Saturday, November 20, 2010

On Diets and Weight Loss

[Trigger warning for discussion of disordered eating]

I tend to avoid conversations about weight, fat and weighing yourself because I have, and have since I was a teenager, thought that what really matters is whether you are healthy. Of course, I have the privilege of being able to avoid such conversations on account of my being thin without putting in constant effort.

However, it is impossible for me to avoid it completely, as occasionally a person who I am talking to will begin such a conversation.

So recently, I was having a conversation with one of my female coworkers. I think we had been talking about buying t-shirts or something, and thus got led onto the topic of weight and fat. At first, she was lamenting the fact that the t-shirt she would have to buy was a bigger size than me, so I was pointing out that it is because I have a very narrow ribcage and shoulders. Somehow we got onto the topic of one of her friends, who is fat. I don't think she was even particularly fat, at size 18 (in Australian women's), but she put tremendous effort into weight loss.

Apparently she stopped eating every second day, and ate reduced quantities on the days that she did eat. She did this until she starved her way down to a size 12.

I expressed my horror that she would do something like that to her body, just for an impossible aesthetic standard that society imposes. I expressed that starving herself is extremely unhealthy, and could have numerous side effects like vitamin deficiency, anaemia, difficulty concentrating, etc. I expressed that I thought that she would gain the weight back and more when she started eating normally again, since the body would interpret the deprivation as a famine, as what it really is, as starvation, and thus lower her metabolic rate to store more reserves for future famines.

I expressed these things, only to be told that "I don't understand because I'm thin", and "I don't understand what it's like to need to do this to attract a husband".

You're right, I don't fully understand the pressure that fat women get to loose weight in our society because I haven't experienced it. However, I believe I am qualified enough to speak about the unhealth of starvation, even though I haven't experienced that. I believe I am fully qualified to be horrified at our society that shames fat people so ruthlessly that people are driven to starvethemselves, that they are driven to harm their bodies in pursuit of an impossible ideal. I can also express my sadness at society for placing a woman's worth on her marital status, and on her physical appearance. I can express sadness that damaging ones body is seen as necessary in order to achieve that worth through the necessity of being thin.

How did society get this broken, and how do we fix it? Where can we start? What can I do as an individual?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

On Women in Technology

This is the reading packet I sent to a man who questioned the need for the Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship for women in Computer Science and related fields. I had the privilege of meeting and congratulating the finalists for this year's scholarship.

The Anita Borg Scholarship:
Dr. Anita Borg (1949-2003) devoted her adult life to revolutionising the way we think about technology and dismantling barriers that keep women and minorities from entering computing and technology fields. Her combination of technical expertise and fearless vision continues to inspire and motivate countless women to become active participants and leaders in creating technology.
As part of Google’s ongoing commitment to furthering Anita’s vision, we are pleased to announce the 2010 Google Australia and New Zealand Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship. Through the scholarship, we aim to encourage women to excel in computing and technology, and become active role models and leaders.
Scholarships will be awarded based on the strength of candidates’ academic background and demonstrated leadership. A group of female undergraduate and graduate student finalists will be chosen from the applicant pool. Each scholar recipient will receive a $5,000 scholarship towards the 2011 academic year.
I'd also like to add: 
All the women at the retreat have spent significant amounts of time actively mentoring younger women in eng, organising outreach programs both university women and high school girls. The Anita Borg Scholarship is in recognition of these efforts, in addition to being a high-achieving woman in computer science. As such, I would not have been a good candidate for this scholarship, on account that I did little for the advancement of women at the University of Canterbury, despite the glaring problem of being 1 of 5 females in a pool of about 70 students.

This is the book we studied for the Anita Borg Scholarship Retreat this year:
Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher
In which the authors do a study by interviewing over 100 CS students at Carnegie Mellon University. I highly recommend this book, as the experiences described by the women who were interviewed are very common amongst the women in engineering whom I have talked to.

Some other interesting links:

On privilege and why you won't have heard of the comments I spoke about ("you're only here because you're a girl", "why are you making your life harder by doing X", "you'll be meeting lots of eligible bachelors at Google")

Anita Borg Institute research index:

Feminism 101 has a lot of clarifying articles:

If you're feeling very ambitious, I recommend reading all the articles here:

Enjoy some weekend reading!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

No, you may not call me "sweetheart"...

... or darling, love, baby, honey, or any other term of endearment without my permission.

That means you, bartender, you, shopkeeper, and you, the random person(s) I nod hello to when I'm walking down the street.

Terms of endearment are reserved for those who you hold dear - not for random people you meet in every day life. You might call your partner "darling" or your child "sweetheart". Why are you cheapening these terms by using them on everyone, rather than reserving them for those you are close to? Are you intending to imply that I, a stranger, am as special to you as your partner? Are you (especially young male offenders) assuming that by the fact that I appear to be a woman, that I want/like the familiarity you imply by calling me "sweetheart"? Are you assuming that I want/like the implicit approval of my "cuteness" or "prettiness" you feel like you are giving? If you're an older man, do you realise that I might find it incredibly creepy? Young women, I think you may be using it to convey community with me, but I'm not sure. Please don't assume that I belong or want to belong to whatever club you are including me in.

Do you not all realise that it is horribly condescending to assume that I would be ok with you using a term of endearment for me without first getting my permission?

Actually, I don't care what your reasons for using terms of endearment for me inappropriately are. I don't like it. Please stop.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

On friends who won't engage with reason...

So I have a friend, who for some reason has started posting the most venomous anti-feminist statements as her facebook status messages. Of course this annoys the heck out of me as they are not exactly flattering to anyone... and the person who I think they insult the most is herself. Unfortunately, she seems to have a bunch of friends (who I don't know) who agree with her and reinforce the stereotypes she is perpetuating. I'm pretty much at a loss because I tried pointing out how her comments weren't very nice, but she insisted that they were "true" and basically accused me of attacking her and not respecting her opinions. She is a very intelligent woman and I don't understand how she can not understand what is wrong with her statements!

I like her as a friend, and I think it would be a huge shame to give up on her, but I'm seriously considering it if she keeps this up. It's rather saddening.

I wrote summaries and brief analyses of my thought processes in our conversations after the fold.

Her statements with my responses (paraphrased if without quotes because I don't remember the original wording and it has been removed):

Women should be paid less because they have wombs and you never know when they will get pregnant and thus you are taking a risk in training them up.
I didn't get a chance to respond to this before she removed it. At least she realised it was wrong if she removed it I guess?
But anywho, my immediate reaction would be to point out that this is tremendously unfair to those who can't/don't get pregnant, and also because people with wombs can't help having them. I guess this one is the easiest to respond to with common sense.

A few days later she posts this:
"I don't understand why I should be held accountable for being emotional and totally unreasonable. Am I not a woman for goodness sake?!"
My response:
"Because assuming that women are totally unreasonable isn't very nice?"
Her: something along the lines of "Oh, but we can be, especially once a month" (She deleted that particular reply, but none of the rest of the thread. Not sure why...)
Somebody else jumps in and tells me I don't want to argue with her because she'll be so irrational it won't make sense.
My response:
What can I say? Being a woman is not an excuse for being unreasonable. I hate those stereotypes because while they allow women to have freedom to express their emotions they are often used to discount our feelings/opinions. Women are not slaves to their hormones, and saying that they are is damaging.
$name, you're an adult, and part of being an adult is being held accountable for your actions. Please don't degrade all women to excuse your own occasional irrationality.
She says "ok", hard to tell what she means by that so I take it at face value and leave it at that. Somebody else posts a reply that says "sarcasm alert!" but I give her the benefit of the doubt.

Then comes this post:
"most girls are manipulative and most guys fall for it time and time again"
Some other women reply and agree with her, saying
"so true! girls are like venom and guys are like venom-seekers... except the gay guys of course, they seek venom-seekers"
Perhaps if that reply hadn't been posted I possibly wouldn't have said anything, but after that I feel almost obligated to stick my neck out. I say:
"Wtf $name, why the sweeping generalisations lately? So basically you're saying that all women are controlling and all men are idiots. Don't you think that saying things like this is insulting/damaging to everyone? Do you really want to build relationships around these assumptions?"
To which she replies:
"If you read my status *properly* you'll find that I never used the word "all", therefore, YOU were the one who misrepresented me and generalized by using words such as "all" and "everyone". I would really appreciate it if you can recognize sarcasm or respect my opinions (like I respect yours even though I don't agree with some of the things you do) because I am going to post whatever the heck I like. If you choose not to, then there are other measures you can take to ensure that my comments don't "damage" you (so dramatic!). And no, I don't think my comment was insulting/damaging to "everyone", just one or two :)"
which somebody "liked"
... I don't think she understood what I was trying to say at all. The difference between "all" and "most" in this context is hardly the issue here - the effect of using them here is pretty much interchangeable. I think perhaps she is trying to derail me as a defensive mechanism? (I feel so cold putting it like that!) "I was being sarcastic" is a pretty unimaginative defense, as are the later parts in which I think she is implying that I am "censoring" her and that I am taking it too personally. Hmm... I attempt to sidestep the worst of the derailing attempt and reply:
$name, the problem is not that I am insulted by your comments (even though I am!), but that such comments perpetuate tired, old stereotypes. Every time we hear things like this, they are cemented further into the back of our minds, and if we hear it often enough we begin to think of it as "truth".
Of course there are measures I could take to prevent myself from being annoyed by your comments, like making your wall posts not appear in my feed or unfriending you. However I think it would be a shame because you are my friend and I would lose touch with you. I am also speaking out because I believe we can all build better relationships with each other if we stop making assumptions about people based on their perceived sex or gender. Yes, I have a personal stake in this battle, but don't you too? As a woman, aren't stereotypes about women being manipulative insulting to you too? Or do you consider yourself an exception?
I don't know how she will respond to this. I need references and backing up by somebody so I'm not the lone voice of dissent. I don't think I was entirely successful with the first paragraph either. Argh, I need someone who is better versed in feminist theory and who is better with words than I.

.... What a train wreck. I'm now horribly frustrated and I think I pissed her off, perhaps ruining my chances of getting her to think about what she is saying. She is also living in a different country to me at the moment so I can't go and talk to her in person, and we're not really close enough for me to make the long distance call. Besides, I'm not the greatest at thinking of arguments on the spot, so I don't know how much that would help anyway. I'm not sure all this is worth the effort.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

On Hair

A dear friend of mine told me I should try wearing dresses, makeup and heels more often, and growing my hair to attract men. I laughed and told her that that just wasn't me, and said that you don't need to do that to be attractive to men. It still made me sad inside that she thinks that external trappings like that are the best way to attract a partner.

Sure, some men find those things attractive, there's no denying that. But I have found much the reverse since I had my hair cut short. Although I have had far less harassment on the streets - sooo much less cat calling, whistling or honking - men that I am already acquainted with seem to find me more interesting. I'm not sure whether this is an effect of suddenly being (openly) single, but it is certainly a desirable effect!

I definitely think that someone should do a study on the length of (female) hair vs. harassment received from strangers.