Complicated Perfectionism

“If I Were Thinner, I’d Have the Right to Expect More”; on perfectionism and the scarcity model.

Few girls feel as pretty, as sexy, as skinny as the women they see in the media. As a result, many young women conclude that happiness is something that you only get when you get to your goal weight. And even more troublingly, when it comes to relationships, lots of straight girls think that if their own bodies aren’t perfect, they have no right to expect too much from guys.

I identify with Schwyzer’s post so very, very much… but there are two complications with this mentality in my life.

1: I generally have high standards and do not put up with shit from guys I am with, for any length of time.
2: I am brown, making looking like “freaking Megan Fox” not just hard, but impossible.

This just means that feeling unworthy takes on new implications. It means I don’t put up with shit in hook-ups or long term relationships, and both are generally positive experiences for me with positive endings and no negative consequences. However, in short term infatuations where I think there might be some long term possibilities I suffer. The moment he appears to be losing interest I panic and blame everything on my size, shape and colour. And I make the effort to change my appearance to once again deserve this guy I am with.

The other situation I suffer is in one-sided attraction. I have a history of being overlooked in favour of blondes. You know, that hair colour I could never have and look natural? Right. I also have a history of being overlooked for much, much thinner girls, with more girlish figures in general. As logical as I can be right now, putting it into context of the times when I have attracted guys precisely because of my figure (hi there het and cis privilege), in the moment it feels awful and I blame myself for not being stronger, more disciplined, not having that power to control my body shape and, irrationally, my colour.

Schwyzer focuses on the treatment of women by their significant others. In my life the insignificant others are the ones who have done the most damage.

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TORIES RESENT WOMEN. SCIENTISTS BAFFLED.

David Willets blames feminism over lack of jobs for working class men.

Some highlights:

Willetts said feminism was probably the “single biggest factor” for the lack of social mobility in Britain, because women who would otherwise have been housewives had taken university places and well-paid jobs that could have gone to ambitious working-class men.

THOSE BITCHES.

He expounded the downsides of the “admirable transformation of opportunities for women” by suggesting opening up education since the 1960s had magnified social divides, courtesy of “assortative mating” whereby well-educated women marry well-educated men.

THOSE BITCHES.

Yeah, apparently well-educated men had nothing to do with inequality of work opportunities in this country. A well-educated man said it so it must be true.

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It lives!

I’ve fallen back in love with blogging after a stint guest blogging on The F Word. Let me know if you’re reading here too?

Thank you!

Amelia

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The Boy Who Was Born A Girl

Did anybody see this documentary? It was originally broadcast in September 2009, so I’m probably late to the praise party, but it was the first time in the UK that a family with a transgender child has agreed to be identified on camera and I don’t think they could have handled it much better.

It shows moments like the mother mixing up pronouns and getting her son’s name wrong then correcting herself, the son looking up breast binders and usable penises online, and them talking together about the ongoing harassment he received since going back to the same school he went to as a girl. It would have been so easy to put these negatives at the core of the documentary, but they couldn’t have picked better subjects: an optimistic, cheerful trans teenaged boy, and a warm, caring mother who is very open and honest about her grief over the loss of her daughter, both of whom obviously have a fundamentally good relationship.

It ends with images from a photoshoot they did together, their first as mother and son; the son is now comfortable with his gender presentation and satisfied with the journey it took to get there, though there have been hard times. The mother is proud and seems to have come completely to terms with the sadness she showed at the beginning of the documentary. A really upbeat end to a documentary that has been on its subjects’ sides from the start.

I am aware that I am basically approving of a ‘model minority’ view here, advocating that transgender subjects should be portrayed as stable, positive and maintaining excellent relations with friends and family. This is clearly unreasonable to expect of any teenaged boy, least of all one who is dealing with gender dysphoria, and obviously this has not always been the case. However, considering this was shown on primetime television I am pleased that mainstream Britain was given a positive and decidedly undramatic example of a transgender person living an ordinary (middle class) everyday life, and hope that it went some way to opening the eyes or changing the perspectives of people who have never been able to see it from this point of view before.

And that includes me. I’ve been having some body image and relationship worries lately, and it is a gentle slap on the wrist to remember that, for quite a few people, body image troubles are far more intense, distressing and constant than an occasional “I feel fat” quiver, and that there are people with relationship concerns with much more serious consequences than wondering whether or not my boyfriend is a forever guy and at what point I should start factoring babies into my five-year plan. Checking my privilege as we speak.

Of course though, I hope that someday trans people’s representation in the media will be frequent and nuanced enough that such praise is unnecessary and that the transgender teens who suffer from mental illness, disability, , troubled backgrounds and so on will also be able to have a voice without any concerns that they may be adversely affecting the public’s view of transgendered youth.

I also hope I haven’t said anything offensive here, as this is an area with which I’m still attempting to become more familiar. I imagine someone will correct me if I’ve made a mistake though.

[EDIT]: Just found this interview with the mother and son in which the son talks a little about being queer, bringing home a (presumably) male partner, enjoying wearing dresses as a part of role play and about paganism as his spirituality of choice for the way it frames and accommodates his identity. I’d love to see a follow-up documentary in which he talks more about these aspects of his gender identity which break away from the model minority view.

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(Indian) Food for Thought

I had a mixed-race-isolation moment today when my boyfriend and I were reading through a forum thread on Indian cookery and I grew more and more dejected. The reason? The thread was started and continued by white American boys who are very knowledgeable about the subject. I was sat next to a white Yorkshireman who is more knowledgeable about Indian cookery than I am. Me? I haven’t got a clue. The last member of my family to really truly know anything about Indian cooking died four years ago. I have great-aunts and great-uncles carrying on the tradition in this country, but we’re not close enough geographically or otherwise for me to be able to ask them for recipes or cooking lessons on more than a bi-annual basis at most.

In spite of all this, every time I discuss Indian food with my boyfriend I have to fight the overpowering feeling that I should know more than him because it is in my blood. This goes against everything I believe, I’ve even told him straight out that he knows more than I do and explained that there’s no way I could know any more because my grandmother didn’t teach my mother much of anything to do with India. But that feeling still eats away at me whenever we look at curry recipes together.

This is linked with the fact that food is in the “evidence of femininity” part of my head, which overlaps with the “compensating for not being white” part of my head. In this head are things like wearing dresses, speaking softly, being gentle when people are upset, applying make-up and styling my hair… You get the idea. I’ve been able to get over a lot of things I used to be sensitive about (I first wrote ‘over-sensitive’, but really, who gets to decide what is beyond the acceptable limits of sensitivity?) but cooking mistakes, disasters, or even just displaying a lack of knowledge or less knowledge than somebody else can – and regularly does – reduce me to misery and tears. I enjoy cooking, on my own and with my boyfriend, but that is not enough.

The thing that upsets me is this cooking hierarchy that suggests ‘real’ cooks should be able to create sophisticated new recipes, improvise last-minute modifications and sense perfect combinations of herbs, spices and other ingredients. As I understand it, this process also requires a great deal of trial and error and some spectacular failures along with the spectacular successes, all deemed to be an important and enjoyable part of learning to be a ‘real’ cook. My ego is too fragile for this. My pleasure in cooking comes from finding a recipe that looks tasty and maybe a little challenging, following it exactly and eating something that tastes fantastic. I will never be a ‘real’ cook, and I often feel like I have to defend this aspect of myself rather than simply enjoying a fun activity on my own terms.

So, cooking is a sensitive spot for me, my relationship with Indian culture is a sensitive spot for me, put the two together and you have a trigger topic that will almost inevitably upset me. Conversations about Indian cooking make me defensive, sad and vulnerable. So how do I react to that? Do I declare that I have zero interest in Indian cookery and use that as a shield, or strive to become an expert in Indian cookery from my mother’s region and use that as a crutch for my authenticity? What attractive options.

Alternatively, I can continue to have these isolated moments when the subject is raised and continue telling my boyfriend that I’m not upset when I actually am. I’ve explained my feelings on this already and, through no fault of his own, it’s beyond his comprehension. As so much of my mixed race identity is to so many people in my life.

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Financial Toll for Women

I’m really sorry about the silence right now, but it’s one of those times when real life absolutely must take priority. I’m facing a lot of financial difficulty at the moment until my new job starts, and recently I’ve been threatened with eviction, the financial support I receive has been cut, and some training I was signed up for was cancelled, so I’ve been running around trying to sort all these things out and pre-empt potential problems by seeking legal aid. It’s a bit of a mess.

No need to feel sorry for me though; I have a couple of jobs lined up, the eviction threat has not yet been put into writing and the bank has been more or less reasonable about suspending our agreements temporarily, so I’m not in any immediate danger of any consequences of this. However, my budget is extremely tight, and I’m starting to realise how this affects me as a woman.

The items I am most afraid of running out of:

– facewash
– moisturiser
– foundation
– concealer
– hair serum
– tampons

The items I am most afraid of breaking:

– hair straighteners
– hairdryer
– tights
– shoes
– cardigans (because then people will be able to see my less-than-slender arms and tummy)

Seeing a pattern here? Some essentials aside (note that I am ridiculously thankful to live in a country in which contraception and healthcare and completely and utterly FREE and would just like to know why tampons are not) there is an awful lot related to appearance here.

It’s not all vanity either: I am well aware that if I do not use these things in an interview situation, I am less likely to get the jobs for which I am applying. I appear and sound very middle class, but people may already be wondering about the visible holes in my cardigans, the worn down heels on my shoes and the slightly ill-fitting interview clothes. If they’re not yet, they will be soon. It is imperative that I get a new job confirmed before I run out of these things.

Looking like a ragamuffin is playing havoc with my self-esteem too; I’ve more or less made peace with not being thin, but stress and sleep deprivation brought my skin out in spots and I’ve been wearing glasses for three months now because I couldn’t afford contact lenses. I stopped wearing them at the age of 16 and didn’t wear them for more than a few hours at a time until I was 23. 16 isn’t exactly a prime time for feeling good about yourself, so with my clothes AND skin not at their best contact lenses are an even higher priority than new shoes or make-up. Unfortunately, I can’t afford an eye test.

Again though, don’t feel sorry for me. I’m well aware that this isn’t poverty, that my education and background have ensured that this is temporary, and that even in a worst case scenario I could hypothetically go home and live with my middle class family until I found work and got back on my feet. This is one of the most challenging times of my life, and to be able to say that makes me pretty damn fortunate.

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“You’re not English!”

It’s been a little quiet here because I’ve been plagued with some financial distress lately so am putting all – and I mean ALL – my efforts into job-hunting. While doing a trial shift at one workplace yesterday a customer looked straight at me and said, “You English?”

My heart sank. Not here, not while I’m trying to remain neutral and impress people… “Yes.”

He shook his head. “I don’t think so. English people don’t have that face.”

“I’m English,” I said, big smile on my face to keep the rage back, “I was born here.”

“Well,” he said, clearly humouring me, “It’s a very nice face.”

My co-worker’s reaction: “Got chatted up on your first day!”
My boyfriend’s reaction: “Oh… right. What an idiot.”

Both are white. My boyfriend tries, and he listens, but he doesn’t understand because he’s never experienced it. I don’t blame him for that, just as I don’t blame my white co-worker for missing the point entirely, although I’m not too happy that when I told her why I was annoyed she dismissed it in a single phrase: “That’s not what he was saying!”

I get that a lot. “You’re overreacting!” “You misunderstood!” “You should be flattered!” These are the times when I feel the most isolated, the most frustrated. And I couldn’t say a thing, because I was trying to make a good impression and had, not ten minutes before, been promoting my own skills of communication and diplomacy to the boss. I’m fortunate not to be harmed more by racism and other types of discrimination, and I understand that, but it’s a continuous slow burn of, essentially, “Your feelings don’t matter.”

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“Are You a Miss or a Mrs?”

PHONE PERSON: Are you a Miss or a Mrs?
MIXED RACE FEMINIST: Neither.
PHONE PERSON: Well, are you married?

I’ve had to deal with a lot of telephone form-filling recently, and this presumption of my identity as being intrinsically tied to my marital status becomes more and more irritating every time it happens. When opening a bank account I had to specifically request the title that would appear on my card, as there was no box to tick, no other way to choose on the form.

I’ve become picky about using the title Ms as opposed to Miss since turning about 25. Arbitrary age milestones apparently mean something to me, and I think it has a lot to do with the fact that 24 was a year in which I re-evaluated my relationship to the concept of marriage. Don’t want to do it in my twenties, not sure if I want to change my name and would consider not doing it at all. If I never got married would I really have to be filling in forms about retirement or pensions using “Miss”? Really?

This is obviously a considerably more painful and frustrating experience for transgender and queer people, but even from a cisgender, heterosexual perspective it’s still unpleasant to feel like I’m being shoved into boxes that don’t fit me. I never used to understand the point of the Ms title, not seeing being unmarried as something to be ashamed of, but it’s not about whether or not I’m embarrassed to say I’m unmarried, it’s about the connotations attached to these words. Apparently, women can’t win:

Dion (1987) found that the title Ms. elicits the stereotype of a career-oriented woman with below-average interpersonal skills. This stereotype could evoke either negative or positive connotations depending on the person and the context. Carney and Hamilton’s study (1991) found that while the titles Mrs. and Mr. were neutral terms, 25 percent of all their respondents had negative connotations for Ms. and Miss. Subjects used words like “old maid” and “against society” to connote Ms. and labels like “prissy” and “immature” to describe Miss.

Career-oriented, against society and [value-loaded term for never getting married]? I will take those connotations and dazzle with my interpersonal skills rather than setting myself up for preconceptions of immaturity or being a “stuck up, goody-two-shoes, self-centered, all-knowing, hard to please biatch” (that was actually one of the less hideous definitions; so much for ‘post-feminism’).

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Women and Cage Fighting

Cage fighting: Are you tough enough?

“Can women cut it in the macho world of cage fighting? And how do you train for such a challenging sport?”

I find the concept of physically strong women extremely appealing and am instantly drawn to topics like this, but have read too many articles in which female journalists try out a typically male-oriented sport, huff and puff a bit then retire, thankfully, to their sofa with a bar of chocolate and a glass of red wine. Not exactly what I’m looking for.

As a result, I was pleasantly surprised by the author of this article, who is training for new and challenging sports like cage fighting (more accurately called Mixed Martial Arts) in preparation for her participation in Tough Guy, “a gruelling obstacle course boasting barbed wire, fire and electric fences.” Unsurprisingly, she throws herself into the ring, giving as many bruises as she receives and directly asking questions about the lack of female MMA fighters and sexism outside the ring:

At the sell-out live event I attended in east London, I was uncomfortable with the scantily clad ‘ring girls’ who led the fighters out. Proponents claim the women attract new fans to the sport, and while they’re no doubt a draw for some, these seedy sorts of trappings may well deter female participants.

She then spends the rest of the article discussing the virtues of MMA for the skill, discipline and mental focus it requires and for the social function it can serve as a channel for aggression. It is frustrating that even with all these benefits, there is still seen to be a need to employ those ring girls to attract new fans. It’s the same way I feel about otherwise funny comedians relying on cheap sexist jokes; why undermine the genuine article with material that sells you short? What kind of audience are you trying to appeal to?

I would love to hear about more women cage fighters, and so, it seems, would the MMA higher-ups, who point out the difficulties of matching women into weight classes for competition, a key safety precaution, as the numbers are still so low. Dixon paints an encouraging picture:

More women are training, and there are a handful of UK professionals, including Rosi Sexton, the world bantamweight No 1. Abroad, female fighters have a higher profile, especially in the US, Japan and Brazil. Pay is lower than for top male fighters, but is rising with their status: last August, a women’s fight headlined an MMA event for the first time.

Greater acknowledgement of physically strong women over physically strong men – how refreshing is that? That said, Dixon is also told that women tend to lack the “necessary aggression” to become MMA fighters. “If 100 women walk into my gym, only one of them will have what it takes. If you want me to, I can make you into a cage fighter.” In fairness, she is not told that men are more likely to have what it takes, and the tone of the quotes used is very positive towards the increased participation of women in MMA, but I do wonder if the focus on aggression and competition is actually necessary if the aim is to increase participation; after all, a lot of women who do kickboxing do so for fitness and self-defence, and I’m willing to bet at least some of the women who have entered kickboxing competitions had no intention of doing so when they started the sport.

There seems to be a bit of tunnel vision at work, that competitive fighting as an outlet for aggression is the only successful approach to MMA, without considering that women take up sports and martial arts for different reasons. I’m keen to take up something that makes me feel physically stronger and fitter with greater stamina and confidence, and am put off as soon as websites mention a focus on weight loss and toning or on competition. I don’t want to spar, I’m not the most gracious loser in the world and find rivalry thoroughly demotivating, but would potentially be interested in MMA if it was just about personal performance and a satisfying week’s workout. That said, the last sport I tried was women’s rugby, when I burst into tears and had to leave after the warm-up because I was so out of my depth. Perhaps I need to start with something smaller, like Tiddlywinks, and work my way up.

I think the most important contribution of something like MMA to people like me who do not want to be involved on their terms (according to them I am incapable of being involved on their terms, lacking necessary aggression as I do) is to provide role models, physically strong, smart women like Rachel Dixon who are unafraid to join and challenge physically strong men on their turf. I wish I had been aware of such women growing up, and that society had played a greater part in getting girls like me, unfit and awkward, into sports and martial arts rather than sidelining all but the most naturally graceful and athletic.

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Ain’t I A Woman Too? Living between definitions of beauty

I spend a lot of time with international students, mainly Japanese, most of whom bought a passport for the first time for this journey and have rarely or never exchanged words with a native English speaker not paid to speak to them. One line I wish I could never hear from any of them again is “I want a foreign girlfriend!” They occasionally follow this up with “I think girls with blonde hair and blue eyes are beautiful!” but even when they don’t that sentiment underlines their statement anyway.

This is not exclusively a Japanese thing by any means, and I’ll get to non-Japanese folk in a minute; it is just the most obvious example for me because, in each of the eight groups of Japanese students I meet each year, I hear this from at least one in every group, usually more than once. Also, the last time this happened was YESTERDAY, so it’s on my mind right now.

Heart on my sleeve time: that line hurts me. It hurts me because the guy in question does not mean “non-Japanese” but “white” and “preferably blonde and blue-eyed” in the vast majority of cases. It hurts me because the British students who hear this lane, be they male or female, almost always meet such a line with acceptance, understanding and – this is the part that hurts the most – encouragement. Of course you want a white girlfriend! How could you not? It’s the best way to learn English! (And OH, that is a myth/excuse I would like to put to bed once and for all!)

It hurts no less when Western men show a clear preference for Japanese women, or women of one particular ethnicity; it’s just that Western men are more likely to be aware that this is something that doesn’t look great in society right now, so will often strongly disagree if you hint that there may be some exoticisation going on. I don’t have to deal with long discussions between Japanese men and British men about the best way to get a girlfriend of the desired ethnicity as I do when Japanese guys break out the “I want a foreign girlfriend!” line. I do have to deal with more discussions comparing the sexual performance of their Japanese girlfriends, ex-girlfriends and one night stands, but that is disgusting in its own right and not related to my complicated personal feelings on this issue.

I am hurt by these exchanges in two ways:

  1. Politically. The thought that these guys consider all women sharing a skin colour to be more worth being in a relationship with than women of other skin colours is racist, full stop. On top of that, the thought that many of these men consider it acceptable or even condone the idea of actively seeking a romantic relationship with someone you can only be with for a matter of months or weeks before your visa runs out, just so he can satisfy his yearning for the Exotic Other and/or improve his language skills, is detestable. (Yes, I am aware that there are also women treating men of different ethnicities in this way, but the power dynamics involved put it in a different political place in my head, though I assure you I find it no less detestable.)
  2. Personally. I meet people every single year who express the view that I do not and could not fall under their definition of an attractive woman. They repeat the view, people around them agree with the view, my white peers are flattered by the view and include me in their whispered gossip about what a compliment they have received, the guys in question confide in me about their feelings for my white peers because I CLEARLY don’t count as a woman, etc., etc., et-fucking-cetera. And you know what? These exchanges take weeks. I am hurt by one person’s opinion from several different angles for weeks, at least eight times a year. If I bring up the idea that this is, as a woman who does not fit the ideal being discussed, is upsetting to me, I am basically told to “stop being so over-sensitive” or that “he doesn’t mean it like that!”

These days I have a kneejerk reaction to it. You want a foreign girlfriend? You want to tell me and my friends that you want a foreign girlfriend? Expect loud, disgusted remarks at how shallow that is, how little respect you deserve, how badly you are presenting yourself as a person, and so on. I will give you no mercy, no understanding and no relief because I have lived this exchange too many times and I am absolutely sick of it.

I’m not exactly proud of this response, but I have to deal with an entire range of media and social cues telling me I am invisible, undesirable, or only desirable for the qualities that can be exoticised (only exposed to your country’s default culture and language from birth? Unlucky!) so it’s already a sensitive point. To raise this point to my face, direct it to me, and place me in such a situation where this view of my inherent lack of attractiveness ricochets around my circle of friends for weeks at a time is HURTFUL. I think the worst times are when I’ve misinterpreted, assuming the guy in question was talking about me, only for him to realise, laugh and say, “Oh, no, I like European girls!”

Ain’t I a woman too?

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