Thursday, September 26, 2013

my eyes are up here: censorship, body positivity and social media

I'm not sure what I was planning this morning: I need to write another post; I need to run to the store and get some nutritional yeast, and one or two other things; There are several unread chapters of the Gita calling my name.

But instead I'm here, writing about this, because our world is a broken, unfair place and I can't stay quiet about it. I'm a writer, and when something happens that I think is wrong, my first instinct is to write about it.

[Insert Photo of my breasts Here]

My inbox was full of unhappy emails from my fellow editors this morning. (Some of you who read here regularly know I'm on the editorial staff for this magazine. I couldn't be prouder of it.) Evidently, all of us had our personal online accounts (of a rather large social networking site, you know the one) flagged or seized or starred--or whatever you do to someone's digital profile in this final frontier of the Internet--because of a link the magazine's account had posted to its followers.

I'd love for you to become subscribers of Ms.Fit, but for now I'll just say that a large part of our agenda is publishing content that helps women of all shapes, sizes, shades, genders, identities and walks of life make choices that are healthy for us. The editors and contributors of MsFit work to make fitness and wellness a basic human rights for all women, something we can engage in without being shamed by the media, erased by the patriarchy, and subjugated by voices and forces--some external, some internal--who would demand we love and cherish ourselves less. It's important work, and it's important to us. We have a sense of humor, but we are not messing around about this, you can believe that.

Evidently, some time in the last day or so, we at MsFit posted a link to a blog called The Militant Baker. The link contains images from a photo shoot that are (presumably) being used for a book about body positivity. I don't know the writer at The Militant Baker, or her work, super-well, but I like what I see so far. This post, the one that got us all booted, is replete with images of all kinds of women, in various semi-nude states, who seem full of love for their bodies.

Go on, have a look. I'll wait until you come back.

So, after reading the dismayed emails about being frozen by said social network, I tried to get on this morning, and instead got a stern lecture--albeit in text--from the social network, about "Community Standards". I've read them carefully, and here's where I bet they'd claim we went afoul.

This first phrase falls under the "Graphic Content" section:

We understand that graphic imagery is a regular component of current events, but must balance the needs of a diverse community. Sharing any graphic content for sadistic pleasure is prohibited.

Now, what exactly are the needs of a diverse community? Maybe a diverse community needs to hear a challenging truth, and to take a breath even as they feel their values or aesthetics being challenged. Or maybe a diverse community needs to be anesthetized by pretty, easy pictures and simple games that won't cause a stir. I think it's pretty clear that the photos here aren't sadistic in any way. These women look like willing, even jubilant, participants, so consent seems really clear. Here's where things get a little sticky. See "Nudity and Pornography":

We also impose limitations on the display of nudity. We aspire to respect people’s right to share content of personal importance, whether those are photos of a sculpture like Michelangelo's David or family photos of a child breastfeeding.

 Okay. "Impose[ing] limitations" I think I understand, though I wish there was language about what those limitations are. It seems to me imposing them is arbitrary, maybe even hypocritical. I didn't do any kind of search for objectionable nudity--which would generally be less pro-woman, more misogynistic and likely more prurient--than the photos attached to the link, but they're out there. I know they're out there because one of the other editors did do that search, and showed us some stuff. Ick. Now, I don't want to get into the "if they can, why can't we?" game, because I don't know how relevant or productive it would be. What's really unclear to me is this whole, "aspire[ing] to respect" shared content. Does that mean, we wish we could respect your content, but we don't, or we're trying to respect your content, but we suck at it? Or is it just an insincere nod, the kind of thing that says, we get that breastfeeding is a natural, completely non-sexual part of life, but still, there's a woman's boob in the shot so for God's sake pull that heinous content down before you start a riot.

how do ya like them breasts, baby?

Yes, I will absolutely concede that these are not photos of women breastfeeding. They're photos of women in love with their bodies. They seem proud, diverse, joyful and unashamed (god forbid a woman ever be unashamed). Quite frankly, they remind me the most of that Dove soap commercial, only with more nipples. The women here are (as far as it seems to me, clearly) not minors, and there's nothing prurient or sexual in nature of these photos. There's just a lot of boobs. For the record, it's nothing like the boobs that people mean or imagine when they talk about pornographic. These bodies are natural; they have miles on them, they tell stories and communicate a level of self-acceptance that I wish every woman I know possessed. These are your sister's bodies, your mother's bodies, your ancestor's bodies.

But there is a lot of boob.

(One small critique: there are a lot of white bodies in the photos sampled. I know, I know, there are some brown bodies, too, and a fair amount. I'm always on the look out for my own reflection, even in this kind of work, and I would have enjoyed seeing more diversity throughout the photos, rather than single brown body or the "brown body group shot". I didn't see any of my ancestors' bodies. Having said that, what I saw was a sample, I think, so I don't know what the finished product looks like.)

Hang with me, I'm almost there. How do I feel about this? I feel victimized. It would seem that the weight of the text--and of its importance, HUGE--is completely irrelevant compared to the included images. As a writer and as a human, I find this deeply distressing. I could write a brilliant post about how each of us is lovable and can exercise compassion and how we should listen without prejudice and disagree with grace and consideration, and whatever; and if I include a sexy, art-designed image of some dessert, or some hottie with his shirt off, it'll get more hits. Really? Has our world so degraded in its ability to share ideas that the images are more important than the words?

I'm not saying images have no power. I've read enough crappy magazines, watched enough bad TV and seen enough fucking video game footage to know better. I believe in media literacy. But words are alive. They have meaning. We are still arguing about the n-word. Hip-hop is so potentially damaging not just for the way women are treated in its videos, but in its lyrics. Hashtag, for crying out loud, we make things trend with words! We communicate in words. When I open my mouth to challenge someone, emoticons don't fall out, nor do images or paintings. Words fall out, and on a good day, they're thoughtful words. If the faceless people in charge of "community standards" had taken five minutes to consider the text and import of what MsFit was sharing, would they still have found the images so objectionable? If so, why? Is it because the bodies are un-airbrushed, un-Photoshopped bodies? Or is it just because the bodies are bare breasted?

So I don't like that our work is being flagged by The Man, or that we're being labeled as questionable because of some feminist, body-positive content we shared. I guess this means we're doing something right. Nobody ever said that challenging the system from within was easy work. It's not an easy blow, I'll tell you. But this is the work we do, and it matters so we keep doing it.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

It's Close

I've written about my hair before here, right? Is anyone else tired of the black female body being not just belonging to Michelle or Maria or Denise or Kendra, but being a political battle ground for beauty standards, gender stereotypes, racial identity and feminism? I am so tired of the rhetoric.

Tired of it, yes, but that doesn't mean that it goes away, or that anyone else just gets it, simply because I'm tired of explaining it. I appreciate the frustration of those who say, "It's no longer my job to explain to you why your ignorance offends me. Go read a book, go get an education." I get that. I've probably said it, and I've recently heard it, or something like it. Still, I believe at my center that if people are going to connect in a genuine and lasting way, if relationship and discovery and learning are going to bring about genuine change in our thinking and behavior, then each of us will have to willingly wear the responsibility (dare I say it? the gift?) of teaching other people what they do not know. I never want to make anyone feel ashamed of their ignorance, even if it does offend me.

So for the last eight years, I've worn locks. (Not dreads, nor dreadlocks: locks. The difference? Locks are a style named for describing the process of hair locking onto itself in a tailored structure. Dreads are an imperialist name given to Caribbean citizens by British colonizers who considered their hairstyle "dreadful". Let's decolonize the style, shall we, by banishing the term "dreads" from our vocabulary.) I locked in 2005, during graduate school, when I was looking for an opportunity to really get to know myself, my hair, to open my arms to my physical experience of what my beauty was and is. 

I've worn my hair locked through seven apartments, two boyfriends, one (!) husband, nine months of engagement, three-plus years of marriage, five years as an art school faculty member, eight years of yoga practice, two broken friendships, two broken relationships, travel to 13 states and one master's degree. It's been an eventful eight years. In that time I got lots of compliments. Some were genuine and grounded in a sweet sense of appreciation, and many were from sisters who were also natural or locked. Some were from people who'd never seen someone with hair like mine close up and marveled at me, a bit Venus-hottentott-ey. I've lost count of how many times a white person reached a hand into my head--without asking--and touched my hair. It made me nuts--can you tell by the context clues?

Lately, I've been thinking of cutting them, my locks, off. I learned that some traditions hold that you only cut your locks under a momentous occasion: someone has died, a relationship has ended, you've made a major life change. (I liken the shearing of hair under grief to an old biblical practice. In the old testament, when someone was grieving, they'd cut off all their hair, put on sackcloth instead of their clothes, pour ashes on their head and sit by the city wall and wail.) Fortunately, no one has died nor am I overcome with grief. But life change, I can get on board with some of that.

2013 has been a big year for me so far, and I don't know what the last four months are going to hold. Still, I feel like change has been a part of this year's m.o.

So I did it.

I did it myself. I bought a pair of scissors and a set of clippers and I stood in my bathroom and cut them all off. 

Hours before, I asked my husband to take a photo of me, in all of my waist-length, eight year glory. Then, I said thank you and goodbye to my hair, and I cut each lock, one by one. 


I took this one myself, with the space phone. I am covered in tiny hairs, but I feel wonderful.

So how big a deal is this? I don't know yet. I know that my husband is still looking at me mildly bewildered, but he hasn't burst into tears (which is what my mother did the first time I cut off my hair. I should give her a break. Her sense of identity--mine and her own--has been caught up in physical appearance, and especially hair, for as long as I've known her.) I know that my head feels lovely, and I feel beautiful. I know that I will have to ward people off touching my head without asking, and I will try to do it gently, but sometimes I will fail. Not much else has changed. But I feel good and I look good. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Purity of Love

I am so overdue for a post here, I know I know. So much has happened in the last four weeks--geeze, I guess it really has been about that long--and I've been thinking about how to write about it, and it's all bigger than I have time for now.

But I have time for this and I'm thinking about it a lot. This month, I've been taking a class at one of my favorite yoga studios in the city about the Bhagavad Gita. Simply put, the Gita is the penultimate holy Hindu text. It's often compared to the bible, and has at times reminded me of various books of the Bible--Job, I Kings, and even a gospel or two. The book is basically a conversation between Arjuna, a kick-ass warrior who has to fight a battle that gives him great moral concern, and Krisha, his charioteer, also known as the Supreme Being, all gods in all places and times, creator sustainer destroyer: The Shit.

This week I read a passage wherein Krishna shows Arjuna his true self. It basically scares the crap out of Arjuna, and he falls down, stunned and astonished beyond any capacity for reason. Krishna returns to his regular, nice-guy charioteer, and Krishna says to him,

Very rarely seen/is this form of mine/that you have seen./Even the divinities/are always/desiring a vision of me.
Not by the study of the Vedas,/ nor by austerity,/ nor by giving,/ nor by sacrifice/Am I able to be seen/ in such a form/ as you have seen me.
Only by the offering of/ one's love to none other,/ O Arjuna, am I able,/ in such a form, To be known and/ to be truly seen, and to be attained,/ O Fighter of the Enemy. 
This knocked me out. Krishna says to his friend, "The only reason you can see me, is because the love you've offered me, the love we share, is so pure and true." I thought what a beautiful metaphor for relationship this is: perhaps we can only show ourselves, our true selves, to the people who can love us most certainly. To love someone is to put up with a lot, to give a lot and to tolerate a lot. Do the people you love really see you? Are you showing your real self to the people who love you the truest, the most certainly and ardently?

This question has a lot of resonance for me right now, contemplating how to self-promote. The very idea of work like this makes my teeth ache. I expect I'll get over that someday. Or else, I'll find some other way to live. In the meantime, I like thinking of a relationship wherein one can be so transparent about his true identity because he is loved so purely by his friend.

A wooden Krishna in Bangalore. This guy seems really easy to hang out with (there should be a flute in his hands) and he apparently was quite popular with the ladies. Don't cross him though, because according to the Gita, he will melt your face off.