I cant explain it
but the pressure on the outside
doesn’t meet the pressure from within
and i’m diving down for safety to
the bottom whilst my pressure hull is
creaking groaning cracking with the strain
and we hold and pray beneath our breath
that tolerances made by makers many miles away
can be exceeded.
Within my panoptical network vision
people starve, drown and beg for food
whilst in my head I argue with anyone
and everyone, all comers to the nights event
and amidst that building pressure , as I
hear the rivets pop like gunshots
I dive, as deep below the waves the pressure there
might equalise the pressure of the thoughts
kettled within my head.
In murky silence near the bottom,
crushing force upon me,
silence, nothing, negation
Within this place dwells nothing
Here in the inky blackness the creaking has stopped.
I breath. I am alone.
and repairs begin anew.
Within our moral structure it is a central, but oft unspoken, tenet that individuals must give their consent prior to any action that may affect them or that may prove limiting or distressing to them. It can only be through an individuals private decision to partake in an action or to allow change to be made that they can meaningfully engage with that change or action. Furthermore, it can also only be through their private decision to partake that they can own any negative consequences of their actions. If they were forced into participation then they become a passive victim of any backlash, if they chose to engage with full knowledge then they have accepted the negative possibilities and can take responsibility for the outcome.
This tenet is often taken to apply to all things but, I suggest, the mere act of being raised in our society undermines the concept of consent and we have put little provision in place to reinforce it.
In our earliest childhood we either do not have preferences (because we are yet to encounter any options) or we have difficulty in transmitting the nuances of our preferences. In order to keep us safe and (hopefully) healthy good parents must over-ride our infant preferences to ensure that, for example, we eat a balanced diet – or in some cases even eat at all. In this situation we understand that the child must be protected and occasionally forced into situations with which it is unhappy and for which it does not give consent. Some would even argue that a young child is incapable of giving meaningful consent as it cannot fully comprehend its options (although this is a slippery slope that could also be applied to adults).
There are different extents of ‘domination’ over our children. Some parents follow a path of baby led weaning and will always respond to cries of distress; some dictate when weaning will take place and will follow the route of allowing the child to cry until it learns that it cannot manipulate its carers in that way. I don’t know which route is healthiest but I do know that either set of parents will override their child’s express desire to climb into a well or play dangerously close to a fire – they will move the child against its will and without its consent. Similarly its consent will be overruled to enable attendance at important events such as picking up a second child from school. There are times at which we must act to protect or progress against the expressed wishes of the child – without its consent – and this is correct and good.
If there are so many situations in which a child’s consent must be over-ruled then when does a child’s consent matter at all? At the age of two the child is certainly capable of independent thought but we are forced to say that whilst its consent may matter in small things its life will still be mostly directed regardless of its consent (for even of it consents to have a bath or go on a journey we would not change our route if consent were withdrawn). This is correct and good.
At age four if it doesn’t wish to attend school it shall rarely be given a choice. If you think about that in an adult context it is quite horrendous. If an authority figure were to tell you tomorrow that you had to fundamentally change the structure of your life to enter a situation you found threatening every single day and that your consent was neither required nor relevant for this change – I would have difficulty with that (although on re-reading it sounds a lot like our social security system). For a child this is correct and good.
This marginalization of consent continues again and again and again through the child’s formative years. In significant issues consent is only requested as decoration – the child, when asked if it wants a haircut or if it wants to move house, or undergo an operation learns that its consent is meaningless – that to say no just brings argument and unpleasant sensations. For a child this is correct and good, they must be looked after and school is good for them. Furthermore they must learn to survive in a society in which obedience to written and unspoken rules – regardless of personal preferences – is a requirement.
The two sentences that closed the previous paragraph is the summation of childhood dominance. The child does not know better, the child does not understand, and so we will enforce what is good for it- we will override their preference and not seek their consent because when they experience the thing we are providing they are expected to like it or expected to benefit from the lesson it imparts. A child will internalize this message, how can it not, and yet it is a necessary evil to keep them safe and enable them to function in a society that imposes certain demands regardless of consent. For a child no does not, and cannot, mean no.
And so the child grows.
As a teenager they begin to question in earnest and society begins to allow a degree of freedom from parental control. By this stage it is implicitly hoped that they have internalized the requirement to follow rules that they neither understand nor agree with and associate this rule following with safety and protection. Having internalized this they are safe to be released unchaperoned (at least for short periods and preferably under strictly defined times and conditions). By this stage we can be fairly certain that although they want that thing in a shop window they will not simply take it and that whilst they will rebel that rebelion will be within societally accepted limits.
Teenagers challenge the impositions that have been made upon them by their parents and society and through this provide a hope that the individual will learn that their voice can matter, albeit in a small way. This is the moment they walk that deadly high wire between learning that, as adults, they cannot be forced into an action without giving consent and learning that some things should be consented to even though they are restrictive (for example, many laws are restrictive upon us but give to us more than we lose – in the greater analysis). This is the moment that these lessons must be learned. If the teenager remains trapped under the equivalent of parental domination then they may transfer the lessons they received in early childhood to their adult life – that they have no agency and that, therefore, their consent is irrelevant. If they entirely reject the caring domination of childhood (assuming for the individual it was caring) then they cannot function within the bounds of society – and whatever we think of society it is hard to thrive when completely outside it. Teenagers must learn that giving voice to consent (or lack thereof) is a vital part of a healthy life and moreover a vital part of a functioning society. They must learn to look to the bigger picture as well as the personal so that they can understand that laws are required (but able judge when laws are incorrect). They must learn to look to the personal when issues or actions affect them directly and when peer pressure to perform an act must be resisted for their personal health. In tandem with all of this they must learn that the consent of others is as vital as there own and must be acknowledged and respected.
The law of the parent, until that moment, is often ‘do what the dominant person demands or be forced against your will.’ That law creates expectations and those expectations take away the individuals agency. Even with the best of parents the lesson can only be that the systems of childhood are at an end and that ‘now you are grown you have agency, you can give or withdraw consent and expect that action to be respected and followed’ but can the internalised message of all those years spent under childhood rules be so easily erased?
The development of a fully nuanced understanding of consent should emerge in the liminal space between childhood and adulthood in order to create a fully functional adult human being. I am not convinced that we give people enough assistance in developing this vital and nuanced understanding. We imagine that it will emerge magically from a teenagers experiences, as if society or the universe will teach it by osmosis. We assume that our young will know that they should question and withdraw consent when offered dangerous drugs or pressured to have sex that they do not feel ready for and yet we have spent their life to that moment teaching them that their consent is of limited importance and liable to lead to argument as well as being overridden when expressed. We expect our children to ask for someone’s consent before performing actions that are sexual or physically dangerous and to know that acting against consent is wrong – but their most important childhood interactions have told them that it is okay for a dominant force to impose its will in order to teach the weaker individual or show it something it is expected to like. Of course, external to the dominance of the parent the child has, hopefully, been taught to respect its peers but the dominant power interactions all act at some level against the concept of consent.
Why do we assume that all teenagers will simply know that a change of rule has taken place without our explicit guidance?
Why do we offer so little resource to teenagers, or those who failed to be given the message as teenagers, around the topic of consent?
If we are lucky we touch on sexual consent. If we are very lucky the idea has been instilled that in matters pertaining to someone’s body we must ask for consent before performing any potentially distressing act. Again, if we are very lucky the idea is lodged that an individual receiving physical advances is not only able but actually obligated to make and voice a decision – the need to consent or refuse consent has been instilled. We must hope that they know that when that decision has been made they are free to change it, at any time, and that it is not and never will be okay for someone to pressure them or coerce them into changing their decision – it is their inalienable right to create a boundary that must be respected by others. We are lucky if this much has been taught.
Do we ever explicitly touch on political consent? The fact that we consent to be governed and that we can withdraw that consent. Do we touch on how to withdraw political consent not just through the often meaningless act of voting but through lawful protest?
How about the consent to be managed at work? We explicitly give that consent by signing a contract that defines the extent of that consent through a job description but do people understand that they cannot legally be pressured to take actions that are far outside the contract they consented to and that they can withdraw that consent if they choose? What does consent mean in this situation in which they may have to take a job to put food on the table? Do they know how to withdraw consent from a blatantly abusive employer and what systems exist to support them? Are those systems functional and sufficient and if not can consent be meaningfully said to exist in the workplace? Of not how does this cascade to borderline work events like Christmas parties?
Do we have these conversations with our children? Do we help them to understand that consent is a complex and many tiered thing that permeates all the strata of our lives? That we ourselves probably do not fully understand it but that in some aspects it can be grey whilst in others it is resoundingly black and white. Do we teach them to think about consent or do we stay silent and hope that they learn these things as if by magic? Hope that the most important system in our morality gets taught to them by someone else. Hope that they don’t rape, or steal, that they learn that it is their duty to speak out against oppression and not to slavishly follow a group or government without considering whether their actions are correct. Do we want to hope that the complexity of consent is taught or do we want to step up and ensure that it is taught?
How are we, the ones who have come through this learning experience more or less intact, helping the next wave of people – the ones currently trying to navigate the signpostless wilderness from which we have emerged? We need to give them resources to understand their right to consent and their right to withdraw that consent. We need to teach them the skills that we learned and are still learning so that they might do better than we have done in a country that is rife with both rape and political abuses.
The last lesson under the enforced conditions of childhood must be that consent is important.
The first moment of adulthood must be to invite them to partake in a supportive resource that will teach them the basics that they need to know, without pressure or coercion, you cannot teach consent to those who do not consent to be present.
This past Christmas was hard because I have a happy and supportive family.
This past Christmas was hard because I saw the happiness of homeless people.
This past Christmas was hard because, when all was done, I turned homeless people back out onto the street.
This past Christmas was hard because I lost my good CPAP machine.
This past Christmas was hard because straight afterwards I started a new and well-paying job.
This past Christmas was hard because we were planning a wedding.
Some of the above, most of the above, should be positives in my life. Not unmitigated positives, new jobs and weddings are undoubtedly stressful events, but they mark progression – they mark the growth of wonderful things. They are positives, huge positives, but when set side by side with my experiences working with Crisis over Christmas to help rough sleepers in London these positives become hard to deal with. These positives, when set against the suffering, victimisation and demonization of others become hard to reconcile mentally. The fact that my life is going well makes the gulf between me and a group of people, some of whom I would like to call friends, that much harder to reconcile. I am taking that difficult but liberating leap into flight as they are trapped and held down against a cold and hostile earth.
One way to resolve this is to forget them. To take the road that most choose to take and fail to see them asleep in doorways or begging in the street. To pretend that they are criminals or drug addicts who brought their own misfortunes down upon themselves. To fool myself that they could not be me and I could not be them. I won’t ignore them, I couldn’t even if I chose because I have met some of their representatives and I know they are people like me. Some are nice, some nasty; some intelligent, others slow; many are sick or have turned to alcohol to try and cope with their situation – but less have become addicts or alcoholics than you think. Many have mental health problems, vulnerable people are easy for the system to side-line – the mentally ill often don’t know how to fight back. Many do not have mental health problems when they first go out onto the street, the environment provides them; they can then be used to ignore the afflicted individual.
This year one of our guests (that is our homeless guests to whom we gave a bed) was an English teacher – a very erudite man who gave us a talk on what the work of Crisis meant to him and the other homeless people he knew. That talk meant a great deal to me at the end of the final shift, the shift in which we have to take the people we have helped and turn many of them back onto the street, the shift at the end of which you are more emotionally and physically tired than any other. I don’t remember his exact words but I think I can paraphrase an extract here:
“The quality of volunteers at Crisis has not changed. You still give hope to people through food, shelter and, perhaps more importantly, through conversation and little things such as opening doors for your guests and treating them like human beings – an experience that is rare on the streets.
“The calibre of volunteers has not changed, but the calibre of guests has. This year the centre has had one professor, two doctors and several teachers – all homeless. There are more of what society calls skilled people, people who you would not have seen in the past.”
I can add to his comments that we had at least one person homeless because they could not work – on the waiting list for an operation (and so not someone an employer would take on with major time-off looming) and another who was a barely controlled diabetic. A third had a crippling heart condition. Our speaker did not venture an opinion on why our homeless guests suddenly seemed more educated, more professional. Why they were from areas of the workforce that have traditionally been ‘safe’ or why people who were so sick had been left homeless and rough sleeping. He did not venture an opinion on why all our centres (more were opened this year than last) were swamped by numbers never seen before. I can venture my opinion:
We have seen a massive spike in the numbers of homeless people in the last few years as the coalition government has implemented austerity measures. Crisis loans for the disabled have effectively been removed (they were moved under local council control but no funding was transferred to pay them). ATOS, the government’s private medical assessor, has been ruling disabled people fit for work against their specialist’s direct recommendations and thus taking away the benefits of people who cannot in reality hold a job. Job centres have become incrementally harsher in applying penalties to job seekers in the case of minor infringements (such as missing a meeting due to a sick child, the flare up of a severe disability or to attend a last minute interview for a job). With DLA/PIP, ESA and many others being removed or slashed in real terms or placed behind a bureaucratic wall that takes months, and a huge emotional investment, to penetrate more and more people – skilled or otherwise – are finding themselves abandoned by the systems they have been funding for decades through taxation.
So, my life is doing well, but as I watch the gap between myself and the people that I have met opening ever wider my heart is filled with a deep impenetrable sadness. I see a void, a gap that our current austerity blinkered society refuses to see, expanding and start to swallow people that it could never reach in the past. I see a void looming behind friends who have not seen its growth or, instead, stubbornly deny that it could ever reach out to them. I have met people better qualified than them or I, people who had better jobs and better prospects who have been swallowed whole and deposited on the streets. I see a shadow at the edges of this void and I fear what is coming.
I have met homeless teachers, doctors, market traders, professors, literary critics, chef’s, cooks, musicians, labourers, civil servants, taxi drivers and businessmen. They have been a mixture of healthy, sick, disabled, desperate, hopeful, determined, broken and unbreakable. To cope they have stayed sober, gotten drunk or high, denied reality or faced a nihilistic world with grim resolve. They have been people like you and for some of these readers they will be you, one day in the future.
That void is opening up below you and unless we all open our eyes and work to close it down some of you will be swallowed by it, as might I.
There was a famous statement made by Pastor Niemöller with regard to the cowardice of German intellectuals in the face of Nazism. You have probably heard the official version:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.”
There are other versions, one of the first written included these lines:
“Then they got rid of the sick, the so-called incurables. – I remember a conversation I had with a person who claimed to be a Christian. He said: Perhaps it’s right, these incurably sick people just cost the state money, they are just a burden to themselves and to others. Isn’t it best for all concerned if they are taken out of the middle [of society]? — Only then did the church as such take note. Then we started talking, until our voices were again silenced in public. Can we say, we aren’t guilty/responsible? The persecution of the Jews, the way we treated the occupied countries, or the things in Greece, in Poland, in Czechoslovakia or in Holland, that were written in the newspapers”
I do not claim we are facing a holocaust, but we are facing the deaths of people because politicians have decided that those who are a burden to society, the incurably sick or disabled, are no longer worth supporting. We are seeing a rise in homelessness amongst our educators, a sign that their moral and intellectual guidance is being devalued. We are once again adopting the creed that an individual that does not contribute monetarily does not deserve the basic rights afforded to all humans. The last holocaust began with the gassing of the mentally ill in specially modified vans because society deemed they were a burden. Be alert and speak out when once again we are shown that these people are not cared for by the state. Place Niemöller’s statement into your mind every day and speak out now, it is too late to speak when the void has swallowed you.
Most homeless people have a roof over their heads, surviving by sleeping in hostels, on friends sofa’s or through similar arrangements. Last year 113,000 people in the UK approached authorities for help because they were in this situation. This is a massive under-estimate of the true numbers.
Some homeless people, especially the most vulnerable, are forced to sleep rough because no roof is available to them. London has a relatively sophisticated system for tracking homeless people, known as CHAIN. This allows the figures for London to be reported more accurately than elsewhere in the UK, however the problem is replicated in cities across the country.
CHAIN tells us that 6437 people slept rough in London in the last year:
- 4,353 people were new rough sleepers, 1,413 people were seen sleeping rough sleeping for two or more years, and 671 have returned to rough sleeping after a gap of a year or more.
- 88 per cent are male, 70 per cent are white.
- 58 per cent are aged between 26 and 45 years with 11 per cent under 25 and 9 per cent over 55.
- Many have one or more support needs: 41 per cent alcohol; 28 per cent drugs; 44 per cent mental health. The proportion of rough sleepers with no support needs has risen to 31 per cent, compared to 17 per cent in 2010/11.
- 32 per cent have been in prison at some point, 10 per cent in care and 10 per cent in the armed forces.
- Where nationality was recorded, 2,923 people rough sleeping were UK nationals – 47 per cent of the total. 28 per cent were from CEE countries. For more information see ‘Homelessness among different groups’.
This data was taken from the Charity Crisis who in turn mined the CHAIN database.
Add to that the following facts:
- Rough sleepers are 35 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population
- The average life expectancy of a homeless person is 47 (for the general population it is 78, a loss of 31 years)
- Homeless people I have known have included literary critics, academics, businessmen, builders and musicians.
- Homeless people are just that, people without homes. They span the whole of humanity from nice to nasty, intellectual to slow, pacifist to angry. They are people like any other who have often run into bad luck and fallen away from ‘normal’ society.
Please do not walk away from this no matter where you live. People are dying. People you walk past every day. People are dying because our society does not value them and because we don’t value them politicians think they can be ignored with impunity. It’s time we stopped sending that message.
I was recently reading an excellently written short article that spoke directly to feelings that have forming within me for some months. I encourage you to read it here:
In essence the author says that as a man he does not feel he can be a feminist even though he supports the goals of the feminist movement. In essence this is because he has neither been raised as female or lives as a female in this society, therefore he cannot have the shared experience of female gender oppression that is necessary to comprehend the feminist position and so cannot take a meaningful role in the strategy to combat it. He can however act as an ally in assisting feminists to achieve their aims
I recognise much of what is being said here because I am a white middle class male who was not raised female. Unlike the author I have experienced societal discrimination due to my innate attributes but in my case it is because I am manic depressive and not because I have lived as a female. So, can I truly be a feminist or should I cast myself in the more marginal role of a feminist ally?
The answer to my titular question is heavily reliant upon the often fluid definition of what feminism and feminists actually are.
If the definition is taken from the dictionary we see feminism as “the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.” (although I’d prefer equality of the genders). Such a definition clearly allows non-females to be feminists.
However, if we go to an extreme separatist feminist viewpoint – “”Life” in this “society” being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of “society” being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex.” (SCUM Manifesto) then I most certainly cannot be a feminist.
Of course most groups lie between the extremes of complete equality for males within a feminist movement and the outright rejection of males in their entirety. In my experience feminist groups lean strongly toward acceptance of men who have developed an understanding of the nature of patriarchal oppression and demonstrated a willingness to learn from the oppression of others.
What I take from this is, as with all movements, feminism is factionalised and I am welcome (or even encouraged) in some areas whilst being rejected in others. A situation not so different from any other collective organisation in this world.
For me personally it is feminist groups that have adopted ideas based around the intersectional feminism of Kimberlé Crenshaw, bell hooks and others that speak most credibly to the topic of making successful and realistic alterations to society to achieve female equality (and, hand in hand with this, racial, disability and many other equalities). Within this context I can be a feminist and, even if I choose not to be one, I have a duty to engage with feminism from the the viewpoint of the oppressions that I experience. This is because a final feminist equality must necessarily include a liberation of men from patriarchal oppression alongside the liberation of people of colour, mental disability and many other oppressed groups.
It is this intersectional definition of feminism that speaks most clearly to me. To my eye it is a definition of feminism that transcends feminism itself in that it acknowledges that we live in a society that includes powerful inbuilt negative influences on multiple groups on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion, mental disability, physical disability, race and many other aspects of normal human variation. With that understanding it becomes clear that each of us is to some extent oppressed and to some extent an oppressor. Each of us has a duty to attempt to locate ourselves within the web of oppression and aid each other in extracting ourselves as best we are able.
To successfully end discrimination against any group will require the dismantling of significant aspects of the current societal power structures and replacing them with new structures better designed to promote equality. Dismantling the power structure is too great a job for any single oppressed group acting on its own and building a viable alternative is impossible for a single group as it will automatically incorporate the invisible oppressions inherent to that group. We may well achieve a society that is equal for women, but it will not be equal with respect to race and other oppressions unless we have previously embraced and learned from those groups. A truly equal society can only stem from multiple oppressed groups that have acknowledged the fact that their societally inherited viewpoints are often oppressive to others and strive to find a way to work together without mutually oppressing each other. When that goal has been achieved these combined groups will not only have a more comprehensive understanding of how to build an equal society but will have the strength of numbers necessary to achieve meaningful societal change.
So. Can I be a feminist? On current reflection I believe a feminist is not something you are or something that you think, I believe it is something that you do. When I am holding a placard or taking some other action to support equality of the genders then I am a feminist. When I am campaigning for the rights of the disabled I am a disability rights activist. When I am working with the homeless then I am a human rights activist. When I am sitting at home then I am just me, I still have my views and beliefs on all these things but they are intermingled and can no longer be easily attributed to a single viewpoint. I choose not to label them unless they are in action.
The Oxford Feminist Network, of which I am a member, adopted the following guiding statement:
“This group is for any person of any gender identity in Oxford and all are welcome to be members whether you are just beginning to explore feminism or whether you have decided your views. This group is about recognising that feminism is an inherently political movement connected to and through lots of other social justice movements and challenging other forms of inequality. We meet once a month in Oxford for discussions, activism planning and networking and at other times to conduct events, protests and projects. The Facebook site is an adjunct to face to face meetings.
“We aim to be an accessible group; to meet at accessible venues and put up information and important points raised in our meetings for those unable to attend.
“We are still learning to challenge our own learned prejudices. If someone in the group has said something or done something prejudiced or discriminatory, please feel free and safe to raise the issue without retribution (either directly or with the moderators) and we will all work to resolve it. Be respectful, encouraging and kind.”
I believe this statement marks the first step along the right path for many of us.
I have spent the bulk of today in a meeting in the North of England. Actually that’s a lie, I spent two hours in the meeting but the travel time is 4 hours so it still counts. Why not do it by Skype? Nothing’s as good as meeting someone face to face to make sure you all understand what each other needs. Anyhow, enough of the meeting, all that matters are the introductions when I first arrived. I walked through the door and the guy I was there to meet greeted me with a smile, shook my hand and said ‘Wow, you’ve lost weight. You look good!’. It was meant as a compliment and I took it as a compliment but somewhere in the back of my mind wheels started turning.
My bodily appearance is especially prone to variance. Today I am just overweight but my stomach is not particularly protuberant and I feel healthy (I am apple shaped, my weight shows up on my stomach). A year ago I weighed nearly two stone heavier (about thirteen kilo’s), my belt size was four to six inches larger and I had a tendency to lean slightly backwards when I walked, to bring my centre of gravity in line. Four years ago I still weighed two stone heavier than today but I was running marathons and, although I was technically overweight, the weight was predominantly muscle (which is denser than fat although I’m not sure the difference accounts for the entire observation) and so my belt size was lower than today even though I am now significantly lighter than I was then. Ten years before that I was so underweight that my doctor advised me to eat high calorie snacks whenever I could. In total it’s a seven stone (fourty five Kilo) variation throughout my adult life. Add to that the fact that I bloat when eating certain foods due to IBS and the variance is notable.
Through all of the above body change, maybe even because of it, I’ve never particularly felt that my weight was part of who I was. Rather it felt almost as if my weight were something I did or an accoutrement that I chose to wear. On me but not of me. Other things were relevant of course, if I felt unhealthy, got out of breath climbing a hill, that would worry me. But the weight itself and the appearance that went with it was never of overriding interest to me. It appeared to be of great interest to others however – in this society it is completely acceptable to mention someone’s weight change (especially weight loss) and to judge weight loss as a good thing. I would get comments regularly, positive or negative depending on my direction of travel.
In this society it is increasingly unacceptable to judge on skin colour, age or sex but it is still OK to judge on the basis of weight and the appearance of weight.
It’s long been observed that western society treasures physical thinness above almost any other attribute. It’s an obsession taken to extremes for women but vies with a second ‘ideal’ in men – that of muscularity. As such men are judged by their thinness but they need to be careful not to get too thin or the lack of muscularity starts to extract a social toll. This gives men a useful get out in that as long as we do not wear form fitting clothes (and few but runners and cyclists choose to wear spandex) we can at least give the illusion, the possibility, that we have a well balanced thin/muscular body beneath. As far as I can tell women are just encouraged to starve or develop eating disorders to be acceptable. We are all striving for a societally sanctioned norm that has a strong negative effect on men but an even stronger and more harmful effect on women (I don’t know enough to comment on the effect it has on other genders but I’m prepared to bet it isn’t good).
I wont try to explain how this societal norm has formed over time – I don’t have sufficient understanding of it and others are far more qualified than I am to theorise. Suffice it to say that every culture and every era that I am aware of seems to have imposed a norm of some sort. However, rarely has a single norm been so dominant as the current drive toward thin (a fact that I perhaps naively attribute to the globalisation of anglo-american culture and ideals) and rarely has the ideal been so at odds with the realities of medical knowledge. To be morbidly obese has severe health risks but to be as underweight as the current media ideal has far greater risks associated with it.
A great deal has been written about the effects this has on people and I want to be careful to talk about and theorise upon my own experiences. All of this is my own experience and as with any experience of an individual it does not encompass the whole. However, it is a part of the whole.
So, what of men and their internalised understanding of physical desirability to a partner. To many, including me, physical desirability is strongly correlated with the possession of a ‘six-pack’ (protruberant abdominal muscles, not the arrangement of beer cans). To have a six pack a male must have less significantly than 10% body fat and be engaged in strong abdominal exercise on a regular basis – the average male has about 25% body fat and (in the west) works in a seated position for eight to ten hours a day. Therefore, to meet the societal ideal of attractive most males would need to be on a strict diet and spend a significant proportion of their free time exercising – an option that is simply not realistic, nor healthy, for the vast majority. What’s more the possession of so little body fat makes a person ill suited to stamina based exercise, it is rare you will find a marathon runner with so little body fat because some fat reserve is actual vital to sustained performance. I find it unlikely (although I do not know for sure) that the majority of women are actively seeking partners that spend so much time in self-interested exercising or that cannot partake in a full and pleasurable diet – even if those women do buy into the media norm of the attractive and desirably muscled male. Therefore males are feeling a strong pressure to sacrifice elements of their personal health in order to achieve a societal norm of attraction that is not actually attractive to the majority of people they are attempting to impress. Physical appearance aside the mental effects of this pressure to conform with the near impossible and the emotional ongoing damage caused by failure is huge. The equivalent occurs with females and I believe that to be even more damaging due to their lower status in western society and the fact that their ‘ideal’ is even more physically unhealthy.
I have observed an indication of the falseness of societies ideal of female attractiveness through discussion with male friends (predominantly white and outwardly identifying as heterosexual). It needs to be made clear at this point that I believe a persons weight is their own business and shouldn’t be dictated by anybody else. However a great deal of advertising attempts to equate thin with sexually attractive to the opposite sex and this is especially true when directed toward females being attractive toward males. So, this observation is offered in an attempt to highlight an interesting dissonance between this advertising and reality.
When outwardly heterosexual men are together (or at least when they’re together with me) and conversation strays to partners and what we are looking for in relationships it is very unusual for somebody to express desire for somebody based on an appearance of being under-weight (indeed general appearance, whilst relevant, is not normally high on a man’s wishlist for a long term partner – this appearance obsession seems to be more for teenagers or individuals with self esteem issues who need a ‘trophy’ to shore up what they perceive as their precarious position in society) . Many times I’ve heard people make comments along the lines that ‘[insert currently popular super-thin model] is beautiful to look at but I want my partner to be a real woman’ or even ‘I prefer a partner that I don’t feel will break when I squeeze them’. These comments raise a plethora of questions that I cannot begin to address but two really hit me. Firstly, the idea expressed by these men that a ‘real woman’ is not extremely thin is extremely dehumanising to women who, by choice or otherwise, are thin and secondly there appears to be a significant disconnect between what many men find beautiful or sexually arousing in the media and what they find beautiful or sexually arousing in person.
I am not convinced that these points can be disentangled from each other. If these men genuinely find super-thin women attractive within the sphere of the media but not in reality then there is some kind of dissonance present whereby they cannot consider what they see on the screen as being real. Perhaps through a process of desensitisation they cease to be affected by the unreality of the ideal they are witnessing in the media every day. What then when they are confronted by a particularly thin female in reality? Can she be considered to be real or is she a non-human in the same way that the televisual images are non-people, to be desired but not to be allocated human rights and considerations? This strikes me as an extremely dangerous space to inhabit.
So, to achieve societies ideal of beauty and to therefore unburden himself of the negative comments of his peers a man must heavily control his diet and spend unhealthy amounts of time exercising to build muscle that he either doesn’t need or that actively impedes him. Probably making himself less desirable as a partner to the majority of women.
A woman must reduce her body mass to such an extent that she endangers her health and well-being whilst simultaneously reducing her attractiveness to the majority of men. Furthermore her relatively low status compared to men mean that she must exist in a potentially dangerous culture of dehumanisation that may put her, and all women, at significant risk.
How did we allow this mutually harmful disconnect between perception and reality to form? I don’t think anybody truly knows but my suspicions are that the perception is connected to the fact that it’s easy to sell product to people who are chasing the unobtainable. The desire for new things can only be based upon dissatisfaction with the present status quo and a need (real or perceived) to improve that situation. What could be more powerful, and more lucrative, than to convince people that one of their deepest and more basic requirements, the desire for companionship and procreation, is dependent upon their acheiveing and maintaining an unobtainable ideal. Now every new product that comes out can be hooked to this desire and made saleable to a population desperate to overcome their perceived failings.
I don’t see a conspiracy, I see the natural progression of the market toward the creation of a sustainable demand for the purchase of multiple product categories. I see the unforeseen physical and mental fallout of creating a self-sustaining desire to strive to achieve something that for the majority is unachievable. Whether by desire or by happy accident today’s marketeers have created the perfect conditions for perpetual sales and perpetual human dissatisfaction.
Diamond mind welsh child riding the rails
Sweetly inquisitive now grown up impressive
Just because we don’t talk anymore
Doesn’t mean I’m not your friend
Melancholy man with your head full of tricks
Knowing smiles of whimsy borne from your lips
Just because we don’t talk anymore
Don’t think I’d spurn your call
Tear stained crazy hair crying frustration
Black cape aswirling as you tumble through time
Just because we don’t talk anymore
Doesn’t mean I’ve stopped searching
Pensive and powerful quiet worded traveller
Walking worlds pathways that my feet wont tread
Just because we don’t talk anymore
Does not mean you have no harbour
Far flung recollection of moments of magic
Sweet fossilised life filled with memories of joy
Even if we never make contact
You have free acccess to my heart