a better person, but that doesn’t mean we’re all trying to say the same thing. [1]

Besides, appropriating the language of other people’s often-fatal psychological trauma for your own rhetorical ends is a dick move. ‘The new anorexia’ is a crass and stupid and destructive way to sum up anyone’s (valid!) experience of self-loathing, and it’s also pretty inaccurate. Yes, the article makes some fairly relatable points about the pressures we put on ourselves, but that it needs to ride roughshod over millions of people’s lived psychological traumas to draw attention to its fairly basic points is hardly an endorsement of its reasoning or its rhetorical skill.
[1] A major part of my PhD was picking apart huge epistemological distinctions between how people experienced their bodies in the early modern period and how we experience them today. This was partly to do with humoural theory and Galenic medicine as opposed to modern medical understanding, and partly to do with religious concepts of identity and soul vs. flesh and emotions as physically present and all the rest of it (and also massively complex), but one of the interesting things was the extent to which early modern people could regard their bodies as a tool for achieving various spiritual or physical goals (childbirth, labour, combat) whereas we are encouraged to see our bodies as an end product, a thing to be worked on or towards. Thus eating disorders are a culture-bound, modern phenomenon and even early modern women who starved themselves experienced and conceptualised their behaviour in a very different way.

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On step-parenting whilst queer and bookish and other such weirdnesses

Last ever F-word crosspost! Ramble about the weirdness of step-parenting when the mother of child in question differs from me in a whole bunch of ideological ways.

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So somebody dared me to write a post about football…

…and I did, it’s here, on the F-word. Contains much ranting about cultural concepts of masculinity and problematic socialisation and misogyny/racism/rape culture.

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On fatphobia, thin privilege, ‘skinny shaming’, and people’s right to subjective experience whatever their body size

I wrote this for the F-word, but it was too long and I didn’t want to cut it because it all seemed important. I might try write a shorter version at some point, but not THIS point. 

Before I start, I’d like to point out that Bethany from Arched Eyebrow is undoubtedly a force for good in the world. She’s creative, interesting, direct and unashamed in a lot of good ways. I like her blog and I like her. But I found her recent post entitled Thin Shaming Isn’t Real problematic, because at its heart the post seems to be denying people the right to their subjective experience based on their body size. That seems to run counter to a whole bunch of things I hold dear, like Health At Every Size and granting everybody the right to be the authority on their own experience.

This is not to say that most of what Bethany’s post said isn’t true. Fat-shaming and its ideological cousin fatphobia exist, and are a mainstay of contemporary Western culture. All she says about being fat and its cultural consequences, professionally, personally, medically, in the media – I wouldn’t argue with any of that for a second. Fat people are subject to structural oppression in ways thin people are not – the obesity register, employment discrimination – and as this article makes clear, Bethany is right that thin shaming and fat shaming are not structurally, socially or culturally equivalent.

Our culture perversely overvalues thinness, and devalues fatness.

This is a very difficult post to illustrate without replicating the problem, but I liked this.

This is a very difficult post to illustrate without replicating the problem, but I liked this.

Accordingly, structural thin privilege also exists, and it consists of all the things Bethany cites – access to medical care, ability to buy clothes (mostly), seeing women of roughly your size portrayed as aspirational in the media, a body type seen as desirable on dating sites. (Although, somewhat aside, I would imagine there are also people specifically attracted to larger bodies who would disregard smaller ones. Human sexual preferences are various, no? But this is a whole separate issue.) In writing this article, I don’t mean to deny or detract from anything Bethany says about the relative cultural loading of thin and fat in the Western world. She is completely right about our cultural context and she writes powerfully and movingly about the experience of being fat within it.

But.

‘Shame’ is a psychological construction, a subjective experience. About halfway through, Bethany asks: “If you’re a thin woman reading this, and you really believe that you’ve been the victim of ‘thin-shaming’, how many of these have you experienced? How has this ‘shaming’ manifested itself? Was it just someone pointing out that you’ve hit the body type jackpot? If so, boo fucking hoo.” I asked for input from people who felt they’d experienced thin shaming, and they cited a variety of things, including:

  • Insults like ‘scrawny bitch’ ‘ET’ ‘skeleton’, ‘dead person’ ‘stick insect’ ‘coat hanger’ ‘pipe cleaner’ ‘emaciated slut’.
  • The proliferation of internet memes like ‘Real men like curves, only dogs like bones’/’Women with tattoos and curves are awesome; who wants a stick with no creativity?’/’When did this [row of thin actresses] become hotter than this [row of curvaceous 50s movie stars]?’
  • Being told you were too thin/breakable/gaunt/flat-chested to fuck
  • Difficulty with finding appropriately proportioned clothes and underwear, often having to wear things that don’t fit properly
  • Being insulted on dating sites or on the street for not having enough cleavage or flesh to be attractive
  • People – including doctors – insisting you must have an eating disorder/a drug addiction/a serious medical condition because your body couldn’t possibly be healthy.

(As a side note, sometimes people have valid medical reasons for weight loss, and constructing thinness as inevitably ‘winning’ introduces both self-loathing and cognitive dissonance. If we could stop constructing weight loss = positive, or in fact making assumptions about others’ bodies and their experience of them at all, that’d be nice.)

None of that list feels like being told you’ve ‘won the body type jackpot’. It feels like being told that your body is wrong and inadequate and you are therefore worthless. ‘Real women have curves’, for example, implies that people without curves aren’t real women. That doesn’t erase the much greater rhetorical punishment meted out to fat people – every thin person I spoke to underlined the fact that undoubtedly fat people have it much worse than thin people in contemporary culture – but nevertheless they still had experienced being made to feel ashamed of their bodies.

We all, thin or fat, experience our bodies from the inside, and we all live in a culture where we are judged on our external appearance and our physicality and encouraged to find them wanting. We all live in a culture where people are bullied about their bodies. If a statement is made with hate or contempt about one’s body, it is hard not to internalise that as shame, particularly when it happens a lot, and in repetitive terms.

It is entirely possible for a thin woman to be made to feel that her body is wrong and unacceptable because it doesn’t have curves, because it doesn’t look feminine enough, because it doesn’t look smooth and sleek but knobbly and awkward. That doesn’t erase her thin privilege, but it is a genuine and subjective feeling of shame and unacceptability, and to deny her the right to those feelings because she isn’t fat enough to have them is…kinda a dick move.

And being thin – winning the cultural jackpot, as Bethany puts it – isn’t much help when you DO have an eating disorder, or a medical condition. These things don’t magically get better when you can look at yourself and go ‘oh, I’m a size 8’. (I remember once thinking I was thin enough, maybe. I weighed 4 stone, and lost another before I finally collapsed and was hospitalised. Again: experience is subjective, and we all experience our bodies from the inside.)

This owl is unimpressed with contemporary fatphobic body-shaming culture.

This owl is unimpressed with contemporary fatphobic body-shaming culture.

The whole point of Health At Every Size, and trying to build a culture without body shaming, where everyone’s body is appreciated and accepted – which is the revolution we’re all after, right? – is that *all human beings* are respected as individuals and allowed to tell their own stories. Moving away from a model of health or aspiration or wellbeing as represented by a narrow range of body types and characteristics, and towards a plurality of bodies, each seen and accepted on their own terms. Denying the validity of some people’s experience because of their body type is not going to help create that world.

Sure, some people are dicks. Some people do intentionally whine about being unable to gain weight in order to highlight their ‘winning of the cultural jackpot’, or to make larger people feel bad. Lots of people genuinely do spout bullshit like ‘you look so good, have you lost weight?’ and consider it a compliment. (I am not trying to ignore or deny the prevalence of fatphobia or its all-pervasive effects.) Some people also proclaim loudly ‘real women have curves’ and tell thin people they’re too scrawny to be sexy or they look like an alien instead of a human being. Some people are dicks, but that is a universal truth, and whilst fat people are undoubtedly disproportionately subject to cultural derision, that doesn’t constitute the right to erase the experience or existence of those at the other end of the spectrum who also experience body shame.

Fat-shaming and thin-shaming are in no way equally loaded, because both of them take place in an ideological matrix of fatphobia and thin privilege (thinphilia?). Nobody of any size or any sense would, I think, deny that.

(And if the exasperation in Bethany’s tone comes from people trying to construct thin shaming and fat shaming as directly equivalent, then fair enough. She has a right to rage and exasperation directed at the oppressive structures that work against fat people, and a right to decentre the conversation from thin people’s experience.)

Certainly none of the women, fat, thin and everywhere in between, to whom I spoke when preparing this article sought to deny that our cultural context is overwhelmingly weighted in favour of the thin. But ultimately, body shaming and body fascism are the problem. By all means decentre the conversation from the experiences of thin people, punch up the privilege axis, but don’t deny their right to their experiences. We need to stop judging others and valuing others on the basis of their bodies, and whilst there is greater social and structural prejudice against people of size, denying the experience of thin people because they are thin is simply perpetuating that cycle.

I’m going to finish by quoting an excellent friend of mine, @Inbetween_Girl, who neatly summed up the thousand-odd words I’ve just written in a single Facebook comment:

‘I wish we could stop separating fat-shame and skinny-shame and just call it body-shame. I do feel, from my own experience as a fat woman, that there is greater and more widespread societal prejudice against people of size, but this does not diminish the individual experience of skinny shame. Body fascism is unacceptable in any form, and categorising it creates unnecessary division.’

Word.

So, about that revolution…?

Posted in bodies, Culture, Hunger, Psychobabble | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

In which intent and outcome are so rarely coincident: Neil Gaiman and Trigger Warning

This F-word post talks about how much I love Neil Gaiman and how troubled I was by his use of ‘Trigger Warning’ as a title, given its function and cultural history and his place on various privilege axes. Somewhat to my surprise and greatly to my impressed-ness, he retweeted it and discussion ensued on Twitter, which you can read if you follow both of us (he’s @neilhimself, I’m @sashagoblin). I’d storify it, but I’m a bit icky about doing so publicly, and you don’t seem to be able to filter or keep private. But anyway, yes, absolutely sterling example of reasoned rational mutually respectful discussion of thorny issues, and ALL THE POINTS to Neil for dealing so well.

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