Sunday, March 8, 2015

Stalking - Don't Do It

I went to a couple of talks at The Opera House yesterday as part of a big festival called "All About Women".  Naturally, today my head is buzzing with all kinds of things I want to talk about - but let's start with stalking.

I was thinking, this morning, trying to remember the last time there wasn't at least one, more often at least two women in my life who were actively changing their lives to avoid a stalker. I've come to the conclusion it must have been a long, long time ago, because I can't remember it. So many women I know (and I mean personal friends, not figureheads like Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian) have been stalked at one point or another, and I could only think of one, maybe two male friends who've ever had any experience with anything like stalking.

That's fucked up. I mean, it's anecdata and therefore not fact per se, but my experience that women get stalked and men just don't is fucked up. I shouldn't have so much experience with female friends being stalked that I'm no longer surprised when it happens. Saddened, certainly, but never surprised anymore. That's fucked. up.

Social media has certainly made it easier to stalk people. Back in the day you used to really have to put your back into tracking someone's every movement, but now there are a million ways to get at someone. Track their Facebook, their Twitter, their Instagram, their email...there are so many connecting fibers between someone active on social media and the world at large, that it's easy to jump on those connections and take advantage.

Unfortunately, a lot of the rection I've seen to women complaining about stalking (should they have the courage to complain at all) suggests that if they put themselves "put there". then what do they expect. I've seen the advice that women should simply sever these connections too many times to count, and I want to punch them in all the face. Maybe some people could just cut social media ties on go on with their lives - but increasingly that's just not an option.

I can't speak for all of you, but I know the vast majority of my socialising is done online. I'm anxious as fuck, and prone to depressive episodes, both of which can make leaving the house impossible. During these periods, if I didn't talk to people online I wouldn't talk to people at all - which would in turn make my depression and anxiety worse, making it harder to get out of the house, and so on and so forth until I find myself dressed in a makeshift Princess costume talking to a stuffed cat. (True story). I need other people, I need contact with other people, because I'm a human, and we've known since Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs came out in the 1940's that people need other people.

If you're not familiar with this little pyramid, it's basically a way of visualising how people tend to prioritise the things they need. Down the bottom we have things like shelter, food, water. Then safety, which means having safe shelter, enough food to last until tomorrow, plenty of water. Then once all those things are taken care of, we can worry about the love, the self esteem, the idea of who we want to be and living up to that. Social Media, for me, feeds the top three tiers. When I can have conversations about fairy bread with people and no-one says, "What on earth are you talking about that for?" I feel loved, and like I belong. When I post pictures or links to something I've made and people give me compliments, that feeds my esteem like whoa. When I post something I think is clever and other people respond indicating they think it's clever too, I feel like one day I might actually be as clever as I hope to be. The idea that these interactions aren't real, that they should just be able to be severed without consequence, is so utterly baffling to me.

I can get all these things from meatspace interactions as well, it's true. But meatspace is difficult for me. Even when I'm not anxious or depressed, I still have to deal with my Borderline Personality Disorder, which makes finding and keeping new friends very difficult. The space that online interaction provides me makes it so much easier to find and keep new people that I can actually eventually interact with in a meaningful way offline -  I've met friends online that I would never have known how to interact with at first in person. The idea of having to cut that off because some asshole decides it would be funny to stalk me, or that I deserve it for whatever reason, makes me feel sick.

Even if you're lucky enough not to deal with any of the people panic that I do, social media is becoming increasingly important for people to simply do their jobs. The flow of information available on something like Twitter is just STAGGERING. The contacts, the news, the job postings, the reputation you can build that will get you more contacts, news and's kind of mind blowing to think that some people's advice is just to cut that off. If you're a journalist, hell, if you're a writer of any kind, cutting ties with social media is tantamount to quitting. You might as well, because you'd be at such a disadvantage.

Why do women have to make these choices? And yes, I know that men get stalked too, but let's just deal with the fact that it's mainly women who get put in this position. How do we choose between putting ourselves at risk of being stalked, abused, harassed, or missing out on all these amazing social and professional opportunities? We shouldn't fucking have to. Here's a mind blowing suggestion - how about assholes stop fucking stalking women? How about we legislate so there are real, legal consequences for stalking someone online, just as there is for offline stalking? How about we make the consequences for stalking offline a bit more...robust, shall we say? How about you stop fucking stalking women? It's not cute, it's not funny, and no matter how many movies you've seen where it happens, it will NOT bring her back to you.

How about we stop expecting women to just put up with this shit, work around it, accept it as a part of our lives?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Power of The Word Nerd

I have always been a Word Nerd.

From the moment I learned how to translate those little black squiggles on a page in a meaningful way, I've been desperately in love with words. The richness of language, the excitement at learning a new word and feeling the shape of it in my mouth, the deep satisfaction of placing the exact right word in the exact right place - all these things have always given me enormous pleasure, even in the darkest of times.

I wasn't born a Word Nerd though. There is a long line of incredible women who encouraged me every step of the way, and I want to write a bit today about what they all did for me, and how they helped me become the passionate lover of words that I am today.

The first person to teach me the power of the written word was my mother. She's always been a voracious reader, and was determined to pass her love on to me. I learned to read before I hit school, and I don't really remember a time when books weren't a part of my life. When I was too small to read to myself, my mother would read to me every night before I went to sleep. I was so excited by the worlds these stacks of bound paper contained that I was very soon grabbing the books away from her to read myself because she was reading too slowly, and I needed more, MORE!

Eventually, I went through that delightful hormonal spurt where everything my mother likes must be STUPID because I was desperate to establish myself as an individual apart from her, and at that point I could have lost my love of reading. But a couple of devoted librarians stepped in, and there was no going back. The librarian who let a nine year old read the novel of The NeverEnding Story, in an edition that was so big she could hardly carry it. The librarian who let me "volunteer" unofficially at the library on Saturday mornings, and would spend the whole time we were shelving books telling me about all the other books that were out there. The librarian who bought me Terry Pratchett's The Colour of Magic out of her own pocket because she saw me enjoying David Eddings, and wanted better books for me. The librarian who let me and my friends take up residence in the school library at lunchtime to escape the bullies, and made us Library Monitors with no actual duties because that was the only was she was allowed to let us stay whenever we wanted.

Through these endlessly compassionate women, I learned to associate books with escape, with kindness and acceptance, with a sense of home. To this day being in a room with a lot of books makes me calmer, and running my hands over their spines, feeling the possibilities inside, gives me a warm thrill I can't explain.

Then there were the women who taught me to make my own words as well as soaking up the words of others.

My aunt was an English teacher, and was the first person I can remember taking my writing seriously. Her letters to me were always written in the most perfect handwriting, and perfectly punctuated, if a little stilted because she was never quite as confident writing to a child as she was to adults. I used to look at the letters she wrote my mother, pages of perfect cursive, and long hungrily for my aunt's unfiltered words. I grew up waiting for the day I was adult enough to get a cursive letter from her - I had that as my marker for being smart enough, well read enough, and intelligent enough, for a long time. She died before I got there, but I still to this day have an exercise book she sent me when I was nine. She expressly instructed was for writing my own work, and I eagerly filled page after page. I've read it back since, and it was absolute garbage (of course), but I took it so seriously because she had taken my writing so seriously. She made me feel like it was not only okay to be serious about being a writer, but desirable.

The next person to help convince me that my words were worth sharing (or would be one day) was Isobelle Carmody, an Australian author. I held a 20 year grudge against her later for not finishing the Obernewtyn chronicles in a timely fashion, but that's another, somewhat stupider story.

I was a big fan of Carmody, and somehow, despite being at a ludicrously underfunded public school in rural Australia, I ended up in a little writing workshop with her. I'm not sure now how old I was at the time - probably 14 at the oldest - but I'd been working on a "novel". I'd shown it to my English teacher, who was probably the one who got me into the workshop, but no one else. I tentatively mentioned my master work to Carmody, expecting to be told not to be so silly. But instead she took me totally seriously. Like my aunt, like the librarians, she respected absolutely my love of words, and encouraged me to keep writing. I remember asking if I was being silly to want to be a writer, because so many people do, and what chance did I have? I also remember her firmly telling me that if that was what I wanted, I should just do it. Carmody was the closest to a celebrity I'd ever met at the time, so I absolutely believed her when she said I should pursue being a writer. She was the first person who didn't know me personally to be so encouraging, and it had a huge impact. Over the years, my conviction fluctuated - sometimes I was absolutely convinced, sometimes utterly discouraged. But every time I considered throwing away writing completely, I remembered the kindness of a published author telling a (possibly talentless) little girl she should keep writing, and I persevered for a little longer.

Since leaving home and starting my adult life, I've come across so many women who encouraged and shared my Word Nerdery I could never hope to count them all (if only because my memory is horrendous). I've had so many friends who supported my writing, who supported my reading, that I've grown up the sort of person who simply doesn't understand when someone tells her, "I don't read." I had a date say that to me once, and I was so baffled I had to ask him to repeat himself three or four times. Words are an integral part of my life. Reading them, writing them, editing them, taking advantage of the incredible editors I know and getting them to edit my words. My focus has been largely on my visual art very recently, but my Word Nerdery is so deeply ingrained that I had the idea for this post and sat down and wrote it in one go. It's like the words are a raging river inside me, all the time, and all I need to do to get them out is to let go.

This passion is part of why Word Nerd was one of my first designs for The Enthusiasts collection I've been doing over at Femmecraft. Since I started into the visual arts, I've felt a bit like a dog with two masters - neither writing nor art could ever entirely win my heart, but I can't seem to let go of either. This piece seemed like an obvious way for me to finally serve both masters at once, and I'm enormously proud of it.

I decided to send proceeds for this piece to The Children's Book Council of Australia, largely because of the work they do with libraries in terms of getting children interested in books. Not everyone is lucky enough to have a parent who is as delighted to instill a love of words as I was, and the Children's Book Council Awards were almost a festival of sorts at a lot of the libraries I frequented. When the nominees were announced, the librarians would make up a big display of all of them (or all the ones we had), proudly displaying the big round sticker that denoted their short list status.

I often set myself the task of reading all the short listed books, as did a lot of my friends. What can I say, Word Nerds flock together! When the winners were announced, there was as much contention in my circles as there is for any Oscar winner. The Awards lent excitement to all the books involved - even if they were books I'd already read, once they had that sticker on them I OBVIOUSLY had to read them all over again. I want that excitement for all the children coming after me, and so I will hopefully be able to send some money to achieve just that.

Are you a Word Nerd too? Who influenced your Word Nerdery?

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Measuring my life in Ben Folds concerts

The last time I saw Ben Folds in concert, I was in a bad place. To say the least. I'd lost my dream job of managing a reception team at a brothel, and felt like I'd never get another job that satisfying again. Right after I lost that job I'd gone straight into a textbook small business exploitation role, working for a sociopath who wanted me to be a receptionist, a freight specialist, an export/import specialist, a chemist, and a PA - all for the wages of a receptionist. I'd lost that job too, and at the time firmly believed it was my fault, that I was the failure, and that I would never get another job again full stop.

The boy and I had gotten tickets for the concert back when things had been better, and so when the night came I mustered what small reserves of positivity I had and went along with a smile plastered on my face. But when he played Picture Window, the smile melted off and was washed away with wave after wave of open weeping.

It's a sad song at the best of times, but something in the lyrics touched that deep, dark, pit of despair inside me and brought it all tumbling out.

"You know what hope is?
Hope is a bastard
Hope is a liar
A cheat and a tease
Hope comes near you?
Kick it's backside
Got no place in days like these"

It took me a good song or two afterwards to compose myself after the song, and I was shaken and trembling for the rest of the concert. I'm very practiced at keeping the darkest, saddest, softest parts of me squelched right down as much as possible, and it was unsettling to have those feelings just spill out.

Unsurprisingly, it was fairly soon after that that I decided I was going to kill myself. Obviously, I didn't go through with it, and I talked more about that over here. But long story short, life went on, things changed, and last night I ended up back at a Ben Fold's concert.

This time the concert was at the Opera House, with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, so a lot of the actual music was just breathtaking. But I was primed and waiting for him to play Picture Window - I wanted to see what it touched this time. I didn't FEEL despairing anymore, but I hadn't realised how despairing I was last time until that chorus swelled.

I grabbed the Boy's hand when the opening chords played, ready to be pulled inside out. But instead, I found myself crying through the second chorus because the part of me it touched last time wasn't there anymore. It just wasn't. I wasn't hiding it, I wasn't squishing it down - I looked, I let the music right in, and it just wasn't there. So I cried, but tears of surprised relief this time.

There is another Ben Folds song I've always loved, called Landed. It's about a bad relationship, and the relief of getting out - I've had some bad relationships, and it's always spoken to me.

But last night it spoke to me in a slightly different way - I didn't hear the lyrics as being about a person, but about my illness if it was a person. It spoke to me about breaking free of my illness, about feeling for the first time like I might be able to live a life where it's not in charge.

"The daily dramas she made from nothing
So nothing ever made them right
She liked to push me and talk me back down
Until I believed I was the crazy one,
and in a way
I guess I was..."

It reminded me that just earlier that evening, I'd been talking to complete strangers and it had been totally fine. It reminded me that would never have happened last time I heard Folds play this song, and highlighted just how far I really have come. It spoke to me about the feeling of coming out into the world, blinking in the light of day, astonished by all the wonderful people that had been waiting for all along outside the walls of my own depression and anxiety.

"If you wrote me off I'd understand it
Because I've been on some other planet
So come pick me up...
I've landed

I opened my eyes and walked out the door
And the clouds came tumbling down

Down comes the reign of the telephone czar
It's OK to call
Now I'll answer for myself"

In the final chorus, Ben Folds beautiful tumbling piano was lifted by the incredible swelling strength of the strings, and once again, I wept. I bawled my little eyes out, because it finally occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, I could actually build a life I really want to be living. Not just for a little while, before things get bad and the Bad Stockbroker ruins everything again. Maybe I really could change things.

Maybe I can actually be happy. Not momentarily, or in the moments between disasters. Maybe I can just be happy.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

RU OK Day: The Bad Stockbroker

It's been a big week for mental health awareness, and some of you might have been surprised by how quiet I've been about it.

Yesterday (10th of September) was World Suicide Prevention Day, so there's been a lot of statistics flying around emphasising what a pressing and urgent issue suicide really is. As I've said previously, I would personally like to see more nuanced conversations around suicide, beyond "Don't Do It". But an international day of recognition isn't nothing, and I hope that it helps people who need to talk about suicide or suicidal tendencies do so more easily.

Today here in Australia (11th of September) it's now RU OK Day, a national initiative intended to encourage people to ask their friends if they are indeed okay. as with World Suicide Prevention Day, I have some personal misgivings about the actual effectiveness of this campaign on for a significant proportion of people with serious mental illnesses, but it's also encouraging to see people at least considering mental illness something to be spoken about, as hamfistedly as they might do so.

Instead of grumbling about what I don't like about these campaigns, I decided to take a more positive tack, and write up one of the most valuable pieces of advice I've ever been given about dealing with my own depression and anxiety.

(No, the advice is NOT "just be positive")

Way back in the way back times, a couple of years ago, I was deep in the throes of a really bad brain period. So bad, in fact, I'd actually managed to wrangle some appointments with a psychologist paid for by the Australian welfare agency, Centrelink. I was expecting the psychologist to pretty poor, considering he was almost certainly working for a laughable wage, but to my surprise he actually ended up being one of my favourite therapists of all time.

I was enormously self concious about my crazy at the time - I was convinced that my anxiety, depression, and general emotional instability made me entirely worthless. As I saw it, there was no hope for me - I was unemployed, and I would stay unemployed forever because no-one would ever take on a total fuck up like me. I was so ANGRY at myself for being crazy, all day, every day. I resented the way my brain worked so much I couldn't conceive of being kind to myself, let alone letting any perceived fuck ups pass without at least a day of tormenting myself. I KNEW all the terrible things I was afraid of were wildly unlikely, I KNEW my brain wasn't coming to rational conclusions. But I couldn't help listening, and I hated myself for it so much. I KNEW that depression lies, but I couldn't figure out how to dismiss thoughts that were so damn loud and persistent.

And this is where The Bad Stockbroker comes in. He began as a throwaway comment from my psychologist, a phrase he used to sum up just how irrational the lies that mental illness tells us are. When I explained I had trouble dismissing the parts of me that insisted everything would turn out the worst possible way, he asked how often they'd been right. I thought about it for a while, and then had to admit that actually, on the whole, those predictions hadn't been right very often at all. He asked if I would trust my money to a stockbroker who came up with inaccurate predictions as often as my anxiety did, and a lightbulb suddenly lit up my brain. The Bad Stockbroker was born, and has become an integral part of how I manage the impact my illness has on my life.

Imagine, if you will, all the parts of your brain that tell you unhelpful things all day are actually a person. Bundle all the "They really hate you" and "You'll never make it" and "Why even try" into a little squishy ball, and then make that ball into a person. That person is The Bad Stockbroker. In my mind, the Bad Stockbroker looks something like a conglomeration of these two images...

He wears a really cheap, wrinkled, shiny looking suit with a disgusting looking stain on the lapel. He's always sweaty - even in the middle of winter, he's always got a slight sheen on his balding, combed over forehead, and his office always faintly reeks of stale, sour sweat. His office looks a bit like this...

Noir Office by Francois Conradie
All the furniture is a little bit broken, and a little bit sticky. He only has one chair for clients, and it always feels like it's about to fall apart when you sit on it. His office is in a really rundown part of town, in an office he rents from some friend of a friend in an overly complicated and yet suspect arrangement. He is, to put it bluntly, not very good at his job. If you give him your money, he will every now and then make a successful prediction. But for every successful prediction he makes fifteen wildly inaccurate ones, and if you let him have all your money, you'll be broke in a matter of months.

Take a minute to just really picture this guy in your head. Gather together all the little details that make him real for you. And then ask yourself - would I listen to this guy's advice?

By creating a character with a backstory, and an office, and a fondness for cheap whisky, I found it much easier to dismiss what the psychologist called "intrusive thoughts". All those second guessing, fearmongering lies your brain tries to tell you are WAY easier to ignore when you imagine them coming from The Bad Stockbroker. "You can't go to the shops," he'll tell me. "You'll get run over, or someone will laugh at you, or you'll get robbed." All I have to do is imagine the crusted crumbs on his sleeves, and I remember he's not someone I should take advice from.

"Yeah, I did pick this shirt myself. Why do you ask?"
There is one more part to the whole Bad Stockbroker technique that I had to figure out for myself, over the years since the idea was first suggested to me. See, my ability to dismiss The Bad Stockbroker isn't consistent - depending on what else is going on at the time it can be really easy, impossible, or anywhere in between. Manging my mental illness on a daily basis takes energy, XP, spoons - however you want to describe it, there is a certain amount of resources required to be a (more or less) functioning member of society, and some days I use up the resources I have faster than I can replenish them.

On the days when I run out of resources, I can't do the mental maths it takes to translate the intrusive thoughts into The Bad Stockbroker, and then dismiss them. They repeat enough times and I can't help but listen, like when you've been up all night watching infomercials and you suddenly decide you DO need a lettuce dicer after all because you're too tired to remember you hate lettuce. Sometimes, I do give The Bad Stockbroker my money, because I'm too tired to argue. And inevitably, there's mess to clean up later, because he's VERY bad at his job. For a long time, I used to kick myself around for days after one of these lapses. Even if the mess left behind by the actual lapse was tiny, or even completely undetectable to everyone else, I would treat myself like I'd lost the family fortune in a slot machine.

Eventually, I came across a school of therapy called Mindfulness - it's verrrry loosely based on some Bhuddist meditation practices, and to be perfectly honest, a LOT of the material written for it is ludicrously woo-woo. Like, you can smell the patchouli as soon as you open these books. There's lots of talk about "sitting with the moment" and "honouring experiences", but once I got past all that there was actually some really useful stuff in there. One of the central ideas of Mindfulness is that no feeling or emotion is inherently good or bad, and that judging ourselves on our thoughts or feelings just leads to more stress. It's a grand idea, but as it turns out it's rather difficult to put into practice on a daily basis when you're someone who has as many feelings per minute as I do. I'll admit, I haven't yet figured out how to distance myself entirely from my emotions, and "honour the experience" - but I have learned to forgive myself for being crazy, for being weak, and for sometimes listening to The Bad Stockbroker.

Mindfulness helped me take a step back, and look at my relationship with The Bad Stockbroker in a less emotional way. It made me realise that, in the real world, despite their shadiness and ineptitude, people still give money to the real life Bad Stockbrokers every now and then. Looking at the news, I see stories of people being ripped off by these kinds of shysters all the time! Human beings make decisions that are not in their own best interests pretty frequently - All humans too, not just the crazy ones. The most neurotypical person has had at least one moment of weakness, where something seems like a great idea when it's really not. So how could I expect myself to be better, more sensible, stronger and more rational than literally EVERY OTHER person in the world? THAT is some crazy talk. If no-one else has figured out how to avoid decisions that aren't in their own best interests EVERY SINGLE time, then perhaps it's okay not to hate myself for messing up every now and then. Don't get me wrong, there is still a part of me that clicks it's tounge in frustration and disappointment every time I listen to The Bad Stockbroker - but I no longer hate myself for it. I do my best to ignore his wacky advice as much as possible, but if I do get sucked into his bullshit, I don't tear myself apart. I sigh, I shrug, I clean up the mess, and I start again. 

Mindfulness also helped me get on better terms with my Bad Stockbroker.  Mindfulness teaches that thoughts aren't inherently good or bad, and so because The Bad Stockbroker is a personification of thoughts,  he's not inherently good or bad either.  He's just someone who is really bad at predictions, in a job where being good at predictions is kind of his whole deal. When I thought about it like this,  I actually started to feel a little bit sorry for The Bad Stockbroker. I felt bad saying no to his suggestions every single time,  so every now and then, when the stakes are really low, I'll throw him a bone. Maybe I'm considering going out, even though I'm tired, and he's in my ear predicting the literal end of the world if I do. I know he's wrong - but every now and then instead of saying no, I'll say, "Okay, let's stay in". Just like a real person,  I've found if I let the Bad Stockbroker have his way every once in a while,  it's easier to say no when it really matters. 

So, my summation of years of therapy is simply this - acknowledge your Bad Stockbroker. Give him an office, an outfit, a cheap haircut and a nasty cigar. Laugh at his advice as much as you can, but don't hate yourself if you end up listening to him every once in a while.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Rest Is Silence

It's been an exhausting couple of weeks for feminists on the internet, especially if you also happen to be a geeky feminist who likes video games. While this week the news of the gross invasion of Jennifer Lawrence's (and others) privacy has gone massively viral, for me this latest development is just the tip of an awful, horrifying iceberg.

I feel for Lawrence and the others who had private pictures got taken without their permission, I really do. It must be a horribly upsetting feeling, knowing your image is floating around the internet for all to see, and there's nothing at all you can do about it. Hell, I don't even like letting other people take my picture because it feels too much like giving up control, so I can only imagine how I would react if pictures I hadn't chosen to share were suddenly freely available.

Unfortunately, however, this is far from the worst treatment of women I've seen even in the last two weeks.

If you're not a gamer, you were probably lucky enough to miss what's been dubbed "GamerGate" - a spewing forth of terrifyingly misogynistic vitriol against Zoe Quinn, a female game developer. She came to my attention first with the development and release of (in my opinion) a really interesting indie game called Depression Quest. The whole current mess was sparked by a blog post written by an ex partner, which I'm not going to link it here. I think the fact that person wrote up so much deeply personal information and put it on the goddamn internet is gross enough, without giving them clicks. Suffice to say this person accused Quinn of cheating on him a video game journalist. From this accusation, a certain sector of video game fandom leapt to the conclusion that Quinn had slept with people in return for positive reviews of her game, therefore she was a symbol of all that is corrupt and terrible in video game journalism, therefore she deserves to be harassed and threatened until she no longer feels safe in her own home. So they did.

Since this "news" broke, there has been a lot of accusations thrown around - some people say Quinn fabricated the harassment, which I find kind of hard to believe because every time I mention her name on Twitter people I've never spoken to before magically appear to explain to me how terrible she is. (Seriously, it's like Candyman - just say "Zoe Quinn" three times and they appear)
Some people have said she released her own private information, so she could gather sympathy for the harassment that ensued, although I'm not sure how this would really be worth it. Some people have said that even if she did sleep with the reviewer in question, he didn't review her game so it's not actually corruption in journalism, just kind of poor decision making. But there have been very few people pointing out what seems glaringly obvious to me - that nothing she could have possibly done could make the level of harassment she has received reasonable. Regardless of what she did or did not do in her supposedly private life, the level of harassment she has reported is absolutely disgusting, and totally unacceptable.

(Just a side note - in the time it's taken me to write that paragraph, I've received five mentions on Twitter explaining how Zoe Quinn totally does deserve it, because I mentioned her name an hour ago. This "news" broke two weeks ago, and I didn't use Quinn's username to minimise visibility)

Just as that storm was starting to settle down, Anita Sarkeesian released the latest installment of her ever controversial Tropes Vs Women in Video Games YouTube series. From the very first days of the Kickstarter that funded the creation of this series, Sarkeesian has been consistently pummeled with varying levels of harassment and abuse from video game fans who object to the project. Personally, I'm not actually a huge fan of the series. I think she cherry-picks the examples she uses far too much to take her conclusions seriously, and her issues with sex work come through loud and unpleasantly clear. It really bothers me that she's doing what I consider a really important project, in what I consider a sloppy and biased way. However, as with Quinn, the level of harrassment and abuse she's received are absolutely disgusting, and totally unacceptable. Feel free to Google the particulars of, say, the abuse added to her Wikipedia page - I don't want to link it here. But apparently just spewing forth revolting vitriol wasn't enough to really express the distaste some video game fans felt for her most recent video though - again, like Quinn, Sarkeesian was forced from her home after graphic, credible threats.

As a woman who puts her opinions on the internet, these events are deeply unsettling. While I have no particular fear I'll ever be famous (or conventionally attractive) enough that anyone will be bothered digging up nude pictures of me, I disagree with people on the internet all the time. What if I disagree with the wrong person? Will people call MY parents? Will graphic letters detailing how an anonymous stranger would like to dismember my body show up on my doorstep? Will photos of me be pulled out of the backlogs of the internet for public, detailed dissection and critique? Or will I just get buried under an endless wave of nagging, relentless, insistence that I should shut up? Will people show up in my Twitter mentions over and over to explain to me and everyone I know how I really deserved it? I had someone explain to me just this morning that "we don't get to choose how people punish us", which is a sentence with rather terrifying implications to my mind. If I upset someone, and get treated in a way that I think is disproportionate, will anyone stand up for me? Will anyone step in and say, "Hey, that is uncalled for!" Or will they just step back, fold their arms, and say, "Well, you knew this was coming."

Because this level of harassment is not happening to me (yet), it's easy for me to stand firm in my conviction that no-one, ever, deserves to be treated the way so many women in the public eye are treated. Not ever, no way, no how. I don't care what they did, I don't care what they didn't do, I don't care if their password was ABCD1234, they DO NOT DESERVE this. By all means, feel free to imagine female celebrities naked, or tell people you think their arguments are flawed. But if you find yourself calling someone slurs, or hacking their email, or attacking their friends, then YOU are the one in the wrong.

I'm sure of this right now - but I wonder how my courage would stand up under fire. I watch women retreating from online conversation due to harassment, abuse, and general old fashioned nastiness, and I don't blame them. I'm always sorry to see them go, and sad that it doesn't seem to be getting any better, but I don't blame them at all. I wonder when I'll join them.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

I'm A Bad Fatty, And I Don't Care

I have a confession to make, and you might want to sit down for this because it’s kind of shocking. I a fat woman - that much is clear from any picture ever taken of me. But I’m also a fat woman who has no interest in losing weight. I am a “bad fatty”.

"Glutton" by the amaing Natalie Perkins,
available as a print from Fancy Lady Industries

If you’re not familiar with the terminology, this is the best primer I’ve seen on the subject. Even if you’ve never heard the phrase “good fatty” before, if you’re even a little aware of the unwinnable weight war that woman can get locked in, you’re guaranteed to be familiar with the assumptions this terminology describes. Fat people, and especially fat women, are supposed to be ashamed of their fat. We’re supposed to be aware of, and acknowledge, that our fat is a failing - of willpower, of morality, of character. We’re supposed to be either constantly willing to explain in depth, to anyone who asks, our excuse for being fat; or alternatively if we have no “acceptable” excuse, we’re supposed to be doing everything in our power to become a more “acceptable” size.

Me, I don’t have an excuse for the size of my arse, acceptable or not.  I don’t have any medical conditions that I’m aware of that prevent me from losing weight. The women on my mother’s side of the family do tend to be bottom heavy, but my mother is tiny, so it’s not like my genetics are inescapable. I’m not an athlete, so I can’t attribute any of my kilos to muscle. I mean, I’m sure there’s some in there, and I’ve always had big muscular horsey thighs, but I would be seriously reaching to attribute any significant proportion of my weight to muscle.

I don’t actively do anything to reduce my weight either. I have no idea about the calories in anything I eat. I’m knowledgeable enough to know that cake has more calories than an apple, and that more protein than carbs in your diet is generally better, but ask me to get any more specific than that and I’m stumped. You see, I’m allergic to a ton of stuff - gluten, dairy, alcohol, peanuts, fish, and fake sugar - so if I find food I’m not allergic to that doesn’t taste like freeze dried straw, I’m gonna go ahead and eat it. If I find food that I’m not allergic to that actually tastes good, I’m going to eat the SHIT out of it. I guess my allergies could be my excuse for my fat if I wanted, but no one ever seems to really believe someone my size lives on a diet virtually devoid of junk food. In terms of exercise,  I do make sure I have a little walk every day, for about 20 minutes or so. But that’s more to get my blood moving around so I don’t fall asleep at my desk than out of any interest in losing weight. I could exercise more - but I don’t want to. I’d rather be doing other things. I know it’s not great for my health, but I just don’t care enough about being in peak physical condition to do anything about it.

Uuuuueeeeghhh...fuck it, let's have lunch.
As a fat woman, when I say these things out loud, a lot of people are shocked. When I tell people that I’ve never been on a diet (apart from a very brief brush with disordered eating in my teens) they look at me like I’m claiming I’m an alien. In my personal life, it’s not a very frequent issue - I know a few people currently trying to lose weight or get fitter, but most of them have medical reasons for doing so, and more importantly none of them seem to judge me at all for not joining them at the gym. But in the workplace, among “normal”, everyday, general public type people, I struggle to find anything in common with the combative way my female co workers view their bodies.

The sheer amount of diet talk that goes on among women in the average office is just staggering to me. When I was younger I used to jump in and try and offer input like, “But you already look great!”, only to be glared down. It took me a long time, but I eventually learned that positive input isn’t welcome in these conversations - not without an accompanying negative statement anyway. It’s okay to say, “You look great! But me, man, I need to lose some serious pounds”. But when I offered positive input without then putting myself down, I outed myself as a weirdo, a freak, a woman who didn’t care about being thinner. I tried to learn the “diet talk” game, in order to get along better at work. I figured out the game is supposed to go something like this: “Have you been going to the gym more, you look great!” “Thank you, you’re too kind, I don’t think my new diet is doing anything. But you look amazing, you’ve definitely lost weight” “No, don’t be silly, I’m bloating like crazy today. But you’re definitely getting smaller!” and so on and so forth: compliment, self deprecation, compliment, self deprecation. However, I quickly discovered I’m a dreadful actor, and absolutely no-one was buying my impression of “normal”. So I learned to stay silent. 

No Diet Talk Brooch, once again by the amazing Natalie Perkins, and
available from her site Fancy Lady Industries

Even when keeping my mouth shut whenever the topic of diet or weight comes up, I’ve still had a ridiculous number of lunch room conversations with co-workers where they attempt to offer completely unsolicited advice on how to make my lunch lower in fat or higher in protein. I used to reply honestly, that I don’t care how healthy it is, so long as it tastes good. The LOOKS I’ve gotten in this situation - seriously, some people respond to my statement that I prefer full fat over low fat milk with an expression like I’ve just confessed to eating babies for breakfast. You can see them biting back the response they desperately want to blurt out - “But you’re FAT! Don’t you want to be thin? How can you not want to be thin?!”

The fact is, I don’t. Well, okay, sometimes in passing, I do idly toy with the idea of being thinner, in much the same way I idly toy with the idea of being taller. In the same way that it would be nice to be able to reach high cupboards without a stepladder, it would be nice to be able to find clothes that fit more easily. It would be nice to be able to make my lunch in the lunch room without people feeling the need to comment. The experience of being a fat woman in current society isn't exactly awesome a lot of the time. But on the whole, I personally don’t actually want to be thinner. Some days, I even look down at my belly and jiggle it happily. Some days I look at my big round arse and just think to myself, “Damn.” Not all days - I’m only human, and I live in a society that likes to tell me over and over and over how awful being fat is. Sometimes I would take up the offer of a magic thin pill in a heartbeat. But the vast majority of the time, the experience of living in a body my size is pretty neat, actually. It’s the way this body interacts with the society around me that makes me unhappy - not the reality of my jiggly arm fat.

Part of my disinterest in being smaller is the simple fact that my fat acts as a barrier between me and people I really don’t want in my life. I don’t get hit on by men who view women as trophies, because in the game of dating, a woman my size is often viewed as the wooden spoon prize. The barrier doesn’t just work against bad dates, but also against unfulfilling friendships. Very few people who are deeply personally invested in being at peak physical attractiveness all the time want to hang out with me socially, because my jiggly belly serves as a reminder of the awful fate that might befall them if they loosen their regime. That’s cool with me, because I don’t really want to hang out with them either. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with peak physical form being your ultimate driving goal - it’s just not something I can relate to on any level, so what sort of friendship would we have with anyway?

This idea of differing priorities is, however, what’s really what’s at the heart of my stubborn rejection of any effort to get thin. For some people, being conventionally attractive is one of the most important things in their lives, one of their highest priorities. As a fat woman, my lack of conventional attractiveness is supposed to be my highest priority, whether I’m excusing it or working to change it. But it’s not. It’s just not, and it never has been. I’ve been feeling the judging eyes in the back of my head for thirty three years over this shit, and I’m sick of it. I like my big butt, I cannot lie, and I’m sick of feeling like I should be apologising for it.

There are lots of things on my personal list of priorities - trying to be a good friend and a loving partner, not to mention keeping a handle on my mental health so I can be more help to the people I love. Writing and creating is my second priority, after people. It makes my blood pump, and my heart race. It means so much to me it steals sleep sometimes, and I don’t even mind. My weight, and any interest in changing it, is so far down my list it doesn’t even register. Happiness, friends, self expression - these things are my priorities, and I don’t think I should have to make excuses for that.

Your priorities might be different - maybe you prioritise attending church, or eating vegan, or getting another belt in your martial art. You might simply prioritise health above all else, and anything that’s not directly contributing to your overall health comes second. Maybe you’re fat like me, but getting thinner is your top priority right now for whatever reason is important to you. That’s cool, these things are all perfectly fine. It’s your choice, just as prioritising being happy over being thin in my choice. 

I understand that people worry about my health - I’m very familiar with the “my tax dollars go to fund your unhealthy lifestyle” argument, among others. In response, I could go into all the studies that have debunked the idea that it’s impossible to be fat and also healthy; but honestly, I shouldn’t have to. I don’t actually owe you an explanation of how healthy I am or am not, “tax dollars” or no. Are you my doctor? If not, how is my health of any relevance to you? Do you expect thin people to explain their health to you? If someone fits into a size 6 dress, do you give them unsolicited advice on how to lower the fat content of their lunch, because if they have a heart attack it’s your tax dollars that will help save them? How healthy are you anyway? How many of my tax dollars might go to helping you if you have a stroke, or a car accident, or get infected with radiation? Do you drink more than you should? Do you smoke? Do you eat red meat? Do you know those things are all health risks, and you really should consider cutting it out? Oh, you did? And you do them anyway? Then shut up. Just shut. up. And if you're not willing to shut up, at the very least come out from the "health" argument smokescreen and admit fat people make you uncomfortable. Then we can have something like an honest conversation.

All I want is to be able to eat what I want for lunch without comment, to dance in a tight dress without fretting, to be able to love this squishy, funny body I’m in without feeling guilty. I want to be a Happy Fatty, not a Bad Fatty, and just I don’t understand why it’s so important for to some people to try and keep me from that.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Your Feminism Is Not My Feminism, But Your Feminism Is Okay

There is a neat saying that originated in the kink community – “Your Kink is Not my Kink”, sometimes expanded out to “Your Kink Is Not My Kink, But Your Kink Is OK”. This saying can be shortened to YKINMK for relative convenience, and is basically a credo calling for understanding within the community, even if people like things you don't like.

Unsurprisingly, YKINMK has also been embraced by the fandom community
Some people are into ponies, some people are into balloons, and other people are into good old fashioned leather. YKINMK reminds us that just because you don’t understand the appeal of pony boots, or sitting on balloons, or the smell of leather it doesn’t mean there is something wrong with the people who do. It’s not a perfect motto – there are a few non-consensual kinks around that are not actually okay, but on the whole it’s a really good reminder that people within a community are often very different, and that this is a positive aspect of community, not a negative. It's a reminder that since other people's personal preferences actually don't do you any harm, so why not leave them be?
After reading one too many articles on supposed feminism lately, I’m getting the urge to start a similar motto for feminism at large – Your Feminism Is Not My Feminism, But Your Feminism Is Okay.

Before I start, let's be clear about what I'm NOT going to be criticising. There is absolutely a place for constructive (or even nonconstructive) criticism within feminism - I'd like to make it clear I'm not in any way intending to side with those who say we should all play nice, all the time, and consider the possible hurt feelings of a select few above all else. There are far too many whiny screeds appearing recently about how everyone is so mean these days, as if all criticism of feminism and feminists is inherently undeserved, and this idea is just so completely false. Some criticism is not only deserved, but absolutely necessary. I think that criticising racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia and all the other shitty stuff that goes down within feminism sometimes is not only important, but vital. I've been taken down a peg a couple of times, and for sure, it can hurt. But it also needs to happen.

Women should not be immune to criticism from other women purely by virtue of being women, and I’ve seen women say and do some awful things that fully deserved criticism. I don’t believe that criticism of women is inherently anti-feminist, because sometimes women do really shitty things and it would be wrong not to oppose them – this is the criticism I think is crucial to feminism as a whole.

For example, when groups like Name The Problem ask their followers to trash the reputation of another women’s photography business because they don't agree with her gender identity, THAT is actively harmful and should be criticised. That is women doing a shitty, shitty thing, and criticising their shitty behaviour is not anti-feminist, it's not "damaging the movement", it's the right thing to do.

Another example of behavior that rightfully deserves to be criticised is white feminists deliberately and continually ignoring or erasing women of colour, along with their concerns and perspectives; like when well-known black activist Mikki Kendall (@Karnythia) started an incredible discussion using the hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen and numerous outlets reporting on it didn’t credit her as the origin of the discussion. Or  how about when the discussion itself was derailed into a discussion of how much the subject hurt the feelings of various white feminists. Criticising this shitty behaviour is not anti-feminist, it’s calling it what it is – women behaving in a shitty way.

I think it’s crucial for feminism as a whole that harmful, cruel, bullying and hateful actions are called out, and those participating are at the very least encouraged to be kinder in the future. The sort of actions that directly harm and distress other women should not be a part of feminism, and criticising that is A-OK in my books. Allowing women to keep doing and saying these shitty things to each other in the name of solidarity is nonsense, and I think this sort of behaviour is unacceptable regardless of your gender. Without criticism, unfortunately, people tend to just keep on doing shitty things though, because they’re often easier than sitting down and having a good hard look at themselves.

HOWEVER. In a somewhat frustrating contradiction, I’m also just so, SO tired of seeing vicious, pointed arguments where women tear each other apart because one has made personal choices the other doesn’t agree with, or simply does things in a different way. This is the kind I wish I could eradicate with just the strength of my hate for it, the apparently endless list of incredibly arbitrary, harmless things that women are and are not allowed to do in order to be allowed in the Feminist clubhouse.

I’m talking about the apparently endless lists of “Can X be feminist?” that seem to roll around once every couple of months, and that consistently make me want to claw my eyes out. I’m talking about women who write articles like, “I Look Down On Young Women with Husbands”  and Why Are My Feminist Friends Still Taking Their Husband’s Surnames” and Pinterest is Killing Feminism as a way of trying to show other women how much better they Do Feminism. I'm constantly astonished by the ludicrous tripe that gets trotted out in the name of feminist border patrolling.

On a more serious, but just as frustrating level, I’m also talking about women who insist that other women who participate in the sex industry willingly just don’t know they’re being oppressed, like Melissa Farley, who has been attempting to convince everyone of this apparent fact for years. I’m talking about women who insist that their view on abortion, be it pro or con, is the One True Way and try and do their damnedest to ensure everyone else only has the option that they think is right. (Although, to be fair, it’s often the anti-abortion campaigners who are much more interested in pressing their conclusions on a complex moral issue onto everyone else, to my knowledge) I'm talking about the women who declare that Christians can't be feminist, or Muslims, or anyone who believes anything different to them.

In short, I’m talking about all the women I see trying to squeeze every other women everywhere into (or out of) their own narrow little box, and much it fucking drives me up the wall, and how much it needs to stop right now.

It's really not impossible, or even that difficult to respect the choices other people make that you wouldn't make for yourself. I do it every day. I know quite a few parents, and some of them are even stay at home Mums. Would I make this choice for myself? Jesus fuck, no, a million times no! But they're no less welcome in my world because of it. I don't value their support less because they have hatchlings and I don't. They just made a different choice.
Are we really being so totally overrun with people desperately clamouring to join the feminist cause that we need to create these incredibly intricate rules about who does and doesn’t qualify? Do we have so many women banging on the doors of feminism, demanding to be let in, that we can afford to dismiss someone over the fact they changed their surname when they got married?

Flavia Dzodan famously said, "my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit" – and there are few things I agree with so wholeheartedly. Intersectionality means including other races, socioeconomic classes, sexual orientations and gender identities; but it also means including people you just plain might not like, because you have different priorities. Maybe you think something that's important to them is stupid. Maybe you don't understand how they can love, or like, or do the things they do. But here’s a big newsflash for you, buddy – get the fuck over it. Get married, don't get married, take another name, take no name at all, use Pinterest, cut off your internet - do what's right for you, and for goodness sake, stop writing about it like you're the first feminist. Seriously, we're good for coverage of whether underarm hair is or is not feminist - not only has it been debated until we're all blue in the face, it's also become apparent that it DOESN'T FUCKING MATTER. Your underarm hair is not my underarm hair, but your underarm hair is okay. 

Like I said right up the top, critique  and discussion in feminism is good, and important and necessary. I'm not even saying there isn't a place for discussing things like the gender disparity on Pinterest- but how about we actually discuss it rather than tossing off these self congratulatory, holier than thou bits of mean spirited, snooty clickbait? How about we just put a flat out ban on the tired, tattered remnants of topics that have been worn out years ago? Do we really, seriously need any more articles about pubic hair choices?

How about instead of spending so much energy trying to kick people out of the feminist boat, we work on moving it forwards? We've got to figure out a way to be in this together, or we’re going nowhere.