“He’s crazy”–Mental Illness, Power, and Transgressions

[CN: Discussion of violence against women, racism]

There are a few courses I took in undergrad and grad school that have especially stuck with me through the years. One that I think about often was an upper-level Women’s Studies course called Monstrous Women which looked at the ways we frame women who transgress the bounds that society places before them. And how women who fail to perform “womanhood” adequately (whether through eschewing motherhood, being overtly aggressive, responding to male violence with violence) are transformed into “monsters”–both as a control mechanism and because we don’t know how to reconcile women who don’t perform mainstream womanhood in our brains.

Continue reading ““He’s crazy”–Mental Illness, Power, and Transgressions”

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Gender, Embodiment, and Weight Lifting

[Content note: sexualized violence and objectification of women]

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I want to talk about embodiment and how it differs by gender. Embodiment is a bit of a nebulous concept, but basically it means a deep knowing of your body and its capabilities, and a feeling of groundedness rather than disassociation. It’s that knowing that tells my brother when he looks at a rock five feet away that he can do a two-foot jump and make it safely. It’s that trust that allows baseball players to dive for a ball and trust their body knows how to land. It’s that feeling that lets you throw a punch and know how it’s going to land.If you’ve ever been on a rocky beach, a beach strewn with boulders to get down to the water, and seen young men stride confidently, maybe even jump from one to the next, while their female companions tentatively step, test, then shift their full weight, maybe taking the hand of their boyfriend or friend, that’s the gendered difference in embodiment. Of course, not all men are embodied and not all women are disembodied. But research shows that a lot more men are embodied than women, and that men and women talk about their bodies in very different ways. This is likely because we live in a culture that prizes men as the subjects and relegates women to object status. How do you find embodiment as an object? It is likely because boys are taught from a young age that being boisterously in their bodies is their birthright, while girls are taught to lock it down. To be sweet and quiet. To play with dolls and tea sets while their brothers run around with toy guns and throw balls and frisbees. It is likely because boys are taught to throw while girls are assumed to…throw like a girl. It is likely because the worst epithets aimed at men are those that compare them to women.

It is likely because women live under the threat of intimate violence every damn day of their lives. Because we are taught to walk in pairs. Because we are taught that the wrong skirt means we are culpable for our own violation. Because god-damned skinny jeans mean we were “asking for it”. Because some men will not back off until another man claims ownership of us. Because we are told that taking up space puts us in danger. And so we shrink into ourselves. We shrink away from the gaze and the words and the threats and the violence. We disassemble that mind-body connection in pursuit of enough peace to get through the day.

And even in the pursuits that should embody us, like exercise (more on this later) we are taught to keep ourselves small. We are told that women lift 8-15 pounds. We are told that women can’t do pull-ups and can only do push-ups from our knees and never taught how to graduate to full push-ups because why would a woman need to be strong enough to push a person off of her? We are taught to do “the “partial pushup” because it only requires a partial amount of effort, and consequently imparts a partial amount of strength development.” (Follow the link for source material.) We are told that we should spend our time doing cardio or pilates, not throwing around iron and sandbags. We are told that strong women get bulky and that bulky women are unfeminine (both points being grade-A bullshit). We are shown fitspo that purports to be about female strength but is really just another way to highlight tits and ass and extreme leanness.

And so we learn how to cardio ourselves into oblivion, but don’t see the results we’re told we should see. We lift and lift and lift but don’t get any stronger because stalling out at 15 pounds means you’re lifting less than some people’s backpacks. And because we aren’t taught to lift heavy, we don’t actually know what working hard in the weight room feels like.

I started lifting heavy about a year and a half ago and it was a revelation. I got under the bar, faced my fears, and started to trust my body. It is empowering to squat 115 pounds after doing bodyweight squats all your life. It is empowering as hell to deadlift 135 pounds (and it makes moving a fuck of a lot easier!). And it requires a hell of a lot of trust and connection with your body to do it right. How do you activate your posterior chain if you’ve never truly felt your body before? My graduate research (forthcoming) showed that women survivors of intimate partner violence who engage in empowerment-oriented exercise (defined, for my study, as strength-training, martial arts, and yoga) had higher levels of embodiment than those who engage in aerobic-based exercise (running, walking, zumba, etc). Which makes a certain amount of intuitive sense. You can easily throw on a podcast or bumpin’ playlist, head out and suddenly realize you’ve run three kilometres without being all that present to it. But there’s no way in hell you can clean a 40 pound sandbag off the floor without being connected to your body, without being grounded in your body, without trusting your body to do what it needs to do every step of the way. There’s no way you can spar and not be in your body. There’s no way you can “find the edge” in dancer pose and not be aware of your body.

Which isn’t to denigrate cardio-based exercise. It’s great. It’s good for your heart and clears your mind and if it makes you feel good, do it. But I think we should question why women are taught to do hours of cardio and lift light and long rather than lifting heavy and increasing their capacity. I think we should also look at how much time it takes to do an hour of cardio plus three sets of 20 reps of a million stupid isolated movements (how many different tricep exercises can we do in order to combat the “batwings” every magazine shames us for?). I used to spend easily an hour and a half at the gym. Sometimes two hours. Now I’m in and out in forty minutes and I’ve worked a hell of a lot harder. Because I simply couldn’t sustain that level of intensity for two hours. Of those forty minutes I’m probably only actively lifting for about 15, because working hard needs recovery.

And I can feel the difference. I can feel it in how I walk, with confidence and ease. I can feel it in how my shoulders naturally settle back and down. I can feel it in how I no longer cower when strange men yell at me, I gut-check and then proceed in the safest way, with the confidence in my body to step-to if needed (though, like many women, I’ve never been taught how to fight or take a punch properly, though I do know how to throw a punch after taking a boxing class). I don’t think I could win in a fight at this point (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is in my future), but I trust my body to make it hard as hell for the other person to win. I trust that just having an embodied presence makes predators less likely to target me.

And I want to be clear: I am not stating that women who are less embodied, who don’t or can’t lift weights, are in any way responsible for being victimized or being vulnerable. Rather, I am calling to account a society that depends on female weakness, that valourizes it, that fetishizes it. And I am suggesting that while we do the big, society-level work, we can also do the individual, personal-level work. We can empower and embody ourselves by throwing away Self Magazine and getting under the bar.

 

P.S. Doing a Creative Commons search for “barbell” garners you more Prince Alberts than you’ll know what to do with. Learned that one the hard way.

On Worth, Body-Image, and Beauty

This is an old piece I wrote for a now-defunct blog but it is as true now as it was then and a good reminder to all of us. Our words and actions help shape our realities, so let’s shape them with as much kindness for ourselves and each other as possible.
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A very long time ago I made a decision that I would not indulge in negative body talk out loud with other women. I would not let it be a form of bonding, and I would not bear witness to its use for that purpose by others. A gentle but firm “hey, that’s not a very nice way to talk about your body” or even a “hey, I don’t do negative body talk” is surprisingly effective. And it miraculously cuts a tension in the room you weren’t even aware was there. It’s like all the women collectively breathe out. Whoosh.

And because of that decision I came to realize that I can’t have one standard for myself and my friends and another for celebrities and strangers. I can’t say that I deserve kindness while snarking on some other woman’s body for failing to live up to some impossible, made-up, oppressive standard (even if they are, as celebrities, a hell of a lot closer than I’ll ever get). And so I stopped. I stopped commenting to myself and others that so and so’s nose is weird, or so and so has gained a bunch of weight, or that actress x isn’t even hot so why are people fawning over her?

And the amazing thing is that when I stopped saying it I stopped thinking it. When I put body snarking and shaming off limits verbally it followed naturally that it was off limits internally—for self and for others. And here is where the real magic happened: when I stopped snarking, when I stopped looking for ways to attack other women for the ways I felt I was failing, for the things I was ashamed of, I started seeing how much beauty there is in the world that isn’t captured in mainstream conceptions of it.

I saw beauty in women who look nothing like the women on TV. I saw beauty in women who are curvy, in women who are fat, in women who are thin, I saw beauty in women whose disabilities and/or ethnicities and/or gender-nonconformity challenge the mainstream conception of beauty. And I started to see that beauty existed in women who looked just like me. And in women who looked nothing like me.

And when I noticed those bodies so similar to mine and the grace with which they can move, the beauty they can exhibit, I realized that mine too can do that. That my body, too, can be beautiful.

That doesn’t mean I always see beauty in my body. It doesn’t mean my body is always beautiful. But finding the beauty in my body was not just powerful, it felt intensely political. It felt radical. It felt like another small way in which I can stand up and say “I’m here. You can’t ignore me. I am here and I matter and I demand to be counted.”

The Arbitrary Rules We Let Rule Us

Just about every time I engage in some beauty ritual (which is daily, even if that just means taming bedhead though it usually means at least mascara and blush) I think about the time, money, and energy I’m wasting to live up to some nebulous, unspoken ideal. And then I think about all the time, money, and energy multiplied by the billions of women worldwide who engage in some form of beauty maintenance, and how much important shit we could get done if it was acceptable for us to throw on dress pants and a button down and be viewed as equally “professional” (which, it should be noted is a racist, sexist, and ableist concept) and “competent” as our male colleagues (though, of course, the rules for men of colour are a lot more rigid than for white men). So I thought I’d run down the list of things we are supposed to be consciously and unconsciously taking care of in order to perform our gender (and class and race) “properly”, some of the ways we receive these messages, and some of the consequences for failing to.

First, we’ve gotta be thin. Not *too* thin, though. And we need to appear to do it effortlessly. Because there’s nothing that’s more of a drag than a woman on a diet. And men love women who can EAT (while staying model thin)–which you would know if you’ve ever read any women’s magazine ever that has a “Here’s What Some Made Up Dude Says” column.

And we really should be white. If we’re not, though, we should a) play down the features that mark us as non-white (no matter how beautiful we know them to be), and b) be giddy that any man would be willing to exoticize and fetishize us.

Next, we’ve gotta keep our hair tight. Not short, because men don’t like short hair, but not too long, because that’s gross. And if we’re in a “professional” environment we really need to keep it back/up in some way, even if our job has nothing to do with food or hygiene. Oh, and don’t let your roots show. And you better not have any greys. I’m not qualified to speak to the reality of having Black hair but the one thing I do know is that it’s political as fuck, no matter which decision you make.

When it comes to clothes, we’ve gotta walk a tight line. Sexy without being trashy. Professional but effortlessly feminine. No Hilary pantsuits for me!

Make-up’s gonna vary a bit with your particulars. Either you need to look like you’re wearing none (while wearing lots) to be effortlessly gorgeous, or you need to be hyper done up with red lipstick and a cat-eye to match. And don’t forget the primer and concealer and foundation and blush and bronzer and illuminator and eyeshadow and mascara and it better all blend seamlessly with your real skin colour so you avoid the telltale jawline/neck disaster!

And of course it’s sandal season so your feet better be in top shape. Not just polish but buffing and smoothing and moisturizing and paraffin treatments. And your fingernails should be tastefully done. Not too long but not too short. Definitely not bitten to the quick. Either a subtle pink or just a nice clear coat. And no chips! God knows there’s nothing more embarrassing than chipped nail polish.

And you’d best be shaving/waxing/depilating/lasering your legs, underarms, and bikini line–at minimum. Really, you should be shorn of all hair save your head, eyebrows, and eyelashes. And god forbid you’ve got a naturally uncooperative body and find hair growing in strange places like tummies or toes or chin. Have you ever noticed that all the hair removal methods except shaving are immensely painful and could probably be used as torture methods? And shaving, while not painful, is time consuming and expensive as shit if you buy into the whole pink-razor, new blade every four shaves bullshit.

If you’re the type who goes to the gym you’d best be wearing something new, cute, and tight. Unless you’re fat, in which case you should probably just skip the gym. Or at least wear a tent so no one has to look at you. And you’d better not break a sweat and get a red face. And no lifting anything more than three pounds lest you turn into Arnold Schwarzenegger circa 1975.

In fact, you should just never sweat ever. Even when it’s 35 degrees (that’s 95 for you Yanks) with 80% humidity, a lady never sweats.

Now, you may be thinking this is hyperbolic, over the top to make a point. And it is. Sort of. Cause the thing is, I didn’t have to go read some feminist theory or google “beauty” or do anything else to come up with this list. I just had to take an inventory of the pressures I resist and give in to on a regular basis.

Now, I’m not saying I have someone yelling at me every day because my nail polish is chipped (though I do have an internal critic who is not happy with the current state of my Peacock Blue nails), but that’s not how these things work. It’s far more insidious. Because, honestly, a lot of us would probably tell our friend/boyfriend/mother to fuck off if they had this litany of things we had to do to be acceptable. But when we have these messages directed at us again and again and again in seemingly innocuous packages like the magazine we flip through in the checkout line, or the 10 minutes of Entertainment Tonight we catch at the gym, or unspoken expectations rather than an explicit dress code at work, or the utter perfection that is every heroine in a romantic comedy, they seep in. And all the while we dismiss them as “just media bullshit”.

But taken absent the cultural context, almost every one of these is a pretty ridiculous thing to do. If you really think about it for a minute, slathering god-knows-what on our faces to look like someone else (or, at least, a “better” version of ourselves), keeping our nails at a length that is frankly inconvenient and prone to breakage while making sure they’re a vibrant colour, and removing body hair for no reason other than that’s what society expects us to do is absurd. And yet we do it. To varying levels, we all do it. And we sink untold dollars and hours into running after an unachievable body in the hopes that it will, what? Make us more loveable? Make us more successful? Stave off loneliness and old age and ultimately death?

And what are we giving up for this illusory achievement? What could we be doing instead?

The Context of Our Bodies

I have been journaling a lot lately, which is new for me. I was always strongly averse to it–I think because I was caught up in the “Dear Diary” recounting-of-days idea that has never appealed to me. But I’ve been journaling in response to the prompts given by Gala Darling’s Radical Self Love Bible (I’m only three weeks in but so far I’d definitely recommend it!) which has lead to my own prompts. And it turns out that writing through the hard stuff is useful! And easier than I thought. And, unlike the thinking that comes with long walks, can be revisited long after it’s whooshed out of my memory.

So today I started thinking about how the context in which we view and experience our bodies impacts whether our relationships with them are healthy and happy and nourishing or dysfunctional and disordered and dangerous. And this question popped up:

Absent context, it’s just a body–so why not write my own backstory, fill in my own context?

And I realized that, though the cacophonous voices of body-shaming and regulation are ever-present in our society, I get to decide whether they get any credence, whether they are granted the privilege of taking up space in my soul.

Now, I don’t want to frame this realization as fait accompli–I know only too well how a day or week or month of body peace can be rocked and shocked and shattered by a seemingly innocuous comment or something from the past coming up–but I do want to make the point that we have a lot more power than we oftentimes grant ourselves in calling a truce with our bodies. See, we can’t control the triggers, but we can build up our toolbox for when they inevitably happen.

And one of those tools is rewriting the context of our bodies–stripping away the bullshit about cellulite and size and writing a story about the things that matter.

What started this runaway-freight-train of thought was watching this trailer for Embrace (a documentary about body image that is mid-kickstarter campaign). There’s a moment near the end of the trailer where the documentarian is in tears talking about meeting two women on the beach–two women who had been perfect strangers until the first had a moment of joyful recognition “ah! She has one boob just like me!”, rushed over and gave her a hug. And I thought, how dare I see my body as anything less than perfect?!

I have had my own health tribulations and been very, very sick (though certainly not in the same league as the women mentioned above) and my response to finally getting well again hasn’t been to dance in the streets and thank my body for healing, it’s been to get pissy because this go around my body’s bigger than it was pre-sickness.

I am reminded of Naomi Wolf’s brilliant quote:

A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.

Imagine what we would get done if we spent the years and billions of dollars we spend trying to hate ourselves thin marching in the streets, rabblerousing for an affordable childcare strategy, shoring up the leaks in medicare, ensuring every woman has access to safe, legal, and timely abortion, fighting regressive (and downright racist) immigration policies, and just goddamn living our lives!

If we rewrote our body’s contexts to be ones that nourish, accept, and love our bodies–that understand that they are instruments not decorations and utterly divorced from our worth and lovability–we would get a fuck of a lot done. Because our bodies would require only as much thought as a dog–they need to be fed and walked and loved and that’s it. There is nothing more complicated than that. No mental gymnastics to figure out if I can eat this if I do that many burpees; if I can wear that dress or maybe I should just skip the party entirely because I’m feeling fat; if losing 10 pounds will FINALLY make me loveable.

Cause all that shit? It’s distraction. It’s filler–it’s like mental asbestos. It fills cracks and crevices and is toxic as shit. And sometimes you need a professional to help you remove it. But when we rewrite our contexts, when we choose the value of our bodies based simply on their continued excellent service (even when it doesn’t feel so excellent) we free up those cracks and crevices for big, bold, radical ideas to take place and shake shit up.

Let’s shake shit up.

The Cost of Body Shame

Often when we talk about body shame we talk about it in the context of food, eating, body image, and eating disorders. And these are, of course, exceptionally important things to talk about (well, body image and eating disorders are–a lot of the cultural talk around food and eating is toxic and/or boring), but they’re not the only things to talk about. So today, thought I would touch on the impact of body shame on body image and disordered eating. I want to look at some of the things that we don’t talk about.

First, let’s talk about what body image is. Cash, Thériault, and Annis (2004) describe body image as “a complex construct concerning individuals’ perceptions of and attitudes about their own bodies, especially their physical appearance” and name three core components of body image: evaluation (e.g., body satisfaction), investment (e.g., the importance of internalized appearance ideals) and affect (e.g., body image emotions in specific situations).

So here’s what body image isn’t: objective; simple; concerned only with your physical looks; unimportant.

Negative body image has been found to be related to greater social anxiety and poorer self-esteem (Cash and Fleming, 2002). Negative body image is also correlated with insecure and preoccupied attachment. (Basically, securely attached individuals are comfortable with intimacy and autonomy and have an internal sense that they are worthy and loveable, whereas insecurely attached individuals lack that comfort and sense of worthiness. I think we all aspire to secure attachment.) Regardless of BMI, Cash, et al (2004) found that negative body image correlated with higher discomfort and increased concerns about approval and acceptance for both men and women. For women, negative body image also related highly to a fear of romantic intimacy, and avoidance of sexual activity. Cash, Maikkula, and Yamimiya (2004) found that both women and men with poor body image reported less sexual desire, less sex, and fewer orgasms of lower quality.

Yamamiya, et al. (2005) found that just five minutes exposure to images of celebrities with idealized body types can impact body image negatively. Just five minutes! So if you’re flipping through People at the hairdresser (one of my great guilty pleasures), you’re inadvertently bombarding yourself with negative body image influencers. According to this same study, woman who have a “high drive for thinness” experience negative emotions and dissatisfaction with their bodies for at least two hours following those five little minutes of flipping through US at the checkout counter (well, they weren’t tested at a checkout counter but you get my drift).

Kirk and Wright (1995) link poor body image to a compromised sense of self, and argue that internalized ideals cause young women to participate in their own surveillance and to “embody a constrained sense of themselves”. Basically what they’re saying is that when we (because I think we can generalize this to women (and perhaps some men) as well) feel inferior, like we’re not enough, we begin to watch, weigh, measure everything we do, everything we eat. Become the wardens of our bodies, enforcing and punishing external rules on them. And as a result, we become smaller and smaller versions of ourselves. We don’t go out, we don’t dance, we don’t date, we don’t protest, we don’t do all of the amazing things our bodies are capable of because we feel like we aren’t good enough as we are.

So here’s what this little tour through the literature has told us about poor body image: it impacts our relationships and how happy and secure we feel in them; it impacts our sense of worth and lovability; it impacts not just how often we have sex but how good that sex is; it causes us to watch and measure everything we do; and it constrains us from living the full, adventurous, scary, wonderful lives we are capable of.

So what can we do about it? Here’s a few of my ideas, feel free to add yours in the comments:

  • Put down the crappy magazines!
  • Turn off any kind of celebrity-focused entertainment shows (Extra, Entertainment Tonight, etc)
  • Limit your TV time
  • Increase your media literacy–one study found that increased media literacy mitigated the impacts of seeing idealized images on body image but that the effect was short-lived so your best strategy is to limit your exposure. Here’s a primer that looks pretty good (though I’ve only just skimmed it so no guarantees)
  • Engage your friends and community in conversations about bodies, media, and mental health
  • Find a form of exercise you like and go do it! Physical exercise has been found to increase sense of empowerment which, in turn, can improve body image (of course, if you struggle with obsessive or unhealthy amounts of exercising this may not be a great tip for you at this point in your life)
  • Find a body-positive therapist who has experience with disordered eating