Friday, 8 March 2013

Page WHAT?? International Women's Day and Me

Let's face it, I'm mildly amused and fairly unaffected by International Women's Day. I assure you, I had no intention of writing any blog today (I've got too much other stuff to do) much less a blog pertaining to IWD. What is it for really? There's something about packaging "international" womanhood into an acknowledged day that just smacks of corniness. What are people going to do, bake cakes for us? I haven't gotten a cake or any telephone calls on the matter. But it's all very Hallmark cardy, wrapped up in some ambiguous package of "international" as if by its title it sweeps away all the complexities of class, race, culture and distributions of privilege imbedded in the problematic of what does or should constitute "feminism" and re-brands womanhood into a happy little Google cartoon of cute smooshy pink and brown faces. Solidarity at last. Thanks Google! Have I lost you? If not, read on. I promise I'm coming to a point.

But in all seriousness, perhaps its my own realization of the oceans-deep and continent-wide polarities between what I deem to be my 'woman issues' and the issues of women in the far reaches of other places which makes me want to rebuke what seems like a trivial and superficial celebration of womanhood. I can't get down with articles harping about being treated like a "second class citizen" because you're a single white woman in the West. Really? I just can't, when I know a plethora of things, like the reality that single (young) white womanhood is heralded and exploited by mainstream media as the apex of beauty and freedom, both sexually and socially. I want to crumple that stupid photo of Bridget Jones, with her well-fed hamster cheeks and her pristine white sheet set, then shake the author of that article and yell, Oh YOU'RE treated like a second class citizen?? Try being a 60 year old black woman in America like my mother, you gormless mouthbreather! Or better yet, try being a single woman in Iran, you idiot! And in a way, even as I write this I seem to be writing my way out of addressing one issue that struck me this morning, in favor of dismissing it as negligible as I weigh it against the legitimate and systematic suffering of so many women and girls throughout the world. But I'm determined to convince myself that simply working on your own microcosm represents some sort of effort towards progress, so here I go.

When I first moved to Britain from the US in 2004, I had an opportunity to make a lot of new and interesting friends, many of whom, at least on paper, represented demographics that I might not have been likely to connect with in my home country. Moving abroad is good that way; because you're a stranger to the culture, you're often able to travel through networks of people, unfettered by that culture's views or rules of social categorization which function along lines like class or ethnicity. This can free you up to meet all sorts of interesting people. One such friendship I made early was with a working class rock and roller who works for the London Underground. To be fair, I actually befriended his partner first. She was a monolithic, towering Metal Head Goth of a woman who worked as a civil servant (now as a very popular Metal DJ), and we became fast friends at an annual local film festival.

I can't remember whether it was the time I got my labret piercing and my friend's boyfriend pampered me with milkshakes because that's all I could eat with the swelling, or one of those times when I'd stayed over their house and we were left to scrounge up coffee and breakfast on our own because the Iron Maiden of the house had to head to work early. But on one of those mornings, over either chocolate milkshakes or coffee and cold pizza, I discovered Page 3. All the Brits will now start laughing and most of the Americans will now shrug in confusion over my mention of the infamous Page 3.

My friend - the male half of the partnership, that is - often brought home various newspapers from his long hours at work. If you spend five minutes in Britain you'll notice their impressive collection of a variety of newspaper publications. Many of these newspapers are reputable and many of these are not. Regardless, it is a commonly practiced pastime to read newspapers on the London Underground. Everyone, from the passengers to the Underground employees, obsessively reads newspapers, sometimes indiscriminately because, after all, in the view of many here it's better to read anything than to read nothing at all. So I grabbed one of his newspaper selections from the day before, The Sun, which was sitting on my buddy's coffee table. It was easy to see from the cover, with its bold red header and salacious headlines, that this newspaper was going to be trashy. But what I was not prepared for what met me on the third page. There, covering most of that page, was a pleasantly smiling young woman with nicely styled hair (probably extensions), totally bare-breasted and wearing nothing other than underpants, with giant boobs like headlights designed to mesmerize. Boiiiing! And mesmerize, they did, for a moment before I went into shock and squawked, "What the hell is this? What the fuuuck?"

My friend looked up from his own newspaper, saw which paper I had in my hands, flashed me a knowing smirk, and replied casually, "Page 3". Once he logged my total confusion he repeated, "Page 3," and then, man of few words that he is, added his version of breaking things down with something like, "It's in every issue of The Sun". I was shocked, then fascinated and mortified at the same time. I just kept staring at it, thinking of how many times I'd seen working guys on the train reading The Sun, how many times I'd spotted this newspaper in the supermarket, and everywhere else. How could this be? my tiny, puritanical American brain pondered over and over. These fucking pervert British fuckers, I thought to myself, more fascinated than angry over the fact that this was a very stark example of how sexiness, actual, real live nudity in fact, was being placed right smack dab in the middle of ordinary, pedestrian life. This newspaper was on people's breakfast tables and on the morning commuter trains, totally out in the open and totally okay with regular folks. I tried to reconcile my dawning horror that children would be regularly exposed to this sort of casual-but-bold objectification of women, with a rationalization of de-shaming nudity.

But as I continued to process the prominence of Page 3, what got me then and continued to plague me was this idea of setting bold, daily female objectification as a public, normative activity. Now I don't think I even come close to looking like a breast implanted, weave wearing, orange tanned Page 3 'beauty', but as a woman living in this society I can't help associating the mainstreaming of young, female nudity with comments like, "looking beautiful, love" from my refrigerator delivery men, and getting whistled at and complimented for my "great tits" by dudes in white work vans. Obviously other people have made the connection and worry about the harm of everyday presentations like Page 3, since articles have been written and lines have been drawn, like Lucy Holmes's petition on the matter, which has had a lot of support and publicity.

So today I read yet another article on the subject from the perspective of a woman who grew up in Britain in the shadow of Page 3. Her points about her subsequent body neurosis were well taken, but more importantly, her simple re-imagining of society with a Page 4, a page featuring the bodies of young, attractive men with their bare tackle on display for casual conversation at the breakfast table really spoke to me, and cuts to the heart of the matter. If there's nothing wrong with nudity (and I agree), and there's nothing wrong with the admiration of beautiful bodies, then why aren't nude men on display? There are plenty of people who would be more than happy to be able to sip their morning beverage of choice while casually scanning a fresh, new young Adonis every day. Why? Why don't we get to ogle the beautiful, naked bodies of men in the public arena? Why are images of male genitalia protected from the casual view to the degree that you still won't see prolonged male nudity in mainstream films and magazines? Because this is one of the ways the culture sends messages about what parts of ourselves are important according to gender, that's why.

Consider this: at this point, the importance of women's bodies; how our breasts are shaped (or need to be shaped), how our butts and stomachs are (or should be), whether we should or shouldn't have pubic hair- which used to be the personal choices of women themselves, and even how our vaginas look (or should look) is mostly decided and mediated by media conglomerates mostly run by men, not some invisible Gay Mafia, as so many straight men have pointed out when discussing the fashion industry. Meanwhile, some of us women speak as if we're so liberated now because (some) of us throughout the world now enjoy a choice of occupations, and are allowed involvement and choice in who we wish to marry, whether we'd like to get married at all, and if and when we'd like to have children.

But I am also often drawn to consider that many of us once lived during a time where a woman could present herself to a man intimately and he'd roll with the punches, and often be happy for what he was getting. Women didn't have to worry about men complaining that they had too much pubic hair, that their breasts were the 'wrong' size, or that their very vaginas were shaped the 'wrong' way. It didn't matter if you didn't have an apple bottom or large inner labia.

Now, media-reinforced expectations and dictations by a handful of men have polluted the idea and acceptance of natural variety. Now when it comes to women's bodies, nothing is sacred anymore, while what we're shown publicly tends to represents one kind of norm. Granted, there may never be an occasion for Page 3 to present the picture of a perfect inner labia, but to drive the point home, can you imagine a very dark-skinned, B cup Page 3 model with short hair? It won't happen. There are plenty of dark-skinned, small breasted, short haired foxy ladies out there - I've seen many - but it won't happen. Therefore women and girls in this society get to wake up every day faced with what a supposedly average Joe's picture of beauty should be, breasts and all - and consequently face a level of anxiety and self loathing that men and boys do not face today. When I suggest that men's bodies should also be on display, I am aware that we'd be running the risk of objectifying them in the way women continue to be objectified. Yes, and the silver lining could be that there might be a backlash once men get a true taste of what it feels like to be valued most for their bodies and compared with a very narrow standard of beauty from the time they sprout peach fuzz and first grow a pair.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

No Apologies

Being raised a spiritual person, I was raised to believe that I should look for lessons in daily life and signs that the Universe is pushing me towards something better. Seven months ago I lost my baby, Jack, because of hospital negligence. Two weeks ago I had an early miscarriage, as I had before I got pregnant with Jack. Now at two miscarriages and a late loss, for the first time in my life I'm unable to muster the generosity of spirit so characteristic of me in my former life. I have friends who think I'm okay now because it's easier for them if they don't have to speak with me about it, aquaintances, many of whom are parents, who haven't bothered to get in touch while they fuss over other aquantences who have been blesses with new babies, social network contacts who convince themselves and want to remind everyone that parenthood represents the apex of spiritual enlightenment and fulfullment, and a mother - a midwife of all things - who thinks I should manage to be happy for other people (because that's how the old me would operate and because that's how I was raised). The other day, I felt the Universe was trying to push me towards something, and I am pissed off about it. All of these 'messages' from the Universe occurred in one day and it was all too much. Last night I wrote scrambled prose, for myself and for you, girl who understands. You know who you are.

 For All That Happened Today With No Apologies

No, I didn't want to hold him on the bus while you adjusted his stroller and talked about how difficult it was having no free hands. I don't know you and you don't know me, or the fact that I should be holding my own baby right now. I'm sure such an idea wouldn't have occurred to you before asking this stranger to hold your baby.

It wouldn't occur to you because you don't know what difficult is.

No it isn't so great, it was luck. You were a 50 year old virgin last year and this year you're suddenly a father. I've taken many years of risks and opened my heart enough to plan and concieve my baby. I didn't live like a sexual eunuch who suddenly grew a pair, lucked up, and popped one out on the first try. People who haven't bothered to mutter one condolence my way are stepping up to congratulate you on becoming a parent as if you've achieved anything other than being lucky.

So no, I don't think it's so great.

No, our situations are not the same. You complain about the insensitivity of others and your biological clock before mentioning your other two surviving children to a person who has no surviving children and is six years older than you.

You're insensitive.

No, not all of us can identify with the mushy quotes and slogans superimposed over dreamy stock photos of parents and their children that you keep posting online. Not everyone accidentally gets knocked up and then later becomes philosophical about the joys of parenthood. We planned our baby and wished him into existence, but didn't get to keep him.

Ponder being philosophical about that.

No, I haven't moved on yet. You try going through this and see how quickly you move on.

No I'm not yet ready to be a matron; the auntie who couldn't have her own so she's content to coo over the preciousness of everyone else's. I'm still fighting to become a mother again.

No, Universe, today I can't be grateful.

No, Universe, today I can't be happy for them.

And you can't make me.