Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Moving Beyond the Destiny of Biology

"Real women have curves."

"Meat is for the man, bones are for the dog."

Oddly enough, these are supposed to make me feel better about myself.  They're supposed to reassure me that my callipygian form is inherently superior despite the constant media pressure to slim down, that the hips that defy decency with every miniskirt I've ever attempted make me a more natural woman.

And man, did they used to.

I have failed, most of my life, at being a Normal Female.  I mean, I could have aced that test, if I'd known (and then cared) to try.  But until I was old enough to be set on my path, no one told me there were expectations.  By the time I figured out I was a Weird Girl I was faced with a situation where fitting into the mold required giving up things I really wanted, so I took my Outsider status as if I somehow deserved it.

That was, of course, at about the time I discovered boys, and boys discovered me, and...well, that didn't really go as intended.  I am bound by the genetics that gave me a solid frame and a certain ample build to go with it.  It was, when combined with my tendency to be 'too smart', the kiss of death to any sort of Normal Womanhood.  When I discovered sexuality, we added too passionate and too assertive to the list.  Later, I found out I am also too strong, and too self-assured.  I am even, occasionally, too competent.  Ultimately, it all just becomes 'too much'.

It was like I'd been given a cup, much much too small, and when I overflowed it everyone looked at me in disgust, because couldn't I just increase the pressure on myself to keep it all at an acceptable volume?  Couldn't I just let go of the parts that didn't fit, if the pressure wasn't sustainable, and confine myself to what the cup could hold?

Along came the 'real women have curves' notion.  I won't lie, it probably saved my life, because it was the first time I'd ever heard anyone suggest that the cup was inadequate.  It was like a door opening, and I admit (with a certain sadness) that I leaped to the conclusion that anyone that cup DID fit was obviously less of a woman.  It wasn't that I failed at fitting into societal gender norms or body image norms.  It wasn't that the norms themselves were the problem.

The problem was skinny bitches, obviously.  They were clearly in charge of the cups.

I'll leave for another day all the ways that women are conditioned to hate one another based on who does or doesn't fit into the body mold.  There's actually a much deeper problem there: the idea that anyone gets to decide what a real woman is, or who gets to call herself one.

Every woman is handed the same size cup at birth, and only the barest fraction of women fit it perfectly.  Smart enough to be witty and charming, not smart enough to be threatening.  Appropriately curvy, but not one inch more so.  Helplessly self-sufficient.  Just outgoing enough not to be a slut.  At some point, almost every one of us is an Outsider, and that can be terrifying.  When those doors slam shut in your face for the first time, the echoes can last for years.

There are two choices if you don't want to be an Outsider forever.  You either refine your definition of 'woman' to fit the women who are like you, moving the target so that you never have to feel the sting of noncompliance, or you broaden your definition of 'woman' until no one has to.  We're encouraged in a thousand ways to do the first.  Fat shaming, body policing, defiant anthems in praise of curves, magazine articles (with photoshopped size 0 models on the cover) telling us that men are evolutionarily conditioned to prefer women with curves.

The second is scarier, I'll admit it.  Because if I expand the definition, broadening the range of whom I'm willing to consider a fellow woman, where does it stop?  Fat girls?  Skinny girls?  Old women?  Preteens?  Those are all easy enough, because don't we all share biology?  I mean, hey, ladies, periods suck, amirite? <insert bra shopping joke here>

In the pagan community, there almost always comes this moment when that fails.  We have women's circles, women's gatherings, women's retreats, all manner of things to connect you to your inner Goddess, and they're all about solidarity of womanhood, and then all of a sudden, someone wants to come into your woman space who hasn't always been a physical woman, and maybe isn't one now.  And...what do you do?

Michigan Womyn's Fest and Pantheacon have failed, in spectacularly public ways, over the years.  Instead of seeking solidarity, instead of seeking to expand the definition of woman to embrace personal identity and self-awareness, they reduce the notion of womanhood to biology.  If you're not born and raised a woman, here's another cup you can never fit into.  Womyn's Fest is particularly insulting, because they say that you cannot be one of them unless you were raised experiencing the discrimination and prejudice most women in this country face, but that if you weren't, you can attend as long as you lie about it and don't get caught.  In other words, discrimination is a necessary part of our gender identity, but if you didn't share that *particular* suffering, it's acceptable to lie your way into sisterhood.

I was lucky enough, by the time I started thinking about the question, to have trans* friends.  That's lucky because on a purely academic level, it seems perfectly fine to draw that line at genetics.  When you don't really have a face to put to it, haven't really heard someone talk about struggling with gender identity, you can just figure on putting the line where it's most convenient.  But when the people on the outside of the door have faces you know, you really can't do that.  So you say, "Come on in, honey, you can stand by me, it'll be cool."

At that point, for me, something amazing happened.  When I expanded my definition of who gets to be a woman to identity, my own identity as a woman expanded.  Suddenly it's not about my boobs or my hips or my lunar annoyances.  It's a matter of who I really am, down to my core.  When I drop that limit, I drop things that limit me as well.  The more diversity we apply to the possible origins of a woman, the more diversity we have in her outcome.

When I see that game being played out, that target of 'real womanhood' being painted on yet another moving reference point, I try to step back and remember that limitless moment, that door opening.  Instead of embracing another divide to make myself more acceptable, more palatable, more secure in my place as a woman by excluding some not-quite demographic, I repeat, "Anyone who wants to be a woman is a woman," because that means the converse is also true:

A woman can be anyone she wants to be.

Thursday, August 14, 2014


A gun-savvy friend once gave me the following advice:  "Do not own a gun you are not willing to pick up.  Do not pick up a gun you are not willing to load.  Do not load a gun you are not willing to carry.  Do not carry a gun you are not willing to draw.  Do not draw a gun you are not willing to point at a living  being.  Do not point a gun at a living being unless you are willing to pull the trigger.  Do not pull the trigger unless you are willing to kill.  In short, when you purchase a gun, accept the possibility that you will kill a living thing with it.  Do not draw a line and tell yourself you will go so far and no farther, because the moment's choice to move from one step to the next can happen so quickly there is no time for reflection."

His point wasn't that guns kill people.  His point was that when you sit back, and think about how you will handle a situation, you envision yourself being calm, rational, making measured decisions.  But when you are frightened, or worried, or your adrenaline is high, your decision-making process is substantially changed, and escalation becomes reflex.

I'm reminded of this by the week's events in Ferguson, MO.  I can genuinely believe that the cops currently lobbing tear gas and rubber bullets at unarmed protesters never intended it to be like this, that when they decided to join the police force, they intended to help people and not shoot them in the face with chemical weapons.  But there has been a long relentless escalation of police force in this country, and we're seeing it today.

Especially since 9/11, there has been increased funding for police departments to buy "anti-terrorism gear."  For many of them, this has translated to tanks and other 'breaching vehicles', riot gear, tear gas, and high-tech equipment, with the training to use it.  Even small-town and suburban police forces have been handed ridiculous funds for tools in the fight against terrorism, and they're consistently told "If you don't spend it all, you're off the list for next year."  So, they buy fancy new toys, because who doesn't like fancy new toys?

The danger of that is twofold.  The first is that many of those toys are *dangerous* to the citizens they're supposed to be protecting.  They introduce injury, and they escalate situations.  Those escalated situations create greater fear and outrage, which makes the cops more afraid they are losing control, which means they use more force to try and regain control, which means more adrenaline and more injuries and more fear, in a rising cycle until we find ourselves at today, with state Senators being tear-gassed, peaceful demonstrators being shot with rubber bullets, and news crews being arrested, threatened, and harassed.

The other danger is slightly more subtle: it convinces local cops that they have the ability to handle situations that are far outside their capabilities, because they have the tools and the training...but no experience.  Tools put the weapons in your hands, training teaches you how to use them, but *wisdom and experience* tell you when, and why, and to what extent.  This week's events are a profound failure of wisdom at pretty much all levels of the Ferguson and St. Louis County law enforcement structure.  There were so many chances to step off the escalation ride, and police have stepped it *up* instead.

They've gone so far that there's no way they can reasonably dial it back, so state and federal cops are being brought in, and I hope cooler heads eventually prevail.

Too often, cops are recruited and trained on the basis of being willing and able to use force to subdue.  I'm not naive enough to think that the use of force is never part of a cop's job, but it is long past time to stop, and examine why the pace of escalation is so often accelerated.

It's also long past the time to ask:

Why on earth does the fifty-three person police force of a suburban town of twenty thousand people need multiple armored vehicles?  What threat, exactly, did they reasonably anticipate, and why?

Because I think the reality of it is this:  they didn't anticipate anything.  Most of them, if asked "Who did you expect to use this on?" would probably have looked blankly at you and mumbled something about terrorists because they simply never thought that far ahead, never even considered the possibility that having those weapons would mean they'd end up where they are today.

My biggest worry with the militarization of the American police force isn't that it's a deliberate plot to suppress the population and its rights.  My biggest worry is the fact that it's a reflexive escalation based in unconsidered actions, that our armaments have long since exceeded our wisdom.

Monday, August 11, 2014

You Keep Using That Word...

Over the weekend, 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed in what is being described as an 'officer-involved shooting' In Ferguson, MO.  More plainly put, he was shot and killed by a police officer.

As usual, eyewitness accounts differ from the police reports, but they all pretty consistently put Brown on his knees, on the ground, with his hands in the air to show he was unarmed.  Some describe a small altercation with police, some say he was put into a chokehold, some say he started running and officers fired on him, after which he knelt and surrendered.  Several more shots were fired, and Brown's body was left in the street for several hours.

Local residents, predictably upset, gathered to protest.  I've heard this protest called a 'riot' across a variety of news sites like this one, but the pictures look to me a lot more like a very energetic protest with a heavy and visibly nervous police presence.  Some store windows were smashed in, and a Quiktrip store seems to have taken the worst of the abuse, as shown in the pictures at the above-linked article.

Come to that, those Quiktrip pictures comprise the vast majority of the 'eyewitness looting accounts' I've seen.  A couple other storefronts, and a report of Wal-Mart employees 'taking shelter' and some folks banging on police cars.  There are some videos of people shouting, and running, but I must admit that when I think of 'rioting' and 'looting' I think of Watts, of the LA riots after the Rodney King verdict, of the 1999 WTO Conference in Seattle.  In comparison, I have to say that the rioters of Ferguson were decidedly under-achievers by comparison.

I'm not making light, not really.  I'm suggesting, though, that perhaps there are reasons that a few smashed windows and an angry protest might be better spun to the rest of the country as riots and looting, as further evidence of black people's lawlessness and dangerous instability.  It's entirely possible that the use of the word 'riot' instead of 'protest' to describe what really appears to be relatively peaceful civil unrest is being used to color the debate, because the word choice itself has become a weapon in race and culture wars.

That plays a part in the dialogue, make no mistake.  Funny note, when I did a quick Google search to make sure I had dates and facts at hand for each, I found the following common descriptors:

  • Watts Riots
  • Rodney King Riots
  • Seattle Protests

Interesting thing there, that the one made up of mostly white college kids is more frequently described as a protest, while the others, mostly made up of poor and middle-class blacks, are definitely riots.  If it were an issue of scale, of size of damage, then...why does Ferguson get to be described as a riot on the strength of one battered gas station and a few broken windows?  Coincidence, I'm sure.

I have three primary points to make in this.  The first is that a lot of people are going to spend the next few days saying "race shouldn't matter" because a dead teenager is a dead teenager regardless of ethnicity.  And you know, it shouldn't matter.  I'd be as outraged if Michael Brown had been white.  But I can't escape the belief that if Michael Brown had been white, he'd be in police custody at worst, and at best sent on his way with a "Kid, stay out of the street, that's what sidewalks are for."  Race does matter, because the structure that put him on his knees in the street, and that left him bleeding there moments later, is based on racial inequality, as is the structure that calls this action a riot and another a protest.

The second point is that people will say "Well, he shouldn't have run.  He should have stopped when he was told to stop, been polite to the officer, obeyed instructions, not given any reason to think he was resisting."  You know, given what happened to him when he tried to surrender, and given how often we see reports of brutality, of abuse, of beatings handed out to people who *did* follow police instructions, I can't really blame him, or any other person from a marginalised culture, for thinking maybe the odds were better running than cooperating.

And the third is simply this:  Every time you shoot a man on his knees, you give incentive to those who would rise from theirs.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Deciding Which End of the Electronic Leash To Be On

I have recently acquired a shiny new tablet.  One of the interesting things is that once I connected it to my Google account, it began to port over the games and apps I had downloaded.  I started adding or deleting things to customize the different devices.  The tablet, for example, is much better for netflix and several of the games I like.  I find that even though the screen is smaller, the phone works much better for chat and messaging.

I've been making choices about it based on the different roles I want each device to play, and it's been interesting to evaluate my changing relationship with technology.  Today was a pretty significant choice:  I am not going to set up my work email access from my tablet.

This goes to a deeper set of decisions I'm making about it, congruent with the fact that I got it in part to help me sort and manage my pictures (I may not be able to get tablet lightroom, but I *can* review and sort the pics so I know which ones go in the 'processing' folder and which ones go in the "I will probably never do anything with this" folder) and keep some books and movies on for downtime.  Eventually there may be podcasts, and I've already loaded a substantial chunk of my music onto it.  But I'm finding myself being very mindful of what I put on it, as far as 'productivity' goes.  Maybe I don't want to use it to increase my productivity further.

One of the defining characteristics of Gen X, more so than those who came before or after us, is that we wrestle with the changing role of technology in our lives, as it moves (for some) from servant to master.  When I graduated high school in 1991, computer literacy was a rarity.  Five years after high school, as I was looking to enter the professional workforce, suddenly computer literacy was a basic requirement.  Every desk at every job, every classroom, every home now had a computer, and life began to be increasingly affected by your ability to navigate your relationship with it.  The more you could integrate technology to 'work smarter' and get more done and be more accessible, the more likely it was you'd succeed.

Several of my first temp jobs used dialup e-mail accounts, so that you had to remember, once an hour or so, to sign on and check the company e-mail.  There was rarely any, but you had to check it anyway.  If you forgot you could still blame 'server problems' for a two-day delay and no one questioned it.  Today I can receive work e-mails minutes after they're sent pretty much anywhere, anytime, and my employer operates on that premise.

I have made the transition, as an adult, from having to seek out communication and connection to having to seek out opportunities to disconnect.  I have adapted to the world as it is, and I tend to appreciate the benefits of that connection.  But as I hear things like "I sent you a text and you didn't reply right away," or "I know you got my e-mail on your phone, why didn't you answer?" I start to wonder if I'll be among the last generation to feel that an individual has the right to set the speed of communication and response.

Lately my phone's been a source of mild anxiety for me.  If I want to play a game or check a website, it perkily lets me know that I have a voice mail, and an e-mail, and a couple of text messages, and a new update to download, and and and...

Its effectiveness lies in it maintaining that constant pipeline so that I can know, at a glance, what the world needs me to know.  The problem has been that I can't *give* that glance without getting the whole fire hose.

Enter the tablet.  It is purely for leisure, for doing things that feed me socially, personally, culturally, and intellectually.  I am deliberately choosing to use it in a wholly selfish manner.  The phone is a tool for communication, connectivity, awareness.  It shouts for my attention and points things out to me.  I'm considering uninstalling all the games and timewasters from it, so that it can be purely for staying in touch with the world. The laptop and desktop computers are for work, for things that require my words most of all, because 90 wpm on a keyboard is far preferable to 30 wpm on a tablet, and because that allows me to say "Now I will sit down, and I will work."

I'm really looking forward to the division of leisure and productivity.  With the tablet, there are no conversations I tell myself I need to be following, no messages I'm chiding myself for not having the time to respond to, no notifications that People Need Me To Tell Them Things, no work I probably ought to be doing.  I can enjoy connectivity on my terms, with the whole array of available knowledge laid out before me, or simply a mindless color-matching game to clear my head.

Over the next few years, I'm going to be closely watching my relationship with technology, as connectivity and access increase, to make sure that I don't blur too many lines between work and play, between my time and others' time, between what I want to do and what I feel obligated to do.   I expect this to be a large part of the social battlefield, the fight between whether technology gives the world the ability to control you, or gives you the ability to control the world.  I will remain firmly upon the side of "My time is mine and you can't use an electronic leash to demand my focus unless I choose to give it to you."