Recently I started reading memoirs. In particular, I have become just shy of obsessed with reading memoirs written by women who are exploring their identity, pursuing happiness or on some sort of journey of self-discovery. Books like "The Happiness Project," "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Rim Trail," and "Poser: My life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses" have made their way to my bedside table. This is surprising because these books do not belong to my usual genre of reading. I grew up reading Nancy Drew mysteries and Madeleine L'Engle. I still love mysteries, fantasy, and (some) science fiction. I mostly read non-fiction books for work (even if I enjoy them) and shy away from the modern American novel. I never even considered memoirs as a genre worthy of my time. That changed when a good friend recommended "Wild." I shouldn't have been surprised, I suppose, because I loved "Eat, Pray, Love" (like most American women) but must admit I naïvely thought it was some weird wonderful fluke.
What has changed? Maybe it is just the existential angst of my 30's that makes me want to read about self-discovery, but I suspect it is more than that. As I have studied representations of girls and women in the media, I often find myself frustrated, alarmed or annoyed by what passes for female characters. There are a few exceptions, but mostly I gave up hope on seeing a realistic representation of women. But these books have made me think twice about my reading habits and my feelings about the media. They portray real women with their actual struggles, joys, surprises and questions about life. These women are not overly-idealized characters, but authentic and complex human beings writing honestly about life. The kind of human being I strive to be.
These books have reminded me of what books (and other genres of the media) can be--inspirational. Reading these books has inspired me to consider my own life, to turn challenges into opportunities, and to be flexible. I am branching out and being adventurous; from the small things in life (drinking lavender vanilla lattes at a new coffee shop) to career changing moves (I started writing a book). I think about what makes me happy and how to be true to myself. These books show that media can represent women positively. And I am enjoying that refreshing change of pace.
Can a movie change the world? Does raising awareness about the conditions of girls you will never meet motivate you to create change? Girl Rising
is hoping the answer to both of those questions is “Yes!” I saw the film last week in a theater with about 200 other people, including adult men and women and a number of children and adolescents (mostly girls). My brilliant former student started the campaign to bring the film to Pittsburgh because many of us missed the chance to see it in March. The filmmakers explore the role of education in the lives of girls all around the world. They showcase a number of girls who team up with women writers in their home countries to tell their stories. While each story is unique, they share the characteristic of highlighting the importance of education in the lives of girls, often by describing the consequences girls face when they do not have access to education. Throughout the film, statistics on the rates of education and how that relates to other markers of emotional, physical and financial well-being were shared in creative ways by girls and young women. All of the features sought to tell the story that education is important to girls and many of them are denied access.
While the movie has many strong points, there were some limitations. At one point the narrator said something like “Girls are not to blame for this situation” (I am paraphrasing here) to which I said, out loud, “Duh!” But this moment pointed out the thing that was missing from this movie: a thorough explanation of the cause of this problem. To be sure, each story had a description of the particular circumstances facing that girl. Usually the girls were not able to get an education because it 1) cost too much, 2) the girls were working to help support their families or 3) it was not seem as important for girls to be educated (often, as opposed to boys who were getting an education). While these aspects of the stories were important and true, they did not necessarily explain the bigger picture. As one of my colleagues who saw the film commented, there was not a discussion of the larger forces at play (aka sexism and patriarchy) that united each of these stories. It is not a coincidence that in countries all over the world, girls are being denied education more often than boys are. In many societies, girls and women are considered less valuable than boys and men. In some, they are treated as property that can be bought and sold. In many they are subjected to physical, emotional and sexual violence. And when resources are limited, it is more often the needs of girls and women that are sacrificed.
And yet, many studies show that when girls and women prosper, an entire society prospers. As girls’ and women’s access to education and reproductive medicine (and dignity and respect) increases, the infant mortality rate decreases, the lifespan increases, the economic stability increases, and there are a number of other boosts to public health. This is NOT a zero sum game, where boys and men must suffer in order for the lives of girls and women to improve. It is in the best interest of us all to support girls worldwide.
Overall, I liked the movie. It was well produced and the stories were compelling and moving. It made me reflect on my life as an American woman and think about what I could do to make a difference, not only in my community but worldwide. I wish it would have given more suggestions as to how to support change (the two listed were; bring this movie to your community and donate money) but I am trying to spread the word in my own way. And while I don’t think that awareness alone is enough, it is an important first step.
Have you ever wondered where Wonder Woman came from? I don't mean within her universe (she is an Amazon woman from Paradise Island), I mean where the character originated. Well, I just found out by watching the new PBS documentary; Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines
. The show chronicles the saga of the character including her creation (the intention was for her to support feminist values), through the dark ages of the 50's (Wonder Woman as a house wife? do they make an apron of truth?), her cultural fame in the 70's (Lynda Carter tells all), and where she is today. While much of the focus of the show was about Wonder Woman, it raised the question of why there are so few superheroines in American culture and discussed other iconic figures (from Xena to Buffy to Sarah Connor). Throughout, experts in the film commented on how girls and young women have been impacted by Wonder Woman over time, and discussed the importance of having superheroines to look up to.
On any given day, this show likely would have appealed to me, but it hit home especially this week. I have spent the last four months working with three students on a paper on just this topic; how representations of girls and women in the media affect the way girls think about what it means to be powerful. We submitted the article yesterday for consideration in a journal. Poor Sam had to hear me say numerous times during the show, "hey, hey, we talked about that in our paper" and "we referenced that sociologist’s work in our paper." Needless to say, I was breaking our unspoken house rule about not speaking during shows or movies; but I was too excited to stop.
The whole premise of the topic is so interesting and so important. Superheroes feed our imagination. They allow us to expand our thinking to consider all the possibilities of what we can become. The superhero reminds us how to be strong in the face of adversity, that being different can be a good thing, and that people care about others (and usually that "good" prevails over "evil" although I won't get started on a rant about the limitations of black and white morality in media). Girls and women have so few superheroes to look up to, even during this time of revitalization of comic books, graphic novels, and blockbusters featuring famous comic characters. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the Avengers (more about the awesomeness that is Joss Whedon to follow) but there was only one female superhero whose powers were--what exactly? Catwoman is always a disaster of a character. I have nothing against cats, (one of mine is lying on my lap as I compose this), but come on.
Even when strong women are showcased in film, on TV or in comic book form, their representation is not exactly ideal. Strong female characters are often hypersexualized, needing to balance their strength with stereotypical femininity or just plain "hotness". I have watched many an episode of Buffy or Alias (both shows that I love) thinking, "There is zero chance she could actually kick someone in those shoes. How is she even walking in those shoes?" Not to mention that things don't usually end well for these strong women, who often sacrifice their lives for the "greater good." So while these characters provide much appreciated inspiration, they still remind us that women can get away with kicking ass if they are also pretty and that there may not be a place for strong women in the real world.
We need more superheroines in our comics, our television and our movies so that girls (and women) can dream about what we can become. But we also need representations of girls and women that are realistic and meaningful. But how can this change happen? Some people say, “the media is driven by the consumer, it will provide people what they want.” But the reality is that a very small group of people make the decisions about what makes it on the air. As one of the experts from "Wonder Women" noted, 97% of executives making the decisions about what gets on tv or in the movie theaters are men. This is not to say that men can’t create fantastic superheroines. Joss Whedon is one of very few show creators who is willing to (and I think wants to) create female characters with strength. Despite some limitations to the show, the series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was this feminist’s dream ending. *spoiler alert* Buffy decides to share her slayer powers with all potential slayers; empowering girls and young women to work together to rise up against evil. I still jump up and cheer (with tears in my eyes) when I see this episode. But moments like this are so rare. We need more women making media and we need more men in media who are willing to challenge the status quo.
So, I am going to dig out my Wonder Woman t-shirt to wear in the Superhero race
next weekend and practice my spinning. And I am going to keep writing about and working for change, so just maybe the next generation of girls can grow up knowing that they can be heroes. That they can be anything.
Anyone who logged into Facebook during the last week of March likely saw a huge number of red and pink human rights campaign logos (and many variations) as people changed their profile pictures to show their support for marriage equality. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) urged their followers to upload the symbol the same week the Supreme Court heard two important cases on the subject; California's Proposition 8 and the national Defense of Marriage Act. While this was certainly not the first time that a group or organization attempted to utilize Facebook to drum up support for a cause, the fervor with which this change happened was rather astounding. Facebook released stats on the matter and found that 2.7 million more people changed their profile picture (although they can't say to what exactly) on the day of the second Supreme Court hearing than had done so the week before (a 120% increase). My unofficial and unscientific poll showed a similar thing: I was astounded and moved by the number of my Facebook friends who changed their profile pics. With tears in my eyes I thought, "Maybe there is something to this social media thing!"
You see, I am a bit of a in internet skeptic. It is not that I am afraid or incapable of using technology. I am just leery about how it is being used (to sell people crap they don't need, to make people feel bad about their bodies, to make people addicted to their phones). I get really bothered when I see two people having a meal in a restaurant and both of them are texting or surfing the web on their phones instead of talking to each other. I have been known to refer to memes as the new "opiate of the masses." I try not to roll my eyes when my husband tells me about something he saw on reddit. And too many unfortunate souls have tried to show me something "really cool" on the internet only to be rewarded with a response about how people should probably have something better to do with their time than demean their own pets. (My apologies to all who have been subjected to such rants).
Now, you might be thinking, "but aren't you writing this blog? Isn't that a bit hypocritical?" The truth is that this blog wouldn't exist it if wasn't for my amazing and talented student who created it and others who remind me of all the ways that the internet can be used for good and not evil. So, I have done my best to appreciate the good things that the internet has to offer. This blog is actually a product of a class I taught last year in which we discussed media activism and how facebook, twitter, change.org, etc can be used to promote social change. I know, I know the whole Arab Spring and Occupy Wallstreet thing. I get it. I talk about it. I even kinda believed it. But part of me was still skeptical. Does it really work? If someone sees a petition on their Facebook page and they sign it because they would rather do that than work on whatever they are really supposed to be doing; is that really social change? Even it if does work (and I want to believe it does) does it outweigh all the negatives?
Something changed for me last week. Seeing a sea of red equal signs posted by friends, family and acquaintances from around the country changed something inside me. Maybe my little grinch heart grew two sizes that day....
Now, I have read the critiques of the campaign. I get that HRC is far from perfect (they need to work on their inclusiveness in regards to people of color and transgender individuals). But let's face it, most people didn't change their facebook pic as a sign of support for the HRC as an organization, they changed is as a sign of support for marriage equality. They changed it to show their belief that it is time for this country to change. That discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation is wrong. That everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and to have the right to marry the person they love.
This moment in time has been LONG in coming. I remember being at the pride parade in SLC in 2003 when the Supreme Court decided Lawrence v. Texas, a ruling which made same-sex sexual activity legal in every U.S. state and territory. The celebration and excitement was unbelievable! I remember thinking (with my youthful optimism) that marriage equality would not be far behind. Ten years later, here we are. Only time will tell what the Supreme Court's decision will be. But change is coming. The sheer volume of Americans who said (in pictures and words) that they are ready gives me hope. And maybe some people who needed a little nudge in the right direction saw that sea of red and wondered whether it was time to get on board.
So, I have had a change of heart (at least slightly). I won't stop asking questions or being concerned about Photoshopped models and thongs for 6-year-olds. But at the end of the day, I am willing to do (almost) anything it takes to fight for the dignity of all. Even it that means fighting fire with fire. Or posting stuff on Facebook.
My alarm clock is set to our local NPR station, so when it goes off each morning I am usually awoken to the latest news. Often the reporters are right in the middle of a story, so it can take a few seconds for my brain to register what is happening. Last week, I woke up in the middle of a conversation about women in combat. I wasn't exactly surprised to hear the story, as I knew it was coming. The Pentagon had lifted a longtime ban on women serving in front-line combat positions. Notice the wording here--the military is not "allowing" women to be in combat, they are no longer engaging in a policy which intentionally discriminates based on gender.
But we will get back to that.
As I laid in bed listening to the news, various individuals were being interviewed about their feelings regarding the change in policy. One woman was a member of the military and explained that she had already been in combat. This change in policy meant that she could now be recognized for the service to her country and have new opportunities for promotion and protection (as she noted, most combat gear is not made for women's bodies). But not everyone (or even all women) agree with the new policy. Some people have voiced concerns about whether women can meet the physical demands of being in combat or whether their presence will disturb the old boys club--er, I mean the "camaraderie" necessary for an efficient military. During the radio broadcast a military wife was asked what she thought about women being in combat and her response was...."what will they do if it is their "time of the month" and they are on the frontlines?"
At this point I sighed and decided to get out of bed. Is this really where we are as a nation? Despite the many wonderful gains we have made toward gender equality (I certainly have more opportunities available to me than my mother or grandmother ever had) we still seem pretty stuck. Women make 77% of what men make (based on 2010 national data), we have yet to have a female president (Hillary Clinton 2016?) and now we are arguing about whether women should be in combat because they menstruate. Any woman who has every been asked if it is her "time of the month" when she voiced a criticism or stood up for herself can understand my frustration with this argument.
I have some mixed feelings about women in combat, but mostly because I am opposed to anyone being in combat. I protested the war in Iraq and have had many arguments with loved ones about problems with the military. I am also incredibly concerned with the amount of sexual violence that women in the military experience. And while policies that reflect a belief that women are equal human beings are part of the long term solution to the violence; I think we need some immediate measures to protect women today.
Have I mentioned how much I love Parks and Recreation? Frankly I think Amy Poehler is a genius and this show is one of the funniest and wittiest shows on television (thanks, Aliya!). In a recent episode called "Women in Garbage" Poehler's character (Leslie Knope) expresses concern about gender inequality in the local government and puts together a working group to come up with solutions. Knope accepts a challenge to see if women "have what it takes" to be garbage collectors. Throughout the episode, Knope is faced with sabatoge, is asked to serve men their coffee, is told that women are not as "tough" as men, and even discovers that the other men on city council are keeping a diary of her menstrual cycles so they can decide when to "take her seriously." The parallels to the current debates about women in combat are uncanny and, frankly, disturbing. But they bring to the forefront the issues at hand; how our stereotypes about men and women perpetuate gender inequality. And this is not just bad for women--it is bad for men as well.
The arguments currently being made about why women shouldn't be allowed in combat reflect two big problems in our society. One is the belief that women are not equal to men--they are not as physically or emotionally strong as men and therefore are not "cut out" to be in the military. The other is that men are more disposable than women--that our society can not handle the idea of women being in combat and men would risk their lives and "the mission" to save a female soldier. (Check out one female veteran's response to the new policy: http://hotair.com/archives/2013/01/27/some-advice-on-women-in-combat-from-a-female-veteran/).
It is incredible that our society manages to hold these two seemingly opposing stereotypes simultaneously (what social psychologists would call hostile and benevolent sexism). The idea that men and women are so fundamentally different encourages our society to allow institutional discrimination (including the policy to ban women from combat) and make sweeping generalizations that limit the lives of women and men. Women are restricted from leadership positions and not taken seriously, and men are expected to be physically strong and emotionally resilient, even in the face of brutal war. The assumptions that women are not able to handle combat implies that men are; which completely ignores the reality that so many of our soldiers return from combat with PTSD and other emotional and physical injuries. Instead of arguing about what women will do if they have their period while on the front lines, maybe we should be arguing about whether we should even BE on the front lines. Rather than worrying about how women will feel if they have to pee in front of other soldiers (and whether male soldiers want to see this), we should be worrying about soldier suicides. According to the Department of the Army, 303 soldiers committed suicide in 2012, far outnumbering the deaths due to combat. Maybe the issue is not that women are not cut out for war. Maybe human beings are not cut out for war.
It is time to move forward. It is time to stop dividing ourselves into women vs. men. It is time to start solving our society's problems (be they collecting garbage or managing differences with other nations) as people--being open to the talent, ideas and hard work of all human beings.
May all our military members come home safely and come home soon.
Anyone who knows me well can attest to the fact that I am not a very adventurous person. I am kinda a picky eater, I am scared to mountain bike (although I own one and use it as a commuter bike) and I am not very good at snowboarding because I don't take enough risks.... But there is a way in which I am adventurous and that involves traveling. When I visit a new city I try to do three things. 1: run somewhere new (I am trying to run a race in every state; am currently at 31) 2: visit a wild or natural space (park, arboretum, mountain, etc) and 3: attend a yoga class. Doing these three things has led to many awe-inspiring memories, some so-so experiences, but also some downright scary moments (don't even get me started on the night I spent in a cabin in a deserted state park in Kansas).
I was in Houston last week for a conference. True to tradition, I sought out some adventures. One morning I took a bus to a yoga class and walked back to the hotel. There are not many better ways to get the real story of a place than riding a bus or walking a few miles through random neighborhoods. The weather was amazing during my trip (ok, 60 degrees and sunny, but it is 13 degrees in Pittsburgh as I type this) and I wanted to make the most of it. One afternoon I decided to take a break and visit the Houston Arboretum. I had looked it up before my trip (I do PLAN these things at least a bit) and knew it was less than 2 miles from my hotel. I asked the concierge at my hotel for a map and walking directions to which she said "oh, you can't walk there!" as though it was the craziest thing she had ever heard. During my four days in Houston I realized that people didn't really walk around much, so I could understand why that was such a weird notion to her.
But, I decided to walk anyway. Luckily I have a pretty good sense of direction, I can read a map, and I walk 3 miles a day on my commute to work so I figured I was fairly prepared. The first part of the journey was simple. The sidewalk did end at one street and pick back up the next block, but there wasn't any traffic so I wasn't concerned. After passing a few business parks, I had to go out onto the main road--a three lane frontage road next to the highway. It was loud and packed with flying cars, but there was a wide sidewalk with a barrier between it and the road. I listened to This American Life and soaked up the sun.
Before long, my peaceful walk was disturbed by a few passing cars yelling various obscenities, unwanted offers, and incomprehensible crap at me (and I know it was at me because no one else was out there). I couldn't help but think "Really?" Then I had an "oh, yeah" moment. "Oh, yeah" I thought. "In some cities you get catcalled in the middle of the day while walking by the highway." I have lived in such cities before, but in my 3 years at Pittsburgh I have grown accustomed to the comfortableness that comes with walking around a city with very little street harassment (it still happens, to be sure). I am now a bit startled to visit places where this is not the case at all.
So after about the fourth car it was hard to ignore. It was hard not to be aware of my WOMANNESS and everything that can go with that. It was hard not to think about safety and the implications of being a woman walking around alone in a city I don't know. And then the "uh-oh" moment happened. How it is possible, I don't really understand, but somehow in this asphalt jungle I was suddenly in the middle of the woods. To be fair, I don't think it was the woods so much as a bunch of overgrown trees and bushes, but the path went right through them instead of around them. I felt like little red riding hood hoping there was no big bad wolf. I and thought, "uh, oh--maybe I shouldn't have gone on this walk" and "if something happens to me, no one will find me for days" and " I am sorry for being stubborn and adventurous" (this last one was directed to those who love me who would have to deal with what happened to me).
Seriously. It was 4:00 in the afternoon. Bright and sunny in a suburb of Houston. The chances of something happening to me were so slim as to be laughable. But I couldn't laugh at it, because the fear was real. The fear of becoming a statistic on the news. In this (thankfully) brief moment, it was like I connected with the fear of every woman on earth who has ever been beaten, raped, murdered. Because that is what we are told to do. We are told to think about every possible bad outcome that could happen to us and make sure we avoid it. We women are told not to dress provocatively, not to drink at parties or let our guard down, not to walk around alone, or else we could become victims. We ARE connected to every woman who has been victimized simply for having the gall to be born female.
Now, I know that I live in one of the safest countries of the world (aside from the massive amounts of guns, but that is another post for another time) and there are millions of women living in places where the risk of being attacked is less of an "if" and more of a "when". There are girls and women risking their lives to get an education, walk to the market or give their opinion: those for whom writing a blog like this would be dangerous. So I know that I am lucky. But in those moments of fear I don't feel lucky. I do, however, wonder. I wonder what it is like to NOT feel this fear. I wonder what it would be like to walk on a sidewalk in a busy city in the middle of the day and not have an "uh-oh" moment. I wonder what our world would be like if all women felt safe. If we didn't experience daily street harassment, the threat of assault, the fear of violation. I wonder about a world where safety, dignity and respect are the norm, not a blessing.
In that worId, I wonder how much more adventurous we all could be.
I have been thinking a lot and having conversations lately about how we influence people, sometimes when we don't even realize it. This has reminded me that when we are aware of the impact we have on others, we also begin to see the way we change ourselves.
I am blessed to have a wonderful group of friends and neighbors in my life. Three of them have daughters all about 2 1/2 years old. I love the girls dearly and enjoy watching them grow and interacting with them. They have clearly reached an age where they are absorbing everything around them and trying to make sense of what it all means. As a feminist psychologist who spends much of my time studying and working with girls, I am a bit worried. There are so many negative and potentially damaging messages in our world targeted to girls about how they are "supposed" to look, act, feel and think. I know that despite their parents' best efforts (which are incredible!) it is impossible to protect these girls forever from such messages.
Thinking about this has made me especially aware of my own behavior--I think carefully about what I say and do around them. In addition to making sure I tell them how smart, kind and talented they are (not just how cute they look), I have made the intention to practice loving kindness toward myself as well. I want to model for them the possibilities of being a woman that are different from what they see on TV or in magazines. This is not always an easy task--I have my own self-doubts and insecurities. But when they ask me why my fingernails aren't painted, instead of thinking "boy I need a manicure" I tell them that I like get my hands dirty in the garden or I don't want to worry about how my nails look when I am doing yoga. Or when they come to a party at my house and I am wearing a fancy dress I make an intentional effort to play with them as much as I would if I were wearing jeans and a t-shirt. I don't want to be the one who teaches them that girls should focus on looking good for others rather than having fun. I know that I will mess up and I am sure they will learn things from me that I wish they hadn't --sorry in advance to their parents. But being intentional about what messages I send to them about what it means to be a woman has reminded me to think about messages I send to myself on a daily basis. Am I telling myself that I am smart and talented, or worrying how I look in a new dress? Do I forgive myself for making mistakes and try to learn something from the experience, or am I being critical and harsh toward myself?
The work I do doesn't always provide me with instant feedback--or any feedback for that matter. It can take months to hear about an article I am trying to get published, course evaluations only happen once a semester (although I usually sneak in a mid-semester one as well) and I may never know how my activism work will turn out. It can be challenging to pour my heart and soul into my work and not ever be sure whether it changes anything or anyone. I cherish the times that catch me by surprise, when I realize that the work I am doing does impact others. One my interns recently wrote about her experience working on a project with me..."Through collaborative activism, we should be able to create changes that we wish to see not only in ourselves and our communities, but, in each other through the work that we will be doing over the course of the internship." Reading her reflection reminded me that 1) students do listen to us and are not just checking facebook every 5 minutes and 2) through collaborative activism we are all the agent of change AND the target of change. Including myself.
So, while I intend to continue to strive to be a positive influence for the girls in my life and find joy in the moments when my work seems to make a difference, at the end of the day I remember that ultimately the only person I can change is myself. Sometimes when you plant a seed intended for others, you realize you planted your own tree.
Which leads me to one of my favorite quotes. I heard this for the first time during a yoga class I was taking while in graduate school. It had a profound impact on me and I now have it hanging on my office door. It reminds me to be authentic, to live passionately, and to stay true to myself.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
― Marianne Williamson
I did something today that I try not to do. I got involved in a heated discussion on Facebook. I usually try to avoid these for two very different reasons 1) It is hard to have a meaningful discussion on Facebook where a lot can be taken out of context and 2) I can get really sucked into these things and all the work I planned to do just flies out the window.
In the weeks and days leading up to the election I posted lots of political comments and "liked" or responded to some of the comments made by my friends. But for the most part I was lucky to NOT have friends posting racist/sexist/homophobic doomsday propaganda BS, so I didn't have to engage in any big debates. It was a lot of "Go Obama" and " I agree with you, Go Obama!".
But today I read an interchange that I decided I needed to respond to. This interchange actually was not directly related to the election, although it certainly relates to larger discussions about power and privilege in society.
This discussion was about Women/Gender Studies Courses and the presence or absence of men in these courses. This is an area of importance to me because I teach Gender/Women's studies classes and I have done research on students' perceptions of these courses. The Facebook conversation was sparked by an article in The Guardian
about the limited number of men in Gender Studies courses. The explanations about why men tend not to take these courses were not new. Many men assume that the classes will be "anti-male", that others will tease them or question their masculinity and sexual orientation if they take the courses, and some men think the material is unimportant or doesn't apply to them. Most students make these assumptions without ever taking a Women/Gender Studies course. While this issue is of obvious interest to university faculty and administrators it is also very important to anyone interested in creating social change. The same reasons men might avoid these courses could cause them to avoid identifying as a feminist or engaging in conversations about gender equality. One of the posted comments about the article
was from a man who indicated that he had taken a Gender Studies course and worried that the teacher would tell him he was "wrong." How many courses in other subjects include new material or material that challenges students' current viewpoints? If a student feels like they are "wrong" in what they thought they knew about math or history, do they assume the teacher is radical and biased? Or do they assume that they are taking the course because they want to learn new things? Women/Gender Studies are rich academic areas that are backed by years of research yet some students assume that the material presented in them is "subjective." Can you tell that I am a bit annoyed? And now you know why I decided to engage in the conversation.
I think this perception about biases in these courses relates to the main reason men avoid them. Many feel uncomfortable having discussions about male privilege. Students may leave these courses (or not be open to the content) because of this discomfort. Yes, these courses do address issues of privilege, which can make men feel uncomfortable. But there are ways to talk about being aware of one's privilege without feeling guilty about it. I talk about the fact that people often don't feel subjectively privileged even though they belong to a group that has systematic privilege. I also talk about the fact that a system that privileges some identities over others is problematic for everyone because it sets up limited definitions of "acceptable" expressions of identity (masculinity being a perfect example). Finally, I include discussions of how to use one's privilege (in any area of identity) to be an ally. I often quote Spider Man at this point "With great power comes great responsibility..."
So while individual men may not have chosen to have male privilege, that doesn't mean they don't have it. Just like I have white privilege and heterosexual privilege. I can refuse to address it, feel guilty about it and get mad at anyone who points it out--OR I can challenge myself to be aware of the ways privilege works in my life and strive to be an ally.
At times I feel like just blowing off the men who can't be bothered to take a Gender Studies course or who are resistant to being challenged about their perceptions of the world. But I realize that we need to engage men in these conversations, for the sake of women AND men (and boys and girls). Because in our world, much power is held in the hands of a few men. And until those men decide they are willing to take responsibility for being part of social change I guess I will keep having Facebook arguments.
The United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution in 2011 to establish October 11 as the International Day of the Girl Child. The day is designed to recognize the need to eradicate gender inequality and advocate for girls' rights around the world.
If you are asking yourself whether or not we really "need" a day to recognize girls, I encourage you to take an honest and hard look at life around you. When was the last time you walked into a toy store that wasn't separated into "boy" and "girl" toys? Have you seen some of the clothes marketed to girls? Elizabeth Hurley recently put out a line of bikinis marketed to toddlers and girls 8-13 so they could look "more grown up". Abercrombie & Fitch are selling push up bras and thongs for 7-year-olds. Really?!? In addition to the sexualization of girlhood, girls around the world face a number of other challenges and limitations. Over 50% of elementary school girls report that they are not happy with their bodies--many of them engage in harmful dieting practices in their attempts to meet some idealized body shape. Worldwide, only 30% of girls attend secondary school and many girls are forced into unwanted marriages before the age of 15. 20% of girls in high school are physically or sexually abused by a dating partner and many girls around the world experience sexual violence through prostitution and trafficking.
The International Day of the Girl is about girls and their advocates (including boys and adult women and men) fighting to change the world. Girls and young women are speaking up about these problems and working to make changes. To learn more about the issues facing girls today and how you can help, visit dayofthegirl.org.
How are you going to celebrate the Day of the Girl?
These new sports bras from Victoria's Secret may not provide the best support or coverage, but don't worry--they come complete with "push-up padding for lift & cleavage."
Cleavage? The point of a sports bra is to provide support and minimize the movement of breasts in order to reduce pain or discomfort while working out. Now, something created to make working out more comfortable for women has been reinvented to objectify women.
Working out should be about health. It should be about taking care of your body. It should be about taking note of how much more flexible you are getting, how much further you are running, or how much more weight you are lifting. And while you are working on becoming stronger, faster, and more flexible, how much bigger your chest appears should not be at the forefront of your mind. Exercise regimes are already part of women's complicated relationship with their bodies. Food and exercise are associated with "thinness," not necessarily health. Working out is focused on looking better, not always feeling better. Magazines are dedicated to helping women find the "Sexiest Butt" and "Knockout Legs." In fact, "SELF's 2012 Fitness Survey" found that only 19% of their readers said they worked out for health. The other reasons? Stress and to lose weight. And now the pressure is not just to workout in order to look good; it is to look good while you workout.
I love the way I feel when I workout. I love the way I look when I workout. But it is not because my sports bra makes my breasts look bigger. It's because I can feel my body changing. It's because I feel refreshed. It's because I know that I am doing something that is good for myself. My workout is not about anybody else. And my sports clothes are first and foremost about what feels good and what works best.
Let's shift the hetero-normative and gendered focus on women's fitness as a means to look "good" to an opportunity to be healthier and more at ease with ourselves. Let's take pride in the real changes that are happening in our bodies and minds when we exercise. Those are the long-term effects, and they do not disappear once you hit your post-workout shower.