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.
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.