Women Represent! Online

This Thursday, January 20 was an exciting day for me and, hopefully, for the students at the Calgary Girls’ School. The staff and students there collaborated with many community and even distant figures to put on a Digital Citizenship Symposium at their middle school. I had done a presentation there a few years ago and so when they approached me to join in on a panel during the event, I was excited to go back. They had given me a warm welcome the first time and this visit was no less inspiring. I love talking to students and hearing both their questions and answers. I always learn when I go into schools or other groups. I jump at nearly every opportunity to get out into the community.

Anonymiss: Expect usI flew back to Calgary for about 18 hours, leaving Wednesday night, and the event started at 8:00 am, so it was a lot to take in so early in the morning. However, there were some great topics brought up. One I found really complex and interesting is how women and girls have a different experience online from others. How is gender performed online? How does a picture of a girl on Facebook receive different responses, and what does that look like?

The Internet offers amazing opportunities for people in many marginalized groups to begin representing themselves, putting them in the seat to determine what messages about themselves they want to see in the media landscape, and so I think the activism potential is really important to consider. However, it brings us to a lot of questions: If women can start to represent themselves in a substantial way, on Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, message boards, gaming chat rooms, etc, how are they going to choose to represent themselves? Are we seeing women branch out and show new, more complex ideas about women in these moments, or is it same-old same-old? Why? Do women have the kind of options yet that they need to do what they want to represent themselves?

For example, how are the players available for women in online games portraying women’s bodies? Sexism in the gaming industry is both obvious and infamous. Chain-mail bikinis? Are you kidding me? And of course all the sexism in real life translates online – it’s the same people on the Internet as in the real world, so how would we expect sexism to disappear once we’ve gone digital? – but now there’s the benefit of being anonymous. It doesn’t do anything positive for upholding a standard of equality. If no one can personally call you out for being sexist, a community that is at least vaguely hostile to women can easily develop, just as there are racist and homophobic communities online. It reflects larger society.

How new media and Internet technologies affect women is a huge discussion that I won’t get into further right here, but I think as digital citizens, we do have a responsibility to take a look at our online culture. It’s easy to assume that the status quo is just normal – it’s just the Internet! – but twenty years ago we didn’t have this kind of commonplace access to the virtual world. This is new and still in the process of being defined. How do we want to define it, and gender, online? It’s a big question that no one person is going to ever answer. The answer will only be seen much later, when we all look back at what we’ve done with all these new tools and gadgets.


Dressing to Impress at the Golden Globes

Jennifer Lopez at the Golden Globes So, this past Sunday was the Golden Globes and so there was, of course, the required hours of red carpet footage. No doubt there were hours of red carpet preparation as well done by many celebrities. What they wear is often the source of entertainment news fodder. This year, Time has graciously (eye roll) created a post-event slide show highlighting “Five Stars Who Look Looked Fat and Five to Who Looked Fit.” Gee, thanks Time. What would we do without your critical and enlightening gaze?

Actually, more like just critical. This Sociological Images post does a great job of talking about how the article assumes that fashion is used merely to hide the “flaws” that separate your body from that of the ideal we’re supposed to live up to. Thighs are too big to fit the super-skinny mould? If your dress doesn’t hide your shape, then – according to the piece – you’ve failed. And they plan to publicly shame you. Hurrah.

Fashion as body camouflage? Fashion as the tool for creating a generic body? I think we can find a better use for the creativity and beauty that is potentially possible in the things we wear. Many girls (and boys) see their clothing choices as reflecting who they are and showing the world a little piece of themselves, not hiding what makes them special. Celebrity articles show the extreme version of what happens often when people try on clothes at home or in dressing rooms and compare themselves to how they “should” look. Time is holding up the body image standard here to see how the celebrities compare, and even they – who are often only celebrated for being closest in society to this ridiculous ideal – cannot live up to this measure. Anyone calling J Lo fat in this picture needs to get their eyes checked, and re-checked.

I’m no fan of the Golden Globes. I’m no fan of celebrities. However, I’m even less of a fan of this beauty standard that requires our every effort be devoted to conforming and contorting our bodies to fit the ideal. Can’t we just wear pretty dresses?

Cosmo Features the Same Faces, Over and Over

Women’s magazines always look the same to me, no matter whether it’s the issue from this year or last year, or the one before. Darren from DarrenBarefoot.com put together a video of 36 Cosmo magazine covers and you will notice that they all look pretty much the same.

It’s not surprising, considering that they all feature the same ideals of beauty and femininity. They are creating the “ideal” Cosmo reader in every issue as they talk about what to wear, see, buy, use, desire, or do in bed. This reader is eerily similar to the “ideal” woman in society, and there’s a debate to be had about why Cosmo is so popular. Is it because women want to become like the image they see in Cosmo and buy the magazine, or do they want to be like those figures because of what they’re reading? Or a little of both? None of the above?

We need to talk about how the media effects everyone and how they see their world and their bodies. What does having a popular magazine with, essentially, the same cover every issue tell us about our options as far as body type? What does the lack of women of colour (often referred to as “minority” women) on these front covers tell us about race and beauty?

From where I stand, it doesn’t tell us very good things. It’s showing the distinct lack of options that the beauty ideal of mainstream society gives us, which ignores how many, many ways there are to be beautiful. Why are we looking around and seeing the same faces, same bodies everywhere in the media when you look at reality and see SO many different variations? We’re missing out on a lot of beauty.

Guest Lecture: Laura’s Vision of the F-Word

This is Laura, a friend of mine. I whole-heartedly support her message.


Laura also recently posted a note on facebook talking about weight and beauty. It was from an article she wrote for Totem Park residence newspaper at the University of British Columbia. I asked her if I could share it here because I thought it was such a great example of how you can move beyond the number of pounds and see the beauty that doesn’t show up on the scale. Here it is below, enjoy:

The F- Word

Muffin top, thunder thighs, and other reasons why we love to hate ourselves

A few weeks ago, after insisting I didn’t believe in calories for the holiday season, I stepped on the scale to reveal a five pound increase.

I weigh 176.5 lbs.

By the way, this is not an article about fitness, health, or how I lost my holiday eggnog gut.  In fact, I am pretty comfortable with my weight.  Consequently, unlike most other women, I am willing to reveal that dreaded number which continues to haunt the human existence.

Some of you will read that number, 176.5, and automatically label me with the word “fat”.  I have been called many names, from fatty, to elephant, from Jigglypuff to humorless quips about the size of my ass.  And with a BMI of around 33, I can’t really argue.  I am a fat-assed Jigglypuff.

Somehow I survived grade school with fantastic self-esteem.  Somehow I avoided an eating disorder, except for that brief period of skipping breakfasts and lunches (I called it “vegetarianism”), and that one time I stuck a toothbrush down my throat.

So why was an eleven-year-old girl with fantastic self-esteem reduced to sticking a toothbrush down her throat?

There are a few reasons, and my story is not unique, nor the most severe.  Social media and advertising sells us our vision of sex appeal, what we are and are not allowed to perceive as sexy.  A California girl with big breasts is a plus.  Washboard abs is almost a necessity if you want a girlfriend.  But having a fat girlfriend makes you a “chubby chaser”.  You may try to insist you are somehow different, but be honest: your first lessons in sex probably came from magazines and television, reading articles about what men really want and watching movies where breasts are both big and perfectly symmetrical (for your learning experience, breasts are commonly saggy and different sizes.  But it doesn’t matter whether they’re “sexy” or not, because boobies are always fun to play with).

Another reason is body policing.  We love to talk about the things we hate most on our own bodies, but even more than that we love judging others.  We love to assess and compare; Facebook stalk acquaintances to see who got fat after high school, look at pictures of celebrities who lost weight, and ridicule Robert Pattinson’s own asymmetrical nipples and airbrushed abs in Twilight: New Moon.  We notice and praise weight-loss in a light of glorification because the F-Word (re: FAT) has been blacklisted as an epidemic, a deadly virus, in our own country.

I want to be perfectly clear in this next sentence, because it is not a popular opinion, especially in our health-conscious, fat-free, low-sodium society:

Fat is not the enemy.

Fat acceptance is an unpopular idea because many will argue that it promotes obesity and compliance with an unhealthy lifestyle, that obesity related illness is taking up tax-paying dollars.  It is true that our society needs a lifestyle change.  Yet directly linking fat to health issues promotes the assumptions “Thin must = Healthy” and “Fat always = Unhealthy”.  This is simply untrue.

Why is weight-loss or gain something we talk about constantly?  Why should being sexually attractive be our first, if not only, priority?  I think we sell ourselves short by defining our self-worth by a number.  Why is it wrong to make fun of the shape of eyes, or the colour of skin, yet it is still OK to ridicule the shape of a body?  Why is FAT an accusation, as if having this soft, pliable flesh is a crime?

When you look into the mirror, don’t see a roll.  Don’t see fat thighs or a double chin.  Don’t see “who you really are” trapped under a layer of evil fat.  Don’t chop yourself into pieces and disfigure your body in that way.  Don’t exercise because you hate your body; exercise because you LOVE IT.  Exercise because it feels like a breath of cold mountain air, like a natural high.  Grab your fat, squish it between your fingers, and hug it.  If you have no fat to hug, hug your ribcage, or your washboard abs, or your liver and whatever you look like, love your whole self.

Never deny anyone the human right of loving their whole self.

My name is Laura and  I weight 176.5lbs.  I am fat, and just so you know, I love my whole self; thunder thighs and all.”

I love this piece. Thanks for sharing Laura.

(Note: If you want to hear more from Laura, she has a tumblr here.)

White-Washing in Women’s Magazines

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in her Elle photoshoot

Elle Magazine recently featured Aishwarya Rai Bachchan on their front cover, with noticeable changes that are inspiring outcries. The cover image features Bachchan with skin several shades lighter than in real life, part of a larger trend to lighten skin both in the media and in many countries. Bachchan is a Bollywood actress and a former Miss World, and so it’s not entirely surprising that her body shape follows Western standards of beauty, but the beauty image standard isn’t just about being skinny. It has racist dimensions that demand lighter, whiter skin. In India, where Bollywood and Bachchan is based, there are many products that are in fact sold in order to lighten skin. There is a long history of products meant to imitates the signs of whiteness in order to achieve “beauty.”

This past October, Elle was already taken to task for doing this sort of photo editing and they are not alone in the tendency to lighten skin. Popular Canadian artist Nelly Furtado even sings about it in her song Powerless (Say What You Want), “Paint my face in your magazines, make it look whiter than it seems, paint me over with your dreams, shove away my ethnicity.” It’s something that happens far too frequently and reinforces the racist aspects to our current Western (and increasingly global) beauty standard.

In this case, Bachchan and her fans are speaking out and Bachchan is considering a lawsuit. This kind of erasure of race is disgusting and Elle needs to hear the message that their front covers need to have fewer white faces, not more. Change.org has an online petition to bring Elle’s attention to this issue. If you would like to take a look at their article and their petition, check it outhere. In addition, consider supporting magazines that represent women of many backgrounds and don’t use digital retouching to whiten women. What you read and what you buy can make a difference about what is printed and what is sold.