July 21, 2016

Fat is still a feminist issue. So is feminism.

Looking back on Susie Orbach at AWF 2016, and forward to Andi Zeisler.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Susie Orbach!

Carole Beu, usually the Festival’s most ebullient chair, went classic on us, almost reverent.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, Susie Orbach!"


I looked around to see if I could spot any men behind me, or across the vast reaches of the ASB Theatre which, as I had just noted down, was fully populated. I certainly couldn’t see any in front of me. Aha, two! And a group! And just further along from them, look, two more... and...and ... here you go:

What is it with men anyway? Women would go to a session with a male protagonist of the culture wars. Women would go to a Foucault session, were he still alive of course. I expect women would flock to a Foucault session. Women would go to hear any number of venerable male cultural critics or theorists, I thought, trying to come up with names of some live ones. It wasn't easy. I mentally saluted the life force and staying power of that amazing AWF 2016 trio Gloria Steinem, Susie Orbach and Vivian Gornick.

I clicked my attention back to the stage as Carole began chatting congenially about a certain Fifi. It didn't take me too embarrassingly long to identify Fifi as Fat is a Feminist Issue, Orbach’s 1978 book in which she used a feminist perspective to attempt to move people on from a blame-the-victim approach to weight “issues”.

Carole proposed, perhaps wishing and hoping, that the book “probably changed the lives of million of women”.

Susie Orbach’s calm response: “It didn’t change the world and the problem has actually amplified. It has now eaten into the lives of our children. There are women in rest homes being made to anguish over what they eat.”

“The book is actually most of all about compulsive eating”, said Carole, who was surprised to realise this when she reread it before the festival.

Orbach has never reread it -- she thinks maybe because she's frightened of it. When she wrote it, her insight was that “Largeness is a way of negotiating the pressures our visual culture places on us, about always having to look at yourself in a critical way. If you’re large, you’re exempt from that”. Today it’s different. “It signifies different things. It could mean being from the other side of the tracks or it could mean you have to look at the real me below the surface.”

But above all, largeness is not actually the issue. “You can be a compulsive eater in many sizes. You can be ‘normal’ and be a compulsive eater. I don’t think the real issue is obesity. It’s our relationship with eating. If we started with that instead of creating a stigma about being one size or another, that would address the problem better.”

The issue, in other words, is the notions attached to body size, the social judgments, the psychological feelings. I had never actually read Fifi, but I’ve now had a good look through it (thanks Auckland Libraries and Overdrive for having that available for me on my laptop in 60 seconds) (progress sometimes really is progress). As its electronic pages slipped past, it felt as though I were voyaging through an asteroid belt where the asteroids were big black words: all those angers, depresseds, turmoils, emptinesses, suffereds, swampeds, mirrors, defenses, and so on. It was a scary insight; what would it be like to live there.

The copy I had checked out was a reissue from 2006, for which Orbach had written a new introduction, in which she pointed out, “Dieting is even more popular than it was when Fat is a Feminist Issue was first published 28 years ago. Eating has become a psychological, moral, medical, aesthetic and cultural statement.”

How well said, how sadly and disappointingly true. And side by side with that goes another of the dark sides of living in our “moneyed world”, as Vivian Gornick described it: those companies making money by selling the perfect body (“though they don’t call it that”) to vulnerable people, mostly but not always women.

For one, the diet industry, raking in billions of dollars for products which don't work and people (consumers) conveniently never stop feeling they need, since only 3% of people who lose weight through dieting keep it off, for all kinds of reasons, from physiological changes to psychological pressures. The cosmetics industry, for another.

“To encourage body-hatred all over the world is a gift of later capitalism. We export it all over the world.” Orbach pointed out. I think it was in one of her columns for The Guardian where she discussed research which found a mathematical correlation between the arrival of commercial television and its army of advertising in various countries, and the increase in eating disorders among the young girls in those countries.

“Now the body is a product we have to make, instead of where we are from. We are going to have the branded body. Not just clothes but our bodies will be branded. The brand will be Barbie-esque.”

More and more people's daily lives feed them a stream of images of celebrities photoshopped and manipulated into an unattainable ideal. How healthy a diet is that? “People come in to me for a problem like a job problem and they also have body hatred but they haven’t come for that. They just assume they’ll have that all their life.”

“What do you hope for young women?” asked Carole.

“What I hope for all of us -- to have a life of meaning.”

I was reminded of a passage I read recently in a memoir which might have been Angelica Garnett's, or possibly Jenny Diski's (I trust I'm not the only person who remembers the sentiment and the sensation of past readings but not necessarily the specimen ID). Angelica had received from her aunt, Virginia Woolf, or maybe Jenny had received from her foster mother Doris Lessing, a note expressing the hope that she would have a happy life. Angelica/Jenny wonders, looking back, at the choice of "happy", rather than "good", which she would have thought a better wish. A life of meaning is a pretty good life, for my money.

I am not sure if it were the psychotherapist in Orbach instinctively making sure that we would leave the 60 minute version of the "50 minute hour" with a good feeling, once the discontent had been aired, but that was how it went. There were some likable closing lines from her --  "What's really satisfying is relationships and contributions and finding things that interest you" was one I liked, and there was one about a good ear being the most powerful thing you can offer which was met with a round of applause, surprisingly to me. I found her line about body-hatred being a gift of later capitalism much more rowsing. "Know your enemy" is powerful stuff too.

Because I am not a psychotherapist, but a reader and a writer, rather than lend an ear, I'm going to plant something in your ear: a suggestion for further reading. Susie Orbach speaks about the body becoming a brand. Andi Zeisler, the cofounder of Bitch Media, has written a provocative book about feminism itself becoming a brand. It's called We were feminists once and I discovered it during the Festival while travelling in the Vivian Gornick, Gloria Steinem and Susie Orbach force field. If something seems not quite right to you about a company selling (and people buying) body-hugging little tees, produced by poor women in developing country sweatshops, with "Feminist" emblazoned on the front, this is your book. Who is appropriating feminism, and why, while doing nothing to progress the "unfinished business of the women's movement" -- as Susan Douglas calls it?

I actually went and bought myself my own copy when I had to return my borrowed copy to the library. A book which teaches me the so very useful term "marketplace feminism" needs to be able to be pulled out again and again.

The many aspects of marketplace feminism and the range of the book can be glimpsed by its entry in the book's index, which points you to the following:  "as appeasement, beauty and", "choice and", "fashion and", "feminism and", "as feminist branding", "Mad Max: Fury Road as", "media and", "movies and", "popular culture and", "as prioritizing individuals", "purchasing and", "Spice Girls and", and, "television and".

-- Karen

July 06, 2016

Gloria Steinem: not the Queen of the Auckland Writers Festival

Photo Annie Leibovitz

She could have been the Queen of the Festival. She was the first guest whose session sold out. She had the royal touch, mothers lining up to get copies of her book signed for their baby daughters, in a modern version of the laying on of the hands. She was the only guest to have an interviewer summoned from across the seas (Edinburgh Book Festival Director Nick Barley) (not sure why, actually). She had the raiment - that leather jacket!

But here was the thing. She didn’t want to be Queen. She was not here to represent or embody anything. She was here to share some stories about her life, from the many in her book My life on the road. But no nostalgia! ”There’s something about being part of a movement and being on the road that forces you to live in the present -- which is where we should live.”

Nick Barley led her through the salient points in the book. They talked about her parents, her father who treated her as an adult even when she was little “and I’m very grateful to him”, and her mother, who had been a pioneering journalist but had given up her career in those days when no one thought you could have it all, not before having been diagnosed with “anxiety neuroses”. Steinem's stories of them were, for me and I think for many readers, the most touching in the book. They split up when she was only 11.

She never again felt she really had a home. As soon as she was out of school she took off for India. She told herself she was attracted for the theosophy aspect (her mother was a theosophist), “but really… I was escaping”.

In the Indian villages she discovered "talking circles". People would come out of their houses in the evening and sit together around a kerosene lamp to talk about the terrible experiences they shared, trying to sort out the truth and break the cycle.

We got the first taste of her wicked sense of humour. She recalled that many years later the women's movement developed their own form of talking circles -- consciousness raising groups.

"I’m sure a lot of women here remember those, now we call them book clubs.”

Back in the US, her time in India having helped her skive the suburban ideal she had firsthand reasons to distrust, Steinem began working in journalism. And here of course we came to her notorious turn as a Playboy bunny, somewhat misleadingly described in the Festival programme blurb as “She was famously a Playboy bunny, but one who wrote a magazine article entitled “A Bunny’s Tale”, revealing the exploitative working conditions bunnies endured”. She was a journalist, and Show magazine assigned her to write a story about the Playboy Clubs, with the idea she would go undercover as a bunny for a couple of weeks. She wasn't enthusiastic about it, but it was “the kind of assignment I would get”-- which tells you something about the times.

She had thought that it might at least be somewhat glamorous, but she was being set straight on that before even being fitted for her bunny suit. At the job interview she told the woman she was a secretary, and the reply came back: “Honey, if you can type you don’t want to work here”.

The article, which you can and should read online in the New York University Digital Library, made her famous but, she tells us, "It was a bad career move". Being an ex-bunny became the thing she was most known for, despite it being her least favoured characterisation. "At my advanced age people still introduce me as an ex-bunny. People say "What does she know? She was a bunny".

But there was some satisfaction. The gynaecological exam for aspiring bunnies which she blew the whistle on was discontinued soon after her article came out. And in her 1983 book Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, she pointed out "My exposé of working in a Playboy Club has outlived all the Playboy Clubs, both here and abroad."

Nick Barley asks a question about Ms magazine which I miss because I’m so stupefied by having heard him call it “Miss Magazine” and asking myself if this could be just an accent thing (I'm still not sure), and then asks her about the historic 1977 conference in Houston on women’s issues, 20,000 women in attendance, their delegates busy drawing up an action plan to submit to the US Congress (the conference was actually sponsored by the US Government).

It’s depressing of course to think how few of their planks have been achieved, and how many of those achieved are nonetheless still threatened (however, as I write this, the US Supreme Court has just blown away attempts by the state of Texas to deny women the reproductive rights the US government has ruled are theirs), but Gloria Steinem hadn’t written a book, and come here to talk to us, just to be our institutional memory, or Cassandra, or whatever.

She talked about the women at the conference, about the Native American women she had gotten to know there, how she had learned so many fascinating things about early Native American history from them. Because, and this is pure Gloria, “We don’t study history from when it started, we study it from when monarchy, patriotism and patriarchy and the other bullshit started”.

About patriarchy, Gloria... Gloria had no hesitation. “It’s about controlling reproduction -- that’s what it’s all about”.

The perfect lead-in for Nick Barley to call our attention to the dedication in My life on the road.

“Such a great dedication. Tell us about it.”

“Shall I read it? I don’t want to say everyone’s read my book!” (a good Steinem laugh) and she does.

 This book is dedicated to: 
Dr. John Sharpe of London, who in 1957, a decade before physicians in England could legally perform an abortion for any reason other than the health of the woman, took the considerable risk of referring for an abortion a twenty-two-year-old American on her way to India. 
Knowing only that she had broken an engagement at home to seek an unknown fate, he said, “You must promise me two things. First you will not tell anyone my name. Second, you will do what you want to do with your life". 
Dear Dr. Sharpe, I believe you, who knew the law was unjust, would not mind if I say this so long after your death: I’ve done the best I could with my life. This book is for you.

"You will do what you want to do with your life," muses Barley. "Do you sometimes feel as if you’ve sacrificed your life on behalf of others?”

“I don’t feel like that at all!” and another good laugh.

Gloria Steinem wasn't going in for any of that "I sacrificed myself for you" blackmail. She wasn't going in for recognition, or packaging, or ownership. (She doesn't even own a car, I learned from reading the book.)

"Women say to me with some alarm, 'My daughter doesn't know who you are!' But does she know who she is? Because that's the whole point."

She pumped for all of us filling the ASB theatre to use the occasion as an opportunity to spread the word about what we are doing and thinking. “Use the mike!” she said when Q&A time came around. And some people did, websites were promoted, organisations cited. But a lot of people had questions, and none were turned away.

Q "Where do you want us to be in fifty years?"
A “I want it to be wherever you want it to be. I'm not here to tell you where to go -- you know things I don’t know. “

Q Should we should talk to people who are “against feminism”?
A Well of course. “If I am fucking up I don’t want someone to hate me, I want them to tell me!”

A woman wanted to talk about the rights of sex workers. Steinem was honest; she has a problem with legalising “sex work”, though she does not want to criminalise it. “What happened to mutuality?” Is it about cooperation or submission? She doesn't see it as just another exploitative job, as is the risk if we term it "sex work". In her life, she says, she's only known one woman whose choice to sell her body was truly free of coercion.

Advice to a 14 year old feminist, who wanted to know where to start in her school where "nobody even knows what feminism is": Find an instance of injustice (how do the budgets for boys and girls sports teams compare) and organise people to challenge it.

"Change that one unfairness and that will be feminism”.

I saw a hopeful, funny person, the humour more pithy than came across in her book...

"Who are your anti-abortionists?" No hands went up.
"Maybe they don’t read books!"

... and the hope more matter-of-course.

I’m not sure it was clear to me from the book how enjoyable a member of your, um, book group she would be, but the evening left no doubt about it.

 She sent us out telling us to talk to other people after exiting. I took it as a sort of beau geste, but as it happened, my daughter and I, standing in the signing line with her copy of A life on the road (the Christmas present I didn't choose for her, thinking, What will that long ago stuff mean to her?, only to see her choose it on her own), found ourselves next to funny smart Michele A’Court, author of Stuff I forgot to tell my daughter and it all happened just as it should.

When we arrived in front of Ms Steinem, I heard my daughter say that she didn't care about having her name in the book, she preferred a message, "whatever you would like to say to me".


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