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

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.

Food Responsibility

We all know that fast food isn’t the healthiest, but these calorie, fat and sodium counts from popular fast-food restaurants are still really horrifying. More than 10,000 milligrams of sodium in one order of chicken wings? I don’t think I eat 10,000 milligrams of sodium in a week.

The article itself focuses, predictably, on The Obesity Epidemic, and how these kinds of foods are making us all fat. More importantly, these kinds of foods are making us really, really unhealthy. And while most of us probably realize that eating a whole cheesecake is not going to be great for us, some of the foods on this list are particularly sneaky — like a chicken burrito that has more than a day’s worth of fat, calories and sodium. I don’t think that most people are under the impression that Chipotle is healthy, but if you’re on the run and trying to make a health-conscious choice, the chicken option might be your pick. Similarly, the portion size at some of these restaurants is unreal — if a dish is marketed as a “personal pizza,” it shouldn’t be enough food for four.

Part of the problem with the American dependence on fast food is cultural, which is enabled by (and to some degree helps to create) the structural problems that keep us from accessing the healthiest foods possible. We’re bizarrely puritan when it comes to centering pleasure in our lives — we just don’t do it. We think that Just Say No works for food and for sex — two of the most basic human pleasures and (on a species-wide, if not individual, level) necessities — but then we heavily market the most reductive and unhealthy versions of both. We’re inundated with advertising that uses women’s bodies as symbols of sex itself and with mainstream pornography that centers heterosexual male experience and dominance. Culturally, we’re not focused on holistic sexual pleasure so much as easy titillation and shock-value sex, coupled with disdain and judgment towards people who actually do have sex in whatever way is deemed outside of local values — whether that’s outside of marriage, or at too young of an age, or outside of a monogamous relationship, or with someone of the same sex, or wherever else we draw that line (and we like to draw and re-draw that line).

We do the same thing with food (and obviously I’m far from the first person to make this connection). We talk a big game about The Horrors of Obesity and the necessity of healthy eating. We blame feminism for taking women out of the kitchen and into the workplace. We look at fat people like they’re moral failures. We watch television shows like The Biggest Loser, which contribute to the cultural myth that If You Just Work Hard Enough, You’ll Be Ok. We ascribe fatness to simply eating too much.

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The Impermanence of Light

Tonight I did something I do less and less of these days — I came home and didn’t jump on the Internet. Didn’t rush through my meal to hurry up and check my e-mail only to be inundated with the day’s nauseating blog comments. Didn’t skip reading the book I’m almost finished with to see what’s going on with Twitter. Just fed the animals, changed, ate my dinner, watched Louie, and then sat down in the new dorm-room style circle chair I bought on sale at Target with said book I’m almost finished with.

I don’t want to go all Calculon on you by saying I was filled with a large number of powerful emotions, but I actually was. I was unplugged and I could hear myself thinking without the background noise of the fan keeping my laptop from burning my palms as I type. I thought about how my whole life is in light; fiber optics transmitting my thoughts to people I’ll probably never meet, silicon holding my words only to be revealed by the tickle of electricity sent to circuits triggered by the touch of my finger to a button. Where do my words go when I’m gone? The frantic pace of the Internet makes me feel that if I don’t check in every few hours, or every day, or every other day, all memory of me will vanish. Do people read my blog archives? Or do they simply absorb the missive I’ve sent for the day, then dash off to some other blog, where they’ll read something else that scoots my words out of the way to implant themselves in their place? If I didn’t post for a month, would you remember who I was? All you know of me is light. My picture appears to you in pixels and photons, but you don’t know the flesh behind them. And this is true for all of us who inhabit this world, who put their words out for consumption in blog form or comment form or tweet form or e-mail form. When we’re all gone, — all of us, including you — what will be left of us to know?

I’m a realist, I don’t expect our current mode of civilization to last for a thousand years or even a hundred years if we keep doing what we’re doing with no major modifications. When the time comes that there are no more working DVD players to play our DVDs, when our infrastructure is so dilapidated that we can’t access what’s left of the Internet, when there’s no electricity being generated to power our communications towers and our orbiting satellites come crashing to Earth from lack of maintenance, how will we remember what we are? How will whatever civilization rises after us, comprised of whatever beings have replaced us, know who we were? Civilizations we consider ancient today used decidedly more low tech materials to share their information, and we can pore over them today. We only need other low tech writings to teach us how to interpret the strange symbols their society used to communicate. I can’t even begin to figure out what a shiny CD has on it without benefit of fancy technology that, in our future as it stands to become now, will no longer exist. I can’t take out my laptop’s hard drive and flip through the circuits to find that short story I wrote 2 years ago. I can’t tell you one damn thing about what’s on that drive except through the low tech method of retelling memories — what I can remember about what I had on there. It’s kind of frightening to me, this impermanence. It feels like the knowledge about this golden age of history is a mere electromagnetic pulse away from becoming nothingness. I know, I know, I’m getting all existential up in this piece. But if you sit with it, it leaves you cold.

That’s why I’m obsessed with notebooks and pens and paper and books, why I’m putting together an anthology telling stories of women of color on paper, why I’m not too keen on e-books and I still buy CDs — hey, at least the liner notes and lyrics will still be readable. I don’t advocate some kind of neo-Luddite existence. I don’t think we need to start carving stone tablets. Just write some. Papryus is still around, I have hope that archival quality, acid-free paper will be too. Write your memories, journal daily, write your speculative autobiography. Write your parents’ or your significant other’s biographies. Leave your story for the climate refugees of the 2100s to read. Go out with your friends and tell each other your stories and write those down. Don’t let the only ones remembered be the ones lucky enough to get their words in print before the clock runs out.

Now excuse me while I go finish reading that book I’m almost finished with.

More on Fast Fashion

To follow up on my previous post, let’s discuss a few more things about Fast Fashion.

Who says women love to shop? It’s obviously not true that every woman everywhere loooooves to shop. Personally, I hate shopping. I think it’s boring; it’s time consuming, tedious and expensive. If I have absolutely have to, I prefer to do it online so I don’t have to interact with annoying store clerks and I can try things on in the comfort of my own home. Even women who don’t like to or, more importantly, cannot afford to shop still face societal pressure to do so.

Who defines “cheap”? If you have ever been to Forever 21 or looked at the website I shared, you’d know most of the dresses go for about $20-$30 dollars. Now whether you think a $20 dress is cheap or expensive is a matter of perspective, priority, and relative privilege, but in our current retail structure, a $20 dress is considered cheap both in terms of quality and pricing. I am reminded of German fashion designer Jil Sander, who told the New York Times earlier this summer “My mother always said that we were too poor to buy too cheap.” I also did not have a wealthy upbringing in West Africa (surprise! I’m a WOC!) and this is a philosophy my mother drilled into all her children. We rarely bought new clothes and when we did they were meant to last for years because my younger siblings and cousins would have to get mileage out of them as well. There were no Wal-Mart or Target equivalents in Africa when I was growing up, and the first “mall” in Lagos was built in the late ’90s. So unless you were wearing traditional clothes, western clothes were almost always imported. A lot of our clothing consisted of discarded items from the closets of Americans and Europeans just like you. I hated wearing someone else’s second-hand clothes because they reminded me every day I couldn’t have new clothes like the wealthier kids at my French private school. It’s ironic that, for both admittedly aesthetic and financial reasons, I now do the bulk of my shopping at thrift stores.

What about fat women? I did not address the size issue because I was planning to do so in another post. Just because I shop at vintage/thrift/consignment stores doesn’t mean I’m not aware their politics can be fucked as well. Just last week I had to scratch Mustard Seed, a well-recommended store in the DC metro area off my list because according to the woman on the phone they rarely buy clothes over a size 12. Yes, size 12 because that’s considered plus-size. I don’t have to remind you the average American woman is a size 14. I am bigger than the average American woman. (Surprise! I’m fat!)

What’s style got to do with it? Consumers at Fast Fashion stores are style-conscious. Yes, I know it sounds vain! But shopping at Wal-Mart and shopping at Forever 21 are not one and the same. Fast Fashion thrives on our desire for the latest clothes from magazines and the runway. Styling tips always tell larger women to “dress for their body type”, whatever the hell that means. Yes, I recognize that I am an able-bodied, childless woman and this allows me to take to time experiment with different lengths, patterns, and structures. And it’s still a frustrating process. Many things I try on don’t fit. I’m lucky to have a good friend who will hem my muumuus and turn tube dresses into skirts for me. Even when I go into straight size stores, I try on things that are not marked my size. (Yes, this is style advice, not feminist life advice.) More on fat fashion later…

Why don’t you just stop buying clothes? Take it from an African woman: Western women (and men DUH), in a global context, have unsurpassed buying power. Their choices affect people all over the world. This is not meant to shame anyone but rather to force us to confront our consumer choices. The reason I started this discussion is precisely because I don’t have a good solution to this problem. Actually, no one has a good answer. To those of you that say “stop shopping altogether” I’m glad that’s working out for you because you never have to buy anything ever.

This conversation about women and consumption is not a new one, and probably be culturally relevant for as long as we have to wear clothes. It is especially relevant this week as Inditex, Zara’s parent company, announced its aggressive expansion plans. The company opened more than 90 stores in 29 countries in the first quarter alone. This is American Apparel on crack. Also this week Uniqlo’s parent company, the appropriately named Fast Retailing, outlined plans to launch a non-profit initiative in Bangladesh, alongside Grameen Bank, that would create jobs for garment workers. This venture would produce high quality items that cost around $1. While they currently only have plans to sell to Bangladeshis, this and similar nonprofit approaches would go a long way in improving Western women’s cheap clothing options- allowing them to buy stylish clothes that aren’t quite as harmful to women in other parts of the world.

In the meantime, I am trying to make small, practical changes in my life. You can decide what changes work for you.

Retail: It’s Complicated

You can blame Barbie, Mall Madness, the sexualizing and gendering of kids and their toys, but there’s no denying that women love to shop. Got a date? Buy a new dress. Feeling sad? There’s a sale at the mall. Your boyfriend broke up with you? These new shoes will show him! Women are socialized from a very young age to embrace the “born to shop” and “shop ’til you drop” mantras.

My sister’s birthday is coming up soon and caught in the pandemonium of getting a last-minute gift for her, I wandered over to, where I found painfully on-trend dresses and a handful of accessories for around $100. $100! You’ve got to be kidding me. Over and over, I found myself thinking “WHY IS THIS DRESS SO CHEAP?”

Naomi Wolf’s latest dispatch answers that very question:

But what has been liberating for Western women is a system built literally on the backs of women in the developing world. How do Primark and its competitors in the West’s shopping malls and High Streets keep that cute frock so cheap? By starving and oppressing Bangladeshi, Chinese, Mexican, Haitian, and other women, that’s how.
We all know that cheap clothing is usually made in sweatshop conditions – and usually by women. And we know – or should know – that women in sweatshops around the world report being locked in and forbidden to use bathrooms for long periods, as well as sexual harassment, violent union-busting, and other forms of coercion.

Most of the two million people working in Bangladesh’s garment industry are women, and they are the lowest-paid garment workers in the world, earning $25 a month. But they are demanding that their monthly wage be almost tripled, to $70. Their leaders make the point that, at current pay levels, workers cannot feed themselves or their families.

Fast Fashion — much like Fast Food — is cheap, addictive, and built on an unsustainable, low-wage system. These throwaway clothes are purposefully designed to be worn a few times and discarded, which contributes the growing problem of textile waste. According to the EPA Office of Solid Waste, the average American household throws away more than 68 pounds of clothing and textiles per person per year so it’s not hard to imagine how the constant production of new clothing poses a number of environmental challenges, especially in developing countries. Don’t even get me started about H&M trashing its unsold merchandise rather than donating it to charity.

With the advent of cheap-chic stores providing both big-name designer collaborations (H&M and Target) and disposable knock-offs (Forever 21), this problem is worsening at alarming rates. Shopping for clothes has changed radically since H&M introduced the concept of high-end designer collaboration to fashion retailing in 2004 with their Karl Lagerfeld capsule collection. (I would be lying if I didn’t admit I was devastated when this collection sold out in a matter of hours and I didn’t stand a chance of owning any of it.) Consumers today are much more savvy and experimental, and far less patient. So impatient, in fact, that in 2005 Zara bragged that it “can design and distribute a garment to market in just fifteen days.” Fifteen days. I bet you it’s even faster now.

For a long time, I justified shopping at American Apparel because of their relatively good labor policies — so thanks for ruining that for me, Dov Charney. I appreciate Wolf’s candor in admitting that despite her knowledge of the horrible work/life conditions endured by the women creating these clothes, she also shops at H&M and Zara — something I am equally guilty of. It is difficult to deny the ease of Fast Fashion even as I’ve been challenged to think even more deeply and more morally about my shopping habits.

Wolf also brings up the fact that it’s largely women producing these clothes and largely women buying them. I’ve lived in developing countries enough to know that jobs in certain “sweatshops” can empower rural women and their families. But unfortunately most garment jobs do not create enough opportunity and prosperity for workers to pull themselves out of poverty. What does it mean for feminism when women are primarily responsible for creating appalling environments for other women? Fast Fashion is a perfect case study that the action—not the gender of the person committing it — is what determines whether it is feminist or not. Just because something is done primarily by women doesn’t automatically make it “more feminist.” Women have historically been at the forefront of successful consumer boycotts and there is no reason we cannot commit to pushing for larger political change — a Slow Fashion movement, if you will — to improve the conditions endured by these workers. We are, after all, the target consumers in these retail venues.

Truly committing to Slow Fashion would require us to learn more about the clothes we buy and who produced them, and using that knowledge to make socially and environmentally responsible choices. This alone won’t be enough, because we all know big systemic, change takes time. But it’s a start. One way I’ve curbed my Fast Fashion addiction is by thrifting. Yes, the clothes are secondhand and they were probably made in a sweatshop before they became second hand but it’s better than nothing.

What I See and What I Don’t

Found via Think Progress, a video of an Associated Press reporter diving in oiled Gulf waters and living to tell the tale.

I think that there are some really interesting things going on with this video, and they spark a lot of thoughts for me. I can’t help but think about the power of broadcast media here. The media is bringing us these horrific and grim images of oiled birds, satellite photos showing the oil spill from space, and now, these visions of an underwater nightmare with water so clotted with oil that it’s hard to find the surface. The media has also brought us so many iconic images that have spurred people into action or infuriation, not just in the case of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but in countless instances.

Photo and video reporting has ended wars and sparked riots and everything in between.

That iconic image by Kevin Carter of a starving Sudanese toddler being stalked by a vulture. Coffins from Iraq and Afghanistan. Photos from Little Rock, the Twin Towers, Vietnam, Hiroshima. Neda Agha-Soltan. Images have tremendous power and the widespread availability of really compelling, stark, and sometimes terrifying imagery has made many things that were once abstract seem more immediate. There’s also a problematic history when it comes to the way that places outside the United States are framed for viewers and readers here, what kinds of images we are shown; The Sudan is starving children and lions, India is saris and The Ganges, Brazil is bikinis and favelas.

Images motivate people to do things. They fire up deep rage, horror, compassion. If we were not looking at photos and videos of the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it would seem more remote and distant, less like something that is actually happening. Instead we are confronted with them everywhere we turn.

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Spill baby spill

Love ’em or hate ’em, the women of Code Pink cannot be ignored. Their latest protest was in Houston, protesting in front of the BP headquarters, demanding accountability and change in U.S. policy toward renewable, sustainable sources of energy. H/T Susie Madrak and via ABC news:

HOUSTON (KTRK) — Activists staged a nearly naked protest to bring attention to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Code Pink protesters in Houston

Dozens of Codepink activists, in a women-led, women-initiated action, took their message to the public in front of the BP headquarters on Westlake Park Boulevard just before noon Monday.
The women posed nearly naked, dripping with ‘oil’ and dragging nets of fish.

The protesters mourned the deaths of the 11 workers and devastation of wildlife and livelihoods all along the Gulf Coast.

“At the BP headquarters we will put our bodies on the line to hold BP accountable for the rape and plunder of our planet,” says Diane Wilson, a fourth generation fisherwoman from the Gulf who joined the protest. “We call for stripping BP of its corporate charter and seizing its assets to pay the victims, clean up the Gulf and try to restore the devastated wildlife.”

They are a renewable, sustainable source of energy. Those women could keep a small town lit for days.

Why eco-fashion?

Kate Goldwater explains:

I think eco-fashion should be what every designer strives to create and every customer vows to buy. We hear every day that we should reduce, reuse, recycle, turn off lights and unplug appliances, use public transportation and carpool, but you don’t hear enough that we should shop for clothing that isn’t as hard on the environment. I wish people considered wearing vintage and eco-fashion as important as recycling their plastic water bottle. I wish everyone knew that it takes 400 gallons of water just to make one cotton t-shirt, along with all the CO2 emitting pesticides, insecticides and synthetic fertilizers. If everyone knew and cared about this, shoppers would seek out organic cotton and eco-fashion, vintage and recycled clothing. Once enough shoppers demand it, designers and clothing stores would have to provide it. My hope is someday there won’t even be a distinction between “fashion” and “eco-fashion,” all fashion will be eco-friendly.

I’ve heard several definitions of sustainability, but my favorite one is “using the resources we have to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In other words, let’s not screw over our future grandchildren and let’s not screw over our planet. I think our environment is our playing field and we should try to preserve it with everything we do.

Read the whole interview here, and check out Kate’s store and blog.