The False Promise of Representation: Stereotypes in the Media

Stereotypes are bad. Duh, right? We’ve heard it before but I’ll say it again: there are no good stereotypes. Putting someone in a box isn’t kind, no matter the box. As empowering as it may be for some to find a label that fits, being labeled without consultation can inspire everything from a grimace and a cringe to intense anxiety or anger. Even the ‘good stereotypes’ leave many people feeling boxed in by the weight of expectations and the constant need to re-establish who they really are.  So, that’s the basics.

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[Image: The text reads “Deconstruct. Discuss. Educate. Look Beyond Stereotypes.” Two rows of figures appear in black and white. Figures depict simplified versions of stereotypes, including a school girl, hippy, farmer, cheerleader, rapper and many that are less strictly identifiable, but are still recognizable.]

Stereotypes in our media do something else as well, though. They provide a false sense of visibility. These stereotypes substitute real people for cardboard cut-outs made of assumptions (and, too often, some -ism or another). Instead of offering a new story and a new voice, stereotypical characters become just another way to express the worldview already represented, only now dressed up in new clothes.  Basically, if you run into stereotypes on television, news or the novel you’re reading, you’re not learning about the experiences of someone – you’re learning about the assumptions of someone outside that group.

For example, there is a lot of talk in the American media about the supposed “welfare queen,” which is a phrase first popularized by President Reagan in the 1970s and is typically applied to Black women on social assistance. The myth that Black women, particularly mothers, are living large by abusing state programs and taxpayer money has been incredibly persistent even though it is incredibly wrong. You can guarantee that this stereotype does not reflect the perspective, experiences or reality of the women who are attempting to make ends meet on social assistance in America. As this example shows, a stereotype is much more likely to be coming from the dominant societal force and from people who have created the stereotype based on their own misunderstandings rather than someone’s reality. A stereotype is just more of “how does the dominant group think?” rather than giving someone else a turn to be featured. Worse, too often people will dress up a cardboard character in their assumptions and then dare to think that this counts as fair representation!

When a token or stereotypical character is dropped into a story, they aren’t providing a compelling, complex representation. They’re just meant to show up, align with our shallow expectations based on a few characteristics, and go home without real development or insight. Worse, that’s supposed to be enough for an audience to feel satisfied and to feel represented. “Ah, my story has been told now that paratrooper/waitress/nurse #1 is a person of colour/woman/queer/disabled…” Nope. When you look around and find that the only character “like you” in a movie is the person with no lines, who dies first, gets “saved,” or who turns out to be the villain, you don’t feel morerepresented or included. Your story still isn’t being told. It’s just being dubbed over with clichés and boring tropes. It’s false visibility. A backhanded invisibility.

Stereotypes are a way to make people feel more invisible even as you appear to be offering representation. This is not helping. One gay character who spouts clichés is not supporting “the cause.” A movie where a person magically becomes able-bodied by the end is part of the problem, not part of the solution. It’s not telling new stories, opening up space to new voices, and it certainly isn’t going to make people feel seen or heard.

In fact, maybe stereotypes in the media you watch make you feel less invisible and more like you’ve been written over, like an old VHS tape. It’s a visibility that masks rather than reveals. That’s not progress. Too many people believe stereotypes for this to be considered a harmless misunderstanding, and there is nothing harmless about the way that stereotypes can creep (or sweep) into policies and programs. Stereotypes change how people are treated on a daily basis and when someone is mistaken for a stereotype, assumptions can get so out of control that people are put at a real physical risk. For example, being constantly targeted for stop-and-frisks as a young man of colour is not only unjust, but is part of the same problem that might lead police officers to shoot an unarmed Black man. This stereotype of criminality is also part of the story for Trayvon Martin, who was killed by Zimmerman because he was seen as a threat, which was an interpretation that cannot be separated from stereotypes of young Black men. Stereotypes can actually support and motivate violence, and we’ll be expanding on these issues in later posts this week.

When we demand representation in the media, we need to demand portrayals that give more insight into different lives, experiences, and identities rather than further stereotypes. This requires characters that aren’t tokenized and do actually play an important part of the narrative by offering a compelling, complex characterization with their own arc and unique traits. Only then will more people start recognizing their friends, family, community, and themselves in the media around them. The more variety and quality we see on screen, the less a single caricature will be mistaken as representative of a group. We need and deserve more than stick figures on our pages and screens.

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Seeing is Believing: Why Media Representation Matters

[I spent this evening chatting about women and media representation at Eastside Yoga, so I thought it was time to share this post, which was featured on The Body is Not an Apology in August. Take a look at the next few posts to get my series of posts on media, visibility, invisibility and some of the consequences of (mis)representation. You can find all of them under the tag or category (In)visibility or Representation.]

Seeing is Believing

In North America today, we are exposed to media on a nearly constant basis. The average teenager now spends over 7 hours a day consuming media and so it’s hard to argue that it’s not having any impact on how we experience the world. For much of the day, we’re living in the media landscape through the internet, cellphones, television, advertisements, magazines, and movies. Unfortunately, the world of the media sometimes proves to be a strange parallel universe that excludes the reality of many, many people.

If you step back and take a look at the media, who you see? Better yet, who don’t you see? The answer may be: You. Your friends. Your family. Even if we forget for a moment about wanting accurate or positive portrayals, some groups can’t even seem to get time on the screen, even if you spend 7 hours staring at one!

When you turn on the television, who is reporting your news? And who is deciding what’s newsworthy? Who is on the cover of the book you’re reading? Whose stories are told? Who is in on the cover of magazines?

[Photo of Vanity Fair’s 2010 Young Hollywood issue featuring 9 young actresses, from left to right: Abbie Cornish, Kristen Stewart, Carey Mulligan, Amanda Seyfried, Rebecca Hall, Mia Wasikowska, Emma Stone, Evan Rachel Wood and Anna Kendrick.]

There has been significant frustration with the whiteness of magazine covers, for example, but this phenomenon is just another aspect of the whiteness of media in general. In 2010, Fearless Magazine noticed a rather ridiculous lack of any visible women of colour in the photo spread above from Vanity Fair for their Young Hollywood 2010 issue and Fearless decided they wanted to do a different version.

[Photo of Fearless Magazine’s Class of 2010, featuring Lauren London, Monique Coleman, Tia Mowry, Tiffany Hines, Naturi Naughton, Kyla Pratt, Jennifer Freeman, and Chyna Layne]

Magazine covers are hardly the be all, end all when it comes to the media, but not letting Vanity Fair’s cover go unanswered is an important challenge to media norms. The covers of popular publications give us a sense of who major media producers think will get attention (i.e. sell more copies). More importantly, they also set up who they think belongs in the public eye and whose body gets to be seen – and being seen matters.

The media helps to shape who and what we see as important, as well as outlining the range of visible options for what is collectively seen as possible. Who can be a politician? Who can be celebrated? Who is part of the community and who is Other, the outsider? Who is seen to live happy, healthy lives, and whose lives are invisible? If you see yourself, or someone like you, portrayed positively in the media, it can offer a sense of belonging and opportunity, but the opposite is also true.

For example, the It Gets Better campaign is an attempt (not without its own problems) to create media that offers representations that the mainstream media and culture do not: real, (generally) happy stories of LGBT folks overcoming challenges and achieving their dreams. With all of the negative representations of the queer community in the media, many people felt that it was critical to offer a different version of the story, particularly in response to high rates of depression, substance abuse and suicide among LGBT youth.

The media is one of our tools for interpreting our reality, but when our reality is absent from the media, we may feel like our role has been written out. We may feel ignored, rejected, or erased.

Miss Representation is a documentary that seems to have struck a chord with a lot of people, myself included. Although the movie itself is hardly a perfect example of representation, it did get a lot of people’s attention focused on the issue of how women are (under/mis)represented in the mediaand the important impact that this has on the world. In the film, Marie Wilson quotes Marian Wright Edelman, saying:

“You can’t be what you can’t see.”

This quote really hit me hard. How do you dream from scratch, with no role models to be found? If you can’t see yourself reflected out there, how do you believe you belong? How do you visualize your future?

Still, I would like to revise the notion a little, because many people never do see examples of the people that they hope to become – and they do it anyway. It is too often a privilege to be able to look around and find examples of dreamers who look like you. Obama had to believe that he could be the President of the United States, regardless of what history and the media told him. Hillary Clinton had to believe it too. On a more daily level, many people have been able to imagine lives for themselves that they didn’t see reflected around them by peers or the media.

It’s not impossible to be a trail blazer by any stretch, but it’s an up hill climb when you’re the only one you know who can see your vision of your future (or even your present). It’s tough to keep the faith when everyone else is busy convincing you that you’re just dreaming – or just plain “crazy.” Often, it’s a whole lot easier not to defy everyone else’s expectations. In fact, in a way, the problem at hand isn’t about what you see necessarily, but that people can’t see you. People don’t recognize you or your dreams. To them, you’re invisible, and maybe even “impossible.”

Fortunately, there are more and more people working to create media that offers inclusive representations and positive portrayals. Making media that makes space for everyone is a powerful step towards accepting and celebrating everyone. We should all feel welcome and reflected in our media and in our communities.

Radical Movement: Re-framing Exercise

[cross posted to The Body is Not an Apology]

Exercise and loving my body don’t always seem to go hand in hand. Oh, my body needs it, no question. I do love reminding myself that my body can do more than sit in one position all day in front of my computer, but trying to find a way to get active without falling into the diet/weight-focused/six-pack-centric mind set is sometimes a challenge. When I hear “exercise,” I immediately think of the gym and crunches and being uncomfortable, which isn’t the image that’s going to get me moving. Finding a sport or activity I can get excited about – that I can feel great doing! – makes a world of difference.

What sport do you love? I hate to run, unless it’s a soccer game and then I’ll run until I drop. What kind of music makes you want to dance? I never notice the exhaustion or sweat when I’m dancing around like crazy to my favourite songs. What kind of movement makes you smile accidentally? Do you like the serenity of a walk on your own, or do you like the friendships that spring from team sports? Maybe you’re into swimming or mountain biking or tap dancing, who knows. There’s so many incredible ways to move your body, and a lot of them feel great. The challenge is finding something that works for you, not against you.

It’s easy to think that other people’s strategies are going to work for your body, but often the solutions for others weren’t built for your body. When I first started doing yoga, it was based on many recommendations. I had avoided it previously because a) I’m dangerously inflexible b) I’m not very strong, and c) I can’t stand on one foot, and I understood yoga to require flexibility, strength and balance. Headstands for hours? Yeah, not my thing. Of course, the fact that I was dangerously inflexible, unaccountably weak and my balance was laughable meant that maybe yoga was the perfect challenge for me! Plus, my chiropractor said some core strength might mean fewer visits. So, off I went.

Although I initially enjoyed getting to know my body in a totally different way, it quickly became clear that there were some obvious issues. Some people are into crying during yoga, but I don’t think it was supposed to be physical pain causing the waterworks. Maybe this was not my solution, I thought. It certainly wasn’t decreasing my daily pain (more the opposite). Still, I didn’t stop because, hey, no pain no gain, right? Wrong answer.

This highlights the second challenge when choosing exercise for self-love. So often, we are unconsciously (or consciously) operating on the assumption that exercise is punishment, penance or necessarily painful. Activity should be in support of your needs, not an act of punishment and certainly not in direct denial of your needs. Those who have done rehabilitation or physiotherapy might talk about the pain of those exercises, but I think in general we need to approach activity with self-love and self-awareness. We can aim for joyful movement that prioritizes well-being first. Professional athletes might speak to the painful challenges of training, but they can also share stories of the injuries resulting from that kind of activity. I think it’s more of a warning bell than an example to follow.

When it came to yoga, I was saved when someone mentioned that maybe I was doing the wrong kind of yoga. Word to the wise, all yoga is not practiced in the same way.* The style I started with (Ashtanga) required a great deal more of what I lack, while Hatha (what I dabble in now) tends to be slower, gentler and generally kinder to my particular body. Suddenly, I wasn’t crying during class. Through yoga, I found that stretching and using my body in new ways can be both physically helpful and emotionally calming. It even made me more flexible! While I’ve largely stepped back from yoga, I have taken what I’ve learned with me.

Activity and movement is something to start with you, your body and your skills, so there’s no approved work out routine or ideal strategies that work for every body. Movement can be about enjoyment and self-satisfaction, not punishment or (worse) self-hate. In fact, moving your body can make a statement and help form a community. For example, The Olimpias project is actually a performance research and artists’ collective engaged with the disability community that brings dance into their work. It may take some looking around, but there’s people practicing unapologetic, positive movement that contributes to wellness, not the diet industrial complex. We can make a move towards self-love and well-being by finding activity that fits with our bodies, our lives and our communities.

* I think it’s important that I recognize here that yoga is an example of cultural appropriation by the West and often, just at a basic level, a practice that has been heavily commercialized and marketed to privileged communities. There’s a lot of thoughtful critique of yoga in the West that has definitely changed how I approach it.

What am I Fit For? Examining Our Relationship to Fitness and Health

 

imageWe are so often taught to treat our body as an object, a project, or an enemy to be defeated. Lose weight, tame curls, drop sizes, deny cravings, and on and on. We are taught to hate ourselves constantly. How does someone learn to love their body and treat it with kindness? How do I even figure out what my body needs? Open up a women’s ‘health’ magazine and it tells me how to lose weight, how to slim down and tone up, but they can’t tell me anything about what my body needs to feel good. They’re much more concerned with telling me what other people want my body to look like and how to pursue that body. No thanks. Plus, no one writing it has met me, so they can’t anticipate my challenges and skills. Here I am, 22 years into the process, and I’m still trying to figure those out!

My relationship with my body currently is kind of strained, shall we say. I’m only recently realizing that pain both is and isn’t a necessary part of my life. I’ve had back, neck and hip pain throughout my childhood, resulting in chiropractor visits since 8th grade, but it wasn’t until recently that it even occurred to me that I could potentially investigate why. I’m privileged to have a name for the source of some of my pain now (relatively minor scoliosis) and access to treatment (physiotherapy), but it surprised me in hindsight that it took 21 years for me to wonder why I hurt. 21 years to even imagine that my body was trying to communicate something it needed, instead of my body simply being an obstacle to my happiness. Now I know that while some of my pain is part of my life, much of it can be managed. I can do stretches and exercises and build strength, little by little by little. It would have been useful to know this 10 years ago…

Still, I have to constantly remind myself that my body is not broken because it has needs. The pain is not a sign that (as I have been fond of saying) my body hates me. My body is not wrong. My body requires my love, attention and support. I owe myself that, and I am years in debt. One of my goals is to (re)learn how to love my body on my own terms.

Our relationship to our bodies, ourselves, are unique, changing and individual, so my story may be completely unfamiliar to you. Still, I wonder how many others are trying to find their way towards self love in a similar way. How many people are trying to seek out well-being without falling into the traps laid by dieting companies and advertisements banking on undermining self-esteem? How many people will be attending the same gym with the same reservations about how those kinds of spaces often frame health in a way that I find harmful, even directly un-healthy, for many?

For me, well-being is a complex and subjective concept that is experienced very differently depending on the individual and includes physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellness. In contrast, the ‘health’ I’m critiquing is the one-size-fits-all approach that demands normativity/conformity and offers a narrow vision of what a good life can be. Rachel has an amazing post talking about the myth of the whole and healthy body that deconstructs many of these limited ideas about health. However, I want to take part of that conversation a step further.

If we don’t want the myth of health, if we aren’t chasing down an ideal or trying to squish and fit into someone else’s mould, how do we seek out well-being? How do we learn to care for ourselves? For me, that’s part of  self love, part of beauty, and it’s gonna be quite a journey. Follow this thread on my blog with the tag “Wellness” and join the conversation!

(cross posted to The Body is Not an Apology)

Being Well in an Unhealthy Society

“It is no measure of good health to be well adjusted to a sick society”

–       Jiddu Krishnamurti, as heard in The Nutritionist by Andrea Gibson

What is health? Western media may say it’s this:

Flat bellies and burning fat?

Or maybe you feel pressure to uphold this kind of ‘health:’

But chances are, the media (and many people around you) are actually leaving your health entirely out of the picture. The idea and ideals of health are too often built around experiences and standards that make abled, white, cis, straight, male, middle class, thin bodies the norm. This leaves so many people without any representation of what health might look like for them. Worse, their bodies and experiences are often made unhealthy, ill and invisible.

Throughout history, many identities have been marked in Western society as illness, putting the achievement of ‘health’ in direct opposition to well-being. This unfortunately continues today. For example, finding appropriate healthcare for people who are transgender can be incredibly difficult, and there has been a well-established and continuing history of people of colour facing unequal healthcare challenges. Mental illness in particular has been used to oppress marginalized people and define them as unhealthy, unfit and even inhuman. Previously on The Body is Not an Apology, we also heard from Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg about how damaging it is to constantly prioritize the ‘ideal’ abled body, as if the only way to be well is to resemble the default diagram in the medical textbooks.

The notion of ‘health’ I’m critiquing here is a one-size-fits-all approach where we are told that our bodies should look and act the same as some standard model, and that the same things must be done to make a body look that way. The same dieting, same exercises, and the same pills are supposed to work (roughly) for everyone, which ignores the fact that we have different bodies, needs and desires. The Body Mass Index is a perfect example of this, as it is often used to measure ‘health’ but it only asks for two measurements (height and weight) to compare to a standard chart. Obviously, its insights are limited. [sidebar: click here if you want a great post exploring why BMI isn’t an effective measure of health.] Even something commonplace for many, like caffeine, can have drastically different effects on people, so how can we expect our bodies to conform to a single model? Sameness does not create wellness.

‘Health’ is too often about ‘solving’ your body like it is a problem, selling a product, and building insecurity, not about prioritizing your actual needs. This version of health actually demands unhealthy actions and attitudes for many people. For example, the weight loss paradigm can be incredibly harmful to those of many shapes and sizes. It is not healthy to hate our bodies. It is not healthy to deny our needs. We needn’t apologize for our differences in ability, neurology, gender, size, race or age. We definitely shouldn’t be asked to sacrifice our mental or emotional health for a strange version of physical health. That isn’t well-being.

Well-being is a term that I’ve found better approximates what I want for my body. To me, well-being is a comprehensive approach that encapsulates physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual wellness and prioritizes unique needs and desires. My well-being requires something different from your well being, although many things may be shared. Essentially, there is awareness that while well-being might be achieved one way for me, the same strategy could have the opposite effect on you. That doesn’t make you unwell or your body wrong. Wellness as a concept can handle individual difference, because it’s unique for everyone. It is most definitely not about chasing an ideal body, mind or emotional state. Wellness doesn’t look like a specific size, hormone level, mobility, body mass or normative response. At its core, well-being is about creating and facilitating radical self love.

The complexity and subjectivity of wellness mean that it generally can’t become a six item list in Cosmo this week. It’s a challenging process, as our bodies are constantly changing, so there is no quick fix in many cases. In fact, well-being often requires individual, family and community resources to be achieved. What makes it even more difficult is that we’re not always taught how to take care of ourselves in this way and we’re actually often coached to ignore what our body, mind and heart require. Where do we turn to get advice if it’s so hard to come by?

Many people, including medical professionals, are getting fed up with ‘health’ and have started to search for well-being. An example of this in the medical field for the specific topic of weight is the Health at Every Size movement, which has received growing support. The Health at Every Size (HAES) approach takes the focus off of weight and acknowledges the stress weight loss actually puts on a body, as well as the very high chance that weight loss is temporary. Instead, some of the tenets of the approach are:

  • “Accepting and respecting the natural diversity of body sizes and shapes”
  • “Eating in a flexible manner that values pleasure and honors internal cues of hunger, satiety, and appetite”
  • “Finding the joy in moving one’s body”

For those who face sizism and fat phobia from even the medical professionals supposed to care for their well-being, HAES could be a game-changer. Fat studies scholars and critical obesity researchers are doing incredible work to challenge the dominant paradigm regarding fat, obesity and health that I don’t have space to get into in this post, but some resources are below.

While the HAES approach is not going to work for everyone, it does show that there can be innovation and new ways of looking at health. We can challenge what health is supposed to look like. We can work together in a community and redefine how we care for ourselves and each other. Well-being could offer an alternative to ‘health’ that empowers people to find what works for them, instead of evaluating themselves based on an unobtainable standard. Well-being is a perspective that honors the diversity of bodies and experiences in hopes of supporting self-care, genuine wellness and unapologetic self-love.

Recommended Resources for critical obesity work and introduction to HAES:

Bacon, Linda. Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth about Your Weight. Dallas, TX: BenBella, 2008.

Rich, Emma, Lee F. Monaghan, and Lucy Aphramor. Debating Obesity: Critical Perspectives. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Rothblum, Esther D., and Sondra Solovay. The Fat Studies Reader. New York: New York UP, 2009.

The Body is Not an Apology

The Body is Not an Apology

This summer has offered me a fantastic opportunity to join a new online community as a content intern with The Body is Not an Apology.

The Body Is Not An Apology is a global movement focused on radical self love and body empowerment. We believe that each time one of us unapologetically owns our beauty, loves our scars, heals our shame; we in turn give others permission to do the same! We believe that discrimination, social inequality and injustice are manifestations of our inability to make peace with the body, our own and others. Through education, personal transformation projects and community building, The Body is Not An Apology fosters global, radical, unapologetic self love which translates to radical human action in service toward a more just and compassionate world.

– description from their tumblr

Dreamed up by Sonya Renee and inspired by her fantastic piece of the same name, The Body is Not an Apology has grown from a project into a community. Taking the body as the starting point of empowerment, politics, love and social justice, this movement speaks to what drives my own activism. I think you can start with the body when you talk about almost any kind of inequality or injustice, making it a fantastic place to start activist work. The fact that the movement embraces an intersectional approach in so important to me, as you can’t talk about the body without also talking about sexism, racism, colonialism, ablism, classism, transphobia, heterosexism, sizism/fatphobia, agism… You have to talk about it all. The community and the mandate is broad and diverse, as the main project is supporting and creating radical self love and compassion. That is a pretty great goal.

I have been incredibly fortunate to get to participate in the tumblr and spend weeks of the summer blogging for The Body is Not an Apology. I’ll be sharing some of those entries here, so take a look at my work here and the rest of the posts at thebodyisnotanapology.tumblr.com, because the work up there by everyone on the Content Team is fantastic. I’m learning so much from my fellow interns – people have such amazing things to contribute – and I’m excited to pass on that link to you. Take a look, and look forward to a busier blog.