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Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Lately I’ve been feeling like a bad feminist.

It kicked up a gear last month when my feminist book club read Feminism is for Everyone, by bell hooks. I learned a lot from the book, but the entire time I was reading it, I was thinking, “Wow, I feel like I’m really falling short, and I don’t even really understand how.” It talked about raising consciousness, and I’m pretty sure my consciousness is completely NOT raised. Whatever that means.

This month we’re reading Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay, which is making for a nice change of pace. Roxane Gay is smart and insightful and funny, and she also seems like she isn’t perfect, which is reassuring since I am also far from perfect.

For example, I have this fascination with eye makeup. It all started when my friend was visiting this coast from Boston, and the friends he was staying with invited me to stay for dinner. It was a lovely evening of good food and even better company, but I kept being distracted by the woman’s eyelashes. She had AMAZING eyelashes. And I was sitting there at the table, wondering if she glued on fake eyelashes every morning or if she was able to work these wonders with mascara, and if so, why had I never been able to work similar wonders with mascara?

Thus began my fascination. It started with mascara experimentation, but after some months I branched out to an interest in eyeliner and different colors of eye shadow. And a few weeks ago I took a field trip to Sephora and obtained this fat eyeliner pencil that is a modern wonder of cosmetics.

Flawed Feminist

Flawed Feminist

And every time I play with eye makeup, I know I’m probably being a bad feminist. I’m propagating a certain ideal of feminine beauty, and I guess as a feminist I’m supposed to deliberately subvert that ideal, and I don’t. I get almost as annoyed when people imply I shouldn’t wear makeup as I do when people imply I must wear makeup. I want to look the way I want to look, and I want to wear what I want to wear, and I don’t want to care about the messages I’m sending or the subconscious misogynistic ideas I’ve no doubt internalized over the years. And so I wear makeup when I feel like wearing makeup.

Also, when I’m on a date with a guy, I allow him to pay. I’m pretty sure a good feminist would not do this. My rule is never assume, but accept graciously. I cannot pretend that this is motivated by anything but self-interest. I don’t want to get into an argument about who’s paying for dinner (conflict adverse, me?), and also, it’s really nice when someone buys you dinner. The allure of free food and being fed, which to all rights should have died down after college, remains strong. The allure of being treated remains strong. It’s also super unfair, and I know this, and yet. I accept graciously.

Even my language is suspect, and for a writer, this is inexcusable. I like to say and write “you guys.” I like to say, “Man.” I know a good feminist would never say or write these things. And I do try to avoid this gendered language sometimes, especially in tweets. But there aren’t any good alternatives! I’ve tried “you all,” but I’m not from Texas and I’ll never be from Texas. “You people” is horrible. “Friends” sometimes works, but not always. And the best substitutes for “Man” are all profanity. So I have to choose between saying “Man” and swearing a lot.

I imagine if I had my consciousness raised, I wouldn’t do any of these things. I’d effortlessly never say “you guys” and I wouldn’t wear any makeup EVER EVER and I’d insist on going Dutch every single time. So where does this leave me?

I guess it leaves me far from perfect. But that doesn’t mean feminism isn’t important to me. That doesn’t mean being a feminist isn’t part of my identity. I think what it really means is that I’m human and flawed and complicated, and aren’t we all?

You guys, I’m a bad feminist. But even so, I’d rather be a bad feminist grappling with these issues than not be a feminist at all.

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I have a lot of books on my coffee table. I used to try to clean it off before anyone came over, but over time, I have become lax. Also, I have an excuse: I’m a writer. Of course I have books on my coffee table!

My friend was over the other night, and he asked about the book on top: Stiff, by Mary Roach. “Oh yeah,” I said. “I’m supposed to read that for research for my book. I should actually do that.” And then I was struck by an idea. “Ooh! I wonder if Mary Roach is a person of color.”

A quick flip to the back of the book and the author photo nixed that idea. “No. White, white, white. Gah!” I threw the book back on the coffee table in disappointment. (Okay, I didn’t actually throw it. I am physically incapable of throwing a book. But I set it down with gusto.)

My friend laughed at me, but it’s true. Since I started my POC authors reading challenge last year, this is my reaction upon finding out a book isn’t written by a person of color

The reason? Because almost all the books I have just lying around, or that I’ve heard buzz about, or that I pick up and want to read at the bookstore, or that I’ve selected to read for research are by white people. The number isn’t a hundred percent, but it’s close enough to be really freaking appalling.

The most important thing I learned from my POC reading project last year is that reading books written by authors of color takes real effort and mindfulness. This is because of the way publishing works right now, and let’s not beat around the bush, because of racism.

Fewer authors of colors are published than white authors. A LOT fewer. Books by authors of color are not given the same publicity campaigns. They are not reviewed as often. They are sometimes shelved in the wrong category, making it difficult for readers to find. They are not put on as many lists. When they are talked about at all, authors of color are often talked about for being authors of color instead of because of the merits of their work. They are placed on panels about race instead of panels on other subjects on which they are experts, which means they don’t reach as large an audience at conventions. And this is just a scratch on the surface of what’s going on here.

All of this means that when we don’t read mindfully, we’re a lot more likely to not read very diversely. And when we don’t read diversely, publishing can continue to tell the same old story about how diversity doesn’t sell, and nothing will change.

My reading project wasn’t really about setting a quota for myself. It was about challenging myself and stretching myself outside of my reading comfort zone. It was about trying different authors and different books to see if I would enjoy them (and the answer in many cases was a resounding yes). It was about reading more diversely so my reading experience would be more reflective of the world around me. It was about choosing new experiences for myself. It was about building my own awareness of how institutionalized bias was affecting me personally.

So every time I metaphorically throw a book down because it’s by yet another white author, that’s a victory. Not because there’s anything wrong with reading books by white authors. I do it all the time. But because now I’m aware of the imbalance. I’m aware of the problem.

And it is through awareness that change becomes possible.

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I’ve written this blog post so many times in my head, and every time I end up crushing it into a metaphorical paper ball and throwing it in the trash. Because every one of them ends up sounding as if I think I know what it’s like.

And if there’s one thing I know, it’s that I DON’T KNOW.

I don’t know what it’s like to be the target of racial slurs.

I don’t know what it’s like to worry that my child might be killed because of the color of his skin.

I don’t know what it’s like to be pulled over because of what I look like instead of how I was driving.

I don’t know what it’s like to be discriminated against not just because I’m a woman, but also because of my race and class.

I don’t know what it’s like, as a person of color, to try to break into a publishing industry that is hugely white and for the most part doesn’t see the problem with that.

I don’t know what it’s like to see someone who looks like me be the first one to die in movie after movie.

I don’t know what it’s like to be demonized for my skin color.

I don’t know what it’s like to know I’m three times more likely to be killed by police.

I don’t know what it’s like to be frightened enough to seriously look into emigrating from the United States.

I don’t know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a never-ending stream of racially related micro-aggressions, day after day after day.

I don’t know what it’s like to have one of the big moments of my career marked with a stereotypical joke about my race.

I don’t know what it’s like to have people assume I’m violent or aggressive or stupid before I take a single action or say a single word.

I don’t know what it’s like to receive a longer or harsher sentence than a white person would have received for the exact same crime.

I don’t know what it’s like to see the KKK in action and to know its members would be totally behind a world in which I was merely property. Or dead, even though I’ve never done anything to them.

I don’t know what it’s like to have no choice about dealing with the problem of racism in the United States.

I don’t know what it’s like to live in a country with a history of seeing my ancestors as animals, of counting my ancestors as each only three-fifths of a white person, of thinking the slavery of my ancestors was morally okay, of lynchings and segregation and dehumanization and murders of those of different racial backgrounds.

I don’t know what it’s like. All this and so much more.

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What do I know?

I know that racism is an easy thing for a white person like me to ignore. I know I can choose to remain ignorant without huge consequences. I know I can avoid the discomfort of looking at my own privilege. I know I can pay lip service to being a decent human being by saying race is invisible to me. I know I get to be outraged and not simultaneously deeply afraid. I know I don’t have to be courageous, that I can say nothing and probably no one will be upset with me and maybe no one will even notice and it’s not like my life is made personally unbearable if the systemic racism in our country isn’t addressed.

But I choose NOT to ignore the realities of racism in our country and in our world. I choose to practice my empathy. I try to educate myself instead of placing the burden of my education on others. I donate to the #weneeddiversebooks campaign, and I implement my own reading project to increase the diversity I’m exposed to in the books I read. I try not to say anything too ignorant or hurtful, and I prepare for the possibility of me screwing up, so maybe when that time comes I’ll have the grace to apologize well and make the amends I can. I try to be a safe and supportive person. I listen. I listen some more. I listen even when I don’t understand. I listen as much as possible because I know I don’t know, and because listening is a way of legitimizing voices that have gone too long unheard. And this is, quite frankly, not very much. But it is a beginning.

I want to be very clear about my thoughts. I don’t have to know what it’s like living without white privilege to know racism is a big problem in this country. I am not okay with this status quo. I support change with all my heart, and I believe that change is possible. I believe we as a nation can be better than this. The path to change will continue to be long and difficult, but it is a path I believe in and support.

I hope I will see you there on that path with me.

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Well.

This was supposed to be a bright, happy, bouncy post. And we will get there, never fear. But now that I’ve sat down to write it, I find I want to provide a little context for where we’re going.

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I believe there is value in documenting the grieving process, so this is what has been happening.

My friend Jay died two months ago now. And in those two months, I have taken an emotional beating. Close readers of this blog apparently already know this, so now I’m just taking the final step and being explicit.

Very little of this beating has had much of anything to do with Jay’s death. His death was a catastrophe that put me in a vulnerable place, yes, and apparently that’s all it took to allow floods of bullshit to wash in.

I was going to call it drama, but let’s call it what it is, shall we? And sadly, much of it is bullshit, plain and simple.

I’m exhausted. And my tolerance for such things has dropped to historically low levels. I am considering keeping it there.

An unfortunate side effect of all of this is that I’ve had to put my grief on hold while I deal with other things. Yes, it’s a luxury to even be capable of doing so, but it is still not a situation that makes me happy. In my experience, putting grief on hold has a tendency to backfire in unfortunate and sometimes unpredictable ways. Not ideal. Not at all.

But that is what is happening. Hey presto, context!

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In more fortuitous news, I’m going on vacation in a few weeks. A blissful, well-deserved, drama-free, AMAZING vacation. I can’t wait.

And in the meantime, I have signed up to participate in GISHWHES, otherwise known as the GREATEST INTERNATIONAL SCAVENGER HUNT THE WORLD HAS EVER SEEN.

At this point, I think my belief that sometimes things need to be shaken up is well documented on this blog. And there is no better time to shake things up than when life is being unfortunate. So I am extra super excited to be spending next week doing something completely different and outside of my comfort zone.

It should be especially exciting because improv makes me nervous, doing strange things in public makes me a little nervous too, and me crafting doesn’t so much make me nervous as it often yields results that are suboptimal (and possibly hilarious). Or else I’m just kind of slow. Seriously, the only C I’ve ever gotten in my life was in 6th grade art because it took me so long to complete each project. Pushing Amy out of her comfort zone? Check check check.

On the other hand, writing a real online dating profile for Nala? I am so all over that. (Yes, this was a real task from last year.)

I am sweet little dog who enjoys traveling, going to see movies, and pretty much all adventure sports. And of course, I love to bark!

I am a sweet little dog who enjoys traveling, going to see movies, and pretty much all adventure sports. And of course, I love to bark!

The founder of GISHWHES, Misha Collins, has this to say about the hunt: “GISHWHES is about creating art, pushing boundaries, perpetrating acts of kindness and, ultimately, redefining our perception of “the possible.””  And I am 100% behind all those things, as a creative person, sure, but more fundamentally, as a human being. It’s so easy for our view of the world, and of ourselves, to become limited and stagnant, and it is so important to do what we can to work against this trend.

I’m hoping I’ll have time to post updates on the blog over the course of the next week on how things are going in GISHWHES land, but I’m not sure how all-consuming it is going to be. So I will be playing it by ear. (Gasp!)

Meanwhile, I’ll be remembering, and gleefully celebrating, that life is what you make of it, one day at a time.

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I love selfies.

I know there is a lot of judgment swirling around the idea of the selfie, along with a lot of criticism. Apparently there are many of us who are ultra super threatened by the idea of someone else posting a photo of themselves…because…?

Heaven forbid someone else feel comfortable with how they look. Or experiment with identity through appearance. Or make a bold statement: THIS IS WHO I AM, WORLD.

This is who I am.

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OMG, world! This is who I am.

OMG, world! This is who I am.

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I was opening up the photo gallery on my phone to show a photo to my friend, and he was looking over my shoulder. “Wow, you have so many selfies.”

Yes. My phone is full of selfies.

When I find myself in front of the mirror, I make faces. I’ve done that ever since I can remember. I want to know what different expressions feel like. I want to be aware of the form of self-expression that is my body and my face. I want to know how I’m opening my mouth when I sing. I want to know how I perceive myself from the outside, just as I want to know who I am from the inside. And I want to know how the inside and the outside interact.

Mirror, selfies, what’s the difference? Mainly that I can use the selfies to trace the development of my identity over time.

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Justine Musk has smart things to say about the phenomenon of the selfie:

“I don’t buy that every time a young woman (or an older woman) posts a selfie, she is seeking external validation and approval because she’s so insecure. She is telling a story about who she is – I’m the kind of woman who goes to Positano – and in this very act of declaiming her identity, she continues to create it.”

Selfies tell a story, just as status updates tell a story, just as blog posts tell a story, just as autobiographies tell a story, just as how you behave when with other people tells a story. This is a story of identity, and when it is about your identity, it is one of the most important stories you will spend your life telling.

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Selfies have another important purpose; they are one way to disrupt the narrative of low self-esteem, of constant self apology, of being afraid of taking up space. Because they are prone to receiving judgment, they become a way to face that judgment and say, “You know what? I don’t really care what you think about me.”

They are a way to reclaim a love of self.

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We are afraid of this love of self. We throw around words like narcissistic and selfish very freely. There are people who are narcissistic. There are people who are selfish. And then there is everyone else, people who are afraid to “brag” and “toot their own horns.”

Please tell me, what’s wrong with liking yourself? What’s wrong with liking specific aspects of yourself, whatever those may be? Maybe you like the way you look. Maybe you like your smile, or your eyes, or your teeth that are pleasingly straight after years of orthodontic torture. Maybe you like the way you play soccer, or the way you’ve become an expert on geopolitics, or the way you paint, or the way you can walk out of a party with five new friends.

I fail to see what’s wrong with any of that. Good for you! And good for you for celebrating yourself. I want to celebrate you too. There is a difference between being humble and not allowing yourself to appreciate your positive qualities and accomplishments or acknowledge them in any way.

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Oh no, not another selfie! Because selfies are *serious business.* Ha!

Oh no, not another selfie! Because selfies are *serious business.* Ha!

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And what’s wrong with taking selfies? As far as I’m concerned, nothing at all. A selfie is just one more tool for expressing who we are.

 

 

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Please note: This essay is not an invitation to comment on my physical appearance. Any such comments will be deleted, even if they are complimentary, because that is counterproductive to the point I’m trying to make.

When I was a teenager, it was very clear to me that it mattered very much how I looked.

And I looked all wrong. I had an awkward phase that lasted years and years, complemented by having a mother who took no interest in physical presentation. So I didn’t know what clothes to wear that would flatter me. I didn’t know how to take care of my hair, or how the right haircut could make a big difference. I learned everything I knew about makeup from Seventeen and being in the theater. The style of glasses at the time was unfortunately large.

Eventually I figured most of these things out. I got better glasses. I started getting my hair cut and learned of the wonder that is conditioner. A few female friends in college went shopping with me and taught me about non-baggy clothing, and I began to develop my own sense of style.

I recently read Justine Musk’s post about the perception that women tend to be vain, and it struck a real chord with me. She goes on to say: “Even today, in 2014, the culture transmits the message to girls and women that there’s a direct correlation between looking good and being loved – or at least not being openly mocked.”

A few years ago Lisa Bloom wrote about how difficult it can be to refrain from complimenting a little girl on her appearance at the beginning of an interaction. She makes the effort, engaging girls about their interests and thoughts instead, because “teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything.”

I’ve been taught since I was quite young that a real part of my worth is in my appearance. How many movies have I seen where the awkward nerdy girl gets a makeover that consists of tossing her hair around and pulling off her glasses? And then suddenly she’s worthy of attention and love and respect. The Princess Diaries. She’s All That. My Big Fat Greek Wedding. If the Shoe Fits. Grease, Mean Girls, and The Cinderella Story sans the glasses part of the equation. And let’s not forget The Breakfast Club. If we look at the quintessential Cinderella fairy tale, sure, Cinderella is patient and good and virtuous. But she needs her fairy godmother’s help with a makeover in order to win the heart of a prince. (The class implications of many of these makeover stories are fascinating as well. See Pretty in Pink.) The theme of transformation can be a powerful one, and an outer change can act to highlight an internal change, but the message is still clear: you are judged by your external appearance.

Photo Credit: Camil Tulcan via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Camil Tulcan via Compfight cc

At the same time, women are criticized and called vain for caring about their looks. It’s a Catch-22 in which the “right” physical appearance is supposed to come naturally and effortlessly. We are not supposed to care about how we look, and we’re certainly not supposed to be aware of how we look (that would be conceited), but we are taught that our looks are paramount. And thus thinking we don’t look the right way leads to all kinds of psychological problems.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with experimenting with personal identity by having a makeover (or several). I don’t think there’s anything wrong with expressing who we are through our physical appearances. And how we hold our bodies can affect both how we feel about ourselves and how we are perceived. For better or for worse, the art of personal presentation, or style, if you will, can deeply affect how others see us.

But when we teach that physical beauty is the main path to love and worth as an individual, we are teaching shame. We are teaching people to hate their bodies, to be uncomfortable, that they are in some essential way not good enough. We are creating impossible situations. Would we prefer to be vain or unattractive? Must we fall into the small band that our society deems to be traditionally beautiful in order to receive respect? And what if we can’t?

And so we put on a tightrope act. I think of physical presentation as a kind of game, and I’ve learned enough of the rules and conform to enough of the standards that it’s no longer such a painful one. I usually know what rules I can get away with breaking, and I can get away with it because of the ways in which I already conform and the place where I live. Not everyone has these luxuries. Meanwhile, unplugging entirely from the game can come with its own consequences, not least among them having to live with the general consensus that it’s okay to make negative comments to someone else about their appearance.

For myself, I try not to confuse vanity and conceit with confidence. Having confidence in yourself, which includes your physical body, and becoming comfortable in your own skin is not something that is wrong or shameful. As Theodora Goss says in her post with advice about how to be photogenic: “You must believe you are beautiful.”

Yes. Yes, we must.

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I often say that I assume everything I put on the Internet is public. Some sites are explicitly public, like this blog and my Twitter account. Others aren’t quite as obviously public, like when I post to my friends only on Facebook or on a members-only forum. But ultimately, everything I post on the internet is just a screen shot away from being 100% public, so I operate under the assumption that it’s public and go from there.

What I don’t think I’ve talked about is our interactions with other people on the internet, and how they are affected by being online.

Following from my earlier rule of everything on the internet being public, our social interactions with people on the internet are also often public. But I’ve noticed that we often appear to forget this is the case. And trouble ensues as a result.

Photo Credit: CasualCapture via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: CasualCapture via Compfight cc

I’ve compiled a list of internet social etiquette ideas derived from this principle:

1. Personal conversations on social media: Let’s say you and a friend are catching up at a coffee shop and talking about your personal lives. And then let’s say you find out the guy at the next table over has been recording your entire conversation. Creepy, right?

But you are doing the same thing to yourself when you have personal conversations on Twitter, on comment threads, or on Facebook walls. Those conversations are recorded for all to (potentially) see. So make sure these are conversations you wouldn’t mind having the rest of the world overhear. More personal conversations might be better suited for email or various messaging options (IM, Facebook messages, Twitter DMs, etc.).

2. Criticism on the internet: When you criticize someone on the internet, you are doing so in a public forum. This is much more likely to make the person being criticized feel threatened and defensive, and to result in non-productive communication. Sometimes public criticism is appropriate and meets your goals; other times, not so much. Consider if you’d feel comfortable making the same statements at a party, in a group of friends, or even on a panel. If the answer is no, you can always say something privately to the person instead.

3. Are these people worth your time? In public, when I meet people who are egregiously rude to me, don’t listen to what I have to say, and are espousing a lot of ideas I find offensive, I tend to cease engagement with them. I know I’m not going to change their minds, I know I’m not going to change their friends’ minds, and I know I don’t want to be treated poorly. Comment threads are often no different. They are not always worth your time. And having to engage repeatedly with such people is definitely not worth your time. What do you when at a party with such a person? You excuse yourself and you avoid, avoid, avoid. Doing the same thing on the internet is totally allowed.

4. Am I causing harm? Holding a private opinion and making a public statement are two very different things. Once you decide to turn a private opinion into a public statement, you have to consider both your reach and the effects of your statement. This requires a lot more reflection and research. Do your very best to get the facts. Use sources that have solid credentials. Consider consequences. I don’t think any of us wants to be responsible for the resurgence of measles in the United States, and most of us don’t have a reach as big as Jenny McCarthy’s, but the consequences of public statements are real and something for which we share responsibility.

5. Public mistakes require public apologies: We all screw up from time to time. But if you accidentally make a mistake on the internet, you need to make amends publicly as well. A private apology is all well and good, but not enough if the social interaction in question was public. And if you’ve broken someone’s trust in public, expect to have to work hard to regain that trust.

What are other common social pitfalls on the internet? Any suggestions on how to handle them gracefully?

 

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