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Fatphobia

Articles about fatphobia and fat positivity have been making an appearance in my social media feeds fairly regularly of late. One in particular struck a chord, describing the impossibility of the “thigh gap”, a coveted beauty feature apparently only available to those of us with “splayed thighs”.  This was one of a number of features I pursued with vigour, embarrassingly, through most of my teens, with an array of ridiculous diets including the Heart Foundation Diet (which unsurprisingly has nothing to do with the Heart Foundation), the Marshmallow diet (you only eat marshmallows), The Atkins diet, The South Beach diet and a number of others including detox potions, fast days, and bizarre food combinations. Spoiler: they didn’t result in me gaining a thigh gap, or, in fact, being any thinner at all in the medium term. Of course, it should have been obvious that the thigh gap is a piece of digital trickery. It’s just that I hadn’t had cause to research the science of thighs. Laziness, failure to think things through, and a desperate need to believe in the hope that if you work very very hard, one day you might get to feel good enough for a few minutes lead to an acceptance of such things more easily than we might be ready to admit when we are eventually confronted with the obvious reality.

Despite this long battle with my body and much misery accompanying my fatness, I have never really come around to being on the side of “fat positivity”. I believe that aesthetics matter, that being able to control the image you present to the world is a positive thing, that a body you have created is more authentically ‘you’ than the one you happen to have been born with, and that there is nothing wrong with competition. The fact that there are inevitable losers is just part of life.  All of this seems very much at odds with the underlying philosophy of fat-positivity and I have therefore, until now, moved my beak out of this discussion with a dismissive eyeroll. In recent years, however, fat moralising has started down the more disturbing route of treating fat people like we are the cause of a horrifically expensive plague generated by our lack of self-control. This is a change that seems somewhat perverse given the extent of the health costs of fat shaming.

The general media assumption seems to be that the cost of fat-shaming to people’s health is simply that some people develop eating disorders such as anorexia, but since there are far more people suffering from obesity related problems than anorexia, fat shaming is likely to be helpful because it will give people extra motivation to be thinner, and therefore healthier. The problem with this is that it doesn’t. People aren’t necessarily healthier just because they are thinner, and constantly being shamed about your body isn’t particularly motivating.

Thinking through all the personal anecdotes of health choices people have made generates the following:  I can think of at least three people at school who took up smoking as an appetite suppressant. I can think of two more who didn’t give up because they were putting on weight. Three people in my school became so severely agoraphobic because of weight related bullying that they had to leave school before their GCSEs, and at least one of them has not been able to complete any further education in the six years since because the damage to her mental health has prevented her from being able to leave the house for sustained periods. A number of people gave up sports because they felt that it generated an ‘unfeminine’ amount of muscle. My own foray into crash dieting, and otherwise screwy relationship with food and my body in general, has had an unquestionably more negative impact on my body size, and health than a more accepting approach is likely to have generated. Crash diets generate binges; shame generates secret eating, and a tendency to try to suppress hunger until you are ravenous before immediately scoffing a whole pizza.

By contrast, I can think of only a handful of people who adopt a healthy lifestyle for the sole purpose of being slim. Those that are able to do so do indeed succeed at both being slim and being healthy. But this relies on a metabolism and body-type that allows them to achieve an “attractive” body-type whilst being healthy. For many people, achieving the levels of thin required to be attractive means pushing their body outside of what is healthy. And that’s OK. Just as long as we’re not pretending it’s healthier.

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Back…and organising things

It has been brought to my attention recently that it has been an embarrassingly long time since I last updated this blog, which was the subject of a new year’s resolution in January 2013, and hasn’t been updated since. It’s January again, and I am back on the waggon. This time I promise not to have disappeared in a puff of smoke by the time February rolls around.

I have, however, been doing some less armchairy things this year. I am currently on the organising committee for Oxford’s Reclaim the Night March, which will take place on the 7th of March 2014, coinciding with, and joining, the International Women’s Festival in the Town Hall. There will also be a series of build up events, opening with a spoken word event which will take place on the 13th February 2014, where women will speak words about gendered violence.If you would like to contribute, please message me in the comments.

Protest · Rape

A Day Late and A Dollar Short: My Thoughts on Slutwalk London

Slutwalk London has been much criticised in the blogosphere for its Twitter support of Julian Assange. This fits with some of the broader failings I found at the march itself, and I thought it would be useful to write a post specifically about the successes, problems, and failings as I saw them on the day.

Fundamentally, this year’s Slutwalk was a fantastically well organised event. Helped by its international nature and the extensive media coverage it has enjoyed, it was very well publicised and conveniently located. The choice to hit Piccadilly and then go on via Oxford Street to Trafalgar Square made it very much an everywoman march and the focus was very definitely on the public.  There was a strong sense of solidarity and camaraderie as the march progressed, with chants being made up on the hoof and taking off through the crowd. On arrival in Trafalgar Square, we were met by a well-prepared lineup of awesome speakers. The organisers had clearly made a commitment to be inclusive, focusing on individual experience and the real impact and emotion involved, whilst not forgetting the importance of the credentials many of the women brought or the impact made by the organisations and campaigns they head up.

The list of speakers ban be found here: http://slutmeansspeakup.org.uk/post/6449572406/speakers and notably included talks on trans* experience and the experience of women involved in sex work or the asylum system. Slut Means Speak Up, the group who organised the Slutwalk have launched Slut Means Speak Up as an ongoing campaign. Their website encourages supporters to have an inclusive approach to gender in their own work, and to address intersectionality in their discussions.

While the Slutwalk organisers are to be applauded for making an effort to be inclusive in their speakers, the same unfortunately could not be said of the mere mortals doing the marching. Most women came in groups, either with their student women’s rep, or as part of existing feminist organisations.The extent to which the march had reached women outside the usual activist circle seemed to be limited, with most people appearing to know a number of other women on the march.

Whilst a number of men joined the march, there were probably more male photographers than attendees, and photography tended to be focused on the most scantily-clad women with a frequency that suggested the motivations behind the photography were not always entirely on message. Slutwalk gets a lot of publicity from the controversy surrounding it’s method of communication, and while I felt that this was a necessary and important part of the march, I also felt that more could be done to ensure that (particularly photographic) media coverage was on message. Feminism shouldn’t have to be sexy to get coverage. Pun unintended.

There appeared to be few visibly trans* women there and while I hope that is simply a matter oversight on my part, I think it is important to remember that being invited is not the same as being welcomed and even being welcomed isn’t enough if you’ve stayed away because of bitter experience at other events. It would be interesting to know whether women who don’t currently pass stayed away and what could be done about it in future. 

A major problem with the event was the extensive involvement of the Socialist Worker, a publication which has a historically poor track record on, well, involving women at all. There seemed to be an overarching assumption that the majority of march-goers were socialists, or at least strongly left leaning. Becoming a feminist does not necessarily entail becoming a socialist. Many of us are conservative, or libertarian, or liberal, or..well, an odd mixture of ideological and political views. Presenting feminism as a tenet socialism seems an unnecessarily alienating approach to a subject that it should be possible to get everyone to agree on. It misrepresented the views of many of us on the march and, worse, it allowed a movement that has historically actively oppressed women to appropriate our event to push an agenda which had nothing to do with rape.

The disappointment that I and many women felt at this aspect of the march was intensified further by the support for Julian Assange’s position that he should be tried for the rape of two women in the UK, rather than Sweden, the home country of both women and the country in which the rapes took place. * It is not impossible to demand 1) that rape is always investigated thoroughly and prosecuted carefully in the jurisdiction where the rape took place and 2) that whistleblowers are not allowed to be extradited to countries where they may face the death penalty, or countries which have a known history of torturing political prisoners. It IS impossible to say that either of those causes takes priority and maintain a reasonable position. Survivors cannot be denied justice because their rapist is politically important. In fact, the political agenda behind the Julian Assange case highlights to us all what authorities CAN do when they REALLY care about catching a rapist, and it’s a standard we must hold them up to in every. single. case.

The disappointments of the Slutwalk highlight the need for an ongoing discourse on how such events should be run, how we can include people who currently feel unwelcome, how we can reach people who haven’t been radicalised by University, how we can win back those who were radicalised then lost their way, and how we can prevent feminism from being claimed as a leaf on the tree of socialism.

 

*I haven’t seen the Twitter comments, as I do not have an account, and am happy to be corrected if anything I have said misrepresents what was said there.

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Why I became a Slut

As you may have gathered from the super-ambitious blog title, marching usually isn’t my thing. Partly this is for highly intellectual and important reasons, which have long been pointed out by other feminists, such as the fact that it usually tires out the protesters far more than their opponents, or the fact that demonstrates the lack of numbers committed to the cause more often than it sends a terrifying battle-cry that leaves leaders fearing the next revolution. Partly it’s because I’m lazy and marching makes my feet hurt, but we’ll skim over that. By enlarge, powerful people get decisions made by sitting down on swanky seats and being right, or, more often, slightly more convincing than the dude in the swanky seat opposite, and I think grassroots movements should do the same.

Why, then, did I make an exception for Slutwalk? Well, firstly, it’s because the march seems symbolic of the argument; we are trying to reclaim public space and our right to be in it without being subject to violence, and without our bodily autonomy becoming dependent on our dress or behaviour, so it makes sense for us to do that by asserting our presence in public space. Secondly, the argument isn’t addressed exclusively to the powerful. It is addressed to the man in the street, the passer by, the beat police officer, the inconvenienced shopper, and everyone who knows someone who went to Slutwalk, or heard about it, or saw it on TV, or read what someone said about it on Twitter, or saw a poster for it while they were taking a shit. All of those people have the power to change rape culture or perpetuate it, to understand the message that expecting potential victims* of rape to change their behaviour in order to avoid being raped is demeaning and othering, or to close their eyes to the obvious. This gives Slutwalk the potential to yield some of the many smaller successes we desperately need on the road to Win, raising people’s consciousness and changing people’s minds. It isn’t a win or lose event with the odds stacked against us. Thirdly, it is a phenomenally successful world-wide event. Each small march, taking place in a local area allows access for people who would never be able to travel, forces the issue in many localities, but at the same time connects to a single world message. I therefore encourage any reluctant Sluts to join.


*I am aware that there is some debate over the appropriate term to describe people who have experienced rape. I have used the word victim here, rather than survivor, because not all people who experience rape survive, and I do not believe this makes them weaker, or their experience any less important, or their voice (as far as we can imagine it) any less worthy of representation. I welcome comments from anyone who can think of a better word. 

Rape

Proof is not enough…

Probably the most important reason for the continued existence of feminism, at least in the First World, can be summed up with the dreaded rape statistics. So well known are they amongst anyone who is likely to get as far as reading this post that I won’t even bother to depress myself (or any of my readers) by reciting them here. Today’s news offers another horror story, the details of which can be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-17989463

That a 13- year old girl can arrive at a police station PREGNANT and not have her case taken to trial is repugnant beyond words. How much more evidence could they possibly need? Short of someone getting raped in front of the jury, I can’t see how much stronger your case can be than DNA evidence of someone having sex with a girl several years before the legal age of consent.

The promised enquiry into just how this happened is definitely something I will be following with interest