Period Positivity

As a guest on the show The Jungle I spoke about Period Positivity and the way we think about menstruation. Tune to 1:05:00 to hear that segment.

Body Police: Fatness and Food

The term fat-shaming refers to the criticism of fat bodies simply for being fat. The issue some people have with fatness is more than just deviating from what is considered the norm. Being fat is associated with poor health and poor eating habits and therefore those with larger bodies are targeted because being overweight is considered actively unhealthy and therefore irresponsible. The rhetoric is that fat people aren’t taking care of themselves, fat parents are setting a poor example for their children and fat activists are advocating poor lifestyle choices, and the list goes on.

Television shows like “My 600 lb Life” (on TLC) showcase and sensationalize fatness like it’s a circus sideshow and fat suits are used in comedy as caricatures of real people. These pop culture examples illustrate the way fatness is made to appear abnormal, extreme and very unnatural.

The politics of food are intrinsically linked to body politics, in that the eating habits of fat folks get put under scrutiny by friends, family and the general public. There are countless examples of fat people being shamed by people they know or total strangers for eating what is considered “unhealthy” food.

Simultaneously there exists a trend to #EatClean (sometimes combined with #TrainDirty) focusing on the consumption of raw, vegan and organic foods as part of a healthy diet (especially when coupled with regular exercise). While there is nothing wrong with exploring culinary alternatives and healthy food choices, not everyone has the time or money to prepare a spinach, kale and chia seed salad or whip up a green smoothie before starting their day.

In addition to organic produce and raw food ingredients being expensive, the movement to “eat clean” comes with a kind of judgement that other food choices are poor choices. While fast food chicken nuggets probably are breaded paste, it is still anyone’s right to eat them if they want. When we decide what “good” and “healthy” food options are, we are automatically defining what “bad” and “unhealthy” is and while I won’t disagree that fast food is basically void of any nutritional value, this trend leads to folks with heavier bodies being shamed for their choice to enjoy a slice of pizza because they can’t afford to eat “bad food” when they already have a “bad body”. The simultaneous connection made between “skinny” and “healthy” and “organic” and “healthy,” means that heavier folks are shamed for eating so-called “bad food” and made to feel bad about their eating choices. Additionally, parents from low-income backgrounds are shamed for not teaching their children about healthy eating when the case may be that all they can afford (in time and expense) is a meal from McDonalds.

Another interesting point to consider is the role cultural appropriation plays in the movement towards organic produce, organic products and raw food. Like with trends to embrace natural medicines or organic cosmetics or even non-Western exercise methods (I’m looking at you, yoga), what often happens is that cultural elements from non-Western societies are appropriated and sold back to Western communities, including Black/Indigenous, working class and people of colour in a very inaccessible way. Consider the irony of a “fat” South Asian woman being told by her skinny white friend to take up yoga in order to lose weight. This is a common scenario and an example of the complicated feedback loop created by our capitalist, neo-colonial society.

While dismantling the free-market, capitalist system that governs the accessibility of certain on-trend items might take more than this piece of writing, there is an easy three step process to simplifying the complex relationship between body politics and food politics. 1) Allow people to eat whatever they want. 2) Accept that fat bodies are good bodies and call people out on their fat-shaming. 3) Raise future generations to place self-worth on more than physical appearance and accept a diversity of body types as good and beautiful.

Alright, perhaps the last bit will take some time. But it is simple and it is possible.

as published in Issue 28 of Shameless Magazine.

Series: Debunking rape myths and interrogating rape culture

Representation of rape cases and reinforcing rape culture in the media March 11, 2014

Maria Olaya & Johana Martin of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre; Conducted with Leana Lattanzio

Toronto Rape Crisis Centre and rape culture March 4, 2014

Maria Olaya & Johana Martin of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre; Conducted with Leana Lattanzio

Sexual assault on university campuses March 4th, 2014

Wendy Komiotis of METRAC

9th Annual Strawberry Ceremony in Toronto, February 11th 2014

Jolene John of the Centre for Aboriginal Student Services, York University

Sexual Safety at Burning Man: There is still work to be done

September 24, 2013

Burning Man is “an annual experiment in temporary community dedicated to radical self- expression and radical self-reliance.” For those that do not know, it is a weeklong event help in the Black Rock desert of Nevada, whereby participants set up camp for a week to participate in workshops and activities organized by theme camps, relax, explore theme camps and enjoy the many interesting art installations.

It is also an extremely sex-positive event, with many theme camps promoting non-heteronormative sexual activities and workshops for BDSM and masturbation for single people and couples. It’s a fantastic environment for exploration if you are comfortable doing so. That being said, while Burning Man’s openness and mandate for radical inclusion create an extremely positive environment for sexually active people, it does not exist in a vacuum and sexual assault or non-consensual sexual activity are still concerns.

In such an open, sex-positive environment there is a pervasive idea that everyone at Burning Man assumes everyone is up for sex all the time. But this is untrue. The Bureau of Erotic Discourse is “B.E.D. is a team of volunteers dedicated to raising awareness of sexual assault on the playa.” They have signs up throughout Black Rock City (I thought the ones inside the doors of the port-o-potties were most effective) advocating consent and communication. Many residents of Black Rock City (BRC) are well versed in what consent means and how to ensure effective communication with a sexual partner so that all parties are comfortable.

“I think the the thing about consent is that it needs to be explicit,” explained one member of my camp. “It needs to be offered, you need to understand that it’s happened. You need to have a complete green light that you’ve seen that tells you that it’s okay to move forward, and as soon as someone shows you the red light, you have to stop no matter what. It can be as simple as a no or it could be someone crying or someone really uncomfortable. You should always continue to check in to make sure they’re okay with what’s happening.”

My personal experiences and the experiences of those around me this year did not deviate from this process. However, after investigating further I found that members of my camp had, unfortunately, met with quite the opposite.

While attending this year, one participant (who I will call Rosie) shared her experience with me. A four time burner (as of this year), she was sexually assaulted during her third burn, when she awoke to someone with whom she was sharing sleeping space attempting to digitally penetrate her. While Burning Man does have a number of resources for reporting and discussing sexual assault including the Black Rock Rangers, Medical and Emergency Services and Bureau of Erotic Discourse (BED), that does not mean that a patriarchal tendency to forgive perpetrators of sexual assault (especially when inebriated) does not exist in Black Rock City (BRC). For Rosie, that meant senior members of her camp shrugging off his drunken actions and her having to camp for the rest of the week with this individual and see him again this year. Rosie chose not to press charges with local police or report the assault to the Black Rock Rangers. She is likely one of many not to do so. “I think that people in the festival environment are really unwilling to go and say something to someone if something has happened,” she says, “because this is a culture of drugs, this is a culture of partying. This is a culture of we’re all getting really fucked up […] So I think it creates this misperception of ‘Oh, this is just a place where this shit happens, it’s normal and I shouldn’t take it personally.’”

Especially at Burning Man, where there is an expectation that one will push one’s own boundaries. In terms of survival, you kind of have to. For seven days you are living in a harsh desert environment surviving with only what you have brought with you. That in itself tests your limits, now factor in the free flowing alcohol and the propensity for nudity and tutus. It is an opportunity for you to wear and say and try things you might be too shy to do in your every day life. Everything from going topless (or bottomless) on a bicycle to a bit of blue lipstick, Radical Self-Expression is one of the Ten Principles of Burning Man and is practiced extensively. Ironically (considering the sheer amount of photos taken) I think generally there is a feeling that choices made at Burning Man won’t haunt you in the real world. What happens in Black Rock City, stays in Black Rocky City. “I think that’s one of the major shortcomings of festival culture…” explains Rosie, “That there is this idea, I think, this prevalent idea that like you kinda get a free pass.”

I agree that no one should be shamed about glittery nipple pasties or any other wardrobe choice on the playa but if rape culture extends to the playa so should the appropriate consequences.

Unfortunately, as with any partying situation, the environment is often used to explain away the perpetrator’s behaviour and fabricate the victim’s culpability. Allow me to take this opportunity to say that whether at a rave, frat party, experimental post-adolescent phase or at Burning Man, drugs or alcohol are not an excuse for committing sexual assault.

As Rosie explains, “I think when it comes to sexual assault that is something that that person would do anyway, maybe it just comes more easily because of substance use but that is part of the person.”

On the other hand, drugs can be used as a tool to take advantage of what is meant to be a sex-positive, body-positive, generally positive environment. As I asked around my camp I an anonymous anecdote was shared hearsay about someone recruiting help to painstakingly decorate an Art Car (or Mutant Vehicle) only resist all company upon its completion so the owner could allegedly use the car to have sex with drugged women. Unfortunately this particular story was based largely on circumstantial evidence, or my informant would have reported the individual to the Black Rock Rangers and the local police. I pray that this story is a perverse rumour, but that is exists is a reminder that despite Burning Man’s unique environment, rape culture is still pervasive and women are still required to police themselves and their behaviour to ensure personal safety.

While I definitely felt safer biking around BRC at night than I have other cities, the freedom of being able to get up and go when and where I wanted on the playa (novel for a woman of colour living in an urban environment) my temporary freedom was soured by the stories of other women’s experiences at Burning Man. Despite the many messages advocating the practice of consent, and the BED motto that, “Communication is the best lubrication,” sexual safety is a concern for Burning Man participants (especially considering that BRC residents are often inebriated at all hours of the day and night).

So what does this mean for feminists operating in the States or feminists that attend or want to attend Burning Man? It doesn’t mean that you should avoid the playa. We should not add Burning Man to the list of activities that women must deny themselves as part of navigating a patriarchal society. Instead, we should add Black Rock City to the list of places that require a feminist revolution. I had hoped that by entering an inclusive, sex-positive space I was leave rape culture behind. Sadly not. At least not in its entirety. As long as these stories exist there is work to be done. Even at Burning Man.
For more information about:

Burning Man and attending next year: http://www.burningman.com/
The Bureau of Erotic Discourse: http://www.bureauoferoticdiscourse.org/
Black Rock Rangers: http://rangers.burningman.com/
Nevada State Law regarding sexual assault: http://www.leg.state.nv.us/nrs/nrs-200.html Who to call if you’re in Nevada and are sexually assaulted: http://crisiscallcenter.org/ sexualassault_nl.html

Originally published at Because I Am A Woman blog.

On Jessica Rey’s talk on Q about modesty and swimwear

July 2, 2013

This video of Jessica Rey, founder of Rey Swimwear, giving a talk at Q about why she decided to create her own swimwear line has been circulating throughout the past few weeks. It’s come up here and there, with various women in my social networks introducing it as “something to think about,” even if they don’t quite agree.

While I admire Rey’s initiative in creating clothes that she liked and that made her feel comfortable, I am happy to report that I am not at all on the fence in regards to her position on more revealing swimming attire. I wanted to share my thoughts on some of the statistics she presents and address a few of her points about ownership over one’s body and sexuality.

She opens with the lyrics of the 1960s novelty hit Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini, which describes a girl who “was afraid to come out in the open/And so she sat bundled up on the shore”. While her lesson in fashion history is interesting, my concern is her analysis of the relationship between the sexual revolution and the rising popularity of the bikini, initially scandalous and unpopular. “The rise in popularity,” she says, “has been attributed to the power of women, not the power of fashion,” and to a certain extent, I agree. The power of women’s demonstrations have taken us from conversations about showing the belly button, to conversations about women going topless in the streets.

As a body-positive anti-fat-shaming feminist, my conclusion here is that if the girl in the song wanted to wear a bikini, she should be able to. However, Rey connects this necessity to hide women’s bodies (while it has historically been far more acceptable for men to show more skin in the West) to problems of misogynistic objectification of women’s bodies.

She references a Princeton study quantitatively measuring the chemical reaction in the minds of male students when they viewed women dressed in more revealing clothing versus women who were more covered up.

The results of the study are that when viewing pictures of “scantily clad” women, the region of the brain associated with using tools lit up, with less activity in the medial pre-frontal cortex, “the part of the brain,” Rey explains, “that lights up when one ponders another person’s thoughts, feelings and intentions.” Basically, when they saw women in itsy-bitsy teeny-weenie anything, it was like they weren’t seeing another human being. Rey concludes, “wearing a bikini does give a woman power, the power to shut down a man’s ability to see her as a person … This is surely not the kind of power women were searching for.” This is where she really loses me.

In conversations about rape, it has become pretty common to bring up clothing choice as a poor excuse for the perpetrator and use it as an example for problematic victim-blaming. While it has found it’s place in the rhetoric of criticizing rape culture, I think it is more difficult to effectively articulate why blaming women’s clothing choices for their objectification is also problematic. How do you explain to a misogynist that just because I am wearing shorts doesn’t mean you should leer at my bare legs? While I myself have had trouble making this poinnt to male and female acquaintances, I think Rey’s solution misses the mark.

Instead of addressing why men’s brains react this way, what part of their experience fuels this kind of reaction, how that reaction is reinforced and underpinned through language and culture and media consumption, or, most importantly, how we can shift the way young men and boys grow up thinking about women and their relationships with women through interrogation of socially enforced constructions of gender, Rey says women should just cover up. In fact, she has created an entire swimwear line to allow women to be taken more seriously on the beach and at the poolside, without ever challenging tropes of masculinity and their effect on the way boys perceive women.

I personally believe that you should show only as much skin as you are comfortable with. That includes anything and everything from teeny bikinis at the beach to jeans rolled up with your feet in the pool. As long it is what you want to wear and it makes you feel good, you should wear it. You should not have to police your wardrobe in order for people to consider you a real human being. If they don’t, the problem is with them, not with you.

I do not think that women have a “natural sense of modesty … that has been stripped away by today’s culture.” I think we live in a culture where dressing too conservatively makes you unattractive but dressing revealingly makes you a slut. This double standard will not be shifted by whether or not I choose to rock a one-piece this summer.

I think by speaking to young girls to try and “bring back” this lost sense of natural modesty we will be perpetuating one side of the patriarchal coin, that revealing clothes are bad and slut-shaming is a logical response to girls who prefer bikinis over the admittedly cute designs Rey has come up with.

We need to stop teaching girls that if a man doesn’t see you as a real person instead of a sexual object it is their fault or their responsibility to change the way they dress. Putting the onus on women to compensate for objectification does not give them any kind of power, it gives them culpability. If we want to shift gendered systems of power we need to start teaching boys to see women, regardless of clothing, as human beings.

More information:

About Jessica Rey’s swimwear line: http://www.reyswimwear.com/
About Q: http://www.qideas.org/
About an organization trying to shift the way we think about modesty and women’s bodies: http://gotopless.org/

Originally published on the Because I Am A Woman blog.