tales from urban dilettantia

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Skinny

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.

Swinging on the Spiral

“I’ve been asking people around me to write about personal positives in their life, the way they make a difference in their own way, as part of their daily experience of living in the world. Now it is my turn to share with you about my life and how I try to make a difference. Where I spend the most time, energy and effort in making a difference entirely revolves around love.” – Jaunita Landésse, setting the agenda for the 51st Down Under Feminists’ Carnival.

It is interesting that I’ve been invited to write about the way I make a difference in the world in a week where I’ve been struggling to even co-exist with the world. After many hours of begging my brain to think-think-think, I decided that the best way to address the subject was to take the scope above and to fill in the gap in this sentence:

‘Where I spend the most time, energy and effort in making a difference entirely revolves around _____.’

And when I did this, I found my answer.

Curiosity. That’s me.

It is perhaps more evident that curiosity drives my inner world, than it is that it drives the outer. I’m a life-long learner, a researcher, a dilettante who hyperbolicly claims she’ll try anything twice, an adventuress, an analyst and a woman who describes herself as ‘interested in everything’. (That’s a lie; I’m not in the least interested in Rugby League.)

If you’ve visited this blog in the past, you’ll have seen that it’s quite the jumble of things. Specific topics (cycling, politics, statistics, happiness, art, polyamory), a repository for my lists of hundreds of interesting Wikipedia articles, and tales of local history that I’ve spent hours and days and weeks researching just for the love of researching. If I have one defining characteristic that has not changed in the least over the past three decades (if you ask my Mum, I expect she’ll tell you I was a most curious baby) it’s overwhelming, unconquerable, fervent curiosity.

How, then, does this curiosity make a difference beyond my internal world? If you’ve had a conversation with me about something that excites me, you’ve probably noticed that (a) I talk really, really fast, and (b) that I love to share the knowledge grown out of the seed of an initial fascination. While it’s hard to gauge a degree of influence, many people – at work, at home, here on the internet – have mirrored my enthusiasm and have taken the time to tell me they’ve appreciated the sharing of my interests. An even better indicator, I think, is that people often go on to send me links, books, thoughts and pieces of news related to a discussion we’ve had, long after the initial conversation. We go on to listen and learn together.

I am most certain that the infectiousness of curiosity makes a difference in the world, as does the distribution of learning. I’ve learned this not from my experience as a giver of curiosity, so much as being on the receiving side of similar excitement from others who share this passion. Their curiosity feeds mine, plants new seeds and ideas, travels off in random directions, and iteratively feeds back into their wonder and awe as it returns. To learn for the joy of learning, to discover for the joy of discovering, to chase trails, to unwrap stories and to adventure on – these are the ways I write my own story and make meaning in my world, and perhaps too, in the worlds of others.

Now, wonder and awe are magnificent things, but has occurred to me as I write that curiosity also makes a difference in a more intimate way. It brings difference into the world because I’m interested in you.

I truly want to understand what makes you happy, what makes you sad, why you do what you do, what you think, how you feel, how you think, what enchants you, what enamours you, where you come from, your stories, how you’re just like me, how you’re utterly unlike me, and how you occupy and interact with your world. And I think, again from being on the receiving end rather than the giving, that it does make a small, warming difference to meet someone who is curious about you. It is good to, in that moment, know you are an interesting creature. And so, in a tiny, intimate way, I can give you the gift of my curiosity and all that entails, and likewise, if you too are interested, you can give that gift to me.

Curiosity has become more than a personality trait. More than an instinct, a proclivity or a habit, all these though it has been. But beyond them, it has become a guiding philosophy; it is my self-determined raison d’être and my maker of meaning, in a universe where I perceive no other meaning than that I create.

As Jaunita lives to love, I live to discover.

Spiralling out, keeping going. That’s the person I want to be.

 

Spiral - Sculptures by the Sea

With a loving nod to Cary, comrade in philomathy. Lateralus is your song.

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.

Resistance Is Useful: An Essay

Hello internet. We have something to talk about, and it’s been cooking for some time.

We’re going to talk about geek culture, about misogyny, about rape culture and rape apologism, about safe-spaces and fear, harassment and assault, about growing-up-geek, about social responsibility, reckoning and resistance.[1]

We’re going to talk about my experience of this in a small Australian city, and about making a declaration of intransigence. For the bemused and curious some context and links can be found at the bottom of this post. I’d suggest taking a look before reading further. Additionally, there are footnotes, because if you are reading this, you deserve juicy footnotes.[2] Now, on with the show.

For many, many years, I have lived as a nerdy young woman in this city. I grew up and grew older (and perhaps wiser) lurking on IRC, posting on the Usenet, reading and watching science fiction, blogging, data modelling, attending cons, gaming, geeking-it-up and generally being me. And during that time, within the culture that by all rights might be expected to be a place of belonging for a nerdy being such as myself, I have witnessed a parade of abhorrent behaviours and events. We shall not argue here about whether geek culture is broadly misogynistic, predatory and hostile. We shall talk about the fact that in this place, in my small city, I have observed geek culture embracing all of those things, that I have been on the receiving end of them, that I have been an observer of them, again and again and again. Stalking, rape, the enabling of rape, rape apologism, sexual assault of various kinds, opportunistic harassment, predation, collusion to trivialise boundaries and consent issues, violation of consent, coercion, marginalisation and broadly, a deep, vile and insidious culture of loathing and sexual violence. This is not theory; this is what has happened and what continues to happen. It happens your cons, in your city, in your gaming groups, on your streets, on your internet, at your parties, in your forums, on your blogs and in your workplaces. And this is my big Fuck You to all of it.

We are shaped, in part, by our solitary journeys through unsafe spaces, and by our experience of predators. We grow up, experience sexual violence and harassment, flee the unsafe places and retreat into enclaves of safety. And as we do so, a new generation of younger (and younger, ever younger) women are left to meander into the meat market we have abandoned, and to learn the same hard lessons, the same hard way. For many of us, there are few other routes to learning these things, groomed as we are by society to please, to succumb to coercion, to be polite and compliant. To keep the dirty secrets of others, to shelter them from the judgment and disapproval of our community. To to trivialise, to accept blame, to dismiss. Each subtle line of that code is still written somewhere deep in my brain.

Like many, I did not begin this journey with the code that told me how to fight back, how to be joyfully and relentlessly non-compliant, nor how to feel good about making a scene when I damned well thought it justified.  I had no concept of calling out another person on their bad behaviour and feeling anything other than guilty for having done so. And, thanks to the prevalence of the first Geek Social Fallacy[3], I also picked up a few more lines about it being so very wrong to exclude others, no matter what.

And so, once I had learned to slip past the hands, to see trouble coming, to largely stay alert and sober and evasive, I retreated into a communal bubble where consent ruled supreme, and where respect flourished. Which was all very well and good. However, it also meant that I stopped going to the cons, started declining the invitations to parties and other social events, started feeling uncomfortable about having even a single drink when in the company of whole tranches of the Perth geek community. Essentially, I excised the spaces and people grinding down my will to engage, and left them to those women who would choose to brave the jungle.[4] My friends have done likewise, and all too often, this has meant that the most predatory and intolerable of spaces – less characterised by well-intentioned failure than by the unambiguous intent to prey – are abandoned to newer, younger and more vulnerable women, more inclined to awkwardly tolerate assault than to oppose it.

And to all of this, I wish to say: Fuck You. This is unacceptable. This is war.

I believe in the need for a collective resistance, and in the need for an aggressive take-down of the predators in our geek communities. I believe in colonising those previously abandoned, unsafe spaces and sub-communities, and inoculating them. I believe in our collective social responsibility to police our culture, to change social norms, and to shelter our vulnerable. (For at times, we are all vulnerable.) I believe in declaring that no, it’s not just you to whom this has happened.  Not just you who has been stalked or fondled, harassed, pressured, abused or raped.   That this is all so very wrong and it’s honourable to resist and criticize, to not only say ‘no’ but to call people publically on their bad behavior, to out repeat offenders and generally, to make one hell of a scene where one hell of a scene is required.

And I have an idea. Alone, I am prey. But when I gather a handful of safe, trusted friends and we explicitly commit to fight this, I always have someone to fall back upon when I don’t know what to do. I have someone I can call, or bring along, who will make space for me to be heard and will speak for me when I’m unable to find the words. I have a handful of people of various genders and backgrounds to whom I can turn for context, illumination and consultation.  As does each of those people in that handful of safe, trusted friends.  And if one of those people gathers their own handful of people to do the same, the first cell spawns another, and another and the resistance spreads. The permission to speak out, to inoculate new groups, to normalize a culture of respect and safety, to make amends when we have caused harm, to talk about our experiences, to discuss the behaviour of ourselves and others, and to make a big damn fuss without shame or fear – it expands.

When I feel threatened or unsafe, I will have someone who has made a explicit commitment to stand with me. Whenever another woman is threatened, I will have made a public commitment to stand with her – not just for her individual well-being, but as an advocate for and protector of my community. When I accidentally trample someone’s boundaries (as even the most careful of us will do upon occasion), I have people to help me work our where I went wrong, and how best to make it right. This is not new; it’s not even particularly exciting – we know how to back each other up, and largely we do it competently.

What interests me more is this: acknowledging the grey, fuzzy, difficult nature of consent, the fundamentally inadequate nature of a ‘no means no’ approach, and the benefits of both women and men helping their male friends in dealing better with these issues, and helping men call out other men on sexual violence. I have spoken to so many who have expressed a concern that intervening in a situation will be insidiously trivialised and dismissed as ‘jealously’ or ‘just trying to impress her’ (or more typically, ‘just trying to get in her pants’). And it will, because that is how it works. I have spoken to many who have watched small consent violations escalate, and angsted over exactly when and how they ought to say something, without overriding an adult woman’s right to speak for herself. So many fundamentally decent people who feel they have handled a situation poorly or violated a boundary, or may be about to, and who are unsure who to ask for compassionate yet honest feedback and practical advice. To innoculate our spaces, women backing up women – while essential – is insufficient on its own. The men who loathe this violence also need access to the support of others whom they can ask to speak with them, or in their stead; allies who will back them up when they call a predator on their behaviour, who will help them negotiate difficult, grey and ambiguous situations, where ‘no means no’ is insufficient to deal optimally with a complex reality.

The problem is not that we require more like-minded people to fight this. We have like-minded people. What we require is interconnectedness between those people, and an explicit commitment to support, to defend, to assist, to go public and reach out to break the back of this sickness that pervades our culture.

If you’re in my small city, welcome to the Perth Geek Underground. If you’re elsewhere, pass it on.

[1] And for the sake of not writing a thesis we’re going to talk here about men and women, but not fail to bear in mind that the principles that are more broadly applicable to all genders, orientations and indeed people.

[2] Oh yes, you do.

[3] Geek Social Fallacies

[4] The words ‘cock forest’ came up in conversation the other day. This seems relevant.

 

Further Reading Around & Under & Beneath & In-Between

Geek Culture

On the criticism of ‘exclusionary spaces’

Women in Geek Culture

More Women in Geek Culture

Men and Women and Misogyny and Blogging

Privilege

Harassment

Predator Theory and Rape Culture

More about Rape Culture

Rape Humour

Victim Blaming – the process informing rape apologism

Growing-Up-Geek

Thoughts on Safe Spaces

87% More Real Balls at The Big Day Out

It was watching Rammstein’s lead singer, Till Lindemann, ride a giant penis cannon across the stage that got me thinking.  I’d spent the day wandering around the Perth show of Australia’s biggest music festival, the Big Day Out, and as I watched Lindemann frolic on the cannon, spraying the joyful crowd with foam, it occurred to me that I’d seen an awful lot of cock.*

Now I’m a reasonably well-read woman and I’ve spent enough of my time around activists and feminist historians to know the deal. Structural oppression making it tough for women to ascend the slippery ladder of rock music fame, complex economic and historical issues, blah blah blah. I appreciate that there’s a wider context, and sure, it takes a little more effort to find and book bands with female musicians, and I understand tour promoters are in this game to make money. I get this; I really do.**

But was it possible that, during a whole day at the country’s biggest festival, there hadn’t been one female musician on either of the main stages?  As a curious data analyst I decided to find out more, and pulled together a spreadsheet with every act and every individual musician performing at the Perth 2011 Big Day Out.  You may draw your own conclusions:

Five minutes on the Googletubes indicates that The New Pornographers, Rasputina, The Firey Furnaces, Portishead, Shonen Knife, Skunk Anansie, Amanda Palmer, Florence and the Machine, The Postal Service, Goldfrapp, The Breeders, Le Tigre, Belle & Sebastian, God Speed You! Black Emperor,Juliana Hatfield, P.J. Harvey, Morcheeba, Okkervil River, Regina Spektor, Silversun Pickups, Architecture in Helsinki, Broken Social Scene, The Magnetic Fields, of Montreal, Tender Trap, Tegan and Sara, Jebediah, Moriarty, New Rules For Boats, Schvendes, Cat Power, The Jezabels, Sneaky Sound System, Sparkadia, The Arcade Fire, Paramore, Ladyhawke, Tori Amos, Lacuna Coil and Beth Orton weren’t home to take the Big Day Out promoters’ call.

(See, I can do half-arsed research and find bands with women in them.  I’m sure the people who are paid to do this stuff could do the same. It’s not that hard.)

* That said, anyone walking into a Die Antwoord show should expect cock.

** I also get that we’re not likely to see a sharp increase of women in rock, punk or metal until we promoters book more female role-models on the big festival stages, but that deserves its own rant.