tales from urban dilettantia



I don’t think I’ve ever written a body politics piece here before, and certainly not one about my personal experience of body shaming. It isn’t my area of expertise, and I’ve noticed that writing body politics posts tends to end with one’s entrails smeared across the wall. My somewhat narrow view of human attractiveness suggests that having one’s entrails smeared across the wall isn’t a good look.  Nevertheless, let us start bluntly.

This year, I lost ten kilograms.

(I wonder what you thought when you read that? That’s so unhealthy. That’s so healthy.  Go you. For fuck’s sake, how uninteresting. Something else?)

Backstory: this year I took up rock climbing. It transformed my social life, my experience of the outdoor world, and my body. It stripped a layer of fat from my body and put on wiry muscle where I’d never had muscle before.  I’m as strong and fit as I’ve ever been. I can climb a tree, swing from one arm if only for a brief moment, and I’m on my way to doing the first chin-up I’ve ever done. I find myself liking my physical form for what it does, rather than what it is.

But here’s the thing.  Many of you haven’t seen me in person, so you won’t know what I look like.  Perhaps you’re imagining someone around average size dropping ten kilograms.

In fact, I’m five foot four. I’m very lightly built. I have tiny wrists and hands and ankles.  A year ago, I was an Australian size ten – the second smallest size one can generally buy. Today, I’m at the lower end of a size eight. I am skinny.

Culturally, I have the mammoth privilege that comes with being thin. Cheap, pretty clothes. Doctors diagnosing my illnesses, rather than telling me the only problem is my weight. Tiny airline seats fitting me. Hell, this year I’ve found I can shop in the children’s section. And most significantly, I’m not on the receiving end of widespread bigotry and condemnation.

Great. I know how fortunate I am, to the extent that anyone in such a position of privilege can ever truly know such a thing. And so, when I talk about being on the receiving end of body shaming, I want to be absolutely clear that I’m not dismissing my privilege. Shaming someone for thinness is not ‘exactly the same’ as shaming someone for not being thin. That’s bullshit. It is not equivalent.

However, there’s a belief that feeds discrimination, and a behaviour that heartbreakingly crops up from time to time even in my most feminist of social circles. It’s the belief that it is acceptable to pass judgement on my shape. On anyone’s shape. Boobs and thighs, belly, arse, ribs are all fair game for comment and criticism.

Too often I’ve seen people – feminists, activists, smart and caring people in almost every way they can be – point at pictures of skinny women’s bodies and decry them as ‘Horrible’. ‘Ugly’. ‘Disgusting’. ‘Urgh’. ‘Needs to eat a cheeseburger’. Bodies just like mine.

I may be as privileged as hell, and may not generally be on the receiving end of a cultural barrage of crap because of my body shape, but you know what? I am not okay with you posting pictures of women who look like me and commenting on how hideous they are. It is absolutely unacceptable.

The enormity of the social problems we face when it comes to physical form is beyond overstatement. We exclusively, pathologically market our clothes as displayed on the bodies of women far to one end of the bell curve. We objectify and idealise a single shape amongst the multitudes. We encourage self-loathing and self-harm. We are the architects of a society of shame.

Now, when those of you who really ought to know better post a picture of a woman’s body – of anyone’s body – and tell me it’s disgusting, you’re promoting the acceptability of linking physical form and shame. I’d like to say my feelings aren’t hurt when I see you saying my shape is wrong, but that wouldn’t be true. It is always going to be personal, just as it is always going to be political.  And, besides, it doesn’t help fix a single thing.  It simply reinforces the insidious idea that there is a ‘right shape’ and a there is a ‘wrong shape’.

I’m not wrong. I’m not ugly. I do not have an eating disorder.  I’m not sick or vain or brainwashed or setting a bad example. I’m just me, a rock climbing, skinny bitch.

To shame the body of another human being is to perpetuate the behaviour that feeds discrimination and self-loathing. But beyond that, it plunders you – our best and brightest, our feminists, our activists, our fighters. There are so many battles to be fought in this arena – battles around education, agriculture, advertisting, poverty, bad science, mental health, and the way we define spaces – both public and private.  So, wake up.  Give up the pointing and the shaming.  Instead, choose your battles wisely, and fight well.

Women of Numbers, Unite

Note (01 May 2012): I may have strayed from my intention in writing this one, as I fear it has been misinterpreted in some quarters.  I know many, many women who are good data analysts, and great data analysts.  I’ve read many wonderful articles containing great quantitative research.  However, the the best of my knowledge there is still a black hole when it comes to women talking about data as a feminist issue.  Datafeminists, to coin an awkward term.  Let’s keep talking.

I’m a researcher. I am passionate about research. And yet I hated every moment spent researching this article.

Search for any combination of words including ‘feminist’ and ‘statistics’ and you’ll see what I mean. There’s no body of work around the importance and use of statistics and data in feminist writing; no discussion around sourcing and interrogating data, and effectively communicating the information derived. Similarly, it seems that feminist posts taking oft-cited statistics and subjecting them to robust analysis don’t exist, or are so overwhelmed by a torrent of vitriol that they are near impossible to find.

Vitriol, you say? The posts I came across while searching for material were dominated by comments like these:

“Feminists never tire from promoting their lies”
“Why Feminism’s Vital Statistics Are Always Wrong”
“You are better off ignoring feminist stats”
“Feminism is the main cause of divorce in America”
“Feminists falsify facts for effect”

There are traps here. To say ‘we should have tried harder’ and so to accept the vitriol and the shaming, and – abhorrently – to blame ourselves. To rage against the often raised (and often valid) point that women must unfailingly conform to a higher standard than men to prove themselves. I’m probably going to fall into a few of those traps, in spite of trying my best.  But regardless, I wanted to write this and release it into the wild, because poor data, lazy research are problems wherever they arise, and it genuinely matters to me that we give these things our best effort – particularly when they pertain to very issues that we care about the most.

So, the researching of this post was a falling into the void in popular feminist writing that lurks in the place of well-referenced, well-researched, statistically sound numbers. A void where I would hope to see women with a passion for statistics vigorously promoting and debating the use of quantitative data. Encountering instead, unreferenced statistics, unsourced numbers, sweeping conclusions based only on anecdotal evidence. I’ve worked as a financial analyst, and now as an economist. I aspire to be the best rationalist I can be, however imperfect my achievement. And it grieves me to see such a deficiency, a great disconnect between two things I hold dear.

It’s not that the figures, the assertions, the conclusions are necessarily incorrect. But even if a number pulled from the ether without verification happens to be correct, this does not validate the process used to derive it. Erroneous – or perhaps worse – fundamentally unverifiable numbers propogate without scrutiny. Consider a number of specific cases. (I apologise in advance for cherry-picking and do note that these too are, ironically, anecdotal. However, given the shortage of self-critique and self-correction in feminist analysis, today we will settle for cautionary tales.)

1. Joan Brumberg, historian and former director of women’s studies at Cornell University wrote in Fasting Girls: The Emergence of Anorexia Nervosa as a Modern Disease that there were 150,000 to 200,000 fatalities from anorexia nervosa in any given year. Brumberg was misquoting the American Anorexia and Bulimia Association which had stated that there were 150,000 to 200,000 sufferers of of anorexia nervosa in the United States in any given year.

This error might have easily been identified by checking with the National Center for Health Statistics, which gave a figure of 70 deaths from anorexia in 1990. However, widely read authors including Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth and Gloria Steinam in Revolution From Within uncritically cited Brumberg’s figure without seeking out the primary source. (Both authors issued a correction once the error was highlighted.)

Even when writer Christina Hoff Sommers pointed out the mistake, she herself made the error of uncritically taking the Centre for Heath Statistics figure, stating that the actual number of deaths from anorexia was “less than 100 deaths per year.” In not considering the sources of data used by the the National Center for Health Statistics (which happened to be death certificates) she failed to consider heart failure, suicide or other causes of death arising as a consequence of anorexia. In contrast, the [peer reviewed] study, The Course of Eating Disorders (Herzog et al, eds.) indicated that the long-term fatality rate might be closer to 15%. Recognising the mistakes of others does not make one immune to making one’s own, and as Sommers herself said, “Where were the fact checkers, the editors, the skeptical journalists?” And, to give credit where it is due, Sommers has been one of our more vocal watchdogs when it comes to accuracy and factual reporting.

2. The March of Dimes Foundation, a United States non-profit established to work for the health of mothers and babies provides another example. In November 1992, Deborah Louis (then president of the National Women’s Studies Association) posted a message to the Women’s Studies Electronic Board citing the March of Dimes Foundation, stating that, “according to [the] last March of Dimes report, domestic violence (vs. pregnant women) is now responsible for more birth defects than all other causes combined.” Peculiarly, the March of Dimes Foundation did not publish a report on this topic, and was not aware of any research supporting the statement. Indeed, Maureen Corry, director of the March’s Education and Health Promotion Program, said “We have never seen this research before.”

This did not prevent Patricia Ireland, then president of the National Organisation for Women, saying that “battery of pregnant women is the number one cause of birth defects in this country” on the Charlie Rose program in February 1993.

The misinformation then propogated though The Boston Globe, the Dallas Morning News and Time magazine before the error was traced to the founder of a domestic violence advocacy project, Sarah Buel of Harvard Law School. Buel had misunderstood a statement made by Caroline Whitehead, a maternal nurse and child-care specialist in North Carolina, who cited a March of Dimes study indicating that more women are screened for birth defects than are screened for domestic battery. Whitehead had made no comment on the connection between battery and birth defects.

3. In January in 1993 at a news conference held by a coalition of women’s groups, reporters were told that Super Bowl Sunday is “the biggest day of the year for violence against women.”  The reporters were futher told that 40% more women would experience domestic battery on that day. (More, one might ask, than on what other day?) Sheila Kuehl (California Women’s Law Center) had used a study conducted at Virginia’s Old Dominion University three years before. Again, the statistic propogated through the media, with Rober Lipsyte of the New York Times referring to the “Abuse Bowl.”

The following day, psychologist and author of The Battered Woman Lenore Walker claimed on Good Morning America that she had compiled a ten-year report that showed the sharp spike in violent incidents against women on Super Bowl Sundays. And the day after that, reporter Lynda Gorov reported in the Boston Globe that women’s hotlines and shelters were “flooded with more calls from victims [on Super Bowl Sunday] than on any other day of the year,” citing “one study of women’s shelters out West” that “showed a 40 per cent climb in calls, a pattern advocates said is repeated nationwide, including Massachusetts.”

When writer Ken Ringle from the Washington Post called Janet Katz, professor of sociology and criminal justice at Old Dominion and co-author of the study originally cited by Kuehl at the news conference, Katz said “That’s not what we found at all,” and stated that an increase in emergency-room admissions “was not associated with the occurrence of football games in general.”

When Lenore Walker was asked to provide details of the findings from her ‘ten-year study’ she declined to share them, saying “We don’t use them for public consumption, we used them to guide us in advocacy projects.”

4. Since the mid-1980’s statements have have proliferated to the effect that women represent one half of the world’s population and a third of its labour force, are responsible for two-thirds of all working hours, receive a tenth of world income and own less than 1% of all property.

The numbers appeared in 1984 in Robin Morgan’s introduction to a book called Sisterhood Is Global: The International Women’s Movement Anthology. I remember seeing them in pamphlets and on posters at university, some fifteen years later. The oldest known source for them is in an editor’s introduction to an issue of the journal Women at Work, published by the International Labour Organisation in 1978, which stated:

“A world profile on women, using selected economic and social indicators, reveals that women constitute one half of the world population and one third of the official labour force; perform nearly two-thirds of work hours; but according to some estimates receive only one-tenth of the world income and possess less than one-hundredth of world property.”

Unsourced. No explanation of the ‘selected’ indicators. No elaboration on where ‘some estimates’ might have come from, or what these might be.

In 2007, author Krishna Ahooja-Patel, the editor responsible for that statement back in 1978, published a book called Development Has A Woman’s Face: Insights from Within the U.N. where she mentions that the formula was her own, and that it was “based on some available global data and others derived by use of fragmentary indicators at the time, in the late 1970s.”

The assumptions underlying Ahooja-Patel’s numbers include a guess that women constituted 33% of the world’s formal workforce and data from ‘several countries’ (unspecified) that they earned 10% to 30% less than men. From this, she took the higher end of the range from the earnings data, rather than a midpoint, and calculated that a third of the world’s total income was earned by women.

Further, Ahooja-Patel’s only explanation of the assertion that women own less than one hundredth of the world’s property is that “if the average wage of women is so low, it can be assumed that they do not normally have any surplus to invest in reproducible or non-reproducible assets.” She cites “various UN statistics” as her source.

For more than a quarter of a century, these numbers have filtered down through publications, women’s groups, the media, the internet and more. Often, the primary source is never stated, giving a misleading impression as to the date, time and context in which they were originally provided. They have been endlessly repeated wherever the issues of women, money, work and property are raised. And yet in their unreliability and unverifiability, they do no justice to feminism’s most critical concerns.

These are tales in isolation, demonstrating the manner in which bad information can indiscriminately spread. Far worse, is how little we care; where are our wonderful, fierce women arguing in favour of excellence in research and analysis? Where are those well-known women who have played key parts in the tales above, warning and educating us by virtue of the lessons they’ve learned? Where are the feminist bloggers, clamouring for an end to apathy and lazy journalism?  They may be out there, but we do not help their voices ring loud enough for me to find them in the world.

We can do better than this. So much better. I know women who are ethicists, financiers, lawyers, economists, actuaries, librarians, curators, researchers, doctors, biologists, accountants, architects, engineers, chemists, anthropologists, writers, geologists, journalists, linguists, computer scientists, pathologists, mathematicians, political scientists and more. Intelligent women who know better than to take a number at face value, or to state a conclusion without credible support. Intelligent women who value quality and who wholeheartedly support a culture of honest analytical contribution and critique.

Sometimes, we are story-tellers. Anecdotes have a valuable role in sharing a message, in communicating a large picture to a small audience. But we are not only story-tellers. We are astoundingly well-educated, connected human beings, and that in itself is a great privilege – the children of a providential intersection of race, class, geography and more.

Do better, loudly and visibly. Because we are astoundingly clever and astoundingly well-educated, and there is no honour in doing less than the best we can.

In Which I Learn Things About Safe Spaces

Due to an unusual intersection of the Easter break and Anzac Day, Australia enjoyed a glorious five day weekend, some of which I spent at the Swancon/Natcon science fiction and fantasy conference. (Until I ran out of human interaction capacity, upon which I returned home to hibernate. By which I mean, play Portal 2.)

Good times were had, and this year I had the honour of being invited to sit on the Safe Spaces panel, in which we talk about communication, situation management, consent and boundaries. Sometimes, Safe Spaces can be quite contentious (the irony!) as it’s a topic on which people have very diverse and strongly-held views.  By the time it was about to begin I’d catastrophised myself into thinking it was going to be a bloodbath of some sort and that everyone would yell at me. I can be a bit of a dork like that.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the case at all and we were able to cover a range of views and practical techniques to address various social situations. I brought some of my recent militancy to the mix, in addition to the discussions of more gentle and effective communication, and no-one appeared to glare at me nor tell me I was a horrid person who was Doing It Wrong.  (I worry somewhat excessively about being yelled at and told I’m a horrid person who’s Doing It Wrong, even if I don’t believe it.)  In the process, I learned a couple of things from the audience and from the other panellists that I think are worth sharing here.

Firstly, I had a moment where I realised that I’ve been coming at this from a place where I’ve always been something of a doormat and people-pleaser.  I’ve been working on standing up for myself and others, and on being assertive and outspoken. This has been immensely helpful, since I was raised to be a Good Catholic Woman who avoided causing offence at all costs, and it has certainly helped me realise that I don’t have to please everyone and that it isn’t necessary for everyone to like me. However, a certain comment led me to the realisation that it’s not a black and white issue and that there’s no need to beat myself up if I choose to be polite, tell a convenient white lie or not fight a particular battle. We use the tools we have, and it’s as valid to be kind, distant or evasive as it is to be blunt, honest and assertive – neither is reprehensible or inappropriate, and both approaches can be useful and practical.

Secondly, I was reminded that those things that are obvious to me are not obvious to everyone. Listening to one of my co-panellists talk about the value of learning to ask her loved ones to respect her boundaries and preferences – in her case, a strong aversion to physical contact in many circumstances – initially had me thinking ‘Well, of course I tell my friends clearly what I need, and they work with it. That’s what people who care about you do.’ However, I then remembered being an extremely sheltered eighteen year old who was so worried about fitting in that she would never have asked a friend to stop (or start) doing something to make herself comfortable. It’s good to circle back to such points in a mixed group; as obvious as they may seem to a thirty-something woman who’s been talking about this for years, they’re can also be the catalyst for someone else to realise it really, truly is okay to ask openly for a specific kind of consideration. I, for one, had almost forgotten the experience sucking up anxiety and distress, and hiding my discomfort for fear of being thought strange and difficult.

In short, no-one shouted at me, I said my bit and learned stuff. Good times.

Further Dispatches from the Perth Geek Underground

(Heads up – This one is pretty triggery, particularly regarding rape. Consider yourself warned.)

Thank You; Yes You!

The response to my Resistance Is Useful essay, from both men and women, has been fabulous. I’ve had many enthusiastic discussions on Twitter, seen it reposted on LiveJournal and Tumbler and personal blogs, and had some great and challenging private conversations as a result. It seems that managing situations where an otherwise decent person accidentally or obliviously crosses boundaries is something that is of particular interest to many of you, and given the lack of tools our society gives us to deal with such situations, it’s understandable.

I truly believe that boldly talking about these issues – both of intentional and non-intentional transgression – instead of hiding them in dark corners is for the best, and it’s really lovely to see so many Perthites taking part in this. You are good people, you are responsible for the positive change that has already occurred, and you will be the catalyst for the positive change to come.

I Get Comments

I’m not keen to censor well-considered and constructive criticism, as I’m well aware that certain internet media propagate a disproportionate number of ‘I do agree’ responses. On the other hand, I’m not into approving comments from trolls. (A Very Special Hello to MikeUSA who posted a particularly vile comment and appears to post similarly abusive content all over the web. Thank you for severely testing my abilities to refrain from setting you on fire, Mike. Good times.)

However, I was unsure how to deal with one particular comment from the charming (for certain values of ‘charming’) Mark, a fellow Perthite. A friend suggested adopting an MST3K / Pharyngula ‘I Get Mail’ approach of sharing it and marking it up with my comments, rather than approving it. I appreciate that a number of you know this guy (that’s Perth for you) and it may be a little socially awkward for me to lay into him. But then, sucking up the social awkwardness and speaking out in spite of it is exactly what I’ve been talking about.

Welcome to the world. [Well hello there.] It is not a safe place and only children think it is. [It’s nice that you had that experience as a child. I didn’t.] You are now sufficiently paranoid that you can no longer be considered a child, congratulations. [Do I get Moët and a present for graduating? I hope so.] I, personally, am rather tired [Sorry to bore you.] of hearing about children of adult ages [From the context of the post upon which you are commenting, I can only guess this is an interesting and creative way of saying ‘women’.] who have not developed sufficient paranoia to avoid getting drunk at (or even entering) [I left the house. What was I thinking?] parties full of strangers without many friends. [It seems you exist in a glorious parallel universe where women are largely assaulted by strangers, rather than friends, family, colleagues and/or people they’ve known for a long time. Please tell me how I can travel there.] No, I am not being facetious or mocking [I know, you’re just unable to read for meaning.] I truly think that there is only one person who can be held responsible for my safety, and that’s me. [I appreciate you bringing your privilege to the table. It’s shiny. I feel so pleased for you to hear that your safety is a personal problem rather than a structural and cultural one; that must be feel good.] I apply the same policy to other people, trust no-one. [Thanks for all your hard work to make the world a better place and/or your unwavering dedication to quoting the X-Files.]

In short, thanks Mark, for posting rape apologism in response to a post about rape apologism. It’s sweet of you to play to my love for recursion and irony.

I’d like to mention here, for what it’s worth, that not a single friend of mine has informed me of being raped by a stranger, nor of having taken a sexual assault case to the police. But quite a number of my friends have been raped and assaulted nonetheless, and every one by someone they knew.  And this, this is why I wanted to share Mark’s comment rather than hiding it away – because we all know people who put forward this argument as if it were rational, but it’s full of embedded assumptions about how women are harmed by strangers, largely because of their own foolishness.  To make this argument is not only a failure to acknowledge reality, but also an irresponsible distraction from – and argument against – doing anything that may help mitigate the problem.  We are harmed by trusted fathers, brothers, lovers and friends.  We are harmed by the devil we know.

The Flying Blogspot will return to your regular menu of ‘Today I Ate Soup’ posts, local history (I have a great post about my cottage’s former residents in the works!) and banality shortly, but for a few more days, enjoy the love and rage.


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@dilettantiquity is interested in an unreasonable number of things, including the wide and wonderful universe, happiness, well-being, wine, optimal human experience, non-violent communication, complex systems, existential nihilism, rationality, technology, grassroots organising, cacophony, music, creativity, learning and love.