gender: feminism/activism

Sociology PhD candidate Kjerstin Gruys recently guest posted about her effort to shun mirrors for one year in the hopes of improving her body image.  As any really interesting and challenging project should, it’s begun to get some major media coverage, including a story at Yahoo News.  When a political project starts getting mass media attention, though, it risks being contextualized and even co-opted by the status quo.  This is a case in point.

Interspersed among the article about Gruys’ project are links, an effort on the part of the website to get readers to spend more time on its pages and the pages of its advertisers.  These are probably randomly generated according to the content of the article.  So, since Gruys’ project is about her feelings about her body and avoiding mirrors for six months before and after her wedding day, the links center around beauty and weddings.  The first two links nestled in among the first few paragraphs read “Are you Satisfied with Your Face?” and “A Wedding Dress to Fit Your Body Shape.”

By publicizing her project, Kjerstin is trying to make the personal political.  But one of the only means of drawing awareness to her work includes losing control of how it’s talked about and delivered.  While she wants women to feel better about themselves, and some may be inspired by her project, in some ways this is also another instance of the mass media reminding women to think about the appearance of their face and body. The inserted links, further, can be read as upholding the very standards that Gruys is trying to combat.  And in at least some cases, they do. The “Are you Satisfied with Your Face?” link, in this vein, goes to a site sponsored by super-beauty project corporation L’Oreal.

Thanks to my student, Kirsten Easton, for sending along this link!

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

The title question haunts me.  I’m a feminist, a recovered anorexic and, yes, I’m on a diet.

Because of my experience with anorexia, I know how horrible things can get when one starts obsessing about “bad foods” and setting (and re-setting) weight-loss goals.  My eating disorder made me miserable, and I have lasting health issues that could eventually shorten or lessen the quality of my life.

That said, recovering from anorexia made me a feminist.  While battling for my sanity and health, I became increasingly pissed off at the THIN=BEAUTIFUL*GOOD environment we live in.  Our culture’s valorization of thinness caused well-meaning friends to compliment me on my rapid weight-loss, literally up until the weeks that I entered treatment. Even after entering treatment, some people didn’t think I was skinny enough to be “really” anorexic.  Worse, my awful then-boyfriend hinted that it would be great if I could recover without gaining any weight, “since you’re not, like, scary-thin.”

In the end, I got better, got angrier, and ultimately re-arranged my life so that I could stay healthy and continue fighting-the-good-fight as my career.

We feminists typically view dieting — and, particularly, the diet industry — as an expression of patriarchy that is bad for women.  As a scholar who studies the harmful effects of our culture’s beauty standards, I agree with this.  Diets (which FAIL 95% of the time) drain women’s energy, happiness, and wallets – often while risking our health.  Hence, “RIOTS, NOT DIETS!” has become a well-known rallying cheer for many feminists.

Dieting can also be understood as a type of “patriarchal bargain” (an individual woman’s decision to accept gender rules that disadvantage women-as-a-group, in exchange for whatever power she can wrest from the system).  By strategically losing weight, we accept the THIN=BEAUTIFUL*GOOD equation (which implies FAT=UGLY*BAD), and propel ourselves into positions of greater social advantage.  On an individual level, having “thin privilege” feels empowering.  (Recall, Oprah Winfrey — arguably the MOST powerful woman in the world — has described “going to the gym when I really prefer wine and chips” as her greatest accomplishment!)  Yet, these THIN powered feelings depend upon a system of inequality in which power/privilege/respect are denied to others on the basis of these standards.

Frustratingly, given the patriarchal bargain of weight-loss, being radically anti-diet as a political stance doesn’t always fit comfortably as a personal stance. Because we live in a society that punishes women for being “fat,” even the most dedicated feminists report struggles with body image.  The threat of becoming a martyr for this cause (i.e., by voluntarily giving up ”thin-privilege,” if we’ve got it) can be terrifying.   Add to this the personal fact that I’ve gained an (subjectively) uncomfortable amount of weight in the past year by neglecting to care for my body, and suddenly I’m facing a conundrum.

So what’s a good feminist to do?  Here’s how I’ve proceeded.


Step 1: Shun Mirrors for 1 Year

I was saying mean things to my reflection in the mirror and wanted to lose weight, urgently.  My body insecurities were reaching a dangerous peak, and it scared me.  Was I on the verge of a relapse? 10 years ago, I’d probably have gone on an extreme diet, but this time something blissfully self-protective kicked in.  I still did something extreme, but in a vastly more body-positive direction: I decided to shun mirrors for a year.  Yep, you read that correctly.  I’ve embarked on a quest to go without mirrors for 365 days.

Thus far it’s been enlightening (and challenging), but hasn’t completely resolved my body image issues.


Step 2: Revamp Eating and Exercise Habits to be Healthfully Moderate

So, in addition to shunning mirrors, I’ve decided to monitor my food and exercise until I’m back on track. As an advocate of the “Health at Every Size” movement (which stresses the importance of healthful behaviors but rejects the idea that there is a universal “healthy weight”), I’m going to try to judge my “success” based on my behaviors, instead of my weight.  My goal is to consciously re-engage in healthful eating habits and joyful activity, and then accept my body size and shape wherever it settles.  As much as I’m still tempted to “get skinny,” I know I can live with this, and (more importantly) I know my body can live through it.

But I still hope I lose some weight.


So, what do you think? If “fat is a feminist issue,” can a feminist diet?


Kjerstin Gruys is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Sociology Department at UCLA where she’s writing her dissertation on clothing size standards in the fashion industry. At her blog, A Year Without Mirrors, she’s chronicling her commitment to avoid her reflection for 365 days.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.

Cross-posted at Family Inequality.

I have criticized sloppy statistical work by some international feminist organizations, so I’m glad to have a chance to point out a useful new report and website.

The Progress of the World’s Women is from the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. The full-blown site has an executive summary, a long report, and a statistics index page with a download of the complete spreadsheet. I selected a few of the interesting graphics.

Skewed sex ratios (which I’ve written about here and here) are in the news, with the publication of Unnatural Selection, by Mara Hvistendahl. The report shows some of the countries with the most skewed sex ratios, reflecting the practice of parents aborting female fetuses (Vietnam and Taiwan should  be in there, too). With the exception of Korea, they’ve all gotten more skewed since the 1990s, when ultrasounds became more widely available, allowing parents to find out the sex of the fetus early in the pregnancy.

The most egregious inequality between women of the world is probably in maternal mortality. This chart shows, for example, that the chance of a woman dying during pregnancy or birth is about 100- 39-times higher in Africa than Europe. The chart also shows how many of those deaths are from unsafe abortions.

Finally, I made this one myself, showing women as a percentage of parliament in most of the world’s rich countries (the spreadsheet has the whole list). The USA, with 90 women out of 535 members of Congress, comes in at 17%.

The report focuses on law and justice issues, including rape and violence against women, as well as reparations, property rights, and judicial reform. They boil down their conclusions to: “Ten proven approaches to make justice systems work for women“:

1. Support women’s legal organizations

2. Support one-stop shops and specialized services to reduce attrition in the justice chain [that refers to rape cases, for example, not making their way from charge to conviction -pnc]

3. Implement gender-sensitive law reform

4. Use quotas to boost the number of women legislators

5. Put women on the front line of law enforcement

6. Train judges and monitor decisions

7. Increase women’s access to courts and truth commissions in conflict and post-conflict contexts.

8. Implement gender-responsive reparations programmes

9. Invest in women’s access to justice

10. Put gender equality at the heart of the Millennium Development Goals

Recently while reading the feminist magazine Bitch, I came across an interview with Leila Cohan-Miccio and Caitlin Tegart, creators of the web series Vag Magazine. The series focuses on three women who buy a fashion magazine and recreate it as a feminist magazine, a la Bitch or Bust. The young women, Bethany, Fennel, and Sylvie, are stereotypical third-wave feminists. The series pokes fun at them specifically and third-wave feminism in general, highlighting the differences between a vision of feminism as empowering women as a group (Meghan, the “normal” character used to ground the viewer, defines feminism as the idea that men and women should be equal) and the idea that empowerment means individual women are free to do “whatever they want” and “have fun”:

The series reveals some of the limitations of “catch-phrase feminism” (to use a term from Brittany Shoot’s Bitch article). These catchphrases echo throughout American culture: “You go girl!” “It’s about choice!” Vag Magazine’s theme song informs the audience, “A girl is a girl, because she is power. Power is power because it’s a girl.” Another prominent pop culture feminist, Lisa Simpson, sums up this vision of feminism: “Well, as a feminist, virtually anything a woman does is empowering” (“The Blue and the Gray,” originally aired February 13, 2011). A viewpoint like this is inclusive, but can also shut down meaningful conversation. For example, the young women have trouble getting anything done (Fennel hires an intern because “We don’t believe in hierarchies, but we also don’t have time to get our own coffee.”) In another instance, Bethany, Fennel, and Sylvie tell Meghan that the skirts she wants to write about aren’t feminist enough, but are unable to clearly articulate what a feminist skirt would be.

Third-wave feminism is sometimes viewed with disdain because it can seem empty: if any choice a woman makes can be construed as feminist, then perhaps no act can be truly called feminist. At the same time, third-wave feminists can be more inclusive than previous generations: stay-at-home moms, working mothers, sex workers, and scientists are all embraced. However, there can be less of an emphasis on organizing and fighting for equality (though recent efforts to support Planned Parenthood and organize Slut Walks shows that third-wave feminists are interested in more than mere slogans).

Various episodes also address the available media options for those looking for a feminist perspective. The main rival to Vag Magazine is Cunt, a magazine staffed by more stereotypically aggressive feminists. The series shows how often women can feel like they are stuck with only two images of feminism: New Age-y “I honor you as a woman” feminists who seem spacey and ineffectual, or the stereotype of the radical man-hater. Episode 4, “Feminist Sweepstakes,” delves into this dichotomy . The episode starts with Fennel wanting to read her poem; she is asked to wait until the designated poetry hour; these women feel so much that they must have an entire poetry hour. Later, the audience is introduced to Jaybird, the editor of Cunt. Jaybird and her followers wear leather vests and jeans, which contrasts with the dresses, pastel colors, and feathers favored by the Vag staff. Only Meghan, the audience stand-in, gets to be “normal” – that is, reasonable.  During the two magazines’ confrontation, Jaybird yells and talks about the patriarchy; Bethany and Fennel use poetry and talk about honoring Cunt’s place. Meghan is the only one who can speak clearly and without rhetoric, transcending common feminist stereotypes, doing so by being clever and critical.

But Vag Magazine is not about putting women down or just laughing at them or feminism. Indeed, there is a lot of love in this series, and a lot to celebrate. The cast is all-female, and all funny. The women are able to buy the magazine thanks to their efforts at selling crafts on Etsy.  They do publish an issue of their magazine: they are, ultimately, successful. Indeed, the women of Vag Magazine act out the inner turmoil about how to present themselves as feminists to the world. The series humorously highlights the bind modern feminists often find themselves in: how to be inclusive without embracing everything, how to be forthright and challenging of inequality but not bullying.

The rest of the series is after the jump. more...

Recently at Feministing, Maya Dusenbery wrote about an ad from Germany’s International Human Rights campaign that, as she put it, is “a lesson in how not to advocate for women’s rights.”

The translation of the text is “Oppressed women are easily overlooked. Please support us in the fight for their rights.”

As Dusenbery writes,

It seems the folks who created this ad not only have a hard time seeing agency but actually went out of their way to erase it as thoroughly as possible and then stomp on it some more. And then equated women who wear the burqa with bags of trash. Literally.

I completely agree, and would like to add some broader context.  This is not at all surprising, given the recent of attempts in the West to obscure the agency of Muslim women in juxtaposition to their white, Western saviors. One of the more blatant examples of this was the discourse of the United States government that it was going to war in Afghanistan in part to save Afghan women from the Taliban. Laura Shepherd argued in an excellent 2006 article in The International Feminist Journal of Politics (which I’vecited before) that the US discursively constructed Afghan women as the “Helpless Victim” that was submissive and lacking agency, under the oppressive control of the “Irrational Barbarian.” This discourse, was used, of course, to posit the United States (specifically, its military) as the saviors who could rectify the situation for these women. Much as the agency of the women in the German PSA was erased, this narrative denied the agency of Afghan women, who, as Shepherd writes, are afforded “only pity and a certain voyeuristic attraction” (p. 20).

Of course, this specific discourse hasn’t ended. As this TIME Magazine cover from last year shows, it continues to serve as a means of justifying the US occupation of Afghanistan.

(Cover to the August 9, 2010 edition of TIME)

This discourse assumes, obviously, that the US presence in Afghanistan is a clear benefit for women in the country, a position at least some women’s organizations in Afghanistan contest. Samhita Mukhopadhyay at Feministing had an excellent post on this issue last summer.

I should also mention France’s recently-instituted ban on the full-faced veil, which Dusenbery argues – citing Jos Truitt – is a similar erasure of agency. I agree with her, and again would add that this fits in with this general (Orientalist) discourse about Muslim women, their uncivilized oppressors, and their White saviors.

John McMahon is a Ph.D. student in Political Science at the City University of New York Graduate Center, where he also participates in the Women’s Studies Certificate Program.  He is interested in post-structuralism, issues relating to men and feminism, gendered practices in international relations, gender and political theory, and questions of American state identity.  John blogs at Facile Gestures, where this post originally appeared.

See also our post in which we criticize a set of public service ads that compared women the genital cutting to blow up sex dolls.

Christine sent us a link to some fabulous photos coming out of Toronto. In January a member of the Toronto Police force, Const. Michael Sanguinetti, suggested to students at York University that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized” (source).  In response, SlutWalk was born.  The SlutWalk, which strode just yesterday, was a march designed to draw attention to the way in which the term “slut” is used to stigmatize and invalidate women.

As Leora Tanenbaum argues in Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation, the term is used to control all women, not just women who want to have sex, because it can be applied to girls and women regardless of their sexual activity (as any virgin with a slut reputation can tell you).  Young girls grow up using, and fearing, the slut label.  And that label continues to be used against them as adults, even when it comes to sexual assault, as the police officer’s comment makes clear.

In an effort to bring attention to word and  its use as a mechanism of control girls, women and men of all sexual activity levels came together on Sunday, re-claiming and diffusing the “slut” label.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

In the six-and-a-half minute video below, Feminist Frequency‘s Anita Sarkeesian makes the controversial argument that True Grit‘s Mattie Ross is not a feminist character.  Her argument revolves around an important distinction: the difference between admiring women for doing masculinity and admiring them.

Our instinct to see Ross as a feminist character comes from her performance of masculinity: she is aggressive, tough, and vengeful.  But is the valuing of masculinity feminist?  Some say no.  Instead, such detractors might argue, a true feminist perspective involves not just valorizing women who do masculinity, but coming to value femininity.  In fact, valuing masculinity over femininity might be part of the problem.  On this blog, we call this “androcentrism.”

Here’s how Sarkeesian makes the argument:

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

As a number of readers emailed us to point out, yesterday was International Women’s Day, designed to highlight both women’s accomplishments and the persistence of gender inequality worldwide. Ben Buursma noticed an ad in an Indonesian newspaper celebrating International Women’s Day and marketing “Books to empower all women,” though it turns out what they empower women to do is “look into the minds of men” and “find, keep, and understand a man”:

Emma M. H. sent in a link to the the White House Council on Women and Girls report on the status and well-being of U.S. women on a variety of social indicators. Interestingly, while both men and women are waiting longer to get married, the gender gap in age at first marriage has remained relatively constant for decades:

Men are more likely to be either married and never-married, while women currently more likely than men to be divorced or widowed:

Over time, the percent of women who have never given birth has gone up, particularly for the 25-29 age group, though in the last decade there has been a slight downward trend for women aged 30-44:

One note about that graph: the report uses the phrase “had a child” and “childbearing,” so I think this data would include women who have adopted children but never given birth.

I was surprised to see that rates of Cesarean sections have gone up in the past decade:

Women are now outperforming men in terms of educational attainment, earning the majority of bachelor’s degrees, though notice the number of degrees in engineering/computer science earned by women hasn’t increased since 1998:

However, women still make less than men at each level of educational attainment:

The report has lots more data on family life, work, education, health, crime, and so on. I’ll post on other topics in the future.

Finally, Ben N., Kay C., Gregory S., and Dave Z. all sent in this video starring Daniel Craig that highlights global gender inequality (though unfortunately I can’t find any reference that provides sources for the statistics in the video, so take it for what it’s worth):