Stereotypes, Violence and Fatal Assumptions

For some people, stereotypes become an issue of survival, not representation. Visibility can become a life and death issue when your body is seen as a symbol for what people fear, hate or dehumanize. Stereotypes and assumptions can support, encourage or excuse violence against specific people whose bodies have been marked as a threat, expendable, or both. The colour of your skin or the length of your skirt can become shorthand for an excuse to treat you as less than human, when there is. no. excuse.

[Content warning: This post will be discussing physical, emotional and sexual violence throughout, including victim blaming and murder This warning applies to many of the links throughout the post as well. These things are not fun to talk about, but they are part of a reality for too many people and this kind of conversation can help to understand why violence is distributed unequally, and what we can do to change that.]

I’ve spoken recently about (in)visibility, stereotypes and representation, but I still wanted to focus in on some of the worst outcomes of these issues. There is tangible, irreversible damage done by stereotypes, although we may call it racism or racial profiling or bigotry or any number of -phobias. In my piece on hypervisibility, I spoke about hate crimes that Muslims (or those read as as Muslim) can face as a result of stereotypes, which is an example of these extreme consequences of stereotypes, but I couldn’t stop there. In this post, I’m going to use two examples to address two consequences of stereotypes. First, stereotypes supporting violence, and second, stereotypes inciting violence.

Supporting Violence

Most of the time, when someone commits violence against you, there is a sense that you are a victim who did not deserve this. The crime is immediately labeled unfair and unjust. However, for some people and some violence and some crimes, there is less sympathy. There are unofficial ‘deserving’ victims. There are “What did you expect?” responses. The “should have known better”s. There is a sense of the inevitable about the crime against them. If you live in a certain neighbourhood, frequent certain places, you might find this attitude applies to you. If you are a woman who experiences sexual violence, victim blaming is practically par for the course.

Victim blaming is exactly what it sounds like. Victims are blamed for what happened to them, instead of blame being laid on the perpetrator. This phenomenon is disgustingly common and is part of rape culture. Rape culture is, in very short, the everyday acts, images and ideas that allow sexual violence to be normalized, excused, supported, and even sanctioned. How this ties in to stereotypes is that the implicit permission for violence against women applies doubly to ‘certain women.’

In Vancouver, Canada, women from the Downtown Eastside have been disappearing for years. It took decades of women going missing from this low income neighbourhood for the local police and RCMP to round up the serial killer haunting their streets. In 2002, Robert Pickton was finally charged with the first degree murder of 27 women, although he is suspected in about 50 cases of missing women from the Downtown Eastside. The details of the case are gruesome, heartbreaking and enraging at every turn – from the murders themselves to the handling of the case. My point in bringing it up in this post is that justice for these women (and for women in the Downtown Eastside who were not taken but could have been and continue to face violence) did not come because they are not the ‘right kind’ of victim. These were women from the poorest area in Canada, many were First Nations, most were involved in sex work, and many had substance abuse issues. Stereotypes marked them as expected victims, maybe even inevitable victims, whose deaths did not disrupt the system. The violence against them was supported and excused and allowed by the stereotypes that marked them as easy targets. Impoverished sex workers being killed fails to shock a city, a nation, a generation who has watched CSI and Law & Order and the daily news nightly. It is dangerous to be walking around with a body that people interpret as a ready-made victim, as undeserving of sympathy, as an unsurprising target. Groups have rallied – have had to rally – to demand accountability for killer, for the police, and the city who stood by as woman after woman went missing and the reports were brushed off with excuses.

How someone is seen undeniably influences the response to their disclosure of violence. For example, when a woman reports sexual harassment, assault or rape, there is often a (spoken or unspoken) question that springs to the lips of those who hear: what was she wearing? Stereotypes associated with ‘provocative’ clothing (short skirts, low cut tops, revealing outfits… although you’ll get arguments for almost anything) have too often been given as a good enough reason not to get consent, or to assume that it’s always present (and what exactly is the mini skirt supposed to be provoking, I wonder). The stereotype follows that women who dress “like that” are “asking for it” and are sexually available.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are also rape survivors who are doubted because they are seen as not “attractive enough” to be raped, which entirely misunderstands rape as sex, because it is about power and not attraction. Other people have historically been seen as “un-rape-able” based on their bodies, like sex workers, slaves, or men and boys. In so many horrible ways, the body becomes evidence to be held for or against a rape survivor. The body becomes an excuse that is manipulated for other people’s ends. These excuses, built on stereotypes, support and arguably encourage violence.

Your body is no accurate barometer for your ability to give or deny consent. What you do with your body does not eliminate your right to give or deny consent. Stereotypes about rape and about women give a dangerous, false impression of the who, what, why and how of sexual violence. Violence continues in part because stereotypes are applied to real people.

Inciting Violence

Stereotypes may not only support violence but actually create a reason for it to begin. This typically happens when a stereotype paints certain people as inherently dangerous or/and threatening. Violence is then seen as an ‘appropriate response’ to their very existence. It can become a knee-jerk reaction. Laws, policies and perspectives can then incorporate the logic of responding with violence to entire categories of people.

The stereotype of the Criminal Black Man assumes that Black men are synonymous with crime, turning these men into a threat merely by existing. Black men in America (and in the West more generally) don’t need to do a thing to make themselves intimidating to those that hold this stereotype.

Touré, from MSNBC, explains the Criminal Black Man stereotype in the clip and I encourage you to watch the entire thing, but I want to highlight a section of it. First, Touré describes the stereotype as “the assumption of black male criminality – the way that we are so often guilty until proven innocent” and cites studies that have found that “people of all races tend to think that they see guns in the hands of unarmed Black men far more often than the hands of unarmed whites.” He goes on to say,

“Black people have long known that young black men are viewed as criminals, whether or not they are, and Black men often instill fear in others without even trying to and that fear becomes our problem. It becomes confrontations that we don’t want and incidents that we don’t deserve. This is why my parents told me when I was young the same sorts of things that so many Black parents have told their sons: “Don’t run in public if at all possible, unless you’re playing sports. In stores, keep your hands visible at all times. Avoid putting them in your pockets, lest you appear to be stealing. And if you end up speaking to police, speak softly, answer questions directly and quickly, and also bury your anger and resentment at being treated like a criminal until later. Society is afraid of you and that’s your problem.”

As a young white woman, I have no idea what it’s like to be interpreted as threat or for my parents to sit me down and warn me that world thinks I am a bomb that could go off at any second. That there are teams of people waiting at the door for a wrong move. I get the benefit of the doubt – so much doubt that I am much nearer the predestined victim than the inevitable criminal – and, until recently, I had never thought about what it would be like not to have that privilege. I had not imagined being a mother who had to tell her son that the world may not welcome him. I don’t think I’ll ever understand what that feels like.

Touré says, “We are expected to be monsters until proven safe because the biases of so many lead to the criminal actions of a few, representing the inherent criminality of all. This while the criminal behaviour of white men does not overshadow all of them,” and isn’t that the difference? Here, a stereotype will be applied to an entire group and trap them in a box labelled “Danger” regardless of the truth, but white criminals and serial killers and terrorists do not become emblems of their entire racial category. Their bodies remain their own, their actions their own, and their fate their own. White men are not feared by dominant, white society and so they do not have to fear.

The media is not shy about the message that black men are to be feared – just turn on the news during prime time – and the popularity of this stereotype is not without consequences. Seen as inherent risks to public safety, it ‘makes sense’ for over 50% of NYC’s stop and frisks to happen to Black people (compared to under 15% for white people), for Black people in America to have a 6 times higher incarceration rate compared to white people, to receive 20% longer sentences than white folks who commit the same crime…If you can see beyond the stereotype and actually examine the figures, there’s no rational explanation for this kind of disparity. It doesn’t seem just or fair, especially when you look at reports stating that white people are more likely to abuse drugs but less likely to be searched, caught or charged. White bodies aren’t labelled as a threat the minute that they walk into courtrooms and that matters to the judge and jury.

Trayvon Martin was a young black man who was interpreted like young black men so often are. He was seen as a threat. He was seen as out of place and dangerous in a gated community. So dangerous that Zimmerman had to call to the cops about this seventeen year old in his neigbourhood, on his territory. So dangerous in his hoodie, walking while Black, that Zimmerman could not trust the police to come quickly enough. He could not wait. Trayvon Martin was seen as a threat, but in reality, he was the one being threatened. He was the one who should be afraid, it turns out. Being assumed dangerous at all times is dangerous.

The protests that have followed the Martin case have recognized the influence of stereotypes in his death. In the marches, many are wearing hoodies and clearly connecting the dots between violence and stereotypes. A young black man in a hoodie links up neatly to the visual attached to the criminal black man stereotype.

image

Martin is not the first black man – boy – to die because he was too dangerous to be allowed, his body somehow enough damning evidence against him. Black parents are forced to again face the fact that their children are not safe and may not find justice because they are immediately the enemy. Their baby boy is seen as the criminal black man by people with enough resources and power to act on their assumptions. He is not given the benefit of innocent until proven guilty, a white privilege that could keep him safe.

Stereotypes don’t just appear in politically incorrect cartoons or bad jokes or vintage television. Stereotypes are acted out on our streets, in our courtrooms, in hospitals, in classrooms, and in our lives. Being seen through the lens of a stereotype leaves a person visible only as something they are not – maybe a target, maybe a threat, maybe a mixture of the two – and it a hazardous way to be seen. Stereotypes can and do support and incite violence. They must be challenged in any form they take. It is not harmless when we refuse to recognize one another and look past stereotypes. The cost of not being seen as you are can be very, very high.

Hypervisibility: How Scrutiny and Surveillance Make You Watched, but Not Seen

There is a world of difference between being seen and being watched. Many people live in the space of this difference, especially those whose very bodies are seen as a threat. A simple example is of a teenager walking into a 7-11 and being under the scrutiny of the cashier, who is waiting for them to shoplift, which is totally different from being acknowledged (seen) as a valued customer. We’ve spoken a lot about invisibility in the two weeks or so, but the flip side of hypervisibility can have incredibly negative impacts as well.

Hypervisibility is a type of scrutiny based on perceived difference, which is usually (mis)interpreted as deviance. Often, this deviance becomes a focal point for outside attention and comes to symbolize or represent a hypervisible person, group or place. When you become overly visible, you’re often constantly under the gaze of others. You are being looked at, sure, but you are being watched and judged, so it’s not kind of visibility that people tend to seek if given a choice.

There are probably times in your life when you’ve felt hypervisible. When have you felt like you were under scrutiny because you were the “odd one out”? When I’m the only woman in a room full of men, I sometimes feel like my woman-ness stands out and puts more critical eyes on me, making me hesitant to speak. It’s at these moments that my emotions, appearance, gender, intelligence or feminism are mostly likely to garner dismissive or harsh comments. If I come across as ‘too much’ of woman, I can lose credibility and respect to some degree. These are daily moments that can highlight the discomfort of being made more visible based on difference or deviance.

Hypervisibility is experienced by many groups, but I think two clear examples in a North American context are Black women and Muslim people. These two groups are both frequently the object of media attention without being offered many opportunities to genuinely shape how they are represented or allowed space to become active subjects of media coverage by driving the story based on their own perspective. This often boils down to, on a basic level, seeing a lot of footage of these groups without hearing from them. They are highly visible within mainstream culture, but the coverage is based on reaffirming their difference and leans heavily on stereotypes to establish their deviance.

Hypervisible as Hypersexualized

In the United States, Black women have historically been stereotyped and depicted as hypersexualized and constantly available, particularly to white men. Unfortunately, that image of the sexualized Black woman is hypervisible. This means that the stereotype of the hypersexual, hyper-available Black woman is incredibly pervasive because this idea is repeated (re-presented) over and over.

image

[Image depicts a Black woman with a large afro with her back to the viewer. She is only wearing very short booty shorts and has turned half way back towards the viewer so that some of her breast is revealed. She uses one hand to shield herself. She is winking and the the text behind her says, “Free Ride.”]

This is no new phenomenon, although with media available to access 24/7 hypervisibility has been taken to a whole new level. For generations, Black women were seen in the West as constantly sexually available and deviant compared to the supposed ‘modesty’ of respectable white women. Treva Lindsey, a Women’s and Gender Studies professor, has a really interesting talk available on YouTube speaking to the history of hypervisible and hypersexualized Black women in the United States. She also discusses the challenges of trying to negotiate  a powerful erotic space in the face of hypervisible hypersexualized imagery that haunts women of colour and Black women in particular. Making room for the kind of sexual performance that can be empowering rather than exploitative can be challenging when so many people insist on seeing (and depicting) your body as negatively sexualized and objectified.

Heads, I win. Tails, you lose

Managing visibility is arguably a critical, challenging and frustratingly necessary skill for those who are vulnerable to both invisibility and hypervisibility. If hypervisibility threatens overexposure and harsh scrutiny while invisibility enforces silence and erasure, marginalized groups are left in a precarious position. Visibility therefore becomes a double edged sword that seems dangerous to wield at times. Is it worth trying to be seen if it really just opens me up to be judged?

Managing visibility is very difficult in this position, as you’re likely to get burned in either direction without the benefit of truly being seen and acknowledged. On a day to day basis, it can require the choice of a) speaking up for yourself/others and being ridiculed/threatened, or b) staying silent and your interests being ignored/invisible. I don’t know if the decision of what to do in this situation gets any less stressful over time, but I think practice makes it easier if you do choose to speak up. Do you have a strategy for dealing with the moment when you are asked to risk hypervisibility or invisibility? Have you been successful in making yourself visible and heard in that situation?

Making Everyone’s “Watch List”

Muslims and Arabs in the West, but particularly in the United States, are experiencing an awful type of hypervisibility. After 9/11, there has been a significant number of people who perceive Muslim people negatively, even stereotyping them as terrorists merely for practicing their faith.  Sadly, there were 157 reported) hate crimes against Muslims in the United States in 2011;the numbers don’t appear to have settled even over a decade after 9/11. The wrongful and harmful representation of Muslim and Arab people in the media has left many people extremely uninformed about the realities of those groups. This has hardly increased cross-cultural understanding. In the wake of a national tragedy, there has been a rush to ‘secure,’ surveil and detain, but Muslim and Arab people have experienced an arguably unique brand of body terrorism based on being a hypervisible “threat.” Muslims and Arabs across North America are being profiled,* judged, jailed, denied entry, stereotyped, threatened and even killed for how their bodies are seen.

In fact, even those who can be mistaken for Muslim, like people who are Sikh or look Arab, are feeling the negative spillover effects of this hypervisibility as well.  And when I say “negative spillover effects,” I mean that people have been killed because they were mistaken for being Muslim, as we saw in 2001 when a gas station owner was murdered for the mistake and, in August of last year, a Sikh temple in Wisconsin was the target of an assault that ending in 6 people dead and more injured.

It can be dangerous to be hypervisible. It may mean that when people see you, they see red. There are real, horrifying consequences to your body – your race, your religious expression, your nationality, your sexuality – being deemed a threat. (Perceived) deviance seems dangerous to some and often falls under the watchful eye of those who do not see individuals but a monolithic risk or inferior group. Unseen and  unacknowledged but always under scrutiny, hypervisible groups may find that invisibility is actually preferable. If being hypervisibility puts you at risk of violence, judgment, exclusion, or even a hate crime, there’s little surprise that people surround themselves in their community, whatever that may be.

In fact, hypervisibility really is just another way to deny people recognition and the right to be truly seen. It is the trial by fire version of invisibility; instead of freezing you out, we’ll put you on the hot seat. It’s still not a place at the table. The ability to be recognized is so often constructed as privilege reserved for lucky few whose bodies and identities are accepted by default. As a white, generally abled, cis woman and Canadian citizen, I often have the privilege to blend in when I need to and be heard when I’d like. My taste of hypervisibility comes mostly by way of gender, but my other privileges often soften the scrutiny I might otherwise feel if I ‘overstep.’ In some cases, I am more likely to find people like me in the room who can act as allies when I feel the eyes of others on me.

This privilege requires me to try to act as an ally for those who don’t benefit from this kind of easy visibility. It is my responsibility to try to soften the gaze on those who are constantly under the microscope in the media, constantly being asked to explain and justify and erase their difference. Maybe at first this just looks like recognizing my own contribution and refusing to judge. Maybe it is working to challenge policies that target hypervisible groups or petitioning media to offer better representation. Speaking to peers, friends and family about stereotypes and challenging their assumptions about people can be difficult, but as you question the judgment of others, it also opens you up to question judgment of yourself. Scrutiny of difference, labelling that as deviance and punishing it, benefits no one. Visibility can be about recognizing and welcoming, rather than exploiting and rejecting – if we are looking at it the right way.

*More general profiling information here, for example, as it is a clear consequence of being seen as a hypervisible threat and it applies to many groups.

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.

image

[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.

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.

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.

#solidarityisforwhitewomen, Hugo, 20/20 hindsight

If you are not already following the twitter hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen, drop everything and go check it out. I’ll wait.

 

Okay, if you’ve come back or come up for air, welcome. Really, please do take a look. As a white feminist, I have found the conversation on twitter to highlight the gaps in my education, knowledge and community, as well as pointing to my privilege. These are key conversations for me as a feminist. I like to think that I approach feminism with an intersectional* focus, but my blind spots remain as persistent as ever.

Hugo Schwyzer is one such blind spot. I have linked to him in the past, even including him in a “Men We Love” section of Antigone Magazine, while under the false impression that he was a gentleman to be impressed with. Recently, the entire feminist community has come to terms with the fact that he is no role model, feminist or otherwise, as people finally hear women of colour out of twitter as they (again) relate stories of how he’s treated them, point out his racism, and highlight his lack of support for  abuse survivors, sex workers, people of colour and many others. His public meltdown on twitter sparked Mikki Kendall to use the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen and start a conversation about white feminists’ support of Hugo’s feminist career at the expense of people of colour, particularly the women of colour he hurt. This inspired a much larger (and critical) conversation about how white feminism mistreats women of colour in general.

I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know many of the things currently being discussed as a part of this conversation, about Schwyzer and about the many feminist women of colour that I haven’t been hearing. I’m uncomfortable, and I think that’s important. I think it can be difficult to sit with the discomfort, rather than excuse or explain or change the topic. So, this is me, uncomfortable and ready to listen. I’m going to continue to fall short as an ally and as an anti-racist feminist. As a feminist, period. But the point isn’t to be perfect. The point is to keep trying and keep listening and keep checking that rear view for a good look at all the mistakes you’re about to learn from. Bitch had a great piece really taking responsibility for how they handled the recent Schwyzer situation and I appreciate the example of learning and reflection.

This is not the first time feminism has been called out for its racism, for the dominance of white voices and privileged perspectives of all sorts, and it won’t be the last. It continues to be a critical conversation to have. It continues to be a problem. From the first days of trying to get suffrage to digital feminism today, there has not been equality among women or women activists. There has always been a disparity between the stated politics and the personal politics of how it plays out. Pretending that isn’t there isn’t going to make the positive changes necessary. So, here’s to #solidarityisforwhitewomen and to being uncomfortable and to being accountable to those you aren’t hearing.

 

*Intersectionality is the idea that identities and experiences aren’t happening in a vacuum. The categories that we have come up with (race, gender, class, ability, age, sexuality) all overlap, intermingle and influence one another. Intersectionality acknowledges that you can’t talk about one identity category separately from any other. It’s a  more complex analysis than taking one aspect on at a time and makes a bunch of sense as soon as you explain it, in my opinion.

Antigone’s Body Image Issue

So, when I’m not attending class, I’m often working with an organization called the Antigone Foundation, which hopes to increase the leadership opportunities for girls and young women across a variety of fields. One of the main initiatives is Antigone Magazine, which I have been involved with in the last few years. This semester, I was the guest editor and I got to be the captain of the issue. Of course I chose to talk about body image!

Antigone Magazine Body Image Issue 11

Image by Emily Hancock

The Body Image issue is going to go out to subscribers soon and is already out on the University of British Columbia campus. I am incredibly proud of the hard work of our writers and editors. I think we took a look at body image that did justice to some of the experiences women face, covering topics like fat activism, mental health, and how the white beauty standard impacts women of colour. I also wrote about how beauty can be an obstacle to leadership opportunities and I will be posting my article here shortly. Here’s an excerpt:

“… If we define power for women as something that comes in a lipstick tube or dress size, is it surprising that young women are so focused on their appearance? If this is perceived as their only avenue to power, then it is logical that empowerment comes to mean making themselves attractive to men at all costs – and I do mean all costs. The diet industry reportedly makes 40 billion dollars a year with help from this ‘logic,’ and the YMCA released a study in 2008 finding that American women spend a collective 7 billion dollars a year on cosmetic and beauty products.

For young women it’s not surprising that diets, eating disorders, expensive beauty products, complex and sometimes painful beauty rituals, and the endless policing of beauty standards seem much more strategic than joining a club, volunteering, voting, or getting your voice heard. How can we expect girls and young women to desire leadership when we are constantly telling them to focus on being desired?…”

Anyway, there’s the news of what’s going on in my world! I’m excited to continue my  work fighting for healthy, positive body image. Doing it in a zine was a lot of fun!

(P.S. If you are interested in subscribing to our magazine and keeping our little feminist organization going, please contact antigonefoundation(at)gmail.com or me at beauty_vs_beast(at)ymail.com. It’s 12$ (CAN) for two issues a year. Next semester, we’ll be talking about women and the environment. See old issues here)

(P. P. S. Antigone is a Greek figure in mythology who stood up to the king (her uncle) and did what she felt was right. Now, in the fashion of Greek ancient tragedies, her end was… well, tragic. However, she is a figure who did whatever it took to follow her beliefs. You can see why we might name something after her.)