In defense of the sanctimonious women's studies set || First feminist blog on the internet

What’s killing poor white women in the South?

Feministe friend and former guest blogger Monica Potts takes a look at the decrease in life expectancy for low-income whites in the Southern United States. She doesn’t come away with any definitive answers, but paints a picture of desolation, few opportunities and lack of access to decent health care and good food as potential culprits. It is a heart-breaking must-read.

Why Breastfeeding Is A Feminist Issue

What’s going so wrong with the breastfeeding and formula-feeding conversation?

Start with the rampant individualism. Conversations about how you feed your baby tend to be preoccupied with women’s choices and decisions.. and then, blame. You know the conversation has little feminist value when you end up at a point where some poor, exhausted woman is trying to justify her decision to formula-feed her baby to you, or likewise, if some other poor woman is trying to justify her reasons for breastfeeding her toddler to you.

The main reason why the breastfeeding/formula feeding conversation is not moving forward is because it is bogged down with this individualism. I think there are several factors behind that. Firstly, public health messages, like those promoting breastfeeding, are notoriously heavy-handed and don’t deal well with nuance. This is a shame because people’s health is actually quite nuanced. Secondly, the breastfeeding message is, in part, a marketing message attempting to compete with the marketing messages of formula companies. When you do this you invariably make women consumers. Thirdly, we live in an era when motherhood is hyper-competitive and driven by perfectionism. Everyone is trying to Get It Super Right Or Terrible Consequences Will Happen For Their Children, and everything seems to come down to mothers and their choices. This leads to conversations that over-emphasise the role of choice in outcomes and also, that invariably run into the limitations of professionalising motherhood when it is still monetarily worthless. Finally, it’s just so terribly easy for a patriarchal culture to put all the responsibility on mothers and not chase the real culprits behind the big decline in breastfeeding and long-term breastfeeding rates in Western countries, which are things like inflexible workplace policies, the absence of universal maternity leave schemes, insufficient anti-discrimination legislation and hostile societal attitudes towards women’s bodies.

One of my good friends was an unapologetic formula-feeder with her children. She tried breastfeeding but having grown up with constant fat-shaming she was unable to ever feel comfortable with breastfeeding. When she found herself forcing her newborn to skip feeds during the very hot days of summer so as not to have to breastfeed in front of visiting family and friends and then panicking about whether she had dehydrated her tiny baby, she decided it was time to formula feed. She loved bottle-feeding – it helped her to start enjoying her baby. Was there much pressure on you, I asked, to breastfeed, and were people judgemental about your formula-feeding? Not that I noticed, my friend told me, but this world can apologise for how much it hated my body before I will apologise for not breastfeeding my children.

Good for her, except, what a bloody heart-breaking way to finally reclaim some space for yourself. Experiences like hers remind me what is so damn wrong with individualism in the breastfeeding/formula-feeding conversation. We’re pushing breastfeeding as a message but we sure aren’t embracing it as a culture. And we somehow blame individual mothers for the shortfall.

After recognising the problem with individualism, often the feminist discussion retreats to a place where everyone agrees to respect one another’s right to choose what is best for them and their babies and then to just all shut the hell up. Initially this makes sense, if everyone is shouting over the top of one another and everyone is feeling very defensive about their feeding decisions then let’s agree to turn down the volume. The problem is that once you turn the volume down on breastfeeding activism and formula-feeding choices we don’t get silence, we get another kind of noise. Because we exist not in a vacuum but in a misogynist culture.

I swear, I really do write about other issues in motherhood, even though I seem to have made breastfeeding my core topic in guest posts at Feministe.. and this is maybe why it has been my topic du jour, because breastfeeding is more than a choice about how to feed your baby, it is a lens through which you can see with absolute clarity the intersection between misogyny and motherhood. There are a million other possible examples but this area of mothering is a stunning case of it. Because, let me be clear about this – women get harassed and shamed and illegally evicted from public space for breastfeeding; women get threatened with losing custody of their children for breastfeeding for ‘too long’; women get ridiculed and bullied for trying to pump milk at work; women get described as a freak show for breastfeeding twins or tandem feeding; women get called names like ‘stupid cow’ or ‘filthy slut’ for breastfeeding; women get told they are sexually abusing their children for breastfeeding; women get told they’re not allowed to keep breast milk in communal fridges because it’s a dirty bodily fluid (and cow’s milk isn’t?); women are bullied into stopping breastfeeding because breasts are the sexual property of their husbands; women get told that breastfeeding is obscene in front of other people’s children or other people’s husbands; women get told their bodies are too fat and too saggy and too veiny to be exposed while breastfeeding; women get told to stay at home with their babies until they are no longer breastfeeding; women get instructed to throw blankets over themselves and their babies if they wish to breastfeed outside the home.. and on it goes. This is not the result of some peculiar sensitivity towards babies and small children eating, this does not happen with bottle-feeding, this is specifically about breastfeeding and it is about policing women’s bodies and lives.

Breastfeeding is a feminist issue not because mummy bloggers like me say it is, but because it’s about working to ensure that women and their bodies are considered as important (as normal) as men and their bodies. Something happens for all of us – regardless of whether we are breastfeeders or not – when a woman is allowed to breastfeed, in public, as a member of her community, while getting shit done in her life – it makes a statement that women belong, that women’s bodies belong, that women are here.

The animosity shown towards mothers who formula-feed is judgemental crusading and it should never be condoned by feminists but you are missing the big picture if you argue that bottle-feeding is demonised and breastfeeding is not – that we’ve gone too far with lactivism. Quite simply, something is very frigging wrong in our world when women are harassed and shamed for doing something that women’s bodies do as a routine part of raising children. This should trouble all feminists.

Breastfeeding also provides an example of how deeply hostile workplace culture is towards mothers.

Breastfeeding can be hard work in the beginning. (I got the latch so messed up when I breastfed my first baby that in the first couple of weeks I almost ended up with the end of my nipple torn off. My baby would finish a breastfeed and dribble blood out of her mouth. I know, so vampire. All those years of averting my slightly horrified gaze from mothers breastfeeding in public when I was young did not prepare me at all well when I came to breastfeed my own baby). Breastfeeding in those early months requires a lot of energy. You need to be eating and drinking and resting regularly or you can’t sustain a milk supply. (Try chasing dairy cows around the paddock all day long and see how much milk you get from them in the evening). This is an excellent argument for maternity leave, lactation breaks in the workplace and generally supporting new mothers. But it also shows you how far we have to go, because in the United States there still isn’t a universal paid maternity leave scheme and even for those who do have access to maternity leave it is usually woefully short. No sooner do you get breastfeeding established and bang! you’re back at work (full-time, of course), and separated from them all day long while now being expected to suddenly get used to a breast pump. And then, oh, breastfeeding didn’t work out for them, what could possibly be the explanation?

When feminists write about these tensions for mothers there is a tendency to argue that because it is so difficult to breastfeed in these circumstances that we need to back-off about breastfeeding. I’m a little sceptical of this strategy, though I think it comes from a good place. Women are entitled to their choices, of course, let’s not head back into individualism, but isn’t it awfully convenient that we never question the institutions of power that happen to arrange themselves in such a way that women have little real choice about breastfeeding?

Because here is the other thing about breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is lazy. Ultimately, I came to love breastfeeding as a mother because I am quite lazy. Breastfeeding is fast food. Breastfeeding is multi-tasking. Breastfeeding is portable. Breastfeeding is unstructured and unscheduled. All of these elements are very pleasing to lazy people, like me. So, it annoys me no end as a feminist that we, as a Western culture, stigmatise breastfeeding when in the long-run it can often make mothers’ and children’s lives easier.

I can’t help but be suspicious that we prioritise solutions to this work-life conflict that suit a model of workplace built around men’s lives and that consistently challenge women to find new ways of adapting without ever questioning whether our economy could be moulded just a little more fairly around care work and dependency. Because, dependence is not deviant behaviour – being young, being old, being unwell, being hurt and healing, being disabled – it’s normal life. And this is not hippy stuff; this is just finding a better way of working with capitalism. For that matter, breastfeeding is not hippy, it just is. It’s not some special gift, it’s not a sacrifice, it is just the way mammals generally feed their young.

If we were more accepting of breastfeeding on those grounds instead of trying to up-sell it then maybe we wouldn’t be stuck in such an endless loop of defensiveness with formula-feeding choices. Yes, breastfeeding has nutritional and immunity merits but it is also offers a way of being close with a baby and that, in itself, is valuable enough. There are other ways to experience that closeness, of course, and mothers shouldn’t be forced to parent in that way if they don’t want to, but for those who do, we shouldn’t sabotage them. And this is where the feminist conversation must be particularly careful, and it’s a tricky juggling act, but in our desire to neutralise all that ridiculous individualist blaming of women for their choices we often diminish the significance of their choices to them. Because when we say breastfeeding is not all that important we silence the grief some women feel about not having been able to breastfeed and we take away the sense of achievement other women feel about breastfeeding in spite of multiple obstacles, but possibly worst of all, we undermine the broader message every parent is trying to give, which is that workplace and institutional change needs to happen.. and it needs to happen soon.


P.S. I want to acknowledge and thank one of the writers of Hoyden About Town, Lauredhel who stayed up late with me one night so I could bounce my arguments around with her and who steered me when I was off-track and reminded me of elements I had overlooked. Thank you, L.

P.P.S. I also want to acknowledge that although I have generalised about breastfeeding mothers here, as I recently discussed on Feministe, fathers sometimes breastfeed, too.

Owning my food crazy

Trigger warning for discussion of dieting and food restriction.

I have a confession to make.

Over the last six months or so, I’ve lost a significant amount of weight.

It’s my first time that my weight has gone down since I jumped on board the fat acceptance train, and I feel great. I have more energy. My joints don’t hurt. I haven’t had a migraine in months or a back spasm in weeks. I can almost do a push-up and spent the weekend hiking up and down a mountain. I’m training for a large backpacking trip for next summer.

Oh yeah. And the reason I feel great is totally unrelated to the weight loss.

Here’s my story: about six months ago, I had a joint pain flare up that didn’t end. (Last year I wrote about the joint pain that I’ve been experiencing in my elbows, wrists, and shoulders since I was 18.) I was complaining about it to my physical therapist (I got a nasty ankle spring last October), and when I described the problem as tendonitis, he gave me a serious look.

“If you’re having bilateral joint pain in multiple joints, that’s not tendinitis. There’s either something systemic or something related to your spine. Go see a doctor.”

The doctor measured elevated inflammation markers in my blood. There was a scary period where we thought I might have a serious autoimmune disease (don’t worry! I don’t). I recruited a friend of mine who is a naturopath, and we started looking into diet-related options to explain the inflammation. I went on an elimination diet– the first time intentionally restricting my diet beyond keeping kosher and other Jewish dietary oddities, like fast days and avoiding wheat, beans, and rice on Passover.

It was pretty horrible. I became obsessed with everything I put in my mouth. The scary part was how easy it was for me to fall back into old dieting habits. I can’t have sugar. There’s nothing convenient to eat, so I’ll just skip this meal. How many calories am I eating? I’ll keep a food log. I was thinking about food all of the time.

I was still in pain.

The doctors still couldn’t figure out what was wrong.

I was so stressed, that I got a back spasm that didn’t respond to ibuprofen. The pain was so severe that I vomited.

I finished out the elimination diet completely exhausted and no closer to an answer than when I started. The rheumatologist had no answers. My naturopath friend had no answers. The only lead we had was that I’d felt better over Passover. So, as a last ditch effort, I tried following a “Passover diet”. No wheat. No rice. No beans. Mostly vegetables, eggs, meat, fruit, and fish.

Within three days my pain was gone. A nutritionist gave me a tentative diagnosis of SIBO, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. SIBO flares up with sugars, and starch in particular, so that explains why the Passover diet was so effective. Since starting it, I haven’t had any migranes or back spasms. I can wear a backpack for a day without pain. I can carry things up and down stairs. When I do a push-up, I feel my pectoral muscles working, not just pain in my elbows. I’ve had two periods in a row, after having maybe four or five natural periods over the last two years.

And I’ve lost weight.

I’m effectively following a low-carbohydrate diet, so it’s really no surprise. But that’s what people focus on. I bought new clothing and got a big “good for you!” from the saleswoman. I had an easier time hiking this year than last year, and my parents went on about how it must be the weight loss. When I order a salad instead of a sandwich, I get the side-eye from people who know that I’m pretty outspoken against weight-loss for its own benefit. Those haven’t been the hardest thing, though.

The hardest thing has been the re-emergence of my food crazy. I started weighing myself to make sure that I wasn’t losing weight too quickly, but the crazy that wants to know what my weight is every day, every hour, after I use the bathroom, after I work out. I don’t own a scale, so I can only weigh myself at the gym, but the thought floats into my head at random moments, for the first time in years. I started logging my food to make sure that I was eating enough, but I feel a compulsion to count calories. Every time I look for low carbohydrate recipes, I’m bombarded by dieting literature.

I’m not going to lie, the praise feels good. It feels sickeningly comfortable to be dieting, even if it’s unintentional. It’s so easy to wonder where my weight will settle out, and hope that it’s at a “normal” weight. It’s so easy to hope that I’ll fit into straight sizes. It’s so easy to feel like a “good fattie.”

So I’ve been trying to get comfortable with my food crazy. Instead of ignoring it, as I’ve been able to since I stopped weight-loss dieting, to identify it, look it in the eye, and say, “You lie.” To put it in a corner and check on it every now and then to make sure that it’s still there. Some times are harder than others. This weekend was particularly difficult, since my parents and brother have their fair share of food crazy. At one point, Mr. Shoshie pointed out that the two of us seemed to be the only ones who claimed to experience hunger. I checked up on the food crazy a lot this weekend.

But, as I get used to this new way of eating, it becomes easier. The food crazy is starting to get tired of yelling at me to count my calories and count my carbs and measure my waist. The food crazy is getting used to me leaving it in that corner. I can’t wait for the time when I can ignore it completely.

On Perfume, Chemical Cleaning agents and “Scent-free” workplaces.

A couple months ago, as I was enjoying karaoke night at the local Legion, I received a fairly disturbing phone call from a close friend of mine. She sounded absolutely horrible, and I was shocked to find out that she had just returned from the hospital after a rather  exhausting night.

My friend, a severe asthmatic, had suffered a massive attack and had to be rushed to the hospital after encountering a perfect storm of asthma triggers while her and her husband were going about their business that evening.  It had began in an appliance store where a customer coming inside had wafted some cigarette smoke in with them. So began the wheezing and discomfort. The situation was further aggravated when my friend and her husband went for dinner and she went to use the bathroom, and another patron sprayed air freshener in the small space. Finally, in their local Wal-Mart, the smell of the cleaning supplies aisle set her right off and within minutes, she was struggling for air while her husband rushed her out the door so he could take her to the nearest hospital. She very nearly had to be intubated, as her airways had quite nearly closed all the way up. It had been an incredibly close call.

In the aftermath of this near-miss, the government department where my friend works took it upon themselves to implement a scent-free policy, in spite of the fact that the county had out-right refused to put one in place for its offices. My friend found herself a poster girl for the cause, in the position of having to go to each and every one of her co-workers, one on one, and explain her condition and why her very life depended on adherence to the scent-free policy. The reasoning behind this being that simply addressing the office as a group would allow too many people to not pay attention. I guess it’s easier to convincingly say “If you ignore this, I could die,” and have it stick when you’re up close and personal.

My friend’s case is fairly extreme one, but more and more workplaces are adopting scent-free policies and no wonder, as sensitivity to scent can have a lot of unpleasant, if not devastating, effects. My SO frequently meets me at the end of the cleaning aisle as the smell of the chemicals nauseates him. A former co-worker hung a sign on his office specifically asking the cleaning staff not to use cleaning chemicals in his office, due to migraines.

Over the years, so much public awareness and policy has gone towards minimizing smoking in public places, due to the harm it does not only to smokers but to those around them. In that vein, many work-places have started adopting “scent-free” policies and it’s something I’d like to see spread, at the very least to my own office. The other day a visitor came to speak to my boss and I’m pretty sure he brought the entire Axe factory with him. And although I normally have little to no scent issues, his wafting presence played havoc with the chest infection I’ve been battling this week.

The wide-spread use of perfumes, scented chemical cleaners, room fresheners, colognes is an issue that, for the health and safety of people like my friend above, I’d like to bring attention to, especially as it’s one that many people don’t consider as they go about their day-to-day lives. The friend mentioned above has begun writing to retail companies such as The Bay and Shoppers Drug Mart and other large department stores who, when designing their stores, arranged displays so that customers entering are forced to face the gauntlet of the cosmetic display area, complete with perfumes and colognes. The same friend above told me a story of going to a Shoppers Drug Mart to pick up a prescription for her asthma meds, only to find herself having to tear open the package for her inhaler after making her way to the pharmacy, located at the back of the store.

It would seem that restricting one’s right to wear perfume or cleaners would be a huge breach of personal freedoms, but to me it’s one of those “Your Rights End Where Mine Begin” situations. Some random person’s right to douse themselves in Old Spice or Chanel No. 5 ends where someone else’s right to venture into public spaces without having their health jeopardized begins. There is no situation I can think of where one persons health or liberty is put in danger by not wearing scent, or not having a public bathroom smell like some bastardization of a “ocean breeze”. Even smokers can argue the addictive properties of nicotine. Doesn’t apply here. What does apply here is Andie’s law of being a decent human being: “Other People Exist. Don’t Be An Asshole.”

So, how can you help and/or not be an asshole?

*Go Scent-free. Use unscented soaps and deodorants when possible. Don’t bother with perfume and cologne.
*If you are in a public place like a store or a restaurant that has a washroom supplied with aerosol air fresheners, leave a comment card or let the management know directly that air fresheners can be hazardous to some of their customers. There are “odor-eating” products that can be put in a toilet, a few drops at a time, that don’t put chemicals in the air. If these establishments implement these changes, keep going there, as they are not assholes.
*If you work in an office or with the public, try to encourage or implement a scent-free policy
*Use natural cleaners, like diluted vinegar. Barring that, use products labelled as fragrance-free where possible. It’s important to know the difference between Fragrance free and unscented. Something marked as Fragrance-free means that it was made without fragrances. Unscented products may use chemical compounds to mask their scent.

Cutting back on chemicals and scented products, in the long run, can only really do us well, in the long run.

Women refuses to give raped daughter EC, brags about it on internet.

Ah, the kindness of pro-lifers: [trigger warning]

My Dark-Haired Daughter, who suffers from bipolar disorder and limited cognitive abilities, went missing last Monday. For more than 48 hours, we had no idea where she was. Without all the gruesome details, after she was found, it came to light that she’d been brutally and repeatedly sexually assaulted. She’d been taken to the local women’s shelter, where (at least in our area) they do the exams in such cases.

Disabled Bodies in Able-Bodied Contexts

No one wants to be pitied, but many people are comfortable having others to pity. And it’s easy, if you haven’t thought it out, to pity someone in a wheelchair, or someone who walks tapping her way with a white cane. It’s much more complicated to think about that wheelchair, or that cane as something that opens up the person’s life … and would open it up much more if buildings and streets were more accommodating to a variety of needs. It’s not only complicated, but potentially deeply disturbing, to think about high-tech prostheses, maximized for the needs of a particular person with particular skills at a particular time in his or her life, to think that a “disabled” person perhaps has something that works better than what “normal people” are issued with.
[Nudity below the fold]

Young woman captures her father’s abusive actions on tape

A young Texas woman with cerebral palsy was whipped and beaten by her father for downloading games and music — and she stealthily recorded the whole thing, then posted it to YouTube. A major wrinkle is that the girl’s abusive father is allegedly Aransas County Court-At-Law Judge William Adams.

The video is incredibly disturbing, graphic and violent; I only watched a few seconds before shutting it off. It’s safe to click through to the Gawker link, but don’t watch the video if you aren’t prepared to see prolonged and horrific abuse.

This video was shot in 2004, and she’s been hanging on to it since then. She’s a brave woman for putting this out there, and it has reportedly been forwarded on to Child Protective Services and other relevant authorities. It’s not clear whether she still lives with her father, but I hope that this helps her to get as much distance from him as she needs.

This is also a good time to point out that people with disabilities are the victims of abuse at a rate 4 to 10 times that of the general population. People with disabilities often can’t report abuse, or feel like they can’t because reporting may mean losing a care-taker. When they do, they’re often disbelieved, or the abuse isn’t taken seriously. Since abuse often comes at the hands of a caretaker, authorities are often hesitant to follow up, or don’t consider the abuse “that bad” — the reasoning being, I guess, that care-taking is hard and often frustrating work and so we should give care-takers a little more wiggle room, even if that “wiggle room” includes abuses and violations.

Simply reporting the abuse that this woman suffered should be enough. But unfortunately, for a lot of people with disabilities, speaking out doesn’t solve the problem. Good on her for making sure people notice.

Thanks, Tom Foolery, for the link.

An experiment in asking politely for accessibility.

The argument that if (marginalized group of people) would just (!) ASK (nicely, in just the right way using exactly the perfect tone and obeying all the unwritten secret rules) for (their human rights), they would be given immediately them by the innocent benevolent rulers who just didn’t know what they needed is so common that it should be in Derailing for Dummies

Here’s what happened when one lawyer with low vision and superhuman patience decided to test that theory.

In particular, I suggest it as a must-read for all user experience design/user interface developers. People with money want to use the internet to buy your stuff! You could not be a jerk and make more money at the same time!