Download PDF here: newsletter_spring2013_revised
This week, my Facebook newsfeed exploded with support for marriage equality, as the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in a same-sex marriage case. I am friends (both in real, flesh-and-blood life and on Facebook) with a number of socially liberal individuals. To illustrate this, I have not read a single post on my own newsfeed that rejects the legitimacy of same-sex marriage. However, I think should engage in the struggle for equality via same-sex marriage, while keeping in mind the number of ways that the institution of marriage undermines other family forms. The marriage equality movement should be mindful not to dismiss the significance and legitimacy of single-parent households, for example; it should not adopt the mindset that creating a traditional, nuclear unit is the only way to be valued as a family. Let us bear in mind the necessity of choice in achieving equality, while also respecting those who uplift entire households on their own -without romantic partners entirely.
The Student Health Educators (SHE) of Amherst College are hosting “Love Your Body Week.” The week invites students to celebrate all that they appreciate about their physical selves. The message is that one should love the body for what it can do, what it represents. Someone’s hands hands might remind him of his grandfather, for instance; a basketball player might love her arms because they’ve helped her reach a scoring high. The SHEs encourage students to look beyond Hollywood’s construction of the perfect body, and embrace everything their own bodies do for them. Across campus are signs like “You are more than your abs,” “You are more than your thighs,” and the persistent, “Don’t judge me by my weight, or my weights.” I think it’s great that the SHEs encourage Amherst students to dismiss artificial standards of beauty and love themselves. Really, I do.
It is disturbing that we need reminders to respect the little houses in which we’ll live until the day we die. At Amherst, like most places, it is difficult to be fat. It is difficult to be differently-abled. It is difficult to have a body that strays from the varsity athlete norm we have established. There is something that makes Amherst unique in its treatment of the body, though. Amherst gets some of the highest-performing students from across the country. We’re the best and the brightest, damn it, and we have not, cannot, and will not fail! We have excelled in academics, and we’ve read all about the horrible things that eating disorders do to the body and the mind. We’re also well-informed about the nasty effects of high fructose corn syrup, trans fats, and -dare I say it -carbs? So when we arrive on campus in the fall of Freshman year, all amped up on acceptance letters and summertime tans, we’re a little caught off-guard by how great everyone else is, too.
Wait, there’s a fifteen year old in my class? That guy has been to Sundance? Holy shit, that girl has won every gymnastics competition in the history of ever. We judge ourselves against one another and become pretty fiercely determined to look like everyone else -everyone else being thin, toned, and athletic. But here’s the next thing. As the best and the brightest, we know it’s bad to change ourselves just to be thin; No, we work out like crazy and live on Val’s Lighter Side chicken breast in order to be “healthy.” Like much of the country, I think Amherst has conflated thinness and health. It’s okay to drive oneself crazy in the dining hall and at the gym, just so long as the pursuit is made in the name of low blood pressure and strong bones. This mindset makes it acceptable to judge Other (read “fat”) bodies because as Amherst students, they should be well-informed enough to keep themselves “healthy.”
The eight Millenium Development Goals are markers of progress in human welfare, and are widely considered a contract between the Global North and the Global South.Through this contract, the industrialized and developing worlds have determined concrete ways to collaborate to guarantee the protection and advancement of human rights globally. The third goal of the eight goals is “to promote gender equality and empower women.” Countless studies examine the ways that women’s education is directly responsible for other achievements in human welfare. Educate a woman, educate a nation. Educate a woman, decrease child mortality. Educate a woman, increase household income. Help her help others, many scholars seem to say. However, fewer scholars have examined educating women for women’s sake. While the utilitarian value of female literacy and education is often celebrated, the intangible positive effects of education for the individual woman are largely dismissed.
One WAGS thesis examines the history, impact, and challenges of women’s education in the Nigerian context -with regard to the advancement of human rights. The thesis explores the ways in which the third MDG promotes female literacy in Nigeria -but perhaps for misguided reasons. Using qualitative interviews with women in Ikenne, Ogun State, Nigeria, It then offers new ways in which governments and NGOs might begin to reapproach the promotion of women’s education.
Each year the on-campus group, The Women of Amherst, performs a show by the same name modeled after Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues. The show highlights stories of love, pain, assault, friendship, growth, joy, and sex -and is entirely written by cast members themselves. The 2012 Women of Amherst production brought issues of rape and sexual assault on the Amherst College campus to the forefront of the school’s consciousness. Many audience members were surprised and deeply saddened to learn about their peers’ traumatic experiences. Some even questioned the legitimacy of some of the pieces.
The start of the ’12/’13 academic year witnessed a tidal wave of survivors’ truths -truths which had been silenced for far too long on campus and in our communities. People began to carve safe spaces to tell their stories of guilt, shame, survival, courage, and strength. It was heartbreaking, and it was beautiful. Survivors, professors, reporters, allies, and bystanders engaged in critical conversations about the past, present, and future of sexual safety at Amherst. The Women of Amherst applaud the broader community for participating in dialogue about issues so relevant to the group and to survivors everywhere. By the same token, however, The Women of Amherst seeks to remind its audience that there is more to sex in college than fear and danger. Women and men can -and often do- celebrate their sexual selves in ways that are healthy and admirable.
It will be interesting to see what the 2013 Women of Amherst production brings.
Danielle Sucher has created a Google Chrome extension which genderswaps the world, and it has a pretty fabulous name: Jailbreak the Patriarchy. When it’s installed, everything you read in Chrome (except for gmail) loads with pronouns and other gendered words swapped. For example: “she put on her most feminine panties” would read as “he put on his most masculine panties.” This is fun!
Danielle writes that “This makes reading stuff on the internet a pretty fascinating and eye-opening experience.” I agree with her. It is one thing to know that we live in a sexist world full of double standards, but it is another thing to see the phrase “momma was a rolling stone” and think about the way we view motherhood vs. fatherhood. As one user commented, “running Jailbreak the Patriarchy for the past few days has already changed my perspective on the world in a way that I find interesting, enjoyable, and valuable.”
Jailbreak the Patriarchy does not trap you “outside the asylum” (there is an off button) but if you feel squeamish about downloading it you could also try regender.com. This website, created by Ka-Ping Yee, works like one of those language translation sites. Just go to regender.com and enter either text or a destination site that you would like them to “translate.” For now I leave you with this: http://regender.com/swap/http://jezebel.com/
Model Cameron Russell gave an interesting TED talk on beauty, power, and privilege. The talk grabs you because of the candor and thoughtfulness with which she approaches the subject, which of course she can speak on from a unique vantage point. “For the past few centuries we have defined beauty not just as health and youth and symmetry, (things) that we are biologically programmed to admire, but also as tall slender figures and femininity and white skin. This is a legacy that has been built for me and it is a legacy that I have been cashing out on. “
And she is open enough to point out that her privilege is built on other people’s oppression. Although she did not go into as much detail as I would have liked (I know the point of TED talks is that they are brief) she did provide a few examples. Like New York’s shameful stop and frisk policy, which makes humiliation a daily routine for many Black and Latino residents of the city. She explains that the whole point of stop and frisk is that it is based on image. If someone “looks” like a criminal they will be stopped. (Tell that to grandmothers and kids are being frisked. These stories and more can be found in a striking, well researched report done by the Center for Constitutional Rights.) Russell contrasts this with a story of being pulled over with a friend who had run through a red light. “All it took was a sorry officer to get off.”
But if you think that the life of a model is all peaches and cream (excuse me, non-fat whipped topping) think again. “Models are the most physically insecure women probably on the planet.” says Russell. How sad that even having skinny thighs and shiny hair does not insulate someone from our toxic, body hating* culture. Russell notes that while “It was difficult to unpack the legacy of gender and racial oppression when I am one of the biggest beneficiaries.” It also felt uncomfortable to share with the audience that “winning the genetic lottery” has not made her happy. I am grateful that she took this risk. Just like other kinds of privilege, we need people who are benefitting from beauty privilege to acknowledge this system before it can be dismantled. What does Russell want to be the take away from her talk? “I hope we all feel more comfortable acknowledging the power of image in our perceived successes, and our perceived failures.
*A widely reported study found that 53% of American girls are “unhappy with their bodies.” This grows to 78% by the time girls reach seventeen.
By Matthew Randolph
During my high school years, I remained in the closet, safely postponing coming to terms with my identity for a later date. Partly because, I assure you, I was still trying to understand my sexuality, but also because I held so many imagined fears about being seen as anything other than straight at my all-boys private school. There was only one openly gay person in my high school class. I did not want to have a spotlight placed on me to make me feel different from the other guys. By senior year, when I considered coming out, I decided against it, already under enough pressure dealing with college applications and a social life. Still, I knew I would come out at the beginning of my college career. I braced myself for any social consequences that would result from coming out, but I suspected being out in college would be better than spending even more of my life in the closet.
At Amherst, I was confused to find the process so stress-free and emotionally fulfilling. I know I am only a first-year college student, and one who attends a liberal arts college in New England. I still find it surprising that I have yet to personally experience one incident of homophobia at Amherst. None of the straight friends that I have made so far seem to care that much. Why did I overestimate how much attention people would pay to my sexuality? I am not denying that LGBT people experience discrimination on this campus. However, my personal experience so far as a first semester first-year has included much more stress about the general adjustment to college life than stress from being openly gay. Most other first-year students who find out about my gay identity respond with something like “Oh, you’re gay. Cool. I didn’t know that.” After that realization, the conversation turns to the typical concerns of first-year students (like the next time Val grants us buffalo chicken wraps for lunch). I think that was a serious concern I had for so long: wanting to feel like an individual and not a label. That concern kept me from being willing to tell other people that I was gay. In the closet, I believed coming out would mean labeling myself as a gay person instead of telling myself that I am someone who happens to be gay like I have learned to do now (in addition to being so many other awesome things). At Amherst, I feel like my sexual orientation is acknowledged and respected but at the same time, I feel like my individuality beyond it gets appreciated as well.
As an openly gay male student at Amherst, I have taken advantage of both Pride Alliance and Men of the Valley meetings and events for support. Men of the Valley gave me the opportunity to get to reflect on the experiences of the other gay men on campus. Interestingly, although we discuss issues facing gay men at Amherst, I have most enjoyed gleaning wisdom and advice from upperclassmen for navigating the Amherst experience in general, socially and academically.
Every sentiment of shame, anxiety or low self-worth has faded away since I arrived on this campus. Not only do I feel better about being more honest with people, but I also have gained so much more confidence in myself. Before coming out, I truly believed that my life could only be enjoyable by pretending to be straight. I remember myself welling up with shame whenever my mom initially lamented that I would not give her grandchildren or suggested that I was just too young to know I was gay. To be fair to my mother, she is merely concerned with my quality of life and truly loves me. She only wanted me to be happy. My happiness has always been a priority for her. I try my best to always remind her that my happiness and potential to impact the world should not and will not be limited by who I might want to marry one day.
Clearly, my life has been so much more enjoyable since coming out. Beyond the confidence boost after coming out, my life stayed pretty much the same. Apart from telling people I wanted to date guys, my world refused to drastically change. I immersed myself into the fall semester and soon the novelty of being out faded from my mind. Although I have only been openly gay for less than a semester, being out is already beginning to seem more natural.
The experience likely differs for each LGBT person, but for me, after I overcame the psychological adjustment of being openly gay, my anxiety about my identity ceased. Now that my sexuality is no longer a source of stress or shame, my mind is fully focused on my academic goals at Amherst and building friendships with other people. I find it so interesting that in the closet, I was so much more preoccupied and insecure about myself as a result of the identity crisis. I was living two lives but deep down I knew I wanted to finally get rid of my false identity. I didn’t want to hide my true self and perform the role of someone I was not destined to be. At Amherst, I was able to forget about the (perceived) social expectations of other people. I started living according to my own philosophy. That philosophy did not include being ashamed of myself, and it definitely did not include lying to other people about who I am. Using the phrase “lying to other people” sounds like an extreme description; for me, at least, it seems like the most accurate way to explain the reality of my time before being open about my sexuality. To be honest, I think I just got tired of the work necessary to deny a part of one’s identity. The lying was not only exhausting but seemed unethical as well.
So far, I haven’t told someone about my sexual orientation unless it becomes particularly relevant. I personally do not want to start a conversation with a new friend on that topic but there were instances where I realized I should have told someone earlier. It is always hard to figure out the right moment to tell a new college friend that you are not straight. However, one friend from my dorm had heard from other people and he was waiting for me to be honest with him. My attraction to guys didn’t matter to him at all and I regretted delaying the conversation with him. I assumed that a straight guy would not be interested in learning that someone in his dorm was gay. I also definitely did not expect him to be comfortable with being someone I could rely on if I wanted to talk about LGBT issues. I definitely matured from that experience by learning not to assume the worst of people.
There are genuine, serious reasons for Amherst students to stay in the closet. It can be justified for many different and complex reasons. My experience, as someone who came out at the beginning of first-year orientation, is likely very different from a gay student who has to come out to college friends who had assumed for a while that they were straight. Furthermore, some families may not be as accepting as mine. Even if students are ready to come out within the Amherst community, they may not be ready for that information to spread to their families.
Still, I urge anyone still struggling with their sexual orientation to really consider which risks represent real consequences if they come out and which ones are imagined or irrational. Unless the consequences are truly devastating, coming out should have less to do with contemplating the consequences of the decision. For me, it had everything to do with solely considering the benefits.
This article was first published in The Amherst Student “The Independent Newspaper of Amherst College since 1868.”
Clark University is hosting a day long conference called All Kinds of Girls Conference as an opportunity to bring together individuals from schools that do not have female specific mentoring programs, as well as individuals from outside organizations who work to foster the development of young girls. The conference will focus on how other schools can start impactful programs similar to AKOG*, as well as the importance of fostering the socio-emotional development of adolescent girls.
When and where: The conference will be held at Clark University on April 6th, 2013 and will be a full day program.
Who should attend: Individuals from schools who are interested in starting a program similar to AKOG or who are interested in learning how they can help positively foster adolescent girls’ development.
*All Kinds of Girls (AKOG) is an all-female mentoring program that pairs undergraduate women with 9-12 year old girls from the local community. The aim of AKOG is to help the girls develop their individual identities while promoting self-expression, confidence and mutual understanding. The program runs throughout the academic year and takes place on Saturdays. For more information, visit our website at http://www.clarku.edu/departments/womensstudies/akog.
If interested: Please go to http://akogconference2013.wufoo.com/forms/all-kinds-of-girls-spring-conference-rsvp-form/ to RSVP by Monday, December 24th, 2012.