Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Tank Girl

I haven't written for a while, you may have noticed. Just now I was looking at an old friend of mine's blog. Every time I see it, I smile. I remember last winter after a long day at the office we braved a snowstorm in my Infiniti, a car that has been through a lot more than it should have for it's age, to high off of excitement to care about the slippy ice below bald tires. I met her sisters and her mother and we played dress up as even adults do. Steampunked and ready after quick looks in the mirror we carefully braved the treacherous interstate in search of a good time. we listened to Bjork and talked about Tank Girl. I thought about how much I would love to have the take-no-prisoners attitude of the comics' feisty heroine. We took turns talking about how beautiful we all looked. I couldn't help thinking that I was lucky to know such a strong person. I looked up to her for her swift intelligence and social grace, but also for her adamant size positivity. She made me question things like an office movement for weight loss, which at first I was behind, thinking that maybe it was for health reasons. She raised a point that hadn't occurred to me. What's wrong with being fat? According to her, nothing.

That is a hard thing to accept. I was told all my life that my issue was that I was fat. Somehow I interpreted these messages as fat being the root of all of my problems. Whenever I felt inadequate, I thought it was because I was fat. I have struggled for a very long time to not be fat, doing things I'm not proud of to achieve a goal that I barely understood. After leaving home I began to become more comfortable with my body on the surface, however internally I still carried and carry self loathing because of my appearance. Every time I start to feel comfortable with myself, something small tears me down again. It is hard for me to admit that I am so fragile.

I look back on my friend and think how beautiful she was to me. I find strength in those memories. I think how strange it is that I find curvy, busty, (dare I say it, fat?) women attractive. Why can't I accept this as a part of myself? Everyday I make a conscious effort to think of myself differently. Some days it is a little easier. The bottom line is that in reality I do not want to change myself to meet societal standards. I want to like myself. I just don't want to convince other people that I am allowed to. That I should not be ashamed to like myself for being fat.

I was recently diagnosed with poly cystic ovary syndrome. Apparently it is not uncommon. Honestly, I am happy that I finally have an answer to some medical issues I've been dealing with for a while now. The hardest part of the diagnosis and why this information is relevant to my rant above is that one of the best ways to deal with PCOS is to lower simple carbohydrates intake and to try and lose weight. There is a certain finality unlike any other when a doctor looks at you and tells you that you need to lose weight. It hurts in a stingy sort of tear jerking way to think that my internal battle over fat and skinny can be for naught. At the end of the day someone can still tear your self-esteem apart. Someone can give you a reason that you can't argue against, no matter how much you want to, for you to change yourself. When I heard the diagnosis it was a crushing defeat. I felt like a  betrayer to my fat positive allies. I felt like I had turned my back on all of those people who have told me that I am beautiful and fat, just by having a medical problem that I did not cause. That shame for letting people down shifts to feeling like I caused my illness. This is my punishment for not loving myself without condition. My ultimatum: either lose weight or get sicker.

I wish I could speak to my friend again, but we have lost contact. I could use Tank Girl right about now.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Biological Determinism: Aren't Men Just Better at Math and Science?

This blog post is a response to an article written by Ben Barres, a neurologist at Harvard University. The article is a commentary on the statement President Larry Summers made in regards to the small number of female participants in math and science.

When I was in middle school, I desperately wanted to grow up to become a marine biologist. I devoted my time outside of school to online searches of colleges that offered programs in the field. I convinced myself that, no matter what the monetary cost, I would attend the best school for marine biology that I could get into. I researched science scholarships and applied myself in my classes, thinking that even my middle school grades would influence my ability to succeed. Being verbose, I told all of the adults in my life of my aspirations. Most of them brushed me off. After all, how could someone my age be sure of what they wanted to do for the rest of their life?
            Certain others attempted to dissuade me. I remember one of my teachers reminding me that science was extremely difficult as a career. They wondered if I would be able to overcome the obstacles, and besides I was a girl after all. They suggested I play towards my strengths in English instead. I argued vehemently that I was capable enough to pursue a career as a marine biologist. I swore I would prove them wrong. As I progressed through my academics, my grades were strong. However, somewhere along the way I lost confidence in my abilities in math and science. Earlier, I had seen these as two of my best subjects. I scored high on aptitude tests and did well on homework. However, my exam scores were low. Eventually, I tried to opt out of math classes altogether, instead seeking out English classes that I did well in.
            Very few of my math and science courses were taught by women. I remember all of them being harshly ridiculed for their accused ineptitude. I felt uncomfortable in the majority of my math and science classes taught by men. I often felt that the female students were singled out for the hardest questions, or faced comments on their appearance rather than their work. I believe that these harsh environments contributed to my own increasing disinterest in the subjects themselves.
            The self-fulfilling prophesy that results from the stereotype of women being somehow less able to perform in math and science is very real. As Barres writes in his commentary, when we propose that an entire group of individuals is less likely to succeed based on their biological makeup, we do a disservice to our whole community. In my own experiences, I have seen women facing a higher bar than men in order to be just as successful. Biological determinism is a weapon of discrimination. I love the perspective that Ben Barnes offers. As a transgender man, he has seen both sides of gender discrimination. I agree wholeheartedly when he likens a discrimination based on gender to racial discrimination. I hope that, like racial bigotry, gender discrimination will continue to make its way out of our culture.
            I also agree and want to reiterate the need for encouragement for women attempting to break into the male dominated, to and often female unfriendly, worlds of math and science. Our culture spends a great deal of energy breaking women down. A lack of confidence is a major contributor to women holding back their own potential. I hope that people start, and continue, to reach out to the women in their lives to help.
            When someone, especially someone who these women may look up to, claims that the reason women are fewer in these subjects than men is not because of a gender bias, but instead because of something that cannot be changed about themselves, a biological foundation, what ground do they have to stand on? Instead of pushing women out of math and science, we should instead be helping them climb the ladder of success. Suggesting that men and women are innately different to the level of one being lesser than the other is counterproductive to advancing society as a whole.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Behind the Mask

Gender diversity lives under the radar. It hides itself from the public eye, waiting until it feels safe to show itself. We wear a mask. Always trying to pass, afraid what people must be thinking. Afraid of what they will do to us if they find out who we are. We change the gendered pronouns of our partners from he to she, from she to he in front of company who may not approve of our sexuality. We lie to ourselves and say that things are getting better, that we are on the road to acceptance in our culture.
            In truth, in many ways we are digressing. It is true that blatant discrimination is decreasing on a mainstream level. However, we are facing new subtleties that redefine the term prejudice. Our language is adapting to make hate speech a normal part of conversation. Worse still, we combine sex and gender into a single definition that makes the two terms interchangeable and paves the way for ignorance. How many times have you been asked to indicate your gender on a form when the only options are male/female? Not only are the options limited, but they are both incorrect. Even in demographics we cannot identify ourselves correctly.
            Perhaps most indicative of the long road ahead of us in a cultural acceptance of gender diversity is our continued disdain for anything feminine. Our culture maintains an undercurrent of misogyny despite feminist movements as far back as 1890. We are faced with gender roles that are strict but also unequal. Masculine roles are valued in our culture, whereas feminine roles are subservient. A man is weak if he has feminine qualities whereas a female who presents in masculine ways is overstepping her bounds. She has no right to be masculine. Without considering traditional masculine and feminine roles to be of equal value, we cannot have acceptance of gender diversity.
            In an ideal world, acceptance of gender diversity would mean that as long as the roles necessary for survival were fulfilled, the sex or the gender of the person performing the role would be irrelevant. Men and women and everyone in-between or outside of those categories would be free to experience the full range of human expression. Telling a boy that “boys don’t cry” would be outdated. Likewise telling a little girl that “ladies don’t play in the dirt” would be a laughable insinuation. Social pressure to pass as the gender you have been assigned would fade, and people would be free to present how they were comfortable, be it cisgender, transgender, or gender queer. Women who want to be feminine could do so freely without being considered foolish, shallow, or mimicking the oppressor. Men could be masculine if they wanted. There would be no rules as long as the necessary social roles were filled by someone.
            This gender utopia seems farfetched from a contemporary perspective on gender roles. One has to wonder if accepting gender diversity on mainstream level is even possible. The barriers to acceptance are difficult to overcome. Religion, misogyny, and ignorance are significant challenges to acceptance of gender diversity. In many ways, these three things go hand in hand. A religion with misogynistic undertones creates a culture of intolerance towards deviation from prescribed gender roles based on a person’s birth sex. Ignorance works with both religion and misogyny in that strong belief systems make it difficult for a person to feel motivated to explore concepts that fall outside of their religion. Misogyny promotes ignorance by creating a bias that may prevent someone from being open-minded to discussions on gender.
            Most dominant religions tend to have misogynistic undertones. The idea that a woman’s place is at home, and that this role is inferior to the masculine role of providing for a family, encourages a social structure to be built around the assumption that women themselves are inferior to men. Throughout history, women have been seen as a commodity. In agricultural times, woman were traded like property and used as bargaining chips in order for patriarchal families to gain status and wealth. As the world has industrialized, this line of thinking has been challenged. From the time that women in America began the first women’s movement in 1890, they have sought to raise their social status. Although the first wave of feminism on through the second earned many rights and privileges for women, the need for a third wave gives evidence to the still misogynistic base for our patriarchal society.
            It is difficult to hear women’s voices above the roar of an overbearingly male dominated political system. The few women in politics are belittled publicly in that their manner of dress supersedes their accomplishments in legislation. Women are pushing for recognition while fighting an uphill battle against sexism that is constantly seeking to restore them to traditional roles. Religion works behind the scenes to tell women that they are fighting a losing battle and that biological determinism insists that they are physically unable to take on traditionally masculine roles. Moreover, our culture insists that in order to lead, a woman must be masculine. That socially categorized feminine qualities are unfit for leadership. This idea does a disservice in that it denies all individuals the opportunity to utilize the full range of qualities within themselves to overcome difficulties.
            By suggesting that certain qualities are to be solely feminine or solely masculine and further demanding that based on a person’s sex there can be no crossover of these qualities, our culture suffocates itself. Acceptance of gender diversity would mean being able to express both the masculinity and femininity which we all have within us. As a result, humanity as a whole performs poorer. It takes more than just cool or warm colors to paint a landscape, but rather a combination of both working in harmony to fully portray the image. It is in this combination of masculine and feminine that we create well-rounded individuals. Those who can embrace both ends of the spectrum are likely to be more successful, and above all, happier in life.
            In order to discuss a true acceptance of gender diversity, gender cannot be considered binary. The options are not limited to A or B. Instead, there is a plethora of in-between and outside possibilities for gender expression. I am not talking only of people who identify as a gender opposite of their birth sex, but also of those who identify as androgynous or gender queer and think of themselves as neither masculine nor feminine. If we dropped feminine and masculine labels for qualities then people could combat the boxes we currently force upon them and identify if and how they choose to.
            If accepting gender diversity was as beneficial to everyone as it seems then why is our culture fighting gender fluidity tooth and nail? It is possible that there is an evolutionary reason for binary gender roles as we have them in our society. Other animals also punish deviant behavior in their social groups. By reinforcing positive behaviors and punishing behaviors that endanger the survival of the group, or the species as a whole, other animals promote the continuance of their species.  One way to look at this behavior compared to our own in the context of gender diversity is to assume that gender diversity could have a negative impact on our species. However, a healthier perspective would turn the tables on this behavior. If instead of punishing diversity, we punished prejudice, it is possible that humans could utilize fresh perspectives and talents in order to aid our own species.
            Our world currently is in an environmental crisis. Overpopulation and over consumption means that the world’s resources run scarce. If we as a species channeled the energy we formerly put into ostracizing those who challenge what we culturally consider normal, then we could capitalize on what these individuals have to offer. Think of what humans could create with all of the currently unappreciated talent from those individuals whose voices we ignore. Forcing gender diverse people into hiding means that we cannot see what they have to offer. There is an untapped resource in the oppressed that our culture fears exploring. If we can overcome our phobias and choose open-mindedness instead of ignorance, it is possible that we, as a community of diverse perspectives, could achieve what we have only imagined.
            There is no reason that gender diverse people should have to wear a mask. In reality, we are all gender diverse.  Each of us has masculine and feminine qualities and those attributes that are not heavily gendered inside us. We are most successful when we embrace ourselves for all that we are. By restricting ourselves to only certain parts of who we are, we do ourselves a terrible disservice. No one should have to fear showing feminine characteristics if they are male and women should not be denied their right to express their masculinity. When we place restrictions on expressing who we are individually, we risk the health and happiness of our entire species.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

They Call it a Cunt in Colorado

            I auditioned for The Vagina Monologues after seeing a sample performance of one of the monologues during my Intro to Women’s Studies class. The monologues appealed to me for a few of reasons. The first reason is that I was struck by the message of the monologues. I feel that the production is about reclaiming a love of our vaginas despite societal pressure to see our genitalia as dirty, shameful and irrelevant. Additionally, The Vagina Monologues promotes an anti-violence campaign that seeks to publicize violence against women and to fight against it. 
            The third reason I decided to try out is because despite a few Nativity Story plays during elementary school, the last theatrical production I participated in was a lead role in a kindergarten production about a farmer’s vendetta against some pesky weeds. When I tell this story I usually point out that my role was given less based on talent and more on the fact that I could read the script. Because my acting experience is limited, I saw The Vagina Monologues as a way to try out acting without the intimidation of being turned down. That paired with my interest in the monologue’s content convinced me to try out.
            A few weeks after my audition, I heard that I had been cast parts in two monologues: “The Vagina Workshop” and “The Woman Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy”. The first monologue is about a woman’s discovery of orgasm, and a literal self exploration with a hand mirror. The woman in the monologue describes becoming one with her clitoris, and accepting it as a part of her. The imagery of her timid fumbling expanding into a near panic as she begins to fear her own sexual expectations is movingly depicted by the language of the monologue, which I found to be relatable. I feel that a lot of women face anxiety about their sexuality when faced with social expectations that discourage a focus on female pleasure, while demanding sexual confidence and performance.
            The second monologue I performed in I found to be more challenging. “The Woman Who Loved to Make Vagina’s Happy”, is about a female sex worker who decided to work only for women. The journey of this woman is one I find intriguing. She tells the story of how she discovered moaning and how she fell in love with it. She begins to make it her goal to make women moan. Performing this monologue made me nervous initially. I found my voice cracking when I read through my part at home. “I started out as a lawyer, but in my late 30s I became obsessed with making women happy. It began as a mission of sorts, but then I got involved in it. I got very good at it, kind of brilliant. I started getting paid for it. I wore outrageous outfits when I dominated women; lace, silk, leather, I used props…whips, ropes, handcuffs, dildos” (Ensler, 2010).  My cheeks grew hot, though there was no one around to hear me.
             When I went to my first rehearsal, I found myself excited to do a read through. I am not sure how my outlook changed, but suddenly I could not wait to perform the piece. It made me feel empowered and strong. I found myself connecting with the energy of my cast mates. That energy acted as a fuel for my own spirits. I realized that this monologue has a lot to say and that I was lucky to get to read it. This woman’s words are about sexual expression and freedom. The monologue is about being confident in your sexuality and not apologizing for who you were. Most of all, the piece is about sexual pleasure. Sexual pleasure being fully experienced without shame, guilt, regret, or stress which are all possible factors in many heterosexual relationship that I’ve been involved in. In many ways this monologue helped me realize that sexual pleasure is not an unreasonable expectation from interpersonal relationships I myself am involved in.
            I performed in The Vagina Monologues with twelve other amazing women on March 31st, April 1st, and April 2nd. The first two performances were in the Tivoli Turnhalle on Auraria Campus in Denver, CO. The last performance was held at Hamburger Mary’s in downtown Denver. The productions raised about three thousand dollars to be split between The Phoenix Center on campus and the spotlight campaign: Women and Girls of Haiti. The Phoenix Center is an on campus resource for any one has been affected by interpersonal violence whether they are survivors, friends, or family. “The spotlight campaign will highlight highlight…violence against women and girls in Haiti, and will focus on the increased rates of sexual violence since the devastating earthquake that took place in January 2010” (V-Day 2011, 2011).
            One of my favorite parts of the monologues was the inclusion of a piece that talked about the challenges that trans individuals face. Because the trans community is often a community forgotten when talking about issues of human rights or violence, I always find it refreshing for their stories to be discussed publicly. Because of our culture’s binary gender system, the transgender community face many challenges. Some of these difficulties include fear for their personal safety, self-hatred from internalized anti-transgender socialization, and separation from communities. Transphobia is the fear and the “hatred, discrimination, intolerance, and prejudice that this fear brings” (Laframboise and Long par 3). This fear can lead to harrasment, violence towards trans people and ostricization. Transgender people are often discriminated against in terms of health care, employment and social services. Because of the discrimination facing trans individuals, many have substance abuse problems (Laframboise and Long).
            Social ideals towards gender create transphobia. In a gender binary, there is no room for gender crossover or fluidity. In fact, individuals who challenge the gender binary are considered deviant and unacceptable within our culture. Transphobia can present itself in many ways.Some of which include the assumption that transgender individuals have mental disorders, are untrustworthy, are inherently disugsting or “sick”, or being unwilling to assist a trans individual in medical situations (Laframboise & Long). In order to combat transphobia, some action is being taken including, educating people on transgender issues and providing resources for trangender individuals. Additionally, making an effort to include transgender individuals and to provide necessary services to them (Laframboise & Long).
            Trans-liberation is relevant to more than just the Trans Community. According to Leslie Feinberg’s “We are All Works in Progress”: “Tran’s liberation has meaning for you-no matter how you define or express your sex or your gender”  (Feinberg, We Are All Works in Progress 1998, 2010). A gender binary system can be suffocating for all involved. Our society puts strict boxes around what is masculine and what is feminine. Gender liberation is about making these roles more fluid so that all of us can be ourselves and embrace all aspects of our humanity.
            When I listened to the monologue “They Beat the Girl Out of my Boy, or so They Tried”, a monologue about violence against trans individuals, I fell further in love with The Vagina Monologues as a whole. I was reminded that the trans movement is closely related to the women’s movement. Women are seeking to end violence against us, but so are trans individuals. We are both seeking equality in our world. This monologue brought me to tears every night we performed. Being a part of The Vagina Monologues has been a wonderful experience. I have learned a lot about violence against women and trans people, and I have learned a lot about myself. I am blessed to have had the opportunity to be a part of this amazing production.

 Works Cited:
Ensler, E. (2010, April 1). The Vagina Monologues. (M. Fowler, Performer) Tivoli Turnhalle, Denver.
Feinberg, L. (2010). We Are All Works in Progress 1998. In G. Kirk, & M. Okazawa-Rey,    Women's Lives: Multicultural Perspectives (pp. 187-192). New York : McGraw-Hill.
Laframboise, S., & Long, B. (n.d.). An Introduction to: Gender, Transgender and Transphobia.      Retrieved 03 10, 2011, from High Risk Project Society: http://mypage.direct.ca/h/hrp/gendertr.html
V-Day 2011. (2011). 2011 Women and Girls of Haiti. Retrieved April 20, 2011, from             http://www.vday.org/spotlight2011