But these glib surveys and one-dimensional studies tell me nothing about how Latinas or Asian women feel about their bodies. They give no insight into what kind of disordered eating habits affect women of color. They fail to explain the body-centered conversations I’ve had with non-white friends all my life.
For the past two years, I’ve been working on building Endangered Bodies NYC’s community on social media. And this morning, I was greeted by a flurry of hate speech, slurs, and vicious threats from men. Men of different ages. Men of different sizes. Single men. Men with young daughters. It made me angry at first, and then it just made me sad.
As I hid the vitriol from photos of empowered members – my friends and mentors – holding #FatisNotaFeeling signs, I realized that fear was behind this. Strong, powerful women who create change scare men. Women with a voice scare men.
Over the years, I've faced a lot of backlash for choosing to call myself a cripple. I've had people flinch every time I say it. I've had people try to convince me to use all sorts of alternatives. I've had people act like the word was a personal insult to them. To them, mind you. Not to me.
And here's where we get into the root of the problem of language policing: When you are a member of an oppressed minority, privileged people run your life. Privileged people decide where you go, how you're going to get there, and if you'll be allowed in once you're there. Privileged people make decisions that can quite literally end your life. Oppressed people have very little power to determine their own lives. The one area we DO have power in is in the language we use to refer to ourselves. And when you refer to yourself with a word like "cripple", you take it back from the privileged. You are refusing to let them control you. That is a daring, subversive, political act. It may just be a chink in the walls that surround us, but it is a chink, and we can expand that chink, stick our fingers in it and pull until the walls come tumbling down. When you police our language, you are not an ally. You are helping to build the very barriers you claim to help dismantle.
Though from outside appearances, it may seem like I did. I am the daughter of Nigerian immigrants. We have some interesting relations to our natural hair. When I was about five years old, my mother started perming my hair. The reasoning? The hair then becomes “easier”, more pliable to twist and braid at will. Saves time from combing. Looks “neater”. You know the drill.
I took after my mother and always had thick, wide-teeth comb resistant hair. When I grew my hair natural, it looked like one of those topographic shots of the Amazon forest. After Good Hair and other mainstream discussion, it was supposed that all black women hated their hair, were obsessed, and eternally vexed by their hair. The reason that black women were buying Indian (or Persian or Brazilian or Columbian) hair was tied to an ever-present self-hatred. Of course, there are women who truly did (and do) hate their hair. There were women who saw the lack of nappy or kinky hair in mainstream magazines as testament to their own hair’s ugliness.
This year, Endangered Bodies honors Danielle Sheypuk, a prominent disability rights advocate, licensed clinical psychologist, and fashion model. Wheelchair-dependent since childhood, she specializes in dating, relationships, and sexuality among the disabled. We had a chance to speak with Dr. Sheypuk about her groundbreaking work as an activist and model and why Indwelling is so vital for women today.
Caitlin Boyle is a fellow-body positive change-maker. Her initiative, Operation Beautiful, originally featured on her site, Healthy Tipping Point is as clever as it is subtle. The idea is to leave encouraging posit-it notes with body-positive messages, like 'you're beautiful inside and out' or 'scales measure weight, not worth', in public places for other people to find. Caitlin says, “I was inspired to start Operation Beautiful after having a really bad day at work; I wanted to do something small and simple for someone else to make me feel better! Turns out she's made thousands feel better.
I got an email from one of those extremely popular TV shows that no one I know actually watches. I was trying to feed myself with one hand and spooning sweet potato into the baby’s mouth with the other. The email had come up on my phone and I thumbed over it messily, unable to resist.
Would I be interested in coming on the show, the email asked, to talk about my experience as a real woman?
I was interested! Yes! I will talk about being a woman on national television! It’s a powerful, sometimes difficult, confusing, meaningful experience! For me, personally, there is this big question about yoga—is it possible to go through life as a modern woman without doing it at all?
But wait. There was a little more.
They were looking specifically for someone size 12-14, who isn’t comfortable with her appearance. This, succinctly, was the working definition of “real woman.”
So, how about it? The emailer was obviously in a hurry, but she was friendly.
People like to make things into battles, with two opposing sides. You know, like in the Mommy Wars where breastfeeding is sometimes misinterpreted as a battle cry and formula feeding is re-packaged as a ferocious counterattack. Oy vey. (I love how I automatically capitalize the “mommy wars” in my head, like it’s a real war, because it feels like I might be about to become a casualty).
Sometimes, in the world of conversations about body image, it seems like heavy women get pitted against thin women. There are a series of memes that have been endlessly cycling through Facebook with pictures of skinny, currently famous women alongside previous pinups with voluptuous breasts and hips. One caption reads “When did this … become hotter than THIS?” suggesting that our thin-obsessed culture has lost its way.
“EEWWW! She’s just skin and bones!” say the commenters. Some guys proudly declare that they wouldn’t bang those scrawny girls.
“What the hell is wrong with people??” yell relieved women unthinkingly. “REAL WOMEN have curves!!” And then thin women get understandably pissed. They are, after all, real women, too.
It is not totally rare that I am moved to tears, but this time it was for a good reason. I was standing in a sleek little gallery on the Lower East Side, music beating in the background, as I looked at an enormous photograph of a little black girl holding the image of a white model’s face over her own. The colors were vivid, almost intense, but simple. The girls skinny legs and arms jutted. She was sitting, clutching the other face against her own. It had been torn from a magazine. It was a makeup ad. The girl was a Ugandan orphan. I wanted to peek under her mask and see her real face, but she wouldn’t let me.
But anyway—I met Gloria in person for the first time, and she was wearing a leather jacket and being unassuming and quietly awesome and badass, and her photos made me cry.
And then that one, the one of the girl holding the pale face up to cover her own, dark one, made me suddenly think of this Op-Ed I read in the New York Times the other day. One that keeps bothering me. One that I don’t know how to talk about because it is by a black woman, talking about black women, and I am a pale, Jewish woman who is probably not fit to comment.
On March 6-8, 2015, the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities (CSMM) will host the International Conference on Masculinities: Engaging Men and Boys for Gender Equality, in New York City. The Conference is timed to immediately precede the meeting of the Commission of the Status of Women (CSW) at the United Nations. Twenty years after the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, the CSW will hold its annual two-week meeting, March 9-27, 2015, in New York. Thousands of participants from UN agencies, NGOs and national governments will discuss the progress made towards greater gender equality over the past two decades.
Those twenty years have also witnessed unprecedented efforts to engage men around gender equality. The CSMM conference aims to bring together more than 500 activists, practitioners, and academic researchers from around the world who are working to engage men and boys in fulfilling the Platform for Action adopted by the CSW in Beijing. It will review the success of programs to engage men and boys, share research-in- progress, discuss new and possible policy initiatives, and chart research needs for the future.
The Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities was established at Stony Brook University (SUNY) in 2013. The Center is dedicated to interdisciplinary research on boys, men, masculinities and gender. Its mission is to bring together researchers with practitioners and activists to develop and enhance social reform projects focusing on boys and men.