Welcome to the latest installment of Ms. Opinionated, in which readers have questions about the pesky day-to-day choices we all face, and I give advice about how to make ones that (hopefully) best reflect our shared commitment to feminist values—as well as advice on what to do when they don't. This week, how to be the perfect feminist by accepting you're not the perfect feminist.
Dear Ms. Opinionated,
As a feminist I am always trying to stay up to date on news, research and blogs like Bitch. Lately, though, I have been feeling very muddled. I vocally criticize objectification of women in TV and movies, yet I am a huge fan of artists like Beyoncé and Rihanna who are marketed as sex symbols. I go on about the lack of coverage and opportunities for female athletes but I rarely watch women's sports myself. I tell my friends not to worry about their weight, but I get upset when I put on a few pounds. I confront sexual harassers on the street yet my sexual fantasies often involve domination by men. I tell myself that everyone is feminist in their own way, but it also seems that most activists and websites espouse a "right" way to be feminist. I can't help feeling that I am doing it wrong or not enough. How do I (and other women reading) reconcile all of these contradictions?
If I could time travel without, like, disrupting the space-time continuum, one of the many things I would tell a younger me would be that: It's not the interest in appearance that's wrong, it's how you do it. Fascination with the visual is something as broad as the history of human signing (as well as something that underlies ubiquitous ableism in the social and built environment, since not everyone has the ability to see said visual). Sometimes I like to put it in perspective for myself like this—if I were thinking about non-Western cultural and aesthetic forms, I would be less likely to criticize and more likely to think about these practices as a way of being culturally competent, enjoying shared symbols, and evoking continuity with a cultural history.
As someone who writes about choosing to not have children, what I seek are equitable conversations about honoring and giving space to all sorts of reproductive options—in a way, I suppose I want "choice feminism" to extend to us all. In the end, I simply want Bill McKibben's Maybe One to have a shot at being even half as popular as What To Expect When You're Expecting. (I know, a pipe dream, but a gal can hope.) I want every option put on the rhetorical table, for every issue to be given equal consideration when we set out to make decisions about how we live. Just because people claim to not have a bias against something doesn't mean room is made at the table to share those ideas or validate opinions. How can we talk about private, personal decisions related to fertility, childbearing, adoption, family, and love without squashing each other's values and opinions? How do we navigate this rocky terrain?
The SF Weekly's cover story this week is quite a departure. Rather than an exposé of city government shenanigans or a look at some local phenomenon gone national, it's a personal essay about gastric bypass surgery. The Weekly trying to get into the New Year's resolution swing of things by covering weight loss? Trying to capitalize on the bodies of its female staffers (albeit in an unusual and roundabout way)? Just filling a slow news week with a non-timely story? Though it's worth questioning why this is a story in the first place, I'm gonna go in another direction.
In many ways the piece is a standard narrative of self-improvement, complete with a badly lit, messy "before" snapshot paired with a professional "after" picture including careful makeup and styled hair. It would be all too easy to simply criticize author Katy St. Clair for caving in to cultural pressure, buying into the whole thin = hot bullshit she says she wants to be free from, and playing down the risks and sideeffects of weight-loss surgery—which she dismisses as "overblown" without any further information or comment; I know it's a personal essay and not a news article, but it's still on the cover of a newsweekly, so the omission seems pretty glaring—and move on.