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Feminist Cred

 Today’s post comes from Clare, who blogs at Apocalypse Bakery. She’d like to offer you a cup of tea and some cake, but is still waiting for technical advances to make that possible through the internet. Clare spends most of her energy on community transformation, theology, baking and sewing, and gets it back through cuddles, comic books and cups of tea.

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I’ve never really understood street cred, probably because it’s not about understanding but more about having…and I’ve certainly never had any. Or any kind of cred for that matter, probably because I worry so much about fitting in and being accepted that I’m just left standing there with my mouth open.  Sometimes I feel this way about feminism – as soon as I talk about being a feminist I wonder if I’m being checked out for my ‘feminist cred’. I wonder if I’m ‘feminist enough’, what aspects of my life might be scrutinised or dismissed because it doesn’t quite match up to the ‘feminist gold standard’ that I have created in my head. For the most part, I think this is internal control; I monitor my own credentials for belonging to any movement or group as I always wonder if I’m good enough to be there, to wear the badge. At the same time I think it is because like other feminists or pro-feminists, I’m working on what feminism means in my own context, how it relates to my other beliefs and actions, and how to relate to other people who own that name for themselves.

Feminism is a wonderfully varied movement, not just in the historical progression of first, second and third wave feminism, but also in the ways that people have different ways of understanding what feminism means to them.  Being aware of the diversity of feminism has, I hope, lessened some of the feelings about judging whether other people are really truly feminist or not. There will always be ways in which this is questioned: can you be a feminist and be married, religious, right-wing, or male? I struggle a lot when feminism becomes an excluding discourse, or when there is a sense of needing to prove that you are worthy of the title, that your brand is as powerful as the rest.

However, I’m also aware of where feminism can be an overly including discourse. I’ve been in plenty of conversations where a woman has said she isn’t a feminist, only to be asked if she supports equal pay and if she does, she’s informed that she is, in fact, a feminist.  I struggle with this just as much – I don’t want feminism to be about the lowest common denominator; I don’t believe feminism is reducible to just a single issue or to the experiences of being female in today’s society. We cannot confuse a part with the whole. I also don’t want to call others feminist who don’t want the label just because they happen to be pro-feminist on certain issues as I think this can be a way that criticisms and concerns about areas of feminism and feminist ethics are sometimes avoided or dismissed.

I want feminism to be personal – I want to recognise that people have a different way of relating to feminism, different understandings of what it means to them and different ways of carrying out those practices. But I do also want it to be about some kind of safe, bounded community with a sense of belonging where questions can be well asked about what is important. I don’t want feminism to become so general that the term verges into meaninglessness.  I also don’t want to see feminism being so individualised that it no longer connects to systematic and social issues; we risk diminishing connection to the world by making feminism a purely therapeutic, private exercise. I don’t know…perhaps I’m just being contrary for wanting this kind of balance, for wanting a deeply personal and radically political feminism, one that is inclusive and has distinct identity, one that has strong theoretical roots and a practical outworking?

I think there’s also a huge amount to be said for understanding that feminism is not a monolithic thing, particularly when it comes to a sense of feminist consciousness. It’s interesting to see the reaction to writers, artists or celebrities who have been thought of as feminist when they produce work that is judged as potentially demeaning, or less-than-feminist in some way. Professing feminism doesn’t mean that we all agree all the time, or that all of the things we say have reached some ideal standard – especially the standards that we set for ourselves.

Jean Vanier – the founder of the L’Arche community – talks about how even the most loving and accepting of people can have unloving or even negative reactions to people who are different to them – noting the number of people he’d met whose caring or accepting consciousness did not extend to his friends with developmental disabilities. In this way, any one may have blind spots in their consciousness – whether in responding to people who are different to them, or areas of speech, language and action that a sense of feminist/liberative consciousness has not reached. Ultimately, I think you probably can’t figure this out until you say or do something that brings light to these kinds of reactions. But we should never be so afraid of judgement that we fail to act or to open our mouths. Yes, we should think through what we are saying first, but the fear of not being feminist or radical or caring enough should not keep anyone from speaking up or acting out.

I realised the other day that I’m likely to say ‘female minister’ about a clergyperson who identifies as a woman, yet I’d be less likely to do the equivalent and say ‘male minister’  – showing that I probably still see certain roles as male and women as the exception.  And yes, there have been numerous moments in which I’ve judged someone else for their comments or actions when they claim to be feminist/pro-feminist. And I’m sure there will be many more moments like this too.

I’m also aware that sometimes I tend to see feminism as an overarching system that can incorporate other gender, sexuality or race based movements rather than recognising something like womanism, queer theory or mujerista theology as standing on their own terms.  I am the white, middle classed woman who got into feminism as academic theory, and, yes, the criticisms of feminism ignoring the oppressions of race, class and sexuality hit home, even if I’m pushing my practice, creating change in the communities I work in, and dialoguing with people who have a different take on feminism. And my blind spots do come up as I meet people different to me – it’s something I’m working on.

What I’m saying is that my critical consciousness – like other people’s – is still a work in progress when it comes to gender, sexuality, race, ability, age, class and poverty.

I really don’t think that I’m aiming for perfect gold standard of ‘complete feminist attainment’ namely because, as I’ve said above, feminism is a wonderfully broad and diverse set of ideas and practices. Rather, I think open dialogue and self-awareness set us in good stead for both finding our blind spots and for figuring out our own perceptions of the boundaries of what we mean when we are talking about being a feminist. I think we must be continuously engaged in these practices of consciousness-raising – in ourselves and kindly with others – or else we risk resting on our feminist cred.

 

I think this is a rather long winded way of inviting feminists, pro-feminists and questioning-feminists to join in a conversation about what all of this means. Its my hope that we find safe spaces that are also open enough to ask questions and to get things wrong in the knowledge that our critical consciousness isn’t quite there yet. I want spaces that are diverse enough for ‘my feminism!’ to matter as much as ‘your feminism!’ without loosing sight of a movement that is bigger than our individual views and experiences.

Please join me in this work, discussion and dialogue aren’t much fun on your own.

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I’m in Slow Club

Hannah Longmuir is an artist & maker living in the  Scottish Borders.  She blogs regularly for Cameo Curio.

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After Frances’s excellent post about her New Year’s Resolution to take the 2012 bull by the horns, I’ve been having a think.

I’m fully into making things happen, and many of my goals for this year involve moulding my own future – like working on making my business plan robust.  This year I want to take things up a notch, work hard for success, never take ‘no’ for an answer.

But yet, I’m subscribed to a Slow Club.

This doesn’t necessarily mean doing things slowly, or getting less done in a day.

It means that I’m subscribed to a way of living which embraces reflection and togetherness, which treasures the slow, and which is mindful of detail.  I’m subscribed to a way of living which aims to make quality connections.  I hope for my business ethos, my art work, my crafting and my relationships to reflect this commitment

Often the Slow Movement – whether slow food, slow art, slow money, slow cities – is a reaction against, & an intentional separating from, fast paced society.  I’m not really into that.  I don’t see being in Slow Club as negative lens for viewing society.

Saying that, I think that taking time to notice, valuing the inherent history in a re-usable item, and enjoying things that unfold slowly over time, can be a powerful vehicle for change and a strong political comment.  I also think it might be a way for me to be a woman in business making my own way through.

I think my 2012 is going to be about noticing.

About watching things emerge.

About being open to surprises and opportunities.

And I think I might be amazed by the things that happen.

Some interesting people to look up who are connected with the slow movement or who’ve written interesting things about living slow: John O’Donohue, Tim Slowinksi, Michael Kimmelman.


Friday Catch-up

Right-wing Feminism

Feminism for Tories explains why ‘right wing feminism’ might be the ‘phrase du jour’ but certainly isn’t a new thing. I’m particularly interested in the comments about not treating women as an undifferentiated interest group, and how this plays out in their thoughts on childcare.

 I may not personally agree with their political commitments, or their feelings about a feminism that is about individuals and not groups, but I’m very glad that there’s dialogue around this stuff and that feminism isn’t just about having one kind of political commitment. 

Susie Orbach on slimming clubs

Parliamentary inquiry on body image this week saw both a protest outside the House of Commons (Riots not Diets), and evidence from Susie Orbach, author of Fat is a Feminist Issue.  In this article, Orbach is quoted as saying that she believes slimming clubs lock their members into lifelong ‘straitjackets’ of unrealistic expectations about weight loss, and that our society is creating a generation ‘polluted with anxiety’ about their weight.  She also had a go at the £15 million pound weight watchers advert.

On a similar note, our household has been discussing Weight Watchers recent change of language in their adverts – you are now encouraged to ‘play’ Weight Watchers.  Pretty clever to make something sound more light hearted and fun and less like work; but then again I’m concerned about the implications of weight and body image being a game.  Anyone have any thoughts on this language choice? 

Do men or women have it harder in the writing business?

Author Jennifer Weiner wrote a blog post about her feelings the New York Times does a poor job of covering female writers, prompting Teddy Wayne to get grumpy about how it is men who have a harder time as authors. Seemingly his argument revolves around the fact that women are more inclined to read. My favourite take down of the whole thing is from John Scalzi. 

Fashion Blogging and Reality

DeeDee over at Decoding Dress asks whether fahion blogs are becoming increasingly detached from reality, which in turn begs the question of why you may (or may not) read fashion blogs: for the reality or the unreality?

Ethical Fashion

Franca of Oranges and Apples has a really helpful post (well, essay by her own confession!) about figuring out ethical fashion and how there isn’t just one way to do be ethical in your approach to clothes.

Can a man be a feminist?

In the New Statesman, Nicky Woolf covers the topic of whether men can be feminists, largely arguing that feminist acts by men are in fact patronising and patriarchal.

Have a great weekend everyone!

Body Image: Tolerations and Myths

  Today’s post comes from Clare, of Apocalypse Bakery.

Honestly I’m as surprised as anyone to be talking about body image. I thought it was only for the beautiful or the confident. I may not be able to contribute to the current construction of the ideals of beauty and handsomeness, but my voice and experience matters a little in trying to question and change it. Body image is, I reckon, a conversation that anyone and everyone should be able to participate in.

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As part of an exercise on resilience for my work, I was asked to fill in a list of my most basic tolerations – the things in my life that bothered and were easily fixable but that I never got round to doing. ‘Easy’ being the focus here – we’re talking putting up a picture frame, watering some plants, sending that email: they shouldn’t be things that you need to figure out an action plan for, but things that you already know how to tackle.

To my surprise, my top five tolerations were about my image and appearance, and there were another five more in the whole list.  I’d never thought that I was stressed about my appearance; frustrated yes, but not stressed, especially in comparison to other issues at work over the past year that have caused tears and sleepless nights. I guess that’s the virtue of these exercises that you have to do-so-fast-that-your-conscious-mind-can’t-edit-it-out. So, why should it be such a surprise to me that anything about image and appearance made the tolerations list?

I’d love to say that I wholeheartedly believe beauty and image to be a feminist issue that requires reflection and debate – not just about the media or political sphere, but also for where I have taken to heart and to mind the myths and contradictions about beauty and image. The issue is that whilst I do believe this, I know that I also still believe in the myth that image and appearance isn’t really that important, that it’s only for the beautiful few, or that it’s vain to do so. I still live in the dichotomy that women should make an effort with their appearance but that, at the same time, they are shallow for doing so.  In all honesty, then, it surprises me that appearance came so high on the list because I thought more ‘important’ things would be there; I thought that my worries would be about ‘significant’ or ‘deeper’ things. I was wrong, but only on one account  – that my appearance and self-image truly cannot be separated from the so-called ‘deeper’ things that I work for and concern myself with. How do I know this? Because they made the list: these things affect – at a more than superficial level – my ability to feel that I am exercising control over my life, the stress I feel when I do not, and my overall ability to be resilient.

Realising that the session on tolerances was about power and control, what really surprised me about putting these things about my appearance on the list was that I saw them to be changeable when I treated them as insurmountable. Embarrassingly, I’m talking about really simple forms of change here – things like hair and glasses when I’m very well aware of the existence and indeed location of hairdressers and opticians.  Let me give you a really basic example about, of all things, my ear (probably because it’s easier to start talking about ears rather than, you know, bellies, thighs and other jiggly bits when you are new to writing about body image.)

I have a wonky ear. Something went wrong when I was about five, resulting in me having to have half of my left earlobe lopped off.  Surgically, I mean – not some kind of playground punishment for breaking a toy during circle time or anything sinister like that – no, no it was all above-board stuff. And it’s not like I have a cauliflower ear. It’s very neat – I just have a missing earlobe and as such, have always said that I can’t wear earrings despite thinking that they are pretty and would make me feel more stylish. (Which is probably a lot to do with dangly earrings (as opposed to piercings being coded as feminine-decorative in our culture.) The thing is, it’s not like I haven’t been aware of the existence of clip-on earrings, or the possibility of trying to get in pierced in a different way, especially as every single person I have moaned to has helpfully suggested such.

The same is true of other image-based tolerations: I know that other options are available than the status quo. So why, with such easy steps available, do I end up tolerating and moaning about bad hair, wonky glasses and hateful clothes for months, years, and even two decades? Why do I bar myself from steps that I know would make me feel more in control of my image, especially when I know precisely what those steps are?

I was about to say that it is because I’m lazy, but that’s not strictly true, or at least not in the ‘not bothered’ way. It’s that I’m lazy about challenging the image I have believed about myself. I’d rather stay safe with my tolerations because it is easier to give in to those beliefs than have to think for myself and be responsible for my own appearance and what I have believed about it. Thinking about it now, the state of my left earlobe has always been an excuse rather than a reason, an excuse not to have a try and take charge of an aspect of my own image.  The same goes for not bothering to find a hairdresser or optician, or wearing skirts or red lipstick or colours or having the right to wear more damn eyeliner that I really ‘should.’ It’s always been a good excuse to stick with the beliefs about ‘not being able to because I have big thighs/wonky ears/bad skin’ or ‘not being worth it’ and to deny taking charge of my appearance and looking as I wish to, rather than to risk the possibility of being mocked or accused vain/frumpy for doing so.

What has surprised me most about these two sets of myths is that they are not mine. True enough, I have taken them to heart and re-imposed them on myself, but I doubt that they originate with any of my own feelings about myself. I’ve taken a lot of flack from people in my time, but also praise, so I think this has probably lead me to believing in a skewed picture of myself.  I end up hiding my believed flaws and flaunting my believed assets based on a composite of others’ gaze. I hear their voices, and those of popular media, commenting on my appearance when I look at or even think about myself, and I have not had the strength or resolve to discover me for myself, to see myself through my own eyes.  I’m not saying that we can extract ourselves, or even how we see ourselves, from our relationships with others and with culture, but I do think that it is important to challenge what views of ourselves we have inherited from others whether that is about our image and our bodies or about our brains, spirits and competence.

I don’t believe that this will come through haircuts and wardrobe makeovers, through wearing earrings or accepting my bereft lobes. I don’t believe it will come through focusing on body parts or appearance either. After all, I doubt that it’s my lobes, my face, my belly or my whole body that are the problems I’ve been tolerating at all; what I’ve tolerated is what I believe about myself – my mind and my body – to be capable of, and how I’ve treated myself as such.

 

 

What about you? Where do you want to start challenging the myths you have believed about yourself? What’s on your tolerations list? 

*images via the feisty female