“but who can distinguish one human voice amid such choruses of desire”

America lost a great voice this weekend: the poet Lucille Clifton died. She was 73 years old.

Clifton wrote wonderful, poignant, witty poems whose formal simplicity belies their emotional and political depth. She wrote of the realities of living in a large, black, female body in a racist, sexist culture; she survived cancer and wrote of the joys of the body in the face of mortality. I hope all Shapelings have run across the marvelous, body-loving “homage to my hips“:

these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.

Read the rest here.

From “scar” (in The Terrible Stories, which has a section on breast cancer):

we will learn
to live together.

i will call you
ribbon of hunger
and desire
empty pocket flap
edge of before and after.

You can find a longer collection of Clifton’s poems, as well as an introductory essay to her work, at the Poetry Foundation. Warning: tissues may be needed. Clifton’s poems touch on abortion, whiteness, hate crimes, war, menstruation, grief, and so many other “terrible stories;” yet they vibrate with such compassion and clarity of vision that it’s easy to forget how tough and nervy they are. Blessing the Boats, her selected poems from 2000, is an excellent entry point for new readers, and a powerful testament to the importance of Clifton’s voice to our culture.

I’ll let Lucille Clifton end this post herself, with a video of her reading in 2008.

Rest in peace, Lucille Clifton. Thank you for being one human voice.

Fashion without hatred

There was a time, when I was a teenager and in my early twenties, when I used to think about fashion the way The Guardian‘s Tanya Gold details in a recent article: that it was a foolish realm of fantasy for people who would never give me the time of day.

The oddest thing rescued me from fashion. It was that I got fat. Never mind why; that is a story for another page. But I got so fat that even fashion wouldn’t pretend it could fix me. You can get so fat they don’t actually want you in their clothes. It is bad marketing; if very fat people wear their clothes, thinner people won’t buy them. There was no point rattling through the rails any more, seeking a satin redemption – nothing would fit my unfashionable bulk. I was consigned to M&S smock-land, across the River Styx. And it is lovely here; no heels, no stupid dresses-of-the-moment, certainly no thongs. Fashion has died for me, with an angry little hiss. Ah, peace.

I can look at the clothes on the catwalk now and laugh at their imbecility. They are not for me.

I can’t speak for Gold, but when I felt like this I wasn’t really angry at the gods of fashion, though I felt that “angry little hiss.” I was angry at myself for being insufficiently thin, insufficiently feminine. I was angry at my body for growing too much hair and too much flesh, at my feet for hurting in pointy shoes, at my hands for not being deft enough for perfectly applied eye makeup. This is not to say that I didn’t recognize the harmful practices the beauty industries — including the ones Gold describes, which so many of us have experienced — but my anger was still not borne out of a sense of being harmed psychologically, but of being rejected physically. Why bother, well, bothering when I was clearly never going to succeed? The idea of failing and succeeding at looking a certain, very specific way completely permeated my attitudes about fashion.

My dislike of fashion basically ended when I started taking baby steps toward accepting my body. The more I liked what I looked like, the more interested I got in adorning myself; getting dressed was no longer about correcting my supposed deficiencies but playing with my self-presentation. FJ and I spent some fantastic time in college hitting malls, thrift stores, army surplus stores, anywhere we could get our hands on clothes that spoke to us and fit our bodies, “too fat for fashion” though they may be. Eventually I moved to the Pacific Northwest, where feeling like a freak was as point of pride for many people, and the fashions reflected that. I dyed my hair bright red not out of rebellious angst (as I had done in high school), but because I loved having a dash of red near my face. I got glasses that stood out on my face instead of blending in. In other words, I built my own style, and even became known among my friends as having a strong fashion sense — words that my younger self would have furiously disbelieved. Fashion started to seem less like an enemy conspiracy and more like an artistic world that, like other art forms, has elite circles, everyday practitioners, and a lot of people in between.

In fact, despite the notorious anti-fat norms of most of the fashion world, it was an interest in fashion that led me to live body acceptance in my everyday life rather than just giving it lip service. I joined the Fatshionista community on LJ, got voraciously addicted to outfit posts, made several incredibly stylish and intelligent friends, and realized that the politics of fashion weren’t only something that happened to me without my consent when I put on clothes.

All of this is basically a long-ass way of introducing a wonderful response to Gold by a fashion blogger I think is just phenomenal, Tavi of Style Rookie. You may have heard of Tavi; she’s been getting a lot of press lately because she is a popular and charming style blogger who is also 13 freaking years old. 13! What were you doing when you were 13? Granted, I am 100% positive that if blogs had existed when I was 13, I would have had one — but I can guarantee you it would not be fashion-positive, much less fashion-forward. (It would have featured a lot of terrible poetry, is what it would have done). Here’s part of Tavi’s response to Gold’s lament:

Ms. Gold speaks about how she discovered fashion at 13 and then dressed in a way she knew she was supposed to dress. “How I enchanted. How I belonged. I thought I looked just like the effortlessly beautiful girls at school. Except I didn’t. And, very soon, I realised that I didn’t. All that weekend job money and childish angst and still I looked like me. That was the first seduction – and the first betrayal.” I don’t believe Ms. Gold “discovered” fashion; she discovered middle school and teenagerdom. She said that before that, she dressed as Andy Pandy and was happier.

I find the idea of dressing as Andy Pandy pretty awesome. It’s creative and it’s fun, and that sounds fashionable to me. What Tanya Gold and many others, including myself, hate is the everyone-has-to-look-the-same-and-also-sexy philosophy, which is NOT fashion.

This is by no means written with the intentions of a personal attack on Ms. Gold, but rather, a kind of response to this idea that I see coming up often. I think that the problem with fashion isn’t fashion, but how others decide to see it. The same “fashion” magazines that offer advice about pleasing men might decide that fashion isn’t for overweight people, but it’s Tanya Gold’s fault for believing it, and if she really wanted to have fun with clothes she could. Same goes for the idea that clothes HAVE to make you look sexy. Not if you don’t want to! Isn’t that amazing!

Don’t you wish this girl were your niece or your friend’s daughter? She’s seen through the sexyface plastic facade of fashion advertising — the part that uses the desire to conform to sell you things — to the part where people get to have fun with their own looks, and all before starting high school. Instead of desperately apprenticing herself to grownup sex appeal, as girls are pressured to do younger and younger, she creates an outfit (to pick just one recent example) as an homage to Edward Gorey.

T is for Tavi, whose hair is now blue as a Na'vi

My friend Coco perfectly summarized Tavi’s great appeal for feminist fashion-lovers: “What I love most about Tavi – and I’ll be heartbroken when it changes, as it will most certainly change – is the fact that she is still very much a child who is enjoying her childhood. She dresses like a 13 year old girl with fantastic and interesting style, as opposed to a miniature version of an adult woman. She rejects the notion that fashion is for making us sexier and rejects that being sexy is the objective in womanhood at all. In today’s culture where we make thongs for 8 year olds, and “boyfriend jeans” for toddlers, this is positively radical.”

I agree. While I have great sympathy for Tanya Gold’s rejection of the mandates of fashion, I think Tavi is a great face for personal creativity and self-respect in style. Fashion is not just about what gets pictured in “women’s magazines,” which are by definition handbooks in compulsory femininity. Style blogs are, I think, a great antidote to the orders “to buy a dress, and a bag and then perhaps some stupid, unnatural shoes and feel a kind of brief, bright burst of self-acceptance, which always evaporated as soon as I was home,” as Gold puts it. You don’t have to buy those things. You don’t have to be sexy. You don’t have to be pretty. You don’t have to look like everyone else — in fact, you don’t have to look like anyone else but your own damn self. You can wear a character from My Neighbor Totoro as a brooch and look like a million bucks. You get to decide what fashion means to you.

Photoshop’s greatest hits

It’s nothing most of our readers haven’t seen before, but Newsweek has a refresher course on the “biggest airbrushing scandals” of the 2000s. Consider it a visual illustration of the impossibly narrow standards of beauty that we’ve been talking about this week (and note especially how the women of color involved have had their skin lightened to fit that epically narrow ideal).

ETA: For shame, Newsweek! Looks like you got the “inspiration” for this piece — along with many of the examples — from our friends at Jezebel. Thank heavens for the mainstream media, doing all that original reporting, am I right?

Guest blogger Volcanista: Of boobages

Volcanista is a Friend of SP, geologist, and LOST evangelizer.

So, over the holidays I took a badly needed holiday vacation, and because I like warmth and the tropics, I decided to go to Chicago and hang out with Sweet Machine, Mr Machine, and their most excellent cats. I read books, watched Lost, took naps, cuddled with the kitties, and took a hot steam bath next to their radiator every time I went to the bathroom. It was quite excellent, and my suitcase will never again be entirely free of cat hair. But we did venture out into the cold a couple times, expressly to hemorrhage money. We both needed some self-pampering and both had noticed our bras weren’t fitting quite right, so one day we made appointments at Intimacy and went downtown to have our breasts handled by professionals (after making a necessary stop at Lush for the post-holiday sale and far too many new bath bombs).

When the saleswoman asked me if I thought I was the same size as before, and I said “No, I think I might be a C cup now,” she said, “I’d say a C or a D.” !!!  Shapelings, moving to a B cup was a big change for me last year. In response to a college house questionnaire, I once named my breasts “Small” and “Equally Small.” As I later said to SM and Kate, every time I go into Intimacy, I come out a cup size larger (SM: “You should be in their ads!”). Anyway, SM and I spent too much money and spent the next 24 hours staring at our own and each other’s amazing tits, but that’s not the point of this post.

The point is that I am almost at the high end of my normal size range right now, and it’s making me reflect on how much my breast size has fluctuated during the past decade. I have been this big a couple times now, though with much less well-fitting bras — the first time I went on the pill in my early 20s, that time I tried the birth control patch (I haven’t gotten quite that big again since, but it actually turns out that three steady months of morning sickness are not worth it for boobies), and once or twice over the course of my normal weight fluctuations since then. So if properly sized, I would say I range from an… A? (never properly fitted at the low end, but they are little) to apparently at least a C, normally within the span of a year or two. I should note that I am on the short side and very petite, and when I gain or lose weight it seems to go and come entirely from my rack. The convenient part of this is being able to shop straight sizes and not having to buy a whole new wardrobe when my body decides it’s time to be 10 pounds heavier for 6 months; the inconvenient part is that those changes routinely — and dramatically — affect the size of the most expensive part of my body to clothe. Now that I have a salary I allow myself a once-annual indulgence in one or two lovely, perfectly-fitted, exorbitantly priced bras (which means we are up to three nice ones to date, one of which fit 3 months ago and two which fit today) and fill in the rest of my week with cheap purchasesfrom the internet to get me through with minimal pokage. So my breasts could still be happier, but they feel wonderful (and look HUGE!) a couple times a week. Like today! The girls say hello. To everyone. Loudly.

The upshot is that my body kind of acts like a one-woman case study on boob size. Because the rest of my body doesn’t really change outwardly, I have more or less isolated the breastage effect on social interactions. I spent a couple years after college living in the Land of Entrapment. I went on the pill there for the first time when the weather was warm, which bumped me up probably (in retrospect) from an A cup to a C cup over about a month of warm weather. Furthermore, the local social culture there is such that men are a lot less subtle in checking women out than back east, so there’s no mistaking it. It was very easy to notice changes in how I was treated between month A and month C.

I was certainly blatantly checked out and hit on a lot more. That isn’t too surprising, because, hey, I’m here to be eye candy, right? But I wasn’t used to that kind of treatment so it was weird. And frankly, while sometimes it felt weirdly flattering (hey, I was 22), being sloooowly checked out on the street is pretty damn objectifying. It’s bad enough when men think (somehow) they’re being subtle! I bet the men in this video thought so:

But what caught me even more by surprise was how much friendlier people were — men and women, friends and colleagues and strangers. Most of those people probably were not even particularly interested in sleeping with me or deliberately hitting on me (hard to believe, I know!). They were just… nicer. I didn’t have to wear anything especially revealing for that to be true, either. Bigger breasts just meant better treatment in general, and while some men were creepy and deliberate about it (see above), for most people it seemed to be unconscious. We are heavily socially conditioned to react favorably to breasts.

Honestly, I like my breasts in general and think they look nice on my body at all of the sizes they’ve been, but I’ll admit that I like them a bit better when they’re larger. Clothes look sexier to me and I feel damn hot. I don’t dislike the girls on the small end, but I will certainly sometimes wear some padding or pushing-up items to keep the clothes looking the way I like them to. Frankly, I don’t feel bad about this. It’s one of the many conscious concessions I make to the beauty ideal (see also: shaving legs; bleaching upper lip; and wearing v-neck sweaters, high-heeled shoes, dresses, and variable quantities of make-up). I don’t dislike my body or the things about it I alter for cosmetic reasons; it’s just a hell of a lot easier to do those things, and I consciously choose to do my femininity that way. Besides, I can’t undo all of the training that has taught me what to find attractive, so I pick my battles. For me, in part because I’ve been taught big breasts are better, and in part because of my own [highly scientific!] personal experiments and observations, the portrayal of the rack is part of how I present myself. It’s not even that I consciously display the ladies for personal gain — in terms of skin and cleavage I actually show pretty little, and I am not very interested in deliberately manipulating the people around me* — but I like to look nice and girly and so I go with it.

But I think there is nothing wrong with not going with it, with refusing to play up my breasts or hunt for clothes that create the appearance of that hourglass figure. There would be nothing wrong with refusing to do that as a personal fight against the beauty ideal; or with just not giving a shit; or with deciding it’s too much of a stretch and too much work to be worth it. I mean, the beauty ideal is impossible to reach, but as people go I definitely have it on the easier side, because I am thin and a little hourglassy to start with. When my tits are bigger I have to do even less work (though it’s still a conscious effort). If you don’t want to work for that, I mean, who the hell cares?

Well, okay, a lot of people care, but what they care about is policing you, not attraction. Otherwise they would just happen to not find you attractive, and that wouldn’t be offensive to them, and they wouldn’t care about how you looked. Except that it is your obligation and role as a woman to be attractive to all men, of course. Besides, I can attest that many people are attracted to women with small breasts. While I have been treated very differently on the street based on my breast size, my statistical ability to actually attract real dates/lays are unchanged across my full range of boobages.

Summary of long-winded post: People treat you differently when your breasts appear different sizes, mostly because our society is fucked up. But we should present our breasts how we want to present them, fuck anyone who gives a damn**, and not let the girls hold us back from enjoying our lives, dating, dancing, or taking luxurious Lush-bombed baths. Oh, and we should make a conscious effort to be equally friendly to the small-busted ladies, to counteract that unconscious conditioning that makes us act just a bit friendlier to the chestier among us.

*This is a lie. For instance, I deliberately distracted SM with my breasts so that she would request a guest post, because I deeply covet her internet-fame.

**Not literally.

Cross-posted at Volcanista.

Links: Golden Globes backlash, or This one goes out to the ladies

Those of you who hopped on our Golden Globe live-blogging adventure on Sunday (which was way, way more fun than I expected — GIVE YOURSELVES A HAND) might be interested in the following posts on Jezebel about (sadly predictable) sexist reactions to various women at the show:

James Cameron & Kathryn Bigelow Used To Be Married — Get Over It

‘You Don’t Put A Big Girl In A Big Dress’: Dissing Christina Hendricks

And, my personal favorite: Paper Devotes 363 Word Article To Mo’Nique’s Leg Hair

Basically these are all iterations of a theme: woman dares to look “different” (i.e., boobs, leg hair) and/or succeed artistically, must be put in her place. Well played, media journalists. What daring provocateurs you are.

In which I am defeated by a billboard

I hate this ad.

Doesn't this make you want to... buy a dress?

I stood waiting for a bus the other day while another bus idled in front of me. It had this ad on the side, bigger than life. I stared at this passive, anonymous woman, done up all ’80s-retro so you can pretend she’s not even in the present, much less someone with thoughts and desires that might conflict with your own.

There are a lot of reasons to hate American Apparel. So, so many (NSFW on all those links). But for some reason, seeing this image around town — even though the woman in it is more clothed than many others in AA ads — makes me especially sad and especially angry. To me, this looks different from the usual despicable American Apparel visual language for women’s clothing, which is of amateur porn; this looks like a woman impersonating a blow-up doll. She’s ready for you (and by you, of course, I mean Manly Straight Man You, not Woman Who Might Want to Buy a Pencil Dress You) to climb right on top of her and yank that ponytail to kingdom come. And you don’t even have to look her in her stupid eyes — they’re conveniently covered up to disguise any trace of personality!

Women are represented as sexual objects so frequently in our culture that it often barely registers for me; I walk past ads with tits and ass galore and just go “hmmph” as I go about my business. But every now and then, some image wakes me up temporarily to just how fucking disposable women are in ads, in songs, in films, in books. I take off my “just make it through your day blinkers” and look around me in horror. I don’t know why image in particular jolted me any more than another — it might have just been the amount of time I had to look at it — but I can say unequivocally that seeing this image in public made me feel unsafe. There’s no other way to put it.

This ad, like so many others, has a message: women are here for your sexual amusement. Stare at them. Talk to them. Touch them. They’re just waiting for you to do it; they put their hair up so you can grab it. They wear heels so you can ogle their legs. They’ll do whatever you want, and you don’t even have to look them in the eyes.

Just a reminder

The beauty ideal is socially constructed and changes over time.

In 1912, Miss Elsie Scheel of Brooklyn, New York, was deemed the “most nearly perfect specimen of womanhood” among Cornell’s four hundred coeds. Scheel was twenty-four years old, stood five feet seven inches tall, weighed in at a healthy 171 pounds (her favorite food was beefsteak), and possessed a decidedly pear-shaped figure (it measured 35-30-40). Nevertheless, Cornell’s medical examiner […] judged her “the perfect girl,” having “not a single defect” in her physical makeup.

–Lynn Peril, College Girls: Bluestockings, Sex Kittens, and Coeds, Then and Now, p. 256*

Miss Elsie Scheel’s BMI would have been 26.8, placing her squarely in today’s dreaded “overweight” category. At Banana Republic, to pick a random contemporary store, she would wear a size 8 top, a 12/14 bottom, and probably a 12 dress with the bust taken in. And she was the “most nearly perfect specimen of womanhood” among 400 young, mostly white women in 1912.

Peril writes that the NYT was citing fashion experts in 1923 — just 12 years later, but in the post-WWI flapper era — who said a 5’7″ inch woman (presumably also white) should weigh 110 pounds and measure 34-22-34. (Also, “The ankle should measure 8 inches” [p. 256]). The NYT did not consult the student body or the medical examiner of Cornell, current or emeritus; one wonders what this group would have made of a 60-pound reduction in specimens of “perfect womanhood.”

*This book merits the Sweet Machine Seal of Snarky Feminist Approval