Monday, December 14, 2015

On Labels

This was a Facebook re-post of a conversation that happened on Paranoiascientist's tumblr: 

Whenever someone insists that people should not use labels, I remember a psychology lecture on language acquisition where the lecturer described the process by which we learn all nouns: First, kids learn a word ("dog.") They then apply that word to everything that vaguely resembles a dog (cats, pictures of other animals). As they're corrected, they learn to create and subdivide new categories that may share traits (e.g. distinguishing between "dog" and "horse," but also between my dog Ralph, and my neighbor's dog Betsie).

What I took away from the lecture is that from the very instinctive beginnings of language, we need labels. Our entire thinking process is based on categorization of traits, or putting things in mental boxes. The entire function of nouns is to use labels as shorthand for entire complex concepts and entities. Not only is "no labels" silencing, we cannot really function as human beings without them.

There is a difference between labels as a tool for communication and labels as a stereotypic reduction that impedes communication. It does help to be able to say "I'm Genderqueer," as shorthand for non-binary gender activist. It becomes a problem is when I assume that all people who use the same shorthand mean the same thing (or share traits not encompassed by the shorthand). But that's true when using ANY language. Human brains are structured to think in categories; it isn't always a bad thing.What they really mean is "don't reduce people to stereotypic and rigid preconceived notions you have about X." But trying to get rid of labels as a communication tool simply because it is sometimes misused is like insisting that no one ever use their hands because sometimes we hit each other.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

But what if I just want to lose a "little" weight?

There is a stage in FA where people accept that other peoples' bodies are just fine the way they are, but for *reasons* they themselves need to lose some weight.  Not get thin, mind you, but maybe get down to where clothes are easier to buy and they remember being happier.  

But then the inevitable conflict where people in FA spaces don't want to hear about their diet talk, delete their comments extolling the virtues of calorie-free Kool-Whip, and walk away from their conversations that inevitable steer around to food restrictions and processed diet platitudes.  

In other words, they feel shunned.  And hurt.  Why can't they drop a couple of sizes and still be FA?
Before anyone can even start answering that question, we have to unpack some of the false premises it is based upon. To start with, the question assumes that the person will be successful at weight loss and then live as a thinner fat person. This is so statistically unlikely that it would be an outlier. In fact, they are likely to follow the same cycle every other fat person does when attempting weight loss: a brief honeymoon period where they lose some weight, followed by regain and additional gain. In other words, they are much more likely to end up LARGER than they started. This process (which we all know as "yo-yo dieting") is extremely damaging to both physical and mental health. It is not outrageous to call intentional weight-loss dieting (and ESPECIALLY bariatric surgery) self-harm. People are absolutely justified in not pursuing a relationship with someone who engages in self harm, or support that self-harm, regardless of how socially acceptable it is.

Once that is unpacked, the question of triggers needs to be addressed. After being in an abusive relationship between our culture and our bodies for our entire lives, watching someone we know harm themselves in order to appease and connect with our abusers can range from stressful to devastating (depending on how close you were to that person or whether you viewed them as a role-model). Again, that choice to engage in that abuse, and the INEVITABLE talk portraying it as positive, creates a toxic relationship that many in FA refuse to engage in.

That is why most FA groups are "safe spaces" where weight loss is not glorified or promoted, and why many FA activists will break ties with someone who goes on a diet or gets bariatric surgery. We know from long experience that they cannot help glorifying it, congratulating themselves, and trying to talk their friends and family into participating. Their writing will become peppered with their experience, and cognitive dissonance resolution will cause them to wax enthusiastic even if they have doubts and setbacks. It's toxic for those of us who have worked so hard to recover from the harm diet culture has done.

So no, we're not going to make an exception for someone who wants to be a "little thinner" any more than someone who wants to be thin.  It is unrealistic, but more so it is damaging both to the person engaging with diet culture and those around them who are attempting to disengage.  We can support you as a fat person, but we do not want your diet talk in our spaces.  It doesn't matter if you're trying to lose 20 pounds or 200; you are still engaging in self-harm, and we don't want to ride along.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Lessons from the Photoshop

Esther Honig went viral when she asked 40 photoshop users from 25 countries around the world to make her "beautiful" using a single unedited image of herself.  The results were a fascinating study of beauty standards around the world.

But that wasn't the end of the story.  Since then, the experiment has been replicated with even more interesting results, and we are starting to see patterns emerging as multiple participants from each country begin to reflect a cultural, rather than individual standard of beauty.

Priscilla Yuki Wilson asked 30 participants from 25 countries to make her beautiful, with similarly interesting results.  As a biracial woman, she was particularly interested in whether people would lighten her skin or hair.

And recently, Marie Southard Ospina asked 21 photoshoppers from 17 countries to do the same.  As a plus-size woman, she was interested in whether they would "slim" her.

What can we take away from all three experiments combined?  For me, the three primary lessons are:

1.  There are a lot of people out there who think they're better at Photoshop than they actually are. I think we can all agree on that. 

2.  Beauty standards are radically different in different cultures. This should be obvious to people, but yet each cultural beauty standard claims to be both superior to all others, and universal and/or natural (with a hefty dose of evo-psyc thrown in for cognitive dissonance).

3.  If there are no actual universal beauty standards, then we're probably wasting a lot of time, money, heartache, physical and emotional health, and potential trying to conform rigidly to one or the other, as a culture.

Treated as a preliminary experiment, I think these three projects open up a lot of questions that warrant experimental investigation.  For example:

1.  Marie Southard Ospina was asked by one editor if she was in pornography, but none of the others reported this reaction (despite almost identical poses involving bare shoulders so that editors could add clothing as they wished).  Does this mean that the sexualization of fat bodies is more universal than we think?

2.  If this experiment were repeated a hundred times, involving both professional and amateur image editors, could we start to see a divide between what the media (professionals) consider beautiful, and what the average people in the country consider beautiful?

3.  If this experiment were repeated a hundred times, could we start to see definitive patterns emerge both by nationality and by the ethnicity of the editor?

4.  What happens if a man performs the same experiment?  What about a genderqueer or androgynous person?  How would the editors manipulate the gender presentation in order to conform to their aesthetic ideals?

Friday, October 9, 2015

Empty Symbols

Symbols are important.  They serve as a means of communicating a powerful message in a way accessible to people without reliance on language.  They represent something complex, and make it more accessible.  They reach us on an emotional level and serve as a rallying point.

But the symbol of a thing is not the thing iteself.

There is nothing wrong with wearing a pink ribbon, buying the pink yogurt, or walking a 5K to support breast cancer.  The pink ribbon has become a very powerful symbol for women's health.  But the symbol of the thing is not the thing.  That pink sweatshirt does everything to make you feel satisfied with your social consciousness, and NOTHING to advance women's health.

What does support women's health?  Planned Parenthood.  Local free clinics.  Universal health care.

There is nothing wrong with Georgians coming up with $44,000 to paint a set of crosswalks rainbow during Pride week via crowdfunding online.  But considering the level of rainbowfication in that neighborhood during Pride week, it does NOTHING to advance the rights and safety of gender and sexual minorities (GSM) in Atlanta.

What DOES advance the rights and safety of GSM in Atlanta?  Lost-n-Found Youth.  Non-discrimination laws protecting employment and housing.  Initiatives to prevent GSM targeted violence.

Organizations count on complacency for profit.  They know that if they can get you to cough up a few bucks for their product, you will get that warm fuzzy glow of self-esteem as value-added.  But it is vitally important that understand the difference between the symbol of the thing, and the thing itself. 

The thing itself sometimes takes more effort than whipping out your wallet (although donating directly to helping organizations is a good start).  It means writing your elected officials.  It means signing petitions.  It means standing up to people who say things you know are wrong.  It means re-arranging your own thinking on important issues affecting vulnerable populations. 

Now that awareness of pink-washing and rainbow-washing are going mainstream, it will be more and more difficult for you to buy your complacency.  You might want to find out for yourself that the warm glow you get from actually making a difference is much warmer than the self-congratulation of supporting a fresh coat of paint on the street where our kids are living homeless. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Donald Trump and Dog Whistles

I have very mixed feelings about Donald Trump. I loathe the man personally. I think he's an ingrown hair on the ass of society. On the other hand, I couldn't have sat down with a magic spawner and designed a more perfect troll for the Republican party.

The conservatives have gotten away with "dog whistling" bigotry for many decades now. Google "dog whistle politics" or "dog whistle racism" if you're unfamiliar with the term. It means to advance a bigoted cause by using misdirection language and policies so that you're not talking directly about the bigoted cause itself. When a politician wants to tell everyone that Black people are lazy thieves, he doesn't come right out and say it. He uses terms like "Welfare Queen," and lets the imagery do the subtle work for him. The "War on Drugs" was and is a dog whistle for painting Black people as criminal. "States Rights" is a dog whistle for "We want to maintain our ability to oppress these people we object to." It is a means of being a bigot without using the language of bigotry, and thereby incurring public wrath.

Most people fall for it. Some, like Donald Trump, fall for it so hard that he doesn't even realize that the dog whistle is an essential part of the game. Polls tell him that most people support "states rights" or "tough drug enforcement." He doesn't even realize that most people don't realize that these are dog whistles. So he assumes that most people support the views of White Evangelical Christian Republicans, and figures, "why not just tell it straight?" And he tells it straight.

He is ripping the mask off of the party, and everyone is horrified. Especially the candidates who are left suddenly standing naked-faced in the spotlight. They still have to walk that narrow line of appeasing the hard-right bigots without offending the moderate majority, but Trump has just whipped out a saw and is cheerfully severing their high-wire. They need a back-up plan, stat, and find themselves frantically denouncing Trump and his plainly-spoken bigotry, even while they secretly agree with him.

The result will not make the far-right happy, of course. You will see further splits in the party as the unapologetic bigots turn up their own candidates and split the ticket. The politicians are forced to the center, which changes the national discourse towards progressive ideals.

Donald Trump is to the Republican Party as the portrait is to Dorian Gray. They would love to hide him beneath a cloth in an abandoned room, of course. But he is wealthy, powerful, and inevitable. So while I despise him personally, I can't help but see him as a sort of unconscious catalyst for progress.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

SAAS: Sewing at Any Size: Copycat Your Clothes

This is my series on Sewing at Any Size, or making basic wardrobe items to fit any body.  Please feel free to print/save for personal use.  You can find other patterns and instructions HERE.  

I searched everywhere for a wedding dress for my own wedding in 2014.  It was a casual summer beach wedding, so I wanted something simple, lightweight, and in natural materials.  What I ended up doing was making my own.  And since I had a beloved cotton dress that fit me well but was getting a little shabby, it was perfect for a pattern.  Now I can make that dress in any fabric and color I choose, including white linen.

Whether it’s a beloved old dress with a stain, or that perfect clearance skirt in a hideous color, sometimes the best way to get exactly what you want is to make it yourself.  Reverse-engineering your clothes lets you learn to sew clothes that fit you quickly and easily without having to buy or decipher a sewing pattern.  

You Will Need
  • A piece of clothing you want to make a copy of.  (Note: you will not be able to re-assemble it once it is marked up as a pattern, so make sure you’re ready to give it up)
  • Fabric of a similar weight and stretch to the original. Take the garment to a fabric shop for advice on how much you’ll need, and for advice on pre-shrinking the fabric you’ve chosen.
  • Pins
  • Sewing scissors or cutting tool with mat
  • Seam-ripping tool or small scissors
  • Sewing machine or needle
  • All-purpose thread, for most fabrics
  • Permanent marker
  • Fray-Check liquid, masking tape, craft glue, or other means of stopping the fabric from fraying

Dismantle and Document

It is very important to take pictures and make notes at each step, so that you know how to re-assemble the garment.  Use a marker to make notes on the piece itself, or number them for reference on an instruction sheet.  

Take apart every piece, including the hems.  If the edges aren’t finished somehow to keep them from fraying, you can use Fray-Check, masking tape, or craft glue along the edges.

When it comes to little pieces, make sure to number them and make note of where they go on the finished piece.  Also note how each seam was put together. 

Darts are folds sewn into the fabric to help fit.  Take darts apart, but use a marker to draw a dotted line where the stitches were, so that you can re-create them on the new piece.  

Pin and Cut

Pin each piece onto the new fabric, and then carefully cut out around the edges to make copies.  Leave the pieces pinned together until you’re ready to add them, to keep them from getting mixed up. 

Assemble and Sew

Using your notes and pictures, assemble the copy using the same type and width seam as the original for each piece.  In order, sew darts, main seams, sleeves, button strips or belts, and then hems. Take additional notes, and then store the pieces and notes together for future copies.


Simpler garments are very easy to copy, and you should make your first projects simple before trying to copy something complicated.  

To make a lining, you should be able to use the same pattern pieces as the main garment, and then put the lining together "inside out" or with the seams showing when it is assembled.    Put the lining and shell pieces together with seams touching, and then sew the hems and cuffs to connect them. 

Stretch and non-stretch fabrics behave differently, so you may find that a dress that fits you beautifully in a stretch fabric is too small in a non-stretch.  Thicker fabric also results in a smaller fitting garment.  Depending on your starting pieces, you may need to make up a test garment in cheaper fabric similar to what you want to use in your final piece.  I find, for example, that bedsheets from the thrift store make a great fabric for testing out patterns I want to make in cotton or lightweight linen.  Use a non-woven blanket to test out coat patterns. 

Monday, June 1, 2015

Caitlyn Jenner

Caitlyn Jenner looks absolutely stunning on her Vanity Fair cover shoot.  I'm very happy that she was able to express her gendered self as fully as she desired, and hope that, in her generous decision to allow the public into her experience, it helps people be more comfortable with transgender individuals in our lives.

But I also hope that people understand that the older, white, wealthy, thin, surgically transitioning, and currently-abled Caitlyn Jenner is not representative of the average transgender person's experience.  I hope that her popularity builds sympathy and support for the average transgender person, but that we build into that national conversation acknowledgement of trans men and women who are poor, in prison, pre-op, non-op, not thin, with physical challenges, of color, homeless (often as a result of coming out to family), suicidal, facing physical and emotional violence, not conforming to gendered appearance or behavioral norms, etc. etc. etc. 

In other words, I love that Caitlyn Jenner is a face of transgender people in the U.S.  I really, really would like her to not be the ONLY face.  Because while her process is probably not easy, it is deceptively easy compared to many. I understand that it is easier for the general public to feel comfortable with a trans woman who so beautifully fulfills their expectations of feminine beauty.  Sometimes we need that vanguard to open up the way.  But it cannot stop at her cover shoot.  At some point, the American public needs to get uncomfortable. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

Big Fat Fallacies: Argument Against the Person

See the introduction to this series and an index of posts HERE.

Argument Against the Person/Personal Attack (argumentum ad hominem)

This is a distraction fallacy, where instead of addressing the argument itself, a person attacks the arguer and claims that their personal attributes devalue the argument that they are making.

  • "Of course you claim to support FA.  You're fat and just want an excuse to not exercise!" 
  • "You bleeding-heart liberals don't think anyone should take personal responsibility." 
  • "Why should I believe anyone who dresses like you do?"
Dissecting the Fallacy

The entire point of an ad hominem attack is to put you in a position to defend yourself or the person you are citing, rather than the facts or argument.  It is a distraction.  It is also why HAES and FA books written by thin people are much more likely to find a mainstream publisher and audience.

It is important, however to separate an ad hominem from the question of whether a person is making a statement from financial or personal bias.  If someone is paid to testify that XX weight-loss drug works, you can reasonably assess whether or not the money they have received influenced them to testify or not.  If a conservative think-tank releases a report stating that the children of gay parents are more likely to join Satanic cults as adults, it is reasonable to view their conclusions with skepticism. 

Deciding What to Do

It is important to remember that existing in a fat body makes you an expert on what it is like to exist in your fat body, its capabilities, and its limitations.  No person outside your body has access to that information.  Attempting to "inform" you about your own body is arrogant, privileged, and bullying.  At the very least it exhibits extremely poor boundaries. 

Probably the most effective method to attack this fallacy is to simply decide to not let the other person frame the discussion.  They are trying to make it about you, and you can insist on refusing to derail by being dismissive of the ad hominem or ignoring it altogether.  Your message needs to be that whatever they say in the attack is simply not relevant and possibly too ridiculous to even respond to.  Don't get sucked into their frame. 

  • "My weight is irrelevant because I was not a subject in this study.  What they found was....."
  •  "Here is the argument the author is making..."
  • "Let me explain my point a little more clearly/give an example..."
Of course an ad hominem is absolutely a personal attack, and you are never required to try and educate another person.  Walking away from the discussion is absolutely an option once it has devolved to attacks, as is blocking or reporting them on social media.