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Love Your Body Day: Complex Body Relationships

This post is part of the 2011 Love Your Body Day Blog Carnival

As feminists share tips, stories, and body love today, I am pleased to see that some are also highlighting the negatives of the body-love imperative.  While fighting body-negative messages is crucial, it is important to recognize that the goal should be acceptance of others’ bodies, not unqualified love of one’s own.  For many people, including transgender, genderqueer, and intersect people, people with disabilities, people with a history of eating disorders, and those with a history of sexual assault, body love may not be a comfortable or appropriate goal.  It’s important to realize that for some of us, a body is an inconvenience or a hindrance, and that experience is just as valid as body-love.  

So what tips would I share on Love Your Body Day?

1.  Speak to others in a thoughtful, compassionate way about bodies.  Recognize that people’s relationships with their bodies vary widely and respect that.  Don’t speak in absolute terms or offer advice when it’s not wanted or needed.  For example, don’t sing the praises of exercise–many feel that while it’s wrong to criticize someone’s weight, exercise is right for everyone, and that simply isn’t true.

2.  Be gentle with yourself if you have difficulty with body-love.  Sometimes our bodies are disappointing.  They might not function how we’d like them to.  It might be hard to gain or lose weight.  We might have health problems we can’t control, or a body that doesn’t feel right for our gender.  If nurturing your body isn’t appropriate for you, try nurturing your mind or your spirit.  A lot of body issues are mental health issues, and it can help to have a safe space to talk those out, even if they aren’t “fixable.”

3) Look for and give support where you can.  It might be helpful to share experiences with others who have similar body issues.  This doesn’t have to be a formal support group–I’ve seen plenty of this on Twitter and Tumblr.

4) Think of ways to visualize yourself or express your creative spirit–this doesn’t necessarily have to involve your body.  For example, you might design an avatar or a work of art to represent you, make a spirit wall, practice creative visualization to envision yourself in some way other than the embodied, or use fashion to cover your body or make it less noticeable than what you’re displaying on it.

5) Assert your right (and others’) to take up space in a way that works for you.  It’s okay to say that your body fucking sucks.  You have a right to be sad, hurt, or angry.  Anyone who insists that you love your body, get over your issues, or make more of an effort to love yourself is practicing emotional abuse.  You have a right to inhabit physical space as well.  You have a right to accommodations that you need.  You have a right to say no to anything that makes you uncomfortable.  You have a right to tell others not to say things about your body that they think are positive, and not to touch your body.  These are all parts of bodily autonomy.

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Radical Reading: Freeing Ourselves

The following is part of a new regular feature called Radical Reading, which will come out roughly once a month.  I’ll be reviewing books of particular interest to a queer, feminist, radical audience.  If you have a book that you would like me to review or would like to put me on the list of reviewers for your press, please contact me at judithavory [at] gmail.com.

Freeing Ourselves: A Guide to Health and Self Love for Brown Bois, put out by the Brown Boi Project, is a guide to healthy living unlike anything I’ve seen, but quite like guides I’ve imagined.

Focused on MoC (masculine-of-center) people of color, Freeing Ourselves is an accessible, engaging guide to overall health presented in a unique format.  The educational material is interspersed with powerful stories, poetry, and photographs that reflect a wide range of racial and gender identities.

The guide takes self as a starting point, and does an excellent job of framing self in a way that includes, rather than excludes.  It presents self-awareness as a way to fight back against the lack of medical knowledge or outright hostility that many MoC people face.

I particularly liked how this guide acknowledged right up front the way healthy masculinity is defined by the colonial oppressor.  I believe that one of the huge problems marginalized communities face in terms of health care is that racial identity, gender identity, and self-actualization are all problematized.  Medical transition, for example, isn’t available without the othering diagnosis of “Gender Identity Disorder.”  Women are framed as hysterical, black men as dangerous.  The medical establishment doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but is part of an institutional framework that uses gender as a weapon.

When recognizing common threats in people’s lives, the guide lists common mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety alongside structural problems like oppression and abuse.  This guide does the best job I’ve seen so far at acknowledging that structural harms and internal “illnesses” operate in similar and interconnected ways to bring a person down and threaten that person’s health.  It also acknowledges how Western society harms relationships and connections, encouraging men to compete rather than to embrace each other.

There are a number of practical tools and charts included, such as guidance on when to see a health care provider and information about the risk of STIs for different races and genders/sexualities.  The information about sexual and reproductive health is particularly useful, since many health care providers are completely unaware of safe sex practices and risks for non-heterosexual or non-cisgender people.  The information on STIs here is not only focused on penetration, for example.  There is plenty of helpful advice about gynecological exams for those who do not identify as female, and about the risk of breast/chest cancer.  In addition, this guide provides detailed information about transition and the different options available.

I also found the information about pregnancy and forming a family particularly to be done particularly well.  There aren’t any assumptions made about whether and how MoC people might want to form a family.  The guide acknowledges the creativity of individuals to form families in a multitude of ways, as well as providing information about pregnancy and birth options.

The last section, while perhaps not as focused on HAES as I am, did a pretty good job at acknowledging and accepting different body types.  The holistic approach to food and physical practice has a strong ayurvedic influence, with information about “cooling” and “warming” foods.  The suggestions for exercise are varied, though limited attention is paid to people with disabilities.  Finally, this section includes specific information about the physical effects of chest binding and explains STP (stand-to-pee) devices.

Overall, I would recommend this book for any MoC person of color who has been frustrated by the healthcare system.  I also think this book would be an excellent tool for providers, who often seem to be undereducated on some of this issues covered, and for gender non-conforming people generally.  As someone who is neither masculine or feminine of center, but rather a blob off there in the corner somewhere, I still found quite a bit in this guide that is relevant to me.  The guide is available from the Brown Boi Project on a sliding scale, with $20 being the value of the book itself and the rest going to the project as a tax-deductible donation.

Genderqueer and Femme

For me, there is no outward presentation that “matches” genderqueer.  I don’t use the term genderqueer in a way that means “androgynous,” or “mixing male and female traits or symbols.”  There is no way for me to dress in a way that reflects my gender, but that’s okay.

There’s no reason that gender should be the thing that dress reflects.  In our society, clothing is a very gendered thing, but I don’t think it has to be.  For me, certain “femme” clothes reflect my personal preferences best.  It’s not about gender, it’s about what I like.  I feel sexy in clothes that are labelled “female.”

But wearing these clothes can be a traumatic experience for me.  Why?

Policy Perspective: Do Gender Differences Exist?

In my last post, I asked the theoretical question, do gender differences exist?  I concluded that there are observable trends that group people more-or-less by gender, but that identifying with a particular gender doesn’t mean that one identifies with every trait society assigns to that gender, and that gender categorization can be damaging both to those who do and do not identify as male or female.

Next, I’d like to consider the policy implications of the question.

The challenge here is to question whether gender differences have any utility from a policy perspective, while still respecting the lived experiences and claimed identities of those who identify as male or female.  I can say that gender differences are illusory, that the “box” created by a lump of traits is in many ways artificial, and that the weight put on certain traits such as secondary sex characteristics and hormones obscures the actual diversity that exists in our society.  But while saying this, I have to recognize that the categories “male” and “female” do mean something for many people, perhaps most, and that these categories can be useful when setting policy, organizing, or doing activist work.

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Theoretical Perspective: Do Gender Differences Exist?

These days, it seems like I can’t get away from headlines about men vs. women, discussing everything from biology to health to relationship preferences to shopping habits.  It’s easy to feel erased when everything you read groups behavior of men vs. behavior of women, and you don’t fit into either of those categories.  But is there a reason to organize the world in this way?  Do gender differences exist?

In this post, I’ll address the the theoretical question of whether gender differences exist, and then, in a second post, I’ll ask the policy question of whether there’s any utility to using gender differences on a practical level.

So, are there gender differences?  Well, yes, simply put.  They aren’t black and white, and of course we can’t say that all men do x and all women do y about anything whatsoever.  But there are observable trends, which is unsurprising given our tendency as a society to group absolutely everything by gender.

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WAM!It Yourself Blogathon: The Case Against a Battle of the Sexes

Have you been keeping up with the WAM! (Women, Action, and the Media) It Yourself unconference this week?  Today is the last day of the Blogathon and we’re talking about various aspects of gender and the media.  My post for this event focuses on the idea of the “battle of the sexes” and why it presents such a barrier to feminism and gender activism in media.

I got this idea from watching the first few episodes of Celebrity Apprentice Season Four, an endeavor I do not necessarily recommend to my readers.  I started watching because my favorite actress, Marlee Matlin, is on the show, and of course it’s not too surprising that a show like this would piss me off with all its ableism and misogyny.  I do think it provides an interesting example, though, of one place where reality TV consistently goes wrong–and it’s not just reality TV.

A battle of the sexes is supposed to be fun, funny, and rile up the audience.  Everyone can root for “their” team, and it’s a clear dividing line that we’re all used to in this society.  You can even make an argument that in this modern, “post-feminist” world, the battle of the sexes is updated and consistent with feminist goals.  Many of the shows that use a battle of the sexes have a strong female team, the women tend to be intelligent and kick ass, and the female viewership supposedly gets excited about this and ratings go up.

But something is seriously wrong with this picture.

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