Viewing History Skeptically, Part 2: Beauty

Joan Jacobs Brumberg's "The Body Project"One of the first things one learns in a college-level history or sociology course is that the ways we define and think about various human attributes and qualities—sexual orientation, mental illness, gender, race, virginity—are never static. They vary geographically and temporally, and even though it may seem that the way we currently conceptualize a particular aspect of human experience is the “right” one, the one that’s accurate and supported by the research evidence, that’s pretty much what people always think.

This is what I discussed in a previous post, where I promised to write some followups about specific examples of this sort of thing. So here we go!

Beauty is a good example of shifting cultural attitudes—not only in the sense that beauty standards have changed over the decades, but also in terms of what meaning and significance we attribute to beauty as a quality. In her book The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, Joan Jacobs Brumberg discusses these shifting meanings. Brumberg notes in her chapter on skincare that in the 19th century, acne and other facial blemishes were considered a sign of moral or spiritual impurity. In fact, many people believed that people got blemishes as a result of masturbating, having “promiscuous” sex, or simply having “impure” thoughts. She writes, “In the nineteenth century, young women were commonly taught that the face was a ‘window on the soul’ and that facial blemishes indicated a life that was out of balance.”

By the mid-20th century, however, Americans had already started to think of beauty very differently. Brumberg writes of perceptions of acne in the postwar period:

Although acne did not kill, it could ruin a young person’s life. By undermining self-confidence and creating extreme psychological distress, acne could generate a breakdown in social functioning. Acne was considered dangerous because it could foster an “inferiority complex,” an idea that began to achieve wide popularity among educated Americans.

Facial blemishes were no longer considered a sign of inner weakness or impurity; they were a potentially dangerous blow to a young person’s self-esteem. They were something to be dealt with swiftly, before they could cause any serious damage:

In magazines popular with the educated middle class, parents were urged to monitor teenagers’ complexions and to take a teenager to a dermatologist as soon as any eruptions appeared: “Even the mildest attack is best dealt with under the guidance of an understanding medical counselor.” Those parents who took a more acquiescent view were guilty of neglect: “Ignoring acne or depending upon its being outgrown is foolish, almost wicked.”

Whereas worrying about one’s appearance and trying to correct it was once viewed as improper for young women, it was now considered acceptable and even productive. Even state health departments issues pamphlets urging young people to make sure that they are “as attractive as nature intended you to be.” It was understood that beauty was an important and necessary quality to have, not only because it opened doors for people but because it was just another aspect of health and wellbeing.

Today, our views on beauty seem much more rife with contradictions. Obviously beauty is still important. Women (and, to a lesser but growing extent, men) are still encouraged and expected to spend money, time, and energy on improving their appearance. We know from research that the halo effect exists, and that lends a certain practicality to what was once viewed as a frivolous pursuit—trying to be beautiful.

At the same time, though, we insist that beauty “doesn’t matter,” that “it’s what’s on the inside that counts.” It’s difficult for me to imagine a modern middle-class parent immediately rushing their child to the dermatologist at the first sign of pimples; it seems that they would be more likely to encourage the child to remember that “beauty is only skin deep” and that one’s “real friends” would never make fun of them for their acne. (Of course, I grew up with no-nonsense immigrant parents who rejected most forms of conformity, so maybe my experience was different.) Nowadays, costly medical interventions to improve teenagers’ looks are more associated with the upper class than the middle class, and we tend to poke fun (or shudder in disgust) at parents who take their children to get plastic surgery and put them on expensive weight loss programs.

It appears that our culture has outwardly rejected—or is in the process of trying to reject, amid much cognitive dissonance—the idea that beauty is a good way to judge people, that it reveals anything about them other than how they happen to look thanks to genetics or their environment. No longer do we consider beauty a sign of purity and spiritual wellbeing, as in the Victorian era, or of health and social success, as in the postwar years.

Of course, that’s just outwardly. Although we’re loath to admit it, beauty still matters, and people still judge others by their appearance, and we still subscribe to the notion that anyone can be beautiful if they just try hard enough (which generally involves investing a sufficient amount of money). While people are likely to tell you that beauty is a superficial thing that shouldn’t matter, their actions suggest otherwise.

An interesting contrast to this is Brazil, where plastic surgery, or plástica, is generally covered by the state healthcare system. As anthropologist Alexander Edmonds describes, many in Brazil believe that beauty is a “right” that everyone deserves, not just those who can afford it. One surgeon says:

In the past the public health system only paid for reconstructive surgery. And surgeons thought cosmetic operations were vanity. But plástica has psychological effects, for the poor as well as the rich. We were able to show this and so it was gradually accepted as having a social purpose. We operate on the poor who have the chance to improve their appearance and it’s a necessity not a vanity.

Brazilians, too, have been influenced by Alfred Adler’s concept of the “inferiority complex,” and in this sense the meaning of beauty in that context is similar to that in postwar America, although with a few differences. Like Americans in the 1950s, many Brazilians believe that improving one’s appearance is an important form of healthcare that heightens self-esteem and confidence. It’s not a matter of vanity.

However, unlike Americans, Brazilians (at least the ones profiled in Edmonds’ study) believe that self-esteem is important for the poor as well as for those who are better-off. In the United States people tend to scoff at the idea that people living in poverty need (let alone deserve) entertainment, pleasure, or really anything other than what they need to survive, and in the postwar years the focus on adolescents’ appearance seemed to be confined to the middle and upper class. But in Brazil it’s accepted as a “right”–a right to be beautiful.

Looking at how Americans in the past viewed beauty, as well as how people in other cultures view it, exposes the contradictions in our own thinking about it. Our outward dismissal of beauty as vain and unimportant clashes with our actual behavior, which suggests that beauty is quite important. This tension probably emerged because we have abandoned our earlier justifications for valuing beauty, such as the Victorian view of beauty as a sign of morality and the postwar view of beauty as a vital component of health. Now that we know that beauty has nothing to do with morality and relatively little to do with health, we’re forced to declare that it “doesn’t matter.” But, of course, it does.

 

Viewing History Skeptically: On Shifting Cultural Assumptions and Attitudes

I’ve been reading Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, Lillian Faderman’s sweeping social history of lesbians in 20th century America (this is the sort of thing I do for fun). At the beginning of the chapter on World War II, Faderman makes this insight:

If there is one major point to be made in a social history such as this one, it is that perceptions of emotional or social desires, formations of sexual categories, and attitudes concerning “mental health” are constantly shifting–not through the discovery of objectively conceived truths, as we generally assume, but rather through social forces that have little to do with the essentiality of emotions or sex or mental health. Affectional preferences, ambitions, and even sexual experiences that that are within the realm of the socially acceptable during one era may be considered sick or dangerous or antisocial during another–and in a brief space of time attitudes may shift once again, and yet again.

This is probably the single most important thing I’ve learned through studying history and sociology in college. For many reasons that I’ll get into in a moment, many people assume that the cultural attitudes and categories they’re familiar with are that way “for a reason”: that is, a reason that can be logically explicated. This requires a certain amount of reverse engineering–we note our attitudes and then find reasons to justify them, not the other way around. We don’t want gay couples raising kids because that’s bad for the kids. We don’t want women getting abortions because fetuses are human beings. We don’t want women to breastfeed in public because it’s inappropriate to reveal one’s breasts. We don’t want women to be in sexual/romantic relationships with other women because that’s unhealthy and wrong. That last idea is the one Faderman addresses in the next paragraph (emphasis mine):

The period of World War II and the years immediately after illustrate such astonishingly rapid shifts. Lesbians were, as has just been seen [in the previous chapter], considered monstrosities in the 1930s–an era when America needed fewer workers and more women who would seek contentment making individual men happy, so that social anger could be personally mitigated instead of spilling over into social revolt. In this context, the lesbian (a woman who needed to work and had no interest in making a man happy) was an anti-social being. During the war years that followed, when women had to learn to do without men, who were being sent off to fight and maybe die for their country, and when female labor–in the factories, in the military, everywhere–was vital to the functioning of America, female independence and love between women were understood and undisturbed and even protected. After the war, when the surviving men returned to their jobs and the homes that women needed to make for them so that the country could return to “normalcy,” love between women and female independence were suddenly manifestations of illness, and a woman who dared proclaim herself a lesbian was considered a borderline psychotic. Nothing need have changed in the quality of a woman’s desires for her to have metamorphosed socially from a monster to a hero to a sicko.

“Nothing need have changed in the quality of woman’s desires”–and neither did lesbianism need a PR campaign–in order for love between women to gain acceptance during the war. All that needed to happen was for lesbianism to become “useful” to mainstream American goals, such as manufacturing sufficient military supplies while all the male factory workers were off at war. And since having a male partner simply wasn’t an option for a lot of young women, the idea that one might want a female lover suddenly didn’t seem so farfetched. And so, what was monstrous and anti-social just a few years before suddenly became “normal” or even good–until the nation’s needs changed once again.

Once I got to college and learned to think this way, I quickly abandoned my socially conservative beliefs and got much better at doing something I’d always tried to do, even as a child–questioning everything. I also started seeing this phenomenon all over the place–in the labels we use for sexual orientation, in the assumptions we make about the nature of women’s sexuality, in the  way we define what it means to be racially white.

Unfortunately, though, the way history is usually taught to kids and teens isn’t conducive to teaching them to be skeptical of cultural assumptions. (That, perhaps, is no accident.) The history I learned in middle and high school was mostly the history of people and events, not of ideas. In Year X, a Famous Person did an Important Thing. In Year Y, a war broke out between Country A and Country B.

When we did learn about the history of ideas, beliefs, and cultural assumptions, it was always taught as a constant, steady march of progress from Bad Ideas to Better Ideas. For instance, once upon a time, we thought women and blacks aren’t people. Now we realize they’re people just like us! Yay! Once upon a time we locked up people who were mentally ill in miserable, prison-like asylums, but now we have Science to help them instead!

Of course, it’s good that women and Black people are recognized as human beings now, and we (usually) don’t lock up mentally ill people in miserable, prison-like asylums. But 1) that doesn’t mean everything is just peachy now for women, Black people, and mentally ill people, and 2) not all evolutions of ideas are so positive.

This view of history precludes the idea that perhaps certain aspects of human life and society were actually better in certain ways in the past than they are now–or, at least, that they weren’t necessarily worse. And while very recent history is still fresh in the minds of people who may be wont to reminisce about the good ol’ days when there weren’t all these silly gadgets taking up everyone’s time and wives still obeyed their husbands, nobody seems to particularly miss the days when a man could, under certain circumstances, have sex with other men without being considered “homosexual,” or when people believed that in order for a woman to get pregnant, she had to actually enjoy sex and have an orgasm.

Societal factors, not objective physical “reality,” create social categories and definitions. I believe that understanding this is integral to a skeptical view of the world.

In a followup post (hopefully*), I’ll talk about some specific examples of these shifting cultural attitudes, such as the invention of homosexuality and the definition of “normal” female sexuality.

*By this I mean that you should pester me until I write the followup post, or else I’ll just keep procrastinating and probably never do it.

Blaming Everything On Mental Illness

The Associated Press has revised their AP Stylebook, the guide that most journalists use to standardize their writing, to include an entry on mental illness. Among many other important things that the entry includes, which you should read here, it says:

Do not describe an individual as mentally ill unless it is clearly pertinent to a story and the diagnosis is properly sourced.

And:

Do not assume that mental illness is a factor in a violent crime, and verify statements to that effect. A past history of mental illness is not necessarily a reliable indicator. Studies have shown that the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, and experts say most people who are violent do not suffer from mental illness.

That first one is important because there is a tendency, whenever a person who has done something wrong also happens to have a mental illness, to attempt to tie those two things together.

Some things I have seen people (and, in some cases, medical authorities) try to blame on mental illness:

  • being violent
  • being religious
  • being an atheist
  • abusing children
  • spending money unwisely
  • raping people
  • stealing
  • bullying or harassing people
  • being upset by bullying and harassment
  • enjoying violent video games
  • being shy
  • being overly social
  • being too reliant on social approval
  • having casual sex
  • being into BDSM
  • not being interested in sex
  • dating multiple people
  • not wanting to date anyone
  • not wanting to have children
  • being attracted to someone of the same sex
  • being trans*
  • wanting to wear clothing that doesn’t “belong” to your gender

You’ll notice that these things run the gamut from completely okay to absolutely cruel. Some of them involve personal decisions that affect no one but the individual, while others affect others immeasurably. All of them are things that we’ve determined in our culture to be inappropriate on varying levels.

That last one, I believe, explains why these things (and many others) are so often attributed to mental illness. It is comforting to believe that people who flout social norms, whether they’re as minor as wearing the wrong clothing or as severe as abusing and killing others, do so for individual reasons or personal failings of some sort. It’s comforting because it means that such transgressions are the acts of “abnormal” people, people we could never be. It means that there are no structural factors we might want to examine and try to change because they contribute to things like this, and it means that we don’t have to reconsider our condemnation of those behaviors.

It’s easier to say that people who won’t obediently fit into one gender or the other are “sick” than to wonder if we’re wrong to prescribe such strict gender roles.

It’s easier to say that a mass shooter is “sick” than to wonder if we’ve made it too easy to access the sort of weapons that nobody would ever need for “self-defense.”

It’s easier to say that a rapist is “sick” than to wonder if something in our culture suggests to people over and over that rape isn’t really rape, and that doing it is okay.

It’s easier to say that a bully is “sick” than to wonder why we seem to be failing to teach children not to torment each other.

It’s easier to say that a compulsive shopper is “sick” than to wonder why consuming stuff is deemed so important to begin with.

Individual factors do exist, obviously, and they are important too. Ultimately people have choices to make, and sometimes they make choices that we can universally condemn (although usually things aren’t so black and white). Some things are mental illnesses, but even mental illnesses do not exist in some special biological/individual vacuum outside of the influence of society. In fact, in one of the most well-known books on sociology ever published, Émile Durkheim presents evidence that even suicide rates are influenced by cultural context.

In any case, it’s an understandable, completely human impulse to dismiss all deviant behaviors as the province of “mentally ill” people, but that doesn’t make it right.

It’s wrong for many reasons. It dilutes the concept of “mental illness” until it is almost meaningless, leading people to proclaim things like “Well everyone seems to have a mental illness these days” and dismiss the need for more funding, research, and treatment. It leads to increased stigma for mental illness when people inaccurately attribute behaviors that are universally accepted as awful, like mass shootings, to it. It causes those who have nothing “wrong” with them, such as asexual, kinky, and LGBTQ people, to keep trying to “fix” themselves rather than realizing that it’s our culture that’s the problem. It prevents us from working to change the factors that are actually contributing to these problems, such as rape culture, lack of gun control, and consumerism, because it keeps these factors invisible from us.

People disagree a lot regarding the role of the media in society. Should it merely report the facts as accurately as possible, or does it have a responsibility to educate people and promote change? Regardless of your stance on that, though, I think most people would agree that the media should at the very least do no harm. Blaming everything from murder to shyness on mental illness absolutely does harm, which is why I’m happy to see the Associated Press take a stand against it.

That said, it’s not enough for journalists to stop attributing everything to mental illness. The rest of us have to stop doing it too.

“We Saw Your Boobs” and Distorted Views of Female Sexuality

I’ll leave it to others to thoroughly excoriate Seth MacFarlane’s performance at the Oscars. What I want to address specifically is his gloating “We Saw Your Boobs” video, and the interestingly skewed notion of sexuality that it presents.

If you believe MacFarlane, and others who think like him, sex is a sort of competition between men and women. Whenever women engage sexually with men–for instance, by appearing topless in a movie that is viewed by men–the man “wins” and the woman “loses.” In the video, the women whose boobs MacFarlane says he saw are portrayed as shocked or embarrassed, whereas Jennifer Lawrence, whose boobs MacFarlane notes that we have not seen, is shown to be celebrating.

In this view, women have no agency to experience sexuality on their own terms and for themselves. MacFarlane et al. do not realize that a woman might want to appear topless in a movie not (just) to be viewed by men, but because it makes her feel good or because it increases her opportunities as an actor, or for any other reason.

Of course, that’s arguable, because nowadays in Hollywood female actors’ opportunities are so limited unless they’re willing to appear topless. So for an actor who doesn’t want to do a nude scene for whatever reason but feels pressured to do it because there’s not much of a choice, doing a nude scene is a sort of loss. But not because “hur hur we saw your boobies,” but because in the society we have set up, people often have to do things they find objectionable in order to make a living.

This view of sex as a game or competition is embedded in the language we use to discuss sex–for instance, in the case of virginity. Although men are also sometimes thought of as being virgins or having virginity, traditionally it’s a concept that only really applies to women. Virginity is something that women “lose,” “save,” “give up,” “give away.” Although you could certainly argue that sometimes we can also lose things that are bad and that we’re better off for having lost, it’s still interesting to think about the connotation that it has to say that women “lose” something when they have sex for the first time.

It’s similar when we talk about “playing hard to get,” which is a role that’s traditionally been assigned to women. A woman “plays hard to get” until she finally “gives in” and lets the guy “get” her–he wins, she loses. (Interestingly, the “hard to get” role is becoming more associated with straight men, as well–thanks to PUAs, the cultural ideal of apathy, and probably tons of other factors.)

(As an aside, it’s interesting and also discouraging that some of the most problematic aspects of traditional views of female sexuality–virginity, playing hard to get, etc.–are increasingly being attributed to male sexuality as well. Equality shouldn’t mean making things suck for everyone.)

Why must women “lose” when they have sex with men or allow themselves to be viewed sexually by men? Because it seems that some people still believe that ultimately, women don’t really want to be sexual. It’s good to remember that views of female sexuality have varied widely throughout history, and until fairly recently one of the predominant views was that women didn’t have sexuality. They “gave in” to sex because men wanted it and because they wanted to please men. When I read The Hite Report on Female Sexuality, a landmark 1976 study of women’s sex lives, for class, I was stunned at how many women reported that their male partners didn’t really seem to notice or care whether or not they were having orgasms or otherwise getting pleasure out of sex. It can’t be that all of those men are just terrible people who don’t care about their partners; it’s more likely that they simply didn’t realize that that could even be a concern.

At the time the report was published, prevailing notions of female sexuality were already beginning to shift. Many of the women who responded to the questionnaire said that they faked orgasms for their male partners because the partners expected them to have orgasms–but only from whatever the men enjoyed (generally, vaginal intercourse).

Of course, there’s usually more than one view of any given thing circulating in a given culture at a given time. Interestingly, an alternate and sort of opposite view of female sexuality from MacFarlane’s is the one championed by Girls Gone WildCosmo, and hookup culture: that sex with men is empowering for women and that if you’re out there flashing your boobs in front of a camera or hooking up with as many guys as you want, you’re not “losing” at all–you’re winning. There’s a reason this sort of ideology is so popular with young women: it appears, at least on the surface, to affirm and empower female sexuality as opposed to treating it as something shameful or even nonexistent. You could view it as a direct repudiation of outdated views like MacFarlane’s.

But ultimately it falls short, because in this view, sex and the female body in general are still things that exist for male consumption, whether it’s the leering guys behind the cameras of Girls Gone Wild or the mythical and almost deity-like “he” constantly being referenced in Cosmo headlines: “Drive him wild with pleasure!” “Find all of his erogenous zones!” “Make him feel like a real man tonight!”

A few nights ago my friends and I were laughing at a book of Cosmo sex tips and someone asked if the magazine ever even mentions the possibility of sex with women. We shook our heads. Although many people see Cosmo as a celebration of independent female sexuality, the fact that it completely ignores the existence of queer women suggests that it’s really just about female sexuality for men.

In this sense, the Cosmo view of female sexuality isn’t actually that different from MacFarlane’s wacky sex-as-competition view. Whether women “win” or “lose” by engaging sexually with men, the reason they ultimately do it is always for the men, and never for themselves or for any other reason.

The irony of MacFarlane’s song is that a bunch of the nude scenes he mentioned are actually rape scenes. The female actors in these scenes weren’t topless in order to titillate (male) viewers, but to depict a cruel and tragic part of reality. And Scarlett Johansson’s “nude scene” was actually not one at all, but rather the nude photos of her that were leaked to the press. She certainly didn’t take off her shirt for MacFarlane’s smug pleasure.

Of Charlize Theron’s nude scene, Salon’s Katie McDonough writes:

[T]he only time we see Theron’s breasts is in a quick shot in the bathroom, following a brutal rape at the hands of a john, in which she examines her badly beaten body. The “boobs” that MacFarlane sang an ode to are made up to appear badly swollen and red from the multiple times she was kicked in the stomach by her abuser. The nudity isn’t there for cheap thrills, it’s a snapshot of a terribly beaten body that should evoke horror — not giggles — from the viewer.

While giggling about a rape scene is several orders of magnitude more egregious than giggling about the fact that a woman showed you her boobs, the common thread is an inability on the part of MacFarlane (and, I’m sure, others) to see the “purpose” of women’s bodies and sexuality as anything other than entertainment and titillation on the part of male observers.

I Really Strongly Dislike Valentine’s Day!

The only good thing about VDay: condom roses.

The only good thing about VDay: condom roses.

Hey everyone! I’m going to poop on your parade. Don’t worry, I’ll be cheerful about it.

I’m not going to say I hate Valentine’s Day, because hate is a strong word and I reserve it for things I really mean it for, like coffee and misogyny. I was going to just let today go by without writing about it, but then I realized that I really want to dispel the notion that everyone who dislikes Valentine’s Day is just bitter/jealous/single/all of the above. I’m none of the above; I’m happily taken (well, insofar as a person in an open relationship who is also an autonomous human being can be “taken”) and I wouldn’t trade my love/sex life for anyone else’s. And I still really strongly dislike Valentine’s Day! Imagine that.

First of all, as many happy couples will tell you, I think it’s superfluous. The way you stay in a fulfilling long-term relationship is, among many other things, showing love to each other every day in whatever little ways you each find meaningful. If you save it all up for one big day of the year, y’all are probably going to break up. Just saying.

That’s not really the reason I dislike it so much, though. If that were the case, I’d merely be ambivalent.

The bigger reason is that romantic love (a very small and specific subset of the vast number of human experiences that can be called “love”) is already so glorified and celebrated in our culture that it actually seems very odd to me to have a special holiday just for its sake. It’s like having a Christianity Awareness Day or Straight Pride Day or something, although without the added bigotry.

Romantic relationships are already presented (and largely considered) something that everyone should aspire to and something that everyone should feel miserable without. They don’t need a special day of appreciation. Contrast that with, say, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, which celebrate relationships that we do often take for granted in this society (as opposed to, say, in Russian culture, where you cannot go a damn day without being reminded of your parents, for better or worse). Unfortunately, it often really does take a special occasion to make us sit down and think, “Wow, I really wouldn’t be half the person I am today without my mother/father.” Who the hell needs a special day to remember the fact that sex and romantic love are important?

Add to that the fact that even little children are expected to participate in VDay by bringing cards to class. What’s actually super creepy about that is they have to bring cards for every classmate, not just the ones they actually like and are friends with. While I understand that the point is so that kids don’t feel left out, 1) that doesn’t justify faking affection (or, worse, attraction) for people, and 2) that problem would be solved entirely if we either didn’t make such a big show of VDay or, even better, didn’t have it at all. Pretending to want someone to “be my Valentine! <3 <3 <3″ when you really don’t is creepy. We should be teaching kids to get their guard up about something like that rather than institutionalizing it.

And in high school, VDay is an even bigger deal, with themed dances and flower deliveries during class and everything. At the time when it’s most important for people to focus on developing their own identity and becoming independent, these lavish observances encourage them to think of themselves in terms of their ability to find a romantic partner. If you think being single on VDay as an adult sucks, imagine (or remember) how it would feel in high school.

Even for the most traditionally romantic and “into” VDay of us, it’s probably sobering to remember that this holiday really wouldn’t be nearly as big of a deal as it is without the forces of commercialism and consumerism. Producers of greeting cards, chocolate, jewelry, and so on have driven popular perceptions of VDay for decades now. Many people celebrate it because it’s what their partners have come to expect, or because, honestly, what else are you going to do if all your friends are out on dates? Might as well.

There’s a certain amount of lip service now paid to the idea that VDay is about all kinds of love, not just romantic love, that you should take this opportunity to express love to your friends and family, or practice “self-care,” or whatever. But while I think it’s nice that a conscious effort has been made to correct for the fact that tons of people get left out by VDay, these exhortations to “celebrate love in all its forms” seem kind of shallow to me. In fact, they seem like advertisers’ attempts to get more people to buy stuff.

We tend to measure people’s worth by how much other people like them–as people, as sex objects, as romantic partners. This is especially true for women, but really it’s true for everyone. As someone who’s recovering from Chronic Feeling-Like-I-Have-No-Worth-As-A-Person-Unless-I-Have-A-Boyfriend-itis, I’m very aware of how VDay can exacerbate that state of mind for people.

Many of you probably like VDay and that’s fine. You’re not a bad person if you like it. I don’t particularly care if you do or not. My aim here isn’t to convince anyone of anything, but just to rant about my opinion for a while and also show that not everyone who finds today annoying and pointless is sitting around at home putting pins in a voodoo doll of their ex or something.

Anyway, VDay isn’t all bad. I’m going to CVS tomorrow for some cheap-ass chocolate. Simple pleasures.

Feminism and Victimhood

What’s this I keep hearing about feminism promoting “victimhood”?

Anti-feminists often suggest that feminism encourages women to “see themselves as victims,” that feminism is actually insulting to women because it suggests they need “special rights” in order to be able to compete with men. The concept of programs that encourage women to pursue STEM professions or that teach men not to rape, therefore, implies that women are poor defenseless victims.

But does it really?

I never really understood this critique of feminism because I remember how powerless I felt before I became a feminist, and I know how powerful I feel now. Maybe there are feminists who feel like hopeless victims of the patriarchy. I don’t know; I haven’t met any.

You know what really sounds like victimhood to me? Anti-feminism.

Anti-feminism says that women must act “feminine” and men must act “masculine,” no matter how they personally feel like acting.

Anti-feminism says that sex and romance must follow certain scripts, and if you don’t like those scripts, too bad. If your desires fall outside of those scripts, again, too bad.

Anti-feminism says that all-male (or mostly-male) legislative bodies can make laws telling women whether or not and on what conditions they may obtain an abortion and how they may acquire birth control. If women don’t like that, well, they can just run for elected office themselves because this is a democracy after all. How they’ll do that while popping out all those babies they didn’t want? You tell me.

Anti-feminism says that men can’t control their sexual urges and refrain from raping women that they find attractive. It says that women do have the power to prevent their own rapes, but only by not having consensual sex, not drinking, not going out alone, not flirting–pretty must just staying home where it’s safe.

Anti-feminism says that if a dude keeps making inappropriate comments to you at work, you should suck it up and learn how to take a joke. Guys will be guys.

Anti-feminism says that if you’re a woman who wants to have children, you’ll have to accept the fact that caring for your children will reduce your career opportunities while the man you had those children with continues advancing through the ranks. If you wanted a more successful career, you shouldn’t have had children.

Anti-feminism says you should spend hours of your day putting on makeup, removing your body hair, fitting yourself into uncomfortable clothes, and tottering around on high heels–in fact, many of these things are often required of women in the workplace. It says that appearance is a reasonable factor to judge people by, because if you’re ugly, you can just choose to take better care of yourself.

Anti-feminism says that if you’re fat, you should spend your time, money, and energy on getting thin. Otherwise it’s acceptable to discriminate against you.

Anti-feminism says that you’ll be happier, a better woman if you marry a man and have kids. Even if you think you won’t. Do it anyway.

Anti-feminism says that if that man abuses you, you should make an effort to be a better wife.

I can’t think of anything more disempowering, more victimizing, than to live by an ideology like this one.

I know why people think feminism is all about victimhood. The reason is that feminism, like all progressive ideologies, rejects the idea of meritocracy. Feminism acknowledges the fact that while hard work and perseverance matter, some people still start out the race already ahead, while others must run the race dragging weights behind them. Acknowledging this reality, documented by decades of academic research and personal narratives, isn’t promoting victimhood. It’s lifting a rug that we’ve swept so much crap underneath.

The meritocratic worldview can be beneficial both to individuals and to society. On an individual level, it maintains the “just world hypothesis,” the idea that the world is fundamentally fair, that those who deserve success will get it and those who get screwed over must’ve deserved it somehow. It can be much more comforting than believing that sometimes people get screwed over for no good reason. And not just because of bad luck, either, but because our society may be set up in a way that screws over certain groups more than others.

On a societal level, the meritocratic worldview keeps people working hard. After all, if you truly believe that hard work is all you need to succeed, well, you’re probably going to work pretty damn hard, unless you’re just lazy and don’t deserve success anyway.

But understanding that hard work isn’t all there is to it doesn’t mean that people won’t work hard. It means that people will try to fix the world’s broken parts rather than pretending they’re not there. Feminism is empowering to me and to so many other people precisely because it shows us that we don’t have to accept the world as it is–even if some of the realizations it provokes are uncomfortable and jarring.

Most people will feel like victims at some point in their lives. Life has a way of putting almost everyone through shit that’s completely reasonable to feel sorry for yourself over. For what it’s worth, I’ve never felt like a victim as a woman. I’ve felt like a victim as a child who was bullied by her own teachers, as an adolescent who lived with untreated depression for nearly a decade, and as a young adult who sometimes feels like there’s just no way to get anywhere in this world without tons of money. Sometimes.

But there are people out there who have had their lives irrevocably altered by sexism in ways so horrible I try not to think about them. If those people feel like victims from time to time, I think they’re completely justified.

And that’s not something that can be blamed on feminism. That’s something that feminism, unlike the dogmatic pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps crap we keep getting fed, is actually trying to address.

“Love Yourself”: A Beautiful But Flawed Idea

Ever since the 1990s, we–especially women–have been hearing about the importance of self-esteem. It’s associated with better mental health, relationship outcomes, academic achievement, career success, you name it. It’s part of what it means to be a mature and emotionally developed person. Much time and resources have been expended on the development of children’s self-esteem–I remember all the participation awards and being required to summarily tell my parents what I’m “proud of” about my schoolwork at a parent-teacher conference–and I’ll have to write about these initiatives some other time (spoiler alert: they’re mostly failures, and those correlations I listed above may not actually be true).

Along with all this are constant entreaties from various sources–friends, advertisements, PSAs, motivational posters–to “love yourself” and “love your body.” Sometimes this is painfully ironic, like when it’s in advertisements for beauty products or weight-loss aids, but usually it’s earnest and well-meaning. There are plenty of blogs and books and organizations dedicated to helping people (especially women) foster love for themselves (especially for their bodies).

Before I criticize this concept, I want to reiterate that I understand that it’s coming from a good place. It’s meant as a rebuttal to a culture in which people’s flaws, especially their physical ones, are magnified and used to sell as many fake panaceas as possible. A culture in which plastic surgery is $10 billion industry, in which people are getting their genitals surgically altered to be more “attractive,” in which the majority of teenage girls are unhappy with the way they look. I could go on.

Furthermore, part of the reason women are so unlikely to express positive feelings about how they look isn’t just that they don’t have positive feelings about it, but probably that they face social rejection for doing so. The pressure not to seem like you think you’re “all that” can be strong, and “fat talk” is one way women bond socially. Given this, encouraging women to “love themselves” and their bodies can be a way of fighting back against these norms.

But the problem is that when we prescribe ways of thinking or feeling, failing to follow them becomes stigmatized. Not loving yourself and your body isn’t just unhealthy anymore, it’s uncool. It’s immature. I wrote once a long time ago about how a classmate told me that loving yourself is actually a prerequisite for being a good person–implying (accidentally, I hope) that not loving yourself means you’re not a good person.

Not loving yourself means you have Issues and Baggage and all of those other unsexy things. It means you just haven’t Tried Hard Enough to Love Who You Truly Are. Loving yourself and your body becomes the normative state, not an extra perk that some are able to achieve. For instance, someone wrote on Tumblr in response to an article I posted about makeup that “girls should learn to love themselves before fucking around with eyeliner.” Loving yourself is a requirement, according to this person, for something as basic as putting on makeup.

Maybe this would be fair, except for this: according to our society, we are not all equally worthy of love. We are all pushed down in some ways, but some are pushed down more–and in more ways–than others. You can tell a woman who isn’t conventionally attractive to “love her body” all you want, but if everything she encounters in her daily life suggests to her that her body isn’t worthy of love, these are empty platitudes.

When it comes to loving the entirety of yourself–not just your body–the concept breaks down even further. How easy is for a child of neglectful parents to love themselves? How easy is it for someone subjected to a lifetime of bullying for being LGBT? How easy is it for someone who grew up in poverty and was blamed for being “lazy”? How easy is it for a victim of assault or abuse?

Our society pushes certain types of people down, and then mandates that we all “love ourselves”—and if we fail to do so it is our fault.

Yes, loving yourself is great. I wouldn’t say I love myself, but I do like myself quite a bit. But the only reason I’m able to do that is because I haven’t been told for my entire life that who I am is fundamentally unlovable because of my weight, my skin color, my sexual/gender identity, my socioeconomic status, my politics, my personality, whatever. Although I’ve definitely hated myself at times (thanks, depression and college), overall I’ve been raised in a loving and supportive environment and consistently told that I have worth as a person.

I have (mostly) been free of societal persecution. I have never been falsely accused of a crime because of my race. I have never felt like I’ll never find someone to love because I can’t come out. I have never been taught that because I don’t believe in god, I deserve to go to hell. (Except for a few evangelical Christians, but they were easy for me to ignore.)

Loving yourself is a privilege that not everyone gets to share.

I do think there are things that anyone can do to cultivate self-love even when it’s been consistently taken away from them. I don’t think anyone has to “view themselves as a victim” or whatever buzz-phrase people are using these days. But if you do feel like a victim sometimes, honestly, I wouldn’t blame you.

As well-intentioned as these body positivity and self-esteem campaigns are, it starts to feel very alienating when everyone around you is busy Loving Themselves and you just can’t seem to get there. With every injunction to “love yourself” comes an implicit blame if you do not.

I’m not saying that “love yourself” is a bad concept. It’s a beautiful concept and a worthwhile goal. But we should be aware of the unintended consequences it can have when shouted from the rooftops ad infinitum, and we should also consider that “loving yourself” may not be necessary, important, or even possible for everyone.

Instead of “love yourself,” I would say:

Try to be okay with yourself. Try not to listen when the world tells you that who you are is wrong. Loving yourself and your body can wait, and besides, it’s not necessary for a happy and healthy life.

~~~

Edit: Paul Fidalgo responded to my earlier Tumblr rant on this subject and said in a paragraph what I just laboriously tried to say in a thousand words:

Whenever I’m told I need to love myself, I feel like I’m being asked to lie, to pretend to feel something I don’t. I spent most of my adolescence being informed continuously that I was lowest of the low and unworthy of even human decency, let alone love, and I learned to believe it. Messages about what it is a man is supposed to be in the media were not at all helpful. And other things happened, too. So I really don’t feel like “loving myself” is a fair expectation, not in any immediate sense.

Yes, this exactly.

The Role of Feminist Criticism

In one of my recent pieces, I criticized a particular aspect of the love stories often found in popular books and movies. Whenever someone critiques pop culture–especially from a feminist perspective–it raises a lot of questions for many people. Questions such as:

  • Does it really matter that this work is “problematic”?
  • Can you even have media that isn’t problematic in any way?
  • Am I a racist/sexist/etc. if I find a racist/sexist/etc. joke funny?
  • Would people really take this seriously?
  • What’s the point of talking about this?
  • Am I a bad person if I enjoy this book/movie/show?

Of course, people rarely come right out and ask these questions; they usually couch them in objections instead: “You’re just looking for flaws,” “It’s just a movie,” “There’s nothing that would make you feminists happy.”

But if you read between the lines you’ll usually find questions like the ones above, and all of them eventually condense into the same question: What is the role of feminist criticism? In other words, what’s the point of picking cultural artifacts apart and finding their flaws and analyzing them?

In my view, the role of feminist criticism is not to prescribe what you should and should not read, watch, listen to, wear, or otherwise consume. It is not to say which things are “bad” and which are “good,” since, as some detractors have pointed out, everything seems to have flaws. It is not to create some list of 100%-feminist-approved media and boycott everything else.

Rather, it is to use cultural artifacts as a way to analyze our prevailing norms and values and see how they might be harmful. For instance, in my earlier post, I used the romance genre to show how people are encouraged to maintain abusive or otherwise unhealthy relationships because that’s the “romantic” thing to do.

In this situation, I’m definitely not saying that you shouldn’t consume those books, films, and TV shows, because then you wouldn’t be able to criticize them. I’m not even saying you shouldn’t enjoy them, because ultimately I don’t care what you enjoy and what you don’t. That’s up to you.

Sometimes, though, it might be more ethical to avoid something “problematic” entirely. The role of feminist criticism is also to remain aware of what we consume so that we’re able to draw the line when it’s gone too far. For instance, I don’t eat at Chick-Fil-A and I don’t purchase any music from Chris Brown. Others may draw their personal lines differently, which is okay. But I wouldn’t have been able to decide that this business and this musician do not deserve my money had I not kept myself informed of what they do and what the criticisms of them are.

For me, the most important insight that feminism has given me is that we do not live, love, consume, and decide in a vacuum; we do so under the influence of society. That doesn’t mean we don’t have “free will” (and I do hate to get into that debate), but it does mean that we might not always be aware of all of the reasons for which we want (or don’t want) to do something. We will probably never be able to disentangle ourselves from the influence of society, and that’s fine. What’s important to me is to be aware of what some of those influences might be.

To use an example that’s slightly off-topic: makeup. Many women like to wear it, and many women are, unfortunately, under the impression that feminism opposes the use of makeup unilaterally. Hence the “I’m not a feminist, I wear makeup and dresses” thing that you get sometimes. (Maybe second-wave feminism did oppose makeup, but no feminist person or piece of writing that I’ve ever come across has said that.)

Again, in my view, feminism doesn’t prescribe whether or not women should wear makeup. What it does is ask questions:

  • Why does makeup exist?
  • Why are women expected to wear it and considered lazy, ugly, or unprofessional if they don’t?
  • Why aren’t men expected to wear makeup?
  • Come to think of it, why are men shamed if they do choose to wear it?
  • Why do some professions require women to wear makeup to keep their jobs?
  • Does wearing makeup ever actually make a woman better at her job?
  • Why do makeup ads show women who are considerably more flawless than any foundation or cream could actually make you look?

And so on. Answering those questions for yourself is enlightening, a bit disturbing, but also (in my opinion) kind of fun.

In my own case, becoming a feminist and learning about feminist criticism of makeup and the beauty industry didn’t change my makeup-wearing habits at all. I still do exactly what I did back when I wasn’t a feminist: sometimes I feel like wearing it so I do, and sometimes I don’t feel like wearing it, so I don’t.

What feminism has done for me, though, is to silence that petulant voice I get in my  head on days when I choose not to wear makeup–the one that tells me I’m being lazy, that I’m not a real woman, that people are going to judge me, that I look bad. Before I’d stubbornly choose not to wear makeup on days when I didn’t want to but then have to deal with that voice in my head all day. Nowadays it’s gone. Maybe people do judge me for not wearing makeup sometimes, but I no longer give a fuck.

So feminist criticism hasn’t kept me from doing things i want to do or forced me to do things I don’t; it’s merely given me a framework for understanding some of my own desires, fears, triggers, values, and so on.

The same sort of thing applies to feminist criticism of pop culture. I still enjoy popular movies and TV shows (except How I Met Your Mother, perhaps), but I understand how some of the assumptions they contain are inaccurate and harmful. Thinking through these things helps me think about our culture as a whole and how it might be improved. It also helps me construct a blueprint for how I want to live my own life, raise my future kids, and so on. (For instance, I will never tell a daughter of mine that if a boy treats her like crap “it’s just because he likes you.” That’s the most dangerous bullshit I’ve ever heard, and He’s Just Not That Into You is with me on that.)

And on that note, feminist criticism has one more role–showing us ways to improve the stories we tell. It reminds us that casts should not be all-white, that the Bechdel Test should be passed with flying colors, that glorifying violence against women (or anyone, really) is not okay. We can’t produce better books, movies, and shows unless we criticize the ones we have thoroughly.

In summary, feminist criticism is important because:

  1. It allows us to analyze problematic aspects of our culture.
  2. It lets us know when we should consider avoiding something entirely.
  3. It helps us understand how culture influences our behavior.
  4. It points the way to better media in the future.

It’s unfortunate that some people think that feminist criticism “ruins” everything or that feminists are here to take all the stuff you love away. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are ethical ways to consume problematic media, and I’d say it’s easier to enjoy something when you understand exactly why you sometimes get uncomfortable feelings about it.

I’m sure many feminists would disagree with a lot of what I’ve said, but I’d probably respect their views nonetheless. The view I definitely do not respect is that we should just ignore critiques of the stuff we like because it’s boring and not fun and who cares that the stuff we read, watch, and listen to is selling us a version of reality that we might despise if we actually thought about it.

Christmas From The Outside

Just some personal reflections on Christmas from an outsider.

It is impossible to be a person living in the United States, of any ethnicity, religious affiliation, or national origin, and not understand the meaning and significance of Christmas.

It’s a religious observance. It’s a sparkling monument to consumerism. It’s a celebration of family, of charity, of miracles, of food, of childhood, of living ethically–depending on who you ask. It is the only holiday I’ve ever heard of that has an entire genre of music dedicated to it, that requires over a month of preparation via that music playing in every public space, hours of shopping, and decorations covering trees, roofs, walls, doors, countertops, bathrooms.

Growing up as an immigrant and a secular Jew in a particularly Christian and conservative part of the Midwest, I grasped all of this so early on that I don’t even remember learning it.

It’s bizarre and a bit unsettling, having such a detailed understanding of a set of traditions, beliefs, and principles that I have never participated in. With absolutely no effort, I learned about jingle bells, advent calendars, stockings, Santa Claus, coal, elves, milk and cookies, chimneys, Christmas Mass, eggnog, nativity scenes, reindeer, holly, mistletoe, and more. It’s not like I ever had to ask a Christian friend about their observances or attend one on my own. I just absorbed all this information passively by virtue of living in the United States.

This, to me, is part of what it means to live in a Christian country. Christianity is the default here, which is how I came to be so knowledgeable about its traditions while few of the people I meet know anything about my traditions.

This isn’t in itself a “bad” thing. If you live in the places I’m from, you’ll experience the same thing. It’s impossible to live in Russia without understanding what New Year’s Eve means to us. It’s impossible to live in Israel without knowing exactly how we observe Shabbat, Purim, Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Yom Kippur, Tisha B’Av, Yom Ha’atzmaut, Chanukah, and many others that you probably haven’t even heard of.

The truth is, though, that I have to understand Christmas. If I didn’t, it’d be kind of weird, don’t you think? Friends would tell me they can’t leave the house and go do something on the 25th and I’d wonder why. We’d be asked to sing Christmas songs in class and I wouldn’t know any of the words. When asked what I did for Christmas, I’d say that I sat around at home and read a book rather than understanding that I’m supposed to say that I spent it with my family.

I have to understand Christmas in order to interact with people normally at this time of year. But they never have to understand the things my family and I do for holidays in order to interact normally with me. It’s standard for people to ask me why I’m shopping for “New Year’s presents,” or why Chanukah lasts eight days.

My little brother’s teacher once asked someone from our family to come to their class and give a presentation about Chanukah, so I showed up with a menorah and a bunch of dreidls and gelt, explained the history of the holiday to the class, and showed them how to play the game. It was fun and they seemed to have a good time, and it occurred to me that nobody ever had to give me a presentation about Christmas.

Some of my earliest memories of living in the United States have to do with Christmas. I remember singing Christmas songs in school in kindergarten. At first I was jealous, naturally, of the other kids. I’d pass by my neighbors’ houses and see the glowing Christmas trees through their living room windows. Although in Russian culture we have “New Year’s trees” (or novogodniye yolki, I guess you would say), my parents abandoned that tradition. I think they realized that people would pass by on the street and assume that we celebrate Christmas just like everyone else. The fact that a decorated evergreen tree could have any other significance probably doesn’t occur to many people.

Anyway, I grew up and stopped feeling jealous, instead growing proud of my own holidays, traditions, and language. But it stings sometimes to have our observances roped into this amorphous Holiday Season when, in fact, the similarities end with the fact that our holidays happen at the same time of year. Chanukah is nothing like Christmas, and neither is New Year’s Eve (except for the fact that the Soviets stole some of those traditions from Christmas).

These days it has become politically correct to acknowledge non-Christian wintertime holidays as part of the Holiday Season. Grocery stores now carry dreidls, gelt, and menorahs; people celebrate winter solstice; kids in school sing a song about Chanukah in addition to all those Christmas songs. Kwanzaa, a holiday observed by the African American community that the majority of Americans might not have otherwise heard of, is often given an obligatory shout-out. “Happy holidays” is often considered more appropriate to say instead of “Merry Christmas” if you do not know which holiday(s) someone observes.

It’s nice that people are finally recognizing that not all Americans celebrate Christmas–and, hell, not all of us are even Americans. But nevertheless it feels like, in a strange way, we’re still being asked to conform by participating in The Holiday Season even if we don’t have such a thing. (In fact, the Jewish version of the “holiday season” are the High Holidays in the fall.)

Despite these well-intentioned concessions, it’s still quite clear that Christmas reigns supreme among wintertime holidays. It feels weird knowing so much about something that has never been part of my life and never will.

Stop Comparing the United States to Israel

Among the many insensitive, uninformed, or simply ridiculous responses to Friday’s tragedy that I’ve heard, one that continues to befuddle me is the suggestion, made mostly by Libertarians, that everything would’ve been okay if only the teachers had had guns too–if, in fact, carrying concealed weapons were a standard practice among American citizenry.

Leaving aside the fact that most of us do not want our classrooms and public places turning into Wild West-style shootouts, it’s particularly irritating when these people point to Israel as some sort of shining beacon of what a country with an armed citizenry could be like. In Israel, I’m constantly being reminded, ordinary citizens prevent mass shootings all the time.

It’s immediately evident to me that most people who argue this point have never been to Israel and know very little about its culture, because this comparison fails for many reasons.

1. Israel has an entirely different culture from the United States. It’s a collectivistic culture; there’s an expectation that everyone look out for each other and keep each other safe. I’d love to see some studies on the bystander effect in Israel, because my guess is that it’s less prevalent there.

2. In Israel, every single person (except those who get exemptions) does at least two years of military service when they’re 18. Many Israelis have fought in wars. All those “ordinary” citizens suddenly whipping out guns and taking down shooters? Where do you think they learned how to do that?

3. In Israel, there are metal detectors and armed guards who check your bags at the entrance to every major public building. Going to the mall? Get your bags checked. Going to the bus station? Get your bags checked. That certainly makes things a little different. In fact, if we’re going to take any examples from Israel, I’d focus on this one, not on the guns.

4. Israel actually has very strict restrictions on who can have a gun. In fact, it rejects 40% of applications for gun permits–the highest rejection rate of any country in the world. It’s not that people want guns and feel entitled to them; it’s that certain people actually need guns and they’re the ones who are allowed to have them.

5. On a related note, Israel (like Switzerland) has recently tightened its restrictions on guns, and fewer people have them than before. So most people making this argument are just ignorant, anyway.

6. When mass shootings happen in Israel, it’s almost always an act of terrorism. Whatever your opinion on why Palestinians commit acts of terrorism against Israel, agree that this is quite a bit different from most mass shootings in the U.S., so comparing the two situations is bound to be fruitless.

7. In Israel, everyone–even children–knows that they are living under the constant threat of war and terrorism. When citizens have guns, it’s not just for the hell of it or to make some sort of proud statement about how much they love the Second Amendment. It’s because their lives may depend on it. When you insinuate that the U.S. should be more like Israel, think about what you’re saying. The fact that many people own guns in Israel isn’t something to be proud of. It’s nothing to cheer about. It is a devastating fact of life and you should be fucking thankful that we don’t live like that here.

To me, this just points to the need to be cautious when comparing different countries and cultures in the attempt to make a point. Comparing the U.S. to other industrialized Western nations is probably more effective, but even then, there are cultural, institutional, and even geographical factors that differ. And although we tend to classify Israel as a Western country, in many ways it’s not.

Regardless of the similarities that there are between the two countries, the United States is not Israel. It will never be, and, for the most part, that’s a good thing.