Fashion is more political than Theresa May’s sodding shoes

Sophie Harman

This morning I was having the usual what to wear dilemma of everyone living in the UK during summer: it had pissed it down with rain the day before and now it was sunny, so what to put on my feet? Boots or sandals? While contemplating this daily dilemma John Humphrys was interviewing ex-Editor of British Vogue Alexandra Shulman on Radio 4’s Today Programme. The subject of the interview was meant to be changing fashion trends over 60 years but in effect the questions asked to Shulman can be summarised as: skinny, thin, skinny, skinny, Theresa May’s shoes, you’re not skinny.

 

At a basic bitch level this is a set of boring questions, asked by someone who clearly thinks fashion is frivolous, and is a dial-in what-to-ask-a-fashion-person-when-you-know-nothing-about-fashion. Kudos to Shulman for calling this out. However the disregard of fashion as frivolous plays into the unchecked political power fashion has. I don’t need to recreate the cerulean shirt scene from The Devil Wears Prada because you know it, because everyone has seen that film, because fashion in powerful. But you get my point – billion pound industries are not frivolous.

 

On the one hand the frivolity argument overlooks the inequalities in fashion: male ownership of fashion conglomerates; cultural appropriation of every culture possible; the dominance of white models, editors, designers, company owners, PR teams; the age of models, and yes the demands on them to be skinny; supply chains; labour standards and working hours, I could go on but these arguments have been rehashed countless times (and yet still ignored by interviewers obsessed with skinny).

 

On the other hand the frivolity argument ignores the close alignment between fashion and politics. This is evident in how magazines pursue political agendas – see US Vogue and the Democrats or British Vogue and the Tories – and can be a humanizing and legitimating force for political actors; fashion fundraising for politicians; and fashion aspirations for political office, see for example Anna Wintour as genuinely rumoured to being Hillary Clinton’s pick for US Ambassador to the UK. It is also evident in how fashion engages activism. This is often badly done, however most people in the know know that the Trump resistance is more likely to be found in Teen Vogue that the FT or the New Yorker.

 

Over the two minutes it took for Humphrys to interview Shulman and for me to choose to wear boots (never trust the blue skies), I could think of a list of alternative questions:

  • What impact will Brexit have on the fashion industry and its contribution to the UK economy?
  • What do you think of Naomi Campbell’s comments on the picture of the Vogue team in the latest edition of the magazine? Does Vogue and Fashion have a diversity problem? Or put more bluntly, Vogue so white?
  • Should designers such as Gucci and Vetements be allowed to steal ideas from hip hop culture without attribution?
  • What did you make of the Lucinda Chambers piece in Vestoj? Have advertisers compromised the artistic part of fashion magazines?
  • Does high street fast fashion have implications for labour standards throughout the fashion industry (child labour, supply chains, and pressure on designers at the top end)?
  • Are the number of fashion shows excessive?
  • How can a new designer get into Vogue when it only showcases people you know or are related to? Ahem, Samantha Cameron and Deputy Editor Emily Sheffield.
  • Is Teen Vogue the vanguard of the revolution? (Okay this is a bit far-fetched, but more interesting than why so skinny?)

These are uncomfortable questions, but not any more uncomfortable than the usual questions posed by Humphrys. The Today Programme missed two tricks here. The first, not delivering on the holding truth to power style journalism that is often claimed to be the programme’s core public good: here they had one of the most powerful women in Britain and they stuck to a tired script. My sense is Shulman may even have wanted to respond to the more difficult questions and offer her opinion without the constraints of advertising, publisher, and colleagues to keep happy. You don’t get to be an editor-at-large without some political savvy and it would have been interesting to hear how she responded or dodged such questions. The second trick is that in not posing these questions, Today missed an opportunity to create more news headlines – the benchmark of how their editorial policy resonates with the wider public – as had Shulman said anything with a smidge of controversy it would have gone viral.

 

The only saving grace of the whole interview was no-one mentioned or compared Shulman to Anna Wintour. That would have been the cherry of the dial-it-in yawn. The other source of optimism is that there are hints that the new Editor-in-chief Edward Enninful may take on some of these questions in the magazine itself, and perhaps political journalists may (wrongly, of course, this is a feminist blog) see Vogue as less frivolous if a man’s in charge.

 

Fashion is more political than Theresa May’s sodding shoes. I have personal reasons for writing this piece; one colleague looked at my Zara zebra print shoes and declared them ‘very Theresa May.’ This happened years ago but I’ve not forgotten and I have not worn these shoes since. But the more fashion is dismissed as frivolous and interviews continue to obsess over the skinny, the more insidious forms of power in the fashion world go unchecked and unseen.

In praise of my local boxing club

Charlotte Godziewski

As a child, sports was always part of my weekly routine. I enjoyed trying out and pursuing a variety of different disciplines, mostly gymnastics and tennis. Doing sports was pleasantly uncomplicated. I was having fun developing skills, improving my body’s abilities and strengths, and I was getting the excitement of competing at a small-scale, ‘no pressure’ amateur level. Growing up, though, I found it increasingly difficult to retrieve the same feeling of satisfaction that sports once provided me. It was when I recently joined the Women’s Boxing Club that I finally found that wonderfully fulfilling way of doing sports again. It dawned on me how challenging it can be, as an adult and as a woman, to find a sport club that is genuinely about learning a new discipline, with the multitude of benefits it entails. Yes, I was moving to different countries fairly often, which made it hard to sustainably join a club or a team. But I’d argue that there’s more to it.

The dominant discourse around ‘sport’ changes as you grow up. Sports changes from being ‘a fun and empowering activity’ to a depressing ‘public health discipline’. Even worse, and especially if you’re a woman, physical activity becomes merely a tool to (try to) improve your appearance.

Governing healthy bodies

Much social science research has drawn on Foucault’s concept of (neo)liberal governmentality to better understand the contemporary shape and discourse of health promotion (Ayo, 2012; Crawshaw, 2013; Mik-Meyer, 2014; Thompson & Kumar, 2011; Warin, 2011). In a nutshell, the act (or the art) of ‘government’ is understood by Foucault as a nexus of practices, institutions, techniques and discourses that construct our expectations of how society and individuals ought to behave and lead their lives. He famously refers to this as the ‘conduct of conduct’ (Burchell, Gordon, & Miller, 1991). Governmentality is liberal insofar as it promotes a society of free individuals operating in free markets. However, there are expectations as to how an individual is to enact and make use of this ‘freedom’. The individual is presented as dual: free to enjoy certain rights, but disciplined into enjoying them in a particular way. This discipline, it has been argued, is reflected in public health messages that tend to emphasise strongly – or even solely – healthy lifestyles as a matter of individual responsibility. Citizens are encouraged to become ‘food smart’, active, responsible ‘entrepreneurs of themselves’.

While it can be argued that of course people are responsible for their actions, there are fundamental issues associated with a discourse strictly limited to individual responsibility. For example, the fact that it neglects, and actively draws attention away from, structural determinants of ill-health and unhealthy lifestyle, including socioeconomic inequalities. This sort of discourse, in turn, can have ostracizing effects on precisely the population groups it is supposed to encourage and help.

Another, perhaps more mundane and definitely subjective consequence (which I don’t intend to generalise here), is that this responsibilisation tends to take all the fun out of sports. Which is a bit counterproductive frankly. Responsibilising citizens into getting physically active may be a good thing in itself, but the way it is done is just so tragically unimaginative! Fitness centres that pop up on every street corner. Sure, many people genuinely enjoy going to the gym, and the fact that they are becoming increasingly accessible is great, but isn’t this trend the quintessence of making sports merely a means to an end, rather than an end in itself? Personally, I always struggled to go to a gym on a regular basis. Children can play, but adults have to go to the gym.

You’re here to lose weight, right?

Wright et al. (2006) have investigated the way in which discourses on healthy lifestyles, nutrition and physical activity were taken up and appropriated by a sample of young men and a sample of young women. Their interviews showed that, when talking about physical activity, the young men would mostly talk about skills, strengths and generally fitness as providing the muscular capacity and stamina to enable them to do things. In the female group, however, physical activity was very often associated with desirable body shape and appearance (Talleu, 2012; Wright, O’Flynn, & MacDonald, 2006). It is true that pressure to conform to physical appearance standards is also increasing amongst men. However, weight loss is still rarely stereotyped as the one and only, obvious reason men work out. I’m not sure I can say the same about how society makes sense of women working out. Of course, there is nothing wrong with working out as a means to lose weight and it is really not my intention to imply any judgment about anyone’s motivations, reasons and goals. What I do bemoan, is the all too common assumption that the only reason an adult woman can possibly work out must be because she wants to look more attractive (subtext: for men) (Maguire & Mansfield, 1998). My point is that women’s sports is too often conceptualised in an androcentric way. This ingrained assumption that female physical activity is reducible to weight loss and toning is only reinforced by the gendered ‘healthism’* trend (whose advocates abound on social media platforms like Instagram and Youtube: #fitness #healthybody). In turn, ‘feminised’ versions of sports facilities targeting purely aesthetic goals are booming (Craig & Liberti, 2007). This goes from sexy women’s sports clothing trends to your famous ‘get-a-nice-booty-like-Beyoncé’ fitness class. Of course, I’d be a hypocrite to deny my own motivation to be, and to look, fit. That’s not where the problem lies. All I’m saying is that ‘women working out’ cannot be systematically reduced to ‘wanting to look good’. Body shape is – if anything – only a small part of a much wider ensemble of motivations for working out.

It’s time to challenge these assumptions and redefine physical activity, not just as an obligation to remain healthy, and certainly not just as a tool to become prettier, but as the fun and empowering leisure it used to be when we were kids! Such possibilities exist. I am incredibly lucky to have found a club that enables me to do exactly this. A sports club that does not buy into limiting gendered stereotypes, and that does not believe in adjusting the workout to conform with feminised, patriarchal clichés. And it feels amazing. Not only does the club reject gendered stereotypes, but it also provides an opportunity for women to get involved in a sport discipline that is strongly male-dominated, boxing. And if people asked me why, ‘as a woman’, I like boxing, I’d say it’s pretty much for the same multitude of reasons any man would enjoy it.

*Healthism: “A discourse in public health practice, [which links body shape to good health and] in which individuals are held to be morally responsible for the prevention of illness by knowing and avoiding the risk factors associated with ill-health. Individuals thus have a duty to monitor their own well-being constantly and to mediate and invest in choices and practices that are health enhancing and can prevent illness.” (Wright et al., 2006)

References 

Abrahams, A (2017). Why do people presume I’m at the gym to lose weight? The Pool. Retrieved from: https://www.the-pool.com/health/fitness-honestly/2017/18/amy-abrahams-on-not-losing-weight-at-the-gym

Ayo, N. (2012). Understanding health promotion in a neoliberal climate and the making of health conscious citizens. Critical Public Health, 22(1), 99–105.

Burchell, G., Gordon, C., & Miller, P. (1991). The Foucault Effect. The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality. The University of Chicago Press.

Craig, M. L., & Liberti, R. (2007). “’Cause That’s What Girls Do” The Making of a Feminized Gym. Gender & Society, 21(5), 676–699.

Crawshaw, P. (2013). Public health policy and the behavioural turn: The case of social marketing. Critical Social Policy, 33, 616–637.

Maguire, J., & Mansfield, L. (1998). “No-Body’s Perfect”: Women, Aerobics, and the Body Beautiful. Sociology of Sport Journal, 15, 109–137.

Mik-Meyer, N. (2014). Health promotion viewed in a critical perspective. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, 42(15 suppl), 31–35.

Talleu, C. (2012). Gender equality in Sports – Handbook on good practices. EPAS Council of Europe.

Thompson, L., & Kumar, A. (2011). Responses to health promotion campaigns: resistance, denial and othering. Critical Public Health, 21(February 2015), 105–117.

Warin, M. (2011). Foucault’s progeny: Jamie Oliver and the art of governing obesity. Social Theory & Health, 9(1), 24–40.

Wright, J., O’Flynn, G., & MacDonald, D. (2006). Being fit and looking healthy: Young women’s and men’s constructions of health and fitness. Sex Roles, 54(9–10), 707–716.

Lady in the Streets, Freak in the Sheets: challenging the ‘virgin/whore’ dichotomy on ITV’s ‘Love Island’

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Milly Morris

Throughout the history of Western popular culture, recurring binaries of women have been used to present a simplistic vision of femininity and to reinforce gendered power structures. These depictions can often be linked to religion, aiming to categorize women into ‘good’ VS ‘bad’ girls or ‘sinners’ VS ‘saints’, with the labels being determined by a woman’s sexual behavior. Whilst the ‘good’ girl abstains from sex and is ‘chaste’ (the ‘Madonna’), the ‘bad’ girl is sexually active (the whore, the femme fatale). Of course, within Christianity, Eve represents the original ‘bad girl’, implying that female sexuality is both dangerous and untrustworthy. This dichotomy is heavily present in the mainstream music industry, with many songs being dedicated to “good” VS “bad” types of women. For example, Avril Lavigne’s ‘Skater Boi’ tells the story of a ‘bad’ girl who thinks she is ‘better’ than Lavigne’s love interest, leading to her inevitable loneliness and regret at her decision to reject him. The song concludes with the ‘good’ girl (Lavigne) ‘winning’ the man’s affection and providing the audience with a moralistic lesson about the dangers of ‘friend-zoning’ men. Lavigne sings:

She had a pretty face but her head was up in space. She needed to come back down to earth.

Another example of this can be seen in Pink’s “Stupid Girls” which cites “porno paparazzi” girls as being a “disease” or “epidemic.” Here, the suggestion is that women who engage in traditionally feminine practices – the video shows heavily made up women getting spray tans and pedicures – should be belittled and considered one-dimensional, fickle and unintelligent. Indeed, both songs replicate the virgin/whore dichotomy by positioning ‘smart’ girls against ‘feminine’ girls, the suggestion being that the latter are always overtly sexual and – consequently – “bad.”

ITV’s ‘Love Island’ is a reality TV show based upon single-tons finding ‘true love’. The contestants are filmed living in a picturesque villa for seven weeks as they try to find a potential partner. Each week, the contestants are told to ‘couple-up’ with their love interests. In the final week, the public ‘choose’ who their favorite couple is (which couple they believe to be genuinely ‘in love’) and that couple wins a cash prize. Each summer, my friends and I become genuinely obsessed with the show (we even have a group chat dedicated to analyzing each episode/character development) and there are parts of the show which are compelling and heart-warming. For example, contestants form tight friendships and are shown being generally silly and carefree together.

With most reality TV shows, backlash is based upon the frivolous and self-centered nature of viewers and participants (often accompanied with a warning about the apparent generational shift towards rampant individualism). For example, Piers Morgan referred to the cast as “cretins” and that the show was designed to “scramble” our brains. Whilst, of course, there are some narratives which potentially reproduce societal power structures (to be discussed throughout this blog), it’s important to note that reality TV doesn’t represent the “downfall” of relationships and so-called “millennial entitlement”…sometimes it is enjoyable to switch off and watch people being carefree on TV.

Despite this, the virgin/whore dichotomy is deeply entrenched within Love Island’s narrative, with the men often debating which women are “wifey material” (one contestant, Kem, is often heard pondering which woman he would be able to “take home to his Mum”). Again, such discourse categorizes the female contestants into good VS bad, the suggestion being that one “type” of woman would be welcomed into a family environment, whilst another is reserved only for fulfilling sexual gratification. For example, during a game truth-telling “spin the bottle”, it was revealed that Amber once had sex with two men in an evening. Despite some of the male contestants revealing that they had taken part in four-somes, this revelation left Kem shocked – and seemingly – disgusted, telling the camera:

I can’t believe she slept with two guys in one night (…) that has put me off

Consequently, Kem’s attraction to Amber was partly based upon a perceived innocence or sexual naivety, which presumably he hoped to “school” her in. His reaction to Amber taking part in “promiscuous” sexual activity with other men suggests that he now views her as “tarnished” or “broken goods.” In contrast, unsurprisingly, Marcel’s revelation that he has slept with “around” 300 women was met with rapturous applause and laughter from the other contestants. In another scene, Camilla encapsulates the balancing act of the virgin/whore dichotomy by stating that she follows the guide of being a “lady in the streets” but a “freak in the sheets.” Indeed, this is seemingly where Amber went wrong; a woman’s promiscuity is expected to be kept private in order to stop men feeling uncomfortable, but should be unleashed when it is “appropriate” to do so. For example, in recent episodes, Camilla has been pressurized into “coupling up” with new-boy Craig.

Such sexual double standards could be seen in 2016’s series, in which Zara – a former Miss Great Britain winner – had sex with Alex Bowen on their first date. After Zara confided in Kady (who “promised” not to share her secret), Kady is seen telling the other contestants and calling Zara an “absolute idiot” and a “stupid girl”, whilst Olivia jokes “Miss GB fucks on the first date, you sure?” The women laugh as Olivia states that she “would never do that.” Here, Zara’s reputation as a pageant queen –historically presented as “pure” and “virginal” – is juxta posed with her “bad” sexual behaviors, positioning her as a possessing contradictory characteristics of both “Madonna” and “whore.” Indeed, this contradiction led Zara to be stripped of her Miss Great Britain title, with the organizers claiming that her behavior was “unacceptable” of a pageant winner. In a later interview on Loose Women, Zara stated that she was “dealing with the consequences” of her actions and was repeatedly asked by the hosts if she “understood” the severity of her behavior  In contrast to Alex – who was shown laughing bashfully with the other male contestants – Zara continuously apologized on air, repeating that the incident was “really not like me at all” and that it was a “mistake.”

However, this series, the storyline with the most prominent virgin/whore dichotomy is that of the love triangle between Camilla, Johnny and Tyla. Camilla – who studied at Loughborough university and currently works for an explosive ordinance disposal unit – has been continuously represented as “not the type of girl” to appear on a reality TV show, with articles suggesting that she is “too classy” to be on Love Island. Such language works to create a hierarchy of women within the villa – whilst Camilla is categorized as “classy”, the other female islanders are subsequently recognized to be “trashy.” Indeed, this discourse has centred around Camilla’s character development on the show. For example, initially, Camilla was “coupled up” with Jonny. However, after new contestants entered the villa, Jonny decided that he wanted to “re-couple” with Tyla. On the “Love Island Reactions” Facebook page – a forum for fans of the show, where admins post their reactions to occurring scenes – many of the posts were based around this love triangle, such as the following:

“Camilla needs to dispose of Tyla like she does those bombs in the Middle East” 

“Camilla dated a prince and yet Johnny is throwing her away for a Sainsbury’s basics version of Michelle Keegan? Nah that’s not on”

“I swear to god if Jonny picks Tyla over Camilla in tonight’s recoupling I will go drop kick him in the pool and drown him” 

Whilst Camilla does seem like a genuinely lovely and intelligent person (a highlight of the show being where she defended her feminist views in an argument with Johnny), the categorization of women in this fashion only works to reproduce damaging power structures. The suggestion here is that Tyla entered the villa with the intention of “stealing” Jonny from Camilla, positioning her as sexually “predatory” and consequently “untrustworthy” and/or “disloyal.” Likewise, the implication that Tyla is “cheap” in comparison to Camilla (continuously referred to as the “nation’s sweetheart”) is intertwined with classism; Camilla’s label of being “too good” for Love Island is often cited alongside her seemingly privileged background, as well as the rumour that she dated a Prince Harry.

Overall, it is important to analyse reality TV’s representations of femininity and sexuality. Such shows often follow simplistic narratives – for example, Big Brother always ‘needs’ a villain to soak up the audience’s collective “hatred” – which can often lead to lazy gender binaries playing out throughout the show’s story-lines. However, one interesting element of Love Island, is some of the resistance that can be seen towards the virgin/whore dichotomy. In one episode, for example, Olivia stated that “it’s 2017 (…) if I want to sit on a dick, then I’ll sit on a dick”, whilst the 2016 series showed Sophie reading a poem about the sexual double standard endured by Zara. Most importantly, shows such as Love Island exist within the mainstream and draw in large audiences.  Thus, conversations surrounding gender and sexuality can be amplified through such shows in a way that is relevant and interesting to some young people. Consequently, it is essential that the shows are deconstructed and are not snubbed as being a pointless focus of research interests (as many “soft” subjects are within academia).

An Open Letter to the Mother of a Sex Worker – The Spared Conversation

By Anonymous.

Dear Mum,

You do not know this and you probably never will, but I am a sex worker. Men and sometimes women pay to have sex with me. Most would call me a prostitute, but calling me a prostitute is the real immorality in my choice to sell sex. It is a word that means I should be ashamed, a word that robs me of my rationality, a word that infers that you did not provide for me and failed as a mother. Well you did not. I am not ashamed of what I do and the choices I have made. I enjoy selling sex and I have made a rational, well thought out, individual, eye-opening, intelligent choice. Large sections of society lambast the choice I have made. My sanity, my intelligence, and the love I have for myself, my self-respect, my childhood, and my dignity is consistently, called into question and contested. If you knew what I did, you would probably be disappointed in me and feel like you have failed at parenting me. I do not want to put you in that position so I will probably never tell you. Coming to terms with my life as a sex worker would most likely cause you to battle emotionally over the love you feel for me with the disappointment and shame replacing it. I do not feel shame, but I do not want to put you in that position. You raised me to respect others, so I respect you enough to spare you this struggle.

You should know that it is because you raised me with positive values that I made this choice. You taught me to care for myself, so I know how to respect my body. I own it, and I decide how I will share it. You taught me to have a good work ethic, so I know how to take my job seriously and professionally. I am dedicated to providing a good service and enlightened enough to know my own boundaries. You taught me to strive to be the best I can be, so I take joy in knowing that I am good at having sex for money and I enjoy providing this service. You taught me to care for others and to help people whenever I can. I know therefore how to remain non-judgmental with clients of all body shapes and sizes, or with clients who have specific sexual interests, or those who wish to share with me their daily struggles. You taught me to be compassionate at all times and to appreciate positive relationships, so I know how to provide a caring service to my clients whilst never feeling that I have compromised my self-integrity. You taught me to do the things I love most in life and be proud of them, so that is exactly what I do.

You gave me the most amazing gift as a parent: you empowered me with the knowledge that I could make my own decisions as long as I was happy with them. It is because of you that I was able to make this choice by being informed, sensible, and fulfilled.

 

Imagining polyamory beyond orientation and/or choice.

Bethan Irvine

dance class

Jeremy- I mean, you can’t love two people at once.

Toni – Yes, you can.

Nancy – Of course you can.

Jeremy – No, sure, obviously you can, but you don’t. You work out who you like best and then pretend not to like anyone else.

(Peep Show, E1 S2, 2004)

As one of my favourite peep show moments, this scene in the episode ‘Dance Class’ raisies some important questions about the possibility of loving many. Not only does it encourage us to think about whether loving more than one person is possible, as well as question the concept of love itself. It also raises a question of choice. More specifically, it made me ask is polyamory and non-monogamy a sexual orientation, or is it simply matter of choice?

Polyamory is typically understood as “a relationship orientation that assumes that it is possible [and acceptable] to love many people and to maintain multiple intimate and sexual relationships” (Sexualities, 2003: 126).  As an orientation, polyamory is often understood as a state of being; a fixed and innate aspect of one’s identity. In other words, the desire to be involved in or open to multiple sexual, romantic, and or intimate relationships with others is for some people an inherent way of being. Just as early gay liberation activists have argued, some poly-activists assert that being polyamorous is part of their sexual orientation, it’s something they are born with, something they are not something they do (Avriam and Leachman, 2015).  As Professor Markie Twist explains “consensually non-monogamous clients more often than not tell me this is how they’ve felt their whole life…when they were children, they totally felt that way. It was only when they got older that they were told you’re not allowed to like more than one person at the same time” (McArthur, 2016).

In some way, understanding polyamory as an orientation is useful as it provides a basis from which poly folk can claim the same legal privileges as monogamous folk, such as benefits in insurance, taxation, immigration, and family law (LaViolette, 1997). This argument follows on from those made by gay liberation activists of the 60’s and 70’s who fought for same-sex marriage and, as noted by Avriam and Leachman (2015) have “used legal mobilisation to improve the situation of sexual minorities in a predominantly heterosexual society” (291). Moreover,  just as “same sex marriage and relationship recognition litigation have helped to reconstruct the dominant cultural meanings associated with marriage” (2015: 271), extending the legal privileges of marriage to polyamorous folk also presents the exciting potential of a bigger shift in cultural meanings about love, sex, and human relationships more generally. A shift that demands we challenge the sexist, racist, and classist hierarchies and power relations that inform our ideas of sex, love, and relationships in our everyday lives and interactions with others.

Asking the questions of how polyamorous marriages might work, and whether poly folk should even be fighting for access to dominant institutions at all, are both hugely important, but not my concern here. Instead, I want to consider questions about the ways polyamory is being constructed and produced and start to locate polyamory within a specific set of political and economic contexts. While equality, protection from harm, and increased visibility must remain central to poly-activism, I want to start by questioning the usefulness of understanding polyamory (and any other kinds of sexuality) as a fixed and unchanging sexual orientation. With just a brief examination of online blogs, websites, and articles, it’s not difficult to see how diverse and complex both polyamorous, and monogamous relationships are, and how even the poly/mono divide is itself extremely unclear. While some adopt primary relationships and are open to secondary partners, others may consist of four or more partners that may or may not be practicing poly-fidelity (Munson and Stelboum, 1999: 2). It has also been noted that polyamorous relationships can even include “an intimate network of friends, in which relationships are more fluid and involve several people n different ever-changing relationship structures” (Avriam and Leachman, 2015: 299).

Dissatisfied with framing polyamory as a sexual orientation or a fact of being, I am left with a question of choice. Indeed, there are many poly people who adopt a discourse of choice to construct polyamory as an active and conscious lifestyle choice characterised by equality, autonomy, desire, and trust (Barker, 2005). For some, this choice may be rooted in a political agenda that actively seeks to undermine dominant (monogamous) notions of sexuality and romance that restrict our bodies and desires, and as Engels (1951) has argued, reflect the ownership of goods and people under capitalism. For others, political motives may not be as clear and instead this choice may be seen as nothing more than a personal preference which offers more sexual variety and alternative ways of living that are based on compatibility instead of custom. Although constructing Polyamory in this way seems to illustrate a promisingly empowering way of doing relationships which is characterised by openness, autonomy, honesty, liberation, and the freedom to choose. It also seems important to ask whether such a narrative does much to challenge the underlying systems of power that continue to pervade polyamorous activism and communities in the west (Klesse, 2017).

Not only does approach risk reinforcing and reproducing common-sense understandings of polyamory that dismiss poly’s as being greedy, narcissistic, sexually promiscuous, selfish, confused, in the closet, or just dissatisfied with their failing monogamous relationship (Ritchie, 2010). Framing polyamory as a lifestyle choice offers a problematic individualised narrative that trivialises and depoliticises polyamory by removing it from political spaces and repositioning it within the private lives of individuals. Situated within a discourse of choice, polyamory risks losing its critical and radical edge as ideals of neo-liberal capitalism such as individualism, self-fulfilment, and consumption can be reproduced in new ways. At the same time, constructing polyamory as a lifestyle choice overlooks the ongoing inequalities that continue to inform and shape polyamorous relationships, communities, and activist spaces (Klesse, 2017). Consider for instance, as Klesse (2017) does, the way that concepts of sexual respectability and promiscuity have historically been used to the control and police the bodies of the working class, as well as racialised groups. To this day, such notions remain central reproducing the structural racism upon which oppressive hierarchies have been built and inequalities in wealth have been justified. He notes, “black people (and other racialised groups) and working class people are likely to be exposed to grave stigmatisation if they publicly assume non-monogamous identities. This underscores the constitution of polyamory (and other non-monogamous identities) as sites of privilege” (p.12). In a similar vein, although polyamory and its focus on autonomy and agency may offer women a way of destabilising gendered binaries that construct women as passive and men as active (Robinson, 1997), some women might be put off polyamory for fear of being labelled promiscuous or emotionally unstable.

With this in mind, I return to my initial question; is polyamory a sexual orientation or a matter of personal choice? Concluding it can probably be both. But what seems more important goes beyond a question of what, to questions of why, who, and how. The anti-capitalist discourses of polyamory such as equality, openness, and honesty, as well as its ‘big love’ philosophy in general, I believe, offers a promising and exciting direction for the future of social and political relationships. However, it must remain radical and critical, and research into non-monogamies must prioritise an engagement with ongoing class, gender, and racial divisions within polyamorous communities. We should continue to engage critically with both the essentialist notions of sexuality that offer little space for the growing diversity and variety of relationship structures, while also challenging the discourses of choice that situate polyamory within the individualist ideology of neo-liberal capitalism.  To do this, I argue, requires an understanding of both monogamy and non-monogamy as fluid and continually changing ways of doing love that often collide and co-exist, and which are simultaneously rooted in broader cultural, economic, and political contexts.

Avriam, H & Leachman, G.M. (2015). The Future of Polyamorous Marriage: Lessons from the marriage equality struggle, Harvard Journal of Law and Gender, 38: 269-336

Barker, M. (2005). This is my partner, and this is my…partner’s partner: constructing a polyamorous identity in a monogamous world, Journal of Constructivist Psychology, 18: 75-88

Engels, F. (1951). Boureois Marriage, the woman question (New York: International Publishers)

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Selfie-conscious? Challenging normative understandings of social media and mental health

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Milly Morris & Frankie Rogan

In May 2017, The Royal Society for Public Health released a study which contended that Instagram is the “worst” social media platform when it comes to impact on young people’s mental health. The poll focused on issues relating to anxiety, depression, loneliness, bullying and body image, concluding that “social media may be fueling a mental health crisis among young people.”

These negative perceptions of social media aren’t new. In recent years, social media has become a breeding ground for moral panic, with newspapers warning that everything from sexting to selfies is indicative of some kind of health epidemic or moral deterioration. Indeed, the Royal Society for Public Health report follows the recent trend in mainstream media to “blame” social media for various social ills and highlight social media use(s) as indicative of wider social “problems”. That “millennials” (usually understood to be a cohort of people born between 1980 and 2000) are uniquely narcissistic and entitled is a well-pedalled myth in both academic and journalistic discourses. Dr. Jean Twenge, author of books such as “The Narcissism Epidemic” and “Generation Me”, is particularly prominent in this school of thought. Such criticisms are often closely related to social media and technology. Works such as these offer broad, reductive and methodologically flawed interpretations of “the millennial” by consistently ignoring the many intersectional issues which exist within all generations. Twenge constructs “millennials” as some kind of uniform monolith which, quite simply, does not exist. Despite this, the reputation has stuck.

Criticisms of social media often operate via a gendered lens. This can be explicit – for example, there is a tendency for newspapers to focus on the “risks” that social media poses to young women in particular However, these gendered constructions can also be implicit – for example, there seems to be a widespread agreement that social media is a primary contributor to an alleged rise in “vanity”, “frivolity” or “narcissism”, traits which have historically been tied to the construction of femininity. When we consider that the predominant users of social media are young people (and young women in particular), these constructions come as little surprise. It has long been the case that pastimes that are considered “feminine” are constructed as frivolous, trivial or self-indulgent.

Consequently, teenagers and young adults are consistently framed as isolated, apathetic narcissists who are only concerned with receiving online gratification for their perfectly polished selfie. For many scholars – such as Lupton, Zimmer and Marwick – contend that social media is based upon an “obsessive documentation of self” in which users take part in an exhibitionist culture that acts as a performance space for one’s image; users become engaged in cyclical behaviors of carefully constructing their online profiles whilst surveying other’s accounts. Such “surveillance as pleasure” allegedly leads individuals to present only the “best versions of themselves”. In debates about body image, then, social media is often blamed as being the catalyst for intensification in eating disorders and body dysmorphia among women. Studies have suggested that high amounts of time spent on Facebook may lead to “body image insecurity, which can also lead to depression.” However, as feminists have long argued, women’s bodies have long been subject to life-long disciplinary forces, with pervasive beauty standards demanding that women’s bodies be thin, tall, able-bodied and – usually – white. In 2015, the NHS noted that there had been a “stark rise” in the amount of women submitted to hospital for an eating disorder, with 90% of diagnosed anorexia sufferers being women. Due to this recent rise, some scholars have argued that the presentation of a “perfect” self on social media makes idealized standards of femininity feel more achievable and comparatively more ubiquitous than such messages within traditional forms of media, such as magazines or billboards. Indeed, Marwick contends that users may fall victim to severe anxiety by worrying about who may be surveying their profiles. Such arguments suggest that body-shame can be intensified by a fear of how one appears in pictures.  For example, Liz Frost asserts that being watched or “looked at” has always been part of young women’s experiences.

Lupton furthers these arguments by looking at fitness tracking applications and how they may intensify body-shame. Fitness apps – such as MyFitnessPal or Strava – have become a popular way for users to track their calorie intake and improve their exercise levels.  Lupton suggests that discourses of control within the apps places “responsibility” on individuals to discipline their bodies. This is an important point, but one that seems to ignore the ways in which messages about individual responsibility are ever-present against a backdrop of post-feminism and neoliberalism. Through Lupton’s argument, women’s bodies are reduced down to the calories they consume, the types of food they eat – “good” or “bad” foods – and even their sodium levels. For women, the media already quantify and grade different parts of our bodies (e.g: the Kardashian’s are predominantly presented as “bums”) and so a readily-available quantification of the body is potentially damaging for women’s body image.

It is important to note, then, that we recognize the changes that have occurred because of social media. In contrast to traditional forms of media, social media is now readily available at our fingertips 24/7 and is an interactive process. Likewise, we are no longer simply consumers of media but have the ability to produce our own identities and communities online. Thus, it is easy to see where fears surrounding “mental health and body issues” arise from. However, the argument that new technologies are at the heart of widespread mental health issues amongst young people seems, in many ways, to present faux-concern. Indeed, there is very little discussion in these pieces to wider political and economic structures that are perhaps far more likely to be contributing to poor mental health amongst young people. If one considers the political climate, it is hardly surprising that contemporary young people find themselves suffering with higher rates of anxiety and depression. If more focus were placed on cuts to education and other public services, rising student debt, removal of housing benefits for young adults and the closure of local youth centres, it might be easier to accept that there is a genuine concern for the mental health and wellbeing of young people, rather than an ideological desire to single out social media as the primary and (often) only “cause” worth examining.

It is overly-simplistic to position social media as a singularly “oppressive” force. As Foucault suggests, power works via a push and pull motion; whilst Instagram does present “filtered” bodies and #cleaneating diets as attainable, there are also positive aspects to social media which are largely ignored. Unlike traditional forms of media, social media can act as a space for women themselves to present alternative images of beauty. For women who fall outside of the constructed “beauty ideal”, social media provides a space to challenge their historic “invisbilisation” within popular culture. Popular hashtags such as #TransIsBeautiful or #BlackGirlMagic are some examples of this. Likewise, social media is often used as a tool to reject encoded messages about the fat female body. For example, “Fuck Yeah, Fat PhD!” is a community of fat women who archive images and biographies about fat women who have received PhDs, acting as a raised-middle-finger to the cultural stereotype that fat women are unintelligent and lazy.

Concern for women’s “body-confidence” also seemingly ignores the billion-dollar industries which consistently perpetuate idealized standards of femininity in a bid to sell us products to “improve” ourselves. In this sense, social media acts as an easy target for journalists; focusing the blame on neo-liberal and corporate perpetuations of beauty ideals would force people to look at the core of societal constructions of the body. Indeed, body anxieties amongst women have been consistent throughout Western history; it is simply the tools to measure one’s body which have changed. For example, throughout the 1960’s, images of models such as Twiggy – nicknamed for her “boyish” thinness – were plastered throughout magazines and billboards. Likewise, prior to fitness applications, women could use a treadmill or a pedometer to quantify their exercise levels. However, these products are not viewed as the central reason why women are suffering from body anxiety. Consequently, one needs to question the reasons why women feel body-shame, rather than the tools that are used to measure and/or “improve” their bodies. These arguments offer focus disproportionately on the women who use these apps, rather than the societies and cultures in which they came to exist.

In this sense, social media does not act as a singularly negative force which seeps into women’s sub-conscious and whispers “you’re ugly.” Unlike traditional forms of media, social media is a tool in which culture can be inscribed. Consequently, social media may have the potential to act as a space for resistance and community, elevating voices of women who are deemed to be outside the realm of normative beauty standards.  If journalists and academics truly wish to challenge beauty standards and support women’s mental health, perhaps they need to turn their attention to wider social, cultural and economic structures that organise and manage young people’s lives. Continuing to erase these wider “macro” structures ensures that responsibility is placed on women themselves to “disengage” from social media, rather than placing the onus on the wider culture to fundamentally change.

Too often, social media is discussed in binary terms – good/bad, oppressive/liberating, individualistic/collective. What if it is none of these things, or all of these things simultaneously?

Binary understandings of social media as either inherently “good” or “bad” do little to examine the nuances of social media as a site of both pleasure and pain. While it is important not to “romanticise” social media as some kind of utopian collective resistance (it isn’t), it is imperative that we stop presenting overly simplistic, easily-digestible narratives that do little to challenge wider social, cultural and political contexts.  Scholars who espouse “grand narratives of concern” look at the past whilst wearing “rose-tinted glasses.” They ignore the ways in which social media is a complex site of identity construction which cannot be reduced to snappy media headlines.

Navigating gender and the mainstream media

Ruth Blakeley

Last week I took to Twitter to express my surprise at the use of the term, ‘Head of the Household’, by British Airways. I was attempting to update details on my British Airways account and received an error message explaining that only the ‘Head of the Household’ could do so, in this case, my male partner. BA’s Twitter team responded to my tweets, insisting that the term was gender neutral, and that either I or my partner could be the designated ‘Head of the Household’. They did not engage with my suggestion that ‘Lead Account Holder’ would be a more appropriate term, and insisted that equal status could not be granted to account holders.

My direct tweets to British Airways were picked up by a news agency journalist. I agreed to discuss it with her. Like me, she was perplexed by BA’s use of the term, and expressed a genuine commitment to tackling issues of gender inequality. Our call lasted about ten minutes. The journalist was attentive and produced a story that accurately reflected a number of the comments I had made.

The story was published by several UK papers online, first, the Daily Mail, and then others, including The Times and Cosmopolitan.  It was interesting to see how the piece originally written by the agency journalist was altered for publication in other outlets. One, for example, described my direct but measured tweets and my brief, nuanced interview with the journalist as me having ‘hit the roof’. All published my age.

This led to a revealing foray into the world of the ‘below the line’ comments and social media reaction. Some of my research on the CIA’s rendition and torture programme has been discussed in the media before, and I have received some ‘below the line’ criticism: I’ve been labelled a terrorist sympathiser; my academic credentials have been challenged; it has been suggested my work threatens UK security; and of course, I’ve been labelled ‘biased’. But I have not previously been exposed to the sexist and in some cases sexualised responses that the BA story unleashed.

Wise academic friends counselled me not to read the ‘below the line’ comments, as did the journalist. I did though, to test whether my assumptions about the nature of those comments were correct. They were. While some were critical of BA, the vast majority fell into the following, all-too-predictable categories: 1) those who sided with BA, asserting that the term ‘Head of the Household’ is gender neutral; 2) those who said that of course the man is Head of the Household and that I should get back to the kitchen; 3) those who said I am over-privileged and have no grasp of real world issues, even though my comments quoted in the article were explicit on this point; 4) those that we could call ‘race to the bottom’ comments, suggesting I should be sent to Saudi Arabia where women are really oppressed; 5) those that questioned my professional credentials, suggested I was a threat to students, and attacked my university and universities generally; and 6) the sexually explicit ones. Ironically, many of them also served to reinforce my broader point that we still have work to do on gender equality. A number of people also took to twitter to directly address me along similar lines.

This was by no means the worst case of trolling. Women MPs and female columnists are relentlessly subjected to this. Frequently the trolling involves rape and death threats. The experience did, however, remind me why so many of my academic colleagues, especially but not only women, do not want to engage with the media. Unfortunately though, this has the effect of women experts being very poorly represented, even where they have plenty of insight to offer.

As I indicated in my comments for the article, gendered language and stereotypes are part of a broader spectrum of inequality. Of course they are not as serious as violence against women, or the crushing effects of extreme poverty. But this does not mean they should go unchallenged, not least because they reinforce the effects of other, more direct gender inequities. President Trump was elected in the US despite openly sexist comments and allegations of sexual assault. The gender pay gap persists in Britain, currently standing at 13.9% for fulltime workers, according to the Fawcett Society. The upcoming general election is likely to result in significant drops in the proportion of female MPs. Women are not being elected to the new mayoral positions in UK regions. Women, especially poor women and women of colour, have been disproportionately impacted by the current government’s austerity measures. Recent reports have shown that girls are missing school because their families can no longer afford sanitary protection. Gender-based violence is at epidemic levels, with two women murdered every week in the UK, and research shows that it escalates during economic downturns. Of course, where women are victims of domestic violence, perpetrators are emboldened by their assumed right to have power over and control of their partners.

The term, ‘Head of the Household’, has biblical roots.  One Twitter respondent did indeed remind me that man’s position as head of the household is God-given: ‘@ruthblakeley the husband is Head of household and if the husband dies then the eldest son. God created man 1st then woman as his helpmete [sic]’. (Interestingly, Cosmopolitan published this tweet before describing BA’s response that the term is gender neutral). Apostle Paul, in his letters to the Ephesians and Corinthians, instructed that women should submit to their husbands in everything, since the husband is head of the wife, as Christ is head of the church (Ephesians 5:23-24; 1 Corinthians 11:3). Biblical teaching for centuries shaped British social norms, and even today, some Christian denominations continue to uphold Paul’s teachings on sexual relations, as the quoted tweet indicates.

We clearly still have a long way to go, and calling out unhelpful language and stereotypes is just one aspect of the struggles we face. While engaging with the ‘below the line’ comments was unpleasant, several positives have come out of this experience. First, friends and strangers alike took to Twitter or emailed me directly to express their support for my position. Second, I came across other feminists on Twitter who have been truly courageous in their work, and feisty and humorous in their responses to the trolls. One has the twitter handle statement, ‘Ridicule is nothing to be scared of’. I have been inspired by their courage, and made new friends. Third, it has prompted some creative thinking and discussion on ways forward.

There are very friendly fora for academics to engage the wider public, including The Conversation and Monkey Cage. Media organisations are waking up to the need to engage more women experts, as Sophie Harman reported here recently. Some papers are also taking seriously the violence and misogyny directed at their columnists. I have had very positive experiences of working with journalists from some of these outlets in the past and have built trusting relationships with them. They would be my first port of call if I wanted to engage through the media about my research. But I also think we have to take seriously the need to engage beyond our usual circles. Recent commentary suggests that Brexit has exposed deepening divisions in British society. If we only engage with those who already think as we do, we reinforce those divisions. That does not mean we have to be accepting of online abuse. But I think we do have to understand what is driving it, and we can only do that through engagement and analysis.

‘Below the line comments’ and online trolling are ripe for research. I can envisage research projects which analyse online comments across several papers. We could explore how expert knowledge is treated, and whether the gender of the expert affects the nature of the comments. We could look at the treatment of MPs on a range of characteristics including gender, race, age, sexuality, as well as political party. We could categorise the comments as I have done, to determine trends in how ‘below the liners’ engage on a range of issues, and how they respond to different groups of people. The findings could be used to engage the media on the impact that particular representations of issues or people has on public opinion as expressed ‘below the line’. What if we could develop online, real-time tools that track and analyse the ‘below the line’ comments and social media responses, and could mirror these back to readers? This would serve as a real antidote to those who are dismissive of our claims that there is a lot of sexism and misogyny out there. The technologies are there to do this. Harnessing our skills, creativity and contacts to take this forward is the next step.