High five a gay kid today

There’s a really wonderful article in the NYT magazine this week about queer teenagers and how cultural changes have made it safer (in many but not all areas of the US) to come out in middle school. The gist of the article is that the increased visibility of queer people in the culture at large has made it easier for kids to identify and articulate their own sexual identities, and it makes their peers more likely to accept them. Overall, despite the fact that anti-gay bullying is still widespread, many middle schools have become less like sex-and-gender torture systems and more like safe spaces. I cannot even tell you how delighted I am to hear this.

The angle I want to discuss here is not just about happy gay kids (though it cannot be repeated enough: happy gay kids! omg!), but about a word that never appears in the article but which underlies the whole thing: normativity. In this article specifically, the main cultural shift appears to be a weaking of heteronormativity. Kids these days know there are people who are not straight, and that those people aren’t doomed to lovelessness or criminality. Part of how they know this is because of pop culture, and part is this here series of tubes we’re all on. Take the case of a 12-year-old bi girl named Kera:

Kera says she was 10 when she realized she was interested in both sexes. “It was confusing for a while, because for some reason I thought that you had to be straight or gay, and that you couldn’t be both,” she told me at the coffee shop. “So I thought about it a lot, like I do about everything, and I went online and looked up bisexuality to read more about it. I realized that was me.”

This story, in its very simplicity, just about kills me, because I was Kera as a teen. My diaries from elementary school are filled with “I love so-and-so” hearts with both boys’ and girls’ names in them; my middle school days were spent furtively staring at both the widening shoulders of boys and the widening hips of girls. But I had no word for it back then, and I didn’t have Professor Google, so I just felt… well, weird. The first time I heard the word “bisexual” used in a casual way (as in, not as an insult or in a tone of disgust), it was electrifying. It was like something woke up inside of me; something in myself stood in recognition. I was 15, and a lot of my friends were dating, but I wasn’t — I was too busy having super-intense friendships with sexual tension that couldn’t be talked about because I was too busy trying to wish it away. I literally cannot imagine how different my adolescence would have been if I, like Kera, could have just looked it up and found other people like me.

The adults featured in this article are not, generally, as quick to accept this less heteronormative world as their kids are. Many of them doubt their queer children, wondering how they can possibly “know” when they’re so young, or before they’re sexually active. As the author points out, straight kids are not doubted when they have sexual or romantic feelings at the same age; many of them, in fact, are encouraged. Kera is lucky to have a mom who sees right through the fog of heteronormativity to accept what her daughter tells her:

“My first reaction to the poem [in which Kera came out], which she slipped under my bedroom door before going to hide in her room, was that she seemed really worked up about this,” her mother recalled. “But I knew I was interested in boys when I was her age, so it didn’t strike me as unusual that Kera might know she’s interested in boys and girls, put two and two together and call herself bisexual. Kids just know what those words mean a lot earlier than when I was growing up.”

You rock, Kera’s mom! Kera’s mom has passed Empathy and Cultural Diversity 101: she thinks of herself and her own experiences, compares them to her daughter’s, and acknowledges that while different, they are just variations in standard human behavior. Kera’s mom had crushes and sexual fantasies as a teenager, so she gets that Kera does, too — and she knows that if she definitely liked boys, it makes sense that her daughter would be definite about who she likes too, even if it’s different from her own desires.

Kera’s mom,* could you please adopt every queer kid in the country? Kthx!

I know this is my week for tortured analogies here, but I think that there’s something to be said for FA here, too. When we depathologize states of being that are considered abnormal, we can reveal the normative structures that propped up our pathologizing in the first place. When we accept that the categories we’re accustomed to are not best described as X and not-X (straight and not straight, thin and not-thin, etc.) but as X and Y and probably Z too, we see that X was only considered “normal” because it was important to people who are X to view it that way. When we look from a standpoint of celebrating human diversity, it seems bizarre to think of Z as abnormal or the “opposite” of X: Z is its own way of being. Thin people and straight people aren’t required to explain away their bodies and desires; they’re not asked “How do you know you’re straight?” or “Have you ever thought about trying not to be thin?” Social justice movements aren’t simply trying to flip things around and make it so that those questions do get asked of “normal” people, too; they’re trying to get rid of these demeaning, eliminationist questions in the first place.

And for some lucky kids and their cool friends and understanding teachers and awesome moms, that seems to be working.

*Or, as I probably would have called her when I was 12, Mrs Kera.

Quote of the day: Normal

I take the war on terror personally because the war on terror is really a war on difference, because my body strikes terror in the hearts of other Americans.

My body and the bodies of the people I love are the most intimate sites of American imperialism. Because our sex anatomy isn’t normal, they operate on us without our consent. Because who we have sex with isn’t normal, they won’t let us get married. Because our gender isn’t normal, they don’t give us jobs, health care, or housing. We work, we pay rent, we pay taxes, but because we’re not normal, we don’t get the same freedoms other Americans enjoy, the same freedoms American soldiers are murdering to protect.

Normal is a weapon of mass destruction. It’s just as deadly, and just like those weapons, it’ll never be found.

– Thea Hillman, Intersex (for lack of a better word), 2008

I very highly recommend this book: it’s fascinating and moving.

We link because we care

Right, so obviously, this time last week when I said we were all busy, I wasn’t kidding. It’s been a light posting week here at SP, but there’s lots of good stuff to read elsewhere. To wit:

The Fat Nutritionist reminds us that all women are real women. (This seems to be an older post, actually, but it’s showing up in the fatosphere feed again, and it’s worth a reread. This might be one of those wacky things where your RSS feed resets and republishes everything at once for whatever reason.)

If anyone has the temerity to identify as a woman in this culture, I’m handing them over an Official Membership Card and inviting them to the pool party, since, you know, I’m a real woman and all. By the power vested in me, etc. etc. And because if you’re willing to put up with the bullshit women put up with every single day, then shit — you’ve earned it.

Lesley watches the finale of More to Love so you don’t have to.

Did we need the endless confessional crying to be made to feel something for these women? Did we need the gratuitous tales of Fat Pain in order to share in the romance and triumph of Luke’s final decision? No. Because fat people are just people. We fall in love and out of love, we’re hurt and we’re happy, we’re successful and we make mistakes, we’re occasionally right and occasionally wrong. Just like everyone else.

More on Crystal Renn: Jezebel’s formerly anonymous model, Jenna, talks with Crystal about modeling, self-respect, and starvation.

CR: I don’t think they really understood what they were asking. I want to think that they didn’t really understand what they were asking me, a 14-year-old girl, to do. I mean, [when someone is asked to diet down to a certain measurement] nobody knows for sure how many pounds that will actually be.
JS: It’s so fucking naïve though. And, Jesus Christ, when you’re dealing with such young girls, irresponsible.
CR: I think so. They have certain requirements, and I don’t think they want to think about how the girl meets those requirements…A lot of girls never come forward to their agencies and say, Hey, I starve myself to maintain the standards that you’ve set for me.
JS: Yeah.
CR: You know, they’re not going to do that. I’m one of the only ones. And that’s the reason I got a book.

Karnythia at The Angry Black Woman has an absolute must-read on the horrendous treatment of South African runner Caster Semenya.

Between the misogyny and the racism and the privilege and the sheer entitlement on display this is one of those areas where intersectionality cuts to the bone and then beyond. Being human isn’t about fitting into a box designed by someone else. It’s not something other people get to define for you. And if you think that the way Caster has been treated makes sense because she’s a public figure, or you think you have a right to treat people like an exhibit to satisfy your interest in their experience? You’re directly using your privilege (whatever it may be) to oppress someone.

Finally, some real advice: Sexual Assault Prevention Tips Guaranteed to Work!

1.   Don’t put drugs in people’s drinks in order to control their behavior.

2.   When you see someone walking by themselves, leave them alone!

3.   If you pull over to help someone with car problems, remember not to assault  them!

What other awesome things have you read this week?

Now with visual aids

Two items of interest for you:

First, this A Softer World (applicable to all “I don’t see X” statements, I think).

Second, our own FJ illustrated Lesley’s epic dream. If you missed the dream the first time around (which means you missed one of Lesley’s More to Love recaps, and your life is less complete), here’s how she described it:

Gather round, friends fat and otherwise, and I shall tell you how More to Love is slowly devouring my will to live. This travesty of a television program has burrowed so deeply into my subconscious that — chillingly — last night I had a More to Love-related dream. In this dream I was a contestant on a sort of fat-blogger version of Dancing with the Stars, and I was paired with none other than detestable lummox Luke Conley. We were supposed to do a paso doble, but I was a total bitch to him and he was a ragingly passive-aggressive asshole back and so there was much Reality TV Drama over whether we’d get our shit together enough for the performance.

But that is not the punch line. The punch line is that the fabulous and whip-smart Kate (who is, incidentally, guest blogging at Jezebel this week) was also in this dream. Kate’s dance partner was none other than MeMe Roth, and they were tasked with reproducing the knife fight from the “Beat It” video. This is one of those times where I fervently wish that either I had a talent for drawing myself, or a great illustrator on staff at Fatshionista, because the epic dance battle I dreamed between Kate and MeMe cannot adequately be described using mere words. Dream-Kate was like a fat ninja, though sadly I woke up before I could see her dispatch MeMe to hell, which in MeMe’s case would probably involve Fat Satan’s minions rubbing their bellies on her while forcing her to eat food that is of dubious nutritional value.

This makes me wish I could watch other people’s dreams like a movie. Fortunately, FJ provided us the next best thing.

Lesley's Wonderful Dream

Lesley's Wonderful Dream

Click to embiggen.

We Saw The Epidemic, And It Was Us

If you’ve been reading Lesley’s More to Love recaps over at Fatshionista, you already know that the show is allllllll about Fat Pain. (If you haven’t, be assured they’re worth your while. I’m not sure anything could make me glad that this show is on the air, but Lesley’s writeups come close.) Sample paragraph:

Luke wants to hear more about the laydeez’ Fat Pain, though seriously y’all, can we hear something about what they do for a living or what sort of music they like or even their favorite fucking colors? ANYTHING but more Fat Pain. But Luke demands it! Desperation Vampire that Luke is, he wants them to “open up” their Fat Pain to him such that he can gobble it down and taste every sweet drop of their despairing tears and heartache. YESSSSSS.

SO WHAT I’M GETTING HERE IS THERE’S LOTS OF FAT PAIN. Fat Pain about prom. Fat Pain about dating. Fat Pain about, importantly, not dating. Fat Pain about wearing a bathing suit. Fat Pain about wearing other clothes besides a bathing suit. The show hinges on two things: fat, and pain.

Now, I find the show exploitative and awful, like any reality dating show but calibrated to offend me specifically. But insofar as these women are real people — and I think more of them are than on a typical reality show, for the simple reason that their weight curbs the likelihood that they’re rushing to or from a Professional Reality Contestant career — I feel their fat pain, if you will. I generally don’t share it, but when I read in Lesley’s recap that someone cried or expressed worry that nobody would love her or was terrified to appear in a bathing suit or what have you, I believe there’s a grain of sincerity to those revelations.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Dodai at Jezebel devoted an entire post today to ignoring these women’s Fat Pain by confidently declaring them Not Fat. See, one of them’s a fitness instructor and another one’s a plus-size model, one of them’s pretty and another one seems to think she is. Also, they all seem to be mobile, they’re occasionally allowed to be seen on camera without food hanging out of their mouths, and pictures of them would probably be shuffled to the bottom of AP’s headless fatty file. By Dodai’s lights, they’re not fat at all! All of that excruciating air time spent on talking about how they grew up hating their bodies or learned to later, how they feel self-conscious when they should be having fun, how they worry about finding love, how they get more than their measure of shit from the people around them? Don’t worry, you guys, we TOTALLY think you’re pretty!

About one of the contestants, Dodai asks: “In which universe is this woman … fat, unattractive, or someone who finds it tough to meet a man?” Maybe… maybe the universe that put her on a dating reality show with all the other fatties to match them up with a fat man who only likes fatties? Because there’s no way she could a) otherwise get on TV (ha ha!) b) otherwise go on a dating show (ha! ha ha!) c) find a man who wasn’t fat (who’d stoop so low!) d) find a man who wasn’t exclusively into fat women (please, you slay me!) e) find a man if she wasn’t competing largely against people who are even fatter than her (as if!) or possibly f) find a man at all? MAYBE THAT FUCKING UNIVERSE? THE ONE THAT MADE THAT SHOW? (Malissa, by the way, seems by all accounts to be kind of a jackass, but even she has confessionalized about how people judge her for her weight. Ya think?)

It’s certainly the same universe Jezebel is in, or at least the same universe it was in a few posts later when Kate made the incredibly controversial claim that healthy behaviors are de facto valuable even if you unhitch them from population statistics. On that thread, the commentariat was falling over themselves to say how sick they were of the idea that obese people could ever be healthy. (I know, when can we EVER escape THAT concept, amirite?) A few choice quotes:

Obesity is dangerous and bad for your health, this isn’t about “chubby kids” or teenagers going through transition time this is about children who are not getting the proper nutrition and exercise they need which is making them unhealthy and setting them up for life-long health problems and complications. Weight is not purely a matter of looks weight has a HUGE affect on your health and overall well-being and to add that’s for both sides of the coin.

Can we all stop equating obese with “fat” or “overweight.” It’s like squares and rectangles: obese is a type of being fat or overweight, but fat/overweight does not equal obese.

Does everyone just feel there’s an implied angle that has to do with forcing people to be thin? Are we assuming that when they say obese they mean simply overweight? I don’t understand why it’s a problem to try to stop obesity. Why are we turning something into an issue about body image that doesn’t seem to be presented as an issue about body image??

As a medical professional I can state without equivocation that truly obese people are not healthy. Sorry but it’s true. But chubby, or ‘overweight’ people can absolutly be healthy.

Obese–to me–is not an objective and medically based assessment of health or wellness, it is more a subjective assessment of how you look to other people.

That last one really sums it up, huh? “Obese doesn’t really mean a weight — it means whether I think you’re gross.

Taken together, the More to Love post and the comments on Kate’s post (minus, to be fair, a strong showing from the sensible contingent) send a clear message: the obese are unhealthy, obesity is unhealthy, we should fight obesity — but we don’t mean you. We mean, you know, The Obese. The unhealthy, lazy, indulgent, gluttonous, immoderate, sedentary, not at all pretty Obese.

Here’s how the four More to Love contestants mentioned in Dodai’s post would stack up in the BMI Project, according to the stats reported on Wikipedia (yeah, you heard me):

  • In which universe is this woman Malissa fat, unattractive, or someone who finds it tough to meet a man?” is five pounds off from “obese.” If she’s actually five or more pounds above her self-reported weight of 170, she’s part of the Epidemic.
  • “Mandy, who is not fat and is, in fact, a fitness instructor” is overweight. You got us there — guess she’s the maybe-okay “chubby,” not the dreaded “obese.” SHE MUST BE THE PRETTIEST.
  • “Anna, who is not fat, and makes her living as a plus-size model” is one pound from being obese. If she is, at any point, one pound heavier than her self-reported weight of 220, she’s an Epidemic Carrier. An Epidemician, if you will.
  • “Tali, the simply gorgeous Israeli stylis/decorator who is not fat” is obese.

This so-called epidemic is not made up of theoretical fucking people who are just as fat as you can possibly imagine. It’s made up of people you see every day AND WHO YOU PROBABLY THINK ARE “NOT FAT.” That’s the point of the BMI Project. That’s the point of the good work that Jezebel has, for the most part, been doing, making it clear that fear of fat is an injustice visited on all of us, of any shape. Jezzies seem to be okay hearing that from their thin editors — since we all know they’re really talking about thin girls, right, and it’s not okay for thin girls to have to think they’re fat! They might start to eat too little, which when you’re thin is called an eating disorder!

In fact, though, the difference between body shame for thin women and fat women is only one of scale. There’s not a magical cutoff where shame becomes healthy. There’s not a magical cutoff where bodies become unacceptable. There’s not a magical cutoff where weight loss pressure suddenly breaks free of patriarchy and societal scapegoating and becomes pure and beneficent concern for health. There’s only an arbitrary demographic cutoff where someone who was okay one pound ago becomes a statistic to scare children with.

And a lot of the people you think are “not fat“? They’re already past it.

Becoming visible

Lesley at Fatshionista is posting scanned pages from her epic archive of MODE magazine, a fat fashion magazine from the late ’90s. MODE’s run corresponds almost precisely with my time in college, and my dorm had a subscription for a while (thanks to FJ, I believe). I remember almost nothing about the written content of the magazine; I assume it was on par with your standard women’s magazine, but with fewer diet tips (which is no small feat, I acknowledge). It wasn’t quite aimed at me, demographically speaking — I didn’t have the same “My people!” feeling I did the first time I read BUST, for example — but I loved reading it anyway. Because what I do remember about MODE is simple: Kate Dillon.

Kate Dillon amazed me. She was so lovely, and she was all over MODE:

On the cover:

Kate Dillon in MODE

Kate Dillon in MODE

In the fashion spreads:

In hats

In hats

And even in the ads:

In swaths

In swaths

I had never seen anyone like her in magazines: she had a rack bigger than mine, for one thing, and she had substantial thighs and upper arms and somehow she was still allowed to be in magazines because that’s how damn pretty she was. I found her completely entrancing and I had a huge crush on her and even now, ten years later, she’s all I remember about MODE.

I say this not to diss MODE — I don’t remember enough of the content to know if it would pass my feminist sniff test now — but to illustrate how much of an impact diverse media images can have on individuals. There is a line between me gaping at Kate Dillon’s hotness in MODE and me writing here. It’s not a very direct line (it has to pass through Susan Bordo and BUST and several weight changes and LJ fatshionista first!), but it’s there.

I think this may be why people are so fucking delighted when they see an image they relate to in a magazine or a movie or tv show or what have you. We are bombarded by images every day, and almost all of them portray people who look nothing like us, whether because of size, shape, race, ability, gender presentation, class markers, or just plain photoshopping. This, I imagine, is why many people seem blown away by actresses or models like Christina Hendricks, who is clearly conventionally stunning but whose hourglass figure hasn’t been (or maybe can’t be) dieted away. Most of us don’t look anything like Hendricks — but we might look more like her than like Angelina Jolie or Jennifer Aniston or the model in the billboard across the street.

When Glamour recently ran an image of a white blonde woman in her skivvies who is conventionally beautiful in every way except for a few stretch marks and a bit of a pooch, readers fell all over themselves to thank them.  The model in the Glamour photo, Lizzi Miller, says of the reader response:

“When I read them I got teary-eyed!” she says. “I’ve been that girl, flipping through magazines trying to find just one person who looked a little bit like me. And when I didn’t find it I would start to think there’s something wrong with the way that I looked.

Seeing Lesley’s MODE scans brought me back, momentarily, to being that girl myself: sitting on the couch in my dorm living room, flipping through magazines, and seeing Kate Dillon looking back at me, looking just a little bit more like me than anyone else I’d ever seen in a magazine.

“She didn’t fight back because you told her not to”

Trigger warning: this post and the comment thread discuss rape and violence against women.

We’ve gotten a lot of traffic from Kate’s classic post about online sexual harassment; its directive to male readers to stop treating misogynistic behavior by other men as normal seems to really hit home for a lot of people. If you haven’t read it, for god’s sake, get to! And if you have, check out this amazing post by Harriet Jacobs at Fugitivus (a blog I only stumbled across recently) about a similar phenomenon: the way “resisting” rape is not normalized behavior for women.

People wonder why women don’t “fight back,” but they don’t wonder about it when women back down in arguments, are interrupted, purposefully lower and modulate their voices to express less emotion, make obvious signals that they are uninterested in conversation or being in closer physical proximity and are ignored. They don’t wonder about all those daily social interactions in which women are quieter, ignored, or invisible, because those social interactions seem normal. They seem normal to women, and they seem normal to men, because we were all raised in the same cultural pond, drinking the same Kool-Aid.

And then, all of a sudden, when women are raped, all these natural and invisible social interactions become evidence that the woman wasn’t truly raped. Because she didn’t fight back, or yell loudly, or run, or kick, or punch. She let him into her room when it was obvious what he wanted. She flirted with him, she kissed him. She stopped saying no, after a while.

These rules for social interactions that women are taught to obey are more than grease for the patriarchy wheel. Women are taught both that these rules will protect them, and that disobeying these rules results in punishment.

[snip]

It’s a rude fucking awakening when a woman gets raped, and follows the rules she has been taught her whole life — doesn’t refuse to talk, doesn’t refuse to flirt, doesn’t walk away ignoring him, doesn’t hit, doesn’t scream, doesn’t fight, doesn’t raise her voice, doesn’t deny she liked kissing — and finds out after that she is now to blame for the rape. She followed the rules. The rules that were supposed to keep the rape from happening. The rules that would keep her from being fair game for verbal and physical abuse. Breaking the rules is supposed to result in punishment, not following them. For every time she lowered her voice, let go of a boundary, didn’t move away, let her needs be conveniently misinterpreted, and was given positive reinforcement and a place in society, she is now being told that all that was wrong, this one time, and she should have known that, duh.

For anybody who has ever watched the gendered social interactions of women — watched a woman get browbeaten into accepting attention she doesn’t want, watched a woman get interrupted while speaking, watched a woman deny she is upset at being insulted in public, watched a woman get grabbed because of what she was wearing, watched a woman stop arguing — and said and done nothing, you never have the right to ever ask, “Why didn’t she fight back?”

She didn’t fight back because you told her not to. Ever. Ever. You told her that was okay, and necessary, and right.

Read the whole thing, because it’s a powerhouse of a post. You will want to bookmark it and reread it and pass it along. I see it as a spot-on elaboration of one of the key points from Kate’s post mentioned above: the “little things” that some people dismiss as “unimportant” sexist behaviors are the same things that normalize sexual harassment and assault. Here’s Kate again:

And because the really bad guys don’t pop out of thin air as fully formed misogynists. They need encouragement and reinforcement in order to completely miss the fact that there’s something deeply fucking wrong with them. Subtle sexism gives them that. Keeping your mouth shut about overt sexism gives them that. Not really listening to the women you love, let alone women you don’t even know–thereby being one more guy sending a message to women that we’re only worth listening to on men’s terms–gives them that. Telling yourself and anyone who will listen that that’s just the way it is, and people need to quit whining gives them that. How can they clue into the fact that there’s something deeply fucking wrong with them when so many guys are acting just like they do in public, or at least never calling them out?

The Fugitivus post also has a great discussion of when calling someone out is worth the risk — definitely also worth following.

Links smorgasbord

Because fatties love to eat, AM I RIGHT?

  • Megan McArdle, usually the cause of much eyebrow raising and weary sighing in the feminist blogosphere, actually does a good interview with Kate’s fantasy boyfriend, Paul Campos. There are also several followup posts in which McArdle sometimes fights the good fight and sometimes says weird shit (she seems to think that fat people are hungry All The Time) — but she does take on her fat-hating commenters, for which I give her some props.
  • Jon Stewart on a lot of things, but most pertinently, the difference between beliefs and facts.
  • The Angry Black Woman posts Rules for Beneficial Discourse at Alas — a must read. These rules come out of what seems to be a never-ending RaceFail in the SF/F online community, which I admit I have not been following too closely (but I bet some of you have).
  • Kate has a great post on the marketing of a drug for “inadequate or not enough lashes” on that other blog she’s doing. ;-)
  • And people wonder why gaming culture doesn’t feel woman-friendly…
  • Also via our blogcrush Sociological Images, mannequins at Barneys New York were set up wearing fashionable clothing — and being violently murdered.

Feel free to drop links in the comments.

Miss Conduct’s Mind Over Manners: A Very Belated Review

As you probably also know by now, the Boston Globe’s etiquette columnist Miss Conduct, also known as Robin Abrahams, is a good friend of the blog. I did not, however, get an advance copy of her new book by promising to review it; instead, I had to win my galley fair and square via superior history of science knowledge. So I feel slightly less bad about the fact that the book has been out for months now and I’m only just getting around to reviewing it. My excuse is, um, I only just got around to finishing it? I generally have two books going, one by the bed and one in the pocketbook, and Robin’s book had the misfortune of being the bed book during a period when I wasn’t reading much in bed. Once it migrated to the pocketbook it went really, really fast.

Because people, this book is funny. Sure, it’s nominally an etiquette book, so you’d think (if you weren’t a Miss Manners, or for that matter a Miss Conduct, fan) that it might be really starchy and dry. But, as anyone who reads Robin’s blog might have guessed, this is hardly a “which fork goes where” kind of volume. It’s about etiquette in a more meta sense — about why etiquette is necessary, what it does for us, and how you can make everyone around you as comfortable as possible without actually memorizing a lot of rules about which one’s the shrimp fork and how people should be addressed on wedding invitations. It’s really less about what you might think of as “etiquette” and more about humane behavior, common courtesy, and treating people with dignity. Plus jokes. (Robin has experience in improv and stand-up comedy, and she uses humor to great effect to get her points across — I finished the book on a plane and disturbed my seatmate with my constant giggling.)

To that end, there are chapters on some of the main sources of interpersonal discord and tension: food, money, religion, sex and relationships, children, health, pets. Of particular interest for this blog is the health chapter, which deals expertly with issues surrounding illness, disability, and fat (not, Robin mentions, because fat people are unhealthy, but because they are often treated as though they are). The section on fat is a small one, only a couple of pages, but it’s very nicely done:

There’s an increasing amount of research suggesting that weight might not be under a person’s control, and that the dangers of obesity may be overstated. There’s an overwhelming amount of research showing that diets don’t work. But from the point of view of courtesy, it’s irrelevant whether fat people can “help it.” Tanning is clearly bad for your health and entirely a matter of choice, but we don’t mock and shame the tanned, or yell, “Hey, leatherface!” at them from a car window.

Here’s another bit I really love, which nicely highlights the way that Robin uses her psychology researcher expertise to inform her ideas about interpersonal interaction and etiquette. From the section on how to be a gracious able-bodied/well person:

Acknowledging that [being able-bodied is a temporary condition] can be very, very hard. Prejudice against the sick or disabled is wrong but understandable: most people are terrified of pain, illness, disability, and death, and our profound lack of control over all of the above. We want to believe that it can’t happen to us. One of the ways we do this is by subscribing to what social psychologists call “just world theory” — the belief that the world is just, that people get what they deserve. Just-world theory is comforting — it lets you believe that you won’t get cancer because you don’t smoke, that you won’t get raped because you don’t wear short skirts, that you won’t go bankrupt because you work hard and save. Comforting — and wrong, both factually and morally. It’s natural to look at someone who has suffered misfortune and immediately try to figure out why the misfortune happened and why, therefore, it could never happen to you. But remind yourself, after your monkey mind does that little self-serving exercise, that random bad things happen to people. It’ll make you kinder to others and also much kinder to yourself when the bad things eventually come.

If I were writing the book I’d preface this with a long discussion of the social model of disability and how “disabled” really means “disabled in the context of a society that treats certain bodies as normative” — I would probably not get into evolutionary reasoning about how we react to people when we perceive something wrong with them without a long treatise on what “wrong” means. But Robin’s job is not to explain to people why it’s wrong to feel prejudice — it’s to tell them why they’re feeling it, what to do about it, and how to behave in spite of it. The paragraph on “just world theory,” I think, makes it clear that she can do that well.

I don’t agree with everything Robin writes — and as a side note, isn’t that a weird little compulsive caveat? People use it a lot when they link to us — I think even Robin has — and I always think “who agrees with everything someone else says?” I mean, I understand that it’s a kind of social indemnity, but for fuck’s sake, SM’s been my bestie for half our lives and I still don’t agree with everything she says. Anyway, but I’ll defend to the death her right to say it because it is so fucking entertaining. And in fact, I disagree with very little. My one main criticism is that there’s a bit much evolutionary psychology, a carryover from Robin’s day job as a psych researcher — but just about when I start getting really sick of it, she pulls out this gem:

People who write about evolutionary psychology as though we are trapped in the Pleistocene, and like to use the word “hardwired” a lot, conveniently forget one fact: the main thing we humans evolved to do is to learn and adapt. That’s our major strength as a species: we evolved the capacity to overcome our evolutionary heritage! There’s a party trick for you.

More importantly, even if you don’t agree with Miss Conduct on particulars — if you’d throw a different sort of party, draw the line somewhere else, phrase something differently, whatever — you’re still likely to get something out of her general approach to social interaction. The book is equal parts common-sense wisdom, scientific citations, and humor, so even if the advice is a “duh” or a “huh?” for you (and personally, I consider myself reasonably skilled at interpersonal shit and I still found plenty of food for thought), you can still get a giggle or learn about an interesting study. (I’ve made many references, since finishing the book, to the one about how people like articulate well-groomed folks better than grungy mumblers, but like articulate well-groomed people who spill something on themselves best of all.)

I really recommend this one, and I’m not just saying that because Robin’s a friend. I’ve never even met her in real life! I’m saying it because I like etiquette columns and I still never expected to have this much fun with an etiquette book — and also because in general I think that all of us, even the most compassionate, can benefit from seeing someone break down clearly what it means to be considerate and kind. Go get it. And if you’re intrigued, Robin’s also going to be on the Today Show tomorrow, July 21, in the 10-11 segment, wearing a hotly debated outfit!

Midweek link roundup

When I was in school I always used to get in trouble for talking or passing notes with my friends instead of doing my work. Little did I know it would prefigure my blogging habits. Sure, we haven’t turned in a lot of essays, but here’s a peek at what we’ve been passing notes about in the last week or so:

Adams’ argument applies on several levels here. The ad displays both the meaty sandwich and the female body as objects ready for masculine consumption. The woman in the ad is not meant to enjoy the burger, for this is not about her. Like the meat, she is a thing to be consumed, a thing that will provide the viewer with a hearty dose of masculinity and virility. In an interesting twist, this ad, which is clearly intended to sell a piece of meat to straight men, also presents the phallic stand-in as something desirable. Men are supposed to see this image and think something along the lines of: “I like BJs and burgers, cuz I’m a real man. I need some BK,” yet the ad makes the meat into a sexualized, fetishized masculine object.

So is it “natural” for me to weigh 300 lbs? I have no fucking idea. Maybe if I hadn’t lost and regained (and lost and regained, and lost and regained) so much weight as a kid and teenager, I would weigh less now. Maybe if I hadn’t started dieting at nine years of age and possibly affected what would have become a normal adult metabolism, I would weigh less now. I have no way of knowing. And I can’t travel back in time (….yet) to find out whether doing things differently would have led to a different result. And even if I could, I don’t know that I would bother.

  • I’m curious about this article — the thesis seems to be that obesity has always been treated as a product of metabolism and genetics, but maybe instead it should be treated as an eating disorder. Was this published in Proceedings of the Bizarro Academy of Sciences?
  • BMI may be even less accurate for African-Americans. There’s increasing evidence that race needs to be a factor in at least some medical decision-making, but as in so many other areas of life, able-bodied white men are the default and everyone else is considered an outlier or a deviation. It’s good that research is being done, but I’m thinking the medical community needs to listen to Lesley: bodies are not variations on a narrow template.
  • Friend of the blog Robin Abrahams (otherwise known as Miss Conduct) wrote an excellent piece about how to handle situations where the rules of etiquette and one’s personal preferences for treatment are at odds. We’ve been kicking around ideas about a post on “safe space” (and also a very belated review of Robin’s book) so look for those in the future, but meanwhile, you get a slightly-less-belated link.

Just as we expect more than etiquette strictly demands from those whom we love, we should be willing to accept less than etiquette demands if there are no emotions at stake. That’s how it works with those whom we love and who love us: we learn which buttons to avoid and which ones we can happily pound away on all day.

And it’s absolutely vital to sanity to realize that when you step out of your circle of loved ones, you no longer have the right to that kind of customized treatment. People will say things that are hurtful to you, and if those things are within the common bounds of civility we’ve defined as a society, you cowboy up and answer them politely.

  • Hanna Rosin at Double X writes about a new documentary on sex changes in Iran and makes our heads explode. Don’t tell me I’m “used to thinking of ‘transgender’ as the last stop on the gay train to freedom and self expression,” Rosin  — believe it or not, I think that the ability to become the opposite gender is not actually all gay folks’ ultimate goal. (Watch also for the part where she claims to have a better idea of “the universal truth about being transgender” than trans activists do!) Still, the documentary sounds very interesting.
  • Sweet Machine’s looking for a go-to dress for summer, something as versatile as this one (or at least, as versatile as that one would be if you weren’t a total remixing GENIUS). Do you have a go-to piece that acts as the underpinning of infinite outfits?
  • “The pudgy John Hodgman” hit a home run with his astute and funny speech at the Radio and TV Correspondents’ Dinner:
  • ETA: Holy shit, just saw this from Jez. Ableism doesn’t get a lot more blatant, folks.

So what have you guys been talking about?