Oppression of Woman Hasn’t Always Been the Norm

I’m taking it easy today after a long, tough hike over Vermont’s highest peak yesterday. I’m sore, sunburned, and tired, so the best place to be is on the couch. I’m not good at downtime. I always feel the need to be productive, so it’s hard for me to spend a day in front of the TV without feeling guilty. Not that I don’t Netflix binge all the damn time, but I usually feel guilt about it later. Today I decided my day of rest and recuperation would be best spent watching all the women centered documentaries I had on “My List” in Netflix. I found some gems, all of which I’ll write about soon, but the one that really caught my attention today was a miniseries called “The Ascent of Woman”.

The premise of the miniseries, narrated by Dr. Amanda Foreman, is that even though systems of oppression have been created to hold women down, they manage to rise up and achieve amazing things generation after generation. The show combines inspiration with a staggering amount of interesting historical information, making it the perfect show for my consumption. It’s like the History Channel when they used to actually have historical programming.

The first episode I watched today, called “Civilisation”, went all the way back to the first recorded societies to see how gender relations functioned at the dawn of time. Dr. Foreman explains that archaeological digs of the Sumerians, the first recorded society, provide ample evidence that there really weren’t gender roles in the earliest societies. Work was divided among all citizens of a settlement. This is evidenced by the way they buried their dead. Graves were adorned with things that were important to the deceased when they were alive. Graves of women were adorned with tools of trade just as often as the graves of men. Evidence indicates that women participated in the economy the same way men did. Evidence also shows that child rearing was a communal activity, including men as equally as women.

Statues of deities from Sumerian communities appear to show that their primary deities were women. Fertility and nature were worshipped and associated with female deities. The most famous carving of a Sumerian deity depicts a voluptuous, naked woman seated on a throne, each foot on a human head, one alive and one a skull, representing her control over life and death. She is surrounded by cats, representing her control over the natural world. She is an all powerful goddess.

Dr. Foreman examines other early cultures and then nomadic cultures, all where women seemed to be treated as equals. This was not isolated to any one geographical area either. Evidence shows that nearly all early and nomadic civilizations had little gender division. Women learned their own trades, owned their own property, controlled their own bodies, and were not considered property of men. This certainly contradicts the idea espoused by the patriarchy that male domination is “the natural order of things”.

So what changed? The Sumerians were conquered by more militaristic societies. Even in ancient times it seems that the military was a male institution. There a ton of theories about why this is the case. A quick Google search produced a plethora of academic papers about the connection between militarism and male dominance. Suffice it to say, they’re connected. So, when an egalitarian society gets conquered by a militaristic society it seems that patriarchy starts to creep in and take control.

The most interesting thing I learned from the documentary was that the first written laws, called the Code of Hammurabi, largely concerned rules about families, households, and relationships between the sexes. The first written laws were already working to establish the patriarchy. Some women’s rights were still protected under these laws: women were allowed to leave their husbands and maintain their dowries, keep their children, and sometimes even maintain property. Marriages were still arranged by families, but it seemed that women had a say in their choice of partner. However, women were no longer allowed to participate in the economy as they had in earlier societies. The Code also established the idea that women were subservient to men once married and could be punished severely for adultery. It also outlined expectations for childbearing, which was considered a woman’s primary function.

It’s very interesting to me that the establishment of the patriarchy seems to go hand in hand with the establishment of codified laws. Earlier societies were small and community based. Violations against the community were handled by the community and laws were not necessary to control the public. Devotion to the community served as social control. As militaristic societies conquered larger and larger populations it became necessary to document laws that all should follow. Since these militaristic societies were dominated by men, they wrote the laws, and women become second class citizens, their status written in stone, literally.

The connection between oppression and codified law has been evident, it seems, since laws were first written. This is not a problem we have solved. Unfortunately, all over the world, the legal system is still used to oppress people and laws are used to make people second class citizens. Laws, by their very nature, allow the dominant systems to control the oppressed. This manifests in discrimination against women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and people of different gender identities.

The systems of oppression that dominate people throughout the world will not be dismantled until we fight the legal structures that keep them in place. That’s why it’s so important to protest laws limiting access to abortion. That’s why we need to have all the bathroom bills that have been passed repealed. That’s why it’s crucial that Religious Freedom Act laws get shut down. That’s why it’s so important that each state pass anti-discrimination laws that include protections for all types of people. Laws are powerful and we need to take them out of the control of the oppressors.

Girl Rising

Last week I watched this amazing documentary on Netflix called Girl Rising. The focus of the documentary is the importance of access to education for girls, especially in developing countries. The documentary follows the stories of young girls who are fighting for access to education, and sometimes fighting for their lives. Interspersed throughout the film are statistics about the lack of access to education and the ways the world would change if more girls could go to school. Getting girls access to education is, of course, important, but you may question if it would have a global impact. The statistics show it will. According to the film, “If India enrolled 1% more girls in secondary school its GDP would rise by $5.5 billion.” Since India is quickly becoming a major player in the global economy this rise in GDP would have dramatic results.

There is also a direct correlation between education and health: those who have access to education are often able to keep themselves healthier. Women who had access to education as girls are less likely to die in childbirth or be the victims of violence. This is at least partially because women who had access to education as girls have the necessary power and knowledge to get out of their harmful environments. Women who were educated as girls have better earning capacity and they use that money to take care of their families and communities. Women who were educated as girls will make breakthroughs in medicine, science, technology, and myriad other fields that will change the world as we know it.

You may be saying that all these statements could also apply to men who had access to education as boys. For the most part that’s true but it’s also true that the majority of boys, even in developing countries, have access to education. 33 million more boys go to school than girls. The girls sharing their stories in Girl Rising repeatedly state that their brothers were sent to school, but they weren’t; that their friends brothers were sent to school, but their friends weren’t. Men have the power to change the world too, but they are already given the access. Girls are not.

Sending girls to school also sends a message that is just as important as the results that come from educating girls. The message is that girls are just as important as boys. Girls deserve just as much as boys. Girls are just as intelligent as boys. Girls should get the same opportunities as boys. Women can change the world the same way that men can change the world. Women can make breakthroughs the same way that men can. Given the proper education any woman can do just as much and more than any man.

This message is not popular throughout the world. Again and again the girls in Girl Rising recount the stories they have been told about their worth. They are told their place is in the home taking care of their children. They are told that their value is in the dowry that will be paid for their marriage. They are told that educating them is not worth it because they will never have a professional job like the men around them. They are married off as children to pay debts. They are pulled from school while their brothers continue to go so they can help their mothers at home. They are told to hide, be quiet, and know their place, which is not in the classroom. Sending girls to school will change these messages, and these messages will not change until we send more girls to school.

I ugly cried at many points throughout the movie, but the moment I cried the most was when the brother of one of the girls refused to marry her off so that she could continue to go to school. Their father had died and left the family with debts. Though his sister was only 14, a wealthy community member offered to forgive their debts if he could marry the sister. Their mother, knowing no other way for their family to survive, agreed to the marriage. But the brother, the only surviving male in the family, refused to allow the marriage. He believed with all his heart that his sister deserved a different opportunity and that opportunity was education.

I wish for a world where girls do not have to rely on an understanding man to allow their education. I wish for a world where girls can go to school without having to fight. Right now, this world doesn’t exist for millions of girls. In the mean time, I wish that more men would stand up for girls the way this brother did. And I wish that more people with privilege and voice would speak up for these girls who just want the thing that every teenager in America doesn’t want: a day in the classroom.

Plus Sized Women as Love Interests

This week the Internet exploded when Joe Jonas released the video for his band’s new video, which featured Ashley Graham as the super sexy love interest. Music videos are usually the realm of super thin women or women who are “curvy” in a very specific way, so to see Ashley Graham slay is a huge deal.

Plus size women rarely play the love interest in music videos, movies, or television. They are the “funny best friend” or the “sassy fat chick” or the “funny oaf”. For a long time women with larger bodies have been confined to these roles in all visual media, but it seems that this is beginning to change.

Another indication of this change happened earlier this year when Rebel Wilson and her costar Adam Devine won the award for Best Kiss at this year’s MTV Movie Awards for their kiss in Pitch Perfect 2. I will be honest that I haven’t seen the movie, but I’ve seen enough clips to know that Rebel Wilson’s character refers to herself as “Fat Amy”, so her size is not downplayed in the movies. The fact that she has a romantic storyline in the second movie shows that her role has moved beyond “token fat girl”.

I’ve long taken issue with the underrepresentation of plus sized women as sexual beings. The assumption is that if you’re above a certain size you’re not sexy enough to be a love interest, unless their bodies are being fetishized. We all know this is inaccurate. Women of all sizes enjoy full sex lives. Their partners don’t love them for their size, they just love them. Plus sized women don’t just date plus sized people or people who are “in to fat chicks”. They date people of all shapes, sizes, and preferences. Yet these facts are woefully underrepresented in the media.

The media also presents an alarming double standard when it comes to romantic relationships and body size: plus sized men are frequently paired with thin, gorgeous women. The message is clear: larger men can get beautiful partners, but larger women can’t get any partners. Men are more valuable than women regardless of their body size. Men are allowed to be large, but women aren’t.

Hopefully the media will continue to increase the number of plus sized women playing love interests. Hopefully we will get more accurate representations of what romantic partnerships look like. Hopefully there will be a day in the near future where the Internet won’t break when a plus sized woman is a love interest because it will just be normal.

Is Your Body Summer Ready?

Today it’s 75 and sunny in Vermont. Gorgeous. The kind of day when I love to cruise with the windows down and the music up. Days like this mean summer is almost here, which makes me happy, but also fills me with dread. Why? Because this is the time of year the world starts to barrage women with questions about the readiness of their bodies. Headlines inquire, “Are you ready for summer?” “Do you have a bikini body?” “What kind of swimsuit is best for your body type?” The media polices and dictates women’s bodies year round, but it’s never more obvious than when summer is approaching.

The message to women is clear: it’s time to change or hide. Those are your only options. Time to diet and pump up the exercise regimen so you can shed those winter pounds. Or if you’re audacious enough to not change your body you need to cover it up. Which swimsuit will hide that unsightly tummy? Which shorts will control those embarrassing thighs? What cut of t-shirt will conceal those less than toned arms. Cover it all up. Hide it under fabric. Your body doesn’t deserve to be shown.

Larger women are always told to hide themselves away and not just physically. They are taught to be quiet, not disruptive. Their bodies are already disruptive. They are told to be hide in the shadows. Their bodies already take up too much space. They are told to calm down. Their personalities are too large already. They are told to become smaller versions of themselves. Their current size isn’t pleasing to the rest of the world. They should hide their size or change it in order to move through this world more easily.

Having a large body that you refuse to make smaller is a powerful statement. It says to the world that you refuse to be marginalized. It tells the world that your body does not exist for them, so it doesn’t have to conform to their standards. It tells the world that your body is yours to do with what you will.

Not hiding a larger body under layers of fabric is an even more powerful statement. It says that a large body is not shameful. It says that you don’t believe your body parts are flawed. It says that you have nothing about yourself to hide. It says that your body deserves to be shown, deserves to be seen.

For me, body positivity was easier, not easy, but easier, this winter and spring when I was able to hide under bulky sweaters and skinny jeans. It was easier to accept my arms when I didn’t have to see them. It was easier to accept my thighs when they weren’t showing. It was easier to accept my tummy when I didn’t have to think about it showing in a bathing suit. With the warm weather upon me I can’t pretend that I’m not nervous about showing my body.

The difference this summer is that I refuse to make myself physically uncomfortable by hiding my body. When I was larger years ago I refused to wear shorts, even in the hottest summers. I always wore t-shirts and never wore tank tops. I bought all the fatkini swimsuits believing that they were the only ones I could wear. I was often hot, sweaty, and awfully uncomfortable. Today I’m wearing capri yoga pants and layered tank tops. The yoga pants are skintight and my arms are in full view, but I am comfortable. Temperature-wise at least. I’ll work on being emotionally comfortable throughout the summer. But I absolutely refuse to hide all summer just because I’m being told I should.

Is your body summer ready? If you have a body and it’s summer where you live then you’re ready. Go put on some shorts and a tank top and enjoy the sun.

Decontextualizing our Bodies

I love getting massages. I try to get one at least once a month as part of my self-care routine. This month my massage was scheduled with a male massage therapist. This doesn’t bother me. I literally don’t care who gives me a massage as long as it’s an awesome massage. In thinking about this it struck me how odd it is that even with my body image issues I don’t care who sees me naked as long as the context is a massage. I don’t care what the massage therapist thinks of my rolls or my cellulite, yet if I went to the beach I would care immensely what everyone else thought of my rolls and my fat. It occurred to me then that context matters a lot when it comes to our bodies.

All the times when I feel really insecure about my body are actually related to the context. If I’m in a situation where I feel like my body is being judged by others, like being at the beach then, I contextualize my body through the lens of judgement. I don’t actually know that I’m being judged by anyone. Maybe I didn’t feel judgmental about my body before I got out of the car or before I left the house. But because of the context of being at the beach with people, my perception changes.

If I’m in a situation where I feel like my body is being sexualized, like when I’m dancing at the club or if I catch someone checking me out, that adds context to my perception of my body. I did not perceive my body as an object of someone else’s gaze or as a sexual object until someone sexualized my body. My perception changes based on the context of being sexualized.

If I’m in a situation where my body is being appraised by others for its worthiness, this adds the context of my own worthiness. I may not have been thinking about whether or not my body was worthy or whether I was worthy, but as soon as someone else adds that context my perception changes.

In reality, my perceptions of my body are often rather neutral until context is added. When I think about my body without thinking about what others think of it, or if it gives me worthiness, or if it is being sexualized by others, then I don’t really have a lot of thoughts about my body positive or negative. I may think about whether it’s sore from the hike I went on this week, or if it’s hungry, or if it would feel better to sit or lie down, but beyond that I’m not attaching a lot of meaning to my body.

I start to attach meanings to my body when the context forces me to change my perception of my body. In situations with others I have to contextualize my body in order to understand what it means to others. But what if I didn’t? What if I made the conscious choice to decontextualize my body the way I do when I get a massage? What if I rejected the contexts others give me for my body? I might end up being a lot happier.

No Justice for Women

Today in news, the criminal justice system proves yet again that they are unwilling to provide justice for women. I’ll start with an update from the Kesha saga. Earlier this week Kesha happily announced that she would be performing for the first time in forever at the Billboard Music Awards. Billboard had announced that Kesha was able to come to an agreement with her producer Dr. Luke which allowed her to perform.

In case you’ve been in a hole for the past year, Kesha has a pending lawsuit against Dr. Luke to try and get out of her contract with him, which is contingent on another lawsuit she’s filed claiming that Dr. Luke raped her. Earlier this year a New York court ruled against Kesha’s contract lawsuit stating that Kesha could work with other producers under the Sony label, therefore Dr. Luke did not have a stranglehold on her career as she claimed.

Back to current events. Two days ago Dr. Luke revoked his permission for Kesha to perform at the Billboard Music Awards. Because she’s bound by her contract to him, the one she tried to get out of by petitioning the legal system which is supposed to provide justice, Kesha legally can’t perform unless Dr. Luke lets her. So her rapist is allowed to dictate whether she’s allowed to pursue her career. Even worse, the New York courts have refused to hear any appeals on her contract lawsuit until the rape lawsuit is resolved in California. That lawsuit has not gone anywhere since it was filed because that court claims the contract lawsuit should be resolved first. So, both courts are stalling and Kesha’s life is being controlled by her rapist. No justice for women.

Meanwhile in Oklahoma, the House of Representatives has passed a law that would effectively outlaw abortion in a really devious way. Basically the law states that abortions can only be performed by physicians licensed in the state of Ohio. On the surface this looks like any of the countless other abortion restriction laws throughout this country, but it gets worse. The law also says that the state medical board can revoke the medical license of any physician who performs an abortion in a situation where the woman’s life wasn’t in danger. So basically, doctors who want to keep their licenses will start to refuse to perform abortions, effectively making abortion illegal in the state of Oklahoma. I know there’s a lot of debate about what constitutes an “undue burden” as outline in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, but I’m pretty sure the Oklahoma law constitutes an undue burden, which makes it unconstitutional. Unless the governor vetoes the bill next week, Oklahoma will succeed in passing an unconstitutional anti-abortion law, putting us right back to pre Roe v. Wade when women literally died in alarming numbers from illegal abortion procedures. No justice for women.

Meanwhile in my own home state of Vermont a law was passed stating that sexual assaults can’t be pled down to prohibited acts. This seems like a real win, but after this law was passed instead of having sexual assault pled down to a prohibited act, a recent sexual assault case was pled down to simple assault and disorderly conduct. The perpetrator drugged and raped an acquaintance of his and he was only convicted of simple assault and disorderly conduct; misdemeanors. His punishment was counseling. I’m glad he’s getting mental health services, but he should also be in jail. Rape is not disorderly conduct, it’s a violent violation, and it should be punished as such. No justice for women.

Over and over the criminal justice system proves that they are more willing to support the patriarchy than provide justice for women. This is unacceptable. The court system should be providing real justice for every victim, regardless of gender, race, color, creed, gender identity, or sexual orientation, but this is clearly not the case. We should all talk about this more often and as loudly as we can so the criminal justice system can see how unacceptable we find their actions.