Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Speaking Up

This blog has been a little quiet on the subject of feminism recently. Appropriately, what I want to talk about today is the way in which we (in particular, we feminists) find ourselves not speaking out about things that appal us, keeping quiet about things that enrage us.

Those of you who know me might not think this is something I suffer from. I do find myself talking about feminist issues an awful lot and often with some force. But don't be fooled into thinking I - or anyone like me - is immune from being silenced. Knowing I might be faced with such an accusation, I spent about a minute thinking of examples of what I mean. Here are just a few of those that occurred to me off the top of my head.

- when a van driver or builder whistles at me in public, I do not shout at them to fuck off or noticeably retaliate. The furthest I can usually stretch myself is to shoot them a look of weary disdain.

- when a certain academic at the University of York started talking in a seminar about female genital mutilation as "FMG", making sure to pronounce those quotation marks so as to show that it was clearly a problem feminists have made up to entertain themselves, I said nothing.

- when I noticed an exceptionally sexist poster advert for credit card company Capital One, I didn't write in to complain. I got as far as googling it, noticed someone else had written a blog post about it, and felt that was enough.

- when I had a (fairly robust) feminist criticism to bring against a different academic's paper in a political theory workshop, I didn't feel confident enough to bring it up in the workshop itself and only mentioned it to the author afterwards, when he didn't have the opportunity to think about it properly.

- when I was waiting at the bar at The Duchess nightclub, I was approached by a male stranger who kept trying to put his arm around me, and ultimately succeeded at kissing me on the cheek; although I physically recoiled and attempted to extract myself from the situation, I did not go apeshit at him for sexually harassing me. I didn't even say anything.

Why does it happen, and keep happening, that when we're put in a position we don't want to be in or when we are faced with something we abhor, we keep quiet?

Answering the question, my first instinct was to give the disclaimer that sometimes, obviously, it is simply about pragmatism. There's a time and a place for behaviour like yelling at people, and in some circumstances certain reactions may be inappropriate or may only make things worse.

The more I think about it, the more I think that is pretty much bullshit. When faced with manifestations of patriarchy, what's "appropriate" - in every time and every place - is keeping quiet. That's kind of the point. To do anything else is inherently subversive, whether it's yelling at someone who harasses you or schooling a seminar leader on the finer points of acronyms. It's okay to have these concerns, but for goodness' sake, don't bring them out into public! People might think you were some kind of psycho radical feminist.

Speaking of which: can we talk about this for a moment? The way in which some kinds of feminism are considered socially acceptable while others are mercilessly derided, even by feminists themselves. It seems like it's okay to be a liberal feminist in the minimalistic sense of thinking that people are in some vague way equal and that we shouldn't discriminate and that's pretty much it. A step above the category of "I'm not a feminist but [insert feminist statement here]" is the category of people who do say they're a feminist but are very quick to qualify what they mean by that. Because they wouldn't want anyone thinking they were at all vocal or aggressive about their feminism. God forbid.

I have been guilty of this and looking back I find it inexcusable. Yes, some feminists are more radical than me. Some take it to extremes that I find hard to understand, or that I don't feel are compatible with my personal brand of feminism. But every time I, or anyone else, says "I'm a feminist - but not like that", we are publicly degrading feminism. We are adding to the atmosphere of silencing that stops feminists, all feminists, of every stripe, expressing their views. We have to stop doing that.

Going back on topic: is it that simple? Is patriarchy the reason we don't speak up, acting on us both consciously and subconsciously, telling us our views are unwelcome and making us feel unwilling to express them?

To a large degree, yes. But it's also about energy. To express the kind of feminist sentiment I'm talking about is to fight, and we can't be fighting every moment of our lives. No one is capable of that. We all have our own coping strategies for this. A lot of people, wisely, don't bother fighting with strangers on the internet (whether about feminist issues or something else entirely). I myself have largely given up fighting on Facebook, preferring to simply remove the offending friends. But the energy to fight can also desert us when we most need it - in serious conversations with good friends, or when we feel sincerely violated.

I haven't come to this question with a quick-fix solution, an answer that will empower us to reject being silenced and speak up every time we want to. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that we recognise it in ourselves when it happens, so as to better combat it the next time. There are a lot of things that are terrifying and difficult the first time you do them, but the more you practice, the more capable you feel. Maybe speaking up is one of them. We could probably all do more to test that theory.

I was going to close this with something about "picking our battles" and putting the effort in to fight only when we think there's some small chance of it making a difference. But again, I'm tempted to dismiss that as bullshit. Speak up whenever you can, and if you do that, then you don't have to beat yourself up about the times when you can't.

[P.S.: tying this post and my previous one together, one of the catalysts that got me to actually sit down and write this was a Feministe post 'on language, and body, and fear'. It's a really good explanation of the way we can silence one another, even when we (ostensibly) agree with the view that's silenced.]

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

My Very Own Obesity Crisis

Someone asked what my BMI was recently, and, given that I haven't weighed myself in a long time, I had no idea. I plugged my height and the weight that I thought I was the last time I was weighed into an online BMI calculator and the answer immediately flashed up: 31.1. Obese.

My heart started pounding. I was prepared to be in the 'overweight' bracket, even fairly high up in it, but this felt like something else altogether. I had stopped being a person and become a Public Health Concern.

A day or two later I realised that the weight I had entered was wrong, and upon weighing myself (I bought a fancy set of bathroom scales, so jolted was I by the BMI's judgement) I found I was actually slightly below the threshold of obesity. Phew! But why should this be a big deal? How does it make sense that I'm allowed to feel okay-ish about myself at 11 stone 9.5 lb (163.5lb), the upper limit of 'overweight' for my height, but not at 11 stone 10 (164lb), the lower limit of 'obese'?

Pretty much everyone knows by now that BMI is an unreliable way of measuring individual health (though, more on this later). What is perhaps less fully realised is that its categorisation of normal/overweight/obese often does not match up at all with our culturally-ingrained standards of those categories. Kate Harding's Illustrated BMI project is a great way of showing this. I recommend browsing through the whole thing, but photos like this one, of a BMI-overweight woman, are where it makes its point most profoundly:

Similarly, when we think of what obesity looks like, we have a pretty specific mental image. Here are some of the top Google Image results for the word 'obese':



...and here's me.

Most people are bound to think that because I don't look like the women in the four pictures above, I can't be obese. But the BMI is used to define those categories. The meaning of obese, strictly speaking - and don't forget, this is the meaning that's used in the media - is the meaning that the BMI gives it. And according to that meaning, I am a mere few pounds of weight away from being part of the Obesity Crisis.

So, I'm asking myself, what is it about this word 'obese' that has us all running scared? Obviously, our visual association of what it looks like to be obese is wrong: not all obese people look like those women. But there's also the other side of the equation - when you hit obesity, you are alleged to be an automatic health risk, more likely to suffer from heart disease, diabetes and even cancer. And this is, perhaps, where the BMI is at its most troublesome.

Now, I'm no model of perfect health. I try to eat healthily but I do indulge on occasion, and while I go to the gym a couple of times a week I also sometimes choose to drive when I could cycle. On the whole, however, I'd say I live a healthy lifestyle, probably healthier than average. If you're under 25 or so, you probably know at least a few people who find that they can eat junk food regularly, do almost zero exercise, and retain a slim figure, which is upheld as 'normal' (read: healthy) by the BMI. I suspect that those people may be equally at risk from a health perspective as me; possibly even more so. This is supported by research that shows that thin people can have very high levels of visceral fat surrounding their organs, which makes them prime candidates for the health risks associated with obesity. (

This all brings me on to my main point. While there is a correlation between size and health, the two obviously do not walk hand in hand. Yet overweight and obese people are singled out by health professionals and the media as needing to change their lifestyle, regardless of what lifestyle they actually live, and normal-weight people are designated as healthy, regardless of their actual health. The fact that weight is associated so closely with lifestyle choices, and thus with health, is the source of the persecution that overweight people face daily, and it's simply misguided.

Weight is seen as something chosen or controllable: it is acceptable to bully and abuse overweight people, so the story goes, because they made themselves that way. This is not true. I could lose a lot of weight if I starved myself and spent hours every day working out. To say that by choosing not to do that I choose to be overweight is absurd: it's like saying that the thin person who eats junk food every day and rarely leaves the sofa is choosing to be thin.

In conclusion: obesity does not mean whale-like. Obesity does not mean sudden risk of death. In fact, it doesn't seem to mean anything meaningful at all, which leaves me wondering why we consider it a useful label.  I have to wonder whether we keep it around simply as a scare tactic: by building up all these deeply negative associations around it (people who are too fat to get out of bed! heart attacks!), we make sure that people who cross the line into obesity know that their bodies are not socially accepted. Of course, they usually know this already, thanks to those helpful, health-conscious co-citizens who find it appropriate to hurl abuse at them and treat them as less than human.