[I]deally, fashion designers should learn how to make clothes for thin women, fat women, tall women, petite women, large chested women, sway-backed women, short waisted women, broad shouldered women, etc etc. Learning on a narrow range of mannequins in a larger size is a big step in the right direction, but … [j]ust shifting the mean size used doesn’t address the fact that lots of women don’t hew to that mean, and sizing cannot be boiled down to a single (arbitrary) number. (Persephone Magazine)
We must give our girls tools to navigate a beauty-obsessed world. I don’t think praise on their looks should be one of them. It’s engagement that will help her with that navigation: Listening to her thoughts on the matter, picking up on her cues, asking questions and paying close attention to the answer. Wallpapering her self-esteem with “you’re so pretty”—even alongside “and strong and kind and you sure can draw well!”—doesn’t get at the heart of the issue. (The Beheld)
[W]hat impact will all this added pressure on perfecting the online self have on girls who need room for growth, exploration, adventure and making mistakes to truly come into themselves? Will this focus on cultivating the ideal public image come at the expense of getting to know the real you? And if girls are measuring themselves up constantly against highly cultivated online personas, are we at risk of a Stepford Wife Rising with Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters outcomes? (Girl With A Satchel)
[R]ace and racism are largely written from the perspectives of white narrators or protagonists, and it exists in discrete pockets of the text rather than being embedded in everything a character or a situation is. These pockets take a routine shape, particular moments of racist and racial meeting white people are taught to recognise, rather than being woven in as a substantial experience unable to be figured in such blips. (Zero at The Bone)
Before I got contacts in March, I just never really counted myself in the general pool of people who might be considered attractive. I wasn’t insecure about how I looked, I just made peace with the fact that I wasn’t, to me, an attractive person, and decided to milk my charming personality instead. The glasses were an easy way to isolate myself from even having to consider keeping up some kind of face. Then I slowly came to feel that, well, maybe I did want my face to be visible. Maybe I liked my face. Is that not okay? (The Style Rookie)
The Chinese taxi driver had a big incredulous smile plastered over his face. “Where are you from?!” he asked, hardly containing his laughter. To any ordinary foreigner this is an ordinary question. But to a Chinese Australian in China, the question contains an unintended implication which stings, just a little.
“I’m Chinese,” I replied.
This made him laugh even more. “HAHAHAHAHA, no you are not! I mean you LOOK like one -”
“But I certainly don’t sound like one,” I finished for him, with a sigh.
It’s been a year and a half since I landed in China. Back then I didn’t have a lick of Chinese, any kind of Chinese. I couldn’t even say “I don’t understand,” so people would speak to me and I would open my mouth, but then say nothing. Just stare at them, open-mouthed and silent. The road from there to now – conversational Mandarin – has been a hard, brow-beating slog of masochistic proportions. And after all of that my white foreign friends will be applauded for the simplest of ni haos, while my Chinese will always be substandard.
For according to my appearance, it should be flawless.
There has only been one instance where I’ve managed to pass myself off as a Mainlander. Chongqing gave me my first taste of having Mandarin that, lo-and-behold, was better than a Chinese person’s. On my first night in the friendly town of Dazu I found a street corner with food stalls and in ordering up some of “what that guy is having,” soon discovered the waiters weren’t able to speak Mandarin, only speak their own dialect.
Luckily I’d picked a table with a young, local student who could also speak Mandarin, and his father, so they translated for me. The student had a cute, boyish face, and wore a black T-shirt with a stylish print. He told me his English name is ‘Smooth’. I laughed, and gently informed him that ‘smooth’ isn’t really a name. “I know. But it sounds good and it suits me,” he replied with a smile. Fair enough.
After chatting a while I asked him slyly, “where do you think I’m from?” He thought for a moment before offering, “Xinjiang?” I was floored! Xinjiang is a North-Western autonomous region of China, quite distinct from the rest of the country. The province has a strong Eastern European and Turkish influence, and the local ethnic group look almost white. So while it’s not exactly a compliment to my Mandarin I was amazed he had even assumed I was Mainland.
I knew I was about to blow his mind with the next sentence. “Actually,” I paused for effect, “I’m a foreigner. My ancestors are Chinese, but I was born and raised in Australia.”
His eyes widened, “No way!” His father also smiled in surprise. “You’re my first foreign friend!” he beamed. I pointed out that he’d said his English teacher was Australian, but he replied that didn’t count.
That evening I thought sure, I’d never pass as a Beijinger. Let’s face it, with that piratey-rrrrr, few Chinese can. But what about the provincial locals who can’t really speak Mandarin? Surely I can pass for one of them?
The next day I landed in the city of Chongqing, where I met up with my Chinese friend, 22 year old customer service assistant Xiao Hu. She took me to the city’s esplanade, which was buzzing with Friday night revelers. Even so late in the evening the heat was suffocating, with Xiao Hu commenting that Chongqing is the hottest place in China. “Wouldn’t that be a more Southern city like Guangzhou?” I asked, feeling uncomfortably beads of sweat slide down my back. She explained that Guangzhou had the sea breeze. In Chongqing the heat was trapped like an angry bee, seeming to rise from every surface. I looked down on the Yangtze River. At that time of the year the water was very low, revealing mangy patches of dirt.
We entered a packed elevator to leave the platform. I’d been talking to Xiao Hu in Chinese while everyone else was silent so my voice seemed extra loud. A moment later I heard an awed voice from behind me suddenly say, “foreigner.” The young woman had even said it in English, further rubbing salt in the wound. I turned around, exasperated, and said, “Yes! Foreigner.” All my joy from Dazu where I’d been taken for a Xinjiang person instantly evaporated.
And so it is with every Beijing taxi driver I come across. They never suspect my substandard Mandarin is because I’m from another province. They know that I’m a foreigner because I speak Mandarin like a foreigner. As one particularly hilarious driver once told me, even in Chinese I betray my banana-hood – white on the inside, yellow on the outside. (He went on to tell me that he’s a lemon: yellow on the outside, yellow on the inside, there are boiled eggs: yellow on the inside, white on the outside, and scrambled eggs: those with one Asian parent and one White parent.)
It’s difficult to pinpoint why, exactly, it’s so important to me to pass off as a Chinese person. No more guffawing from taxi drivers would be just one of many advantages.
I like looking like a Chinese person in China. When I’m traveling in the countryside I can go for days without seeing a single foreigner. One simply becomes accustomed to being surrounded by 1.3 billion Chinese people, with the sight of that shining, white skin with the curly hair or absurdly tall figure is somewhat of a shock. Even my white friends living in China – all of whom will report a degree of frustration at the staring they attract – say they also can’t help but double-look at the sight of a pale-skinned compatriot.
I like the fact that I don’t get gawked at and can quietly, and inconspicuously, go about my business. I like the fact that this country and culture is, in so many ways, so different to what I knew growing up. And yet the bridge between me and the Chinese is smaller than what it is for a non-ethnically Chinese foreigner. A white person can work on their Chinese all they like, peppering their flawless Chinese with all sorts of authentic local slang. They can live, eat and sleep like a Chinese person. But in the end when you’re living in a country that’s as ethnically homogenous as this, there will always be an unbridgeable gap.
My gap is not physical in nature. It is entirely abstract and one that can be filled in with time, experience and knowledge. Language is only the first step. There is culture too.
My last dinner in Chongqing with Xiao Hu was hot pot. Plates of meat and vegetables cooked in a delicious broth infused with shiny-red chillies, plump mushrooms and herbs. As we ate, Xiao Hu and I discussed some of the peculiarities of the Chinese language, and she asked me if I knew about the roundabout ways one must talk in Chinese.
“Let’s say you invite a Chinese person over to your house. Naturally you ask them if they’d like a drink. They’re going to say no, because they don’t want to trouble you.”
“Even if they want one?” I ask, with a smile.
“Right. So even if they say no, you should get them a drink. Tea preferably, otherwise water is fine.”
“But what if they really didn’t want one?”
“Then they won’t drink it.”
I laughed at this. Humility, self-depreciation, courtesy and saving face lay at the heart of Chinese manners, in a way that takes some high degree of getting used to. Particularly for Australians and Americans whose nations’ histories are short, and did away with their colonial past in order to create young, dynamic societies featuring first egalitarianism, honesty and efficiency. As a child growing up in Sydney my parents had done a poor job in educating their children about Chinese-style behaviour. Every time my brothers, sister and I were taken to their hometown in Malaysia on family holidays we’d spend the time feeling like elephants crashing through the Chinese crystal shop of manners. We couldn’t pick up on the subtle cues that they, having grown up in a Chinese community, were so well versed in. And my extended family couldn’t understand why we were so rude.
Only as an adult did I begin to get a handle on things, and have since learned to “fudge” it – but it never feels like second nature. It is a language I’ve learned, just like Mandarin, rather than something I was born with. So I am always fumbling around awkwardly, afraid I’m about to (or have already) taken a wrong step in a very crowded minefield.
Despite all my dining faux pas, grammatical errors on Weibo, and horrifyingly Australian accented Chinese, I can look back on this last year and a half and see I have improved in leaps and bounds and in that stepped closer into that thing called China. It is only a matter of time before my ‘fraudulent’ Chinese identity emerges into something close to authenticity. My ancestral links to this country will no longer seem absurd, but only natural.
China, that 5000-year-old-plus great dame, in which nearly one fifth of the world’s population lives, is, in many ways, as close as the rest of the world has to a parallel universe. Being ‘hua-ren’ means I have a rare opportunity: a foreigner with full access. And in this process of discovery I find myself changed. Not so much a transformation, as a new ambidexterity. I have not lost myself, but gained a new self.
“Try this the next time you meet a little girl. She may be surprised and unsure at first, because few ask her about her mind, but be patient and stick with it. Ask her what she’s reading. What does she like and dislike, and why? There are no wrong answers. You’re just generating an intelligent conversation that respects her brain. For older girls, ask her about current events issues: pollution, wars, school budgets slashed. What bothers her out there in the world? How would she fix it if she had a magic wand? You may get some intriguing answers. Tell her about your ideas and accomplishments and your favorite books. Model for her what a thinking woman says and does.
Here’s to changing the world, one little girl at a time.”—
Lisa Bloom in the Huffington Post.
Take a look at the article, which models a great example of meeting a little girl, here.
This goes much further than pointing at the collective and trying to wash away the impact of the current development by claiming that “we all lie”. The core of the problem here is slightly different: some people’s survival, their very own sustainability sometimes depend on a lie. We judge these lies based on parameters that never contemplate this need for survival. We apply a normalized quasi religious stance: lying is bad! But hardly anyone questions why the lies are necessary, why we live in a system where certain people must lie in order to get access to privileges that are always afforded to members of the dominant culture.
“When you’re setting out on your career, do not think about carving out time to have children," says [Sian] Westerman, advising against thinking pre-emptively about kids because it’ll mean you stop looking for that next promotion. "Just go for it.”—Polly Vernon quotes Sian Westerman in ‘Where Have All The Bright Women Gone?’, UK Grazia.
So it’s great if weight-think is replaced by finding a cure for AIDS, or by being a more attentive stay-at-home mom. But even if weight-think just gets swapped for taking a walk, watching TV, reading a book, or doing some mundane task at work and thinking about, say, whether Pippa’s single again and what this means for Harry, this, too, counts as progress. (What Would Phoebe Do?)
Kozol visited a wealthy public school in a suburb of New York City that shares a name with a certain type of bread. He engaged students there in a discussion of the segregation that they undoubtedly benefited from. Even after hearing of their fellow teens taking computer classes on typewriters or sharing a guidance counselor with 400 other students, the bright and conscientious teens at this school were unmoved. They were unwilling to examine their privilege. … The underlying message was, “I deserve this because I am better.” I don’t know if these students would be able to articulate why they felt they were better, but I would guess it is because they are white and rich. (Persephone Magazine)
We met at a group for survivors of sexual assault – an awkward start to any relationship and one hardly guaranteed to lead to longevity.
The most relieving element of a group like this – the removal of the need to ‘out’ yourself as a survivor of sexual assault, done before you’ve even walked into the room - is also the quality most likely to dissuade you from continuing a relationship outside the room. How do you socialise with someone who knows the worst thing that has happened to you, who has shared your fear and horror and shame, seen your anger and your trauma in all its messiness, in the context of your everyday acquaintances?
So, although there was a connection between us, it was an uneasy, uncertain one. One we did not know how to extend – or even if we should extend it beyond its initial context. As time passed though we began to find each other circulating in various social media contexts: Twitter and Facebook, blogs and Tumblr. We saw that both of us wanted to talk about our experiences, that both of us were searching for a way to voice our outrage at a world in which sexual assault occurs so frequently and yet is discussed so rarely.
Realising that we both needed to speak and be heard, we began a conversation about what we could do with the ideas that rattled around our respective brains. We came up with the idea of a publication, an informal and conversational zine, that would allow survivors a safe space to speak about their experiences - their survival, their courage and their strength as well as their fears, loss and pain - on their terms, in their own words. We both know only too well how rare such a space is. And how necessary.
As victim/survivors of sexual assault it is our voices that are the least heard. There are so many perspectives on sexual assault in society - whether they be from the legal system, the media or general popular culture. But most of these perspectives fail to take into account the views of survivors. In a culture that normalises sexual assault through the way survivors are portrayed in the media, through sexist language and through a legal system that often does not advocate for us, many survivors never get the chance to speak for themselves, on their terms, without shame.
That is why we need this publication. That is why we need a space of our own, one that is determined by us. A space where we can reclaim our autonomy, our right to be safe from violence no matter what we wear and how we behave, our right to speak up for ourselves, no matter how our words might sound to others.
Our recovery from the violence and brutality we have experienced, as well as our society’s capacity to establish a world free from sexual violence, depends on the paradigm of the rape being dismissed - the coercive assertion of one person’s needs and desires at the cost of another’s. We can only do this by learning how to hear others’ voices, with tolerance and respect, even when we don’t like what they have to say.
This is where We Will Not Go Quietly emerged from. It is our publication - ‘us’ being any survivor of sexual violence as well as all those who stand with the survivors, who want a world free from sexual violence. It is our small step towards changing a culture that has for too long enabled rape and silenced survivors. By us and for us, We Will Not Go Quietly establishes our right to be heard, whether we choose to yell or whisper, to murmur or rant. We may have been silenced once but we refuse to let that silence continue, we refuse to let that silencing determine our survival.
As the title suggests, we will not go quietly. Our stories demand to be told and we will tell them.
Mad Men: Meta-story of Women's Liberation or Patriarchy Porn?
Cassandra writes: Question for a bright feminist - why do so many women get upset that I find mad men depressing? If I say it looks like patriarchy porn men say fair enough but lots of women get upset and say it’s a metastory of womens liberation. no doubt you get many random pop culture feminism questions but if you have a view on mad men I’d be fascinated to read it.
I like Mad Men. I like it a lot. I don’t always like the characters - often just the opposite, in fact - but I do like that they are complex and detailed and confusing. Quite like real people.
So is it too much of a cop out if I say that I think both of the views you outline above are valid?
Probably. But I do. I don’t think Mad Men is a show that is “about” women’s lib, per se (it’s more subtle than that), but I do think that it’s one of the meta-stories that is being told. You’ve got Peggy, earnest young Catholic girl from the boroughs turned trainblazing female copywriter (and along with Pete, representative of the “new order”). Joan, va-va-voom office manager over whom all the men drool (and like Don, a representative of the “old order”), but whose power is waning. Betty, childwoman and human embodiment of The Feminine Mystique.
Like the male characters (don’t get me started on Don… or maybe do get me started on Don), none of these women behave in the way we might want them to. Peggy’s got the whole burgeoning second wave feminist thing going on, but when it comes to civil rights… she’s a bit of a clueless white woman. Joan is pretty hostile towards other women. And as much as we spend the first couple of seasons waiting for Betty to have some grand political awakening, we’re yet to see her pick up some Betty Friedman. Plus, she’s kind of a bitch.
Chances are, they’re going to continue not to do what we want them to do. Maybe Betty and Joan will never “go political”. Maybe Peggy will decide she wants to men over her career after all (honestly though, I doubt it). Mad Men is a show about a culture in transition, and one of the transitions it talks about is women’s liberation. But it’s not a propaganda machine, either. But then, maybe that’s what liberation looks like?
Which I think goes both ways, although I totally get what you’re saying about patriarchy porn. We humans have a funny ability to read what we want into the culture we consume - and that goes double when we only consume it tangentally.
Mad Men, after all, is not just a show: it’s a phenomenon. People want to look like these characters, dress like them, drink like them. Maybe in some cases that aura of glamour translates to wanting to live like them - to thinking that Don and Betty and Joan and Roger are as glamorous as they look in the photos.
But there’s another meta-story at play in Mad Men as well, and that is that what looks glamorous from the outside is often not so enviable when you scratch the surface.
I spent much of last week in a haze of rather complicated freelance deadlines, sweet victories and friends visiting from abroad, but one thing I did wonder whenever I popped my head above the water to open my Google Reader was: why are none (well, almostnone) of the American feminist bloggers I read talking about the Bristol Palin memoir?
Specifically, why wasn’t anyone calling out the centre-left bloggers who are arguing that the story of “stolen” virginity loss with which Bristol begins her book must be a case of self-serving fiction because, you know, she’s from a family of lying liars who lie.
If you’re not up on the details of the incident, it begins with a classic teenage untruth: Bristol tells Sarah she’ll be sleeping over at a girlfriend’s house, when really she’s going on a camping trip with her boyfriend Levi and a bunch of their friends.
There is alcohol involved, and lots of it. Bristol isn’t an experienced drinker - the implication is that she has never consumed alcohol before. And like many inexperienced drinkers, she admits she “definitely had no idea what ‘tolerance’ was and how to pace your drinking to make sure you don’t do things you’ll regret.”
At first the alcohol feels good - it makes “the crisp night air” feel crisper, and Bristol felt “young and carefree” as “Levi kept replacing my empty bottles from his large stash”. But unbeknownst to Bristol, “I was about to hit a wall - that awful wall - that takes you past a comfortable level of libation - the happy buzz - into the dark abyss of drunkenness.”
She blacks out, and wakes up the next morning alone in her tent, Levi’s empty sleeping back next to hers. Something feels amiss. So she texts her friend, who comes to her tent and tells her that she and Levi “definitely had sex”.
"Suddenly I wondered why it was called ‘losing your virginity’, because it felt more like it had been stolen," Bristol writes. She is angry, distraught, devastated. She tries not to vomit. She confronts Levi, saying, “You knew I didn’t want to have sex until I was married! How could you?” But she also “knows”, she writes, that she will marry him. ”I had to now,” she explains.
As writers like Valenti and Jennifer Pozner have commented, it’s not the role of feminists to tell women whether or not they have been raped: it is up the woman in question to define her experience. And indeed, Bristol never uses the word “rape” to describe what happened between her and Levi. She does, however, describe what is quite clearly - in her view as well as my own - an unwanted, nonconsensual sexual experience.
It’s probably not surprising that there are people - and lots of them - who blame the above on Bristol’s own actions (she shouldn’t have been drinking, she shouldn’t have lied to her mother), who say she’s probably making it up (for publicity, for a paycheck, to exonerate herself to her parents and to God), or who question her behaviour after the event (having sex with Levi again, having his baby, even getting engaged to him).
All these lines of argument are exactly what we’ve grown used to hearing whenever a woman speaks out against sexual assault. They’re gross, but they’re not surprising.
Valenti wonders what impact Bristol’s story will have on the thousands of young women who read her memoir: “Not calling it assault — and blaming herself, as she does in the book — sends a dangerous message to young women who may have similar experiences.” She writes that Bristol’s sense that she had “sinned” and “had” to marry Johnston “broke [her] heart a bit”. Mine too.
But I actually wonder if Bristol’s story, with all its heartache and ambiguity, might actually serve as a bit of entry level feminism for her readers. What transpired between Bristol and Levi, after all, was not remotely uncommon, and nor was Bristol’s reaction: her anger, her confusion, her blaming herself. The fact that she stays with Levi despite her better judgement (if she has sex with someone she has to marry them, after all). The fact that she never calls it rape.
Thinking back to my own time as a teenager, and my own (comparatively petty) worries, I remember finding politics and solace not just in the “right” analysis or lessons - although I loved those stories, too - but in the muddy, lived experience of others going through the same things. And from the little I’ve seen (you can read the opening pages here) Bristol Palin’s memoir is Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth in action.
“Here’s a big difference between you and me. You wear make up and you dress in a certain way that’s meant to draw attention and help people find you attractive. But I won’t do anything to draw attention to my looks. If someone wants to, they can take a closer look and maybe they’ll discover I’m attractive. But I’m not going to do anything to help them.”—
[F]or an intern to distinguish herself, she must ingratiate without seeming ingratiating. The intern is to appreciate the opportunity to peek at the file folders into which she slides contracts and correspondence. She shouldn’t act above her lot, although to be hired she must believe herself above it. While Andrew Carnegie thought his low-level workers should mop their own offices, he didn’t want anyone working for him who couldn’t envision himself head of the company. (n plus one)
Sometimes, I can’t help but question myself – did I imagine it? Was it really as bad as I perceive it to be? It’s questions like this that made me keep it locked away for so many years, wanting to spare myself the questioning of my intentions by confronting it, by spelling it out. I was scared someone would tell me I was wrong, that I was a liar, that I was just trying to ruin a young man’s life. I was scared no one would believe me, that I was being over dramatic or making it up. (Persephone Magazine)
Do you tend to point out your faults loudly when you’re nervous? Because you figure it’s better to get in first, before someone points them out for you? Yeah. Me too. Openess can be like that. It works like this: Before you challenge me on my boundaries, before you hold a mirror up to my intimacy issues, how about I barrage you with my brazeness, then you won’t have a leg to stand on! (Sarah Wilson)
Now, in this final installment, I wanted to question whether we really need mentors at all. Or, at least, whether we need mentors in the way that I (and, in all likelihood, you) started out imagining them: older, experienced sages who impart flawless advice and fearlessly advocate for us.
When you think about what mentors actually do - provide support, offer advice, let people know how great their mentees are - aren’t those things we can do ourselves? Aren’t they, in many cases, things we already do for each other?
Take my weekly Best of The Rest of The Internet section, for example. It’s a collection of links, sure, but it’s also a statement on my behalf that the people included are interesting and worth paying to. And in doing so, I’m not just sending them readers, I have also in several cases indirectly sent those people paid writing gigs.
In other words, Best of The Rest is a form of sponsorship. Likewise the people you link to and reference through your own blogs, Twitter and other social media accounts.
The same goes on the support and advice front. It’s nice to get it from someone you hero worship, but as I wrote in one of my first posts in this series, your heroes aren’t always the people best placed to give you advice. The people you can learn most from are often those on the same journey that you are… and they’re a hell of a lot better when it comes to swapping war stories than someone who’s already at the top of the career tree. (Although someone who has already been there, done that, has the added benefit of perspective.)
We’ve spent a lot of time over the past couple of weeks thinking about how mentoring works and how to make it work for you. Now let’s think about how we can make it work better for each other.
Mentoring week (er, month): Why hiring a writing coach was the best $240 I ever spent
“Mentoring week” is well and truly over now, having stretched over not just a week but more than a fortnight, but there are still a couple of stories I’d like to tell you, so I’m going to continue through to the end of this week. Then I’ll return to your usual scheduled programming of feminist issues.
Today’s story is about coaching. Or specifically, as the title of this post suggests, how hiring a writing coach was the best $240 I ever spent.
I didn’t hire my coach at the start of my career, but just a few months ago in March this year, after I’d already been writing professionally for six years. I didn’t hire her because I didn’t know “how to write”, but because I was about to embark on a journey that was a bit (okay, a lot) outside the scope of anything I or anyone I knew had done: getting a book deal in the US as a first time author who was born in Australia and lives in London. And while I could try to strategise and feel my way through the process, I figured I’d be in a much better position to do it if I sought advice from someone who, you know, actually knows these about things.
And so I hired Brooke.I’d actually heard of her years before I asked her to coach me, through my many friends in the US femmesphere. I’d even sent her a book proposal on the advice of one, five years ago when my understanding of “book proposal” looked more like “hastily written email” (yeah, I didn’t hear anything back).
I knew Brooke worked as a commissioning editor at a publishing house specialising in gender and sexuality. I knew she looked at book proposals all the time. So, when I found out through She Writes that she offered a coaching service, I jumped at the opportunity to work with her.
Who better to tell me if my proposal was ready? Who better to guide me through the confusing process of navigating the publishing world, or fill me in on which agents might be interesting in books like mine? (They must be sending her manuscripts all the time, right?)
I have to admit, when I went into our first session, I kind of hoped she would say, “Your work is amazing. Get thee a six-figure book deal now!” Yeah. She didn’t. She said I had the bones of a good idea, but she hoped that I was willing to work on it.
So we did. It turned out that I didn’t need to change the concept that much after all: it was more about clarifying what the hell I was talking about. She got me to redraft my chapter names from simple and (I liked to think) Alain de Botton-esque, to something catchier, more exciting and, well, more American. We decided to add an extra chapter to the structure… and then I went out and wrote that chapter to replace one of the ones in my original proposal. She drove me to clarify my ideas, encouraged me when I felt like everything was hopeless, and gave me a solid set of deadlines to keep me honest.
Last week, after three and a half months working together, we agreed that my proposal was ready to send out into the world. And something amazing happened, which could never have happened without her. In an industry where would-be authors are led to expect to wait for months to hear back on anything they send out, I received an offer of representation four days after I sent out my initial query letter. From an amazing agent who not only “gets” what the book is about, but who shares my greatest creative and commercial dreams for it, and who believes we can make those dreams a reality. I haven’t cracked my dream yet, but I’m one significant step closer to doing it.
That’s not why I’m writing this post in praise of Brooke – I had this series planned out a couple of weeks before I even sent out my query. And I knew I wanted to write a post like this months before this series was planned, after my second or third session with Brooke. I knew then that I was getting something truly invaluable from our relationship: direction, motivation, and a set of objective eyes who could tell me when I was being a perfectionist, and when I really did need to do another redraft.
So what’s the take away here for you? I don’t think a coach is the answer to everything that ails you – and I wouldn’t recommend hiring one unless it’s to help you with something you’re very actively working towards and they have specific expertise in that area (or unless you have money to burn and hiring coaches is something you’re able to do as a hobby). And like mentors, coaches can only help you if you’re willing to put in the work yourself.
But if there’s a specific hurdle you’re facing and you know there’s someone out there who can guide you to the answers, hiring them to do that can be a transformative experience – even more so than having an informal mentor, and especially if you’re not in the position where you already know someone who will help you out for free.
I'm interested in how one actually gets a mentor. Do you just say to someone 'hey, will you be my mentor?' or does it evolve more naturally than that? Can you bee in a mentor/mentee relationship without either of you realising it?
Also, I've been in a position before where it seems like someone would like to be my mentor but obviously never stated it overtly because that's awkward. How do I follow-up on people who may be interested in mentoring me?
Gee, this sounds a lot like dating advice, lol.
Maybe it’s because I’m Australian (and looking at your ‘About’ page, it seems you are too), but I like to keep things ambiguous. I agree with you that it’s a bit awkward to go up to someone you don’t know and say “will you be my mentor?”
That’s not to say you can’t try that – as in dating, sometimes being direct pays off, and there are entire industries dedicated to matching would-be mentees with would-be mentors (if there’s one of these in your line of work, my advice is to go seek it out).
But for me, at least, I find it easiest to think of “finding a mentor” as “building a good professional relationship with someone awesome”. It’s a bit like networking: historically, I’ve been good at it, but that’s mostly because I like running projects and meeting up with interesting people. Going up to strangers at parties and hoping they’ll hire me? No fun at all. It’s only easy for me if it feels social, mutually beneficial and, you know, not a Big Deal.
Some more specific tips:
- Be honest about what you need, but take it slowly. Asking someone you’ve never met to meet you for lunch to talk about a particular problem you’re facing, or to learn more about their work? Great. Asking someone you’ve never met to meet you for lunch every week? Probably not going to happen. Remember: a good mentoring relationship doesn’t have to be – and usually isn’t – the workplace equivalent of a best friendship.
- Once you’ve made a connection, follow up. Keep your mentors in the loop about your successes and struggles (personally I restrict this to fairly major stuff, unless I work with them directly – maybe a couple of times a year), and if you have contacts or information that would be useful for their work, let them know about it.
- Show appreciation. As discussed previously in this series, good mentors can make a huge difference to your career, so if your mentor does something that helps you out in a big way, send them flowers or buy them a good bottle of wine. If you email them for advice and they respond, thank them (this goes even if they’re not your “mentor”). Better yet: thank them and act on their advice.
- Older, more experienced people in your industry who you already have good professional chemistry with make great mentors and advisors. Identify these people and invest in these relationships.
- And if you don’t have someone like that in your life, there are plenty of ways to find them. If someone gives a talk you like? Go up afterwards to say hi (and then ask for their business card – for the follow up email – or a coffee). Are they online? Add them on Twitter or leave comments on their blog.
Outside of professional relationships with editors, thesis supervisors and the like, my experience of mentoring has been more a collection of “mentoring moments” than an ongoing, official thing.
Do they know they’re my mentors? Yes, actually, but usually only after they’ve helped me with a couple of things and I ask them for more help (“as someone I consider a mentor, what do you think of…”). I actually think calling someone your mentor – so long as it’s not associated with high expectations or too many demands they didn’t volunteer for – is quite a compliment. People like it.
After Josh broke my heart, my great regret was not that I had lost my virginity to him, but that I hadn’t. If I was going to be lovelorn, at least I would have liked the consolation of being able to brag that I’d had sex. (Guernica Magazine)
Because the larger issue is that it is a lot easier for men -or even guys or bros-to demean us, if we’re girls. It’s much harder to bring down a woman, or to call her a moron, when she’s not in pigtails and Ring Pops. Not that his idea of you should influence your style, or your sense of self-worth. But I feel like in a way, it already sort of has? (Jezebel)
"I think you’ll find most regular freelancers have an editor who acts as a "sponsor" of sorts for their work." So I wrote in an email to Musings reader Rose Russo back in March, when she astutely observed that much of my freelancing work over the years had been commissioned by one editor.
And today I’d like to talk to you about the editor who has played that role in my life. The lovely Sarah Oakes: editor of the Sun Herald and Sunday Age's Sunday Life magazine, and former editor of Cleo and Girlfriend.
I first met Sarah back in 2006, when I applied for the position of Deputy Editor of Girlfriend magazine, a position which (rightly) ended up going to Girl With A Satchel's Erica Bartle. I didn’t have any much experience working at glossy magazines at the time, but I must have written a good cover letter, complete with an analysis of everything I liked about the magazine, and strong opinions on the sort of sassy/Sassy, feministy content I thought the mag should be publishing.
So I got called in for an interview. And let me tell you, it was one of the worst interviews of my life. I stumbled on the first question - ”Tell me about yourself” (I’ve never been very good at summing up my somewhat confusing and non-linear career path) - and I don’t think either Sarah or her co-interviewer were overly impressed with my flustered, rambling self.
Fortunately, the interview process also involved submitting five pitches for the magazine, and while I far from sold myself in our meeting, Sarah liked them enough that she commissioned me to write one of them up. I did a good job on it, pitched another one, and before long I was a regular contributor.
When Sarah moved to Cleo in 2008, I became a regular contributor there; and when Sarah moved to Sunday Life in 2010, I followed her there as well.
Sarah differs from what we might traditionally think of as a mentor in some fairly obvious ways. She isn’t some abstract avatar of an idealised “future me” (she’s an editor, after all, and I’m pretty firmly down the “writing” path at the moment), and we don’t sit around plotting my future career moves over coffee. She’s only a few years older than I am. Our professional relationship isn’t based on favours, so much as it is that my interests as a writer and her interests as an editor are pretty well aligned.
But in other, more important ways, Sarah is pretty much the perfect mentor - and certainly the type of person you want to have on your mentoring team. She “gets” what I’m trying to do and the kinds of stories I like to work on more than anyone else I’ve worked with. (And special bonus - they’re the kinds of stories she likes to publish, too!) She’s opened up new writing markets for me as she’s moved between different magazine genres by giving me her stamp of credibility - not just in the publications she’s edited, but in their equivalents across the industry. She gave me the gift of Tina Fey.
So what are the lessons in all this for you other mediaites out there? I think the most obvious one is that while there are real benefits to connecting with other people who do exactly what you do (commiseration, support, tips from other people who’ve been there, done that), if you’re looking for sponsor - and you probably should be, they’re important - you’re probably going to have more luck if you stop looking at Number One Person Who Does Exactly What You Do, and start looking at the people who hire the people who do exactly what you want to do. Editors. Agents. Publishers.
I’m not saying this is easy. Editors in my experience tend to be pretty practical people, at least in the professional context. They only want to engage with you if they like your work and want to hire you. Then again, the advantage they have over other writers is that, well, they want to hire you. And they’re probably less likely to feel threatened: where the writer-writer relationship can often be competitive, the writer-editor relationship is by its nature symbiotic.
What’s the best way to build this kind of relationship? Writing for the same editor again and again and again. There’s a lot to be said for being able to include a long list of publications after your name, but my experience suggests that it’s the repeat work that really counts, and that allows you to build a relationship with both that publication’s staff and their readers. (See Zoe Foster or Benjamin Law for examples of how to do this really, really well.)
I’m not saying you need to be Machiavellian about this - certainly, when I walked out of Pacific Magazines in 2006, I never imagined that the woman I made an idiot of myself in front of would go on to become one of my biggest supporters. My working relationship with Sarah isn’t something either of us calculated, but something that evolved over years of us being on the same editorial page.
So, my advice for you, if you’re a writer seeking a “sponsor”? Seek out the people who like and “get” what you do, and stick with them.
And a big thank you to Sarah. My working life would be a lot less interesting without you.
A funny thing happened on my way to London’s SlutWalk on Saturday: I got scared. It was around about the time I exited the Tube station at Piccadilly. A sudden hit of adrenalin, and not the good kind.
I’m not sure what to blame it on. Being hit with the reality that while for me, SlutWalk was an act of solidarity with sexual assault survivors and every other woman who has ever been labelled a slut, by others it would read as a declaration of sexual availability? A sudden, irrational fear that “hardly anyone” would turn up, and it would just be me and handful of others marching the streets? (Less bodies means more visibility.)
But it was a timely reminder that as much as we live in a culture that valorises sexual activity as a path to status, maturity and (yes) empowerment, we also still live in a culture that condemns women if they dare to be sexual in the wrong way. In such a culture, going on a “SlutWalk” isn’t conforming, it’s confronting. A little bit gutsy, even. Even when you’re surrounded by 5000 other bodies.
It was a timely reminder that, for all the talk of “raunch culture”, being a “slut” is still a transgressive act. And a transgression that, on some not-even-very-buried level, I am personally afraid to make.
That’s not to say I’ve never been called one. The occasion that most readily springs to mind is when I was 16 and beyond virginal, but had the misfortune to wear a short dress around a couple of (I presume) similarly virginal guys who, so one of my friends told me, deemed such a get up “slutty”. (They later apologised, for what it’s worth.) I’m sure there have been plenty of others too, which just didn’t happen to get back to me.
The other issue SlutWalk got me thinking about is how very poorly we human beings deal with ambiguity. Or rather, how much we want wrongdoers to look and behave like cartoon villains. And how, when they don’t, we don’t know what to do with them. I mean, nice guys (and girls) don’t rape, right? (Wrong.)
I actually think that feminists have dealt quite well with the sexual assault issue in that - internally, at least - we’ve managed to find a language to reconcile the fact that most rapists aren’t strangers lurking in dark alleyways. That actually, most sexual assault happens at the hands of someone who is already known by the victim. Someone who, in many cases, was liked and trusted by the victim until the assault happened.
But it’s not just law enforcement and the newspaper reading public who struggle to come to terms with that apparent contradiction. It’s the survivors themselves. There are many reasons that it takes many sexual assault survivors a while to fully register what happened to them as assault, but one of them is the sheer disbelief that someone they liked and trusted would do that to them.
I wrote a story for Cleo last year about emotionally abusive relationships, and on the morning of SlutWalk, I was mulling over that issue with one of my housemates. Specifically: how do you know when enough is enough?
Articles like mine will lay out the signs - control, manipulation, nastiness, see-sawing emotions, the sense that you are absolutely losing your mind. We’ll even tell you that people in such abusive relationships will often fail to recognise it. Maybe their abusers is really quite lovely when they’re not acting out. Maybe it doesn’t seem as bad as other people’s relationships. Maybe they fight back themselves occasionally. It’s still abuse.
But when you’re actually in that situation yourself, it’s much harder to call a spade a spade. It’s easier to rationalise that your own issue isn’t that bad. You don’t want to take away from the people with “real” problems - maybe it’s all in your head. The other person seems perfectly nice in other contexts, after all, and you don’t want to destroy their life - or your relationship with them - over something small. And what if you really are just losing your mind?
Since it’s fairly obvious that I’m drawing upon my own experiences here, I think it’s important to clarify that I am not talking about my relationship with The Boyfriend, or any relationship within my family. I’m not even entirely sure what I’m trying to say with this post. But I do know that I ponder these issues a lot lately. And I also know that, like many, I’m yet to quite answer the question of how much is enough.
"Someone just said you were the chick in the Harry Potter movies,” the guy said. “Anyway, my mom is the Exchequer of Mauritania, but that’s not something that defines me. Have you ever read anything by the French social theorist and philosopher de Certeau?”
“No, I haven’t,” she said. “What does he write about?”
“Well,” the guy said. “It’s kind of hard to describe. But you know how everyday life works by a process of poaching on the territory of others, using the rules and products that already exist in culture in a way that is influenced, but never wholly determined, by those rules and products?”
“Not really,” she said.
“Alright,” he said. He looked at his cell phone. “Shit. I gotta go to band practice.” (The Hairpin)
I also wonder if to be famous at the stratospheric level of Kylie-fame is to feel as though you are inhabiting a ghost of yourself, and you only begin to feel solid when being visibly adored by thousands. That would explain a statement that Cate Blanchett once made abut how she only really feels alive in the dressing room just before she goes on-set or on stage. In the Kylie interview, it was obvious that the moment Kylie lives for is what she calls ‘The Walk’, the walk to the stage toward the deafening noise of the crowd, dressed in her finery, with escorts, minders, courtiers, photographers, twitterers and so on in tow. It might also explain why actors like Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Heath Ledger and Blanchett all seem to have the scary capacity to utterly disappear into their roles, as if they’ve finally found a way of being real. (Overland)
If I looked like her, I’d spend my days naked and accepting marriage proposals. How could she ever doubt herself? Everywhere she goes, people praise her. Everywhere she looks, the media tells her that she looks the ‘right way.’ I wanted to know, so I asked.
Her response? “How would you feel if the only thing people ever praised you for was something you had no control over? And how would you feel if every day, you were slowly losing the one thing people complimented you on?” (Yes and Yes)
Needless to say, this isn’t good for women. Because while having someone to tell you “you’re doing well on this”, “you could improve here” or “if I were you, I’d pursue this role, not that one” is great, you know what is even better? Someone who is able to put their contacts, reputation and even their cash (if you’re an entrepreneur) on the line in order to help you succeed.
But I wonder if men might generally be more inclined to form sponsorship arrangements than women; not because it’s a masculine trait, but because it’s something they have more cultural and historical experience with. Or to put it more bluntly, if you’re part of a group of people for whom power is a given rather than something that has to be fought for, you’re less likely to be precious about passing it on.
I know men for whom sponsorship is unquestioned: you recommend your friends for roles and cultivate your skills because you know and like them, and because it’s the nice thing to do. But in my experience, it has always felt like something that has to be earned- people will help you if they think you’re really, really good, but you’ve got to good in order to warrant that help.
I can see how a similar dynamic might play out when it comes to class. If you’re part of a class where being in contact with the people who might be able to help you achieve your goals is a given, seeking help from those people is similarly taken for granted. If you have to work to get into contact from those people, it follows that you’d also have to work to receive their help.
On the other hand, maybe it’s just a matter of generosity begetting generosity. What do you think?
What are your experiences of mentoring, gender and class? How do you think they intersect?
Broadly speaking, there are three types of mentors:
1. The Mentor-Mentor. Someone you like/admire who has knowledge or experience you currently don’t have but would like to have some day. You converse from time to time, share experiences, and when you’re in a bit of a bind you go to them with your questions.
2. The Coach-Mentor. Similar to the mentor-mentor, except you pay them - usually to help you work through a specific problem. Unlike a mentor-mentor, they may not have dealt with the specific problems you’re facing themselves, but they have the skills to guide you through it and keep you honest.
3. The Sponsor-Mentor. Someone in a position of power in your field (an employer, leading employee, leading light, etc) who thinks you’re uber talented and so actively advocates for you to get more and better work.
The ideal mentor, in my head at least, would be some combination of the first and third: someone whose work you’re in awe of who admires your work in return, with whom you exchange regular tips, contacts and regular social meet ups. Kind of like a workplace parent, older sibling or cool aunt.
In practice, of course, it doesn’t usually work like this. (Although if you’ve had that kind of mentoring relationship, please tell me about it in the comments.) Most of the mentoring relationships I’ve had have been both less intense and less formal: older people I’ve admired and struck up friendships with over time, whom I’ve called up when I’m in a bind or want some feedback. Usually, I’ve built up the relationship for a while before I’ve dropped the ‘M’ word, and usually, I haven’t gone into the relationship trying to turn it into that.
While I’ve been fortunate to have these awesome people in my life (and they are pretty damn awesome), I have to admit I’ve often felt a bit out of my depth when it comes to career stuff. Mostly this is because, while I know where I want to go with my work, there isn’t really a clear career path for what I’m doing. How to get from one level to the next can see confusing and daunting.
Given this state of affairs, I have often daydreamed about asking one of my personal idols to be my mentor - or, you know, to at least look at my book proposal. This has rarely gone very well. Perhaps this is because I am shite at asking for things, but I think there might be something bigger at play. Namely: the person you most want to “be” is not necessarily the person best placed to help you get there.
And also: if you’re going to ask someone to mentor you, you should probably first figure out what you actually want them to help you with. Beyond, “I think you’re awesome and it would totally make my life if we could be friends.” Or “How do I become more like you?”
And while you’re at it, you probably shouldn’t start out by straight out asking them to be your mentor. That’s like asking someone you’ve @’d a couple of times on Twitter to be your best friend, or asking a cute guy or girl at a bar to be your steady partner. It’s a lot of commitment to ask from someone who doesn’t know you.
Instead, think about the things you actually could do with knowing more about in order to improve your work, and think about who would be best placed to teach you about them. Then ask them to meet you for coffee to talk about that specific thing, or ask them a clear and specific question over email.
Maybe you’ll only speak to them once, or maybe you’ll only correspond with them a couple of times a year. That’s okay. Most mentoring relationships don’t look like the fantasy scenario I laid out in my first couple of paragraphs - and if they do end up that way, it’s something that happens over months or years.
I’ll leave you with an exercise. If you were to think about the specific skills and information you need to do your work better, who would you put on your mentoring dream team?
It’s also a class issue. If your parents happen to friends with a high court judge, a newspaper editor, an entrepreneur or an MP, you probably instinctively “get” how to connect and build relationships with these people. Good luck to you - you can probably teach the rest of us some tricks. If not, convincing the person who is currently living your dream career that you’re worth their time is somewhat trickier.
I’ve just finished writing a story on mentoring for Sunday Life magazine (publishing date, 19 June). It made me think: about the mentoring relationships I’ve had in my life so far, about those I’ve tried to build that never quite made it off the ground, and about how this whole business actually works.
Specifically, it got me thinking about the gap between the mentoring relationships of my imagination (Germaine Greer/Alain de Botton/Malcolm Gladwell meets me and is so blown away by my talent that they immediately declare me their protege) and the way mentoring plays out in real life. It also got me thinking about how ill-suited my imaginary mentoring relationships are to my actual needs (although I still think those people are awesome).
I figured that if I felt a bit lost when it comes to mentoring, some of you must be as well. So I’ve decided to share some of the things I’ve learned - that I wasn’t able to incorporate into my feature - in a series of posts over the next couple of weeks. Issues I’ll be covering here include:
- What is a mentor and what exactly are they supposed to do? (Plus, how to find the right mentor/s for you.)
- Once you’ve found someone you’d like to mentor you, how do you develop that relationship?
- Mentoring, gender and class.
- Mentoring and the media industry.
- Why hiring a writing coach was the best $240 I ever spent.
- With a little help from my friends: rethinking mentoring.
I’ll also be taking questions via Tumblr, Twitter and my email, so if there’s anything else you’d like me to write about, drop me a line or leave a comment on this post.
I’d also really love to hear about your experiences and challenges when it comes to mentoring.
There’s this cultural image of what it means to be female, and good in bed. The image includes being young and thin and cisgendered of course, and that can be problematic. But it also includes a lot of behavioral stuff: the way you squirm, the way you moan, being Super Excited about everything the guy wants to do, and Always Being Up for It—whatever “It” is. When people think about “good in bed,” for a woman, that’s often what they think. (The Good Men Project)
Such image saturated blogs have developed a very predictable formula; rich, good looking girl posts pretty pictures of herself wearing a designer outfit that could potentially be replicated via high-street imitations and vintage finds. The girl is often looking down at the ground like she is ‘unaware’ she is being snapped. Very rarely does she post goofy or unflattering shots. Amazing long legs are also a prerequisite. I can’t help but wonder at what point does a love of fashion and clothes turn into unapologetic narcissism? (The Vine)
As a reader, you’re quick to notice when plot points don’t work, or when characters don’t quite come through. As a would-be author, I realized how difficult it really is to do those things, and to do them well. I’m not any less critical when I’m reading other authors’ works, but I do have a newfound appreciation for how much skill really goes into crafting a novel. (Persephone Magazine)
“SlutWalk” made sense, as an immediate reaction to the events in Toronto: When the police officer blames rape on revealing outfits, you wear a revealing outfit. When the police officer uses the term “slut” in a derogatory way, you use it in a positive one. But once it was exported, its flaws became apparent. It did not, and could not, speak to the needs of every woman; nor could it adequately sum up and address every facet of rape culture. And so, removed from its original context, it stopped being simple, and became simplistic. (Global Comment)
I can deal with people calling me names on the Internet. But what I have never been prepared for? The twisted, sadistic attacks on people I care about and on people I don’t even know (like my readers). I guess my stalkers thought that if they couldn’t hurt me anymore, they’d just start aiming for the closest targets. And that was something I never once anticipated. (The Ch!cktionary)
“One of my favorite ways to stay in touch with out-of-state friends is choosing the same book to read, and then having an informal little weekly email chat about the latest chapter (interspersed with updates about our lives).”—I love this idea. Anyone up for it? (via Smart Pretty and Awkward)
Short answer? I’m all for it. I applaud the premises, I think it’s great to see grassroots activism go global, and I’ll be marching in the London one if I’m in town that weekend.
How I got to that point is a somewhat longer story. I have to admit, when I first heard about SlutWalk, it didn’t “grab” me in the way it has grabbed so many other people. It’s not that I found it offensive, so much as I acknowledged its existence and moved on, thinking: “I can see this has good intentions, but it’s not for me.”
Not because I’ve never been called a “slut” (what woman hasn’t?). Not because I’m not comfortable with people using or attempting to reclaim the word, either. But because, philosophically speaking, the idea that “slut” equals progressive and liberated and “prude” equals conservative and repressed doesn’t gel. Sexual freedom doesn’t always mean sleeping around; it means behaving in a way that is authentic to your values and desires.
Of course, SlutWalk doesn’t claim any of these things - not directly. But when I first heard about it, at least, I felt like it played into a broader discourse that does.
Then I got commissioned to write a story on SlutWalk, thought about it a little more deeply, and realised that my initial concerns were beside the point.
Here’s why. In the past year or two, there have been occasional stories in the femmesphere addressing what is usually referred to as “prude shaming” (personally, I prefer “compulsory hypersexuality”, but basically we’re talking about a critique of the idea that everyone is getting laid all the time, and if you’re not there’s something wrong with you - be it psychological, physical or political).
Whenever these articles are published, there’s inevitably a comment from someone saying that "prude shaming" doesn’t exist, because they don’t see no prudes being shamed. All they see is a whole lot of slut shaming. And I always think to myself, “Oh, for god’s sake! Just because slut shaming is alive and well, doesn’t mean that its reverse isn’t, too.”
But that frustration goes both ways. Just because there is cultural pressure - on both men and women - to behave in ways that are cartoonishly sexual, doesn’t mean slut shaming doesn’t also exist, or that we shouldn’t be doing something about it. You can be angry about both at the same time.
SlutWalk isn’t about shaming people for not being “liberated” enough, just as it’s not about whatever else your pet issue might be (“compulsory hypersexuality” being mine). It’s not representative of the entire women’s movement, or even the entirety of conversations taking place around gender and sexuality.
SlutWalk is a protest and subversion of the way in which the word “slut” is used police women’s (and gay men’s, and trans people’s) sexualities - who we sleep with, how we sleep with them, what we wear, where we walk at night. In particular, it’s a protest of the way in which the word “slut” is used to scare, shame and invalidate sexual assault victims. And these are all things I unequivocally support.
Getting down to an even more micro level, it is a specific response to a specific remark by a Toronto police officer, who told a group of university students they “should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised”. As co-founder Sonya Barnett said when I interviewed her for my article: “If he had said something else, we would have called it something else.”
There probably is a debate to be had about the kinds of issues and activists that attract the most supporters and media attention, but none of this means SlutWalk deserves less support. It just means that others deserve more.
“Wangs are ugly. It’s like God went to tie a bow, and just kinda forgot what he was doing in the middle.” This is one of my best friends, joking, over coffee. I had asked her about this cultural idea–the female body as a work of art (who doesn’t like naked women!) and the male body as, well, gross. And it’s not just penis that gets painted with “ew”–it’s the whole of male bodies: hairy, sweaty, narrow or bulky. (And of course not all male bodies have penises or extra hair.) While my gay friends were hooking up with dudes saying things like “you are so hot, you make me wanna cum” my female friends had been raised to think: the dick is just lucky to be here. (Rabbit White)
Gossip starts as the determined reclamation of privacy from the coerced publicity of shared spaces, shared lives. Compelled to live with one another, to pretend to respect, like, understand, support one another, we nevertheless have windows of conversational escape: we alight with a friend, say what we think, are brutal and critical, subversive and comic. (The Aporeticus)
That down payment that the feudal baron put out will go up in value only if housing does, and it’s completely illiquid and usually a major part of his portfolio (little diversification). And he’s flushing money down the toilet with interest (which usually doesn’t go up with inflation), property taxes (which often go up faster than inflation), and maintenance (which goes up with inflation). The serf is flushing money with his rent payment. But he has more cash in the bank, a more diversified portfolio, and is generating liquid cash (hopefully) from other investments. He also has the cash to be an entrepreneur, move around to take advantage of other opportunities, etc. This (in my experience) more than makes up for the rent down the drain. (Freakonomics)
Widespread celebritization is the flipside of the “attention economy” coin and I think that we have a lot of deep thinking to do about the implications of both of these. Both are already rattling society in unexpected ways and I’m not convinced that we have the social, psychological, or cultural infrastructure to manage what will unfold. Some people will become famous or rich. Others will commit suicide or drown attempting to swim in these rocky waves. This doesn’t mean that we should blockade the technologies that are emerging, but it’s high time that we start reflecting on the societal values that are getting magnified by them. (Danah Boyd)
I stared at the brown-paper-wrapped package on my lap for a moment, and it hit me: All my money, all the times I’d bent over to pick up a penny or tucked away those secret dollars instead of frittering them away at the corner candy store—every cent I’d owned was in that box. And I no longer had the money. True, I hadn’t worked for it, but it had been mine, and it wasn’t any more. I’d bet it all on Barbie. (Beauty, And What It Means)
Lori Adelman and Amanda Marcotte address the utility of “undercover feminism”, which is interesting to me, because that’s often how I feel I make my living. Does “undercover feminism” mean you’re not steadfast in your opinions? And when we talk about “undercover” feminism, are we lumping a whole bunch of very different perspectives together? Writes Lori at Feministing:
I have always felt that it’s important to be visible with my politics. If I don’t stand up for what I believe in, who will? But these latest pop culture phenomena beg the question: is there something to be said for the strategic value of “undercover feminism”?
I think it’s important to separate the two questions here, because what Lara is talking about is pop culture products where women’s equality is assumed and doesn’t have to be asserted, Tina Fey is actually a feminist but one who approaches it from a non-threatening perspective, and the feminist blogs Lori talks about are overt, threatening feminism. I would say we need all three things. Different approaches, different audiences, different concepts.
Me, I’ve become totally overwhelmed by other people’s status updates. An article in this magazine on the subject a few months ago, prompting a wave of “me too!” feedback. My journalist friend C has since taken a Twitter hiatus. “I can’t deal with the spin. It feels so grubby.” My single friend G has turned off Facebook; “Too many ex-boyfriends with baby photos!”.
You sit through another meeting, another class, another dinner party. What passes between the participants is performance; these are not fora for honesty, after all; nowhere public and social truly is, as you learned when just a child. You are obliged to redact, censor, restrain your strange human urge to complete honesty –an urge we may take as a solitary sign of innate moral goodness or as a mark of laziness: it is so hard to lie, to feign approval, to conjure phony responses to inanities! You are not yourself; you enact a role. You are coworker, guest, polite chit-chatter, neutral diplomat.
Yes. Yes yes yes yes yes, I thought to myself as I read their posts. Like Sarah and her friends, social media sometimes leaves me feeling grubby. Sometimes, my reasons are neurotic and ninth-gradish (although I suspect a lot of us do it): “Those two people who know me hung out together and I wasn’t invited. Do they secretly hate me?” Or, "All these people are so much better than I am. I’d really better up my game."
Sometimes the grubbiness runs deeper. A sense that what some people are saying, at least, is all bullshit; jostling; self-aggrandising. A product of a hope on their part that if you say something often enough, it will become true.
Part of the problem is what Mills touches upon in his post: the fact that social media is a public space. A more public space than the places we used to think of as public spaces, even. When it comes to social media, almost everything happens “on stage”. Even something like Facebook, which drew its initial appeal from the promise that it was a walled online garden where we could freely be ourselves, has long since become anything but that.
If I’m angry or sad, I’m less likely to talk about it on Facebook than I am in person (where I’ll usually tell anyone who will listen, assuming the emotion is strong enough), because I don’t want people to think I’m throwing a pity party. I hold back on things that could be construed as exciting or glamorous, because I don’t want people to think I’m bragging (which means that when it comes to the “humble brag”, I am guilty before charge). I don’t even share certain posts from this blog because I don’t want to draw the wrong people’s attention to them.
Really though, I think this gap between public presentation and private behaviour smarts most when you’ve seen backstage before. It’s why we have a tendency to grow disgusted with our exes after breakups: because we go from seeing the beautiful, vulnerable mess inside to seeing the artifice only. And while the Gaga-esque pyrotechnics may have been tolerable when you had a backstage pass to even it out, without them they seem insubstantial, superficial, a bit of a lie.
"That is not who that person really is!” I have always wanted to shout in such situations. "That is fake!”
But the truth is, if you haven’t had the privilege of seeing backstage, that artifice? It isn’t so annoying. Not because the facts of it are any different - not even because, necessarily, you’re buying what your vaguest of online or offline acquaintances are selling - but because you’re just not that invested.
There is, of course, a difference between being positive - looking on the bright side, appreciating what you have - and posturing/social climbing/outright lying in the hopes that through creating a prettier public face you’ll fill some indefinable hole inside. Primarily? It’s about having humility. But like Sarah, I think there’s also something to be said for sharing the dark alongside the light.
“[H]ere’s the thing about money: if you’re careful, you probably need less than you think you do. I earn approximately $2 and have pretty significant school debt, but I still managed to live in a nice neighborhood, in a one bedroom + office apartment on my own. I own my car, I travel, I wear (what I shamelessly consider to be) cute clothes and I pay off my credit card every month. I can do all of these things because I make sacrifices elsewhere. Nearly everything I own is second hand; I rarely eat or drink out; my apartment is super cute but the size of a breadbox and I earn extra money from this here blog.”—
Working in lady mag land, I sometimes worry that I perpetuate the notion that happiness can be achieved through the purchasing of goods and services: clothes, accessories, beauty treatments, knick knacks for the purposes of creating an attractive living space.
Not because of the substance of anything I write through those magazines, but through my very existence as a lady mag writer.
Some months ago, a friend/colleague at one of said magazines asked me to fill out a survey for one of those features where they profile lady mag type people and their favourite hairdressers/manicurists/masseuses/facialists/spray tanners/extremely hip clothing stores and so on, in an aspirational kind of way.
I had to write back and say that I didn’t actually have a manicurist, masseuse, facialist or spray tanner, but I could send through my favourite art galleries, theatres, roller discos and so on. Not because I am completely free of vanity, but because as a lady mag writer, I don’t actually earn enough to pay for all those services. And because, even if I did, I wouldn’t drop hundreds of dollars or pounds per month on beauty treatments.
So, I wanted to back Sarah up and say that neither your happiness nor your ability to lead an interesting, fun life is contingent on your ability to make and spend shitloads of money.
I remember back when I was living in Australia, sitting across the table at dinner from lawyer who bragged he didn’t go to work for less than $5000 a day. And I remember thinking how sad it was that despite the fact that he earned considerably more than I did, his life was not discernably better than mine was. What was the point of all that extra money, I wondered?
Similarly, moving to London and going from a staffer job to full-time freelance meant taking a 60-75% pay cut. I’m pretty sure I earn less than pretty much everyone I know… and that includes those who complain they don’t earn very much. But happiness wise, London and freelancing beats Sydney and staffing hands down - and my current lifestyle is unquestionably more fun, interesting and, yes, “glamorous” than my old one.
Part of the reason people like Sarah and I are able to do this is because we have a swatche of social and cultural capital to draw upon, even if we don’t have much in the way of money. But I do think that a lot of people - in particular people who grew up in very comfortable, upper-middle-class households, the kind of people who bemoan the idea of academics “only” earning $70,000 per year, or think that it’s tough to “get by” on a combined family income of $200,000 - severely overestimate the amount of money they need to earn in order to lead a “nice life”.
As Sarah writes, ”you probably need less than you think you do.”
And make no mistake about it: we can be called sluts for nearly any reason at all. If we’re dancing. If we’re drinking. If we have ever in our lives enjoyed sex. If our clothes aren’t made of burlap. If we’re women of color, we’re assumed to be sluts before we do a single thing because we’re “exotic.” If we’re fat or disabled or otherwise considered undesirable, we’re assumed to be sluts who’ll fuck anyone who’ll deign to want us. If we’re queer boys or trans women, we’re called sluts in order to punish us for not fearing the feminine. If we’re queer women, especially femme ones, we’re called sluts because we’re obviously “up for anything,” as opposed to actually attracted to actual women. If we’re poor, we’re gold diggers who’ll use sex to get ahead. And god forbid we accuse someone of raping us – that’s the fast track to sluthood for sure, because it’s much easier to tell us what we did wrong to make someone to commit a felony violent crime against us than it is to deal with the actual felon. (Feministing)
“Coverage of this issue on television and in the media has been problematic for a number of reasons. Take the comments of the mother on the Panorama documentary, who was concerned that her daughter wearing short skirts and ‘showing her legs’ would lead to an underage pregnancy. Or the tabloid headlines which labelled Primark’s padded swimwear for seven-year-olds as the ‘PAEDO BIKINI’. The fact that the outrage exclusively focuses on girls, the way they might behave or the things that might happen to them as a result of liking or wearing certain clothes or being exposed to sexual imagery, rather than addressing the issues in the ways they affect boys, looking at the wider problems surrounding the way we view sex and relationships as a society, or asking the girls themselves what they actually think about it all.”—
This is something that frustrates me, too. When I tell people I’m writing a book about sex, the automatic assumption is that it’s going to be a book about women. Perhaps this is partly because I am a woman, but I also think it’s because almost all our political discourse about sex - whether conservative or liberal - is about women.
And you know what? Women’s sexuality is political, socially constructed, culturally mediated - all those things. But so is men’s. And by focusing all our conversation, be it “who’s sexualising our girls?” or “the Madonna/whore complex is still alive and well, you know!”, on women, we’re saying that cisgender, heterosexual masculinity, as it is experienced and played out in our culture, is universal, unremarkable, unworthy of comment.
Guest writes: Hey Rachel! I agree with your post about staying up to date with the important feminist blogs, but with so many out there and being fairly new if not to feminism but to the feminist presence on the Internet, I was wondering if you could give your top 5 or so blogs you consider to be the most important, relevant and/or useful. It’s so easy to become swamped by all of this when you’re first getting into it!
Asking me to put my money where my mouth is - I like it!This is a tought question to answer, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, while I think there is a feminist hegemony (that is to say, a group of high profile bloggers who regularly refer to and link to each other’s work - the ‘Big 5’ are probably Feministing, Feministe, Jezebel, Pandagon and Shakesville), there isn’t necessarily a feminist canon (that is to say, a series of “must read” blogs you need to stay up to date with in order to be a “good feminist”).
Secondly - perhaps because we do it for love rather than money - even the best bloggers tend to be a bit hit and miss. One week I might be chowing down everything Amanda Marcotte has to say; the next week I’ll be all about Lena Chen, Phoebe Maltz or Hugo Schwyzer. Keeping up with everything said in the feminist blogosphere - or even just reading everything published on the ‘Big 5’ - would be an exhausting and impossible task, which is why RSS feeds and Google Reader are your friend. You can “add” everything that interests you to your feed, and then skim through it to read only the cherries that most interest you.
If I had to narrow down my feminist blog reading to an absolute bare minimum, though, I’d pick Jezebel, Feministe and Creatrix Tiara. Jezebel, because if it’s in the zeitgeist, you can be pretty sure it will be covered there sooner or later. Feministe because, despite recent criticisms, I think it delves deeper and in more interesting directions than a lot of the other majors. And Tiara, because she is both an incredible curator of other people’s writing and perspectives, and is chock full of challenging perspectives on sex, gender, race and class herself.
But even though those blogs are all great, if they were the only ones I read, I’d be seriously missing out on a lot of the food that feeds my brain and hones my politics.
While doing Live Below The Line last week, I kept a running tally of everything I ate and how much it cost - less for myself, than because I wanted to show you that it was possible, and it’s not as scary as it looks.
That’s not to say it was fun. Despite the fact that I was eating three meals per day, plus snacks, I was pretty much constantly hungry, especially on the last two days. I woke up on Wednesday morning with a piercing headache, and spent most of the week in a peri-migraine state. We bought cheap, so we always had enough to eat, but it also meant the food was bland and poor quality (see, for example, the rotting carrot on day three).
And food was not so plentiful that we didn’t have to negotiate what and how much we could eat. That egg I treated myself to for lunch on the last day, for instance? Was an egg The Boyfriend could not eat (but kindly gave up for me on my request).
There’s been a lot of LBL-related media coverage in the UK and Australia (and I imagine the US) over the past couple of weeks, which has led to some interesting discussions of how accurately the challenge reflects the experiences of those people who really are living in extreme poverty.
Surely you can buy more with $2 in N’Djamena than you can in Sydney? (Nope, not when it comes to food, at least. That’s what purchasing power parity is all about.) Why aren’t housing and transport costs included? (Well, those really do cost a lot more in London/San Fran/Melbourne than they do in Brazzaville/Monrovia/Abuja.) Isn’t this whole exercise really unhealthy? (Not if you’re only doing it for five days.)
Living in extreme poverty - especially for a short, confined period of time - does not mean you are literally and continuously starving to death. In Malawi, a country where 73.9 percent of the population is living in extreme poverty, the average life expectancy is 56.5 years. Extreme poverty manifests itself in things like continuous poor nutrition, lousy health care, and high childhood and maternal mortality.
Would someone living in Malawi eat similarly to what I’ve outlined below? Probably not. My menu was based on the options and prices available in a London supermarket. And if 73.9 percent of people in Malawi are living below the extreme poverty line, it’s fair to say that most of those people are spending a fair bit less than 90p per day on food.
But the main way in which Live Below The Line doesn’t show you what it’s like to live in extreme poverty? As of midnight Saturday morning, I was able to return to my regular consumption patterns. About half way through the challenge, I was reminded of the classic Pulp song, Common People. I sang it while walking home from the official London LBL dinner on Wednesday night.
But still you’ll never get it right 'Cos when you're laying in bed at night Watching roaches climb the walls If you called your dad he could stop it all, yeah You’ll never live like common people You’ll never do whatever common people do You’ll never fail like common people You’ll never watch your life slide out of view…
As I wrote in a previous post, the thing that makes extreme poverty so unjust isn’t that feeding yourself on £1/day is impossible. (I suspect that the menu below isn’t all that different to what many Europeans were eating on rations during the Second World War.) It’s that when you’re got that little wiggle room, there’s no space for anything to get wrong. You can’t afford to get sick. You can’t afford to send your kids to school, to get the kind of education that might lift them out of poverty.
The good news is that extreme poverty is on the decline. At the beginning of the 1980s, half the planet lived in extreme poverty. Now it’s sitting at around 25 percent. And the purpose of a project like Live Below The Line is to increase awareness so that we can build a movement that gets that number down to zero.
Anyway, if you’re interested in giving Live Below The Line a try yourself, here’s what I ate…
question: did amanda marcotte (or jessica valenti, etc) have to email anybody in the feminist blogosphere to have them review her book? more than likely not. why? because she is a part of the *network*. everybody in the network knows what she is doing. and cheering her on. and have been supporting her and following her progress. and going out for drinks to celebrate it being done. etc. (Radically Hott Off)
It is not that these households are spending their limited money on junk food, it is more that they may be unable to afford a variety of fruit and vegetables and instead may be purchasing larger quantities of staples such as rice and bread. (QUT News via Tiara Shafiq)
But the moment these girls pass the point where they’re no longer considered ‘children’ any more, everything changes. As women, they’ll no longer be expected to shun padded bras and makeup and an obsession with being attractive as ‘inappropriate’. It will be become a requirement. If they have small breasts they’ll constantly receive messages from shops and the media that they need to look more ‘curvy’, ‘create the illusion of cleavage’ and possibly have surgery to get the perfect figure. … In short, if the ‘too much too young’ culture is going to change, this change needs to happen from the top down. (We Mixed Our Drinks)
After reading your early posts about LBL, I thought it’d be a good thing to try for many of the reasons you outlined. So I asked my housemates if they wanted to join, and so we signed up as a team to do LBL. There are three of us. We’re all girls, and we would all openly acknowledge that our attitude toward food/eating/body image is not what we would like it to be. All of us are guilty of self-destructive behaviour at times (skipping meals after ‘over-indulging’, over-assessing calorie/kJ counts etc) and so it’s become hard to know to what extent my perspective is objective and to what extent unhealthy behaviour has become normalised.
To be honest there were some self-serving motives (in terms of my own eating) involved in signing up for LBL - knowing that I couldn’t go out and buy a chocolate bar and then skip lunch because I was feeling guilty. Or having to eat more carbs than I’d like to because I don’t have the cash fill myself up on something more delicious/less heavy. I knew it would be a challenge to actually do those things, but I wanted to try.
With the signing up came the asking for sponsors and with that remarks like: “Do you think that’s a good idea?”; “I think that’s dumb”; “That’s so unhealthy, especially for you.” These were all made with reference to my weight. I guess what I’d like to hear about, from someone who has done this before and has struggled with weight and body image issues: to some extent many women (and men) struggle to have a good relationship with their bodies, with food, with eating, so how can you determine whether or not you are objective enough about your own attitude toward the forementioned in order to make a decision about things like LBL? How would/do you know that participating in an activity like LBL wouldn’t/doesn’t have self-destructive potential? Even if you don’t like the way they address the issue, should you trust the judgement of others in these cases?
Hi Hannah. My first thought when reading your question is that it’s likely that part of the reason your friends are concerned is because they don’t know how much food you can actually buy with $10. This is understandable in a country where, from memory, a bottle of coke costs $3.20, a small chocolate bar costs $2.50, and a salad from the food court below my old Sydney office goes for $9.50.
They’re probably picturing you eating four chocolate bars over the space of a week, or one and a half sandwiches. Which obviously would be incredibly unhealthy. But you won’t be eating any of those things. You’ll be buying the cheapest and most nutritious food you can buy in your local supermarket.
They might also be under the common misapprehension that $10 stretches a lot further in, say, Bangladesh (where 49.6 percent of the population are living in extreme poverty) or Tanzania (88.5 percent) - which is not true. That $10 (or £5 or US$7.50) will buy you the equivalent of the amount of food someone living on the knife edge of the extreme poverty line could buy… only they’d have to fit transport, accommodation, health and education into their budget as well. (Nor do they have refridgerators or big supermarkets to go to.)
And if AU$2/day is the edge of the extreme poverty line, that means a lot of people living in extreme poverty are making do with much less - some of the time, if not all of it. Those cliched images of starving kids surrounded by flies? They’re doing a lot worse than $2 per day. And they’re not a typical representation of what extreme poverty really looks like. It’s about precarity and a lack of options, not a permanent famine.
All of which is to say, doing Live Below The Line, you will feel hungry - you will have far fewer options than usual, you will have to plan ahead and ration your meals lest you end up with no food or funds by day four or five - but it won’t be the most difficult thing you’ve ever done. It won’t make you (or me, for that matter) a hero - even though some people will treat you like you’re achieving an impossible feat. And after your five days are up, you will have the luxury of going back to your normal life - a luxury which is not available to 1.4 billion people on this planet. In other words, it won’t be as horrible as your friends probably think it’s going to be.
As for the body image question, it’s a good one to raise. You’re right that food issues are widespread almost to the point of universality amongst middle-class Western women - it’s a consequence of living in a culture with large amounts of food, and a body image ideal that asks even the naturally slim to diet. And The Boyfriend has commented to me that pretty much every young woman he’s discussed Live Below The Line with has responded with something along the lines of, “So, that’d be good for weight loss, huh?” Which says something pretty sick about both our culture and our psyches.
Is it “triggering”, though? I’d be inclined to say “no” - with the exception of people who are in active recovery from a restriction-based eating disorder - but it’s probably something it’s safest for you to decide for yourself. It didn’t make me obsessed with my weight or go on a diet when I did it last year, if that helps (although I did lose a couple of kilos), and I think that’s partly to do with the mindset you go into it with.
As you hinted in your email, Live Below The Line isn’t about self-starvation - in many respects, it forces you to adopt a psychologically healthy approach to food. When I’m planning my LBL meals, I’m thinking about three things: what’s going to fill me up, what’s going to provide nutrients, and what’s going to taste good (as much as you can do any of these things on £1 per day). I’m not thinking “I feel so guilty, but I really want it!”, “should I have eaten that?” or “is this going to make me fat?”
How to be a feminist intellectual (or a public thinker of any kind, really)
Jill Filipovic published an interesting post on Feministe yesterday in which she reminded us, basically, that despite running one of the most visited feminist sites on the we, she is a human being - with a demanding job, a social life, a personal life, and her own set of personal problems to deal with. And being a human being, she doesn’t have time to read everything that is ever posted about feminism on the internet.
It was a timely reminder that the people and organisations we often perceive as powerful “institutions”, are in fact poorly funded labours of love, run by human beings as flawed and time poor as the rest of us. They may have influence, but they also have their limitations.
Still, I had to disagree with Jill on this point:
I am admittedly not the most comprehensive consumer of feminist media; there are only so many hours in the day, and since I have a very demanding job and also feel quite a bit of pressure to keep Feministe stocked with regular content, I tend to go to reporting-focused media outlets (like the New York Times) to look at mainstream content and then filter it here through a feminist lens. I do read other feminist websites, but not regularly — I assume if you’re reading Feministe, you’re probably reading other feminist websites and you don’t need to see the same stuff written about in the same way on site after site. So I didn’t see the Shameless Magazine piece until I ran a search for “feministe” on Twitter, and saw that someone had written “Hey @feministe, you’re being called out” with a link.
And in the twenty-first century, being a good “public intellectual” - or to put it less pretentiously, being a good contributor to community debate - isn’t just about talking, it’s about listening. And it’s especially about listening to your own community, the people who trading in the same field of ideas that you are.
In the case of someone like Naomi Wolf, one of the planet’s highest profile writers on gender issues, that translates to having a responsibility to pay attention to what’s being said in the feminist blogosphere - at the very least to the major outlets, or the ones that align most closely with your current interests, even if you don’t have the time or inclination to dig more deeply. And it means that when your entire community is “calling you out” (to borrow from Jill), you listen to what they have to say, consider whether it might be in some way valid, and you don’t want to moderate your position, at least acknowledge the counterarguments.
In Jill’s case (and the case of so many others writing for major feminist publications), it means reading other feminist blogs. Not reading every single post in great detail, but adding them to your RSS feeder and skimming the headlines. Responding to what interests or inspires you. Paying attention to your Twitter @-feed, responding to (non-trolling) people who are trying to engage you in conversation and adding them back if they seem interesting.
Because while the blogosphere may be made up of normal, fallible human beings with too much to do and not enough hours in the day, a lot of us have influence - and when you have influence, where you direct that influence matters. I’m pretty medium-fry when it comes to feminist blog land, but I do have somewhat stronger networks in mainstream media, and I know of at least a couple of people who have been commissioned by editors I work with on the basis of being linked on this blog.
This post isn’t written as a personal attack on Jill - I’ve met her, she’s published my work on multiple occasions, and she does an incredible job of moderating and responding to Feministe’s very active commenting community. I think she’s pretty great. But that doesn’t change the fact that the way community debate and influence works is a-changing, and if we don’t want to be left behind (or cannibalised), we all need to come along for the ride.
“I realised, fairly quickly, one problem that the poor face: in order to get the best prices for the food they need, shopping is not remotely straightforward. … Cheap food might be available, but not where you live. Transport might be available, but it might be expensive (thankfully not a problem for me today) or slow – so the process of getting your food goes from simple and convenient to a relatively complex exercise that ended up taking most of my morning. Not fun when you’re hungry!”—Results UK director Aaron Oxley reflects on his first two days of Live Below The Line.