Sunday, 19 June 2011

'Pies for Guys': Is meat a gendered issue?

It was like a scripted miracle. Perusing the shelves, I said to my boyfriend, “wouldn’t it be crazy if I could find a feminist vegan text in Waterstones? It would be as good as that time I found a Milton text with an introduction by Philip Pullman.” (For reference, that was a moment of almost transcendental joy).

And there it was: The Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol Adams. As soon as I had found it, however, I wondered how on earth one might pull off a text linking feminism and veganism; I expected some tenuous connections and perhaps even some dangerous stereotypes (women are better vegans because they care more!)

Honestly, it’s not a bad attempt. There was one statistic that stood out to me: 80% of animal rights activists were women at the time of writing (1999). Adams puts this down to a spurious affinity between animals and women – one oppressed group liberating another oppressed group – which is interesting but ultimately unprovable.

Instead, it prompted me to think about vegetarianism and veganism; specifically male vegetarians and vegans (I’ll just use the word ‘vegan’ to include both terms). There is no doubt in my mind that meat-eating is invariably linked to masculinity in our culture; male vegans I know or whose experiences I have read about seem to encounter the accusation of effeminancy or over-sensitivity regularly. Meat-eating is a man thing.

Today is fathers’ day. Browsing the BBC website this morning, I came across their ‘Fathers’ Day Recipes’ feature called ‘Pies for Guys.’ Clicking on the link confronts you with a huge picture of a meaty pie (the picture slide offers a huge meat steak next, and finally a nice picture of some fairy cakes). Suggestions for the main course for daddy? Lamb burgers, pizza, shepherd’s pie, steak pie, or rump steak and chips.
Mothers’ day? By a strange twist of fate, the huge image on this recipe page is of the lovely fairy cakes which were relegated to last place on the Fathers’ Day page. Mummy likes baking (so why not bake for her?) Also on offer: some champagne, salmon and a tiny breakfast egg on a muffin. Also, when mummy eats meat, she doesn’t want shepherd’s pie, or rump and chips. She wants ‘Pork tenderloin with rosemary, prosciutto and apple cider sauce’, or ‘Lamb with dauphinoise potatoes and sticky port sauce.’ A simple steak pie just doesn’t scream ‘mummy’ quite as much.
I anticipate accusations of over-analysis. However, fathers’ day and mothers’ day provide an interesting study for anyone interested in gender. And for someone interested in gender and meat, there is a wealth of opportunity for garnering some evidence for our society’s mental link between meat and masculinity. It worries me that a man might be considered somehow deficient if he chooses not to eat meat, as does the fact that some defend their meat-eating by saying ‘but I’m a man!’ (I’ve heard it done, folks.)
So, there you are. Just a little thought for those of you perusing any fathers’ day menus today.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

London-centricity and the Northern lass

I have never really lived close to London. In fact, I have never really lived in the South (the West Midlands doesn’t count, as southerners are very keen to affirm). Reading the broadsheets and perusing the BBC news website, however, I sometimes feel like I should be.

There is a common syndrome that affects Londoners, and quickly infects anyone who moves there: the Everything Happens in London Syndrome. For EHLS sufferers, London is the limit of their imagination; beyond the Home Counties, there are some vague grey shapes, and something called The North, but apparently it’s all a bit grim there.

Unfortunately, if you work for a major broadsheet or for the BBC, the chances are you’ll live near London (although the BBC are trying to set up camp in Manchester – let’s see how much grumbling we’ll hear about that).  Therefore, news stories have a tangible London-centricity, with events affecting anywhere else labelled as ‘regional.’
I notice this occasionally, but it has riled me recently because of the reporting of the Slutwalks which hit British shores last week. I attended both Newcastle and Manchester’s Slutwalks, both of which attracted large crowds, especially the latter. The Newcastle event was not reported on the BBC website; Manchester’s received one paragraph. But guess what? London’s Slutwalk yesterday merited a long analysis and feature report.

It’s the same story on the Guardian, Independent and Telegraph websites (let’s take it as read that the Page -3-toting tabloids aren’t going to add to the Slutwalk debate meaningfully…) In some ways I understand – the event in London is the biggest. But most reports only briefly mentioned the widespread nature of the marches, or failed to do so at all.

But one of the most fantastic things about Slutwalks are their grassroots nature. They have sprung up across the UK independent of one another; wherever you live, there WILL be a Slutwalk nearby over the next month or so. It would be great to see the media emphasising this, instead of reinforcing the tired old view that Everything Happens in London.

It’s even more pertinent, in my view, for local feminist and women’s groups to support local Slutwalks rather than just flocking to London. Building bridges and showing solidarity with your nearest groups is always immensely useful and a reminder you’re not alone – Slutwalks are the perfect chance to do this. 

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

The stand I didn't know I was making

  It is generally considered unacceptably rude to tell a stranger that you find their appearance disgusting. Even the most tolerant among us find certain people and certain characteristics unattractive; it takes a great deal of determination and broad-mindedness to prevent appearance from affecting your judgment of someone. However, most of us are sympathetic enough to refrain from airing our personal gripes about each others’ externals – one person’s ugly is another’s beautiful.

This, apparently, goes out the window when it comes to body hair. Female body hair, more specifically.

I realise I am in the minority when I say I do not find unshaven women unattractive. Body hair does not have that trigger effect for me  - ‘Ew! Hair!’ – and genitals that I can see the goosebumps on just don’t do it for me.

Too much info? Yeah, it is; no-one should give a shit about what I think of body hair, apart from the person I’m sleeping with. This doesn’t stop the widespread and abhorrent tendency of the tabloid press to scrupulously pick over pictures of female celebrities, and triumphantly crow ‘LOOK! WE’VE FOUND ONE WHO FORGOT TO SHAVE THE STUBBLE OFF HER ARMPITS!’ According to them, the public desperately care whether or not Sandra Bullock shaves her armpits. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop with the press.

I recently had a hostile and (to me) entirely unexpected experience relating to my body hair. As of a few months ago, I stopped shaving/waxing my armpits. There were numerous reasons – shaving produced stubble that needed removal every few days, but waxing was painful and expensive; I was ruining the delicate skin under my arms; and, genuinely, I hated how my skin looked shaved. I also had a think about why I ever removed the hair in the first place – every other woman I have ever known does it; people might find the hair disgusting; and … that was it. So I opted out. As far as I am concerned, deciding not to remove one’s body hair is an entirely personal decision; it makes me feel much better than fretting over the stubble on my legs or the decision whether to wax or shave.

However, it seems the personal cannot be entirely divorced from the political. In the student publication I write for, someone wrote a light-hearted, uplifting article giving the opinion that this summer, we should all stop striving for a ‘perfect’ beach body, and not be afraid to enjoy the sun whether or not we carry a spare tyre, or have stubble on our legs. The website has a comment facility; I wrote that I was in full-hearted agreement – we should feel free to do that, because I have, and I have never encountered disgusted looks or comments from strangers. To imagine one would would be to have a very poor view of humanity.

The original can be found here. But let me give you an abbreviated run-down of the ensuing comment thread:

Anonymous: Nothing wrong with being pale and a bit fat but dear god no-one wants to see unshaven bits, there's no excuse for that! I like to cheat the world with decent nude tights in summer. Even skin tone, slight tan, and stubbly leg cover up! What more could you want!

I was slightly put out by this person's judgement. So, being the person I am, replied:

Gillian Love: ...Why thank you. I shall indeed take your advice and tear all of the hair out of my skin so that everyone can rest easy. Or, indeed, go out in the sun in tights and get a super-sweaty groin. Mmm.
P.S. Wanna get rid of that stubble? Don't shave!

From personal experience, going out with stubbly legs is highly preferable to going out in the blazing sun with nylon tubes strapped to your legs and groin. Seriously. But, on with the responses:

Anonymous: Gillian Love: confirming stereotypes of feminists everywhere since 2011.

Anonymous: That is truly disgusting...and sweaty groin? Er, gross?...

Anonymous: Girls, please don't get hung up about how you look in the sun, it's true that too much is made of perfection. But for the love of God, please continue to shave and if you get a 'super-sweaty groin' should you don tights, please please don't share this info :)

After protesting, and addressing the author of the article by saying it is entirely her decision whether she shave or not, I was miraculously backed up:

Justin: I'm astonished by the force of commentor's reactions here to what is clearly a completely personal decision...what makes you think your personal taste is anyone's business but your own?...How bewilderingly arrogant to angrily denounce somebody merely for not, in your eyes, being attractive enough!

Justin, I salute you. But you know what all of those anonymous commenters said in their defence?

Anonymous: Pretty much all of the comments here were directed at Gillian, not the original article, which is an admirable and good piece.

It's bewilderingly OK to attack my body hair, but not the author's. Because apparently I was being provocative. Because I agreed that not shaving can be OK. And, according to one woefully illiterate guy:

David Spelling: ...chastising people who object to *celebration* of female obesity and hairiness, or oddly enthusiatic descriptions of sweaty groins, is childish...

Pretty sure I've never celebrated a sweaty groin. But there you go.

The point of this long post is to show that a decision that I believed was personal, and one someone else wrote about and I agreed with, was attacked on entirely personal terms but as a political decision. I was disgusting, I was wrong, because I don't shave and prefer not to wear tights in the sun. I was also making a feminist statement, according to these strangers (the fact the decision ties in with some of my feminst beliefs is not important - remember, these guys don't know me). The only other person expressing the same view as me, who was not attacked personally? A guy.

Before I am accused of misandry, I want to make clear that there is as much, if not more, pressure from women to remove body hair as there is from men (remember the tabloid hacks above). However, I have an acute problem with receiving the opinion that body hair is disgusting from a person who has never felt the pressure to remove his own. He has never stayed indoors instead of going out because he'd run out of wax strips; he has never felt like crying because he looked in the mirror and realised he's forgotten to shave his armpits; and he has never been told by strangers that the unavoidable growth of bodily hair is repugnant (but only on arbitrary parts of the body). Which makes it all the more relieving to find men (and women) who actually don't give a fuck about your hair follicles.

So, by having hairy armpits and legs I am actually making a loud statement without intending (or initially wanting) to. But, you know what? Bring it on. If people take it as such, I'll treat it as such, because since taking the decision to let my body hair grow, I have felt comfortable in my own skin for the first time in my life. If anyone, especially strangers, are disgusted or offended by my body, the onus is entirely on them to change. Because now that I've encountered my first hostile body-hair-haterz, my personal has become political.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Inside the Slutwalk Movement

   It was a cold day in Newcastle. That didn’t deter any of the women clustered around Grey’s Monument in the city centre; from bras and mini-skirts to hoodies (and one wedding dress), hundreds had turned out for Newcastle’s Slutwalk. The message was clear and resounding: “Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no!”

  The unity of the message surprised me. Having avidly followed the swift rise of the Slutwalk movement from its reactionary beginnings (you all know the story – policeman says “don’t dress like a slut if you don’t want to be raped,” thousands of women across Canada say “fuck you”), I had been aware of how divisive it had amongst feminists in the UK. The message of the Slutwalks was contested – how can we ever reclaim a word so derogatory and negative? Why on earth should we pander to a stereotype of female sexuality by dressing ‘sluttishly’ and parading through the streets? And if no one can decide the answers to these questions, how can the movement move forward with a unified objective?

  On the march on Saturday, there was no deliberation about whether the word ‘slut’ can be reclaimed (I believe any word can – the history of ‘queer’ is a fantastic example). People simply emblazoned these four powerful letters across their backs, their faces and their chests, because they were not ashamed by what the word represents. They refused to accept that ‘slut’ implies a lack of morals, or a desperation to engage in sexual acivity, and certainly not that the label justifies sexual violence. Instead, they appeared to confront the term head-on by embracing some or all of these meanings: I enjoy sex; I enjoy my body; I am sexually promiscuous; I have my own style of dress - so why should it be a word of shame?

  As for the moral panic which has recently scoured the airwaves about young women roaming the streets in their underwear, objectors need to remember that this is a protest. By marching through the streets and proclaiming that even though we’re in our bras and hotpants, we don’t deserve to be raped, we aren’t saying that this is it – the time has come for women to throw off their clothes and pop down the shops in their undies, and damn you if you try to stop us! It means simply that no matter what you wear, you shouldn’t be raped. Radical, I know.

  So the message of Newclastle’s Slutwalk was not muddled, nor was there fierce infighting about what the movement should represent. It was certainly visually confrontational (especially to some bemused shoppers faced with a crowd of variously-dressed protestors), but not in any other way (a few had issues with a Christian preacher at the march’s beginning, but they were a minority and were separate from the march’s aims). Many onlookers politely enquired what the walk was about, and came away with firm answers: we don’t like slut-shaming, we don’t like victim-blaming, and we want to wear what we want.

  There are many more Slutwalks planned across the UK, and I am excited to see what Manchester’s has to offer on 10th June. All of my doubts about the movement’s message and its implications were utterly dispelled by Slutwalk Newcastle; its message was worthy and powerfully executed. And when I do go to Manchester, I think this time I’ll go in my bra. Because I can.