This week we are happy to feature a guest post from Jocelyn Hollander. Jocelyn Hollander is a professor of sociology at the University of Oregon whose work focuses on gender and women’s resistance to violence.

The new Miss USA, Nia Sanchez, has been roundly criticized this week for daring to advocate that women learn to defend themselves against violence. As this argument goes, any anti-violence strategy that focuses on what women can do to keep themselves safe is women-blaming. Instead, we should focus all our resources on preventing perpetrators from assaulting women. As one Twitter user wrote, “Hey Miss Nevada- how about instead of woman learning to protect themselves, men learn to not rape women?” (@CaitCremeens, June 09, 2014)

In an ideal world, this would be the right strategy. We would teach perpetrators not to commit violence, they would see the error of their ways, and poof! Violence against women disappears. And if a few perpetrators remain unconvinced, well, we’ll teach bystanders to intervene, and they’ll step in to stop these assaults.

But we do not live in that world. Feminists have been trying to convince perpetrators not to assault women for more than 30 years now, and these problems are still with us. Perpetrators frequently isolate their targets before assaulting them, making bystander intervention dicey, at best. Research on frequently-used prevention strategies finds that most of them either haven’t been systematically evaluated or simply don’t work. While the focus on perpetrators is long overdue, we can’t rely on it as our only strategy for preventing violence.

Moreover, even if perpetrator-focused prevention strategies did work, they would take time to be effective. Many of these strategies rely on major changes in social and interactional norms, and this kind of change is a slow (and usually incomplete) process. If those are our only strategies, what are we asking women to do in the meantime? Suffer through sexual assault while we wait for the knights in shining armor to save them? On my college campus of 25,000, even if we were to implement a prevention program that would be completely effective at the end of one year, 625 women would be sexually assaulted in the meantime. Is that really acceptable?

Women have been told for years that they are weak, that they are vulnerable, and that they need to look to someone else (fathers, boyfriends, husbands, the police, the state) to protect them from violence. When we say that perpetrator-focused strategies are the only legitimate approach, we inadvertently reinforce these stereotypes. What if instead we acknowledge that women are strong and smart enough to protect themselves, rather than waiting for someone else to rescue them?

In the 1970s, women who were tired of waiting for the social system to change took matters into their own hands, developed feminist programs of self-defense, and taught them to thousands of other women. These same programs have recently been shown to be highly effective in preventing sexual assault. Self-defense training is effective, it is immediate, and it is empowering to women.

These programs have been widely misunderstood. Empowering self-defense classes do not simply repeat the tired old advice (don’t walk alone, don’t drink too much, carry your keys in your hand) that reinforces women’s fear and vulnerability and constrains women’s lives. Rather, they help women develop the awareness and verbal skills to stop assaults before they begin – and if that fails, to powerfully resist. They give women more choices, not fewer. Yes, ending sexual assault is not women’s responsibility. But advocating self-defense training is not victim-blaming; it is a realistic strategy for a world in which sexual violence is very much still with us, and will be for the foreseeable future.

I have a young daughter who will soon be growing into adolescence. I am not willing to wait for the day that perpetrators to stop attacking, or that bystanders intervene. I will work tirelessly toward those goals, but in the meantime, I will teach her the skills she needs to protect herself, so that she can act on her own behalf, rather than waiting for some savior-prince who may or may not arrive – and if he does, may or may not be willing or able to save her. I will hope for that ideal world, but in the meantime, I will teach her to save herself, and her sisters. That, to me, is real feminism.

Today’s guest post from Christine Gallagher Kearney was originally published here. Christine Gallagher Kearney is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project, member of the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago Board of Ambassador Council, co-founder of ChiFems Action Network and past president of DePaul University’s Women’s Network. She has published in places like ForbesWomanWomen’s eNews and Girl w/Pen! (now a part of The Society Pages).

Sheryl Sandberg and her Lean In organization are still trending, and while I’m not excited about everything she and her organization are doing for women — see bell hooks’ critique — the new Lean In Collection with Getty Images, “a library of images devoted to the powerful depiction of women, girls and the people who support them,” is heartening, especially in the face of recent female disembodiment in the news media.

TIME didn’t start the disembodiment, but they did name it. In a rundown of recent visual advertisements depicting “headless women,” writer Laura Stampler describes and calls the occurrence of headless women a “trend,” reducing women’s bodies to objects for consumption.

To be sure, “headless women” in advertising is not new. Take for example a 1990s ad for BodySlimmers that depicts a woman standing provocatively in what looks like a black swimming suit. Her head is not visible in the image. Or think back to an advertisement by Axe for shower gel that depicts a woman’s body covered in mud, with “wash me” written with a finger across her stomach, her head is not visible in the image.

However, announcing a “headless woman” trend in 2014 is as absurd as it is dangerous. Picture all the female contestants on “The Bachelor” without heads. Imagine female models on catwalks without heads. Now picture your female coworker without a head, or prominent female leaders — Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton or Janet Yellen — without heads.

By cutting out the head you are immediately saying her personality and brains aren’t important in the slightest. We are just interested in her body. It doesn’t matter who she is,” said Lauren Rosewarne a professor at The University of Melbourne who writes, researches and comments on sexuality, gender, feminism, the media, pop culture, public policy and politics.

In effect, choosing to describe this disconcerting development as a “trend” belies the seriousness of the injustices being perpetrated and further demeans the individuals or groups who are being treated with contempt. Women are reduced to objects for consumption, to be used and thrown away.

So instead of elevating women with “over 2,500 images of female leadership in contemporary work and life,” TIME missed the opportunity to critically confront the issue of “headless women.” They could have named the growing and disturbing pattern of “headless women” in advertising an epidemic. Perhaps they were not satisfactorily disturbed.

I am, because too often advertising and pop culture bleed into real life. Symbolically, beheading a female leader takes her away from her embodied power with finality – Marie Antoinette anyone?

You need only watch Miss Representation, a documentary film that “challenges the media’s limited and often disparaging portrayals of women and girls, which make it difficult for women to achieve leadership positions and for the average woman to feel powerful herself,” to understand the gravity of the impact of objectification.

Statistics from the film are vast and telling: “In Nancy Pelosi’s four years as Speaker of the House, she has been on the cover of zero national weekly magazines; 53 percent of 13-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies.  That number increases to 78 percent by age 17; and women hold only five percent of clout positions in telecommunications, entertainment, publishing, and advertising.”

Just last year, the Women’s Media Center in their Status of Women in the U.S. Media report reiterated that, “Story framing and descriptions of women still too often fall into lazy stereotypes, from coverage of the Olympics to the resignation of the director of the CIA over the revelation of an extramarital relationship.”

It could be easy for some to dismiss these statistics in the face of a “headless women” “trend”, but the thing about pop culture is that it delivers a “trend” as something we want to follow or at the very least, gaze at from a distance.

Stampler, to her credit, does note in her article, “Although there is an element of artistic digital dexterity in these images, it is hard to ignore their basic element of objectification. While some [advertisers] could be making a cultural statement, others (with names like “Headless Hot girl twenty-whatever does X sexy thing”) are clearly for aesthetics.”

Advertisers make the aesthetic choice to remove women’s heads – sending the message that women’s heads are not pleasing or even wanted. Women should never be “clearly for aesthetics” from a cultural perspective.

Unfortunately, Stampler’s take on “headless women” invites a passive response to the ongoing and pervasive problem of objectifying women’s bodies in advertising and pop culture. Claiming that advertisers are making a cultural statement with “headless women” is disingenuous. At best, this is careless journalism, at worst naming “headless women” a “trend” signals complacency with a culture that supports the objectification of women.

An article that I wish would have disappeared quietly into the night instead set the stage for more female disembodiment, this time the perpetrators were the news outlets themselves.

Headless women leapt from the advertising pages to the front cover of TIME, where Hillary Clinton appeared disembodied on their cover—a single high heeled foot and suit pant-covered-leg are visible. Had the copy not contained Clinton’s name, you would never have known who it was supposed to be.

Since the issue’s publication, there have been various forms of critique from feminist writers, but after TIME ran their cover, the New York Times Magazine turned Clinton’s head into a planet, floating in outer space on the front cover of their Sunday weekly.

I understand that not all trends are positive for women, but many objectifying trends become popular and without critique, like in TIME’s case, they perpetuate female disembodiment. I don’t want to live in a world where “headless women” is a trend, let alone a popular one. What should be trending is how incredible women are succeeding every day and making great strides against tremendous odds.

Depictions of women that are real and complete are needed fully embodied, especially as we move into the next election cycle in which a major contender for the presidency of the United States may be a woman; we watch women win medals at the Olympics; and experience the work of everyday women doing extraordinary things—think Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, who was incidentally shot in the head for her activism.

In 2014, I hope that we change our consumption habits to fully embody women. Together, and Getty Images are taking a positive, fully embodied, first step.

This guest post by Sarah Milstein was originally posted on The Huffington Post and is reposted with the author’s permission.

Last month, the hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen erupted on Twitter. Started by Mikki Kendall, it immediately became a channel for women of color to call out how implicit racial bias, double standards for women of different races and overt racism are all baked into mainstream white feminism. If you’ve been following feminism for the past 150 years, you probably weren’t surprised by the range of grievances. But if you’re a white feminist and you were surprised or you felt defensive or you think you’re not part of the problem, then now is the time to woman up, rethink your own role and help reshape feminism.

While there are many reasons white feminists have to do this work, Kendall’s hashtag highlighted an important one: we cannot credibly or successfully seek societal change when we ourselves create the same injustices we rail against. In other words, the problems we face as women are often the problems we create as white people.

Since #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen trended, I have seen excellent pieces by women of color, many suggesting steps white women can take to be better allies. Their insights are leading us toward a more conscious feminism. White women, however, need to take responsibility for educating ourselves, too. So, here are five steps white feminists — myself included — can take to check ourselves, connect more genuinely with women of color and improve feminist outcomes for people of all races. As a test of the need for these actions, consider whether you’d want the men in your life to try each step in confronting their own sexism.

1. Recognize that even when your good intentions are truly good, that’s totally meaningless. This idea is hard to accept, because our culture suggests that we should feel like heroes just for wanting not to be racist. (Plus, it’s maddening to be misunderstood.) I have gotten hung up on those two horns frequently. But what matters is your impact, not your intentions, and you don’t get credit for thinking good thoughts.

Try this on for size: when you accidentally step on somebody else’s foot, you do not make your good intentions the focus of the episode. Instead, you check to make sure the other person is OK, you apologize, and you watch where you’re going. You don’t get annoyed with the person you stepped on because you caused her pain or declare that she is too sensitive or defend yourself by explaining that you meant to step to the left of her foot. When you crush another person’s toes, as Franchesca Ramsey has pointed out, everyone recognizes that your impact, not your intention, is what’s important.

Why isn’t that the standard for saying something when you didn’t intend to cause harm? For white women interacting with women of color, we may reflexively, unwittingly assume our experience — and therefore our intentions — are (or should be) primary. I’d argue that’s rooted in our internalizing cultural messages. But whatever the root, we have to get wise if we expect women of color to take us seriously.

So, when somebody points out that you’ve said or done something racist, perhaps something that hurt them personally, the game-changing response is first to understand that your intentions are not the centerpiece of the interaction. In other words: it’s not about you, which can be a genuinely hard to see. Once you let your intentions fall away, you can focus on what the other person is saying (recommended: assume she has a very valid point and try to understand where you went wrong). It changes no games to insist that you meant to be perfectly graceful.

2. If you feel defensive when talking about race with a woman of color or reading about race in a piece written by a woman of color, assume the other person is saying something especially true. That is: use your defensiveness as a Bat Signal, alerting you to your own biases. Sure, yes, of course, the other person may have said something insensitive or unreasonable. But if you want to change the dynamics of the world (reminder: you’re a feminist, so you do), assume your discomfort is telling you something about you, not about the other person. Then use those moments to listen more carefully.

Here’s a personal example. Writing on The Toast in JulyJessie-Lane Metz, a Black woman, called out supposed white allies for a number of harmful behaviors, including writing about episodes in which a white author describes racism they have perpetrated or witnessed:

My first critique is that this [writing] re-centres whiteness. When a person of colour speaks to their own experiences of racism, they are speaking to a collective pain, and speaking truth to power. When a person with white skin privilege gives an anecdote about racism, whether their own or someone else’s, they are exposing more racialized people to this discrimination, and reasserting their own privilege. The narrative is no longer about Black victims of racist crimes and a deeply flawed justice system, it is about white feelings about Black bodies and their experiences. This is not helpful to intersectional practice, as it implies that only by making an oppression about the oppressor can power-holders work towards becoming allies. Secondly, it disregards the feelings of Black people by exposing them to further racism in an effort to work on white privilege. I do not consent to being confronted with racism in the hopes that white folks can maybe start to exorcise their own internalized issues. Allies need to do this work on their own.

The first time I read Metz’s piece, I shifted in my chair a few times, recognizing things I’d done (writing about my own racism — which I won’t link to here, out of respect for Metz’s point) and trying to justify those actions (I think I’ve helped other white people become more aware of their privilege, which is good, right?). I felt distinctly defensive. Which made me want to dismiss what she was saying. Which made me realize I should leave the tab open and re-read the post when I could do so with a focus on her experience of white allies, not mine. (Obviously, I’m made my story of reading Metz central here; I realize there’s some irony and risk in that.)

I will admit that like many would-be allies, I’d like to be recognized for my open-mindedness — however minimal it may be (in this case, I left a tab open, hello) — when I feel put off. But getting rewarded is seriously, seriously not the goal, and you have to play through that desire for a cookie. Identifying a moment when you’re shutting down, and you instead shift to listening harder, with deeper empathy, and likely with quiet self-reflection — that’s the goal.

3. Look for ways that you are racist, rather than ways to prove you’re not. There are two key ideas here. First, you can’t change behaviors you’re not aware of, and if you’re constantly trying to assure yourself you’re not racist, you’re going to miss the ways you are. Second, once you’ve accepted that you are, in fact, racist some of the time, it’s a lot easier to drop the barrier of good intentions, let go of the defensiveness and take responsibility for your actions.

For most of us, identifying our own racism dredges up shame, which is a seriously unpleasant feeling and something we want to avoid. Plus which, assuming you’re not cavorting around your neighborhood in a white hood and sheet, it may not be that obvious to you that you are racist. But the thing is: you can’t avoid it. Everyone is born with the potential for racial bias and most children acquire it very early in life, so even if you do not identify as a racist, racism is baked into you. And then it’s reinforced by our culture. No point in feeling guilty because you’re a human and the product of a racist society. But, by all means, feel bad about yourself if you choose not to identify and work against your racial bias.

As I said earlier, you’re going to have a hard time challenging your own bias if you’re not even aware of it. So, seek out ideas and people that help you see yourself more clearly. If you need a place to start, diversify your media — consume articles, books, podcasts, radio, video and TV shows made by people of color — and when white folks are portrayed critically, find ways to identify with them rather than assume that you’re different than they are. The point here isn’t to take kick off a miasma of self-flagellation, but rather to gain perspective on yourself.

For example, I was recently reading, Our Black Year: One Family’s Quest to Buy Black in America’s Racially Divided Economy. In it, Maggie Anderson, a Black corporate strategy consultant, talks about the experience she and her husband, a Black financial adviser, often have at dinner parties and office gatherings, as white people approach them:

People flock to us, asking about our backgrounds, where we live, even why my hair is “different” from most African-American women’s hair. (White folks never say “not kinky” or “more Black.” They say, “Wow, your hair is so thin!”)At some point, they tell us every detail about the lovely Black couple who attends their church or lives in their neighborhood. They want to introduce us. The logic goes something like this: They’re nice Black people. The Andersons are nice Black people. Nice people will like each other. And if both husbands play basketball, as I’m sure they must, we’re working up the Black friendship of a lifetime.

As I read, my first impulse was to think, “I’ve never mentioned (or touched) a Black person’s hair! Thank god I’m not one of those white people!” But when I let myself dwell for a minute in the scene Anderson describes, it’s clear I’ve done several of the things she rightly calls “clueless.” Centering my own behavior again: I’ve been awkwardly too friendly when introduced to Black folks at parties (see above on good intentions). When I meet people, I almost always ask where they live, without considering that my questions might come off as an investigation rather than as a way to connect (Ibid). I have definitely considered introducing Black folks in the tech sector just because they’re both Black (this, despite the fact that I really hate being introduced to women in business when the only things we obviously have in common are that we’re both women, and we both work).

These actions aren’t horribly destructive and virulently racist. But don’t be fooled by subtlety: small acts of bias make it harder to build genuine relationships. And maintaining personal distance helps white feminists stay disconnected from the concerns of people of color. So, accept that you’ll likely feel uncomfortable and embarrassed, but consider that you are like the other white folks that people of color describe.

4. Listen to people of color, even if you don’t know many. A common suggestion for white people who want to get a clue is to simply listen. Which is a critical step, and it’s especially important in your direct interactions with people of color. But what if none of your best friends are Black and you don’t work with many people of color either? As I mentioned earlier, you can make sure you’re taking in media created by people of color. You can also do a ton of thoughtful listening on Twitter — a medium that gives you legitimate access to the thoughts and conversations of people you may not know.

I’ve written before about how you can — and should — follow people of color in a respectful way on Twitter. You can also seek out some of the stellar women mentioned in the recent campaign kicked off by Feminista Jones that identified #SmartBlackWomenOfTwitter, #SmartLatinaWomenofTwitter, #SmartAAPIWomenOfTwitter, etc. If you’re already overloaded on Twitter, try a swap: for every new woman of color you follow, unfollow a white guy. You might be surprised by the effect such a simple step can have on your perspective.

5. Use your feminist powers to identify instances when people of color are under-represented or misrepresented, and speak out about it. You’re already in the habit of noticing when lists and groups include few or no women. Tweak your internal algorithm to notice when people of color are missing, too. Then say something.

Women of color don’t need us to speak for them, and there are times when standing quietly in solidarity is important. But very often, speaking up is important — not only because it may influence others, but also because it will likely influence you. As a recent Guardian piece noted: “when you’re confronted by prejudice and you don’t object to it, your own attitudes shift in a more prejudiced direction, to maintain consistency between your behaviour and your beliefs.”

Of course, there is a chance that raising an issue as a white person may help other white people see it more clearly or see it in the first place. (Indeed, if you’ve read this far, ask yourself: “Would I have stayed with the piece if it had been written by a woman of color — or might I have dismissed it early on as ‘too angry’?”) And you may wonder if inserting yourself is really progress. Instead, wonder this: If white feminists don’t strive to see what women of color see and don’t consider those perspectives as central as our own, are we truly interested in challenging injustice at all?

UCLA  Center for the Study of Women Presents

Thinking Gender

24th Annual Graduate Student Research Conference

Call for Papers

Thinking Gender is a public conference highlighting graduate student research on women, gender and/or sexuality across all disciplines and historical periods, including future ones. We invite submissions for individual papers or pre-constituted panels on any topic pertaining to women, gender, and/or sexuality.

This year, we especially welcome feminist research on: privacy, diversity, and/or demographics in the age of big data; appetites (pleasure, food, electronics); gender, sexuality, and the new brain sciences (cognitive sciences, psychobiology); the perils of “post-feminism” (feminism backlash, hypo/hypersexualities, rede­fining feminist activism); gender, sex, and criminality; pleasure and ethics (media and advertising, sexuality); gendered spaces (spatial theories, urban planning, domesticity) ; and self-staging in public discourse (reality TV, user forums, “selfi­es”/self-narration and “autographies”).

CSW accepts submissions for both individual papers and pre-constituted panels from all active graduate students. In order to give everyone an opportunity to present, we do not accept submissions from people who presented at Thinking Gender in the previous year. Also no previously published material is eligible.

Students proposing individual papers are to submit a cover page (provided on our website), an abstract (250 words), a CV (2 pages maximum), and a brief bibliography (3-5 sources), for consideration. All components are to be delivered in one document and labeled according to the submission guidelines found on the CSW website. For panels, a 250-word description of the panel topic is required, in addition to the materials that must be provided for individual paper submissions.

Please visit our website for submission guidelines:

Send submissions to:

Deadline for Submissions: Monday, Oct 14, 2013 by 12 noon

Conference is to be held on Friday, February 7, 2014, at the UCLA Faculty Center.

Event is free and open to the public, but please be aware that there will be a $35 registration fee for presenters, which will cover the cost of conference materials and lunch at the Faculty Center.

By Roxana Cazan*

When the Russian court rejected Pussy Riot member, Maria Alyokhina’s request for a deferral in her prison term so that she can raise her son, I was shocked. Alyokhina pleaded that her son is too young for her to be removed from his side at this point, and that a sentence of years in prison would destroy the mother/son bond. She asked the court to defer her term until her son turns 14. The Pussy Riot punk team was arrested as a result of disseminating anti-establishment and feminist slogans and performing their politics in a Moscow cathedral. What drew my attention was the way in which the state handled Aliokhina’s request to mother, especially in a country where motherhood was upheld as one of women’s most important duties via Soviet propaganda.

This ideological and geographical site extends to Russia’s neighboring country, Romania, where the Communist regime that ended its totalitarian rule in 1989, imposed an intensive politics of reproduction to the detriment of women. Particularly during the last decade of Communism in Romania, the pro-natalist political program prohibited birth control, required women to procreate within patriarchal family structures, and employed women to labor outside the home, as Gail Kligman deftly argues in her 1998 book The Politics of Duplicity: Controlling Reproduction in Ceausescu’s Romania.

The Pussy Riot court case received great attention in the US as did the Romanian rejection of Ceausescu’s pro-reproductive ideology right after 1989. In a way, this attention projected the two moments as standing in stark opposition. If Russia has recently imposed stricter restrictions on abortions after years of flexible legislation, thus insisting on women mothering, the Romanian post-Communist state liberalized abortion in order to allow women to choose motherhood in ways that would satisfy to their own social, cultural, and political lives.

What interests me is how this range of reactions informs the ways in which the state engages with questions of motherhood, womanhood, and duty. I am a Romanian-American woman, strongly motivated politically, single, and childless. I arrived in the US in 2004 in order to attend graduate school, a choice that delayed what I thought were my life plans of forming a family and mothering. But mothering (and the absence of it) has become more and more a kind of politics for me.

A history of representations of East European women, Romanian in particular, does not elude me. Some representations of Romanian women in the US/western mass culture focus on their supposed provocative and dangerous hyper-sexuality. In his 2006 novel, The Romanian: Story of an Obsession, Bruce Benderson refers to Romanian women as “hot and easy to tumble,” having a “savvy knowledge of their sexual power” (Chapter XXI). Similiarly, other representations emphasize these women’s inexorable submission to patriarchy. Tony Gatlif’s 1997 film The Crazy Stranger shows glimpses of them as voiceless targets of both state (read Communist) and family patriarchy. Finally, other portrayals such as the ABC broadcasts from Romania aired on January 3, 1990, show these individuals as victims of the most authoritarian regime in Eastern Europe (Andaluna Borcila points this out in “Accessing the Trauma of Communism: Romanian Women on US Television News?” published in a special issue of the European Journal of Cultural Studies focused on Media, Globalization and Post- Socialist Identities, 21.2 (2009): 191-204.

In this context, I am mostly intrigued by the question of how does the US state perceive and re-fashion me as a woman from Romania, capable of birthing and mothering? What kind of a politics of motherhood is at work here today? How is this politics raced, gendered, or sexualized? How does ethnic descent show up in practices of motherhood or in perceptions of motherhood?

In answering some of these questions, I would be able to understand how much of an access I have to reclaiming power over my body as allegedly permitted by a liberal state like the US. In a larger sense, these questions may allow feminist research on white motherhood specifically to challenge fixed conceptions of whiteness that feed from political, historical, and cultural contexts abroad.

*Born in Communist Romania, Roxana Cazan is a US citizen, a poet, and a teacher. Her work appeared in Harpur Palate, Sweaterbrain, Sojourn Journal, Stationaery Magazine, The Innisfree Poetry Journal, Warpland Journal, Muse India, The Madison Review, and The Women’s Studies Quarterly.


By Dairanys Grullon-Virgil*

While reading Paulo Coelho’s novel Aleph over the semester break, a passage jumped out to me.  Coelho, the main character, sees Hilda, his love interest, naked and notices her shaved genitals: “When I met her in her past life, when I first saw her naked she had pubic hair. Today the woman in front of me has shaved all of it, something that I think is abominable, like if all man are looking for a infant to have sex with. I ask her to never do that again.”

What? He is actually fine with her having pubic hair and begging her not to shave it all ever again?! That is certainly not the message I’ve gotten as a young woman. Then thinking about it he makes a very important point. Pubic hair on a woman or a man is the symbol of becoming, growing, age. However, thanks to the media and social norms, we often feel repulsed or embarrassed by having pubic hair. Especially for women, we are constantly targeted with messages on how our vagina should look when we wearing a bikini or before having sex. I am not saying that all women feel this way, but many of us have felt that that way including myself.

For instance, there’s that moment in the Sex and the City movie when Samantha expresses shock and disgust over Miranda’s visible bush. Miranda, currently separated from her cheating husband, feels like Samantha is blaming her for letting the sex die out in her marriage, simply because she skipped a couple of waxing appointments.

Going deeper into the removal of pubic hair I encountered an article in the Hufftington Post in the women section about the “war on pubic hair” and negative side of removing it by Emily Gibson a family physician. According to Gibson in this HuffPo article, the hair removal market was estimated to be worth $2.1 billion in the United States in 2011 and teenagers are becoming a main market for the waxing industry.

The fact of the existence of market that is constantly increasing in respect to profit and customers make me realize how businesses keep penetrating people and comodifying their existence. Something as simple as pubic hair is being commodified in many parts of the world as profit maker. My question then is, is that fair to ourselves? Is not our body valuable enough and sacred that we are allowing outsiders to keep extracting from it?

Prior to reading the above passage in Aleph, I was one of the women who believed in the necessity of shaving my pubic hair in order to have a more satisfying sexual experience. However, I’m now realizing that my pubic hair symbolizes that I’m becoming an adult, a woman, that I am not a child anymore, and therefore there is no reason for me to be ashamed of that fact that I’m changing.  I am becoming a woman and this is how my body is maturing and protecting one of the most powerful areas of a woman’s body.

I believe that my body is such a wonderful and sacred place that I need to be more respectful of the job it does in communicating to me that fact that I have become an adult and that protection that it brings to my sexuality. I am not a girl. I am a woman. And I want my body to express this womanhood when I am sexual, not be bare and shaven like a little girl.

*Dairanys will graduate from the City College of New York with a degree in International Studies this June.  Originally from the Dominican Republic, Dairanys came to the United States when she was 13 years old.  She has worked with AmeriCorps, the AMESIP School of Street Children in Morocco, and attended the United Nations World Development Conference in Brazil. She is currently enjoying life outside of school and focusing on learning self-love.


This fall I had the great privilege of designing and teaching the first Sociology of Gender class to be offered at the City College of New York.  My goal of the class was for the students to leave able to apply a nuanced gender lens to whatever social problem tickled their fancy. One night reading their weekly reflexive journals, I witnessed that “click” moment when the students start to engage with the class material in very exciting ways.  More importantly, I realized I had stumbled upon the next generation of gender justice thinkers.  They were asking questions and making connections that I knew the movement needed to hear.  How could I NOT invite them to blog here at Girl w/ Pen, a space that has long supported the next generation of feminists?  So without further ado, here are some of my star students, chatting about a few of the key debates we had in class this semester. Enjoy!

Throughout the semester, we debated whether the goal of a movement for greater gender justice should be the expansion of gender or the explosion of gender.  In other words, is your utopian vision a world with a multiplicity of genders or a genderless world?  Where did you end up in this debate?

Alex Constantin: Although I understand some (utopian) reason behind the call for exploding gender to reach a genderless, liberated world, my personal sense of justice lends towards the expansion of gender. There are still far too many oppressive gender rules for me not advocate for expanding gender. We have an entire outdated archive on the male and female dichotomy that calls for an urgent expansion above and beyond the binary.

Gloria Robles: I personally believe that the goal of a movement for greater gender justice should be on the expansion of gender – not the explosion, or elimination. To draw a comparison of gender to race, it’s important to recognize that there are differences and to not promote “color-blindness.” We are all unique and have many nuances to who we are and that should not be disregarded but celebrated.

Sandra Prieto: I can’t really relate to a genderless world. A genderless world would only allow some other category to restructure how we relate to each other, like sports team affiliations or preferred ice cream flavor. Maybe I’ve read too many Orwell novels, but the only genderless world I can imagine is where we all have to mask our faces and bodies. Sure, it might create greater equal opportunities, but might it also strip away one way we express ourselves? That is why I find the expansion of gender more appealing. With the introduction of more genders, we would no longer be able to assign masculinity to just males and femininity to just females. Instead of expecting everyone to fit into one of two ideal categories, we would be creating more flexible gender norms.

Shari Mohammed: For me, this is a both/and question. To successfully move towards greater justice, we need to expand gender, which will eventually entail the explosion of gender. Not that this will result in a genderless world, just an exploded understanding of what is gender. We need to recreate how we think of, react to, and how we express gender. My utopian world would be everyone expressing their gender however they wish without fear of social sanctions.  The first step, in my opinion, is eradicating the sexism inherent in our current binary system and then working toward an expanded sense of acceptance.

Dairanys Grullon-Virgil: We need an explosion of gender. Today people more than ever are becoming more comfortable and proud of who they are. The problem is that we still judge individuals based on socially constructed ideologies of gender. I think that the conversation about having greater gender justice should revolve around acknowledging the multiplicity of gender identities, instead of imposing gender identities to individuals.

Erin Crowder: It is difficult for me to pick a side in this debate.  Expanding what is considered normal sounds utopian at first, but then I think about how much I despise the word “normal.”  It is quite clear that norms are always regulating and oppressive, so why simply create more?  On the other hand, however, I feel a genderless world is problematic too.  I believe there is an internal force creating gender that creates our identity.  Personally, my gender is central to my identity, although, I do not know if this is a good thing.  What I do know is that in a genderless world I would lose this part of my identity.  Lacking this identity could be detrimental, but it could also be a source of liberation.   I find myself somersaulting between the two sides in this debate.

Kenya Bushell: I feel that we should live in a genderless world. The world shouldn’t have expectations of anyone for any reason, especially regarding genetics. It shouldn’t matter that a person was born a male or a female. They had no control of this outcome and therefore should not be controlled by it. As we continue to conflate gender and sex, a genderless world is the only way I see out of this conundrum.

One of your first assignments was to go out in public and do your gender differently in a way that challenged current gender norms.  What gender norm did you choose to break and what was the experience like for you?

Alex: This assignment was a green card to pursue some good-willed anarchy against oppressive gender roles and rules. I initially worried that I did not have the guts to see this assignment through. However, living daily amongst Neanderthals (my family) and reading feminist poetry to cope with this gave me starting ground. Every year my uncle throws a dinner party with about 30 to 40 people. Patriarchal stereotypes are served with every dish. Provoked by sexist attitudes early in the evening and inspired by Pat Parker’s poem “My Lady Ain’t No Lady,” the dinner table became my gender rule-breaking stage.  I did some of those “unlady” deeds Pat Parker describes: I ate with my hands (but, that felt rather delicate); I burped; I took up more space by spreading my elbows wide; and I gradually started to raise my voice whenever I spoke. I was mirroring the men’s behavior at the table, who soon started to mock me or attempt to find excuses for my disturbingly unladylike behavior. I explained my behavior was not due to some sleep deprivation but to the constant righteousness deprivation women in general (but, especially in this family) experience. It felt liberating to do and say all of that and to reject the patriarchal entree and dessert from the menu.

Gloria: As someone who truly enjoys acting and looking feminine, the hardest way for me to break gender norms was to not play that stereotypical female role. I forwent my usual morning ritual of spending hours on hair, makeup, and clothes. Stripped from the comfort of being dolled up, it was eye opening to see that I didn’t feel like myself without the add-ons I was so accustomed to putting on because I was raised that that’s what makes a girl. Purely as myself in the most natural way, I felt like a boy and was embarrassed to go out in public. Immediately I noticed people weren’t as receptive to me, less polite, didn’t go out of their way to open doors, etc. In today’s society, a woman’s worth is almost directly correlated to beauty.

Sandra: I decided to break the gender norm dictating expected Halloween wear for women, because I was upset female superheroes aren’t addressed as superheroines… the word doesn’t even exist in the dictionary. So, when my boyfriend asked me to be a superhero for Halloween, I thought of a devious way to give him exactly what he asked for. By the end of the day, I found myself wearing a Batman-muscle suit. At first it was all fun and games. My boyfriend and I caused heads to turn as we walked down the street. Some people smiled, some people averted their eyes, and some just looked distraught. Maybe it was the fact that I looked like a boy or maybe it was the fact that I was wearing a Batman suit weeks before Halloween. Who knows? I only remember how vulnerable I felt the second I said goodbye to my accomplice and found myself taking the train home alone. I probably would’ve continued feeling the sense of empowerment I felt leaving the costume shop if I did not need to remove my itchy mask. Only then did I become aware of the connection between my false sense of confidence and hiding my true identity behind a mask. I remember how people darted their eyes back and forth trying to figure out my story. I was extremely self-conscious and paranoid, believing that they were all secretly judging me. And that’s when I realized how difficult it must be for gender outlaws to travel through public space alone. By the time I reached my house, I understood how courageous those individuals are.

Shari: The gender norm I decided to break was how women conduct themselves in public. I dressed up as a man and lowered my voice for the entire ride on the J train to the basketball courts of Highland Park in Brooklyn from the city. My behavior, including my body language sitting and standing, was manly. The reactions I received were surprising. I mean I thought that it was 2012, and that people especially in NYC would not have reacted the way they did! I was met first with isolation: basically people just ignoring me. Then I was met with disapproval by both the younger generation making sly remarks to their friends, or the blatant stares and mumbled curses from the elder generation. One guy literally sat down next to me and tried to convince me that I shouldn’t be a lesbian because I was too young and that I had apparently never had a real man before.  He assumed by my appearance that I was gay, which annoyed me. But when he tried to convince me that how I was supposedly was living my life was wrong, and how he could (sexually) show me better, I was downright disgusted. As soon as he left, a proselytizer joined the train car. When this man saw me he decided to have a field trip. He started preaching about how wrong it was that men sleep with men and women with women. He kept on glancing at me, loudly proclaiming that if gay people changed their ways, God would forgive them; otherwise, they would burn in hell for eternity. When my stop finally came, he shouted at me that I was influenced by Satan. That is when the doors closed shut. Standing on the train station platform, I decide to not feel angry at him but sorry for him and everyone who is likewise close-minded.

Dairanys: I decided to hang out with the boy’s crew during a night out with my friends.  When we got to the bar, I followed the guys to order drinks while the other girls grabbed a table. They ask for a round of tequila shots for all the guys, but the only woman in this case (ME) was not offered one. So I asked for one myself. When the bill came my friend paid for it without asking even though I told him I could pay for it. I then ordered a martini, to which my friend commented how I was “such a girl.” But he didn’t say anything when I had my tequila shot.  With this assignment I realized that gender norms are not only the obvious ones that we see in daily bases, but also the more subtle ones like my friend’s reaction to the type of drinks that I ordered.

Erin: I identified a gender norm that masculinity often allows a man to scratch his genital area in public, but it is quite “unladylike” and unacceptable for a woman to do so.  In three public spaces – the subway, a coffee shop, and a busy street – I scratched my genital area.  I felt defiant but also self-conscious, a little shame (like I was doing something wrong), and even dirty. I was actually surprised at the extent of these emotions.  They revealed to me just how internalized certain gender norms have become to me.  In each location there were obvious reactions from people; however, reactions on the subway were the fiercest.  One woman stared at me with a disapproving, disgusted look.  Then men tended to look more surprised and quickly turned to face another direction. In particular, I chose to scratch my genital area when a man was blatantly staring at me – checking me out, if you will.  He went from confidently staring at me to being startled and walking swiftly away.  Another man went so far as to say, “Awwww dude!” before walking away.  He was openly distressed, which then overwhelmed me with embarrassment.  Ironically, I switched to the 2 train at the next stop only to sit directly across from a man incessantly grabbing his genital area.

Kenya: On a daily basis I break the norm of lifting and carrying heavy materials. At work I help unload shipment, a task I love to do yet am barely assigned. When I lift the boxes I am either told to “be careful, mami” by our store security guard or told not to do that because I’m a lady. I love pushing my muscle groups and actively using the limbs I was born with. Yet others around me try to stop me from using my body and my strength because as a woman I shouldn’t. It angers me that I’m being told not to use the body I was born with while I live my limited time on earth. Why should I not do what I am capable of, whether it’s difficult or simple, because I am a woman?

A class that was personally meaningful for me was our discussion on femininity.  We read excerpts from Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl and the anthology Femme: Feminists, Lesbians, and Bad Girls.  What do you think the role of femininity should be in the feminist movement and vise versa?  Anything else that stuck out to you from this discussion?

Alex: I particularly enjoyed this discussion, because I have always felt somewhat responsible for not fully embracing my femininity or trying to include femininity as part of my feminist work (and generally failing at being an outspoken feminist myself). Reading Serano and Harris and Crocker gives me great hope for femininity and feminism as they offer me powerful language to express the same issues of oppression and discrimination I have felt.  Maybe what we need is a constant reassurance that femininity is simply a genuine desire of being.

Gloria: According to current societal standards, femininity is not strong enough to stand on its own. In order to succeed or get ahead in the “man’s world,” you need to abandon your feminine traits and try to act more like a hegemonic man. Or you can hang onto your femininity as purely an ornamental and only be a compliment to your man.  Neither of these options are very satisfying. I think the terms feminine and masculine should be eliminated because they’ll always be tied to feminine being female, and masculine being male, so at birth you are automatically subscribed to a set of qualities whether or not you actually merit them.

Sandra: Before the readings, I used to believe the feminist movement was a hopeless cause because it failed to unify all types of women. Race, age, socio-economic status… there was always something dividing their interests. However, from the readings I gleaned that femininity may be the great unifying factor, empowering women and standing against masculinity. If women are able to demonstrate that femininity is not a subordinate trait to masculinity, then all women would finally be able to prove their worth without being weighed down by oppressive ideologies. Unifying all of the genders that identify with femininity is the kind of feminism that I would gladly advocate for because the state of my femininity gives me a more relatable cause than any of the other movements (i.e. those supporting unilateral theories or the deconstruction of gender).

Dairanys: Something that needs to be brought up more is that femininity is not weakness, and that everyone has a feminine AND masculine side. Furthermore, to have an effective gender justice movement, men and women of all backgrounds must be included.

Erin: I think it is very important to talk about femininity in a positive way, as there is so much negativity in the world surrounding femininity.  It is frustrating to me, as a person who embraces her feminine side very much.  It is also important to discuss the lack of scholarship on femininities and, furthermore, how much the scholarship that does exist on the subject is simply in juxtaposition to masculinity.  I believe strongly that it is not purely a yin and yang scenario, but femininity is a powerful entity in and of itself.  I agree with Serano that femininity does not need to be abandoned in order to be feminist.  I identify as very feminine as well as very feminist.  I think femininity must be embraced by the feminist movement in order to end perspectives of femininity meaning weak or inadequate.  I see feminine qualities as compassion, collaboration, and understanding, which are all essential to the feminist movement.

Your final assignment was come up with a definition of a gender warrior and to find someone who exemplified this definition. Who did you choose and why?

Alex: Since Pat Parker has been an inspirational and empowering lead in my life as a woman, I wanted to share with the class some of her insights and her acute sense of righteousness. My definition of a gender warrior is someone fighting to love who they want and be who they want to be. Parker is a woman who found a way to fight her own oppression by developing a narrative poetry that was frank in portraying a sharp analysis of injustices, but humorous, truthful and soulful enough to be appealing to all kinds of audiences. I chose her because I need a constant source of humor, love and a constant reminder of not silencing myself whenever I face injustices. Parker is great with that because it seems hard to read her poems in soft voice, for they are so powerful they need to reach out to all men and women engaged in human rights battles.

Gloria: I choose Zahra Kazemi as someone who exemplified my personal definition of a gender warrior because she superseded gender. She was a photojournalist who refused to hand over damning photos of a corrupt government, and was eventually taken to prison where she was tortured and died. Quotes from people who knew her or witnessed her sufferings in prison recalled her spirit never breaking. She always fought back and whether she was male of female didn’t matter – she acted bravely in the face of adversity that is admirable and humbling for any gender.

Sandra: My definition of a gender warrior is someone who does not let gender norms interfere with personal causes and values. I chose Joan of Arc as the exemplary individual for my definition. As a cross-dressing martyr, Joan did not let the gender norms dictating proper Renaissance attire for women interfere with her value of leading a celibate life. It was only after her prison guards threatened to violate her that she decided to protect herself with men’s clothing, fully aware that this act would condemn her to death. Secondly, as a woman who never diminished her femininity or womanhood, Joan proved to the Renaissance world that gender roles are flexible. She was capable of not only undertaking male roles (becoming a military strategist, troop leader, and French diplomat), but also capable of undertaking female roles (becoming an expert at sewing and spinning). Lastly, by turning the tide of the Hundred Years War, Joan broke the biggest Renaissance gender norm for women… by being outspoken. My favorite story about Joan of Arc was how she slapped a Scottish soldier who had eaten stolen red-meat. She was definitely an audacious character for her time and, therefore, a perfect fit for my definition of a gender warrior.

Shari: I chose Elizabeth Blackwell because to me she reflects all the aspects of my definition of what a gender warrior is. My definition of a gender warrior is someone who has the courage and the drive to follow their dreams of accomplishing their goal, whether it breaks social or gender norms. A person’s ability to succeed in their accomplishments is one aspect, but their influence that they had on people of their time as well as the mark they leave on society as a whole to me reflects a true gender warrior. Elizabeth Blackwell’s achievement was that she was the first woman ever in the United States of America to receive an M.D degree from an American medical school in 1849. Her second greatest achievement was that Dr. Elizabeth and colleagues founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children where it was built as a medical college for women that had provided training and experience for women doctors and provided medical care for the poor.  One might think that because in these current times there are female physicians, so what is the big deal? Well during those times it was unthinkable and discouraged as a career job unsuitable for a woman. She was denied to every single medical school in New York as well as Philadelphia. The only reason why she gained admittance to Geneva Medical College in western New York State in 1847, was because they made the whole male student population vote. And they voted her in as a joke. However, two years later she had the last laugh when she graduated and became the first woman to gain a medical degree. This woman to me is a great role model for women of all ages, because she fought for what she wanted, and she did not allow her gender to deter her from reaching what she wanted most.

Dairanys: For my gender warrior assignment I chose Eve Ensler’s book, I Am An Emotional Creature. For me a gender warrior is: A person, place, object, book or anything that embraces and acknowledge sexuality and the gender identity of a person. I am An Emotional Creature exemplifies this definition; it is a book that I would like to see read by by little girls, young women, adult women, any woman! This book made me connect to my inner girl and tell her that is completely fine to be who she was/is and that she didn’t have to restrain her feelings and actions just for the fact of being a girl.

Erin: A gender warrior to me is a force that questions the gender binary that continues to be so deep-rooted in our ‘modern’ society.  I chose the Swedish Advertising Ombudsman, Elizabeth Trotzig. I had not heard of her before this holiday season when the “gender-neutral” Top Toy’s catalogue in Sweden was released.  In the catalogue girls are pictured playing with blocks, Legos, etc. and boys are pictured playing with toy kitchens, dolls, and other toys traditionally dedicated to girls.  When I stumbled upon an article about this catalogue I was intensely pleased.  I had previously looked through an American Toys “R” Us catalogue looking at toys for my young niece and nephew.  While perusing the pages I found myself irritated seeing girls playing with vacuums that were, of course, pink, while boys were on completely separate pages playing with guns, building toys, etc.  The gendering became extremely apparent when I turned to a page that showed a blue “doctor kit” including a stethoscope, plastic needle, thermometer and bandage and the page directly across showed the exact same kit in pink labeled “nurse kit.”  Although I believe the toy and game industry needs a lot of changing, I think Trotzig and the rest of the Advertising Ombudsman organization accomplished something important with their work convincing Top Toys to change their advertising.  It is enormously important, as toy advertisements are specifically targeted at children.  Unfortunately, explicit gendering in toy advertising is an issue here in the United States that seems to only be getting worse.

Kenya: For my gender warrior I chose Lana Wackowski because she’s an everyday person that did something simply above and beyond because it was rewarding for others. Lana’s HRC Visibility speech just helped multiple people at once. She exposed herself and opened up to many when she really didn’t need to. She’s not a specialist at public speaking, nor has she trained to be an inspirational speaker. She is a woman whose difficult upbringing would inspire many growing adults, if it was shared. So she did just that. She put in the energy and time and shared her past and her thoughts with others. Since a warrior does something above and beyond to help many that they do not know, Lana is a gender warrior to me.

Stay tuned!  We’re reviving the Next Generation column and you may be hearing from these ladies again….

KYLA: We are having the wrong conversation(s). This is the conclusion I came to after attending an amazing community dialogue on Gender Identity Disorder (GID) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM).  Part of the NYC Quorum Forum, the dialogue explored how language is used in ongoing debates around GID to “distance gender expression/experiences from other experiences currently described in the DSM.”

This was far from the first time I’ve thought about the DSM within my work on transgender legal protections.  Indeed, when discussing various legal strategies for employment discrimination recourse, I often bring up the article written by Levi and Klein in Transgender Rights on using disability law to protect transgender workers.  I have also done a lot of reading on the pathologization and stigmatization caused by a diagnosis of GID and engaged in conversations on the removal of this diagnosis or its transference to a medical rather than psychiatric diagnosis.  And I’ve chewed on Andrew Sharpe’s point about how the GID excludes members of the transgender and gender non-conforming population whose identities do not fit into the narrow narrative the DSM has established as the “right” narrative for accessing treatment and care.

Despite all of this, my brain never quite connected these two conversations – the pathologization of DSM diagnoses and the connections between transgender and disability rights.  But thanks to the folks who gathered in Bluestockings for this dialogue and demanded more from our community/movement/whatever you want to call it, my brain is working in new directions now.  And these directions feel darn exciting.

As much as I appreciate the advocacy people are conducting around the upcoming revision of the DSM, I don’t believe talking about a removal of GID is the right conversation at this time.  The fact is access to health care and coverage often hinges on a diagnosis.  DSM diagnoses are also used in courts to prove the legitimacy of a transgender plaintiff who is bringing forward a discrimination claim.  Now, do I think either of these things are right?  NO!  But these are currently the structures we are operating under.

Now, let’s definitely talk about changing the way our legal system works and expanding its overly narrow definitions of who fits into protected categories and who isn’t deserving of protection.  And let’s definitely continue the fight for universal affordable quality healthcare that includes the specific healthcare needs of trans communities.  But it is my belief that we need to work towards these goals first before considering the removal of GID from the DSM.

In the meantime, we can learn a lot from the disability rights movement.  Like how a diagnosis or a disability is not necessarily the sum total of your being.  Rather, it is part of who you are – and for some, it can be an empowering part.  Let’s challenge the rampant stigmatization around psychiatric and medical diagnosis. I believe that in engaging in this work and these conversations our movement for collective liberation* will only be made stronger.

* Thanks to Dickerson for introducing me to this term!

AVORY: Thanks so much for bringing this topic up, Kyla!  As our readers are about to learn, I have a lot to say on the subject…

There are two basic strains to the diagnosis question, as I see it.  One is the narrow definition of what “transition” means.  The other is the connection you’ve identified between transgender identity and (dis)ability.

First, what is transition?

There is one fairly well recognized, if not well understood medical model that involves a cognitive distance between gender identity and “physical sex,” followed by therapy, GID diagnosis, and physical transition from one binary gender to the other through some combination of hormones and surgery.  In this process, some might argue that there is a clear end point to transition, that once a person has completed surgery/ies and is living as the “opposite” gender, he or she “has transitioned.”  Of course, there are attendant social and legal elements to this–friends and family recognizing the transition, gender marker being changed on ID documents, etc.

Of course, this isn’t exactly what everyone who is MTF or FTM and chooses to medically transition goes through.  Some do all these steps but don’t identify with their gender exactly the way their therapist wants.  Not everyone who completes these steps considers transition “complete” or wants to pass as cisgender.  Moving out from this narrow definition, there then those who choose limited or no surgical intervention, but do take hormones.  There are those who do not take hormones.  There are those who are perfectly happy with what others perceive as a “male” body while using a female name, pronouns, and identity (and vice versa).  And there are non-binary folks like me, or binary trans folks who aren’t quite comfortable with the straight-line transition narrative from one gender to the “opposite.”

The point of all this is that the GID diagnosis, and the recognized standards of care around that diagnosis, narrow the cultural and legal understanding of “transition.”  Most trans people know that there are many ways to transition, but those outside the community may continue to see transition very narrowly, and reject those who do not fit the model.  Lawmakers also tend to make law based on what medicine says about trans people, so in some cases the GID definition limits ability to legally transition.

GID also privileges certain forms of gender expression, and certain transition paths, over others.  In order to get a GID diagnosis, some trans people have to drastically alter their authentic gender presentation to “convince” a therapist or be eligible for medical intervention.  Some non-binary people, for example, would be more comfortable having chest surgery, but in order to convince a doctor that this surgery is needed, have to fit into an FTM or MTF mold.

The second issue, as Kyla points out, is the connection between transgender and (dis)ability.

What is disability?  Often, it is an inability to do things in the “normal” way.  Most people perceive things through sight and sound, so those who cannot see or hear are seen as “disabled.”  Most people move through the world by walking on their feet, so those who use prosthetic limbs or roll down the street in a chair are seen as “disabled.”  There wouldn’t be a concept of disability without a concept of ability, or the “normal” way of doing things.

This frame doesn’t only apply to things we think of as disability-related.  Some examples:

– It’s “weird” to talk with your hands instead of your mouth

– It’s “weird” to express yourself very emotionally, or to express yourself very infrequently

– It’s “weird” not to think and feel within a certain realm of acceptable thoughts and feelings

– It’s “weird” to prefer the same sex

– It’s “weird” to have multiple partners

– It’s “weird” to have a gender that doesn’t culturally “match” chromosomal or physical “sex”

Those who are perceived as “weird” often form distinct communities based on different ways of doing things.  Because of privilege, the majority doesn’t generally question its view of what’s “normal” and what’s “weird,” but those in a particular community may consider their version perfectly normal.  For example, in the Deaf community, communicating through sign language is not considered a “disability.”  Many transgender people, similarly, don’t see themselves or their friends as having a “disorder.”

These differing perceptions, unsurprisingly, tend to create rifts between communities.  The idea of “ability” or “normality” is used by the majority as a protective mechanism.  If you’re weird, I’m okay.  There’s a discomfort with different ways of doing things, because if those ways are normal, the majority has to question its own ways.  Both the disability model and the gender binary are a kind of line-drawing that makes the majority comfortable.  I am on one side of the line, you are on the other.

From the perspective of someone on the “other” side of the line, these categories may seem quite arbitrary.  For example, I recently read a post on Sociological Images about two runners who use prostheses.  There is a resistance to allowing disabled runners to compete alongside those running on their natural legs, explained by the possibility of some advantage being conferred by the prosthesis.  A prosthesis is seen as an “unnatural” advantage, but we don’t say the same about very tall basketball players or very short gymnasts.  Similarly, we have no problem with people being beautiful, happy, or comfortable in their gender without surgery or hormones, but those who need medical intervention to reach this state are seen as “wrong.”

The fact is, there’s nothing inherently wrong or unnatural about having a gender that doesn’t “correspond” in our cultural understanding to chromosome makeup or birth genitalia.  It’s difficult to be transgender because of stigma, social harm, lack of access to care, and other reasons.  Many of the justifications for putting transgender in the DSM are based on the social response to trans identities and the harm it causes to trans people, rather than on the simple state of being transgender.  It’s a disorder because society defines order.

This is not to minimize what it’s like to live in a body that feels wrong.  Even if these societal harms didn’t exist, if we were correctly gendered no matter what our bodies looked like, there would likely still be dysphoria and some people would still need surgery to feel right in their bodies.  But it is unclear why we should treat this need for surgical correction as indicating a disorder.  Is having wisdom teeth a disorder?  Are the cultural and ritual changes that take place in many other areas indicative of a disorder?  When we look at it this way, the norm of having the same sex characteristics throughout life seems rather arbitrary, kind of like talking with our mouths rather than our hands.

Like people with disabilities, transgender people are harmed by others not understanding the way we perceive the world, by lack of education, and by difficulty finding affirming community.

This brings us back to the question of the GID diagnosis, and the benefits Kyla points out–access to healthcare and the use of GID in discrimination claims.  Those benefits are real, and I agree that there are big changes we need to make before taking transgender out of the medical sphere entirely will benefit trans people.  However, I would argue that there should be a change in the DSM to less stigmatizing vocabulary.  The DSM-V criteria under consideration offer a mostly workable concept of gender dysphoria.

I’m not an expert in diagnostic criteria, and so I can’t guess what the implications of the revision being considered would be.  However, I do think it makes sense to frame gender transition as something (covered by insurance) that some need and some don’t.  A condition doesn’t have to be a stigmatized disorder to ensure access and insurance coverage.  For example, near-sightedness isn’t a stigmatized problem–you just get glasses.  Birth control for contraceptive purposes is covered as a legitimate form of preventive care.  I can even imagine framing transition as preventive care–not a sign of a disorder, but something that is necessary to prevent later health problems.

The bottom line for me is that we have to have a serious paradigm shift as a society, and I think the DSM-V provides at least one opportunity to start making that change.

KYLA: I love the idea of using conversations around DSM revisions as an opportunity for paradigm shifts!  That is such an exciting re-framing of what has typically been a very painful conversation.

I also want to use this opportunity to contextualize coverage for birth control.  Yes, it’s fantastic that about 9 in 10 employer-sponsored insurance plans now cover a full range of prescription contraceptions.  But this is only thanks to over two decades of hard core activism, a history which may be too easily forgotten.  Gloria Feldt lays out this strategy in her final chapter of The War on Choice and the National Women’s Law Center has a handy-dandy timeline of this push for coverage of contraceptives.  You can also read about the first big victory in 1998 where activists successfully used insurance coverage of Viagra to point out the absurdity of not covering birth control.  It’s important to remember this history, especially in light of the backlash to President Obama’s recent mandate for birth control coverage and this week’s no-girls-allowed Congressional hearing on birth control.

When it comes to insurance, there are many battle fronts to fight on.  Perhaps this is another opportunity to use the collective liberation strategy to push for real change that leaves no one behind.


Photo Cred: Fighting for Our Rights and Gender Equality at Winona State University


When Kyla suggested that we do a post on non-normative bodies for Love Your Body Day, I was enthusiastic.  The more I thought about it, though, the more difficulty I had defining a non-normative body.  Non-normative with reference to what norm?  This is an important question for determining body-related policy goals, because a body might appear “normal” but be strongly mismatched with a person’s identity.  If we want to encourage feminists to include non-normative bodies in body-positive messaging and policy, we need to be aware that people relate to their bodies in different ways.

The feminist goal of body positivity and acceptance is a good one, and I don’t support policies that encourage body shame and negativity.  But rather than spreading an unqualified “Love Your Body” message, it is important to pay some attention to how people define their own normal.

For example, I support health at every size (HAES) policies in public health, which avoid shaming fat bodies that don’t meet an unrealistic thin “normal.” I am opposed to policies that exclude transgender bodies that don’t meet the standard some call normative for transgender bodies–a standard that requires genital surgery and/or hormone treatment, and little ambiguity in one’s gender presentation.

On the other hand, I am aware that by most standards, my body is extremely normative.  My genderqueer identity is invisible, so most people aren’t aware that my body doesn’t “match” my gender (there’s no match for my identity, in fact).  So I am sensitive to feminist messaging that unequivocally encourages body love.  For example, in a room full of people who seem to be women, it is dangerous to spread an essentialist message focusing on feminine wisdom that comes from menstruation and the ability to make babies.  Are you sure that everyone in the room feels comfortable with “feminine?”  Are you sure that everyone in the room menstruates, or can make babies?


Yes, oh my lord, yes!  The annual Love Your Body Day is always a tricky one for me on a personal and political level.  While I think it is essential that we create more and more space for people to live in their bodies, express themselves through their bodies, and feel comfortable navigating this world in their body, I recognize that this is no easy task in our body-negative society.  Also, “loving your body” means different things to different people depending on their relationship between their body, their identity, and how society perceives them.  My concern is that often the rhetoric of “love your body” doesn’t go deep enough or reach enough people. Who is being left out of the conversation?  I think that often fat people, trans people, and people with disabilities, for example, are not included.

As a fat, tall woman, it is a daily struggle to inhabit my body.  I have worked to love my body as soon as I discovered that it was an option to do so.  My college admissions essay was about frumpy sweater day—a day I invented in high school to deal with the constant judgment I faced.  Whenever I got sick of people commenting (with words or just looks) on my body, I donned this frumpy sweater that used to my father’s.  It was my shield.  I knew I looked ridiculous; that was the point.  I was daring peope to judge me on what I was wearing rather than what I said.  If they couldn’t get past the superficial, then it said more about them than me.  It was my way of saying, “I give up. I no longer care. On to more important things.”

Even though this coping mechanism made it easier for me to navigate the tumultuous hallways of a preppy high school, it did nothing to help me find strength in my body.  In fact, it may have alienated me further.  I figured that loving your body didn’t apply to me.  If the cute girl with perfectly coiffed hair sitting next to me hated her body, how could I be expected to love mine?

Our society is so saturated with body hatred that saying “love your body” to cisgender, able-bodied, non-queer, thin (the list goes on) people is a radical act.  But surely you don’t mean that a fat woman should love her body, right?  Or that people with disabilities should find power in their differently abled bodies?  Or that transgender and genderqueer people should find pleasure in their bodies that defy assumptions?

But I think that’s exactly where we need to go to counteract pervasive body negativity.  On this Love Your Body Day, I want to explore how we create space for people with so-called non-normative bodies (for lack of a better term) to truly love their bodies and how that inclusion will alter the conversation. I’m not going to even pretend that I have the answers.  Instead, I’d like to highlight some fantastic work already being done on this front:

A community for fat dykes/lesbians, bisexual women, transgender folks, and our allies seeking to end fat oppression!

Eli Clare

White, disabled, and genderqueer, Eli Clare happily lives in the Green Mountains of Vermont where he writes and proudly claims a penchant for rabble-rousing. He has written a book of essays Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation (South End Press, 1999, 2009) and a collection of poetry The Marrows Telling: Words in Motion (Homofactus Press, 2007) and has been published in many periodicals and anthologies. Eli speaks, teaches, and facilitates all over the United States and Canada at conferences, community events, and colleges about disability, queer and trans identities, and social justice. Among other pursuits, he has walked across the United States for peace, coordinated a rape prevention program, and helped organize the first ever Queerness and Disability Conference. When he’s not writing or on the road, you can find him reading, hiking, camping, riding his recumbent trike, or otherwise having fun adventures.

Dylan Vade and Sondra Solovay. 2009. Shared Struggles in Fat and Transgender Law. In The Fat Studies Reader, ed. Sondra Solovay and Esther Rothblum.

What if our laws and courts assumed this: Every person is different. We move differently, work differently, dress differently, express gender differently? What if difference were the given? And, what if bodies were a given? We all have bodies. Our bodies come in different sizes, styles and shapes.

We need to recognize there is no bright line dividing man from woman, fat from thin. Let’s stop visualizing a continuum, with man at one end and woman at the other, or thin at one end and fat at the other. Dividing lines and continuum-style lines lead to the law of norms and make it far too easy for courts to threaten those who fall outside the norm with loss of children, employment, and opportunity — unless, or course, they support the norm, pray to the norm, and reinforce the norm.

Why I’m Fat Positive” from You’re Welcome, blog about the impact of public policy on marginalized communities

I’m fat positive because I identify as queer, a category designed to upset essentialist thinking about sexuality and gender. There are tidy lines of thought that prescribe that male = man = masculine = straight, and female = woman = feminine = straight. Fatphobia is one of many things that props all that up. By regulating what our bodies can and can’t look like (in a very gender-specific way), fatphobia perpetuates normative gender and sexuality in a way that keeps all of us trapped.

Can a Fat Woman Call Herself Disabled? Disability & Society, Volume 12 Number 1 February 1997 pp. 31-41

As an ostensibly able-bodied fat woman I discuss my experimental usage of ‘disabled’ to self-define, asserting that this is a problematic label. I criticise some of the mutual misconceptions fat and disabled people share, especially the rle of medicalisation, and I explore some similarities and differences in our respective struggles for civil rights. I suggest that identifying as disabled is political in origin, and that disability politics offer and important precedent for fat people.

The Adipositivity Project aims to promote size acceptance, not by listing the merits of big people, or detailing examples of excellence (these things are easily seen all around us), but rather, through a visual display of fat physicality. The sort that’s normally unseen.

Tasha Fierce, “Sex and the Fat Girl” column at Bitch Magazine.

Tasha Fierce is a 31-year-old sex-positive feminist of color, queer high femme, unabashed fat chick, cupcake lover and Los Angeles native. She’s written about body image, fat acceptance, queer issues, race politics and sexuality for various independent publications online and offline since 1996.

Shooting Beauty

Shooting Beauty tells the inspirational story of an aspiring fashion photographer named Courtney Bent whose career takes an unexpected turn when she discovers a hidden world of beauty at a center for people living with significant disabilities. Shot over the span of a decade, this film puts you in Courtney’s shoes as she overcomes her own unspoken prejudices and begins inventing cameras accessible to her new friends. Courtney’s efforts snowball into an award-winning photography program called “Picture This”—and become the backdrop for this eye-opening story about romance, loss and laughter that will change what you thought you knew about living with a disability—and without one.

Adios Barbie (blog)

We say “adios” to narrow beauty and identity standards. We say “hello” to frank talk about race, class, age, ability, gender, sexual orientation, size and how our multiple identities shape the way we feel in our bodies–and in the world. (Yeah, it’s a mouthful. But it’s also real.) We’re committed to creating a world where everyone is safe, powerful and at home with who they are.

Dances with Fat (blog)

Regan Chastain is 5’4, 284 pound dancer and choreographer who blogs not only about fat acceptance and fat positivity, but about using a fat body to do glorious, creative things.  She challenges the stereotype of a thin dancer and in general helps to break down barriers around a narrow concept of what a dancer looks like, encouraging readers to use their bodies and criticizing those who equate “fat” with unable to move.

Jacyln Friedman, What You Really Really Want (Seal Press 2011)

This manual to reclaiming your sexuality, using an enthusiastic consent model, includes body love exercises that don’t have any particular requirements about body type–the book is inclusive of fat women, trans women, genderqueer people, people with disabilities, etc. and acknowledges the difficulties in body-love, particularly for survivors of sexual assault.

Genderfork is a website that offers examples of different gender expression that aren’t often available elsewhere, from photos to quotes to profiles of those who identify as gender variant in some way.  Genderfork focuses on genderqueer, gender variant, gender fluid, and other non-binary genders, but also includes transgender contributors and cis people with non-normative gender expressions. 

This post is part of the 2011 Love Your Body Day blog carnival