I'm Lena Chen, a writer, activist, and media producer who's been called a "skank" (by Bill O'Reilly) and "a small Asian woman" (by The New York Times). My favorite part of my workday is the hate mail.For the unlikely story that is my life, read on.
“On the outside, I’m adamant about how much I love my body and confident I am in myself and would be mortified to admit otherwise to anyone I know but deep inside I just wish I could be thin and have a blemish-free symmetrical face … how do you have such great self-confidence in respect of the way you look when you’re so far from the beauty ideal?”
The above missive is from an email I received from Gemma, a reader who’s finding it hard to reconcile her feminist beliefs and her body image. I have to confess that I can only relate too well. I used to think that there were two groups of women who didn’t feel bad about their bodies: the beautiful and the feminist. Turns out I was wrong on both fronts. Despite what I’ve written about how the beauty ideal harms people (especially young women), I find it a lot easier to not judge others by the way they look than to avoid judging myself. Since I don’t admit on my blog that I, too, get bothered by weight gain or that I feel guilty when I don’t exercise, it’s no wonder that other people get the impression I have “great self-confidence”. Don’t get me wrong — I do think my body image is better than it’s ever been before in my life and I’ve never been less fixated on my appearance. Still, that doesn’t mean I don’t also have plenty of days when I wake up feeling … well, fat.
It took me a long time to realize that there’s no magic number that’s going to make you feel content with yourself as long as you have the mindset that you can reach “beauty” like some kind of goal. As long as your self-worth is in any way connected to your weight or the quality of your skin or the contents of your closet, you’re already setting yourself up for unhappiness. You should start by asking, “Why is this something that I deem valuable anyway?” For one, because we’re constantly told that beauty is valuable, that it’s fleeting, that it’ll make people love us, that it means we’re somehow better. And the ugly truth is that being beautiful does afford you a lot of privilege in our society. Even simply dressing the “right” way will mean that you’re assumed to be more legitimate than someone doesn’t. Which is terribly unfair, isn’t it? Absolutely! And it’s something we should be mad, not resigned, about. Why should we be feeling bad about ourselves for not being able to adhere to an inherently flawed standard?
At the same time, we have to acknowledge the unfortunate reality that appearance matters. That’s why it’s such a struggle to not care about how you look. Because even if you realize that you shouldn’t have to, not caring and not following the rules does put you at a disadvantage. This was the conundrum I was pondering a couple years ago. At the time, I was incredibly tired of having people discuss whether I was hot enough to write a sex blog (SexAndTheIvy.com). It seemed like no one felt the need to read my writing, if I didn’t pass their initial “Would I Do Her?” test. (Of course, none of them asked themselves if I’d ever do them, but whatever.) Anonymous people on the Internet would call me “chubby” or “busted”, and even though I wasn’t invested in a stranger’s assessment of my looks, it was irritating that this was even an issue. It’s not like I knew any dude bloggers who ever had to deal with this much scrutiny. So, I’m embarrassed to confess, I came up with this Super Feminist Plot to lose enough weight that no one could comment on it anymore. And simultaneously, I could acknowledge — in my head, at least — that it was ridiculous that I had to do this. I could have my cake and eat it too! Well, metaphorically, that is.
Guess what? It didn’t work.
And I don’t know why I ever assumed it would. We even call actresses “fat” when they’re not as slender as Hollywood standards dictate. And if those women aren’t immune to superficial criticisms about their bodies, why did I think I’d be just because I was a few pounds lighter? I got it into my head — despite my professed feminist beliefs — that maybe beauty could be attainable after all. Like maybe there’s an “enough” point where I can say, “Okay, fairly smooth skin, minimal love handles, can live with this!” and maybe if I didnt get too greedy or ask for too much, then I could just secretly enjoy my thinness and the security it would afford.
As I write this entry, there are people on the Internet discussing my “tiny tits”. So needless to say, I learned my lesson. The haters gonna hate no matter what your dress size is, and if it’s not your waistline they target, it’s going to be something else. It’s the same when it comes to people in real life. Those who are going to form an opinion on you for something like your weight are just going to fixate on something else (your outfit, tattoos, gender presentation), and no amount of pre-planning or meticulous preparation is going to prevent you from having to confront judgment in your day-to-day life. I wrote back in January 2009 that “if you’re going to slim down, then do it for yourself because what society expects of you is certainly not attainable”. And I still stand by that today.
Gemma also wondered in her note to me whether her “feminism is undermined by [her] thoughts on [her] own body”. I don’t think that’s the case at all. If anything, her experience with navigating this issue probably only strengthens and enhances her feminist beliefs, because it gives her a way of applying what she might have only understood in the abstract. There’s so much pressure to look a certain way that even a professed feminist buckles under the weight. And have you ever read an interview with an aging actress on her career prospects? It’s incredibly sad how even genetically blessed people feel like they have their entire life’s work riding on such superficial criteria. But while women universally struggle with issues like weight and aging, few realize that they’re not alone in having these kinds of body-negative thoughts. Which is why I’m admitting now that I’m pretty much as susceptible to these messages as you are. Sadly, body image is an all-too-relatable example of how the personal is very much the political.
Related posts on body image:
What Sex Blogging & The Freshman 15 Taught Me
The Gym-A-Phobe’s Guide To Having Your Cupcake & Eating It Too
Reader Question: “What are the merits of having small breasts?”
The Blueprint Myth
Happy Fat-Free Talk Week
Check out more of Lena’s Bad Feminist Confessions on The Chicktionary.
And on Cyber Monday, the holiest of days, I am purchasing my second Miraculous Bra. Victoria’s Secret claims that this baby increases your rack by two entire cup sizes, which makes me hope that this is really only an appealing product for other A-cup ladies.
Strapless dresses, here I come!
Girl, I worship at the altar of Hello Kitty, routinely wear push-up bras, and gave a blowjob for breakfast yesterday. I’m like the Worst Feminist Ever, but I could really give less of a crap. The reason why I started writing Bad Feminist Confessions is because I was frustrated by people holding me to ridiculous standards. If I like sex, I can’t be a feminist. If I cook for my dude, I can’t be a feminist. If I eschew pants and embrace bow-adorned garments, I most definitely cannot be feminist.
Look, it’s not what you do that determines your feminism, it’s why you do it. I hate saying the tired old line that “feminism is about choice”, because let’s face it, a lot of people make shitty choices with zero self-awareness. The women parading around in Girls Gone Wild videos? They are not liberated, choice-making feminists, not unless you think “choosing” to cater to the male gaze is empowerment. Let’s not fool ourselves here!
However, your decision to turn doilies into lampshades and mine to don sequin-covered skirts are not decisions that we’re making because we believe they’re integral to our value as people. We’re not doing it because it’s expected of us and we’re not doing it because we want to please our partners. You presumably find genuine enjoyment in DIY projects and retro fashion just as I view cooking and home entertaining to be fulfilling activities. But neither of us is suggesting that these are the only appropriate interests a woman should have and that we are somehow superior to others for doing these things well.
And as long as I’m living the way I want to live and not the way I think I ought to live as a woman, I think I’m pretty damn feminist.
More burning questions? Ask Lena Chen, self-professed “bad feminist”.
bell hooks says that “feminism is for everybody” but could you be doing it wrong? If you wear push-up bras, partake in doggy-style intercourse, or enjoy teen vampire romance novels, then chances are, you’re unwittingly aiding the Patriarchy! Luckily for you, Lena Chen, a self-described “Bad Feminist”, is here to steer you clear of pink consumer products and strippercise classes. In this edition of “Bad Feminist Confessions”, Lena finds that she can’t speak truth to the Patriarchy when the Patriarchy is busy looking at her ass. It’s time for a more creative solution to street harassment, don’t you think?
I forgot how much cat-calling goes on in New York. And then I ended up wearing super tight skinny jeans for my three-day visit in the city and found out pretty quickly. It was supposed to be a one-night trip, but things came up. (And by “things”, I mean multiple personal crises.) 72 hours after donning pants that molded to the shape of my buttocks, I was more than ready to go home and shower off the city grime and and dissuade any further displays of lecherous attention.
Sometimes I do talk back (sometimes, I even kick cars!), but I mostly just walk away. I’ve never felt as if there’s a really effective comeback. I’m not sure what would be the feminist thing to do in this situation. The middle of the street is not the place to be delivering a lecture on objectification and personal boundaries. I’m more than content being the humorless feminist when given a situation in which I might actually be able to make a difference/point. But cat-calling? Is there ever a correct response? (And no, responding meekly “thank you”, as I once did, is not the appropriate response.)
I read somewhere (perhaps on Jezebel?) that one’s woman solution is to yell at her harassers: “Suck my cock!” Threatening someone’s masculinity by casting doubt on their sexuality is perhaps the best way to teach them to keep their lascivious thoughts to themselves. It’s not mature, I’ll concede that, but it’s likely to leave a lasting impression, especially if one can manage a simultaneous crotch thrust.
Maybe it’s time for me to start packing a little something extra in those skinny jeans.
Related posts on street harassment:
What were you wearing when you were street harassed?
Sex and the Ivy: A Letter To My Assailant
In Which I Kick Some Dude’s BMW
Angry Woman Beats A Sex Crime Suspect On Subway Platform
On Catcalling and Public Harassment
Check out more of Lena’s Bad Feminist Confessions on The Chicktionary.