“If not me, who? If not now, when?”

It’s only in recent years I have been identifying myself as a feminist. Not because of a lacking belief beforehand but simply because I was unaware of how oppressive some ideals in society still are; how certain limiting expectations of gender have become so normalised only a small proportion feel the urge to question their effect.

When I went back to education at 23, I really began to open my eyes. Perhaps I was ‘maturing’, perhaps it was that I felt stronger for getting through some tough times, perhaps it was that I was nurturing a healthier view of myself and an appreciation of what I have. Whatever it was, I began to crave that sense of inner strength and empowerment.

 

What really got the ball rolling for me was watching a clip from the 2011 documentary Miss Representation in a contextual studies class. It aims to disseminate issues of gender inequality, particularly towards the media’s portrayal of women but also how this affects men and boys. This is something film maker Jackson Katz highlights:

“We are socialising boys to believe that being a man means being powerful and in control.  Being smarter than or better than women. That our needs get met first in relationships with women. That’s not genetically pre-destined. That’s learned behaviour.” (2011)

 

It made me realise just how important feminism is for both sexes. The choice to be free to be yourself without the restraints of gender roles and expectations which are enforced for power and profit.

I read up on the subject, focusing first on attitudes to appearance and beauty, because this is where I have felt personally effected most in the past. It even became the focus of my dissertation.

I felt very privileged to be able to spend so much time writing about something I felt so passionately about and it only fuelled the fire as I delved deeper into this arena of struggle and triumph.

It changed me. Those books and articles cannot be unread, the videos and documentaries cannot be unseen. And it’s when you start speaking up and tuning in to all the daily occurrences that would come with the hashtag #sexism that you start to feel the boundaries, suddenly they become acutely visible. Certain off-hand remarks would have gone over my head years ago but now they knot me inside because I know comments like “You know what women are like” or “Man-up and don’t be such a wuss” only serve to reinforce gender imbalances that are systemic throughout all cultures and lead to much bigger issues like mental health problems and violence. I notice it everywhere from overhearing conversations on public transport to my favourite TV shows.

But with this new-found cause in my heart I’m often met with the same responses:

“Don’t you think you’re blowing it out of proportion? It’s just one little comment. Chill out.”

“Just calm down. It all sounds a bit aggressive for a woman.”

“You’re overreacting. It’s just banter.” …when stating how much I HATE rape ‘jokes’.

 

Suddenly you’ve become the killjoy. “Don’t tell that to Jenn, she won’t approve.” If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard that whispered…

Well you know what, that’s fine. Because I believe that women have to right to decide what they do with their bodies, that men should be allowed to cry without the fear of judgement, that sexual assault and violence against either gender is wrong and not great comedic material. I believe in equal pay, that pitting women against each other for economic profit is wrong, that cat-calling is abusive and not something to ‘be grateful for’. I believe that women should not be asked “what were you wearing?” when reporting an attack, that men should not be forced into hyper-masculinity to prove themselves worthy of their sex, that women have the right to be comfortable with their bodies at any size. I believe that men can be incredible allies in the fight against gender inequality and that feminists are not ‘man haters’. And a whole host of other things. And if that has made me a killjoy then so be it.

It’s true that once you become more conscious of these things, these systems, these social structures, they have less power over you. And for a while I considered just going about my life ignoring the foolish things that try to undermine our choices. I could do it, stop reading the articles and just live my life not noticing these things (even though they would still inadvertently affect me). But I am blessed to be in a position to make that choice…a choice that not all people have because of inequality. And THAT is why it matters. Those people who say we “don’t need” feminism anymore or that it “doesn’t effect men”, you are wrong.

Feminism, gender equality, they are such multi-faceted terms. I’ve seen many debates online about the importance of one particular topic over another; that aiming to change perceptions of beauty is ‘shallow’ and that media literacy classes for children are ‘unnecessary’. What I have learnt is that all aspects are intrinsically linked and all have important roles to play in creating a more balanced world. It is a vast topic and subsequently could never be covered adequately in a post like this. But just to start participating in conversations and changing attitudes should not be played down as each positive step is advantageous.

 

When U.N. Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson spoke this week about launching the HeforShe campaign, I can’t deny I had a lump in my throat. From all I have learnt in researching and participating in my own small way to this cause, I know how incredibly important this work is. How there is so much need for change still. We can each find our own way to respond to feminism in a positive way. Despite what the media is attempting to churn out, there is no wrong way to be a feminist because at its heart it is simply a belief. A belief that gender is not a limitation and that we all matter. Equally.

I urge you to watch this. I thought she was incredible.

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Interview: Endangered Bodies

I have always been interested in women’s representation and ever since starting my degree I have had the opportunity to explore these ideas further. Over the past 6 months I have been researching this and related topics for my dissertation which questions ideals of female beauty.

I came across AnyBody UK and was fascinated to find such a fantastic resource for the types of issues I was looking into. I was lucky enough to get an interview with the London team to discuss their work.

Tell us about Endangered Bodies and how it all started:

Endangered Bodies is an local-global initiative launched by the international Endangered Species summits in March 2011, held in LondonNew YorkBuenos Aires, Sao Paulo and Melbourne.

As of April 2013, Endangered Bodies has chapters based out of London (also known as AnyBody), New York (via The Women’s Therapy Centre Institute), Buenos Aires (AnyBody Argentina), IrelandSao PauloSydney (run by Body Matters Australasia), Germany (AnyBody Deutschland) and most recently, Mexico.

We, the London team (along with Argentina and Germany due to the translation issues of Endangered Bodies) identify as AnyBody UK, which began as a blog convened by Susie Orbach in 2002 as we have a strong following using this name, it can get a little complicated at times!

We are a society that are more visually literate than ever before yet we still buy into the marketing strategies that sell us the belief that we are “not good enough”. Why do you think women have become so disillusioned with their bodies and how has it become accepted as ‘normal’ to dislike ones appearance so much?

Well there are a few factors that have sadly converged to help along this ‘normality’

As we all know a great deal of money can be made from manipulating insecurity and desire so aggressive marketing strategies have capitalized on this very cleverly, advertisers are using the rhetoric of the body acceptance movement to cajole, comfort, guilt or shame potential customers into buying their products.

Then there’s the rise and rise of celebrity culture and cheap gossip magazines pitting women against each other constantly with their school-bully mentality, heaping praise one minute and shaming the next.

There’s also the filtering of a commercial porn-aesthetic into the mainstream further cementing women as a passive object, often with a body quite removed from natural reality.

New technology and social media have also had an impact, as the numbers of manipulated images we see on a daily basis is in the thousands for the average person with a smart phone and access to the Internet on other devices

However ‘knowing’ we might all be about advertising and even how images are manipulated, the sheer volume of visual media we are exposed to and that we also process very quickly before reason has a chance to kick in, is staggering.

How and in what ways is this enduring negative mindset affecting women?

It’s affecting women and girls (and ever increasingly men and boys) in pretty much every aspect of their lives to greater and lesser degrees, depending on their resilience and confidence about their bodies. The statistics are extremely worrying, 72% of girls will avoid ordinary activities like going to school, to the doctor or voicing an opinion because they do not feel they look good enough, they feel ashamed. Shame is an extremely powerful emotion and the use of it by the fashion, beauty and diet industries and even the government who are weighing school children with the discredited BMI as a guide to their health, is disturbing.

Your ‘Ditching Dieting’ information is very interesting and along with other resources has finally cemented my view that the so called weight ‘crisis’ we are apparently faced with is nothing more than a business model constructed to induce fear and make money. Do you think we will ever be able to break the cycle, how can we tackle such a powerful industry when it holds such influence?

Such a tough question, there is huge potential to break the cycle, but you’re right, the diet industry has so much money and power at its disposal and, crucially for companies like Weight Watchers for example, they have passionate advocates who are emotionally invested, people who are Lifetime Members (if it was so great why would you need to be a member for life?!) and despite having to keep returning will defend their chosen programme. Weight Watchers and other diet programmes do have some good points, mainly the regular meetings for mutual support, many people rely on these meetings, bond with others and even make friends. The fact that these meetings could be free of charge or virtually free of charge and even better, free from weight stigma and a space for discussion about food, well-being and dealing with emotional eating, is something that would be great. Great for those who feel they want to get healthy and share the burden of how society and the media make us feel about our bodies, but obviously not so good for the diet industry.

But also there are huge issues around health which do need to be addressed: sedentary jobs, stress, mental health issues and poor nutrition resulting from low income are factors that need to be taken into consideration. What many people misunderstand (because it profits so many that there are such misunderstandings) is that you can be bigger and still healthy, in fact many of the practices people follow to lose weight are extremely unhealthy. Thinness at any cost is destroying many lives. Really what we need is to help people understand, care for and occupy their bodies, rather than seeing them as something troublesome that does not conform and that needs to be flawless and thus over-hauled, made-over or fixed. To single out one thing is to miss the point, health is holistic and we need to tend carefully to our minds and bodies without the intrusion of shareholders’ interests.

Your work links a lot with feminism; the connotations of which are constantly being redefined. Through its evolution it has been marred with the assumptions of needing extremist views and hatred towards men, causing a reluctancy amongst some women to declare themselves as such. But what is it really to be feminist today?

Yes, absolutely, feminism is inextricable from what we do partly because I don’t think there’s a woman on our LDN team who wouldn’t identify as such and partly because we see ideas around valuing oneself, diversity, positive representation and equality to be inherently feminist. We follow and share all sorts of feminist resources online and try to all stay as informed as possible around gender debates and related issues.

Also it’s not a women vs. men thing, that’s far too simple and aside from it painting a horrible stereotype of us all as man-haters, it also ignores the fact that men can be wonderful allies that benefit as much as women from feminist achievements as women and such a simplistic explanation forgets that some women can be fierce misogynists because they feel they would benefit more from patriarchal ideals than a balanced world.

To be a feminist today could in some ways seem more complex than it was historically because of the co-opting of the language of liberation by profiteers and also because of the different kinds of things we need to do throughout the world and in our own lives. How do we help? What is most important? We know about so many more social and political ills thanks to technological communications, sometimes being worried about where to start is a huge task. Ultimately the achievements of feminism, civil rights and human rights and rightful challenging of various prejudices, means that feminists must be more inclusive and thoughtful of potential discrimination. Feminism is about challenging the idea of a binary split between the genders, that we recognize ambiguity, imperfection, fear and vulnerability for what they are, part of human experience and accepting these things and accepting ourselves and others. Believing we should not be discriminated against because of our biology, gender, race, abilities, sexuality, class or geographical location. Being a feminist in a nutshell means understanding that we are all human with strengths and frailties and we all matter as much as anyone else.

How do your campaigns aim to target the self-loathing epidemic? What changes does Endangered Bodies want to achieve as short and long term goals?

Our Ditching Dieting* Campaign aims to give people a voice and speak out about their experiences of dieting, so many people feel ashamed that they’ve ‘failed’ even though the diet industry sets everyone up to fail as they need the repeat custom, if the diet industry really cared about their customers’ well-being they would become victims of their own success and rightly so, any business or organization who wants to help people who are struggling should really hope for a time when they are no longer needed. This campaign has been dormant for a while as we are quite stretched for time since we are all volunteers.

*When we use the term Diet (to be ditched) we do not mean a person’s diet i.e. what they generally eat day to day ‘a balanced diet’, we mean a programme that is finite and centres around restriction, deprivation, points, calories, measuring, indeed anything advocating an unnatural way of eating that ignores ones bodily cues in order to lose (or even gain) weight.

Our Shape Your Culture project, has been, and hopefully will continue to be, fantastic and effective. It is part Media literacy, part consciousness-raising and part activism. We work with young people to unpick the falseness and bias of mainstream media, we ask the groups we work with to question what they see, hear and even say themselves in relation to bodies and body image and ask them what they’d like to say, do or change and then help facilitate their completion of a project.

We have seen confidence, friendships and support networks grow over the first nine month project and couldn’t have been happier with the outcomes.

In short, with our campaigns we want people to feel they have a voice, that they are agents of change in their own lives and potentially the lives of others. We hope that we can help people feel more at home in their bodies and not be so desperate to change something if they can learn how to understand and care for themselves. We believe that DOING and getting engaged is the way to help facilitate such changes and we hope to continue to do so.

How can like-minded people get involved with Endangered Bodies?

At present we’re not able to manage volunteers as we’re all volunteers ourselves and are a bit swamped searching for funding and various other projects. But, we have created an online Activist Pack which is free to download from our website and contains all sorts of resources, from an intuitive eating guide, to tips for hosting a Ditching Dieting Speak Out to images to circulate and raise awareness, so for now we’d love for people to use those resources, spread the word and get inspired and as soon as we’re able we’ll be taking on volunteers to push everything further!

A huge thank you to the team for their response. They are very busy individuals doing a great job. Spread the word and get involved!

Follow on twitter: @Anybodyorg @Endangeredbodys