Fauxgress Watch: “Gentlemen Prefer Curves”

If we want to end cultural pressure on women to make their bodies conform to an ideal, we need to reject – not embrace – the idea that “men prefer curvy women” or “men like women to have some curves”. I know it’s tempting for those of us whose natural body shape puts us outside the sociocultural beauty ideal to try to latch onto this idea to regain some confidence. I also understand wanting to propagate a message that subverts dominant beauty standards, and because it attempts to do that, this message is not as harmful as a message that says the opposite. Nevertheless, a cursory analysis of this message reveals that it is not really progress. It does not promote genuine freedom from misogyny and beautyism.

First, by invoking male approval to validate a certain female body type, this message reinforces the idea that men’s approval of women’s bodies is the most relevant and important yardstick by which the quality our bodies should be measured. In this framework, women are seen to be valuable largely (or indeed only) to the extent that they are enjoyed by men. This idea is implicitly invoked whenever men’s approval is deemed the most suitable basis on which women are invited to build their self esteem. Obviously, this idea is deeply misogynistic and seriously heterosexist. It’s also damaging on a psychological level for individual women to base their self worth on the extent to which they please men.

Secondly, this message reinforces the idea there is a need to rank women’s bodies at all. It implies that some kind of hierarchy should exist. People who propagate this message want the current regime inverted to favour women with “some curves” rather than very thin women. This not only ignores but actively undermines the superior goal of destroying the whole concept of a beauty hierarchy. Instead of criticising the whole disgusting concept of ranking people based on the extent to which their bodies conform to the conventional ideal, the message actually reinforces it as a worthwhile exercise.

Thirdly, this message subtextually supports the idea that there is one nebulous, homogeneous entity of “men” who all like the same thing. Although this is what women’s magazines, men’s magazines and many human beings seem to believe, this is bullshit. This erases not only men who do like skinny women, but also men who like other men, men who prefer very fat women rather than women with merely “some” curves, men who prefer genderqueer or intersex partners, asexual men, demisexual men, men who don’t care about any physical attributes of their partners, and so on. Also, the message that all people, or even most people, have highly similar sexual preferences and desires is damaging in another way: it is part of what makes the existence of a cultural beauty standard so poisonous, because it allows our culture to invoke a monolith of attraction/disgust for certain bodies.

It is perfectly fine – important, in fact – for us to make media celebrating the fact that some people are really into women whose bodies are larger than the current sociocultural beauty ideal. Given the state of mainstream culture, it is fast becoming absolutely crucial we make media acknowledging that human sexuality is diverse, and that being outside the boundaries of conventional attractiveness does not mean nobody finds you hot, sexy, gorgeous, or beautiful. That would be real progress. This isn’t.

White Privilege in the Dojang

I have been practicing the Korean martial art of taekwondo for eight years now. Often, I am the only white person in the dojang (training hall). I am ashamed to say that I only recently noticed the way in which my white privilege enters the space, and I think it’s worth talking about. I have heard quite a few white people claim that their privilege ends when they become the minority in any location. This is complete bullshit, and so to arm anyone who wishes to argue against this crap, I want to set down the ways in which my white privilege operates when I am the only white person in the room.

Firstly, it seems to me that because I am white, I am considered to hold an amount of authority disproportionate to my actual expertise. I am a black belt, but only a first Dan, which is a much lower ranking than the third and fourth Dans who run the class. Yet when I voice an opinion about an activity or training exercise, my views are taken very seriously. Because white people are so overwhelmingly represented in positions of competence and power, both in western media and in global media, my whiteness provides me with extra authority in the eyes of my Korean instructors and classmates. Authority that I have not earned and do not deserve. Now that I realise that, I try not to interject simply to voice my preferences. I try to stay silent when we are discussing training activities, unless I feel that there is a substantive, important point I can make that others have overlooked.

Secondly, when everyone else is speaking Korean, I feel subconsciously entitled to ask what is being said. I only understand very simple Korean terms and phrases that relate to taekwondo. Most of the other students are either first or second generation immigrants, and some of our instructors are Korean nationals visiting Australia on student visas to learn English. They all speak Korean fluently. Naturally, they mainly speak Korean to one another. When they do, it simply does not occur to me not to ask what they are saying, because I can’t understand and I want to know.

This is a form of white entitlement. A lone non-white non-English speaker would be unlikely to feel so entitled to ask what a large group of white English-speakers were talking about. POC receive subtle messages that they ought to speak english well enough to understand. White people are socialised to believe that communication is the burden of POC. Because of this, I subconsciously feel I am entitled to understand everything around me and that if I do not then I am entitled to ask POC to explain it to me. That is fucked up. Now that I realise this, I do not ask what is being said unless it seems that something really dramatic or scandalous has occurred, or that it might have something to do with me.

Thirdly, the Korean students use their english names with me and sometimes even with each other. I am never expected to master the correct pronounciation of their birth names, and in some cases I am never even told their birth names. On some level, I think they feel that they should change the name they answer to in order to save me and other white people the possible embarrassment and discomfort of trying and failing to pronounce their Korean names.

I wish to call them by the names they view as their “real” names, but I also don’t want to make them uncomfortable or push them into doing anything they don’t want to do. When I do ask for someone’s Korean name, often their reaction is confusion: why do I want to use their Korean name when they have a perfectly good English name they have already provided me with? I think this is about the dominance of white English speakers, which makes white the default and means everyone else feels they need to fit around us. But at the same time, I really don’t know whether it’s more or less entitled for me to keep asking to learn and use their Korean names! If I make them uncomfortable just so I can feel less guilty, how am I helping the situation at all?

I struggle with this still. I don’t want to make the conversation around race all about white people. I wrote this post to try to illustrate to other white people that our race privilege follows us everywhere. Even if you are the only white person in a room full of POC making fun of white people, you still have race privilege. That privilege infects your mind and makes you think you’re entitled to ask for stuff that no non-white person would dream of asking from you. If you’re white, it is your responsibility to analyse your behaviour and cut that shit out. Unless you’re vigilant, you’re probably stepping on toes every day without even knowing it – and yeah, maybe you didn’t mean to or you didn’t think about it, but as a white person it is your responsibility to think about it and change how you behave. If you don’t, you’re perpetuating the cycle.

The Lament of the Atheist Feminist

I am an atheist and a skeptic who has never been to an organised event related to these communities. In fact, most of my female friends are atheists and yet none of us has ever been to these events. I can’t speak for them, but for my part, it is partially because as a woman my encounters with these communities online have been really mixed.

These movements are unfortunately overpopulated with men who are obsessed with androcentrism and a blunt, blinkered perversion of inductive reasoning that they employ without questioning their premises. I have felt emotionally unsafe in comments sections on rationalist/skeptic blogs, usually when the issue of “getting a girl” gets raised: because the answer is usually that if men’s precious right to hit on ladies is ever impeded in any way by anything at all (for example, common courtesy or human decency) it is an outrage and a grave injustice. How else will they ever “get” girls?

Women’s objections to this way of thinking have been largely ignored in the community until very recently. Atheists and skeptics were forced to confront the situation when, in a youtube video, prominent feminist skeptic Rebecca Watson expressed her concerns about some men at atheist events lacking a firm grasp of the boundaries of appropriate flirtation or how to treat women in general.

Her argument was simple: a man who approaches a woman in an elevator at 4 in the morning and asks her back to his hotel room, after she has clearly stated that she is tired and wants to go to bed, is being creepy, pushy and generally demonstrating a suspiciously cavalier attitude towards the stated wishes of the woman.

It should be beyond obvious that such behaviour is likely to make a woman feel unsafe. First, because it reinforces that these men think their desire to hit on us is more important than any of our desires. That’s pretty skeevy, guys. Moreover, for many women it is actually seriously scary, because it’s not that uncommon for men – even men who seem very nice – to go further with that cavalier attitude and actually commit sexual assault. Rebecca clearly said she did not fear being raped, but in her situation, I think I would have been subconsciously worried.

In case it’s hard for men to remember this, let me remind you: in Australia, 1 in 5 women experiences sexual assault at some time. In America, 1 in 6 women is the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime – most of them completed. Many women are pretty fucking aware that being alone in an elevator with a guy hitting on us at 4 am can go really very badly for us, and colour me unsympathetic to you if you are lucky enough to be oblivious to that.

The community’s response to Rebecca’s video is pretty predictable: the men who don’t get it are whinging about being victims of prejudiced women, while the rest of us are respectfully discussing how the community can make the situation better. My homeboy and hero PZ Myers has our back on this. Awesome atheist women like Jen McCreight at Blaghag are on it too, and Rebecca’s follow-up post is great.  But what I did not expect was for Richard Dawkins to throw in with the people claiming that their right to hit on women in elevators after said women have expressed their desire to go to bed alone is absolutely sacrosanct.

I really respect Richard Dawkins. I love his writing about evolution, genetics, and zoology. I love The Blind Watchmaker, The View from Mount Improbable, and The God Delusion. He is a great thinker, a great writer and a person who has done a lot for atheism around the world. I admire his academic career immensely, and I wish to emulate his commitment to educating the public. I am a huge fan. It absolutely guts me to see him casually dismiss Rebecca’s concerns, and by proxy the concerns of all women in these situations. It shows a complete lack of empathy and an unwillingness to step outside of his male social role and imagine what it might be like to be a woman. To have men feel they have a right to hit on him whenever they want to, regardless of how he feels about it. To have a substantial chance of being raped in his lifetime.

Dawkins says that he doesn’t understand how Rebecca could be so hurt by mere words. Do we really need to explain that words mean things, words cause harm, words can be used to threaten, intimidate and abuse people? Do we really have to explain this to an adult human being? Yes, obviously it’s worse to both verbally and physically assault someone, but that doesn’t make it okay to use words to make them uncomfortable.

The other issue Dawkins raised is the fact that western women have it much better than women  in the Middle East, so we shouldn’t focus on the plight of western women at all. It is definitely true that women as a class face must greater oppression in those nations, but that doesn’t mean that Western women are not allowed to be concerned about issues in our own lives. In fact, surely the plight of women in the Sudan is much more important than say, I don’t know, the academic field of zoology for example. Therefore nobody should ever spend time doing zoological research because that detracts from our focus on women being raped in the Sudan. So unless you’re quitting your job to go help out in the Sudan, don’t come at me with this. You’re allowed to surf the internet in your spare time, I’m allowed to talk about the ways in which I feel unsafe in public because of how men treat me in my spare time.

Overall, It’s very hard for women to come into atheist and skeptical spaces when we know this attitude prevails. The men inside the movement have to take some responsibility for their own behaviour and start working to change this, or not only will there not be more women in the community anytime soon, but there may very well be fewer of them. That’s bad for everyone. Surely even the most self-involved atheists must be aware that the movement for a more secular society needs all the support it can get. Of course, you should care about how women feel because women are human beings. But if that’s not enough for you, how about this: start paying attention to how women feel, or we are all going to lose.

Obligatory Awkward Introduction

If there were a Venn diagram with Social Justice Activism, Ethical Capitalism and Science & Rationality, the central overlap would contain The Social Justice League. We are a group of geeky, sex-positive and fat-positive feminists who hate the kyriarchy and like the sound of our own voices. This blog is a place for us to put our thoughts on issues related to our own marginalisation, our own privilege, and our thoughts on how social justice interacts with science, skepticism, geekdom and popular culture.

Although we are of different races, sexual orientations, body sizes, and degrees of mental and physical health, we do share some common traits that could lead to common biases. We are all cisgendered women. We have all either completed or are currently completing tertiary education at a large Australian university. We are all at this time broadly part of the “middle class”.

Although we consider our ignorance our own responsibility, we are likely to occasionally fuck it up, and we would love to be called out if we are displaying privilege or ignorance. We promise that if you call us out on some unexamined privilege, we will take it seriously and treat you with respect.  We are actively seeking to get informed about our privilege and our unexamined prejudices.

You can assume that we agree on the fundamentals, but we’re also individuals who will sometimes have differing opinions or perspectives on a topic. Therefore, each author’s view is wholly their own. We approve of member posts as a group, but approval is rooted in constructive discussion; it does not mean we all necessarily hold that same view.

We really hope other people will want to discuss the issues we raise. We have some suggestions for how to make that run smoothly for everyone:

First, we don’t use the word “crazy” in our posts, and we ask that you avoid using it in our comments, because crazy is an ableist word. We also don’t use the words “retarded“, “gay” or “lame” to mean bad, and we ask that you avoid using them in the comments too.

Second, we will delete comments containing sentiments that harm a marginalised community without providing a constructive or original contribution to the discussion. Free speech is something you demand from your government, not from us.