The perils of being an aging bookworm, or why a lot of ‘women’s fiction’ royally pisses me off.

For reasons largely to do with badly written press releases and an unfortunate confluence of unread books, I have spent the past ten days largely reading chick lit. Or, sometimes, not exactly chick lit, but marginally-more-upmarket-without-aiming-at-literary books about women’s lives and failing marriages and midlife crises. And it was a mildly shading to monumentally depressing experience. To be fair, my mental equilibrium is somewhat fragile at the moment, but even so I felt some of the evident phenomena – or rather, my responses to the phenomena – were narcisstically worth exploring.

The ambiguity of these kittens somehow symbolises the ambiguous functionality of contemporary women’s fiction relationship models

To be clear, the issues of finding fulfilment and/or a satisfactory partner whilst having a job and possibly parenting (or maybe wanting to parent) and trying to find some kind of creative outlet are real and legitimate concerns, and they dominate the lives of a large number of people. (I say ‘people’ rather than ‘women’ partly because I feel the genderisation of these concerns in these novels is problematic and I want to call it out, and partly because I think male experience is differently constructed both in life and in fiction. If anyone knows of any novels dealing with these concerns from a non-binary perspective, I would be very interested in reading them, although I imagine such literature would be blessedly free from the clichés dogging post-Bridget-Jones ‘women’s fiction’.) I’m absolutely not trying to belittle the importance of these life experiences and reflecting them in art.

But.

  1. Some of the representations of these issues are damaging and depressing.
  2. I found them a really fucking bleak portrait of how my life might turn out, in ways that my previous milieu and lifestyle shielded me from.

Let’s start with A, shall we?

Let it be said now with my professional-reviewer hat on that some of the chick lit was TERRIBLE. Badly written, badly characterised, and with an alarming tendency for the male ‘hero’ to be emotionally irresponsible, immature, inconsiderate, self-righteous, and to have these traits represented as either a) the result of childhood trauma and thus infinitely forgivable or b) an inevitable result of his masculinity. I can’t quite decide which annoys me more. The underlying implication that nobody (male) can ever be expected to take responsibility for how they treat others, or the idea that every woman should as a matter of course mother and shelter a male partner because they cannot ever be expected to emotionally mature and be held accountable for their choices or behaviours. Urgh. Whilst I have every sympathy with people who’ve had traumatic experiences – I’m not short on them myself – I do believe there comes a point at which you might legitimately be expected to have Owned Your Shit, developed self-awareness and stopped simply replicating damaging behaviours that harm your relationships and godhelpme your children. Notably, that point comes well before your forty-third birthday. In fact there’s a substantial argument that it should come before you go about having children you’re likely to walk out on when your demons come out to play.

These are Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, or at least the first four. They’re all good, actually. The last, All Change, came out posthumously recently.

There’s a wonderful scene in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Casting Off – which is a bloody good novel, by the way, I wholeheartedly recommend the Cazalet Chronicles to anyone into family dramas or wartime shizzle – where Clary introduces her difficult boss/lover Noel to her cousin Polly. It all goes to shit, and Clary’s friend Archie asks Polly later what he’s like. ‘Everything that he is,’ Polly explains, ‘…is about himself.’ He had a difficult childhood, with much adult responsibility too young, ‘but it’s like he’s never stopped having one. He wears poor Clary out.’ Not only does this precisely nail a particular kind of demanding asshole, but it is also very clearly presented as NOT AN ADMIRABLE MODEL. He fucks Clary over and the other two pick up the pieces. And yet this is pretty much what we’re presented with as either a sympathetic narrator figure or the perfect man two women are warring over or…both. It’s bullshit, and it’s bullshit that serves nobody, simply perpetuating put-upon women and aggrieved self-righteous dudes unto eternity.

Worse, even when the characters talk, they don’t ever actually communicate. A particular egregious example: James/Jimmy is discussing his (recent, engaged-after-three-months wtf) relationship with Tessa with his ex-wife (don’t ask). He has three children with said ex-wife. She asks, pretty reasonably I suppose, whether Tessa wants children. He doesn’t know, he’s never asked (despite his hurry to get engaged/married/cohabiting), and Tessa has seven godchildren and three stepchildren already, so might reasonably be considered to be well supplied with demanding dwarfish figures. His response, however? ‘What woman in her late thirties doesn’t want children?’ (Early thirties, but, er, hi *waves arm*). He’s never discussed this with her, he is ‘too scared’ to do so now (of what, he doesn’t say) and the book ends with this still unresolved. They have a heart-to-heart about his shirking of responsibility, and the possibility of their future marriage breakdown because of not discussing things and working together, and he still doesn’t bring it up. Urgh. And yet people read these to escape from bad relationships or in search of models to construct them? WHAT ARE WE DOING TO THE WORLD?

(Also, ohgod. I can see that for some people weight gain could conceivably be a sign of dysfunctional eating triggered by stress or trauma, and losing weight might make them feel better and/or coincide with resolution of these issues. But really, honestly, can we NOT use ‘fat’ to symbolise ‘unhappy and unhealthy’ and ‘thin’/weight loss to represent ‘successful and happy’? Already, please?)

Whilst I’m on the subject, we could also do without all the policing of femininity. And the gender essentialism. Not to mention the bullshit assumptions. Femininity is not defined by a penchant for makeup or shoes. Domesticity is not the measure of a woman’s success, as a step-parent or a partner or anything else. Nor is childcare necessarily her responsibility simply because of her gender. Not all women are desperately waiting for a wedding ring. It is possible for two people to be in a relationship without one parenting the other, and where issues are discussed and decided on together. THIS BRAVE NEW WORLD OF LOVE AND EQUALITY IS OUT THERE, we just need to build it, by not buying this bullshit, in any sense.

Which moves me neatly onto B), above.

It had not really occurred to me until recently that any of this stuff might ever apply to my life. For the last, well, decades, I have been (/identified as…) young and creative and urban and often poly and dancing-friendly and striven to be surrounded by queers, goths and creative and interesting people of an alternative and/or hipster persuasion. First I was full-time pretty determinedly poly, and then I was with current partner but he was in a different city, so even when we became monogamous, I was still a free social if not sexual agent in London a lot of the time. Then we got engaged and I moved oop norf, and suddenly two queers in a loving relationship look pretty heteronormative, and I’m in a city with much less of a queer/poly/goth/creative map. As it happens, it’s been going really well, both in terms of my relationship (pretty blissful) and making friends (awesome people! Awesome queer, creative and interesting people! Who knew?!), but still, the influx of problematic relationship models made me pause. Was this actually me staring down the barrel of the future? Had I accidentally stepped through the looking glass into some horrific alternate universe where I was doomed to become an abandoned suburban housewife forever?

Well.

I’m well aware this is entirely irrational. I have (probably) a librarian job as well as a couple of writing ones and a book to write, so I’m hardly creatively unfulfilled or purposeless. I shared my concerns with all my best friends this weekend and their responses ranged from ‘you know that’s bollocks, right? Because first, this is you, and second, this is T’ to ‘that’s a perfectly normal anxiety having just ramped up the intimacy level’, with a fair bit of ‘I’m so glad things are going so well’ on the way. I don’t think it’s a secret from anyone that my brain is spectacularly good at anxieties, and to some extent what is happening here is that being actually happy and fulfilled in a whole bunch of ways simply means replacing the fear of never having or being worth something with the fear of losing it.

But at the same time, there is a fair bit of validity to the fact that a) these are concerns foisted on a lot of women because of the assumptions we as a culture make about sexuality and gender, and chicklit attempts to dignify/universalise/sell them, and b) they are both creating and responding to how we as a culture understand female aging. Both of which are fucked up. I hate that youth/femininity/female value are all held to be overlapping, and in mainstream culture women are constantly held to be in competition with one another. I know intellectually (and because I’ve read Foucault) that the best way to police people is to get them to police themselves, and so under neoliberal capitalism these books have a function, but it basically horrifies me.

This represents the fluffy yet spiky vengeance I wish to wreak upon the books discussed.

It’s pretty weird, because I have always looked to books to expand my horizons and see myself and my potential and my options reflected and refracted, and suddenly a lot of books about the life stage I’m approaching seem to be contracting those things. IRL, the relevant anxieties haven’t kicked in yet. I look relatively young for my age, still pretty much in last flush of physical appeal [1] before visible aging kicks in (my joints are another matter), so I haven’t had to process any diminuation of the background attention that’s been a constant since my teens. I don’t worry (outside neurosis and us both being mentally interesting) about my partner leaving imminently, because we’re really good at communication, affection and sex, so it would seem foolish. And yet, somehow, I am sufficiently upset by a week of reading books that suggest my physical decline and his departure are inevitable or at least likely to be writing this. Cultural models matter. They matter because they’re how I and he and everyone else construct and understand our experiences, of relationships and aging and  embodiment and all the rest, and it REALLY FUCKS ME OFF that what appears to be a large and popular swathe of books, including some whose press releases suggest they’re crossover literary, offer only limited and damaging options for women (and people!) to grow and exist and have relationships and careers after thirty-five. Fuck that shit. Thank $deity for all the brilliant authors, including my friends, out there writing better ones.

[1] I would like to point out that I’m talking about cultural assumption rather than personal experience here. I often find women older than me attractive, more often than I do significantly younger ones I think.

(Ftr, I spent the last three days reading Clare Lowdon’s Left of the Bang and Judy Bloom’s In the Unlikely Event, both of which are pretty good, actually.)

Posted in books, Culture, frivolous wittering, Love, Psychobabble, Sex, wtf even | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

On thin privilege and not being a dick (again)

Nb. Uploads aren’t working, so this is illustrated solely with pictures of cute orang utans. Sorry about that. 

So a kind (if potentially mischevious) friend left this peculiar monstrosity of unchecked privilege , an article entitled ‘Don’t hate me for being thin’ by someone called Rosie Mortimer, on my Facebook wall a couple of days ago. I cannot sum up my overall response better than my initial sweary reply did, and will therefore reproduce it here for your reading pleasure before moving on to discuss in detail my problems with the article and the points arising from my friends’ discussion of it:

OH FUCKING HELL FUCK OFF. If you’re seeing thin-shaming everywhere, you’re wilfully blind to the vast majority of popular culture. I am exactly the same bmi (and a roughly similar size, although smaller) as she is, so I get to call her out on this: if you’re happy with your body, great. People trying to force you to eat or judging you for your size is shitty and horrible; body shaming is always shitty and horrible and should stop, period. But to pretend we live in a world where thin-shaming is equivalent to fat-shaming and to deny the many privileges you (we) accrue through being naturally thin? FUCK OFF.

Hopefully that makes the core of my counter-argument clear. If not, please allow me to rephrase it in response to the headline: people don’t ‘hate you for being thin’, they hate you because you’re a dick about it.

For instance.

This baby orang wisely doesn’t give a shit what size you are.

I don’t think anyone of any sense would deny that ‘thin shaming’ Rosie recounts a) exists and b) can be upsetting. But that’s because body shaming exists and is upsetting, regardless of size, and as one friend who’s gone from being almost as thin as the author to considerably larger points out, ‘while the mean things people said to me when I was thin were hurtful, the mean things people say now that I am fatter are hurtful *and are backed up by whole swathes of our culture and medical establishment*.’ Yes, it is legitimate for Rosie to be upset by regular suggestions that she has an eating disorder (although I’d be willing to bet the questions would have been considerably more traumatising had she been suffering from one), or people describing her as ‘disgusting’. Body shaming sucks, whatever your size. But to write an entire article on ‘thin shaming’ without addressing either body shaming as a cultural phenomenon, or its disproportionate and structural impact on larger people, is wilfully egotistical and culturally ignorant. Refusing to acknowledge that although you may’ve had a bad time, a lot of people have it worse is both whiny and a real dick move.

To use Rosie’s own statistics, ‘a recent survey found that 36 per cent of young people have been bullied because of their body shape, size or weight. Adults comment so disparagingly on the figures of others that it’s not surprising bad messages are passed to children.’ Well, exactly. But what proportion of that 36% were thin and what proportion fat, do you think? How many of them saw bodies roughly the same size and shape as themselves on posters and in the media as something other than a punchline? How many of them saw their body types reflected in the ‘before’ instead of ‘after’ photos’ on the side of buses? How many had their bodies criticised by their doctors even before questions about health and lifestyle were asked? How many have been on diets? (We have statistics here, apologies for Fail link. Probably quite a few.)

These baby orangs have more important things to worry about than their relative body sizes.

But Rosie never seems to consider how her experience may reflect or relate to that of  others, let alone have the humility to consider that at least her body type is the one considered aspirational and therefore her experience is qualitatively (as well as quantatively) likely to be different from that of people perceived as fat. And that although her experiences may be legitimately awful, had they been reinforced by a culture repeatedly broadcasting the unacceptability of her body type in structural and microaggressive ways, they might have been a lot worse.

Therapists and theorists are on this, you see. Michael Guilfoyle, in Helen Malson and Maree Burns’ excellent Critical Feminist Approaches to Eating Disorders, among many others, has discussed fatness as a ‘spoiled identity’ in contemporary culture. He explains:

Discourses of personhood are currently arranged in such a way that the thin woman is given more room than her larger counterpart to inhabit culturally favourable identity options. For example, enculturated persons are predisposed towards seeing this person as self-disciplined, hardworking, dedicated, healthy and attractive, and as having used her mind – her character, her willpower – to take charge of, or even to deny, the more animalistic, primal, base appetites of the body. These attributes are highly valued in the western world, and such constructions make it more reasonable [Ed. Note: I would prefer ‘easier’ here] for a thin woman than a fat woman to think of herself as strong, as having achieved, as successful, as socially valuable. […] It becomes harder – although not impossible – for the larger woman to assume this kind of identity and to have such a sense of self legitimised by the world around her.

But Rosie, with her unironic talk of ‘thinnist’ and ‘thin-shaming’ and her complete failure to address cultural or experiential context, is far from contributing anything useful to the complexity of the debate. She (legitimately) complains about ‘being made to feel insecure about her body’ in unpleasant incidents, without mentioning that this happens in a context where millions of others are ‘made to feel insecure about their bodies’ by the vast majority of media images, TV programmes, advertising, magazines, their doctors, newspapers, films, fashion, etc etc etc. That doesn’t make what happened to her okay, but it does mean she could do with expressing a bit more recognition that she’s not necessarily in the worst cultural position here.

This baby orang is unimpressed. QUAIL BEFORE THE HAIR, NON-PRIVILEGE CHECKERS!

Hell, recounting her (undoubtedly troubling) personal experiences she doesn’t even make a stab at addressing the possible motivations of her interlocutors, and it’s worth pointing out that the cultural lionisation of thinness she mentions (briefly, on the way to further weight loss anecdata – yes, really. She went on a diet and lost weight! Lucky her!) means that those criticising her are used to being told by the majority of media and cultural sources that her body type is a) aspirational and b) the product of dieting and effort. Their assumption of the right to be rude to her about it is pretty horrible, but it also reflects something much, hah, bigger, than Rosie being thin and other people being mean about it.

Turns out, in her case, her size IS partly the result of dieting and effort. She put on weight after having 2 kids, as many women do, and decided she didn’t like it. She had the metabolic, financial and practical resources whereby dieting and exercise were feasible for her, and resulted in weight loss that she’s ‘happy’ with. Lucky her! These are totally legitimate feelings and life choices! We all have to come to our own accommodations with cultural body bullshit, and Rosie is lucky enough to be able to achieve with some lifestyle changes a state where ‘I don’t look in the mirror in the morning and punch the air with delight but nor do I sob into my coffee.’ That’s great, and I’m glad for her. But spending an entire article complaining about how people ‘hate me for being thin’ without addressing any of the cultural context in which that occurs or the structural fatphobia underlying contemporary culture and media manifests a quite staggering missing of the point.

She also, DESPITE HER EXTENSIVELY CITED EXPERIENCES TO THE CONTRARY, assumes that people are not dicks. Viz:

Pointing out what you don’t like about someone else’s size — too fat or too thin — is not going to change them. [Ed. note: very true! We’re within spitting distance of a sensible point here!] Would it be okay to go up to a woman and tell her she was overweight, that she looked ill or simply that she ate too much? Obviously not. You would be causing huge offence. It swings both ways.

Obvious to her, maybe, but….that happens. It happens all the time, from what I hear. Larger friends have had people commenting on their shopping in the supermarket, insulted by strangers and colleagues and tutors, and been yelled at in the street. More to the point, doctors – those people we trust for supposedly objective advice on our health and wellbeing – are as prone to fatphobia as the next enculturated person.[1] As one friend put it: “Saying mean things about fat women’s bodies is hurtful and wrong” is universally acknowledged as true.” Can I come and live in this world please?’ If people assume the right to comment on Rosie’s body, dehumanising her in the process, how much more does she think they assume the right to comment on bodies not widely constructed as acceptable and aspirational?

This baby orang really digs his tummy.

And do not get me STARTED on her complete failure to address or acknowledge the existence of thin privilege. (This list of examples is US-centric and has issues, but gives you the gist.)

For the record, and to define my own subject position here: I have roughly the same bmi as the author of that article. I’m a lot smaller (5’2 to her ‘tall’), often referred to as ‘tiny’ or ‘petite’. I too have a build describable as ‘slim’ or ‘slender’, although I still have various dysmorphic weirdnesses and try not to think about it too much. If, uh, this is your first time at the blog and you’ve never met me in meatspace, I also have a history of severe anorexia, so the vast majority of my experiences of ‘thin shaming’ happened when I was much thinner, and bore a more complex relation to my state of health and/or sanity. Although I have never experienced fat-shaming – I can count the number of times I’ve been referred to as ‘fat’ on the fingers of one hand, although see previous re: dysmorphic weirdnesses – I have also spent roughly the last 8 years researching and writing and talking about experiences of embodiment in culture. I therefore, when talking about this stuff, at least try to acknowledge that a) I do have thin privilege and b) other people have it a lot worse than me in contemporary culture, plus additional shit to deal with from the intersections of size with race, gender, disability, trans status, economic group, all the rest of it. I’m not looking for cookies here, I’m just pointing out that not being a dick is sort of a minimum requirement when you’re discussing something so central to so many people from a position of relative privilege.

The sad thing about all this is that Rosie is within spitting distance of making some decent (if basic) points that I actually agree with about how fucked up and unhelpful body shaming and making assumptions about other people’s bodies is.

F’rex:

But if someone suffers from [anorexia or bulimia] shaming them by telling them to “eat some cake” or that “it makes me feel sick just looking at you” is not going to help. [True! Shaming in ‘not fixing deep-rooted psychological problems’ shocker!]

These orangs think it’s important to snuggle and appreciate flowers.

There’s an Instagram account called You Did Not Eat That, dedicated entirely to pictures of thin people posing with calorific food — the assumption is that anyone of size eight or under will never eat a cheeseburger. [Which is clearly bollocks. My friends Stephani and Psyche went into a fascinating digression at this point about the cultural meaning of cheeseburgers that I would encourage all to consider in their spare time.)

What all this comes down to, though, is that (as Susie Orbach so wisely pointed out in Bodies, which everyone should read) is that embodiment, particularly although not limited to female embodiment, is REALLY FUCKING PROBLEMATIC in contemporary culture. I cannot express this better than my friends did, discussing this post on Facebook. A friend with extensive experience of thin shaming pointed out that ‘it is very, very difficult for women who are small to say anything whatsoever about our bodies or our body image issues without people getting pissed off’, whereupon another friend neatly summed up the whole cultural mess thus:

I think you could probably remove ‘who are small’ from that sentence and still have it be perfectly valid. “It is very, very difficult for women to say anything whatsoever about our bodies or our body image issues without people getting pissed off.” Like your body? You’re vain and/or deluded. Don’t like your body? You just need to stop whining and step away from/eat more cake, silly woman (like it might never have occurred to us to try that….). I have a whole rant saved up about the comment that invariably appears on any post about weight and health related issues: “Just eat less calories. It’s easy!” – like there are no social, cultural or emotional aspects to food and eating.

She is completely and entirely right, and cuts to the heart of all the issues Rosie so spectacularly managed to miss. Culture is fucked up about embodiment, food, eating and gender, and we’re all caught in the crossfire. Until we learn to shut the fuck up, live and let live, and try to approach others with empathy, kindness and consideration, we’re just bringing ourselves down, and we need to make this better. To put it another way, the price of privilege – and it is not a particularly heavy one, all things considered – is to acknowledge it, especially when you’re writing in a public forum about related issues. You check your privilege, you own your subject position, and you try not to be a dick to people further down whatever the relevant privilege axes are. It’s not much to ask, actually. [2]

[1] One commenter, currently disabled but previously a keen sportsperson competing in no fewer than ten different sports simultaneously, had some horror stories about doctors assuming their inactivity and thoughtlessly demanding further exercise without pausing to ask what their current levels were.)

[2] All this said, I’m well aware that I haven’t touched – much – on the intersections of size with cis and racial privilege here. I feel I should, but I’m not sure I know enough to do so, so this article is essentially a compromise.

Posted in bodies, Culture, frivolous wittering, Hunger, Psychobabble | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

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 , , , , | 3 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…?

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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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Pretty on the Inside; in which language is a bastard

This is another F-word post, inspired by discussion with a genderqueer friend of mine who hates being referred to as ‘pretty’ and seguing seamlessly into my attempts at reclaiming ‘pretty’ as a site of sociocultural resistance. Or something.

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On Terry Pratchett, without whom the world is poorer.

NB: I originally wrote this for the F-word, and put it up here as a placeholder because I was overwrought and felt I needed to say it. If you wouldn’t mind following this link and reading their version also, that’d be grand. 

pterry 1Terry Pratchett died today. I’ve spent most of the afternoon in tears, overwhelmed in a way I hadn’t quite expected by the fact that one of the pillars of my fictional life had gone. (I can only imagine how his friends and family – y’know, the people who actually knew him – must be feeling. My heart goes out to them.) There are going to be any number of obituaries and personal reflections and so on, because he was so important in the lives and minds and hearts of so many people, and I’m sure they’re mostly going to say everything I’m struggling to articulate much better than I can.

(Neil Gaiman, for a start, on his anger and sense of justice and immense capacity for love. Laurie Penny, about the stark human truths of Discworld).

But still, I’m going to struggle, because a substantial chunk of my ideals and a lot of what I know and think and feel about being a person come from Terry Pratchett. He’s fundamental. His concepts of sin and responsibility and kindness seeped into my bones at so early an age they’re inextricable now from who I know myself to be. And I’m far from being the only one – that remains an instant shorthand of kinship and connection among most of my close friends. We apportion witches and watchmen according to whim and wishes, we share crushes on Vimes, we’ve known most of the books off by heart for years and prescribe them like medicine for illness or injury or injustice, and still, for all of us, the worlds he built and the people within them are as real to us as each other. Sometimes more so, because for us and many, many others Pratchett’s books were the safe space where we went to live when the real world was unbearable.

Not because they were devoid of cruelty and malice and injustice and human error and stupidity and selfishness and people (or apes, werewolves, elves, trolls, goblins, dwarves etc) getting things horribly, woundingly wrong, but because alongside those things there was bravery and conscience and honesty and hope. He told us the truth and he made us laugh and there was always some glimmer of redemption attainable for those willing to do the difficult, honest, right thing and fire the crossbow bolt through the keyhole and look who you really are firmly in the face.

Granny Weatherwax, a towering moral figure if ever there was one, taught me more about consequence than any religious ideology I’ve ever come across. In Maskerade, amidst operatic crescendo, she catches a naked sword in the palm of her hand, much to the dismay of Agnes Nitt, to whom she’d previously insisted on the impossibility of such a feat. ‘Not my fault,’ she snaps. ‘I didn’t have time.’ At the end of the book, she returns to her cottage and sits at the table, with some salve and a square of linen. ‘Well,’ she says. ‘I reckon I’ve got time now.’ In Lords and Ladies, she ‘had to learn. All my life. The hard way. And the hard way’s pretty hard, but not so hard as the easy way.’ In Carpe Jugulum, she gives us what’s probably one of Pratchett’s most famous moral touchstones, his definition of sin as objectification:

“There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment about the nature of sin, for example,” said Oats.

“And what do they think? Against it, are they?” said Granny Weatherwax.

“It’s not as simple as that. It’s not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray.”

“Nope.”

“Pardon?”

“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.

“It’s a lot more complicated than that –”

“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”

“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes –”

“But they starts with thinking about people as things …”

It’s delicious and it’s so unutterably true. Empathy at all costs is the best rallying cry for human interaction I can think of.

Granny’s cast-iron commitment to doing what’s Right – where Right is defined as protecting the weak, allowing people autonomy even when they’re stupid or sullen or sad, being brutally honest with yourself even when it’s inconvenient, honouring communities and social rituals because they give human life shape and meaning, fighting for people’s right to be people even when it doesn’t make sense as long as they accord one another the same respect – has had so profound an effect on my personal morality that I cannot conceive of myself without it. I could say the same of Sam Vimes, Old Stoneface, who works his way up from alcoholic member of a dying Night Watch to the reluctant Commander of a full-scale citywide cross-species police operation (and wife of Ankh-Morpork’s premier Duchess) by dint of sheer force of conscience; or Susan D’eath, kickass schoolteacher, saviour of the Hogfather and granddaughter of Death, lovely Death, fond of kittens, who’s all the more poignant for his awareness that ‘THERE’S NO JUSTICE. THERE’S JUST ME.’ They built me. I love them like they’re my family and in some sense they are, because they made me into who I am as an adult.

And they still exist – that is the joy and the miracle of it. Pratchett has given us these people and these books and these stories and they will never die. To quote the man himself, ‘No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world fade away,’ and I’m pretty sure his ripples will keep rippling for a long time yet.

But so much wisdom and kindness and rage and righteousness has left the world, and it’s just so fucking sad.

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