Snip snip

Thursday, 31 March 2011

How is this acceptable?

After tomorrow, 62% of refuge services will have no funding and neither will 72% of services provided in peoples' homes.

An estimated 40% job losses predicted across the domestic violence sector.

70,000 women and children could be without support, as of tomorrow.

400 refuge spaces cut to 160.

Yesterday we learned that the Government is to abolish the measures it put in place to try to tackle Female Genital Mutilation. According to the Guardian:

"The news comes a month after the government launched guidelines to help frontline workers in health, education and social services identify and prevent FGM, and pledged its commitment to ending the practice.

But charities say that without a central government co-ordinator, crucial efforts to raise awareness among professionals on a local level, where the issue is often still not understood, could be seriously hampered."

When the guidelines were launched, Lynne Featherstone said:

"I have seen first hand the effect this abhorrent crime can have on women and girls. This government is determined to put an end to it."

So determined, in fact, that they're no longer going to bother with trying to tackle it.

Earlier this month I spent time in a country where better provision for women and children who are victims of domestic violence is badly needed. Shelters, for one thing - they don't exist. One of the women I talked to spoke of how refuges were one of the things she really felt her city needed and of how she felt they would make a big difference to many women. I listened to women talk about the problems this lack of provision causes - women having nowhere to go when they want to leave their partner - so they don't leave. Women who feel they can't support themselves and they're trapped because no-one else will help support them when they need it most - so they don't leave. And the violence gets hushed up, hidden away - and more serious.

Is that really what those running this country want?

Said Theresa May on International Women's Day, just three weeks ago:

"I want to see an end to all forms of violence against women and girls. Our comprehensive and detailed action plan sets out how we are going to tackle these crimes – supporting those at risk, helping victims and ensuring offenders are brought to justice.

"Most importantly we need to prevent these crimes occurring in the first place. That is why we are challenging, and where necessary working to change, attitudes and behaviours."

Somehow I don't think what's going to happen tomorrow will help.

What does 'bigger' and 'sturdy' look like? The Sartorialist wants to show you

Monday, 28 March 2011

Making regular appearances on my Twitter timeline since this afternoon: the latest post from The Sartorialist.

He spotlights a woman who is, apparently, 'one of the crop of new bloggers' (sorry, I'm not an obsessive follower of fashion blogs so I don't know anything more about her) - incidentally, without bothering to link her. Not only is she a fledgling blogger, she's also special because she's a 'bigger, curvier girl than most of the other bloggers who you see in the the press and tend to represent the genre'.

Hear that, Scott? That's the sound of a slow handclap because I don't think anyone can quite believe that you just made a point of describing the woman in those pictures as 'bigger', before referring to her 'sturdy' legs and the way that it's okay, she's balancing out their proportions with big shoes because, you know, those legs would overwhelm dainty footwear.

Now I don't really take offence at him having called her 'curvy' as some people have done (including many commenters on the blog, who feel he is using 'curvy' as a euphemism for 'fat' and that the words he has used in the post are negative words - of course they only are if you make them so). We see her side-on. It's kind of difficult to tell what her body shape is so it's pointless to discuss it. Different people have different perceptions of body size and shape so all I will say is that she's a woman who's slimmer than the average woman.

So what is it which has bothered me so much about the post? It's the description of her as 'bigger than other bloggers', which is ridiculous. In my only other real foray into blogging about fashion I spent some time discussing how in general, the fashion bloggers which get the most attention from mainstream media, the sponsorships and the clothing deals are the very young, white, thin, moneyed ones. I also pointed out that for those who care and who want to participate, there are thousands of blogs out there which are inclusive regarding age, gender, race and size, which are run by plus-size women and women in their 40s. Blogs that don't treat anything which deviates from the usual formula as something worthy of a special mention, like fashion magazine editors putting out a super-inclusive 'curvy issue' or 'black issue' once every few years and patting themselves on the back for months about just how revolutionary they're being.

So while Scott's right that the big-name bloggers tend to look a certain way, it's not like the rest of them don't exist. And it's hardly as if Angelika's look represents a major change compared to these big name bloggers, is it? It's extremely telling that all those years of photographing the beautiful and the stylish have left him believing that her body shape and her look represents a radical departure from the norm. If he hadn't made such a point of discussing her size I wouldn't even have noticed the supposed 'difference'.

My question is, why comment on it at all? I like street style blogs. I like them best when they are a real representation of the city they focus on, regardless of how conventionally attractive, thin or young the subject is. If the blog's about the clothes, comments on the subject's body type don't need to come into it, much less such patronising comments - the 'sturdy', the part about the shoes, which leaves you wondering what Scott really thinks about how Angelika looks and why he really felt the need to discuss it. After all, this is the man whose equally well-known partner has described him as her "weight loss coach".

He has said in the past that 'older' and 'larger' women are often reluctant for him to photograph them, which may well be the case, but it does leave me wondering when there's no shortage of them on plenty of other street style blogs.

Furthermore, what's up with the policing regarding what people should and shouldn't wear? So Angelika, 'bigger' than other bloggers, needs a certain type of shoe in order for her legs to look okay? The notion that you should not wear various items of clothing and footwear because of your body type is one of the most tedious things out there. I know from past discussions online that one of the things that never fails to get people riled is the sort of 'advice' from magazines and websites which states that wearing clothes is all about 'hiding bad bits' and making your body into the most acceptable version of its natural shape possible. You know, creating the illusion of cleavage, or longer legs, or smaller hips, or making sure you choose jeans to balance out your proportions. So many bloggers spend so much time fighting these messages and being proud to wear what they want and express themselves through whatever clothes they want, yet the biggest names out there are still perpetuating this crap, these 'rules'.

Probably the worst aspect of it all was the fact that, as the negative comments poured in, Scott decided to do a post edit which increased the 'patronising' factor tenfold, describing to us as it does the way he sees the word 'curvy' and how it's totally okay, ladies, to be referred to as such. The edit finishes thus:

"Last week I did a post of older women every day, and I was proud of that. I am proud to be a blog that is showing women of different sizes."

You go, Scott. Keep being proud of the fact that you had a special 'older women week'.

I know, I know. The blog really does feature subjects of more advanced years, but more often than not it'll be older men that you'll see. And older men with slightly more diverse body types, while the older women are still without exception thin. His posts featuring women with the more, ahem, classic fashion blogger physique never include commentary on their size or shape. Does this show his singling out of Angelika in today's post as a good thing, or a bad thing? If you want to showcase diversity, just do it. Don't be self-congratulatory and patronising. Don't make it a one off and make such a big deal of it that you leave us in no doubt that it probably is just a one-off. Don't tie yourself in knots trying to sound less offensive and dig yourself into a deeper hole by inviting your readers to pass judgement on the size and shape of your subject in a way that you never would usually.

"Help me describe this young lady without using the word 'normal', but in a way that addresses her body size..."

Now I know that commenters being judgmental is just what happens on a lot of fashion blogs (including on this particular post - "yes, the jeans do make her legs look chubbier") but you don't have to ASK for it, as if you're talking about some sort of exhibit at a show, a woman whose size and shape needs to be 'addressed' like some sort of oddity. Help me describe this young lady so that my judging of her will be done in a way which is acceptable to you, my fans. It's not good however you look at it.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Does your husband know you're out marching?

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Earlier today, just on a whim, I tweeted:

Feminists in a relationship with a man - how often do you get the 'And what does your partner think about all this?' question?

Answers ranged from "All the bloody time" to "Wow! I don't recall ever hearing it." Me, I get it quite a lot. Sometimes someone will ask in a fairly nervous way, as if I'm about to rip their head off (being a terrifying feminist and all, what else would you expect?). Other times they'll be a bit confrontational, a bit challenging. So does your husband mind that you may or may not have a cavalier attitude towards body hair? Oh, as long as you're not one of those ones with short hair and Dr Martens, then that's okay. Who really wears the trousers in your relationship?

Some time ago there was this man who would always sit next to me on the bus in the morning. We worked for the same company and got on at the same stop. I just wanted to read my newspaper. He just wanted to tell me about his exploits at chess club and his nightmare ex-wife. He told me he was just temping and I'm not going to lie, I longed for the end of his contract because he was downright strange and I don't like small talk. One Friday he asked me if I had any plans for the weekend and I told him I was off to Million Women Rise on the Saturday. He asked what that was and then he asked:

"And how does your husband feel about you going to that sort of thing? Is he okay with it?"

"Er, yeah he is."


A few weeks later I spotted him on the bus one Saturday. He was sat several seats ahead of me, animatedly telling the man sitting next to him about his belief that men are the 'heads' of women and that women should be 'in submission' to them. Personally I can't believe I took a bus journey with him every day for several weeks and he never even tried to evangelise to me. Bad form, Creepy Man.

Creepy Man was just one of many. Women ask me about it too. Every time I wonder what I should say - and not just because I have a really hard time not being sarcastic. Yes, my husband really objects to me being anti-violence against women. And protesting rape. And attempting to fight for equality. What do they expect? It's like they think that's the moment I'm going to admit to being a fully-fledged man-hater, keeping him firmly under the thumb until I decide how to do away with him. Or that I'm going to say that actually, yeah, it's a big issue within our marriage and he wants me to stop and go back to being the sort of wife who says nothing and makes him a sandwich and sits with him on the sofa with downcast eyes instead of swanning off to all those demonstrations.

In all seriousness, it's started to grate a bit. Just so you know, I have an incredibly supportive husband who is pro-equality and has no objections to my writing, or my activism, or my opinions. Some bits of it interest him more than others, but he supports me all the same. As he said to me a while back when I was telling him about an article written by some of our somewhat less equality-minded Christian brothers, "Why would you spend all that time trying to 'prove' that gender equality is a bad thing?" So when I answer in the affirmative to these people, it's a bit of a conversation-killer.

I think there's a few things people mean when they ask me this question. Does he feel threatened by my opinions? Does it mean I'm the one 'in charge'? Does it mean I'm domineering and unpleasant and don't care what he thinks? As the man, he has to approve everything I do and think, right? He gets asked the same sort of things when he's on his own with male acquaintances as well. Are my 'strong opinions' overbearing? Is he okay with me being one of those feminists? Is it threatening his masculinity? Okay, he's never actually been asked that, but I'm sure it's implied.

It's sad that people can't see past this scenario where one person's 'in charge' and one person's 'under the thumb'. Where one person has to 'approve' everything the other does. Where believing that both people are of equal worth is somehow an issue. You very rarely get the assumption that the relationship might in fact be an equal partnership. It's sad that people see my desire to see an end to the oppression of women as some sort of threat rather than A GOOD THING. And I wonder how often people are quick to assume that a woman must be 'under the thumb' if she has a male partner who's politically involved?

In the Christian circles I move in I think there can be a major fear of women with power and women with opinions. They're automatically questioned because for many people there's something not quite right about it. A lot of Christians see strong women as a challenge to 'Biblical womanhood' and the 'correct' order of things, where men are in charge and do the talking and the decision-making. They think of Jezebel.

Even among those who don't feel quite as strongly as your average misogynistic fundamentalist err on the side of caution when it comes to women and power. Woman preaching a sermon? Said with doubtful tone: "Of course it's only okay if that's definitely what God has gifted her to do." Woman in leadership? "Of course we need to know whether she has the correct motives or not." Woman making big decisions? "Well, as long as her husband's okay with it."

This tends not to happen with men and church life. Even though countless men have been exposed as abusive leaders or false teachers, there's not this nervousness about them being in charge. People don't automatically look for the downsides or criticize them as much before getting to know them. It's just assumed that it'll be fine, they're Great Men of God. And, you know, I like to think that before men take on preaching or leading responsibilities they discuss it and agree to it with their wives. But very few people automatically clutch at their pearls and say "Well - is his wife okay with it?!" It's kind of assumed that she will be.

I didn't mean to talk too much about this as it applies to a church setting but I do think that many people could have a bit more faith in this way in women who preach or lead and support them for who they are. It's discouraging to hear it when it's the first reaction to a woman being in a position of power. We need to trust more and believe more that women are being used in this way because that's right where they're meant to be and not because there's something wrong with them.

It's discouraging when it's the first reaction to me saying I've been to a march, or a conference, or that I believe in gender equality. You don't need to be so incredulous or put out that men can be okay with that kind of thing too. You don't need to smirk and say 'Your poor husband!' And I don't need to run every opinion I have past him before I air it in public or go everywhere with him. Just think about how ridiculous it sounds: "Is your husband okay with the fact you believe in the equal worth of men and women?" Yeah, I thought so too.

Women journalists still hitting the glass ceiling

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

A new survey has found that women are severely under-represented in newsrooms around the world.

Research by the International Women's Media Foundation has found that globally, nearly three quarters of top management jobs in news media are held by men, as are two thirds of reporting jobs. The report, which is being officially unveiled today at the International Women Media Leaders Conference taking place in Washington, DC, will be part of wider discussions by women in the media on how to 'level the playing field' globally.

It's the first research of its kind to be conducted since 1995 and sadly, is unable to report any significant improvement in women's representation over the last 16 years.

Although the reasearch showed great variance across individual countries and continents with women making advances towards equality in the boardroom and in pay in some nations, things don't look too good elsewhere.

For example, while the 85 newsrooms surveyed in Eastern Europe 'show strong tendencies toward gender egalitarianism' with no wage gap, men in the media outnumber women 4:1 in Asia and Oceana. And while women in South Africa and Kenya have been able to advance beyond the 'glass ceiling' in recent years, it's been found that women in the UK 'face a glass ceiling that seems fixed at the junior professional level'.

It was also found that only two thirds of Western European newsrooms have a policy on gender equity and fewer than half have a sexual harassment policy.

This fascinating and comprehensive report comes just a couple of weeks after UK organisation Women in Journalism released research it had commissioned in time for International Women's Day, telling us that:

“...women are still underrepresented in Britain’s newspapers, less likely to make editorial positions and less likely to write about hard news, politics and current affairs than their male counterparts.”

WiJ's report - entitled 'A Gendered Press?' - surveyed national newspapers and found that overall, 74% of their journalists are men. Just 22% of reporters at the Independent are women, rising to a 'high' of 36% at the Daily Mail (a fact in itself so depressing I could write a separate column on it). Women are best represented at more senior levels at The Times, holding 40% of editors' roles.

What's interesting is that the research also found that subjects traditionally covered by women - such as the arts and lifestyle features - are increasingly being dominated by men too.

So why is this happening? People have been discussing the 'macho' image of journalism for years - some with the insinuation that women just aren't up to the aggressive, stressful, long-hours culture it perpetuates and some with the feeling that women in the newsroom are treated like lesser beings by their male counterparts.

There's also the marginalisation of women and issues involving them which is visible in every newspaper. The 'hard news' - the 'men's news', written mostly by men, takes up the majority of the paper while stories about women and by women are often kept in a special section and categorised as 'lifestyle' or 'women's pages'.

Roy Greenslade, writing in The Guardian about the research, said of his post-grad journalism students:

"...I have noted the that females generally outnumber male students. Yet the jobs, apparently, still go to the boys. Why is that?"

It's a good question. When I was studying on a post-grad journalism course a few years back, the male to female ratio was actually about equal. Plenty of my female course-mates found jobs pretty quickly. What stands out more is that fact that many of us from that intake don't actually work as journalists any more, having found it incredibly difficult to carve out a career among the incessant closures and redundancies affecting print media these days.

But for those who do make it, where does the problem lie? Undoubtedly, there's sexism present in newsrooms. My mother, a newspaper reporter for over thirty years, has a string of tales about being patronised, being asked to go and make the tea and being incessantly referred to as 'darling'. Having attempted to work in national media once upon a time, I know well that a woman's appearance is a hot topic for discussion whether she's celebrity red-top fodder or the reporter sitting on the other side of the room.

It's also a matter of old boys' clubs. People tend to want to employ and work with people who are like them. Which means we get men employing men employing more and more men - usually middle-class ones from the same universities, too.

And although - thanks to freelance work and the potential to work from home - the industry makes it possible for women to balance work and motherhood, a dismissive attitude to mothers still often remains. Unless of course they're writing about babies and children. For the 'women's section'.

Something needs to be done to ensure the visibility and empowerment of women in all areas of journalism, to ensure that we're not confined to writing about so-called 'soft' news while the big stories get passed to men. Wouldn't it be worrying to do the same research in another 16 years' time and find that nothing had changed?

This post originally appeared at BitchBuzz. Photo from Shavar Ross's Flickr

Guest Post: Hey! Tabloids! Leave Those Kids Alone!

Monday, 21 March 2011

I’d like you to come with me for a moment and enter stage left on every Scout leader’s most disliked experience. It’s raining, your scouts are trying to strike camp. And somebody somewhere is having some kind of “issue”. Odds are a couple of the lads have had a “full and frank exchange of views” and are right now squaring up to each other. Or else somebody has dropped something heavy on a painful part of their body. Kids are great at picking their moments.

“What’s up?” I trot over to the site of the commotion.

“It’s R,” someone says. “She’s not well”.

R is slumped on the floor looking, for want of a better word, like death warmed up. Her worried looking patrol leader (a senior 13/14 year old scout for the uninitiated) and a couple of her friends are stood next to her. R looks pale and is pretty tearful. I deal with it, the gathering crowd are shooed away and I find out the story. In short she’s knackered. She’s knackered because she’s been on the go for the last 3 hours, but unlike the rest of them quietly went without breakfast (and that is to my discredit for not noticing). A mug of hot chocolate and a slab of kendal mint cake later and she is back up and running with her blood sugar back to where it should be. Spot of first aid on camp, not a big issue you might say.

Actually it is a big issue because R is 12 years old and scared of getting fat. And she’s not alone.

As it happens the above is fiction, it would not be appropriate to recount events about a real child, yet it isn't a total lie. It's based on several similar incidents that both I and fellow Scout and Guide leader friends have dealt with. Luckily I have never had to deal with any child with a full on eating disorder, although I know others that have. Yet from what I have seen I don't think it will be long before I do. It may end up being a boy (pressure on boys to be perfect is growing but that is another story for another day) but most likely it will be a girl.

How has it got to the point that I, a 32 year old man, am scraping 12 years girls up off the floor because they are not eating enough? I don’t think that there is a simple answer to that, the reasons are pretty complex, but one of those reasons is, I am convinced, the media obsession with female celebrities and what they look like.

Shortly before Christmas the Daily Mail published this article about Megan Fox. It seems she had the audacity to lose some weight and was a bit thin for the liking of the Mail. It wasn’t that long ago that another celeb was too fat for the Mail (complete with oh-so-subtle comment about curry and pint deal at her local). It doesn’t even have to be the fat/thin thing to get the tabloids (or indeed sometimes the broadsheets) going. It includes almost constant stories about how any woman in the public eye looks, how they dress, what surgery they’ve had, what they’ve done with their hair, ad nauseum, ad infinitum. It seems that what women look like has become the only topic in town.

At the time of writing, on the front page of the Mail website there are no less than 27 stories about what various women celebrities look like, and 3 about men (plus one about Romeo Beckham - don’t think he counts as a man just yet does he?).

And it is not just the tabloids, it’s women’s magazines, men’s magazines, TV shows, broad sheets, websites, you name the media source and it’s there (with the possible exception of radio). It seems like there is a never ending drip feed of the same message, “you have to look perfect, you have to look perfect, you have to look perfect”. And that drip feed hits home every where, from mature adults through teenagers and now to frighteningly young kids.

The result of that does not always result in kids keeling over from lack of food. It manifests itself in a number of other ways. It’s the girl that won’t go canoeing because the wet suit makes her look fat, or won’t use sunscreen because she has to have the perfect tan. And on each occasion you wonder where such a young girl is getting the impression that she has to look perfect, that it really would be a disaster to look anything other than perfect. And time again I come back to the media. Looking at the fronts of magazines in WH Smith, every one of the women’s magazines seems to be obsessed with the latest diet and the shape of whoever is the celeb of the moment. Doesn’t X look amazing for losing weight? Isn’t Y struggling to fight the pounds? And so on and so forth.

Of course the attitude of some boys doesn’t help either (and yes, in Scouts we do crack down on it), yet even some of the attitudes of teenage boys, treating girls simply as sexual objects which is appearing at an increasingly early age can be traced to the media and in particular the grossly irresponsible "lads' mags".

There are of course women who use their body image to make money, as is their right, but we are not talking here about the portrayal of professional models or those who deliberately court attention. It is those constant stories where celebs are snapped while on holiday or out shopping or in the park with their kids, the constant media intrusion that worries me. Those stories show that yes, the glamorous actress does sometimes walk to the corner shop for a pint of milk wearing a hoodie and no makeup, just like we all do. Yet rather than any hint that this is totally normal behaviour girls are told that this is weird, you can’t possibly do that! And so impressionable young girls get the impression that they have to look perfect (whatever that means) all the time and start to worry when they don’t.

I don’t write this pretending to have any answers, I don’t really know where you begin trying to change the whole sorry mess (although on a personal level I hope that organisations like scouts and guides provide an environment where kids can learn that there is far more to their self worth than what they look like). I don’t know what you try and change first or how. But until something does change I guess I’ll just carry on scraping 12 year old girls up off the floor.

This is a guest post by Akela. He's a left wing, enviromentalist, Christian, cheese-eating, football-following, real ale-drinking Scout Leader with a serious dislike of the tabloids. A wannabe children's writer, he used to blog regularly but now just surfaces on other people's blogs instead.

Daily Mail calls 12-year-old rape victims 'Lolitas'

Friday, 18 March 2011

When you cover a case which involves the gang rape of girls as young as 12, you leave us in no doubt what you think of the outcome when you publish a story containing the following:

"Reading Crown Court heard how the soccer players were encouraged by the schoolgirl 'Lolitas'"

Lolitas? Really? You think that's responsible reporting?

"The girls told the men they 16 years old and had sneaked away from a party to be with them after exchanging suggestive text messages..."

"The judge heard that the most active of the two girls, mentioned in five of the six charges, could not have been trusted by the prosecution as a witness.

"She was also being investigated over an unrelated false rape allegation and had a fake age on her Facebook page."

"She said one of the males kept asking her for sex. She was initially reluctant but eventually gave in to his persistence."

"They highlighted the lies of the young girl who took part in most of the sexual activity..."

"They added that the careers of the promising young footballers had been ruined by 'the biggest mistake [of their] lives'."

Is it any wonder that the comments on the story go down the very same route?

"I would say these wayward girls were more at fault than the lads..."

"The prisons are over-crowded as it is. Save the space for genuine criminals not misguided young men like these. It's the girl who instigated all of this who should be punished - not the lads."

(sic) that's not rape. the girls were cooperative..."

"It's not rape. But it is slutty behaviour..."

"I think it is absolutely appalling that these boys have been jailed for this. I am female. They were led on and its the girls who should be charged."

"The girls were underage, yes, but claimed to be 16 (and we all know how tarty some young girls can look)..."

It seems that a lot of people haven't heard of statutory rape and that possibly, the Mail hasn't either, considering the story appears to be intent on hammering home just how much these girls are to blame for what happened to them and that it only outcome has been the ruination of men's lives. Whether the girls texted the men or not, whether they were out late at night or not, this state of affairs the Mail seems to have reached where anything is excusable is disgusting and unforgivable.

And there I was thinking that I hadn't seen a 'evil lying woman out to get men' story for a while. The Mail may not have that particular agenda to push at present (I'm sure they'd hoped that plans to grant anonymity to rape defendants wouldn't be scrapped) but you know they're sure as hell going to carry on promoting it anyway. Maybe, like me, they've read the studies and articles discussing the way the media has an incredible influence on public perception of sexual violence and victim blaming. And maybe that's why they do it, even going to the lengths of trying to justify men having sex with 12-year olds because at the end of the day, a rape allegation is usually nothing more than a woman trying to ruin a man's life.

EDIT: more posts worth reading

The Daily Mail and the Sidebar of Judgement

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Last week Penny Smith, writing for the Daily Mail, asked 'Why do we women hate our bodies?'. Several of my fellow tabloid-watching bloggers pointed out the hypocrisy of the Mail's obsession with asking this question (look back through the archives and you'll find several similar stories published over the past couple of years). I must admit I haven't been visiting Mail Online much recently. It's probably been good for my sanity. But following Smith's piece going up, I've been interested to see how the site does absolutely nothing to help the way women might be feeling about their bodies.

The famed Mail Online sidebar has always been the Sidebar of Judgement, the place to go if you want to laugh at women in 'unflattering' dresses or disapprove of average-sized people daring to wear bikinis while pursing your lips at Suri Cruise's lost childhood and Kerry Katona's Ultimate Bad Mother status.

But as the paper publishes columns lamenting poor body image among modern women, the Sidebar of Judgement, dare I say it, appears to be getting worse. There's no longer any variety in the women's interest-flavoured stories it features. It's a relentless rotation of judgemental pieces about cellulite, stomach flab and weight loss. Top story today features 'real women' creating Kate Moss's look in order to show that they have better backsides than she does. Give me strength. But there's more:

- 'I work out seven days a week... but I still have jiggly thighs and cellulite,' admits Kim Kardashian
- So that's why Cher Lloyd looks the picture of health - she lives on greasy portions of chips
- Teen Mom 2 star Jenelle Evans makes for an arresting sight (in a bikini... not at court, that is)
- What a knockout: Sucker Punch star Abbie Cornish does scantily-clad sultry shoot for GQ magazine
- What happened to Nicole's legs? Scherzinger goes for the wrinkly look in mismatched boots and dress

Yesterday the Women's Networking Hub tweeted:

Has disordered eating for women and girls become the norm, as entrenched behaviour patterns are now granted as acceptable?

This is a good question. The phenomenon is certainly being fuelled in part by the attitudes of media aimed at women, with the way it constantly judges the body, insinuates that our bodies, as they are naturally, are unaccpetable and encourages unhealthy and drastic diets as a means of achieving confidence and acceptance. As a result we categorize all food as either 'good' or 'bad'. We justify eating a chocolate bar by saying that it's okay, we'll go to the gym later, or we'll only have a small dinner. We gravitate immediately towards the 'low fat' or 'light' sections when we go to buy a sandwich for lunch whether we're overweight or not. We discuss it and we treat all this as totally normal, totally ordinary attitudes towards eating and sustaining our bodies.

There's a familiar series of events involving celebrity women and the media. Step One: the woman, who does not adhere strictly to the accepted 'thin but curvy' body type, is picked over and ridiculed by the papers, magazines or blogs. Step Two: she loses weight and said papers and magazines run triumphant features on her new found confidence and happiness. She'll be wearing a bikini or a corset and grinning. Step Three: she'll put a bit of weight back on. Step Four: she'll appear in one of these papers and magazines solemnly discussing how that weight loss was unhealthy for her, how she exercised far too much, how she made herself sick or took diet pills or barely ate. And people will shake their heads and tut about the negative influence of the media.

All this will be chronicled in the Sidebar of Judgement.

Anti-choice smackdown

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

I loved reading the responses to my guest post at C Jane Enjoy It, which went up on Sunday. After the explosive reaction Courtney's previous posts about feminism have received, I wasn't sure whether I was going to be in for a barrage of abuse or much virtual back-slapping. Actually the response was more in line with the latter, which was heartening. Not because it makes me smug that people liked my post (although it was a post I spent a lot of time writing and thinking about) but because it was obvious from previous discussions on women's issues that among Courtney's readers, feelings on feminism run high and also that it's a controversial ideology.

One reader pointed out that I had not mentioned the subject of abortion at all in the post and wondered why this was so, seeing as the main theme of the post was feminism and religion. I have to say, it's a fair point. When I was writing the post, abortion wasn't something which crossed my mind, if I'm honest. I wanted my piece to focus on the concept of equality, how it relates to Christian teaching, how it has played a part in my life and also the issue of acknowledging privilege when considering our support (or lack of it) for gender issues.

Although I attempted to explain this in a comment, it seemed that the catalyst had been provided and from then on, a steady stream of comments relating to abortion appeared, ranging from the middle-of-the-road and measured to the downright hostile and obnoxious, references to 'man-hating', 'Satan' and 'baby murdering' abound, along with a warning about the 'consequences' of my 'unrepentant sin'.

When you wade into a discussion on a blog which is read by a great many conservative, religious women I think this is to be expected. I'm used to hearing that my opinions on gender go against God's design for women and yes, there were a few comments along those lines. But anti-choice anger is not really the sort of reaction I regularly encounter, associating as I do with a bunch of feminists and liberals and lefties. It's actually something you encounter far less in the UK and it's vital to understanding the way the abortion debate in the US plays such a huge part in feminism. What I noticed was the way it was instantly able to shut down discussion on most other issues raised in my post.

Once the knives are out regarding abortion, you know a debate is probably going to go downhill. Some readers identifying themselves as anti-choice said that this issue alone meant they would not have anything to do with the feminist movement or express support for women's rights. The call for rights was fine when it meant getting women the vote, but from the 60s onwards, it just went too far. That in itself was one of the misconceptions I was attempting to address in my post but I think that went unnoticed by some.

Yesterday I was reading a post by a woman who had a lot of anger about the way the polarization of the abortion debate excludes and hurts women; she spoke with particular reference towards women of colour and people with disabilities. She spoke a lot of sense. I was reminded of the neverending debate raging in the media and on blogs this past year over whether anti-choice Republican women should be 'allowed' to call themselves feminists. And I thought harder about how it was so easy for people to start being silenced and debate to be shut down once people mentioned it over at Courtney's blog - at the expense of wider discussion about women's issues and the inclusion of women who feel their opinion falls somewhere in the middle of the two camps.

A friend from the US who identifies as pro-life told me that those on her side of the debate see the pro-choice contingent in the same way: just waiting to storm in and initiate smackdown so that debate gets no further. Along with gay rights, it's the issue at the heart of right vs left, anti-liberal and anti-religious suspicion and hatred Stateside. It frustrates her and it frustrates me because it's one of the main barriers to religious women having anything to do with feminists and feminism and supporting pro-woman causes.

In no way should we dismiss the issue of reproductive rights and pretend it's not a major problem. At present it's unavoidable, due to the number of attacks being mounted against women and their wellbeing. But the way it's such a dealbreaker, such a catalyst for drama and personal attacks at the expense of other discussions about issues facing women is really problematic. It's hard to think about how it can be addressed and I wonder if it's even possible, in much the same vein as the porn debate, but it's been playing on my mind since Sunday.

Photo credit: Msciba's Flickr

Links while I recover

Saturday, 12 March 2011

I'm back in the UK and slowly starting to feel less wiped out after an amazing and life-changing week in Brazil (including a great IWD). So while I recover, here's what I've been reading this week:

And watching:

Courtesy of the EQUALS coalition.

Dispatches from Brazil: Part Three

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Today people all over the world are celebrating IWD and I'm reflecting on the time I've spent in Brazil over the past week.

I arrived in the country with only a basic knowledge of gender issues here and really didn't know what to expect from the people we were going to be spending time with. I knew it was going to be interesting but it's turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience involving some truly amazing and inspiring people.

In time for this year's IWD, ActionAid commissioned some research among young people in the UK regarding their views on equality. It was eye opening for me because although I'm only just outside the age-group surveyed, a lot of my time spent discussing equality is spent discussing it with other feminists, activists and bloggers.

This means that I don't often get an idea of what your average young person thinks about it – or actually, whether they think about it at all.

What the research found was that young people have a lot to say about equality. They have concern about women in the workplace and sexual violence. They have concern about objectification. They have concern about freedom of choice.

But there's a disconnect between their concept of 'feminism' and their concept of 'women's rights'. The former: negative; the latter: positive. There was also concern that men were not 'allowed' to participate in fighting for equality, or that they find it hard to get involved because other men might react badly.

Above all, there's a feeling that the problems faced by women in other countries are not easy to relate to and therefore difficult to react to.

This isn't unusual. It might be hard to forge personal links with those from other cultures but if there's one thing this trip has taught me it's that it shouldn't be, because the issues we care about are exactly the same and that there really are so many similarities between the lives of young people here and the lives of young people in the UK.

When I talked to the people of Maré, when I talked to the people of Santarém, the issues they were always quick to highlight were equality in the workplace. Freedom of choice. Sexual violence. Pressures regarding appearance and the way women are portrayed in music and on television.

Of course, there are different cultural issues which come into play but at the heart of the matter is the belief than men and women are of equal worth and should have equal rights – and that gender inequality should not be an issue in the world today.

Now the word 'rights', somewhat sadly, makes a lot of people roll their eyes. But this week I've talked to people who say that a lot of women they know quite literally feel they don't have the right to report a rape to the police, or to leave an abusive partner. You characterize the fight for equal rights as 'silly' and 'going too far' and you do these women a great disservice.

One of the stand-out elements of the Bollocks to Inequality trip has been seeing just what young people can do when they're motivated to fight for change and are empowered as leaders in their communities. They have so much potential and passion and I felt proud to have the chance to hang out with them.

Despite the language barrier, despite the fact that to all intents and purposes our lives are a world apart, we had fun together and I think we were able to take away a lot. The unanimous affirmatives from them when we asked whether they want men and women to be treated equally, or if they think women should be free to live the lives they want for themselves showed their commitment and dedication to their community.

Watching Lucas and his friends immersed in their role as a knowledge base for gender issues made me pleased that ActionAid have supported their work and really happy that it will be replicated elsewhere.

This International Women's Day it's time to draw on our common experiences and know that even from thousands of miles away, we can support each other. Know that even if we're young, or from a poor background, or a guy who's anti-sexism - our voices can be heard. And know that when we fight for equality, it's not in vain.

Check out more on the equality debate by visiting the EQUALS website.

This post originally appeared at BitchBuzz.

Top: Lucas Gomes and members of GADA at Santarém carnival. Above: Me with fellow blogger Shan Phearon, Lucas and friends at Alter do Chão.
Photos: Eduardo Martino / Documentography / ActionAid.

Dispatches from Brazil: Part Two

Monday, 7 March 2011

Our trip to Brazil is certainly shaping up to be a trip of contrasts. After the frenetic pace and crowds of Rio we've spent the past two days getting away from it all in the northern state of Parà, right on the Amazon in the city of Santarém.

It's a place which is as far removed from Rio as you can imagine. It took us three flights and a whole day to get there, for a start. The pace of life is slower, the streets have a sleepy atmosphere and the heat makes stepping outside feel like stepping into an oven.

But in just two short days we've managed to fit in a night at carnival, a trip right into the Amazonian countryside and some well-earned chillout time on a strip of white sand in the middle of the river which was unforgettable. There were rowing boats, water lapping at the sand and cold beers. Leaving was hard.

That's not all we've been doing, however. The majority of our visit here was spent with Santarém's GADA youth group – formed a year and a half ago to provide training to young people in issues surrounding sexual health, reproductive rights and gender violence. ActionAid has supported the group through training and although it's no longer providing help, the plan is to replicate GADA's work in Santarém at the centre in Maré.

And it's truly fantastic work. Something I feel needs pointing out right now is that I have genuinely never met teens of both genders who are so motivated and well-informed about these issues and what they're doing in their community.

They spend their time talking to people in doctor's waiting rooms, presenting talks at schools, handing out leaflets and thinking of strategies to effect change among their peers. As we spent time with them, it was plain to see how their lives have been impacted by the project.

They told us how they've set up a system of contacts and helplines to enable young people to report sexual abuse or violence, of how they've had the opportunity to travel to events all over the country and of how they've seen their friends and families changed.

Plenty of you will be familiar with the outrage expressed by certain UK newspapers when it has been suggested that schoolchildren should be educated about sexual violence. I've blogged about it more than once, focusing on outrage at proposals for education about domestic violence and also at Rape Crisis's packs for schools.

The former story lambasted the government's 'equalities agenda' and the obviously nefarious influence of feminism in Westminster. It was the first thing I thought of as I sat watching the GADA group perform a fantastic presentation to a group of younger children at a church-run club about sexual violence and gender roles. Here was an age appropriate presentation. It had the children engaged. And they were given resources which they could take home to show their parents.

It's the sort of thing that would have many a right-thinking Middle Englander apoplectic with rage, but in Santarém, the reaction is overwhelmingly positive and to be honest, it really hammered it home to me why we fight for equality and that when we do, it works.

18-year-old Lucas Gomes is one of the group members we spent a lot of time with while in Santarém. Whether he's talking to children at the church club, showing us the videos GADA has made and chatting to us about his life he's incredibly open and confident in his opinions.

“I am really proud to be part of GADA,” he told us. “We live in a really sexist society and men treat women like they are nothing. But I have been able to help people understand about gender violence and my friends now come to me for advice, particularly about sexual health.”

Like his contemporaries in Maré, Lucas thinks that domestic violence is a major issue but also feels that people are starting to take action against it more and more, as women in the community become aware that they have the same legal rights as men.

“Following one of the activities two of my friends did, they helped a girl to tell the police that she had been a victim of sexual violence,” he said.

“We all felt motivated to help this girl and it made us feel happy that our work is not in vain.”

As we listened to Lucas talk about his desire to see gender equality among the people he knows, I thought how much of a shame it is that young people, as mentors and community educators, are tragically underused.

All too often they're seen as apathetic or as troublemakers. Work like the project GADA has implemented in Santarém proves that this isn't the case and that young people can in fact be amazing advocates for social change and education. The teens we spoke to have had the opportunity to attend international conferences and it has enabled some of them to find jobs. They're so proud to be part of such an initiative but for all of them, the best thing is seeing other people impacted by what they do.

This post originally appeared at BitchBuzz. Image: Lucas Gomes at home in Santarém.

Photos: Eduardo Martino / Documentography / ActionAid

Dispatches from Brazil: Part One

Friday, 4 March 2011

Spending my first full day in Brazil in a favela was something of an experience. Maré is an enormous community with, it's thought, as many as 180,000 inhabitants. And although most of them are hardworking, law-abiding people, it's drug gangs who run the show in Maré.

It was safe for us to walk around with some of the people who do community work in the favela, but we couldn't take photos or go off on our own. Maré has many invisible lines – territories controlled by different gangs which residents cannot cross without trouble.

Maré is a prime example of the enormous wealth disparity which exists in Brazil. It's not far from a university and close to some of the city's richer neighbourhoods, but its inhabitants live in poverty. Social problems are rife and educational attainment is low.

Through evening classes which help them with studying, the ActionAid project in Maré has enabled 800 young people to go to university – an amazing achievement for such a community, where only 0.8% of people end up as graduates.

ActionAid is set to begin a new initiative here, getting young people to discuss their rights, equality and sexual health. We talked to some of the teenagers taking part in university preparatory classes at the community centre and listened to what they had to say about the issues affecting them.

Samara is 18 years old and has just finished a course in multimedia. She is also passionate and outspoken about equality.

“Inequality is a problem right from when are being raised,” she told us.

17-year-old Raphael is also not afraid to speak out about gender inequality and believes that Brazilian society in general is very sexist.

“Something that really bothers me is men who beat women,” he said. “Human beings can be such animals sometimes.”

So what happens when there is a problem with domestic violence in Maré?

“There are people who like to pretend it doesn't happen,” said Raphael. “Often they will blame it on alcohol and say it only happened because he was drunk, so that's okay.”

“It depends on how you've been raised,” added Samara. “In the past women were brought up to be submissive and stay in the kitchen all day, but things are changing. In a relationship I think you should give each other space and respect – and not be jealous or controlling.”

During our day in Maré we also had the opportunity to talk to some residents who have been working at the centre for a number of years. They had a lot to say about the issue – and a lot of ideas as to how it should be tackled.

Shyrlei is 27 and started going to the centre at the age of 17. She has studied education at university and has recently been made a director of the centre.

“To create gender equality we also need social and financial equality,” she told us.

“Equality doesn't just mean women doing the same things as men. We need to create discussions about women's empowerment. Many women who suffer violence feel that they can't leave their man; this is something which is culturally inbuilt.”

We asked Shyrlei how people in her community feel about women's rights and feminism and how they react if it's brought up.

“In Brazil we are evolving – when it comes to discussing women's rights we are not as advanced as some countries,” she said.

“Some of my friends who are feminists, I think they go about discussing things in the wrong way and it just pushes people away. Here, discussing gender is like opening up a wound so we have to be mature enough to know when to fight and how.”

One issue which was often brought up by the people we spoke to was financial independence. A major factor in gender equality for them is the fact that many women lack the skills and confidence to be financially independent and therefore must rely on men to live – something which obviously becomes a problem when violence and abuse happens.

Shyrlei told us that although specialist women's police stations have been set up to deal with gender violence, they are not as effective as they could be because women are reluctant to report crimes due to being treated badly by the police. Historically, they have often not been believed if it was their father or husband who is being violent.

She feels the city needs women's shelters and ways of getting women back on their feet financially after leaving a partner.

Felipe, 31, has been running workshops teaching graffiti and breakdancing in Maré for ten years. As a teacher, he sees a lot of issues which he thinks need addressing.

“In the community where I live and work there are differences between men and women which are very evident,” he said.

“There is violence against women, which I consider a critical element. Sometimes sexism is even promoted by teachers themselves. They associate femininity with inferiority.”

When we asked him how gender inequality manifests itself in Maré, he said:

“It's domestic violence and very hidden. You don't know what's happening and who's committing it. It gets buried in a family and there is a culture of fear.”

But Felipe is positive that gender inequality can be tackled through education and culture, whether that's young people learning about their rights and taking what they've learnt back to their families, or some of the city's female hip hop artists who are making music with a positive message about women.

One thing all the people we spoke to were sure of was that things are slowly changing - attitudes, openness to discuss issues and expectations of a woman's role in society. What they'd like to see is even bigger changes and more education to make them happen.

This post originally appeared at BitchBuzz. Photo: Eduardo Martino / Documentography / Action Aid

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