Category Archives: Life lessons

Sell-by Date: Fertility and F**kability

Contains strong language

A woman’s perceived value is tied up in her fertility and her physical appearance. The biological clock has supposedly ruled women’s lives for generations. In many industries, a woman’s sex appeal can equate to her recognition and success. So how does the notion of a “sell-by date” affect real women’s lives?

For generations, women have had their lives directed towards bearing and bringing up children. The average woman has lived her entire life with the overpowering idea that one day, her eggs will suddenly run out and she’ll be immediately infertile. A higher power will flick the off switch; there will be no prior warning.

Thankfully, the dominating premise of the biological clock is a myth. Fertility doesn’t switch off overnight. Of course it does decline, but does so at a different age, and a different rate for different women. Surprise surprise: not all women’s bodies are the same!

Still, a woman’s fertility is often conflated with her value: a woman’s usefulness to a company, a group, and society at large will often be calculated by her age, her marital status, and whether she has or plans to have children. While different organisations make different decisions, and cultural norms differ with cultural identity, some things are universal: a young, newly married woman who hopes to have kids soon is highly unlikely to get the job.

BarbaraCorcoran
Barbara Corcoran, 2014 | image: parade

Sexism is hugely hypocritical. We have a long history of punishing women for their youth and fertility, yet simultaneously praising young, fertile women for their sex appeal.

Many women use their sex appeal to their advantage in the workplace because it’s the best or only path available to them. In some industries, sex appeal can equate to recognition, promotion, and success. Barbara Corcoran, real estate guru and investor on ABC’s SharkTank said she used to “yank up her skirt” to get ahead in the business world.

When I was building my business, [when] I would walk into a room of 600 men in dark suits and I dress like a guy in a nice pant suit, no one would say ‘hi’ to me, no one would entertain me. The minute I started wearing bright suits and I would have a nice length skirt on, I would just roll up the middle and walk into that room, everyone paid attention to me.

Corcoran’s behaviour constitutes ‘internalised sexism’, because she’s enacting sexist actions and attitudes toward herself by asking to be judged on her appearance before her ability (hooks, 10). To both herself and those around her, she’s reaffirming the sexist notion:

A woman’s sex appeal decides her value.

This evaluation comes from anyone who decides to pass judgment – colleagues, friends, family, strangers, fans – thus many women have become experts at tolerating and deflecting sexist sentiments. It would be nice to imagine that certain arenas are free of this sentiment, but women in all arenas face a high probability that someone will judge her value entirely on her physical appearance.

Women in the most powerful positions are still subjected to comments on their desirability. In 2011, Sylvio Berlusconi, the former Italian Prime Minister called Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, “unfuckable.” As if that changed her value in the world of European politics.

Imagining we had a shortage of misogynistic fascists in contemporary politics before November 2016, now President ‘Cheeto Jesus’ vomited sexist comments all over the US election campaign season and hasn’t let up. He famously criticized Alicia Machado, the 1996 winner of Miss Universe beauty pageant, for gaining weight after winning, calling her “Miss Eating Machine” among other things. He terrorized her for years because he deemed her eating habits antithetical to her sexual appeal. ‘The Donald’ couldn’t abide that, because her physical appearance was the only part of her he valued.

This is a particularly prevalent issue in the celebrity sphere, an arena that sets a strong example for the rest of the world. Women are criticized for any change to their appearance that the media warrant ‘undesirable’, women are judged on their desirability throughout their careers and especially at their most vulnerable.

When Human Rights Lawyer, Amal Clooney delivered a call to action urging the UN to investigate allegations of genocide in Iraq by the Islamic State, some people failed to hear what she had to say. The fact that she was several months pregnant when she spoke at the United Nations HQ in New York City on March 9th did not affect her ability to do her job. Yet myriad media outlets reported on how her baby bump looked, “in a dark gray pencil skirt and matching cropped blazer”, rather than on what she said (People, tweeted by TIME). Some even substituted her job title for “the wife of actor George Clooney” as if her marriage is her best and only qualification. I doubt her Hollywood actor husband has to deal with this s**t.

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TIME’s sexist tweet caused widespread outrage | image: Mashable

Hollywood actresses, however, do have to. Women in Hollywood are subjected to an astronomical level of criticism about their appearance, the media postulating about their weight, relationship status, fertility, sexuality, age, and sex appeal, drumming up rumours in public reports. Perhaps the most sexist problem actresses face is the decline or dramatic change in their career when they reach a certain age. This is not something that male actors face.

In Amy Schumer’s sketch, ‘Last F**kable Day’, the comedian stumbles across Patricia Arquette (48), Tina Fey (46), and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (56) having a bucolic picnic in the woods. The three talented actresses are celebrating the eldest among them, Louis-Dreyfus’ Last Fuckable Day, because: “in every actress’s life the media decides when you finally reach the point when you’re not believably fuckable anymore” and she has apparently reached that point.

Instead of bitterness, though, Louis-Dreyfus expresses gratitude that she was able to maintain ‘fuckable’ status throughout her forties and well into her fifties, and relief that she is no longer required to ‘maintain’ her figure. She chugs a pint of melted ice cream in celebration.

It seems that one can always rely on comedy to cut through the crap and provide a new perspective on the kinds of issues we just can’t seem to resolve. Watch the sketch here:

Contains strong language

To the public consciousness, a man’s fertility is far less age dependent. Therefore his sex appeal is not tied to his fertility and thus has nothing to do with his age. As Patricia Arquette points out among rounds of laughter, “Men don’t have that day.” 


Read on

hooks, bell. Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. (2000). Print.

The Foul Reign of the Biological Clock, Guardian

Should women use their sex appeal to get ahead at work?, hello giggles

Jeremy Paxman stuns Silvio Berlusconi with Angela Merkel insult allegation, Guardian

From ‘Cheeto Jesus’ to ‘F–kface Von Clownstick,’ the best and most creative nicknames for Donald Trump, NY Daily News

Shamed and Angry: Alicia Machado, a Miss Universe Mocked by Donald Trump, NYTimesA lawyer named Amal Clooney gave a powerful speech at the U.N. Some only saw her baby bump., Washington PostFemale Film Directors Share Stories of Hollywood Sexism in Anonymous Blog, Yahoo

S**t People Say to Women Directors, Tumblr

‘Pitch Perfect 2’ Makes 2015 a Historic Year for Women in Hollywood, Yahoo

Thirty-one Months Later: Adapting to Life in China

When I first arrived in Beijing in September 2014, I knew almost nothing about the country I’d just moved to. I was embarking on a new life that didn’t seem to have a sell-by date – I had no idea how long I’d stay or even when I would next go home.

While many of my initial questions were answered long ago, the questions never stop arising, and the number seems to grow rather than shrink. The deeper into creating a real life I venture, the greater my curiosity for this vast country grows.

About thirty months ago, a few weeks into my Beijing life, I wrote what was to be my first and only “Beijing Update”. I sent it as an email and posted part of it on my blog, as a list of weird things I’d learned about Beijing.

While I’d like to imagine I’ve shed my China naivety, after almost three years living here, I’m not even sure that’s even possible. At no point have I felt that I could ever stop learning about this monolith of a nation. So to honour that never-stop-learning spirit, here’s an updated look at those weird things I’m still about Beijing:

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Thousands of bikes crowd Beijing’s streets | image from guardian
  1. Health Check. All foreigners must go through a basic health check as part of their visa application. Only selected hospitals provide this all-inclusive test of sight, blood pressure, height, and weight. Patients get a little manhandled as they are passed from doctor to doctor, who take a blood sample, a chest x-ray, a cardiogram and an ultrasound. Standard procedure. Friends of mine speculate it’s all an elaborate ruse to check foreigners for HIV/Aids and other venereal diseases, which could result in a denied visa. I’ve luckily only been through it once, but I’ve got it coming whenever I change job or get a new visa.
  1. IKEA. I avoid Ikea in Beijing like the plague. Yes, it is treated like a social outing. Yes, people go there to sleep. Yes, people go there on dates. No, it is not a fun place to be. I went once and have never yet been back. I’ll just have to ensure I don’t wind up in a less-than-desirably-furnished apartment!
  1. Milk. Fresh milk appeared in my local supermarket a few months after my first frantic search for it. I stopped buying yoghurt and milkshakes by accident, and I only buy cartons of UHT from our closest shop during bouts of laziness.
  1. Long nails. A significant number of men have long nails on their little finger, often just on one hand. It’s a status symbol showing that the hands’ owner doesn’t work with their hands, but most people I see on the subway simply use their pinkie nail to dig that little bit deeper for ear wax.
  1. Public toilets. There are still public toilets all over the place, but only in certain areas. Bars and restaurants in the Hutongs don’t have loos, and will never have them. Some are kept clean, others are not. Most but not all are squatters. Many don’t have cubicles or even dividers. Few have hand-washing facilities and fewer have soap. Never forget to bring your own bog roll.
  1. Bikes. If I thought there were bicycles everywhere in 2014, you can’t move for bikes now. Cycling has become cool again, thanks to Mobike and Ofo, companies that enable you to hire a bike by scanning a QR code. Beginning with student areas like Wudaokou, these bikes have slowly overrun the city and clogged up an already slow-moving two-wheel traffic system. They’re dockless, so the rider can just leave them wherever his or her journey ends. More than once, I’ve seen men unloading 50+ Mobikes onto a single street corner in a busy area late at night. There are stories of burning piles of bikes. There’s less space to lock a bike you actually own, but less likelihood of theft.
  1. Holiday compensation. In 2014 I was surprised that I was required to work on a Saturday and Sunday to compensate for national holiday. I soon learned that this is common practice. Working at weekends (usually doing one or more six-day-week), is considered fair recompense for having consecutive days off. It gets particularly messy when the celebrated holiday falls mid-week. This never becomes normal; working ‘make up’ days in order to earn a holiday never seems fair. But it makes sense, given the size of the country and the familial nature of traditional holidays, to allow the population time to visit their hometowns for celebrations like Qing Ming Jie or Tomb Sweeping Day.

I’ve learned a lot in my thirty-one months in Beijing, and I have enjoyed the incessant challenge this metropolis poses. Although sometimes it feels the smog outweighs the curiosity, I don’t think I’ll ever stop (begrudgingly) raising questions. Which is why Beijing continues to be my home.

 

Read on

Header image from: Uber for Bikes: how ‘dockless’ cycles flooded China – and are heading overseas, Guardian

 

Words and Women: bell hooks



If feminism is a movement to end sexist oppression, and depriving females of reproductive rights is a form of sexist oppression, then one cannot be anti-choice and be feminist. A woman can insist she would never choose to have an abortion while affirming her support of the right of women to choose and still be an advocate of feminist politics. She cannot be anti-abortion and an advocate of feminism.



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bell hooks, 1988 | image from autostraddle

bell hooks (b. 1952) is an American feminist activist, writer and educator. Born Gloria Jean Watkins, she’s best known by her pen name which she borrowed from her maternal great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks. hooks’ writing primarily focuses on the intersections of race, class, and gender, in history, art, education, social activism and much more.

This quotation is taken from chapter 1 of her concise, straightforward feminist handbook Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics (2000), which she says she wrote because she “kept waiting for it to appear, and it did not.” Other influential works (there are 30 in total!) include:

Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism (1981), Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984), All About Love: New Visions (2000), and We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity (2004).

 


Words and Women is a regular feature that spotlights short quotations from influential women activists, artists, and authors.

Embracing Labels: Small Steps Toward a Big Goal

Guest Post | Alexandra Sieh 

Looking up from my book, I scanned the crowded subway car, eager for some good people-watching. But as a new group of folks clambered on, I cringed at some of the actions and attitudes I saw.

Boyfriends pushing (excuse me, “guiding”) their girlfriend onto the train, or speaking to them as if they were children. Women dressed in wildly uncomfortable clothes that align with current fashion trends. Men speaking over the women in their group, or taking no notice of them at all.

From my point of view, these sort of cultural interactions encourage frail, helpless women and domineering men. But as I watch, I try to look past the (irritating) face value of the situation, and understand what societal norm encouraged it. Other times, I mutter angrily under my breath about bullshit men and their bullshit behavior and all these bullshit societal expectations women felt they needed to live up to.

But whether it manifests as deep consideration or silent fuming, it’s always a very quiet sort of rumination on rights and equality, or lack thereof.

I’m sure some reading this would argue my response isn’t much of a response at all. That observation or contemplation aren’t enough – they won’t create change.

Perhaps not.

But despite always having strong views and clear opinions, I’ve often avoided direct action. Rarely would I self-identify as a liberal or feminist or activist (though I am all those things). Ultimately, I was simply avoided labels.

Why? I found them intimidating.

These labels seemed too rigid, too narrow, and far too easy to use as a crutch in writing your own self-definition.

Beyonce's 2014 MTV Video Music Awards
Beyonce’s performance at 2014 MTV Video Music Awards | image from: Independent

I saw many paint broad strokes based on a label, and often their interpretation of that label was inaccurate from the start. Kellyanne Conway anyone? Often, it seemed:

If you’re a *insert label here*, you’re x, y, z.

If you agree with that person or their label, “x, y, z” can be encouraging, positive associations. If you don’t agree, “x, y, z” become negative, and often inaccurate, slurs.

What was my incentive to don these labels, just to have someone assume they knew me based solely on those words?

Well, now I’m not so easily intimidated.

Whether it’s age or perspective or an expat-driven need to further self-identify, I find I’m more comfortable slipping into those labels. Thanks largely to my time living abroad, I no longer feel timidity over being the real me.

Increasingly, I feel a need to go beyond identifying as what I am, by using my own personality and actions to reinforce a positive, more realistic, definition of that label. If I can present myself as a strong, capable, kind, loving, forceful woman and identify as a liberal, a feminist, etc., then perhaps people will start to correlate the two.

Within my life in China, that correlation is often on as small a level as my classroom interactions each day.

I challenge what my students think a woman should wear by donning the mismatched, often baggy or faded, clothing that I love to wear. I pair a feminine skirt with a man’s oversized flannel, because that’s my style. That way, my students see a woman they describe as beautiful deciding herself how she’ll dress and act.

Chinese kids in a training school | image from GRCS
Chinese kids attending a training school | image from GRCS

I purposefully twist my hair into a frazzled, messy pile atop my head to show individuality and even a touch of eccentricity. “That looks crazy, teacher!” “Well it’s good to be a little crazy.”

Despite my being in a loving relationship, I argue every day that women don’t need a man to achieve all their dreams. Nor does finding a partner – man or woman – mean they cede their dreams.

With my brilliant little girls, I celebrate their intelligence. I tell them to dream big. Through some personal (and probably knee-jerk) response to this country’s blatant patriarchy, I go out of my way to push these girls to be forces of nature, strong enough to challenge any societal norms they’re up against.

With my clever little boys, I try to teach them equality by quieting their disrespect, and praising their teamwork.

I do my part, and spend that subway-ride home dreaming about how I hope my students will grow up to be.

So, while I may not be setting the world ablaze with radical thought or loud protest, I thrive through more close-to-home feminism. I may not be powering grassroots movements, but I’m making sure everyone around me supports equality. I may not be rallying, but I’m empowering the women in my life, looking up to them and giving them my support.

I also hope I’m teaching the men in my life how great a world it would be if they did the same. By being powerful, independent, intelligent and strong-willed, I hope to help men see the beauty of that kind of woman. I want to help them shed any fear they have of what a world equality would look like – help them see it’s not about their subordination to women, but their standing alongside women.

Wearing the labels I’m now comfortable owning, I take small steps and celebrate them. Whether it changes the world, I know it changes the world of those around me. And for now, that role is one I am more than happy to play.



Alexandra Sieh is a freelance writer currently working as a marketing director and English teacher in Beijing, China. Read more from Alexandra at Wild-Eyed and Wandering.


Featured image from: Global Girl Media Network

Words and Women: Vera Nazarian

A woman is human.

She is not better, wiser, stronger, more intelligent, more creative, or more responsible than a man.

Likewise, she is never less. Equality is a given.

A woman is human.

― Vera Nazarian, The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration


Words and Women is a regular feature that spotlights short quotations from influential women activists, artists, and authors.

Sorry, I am not a dog

Yesterday I was locking up my bike when a policeman barked at me. He was fifty metres away. He started walking towards me, and yelled again. No words, just sounds. Then he whistled. A high piercing tone designed to scare me off. He clapped his hands three times, loudly, and shouted again, a sound equivalent to “Oi!”

WRONG! That’s not how you speak to a human. Sorry. Try again. 

He did not extend me the privilege of talking in words (wild idea, I know). Rather he made himself as big as possible and made as much noise as he could. I can only guess that he assumed this would startle me, shock me into submission, or get me to run away.

In case you hadn’t realised by now, I am a human. I am not a dog. But he treated me like a dog. Why? Because of my skin colour. This policeman took one look at me and decided that language would not have any effect.

Everyone knows foreign people cannot speak Chinese. Foreign people can only communicate in foreign languages. He gave up on communication before he even saw my face.

I turned to face him and asked him politely “where can I lock it?” He faltered, pointed and shouted incomprehensibly. He didn’t recognise his own language, coming from my lips. His preconceptions had deafened him. He continued shouting until I was out of earshot.

I was inexplicably angry. Kidding. I knew exactly why I was angry:

I am tired of being treated as a second-class citizen.

I am privileged: my nationality, my race, my class, my education, my sexuality, my physical ablity, and my earning power are all privileges. I am lucky to be where I am and to do what I do. But what I work hard to understand as my privilege is often mistranslated. Too often, people look to me as a shortcut to education, a commodity to exploit, an exile, an impostor, and an alien.

What really struck me was the familiarity of second-class treatment. Years before I moved to China I knew what it felt like. I have always known. Because I am a woman.

Like many women, I internalised my presumed inferiority at a young age, and have struggled with bringing it to bear ever since. Like many women, I have had to learn to recognise sexism and train myself to shout about it. Like many women, I have been combatting relentless sexism all my life. But this was about race, not gender.

I hadn’t trained myself for racism. I am lucky enough not to have needed to, but I think my impulse would be the same.

I was fuming. My immediate reaction was to lock my bike in a place even less convenient for them, thus causing significant anguish for three policemen in the area, revolution coursing through my veins. I pretended it wasn’t mine when they remembered how to use words long enough to ask. I was polite and I didn’t do any damage, but I refused to be reasonable. I rebelled. It gave me an overwhelming sense of empowerment.

Words and Women: Adrienne Rich

The connections between and among women are the most feared, the most problematic, and the most potentially transforming force on the planet.

adrienne-rich
Adrienne Rich, image from: coldfrontmag

Adrienne Rich was an American poet, essayist and radical feminist. She was credited with bringing “the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse” (Flood).

Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you…it means that you do not treat your body as a commodity with which to purchase superficial intimacy or economic security; for our bodies to be treated as objects, our minds are in mortal danger. It means insisting that those to whom you give your friendship and love are able to respect your mind. It means being able to say, with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre: “I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all the extraneous delights should be withheld or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.”

Responsibility to yourself means that you don’t fall for shallow and easy solutions–predigested books and ideas…marrying early as an escape from real decisions, getting pregnant as an evasion of already existing problems. It means that you refuse to sell your talents and aspirations short…and this, in turn, means resisting the forces in society which say that women should be nice, play safe, have low professional expectations, drown in love and forget about work, live through others, and stay in the places assigned to us. It means that we insist on a life of meaningful work, insist that work be as meaningful as love and friendship in our lives. It means, therefore, the courage to be “different”…The difference between a life lived actively, and a life of passive drifting and dispersal of energies, is an immense difference. Once we begin to feel committed to our lives, responsible to ourselves, we can never again be satisfied with the old, passive way.”

Read on

Flood, Alison. “Adrienne Rich, Award-winning poet and essayist, dies at 82.” The Guardian. 29th March 2012.


Words and Women is a regular feature that spotlights short quotations from influential women activists, artists, and authors.