Could the modeling industry get any worse?

In the world of high fashion, models with skeletal frames are, well, the norm. In fact, the acceptable body weight of runway models is so low that models in the size 4-8 range are often considered plus-size. Healthy bodies are viewed as heavy. It should go without saying that this is really, really wrong.

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But apparently a lot still needs to be said. Last week, Swedish news source The Local reported that modeling scouts have a history of approaching patients at eating disorder clinics.  According to a doctor at the Stockholm Center for Eating Disorders, “People have stood outside our clinic and tried to pick up our girls because they know they are very thin.”

One of the patients approached was so ill that she was bound to a wheelchair. Another was only 14.

When the scouts were confronted about what they were doing, they explained that they look for “healthy, normally slim young people and that they never urge anyone to lose weight.”

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Right. They look for healthy models at a medical clinic for severely ill and emaciated young women (not to mention psychologically fragile). And how convenient that they wouldn’t need to encourage them to lose weight, since they’re already weighing in at near-death numbers.

This is not really about weight though, or about sizes. Most women know what a healthy size is for their particular body type, and it’s usually a range. On a spectrum of sizes, “healthy,” of course, can be found at both ends.

That said, no argument or opinion about what is and isn’t beautiful, natural, or even admittedly preferred makes this remotely okay. These young women are trying to recover from something devastating. But to the modeling industry, they’re up for grabs.

If nothing else, their actions should makes us question our own roles in this sick game. What magazines do we read, what designers and brands do we wear? And perhaps most importantly, what do we think about ourselves when we step on the scale? It’s time to stop feeding into an industry that is willing to pay women to keep killing themselves.

“American Novelists” means male novelists, of course.

In a New York Times op-ed last week, Amanda Filipacchi wrote about something strange going on over at Wikipedia. Apparently, editors are moving the names of women novelists from the category “American Novelists,” and putting them in a new category: “American Women Novelists.” Men’s names, of course, remain only in “American Novelists.”

According to Filipacchi,

 “It appears that many female novelists, like Harper Lee, Anne Rice, Amy Tan, Donna Tartt and some 300 others, have been relegated to the ranks of “American Women Novelists” only, and no longer appear in the category “American Novelists.” If you look back in the “history” of these women’s pages, you can see that they used to appear in the category “American Novelists,” but that they were recently bumped down. Male novelists on Wikipedia, however—no matter how small or obscure they are—all get to be in the category “American Novelists.”

Since Filipacchi’s piece, other writers have reported on it as well, and if you visit the Wikipedia pages it seems that they’ve halted this nonsense–for now. It would be one thing if Wikipedia created separate categories for both men and women. This might make sense in regards to simpler searching for a particular author.  But to create a “women’s” list and remove those names from the master list of novelists suggests that women writers are a derivative from the “normal” (read: male) category of writers.

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Joyce Carol Oates

So why is this happening in the first place? According to Deanna Zandt in an article for Forbes Woman (which is another interesting derivation–is this happening everywhere?),

“Anyone can edit Wikipedia, but over 80% of Wikipedia’s editors are young, white, child-free men, which means that their perspective is what largely dominates how information is organized, framed and written. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a young, white, child-free man’s perspective, of course– it’s just that there are tons of other perspectives in the world that should influence how a story gets told.”

If Wikipedia truly wants to provide users with neutral, unbiased information, it’s going to need more women editors. Duh. If “male” is the norm–the original category from which all others deviate–then sexism is also the norm. It’s subtle, and for that reason, it’s pervasive. It’s the status quo. And it’s not just up to Wikipedia to fix it. It’s up to us, too.

In the words of Zandt:

“[I]t’s not enough that we create an open system and say that everyone has the opportunity to work on it– we need to make intentional interventions into the status quo that involve raising the voices of those who are not heard as often.”

The truth of the matter? As long as we allow “the norm” to speak for us and to structure how we think about the world, we can always expect to be described in adjectives that reference our “otherness.” And right now, we’re allowing ourselves to be defined in terms of that difference.

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The “worthiness” of women’s writings

Michelle Dean wrote an article for New York Magazine this week titled “How to Win at the Women’s Memoir Game.” It examines the critical reception of women’s memoirs, work often reviewed as “oversharing.” For some reason, women’s memoirs are commonly dismissed as attempts to tell silly, sensationalized, or simply much too personal stories.

In regards to personal or “confessional” writing, Dean writes:

“The ‘confessional’ impulse has actually never been strictly a Woman Thing — just look at F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up or Robert Lowell’s poetry, for starters. But the accusation that a writer has taken it to extremes, beyond art into sensationalism, usually is leveled at us alone.”

She cites Lena Dunham and Cat Marnell as two women who have recently scored book deals for their memoirs–works anticipated to be highly personal tell-alls.  The confessional nature of their books, however, makes them targets for criticism, especially in conversations about “serious literature.”

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Lena Dunham

More seasoned memoirists such as Joan Didion, Cheryl Strayed and Elizabeth Gilbert, however, have managed to escape some of this criticism. Why? Perhaps, Deen muses, because in their books “the sex is less prominent and the focus tends to be on personal tragedies that are more sympathetic to a wider audience.” In other words, in the eyes of critics, they’re not telling stories defined by their gender, or so clearly written for a female audience.

She concludes the discussion of their success with the observation that “there are, actually, degrees of craft involved in writing yourself, as Nora Ephron put it, as the heroine of your own life.”

Deen’s conversation about the type of critical response that women’s “confessional” or “oversharing” memoirs receive reminds me of the impostor syndrome, a psychological phenomenon in which people do not feel like they deserve their success.  It’s a common experience among women, and it causes us to question the worthiness of our work and achievements.

The experience of feeling unworthy or untalented doesn’t come out nowhere, though. Women writers are especially scrutinized, and their work often taken less seriously than men’s. For this to change, women’s writing must be evaluated as writing first. And on that note, perhaps we should stop classifying anything created by a woman as “women’s” altogether.

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Violence against women in India: The norm?

Protestors have taken to the streets after another horrific rape in India. This past Wednesday, a five-year-old girl was found in a New Delhi apartment after being reported missing by her parents on Monday. The girl was abducted, tortured and raped for two days by a 23-year-old man.

The New York Times reports that, in addition to beating, strangling, and genitally mutilating the girl, the suspect inserted an eight inch bottle and a candle inside her. The objects had to be surgically removed.

On top of such a horrifying crime, the girl’s parents told reporters that the police “had failed to take their complaint seriously, failed to carry out an adequate search and then offered them 2,000 rupees—about $37—if they would keep quiet about the case.”

There has been a recent trend in extreme violence against women in India, or at least a trend in the visibility of these crimes. This case comes just months after the December gang rape and subsequent death of a 23-year-old woman. A few days after her death, in an unrelated incident, an 18-year-old woman committed suicide after being raped by two men. Last month, a Swiss woman touring the country with her husband was raped by a group of men who also beat and robbed them.

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These brutal crimes speak volumes about the culture of violence against women in India. Protestors are also speaking out about India’s culture of victim-blaming among the police and judicial system.

According to The Huffington Post:

“This is the mentality which most Indian men are suffering from unfortunately,’ Ranjana Kumari, director for the New Delhi-based Centre for Social Research, told the newspaper. “That is the mindset that has been perpetrating this crime because they justify it indirectly, you asked for it so it is your responsibility.”

Victim-blaming is not unique to India. For many emerging countries it is still the cultural norm. Police incompetence–and indifference–make matters worse.

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India’s Parliament passed a new law last month making sexual harassment a crime, and rape resulting in the victim’s death punishable by the death penalty.

Passing the law itself was a significant step in the right direction, but the way in which this most recent rape of a child is handled–and the punishment her attacker receives–will set perhaps an even more important precedent for India.

In defense of slowing things down

If I’ve learned anything in my 24th year of life, it’s that sometimes it’s okay to slow things down. This is a hard lesson to learn, and to be honest, it’s something I still have to remind myself of. I think women especially struggle with this–we want it all, and sometimes all at once. And we feel pressured to do it all as fast and as perfectly as we can.

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But why not slow life down? After all, isn’t timing everything?

Let me put my musings into context: I stumbled upon this article while “conducting research” for my thesis. It’s about a recent trend among graduate students to have children while they’re finishing their programs. The author goes on to ask whether or not universities should provide support and accommodation to parents with newborns, such as maternity leave, healthcare, and private nursing rooms.

I was surprised by how many women commented about their own experiences. Apparently, having a baby midway through your Master’s, law, medical or doctorate degree is a very real thing:

“I’m a third-year social science PhD student, and my husband and I are planning to have a child in the spring of my fourth year when I’m 26.”

“I had my daughter at 28 during my 3rd and last year of residency.”

“I had my first child during my 5th year in a Ph.D. program at an Ivy League university.”

“My daughter was born during the winter break before my final semester as a master’s student.”

“I had my son at the end of my 1st year as doctoral student in clinical psychology, attending a school in NYC.”

“I gave birth to my first son while I was in my second year of law school.”

“We have a very unhealthy obsession with work and looking busy in our culture.”

What struck me the most about these comments, besides the whole how-does-she-do-it question, is how frantic women seem to get pregnant “before it’s too late,” even in their mid-twenties. This comment, however, also stood out (and made me feel better about not having children on my radar anytime soon):

“We have a very unhealthy obsession with work and looking busy in our culture.”

I couldn’t agree more. Do we push through, multi-tasking all the way, because we want to or because we feel like we have to? Do we ever stop and enjoy the moment? Can we pause between our accomplishments, without somehow feeling like unproductive failures?

For me, it’s all about taking things one step at a time. And right now, I’m refusing to feel bad about that.

I’m waiting for Wonder Woman

For the last few years, movies about superheros have dominated the big screen. Spiderman, Batman, Thor, Ironman…the list goes on. Classic Marvel and DC comic-book figures have been transformed into larger than life fan obsessions. This summer, the trend continues with new movies about Superman (Man of Steel) and Wolverine (The Wolverine). The trailers look good, and I’m looking forward to seeing them. Still, I have to wonder: When are we going to see an awesome movie about a superheroine?

So far, superheroines have appeared as side acts in otherwise all-male ensembles. Think of Storm in X-Men or Natasha Romanoff in The Avengers.  A little ironically, Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu, and Cameron Diaz had more screen time, character development, and dialogue in the Charlie’s Angels trilogy than either of Halle Berry’s or Scarlett Johansson’s roles. And then there was Berry’s Catwoman…sigh. I’m tired of seeing superheorines as an afterthought or even worse, as a joke.

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Last year I wrote an article about the fantastic PBS documentary Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines. It traces the history of Wonder Woman, the Amazonian Princess Diana, since her creation in the 1940’s. The documentary is most moving in its exploration of what Wonder Woman actually means to young women. She stands for compassion, justice, even love. She is strong yet kind.  She is powerful yet fair. And most importantly, she “keeps going,” no matter what. She’s a superheroine, but the best, most admirable parts of her character feel real.

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Done right, a Wonder Woman epic could mean the next superhero/ine blockbuster for the the film industry. But for women it would mean much more.

Stigmas and standards: Pregnancy past 40

Halle Berry isn’t just pregnant with her second child, she’s pregnant with the second child she’s had past 40.  Big news, everyone, or at least you’d think so by all the way-too-excited headlines reporting it. Here’s the rundown: She had her first daughter at 41 with model Gabriel Aubry, and now at 46 she’s expecting a boy with fiancé Olivier Martinez (of Unfaithful fame). Truth be told, I would not know Berry’s exact age if it weren’t for this pregnancy. For some reason, the number is not to be missed.

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Okay, it’s not just for some reason. Her age is getting so much attention because, let’s be honest, there’s a stigma associated with women who get pregnant past the age of 40 (and really, even past 35). In 2013. No matter who you are (in this case, a famous actress), how much money you make (lots), or what the state of your physical health is (uh, she looks pretty damn fit/perfect to me), if you’re a woman who dares to have a baby “later” in life, prepare to be picked apart.

I’ve already read too many lines about her diabetes, the risks of geriatric pregnancies, and how she will raise children during her “twilight” years. And in the comments sections, readers are scrambling over how she got pregnant in the first place. Everyone calm down. She’s 46, not 86. Besides, why, really, do we care? Of all the pregnant women in the world, I don’t think Berry needs our concern. And on that note, does any pregnant woman deserve the quick judgement of strangers?

Halle Berry attends 'The Call' Premiere in Buenos Aires

This might be personal for me. I’m more than 20 years younger than Berry, but I’ve already listened to friends talk about when they think they“should” try to have a baby, followed, very clearly, by when they shouldn’t. My objections to these engrained rules are answered with phrases not unlike the ones that come up in articles about Berry’s pregnancy: something about risks and the fear (distaste?) of being an older mom.

Here’s what Berry has to say about it:

“I’m a much better mother at 46–or 41, when I had her–than if I were like 21 or 25. I mean I was just a little baby trying to figure it out–trying to figure out who I was, let alone having the responsibility of trying to help another little soul develop and grow. I’m so glad I waited.”

By the way, I had to search around a little for Martinez’s age. It isn’t automatically listed in every article (and headline!) like Berry’s. He’s 47.