Thursday, 21 April 2011

Ornament vs instrument: living in the body

I found a freckle on my boyfriend's knee that he never even knew was there.

I was pretty gobsmacked by this. Not the freckle - it was a good freckle, but, well, freckles are freckles - but the idea that you could live for 23 years and not know every inch of your own body. Did he not spend his teenage years gazing into mirrors, wondering whether his eyebrows were too close together? Didn't he analyse his arse from every conceivable angle, employing complex arrangements of mirrors to ascertain whether both cheeks were actually the same size? Didn't he count every blemish, every imagined imperfection, and wonder just how hideous on a scale of grotesque to eyeball-meltingly horrifying they made him to other people? Did he honestly never think, "does this knee freckle make me look fat?"

Nope. Because he was an athlete, and, his whole life, his experience of his body was focused on what it could do, not what it looked like. He knows precisely how many sit ups he could do in one go when he was sixteen, but that freckle somehow escaped notice.

It seems like we're very extreme examples of how men and women - or teenage boys and teenage girls, anyway - live in their bodies. (I'm talking about specifically white cis people here, given that that's all I know; I'd imagine that race and transness colour these experiences in completely different ways. Disability, too; I'll get onto my own experience of that shortly, but it comes in all 32 flavours.)

From birth, little boy babies are encouraged to move more, run about, climb higher. People play more roughly with boys and estimate their strength and resilience more highly. Girls, though, are congratulated on being pretty, and long before puberty and the need to be Hot and the redoubled impact of the male gaze assumed everywhere, they're well aware that looking good is good. Their bodies are ornaments, while boys' are instruments.

To give a ridiculous, but still painful, example: I loved swimming when I was a kid. But then puberty hit, with its attendant body hair and fat in new places, and I was literally too paralysed by my disgust at the thought of myself in a swimming costume to even think about getting in the water again. The fixation on how my body looked made it impossible for me to even find out what it could do.

In the last few years, though, my attention has been brought back with brutal force to my body as an instrument, not an ornament: all the things it can't do make the fact that it doesn't look like some platonic Cosmo-cover ideal kind of irrelevant. Which makes swimming - one of the things it can do, and can do pretty well - a joy to be savoured. When I exercise these days, I'm not thinking about how I look, and I'm not thinking about how I will look; I'm not calculating how many calories this length will burn, or how much walking up these stairs will tone my quads. I'm enjoying the pure physical sensation of capability. Of the body working as an efficient machine, taking fuel in, using fuel to move, and taking pleasure in muscles contracting and stretching and working.

I still like looking pretty, I still wear fabulous outfits and wax my legs and occasionally even stretch to lipstick, but my body, with all its aches and pains and minor ailments and major fatigue is always demanding attention, asserting its physicality, in a way that can't be ignored (I no longer remember what it's like to live without back pain, say) that how it works is the primary mode in which I experience my body these days: how it looks has gradually become secondary. Which is sad in some ways: I'd love to be able to wear heels again, but I know that one extra twinge of pain is likely to tip me over the edge from 'exhausted but coping' to 'word-slurring eyelid-drooping wreck'. But it makes the moments of joy in the body's capabilities all the sweeter. Who cares what I look like? My thigh muscles just took me all the way to the third floor, and it was awesome.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

On getting your hands dirty

"Working for a charity which supports people who used to be in the Army? That's a bit right wing, isn't it?"

Haha, yes! In that very special right wing way of working to improve the lives of predominantly working class people! Funny thing about helping people with debts, DLA applications and rent arrears: they're rarely from the officer class.

Okay, I admit, I'm getting pretty defensive about this: a whole blog post in response to an offhand comment related to me at second hand might conceivably qualify as overkill. In my ultimate vision of my ideal career path, I didn't plan on working for a services charity: being a typical bleeding heart lefty liberal feminist, the grand plan is still to work with, say, a women's shelter, or a homeless outreach program, but these sort of charities don't generally come that high on funding priority lists (and have I mentioned recently how much money Britons give to saving the fucking donkeys?), so jobs are few and far between. My employers, however, get millions in donations every year, so they can afford to hire a charming and efficient administrator to make their fixing-people's-lives professionals' jobs easier.

And that charming and efficient administrator? Gets to do some pretty good life-fixing too. Seriously, last week I made a man cry with gratitude because I moved heaven and earth to enable him to repay money lent to him by his daughter. Without that money, her kids wouldn't have been able to go on holiday. Without that money, he wouldn't have been able to eat for a month. Without me and the terribly reactionary right wing charity I work for, he would have had to choose between souring the one good relationship left in his life, or risking his home and his already failing health by repaying the debt out of his own pocket.

But I guess because he was in the Army when he was young, he's just a tool of the establishment and I should have left him to rot, right?

I would absolutely love to be able to help everyone who needs it: it would be wonderful to be able to pay off the rent arrears of every struggling single mum, to help every person bewildered by the Disability Living Allowance application process to navigate an unfamiliar and uncaring system, to negotiate with unscrupulous credit card companies on behalf of every person they're trying to force into bankruptcy. But I can't. So if my choice is between making an unimaginable difference in some people's lives while being unable to help others, or throwing my hands up in despair rather than work for a services charity because I think that War Is Bad, I'm not that torn.

Sorry, dude, the revolution wasn't hiring. And may I ask - you're making the world better how, exactly?

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Auntie Llama's advice column, with tax evasion, bad shoes, and poor quality photographs

Ah, Tory Britain. So full of sage advice. Did you know, for instance, that the financial crisis of the last few years was caused by a sly, pernicious group within society - a selfish, scheming collection of malefactors who care nothing for the hard-working majority and are only out for what they can scam off the state?

No, not bankers, you doofus! BENEFIT CHEATS!

Those bastards.

Imagine waking up with that outside your bedroom window. Especially if you are, in fact, receiving housing benefit. Clearly, there's only one thing to do, if you are an upstanding citizen with a dedicated commitment to the betterment of this nation.

I love this county.

(My own preferred defacement involved drawing attention to the fact that benefit fraud is estimated to cost the economy £1.6bn a year, as compared to the current 'tax gap' of one hundred and twenty billion... but apparently that's too long to be a good slogan.)

In other sagey onion-flavoured advice, may I suggest that, should you find yourself presented with the opportunity to travel halfway across London barefoot, you decline the challenge?

It also behoves me to suggest that, should you be presented with the opportunity to buy Clarks shoes, you heed this broken-footed blogger's warning.

Friday, 15 April 2011

2582 characters demonstrating precisely why Twitter is not my preferred medium

I've been moonlighting as a pro-choice tweeting crusader for a while now, and it's immensely gratifying to see our dinky litle abortion fund becoming a target for people who find the existence of uterine occupancy options infuriating.

You get the amusingly direct:

@ @ abortion is murder
(Well, that's me converted!)

You get the "funny" ones:

@ Yur... I just be havin me 6th abortion and me cannot afford to travel back to Errland, who gun pay me.

You get the actually, though unintentionally, funny:

@ Jesus loves you! Jesus Saves. Trust Jesus!

and the just plain weird:

@ Planned Parenthood will kill 500 women today!


But, as ever, the flat-out obvious offensive stuff never really wounds or annoys. It's the sneaky ones. The ones that don't call you a murderer, exactly, but don't you think the idea that abortion ends a life is a valid argument? It's not that we think you're lying, it's just that 5,000 women a year coming over from Ireland for abortions... that seems an awful lot. I'm not saying abortion's bad, but wouldn't adoption be better?

And now: it's not that we think abortion makes you mad, bad and sad, but posting a link to [yet another] study which has [once again] failed to find any link between abortion and mental illness - well, that's

@, a rather sweeping generalisation on such a multi-factorial issue.

Now, I can't help but feel that the above chap is rather missing the point of scientific research: when one is looking for a statistically significant relationship between two phenomena, surely the very essence of what you're doing is making a generalisation? An analysis of the studies discovered no causal relationship between abortion and mental health problems - not this girl, in particular, found her experience of abortion traumatic, and her sense of guilt, combined with the pressures of secrecy and the financial stress involved, triggered her long-term propensity towards depression.

In short, generalisation! Not case study. The whole point of which is to look for the relationship (or lack of relationship) between two factors! So criticising the researchers' approach for not being "multi-factorial" enough is really quite silly! Furthermore, "factorial"? Really?

So it was with some relief that I greeted the next mention. At least it gave me a giggle.