What if the beauty imperative led to an 11th Commandment: “If thou are female, thou must be beautiful”?

I was not surprised to hear of a proposed a beauty contest for nuns. In our beauty-obsessed era, the pursuit of beauty, even in its most extreme forms, rarely surprises me. Saddens and infuriates me yes, but surprises me, no.

The Italian priest who proposed the contest, Antonio Rungi, expected 1,000 contestants for his “Sister Italia” online contest. According to the Times Online,

Father Rungi, a moral theologian with his own blog, said that the nuns would not wear swimsuits or revealing outfits. What he valued most in a woman was “inner beauty”. Asked for his feminine ideal, he replied: “Well, I would say Sophia Loren.”

The contestants must be aged between 18 and 40, and can be either full members of an order or novices. Father Rungi said that he expected many who applied to be young, attractive – and non-Italian. He said: “Do you really think nuns are all wizened, funereal old ladies? Today it’s not like that any more, thanks to an injection of youth and vitality brought to our country by foreign girls.” He said there were nuns from Africa and Latin America who were “really very, very pretty. The Brazilian girls above all.”

So “inner beauty” equals Sophia Loren? And foreign girls??? Brazilian GIRLS above all? Uh, Father, aren’t these females actually WOMEN, not girls? This sexist language use of yours undercuts your claim that nuns “are often not sufficiently appreciated by society.” Wouldn’t it be a tad more appreciative if you did these nuns the honor of not infantalizing them by calling them girls AND not objectifying them by rating their hotness (by country of origin no less!)???

Thus, as his comments reveal, Rungi is sexist, ageist, lookist, and, perhaps above all, lacking in the ability to critically anaylyze what such a beauty contest (and the supposed ‘need’ for it) says about culture, society, and religion.

According to Rungi, nuns have both a “physical and spiritual beauty” and carry out work in which an “attractive presence” is an advantage. Yeah, because the work of say, Mother Theresa, would be so much better is she was hot. (Alas, Mother T would not qualify for the contest even is she was still alive due to being a “wizened old funeral lady” and well past the 40 cut off.)

Rungi further claimed that beauty is “not just the plasticised beauty you see on television. There is also such a thing as a chaste ideal, which comes from the heart and the soul, and has a beneficial effect on those who come into contact with it.” Yet, this “chaste ideal” supposedly ahs to come from the “heart and soul” of someone between 18 to 40 who is easy on the eyes.

Rungi didn’t propose an equivalent contest for priests or monks. Guess men don’t need to live up to a “chaste ideal” or prove they are not “old and dour.” Guess they are not expected to live up to the beauty imperative in which they will be judged above all by how they look. Guess I must have missed that 11th Commandment about female beauty when attending Catholic school oh so many years ago.

Alas, Rungi has cancelled his plans for the beauty contest. Apparently a number of people just don’t get that “beauty is a gift from God” to be judged on the internet via photos (habit optional).

What if every day was women’s equality day?

Today, August 26th, Women’s Equality Day, commemorates the 88th year since the ratification of the 19th Amendment. However, I am not so sure the holiday is appropriately named. If we are celebrating women’s equal right to vote, why not call it “Women’s Suffrage Day” or “Those without penis privilege get the right to vote day.” By calling it “Women’s Equality Day,” there is some indication that we are celebrating the fact that women actually have equality in this country, which of course, we do not.

A number of factors would need to change for women to have equality in the USA. Archcrone from The Crone Speaks reminds us that “women have not yet realized equal status with men,” detailing the following facts in her “Happy Equality Day” post:

  • Women only make $.77 to a man’s dollar. Could you use the extra 23 cents?
  • The US has no guaranteed medical leave for childbirth; we’re trailing 168 countries in the company of only Lesotho, Liberia, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland.
  • The US is near the bottom of the list – again – in our public support for quality childcare for children of working parents.
  • Our access to affordable birth control is now under attack.
  • And our right to safe, accessible, legal abortion is threatened as never before.
  • And finally, women still only make up 16 percent of our representatives in Congress.

George W. Bush, far less wise than Archcrone, in his proclamation released by the White House, puts quite a different spin on the day:

As we look back on the journey to women gaining suffrage, we remember the sacrifices of people like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. More than 160 years after the Seneca Falls Convention, we celebrate the spirit, leadership, and hard work of those pioneering women. We also recognize the women who continue in this tradition by acting as role models in their communities, helping raise the next generation of Americans, leading in their professions, and serving in the Armed Forces protecting our country. These women are continuing on the path set by those who came before them, so that all Americans can realize the great promise of our Nation.

Hmmm, I wonder about his emphasis on recognizing women as “role models in their communities” and even more so about women as “helping to raise the next generation of Americans.” Role models? Who is exactly a good role model according to GW? Can such a role model be a feminist, can she be queer, can she resist the militarized imperialism of this ‘promising Nation’ and still be a good role model?

Even more patronizing though is the nod to women’s primary role being that of mother, of “helping raise the next generation of Americans.” Pardon me George, but your proclamation smacks of paternalism, of letting women be ‘good role models’ and ‘good mothers’ – or, in other words, nice to look at, nice to ‘model’ the supposed ideals of our patriarchal nation, and nice to raise your kids.

As for GWs reference to women “serving in the Armed Forces protecting our country” – well, he conveniently leaves out that on the one hand, women are not allowed to serve in equal capacities in the Armed Forces and when they do serve, they are very likely to be raped and sexually harassed, and on the other, that this so-called war on terror is not about “protecting our country” but about spreading US imperialism. He of course also forgets about that very important mother — Julia Ward Howe– who called for “Mother’s Day for Peace” not so we could all buy Hallmark cards and hothouse flowers, but as a day to resist war and empire.

So, George, forgive me if I find your proclamation patronizing and vapid. I am sure you did not write it yourself. You are hardly qualified to give a speech on women’s equality, let alone a speech that would lend credible analysis regarding just how far we have yet to go before women have full equality in this nation. I look forward to that day. Sadly, it has not yet arrived.

What if we got over the whole weight thing?

In the past few weeks, I have enjoyed squeezing a number of summertime activities into my life before heading back to the grindstone of fall semester. (By the way kind readers, as classes start tomorrow, the frequency of my posts may diminish… But, I will do my best to keep “kicking ass” in the blogosphere).*

While soaking up sun at the beach, whizzing down slides at water parks, swimming at public pools, and being spun upside down and backwards at theme parks, I have appreciated the wonderful diversity and beauty of all the different bodies that populate this planet.

I love body watching at the beach, but not the kind of bodies that popular culture deems ideal. No, in fact the bikini clad bodies with long blonde hair or the board short wearing six-packs that cavort in groups while tossing Frisbees are not the bodies that bring me the most joy. Rather, I like those bodies that our culture deems imperfect, undesirable, as too fat, too hairy, too pale, too wrinkly – I like to see these bodies in all their different swimsuits and sunwear enjoying the surf and sand. I am saddened when such a body feels the need to hide itself under a sarong or when is visibly worried about being out in public. I hate to see such a body wearing what is obviously an attempt to hide. I love it when all the ‘Othered bodies’ refuse to buy into the bodily hatred our culture doles out by obviously enjoying letting it all hang out at the beach.

At water parks and swimming pools, even more bodily diversity is often apparent as these tend to be family hangouts rather than quasi-pick up places for the young and hot to strut their stuff (it seems even at ‘family beaches’ it is hard to get away from the feel of California beaches as pick up joints). And, at water parks and pools, pretty much everyone is in a bathing suit because that is all you can wear if you wish to ride the slides or dip in the water. In fact, these places should be a required experience for the crazy designers and advertisement big wigs out there who stubbornly perpetuate the idea of ideal sizes and average height/weight. As such places attest, bodies (no matter their age) are radically diverse. Now, while this truism does not hold up so well at certain public pools (I was in Palm Springs once at a pool where a friend and I were playing “Try to spot the real boobs” due to the overwhelming presence of surgically modified uber-tan fat-free bodies posing poolside), for the most part, a public space populated by swim-clad wearing bodies will reveal a fact that people like to deny: bodies come in all shapes and sizes.

At a beautiful outdoor pool overlooking the Puget Sound I swam at this summer while in Seattle, I witnessed two memorable body moments. Unfortunately, neither of them were positive. In the first, a boy of about six pulled off his shorts and underwear poolside so as to change into his swimsuit. Upon seeing him, his father became irate and started shouting “What is wrong with you boy?!? Get your clothes back on!!!” Then, he began to verbally abuse the woman with him (who appeared far too young to be the boy’s mother but seemed to be the father’s girlfriend). He questioned her judgment, asked her what was wrong with her to let the boy do that, yelled at her for letting the boy embarrass him in public. A general sense of dread spread over the sun chairs. I could collectively sense others wondering if they should say something, if they should pretend they couldn’t hear, if they dared to step into a ‘private matter’ when the man ‘in charge’ was obviously extremely angry and was not short on muscles to back up that anger. As the yelling went on, I myself wondered what to do. I have stepped in before in similar settings with mixed results. (Once, I phoned 911 when a man was beating a woman outside a gas station only to be chased down the street by the woman as she was so angry I ‘lied’ to the police about her boyfriend). Cringing inside for the naked little boy and the woman (and hating the father), I got up to walk towards them not knowing what I would say or do. However, before I got there, the boy grabbed his stuff and ran to the bathroom, and the woman did the same. The man, all smug in his self righteous king of the castle manner, laid back in his chair and gave his other children a look that said “you better not give me no shit neither.” I wanted to say something, I wanted to call him out on his assholery, but I didn’t. Frankly, he scared me. And to think that all this was over a six year old boy being so excited to get in the pool that he bared his butt poolside. Who the frig cares?!? The dad obviously did – he acted as this brief show of nudity was a catastrophic emasculating episode.

The other memorable body moment involved seeing a girl of perhaps 14 wearing cumbersome gingham outfit that resembled a swimsuit from another century that consisted of long bloomers, a sleeved top, and a Holly Hobbit style bonnet. I happened to spy the cover of the book she was reading, something like How to be an Obedient Woman. Now, I of course have no idea why she and all the women with her were dressed like this, or what the idea of ‘obedience’ meant to them, but judging from their attire, it seemed to involve keeping one’s body covered, even when swimming. While the choice to do so would be one thing, the title of the book suggested another – that being an ‘obedient female,’ a ‘good girl,’ meant one should deny the fleshy parts of existence. I am not sure why this group of women struck me so much, or why I felt so saddened by their dress code. Although I agree people should be able to choose how they cover (or do not cover) their bodies, I have a sort of gut reaction to bodies that appear to be excessively covered in order to hide what are deemed as ‘defective’ parts. In some cases, the defectiveness seems to be associated with being a female body. In others, it is due to inhabiting a body that differs from the ‘ideal.’ In either scenario, I am saddened when people appear visibly uncomfortable or embarrassed about their own unique embodiment. (Mind you, I am not a fan of major boobcrack or buttcrack display in public spaces either – mainly because such let-it-all -hang-out antics tend to play into an objectifying “I am just meat for your enjoyment” paradigm.)

This Saturday while riding as many extreme roller coasters as possible in very hot Valencia, California, I did more musing on the variability of bodies. Most people wore short shorts and tank tops due to the 90plus degree weather. Some were thin, some were fat, some were hairy, some were wrinkly. One thing I noticed while jammed in close proximity to other bodies in line is that even thin, toned bodies have the so called “cottage cheese” look to their thighs and/or “tummy rolls.” These fleshy parts are natural. They are not gross or ugly but only perceived as such because we live in a culture that profits off of making people hate their bodies. If it was ok to have jiggly thighs, varicose veins, tummy pouches, and love handles, how would corporations rake in the dough on cellulite creams, diet pills, age-defying potions, and Botox injections? I was pleased that the heat prompted the fleshy display of so many different types of bodies and this got me thinking about a fat-hating conversation I heard earlier this summer.

While at dinner at a relative’s house, someone brought up the news that airlines might start charging passengers by their weight. Now, my family is not known for having “skinny genes,” quite the contrary in fact, but a number of people piped in about this being a good idea. One of the more skinny obsessed in attendance suggested she should get a discount due to her low weight. Judging by the comment thread here, lots of people agree that charging by weight is a good idea. However, if you consider that what we weigh is a complex combination of genetics, metabolism, age, diet, and, now more than ever, how we are force fed high fructose corn syrup, it doesn’t seem fair to reward those who can eat trainloads of food and weigh in at 110 while punishing those whose bellies expand if they merely look at a cookie. Seems to make about as much sense as charging for skin color.

Yet, as the people at the dinner table bemoaned “It’s so uncomfortable when you are crammed next to a fat person that spills over into your seat.” Yeah, will imagine how it feels to be that fat person. Do you think s/he likes to not “fit” in our world, to be reminded that if you are over a certain weight/height you don’t belong? Flights are uncomfortable full stop. Yes, it is hard to be crammed in next to so many other bodies, but give me a fat seat companion over an annoying one any day – or over a kid kicking my seat the entire flight while her/his parent snores away in oblivion.

Seems to me a better solution would be for airlines to offer a few rows with less seats and more leg/body room. If you are taller or fatter or merely want to stretch out, maybe these seats could cost a bit more (but not double, and not the price of first class). I know this is not very feasible in our profit is all culture, but is a dehumanizing weigh in at the check in counter really the best airlines can come up with? This would give being “overweight” an entirely new spin. I can just imagine alarms going off at the check in scales and the accompanying shouts: “This one is over weight by 20!” “This fatty is over by 50!”

What the heck does that term really mean anyway? Over what weight? How can a person ever possibly be over the weight of their own body? They can be over the weight culture deems normal, over the weight doctors peddle as healthy, over the weight diet gurus suggest one needs to be at, over the weight considered attractive by a thin obsessed society, but certainly not over the weight their own body naturally stabilizes at. Now, factors like high fructose corn syrup and dangerous dieting lead to a weight that might be over the set point of one’s body – but this is due to culture practices that pump food full of junk while expecting people to be as thin as possible and, in so doing, promote crazy dieting/eating habits. Ridiculous.

This is why I don’t use the term overweight. I think it’s is an idiotic brainwashing three syllable mind-numbing term. It should be banished from the lexicon. I also hate obese. Medicalized hogwash. The term I like is fat. If we embraced the term, perhaps we could embrace fat on our own bodies. Cuz most bodies have it somewhere – even those thin little bodies in teeny tiny shorts have fat somewheres. Fat is human. Bones are for skeletons – you know, when you are dead. So, let’s get over the whole stupid weight thing and embrace the fact that our bodies are made of flesh, and bone, and FAT.

*A big fat thanks to Eric Stoller and Womanist Musings for each giving me a “Kick Ass Blogger” award.

What if I could overcome my gut-wrenching hatred for the phrase ‘you guys’?

Well, it would certainly make my life a lot easier because I hear this phrase multiple times a day. I wish I could accept being referred to in terms that insinuate the whole population is male or that male terms are ‘neutral,’ but I can’t. When I hear ‘you guys,’ I don’t feel like whoever is saying/writing this is talking to me because I am not an f***ing guy!

Yes, people claim this term is ‘gender neutral,’ that it ‘doesn’t do any harm,’ that ‘there’s no easy replacement,’ that ‘people don’t mean anything by it,’ that ‘there are so many bigger issues, why are you concerned with something so petty?’ and, lastly, that ‘girls is used in the same way as guys.’ Ugh and ugh.

Let’s deconstruct these excuses:

Excuse 1: ‘you guys is gender neutral’

Um, no it’s friggin not. While Merriam-Webster defines guy as “man, fellow b: person -used in plural to refer to the members of a group regardless of sex <saw her and the rest of the guys>” I still don’t buy it. This is like all those other claims that words such as mankind, policeman, brotherhood of man, etc really include women too. Uh, not so much. When you hear the word fireman, do you picture a woman?

Further, why is it that terms are only ‘neutral’ when they are male terms? Why isn’t ‘you gals’ or ‘you girls’ neutral by the same logic?

Try saying ‘you gals’ to a group of mixed gender individuals and see how many males respond… You see, for those identifying as male, being called a female term is an INSULT. For women, being called male terms is SUPPOSED to be a compliment or sign of inclusion. GAG.

Excuse 2: ‘it doesn’t do any harm’

Really? The idea that language is a harmless medium devoid of ideological content that merely objectively names the world is utter hogwash. See Plato or the work of Ferdinand de Saussure if you want to ruminate more deeply on this one. Language shapes how we see the world and helps to create what we call reality. Words are not innocent.

And, for all the little girls who never hear themselves validated in language – who hear their teachers say “you guys,” who hear that boys always come before and are more important than girls (as with the Boys and Girls Club et al) – well, sadly, ‘you guys’ harms them in the same way as language will continue to harm them as they grow – they will learn females are sluts, bitches, whores, gold-diggers, etc. ‘You guys’ is only their first step into misogynistic patriarchal indoctrination.

For the boys, it marks the stepping-stones of male privilege and programming into the cult of masculinity. They learn from the get go that they are the sex that counts, linguistically and otherwise.

Excuse 3: ‘there’s no easy replacement’

How about plain old ‘you’???? ‘You’ can be plural or singular.

As an example, ‘You need to bring your book to class on Friday’ can be said to one student or to the entire class.

If you find ‘you’ on its own too short, or boring, or non-slangy, how about you people, you all, you peeps, y’all. As for me, I like just plain old ‘you.’

Excuse 4: ‘people don’t mean anything by it’

Often this is true. And, often people are not even aware of just how often they say “you guys.” In fact, I know many feminists and women’s studies professors who use the phrase. However, I don’t think this makes the phrase ok, rather, I think the phrase has become so ubiquitous that people say it without even realizing it.

Sadly, this phrase seems to be taking over the world. When I lived in England several years ago, ‘you guys’ was not in use. This was no surprise, as Britain tends to be a bit more formal in its language use in general than the US. However, when I visited last summer, I sadly found the ‘you guys’ disease has spread.

I don’t feel that when people use this verbal tick a bazillion times each day they INTEND to perpetuate sexism and put females under erasure, yet the same could be said of earlier claims regarding now discarded words. It used to be argued that no harm was meant via terms like “colored” or “retarded.” Yet, as we attempt to evolve as a species, we have realized the damage that can be done by ‘mere words.’ So, while people might not ‘mean anything’ by saying ‘you guys,’ wouldn’t it be a lot more meaningful if they tried to replace this phrase with something that doesn’t smack of patriarchal brainwashing?

Excuse 5: ‘there are so many bigger issues’

Yes, that is true. ‘You guys’ is a mere blip on the unjust screen of our culture. This is why I tend to refer to my hatred for the phrase as a pet peeve. But, this peeve of mine has its justifications. If you have to pick between supporting reproductive justice, eradicating racism, or not shopping at Wal-Mart over not saying ‘you guys,’ well fine. However, I would prefer if you chose to do all of these and more. And, how hard is it really to eradicate ‘you guys’ from your speech? Probably a lot easier for many than not supporting one of the world’s number one human rights offenders… (aka Wal-Mart).

Excuse 6: ‘girls is used in the same way as guys’

Yes, people say things like ‘girls night out,’ ‘hey girls,’ and ‘you girls.’ However, they say this only to refer to actual females – when guys are present, even one guy, ‘you girls’ type phrases will not be used (you know, cuz that would like, insult the dude’s masculinity – whereas for a girl, it’s just fine to be called a guy).

Also, consider these equations:

Guy = Gal = adult

Boy = Girl = child

So, when you refer to a male as ‘guy,’ you refer to him as an ADULT. When you refer to a female as a ‘girl,’ you are using a term that indicates she is a child. Ever wonder why calling women ‘girls’ is so popular, while calling men boys has historically been seen as an insult? Yup, you got it, it’s called sexism. I know the use of ‘boys’ is becoming more common, but this is related to the whole “men will be boys” culture (see Jessica Valenti’s Full Frontal Feminism for a good discussion of this culture). And, even though using the term ‘boys’ to refer to men is becoming more common, it hasn’t reached the cultural saturation point that calling women of all ages ‘girls’ has. Why? Because men are individuals, silly. Women are mere appendages. They don’t grow up, they only (hopefully) grow tits and then attach themselves to a real human, a male. And, if they don’t do that, well, you know all the sexist terms that will be flung at them: dyke, bitch, frigid, ice queen, ho, tease, old maid…

**********************

To return to the question I posed in the title of this post, well, if I could overcome my gut-wrenching hatred for the term ‘you guys’ I wouldn’t have to wince multiple times each day when I hear it. I wouldn’t have to constantly ruminate on the plain old everyday sexism of our world. Yet, I refuse to let go of my dislike for this phrase. I do not like to be erased by language, I do no like to be infantalized by being called a “girl,” I do not like it when my female identity doesn’t count, I do not appreciate the implicit suggestion that being called a guy is somehow a compliment. In fact, I hate it.

What if we cared about boob health as much as we care about boob size and boob-induced profits?

A former student of mine has been working on a breast cancer fund raising project over the summer with the organization Making Strides Against Breast Cancer. His personal goal is to raise a thousand dollars, and he asked me if I was willing to help him achieve this goal via spreading the word. Being the caring professor that I am (even though I have reputation for being “hard”) I wanted to link to his fund raising page here.*** But, being the ever-questioning-can’t-turn-the-analysis-off professor that I also am, I wanted to use this opportunity to examine breast cancer fund raising in general and the commodification of boobies via the think pink mentality.

As Jesse writes,

As far as the consumerist “think pink” mentality goes … the truth is it really was just a marketing ploy that was slapped on issues surrounding breast cancer about a decade ago and was so successful it just never really went away. The whole pink ribbon campaign and all things pink, marketed directly at women (white, middle-class, with a bunch of fund raising free time on there hands) was such a success because it took what once was such a horrifying disease and physically deforming for everyday women (because in our society one of a women’s greatest assets is her rack, don’t pay attention to her ideas or thoughts), and was able to make it something beautiful and finally shed some light on what once was a social taboo.

The truth is I do not agree with the notion that breasts are the most important feature of a women…or even that breast cancer is only a women’s issue…but I do believe that if it had not been for the “think pink” mentality attached to breast cancer awareness today…we would be nowhere near as close to finding a cure as we find ourselves today.

I think Jesse makes very valid points here – namely that while “Think Pink” has its problems, it did help to create social awareness and put breast cancer on the map. However, now that breast cancer is on the consciousness desktop of our culture, it seems maybe we could move beyond the “buy it for the boobs” mentality and into a more nuanced approach – one that would examine how toxic dumping/radioactive waste is linked to rising cancer rates (dumping done by the very same corporations that want to make a profit off you thinking they are pink), how poverty is linked to cancer rates (because guess where you get to live when you are poor – near the toxic dump sites), and how the fetishized sexualization of breasts does not translate into caring about healthy breasts, let alone healthy women.

According to Judy Brady, one of the worst offenders in what she calls “the marketing of breast cancer” is the Susan G. Komen Foundation and its annual 5K ‘Race for the Cure. As Mary Ann Swissler reports,

Now held year-round in 110 U.S. cities and abroad, the festivities offend Brady and the group Toxic Links Coalition. The races, they say, merely focus women on finding a medical cure for breast cancer, and away from environmental conditions causing it, the problems of the uninsured, and political influence of corporations over the average patient.

The Toxic Link Coalition, unlike other mainly for profit organizations, aims “to educate our communities about the links between environmental toxins and the decline in public health.” As their website reads:

Toxic Links Coalition works to stop the proliferation of chemical, radioactive, and industrial substances that threaten human health and the health of the planet. The Toxic Links Coalition believes we all have a right to health and environmental justice; views cancer and other environmentally linked diseases and disorders as human rights abuses, not as individual medical problems; targets companies that perpetrate irresponsible production, use, and disposal of carcinogenic and toxic wastes and products; demands accountability from corporate and agricultural polluters; works against environmental racism, and recognizes that people of color, immigrants, and workers bear a disproportionately high toxic burden.

TLC has renamed a public relations gimmick created and hosted by pharmaceutical and chemical giant, Zeneca, known as “Breast Cancer Awareness Month” (October), to “Cancer Industry Awareness Month.” TLC educates the public about companies with questionable ethical and environmental track records who hold a vested financial interest in maintaining the current cancer research, treatment, and prevention strategy standards.

In her excellent essay, (read the entire piece here) “Welcome to Cancerland” Barbara Ehrenreich examines this deep-seated hypocrisy of what she terms “the Cancer Industrial Complex”:

…by ignoring or underemphasizing the vexing issue of environmental causes, the breast cancer cult turns women into dupes of what could be called the Cancer Industrial Complex: the multinational corporate enterprise that with the one hand doles out carcinogens and disease and, with the other, offers expensive, semi-toxic pharmaceutical treatments. Breast Cancer Awareness Month, for example, is sponsored by AstraZeneca (the manufacturer of tamoxifen), which, until a corporate reorganization in 2000, was a leading producer of pesticides, including acetochlor, classified by the EPA as a “probable human carcinogen.” This particularly nasty conjuncture of interests led the environmentally oriented Cancer Prevention Coalition (CPC) to condemn Breast Cancer Awareness Month as “a public relations invention by a major polluter which puts women in the position of being unwitting allies of the very people who make them sick.” Although AstraZeneca no longer manufactures pesticides, CPC has continued to criticize the breast-cancer crusade — and the American Cancer Society — for its unquestioning faith in screening mammograms and careful avoidance of environmental issues. In a June 12, 2001, press release, CPC chairman Samuel S. Epstein, M.D., and the well-known physician activist Quentin Young castigated the American Cancer Society for its “longstanding track record of indifference and even hostility to cancer prevention . . . Recent examples include issuing a joint statement with the Chlorine Institute justifying the continued global use of persistent organochlorine pesticides, and also supporting the industry in trivializing dietary pesticide residues as avoidable risks of childhood cancer. ACS policies are further exemplified by allocating under 0.1 percent of its $700 million annual budget to environmental and occupational causes of cancer.

Similarly, in her article “Breast Cancer Sells,” Lucinda Marshall notes the hypocrisy of promoting people to “buy for the cure” when what they are buying is actually part of the cause:

A Pine Sol ad in Essence features motorcycle riders Aj Jemison and Jan Emanuel “driving for the cure,” which is awfully hard when your vehicle is spewing cancer-causing exhaust. On top of that, Pine Sol contains 2-butoxyethanol (EGBE), which has been linked to fertility disorders, birth defects and other medical problems.

Marshall also points out that while most women with breast cancer are over 50 and are disproportionately represented by poor women and women of color, that ads indicate breast cancer is an affliction of the young and hot. As Marshall details, a Vogue ad, featuring Ralph Lauren’s polo shirts that have bull’s eye’s above the breasts (supposedly to indicate we need to ‘target breast cancer’) “shows a group of young, mostly white women wearing skimpy thongs, the polo shirts and nothing else. Subtle, huh?” Yes, because thong underwear really hits home the seriousness of the disease.

Ads are not the only young-centric arena though. News coverage of breast cancer focuses on the young, white, and hot. As Marshall writes:

Unfortunately, while most breast cancer victims are over the age of 50, not one of the nine magazines I analyzed focused on those women and the impact the disease has on their lives. Far more typical is a piece in Vogue discussing a very attractive young woman’s agonizing choice to have a preventive double mastectomy because she carries the genes that can cause breast cancer. And with the exception of Essence, whose target audience is black, most of the women in these survivor stories are white, even though black women are more likely to die from the disease.

This links to the recent massive coverage of Christina Applegate’s breast cancer. If it were Whoopi Goldberg, or Margaret Cho, or Doris Roberts would there be as much coverage? Doubt it. Who cares about saggy boobs? Who cares about boobs of color? Not the media, that’s for sure.

In fact, as Ehrenreich’s essay reveals, we don’t approach cancer as an affliction affecting humans, but rather in a way that dehumanizes and objectifies the person with cancer. When Erhrenreich’s surgeon announced to her that “”Unfortunately, there is a cancer,” she shares that it took “all the rest of that drug-addled day to decide that the most heinous thing about that sentence is not the presence of cancer but the absence of me — for I, Barbara, do not enter into it even as a location, a geographical reference point. Where I once was — not a commanding presence perhaps but nonetheless a standard assemblage of flesh and words and gesture — “there is a cancer.” I have been replaced by it, is the surgeon’s implication. This is what I am now, medically speaking.”

As Ehrenreich’s piece conveys, her experience with breast cancer was profoundly dehumanizing and the perky think pink ads do nothing to convey the batteries of tests, the psychological and emotional ramifications, the reality that one’s body is turning against itself:

The endless exams, the bone scan to check for metastases, the high-tech heart test to see if I’m strong enough to withstand chemotherapy — all these blur the line between selfhood and thing-hood anyway, organic and inorganic, me and it. As my cancer career unfolds, I will, the helpful pamphlets explain, become a composite of the living and the dead-an implant to replace the breast, a wig to replace the hair.

Noting that breast cancer is “the biggest disease on the cultural map,” Ehrenreich shares that:

breast cancer has blossomed from wallflower to the most popular girl at the corporate charity prom. While AIDS goes begging and low-rent diseases like tuberculosis have no friends at all, breast cancer has been able to count on Revlon, Avon, Ford, Tiffany, Pier 1, Estee Lauder, Ralph Lauren, Lee Jeans, Saks Fifth Avenue, JC Penney, Boston Market, Wilson athletic gear — and I apologize to those I’ve omitted. You can “shop for the cure” during the week when Saks donates 2 percent of sales to a breast-cancer fund; “wear denim for the cure” during Lee National Denim Day, when for a $5 donation you get to wear blue jeans to work. You can even “invest for the cure,” in the Kinetics Assets Management’s new no-load Medical Fund, which specializes entirely in businesses involved in cancer research.

Her characterization of breast cancer as a popular girl at the prom seems particularly fitting given that the whole think pink culture is gendered in the extreme. From teddy bears to bubblegum pink lipgloss, breast cancer culture wraps the disease not only in buying for the cure, but also in the infantalization of women with breast cancer. As if declining boob health led to a reversion back to childhood, breast cancer cards, gifts, websites, etc. abound in girly images decked out in baby pink. As Ehrenreich details,

A tote bag distributed to breast cancer patients by the Libby Ross Foundation (through places such as the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center) contains, among other items, a tube of Estee Lauder Perfumed Body Crème, a hot-pink satin pillowcase, an audiotape “Meditation to Help You with Chemotherapy,” a small tin of peppermint pastilles, a set of three small inexpensive rhinestone bracelets, a pink-striped “journal and sketch book,” and — somewhat jarringly — a small box of crayons.

As she quips, “Certainly men diagnosed with prostate cancer do not receive gifts of Matchbox cars.” No, and can you imagine anything close to similar if we had a testicular cancer culture? Of course not, because this culture would never exist in the first place – men’s bodies (and their parts) are coded as private. No “think prostate” campaigns with accompanying Bermuda shorts designed by Ralph Lauren with arrows pointing to the male genital region are forthcoming I am quite sure… No, because commodifying the male body is not the norm. This is exactly why we have embraced a think pink breast cancer culture while no such fluffy, makeover/survivor narratives accompany AIDS, tuberculosis, or that boringly prosaic killer of millions, malnutrition. It’s do much easier to package breasts in feel good pink and to market ‘cures’ to that part of the populace that has already been taught the “I shop, therefore I am” mantra from birth.

Furthermore, breast cancer can “sell” partly because it is based on a product that is so popular – BOOBIES! As breast shaped cakes, cupcake pans, lamps, pencil sharpeners, etc. attest, breasts sell (see some sample ‘breast products’ here). However, the phallus and its testicular sidekicks are not near as marketable. Nor, as this story from Jesse attests, are the penis/balls allowed to be put on public display and commodified in the same way as breasts:

In high school I started a cancer awareness club on campus, and during prostate cancer awareness month I wanted to host an event to promote awareness and encourage young men to get themselves checked. What I proposed to my club was that we print out a bunch of little pieces of paper that read “get yourself checked. prostate cancer” and tie each piece to little sacks with gumballs inside to look like male genitalia. It made sense to me, I mean we gave out cupcakes with boobs on top for breast cancer awareness month and no one seemed to have a problem with it! But, to my surprise everyone voted not to do it. That was the first time I think I ever came face to face with sexism in cancer awareness.

Sexism in cancer awareness indeed! Seems part of this “awareness” is making the populace buy into the belief that boobs are a REALLY important part of being female, and that being female involves loving pink jewelry, make up, and teddy bears – of, in short, being infantalized and sexualized and objectified all while wrapped in a pretty pink bow.

Yet, in spite of the commodification of breast cancer, and the huge boob induced profits raked in by corporations that poison water and earth with one hand while hawking pink products with the other, there is of course still a desperate need to care about boob health. And, for now, those doing the most productive caring, if you ask me, are feminists. As Ehrenreich shares, “Like everyone else in the breast-cancer world, the feminists want a cure, but they even more ardently demand to know the cause or causes of the disease without which we will never have any means of prevention.”

However, mainstream pink boob culture perpetuates narratives about ‘bad genes’ and ‘risk factors,’ even though such genes account for fewer than 10 percent of breast cancers and only 30 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have known risk factors. As Ehrenreich relates:

suspicion should focus on environmental carcinogens… such as plastics, pesticides (DDT and PCBs, for example, though banned in this country, are still used in many Third World sources of the produce we eat), and the industrial runoff in our ground water. No carcinogen has been linked definitely to human breast cancer yet, but many have been found to cause the disease in mice, and the inexorable increase of the disease in industrialized nations — about one percent a year between the 1950s and the 1990s — further hints at environmental factors, as does the fact that women migrants to industrialized countries quickly develop the same breast-cancer rates as those who are native born. Their (feminists) emphasis on possible ecological factors, which is not shared by groups such as Komen and the American Cancer Society, puts the feminist breast-cancer activists in league with other, frequently rambunctious, social movements — environmental and anticorporate.

Aaawww, but it wouldn’t be near as fun to “race for the cure” if that race involved feminist activism instead of cute little bears in pink tutus. It wouldn’t be as uplifting to focus on the ways in which the toxicity of our environment along with institutionalized poverty and lack of adequate clean drinking water (let alone adequate healthcare) mitigate the possibility of healthy boobs (or a healthy body). It’s far more fun, if less effective, to come up with zippy slogans and cute pink products all in the name of big boob profits. Because who really cares about boob health when unhealthy boobs create ballooning triple D boob induced profits?

To close, I know someone who does care about boob profits, and he is the person who prompted me to write this post. A tireless crusader against cancer, he is well aware of the problems with the think pink mentality. However, as he writes, “I do these walks and fundraise my ass off, because in a society that views breast cancer as cute pink ribbons and bears in pink tutu’s…what is a boy to do? My hope is that one day people will tear away from the think pink mentality of breast cancer and instead focus on the disease itself.” I am right there along with you hoping. Jesse.

***http://main.acsevents.org/goto/jesseburns

Jessie notes that “As for any questions anyone may have for the events disbursement of the funds raised…I have all the answers. Making Strides Against Breast Cancer is an American Cancer Society event and as such the money is divided up 3 ways: 82% goes completely back to cancer research and clinical studies, 14% goes to putting on the event (rentals, fees, supplies), and only 4% goes back to administrative costs (staff payroll).”

What if we had White Hetero Male Studies?

Poor Attorney Roy Den Hollander. His rights have been infringed and his penis-privileged life has been blighted not only by Women’s Studies, but also by Ladies Night. The pitiable guy was supposedly duped by a female who married him to gain citizenship. Now, in seeming retribution, Hollander has declared a jihad against feminism.

Will any of you kind readers help him and donate to his fund for Men’s Rights? A resounding no? Well, thank the goddess. Yes, and this goddess worship of you crazy feminists out there reveals what Hollander claims in his lawsuit against Columbia University – that feminism is a religion that violates the 1st, 5th, and 14th Amendments. Reminds me of how a student of mine lovingly referred to my Advanced Feminist Theory class as “feminist church.” Yeah, if only.

If feminism was a religion we would be doing far better in this country that does not separate church and state. If feminism was branded as a religion we could get away with all sorts of things…

We could claim equal wage day a religious holiday! We could get all sorts of tax breaks!

We could refuse to do any number of things that offend our feminist sensibilities and then sue for religious protection under the law (like the male police officer who took civil action after he was fired for refusing an assignment at a casino because it went against his religious beliefs, we could refuse assignments such as doing the dishes or ironing – “sorry, no wrinkle free clothes, it’s against my religion.”)

In some states, such as California and Michigan, we could use publicly funded vouchers to send our kids to feminist schools.

We could come up with “charitable choice” or “compassionate conservatism” or “faith-based initiative” programs as a way to compete for funding with secular non-profit organizations.

Heck, we could jump on the jihad-is-so-damn-cool bandwagon and declare feminist jihad against the patriarchy.

And how about creating abstain-from-abstinence programs to preach in schools across the nation with both the blessing and the funding of the government?

Of course, if feminism were branded a religion, we would still have a pretty tough sell on our hands. But, with enough “Jesus was a feminist” bumper stickers and a number of cool re-tooled commandments, we just might be able to do it. Heck, we could even keep some of the old ones. “Thou shalt not kill” seems pretty in keeping with feminism. However, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife” would have to be changed to “Thou can covet anyone or anything if the coveting is done under the conditions of mutual consent by all involved parties”…

Anyhow, with that digression aside, allow me to return to poor (Hem)RoyDenHollander, a royal pain in the feminist ass. He claims that University of Columbia’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender is discriminatory and unconstitutional because there is no equivalent “men’s studies” program. Huh? Has HemRoyD not heard of men and masculinities courses? (For more on this line of argument, see the post about RoyD here at Appetite for Equal Rights.)

Perhaps (gasp) he has never actually taken a Women’s Studies course. No, that couldn’t be. He couldn’t possibly declare jihad against an entire school of thought that he knows nothing about. That would make him kind of like GWBush. Oh wait, squinty eyes, gray hair, crazy and incoherent claims, anti-woman… Hmmm, guess they are a bit alike.

His laswsuit claims that within Women’s Studies “Females…are credited with inherent goodness who were oppressed and colonized by men.” Wow, what brand of feminism you reading there RoyD? Did you get a hold of some radical gynocritical 2nd wave stuff and take it as gospel representing the entire movement?

In case any of you hetero females out there feel like RoyD would make a real catch, he shares that “I am looking for … superficial temporary escapades with pretty young ladies.” RoyD continues that “It’s harder than it was when I was younger. I only go after girls who are in their athletic prime.” By girls, I assume he means the under 18 set. Surely he wouldn’t refer to grown women as “girls” as this would be enacting the very type of gender bashing he claims to deride – and I don’t see him ever referring to men as “boys.” Thus, apparently rules regarding adulthood and who is able to give informed consent are not amongst the laws concerning Mr. RoyD. Who cares how old she is as long as she is in her “athletic prime,” hey RoyD?

RoyD is quoted as claiming the following in a Times Online article:

“The long-range goal of my law suits is that I am, in my own small way, trying to give all those feminists equality – not the equality of all the best in life, but the equality of the worst in life.

“Make them register for the draft, make them go to war and die, make them work in the worst occupations,” he said.

“They do not want equality. They want preferential treatment. It’s just the same old pedestal. they say, ‘I am a female. I want to be the CEO of a company.’ I want to be on a pedestal.”

Pardon me while I pick away at these inane claims.

  1. We don’t have a draft and thus neither women or men have to register for it
  2. Uh, females do go to war and die – they have for quite some time now RoyD, and they are dying in larger numbers than every before in another jihad – the one ran by your long lost twin, GWBush
  3. Worst occupations? How about sweatshop slavery? Sexual slavery? Domestic servitude? In fact, the worst jobs with the lowest pay (and often no pay) plus the most inhumane conditions are undertaken in the vast majority by females
  4. Preferential treatment? Perhaps you should look up the meaning of preferential – I think you have it confused with equal opportunity
  5. CEOs and pedestals? Well, there are a number of female CEOs (although in the vast minority), but none of them that I have heard actually sit on pedestals

As for refuting his misogynidiot claims (i.e. idiotic claims based on misogyny), perhaps Kim Gandy, president of NOW, puts it best: “They have a men’s studies department: It’s called ‘history’, ‘politics’, ‘business’. It’s the entire university. It’s all about men’s studies. It’s like asking why there isn’t a White Studies department.”

But, wait, no white studies department? Why not? How unfair!!!! Excuse me, must end this post now so I can work up a lawsuit of my own – I think I am going to call for a White Moneyed Christian Heterosexual Male Studies program. What’s that you say? The interests of that group run pretty much the whole show? Dang, is white hetero rich dude the ‘his’ referred to in the word HIStory? I never realized.

What if make up wasn’t used as barometer of feminist cred?

As a scholar who has done a fair amount of work in the areas of beauty and body image, and as one who critiques what I term “the beauty imperative” of our culture, some might be surprised to find out that I am a make up junkie. In fact, I have often been accused of not being a “real feminist” because I like wearing make up. I am aware my predilections for mascara are likely due to my similarly make up crazy mom. I recall the thrill of making up with her collection from a young age. I would get all gussied up and then go out and pet our pigs or talk to the cows about the troubles of my young life. Mind you, I loved horseback riding, swimming, and getting dirty just as much as I loved dips into mom’s make up drawer. Neither of my parents ever suggested I should or should not wear make up, nor that because I was a girl I was limited in any way (thanks mom and dad).

Later, though, I had relationships in which partners suggested I was “prettier without make up” or that they wanted to see “the real me.” Well, a person who loves make up is the real me, damnit! I don’t always wear it, I don’t feel like I have to wear it, but I like to wear it. I am annoyed when people (usually men) suggest I don’t “need it.” Of course I don’t need it! I don’t need espresso everyday either but damn if I don’t enjoy it.

I do not wear make up (when I do) to play up to the male gaze or be viewed as “properly feminine” – if anything, in my job as a women’s studies professor, I am more suspect BECAUSE I wear make up. Last semester, many of my advanced feminist theory students repeatedly challenged me regarding make up. Several of them seemed to believe my fondness for eye shadow made me a sellout (because who cares how well you know your Butler or Hallberstam when you’re eyelids are colored hot pink, right?). The problem I see with this attitude is that telling women they should not be wearing make up is no better than telling them they have to. Shouldn’t we be able to choose for ourselves? Isn’t feminism supposed to be about choice? Heck, if I had my way, men could more readily choose to wear make up if they wanted to. Why should women get all the eyeliner fun? (For a good historical analysis of changing attitudes towards make up and whether or not women/men should wear it, see this post here. Note also the ire and passion this topic generates in the comments section…)

The emphasis Jessica Valenti puts on feminism being about choices, even when those choices include fishnets or red lipstick, is one of the reasons I like the book Full Frontal Feminism. While I personally find high heels fashion torture, and certainly don’t think elementary school girls should be crippled by them, I don’t see a women in stilettos and think, “Oh, that poor unenlightened dupe.” Likewise, I understand why young girls might WANT to wear make up (and even high heels) – yet, as with other choices, I think we as adults should promote girls (and boys) to question why they want to do such things.

Feminism has an ugly history of imposing all sorts of appearance-based rules – no bras, no shaving, no make up. Well, sorry bell hooks, but as a double D woman, I find going braless a back-breaking experience. And, I know I have learned this from our shave happy society, but I prefer all my underarms without hair (even the male ones).

In the world of women’s studies and feminist scholarship, beauty norms and practices have been scrutinized since the get go. For instance, Mary Wollstonecraft warned women about the dangers of valuing themselves based on their looks and her daughter, Mary Shelley, went on to write Frankenstein, a classic novel that questioned appearance based judgments.

Today, there is lots of talk of “empowerment” and claims that owning one’s beauty, sexuality, desire, etc are feminist moves. However, while I agree that women should be able to choose whether they want to look or dress certain ways, I also think it is imperative to remember the socio-cultural contexts in which these choices are made. We don’t live in a vacuum, and as much as we like to resist or subvert the white supremacist, capitalist, heteronormative, patriarchy, we are all still shaped by it. Thus, even those choices that seem “free” or “empowering” are enacted within a sexist society. As such, when a female looks a certain way, even if she chooses that look and finds it empowering, she may be variously objectified, ridiculed, exploited, etc. So, I can see why some feminists claim that wearing make up is anti-feminist. Yet, if as feminists we judge other women’s feminist cred based on whether they wear mascara or shave their legs, aren’t we enacting a gaze that is just as judgmental as the traditional male gaze? As a colleague of mine writes,

“It is an obvious point, but keeping women in the habit of judging each other and themselves by the way they look just keeps us from banding together and overthrowing the whole system! …Your scholarship and work is questioned/judged based on what you look like; are you ‘brown’ enough, are you ‘peripheral’ enough, are you too ‘pretty’…”

This idea that one is “too pretty to be a feminist” arises quite often. It goes against the “feminists are all ugly, hairy man-haters” mantra. Each semester, I hear versions of this belief. Last semester, a student shared that her dad asked her “So how ugly is your professor?” when she got home from her first Introduction to Women’s Studies Class. Yet, I am not sure that students surprised by the fact that I am not “ugly” is a good thing even though it might help to chip away at the ugly feminist stereotype. Instead, I wish students would question such norms and social constructions all together. What the heck is ugly anyhow? (I disagree with the premise that our definitions of beauty are hard-wired that the new book Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty by Nancy Etcoff makes). One person’s pretty is another person’s ugly, and as the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

I understand that wearing make up is not without its problems. For example, recent work in ecofeminism and other areas reveals the environmental implications of everything from nail polish to product packaging. However, wearing make up seems like small potatoes compared to so many other social ills and norms. As a post over at Feministe notes, the “patriarchy” benefits from our squabbles over these relatively minor issues. In the post, Octogalore writes, “If ‘the patriarchy’ were reading many of these posts, they’d be chortling right now. Fiddling while Rome burns!” I agree that we often spend far too much time on trivialities and not enough trying to dismantle patriarchy and other oppressive social systems. Examining beauty norms and practices is certainly important, but looking at the wider causes of our obsessions with appearance seems far more fruitful than trying to wrench the lip gloss from every female hand. Further, in today’s era of infinite war, widespread genocide, and toxic dumping, it seems splitting hairs over bodily decoration is a bit trivial. (This is in fact while I have redirected my more recent research at issues of militarization and corporatism rather than at beauty and body image issues.)

Of course patriarchy, consumer capitalism, sexism, racism, classism and ageism perpetuate oppressive beauty norms and bodily expectations, but the wearing or not-wearing of make up need not necessarily bolster all of the above. The enjoyment of adorning the body goes as far back as recorded history, and I for one enjoy adornment practices. I feel they are part of being an embodied entity. Like tattoos or piercings or fashion, make up is another way to decorate and enjoy one’s body. If it is not enjoyable to the individual body, then by all means that body should not feel pressured to wear make up. As with tattoos, make up is not for everyone. It is perhaps a bit like alcohol – not necessarily good for you, but enjoyable. (Now, the puritan minded out there might claim that using any sort of alcohol or drugs is indicative of some sort of dangerous dependency, but that is fodder for another post…)

This to make up or not to make up is a subject that is very complex and could take longer to dissect than all of Hamlet’s soliloquies. Thus, I will end this already long post with the mere claim that while I don’t think wearing make up is a feminist act, (as this post at Alternet suggests), I don’t think NOT wearing it is one either.

Published in: on August 19, 2008 at 9:59 am  Comments (18)  
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What if “change the world” was the most popular major in college?


Well, for starters, the business buildings probably wouldn’t be the fanciest places on campus. There would be a whole plethora of social justice classes with cool titles like “How Katrina Could Have Been Prevented 101,” “Stopping the Darfur Genocide 210,” “Feeding the Entire World With Sustainable Food Production 320,” and, the senior capstone, “Putting an End to Corporatization 500.”

However, at the moment, colleges are instead tending to focus on how much bang for your buck you can get out of such and such a degree rather than the ways in which university study can be used to better the world. This is why when someone share’s they are getting a degree in Women’s Studies, the response is invariably “What are you going to do with that?!?”

I remember my father being heckled by his friends at a family BBQ some 20 years ago when they learned that I, his youngest daughter, planned to major in English. One friend looked over at me and smirked “Why don’t you get a REAL degree?” Another claimed I must be going to college “Just for fun.” Well, “so there!” to all dad’s chums who heckled him (and me) about my trivial degree – turns out there ARE things you can do, like be a professor, thank you very much.

Sadly, the attitude displayed by these people 20 years ago has been upped to a much higher wattage today. Parents and students alike seem to look to college as some sort of ATM of degrees where you deposit your dough and withdraw your ticket to a well-paying career. Sure gives Paulo Freire’s notion of “the banking model of education” a different spin! While the student as empty vessel where the professor deposits knowledge model of education has thankfully waned (at least in many disciplines), what has not is the degree as ticket to a bigger bank statement model.

As another academic year is about to begin, and as I think about all the problems that plague our world, I so wish that more students would choose world changing as a life goal. Happily though, more students seem to be very interested in social justice and attack the activism project I assign in my Introduction to Women’s Studies classes with relish. This coming semester they will take part in an activism forum (the campus’ first) and here’s hoping they carry this change the world message with them as they continue their college careers. If you ask me, changing the world is a lot more important (and rewarding) than changing the numbers on one’s bank statement via a shiny business degree meant to serve as ticket into the corporate machine…

What if back to school shopping didn’t require selling one’s feminist soul?

My daughter started school this week. I don’t know why I enjoy buying school supplies so much, but something about sharp new crayons, glue sticks, and composition books gets me all excited. I dare not look into the politics of crayola or the corporate practices of gel pens. I know that in the corporatist world we live in, the production of school supplies is undoubtedly not socially just. But what is a woman to do? Not allow her daughter crayons or erasers? We do insist on girlcottingWalMart, and we feel better about crayon purchases now that Crayola no longer has a “flesh” crayon. It gets trickier though when one moves on from school supplies to school attire.

While it’s well nigh impossible to buy clothes manufactured under just, non-sweatshop conditions (and no, American Apparel isn’t a solution due to the racism AND sexism of their ads), it’s also very difficult to find stores that don’t sexualize girls via clothing lines heavy on accentuating the chest area and showing as much skin as possible. As the post about bras for girls over at Feministing reveals, clothes for girls are becoming downright pornified. At Target, they sell not only bras in the girls department, but PADDED BRAS, thong underwear, and high heels. Like I discussed in an earlier post, girls are supposed to look like women. Or, as the big bad wolf would say to Red Riding Hood in her push up bra and red heels, “All the better to sexualize you with, my dear.”

Corporations and the ads they saturate our psyches with also work to teach kids that their number one priority should be to consume. According to the ads, if they buy the right clothes, shoes, pencils, backpacks, MP3 players, cell phones, etc they will truly be cool and have the best friends in the world. As noted over at Diary of an Anxious Black Woman, ads use anti-establishment narratives to pimp their consumerist message. As her analysis shows, the JC Penney back to school ad that rips off The Breakfast Club to peddle the message “buy, buy, buy” plays on the “we are all equal as long as we can shop” message attempting to turn consumerism into something that is rebellious, cool, and, not only that, but as something that erases racial disparity!

In addition to teaching kids that consumerism is like candy and that girls should be as sexy as possible, advertisements (like the one above) work to keep the gender binary firmly in place. The Children’s Place, a popular chain store, launched its back to school ads touting clothes for the “pink princess” or the “superhero.” Now, if the ads (and the clothing lines they promote) suggested those liking pink could be girls or boys, and that superheroes don’t only come in male bodies, that would be one thing. But of course this is not the case. The photos enforce the gender binary of ultra-fem girls and hypermasculine boys (as the pearl clad princess above indicates). Not only that, but the girls choices are heavy on the dresses and skirts. For those of you with daughters in elementary school you have probably found that dresses/skirts are not conducive to recess play, jungle gym antics, or PE (if your daughter is lucky enough to live in a district that has not cut all physical education due to budget constraints that is).

And, as if the back to school shopping were not enough to make one thoroughly exasperated at the gendering of everything from pencil cases to binders, once the kids actually get to school it often gets worse. Most teachers still say “boys and girls” in all cases rather than ever putting girls first. Many use boys against girl tactics in the classroom as well as on the field. Others, if the study by Myra and David Sadker* is any indication, constantly gender police children in the classroom, expecting boys to be rowdy and confident, girls to be pretty and well behaved.

Plus, every teacher I have ever come across still says “you guys.” Yes, I know many feminists even use this phrase but I don’t get why. How is using a phrase that acts as if everyone in the world is male ok? No, people, guys is not neutral – even though some more recent dictionaries try to claim it is. Guys=male, gals=female. Would “you gals” ever be considered neutral? Of course not! Males get to be the neutral, the norm, the unmarked category. Not so for you pink princesses out there.

So, I can understand why Rachel Allen who posted at CANOW.ORG decided that homeschooling was a good way to avoid the gender policing of institutionalized education.

Thankfully, I can use all these frustrations to motivate me to help my college students to keep working to change K-12 education as future teachers and parents. Plus, so far, my kids’ teachers have allowed me to come in and lead class during women’s history month. In the hour or two I am given, I do my darndest to make young kids understand the aims of feminism and the limitations of our sexist, racist, heterosexist, body image, corporatist world. And damn if 3rd graders, 5th graders, etc don’t eat up the feminist message – yes, and the boys too. We don’t give kids enough credit in our culture – they are more than able to learn feminism and social justice in addition to math facts and how to fill in scantron bubbles.

To all you feminist parents out there, good luck surviving the back to school season. If it all gets too much for you, ask your kids to share their pointy new crayons and color some socially aware images of kids whose flesh comes in all colors and whose gender identity breaks the binary mold while having a discussion about conscientious consumption…

*See “Missing in Interaction” in Failing at Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls.

What if you’re not quite white?

(With thanks to Minority Militant for prompting me to write this!)

Many of the world’s people understand that ‘race’ as we know it doesn’t actually exist. As the “Race Literacy Quiz” exemplifies, “there are no traits, no characteristics, not even one gene that is present in all members of one so-called race and absent in another.” Rather, race is socially constructed and maintained via societal beliefs, attitudes, and institutions. In the same way that ‘sex’ exists because we insist on defining people by whether or not they are penis privileged, so too does race exist because we insist on believing that skin color, ethnicity, country of origin, etc. are important factors of personhood. In short, race exists because we act as if it exists.

Perhaps the most distinctive racial category is that of the white race. It is distinctive because historically it has been defined as the ‘superior’ race, the ‘deserving’ race, the race that should inherit the earth. Due to this historical championing of whiteness, we have a binary system of white and non-white, or white and black, or white and people of color. While there are myriad other racial designations, the one that carries the most weight and most strongly determines a person’s wealth, life options, treatment etc. is whether or not one is (or can pass) as white. For example, due to generational racism and structural inequality, whites on average have twice as much wealth as non-whites.

Yet, despite what sicko groups like WAR (white Aryan resistance) would have us believe, there is no such thing as racial identity outside of the social construction of race. This is why who counts as white has changed (and continues to change) over time. Irish, Jewish, Italian, and Eastern Europeans with light/white skin have at various historical periods not been considered white. The changing rules and requirements regarding who gets to be in the white club are related to systems of power and privilege. This is why whiteness is defined by exclusion rather than inclusion.

By preventing various ‘Others’ from being construed as white, white privilege translates into better jobs, better treatment, better legal protection, and on and on. Whiteness functions as a system that confers entitlement, power, and privilege on some, and oppression, disenfranchisement, and lack of power on others. Thus, racial oppression is the key reason behind the construct of the white race and, as Judy Helfand writes in her piece “Constructing Whiteness,” this translates into white people benefiting “disproportionally from the race and class hierarchy maintained by whiteness.”

Historically in the US, whiteness has been defined and maintained by a number of key factors. Firstly, immigration and naturalization policies have worked to benefit anyone defined as white. Secondly, laws regarding who could own property and who could vote helped to consolidate white wealth and power. Thirdly, labor laws and practices defined who would get the best jobs and who would own the vast majority of wealth.

In what follows, I will discuss how Irish, Italians, Greeks, Jewish, and Eastern European peoples are “not quite white.”

Irish

The book How the Irish Became White documents Irish emigration before and after the potato famine, or from about 1840 to the Civil War . Detailing how Irish Catholics “came to this country as an oppressed race yet quickly learned that to succeed they had to in turn oppress their closest social class competitors, free Northern blacks,” the text reveals that who counts as white changes depending on labor needs and profit motivations.

In the case of Irish immigrants, for a substantial period of time they were defined as a non-white laboring class and performed the same work as blacks. As Art MacDonald notes,

Irish and Africans Americans had lots in common and lots of contact during this period; they lived side by side and shared work spaces. In the early years of immigration the poor Irish and blacks were thrown together, very much part of the same class competing for the same jobs. In the census of 1850, the term mulatto appears for the first time due primarily to inter-marriage between Irish and African Americans. The Irish were often referred to as “Negroes turned inside out and Negroes as smoked Irish.” A famous quip of the time attributed to a black man went something like this: “My master is a great tyrant, he treats me like a common Irishman.” Free blacks and Irish were viewed by the Nativists as related, somehow similar, performing the same tasks in society. It was felt that if amalgamation between the races was to happen, it would happen between Irish and blacks. But, ultimately, the Irish made the decision to embrace whiteness, thus becoming part of the system which dominated and oppressed blacks. Although it contradicted their experience back home, it meant freedom here since blackness meant slavery.

While I think the claim that the Irish chose to embrace whiteness is a bit simplistic, MacDonald’s argument here touches on a key historical factor: that one’s racial categorization is intricately linked to one’s labor. When one is excluded from the category of whiteness, it is often due to economics and labor. In early colonial times, the terms ‘free’ or ‘Christian’ were more often used to designate the so-called elite. However, due to the history of Tobacco farming, bonded labor, and the preponderance of African as well as Irish and other light skinned European bond laborers, the term ‘white’ began to replace the terms ‘free’ and ‘Christian’ in legislation. For example, in 1790, the Federal Government reserved citizen rights to “free white persons.” This decree had wide-ranging implications, the most prominent of which was a battle over who counted as white.

In the 1800s, a wave of Irish Catholic immigration (and the subsequent competition for jobs) led to phrases such as “Irish Niggers.” As with Italian Catholics, religious belief played a large part in who counted as white. In the early years of the US, whiteness was associated with Protestantism due to the fact that the immigrants to the 13 colonies were mainly Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Due to this legacy, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims have variously not been considered ‘white’ due to their supposedly ‘non-white’ religious beliefs.

Italians and Greeks

As The Black Commentator documents,

Italian immigrants to this country suffered a long history of discrimination, exclusion and violence. There is also a long history of Italian Americans committed to interracial unity and inclusiveness. But most of the Italian American community left their darker immigrant brethren behind when they gained political clout, economic success and acceptance in white society.

The term “wop,” a once common ethnic slur against Italians, was originally an acronym for the phrase “without papers,” referring to Italians’ supposed immigration status. Many Italians arriving in the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (when the largest numbers of Italian immigrants came to the U.S.) were not even considered white, but were labeled “dark” or “dark/white.” Condemned as “papists,” Italians – and Irish too – were considered loyal to a foreign power in Rome.

Italian immigrants were susceptible to the same violence, discrimination, exploitation and scapegoating that other immigrants faced. In the Jim Crow South, there were many cases of Italians lynched by mobs or the Klan, including the infamous 1891 lynching of 11 Italians by a mob in a New Orleans jail.

The recent collection of essays Are Italians White?: How Race Is Made in America, edited by Jennifer Guglielmo and Salvatore Salerno, reveals much of this forgotten history of the Italian immigrant experience in the U.S. The essays reveal that in general Italians gained white identity and the accompanying privileges only by assimilating certain white cultural and political beliefs.

In “How White People Became White,” James Barrett and David Roediger document how both Greeks and Italians were characterized as non-white and suffered discrimination, oppression, and violence due to this designation. Italians were referred to as the “Chinese of Europe” while Greeks were called “half niggers.” As Susan Raffo writes,

Italians in the U.S. are the southerners, the dark ones, the ignorant peasants who carry statues of the Virgin Mary through their neighborhoods and faint with religious passion. They are not the Venetians or Florentines, the ancestors of the deMedicis, the Michaelangelos and daVincis. No, those are Europeans. Historical moments eventually led to the creation of democracy. Italians, well, they are something different. They come in large and dirty numbers to Ellis Island. Too many of them really. Not all the way white. Certainly not white enough, rich enough, or intellectual enough to understand Faulkner. This is not about race. This is about class. About culture and history. And then it is about race.

For more on the construction of whiteness in relation to Italians and Greeks, see here.

Jewish

As Abby L. Ferber notes,”The history of the Jewish experience demonstrates precisely what scholars mean when they say race is a social construction.” In her article, “What White Supremacists Taught a Jewish Scholar About Identity,” Ferber documents the changing designation of Jews as non-white or white, a designation that is still fluctuates today – to many, Jews are considered white, but, to white supremacists, Jews are not white. Ferber discusses how her research into Jewish identity and white supremacy causes her to move “between two worlds: one where I was white, another where I was the non-white seed of Satan.” Asking “Why, in some states does it take just one black ancestor out of 32 to make a person legally black, yet those 31 white ancestors are not enough to make the person white,” Ferber shows that racial designation is unstable and “always tied to power.”

As with Catholics, Jews being defined as not white was largely related to religious belief. This point seems obvious, but its obviousness is refuted when people link race to skin color, as they often do today. For example, my students, when required to give social identity presentations in which they introduce themselves in relation to race, class, gender, etc. often say things such as “well obviously I am white” to define their race. Here, they are mistakenly assuming that their white skin makes them white. However, as I hope the above discussion reveals, white skin does not necessarily mean one will be defined by social institutions and practices as white. Rather, religious belief, economic status, political affiliation, and how far ‘west’ or ‘north’ one is from are more likely to confer whiteness.

For more on the construction of whiteness and Jewishness, see here.

Eastern European

Massive immigration and subsequent competition over jobs accompanied by widespread poverty resulted in many Europeans being defined as “not quite white.” While US history quite clearly excluded Asians, Indigenous Peoples, and African Americans from the white category, Europeans have been excluded, included, or partially included in the white club depending on religious belief, economic climate, labor skills, etc. Historically, this has led to a bifurcated system of only two choices – white and non-white. For those whose skin color has allowed them to ‘assimilate into whiteness’ the choice has often been either remain ‘not-white’ and suffer the consequences, or try to ‘become white’ in order to attain the social and institutional privileges associated with whiteness. This is why the term “people of color” makes sense even though it is sometimes argued that “white is a color too.” What the term POC confers is the fact that historically, white people have been defined over and above those who are defined as not-white, as Other, or as ‘colored.’ (And, no, it should not be replaced with the phrase “professional victims of color”!!!) For whites, being not ‘colored’ has translated into power, wealth, and privilege. This is not to say that all whites have power and wealth, but that whiteness is intricately bound up with who deserves to have power, citizenship, wealth, legal protection, etc. (It is also bound up with sex/gender wherein white women have often been in the ‘not quite white’ category)

The construction of whiteness also links to the long historical practice to “divide and conquer.” Designating certain people as white, even when they do the same work and suffer the same levels of poverty has been deployed as a strategy to quell rebellion, as it was when Tobacco workers were on the brink of revolt in the 1600s. For example, the Beacons Rebellion of 1673 made it apparent that defining laborers as either ‘Black’ or ‘White’ created a divided group of laborers that fought amongst themselves rather than against the system. This divide and conquer tactic is still prevalent today and helps to keep the system of white privilege in place.
Whiteness in Popular Culture and the Media

Popular culture teaches us a great deal about who counts as white. Legacies of the ‘not quite white’ are readily apparent in film and television depictions of Italians, Eastern Europeans, and Irish as criminals. Such depictions are often used to argue against racist representations with claims that white people are negatively stereotyped by the media too. However, if you take a gander at all the shows and films out there, you will notice that the most positive roles often go to those of Anglo-Saxon Protestant descent.

Popular culture also indicates that whiteness is a desirable, beautiful trait that will confer power and wealth. As the recent Feria ad with a whitified Beyonce reveals, popular culture continues to perpetuate the message that lighter is better and that those who are not white will be more beautiful/successful/powerful if they ‘whitify.’

The media also works to ‘naturalize’ race as a category by acting as if one’s racial designation will translate into certain ways of talking, acting, voting etc. This has been particularly apparent in the run up to the election with obsessive focus on Obama’s race. Why is McCain’s race not an issue? Well, because whiteness is the unmarked category, the category of privilege, the position that is, in a sense, outside of race. This is why, if you ask me, it is so imperative that those of us who are socially constructed as white own up to our privilege and refer to ourselves not as “just white,” as “obviously white,” as “Caucasian,” but as persons of white privilege.

It is imperative that those of us who are POWPs acknowledge our privilege so that we can dismantle them. I am thus not a white woman, but a WOWP. As a WOWP, I am dedicated to eradicating white privilege and making it apparent that race is yet another fiction that works to divide our one race, the human race.

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