Thursday, 25 October 2007


Feminism gets a pretty bad rap in general. There is this hideous stereotype of the mad, hairy, bra-burning lesbian for starters. But something else feminists get accused of is man-hating and "emasculation".

The man-hating thing is partly a myth constructed in order to foster distaste for feminism and to introduce the idea that feminism is actually inherently sexist. It's also partly the fault of women who go around saying things like, "All men are bastards," which frankly is usually because they only go out with bastards. It has extremely little if anything to do with feminists themselves.

Emasculation however does have a lot to do with feminism. Masculinity and femininity are cultural concepts that have little to do with gender. They have been constructed by a patriarchal society to exaggerate massively the small differences between men and women (men are generally more aggressive and women are generally more nurturing, and that's about it - and we can blame our hormones for those trends, not our brains) and to perpetuate a culture in which men rule the roost whilst women make the tea. The pressure to fit into these stereotypes and the male dominance inherent in them is something that feminists generally are not too happy about.

However, I don't think men should be emasculated any more than I think women should be de-feminised. Everybody should have the right to be who they want to be, within reason. I feel more feminine when I wear make up and pretty clothes and remove my body hair. This might be because I have been indoctrinated by the patriarchy to define my femininity in such a trite manner, but it's harmless and it makes me feel good about myself. Likewise, I don't begrudge a man anything that makes him feel more masculine, just as long as it doesn't involve him being a complete shit.

If a man's definition of masculinity involves raping, beating or lacking respect for women, seeing women as second class citizens, feeling superior to someone because he has a penis and they don't, refusing to do housework or valuing women solely for their fuckability, then I am only too happy to emasculate him. This "you're just trying to emasculate men" attitude is often used as an excuse for the perpetuation of misogyny by equating masculinity with scurrilous behaviour and attitudes. All feminism seeks to break down is misogyny, and therefore the only way a person could believe that feminists hate men is if their definition of masculinity is entirely tied up in the idea of all men being total gobshites.

Feminists hate misogyny
Masculinity = misogyny
Feminism = emasculation
Feminists hate men

If a man feels that his God-given right as a male is to earn more than female colleagues, get away with rape, visit dodgy brothels and value women only according to their sexual availability, then of course feminism is going to make him feel emasculated. Much as I try to avoid making sweeping statements about feminists in general, I think it's fair to say that none of us want to chop anyone's balls off. If you feel castrated by the thought of equality, you need to reassess your definition of masculinity.

I think that masculinity should be about self-identifying as male. Beyond that, there's not much to say. In terms of relations between the sexes, it should be about using one's greater size and strength for protection rather than dominance. It should be about being confident enough to be glad that women aren't stuck in the kitchen. It should be about valuing women as human beings even if you don't want to pork them.

Basically, be nice and we won't emasculate you :)

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Only thin candidates need apply

The lovely Lynne Miles of The F-Word has been blogging recently about the true cost of being fat. Our Lynne is an occasional member of Weight Watchers, and receives emails from them. She was horrified when the following popped into her inbox:

"The worst thing was when I went for a job interview, knowing full well I had all the skills needed. But I never got the job."

Susan believed she was turned down for the job on the basis that she was overweight. Proof of this came six months later when she applied for the same job again - this time much slimmer - and got the job.

"It was embarrassing," she says. "I had the same skills, did the tests in the same way and got the same results. The only difference was I was 3st lighter."

Although the idea of losing weight if one is unhealthily overweight isn't a bad idea, this story is being used as a motivational tool to help fatties lose weight, rather than as a demonstration of how employers discriminate against people who don't look the part. It's pretty fucked up that anybody could read the above and not be outraged.

Lynne thinks that this sort of discrimination affects women more than it affects men and I sort-of agree. I do think that men are almost certainly discriminated against for being fat. However, I suspect that the level of obesity men have to achieve before receiving the same level of discrimination is probably significantly higher.

If an interviewer saw a candidate of either gender who was morbidly obese, I can absolutely understand them being put off by that. Somebody who is so hugely fat they don't walk so much as waddle and get out of breath climbing a flight of stairs is unlikely to be a healthy employee. It's pretty much impossible to be that fat without having either physiological or psychological problems and whilst it's unfair, it's understandable that employers might not be keen for that reason.

Beyond that, it's just mindless discrimination. And as Lynne points out, as physical appearance is considered more important for women than for men, women are bound to be more affected by it. Employing someone who's a size 6 instead of someone who's a size 26 is kind of understandable. Employing someone who's a size 6 over someone who's a size 16 is outrageous. No man who was heavily built and/or slightly overweight would suffer such discrimination unless he was going for a job as a Speedo model, but women live with it constantly. If you don't believe me, take a walk around the City and see if you can spot a female suit who's above a size 12. How "too fat" is defined for women is considerably more exclusive than how it is defined for men, and thus a far greater number of women suffer discrimination. Not that I would think it were any more acceptable if it happened to men too, but if it happened to men too people would probably make a fuss about it.

I actually got chatting about this with someone a while back who told me that he had once employed an enormously fat woman precisely because of her size. She had many great qualities but what really clinched the job for her was that he felt that any woman who could achieve the impressive CV that she had and to go through life in such an image-obsessed society as a functional, confident human being whilst being that fat, had proved herself to be a very strong and determined individual.

I agree. Although the human capacity to endure is far greater than anybody ever imagines until they're actually going through something, I can't envisage going through life as a very fat woman without ending up with rock bottom self esteem. However much you believe that being physically attractive isn't that important and that other people's opinions don't matter, how one is perceived by others is important and does affect one's self image. Even Lynne, who is a bit fat but in no way unattractive, tells me that she receives random abuse from people in the street on average about once a week. I don't even understand why anyone would do that. Why yell abuse at someone who's done nothing wrong other than to be a few pounds heavier than you think they should be? People suck.

Perhaps one of the reasons that "fattism" isn't treated with the outrage it so richly deserves is that the women who suffer from it are too ashamed to speak out. We are taught that fat women are barely deserving of existence. Of course there are notable exceptions in the form of high profile fatties such as Jo Brand and Dawn French, but as a whole, fat women are not exactly flavour of the month. I've said it before and I'll say it again: physical appearance is considered by far the most important trait for a woman, and so if a woman doesn't conform to a certain standard, her worth as a human being is massively diminished. It takes an incredibly self-assured fatty to make a fuss about discrimination, rather than simply to shuffle away and tuck into a low fat yoghurt. Susie Orbach springs to mind.

Most women don't appreciate the extent to which attractiveness-based discrimination happens because most women go through life at pretty much the same level of attractiveness all the time. Susan knows what it's like to be both fat and thin, she knows how much more accepted she is with her slimmer physique, and yet she is using her experience not to speak out about how appalling the treatment of fat people is but to speak out about how you too can be a size 10 to please all of those unmitigated arsewipes who won't employ you if you're carrying a few extra pounds. If you manage to lose weight and keep it off, good for you. But you shouldn't have to do so in order to be valued as a human being. You shouldn't have to do so in order to get a job. Fattism should not be accepted.

Part of the problem is that people think that losing weight is easy and that anybody who's a bit porky just needs to lay off the pies a bit and get some exercise. Usually the people you hear saying that are the sort of people who stay slim no matter how many pies they eat. If it really were that simple, do you think anybody would be overweight? Nobody chooses to be overweight. Hell, if it were easy to control one's size, few women would be above a size 8. It's illegal to discriminate against people on the grounds of race for example, but not on the grounds of fat. If it were possible for black people to bleach their skin white, would people consider it acceptable to shout racial slurs at them in the street because "they could change if they wanted to" or to discriminate against them in the workplace because they "obviously lack self-respect"?

In my not-so-humble opinion, it's time people accepted a few things:

  • Some people find it easier to stay slim than others
  • Being slightly overweight isn't likely to affect one's health significantly
  • Being fat doesn't make a person sub-human
  • Women don't exist just to look pretty
  • Being fuckable isn't an important criterion for a job interview candidate
  • You can't discriminate against discrimination. It all sucks, whether it's to do with a person's gender, sexuality, the colour of their skin or their waist measurement
  • Friday, 12 October 2007

    Good role model?

    Whilst doing my customary skim-read of the Times website this morning, I saw a standfirst that really annoyed me:

    We caught up with Lily Allen at Chanel’s Paris salon. Here she talks about Lagerfeld, her weight and being a role model.

    It seems that there are two massive issues for any young women with a prominent position in the media - her weight and being a role model - and that the two are inextricably linked.

    Be too thin, and you will be continually derided for being a poor role model, as if young girls have nobody to look up to but vacuous pop princesses whose every coke-snorting escapade is lovingly splashed across the latest issue of Heat, as if you are directly responsible for the existence of anorexia.

    Be a healthy size 8-12 though (no fatter than that, because of course that would be, like, gross!) and you will be lauded as a great role model for young girls and your 'gorgeous curves' will be lovingly praised in patronising drivel that implys that until the reader saw your 'rubenesque' figure in a bikini they were locked in a cycle of hating their figures so much that their only solace was an entire box of Krispy Kremes consumed alone in front of America's Next Top Model.

    This immediate assumption that being a role model is part of a celebrity's job generally only applies to female celebrities. You don't see the media going potty every time a male celebrity goes on a drinking binge or loses a few pounds. And yet, this is the same media that goes nuts over single mums, lack of male teachers in primary schools, the fact that not having any men in their lives can be damaging to boys. Whether it's actully hugely damaging or not (I haven't a clue and suspect it depends largely on the individual) the fact is that boys are statistically less likely than girls to have lots of role models in real life. If anybody needs celebrity role models, it's boys not girls.

    And then, there's the vacuous nature of the manner in which this role model business manifests itself. It's almost completely to do with weight. It helps if you don't drink or smoke, but basically, in order to be regarded as a 'good role model', it's all about the curves and very little else. The trashy end of the media (which, let's face it, is most of it) will print photographs of a talented actress or musician, but all they will discuss is her weight fluctuations, with finger-wagging accusations of eating disorders, labels of 'poor role model'. Is not being anorexic all girls are to aspire to? It's the media that's creating the idea that no matter how talented and successful she is, a woman is nothing but a body, whether skinny or fat. And that, my friends, is a poor example indeed.

    Tuesday, 9 October 2007

    The "double standard"

    This "double standard" you'll hear feminist types ranting about quite a lot refers to the phenomenon of men being applauded for promiscuity whilst women are derided for the same behaviour. However, I've never really been that convinced of just how prevalent this is these days. I've often been derided for *not* being promiscuous - both men and women have accused me of being "frigid" for not being interested in shagging random strangers in nightclub toilets. It has always seemed to me that the expectations of people with regards to sexual behaviour have evened out, that now both men and women are expected to shag everything that moves.

    I'd like to say at this point that I have absolutely no moral stance on sex whatsoever - the reason I don't do casual sex is just that I'm too shy and that it takes me a while to feel physically comfortable enough with someone to actually enjoy it. I have to know someone for a little while before I can seriously lust after them. And I'm buggered if I'm doing anything I don't feel comfortable with just because Cosmo tells me I've got "issues with sex" if I'm not shagging someone by our fourth date.

    We all know of course that sleeping with someone on the first date is a big no-no. He won't respect you in the morning! And yet, if you hold off until the third or fourth date, he will be a lovely romantic creature who will provide gargantuan quantities of respect, adoration, jewellery and cunnilingus. Fuck that - I'd suggest that if he's the type of guy who won't respect you in the morning, then he's a misogynistic arsewipe and definitely not relationship material, so it doesnt matter whether you sleep with him or not.

    I was chatting to a fellow feminist at a party a few weeks ago, who told me that she always sleeps with people on the first date, because she's not sure if she'll get a second date. Although the girl in question immediately became my personal hero, she was at pains to tell me that people often reacted very badly to her shagging antics. Many men really did lose respect for her. Obviously I was very wrong in my theory that both men and women are supposed to be racking up as many notches on their bedposts as possible.

    But what is a girl to do? I've got a bit of a controversial take on this: I think all of this double standard and virgin/whore arsemongering is actually very liberating. Women can't do anything right. There is no ideal. However you behave sexually you will be judged, called names, whatever. You can't get it right, so don't even try. Just do exactly what you want to do in the happy knowledge that however you conducted your sex life, somebody would be pissed off about it. And here's a hint - if you feel like sleeping with someone, do it. He might not respect you in the morning, but at least that way you get laid.

    'Studies have shown' precisely sod all

    Deborah Cameron has written a book entitled The Myth of Mars and Venus, published last week by Oxford University Press. As she explains in an interview in The Times today, men and women are all from Earth, but perhaps John Gray is from Uranus.

    Extracts from this book appear in The Guardian. I was going to provide lots of choice quotes, but it's all so fascinating, insightful and comprehensive that I felt like quoting all of it, so you'll just have to read it for yourself. The basic premise is, women don't talk more than men - just more than the patriarchy would like them to. This is what I've always suspected and it's great to see it in print.

    This table presents a realistic picture of what scientific research has actually discovered about the differences between men and women, where 'd' is the value of overall gender difference: minus values indicate that women are ahead of men and plus values indicate that men are ahead of women. As Cameron points out, the only reputable studies that have revealed significant differences between the sexes have measured athletic prowess and aggressiveness, at which men outperformed women. In other words, this is what you would expect from differences in muscle mass and testosterone levels, with little or nothing to do with the manner in which male and female brains are 'wired up'.

    Of course, the stereotype of the grunting, knuckle-dragging buffoon is pretty insulting to men:

    The literature of Mars and Venus, in both the self-help and popular science genres, is remarkably patronising towards men. They come off as bullies, petulant toddlers; or Neanderthals sulking in their caves. One (male) contributor to this catalogue of stereotypes goes so far as to call his book If Men Could Talk. A book called If Women Could Think would be instantly denounced; why do men put up with books that put them on a par with Lassie or Skippy the Bush Kangaroo ("Hey, wait a minute - I think he's trying to tell us something!")?

    From The Guardian

    An unfortunate side-effect of these patronising gender stereotypes however is that they can excuse loutish, petulant behaviour in men. As Cameron explains, this can have serious consequences:

    Cameron cites one rape trial in Canada in the 1990s where the female complainant is asked: “Did it occur to you through the persistent behaviour that maybe your signals were not coming across loud and clear”, while the male complainant states simply: “She said that she was tired but she never said like ‘no’, ‘stop’, ‘don’t’.”

    Cameron argues that both men and women are perfectly capable of understanding what a woman saying ‘I’m tired’ and feigning unconsciousness means, but no one thinks to ask why the defendant is being so obtuse. The complainant, on the other hand, is roasted for not being direct enough. The myth of Mars and Venus bolsters a great escape route for the defendant: miscommunication.

    From The Times

    So, big up to the Deborah Cameron massive. But the one major beef I have with all of this is that nobody seems to be tackling the commonly-held belief, often backed up in the same manner by dodgy sensationalist 'studies', that women can't read maps and have poor sense of direction and spatial awareness. If Cameron manages to debunk the myth that men are useless neanderthals who can't communicate but people continue to believe that women can't navigate their arse from their elbow, we could end up in a nasty situation whereby we swap rigid, equal-but-different gender stereotypes for perceived male superiority. Perhaps there's another book in the pipeline. I hope so.

    There's plenty of evidence to suggest that all of these differences between the sexes are minute, with far more variation between people regardless of gender than between the genders themselves. But as Cameron explains, "A book called Men and Women Understand Each Other Pretty Well Most of the Time isn’t going to sell too many copies, is it?”

    Alas, Deborah, you've hit the nail on the head. Newspapers, magazines, books and documentaries don't tell you the truth. They tell you what you want to hear. And people want to hear that women can't read maps and men need to be more 'in touch with their feelings', whatever that means. I work in the media. I know how this works. You go for the most exciting stories, which doesn't necessarily correlate with the most accurate representation of what's actually going on. And if someone's produced a bollocks study, for example, deciding that the female love of pink is genetically hardwired by asking 208 people what their favourite colours are, this is the sort of thing that readers will salivate over. The media ignores the thousands of other, more reputable studies that prove that there's not much difference between the sexes because it's not what the readers want. That's not what sells papers or improves viewing figures. Nobody wants to read that women are capable of parallel parking or that men are capable of picking up their own dirty socks. Actual news is a different matter, but when it comes to features and fluff pieces, most people want to read nice, comforting drivel that confirms their own opinions, which of course were formed by such drivel in the first place.

    And then people actually start living it. Who has ever been in a room full of women actually boasting about how bad their maths skills are, presumably because it somehow asserts their femininity? Likewise with men claiming not to understand anything but the clearest of entirely verbal cues. Most people who don't happen to be completely useless in the areas in which the patriarchy tells them they're supposed to be completely useless suppress their strengths. I was the only girl out of 25 in my A level maths class, and everybody at school thought I was a lesbian. Not because I displayed any 'dykeish' behaviour but because the only possible explanation for my greater aptitude for maths and science than humanities was that I was a raving carpet-muncher. Apparently heterosexual girls just didn't do maths.

    Even when people genuinely want to be good at things that don't correlate with their gender roles, it's difficult. Society has been shaping their self-image since they were tiny children. Most women really do think that they can't read maps. Most men really do think that they're insensitive slobs. In some cases this is true and that's fine. But it's not fine that millions of people find it difficult to fulfil their potential because we all feel the need to pigeonhole each other.

    Saturday, 6 October 2007

    Ali G does feminism

    Very old, but very funny.

    Thursday, 4 October 2007

    Love the skin you're in

    Dove have produced a new short film in conjunction with the Campaign for Real Beauty:

    This is a great film and promotes a really important issue - that the cosmetics industry negatively affects young girls as well as grown women. However, these campaigns that try to persuade us to love our bodies, warts and all, really bug me sometimes. Basically, cosmetics companies seem to be using two types of women in their advertisements these days: Models, and Real Women.

    The models, those leggy, perma-tanned, airbrushed gazelle-like creatures, have been around for a while. But the Real Woman is a relatively recent phenomenon. The Real Woman is voluptuous, relatively small-breasted and uses few cosmetics. She loves her body and she revels in her cycles and curves. She holds her head up high despite the fact that she is positively gargantuan by Hollywood standards, because she knows that she is beautiful and she loves her body. Well, I'm a size 6, I have E-cup breasts and I own so many sparkly eyeshadows I wouldn't be surprised if I am single-handedly keeping Barry M in business. Am I less "real" than the women in the Dove adverts? It's just another representation of female beauty to which few of us conform, even if the "message" behind it is rather more positive than that of traditional advertisements despite being just a sugar coating for selling us stuff.

    There seems to be this assumption that women hate their bodies because of the constant bombardment of unrealistic images thrust at us by Hollywood and the cosmetics industry, and so we all need to learn to love our bodies in order to compensate for it. Fine. But why should I love my body? It's just a body. Men aren't expected to love their bodies. Loving your body makes as little sense as hating it. What we really need, in my opinion, is just to quit being so obsessed with our bodies in the first place.

    The reason that loving your body is considered so important is that women's bodies are considered so disproportionately crucial to their worth as human beings. From childhood, women are taught that their self esteem should be tied up in their looks. There's this idea that you can't walk down the street with your head held high if you don't adore every inch of your body. This is bullshit. You don't have to love your body in order to be confident, because you are much more than just your body. I may have the shortest legs in the known universe, but I also have sharp wit, an optimistic disposition, kindness and intelligence. I may have big jugs, but I am also uptight, pedantic and socially inept. I am more than my physical appearance and I refuse to let my self image revolve solely around it.

    There's also the uncomfortable truth that it's much easier for some people to love their bodies than others, whether from genuine attractiveness or the extent to which they fit some sort of media 'ideal'. If I do love my body, it's probably because it happens to be relatively close to the 'ideal' plastered all over billboards rather than because I actually have sky-high self esteem. And I realise that in an image-obsessed society in which women are regarded primarily as decoration with their worth measured by how fuckable they are, this makes me extremely lucky.

    This pressure to love your body is just that: more pressure, on top of the pressure that women already feel with regards to the way they look. Loving your lardy arse is just as self-absorbed as punishing it with cellulite cream. You are only truly free of the beauty industry and the airbrushed standards it promotes if your lardy arse is not an issue in the first place.

    The Campaign for Real Beauty, whilst coming up with some great films, totally skirts the issue. Although 'Love Your Body' is a big step up from 'You Need Cellulite Cream' the issue that would really be helpful for them to push is, 'Your Body Isn't Actually That Important'. But then, that won't help them sell any body lotion.