“Bad feminist”: Does my body-shame make me a hypocrite?

Anonymous contributor

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Image credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/da/LA2-vx06-konsthallen-skulptur.jpg

For years, I have been engaged in a strict routine of intense body shame, rigorous exercise and restrictive eating habits. I’m aware of why; I’m adhering to a strict set of rules pushed upon me by sociocultural factors that bombard women with the notion that slim equals success. However, does this knowledge and awareness of my actions make me a “bad” feminist?

Until I was 19, I was “fat” and incredibly uncomfortable in my own skin. I remember standing in front of the mirror at my parent’s house, trying on multiple outfits that would make me feel less “lumpy”, only to tear them from my body and cry on my bed in despair. It wasn’t until entering my first year at university that I discovered running. I started gradually, trudging along the canals by my halls and wheezing on walls when I felt out of breath (which was often). I kept going, gradually shrinking my body to a Size 8 and exercising every day, eventually joining a running club and completing three marathons.

I’m not sure when my relationship with exercise changed from a passion to an obsession. My fear of returning to the “old” me – disgusting, lazy and unattractive – now overrides all rational. If I can’t exercise for 1-2 hours a day, I feel a crippling swell of anxiety and fear. If I eat something specifically calorific or “bad” then I feel an obligation to add minutes onto a run or time at the gym.

I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve missed social occasions with family and friends in favour of pushing myself further in my workouts. I’ve been fired from various part-time jobs for being consistently late due to “needing” to stay in the gym an extra half an hour. At my worst moments, I’ve had debilitating panic attacks when trying to get through small spaces for fear that I “won’t fit” or that someone is looking at me and “judging” my body. For years, these tendencies have been like a low hum in the background of my life that dictate my daily routine and have threatened many of my close relationships.

The most crippling part is that I feel like I cannot discuss these issues with anyone. Firstly, there is a personal fear of being viewed as self-absorbed and shallow; a white, middle-class woman with nothing to worry about except her appearance.

There is also the fear that, as a feminist, I am engaging with and being affected by the practices which I critique for being inherently oppressive to women. Does this make me a hypocrite, a “bad” feminist, even a “traitor”? Do I need to resist engagement with these practices in order to be considered a “good” feminist?

Feminists have written extensively about how women are subject to a pervasive “beauty myth” that extolls the virtues of having the “perfect” body. Scholars such as Wolf, Penny, Orbach and McRobbie discuss the cultural anxieties that have been legitimized due to a “fat-phobic” media that only permits “small” and “tight” bodies (Penny, 2011; Wolf, 1991).

Some queer “fat activists” engage in individualized acts of empowerment, claiming that women need to resist the desire to conform to the “slim” ideal, instead embracing “self-love.” This can be done by “coming out” as fat in order to break the taboo of silence that pervades being a fat woman. In this sense, women are encouraged to “quit dieting and declare a truce” with their bodies (Harding, 2009; Atkins, 2012; Sedgwick, 1993). Many activists have taken to social media, uploading sexualised images of themselves in clothing traditionally reserved for “slim” women to demonstrate their “liberation” from the restrictive boundaries set by the media.

On the fat-o-sphere, an inclusive collection of blogs and articles from fat activists, one activist detailed her decision to have weight-loss surgery. Whilst the majority of the comments in response to the article were supportive, some comments questioned her ability to remain on the site. One responder stated:

Go away. You are not in charge. You do not speak with or for us. You do not belong here. You are not in the Fat Acceptance movement” (Meleo-Erwin, 2011).

This implies that those within the fat acceptance movement should be capable of ignoring the sense of guilt, shame and self-hatred that comes with being a woman who does not conform to the “ideal.” But, what if you cannot escape these feelings? Does this make you less of a feminist? Should they simply be cast out and branded a “traitor” as this activist was? Surely, this re-writes the rules for how women should be ashamed of their bodies in a different, but still oppressive, manner.

Moreover, overarching structures and norms are so ubiquitous and powerful that it feels necessary, almost natural, to engage with them. We should not dismiss feminists who feel worn-down and pressured into feeling “accepted” or “normal.”

We can understand and detest these norms but still succumb to them. This demonstrates that whilst we can attempt to rebuke damaging concepts of “beauty” on an individual level, change needs to come from the wider socioeconomic factors. Instead of feeling ashamed of our obligation to engage with normalised practices, we must widen our focus to attack a system which make women feel unworthy of happiness unless they fit this “ideal”.

Work cited:

Atkins, D. (2012). Looking queer: Body image and identity in lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender communities. London. Routledge.

Penny, L. (2011). Meat market: Female flesh under capitalism. Winchester. John Hunt Publishing.

Sedgwick, E. K. (1993). Tendencies. USA. Duke University Press.

Meleo-Erwin, Z. C. (2011). ‘A beautiful show of strength’: Weight loss and the fat activist self. Health:, 15(2), 188-205.

Wolf, N. (2013). The beauty myth: How images of beauty are used against women. London. Random House.

Remembrance Day and the poppy: reflections from a militarized feminist

Amanda Chisholm

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Image credit: Charlotta Wasteson

Looking back on last week’s Remembrance Services and the poppy appeal I feel like a terrible feminist. Having served in the Canadian military, personally knowing people who have died or have been severely injured through military service, and now being married to a former serving soldier, my need to pay homage to my friends, family and my personal history becomes more salient this time of year. In fact, it is something that never leaves me. For those military friends of mine who posted pictures and statements on social media, Remembrance Day was, and remains, profoundly emotional. Captured best I think on a friend’s Facebook wall post, who is currently a serving soldier:

We don’t remember because we have to, we remember because we can’t forget, even if we want to we don’t allow ourselves to. For us remembering is a duty, like being on permanent radio watch, we listen, try not to fall asleep and we know right around the time we are about to pass out, we will feel a tap on our shoulder as our buddy is now up to hold the torch, to keep guard so we can rest, then just like that it’s time to get up and start over…we will never forget, we will always look out for each other; our poppy is all of this.

For anyone who has experienced first hand military operations and occupations, Remembrance Day is deeply personal. But for the public consciousness, what exactly did we remember? Well firstly, we remembered the fallen (largely male) soldiers, the women who served with and supported them as family, their extreme sacrifices, and how such sacrifices afforded us the political, social and economic freedom we have today.

Yet there was also a lot that we failed to remember. We certainly failed to remember the vast amount of colonial armies who fought in brutal battles on behalf of the British Empire. We failed to remember the comfort women and prostitutes who continue to feature in military operations. Perhaps most importantly, we failed to connect how such practices of remembering also sustain militarization, and go beyond Remembrance Services, to other practices of military nostalgia—which in it’s various guises and practices has been proved to be terrible for women and the vast majority of men.

Remembering Remembrance Day this way reinforces an everyday militarism in us all which, in Enloe’s words, “is a step-by-step process” that has yet to be fully understood and which results in marginalizing any voice or claim to knowledge that is not rooted in a masculine/male military authority. It allows for military spending as necessary while welfare services continue to wither away. It enables particular military operations to continue despite the growing mental costs to the soldiers and their families. It also makes possible the vast and growing private military and security industry that reinforces problematic gendered relations. Importantly though, militarization fundamentally depends upon these performative acts of remembering.

If, as Enloe claims, the ways militarization works remain illusive to us, how do we know when we are being militarized and how do we reverse or roll it back? These questions are not novel. Peace studies and International Relations feminists continue to grapple the contestations and seductions of militarization. My own life history with militarization is marred with such ambivalences between desire and repulsion. I began my entanglements with militarization as many young Canadians. At school every year we would be responsible for hosting the Remembrance Day service in our school gym. A part of this event was to make posters of poppies and other scenes of war and to remember the (male) soldiers of WWI and WWII—whom at the time I personal knew none and had no immediate connection, but was told remembering remains important because these men died for my freedom. As a student body, we recited the poem “In Flanders Field” and we were encouraged to empathize with what it would have been like to be those young men, far away from home, fighting in brutal conditions for our freedoms.

Growing up in rural Canada I was always physically active. I was drawn to the military in my mid teens because of the idea that we could get paid to camp and to do various physical activities. At a Careers Day in our local high-school I was seduced by a military recruiter and had plans to become a military infantry officer. The images of the soldiers actively climbing walls, firing guns, and rolling in the dirt, decontextualized from how such activities are in support of preparing for violence, appealed to me as something fun. These training images juxtaposed to the blue helmet peacekeeper images made me feel that it was also a privilege and an honour to serve in such a role that ensured peace and enabled development for those less fortunate than myself.

I did not join the infantry in the end but instead became a military medic. Contrary to my high-school seductions, my time as a soldier was more as a personal struggle. It was the first time I recall that my gender really mattered in defining who I was and what I could achieve. From being called a “mouse” when calling out drill commandments during parade to being looked upon with astonishment by my fellow soldiers when I “acted” like one of them during intense physical competitions, to being told I only joined the army to “find a man or leave a man”—a statement directed at all women, I was reminded that while I served, I was never really a soldier.

These gendered comments were not just directed at me, but to my fellow female soldiers and other women who supported the military, some commentary of which I actively participated in. Women who were deemed unattractive or too masculine were called “Lesbos” or “Dykes” and attractive women had to watch who they talked to or spent time with for fear of being accused of being “slutty”. The wives of male colleagues also looked at us female soldiers with suspicion and hostility. They couldn’t “get” why we were in the army. Wives, alternatively, were also viewed as trouble within the military ranks. We joked about officer wives, lamenting the ones who “thought they wore their husband’s rank”.

Of course none of these personal testimonies are new or shocking for people who study the military. Feminists have argued consistently that the military and militarization is bad for women and indeed some women experienced far worse banter and abuse than I did. For me, experiencing such behaviour first hand made me realize that the military is a place where I as a woman would never fully belong and a place I no longer wanted to be apart of. It was not until much later that I understood the larger militarized politics surrounding my military experiences.

Leaving the military did not mean I left militarization behind. It only meant that my entanglements with it changed. I still attended military services. I still believed the military, although heavily misogynistic, was integral to global security and it could be reformed by adding more women. My questioning of the military as naturally suited for the roles it performed began during my first feminist class in university. This is where I learned the language that allowed me to articulate my own experiences and, for the first time, to realize I was never the problem to be fixed; rather, it was the military and militarization that was the problem. In many ways the military I believe set me on my path to feminism. It showed me in blatant everyday ways the hostility the military and militarization has to women (and many men) who do not comply—who see and act in the world differently.

Yet my anger with how militarization denied me a voice and conditioned my own possibilities within the military did not alter my overall belief that that the military remained necessary. The revelations that the military needed to be radically reshaped came later on and after an MA in politics that focused explicitly focused on feminist theory. It was then that I was given the knowledge and language to see the profoundly problematic nature of militarization and the opportunities that demilitarization could bring.

Despite my personal politics of demilitarization, I remain embedded in military culture, and as an unfortunate or perhaps necessary product, militarized. Of course I’m more knowledgeable about it’s processes, I still recognized my own material benefits and complicity in its reproduction. I married a former soldier who now works in the private security industry. My education was paid for in part through his work and he is able to continue to work in the industry because of the support I provide him. As an academic, I still remained fascinated with military and security operations, which has taken me to Afghanistan and embedded me in heavily militarized spaces where once again my voice as a female speaking academic becomes marginalized and considered cute or naïve.

I recognize that these encounters seem banal, deeply personal and even contradictory. I face them on a regular basis, specifically when asked: can you be a feminist dedicated to demilitarization and have a partner who works in the security industry? The answer is not straightforward, but neither is our overcoming militarization. It is through revealing these contestations and locating the everyday militarism that we see how our understandings of “the international” are made possible. Feminists are great at reminding us that it is when we normalize military authority, privilege military masculine ways of knowing, and believe our world is only safe and free when we are fiercely protected by (male) soldiers and masculine states that we reinforce militarization.

Briefly detailing my entanglements demonstrates both the overtness and subtleties of militarization. It also reinforces a need for us as feminists to be more reflectivity in articulating how militarization is sustained in our own everyday. Such a commitment is important because if we are to demilitarize, we need to firstly understand our own complicated histories with militarization. Perhaps then we can remember Remembrance Day differently—one where our imagining of peace and war challenges militarization.

The Instagram aesthetic of gender

Sophie Harman

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Australian female leaves instagram: internet gets in a tizzy about it. And so it happens on the internet. There are worst things happening in the world to get upset about and the response to Essena O’Neill leaving Instagram does bring out the Lukacs need for realism in me (mainly because I have spent the morning reading him, not because philosophers and their arguments easily spring to my mind). However my annoyance at the whole O’Neill affair is much simpler: her expose of the obvious beat me to it. You see like O’Neill, I too have been conducting an instagram experiment. Our methods may have been different but our conclusions are very much the same. While O’Neill posted carefully crafted and filtered pictures of herself to her 612,000 followers, I posted hastily taken and lightly filtered pictures of the books I read to my 43 followers. Her followers are her admirers from around the world, mine are friends that discovered ‘oh that weird book thing is you.’

I started my Instagram account in the New Year first an experiment to see how many books I read in one year (thus far not as many as I thought I did). However after the first few posts, it became blindingly obvious no-one cares about books on social media (or at least the books I read), what people care about is boobs, avocados, sunset and coffee. I am veggie and love avocados, I have boobs, I am fortunate to travel to countries with awesome sunsets, and I live in a part of London that is being rapidly gentrified so good coffee with a pretty pattern is available on every corner. I could have been an instagram sensation! However, the more I posted about books, the more my account became a one-woman mission to promote books-not-boobs-or-avocados on social media. The more I posted, the more I didn’t want likes or followers, so as to prove my theory that people care more about boobs and avocados than books. Of course, as I proved my theory on the one side I was having to grapple with how I would prove the other point – avocados no problem, sucking my cheeks in with a waist-trainer, cleavage and pout more of a problem. Fortunately O’Neill has done that for me. She posted carefully managed pictures of herself and her body and got the followers and the likes. She is the opposite to my book experiment. This, dear readers, is a relief as I don’t think I could manage even one post of putting pictures of just myself on the internet. I rate myself (and so it would seem does the odd pervy male academic – yuck! Will save that vignette for another post) but I have no interest in being liked for anything other than my good company with gin and views on global health politics. So thanks to Essena, I don’t have to. Hypothesis tested!

However, there was one odd thing about my experiment. I have been reading a lot about aesthetics and politics. With each post I added the hashtag #aesthetics. I added hashtags to all my posts to provide a control for my experiment, even though I was not wanting likes, I would still perform the functions necessary to get them so as not to bias the whole thing (clearly I made this up as I went along, I’m going to label it innovative method, because if I don’t no-one will take me seriously). Every time I added #aesthetics I would instantly get a range of likes, all of which came from Instagram users with sculpted male torsos. I won’t post their names as that would be unfair, but looking at their accounts I would suggest they were less interested in Bleiker, Virilio, or Ranciere, but more interested in their own sculpted body aesthetic. And this is when I came to the same blindingly obvious realisation that O’Neill did: instagram is a vacuous look at me space of desperate insecurity. But more than that, instagram is about shaping an aesthetic of gender: to be a woman on instagram you need to be sufficiently Kardashianed – contoured and waist-trained – and to be a man on instagram you need to be a really muscly, protein shake addict (okay I need to work on this phrase).

I am surely not the first person to point this out, and news articles surrounding O’Neill highlight the growing concern this instagram aesthetic of gender is having on teenagers. However this is aesthetic is not limited to the world of social media but of course has implications for the real world. A quick (and it often is quick) visit to my gym often attests the impact such as aesthetic is having on men and their bodies. On a night bus or the last tube many women wear the same make-up styles, and students in my lectures don’t roll in wearing joggers and a beanie but have a full face of contoured make up ready for a night out. Whilst I am appreciative of them making an effort for me (it is about me, right?) and I too wear make-up when lecturing, I am worried about the pressure it puts on them and the need to always be looking like their life is all sunsets and avocados. I don’t want them to worry about what they look like, I want them to worry about the books they read.

Sophiebiblioteca @bibliotecasophie