Friendship as warfare

Dr. Amelia Morris, Royal Holloway

In recent years, self-care has become a ubiquitous buzzword that has been utilised to sell anything from beauty products, spa days, boozy brunches and holiday retreats. As Spicer writes for The Guardian, self-care has a vague definition that:

[…] includes nearly any activity people use to calm, heal and preserve themselves in the face of adversity. Some common forms of self-care include getting enough sleep, eating well, physical exercise, meditating and doing things you like such as watching an 80s teen film. Other suggestions for self-care include tracking your menstrual cycle, having date nights with yourself, doing craft activities such as crochet, learning the art of saying no, and “consciously unfollowing” people on social media. 

Yet, the roots of self-care stem from Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, wherein he theorised that to care for oneself is a political act. Later, Audre Lorde’s A Burst of Light resisted the notion that care is self-indulgent, referring to it as “warfare” against a system that erases unpaid labour and encourages a self-sacrificial life to paid work. Writing this as a black lesbian with cancer, Lorde argued that caring for oneself is essential to surviving in a world that profits from your oppression, and indeed, that existing on ‘the margins’ of society is exhausting work that demands constant attention. 

Whilst self-preservation is important for one’s mental and physical health, particularly for members of marginalised communities, capitalism is skilled at stripping radical messages of their politics, and repackaging them as goods to be sold back to us for profit. Indeed, there is irony in the words of a socialist feminist being utilised to peddle bath bombs and spa packages, as well as pushing for self-improvement via climbing the employment ladder (for example, an article on LinkedIn outlines steps for self-care in the workplace, with the result of self-preservation being more productive and eventually getting a promotion). 

Therefore, it is important to reflect on the ways that self-care exists in communities, rather than via individual acts that actually benefit neo-liberal understandings of the self. As Sara Ahmed writes, within a capitalist society that demands giving all of oneself to work and profit, “self-care is about the creation of community, fragile communities, assembled out of the experiences of being shattered.” Care, through this lens, is carving out space for proper connection and support within a society that has denied it to you.

In this post on Feminist Killjoy, Ahmed is writing about queer and anti-racist resistance within a marketized higher education sector, but I think we can apply this analysis to everyday friendships, particularly friendships with women. For instance, my relationship with my friends (many of whom I have known since a really young age) encompasses this definition of self-care. Notably, every year for the past ten years, my friends and I have gone on a group holiday to the countryside, where we spend a week catching up and doing activities like visiting castles, completing ‘GoApe’ high ropes and cooking for each other. Often, my favourite moments of the year are sitting in our holiday garden with a cup of coffee, talking about our lives, laughing about stupid situations we’ve got ourselves into and suggesting solutions for problems we might be having. This is what May refers to as ‘deep friendship,’ which he suggests has the potential to undermine the “dominance of ‘neo-liberal’ economic, political and social structures,” due to creating relationships between equals built on trust, an action that sits in contestation to neo-liberal values of cutthroat individualism and competition. 

After university, it is often presumed that friends will drift into relationships and lose touch; their priorities shift, and their lives become busier with work and family. Indeed, many times when we have turned up to an activity on holiday, we’ve been asked by the group leader if we are a hen-do. This suggests that big groups of adult women don’t often go on holiday together, unless one of them is about to be ‘married off’ and this is their ‘last hurrah.’ There is, of course, nothing wrong with going on a hen-do with your friends, but I find it a sad nod towards the fact that friendship is often not positioned as a priority, whereas romantic relationships are understood as a reflection of a woman’s success. Particularly for women, we are primed to be in competition with each other (often for the attention of men), and so the trope of ‘bitchy’ friends or ‘frenemies‘ pervades many representations of these relationships. 

As such, nurturing these friendships is an act of self-care that promotes personal growth and mutual support, allowing us to “reassemble ourselves through the ordinary, often painstaking work of looking after ourselves, looking after each other.” In an age of austerity, wherein investment in community is positioned as irrational and overly-expensive, friendships are an (albeit minor) act of warfare that draw upon a feminist ethics of care, and resist neo-liberal understandings of an atomistic society.

On resisting

By Charlotte Galpin

CW: sexual harassment

This is a story of resisting as a woman, and as a feminist, in a public space. Of being, to use Sara Ahmed’s words, a feminist killjoy.

I gave a public talk at a university and afterwards I was sexually harassed. What followed my talk was a response to the content of my research, punishment for explicitly naming, challenging, resisting toxic masculinity in public spaces.

My talk drew on initial findings from a small-scale, qualitative study of pro-European activism during Brexit using in-depth interviews. I argued that Brexit, and Euroscepticism more broadly, is deeply gendered. It is, amongst other things, underpinned by a highly confrontational, toxic masculinity in British political culture that has not only marginalised women (and of course also many men and non-binary people who do not conform to cis/heteronormative gender norms) from debates about the country’s future but, through violent online abuse, driven female MPs out of politics altogether.

Pro-European activists, I argued, are not merely opposing the withdrawal of the UK from the EU, they are also resisting this gendered dimension of Brexit. By applying a feminist approach to citizenship, I contended, we can understand the way in which the public sphere, the sphere of politics, of national security and the economy, has traditionally been a masculine space, rooted in colonial notions of the “rational man”, while women are confined to the private sphere of emotions and irrationality, of love, family and sexuality.  Pro-European activists, I maintained, contest Brexit in a number of ways that break down the public/private divide.

One way they do this is in their calls for a kinder and more caring society and economy. I told of the women I have spoken to who have been verbally and even physically abused on the street while campaigning but who show a phenomenal resilience and determination to carry on, to continue their resistance. I spoke of activists who campaign in informal, creative, small and personal ways that allow them to fight back and reclaim public spaces for themselves in the name of Europe.

The first comment. A man at the back, a known trouble maker as I found out later, announced that I had confirmed gender analysis is “complete nonsense”, I should focus on the real problems, immigration and EU bureaucracy. The next questions. This time from the front, from two important, powerful men linked to the institution hosting my talk. Pro-Europeans, actually. Powerful men I had been asked to personally thank in my opening remarks. Their comments wilfully misunderstood my arguments, implied I had intentionally misled the audience, discredited my claims. It is not scientific research, one proclaimed to the audience of 120 people, it lacks statistical analysis, it is not representative. This was a demand for “rationality”, the Enlightenment’s assertion of the natural scientific method. A rejection of the 20th century -male- German sociologists who recognised society cannot be studied using the methods of the natural sciences, that social science should explore subjective experience, values, social norms. The personal, the private, the emotional.

These two important men confirmed and legitimised the response of the first. They did not merely criticise my work, they tried to delegitimise it, to discredit me as a scholar. Declaring my work unscientific, they wanted to exclude me from the academic community, to strip me of my qualifications. A denial of my right to the public space of the university. Their comments were a reaction not just to a woman entering into the public sphere, speaking with authority and a platform. Women may be tolerated in public spaces, after all, if they do not kick up too much of a fuss. If they acquiesce, not shake the boat too much, leave masculine structures intact. They were responding, rather, to a woman who was resisting. One who had openly and explicitly challenged male domination in the public sphere. It was an attempt to discipline, to silence. And it created an environment in which I was subsequently sexually harassed.

A man approached me in the crowd of the wine reception as I split off from another group. How can such a young girl could have the title of Dr already, he asked, was I married, did I have children? No, I answered, but I have a partner, they are here in the room. A shame, he said. When will you be back in the city, hopefully you will not be married by then, he pondered, you really have such a lovely figure. Should we go somewhere together afterwards, just the two of us? I walked away.

In this context, I had been given a platform. I had authority, the power to educate. I had been given a formal introduction. My name and photo appeared on the event posters that guided attendees to the room. Like all forms of sexual assault, this incident was not about my relative attractiveness to this man, but about power, about his need to reduce me to my body, to demean me and objectify me in a context in which I was the one holding the power. But that power had already been challenged. My rightful place there as a scholar had been opposed by powerful, important men. What was left for him was a body to be sexualised, to be transported out of public sight to the private sphere of sexuality. Back to bed, back home, back where I belonged. Silent.

But I will not be silent. And after Britain leaves the EU on Friday, pro-European activists will not be silent either.

Charlotte Galpin is Lecturer in German and European Politics at the University of Birmingham. Her research focuses on the European Public Sphere, European identities, EU citizenship and Euroscepticism. Her monograph, The Euro Crisis and European Identities: Political and Media Discourse in Germany, Poland and Ireland, was published with Palgrave in 2017. Her current research is exploring pro-European mobilisation during Brexit. 

First we grieve, then we organise

Dr. Amelia Morris

person holding red rose
Photo by Hassan OUAJBIR on

For those on the Left, today is a crushing blow. As the exit poll results came in, I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. Being out on the doorsteps these past few months, I had let myself become hopeful and felt like there was a change in the air. The visibility of the suffering caused by the government is now inescapable – whether it be the high numbers of homelessness on the high street, or the public services that are buckling under the strain of cuts – and it truly seemed as though people were ready for something different.

A lot of people will place the blame of this defeat with Jeremy Corbyn, and say that the party lost its way by embracing the ‘far left.’ However, it is naive to think that *if only* we had another leader, with more ‘sensible’ centrist policies, that the establishment would have been kinder. In reality, our country is controlled by the right-wing media, and they have a vested interest in annihilating any politician who is left-wing, or even left-of-centre. For instance, in 2015, Ed Milliband was mercilessly ridiculed, branded a ‘communist’ and nicknamed ‘Red Ed‘ and a ‘Marxoid Creep.’ In response, he leaned into anti-immigration rhetoric (remember the mugs?) in an attempt to appease the right and prove he was ‘tough,’ and lost the election anyway. Additionally, it is funny to think about it now, but in 2005, even the Centrist’s pin-up – Tony Blair – was likened to Stalin and Mao.

This election, it was clear the media are in the pockets of the Conservatives and the billionaires, to name a few examples: BBC journalists falsely claimed that a Labour activist punched Matt Hancock’s aide in the face, a BBC reporter commented that Boris could get the majority “he so deserves,” Question Time was edited to positively reflect Boris Johnson, The Daily Mail and The Sun’s consistent onslaught of Labour (including The Sun’s direct instruction to Vote Conservative) or the false comparison between Jeremy Corbyn not watching the Queen’s speech and Boris Johnson’s lies about privatising the NHS.

The Labour manifesto was brave, empathetic and feminist. It resisted the gaslighting narrative that austerity was inevitable, and that we simply need to accept that 4.1 million children live in poverty or that food banks are a normal part of life in 2019, in one of the riches countries in the world. It was hopeful, and we should not feel ashamed of this, or try and disown it now. In 2018, the UN described the Coalition’s policies as a “systematic immiseration of a significant part of the British population” that had led to conditions similar to the Victorian workhouses. For me, the ‘middle of the road’ approach is fine in usual circumstances, but what about when the road is on fire? As Raoul Martinez argues:

The scale of the crises faced in Britain and the world requires a rapid, bold, ambitious change of direction. Winning this change requires sustained struggle each and every day 

We need to stand firm in the notion that a shift to the right, to appease the Centrist Dad, produces more of the same. It is a palatable option for those who think that we can work with neo-liberal economics, but if the years since the economic crash have shown us anything, it is that the selfishness embedded in the neo-liberal project will take us for everything that we have. It is for this reason that I am really proud of Corbyn, McDonnell, Abbott, Rayner, to name a few. They refused to take left-wing ideas off the table, and have galvanized proper conversations about ‘what if?’ and ‘you don’t have to accept this.’ We can’t let this slip away.

But also, it is important to listen to people. It is clear that, in a lot of cases, this election was about Brexit. Whilst I think Labour’s stance was correct in its nuance and its attempt to bring the country together, it was impossible to cut through the soundbites of ‘Get Brexit Done’ or ‘Cancel Brexit,’ and I spoke to a lot of people who felt “betrayed.” We must reflect, then, on why it is that people feel left behind. I’m not sure I have the answers to this, but I am certain that diluting politics that would bring about real and radical change is not the solution. Rather, we need to reassess the way we communicate these ideas on the ground, and the way we resist the establishment rhetoric and increase awareness of class consciousness.

Most importantly, we need to collectively organise, both locally and nationally. Join a union, volunteer, march or support a foodbank. We have to remember that we are a movement, and that real change never occurs without sustained struggle.

First we grieve, and then we organise.


A feminist critique of the neoliberal university

Roxana Pessoa Cavalcanti

What is the connection between the university strikes, transparency and male entitlement? 

Sixty universities across the UK went on strike for 8 working days over a range of issues including deteriorating pensions, increasing workloads, casualization of work and the gender pay gap.

The strikes are one example of the deleterious effects of the neoliberalization and marketization of universities, and by that I mean issues such as the commodification of education through student fees, increasing staff exploitation and the growing disparity between the pay received by people at the highest ranks, such as vice-chancellors, and people at the lowest pay scales, such as support staff, administrators and lecturers.

Since legislation was passed making it compulsory for large employers to be more transparent and disclose the gender pay gap, universities have had nowhere to hide but yet have not taken adequate measures to achieve equal pay.

This is part and parcel of a long story of inequalities within the ‘ivory tower’. Women are continuously silenced by hidden practices within universities, they are pushed into roles which require more student contact, with the underlying expectation being that they are more ‘nurturing’. We should read here, more exploitable.

Such practices, often seen even in institutions that managed to get what is often treated as the Athena Swan ‘stamp’ of gender equality, are routine and impact our society’s future. The effects are seen in the working lives of our sisters, mothers, daughters and female friends. As well as in the outcomes, content and scope of research. In general, men end up with more time for research, while women end up in lower ranking positions, with few becoming professors. One of the outcomes of this unequal distribution of labour is that in the majority of UK universities most professors are white men.

This situation raises questions about systemic and institutional failures to address existing inequalities in academia. Women have had enough of being silenced, whether this is done by men who won’t shut up, who dominate discussions, who mansplain, or by those who choose not to hear our struggle for justice.

Colleagues and myself have encountered numerous situations in which we are criticized for calling out practices that lack transparency and ultimately hide male privilege and its inherent male sense of entitlement, which is fundamental for maintaining prevailing practices of toxic masculinity at workplaces. The pay gap is only one of the issues we face everyday at universities.

Women continue to pay the reproductive tax

Women in all walks of life continue to pay the reproductive tax, that is to say that the negative impacts of having children on our careers still fall on us. But we are also expected to be the ‘good mother’, work and support our families. This is done through all kinds of social processes and guilt-provoking comments such as ‘don’t you feel bad for not being there for your son/daughter?’, ‘I couldn’t do what you do’, ‘Won’t you have another one?’ and so on.

In the book Do babies matter? Gender and family in the ivory tower (2013), Mary Mason and her co-authors reviewed a number of surveys about women’s careers, tracing thousands of graduate students over their careers. Their central question was ‘why so many women begin the climb but do not make it to the top of the Ivory Tower: full professors, deans, and presidents?’ Their answer was predictable: babies matter. However, while women’s careers were negatively affected by having a baby, men’s careers were not. Moreover, the stage at which women become parents matters, as Mason put it: 

‘The early years are the most decisive in determining who wins and who loses. Female graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who have babies while students or fellows are more than twice as likely as new fathers or than childless women to turn away from an academic research career. They receive little or no childbirth support from the university and often a great deal of discouragement from their mentors.’ 

In an article entitled ‘Gender inequality across the academic life course’, published in the journal Sociology Compass, Sarah Winslow and Shannon Davies showed that women in academia earn less money than their male counterparts, have less time to research, are expected to devote more time to teaching and have lower levels of scholarly productivity.  Academic careers presume an ideal (male) worker without caring or family responsibilities, disembodied from reproductive activities. 

While some men can refuse to take part in work that is not prestigious or well-rewarded within universities – such as administrative tasks, pastoral work and the apparently ‘voluntary’ parts of our job such as weekend attendance to open days – women often feel that they cannot refuse due to their subordinate and precarious positions.

Academic work generates demands that are often incompatible with family life. Yet, our ‘productivity’ is measured with the same scales. So while many women take leave to give birth, raise children, deal with household and family crises, we are still expected to operate a miracle and deal with our unrealistic and excessive workload allocations. The impacts are multiple and women face ingrained prejudices within institutions that remain dominated by men.

In our societies, many men are taught from an early age that they have an innate right to power. Boys are still described as tough, big and strong and treated as having a right to be angry, while girls are still expected to be gentle, pretty and obedient. Emotional and domestic labour are left for women, while men are expected to be protective and dominant. These messages are communicated through children’s books, television, gendered toys, adverts and the media. This is why we need more women to embrace and embody the concept that Sara Ahmed captured with the figure of the ‘feminist killjoy’. 

Being a feminist killjoy

The feminist killjoy complains. She is rightfully angry because of gendered inequalities and prejudices, and uses this anger to challenge and resist the status quo. So here it goes… when men refer to adult women as ‘girls’ – and I have seen this terminology used by male academics more than once – they are infantilizing women in a similar way to how slave masters infantilized male slaves by calling them ‘boys’. We might refer to each other as girls or use the expression ‘girl power’ if we so wish, if our status is not one of subordination, or domination, or unequal relation. Context matters when we use words. 

Let me tell you, being a lecturer is not the prestigious job that some people might image it to be. Our pay has gone down while our workloads have gone up. Our pensions are being gradually taken away from us. Many of us cannot afford to have our own places to live and are being paid on hourly paid contracts and contracts that do not allow union membership, silencing us by impeding us from dissenting and striking. 

Just as the wonderful postcolonial scholar Gayatri Spivak (1988) said of the subaltern: no, we cannot speak when the structures surrounding us impede our voices from being heard. These structures are not set up to do anything about what we say. We cannot speak, when the questions are asked by the dominant, the imperial, the master, who will not listen or understand the answer. 

We need an inclusive feminism for the 99% to smash the colonialist capitalist patriarchy that pushes women, black and ethnic minorities, those in subordinate roles and the weakest members of our societies into increasingly precarious work. When even in the ‘ivory tower’, our workloads are pushed to 96%, 98%, 100%, 110% and so on, the transparency of workload modellers and online managerial tools of workload allocation becomes insufficient to capture the barriers we face. Such allocations provide no leeway for things to go wrong, or for the messiness of family life.

When I am sick, or when my children are ill and I have to spend the night awake with them, my marking does not disappear. The deadline for my preparation for lectures does not get extended. The meetings with my students will still have to happen. I will just have even less time to fit everything in. It is the same with strikes. Our work doesn’t just disappear because we are on strike. Universities are not factories, even if sometimes we joke that we are turning into a ‘sausage factory’. In addition, we will still have our nursery fees to pay, our kids’ childcare costs, and living costs, but we will sacrifice our pay, as we don’t get paid when we strike, to try to have our voices heard. The strike fund doesn’t go far for those of us who are paying high rents, childcare and supporting dependents.

As an early career lecturer with two young children, I get home from work with the task of ensuring the children and fed, bathed, cared for and if I am lucky, I might have finished the housework and washing all their tiny clothes before 10pm so I can either fall asleep out of complete exhaustion or re-open my laptop to continue replying to student emails. That is because, since the marketization of universities, in many disciplines like mine, the staff-student ratio has become untenable. To the point that we will have dozens of personal tutees, run modules with over 250 students and the aftermath of all that can go wrong when we deal with such large groups. I will spare you the details.

Being a parent is not easy. Some of you will know what I mean. Time to decompress is scarce. So when my employer asks me to come in on Saturdays for open days and applicant days, so they can recruit even more students, I have to pay for childcare or negotiate favours with friends. Not only I lose my right to a family life, I also have to pay for it because many universities forget or still haven’t understood the concept of proving a crèche. The structures of universities today are costing people’s health. The neoliberal university and many workplaces in our #metoo era are submerged in the toxic masculinity that is blind to gender, class and racial inequalities.

Senior management act like ‘masters of the castle’ when they treat us like servants who should meet their demands. Their attitude of superiority, making serious decisions without consulting others (or consulting us post-facto to look like they have consulted us), dismissing the opinions, ideas, and feedback of others, taking from others but never giving back, expecting absolute compliance without complaint – all of these examples are part of what we call ‘male entitlement’. And this is not to say that there aren’t feminist, kind and reasonable people in universities, of course there are some. Many of our wonderful male colleagues would agree with this feminist critique of the neoliberal university. It also does not mean that inequalities have disappeared if a handful of white women climb to the top.

What can we do?

Be feminist killjoys, be angry, dissent, resist and say no. Universities need to be more proactive to stimulate understanding and knowledge about gendered challenges and strategies to deal with these. 

Institutions need policies that facilitate work-life balance for all. Confronting institutional racism, sexism and reconciling the competing demands that disproportionately affect women are challenging tasks that require systematic strategies at institutional, policy, legal and governmental levels to address the perpetuation of inequalities. 

One step that could be taken now is to begin to address the pay gap. Another would be to stop silencing women, educate and encourage everyone to avoid gender-blindness. Finally, and since women’s circumstances are often different to those of the ‘ideal male worker’, women in universities need to be granted more research time while the burdens of administrative and pastoral tasks need to be distributed more equally within universities.

Roxana Pessoa Cavalcanti is a British-Brazilian academic researching issues relating to power, control and violence with an interest in postcolonial theory, gender and inequality. Her book A Southern Criminology of Violence,Youth and Policing is set for publication with Routledge in 2020. She teaches Criminology at the University of Brighton and tweets via @roxycavalcanti. 

The Politics of Weight: Feminist Dichotomies of Power in Dieting

Amelia Morris

In recent weeks, celebrities who promote dieting products on social media websites have been heavily criticised by both medical professionals and campaigners. Professor Stephen Powis, an NHS medical director, argues that celebrities who advertise dieting pills and detox teas are causing irreversible damage to young people, who may seek to lose weight using “ineffective” and potentially “harmful” dieting products. Jameela Jamil, an actress and campaigner for body positivity, supported this by describing the celebrities who promote dieting products as a “terrible and toxic influence on young girls.” In essence, this argument suggests that stars who use their status to capitalise on idealised notions of femininity have negative influences over women’s understandings of their bodies. Women will see these adverts and follow suit, drinking “laxative teas” until they are a Size 6.

But, is it really this simple?

Do women, especially young girls, blindly follow diets, just because their favourite celebrity posted a picture with a FlatTummyTea or an ‘appetite-suppressant’ lolly? Additionally, are they aware of the gendered discourses underpinning these messages? Or do they just know that they want/need to be thin, but aren’t sure why? If it is the former, is it ever possible to exist outside of these narratives, if one rejects dieting and embraces their body?

It is important to note that I am not in support of celebrities advertising these products and I believe that the concerns raised by the aforementioned individuals are valid. However, the moral panic and somewhat paternalistic framing of the impact these celebrities may have on young girls is interesting when one considers it through a discussion of power.

Within feminist theory, the body is a site of debate, and these discussions often become centred upon a dichotomy between oppression and liberation. Whilst there is a vast diversity of work that challenges this binary including post-colonial, post-structuralist and Marxist feminist work, the dichotomy nevertheless endures. For instance, whilst some radical feminist scholars (for example Germaine Greer) maintain that beauty are a symbol of patriarchal ideals that restrict and harm the body, some liberal feminists (for example Katie Roiphe) view the same practises as a vessel for individualised empowerment.

In my upcoming book, The Politics of Weight: Feminist Dichotomies of Power, I argue that the ‘feminine’ body is not simply a site of oppression or liberation. Rather, drawing upon the intersections that exist between Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and post-structuralist feminist work on the body, the book speaks to discussions of power through the lens of dieting and weight. By this, I mean to highlight the complexities surrounding women’s relationship to the body; they are not simply “cultural sponges” of power.

For my research, I firstly spoke to members of Slimming World and Weight Watchers, self-confessed dieters who are on a mission to become slim, seemingly on the ‘oppression’ side of the debate. The dieting journey itself is presented as a transition from a ‘bad’ to ‘good’ body, in which women who are ‘repenting’ for their ‘sins’ (or Syns if you are a member of Slimming World) are encouraged to meet weekly to ‘confess’ to one another about their potential transgressions, individualising the responsibility to lose weight. However, many participants themselves grappled with the complexities of dieting: whilst women took part in practices of self-surveillance (e.g monitoring/weighting their food or exercising compulsively), they were still critical of body narratives. Some participants highlighted the constructs of femininity in the media (citing the bodies they had seen in magazines, for instance), noting that they were aware of the gendered reasonings behind their dieting. This highlights the idea that women are not “fully complicit in their own subordination” (Sedgwick, 2014, p.28), but that they are active participants in their own gendered narratives. Indeed, it demonstrates the power of gendered norms; despite being critical of the idealised notions of femininity that form the foundations of dieting, these women still desired thinness.

Next, I interviewed members of the fat activist movement. In a very broad sense, this refers to a social movement which wants fat people (in particular women) to feel good about themselves through a rejection of dieting and slimming narratives. My thoughts prior to speaking with these women were that they have been successful in existing outside the panoptic gaze of society. However, the activists I spoke to still felt compelled to lose weight from time-to-time, demonstrating the impossibility to exist ‘outside’ constructs of dieting and gender, with one activist commenting that this made her feel like both a failure as a woman and a fat activist. This reflects how whilst one can carve out spaces of resistance, it is not enough to achieve liberation from the discourses of femininity. Indeed, for some of my participants, ‘coming out as fat’ cannot free them from ‘oppressive’ structures, but acts as a way of disrupting discourses surrounding female fatness.

Whilst celebrities who promote dieting products should not be free of criticism, they perhaps make easy targets for our scorn. It is easier to blame Kim Kardashian’s appetite-suppressant lolly for young women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies, then looking critically at the way in which we discuss and construct gender in its entirety. To me, it feels a bit like putting a plaster over a gaping wound that needs stitches; it doesn’t get to the root of the problem. Indeed, to suggest that one can simply remove themselves from dieting structures or gender in general is naive. This often leaves women (myself included), feeling like a ‘bad’ feminist when we succumb to the temptations that weight-loss seems to offer. Here, as I do in my book, I feel it is pertinent to end this blogpost with a quote from Roxanne Gay, who inadvertently encompasses the sentiments of my research and my outlook on feminism:

I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying – trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself: a woman who loves pink and likes to get freaky and sometimes dances her ass off to music she knows, she knows, is terrible for women and who sometimes plays dumb with repairmen because it’s just easier to let them feel macho than it is to stand on the moral high ground.

Whilst we cannot exist outside of gendered structures, we can cast a critical eye over them, reflecting on our own imperfections and the ways in which gendered narratives have shaped our (potentially) negative behaviours. I hope that my book might highlight these complexities, ‘muddying the waters’ in conversations on the politics of the body.

Amelia Morris is a UK-based scholar researching interdisciplinary political science and political economy with an interest in gender, the body, weight, austerity and inequality. The Politics of Weight: Feminist Dichotomies of Power in Dieting is set for publication with Palgrave Macmillan in 2019. She tweets via @AGMorris. 

[Reposted from PSA Women and Politics Specialist Group]

Home improvement stores and everyday microaggressions

By Thais Bessa

I just moved to a new house with my family and we are at that stage of fixing things up, painting walls, etc, which requires frequent visits to home improvement stores. In my house, I do all the DIY jobs, be them assembling furniture, decorating, building, or fixing stuff. My husband hates these jobs and is not good at them, I love them and do a good job. So it has always been a no-brainer in our family: he watches the kids whilst I fix, build, paint, whatever is needed. It has become our inside joke that we defy this particular gender stereotype.

However it turns out the world is not our little bubble and it took me a while to realise that the home improvement and DIY arenas are male dominated. I mean, it seems so obvious to me now, but it took me a while to connect the dots. Back in 2011 I went out for dinner with my husband and a few of his co-workers and their partners. As we and another couple had just bought our first houses, at some point the conversation turned to home improvement. I remember saying that I had just built some shelves, removed wallpaper and repainted most rooms. The guy laughed and made a comment to the tune that by me I meant my husband. When I said no he widened his eyes and said (to this day I remember his exact words) “oh my wife doesn’t do this type of things, she is very delicate”. He looked at me with a mix of contempt and disgust and started talking to someone else.

I never though much of it, but over the years I have seen so many female friends complaining they needed to wait for their male partner to come home to hang a picture or fix something that broke. They often laughed at their own helplessness, often using the infamous expression “honey-do-list”, which according to the Urban Dictionary is “a lists of chores and/or errands given to a man by his wife or girlfriend”. I follow a fair number of home improvement blogs, a lot of them run by couples (it seems to be a very successful formula). Come to think of it, for the vast majority of them, there is indeed a formula: the woman takes care of the homemaking side of things, including creative design and organising, whilst the man does the “hard work” of building, fixing, and wrangling heavy tools. The gendered representation is clear: men provide shelter, meaning they build the physical home where the “family” (aka children and women) are to be kept. That domestic realm is then passed on to the women to “make the house a home”. Building and tools belong to men; cooking, cleaning and crafting nice things belong to women.

In this sense, home improvement stores are the site where this representation of masculinity is materialised. In hindsight, I now see that every time in my life I went to a home improvement store in any country, 80-90% of people there were men. I vaguely remember occasions when I was perusing the isles in search of a particular tool or supply and being approached by a salesMAN or a “concerned” fellow (male) shopper asking me if I was ok, if I knew what I wanted or if I needed help (and in several occasions the tone was rather patronising). I had never noticed these actions to have any meaning beyond well-intentioned offers of help, and I am sure in same cases it may have been. But they did have a meaning. They meant “you are out of your depth here, you are out of your place. Big tools are dangerous for fragile female hands”.

However, recently I experienced that if this type of store is the site of expression of “masculinity”, it is also where sexual harassment and everyday microaggressions take place. A few weeks ago I went to The Home Depot near me (the main home improvement store in America, similar to B&Q in the UK) to pick up a few supplies. An employee approached me and asked me where I was from. I was taken aback by the question and I should have asked why the heck he was asking that. But I simply answered “Brazil”. He immediately proceeded to tell me in Spanish (sigh) that I was a very beautiful woman, accompanied by a sleazy grim. I was so shocked I just walked away, but I spent the rest of the day mad at myself for not having said anything back.

Fast forward to one or two Saturdays later and I had to go back to the same store. This time I was with my husband and children as we were on our way to somewhere else. We needed quite a few things and decided to divide and conquer. He went to get some stuff with the children and I went to the painting department to ask for a special mix. I approached the employee behind the counter and began to explain what I needed. I had not uttered more than 4 or 5 works when another employee came from the back and started to talk to his colleague in a very locker-room manner. He pointed at me and said “this one is trouble, did you know that? Just look at her and you can see this woman is trouble”. He did not mean it as costumer-who-complains kind of trouble. His tone, body language and again sleazy grim meant a not so subtle sexual innuendo. I immediately remembered what had happened to me at that exact same damn store a few days before and my blood boiled. This time I did not stay quiet. I told him I did not appreciate that type of comment, to which he OF COURSE replied “calm down, I was only joking”. I said that it was not an appropriate joke for a costumer (again in hindsight I should have said not appropriate to any woman or human being for that matter). I thanked them and walked away. As I found my family I was shaking. I told my husband what happened and he asked me if I wanted him to go tell them off, which he meant well but made me angrier. In order to go to the cashiers to pay we had to pass by the painting department, where the two employees were. As they saw me walking with my family they turned pale and avoided my eyes that were firing daggers at them. But they were probably not ashamed from having made sleazy comments to me because I am a human being who deserves respect. No, they were embarrassed because it turns out I was not a woman alone, I had a man with me. I felt furious and humiliated because it may seem small, but these everyday microaggressions matter. They build up, they hurt, they bring a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness. So many spaces are still hostile to women and if they dare to enter such spaces they are to be mocked or harassed – or rescued. But most of all I felt a deep sense of sadness to look at my two young daughters and realise they are unfortunately most likely to go through things like this, through harassment, discrimination, and violence, be them big or small.

Redistribute exorbitant vice-chancellor and dean salaries to close the gender pay gap

By Anonymous Contributor

Across the UK there is a wave of collective action by women working in other industries demanding equal pay for equal work and it is now time for academics to join in. The time for committees and working groups has passed and now is the time for women academics to make equal pay claims that will actually mean that universities have to financially compensate them.

Gender pay gaps in UK academia exist because universities often start male academics on higher salaries than female academics because deans and heads of department have the discretion to determine starting pay. This is despite women having to meet the same selection criteria as men in order to be hired as lecturers, readers or professors in the UK. Universities also tend to promote women more easily, forcing women to jump through more stringent hoops to get the same promotion. This is why actual salary data show that the average male academic earns £3,000 to £8,000 or more each year than the average female academic.

That gap in pay is unfair and wrong. Losing £3,000 to £8,000 a year is a lot of money and it can make a real difference to UK academics’ quality of life in a country with excessive property prices and childcare costs that average £9,000 per child per year for parents working full time.

Women academics’ pay can be improved by redistributing money from the obscene salaries paid to university deans, vice-chancellors (VCs) and other senior managers. Many of them earn excessive salaries of £300,000+ per year from the public purse yet ordinary academics earn 15% or less of that. Not even our UK Prime Minister earns that sort of exorbitant salary.

The collective action in other industries involves organising collective equal pay claims using no win no fee employment lawyers who demand compensation for women affected. This is what we need to start doing as academics.

Collective lawsuits by women academics will force organisations to pay any affected women back-dated compensation dating up to 6 years in England. If you would like to do this, the steps to doing that are:

  1. Write to your university’s HR department and make an equal pay claim by stating your current salary and the salary of something called a male comparator. In UK equality law you need to name just oneexample of a male academic who does equal work to you (or work of equal value) in the same university. That is what is called a ‘male comparator.’
  2. If your university rejects your equal pay claim, contact ACAS to attempt further negotiation.
  3. If your university still refuses, hire a no win no fee employment lawyer to take your case to court.
  4. It would be even better if you can do steps 1 to 3 collectively, as a group of women affected. It will strengthen your equal pay – this is what women in other sectors are doing.
  5. If you win, the court will order your university to compensate you for 6 years in back-pay (or less if you have worked there for fewer years). For example, a woman who has worked in university X for 3 years and has been underpaid by £5,000 a year can win compensation of £15,000.
  6. This strategy will cost universities money and it will teach them a lesson of (a) not starting women academics on lower salaries than men for equal work and (b) thinking twice before holding back women from promotion.

We are also encouraging you to sign a petition in which we ask the UK’s Minister for Women and Equalities (Penny Mordaunt) to introduce a new fine system in which any university that fails to process an equal pay claim in accordance with equal pay law has to pay a fine to the government. That will discourage universities from being negligent. We would also like the government to set up a free telephone helpline with trained advisors to advise women about equal pay claims free of charge because not every academic is a union member.

In the petition we ask the Prime Minister (Theresa May) to please introduce a new policy of fining any university that loses an equal pay claim so that the public can recoup the wasted legal costs of employment tribunals. The threat of a fine will discourage universities from wasting the public legal process if they know they are in the wrong and, instead, to settle at the ACAS stage or before. We would also like the government to introduce a new policy that will require any university loses a case at an employment tribunal to pay the employee’s legal costs.

Finally, we urge Prime Minister Theresa May to compel universities to close the gender pay gap by redistributing the exorbitant salaries of vice-chancellors, deans and others overpaid university employees so that the money can fix the problem of women academics being underpaid relative to men.

Please support this petition for equal pay for equal work (or work of equal value) in UK universities by going to please pass this weblink on to your friends and colleagues via Facebook, Twitter, e-mail and anywhere else. Thank you.

Author:A feminist academic organising collective action for equal pay in her university