Saturday, July 18, 2009

Marie Claire highlights the best of Princeton ladies: their looks

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

I personally do not look to Marie Claire as a bastion of feminist values - I've found, generally, that "women's magazines" do not so much as emphasize women's specific interests but rather treat them like idiotic and impressionable buying machines. But this particular ladies' mag has hit a strange new low in their recent online slideshow, "Beautiful Women of Princeton, NJ - What I Love About Me." The slideshow is introduced by a cutesy list of things we love about Princeton, like the fact that our campus was part of the brilliant, groundbreaking Transformers 2 or that we're a mere hour away from the breathtaking beauty of the Jersey Shore (ending, of course, with a nod to "cute boys in polo shirts" - because we're all at Princeton for our MRS degree, and we're all heterosexual).

The slideshow itself features ten young women, posing in various parts of campus, accompanied by little quotes from said beauties about what they "love about me" - although the reporter, Elizabeth Dunlap, did not probe more than skin deep. I will give Dunlap props for including more than a smattering of minorities in the show, and including a thirty-year-old woman with her child (I'm assuming a grad student), but the women are overwhelmingly slender and traditionally beautiful, even if they are from varying ethnic backgrounds. I know some of the women in the slideshow, and they are all incredibly lovely, but what disturbs me the most is the fact that the women I do know (and I'm assuming the others) are celebrated for what they look like and not their enormous accomplishments. In some cases, their looks are tied to what they've been able to achieve, as in the case of one woman who says that her "big features" help her to be a better actress.

I'm also honestly unsure as to the purpose of the show. On the one hand, it does emphasize the very crucial fact that smart and pretty are not mutually exclusive. But it seems also to encourage women who are incredibly intelligent and accomplished to measure themselves through the lens of traditional standards of beauty. Although the women were advertised as "brainy beauties" who had "put down their books to mug for the camera," there was no way to tell that these are some of the most intelligent, driven women in the country. I'm also waiting for a "men's magazine" to do a feature on the "smart studs" of Princeton.

Thanks to Emily for the tip!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A great EC website run by - Princeton?

by Thúy-Lan Võ Lite

Wendy Matheny, the Feminist Majority Foundation’s Campus Program Coordinator (a.k.a. my boss), e-mailed me a link this morning to “The Emergency Contraception Website,” a very navigable and informative resource on EC. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it before, seeing as it’s operated by Princeton, the university I attend, and the Association for Reproductive Health Professionals, and I spent a good chunk of the morning clicking around the site.

From a very comprehensive EC Q&A page to a search function to locate EC providers, the website does a great job presenting information in a clear, accessible fashion. You can search for types of emergency contraception by brand or by country (in Bolivia, for example, you can find 8 types of “progestin only” EC products), read a “more detailed academic review of the medical and social science literature about emergency contraception,” or use the site as a portal to countless other resources on preventing unintended pregnancies. And in a web world plagued by anti-choice (and anti-woman) propaganda, it’s a refreshing change of pace to stumble upon such a positive, trustworthy resource.

The URL is not-2-late.com, which will take you to http://ec.princeton.edu/. Check it out. Tell your friends.

Cross-posted from the Feminist Majority Foundation's Campus Choices blog

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Quick hit: Obama administration expands gender-based asylum

There are times when I am incredibly proud of our new administration, and this is one of them. The NYT reports that the Obama administration has opened the way for women seeking asylum in the United States on the basis of domestic abuse and sexual assault. The Bush administration, as you may guess, was less sympathetic to gender-based refugee claims. From the NYT: "The administration laid out its position in an immigration appeals court filing in the case of a woman from Mexico who requested asylum, saying she feared she would be murdered by her common-law husband there. According to court documents filed in San Francisco, the man repeatedly raped her at gunpoint, held her captive, stole from her and at one point tried to burn her alive when he learned she was pregnant."

It seems pretty obvious that this is a legitimate claim for asylum, but the U.S. has been less than open when it comes to gender-based violence claims. In 1996, a Guatemalan woman named Rody Alvarado was granted asylum after repeated severe beatings by her husband, but the ruling was overturned by an immigration appeals court, saying that she was not part of any persecuted group (once again, I think of Catharine MacKinnon's question, "are women human?"). Immigration officers have claimed that expansion of gender-based asylum would result in a flood of female refugees. This new policy is a great step forward, although it does not include women fleeing female genital mutilation.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

American Apparel, the veil, and as always, the NYT

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

Here's a little round-up of the news articles I've found interesting in the past week or so - just in case you haven't been keeping up!

I do love some schadenfreude - especially when it involves American Apparel and its CEO, Dov Charney. Jezebel has a great post about how AA is hanging on in the recession - but just barely. I would not mind at all if Charney, "the CEO so skeevy he should be an R. Crumb character" became a victim of the economic downturn - and before you start calling me a meanie, just take a look at the delightful unisex bow tie ("unisex" in the sense that men wear it with a shirt, and women don't) made from factory fragments (only the best quality for American Apparel!) that AA thinks is worth $19 of your hard-earned cash. Recession, please do even the smallest bit of good and put this creep out of business!

There was a fantastic analysis of the debate over the burqa in France on the Huff Post, a debate which became more complicated in Germany last week when a woman was stabbed to death in a courtroom by a man who had verbally harassed her for wearing the veil in public. The author, Kamran Pasha, correctly points out that the debate in France is really more about politics and national identity than it is about women's rights, but also brings up many of the nuances in the veil debate, raising the excellent point that for some women, veiling is an empowering act, a "fuck you" to swimsuit competitions, plastic surgery and all other cultural pressures that drive women to eating disorders and hatred of their bodies. Pasha writes, "If some women are required by the state to dress in a fashion they find too revealing, even demeaning, there will only be a calcification of rebellion, a hardening of resistance to social control."

Meanwhile, anyone who is concerned about racism, sexism, or frankly, murder, will be horrified by the story of Marwa el-Sherbini, the woman who was killed in a German courtroom in front of her 3-year-old son. Her husband, who rushed forward to try to save her, was shot by a police officer - he's now in a hospital in Dresden. El-Sherbini has swiftly become a martyr, a symbol of the racism against immigrants that flares daily in Europe. But I'm also a little disturbed by the reaction of the protesters at her funeral in Alexandria, who carried signs that said things like "Germans are the enemy of God." That, surely, helps no one and disrespects the dead.

The NYT had a couple of articles about ageing, one breaking the incredibly tired myth of love-starved widows. Many widows, the article says, are - shockingly, I know - actually excited to be liberated from their roles as wives and homemakers, and aren't looking for a new man to cook for. I don't whether I'm happy or irritated that this is number 4 on the most-emailed list - are people really surprised that some women would rather have a strong network of friends than remarry, after decades of marriage? In another article, Jane Gross describes a group of nuns who practice dying gracefully.

File this under totally fucking absurd - women in the Sudan were sentenced to 40 lashes for wearing pants in public. Apparently under Sharia law, this is "indecent" dress. I wonder what would happen if you tried to wear the "unisex bow tie" in Khartoum.

The FDA just approved single-dose Plan B. This is good news, although I've discovered something rather disturbing about use of emergency contraceptives here in Vietnam while conducting interviews for my final paper - unmarried women don't like to go on the pill, so when the condom breaks or their boyfriend has decided he doesn't want to use one (also seems disturbingly common), they just take EC. Never mind that this isn't as effective (note the "emergency" part of EC), all oral contraceptives carry the danger of being fakes, because you really can't trust half the pills you buy in Vietnam. Combine that with a general lack of sex education, and Vietnam's astronomical abortion rate isn't so surprising.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Does America really hate educated women?

by Gracie Remington

In the July 9th installment of her New York Times-based blog, “Domestic Disturbances,” Judith Warner discussed the plight of Bridget Kevane, a professor at Montana State University who faced charges of child endangerment after leaving her children and their friends, aged 3 to 12, at a mall near her home in Bozeman. Leaving the older children to look after the young ones, with strict instructions that the 3-year-old remain in her stroller and that they should contact her on her cell phone should the need arise, Kevane drove home. The police telephoned her an hour later and, upon her arrival at the mall, charged her with child endangerment (the older children had wandered off, leaving the younger children unattended).

Obviously, the event in and of itself is unfortunate, and leaving two 12-year-olds in charge of younger children is not demonstrating the best judgment. However, the city attorney assigned to the case decided to charge Kevane with “violating duty of care,” an offense punishable by jail time. The charge definitely seems overblown, but Kevane is quoted as claiming the prosecutor pushed for this sentence by claiming “she believed professors are incapable of seeing the real world around them because their ‘heads are always in a book’”.

Warner’s article goes on to rail against those who would attempt to persecute educated women, noting the prevailing desire to silence these supposedly “entitled” women. The rise of Sarah Palin, she notes, is reflective of this kind of thinking, whereby educated women are encouraged to shut up and “real,” “down-to-earth” women are allowed to take the spotlight.

While I definitely agree that the prevalence of such a mindset is disturbing and needs to be addressed, Warner’s conclusion that Kevane’s punishment arose solely due to her education status seems misleading. Relying only on quotes from the charged professor, Warner doesn’t substantiate these claims of education-based bias. Thus, the editorial is only really flipping the terms of discrimination, relying on the words of an educated female over a perceivably less learned prosecutor. If this article was truly meant to expose a longstanding (and fairly prevalent) bias against educated women, this was not the case to demonstrate the validity of such a claim (or if it actually was, more evidence was needed to substantiate such claims- maybe talking with the prosecutor or actually gaining access to court documents, for starters).

Catcalling in Tam Dao, Vietnam

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

This will be one of the last in my series of posts from Vietnam, because I have less than a week left! It’s hard to believe – the weeks have tumbled by in a blur, and now I’m struggling to start saying goodbye to everyone I’ve met. This weekend, I traveled to Tam Dao, a town about 60 km away from Hanoi, nestled into the mountains, with my Vietnamese friends Lien and Duong, their friend Phuong, and another friend from the seminar, Nicole. Tam Dao began as a French hill station, but most of the colonial buildings were destroyed during the war, leaving only a dilapidated church perched above the town that no longer seems to be used for Catholic services (the first time I wandered inside, alone, clutching my camera, I discovered a large number of people eating lunch inside – they offered me rice, which was very sweet, but I couldn't figure out why the church seemed to be a happening lunch spot). We wandered the town, saw a beautiful waterfall, climbed to a temple that was at an interesting stage in the process of refurbishment, and lounged in the hotel room, eating mangoes with chili sauce stolen from the hotel kitchen. Tam Dao also seems to be the karaoke capitol of the Red River valley – either that or it’s the only thing to do at night, as we discovered when we unsuccessfully searched for a DVD store – and the sound of very bad karaoke ricochets around the valley until late on Saturday nights.

The weekend was incredibly lovely, partially because Tam Dao seems to be entirely undiscovered by Western tourists. I met two older white women who spoke English and seemed to be from North America (when I asked them where they were from, they said “Hanoi” and gave me an irritated look – God forbid that I should assume that they weren’t Vietnamese), but other than that, I was the only Western person in the town (Nicole is Vietnamese-American, and speaks Vietnamese, so she didn’t really count). At first, this delighted me. I’ve been doing a lot of traveling in large groups of Westerners (i.e. my fellow Princetonians) and although I’ve enjoyed our trips a lot, it was refreshing to be in a place that didn’t blatantly cater to Western tourists – although there was definitely a thriving trade aimed at weekend tourists from Hanoi. But I was also a little disturbed from the moment I stepped out of the hotel, when Nicole and I were accosted from a man from Hanoi, who seemed interested only in talking to me, although his English was practically nonexistent. As I wandered around the town, I noticed that people were staring at me – even pointing at me. When we walked down for ice cream, the woman scooping our cones said something to Nicole, who laughed uncomfortably and looked at me – the woman pointed at my face and smiled maniacally, and Nicole explained, ‘She likes your skin. She says that if she were a man, you would be driving her crazy. She says she just wants to eat you up.”

Fair skin, apparently, is a rare sign of beauty in Tam Dao. This makes sense, because as obsessed with tanning as Western women may be, my Vietnamese friends walk around with umbrellas in sunshine and wear long gloves and long-sleeved shirts when they’re riding their motorbikes, even in 100-degree weather, because they’re afraid of dark skin. I’ve never thought one way or another about my skin – it’s very pale, which is irritating mostly because I burn easily, but not unusually so. I would never stick out in a Western country because of my skin – and in fact, my redheaded and freckled sister is much fairer than I am. I have never, ever thought I would be considered beautiful just because of my skin – but in Tam Dao, I was coveted, objectified, a source of constant conversation and attention. The weekend was shocking for me, simply because it was a very stern reminder of the varying standards of beauty that the world has to offer – and because I have never been the subject of so much unwanted attention.

EW blogger Shannon Togawa Mercer, who is spending the summer in Cairo, posted in June about the harassment and objectification that she experiences in Egypt on a daily basis. I have to admit, after I read her post, I felt a little smug about my choice of country for the summer – Vietnam may have its problems with trafficking, domestic violence, lack of reproductive health information, and general gender inequality, but damn it, I was not going to be catcalled on the street! And catcalls have rarely been a problem in Hanoi – I’ve been checked out a couple of times when I was wearing a short dress, but that’s a risk I would run in the United States as well – most of the attention I receive from men on the street is when they’re trying to sell me a motorbike ride.

Turns out, this is just a privilege of women in urban Vietnam. In Tam Dao, cars full of men would literally slow down to look at me. Every man (and most of the women) I spoke to commented on my unusual beauty – I suddenly became a magnet for creepy guys from all over the valley. In the afternoon, I was sitting outside a café, writing in my journal, when a cat came over to me. I started playing with it, and didn’t notice when a large group of businessmen sat down at the next table – that is, until one of the businessmen was right next to me, picking up the cat and taking it to his table. He then began to beckon furiously, gesturing toward the seat next to him and saying things like “You sit here, beautiful girl!” I put my headphones in and mourned the loss of the cat quietly, but he was back a second later, offering me cigarettes, which I declined. He leaned forward across the table, smiling frighteningly, and said, “You know I love you!” I responded with one of my few Vietnamese phrases – “không cảm ơn” – no thank you. The table of businessmen exploded with laughter, and (worst of all) the cat ran away.

I know that much of the issue in Tam Dao was the fact that young Western women are rare, and I certainly looked very out of place. But I’ve always been confused by friends who say that they find catcalls flattering (mostly because I get catcalled when I’m out jogging, when I know I’m not looking good, unless guys are secretly into the drenched-in-sweat look), and after 36 hours of almost-constant attention to one small part of my appearance, I can say with great certainty that catcalls are not gratifying. They didn’t make me feel more beautiful, or enhance my pride in my skin, because they weren’t about me. I could have been any light-skinned woman in a town where light-skinned women are rare – everything about me could have been different, and people still would have gone out of their way to compliment my beauty and whistle at me in the street. But that doesn’t make the attention more acceptable – it actually makes it worse. It shows the extent to which women’s bodies are public property, and the highlights the horrible fact that standards of beauty are just that, standards. They’re not about the individual, or personality, or even a combination of traits – if you possess one standardized beauty component, like big breasts or a small waist or, in my case, fair skin, everything else about you disappears and you’re subject to endless harassment.

This may sound completely obvious, and that’s because it is, but I’m highlighting all of this because I read essays (or in this case, news articles) way too frequently about how catcalls are a compliment, that it’s a male way of paying tribute to female loveliness. Bullshit. For the Vietnamese women who saw me, I was a reminder of an absurd standard of beauty – for the Vietnamese men, I wasn’t a person, I could have been floating pale epidermis and they still would have yelled “beautiful girl” at me. There is nothing as alienating, in a foreign country, as knowing that your body is public property, for an entire town to ogle.

Even without Brooke Shields, the postpartum depression debate rages on

by Gracie Remington

In the latest issue of TIME magazine, Robert McNamara (presumably not the Robert McNamara who recently passed on, but who knows?) discusses the Melanie Blocker-Stokes Postpartum Depression Research and Care Act which, if it passes the Senate, will authorize the funding of research on postpartum depression and community outreach, including expanding services provided to mothers suffering from the disease. Although seemingly beneficial on all fronts, the bill itself has inspired much controversy due to worries over the increased medicalization of motherhood.

The current version of the Act, while not specifically promoting PPD testing, is expected to prompt greater regularity of screenings for the disease. Those opposing the bill’s passage contend that mental health screenings frequently produce false positives and will only prompt over-medication, a coup for drug companies but ineffective for new mothers. Amy Philo, a mother interviewed in the article, discusses the extreme suicidal tendencies she endured after being prescribed Zoloft from her doctor, who determined that Philo suffered from PPD after a brief conversation. Additionally, psychologists have argued that the greatest indicator of PPD lies in a given patient’s mental health history, not giving birth. Those who have suffered from depression prior to having children are more likely to suffer from PPD.

This is obviously a very complex issues with valid points on both sides. Funding increases for PPD research, screenings, and treatment are incredibly important, but increased resources needs to be met with increased vigilance to avoid improper treatment. PPD isn’t something that can be properly diagnosed after a one-minute conversation with a patient, nor can someone diagnosed with PPD be left with a bottle of pills and no form of guidance. Ideally, future research in this area will allow psychologists to better pinpoint the causes of PPD and thus better screen and medicate those affected. For now, however, we need to be vigilant in preventing the over-medicalization of women and of motherhood.