Why are body politics important? [Loving Our Bodies, Part 4]

If I had a penny for every time I’ve seen people, both men and women, call issues such as shaving “petty” or otherwise mock them when someone brings up the double standard as an example of why we aren’t equal, I would be a rich, rich woman. But why is something that, on the surface, seems so minor and so tied-in with personal choice a continual talking-point within discussions of equality?

The easy answer is that it’s not about the act of shaving or not shaving, but rather what those personal experiences mean when they are put into the greater context of socialization and gender roles. What does it mean to learn womanhood? What impact does it have on how we view women’s personhood? Continue reading

"If I were [x] I wouldn't do that!" [Loving Our Bodies, Part 3]

It’s summer again in Japan, which means torrential downpours, blisteringly hot days, and enough humidity to make you feel like you need to shower again right after you step out of the house. It is not weather that is conducive to pants and sleeves, but rather one that lends itself better to shorts, skirts, and tank tops.

And this is where we begin this part of the Loving Our Bodies series, because it is where I am confronted with the consequences of my choice not to shave every single time I walk out of the house. But, first, a brief interlude to refresh what brought up this subject, and discuss the pressures that hinder a free choice for a woman when it comes to shaving. Continue reading

Policing women through violence [Women and Violence, Part 7]

IMPORTANT NOTICE: This post is several years old and may not reflect the current opinions of the author.
[This is part of my series on Women and Violence, which I am writing as a project for a Women Studies course I’m taking. For an explanation and information on my intentions with this series, please see the introduction.]

In an article titled “‘Femininity’ and women’s silence in response to sexual harassment and coercion,” Kathleen V. Cairns describes how harassment of women functions as a method of social control over women’s behavior:

[O]vert practices include the public, ritual shaming of women in the form of catcalls, lewd remarks and so on which serves to demonstrate the fact that ‘any man or group of men feels entitled not only to pass judgement on any woman walking along minding her own business, but also to announce it to her‘ [Kotzin 1993: 167] […]

In patriarchy, women are taught to accept that their femaleness, their simple presence, are responsible for men’s behavior towards them […] It becomes women’s responsibility to police themselves, to keep their dress, comportment and presence within approved limits to avoid ‘provoking’ harassment. (96-7).

This dynamic – of men acting with impunity to judge women, and women shouldering the blame for men’s actions towards them – can be applied to other forms of gender violence as well. What it comes down to is the way that negative reactions from men – or even the anticipation of those reactions – function to police women in everything from their appearance to their behavior.

Men policing women

Let’s start with the practice Cairns herself describes, of public sexual harassment. I know few, if any, women who have not experienced this in some form or another. Often this takes the form of men talking at women about their appearance or sexual appeal. This is distinguishable from actual flirting, because flirting is supposed to be a mutually consensual act, whereas harassment is just about a man making sure a woman knows his opinion of her, without caring about her participation in the interaction. (Anyone who’s been both harassed and flirted with/complimented can tell you the difference.) Harassment can also be quieter – lewd or invasive staring, muttered comments, or actual touching.

This practice polices women by imposing men’s opinions onto women about their physical attractiveness – whether the women are heterosexual or not, in a relationship and not looking for outside opinions, or just not in the mood. It reinforces the idea that the male gaze is upon a woman, that her appearance is not just for herself or a chosen few, but open to consumption and judgment by any man who sees her. Even if the judgment is ‘positive’ (“nice ass” as opposed to “ugly bitch”), it reinforces the authority of random men to inflict that judgment.

On the other hand, harassment can also be about punishment. Consider the recent study by University of Toronto professor Jennifer Berdahl, which found that, “The more women deviated from traditional gender roles – by occupying a ‘man’s’ job or having a ‘masculine’ personality – the more they were targeted.”

Women can be punished for things besides being ‘unfeminine,’ of course – as tekanji points out, men harass women for speaking up about gender issues, or just for being female. The ultimate result is the silencing or suppression of women, because we get afraid, frustrated, or just plain angry.

Violent policing

We can also look at tekanji’s examples and see how harassment quickly transforms from ‘only’ insults into actual threats of violence. These threats are almost uniformly sexual in nature, expressing that sexual assault will be used to punish deviant women, or even improve them (by causing a woman to ‘lighten up,’ etc.). How many of us (particularly feminists) have experienced or witnessed similar threats, about how we ‘need to get fucked’ in order to ‘get some sense’ or ‘learn our place’?

Of course these threats are verbal, and the one’s in tekanji’s post were communicated online. These men are not immediately and physically threatening women, and it would be safe to say that few of them actually want to rape the targets of their harassment (though I don’t trust any of them to be intelligent or worthwhile allies against sexual violence). One might be tempted to just blow this off as empty words, online aggression that doesn’t mean anything. Many people do blow it off.

But what does it mean when some men’s anger against women is expressed through threats of sexual violence, even in non-sexual contexts? And rape is a gendered form of violence, undoubtedly – women are the vast majority of victims, men are the vast majority of perpetrators, and when men are victims of rape by other men, there is the threat of the male victim being made ‘gay’ or ‘like a woman.’ All of this makes rape threats a gender-specific way of terrorizing women, above and beyond general physical threats against men or mixed-gender groups.

The effect of this type of threat is to police women’s behavior. Online, it can mean silencing a blogger, defaming her name for potential schools or employers, or driving her from a forum, community, or other space. Threats can teach women not to air certain opinions; or to do so only in private, regulated spaces; or to hide their gender identity; or to avoid sites that otherwise interest her; or to play along like ‘one of the guys’ in order to fit in.

Offline, the threat is more immediately physical, and the policing far, far more extensive. It determines who we talk to in public, the way we talk, the way we dress, the places we go, the times we go out, the amount of alcohol we drink, the people we associate with, the way we arrange our transportation … I’m sure you can think of more.

I am afraid to go out by myself at night. I don’t like being afraid, but I am. And the fear doesn’t really come from the threat of being assaulted – statistically, of course, I am far more likely to be sexually or physically assaulted by the men who are my friends and acquaintances than by a stranger jumping me in the dark.

See, I’m afraid because I have regularly been harassed when I’m walking by myself at night. It’s when I’m walking from my house to the bus stop. It’s not that late, just sometime in the evening after it’s gotten dark. I’m not dressed ‘provocatively’ (because we all know that’s an excuse, right?). But I get screamed at, by groups of guys from the safety of their own cars – loud, incoherent noises, meant to scare me or get some other reaction.

This doesn’t happen in the daytime. This doesn’t happen when I’m walking with my boyfriend. (He, by the way, walks by himself plenty of nights, and doesn’t seem to have this problem.) Sure, I’ve been harassed in broad daylight, but that’s been guys yelling in a sexual way, meant to offend (or perhaps ‘compliment’) me. This? The aggressive screaming? This is meant to police me. To let me know that I’m somewhere that I don’t belong, doing something that I shouldn’t be doing, and to let me know that these guys have the right to punish me for it by bullying me.

This policing works. I find ways to avoid walking alone at night, even when I want to go out – even though I know this isn’t right, and that I’m as entitled to be out there as any man, I can’t always convince myself to take the risk. I hate it, but I obey, because I don’t want the harassment. I’ve learned my lesson.

Women self-policing

Women police themselves in plenty of different ways. Not all of them are like my example above, where I was aware of the power dynamic. We internalize patriarchal disapproval or punishment in a myriad of ways, to the point where they become indistinguishable from our own reactions to ourselves.

Consider these excerpts Tomi-Ann Roberts and Jennifer Y. Gettman’s study, “Mere Exposure: Gender Differences in the Negative Effects of Priming a State of Self-Objectification,” which explores self-policing in the context of body image:

Although only a minority of women in the United States are actually overweight […] the majority report feeling fat and express this as a personal failure, which has been shown to lead to feelings of shame [Crandall, 1994]. Feminist theorists have described this as a cycle where the dominant culture constructs the ideal body and encourages women to monitor their own bodies as objects, and, as a result, women feel shame when they do not live up to these standards [McKinley, 1998].


Disgust can play a positive role in the development of a civilized society by internalizing norms for cleanliness, restraint, and reserve [Miller, 1997]. Unfortunately, it can also become a negative reaction to violations of these predetermined social standards. Insofar as many women experience a discrepancy between their actual body size and their ideal body size [Fallon & Rozin, 1985], women may become disgusted with their own bodies because they have violated a social standard by being unattractive or overweight, and hence “gross.” […] Indeed, it may be argued that the higher standards of cleanliness, hairlessness, odorlessness, and beauty held for women in our culture are a reflection of the greater burden placed upon women to “civilize” their bodies lest they be seen as “disgusting” by others [Roberts, Goldenberg, Power, & Pyszcynski, 2002]. (18-9)

It is also worth noting that the authors cite a study in which both men and women try on swimwear, and women “reported feeling more disgust, distaste, and revulsion than did men, who, in contrast, reported more lighthearted self-conscious feelings of awkwardness, silliness, and foolishness” (19).

Of course, there is always the possibility that women’s opinions of their own bodies are based on their own individual preferences. But why the strikingly gendered difference, between who feels “silly” and who feels “revulsion” about themselves? Why do women’s preferences about their bodies tie in so neatly to sexism, by keeping them spending their time, energy, and money on practices that make them smaller instead of larger and stronger?

And what is the role of male policing in all of this? How many of us have had husbands, boyfriends, fathers, brothers, and friends imply to us, tell us, tease us, or threaten us about our appearance? weight? body hair? dress?

How much do negative reactions from men influence our behavior? And how much do we blame ourselves for limiting our actions, rather than those who impose those limitations upon us?

The violence beneath 'beauty' [Women and Violence, Part 5]

[This is part of my series on Women and Violence, which I am writing as a project for a Women Studies course I’m taking. For an explanation and information on my intentions with this series, please see the introduction.]

Next week I’m giving a presentation in class on cosmetic surgery in regards to women of color. Now, cosmetic surgery does not readily fall under most common definitions of ‘violence,’ and I find myself hesitant to categorically label it as such.

On the one hand, while cosmetic surgery does involve bloody alterations on a person’s body, so does surgery in general, and we generally don’t label that as violent – especially when voluntarily consented to by the patient. The fact that cosmetic surgery is often (though not always) agreed to by an autonomous individual does mitigate the physical damage it brings.

Of course, we are all aware that ‘consent’ is a sticky issue, and that we can’t ignore the pressures that can constrain a person’s ability to make a choice – particularly in the case of women facing pressures to be ‘beautiful’ in a certain way.

Furthermore, the same level of physical damage can be construed as ‘violent’ or ‘non-violent’ depending on the context. Full-contact sports can be performed just as ferociously as a street brawl, yet not be uncontrolled and violent. What’s more, a session of safe, sane, and consensual BDSM can be non-violent, while the quietest rape perpetrated under clearly communicated threat is clearly not.

Still, I find it difficult to attach the label of ‘violent’ to cosmetic surgery in its entirety. There is still a risk of compromising the agency of the woman who elects to have that surgery. This risk is exacerbated by the fact that ‘cosmetic surgery’ is a difficult category for me to define, because its borders blur with what is considered ‘reconstructive surgery,’ as well as decorative body modifications.

So all I have right now are the beginnings of an analysis of the level of violence within cosmetic surgery. One of the most important pieces that I have so far comes out of my study of women of color. While researching for my presentation, I ran across a book by Margaret L. Hunter called Race, Gender, and the Politics of Skin Tone. While her object of analysis is colorism, or racial prejudice based on skin color, she examines the connection between the creation of beauty standards and the exploitation of women of color’s bodies in a way that I find useful for contextualizing cosmetic surgery.

Consider this passage on the construction of blackness:

“African-ness” came to be known as evil and “whiteness” came to be known as virtuous. These abstract concepts, however, quickly manifest themselves in the actual phenotypic characteristics of the racial groups […] Blackness and whiteness were no longer merely abstract concepts. Actual physical traits associated with each racial group began to take on these ideological meanings. Dark brown skin, kinky hair, and broad noses started to represent barbarism and ugliness. Similarly, straight blonde hair and white skin began to represent civility and beauty. (Hunter 20-1)

For women of color, this racist pressure is combined with a sexist one: for instance, Latina women are faced with the history of imagery that constructed dark-skinned Mexican American women as not only inferior, but as whores, while light-skinned and therefore favored women were tied to the Madonna (Hunter 31). Thus even the light-skinned and white women who are seen as ‘good’ are subjected to the same overarching system that judges and degrades women based on their physical appearance. Or, as Hunter puts it, “The racist action of the beauty queue seems obvious, but the fact that there is a queue at all is the less obvious but equally damaging effect. So the beauty queue is racist in its hierarchy of women by color and misogynist in its function to objectify all women” (28).

Physicality, and physical beauty, are not just about the body, but are intimately tied with ideas of social and sexual worth. This is, of course, true for more people than just women of color – women of all races are judged on how attractive they are to heterosexual men, people with disabilities are judged as less intelligent or capable or worthwhile than able-bodied people.

From value judgments, it is a frighteningly easy transition to actual violence. Consider the dark-skinned Latina ‘whore’ who is denied the sexual innocence of the ‘Madonna.’ When such a woman is raped, her violation is minimized in the same way that all violations of the sexually deviant are minimized – with excuses that she was ‘asking for it,’ or that it doesn’t matter because she’s already ‘used.’ How many other racialized constructions can we think of that justify sexual violence based on a woman’s appearance as non-white – the oversexed Black woman, the Oriental geisha girl, the Indian squaw?

And now we can change some of those features that identify us as ethnic minority women. Eyelid surgeries add creases to Asian people’s eyelids, making them look more similar to white people. Rhinoplasty is used to alter the noses of members of various races, bringing them more in line with the longer and narrower Anglo nose (Hunter 56).

Are women of color who choose such surgeries aware of the violence that has historically plagued women who look different from the (white) standard? Certainly not all of them are. But can we honestly say that such women are completely unaffected by the continuing judgments leveled upon the worth of women of color, which are based in such a history?

So what Hunter provides for me is the possibility that the violence of cosmetic surgery lies not in the practice itself, but in the history that shapes the parameters of that practice: what is performed, why it is performed, and how women are pressured into participating in this practice.

This conclusion, half-formed as it is, still leaves open the question of whether or not cosmetic surgery is violent in and of itself, or whether it is just surrounded by violence. I’m still working that one out.

Obesity Moral Panics and the Gendered Presentation of Disordered Eating

The news here recently reported on a new study suggesting that eating disorder rates in Australia have more than doubled in the last decade, and the rates of “regular disordered eating” (that doesn’t necessarily coincide with a diagnosable eating disorder) have nearly tripled.

One of the researchers indicates that the issue spreading to ‘groups not typically affected by weight issues’. Whilst I think it is a problem that the sort of weight-and-food-obsession that drives disordered eating is spreading, what Professor Hay’s comment suggests is that disordered eating and eating disorders aren’t a problem if it only affects those we believe to be ‘typically’ affected – that is, women. Of course, this presentation isn’t only about the researcher’s comments, but how they’re framed in reporting.

Women were five times more likely to have a disorder than men, but the study found a sharp rise in males with the problems, particularly bingeing.

“It’s a clear problem when it’s spreading into groups that weren’t typically affected by weight issues,” Prof Hay said.

Eating disorders double, The Courier-Mail, 29 April 2007

Of course, when you frame ‘groups typically affected’ as women (which, incidentally, obscures the class and race issues that also tend to shape the notion of which women are affected), the idea that “it’s a clear problem when it’s spreading” suggests that it wasn’t a problem before. Which of course is perfect fodder for the idea that eating disorders and disordered eating patterns are just about women being weak and silly.

That said, the study isn’t all bad news. Despite my issues with how it frames the issue in terms of gender, the study does do some good things. I’m not sure precisely how it distinguishes between ‘full blown eating disorders’ and ‘regular disordered eating’, but I suspect that’s largely because I’m not trained in psychology or psychiatric research. And despite my lack of knowledge, my intuition is that the distinction is important (if problematic), because whilst eating disorders are obviously quite serious, I think the prevalence of ‘regular disordered eating’, and the very naming of the phenomenon that way, says a lot about how warped our relationships with food can be, and how normalised that problem can (and has) become.

The researchers also, albeit cautiously, suggest that the rise in eating disorders and disordered eating is at least in part related to the public moral panic about obesity. I’m not going to get into a discussion of whether the obesity epidemic is real or not, because that discussion gets old really quickly, but this research goes some way to pointing out just why panicking about obesity isn’t the way to go about combating the problem if you believe there is one. Making people feel bad about themselves tends to reinforce the bad relationships with food and undermine any solutions to ‘the obesity epidemic’. Those who don’t take heed of these warnings run the risk of looking like they’re more interested in making fat people feel bad about themselves.

The beauty myth and character design

One of the points I constantly bring up as a barrier to gender inclusive game design is how women are hypersexualized — meaning that they are constructed to be characters whom presumably male characters would like to have sex with, they are often portrayed with exaggerated sexual characteristics (how often do you find a female character with A-cups? Or with a non-curvy figure?), and presented in a way (through costuming and posing) that is meant to show them as sexually available.

One of the most, if not the most, common rebuttal I get to this argument is to reduce my logical arguments to me saying that the only “acceptable” avatar is an “ugly” one. This, of course, is a problematic reaction on many different levels. I would first like to clear up the argument I’m actually making, then delve into an analysis why the dichotomy of “ugly” versus “pretty” used in the rebuttals is not a useful one, and finally offer suggestions for what companies can do to be more inclusive in their character design. Continue reading

A deeper look into femininity [The Gaming Beauty Myth, Interlude]

I’m labeling this as an “interlude” because the constructs of femininity I’m about to address don’t all directly intersect with the beauty myth, but the way that they interact with femininity as a whole is a topic that I feel needs to be addressed. I’ve been sitting on this one ever since Shannon over at Egotistical Whining wrote a commentary on the second part of this series.

In life, and especially in male-dominated areas, femininity gets a bad rap. It’s seen as frivolous, as emotional, as irrational, as naive… the list goes on an on. It’s not, however, seen as desirable to possess because it’s somehow lesser than masculine traits.

I’ve tried to dispel that false dichotomy in my series thus far, but it’s hard to see the bigger picture when the topic at hand is the beauty myth, a cultural paradigm that relies on ruthlessly exploiting the negative aspects of femininity in order to maintain the connection between women and sex. So I’m going to try here again to illustrate why, exactly, despite its flaws it’s not in our best interest to throw femininity into the same trash bin as the beauty myth itself. Continue reading

Using Beauty to Establish Gamer Cred [The Gaming Beauty Myth, Part 3]

Wearing our sexuality on our sleevesLast time I talked about two prevalent female gamer archetypes that represent the gaming beauty myth and this time I want to expand upon how that interacts with the real gaming world.

One facet of being seen first for your sexuality and second for everything else is that it can influence your position in something unrelated. In the case of gaming, that means that it’s possible that how much you conform to beauty standards plays a part in how the community receives you. Continue reading

Female Gamer Archetypes [The Gaming Beauty Myth, Part 2]

Since this blog is primarily aimed at people at least somewhat familiar with feminism, I often take it for granted that people know what I’m talking about when I say things like women are “the sex class” or that female geeks are made into “Second Class Geeks” by the way we’re treated as potential dates first and geeks second.

But what does that mean for female gamer culture?

I believe that the gaming beauty myth informs the typical archetypes attributed to female gamers. Whether it be conforming to the traditional stereotype of “geek” — the unwashed, unattractive, glasses-wearing, basement-living untouchable — or being the “hawt gamer girl” — the sex kitten supposedly out of every geeky guy’s fantasy — the two archetypes I will examine below share a common thread: percieved attractiveness.

Though I should hope this is obvious, I want to emphasize that I am not attacking any people who conform in whole, or part, to these archetypes. This post is intended to explore how the beauty myth interacts with the way that female gamers are seen by others as well as each other. Continue reading