Tag Archives: body image

A Womb With a View: After birth – what I’ve learned…

IMG_6788So, here he is. Or, should I say, here we are.

Meet my five-week-old little boy, Evan, and his heavy-lidded, rocket-boobed, topsy-turvy mother. I’m someone changed quite a lot by the last month and a bit. I’m writing this with my thumb on my phone at 4.07am while feeding for starters (EDIT – I’ll be writing the rest of this column in 10-minute bursts in the next week-and-a-half when the baby’s gurgling at his cot’s mobile while farting/sleeping in his pram, which I’ve gingerly inched in from outside as he only conks out in the open air/cooing in the sling with his dad, at a time when I should really be catching up on sleep, blah blah blah).

I’m also someone who remains, despite everything, the same person.

The birth? Not conventional. Then again, whose is? I had an emergency caesarean section after 3 days of failed induction, at nearly 2 weeks over due date, and after countless alternative therapy sessions (yep, even this sceptic tried everything – and isn’t having your feet fiddled with for £60 divine). Pessaries and drips were applied, Mister still wasn’t shifting, his mum wasn’t dilating, and his heart-rate started levelling out.

And so the necessary was done. At 10.06am on Monday 28th April, in a bright operating theatre, my son made his entrance into the world. He was 9lb 4, 57cm long, with brown hair and a chubby belly. And yes, I’m lucky that I love him so very, very much.

Here’s some other things I learned about having a baby:

* Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards, and in high heels. First-time mums do very little that other people do, but they do keep another tiny person alive, with no specialist training or experience, one-handed, on no sleep, in mismatched leisurewear with a stray, leaky tit.

* Yes, yes – I know I’ve barely started, and I’m proving that happy mums whinge a lot. We got ourselves in this position etc, etc. But as a person largely responsible for fulfilling the needs of another breathing human, while you’re in recovery from 24 hours+ of agonising pain/major abdominal surgery/a torn perineum, while everyone else tells you this is all normal, surely you’re allowed a grumble. You disagree? Then bugger off.

* Newborns rarely sleep for more than three hours at a time, if that. I missed this fact in the endless reams of baby literature I read beforehand. Mine is pretty good at kip (EDIT – I lie – the last two nights have been like living with the creature off Eraserhead – EDIT – he’s changed again, he was an angel last night ­- EDIT – this only proves the inconsistency of babies). Anyway, their short sleeping cycles should remind mothers of three little words. Take. Things. Easy.

* A diversion for my brief Caesarean Section. The idea of being too posh to push – ie that caesareans are the easy option – is, quite frankly, ludicrous. Before mine, I hadn’t realised how big an operation a c-section was; five weeks on, the seven-inch smile on my abdomen and the residual aches and pains reminds me I’m still recovering. If you have one, don’t panic – I am still in awe of them, genuinely, as a baby with an impacted head got pulled out of that tiny slit, somehow – but you need to remember how big these ops were after the fact. So: accept help from all sides. Buy a load of high-waisted, non-sexy granny knickers (thank you, John Lewis). Live in yoga trousers bought hurriedly online that make you look like you eat quinoa for breakfast. Take your bloody painkillers. Slob in front of DVDs you love when you’re feeding to cheer yourself up. Don’t be a martyr. You don’t have to be Superwoman.

* Don’t accept too many visitors. Or be prepared to tell people to sod off. You will probably be knackered and crave your own time more than ever before (then again, do see friends if it’ll make you feel a bit better, and if family are bringing warm arms to help you with the baby, then accept them).

* Our generation give ourselves a lot more shit about parenting than our mums and dads did. They only had people around them to ask, and most of us turned out OK. There’s a lesson in there, somewhere.

* The internet is unhelpful. Type any question about your baby’s health into Google, and the responses you’ll get will largely be from “normal mums”. Normal mums who a) you don’t know, b) might be mad, c) might be smug, d) keep telling you to “trust in the Lord’s work”, e) keep telling you to “trust in nature”. If I’d trusted in nature, as many women have to in countries less developed than ours, my baby and I might not have been here now.

* The internet is amazing. During endless night feeds, you can play Word Scramble, read the news, nose at people’s normal lives on Facebook, receive advice from countless wonderful people about your baby through Facebook, and text your mum-pals on Whatsapp. Which last point brings me to the the biggest tip of all…

* Meeting people having kids the same time as you, through antenatal classes or activities, or post-natal support groups, is essential. Knowing you’re not the only mad harpy worrying about every burp, sick or poo will change your life.

* The mental health of new mothers is a huge priority for healthcare professionals, as it should be, but normal anxieties get pathologised too much. Worried you might break your baby? Or drop it down the stairs? Every mum I’ve spoken to thought that too, so these worries aren’t necessarily a sign of incoming depression. Other medical issues get less attention, however, like babies that have tongue-tie (this is when babies’ tongues need a snip to help them feed properly). I know four recent babies who had this condition, and their mothers had to fight hard to find out if their children needed help. Without help, babies struggle to gain weight, spend hours at the breast, making their mothers, ironically, more and more distressed. All these women need is someone trained to have a very quick look at their little ones. So listen up, NHS.

* Becoming a mum soon? You will be endlessly grateful for having cooked and frozen meals before the big event. If you like being at the hob, as I do, this is what maternity leave is for (I also enjoyed solo cinema trips, afternoon dozes, and forages for weird old documentaries on the iPlayer – do use your maternity leave to do gentle things you enjoy). If you haven’t cooked and frozen food before baby comes, tell friends not to bring presents round, but something that can be shoved into a pot, or the oven in one dish, and eaten out of a bowl with one hand.

* A tea towel placed over a baby’s head helps you eat out of a bowl with one hand.

* Long, patterned, diaphanous scarves are essential pieces of kit for any new mum (not plain colours, ladies – these will show up dribble, or worse). Scarves help you feed discreetly when you need to, or hang over your pram, especially when the sun suddenly deigns to blaze out on a previously grey day (thanks for that, British spring).

* “Nature is amazing, science is awesome”. My friend Ellie, who gave me advice about what to do about the in-hospital Bounty reps in my previous column, said this to me in a text while I was still in recovery. It’s still the best sentence ever. For instance, when I was sad about Evan not having arrived in the usual way, and my body not having done what it “should” have done, I realised that every time he fed – which was, and is, often – I felt my stomach cramp, and this was helping me heal. Breastfeeding helps the womb contract, and reduce to its old size; now, five weeks on, I look pretty much as I did before I was pregnant. Somehow, our bodies also keep us awake in these difficult weeks, and power us through. But science also has its place, beyond doubt. Take Evan, on antibiotics for a week after he showed signs of infection, who is now absolutely thriving (EDIT – today’s weigh-in – 11 pounds – oof). Things don’t have to be either/or. Let’s use everything we’ve got to keep Mum and baby well.

* If your mum/friends seem to be posting pictures of their babies too often on social media, consider this: that may have been the most constructive thing she felt she did with her day, or the one moment when baby was happy that she wanted to preserve. Facebook pictures are little markers that say, yes, world, I can manage this.

* Midwives are brilliant, undervalued people. One upside of me being in hospital for a week is that I had fantastic midwifery care. I’d go further, in fact: when you’re a new mum, there’s something to be said for having a longer stay in hospital than six tiny hours (the usual time now), and being cared for by people who have been there, and done that. In hospital, I got specialist breastfeeding advice that proved invaluable later, was watched over by a midwife while I slept in bed with my baby (who wouldn’t sleep in his crib, when I’d hardly any sleep for five days), had every question answered about my baby’s qualities and quirks, and felt properly monitored. It’s helped me ever since.

* I’ve also got a new-found respect for the power of women. I’ve had so many of them help me immeasurably since Evan arrived – both professionally and personally – and as a result, I’m enjoying my little boy so very, very much. Here’s to all of you, ladies. And here’s to us. We’re still here!

Jude Rogers is a writer, broadcaster, journalist, romantic, Welsh woman and geek. Follow her here @juderogers 

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Summertime body-shaming is upon us: No more bikini body war!

Body-shaming is all around us, all the time. It feels, though, as if it’s particularly acute in the summer. Your body has to be thin, tanned, hairless, free of cellulite, and your face must be impeccably made-up even in sweltering heat via specially-purchased summer beauty products. And you definitely aren’t allowed to sweat.

Even when you accept and understand that these are completely arbitrary and sexist cultural requirements, actually doing something about it feels like an intimidating challenge. I can’t tell you the number of times edgily simplistic Twitter and Tumblr posts have told us all that the way to get a bikini body is to ‘have body, wear bikini.’ It’s fairly obvious it’s not that easy, though. If we weren’t in a culture that reviled fatness, body hair, scars, body shapes that aren’t precisely proportioned hourglasses then yes, it would simply be a question of ‘have body, wear bikini’.

I don’t think I have what many people would call a dream body. I’m visibly fat, with thick, dark body hair. I don’t shave my armpits ever, and I shave my legs maybe once or twice a year as the mood takes me. I have large surgical scars that cut across my stomach and break up any chance of a ‘smooth silhouette.’

I’m now in a position where I’m happy to wear a tiny bikini that shows all my abundant near-radioactively pale fat without shaving my legs and underarms or having my ‘bikini line’ (read: pubic hair) waxed for the occasion. Did it happen overnight? Hell no.

One year I started to go out with bare legs under skirts. The next I bought a high-waisted bikini and didn’t shave my legs or underarms when I wore it on the beach. This year I’ve found a particularly minuscule tie-side zebra print bikini that I’m looking forward to wearing without fear.

For anyone who knows the tyranny of summertime body-shaming is entirely socially constructed but doesn’t know how to do anything about it, I would recommend a try-and-see process. It’s so easy to get so caught up in the lies about how a woman’s body should look that that we’re too scared to test our personal limits. Giving yourself a chance to go out in public without shaving your legs or without worrying that your fat thighs or your upper arms are on show is the only way to prove to yourself that, in all likelihood, nothing bad will happen to you.

When I’m holding onto a railing on the bus and I’m wearing a sleeveless top, I get a couple of surprised looks or bemused whispers among teenage girls because of my unshaven underarms. When I’m out with my crop top on exposing my many inches of wobbly abdominal flesh, people stare like they’ve never seen anything like it before. And maybe they haven’t.

The reason you think it’s a big deal is because there are so few positive representations of fat women in swimwear in the media. The reason you think you can’t have body hair and be attractive is because you so seldom see representations of female body hair which are framed as attractive. Being fat and confident in a bikini seems unthinkable to many because in films and TV, you put a fat woman in a bikini so you can laugh at her. But it doesn’t have to be like that – I promise!

Although it shouldn’t be, every time you subvert cultural norms about how a body should look in public, that’s a victory. Even if the idea of photographing yourself in swimwear is unthinkable, maybe try and build up to a point where recording your victory is something you want to do. I, for one, know I’ve had lots of comments and emails saying other women have felt empowered to get more of their bodies out more publicly as a result of seeing me and other fat bloggers doing the same- and publicising our efforts. Absolutely no one has a duty to put themselves in a position where they feel uncomfortable, but the more of us go out there and impose our so-called subversive image on the general public, the less uncomfortable that experience becomes, for everyone.

Give yourself a chance to figure out exactly what you want to be doing with your body, what makes you feel beautiful, what makes you feel empowered. Dip your toe in the water and see if you like the ripples. Maybe even start this summer. It’s not easy, but it’s not as hard as you might think.

Bethany Rutter is a fat activist, blogger, DJ and journalist, and writes a blog about bodies and clothes at archedeyebrow.com.

Photo: Mario Antonio Pena Zapatería via Flickr

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Anorexia: an “anti-feminist” battle with my own body?

This week, to coincide with the national Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re publishing a series of articles looking at feminism and mental health. Some readers may find this content distressing.

Being force-fed will always be one of the most traumatic, violating experiences of my life. To have a tube rammed into you, painfully, without your consent, and to witness your body change into one that repulses you is deeply humiliating. Eating is personal, as is safeguarding the boundaries of one’s own flesh. When I yanked out the tube, it was pushed back in. When I stopped resisting, I learned to be ashamed. For months afterwards I couldn’t raise my voice above a whisper. For years afterwards I couldn’t eat in public and simply wanted to disappear.

Anorexia is a complicated illness. Without force-feeding, I might have died. I know this and hence, since I want to be alive, I feel the need to come to terms with the feeding. Nonetheless, I’m wary of admitting to this. I don’t want it to sound as though I condone the force-feeding of other anorexia sufferers. I don’t feel I have the right to do that. A person’s body is his or her own and freedom of choice is integral to maintaining a sense of self. And yet, while force-feeding might have made me a lesser person – a more damaged person – without it I might not be a person at all. It’s a circle I’ve never quite managed to square.

As a feminist, I believe that one of the greatest sources of inequality lies in the belief that women don’t own their bodies. Viewed as sexual objects, incubators or foils against which masculinity defines itself, they are seen as less than human, as things to be used, shaped and sliced. In this context my battle with my own body could be seen as anti-feminist. I am ashamed at my failure to feel at one with myself; I have let the side down. And yet if feminism values choice and the right to self-definition, perhaps I shouldn’t feel this way. Women’s choices under patriarchy are rarely pure and our responses, like the feeding tube, may never be wholly good or bad. Even so, this doesn’t excuse us from having to make decisions, both about our own lives and the lives of others.

In recent years the focus of mainstream feminism has shifted somewhat from structural critique to an emphasis on respect and self-validation, something Rosalind Gill and Ngaire Donaghue call “the turn to agency”. There is obviously some value in this; it questions the notion that women are cultural dupes, following patriarchy’s rules without any degree of investment or engagement. It tells women that they are not victims and creates a sense that they can influence their own surroundings.

However, there is a downside. If any critique of meaningful responses to oppression is understood as a critique of individuals – a denial of agency – then what tools do we use to judge the choices women make? Are we permitted to judge at all and, if not, is there any form of acceptable intervention when women do harm to themselves?

I think, within a patriarchal culture in which women’s bodies are exploited, objectified and ridiculed daily, an eating disorder is not an irrational choice. The beliefs and rituals that maintain an ED are irrational (since that is how the mind responds to starvation) but to want to control the boundaries of one’s body and take up as little space as possible seems to me a perfectly logical response to trauma. Hence I am somewhat defensive of pro-ana websites and irritated by “body acceptance” drives. As a student, I remember being annoyed by a slogan touted by our college women’s officer: There are 3 billion women who don’t look like supermodels and only eight who do. Don’t think thin, think different. “But,” I’d think, “being like 3 billion other women isn’t being different!” While I didn’t want to look like a supermodel, neither did I want to be told to be “normal”.

In some ways anorexia felt like a great big “fuck you” to everyone’s values. In those days I didn’t wash my hair or wear makeup. I wore children’s clothing. I knew I looked unpleasant but it was an unpleasantness I owned (whereas now I merely fail to be beautiful; there is no active rejection, I just glide into the failing that is the lot of most women).

When people told me anorexia was controlling me, I felt outraged. Anorexia was me. How dare they deny my agency! And in this way I see difficulties in the line choice feminism seeks to tread. Whether we’re talking about behavioural trends in parenting or sex work or body modification, no woman wants to be told she is a victim – and yet some of us are. You can be a victim and an agent at one and the same time. You don’t even have to feel like a victim.

Mental health is a fuzzy area, particularly in terms of how diagnoses have been used against women. To be told you are mad is to be told you cannot judge your own reality. Women are told this time and again. It’s rarely true and there’s no definitive test that will tell you when it is true. Even so, it doesn’t mean madness can’t kill you.

I don’t know what happened to most of the women I met during my later treatments. Those that I am aware of have either died in their thirties or spent the past two decades drifting from one hospitalisation to another. I’m the only one who is relatively unscathed, yet part of me believes this is because I am a sell-out or a fraud. At the same time, I am furious that these lives have been wasted (and yes, to talk of “wasted lives” is judgmental, but it is a waste, a terrible one). But what would I do? Tell these women what bodies they should occupy? Hold them down and force in a feeding tube myself? Or endorse their reality, since perhaps that’s all they’ll ever have? As feminists we need to admit that sometimes, the answers aren’t clear-cut.

VJD Smith (Glosswitch) is a lifelong feminist and mother of two who edits language books when she’s not tied up with parenting, blogging and ranting.  Find out more @Glosswitch or glosswatch.com

If you have been affected by an eating disorder, visit beat or Mind for information and support, or call the beat helpline on 0845 634 1414.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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Happy fatties are erased from the media

I’m no stranger to the press; I’m part of that MySpace generation of yesteryear – self-generating PR mongers that are not afraid to speak their mind. I can be gobby, or what some might call outspoken, so when it comes to getting some column inches to promote my projects I know I can dive into my black book and pull in some favours. But, no matter how much I try, this year one project has been left in the dark – Hamburger Queen.

For the past four years I’ve been running an annual beauty pageant and talent show for fat people – Hamburger Queen. The premise is simple; to celebrate body diversity and encourage fat liberation – it goes against the grain and challenges the myth that fat people are unhappy. With a mainstream media obsessed with obesity you might have thought a project like this would receive a lot of attention. Wrong.

After three rounds of press releases, a press launch in London’s favourite burger bar, endless phone calls, Skype calls, tweets to journalists and some PR support from a couple of noted publicists, I find myself with nothing to show for it apart from a late night appearance on BBC London.

Some journalists respond with: “Thanks, we’ll see what we can do”; others don’t bother responding. Some have said they don’t “do” obesity; the dickheads amongst them say: “it’s a bit off brand for us.” The brave ones call and tell me: “We’d love to but we can’t be seen to promote obesity.” How would giving a balanced argument be “promoting obesity”? Is it healthier to have a press that endorses yoyo dieting and the objectification of women?

Numerous TV companies have flirted with the idea of putting Hamburger Queen on the box but every one of them ends up pulling that weird, sympathetic, half-smile face and saying: “we don’t think it’ll get commissioned”. Some have even gone as far as saying it would needed to be hosted by someone like Gok Wan – Gok Wan? The man who hides women’s bodies using fruit – I am not an apple, I’m a bloody human!

On the face of it, this might sound like I’m moaning because I’m not getting enough attention and that might be true if I was trying to flog a solo show, but Hamburger Queen is about girls who work in call centres feeling liberated about their bodies whatever their size. It’s about size acceptance, throwing new ideas of beauty into the arena and I want the world to take notice. I want women across the globe to know there is a movement that embraces their flabby thighs.


Hamburger Queen is also about trying to reach those women who are yet to stick two fingers up to the Dove advertising, weight watching, circle of shame culture. To do this I need to reach beyond my audience and those of the lovely readers of lefty liberal blogs.

I took my frustration to Facebook and asked my Like-ers to spread the word, to help me reach those women in hard to reach places (like Surbition). 30 shares later and I’m still struggling to reach those women.

Evidently the mainstream media want to perpetuate a culture of negative attitudes towards obesity and leave those liberated from their BMI outside of their safe values.

Maybe Hamburger Queen is ahead of its time in newspaper land but, with an NHS allegedly on its knees because of fat people, and the public’s continued reaction to having to sit next to a fat person on the bus, I’d say that socially this project is bang on time.

I put my head above the parapet and failed somewhat. I’m OK with that; failure might teach me a thing or two but I won’t die quietly because I know the message is important.

Fuck the press and their beige, pashmina wearing, shortsighted editors. I’m asking you, brilliant Feminist Times reading radicals to spread the word – if not about Hamburger Queen then about your own version of body diversity and empowerment. Take to Twitter and force yourself on to Facebook – this is a call to arms. We will not be silenced be a mainstream media afraid of “promoting obesity”.

Scottee is a performer, artist, broadcaster and director. Hamburger Queen is on from 3-24 April. For more details see: hamburgerqueen.co.uk or follow @ScotteeScottee

Photos: Holly Revell

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Profile: Hamburger Queen

Burgers, Queens and a lot of Ham

Ever since Gok Wan and Dr Christian hit our screens we’ve been subjected to endless anti-fat light entertainment dressed up as life-changing, hard-hitting documentaries. In 2014, making fat women cry in front of mirrors is Channel 4’s idea of empowering.

Fat people are under attack, but why? Apparently the “obesity time bomb” that The Express famously reported on back in 2009 – and which is still waiting to go off – meant our beloved NHS was under threat from those partial to a donut. Our apparent gluttony is all that is wrong with this Tory-led country.

This culture of ‘sad fat’ or ‘fat is the enemy’ angers me. In my adult life I’ve never felt ashamed about my body or size, due to my shy mum’s determination to make me and brother have confidence – or what some might call an inflated sense of self.

Four years ago, on the back of the 24 bus, I dreamt up my response – a beauty pageant / talent show / cook-off sort of thing celebrating the lives and bodies of fat people. It was a pedantic, counter culture, knee jerk, poke in the eye idea that fought against the portrayal of chubsters and particularly the scrutiny of fat women on the television.

I missed my stop, booked a month of shows at Royal Vauxhall Tavern and went to my friend’s seaside shack to invent (fanfare) Burger Queen. I told my chubby friend Amy Lamé about the project and her response read: “if you don’t include me I’ll sit on your face.”

After opening night of season one I knew we were on to something when I received a tweet calling me a hypocrite for wearing Spanx. The irony of a fat man wearing Spanx, still looking fat, talking about fat liberation was obviously lost on the poor soul.

What followed next was a rollercoaster of monumental weirdness: Vanessa Feltz pulling me off air after I told her she should be talking about female empowerment instead of scrutinising women’s bodies on International Women’s Day; Amy receiving death threats after being on 10 O’Clock Live talking about the pasty tax; June Brown turning up to do a monologue about the joys of smoking; Diabetes UK refusing to accept a charitable donation from the profits of our burger sales; and Lisa Stansfield demanding I sing a duet with her.

The Wright Stuff pulled me at the last minute because they didn’t want to “promote obesity”; Nancy Del’lolio had a go at our then DJ, Sami Knight, for not liking her hair; and a court case meant we had to change our name because some man in Scotland held a copyright and wanted to extract money from me. Cue the rebrand: ‘Hamburger Queen’.

After four years of morris dancing and tribal birthing ceremonies I feel I have said what I needed to – I am putting it to bed and this season’s run will be the last. It takes six months to plan and costs £20k; I no longer have the time or money, but this doesn’t mean fat is off the agenda. I recently received some fan mail that read “you’ve covered the fat thing now, move on, it’s a bit tired dear.” As soon as my body isn’t politicised by the world, I will stop politicising it.

For our final season I’m throwing everything I’ve got at it – a fat tap troupe, a short film about fat sex and shame, regional heats, a blow out final in the West End, some of the best judges we’ve ever had and burgers served in donuts, obviously.

I’ll be sad to say goodbye to Hamburger Queen and do so with a heavy, high cholesterol heart – it’s the place I came to terms with my eating disorder, where I learnt how to be a better performer. It’s made my practice political and community engaged. It’s encouraged me to speak my mind and tell the world what I think, no matter how much that goes against the grain.

But its successes and legacies are not accountable to me. Hamburger Queen is brilliant because it’s made by everyday folk who work in call centres, by those who feel this project speaks to them. It’s about the groups of people who contribute to the project, the die-hard fans that run for their table each week, and the audiences who take the ideas of fat liberation into the outside world. It’s about the emails from people in Sydney and New York angry I haven’t put videos up quick enough. It’s about an international community of queer, fat, trans, feminists that stick two fingers up to anyone who takes umbrage with anyone who is apart of our gang.

Scottee is a performer, artist, broadcaster and director. Hamburger Queen is on from 3-24 April. For more details see: hamburgerqueen.co.uk or follow @ScotteeScottee

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Review: Close To You

“People don’t really choose one day to wake up and get an ‘eating disorder’ the way you would a new pair of jeans or shoes. It is something that becomes your only friend, consuming you and filling all the empty spaces inside you – the places that are hungry for success, for worth, for beauty, for acceptance.”

Jennie Eggleton’s one-woman performance Close To You is one of the most moving, visceral pieces of theatre I’ve seen in a long time; I came away feeling somewhere between ravenous and nauseous, and, on an emotional level, profoundly affected by her vivid portrayal of life with anorexia.

Based on a mixture of research and Eggleton’s own lived experiences, the piece follows self-critical aspiring actor and singer Jennifer (who, Jennie says, “is me, but isn’t me”), as she frantically searches for her big break into show business and, in the process, descends further and further into her eating disorder.

Throughout, Jennifer’s story is interwoven with the story of her idol, The Carpenters’ Karen Carpenter – the 70s pop star who famously struggled with the illness under the glare of the public eye. As Eggleton flits between her own story and Karen’s, accompanied by live piano performances of The Carpenters’ classic hits, the parallels are increasingly evident.

The character, Jennifer, not only imagines Karen’s story as a glamourised version of her own but also uses it as an alibi to cling to the disorder that’s literally consuming her. As she sashays across the stage, pulling on the glamorous garbs of her imagined idol, the line between Jennifer and Karen blurs; a glimpse at Karen’s final, tragic fate hints at what also lays in store for Jennifer unless she recovers.


Eggleton, who both wrote and performs Close To You, truly is the mistress of her own semi-autobiographical show, playing more than half a dozen different characters, each infused with humour, and shifting effortlessly between them, even mid-conversation: the concerned mother, the patronising and unhelpful therapist, the friend who comes bearing temptation in the form of a goats cheese and tomato quiche.

The physicality of Eggleton’s performances is not limited to swapping characters; one of the most harrowing scenes sees a distraught Jennifer scraping the much-coveted quiche from her mouth in disgust and throwing herself into a repentant routine of exercise; throughout the play, her movements are as erratic as the thoughts behind them.

Jennifer’s obsessive monitoring of her own behaviour punctuates each scene, serving as a regular reminder of anorexia’s hold on her. She declares her gradually deteriorating weight (“40kg”, “38kg”), as she hops regularly on and off the pair of scales at the front of the stage, along with her diary of food eaten (“seven raisins and half a tin of tuna”). The urgency of her desire for, and self-denial of, first the quiche, and later the chocolate brownie, disturbingly reveal the all-consuming nature of her disorder.

Visually, the set bears the same powerful, physical simplicity as Eggleton’s performance. A bed takes centre stage, flanked by two mirrors and painfully thin mannequins are dotted around the stage, draped with the various layers of clothes under which Jennifer both conceals her body and transports herself to the 1970s world of the Carpenters.

In the post-show discussion, Eggleton and director Anna Simpson spoke of their plans to take Close To You into girls schools, as an education and awareness-raising tool. Though disturbing in parts, the performance is certainly eye opening. Jennifer’s turning point, following bouts of fainting, chest pains, hospitalisation and ultimately the death of a fellow-patient, who she has named Karen after her idol, is a stark illustration of the realities of anorexia nervosa – an illness which, after all, has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder.

For Eggleton – who suffered from anorexia from around the age of 15 and is now, at 23, in recovery – the piece is a way to use her love of theatre to highlight the complexities of an issue that is simultaneously so prevalent in the arts and yet so rarely addressed through performance.

Having already performed Close To You to audiences of both theatre-goers and medical professionals, Eggleton and director Simpson hope the piece will also have a positive impact on young women’s relationships with their bodies.

Close To You’s run at Southwark Playhouse has now finished but you can catch it at the Brighton Fringe Festival on 17th and 18th May, 2pm, at the Warren Main House. For updates, follow @Close__To__You.

For advice and support on dealing with eating disorders, see: http://www.b-eat.co.uk and http://www.mind.org.uk

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#FeministFatChat: Is Fat Still A Feminist Issue?

Each month Feminist Times hosts an event for our members. After weeks of “New Year, New You!” propaganda from the women’s glossy mags, body image and the diet industry seemed an appropriate topic for our January event. We got together an amazing panel of speakers and asked them: Is Fat Still A Feminist Issue?

There was a huge amount of interest in this event and we had a number of requests to record the discussion for those who couldn’t make it. Check out the podcast below, as well as our tweets from the evening.

A big thank you to our chair Ruth Barnes (BBC and Amazing Radio) and panellists Dr Charlotte Cooper (psychotherapist and fat activist), Natasha Devon (Body Gossip), Audrey Boss (Beyond Chocolate) and Scottee (Hamburger Queen). Thanks also to our hosts Waterhouse Restaurant, Shoreditch Trust and Echo for providing us with such a great venue, and to all the members and guests who came along. Become a member today for free entry to our next members’ event.

We live-tweeted from the discussion using #FeministFatChat – follow the whole discussion, including the Q&A, via our Storify:


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The politics of skin lightening

Vanity Fair was last week accused of digitally lightening the skin of ’12 Years A Slave’ actress Lupita Nyong’o. Reni Eddo-Lodge looks at the impact of Eurocentric white supremacist beauty ideals on young women of colour.

When I was very little, probably younger than six years old, I asked my mum when I was going to turn white. It seemed very clear to me then. In the media I consumed and the narratives my young brain had absorbed, the good people were white and the bad people were brown. Fast forward ten years and, as an awkward teenager, my brain was consumed with wanting to be pretty. I would pull at my cheeks in the mirror. “I might be black”, I would think to myself, “but at least I’m alright looking”.

Like that ever rigid gender binary, the rules of the world seem concrete and absolute when you’re young. If I hadn’t started challenging those roles, I would probably be spending my entire life trying to chase them in a sorry effort to assimilate.

77% of women in Nigeria, the country where my grandparents were born, use some form of skin lightening products. It is against this backdrop that Nigerian-Cameroonian singer Dencia has released her new line of skin lightening creams, named Whitenicious. The product’s press release says the cream can be used for  “dark spots from acne, wounds, hyper-pigmentation and bruises”, yet in the promotional pictures Dencia looks several shades lighter than her original skin tone. Whitenicious sold out within 24 hours of its release.

Dencia has received a lot of criticism for releasing Whitenicious, but her move just capitalises on a skin lightening industry that is already thriving in Africa, Asia and India. It is an industry in which big multinationals make millions from the prolific, insidious nature of white supremacy.

Every woman of colour has battled with Eurocentric, white supremacist beauty ideals at some point in her life. These ideals act as the yardstick on which every woman’s beauty is measured by. With so many of our daily interactions dogged by patriarchy, this isn’t just beauty for beauty’s sake. Beauty is currency – and for too many of us, it’s interchangeable with self-worth.

Unlike Nigeria, the UK’s white supremacist ideals aren’t so aggressively marketed to women of colour. Instead they exist in a screaming, gaping absence. A woman of colour can walk into her local high street shop searching for makeup, only to find that the UK’s most readily available brands do not cater for the colour of her skin.

The absence starts young, with white, blonde Barbie dolls upheld as our first image of womanhood. Them we fixate on pop stars as our role models. You’d be hard pressed to find a successful black woman in that industry who doesn’t pass the paper bag test. The paper bag test was a system of exclusion, determining who was light enough to enjoy the fruits of high society in early 1900s black America; if you were darker than the brown paper bag, you were not invited.

It was Alice Walker who first coined the term colourism, and it was social scientists who concluded that this kind of discrimination was commonplace in countries that are based on a ‘pigmentocracy’ – where wealth, power and status can too easily be determined by the colour of an individual’s skin.

In communities of colour, many attribute the use of skin lightening creams to self-hatred. White people in the UK often attempt to draw some equivalence between skin bleaching and self-tanning. But the reasons behind skin bleaching are political. Despite people of colour making up the majority of the world’s citizens, globally, the colour of power is white.  This pursuit of power and status goes hand and hand with a systematic denigration of self.

It’s too simplistic to reduce the use of skin lightening creams to self-hatred or low self-esteem. That argument places the responsibility of accountability on the individual partaking in the practice without acknowledging a racist structure that preferences light skin over dark. These ideas of empire have taken root in the hearts and minds of everyone. It’s no longer about countries that have suffered colonisation – these ideals are recreated and reinforced, becoming a daily truth.

Politically, the demand of assimilation has always been levelled at those of us whom the structure doesn’t fit. In skin bleaching, this assimilation moves from rhetoric to imprints on flesh.

Image courtesy of @ReignOfApril on Twitter.

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Did Barbie’s trademark get the Plastic Surgery app taken down?

Yesterday we contacted Barbie and Mattel about their trademark being connected to the plastic surgery app iTunes had marketed for children at age 9+. You can read our full article here. 60 minutes after we published the article, and following a day of campaigning on Twitter from Susie Orbach, EverydaySexism and hundreds of others, the app was no longer available.

Barbie got back to us late last night, shortly after the app in question was taken down from iTunes in the US, UK and Canada.

“The Barbie name was recently featured in an Application that was not sanctioned by Mattel. This App has since been removed from iTunes. At Mattel, we take our commitment to children seriously and work hard to ensure there are no unauthorized uses of our brands that may be unsafe or inappropriate for children.”

So we are wondering: did iTunes only take this app down because of the trademark legal implications in what we can imagination was a very strongly worded email from Barbie, or because of a genuine concern about their inhouse policies for protecting women and girls? Will they, and Android game outlets, be taking down the hundreds of other plastic surgery “games”?

iTunes have still not responded to our media request. We’ll update you.

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Off with her problem bits! iTunes release plastic surgery app for kids

Editors note: Since Feminist Times published this article the app has become unavailable on iTunes in the UK, US and Canada. We downloaded the app at the time of publishing to check it was not a spoof and within 60mins of the article being published the app was no longer available.

We are through the looking glass.

The other side of the looking glass is a world where plastic surgery apps – what are effectively just cartoon games – are marketed at children as young as 9. In this wonderland, Alice would have been drawing lines all over her body, begging the Queen of Hearts’ men: “not my head please, just my belly”.

Plastic Surgery & Plastic Doctor & Plastic Hospital Office for Barbie Version by Corina Rodriguez is an app/game for iPad and iPhone that is rated as 9+, which means it’s unsuitable for children under nine, and by the power of logic therefore suitable for people over nine. It contains, according to iTunes: “mild or infrequent instances of cartoon, fantasy or realistic violence”.

This is an app where the user/player – remember who could be as young as 9 – cuts up a girl’s body to make her more “slim and beautiful”. The game’s online sales blurb goes as follows:

“This unfortunate girl has so much extra weight that no diet can help her. In our clinic she can go through a surgery called liposuction that will make her slim and beautiful. We’ll need to make small cuts on problem areas and suck out the extra fat. Will you operate her, doctor?”

We’ve contacted both iTunes and Barbie, having been unable to even find so much as a website for Corina Rodriguez, the supposed developer of the app; we have received no response so far. We wanted to know if Barbie had given permission for their trademark to be used in this app and, if so, why?

We also believe iTunes and Apple should make it clear what checks they have in place to make sure they are protecting women and girls from harm and why, in Susie Orbach’s words on Twitter earlier today: “Apple mines girls bodies for profit by selling cosmetic surgery apps.” Susie continues: “Let’s coordinate protest.”

Looking at Rodriguez’s repertoire, this developer already has form with another app named Leg & Foot Surgery & Doctor & Hospital Office for Barbie Version, though in this one Barbie got hit by a car and needs appropriate surgery. Maybe this is a more altruistic app, for 9-year-olds who want to be a surgeon when they grow up, but the imagery is just as grim with an open wound and scalpel dug into Barbie’s leg.

Unlike the current advert for Innocent smoothies, which illustrates a “Chain of Good”, apps like this – readily available to any child searching iTunes for the word “Barbie” – can create a long, uncontainable Chain of Bad.

The app teaches young girls that happiness and beauty comes from cutting “problem” parts of yourself away, actually becoming the surgeon themselves as easily as pressing “download” on a touchscreen – the game being free at point of download. Meanwhile, the faceless developer appears to be totally unaccountable for the messages and images that start that chain.

Surgery used to be extraordinary and as advertisers in women’s magazines try to normalise it for us adults, with their interest-free loans and payment plans, an even more insidious message is being trickled into the childhoods of those kids around us. We thought we had it bad when we were kids? The kids nowadays are being told even Barbie needs fixing. I can’t help but think I had it much easier; in my childhood imagination I only had to fight off that Queen of Hearts and her wayward axe.

We’ll let you know what happens when Apple and Barbie get back to us.

Photo: Twitter

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Sadomasochism on the High Street

This Christmas has been a Christmas of firsts for me. The first time I’ve ever eaten an entire advent calendar while watching an episode of I’m a Celebrity and, not coincidentally, the first time I’ve had the fear I would need a seat belt extender on an aeroplane. If you’ve never heard of such a thing, Google it – there’s a whole internet of anxiety out there, which you’re unlikely to be aware of until you find your partner having to squeeze you into a Virgin Little Red belt in the manner of shoving a sleeping bag back into it’s sheath. The final first? The only places on the high street where I could find a coat I liked, and that fitted me, were Asda and Tesco.

As a person with a yoyo-ing waistband I’ve been in and out of phases where everything in Topshop falls off me and then, within months, where the staff at fitting rooms give me pity smiles as I walk in, deluded, with a batch of size 16s. I’ve had more bra fittings than most people have had Christmas dinners; in fact, I had one this Christmas with a lovely woman in Aberdeen’s M&S who explained that, while I wouldn’t be able to get a fancy bra in my size, she’d do her best to find me one that didn’t look like mountaineering equipment.

So I’ve stumbled into 2014 wondering exactly what happened to the campaigns for a more diverse range of sizes in our high street shops. I’m not posh – I’ve often picked up a fashion bargain in a supermarket – but it would be nice to have the kind of clothes shopping experience that doesn’t end up with your new buy being tangled in your basket with your Sunday dinner.

Not fitting in is a marvellous motivator for losing weight and those who hated my piece Running? It’s just Jogging will be glad to hear I’ve put my tail between my legs and am thrusting myself round my local park every other morning in the bid to get fitter. Of course, my motivation is to not only to be fitter but to be smaller, in order to fit in.

Why, when the average size of a woman in the UK is size 16, does Topshop – one of our largest fashion stores – stop many of its ranges at 14 and not even touch an 18? By my calculation, if the average is 16, that means there’s got to be an awful lot of women above a 16 as well as below. Perhaps it’s just not the store for me; after all, I do remember the 80s the first time around, but grown-up Cos and Zara are faring no better.

Debenhams may well have size 16 mannequins but Debenhams is not even fashionable enough for my mum. Evans is not what I would call fashion-led; after the briefest of sell-out ranges with Beth Ditto it’s gone super duper boring. ASOS Curve is pretty good but I want a shop I can go into and, while Dorethy Perkins tries, I’m not sure their hearts really in it; I normally stand in the changing room going: “well it’s amazing it’s in a size 20 arse, but this dress makes me look like a 5 year old’s drawing of a cocktail waitress”.

Where’s the creativity, the art, architecture, the fun? Where’s the “fashion”? Where’s the equivalent of Topshop Unique or Cos for big women?

Not fitting in is especially damaging to younger women. Being dragged around stores where all your mates can try stuff on, every Saturday, while you grab a pair of the ubiquitous black leggings and some cool jewellery, is not fun for 15-year-old chubby girls. It breeds low self esteem, labeling you as different, separate, and can start a cycle of bravado and yoyo dieting that can last a lifetime.

On the plus side, it also encourages creativity as you learn to do more with less. After all, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with not fitting in by choice, but it’s just not nice excluding the majority of women from high street fashion – it’s painful and humiliating – and yet we keep shopping there. It’s a sadomasochistic relationship and I’m not finding it that pleasurable anymore, are you?

I’m not about to start making my own clothes or open a shop, though I regularly fantasise about both, but if you are a talented designer do it, NOW. There are millions of women like me who will come and buy your wears. Abercrombie & Fitch’s Mike Jeffries is missing a million-dollar trick if he thinks cool kids only look like the ones in his adverts.

In the meantime, while one of you creates the next big fashion brand, I implore Mr Philip Green and others: give your designers a few more inches of fabric to play with. Tell them to go wild and make women feel fabulous about themselves. We might just find that the more people who feel warmly welcomed into our high streets shops – like they belong – the more healthy our thinking, and the less fabric we’ll need in the end.

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New Year, New You? Face 2014 with Fatitude

As I’m writing this, I’m snacking on a mini packet of chocolate buttons. Why? Because I bloody well feel like it. I’ve got Fatitude and I’m not afraid to flaunt it. I’ve never gone in for a New Year of restraint anyway. My birthday is on the 3rd of January, possibly the most depressing day of the year to be born. Everyone is skint, three days into not drinking/smoking/eating, and really down about having to go back to work. So I make up for it by completely ignoring “New Year, New You” rubbish.

I may want to ignore calls for unnecessary restraint, but we can’t deny there is an issue with obesity worldwide. It has more than doubled since 1980, with developing countries experiencing the greatest increase. Diet, exercise and radical surgery seem to be failing; so how do we deal with our ever increasing collective waistlines?

I was a contestant in ITV’s Celebrity Fit Club reality TV show a few years back but, unlike my fellow participants, my focus was always on getting healthier, not losing weight. I was a size 26 and now a size 18. I’m still classified as morbidly obese, and told I’m going to die an early death because I like the odd scotch egg. I went from being pre-diabetic to getting a clean bill of health; now the doctors can find nothing wrong with me except the fact I’m FAT. Shock horror. Yes, being fat and healthy is possible; I can only hope that somewhere in the world a Slimfast factory is imploding at that radical but entirely factual statement.

Changing our mindsets to engage with an alternative approach to weight and health will require a pretty massive shift. The media has twisted and distorted what healthy looks like, and the tools used by the medical profession to determine “healthy weight” reinforce this. The BMI index has been proven to be flawed; we need accurate ways to determine health and wellbeing. Or maybe we just need to fundamentally reconfigure how we judge health and wellbeing. The work done by Dr Linda Bacon, nutrition professor in the Biology Department at the City College of San Francisco is pretty impressive. She is the originator of the Health at Every Size movement, and promotes self-acceptance, physical activity and normalised eating as a way to healthy living, no matter what size you are. Respect for the diversity of body shapes and sizes is at the heart of HAES. I think its resources should be available to all girls in school.

Along with compulsory sex and relationship education, serious and desperately needed improvements could be made in the way girls see themselves, each other, and relate to boys and men. Engaging with Health at Every Size will also aggravate the diet industry, which can only be a good thing. Weight Watchers reported profits of $64.9 million last year, all made on selling a dream based on fail-and-return. Their overpriced and nutritionally poor ready meals are another profit boosting, morale-destroying tool of oppression. I nearly smashed bottles of their “low-calorie wine” in the aisle of my local Tesco just before Christmas. At 60 calories a small glass, it’s the same calorific count as any other wine on the shelf, but twice as tasteless (so I’m told). The diet industry and all its permutations needs to be named and shamed as one of the main perpetrators of low self esteem and economic opportunism against women.

There are impressive women making a difference, though. My personal chubby heroine is Dr Charlotte Cooper. She is an architect of Fat Studies, an emerging academic field which gives a more critical understanding of social positioning of fatness and health. She sits on the board of Fat Studies Journal and is a psychotherapist who works mainly with fat people. She is the author of Fat and Proud: The Politics of Size, and has originated events such as the Fattylympics and Big Bum Jumble, a plus size jumble sale. Most importantly, Dr Cooper insists political activism is the key to a healthy future. No matter what size you are, no one can argue with that.

Amy Lamé is a writer, performer and broadcaster. Follow her @amylame

Photo: gaelx

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What women really worry about 2014: The stats

“Be a Better You” – Red magazine.

“A New Year, a New You” – Get Slim magazine.

“How to Get July Skin in January” – Elle.

If an alien visited earth this month and read our women’s magazines, they’d be left with the impression that all women really want is to lose weight, unwrinkle their skin, look different, act different and buy new shoes.

They’d get the distinct impression that transformation is transactional and that happiness can be bought in the form of a night cream. ET would think that, for this planet’s women, a new year means a new you, and that little else matters. But the relentless magazine headlines about aesthetic New Year’s resolutions don’t reflect *all* of the things that women really want.

As part of the Lodestone Political Survey, prepared by Survation, we polled over 1,000 women about what they really worry about and what they really want. When asked ‘what is the thing that most worries you at the moment?’, only 2% of these women answered by saying “the way I look”, 2% said “not having enough me time”, and 1% said “not fitting in”.

In contrast the top five responses were:

“My children’s/grandchildren’s future”

“Not being able to afford to pay the bills”

“Not having enough money as I’d like to have”

“Getting or being unwell”

“Becoming or being unemployed”

Earthly concerns, rooted in the grind of daily life, family love and economic realities come way above the worries that fuel New Year aesthetic transformation fantasies.

With women earning an average of 15% less than men, the prevalence of these everyday concerns shouldn’t be a surprise. Women are likely to have fewer financial assets and are more likely to live in poverty, especially in older age.

These earthly concerns and aspirations were reflected in the answers women gave when we asked them what they would like their lives to be like in 2020. For example, a 47-year old gardener from Wales said: “I would like less stress on my finances and would like to feel safer and more secure than I do now.”

Similarly, a 43 year old office worker said that, in 2020, she would like to be: “happy, calm and secure; much the same as now but without the anxiety of worrying about bills and expenses being higher than our income,” and an unemployed 20-year old from the West Midlands said she would like to be: “better off financially [and] I would also like to have a job.”

A 61 year old woman from Northamptonshire told us that, in 2020, “I want to be able to use my heating without worry about the bill, I would like to have enough pension money to afford a taxi or a haircut, I would like to eat meat.”

Her hopes for 2020 aren’t about having “the right haircut”; they’re about being able to afford a haircut.

Her hopes for 2020 aren’t about “preparing the perfect meal”; they’re about being able to afford to eat meat once in a while.

Her hopes for 2020 aren’t about “having a stylish home”; they’re about being able to heat her home.

Some of the answers women gave are heartbreaking in their honesty and it’s telling that they mentioned debt 117 times, while make-up was mentioned a grand total of one time.

The fantasy of aesthetic personal transformation helps to sell magazines, shift products and help us cope with everyday life by giving us a moment of escapism. At times, I’ve found the New Year articles, inspiring and interesting, and I’ve enjoyed looking through magazines with my sister and friends. At other times, I’ve found the articles at this time of year condescending, simplistic, formulaic and repetitive.

The key point is this: not all of the things that women really want can be bought in a shop. Not all of the things we really want can be achieved in the gym, the bathroom or the beautician’s. Many of the women we surveyed talked about their concerns about personal finances, work and the future of the economy, and when we asked women “what is the one thing you would most like politicians to focus more on doing?”, the top responses were “ensuring we have a stable economy” and “working to create more jobs”.

While many magazines pump out advice on action we can take as individuals to transform the way we look, we should consider spending more time thinking about the action we can take collectively to tackle the big issues. New Year, new you? No thanks. New Year, new thinking? Yes please.

Fran O’Leary is Director of Strategy and Innovation at Lodestone. She is writing in a personal capacity. Follow @FranOLeary

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Comeback: Running? It’s just jogging

Feminist Times reader Katie Stanton responds to Deborah Coughlin’s article Running? It’s just jogging.

I could write a book about my history with dieting and I’m sure you could too. In the same way a man chats easily with a complete stranger about football, we women always seem to find calorie-related common ground when meeting other women (“No cake for me thanks, I’m being good”).

Poor body image is one of the most prevalent issues facing women today, proven by statistics showing 91% of those admitted to hospital for anorexia last year were women. For many feminists who suffer body image issues, there is also the added guilt of caring about it in the first place.

Most feminists are inherently anti-diet and there’s some great writing on why the dieting culture is a form of oppressive patriarchy (Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue is particularly good).

In the past, I have denounced any effort to burn calories to stay thin as anti-feminist, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. I used to read about women spending hours in the gym, slaving away towards size eight, and imagine myself saying to them: “Emily Davison didn’t throw herself under a horse so you could spend half your life on the treadmill.” Did I think myself morally superior to these women because I wasn’t spending my time working towards a thinner version of myself? Probably.

But then I started running. And all that stuff they say about endorphins is true. Suddenly, I was not only healthier, happier and sleeping better, but my life became more goal-orientated, on the track and in the office. All that time I now spend flailing around the streets of Leighton Buzzard gave me time to think about my previous preconceptions of gym-goers and how I fit into my big feminist ideal now that I’m a runner.

Here’s what I decided: The London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games gave us all an insight into the exhilaration of sporting victory. Here was a form of empowerment that needed to be tapped into. Worryingly, it struck me that the factor of good health was something feminism shied away from. Was the need for regular exercise being ignored because it sat too closely to the diet industry? Statistics show that 32% of women in the UK are overweight, so why is this women’s issue not being addressed? Where are the feminists against obesity?

I don’t write this to make you feel bad; in fact, quite the opposite. Let me reassure you I think fad diets are fucking repulsive and a societal scourge that oppress women. The best thing I saw at October’s Feminism in London conference was a teenage girl’s placard reading “pizza rolls not gender roles”. I want us to carry on eating pizza. But I don’t want us to ignore the benefits of exercise in the name of feminism. A healthy lifestyle is really important and it is possible to keep fit without selling your soul to the diet industry. Find a sport or activity that makes you feel empowered and go with it. When the revolution comes, we can’t be held up by those stopping for a fag break. For years feminism has demanded that society respects our bodies, so isn’t it about time we start doing the same?

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Happy New You: mopping up the fall-out from enforced gluttony

If you’re anything like me, you dislike nothing more than thinking you’ve undertaken a decision of your own free volition, only to discover later that you’re merely a corporate lemming. It’s moderately fun when you’re in your twenties and think you might be part of some sort of culture-shattering zeitgeist and then, when you’re about twenty eight, you have the crushing realisation that nothing you’ve ever thought has ever been original or ground-breaking. That even when you try to belong to an ‘underground’ alternative movement, said movement has been carved specifically to lure people like you into its clutches by a money-making chain that ultimately ends with someone like Simon Cowell.

Apologies, I appear to be having an existential crisis. Just before I go and stand on the balcony and contemplate my life for a bit, I wanted to talk about the worst possible example of our life decisions being manipulated by ‘the man’: The New Year Diet.

Every year, around about November 15th, the entire Western World embarks on a gigantic communal binge/purge cycle. First, we’re urged from all quarters to stuff ourselves to the gills in celebration of the major winter religious festivals, with every bus stop, billboard, website, television advert and mainstream publication imploring us to “treat ourselves” because, after all, it is Christmas – the one time of year when it’s more than acceptable to put Baileys instead of milk on your cornflakes in the morning.

For this period of unadulterated hedonistic indulgence, however, there will be a penance: you will hate your greedy self. Not only after the fact, in the bleak, cold days of early January, but a little bit while you’re actually doing it. Christmas is also the season of the ‘little black party dress’ and we are bombarded with pictures of celebrities wearing outfits comprising solely of sequins, tinfoil and other materials which look deeply unflattering on anyone with more than an ounce of body fat.

It’s ‘forced fun’, is what it is. I don’t know about you, but my idea of ‘ultimate fun’ is spending an entire week shagging with wild abandon whilst David Bowie’s back catalogue plays in the background at silly volumes. It is NOT standing in some God-awful bar-chain with people from the office whilst wearing a filmsy paper ‘crown’, making small talk about how it’s quite mild for this time of year, forcing down a mushroom vol-au-vent and a glass of sherry and attempting to convince myself that it’s “okay because it’s Christmas”.

On boxing day, we survey the torn shreds of wrapping paper, resembling the remnants of our self-esteem as they lay strewn about the living room, and we listen to every other human in our lives bemoan their expanding waist lines and pledge to “go on a diet in the New Year”. And again, we get swept up in the hysteria because this Christmas just gone, which was supposed to be a celebration of everything that was glorious in our respective existences, was in fact a gigantic anti-climax and if we want next year to be different; if we want it to be the glamorous, unadulterated thrill-ride the world has told us it should be, then surely it is our duty to ensure that in 2014 we are as thin and gorgeous as possible, in keeping with the overall theme of the occasion?

So as we begin 2014, gyms, celebrity fitness DVDs and diet clubs promise a New Year: New You! as they swoop in to mop up the emotional fall-out of our enforced gluttony.

Except it’s all bollocks.

A significant chunk of Western society’s corporate machine is founded on the phenomenon of the yoyo diet. They WANT you to regain that weight. That’s why diets are so miserable and unsustainable. There’s shady mutual sponsorship happening all the time between the fitness and fast food industries purely for this reason. They depend on our brains being a contradiction of the desire to eat tasty things and the desire to look like someone who has never so much as whiffed a Jaffa Cake. If you diet, make no mistake, you are a cog in that machine. A machine which is fuelled by fear, insecurity, and a constructed and entirely unrealistic beauty paradigm designed to keep us prisoners of our own feelings of unworthiness.

So, this New Year, if you must make a resolution, resolve to start listening to your body. It knows what it needs. Always has. You were born with an innate understanding of when you were hungry, when you were full, and what food and exercise you needed to do to remain healthy. Over time we have confused ourselves by listening to people who have found solace in a prescribed regime or, worse still, are making money out of it.

Your body is a glorious, self-regulating organism. Trust it.

Natasha Devon is Director of the Education Program at Body Gossip. She is Cosmopolitan Magazine Ultimate Woman of the Year, 2012, in Ernst & Young’s Top 50 Social Entrepreneurs 2013, Mental Health Association ‘Business Hero’ Award Winner 2012 and Shortlisted for UK Parliament First Annual Body Confidence Awards. Follow her at @NatashaDevonBG

Photo: Kristina D. C. Hoeppner

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Losing it. No one warns young women about anxiety

When I moved to Paris two months ago to start university, something really weird began to happen inside my body. It was something I couldn’t quite locate – a bizarre, nervy feeling that wouldn’t go away; strange things were happening in my head and my chest.

The first spell of this unsettling ‘thing’ was while I was on the Metro. In sum, this trip cost me at least three hours of my life, underground, sweating and fainting. Something in me was preventing me from getting out of whatever station I was in… I think it was Republique. My mind was blocked, my heart racing. At one point I remember standing up on a train, holding on to a pole with what minimal sugar I had fueling my body, and I lost grip. I fell onto an English man, who stood up and gave me his seat.

In a cliché we would have fallen ‘in love’ and my life would have been lalala… In reality, it wasn’t; I was convinced I was losing it.

IS THIS IT? I asked myself. Am I walking on the bridge from sanity to la folie?

In retrospect I wasn’t; it was simply a panic attack.

Unfortunately the word ‘simply’ doesn’t quite do the event justice. This perturbing episode of out of body-ness lasted for a few hours. Eventually I got myself out of the Metro and into a McDonalds, where I tried to explain to myself what had just happened.

For days I kept the worry to myself, but eventually phoned my mum and told her what had been happening. “It sounds like you have anxiety,” she told me. “What do you mean? I am feeling anxious, I know that.” “Yes,” she said, “It’s anxiety.”

In all honesty, this was the first mention I had ever heard of this thing that is, in scientific terms, ‘general anxiety disorder’. I had known what a panic attack was, and I had been aware that sometimes they happen, but I hadn’t known that they could be reoccurring, everyday, sometimes more often than mealtimes.

Anxiety is very common, especially among students, so why was I not warned? Why, when studies show anxiety is rising in student populations was I not told about it?

When I was at secondary school I remember there being a point when all adults were talking to me about was puberty. Periods, sex, contraception, pregnancy etc. I am very grateful to my form tutor for showing me how to put a condom onto a banana, however amusing I found it at the time.

But as I came towards early adulthood I do wish I had been warned about this anxiety thing; it would have saved me from spending weeks alone, utterly convincing myself I was insane.

If you’ve never had a panic attack I envy you. Anxiety puts its owner’s body into the state it would be in during an intense confrontation. It is a constant pump of too much adrenaline at any one time. This is why we get scared/panicky/think we are going insane.

If I could have located the reason for this anxiety, I would have been able to sort the problem straight away. To my grief, anxiety is hard to determine. It’s hidden in us while it displays itself absolutely everywhere.

When I was younger I used to become slightly anxious when I felt that I had overeaten. I would have irrational feelings that my waist was expanding whilst I was looking in the mirror, as though I was literally putting on weight as I breathed, watching myself.

It wasn’t normal but I don’t totally blame myself – I must put some of the blame on the society I live in. Women have to worry about keeping up with the standards that we are set by men, but also the standards that are set by women. You have to be clever and smart, but also look beautiful all the while. WHERE AM I GOING TO FIND THE TIME? I ask myself, anxiously.

When I came back to London for reading week, the first person I wanted to talk to was my very wise Grandmother. “It’s quite strange actually,” she began to tell me. “I’ve been worrying about you without even knowing that you had anxiety, I had a feeling something was going on.”

She then told me a very comforting story about when she first moved away from home at 16, from Hull to London. She said that when she first arrived, she was so anxious that she stopped eating and lost a load of weight. After a while, as she settled in London, this was resolved, but she told me that the transition had been so unnerving that she too had felt she was losing her mind.

Anxiety is something that is hopefully going to pass, however I am still questioning its causes. I don’t blame human beings for worrying so much, particularly women: women are twice as likely to experience anxiety as men. Women still have so many things to worry about. However, anxiety is something we can learn to cure ourselves, and for me a lot of the time that is done in writing.

Photo Porsche Brosseau

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Fit is the new Thin

Twice in the past couple of months I have been told by enthusiastic brand-hobbyists that Special K is changing it’s “message” and that this is probably good for feminism. No longer is the cereal about being slim enough to fit in that red dress, no my friend, now it is about being “healthy” enough to fit in that dress. The hobbyists continued: this is to be seen as part of a massive cultural shift that includes that trend “running”. Diets, size zero, meal skipping, purging, speed, these are all out. Health is King and Fit is in.

Fit, only one letter away from Fat, its out of breath sister, is all about being who you really are. You really are a warrior, an athlete, a competitor, an animal, built to chase, build and carry. You are a biological machine, measured and capable of balance. Food is fuel and thousands of people find themselves jumping up and down in their bedroom, before they can sleep, just to get their Nike Band in balance.

The Sunday Times declared 2013 the year of ‘Fit not Thin’ with Daisy Lowe as their ambassador for a summer ‘campaign’ of the same name. Lowe, the model, can dead-lift 80kg and finds it empowering. She would rather be Fit than Thin she says, but is this the choice the majority of us worry about?

Fit, I am afraid, is Thin but in trainers. It’s no easier to obtain, no easier to stick to, no cheaper to join than all the thousands of useless diets, shake programs and aerobics lessons many of us have failed at.

Fit is just as aspirational as Thin. It’s as cool, sexy and powerful. Successful people squeeze in fitness before work, they don’t hit snooze and make excuses. They do not end up getting carried away making a running playlist and forgo the actual run.

The trick of this idea – the idea underpinning the rebranding – is of course that you will be thin if you are fit. You will be sexy, energetic and fun. I can appreciate that exercise has incredible benefits for both body and mind, and that women need to hear that something is just as good if not better than Thin, but Fit is just not as uncomplicated as it may seem.

When aimed at a teenager who is starving themselves, spending their evenings into nights on pro-anorexia social networks, would the new choice ‘fix’ them? Of course I’d rather my anorexic and bulimic friends had taken up yoga instead of downing laxatives, though of course most of them excessively exercised as well. The most ‘healthy’ people I know are recovering anorexics who have found an acceptable new way to control their bodies.

For me, as one of the majority of women in the UK who is neither fit nor thin, and certainly not managing to control her body, this new message falls on cynical ears. Nothing more than a new sales patter, a more socially acceptable form of the traditional weight-loss industry in an era when both anorexia and obesity are rising; a rebranding where the inferred wisdom is you can be any size and Fit. But of course, Daisy Lowe is both Fit AND Thin.

In this year’s Jacques Perritti BBC Documentary series The Men Who Made Us Thin, we discovered that the in/out calorie “balance” does not work for everyone, that the gym industry knows exercise does not help people lose weight long-term and that it is possible to be both Fat AND Fit. This all means that we are not machines. What is balance for one person causes another to fall down.

Fat is very much a Feminist Times issue. When Liz Jones said that the Feminist Times had no right to do a piece on the burning of Spanx because our editor is very thin, she was unaware that the Deputy Editor (me) is a size 20. I do not believe the commodification of “Fit” is the answer to obesity or anorexia. Telling us we’ll be healthy if we eat a cereal is no better than telling us we will be thin, if it’s not true. Telling us a Playboy model is fit instead of thin is no more helpful either. And neither message is “good” for feminism.

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Running? It’s just jogging

“Jogging is for people who aren’t intelligent enough to watch Breakfast TV”  – Victoria Wood

Running is massiveMore people run than go to the gym. It’s so massive that most of my friends would describe themselves as some kind of “runner”. Bearing in mind the only thing they all had in common a matter of years ago was drinking, this is some kind of health-kick-culture miracle. But I only really knew something was up when I caught myself introducing ME as a “runner”. This was quite clearly a lie.

I had followed a 5k app and could do about 3k of it, yet something about what I was doing didn’t feel like running. That was when I took a look around at my peers running around and around and around my local park and realised: we’re not runners, we’re joggers.



What’s the significance of this? Jogging was universally panned sometime around the mid 90s as being incredibly bad for you. So who is it that rebranded jogging?

Speed, conditioning and rehabilitation coach, Mike Antoniades told the BBC: “If you are ‘moving’ slower than 6 miles per hour you are jogging, and quite frankly you would be better off walking! Walking at 4 mph or faster is biomechanically more efficient and far more beneficial to you than ‘jogging’ slowly!”

So my apps tell me I’m running but, according to Mike, I’m just jogging and killing myself; you need to be doing at least 9.6K in an hour to even be considered a slow runner. What we’ve got here is an emperor’s new clothes epidemic of epic proportions, with loads of naked emperors limping around ever so smugly as Ellie Goulding tells them they’re amazing in the that Nike App like a deluded mum.

Who has sold us these imaginary threads? The sportswear industry, the suspect with most to gain. The only thing all those running mates of mine have in common really is they’ve all spent money on cool trainers, breathable weather-proof tops, bands, apps and those little bum bags for your arm you put your phone in. Mine’s neon pink.


Image courtesy of Chris Hunkeler

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Charlotte Raven burns shapwear

War on Spanx

What’s a modern feminist to do to update the bra-burning stereotypes of the second wave? In the spirit of 1970, we decided to burn our Spanx instead.

Sadly, burning shapewear proved too toxic and dangerous, and we don’t recommend trying it at home.

Our more creative plan B was to recruit a team of brilliant artists, charged with creating 101 original reinventions for our decommissioned shapewear and to ‘take it out of service’.

Our artists created masterpieces from a Faberge egg and a string of sausages to a trophy handbag and a pair of hanging plant pots. Appropriating something that’s bad for women and transforming it is the embodiment of our whole Feminist Times ethos.

Submit your own creative uses for decommissioned shapewear to our Facebook page. Thanks to our shapewear artists: Cecilie Telle, Jackie Parsons, Jessica Mallock, Sadie Murdoch, Suky Best, Giuliana Molinari, Ingrid Berthon-Moine, Hilary Barry, Abbie Norris, Victoria Harwood, Bek Cameron, Tim Copsey and Vanda Battye.

Giuliana Molinari / 'Lick Me' /

Giuliana Molinari / ‘Lick Me’ / Sugared shapewear pants, liquorice, royal icing and crystalized flowers / June 2013 / from the series ‘Do Not Eat Me’ / http://bit.ly/1c3FCpC

Suky Best / Good to go / B&W inkjet print / 2013 / sukybest.com

Suky Best / Good to go / B&W inkjet print / 2013 / sukybest.com

Bek Cameron / Trophy Bag / Shapewear, hair / 2013

Bek Cameron / Trophy Bag / Shapewear, hair / 2013

Sadie Murdoch / Riff on a Black Purl (series) / C-type print / 2013 / www.ersatzgallery.com

Sadie Murdoch / Riff on a Black Purl (series) / C-type print / 2013 / www.ersatzgallery.com

Sadie Murdoch / Riff on a Black Purl (series) / C-type print / 2013

Sadie Murdoch / Riff on a Black Purl (series) / C-type print / 2013

Sadie Murdoch / Riff on a Black Purl (series) / ink on paper / 2013

Sadie Murdoch / Riff on a Black Purl (series) / ink on paper / 2013

Sadie Murdoch / Riff on a Black Purl / 2013

Riff on a Black Purl

Bek Cameron / Punk / photograph / 2013

Bek Cameron / Punk / photograph / 2013

Hilary Barry / paint on shapewear / 2013 / www.hilarybarry.net

Hilary Barry / paint on shapewear / 2013 / www.hilarybarry.net

Hilary Barry / paint on shapewear / 2013 /  www.hilarybarry.net

Hilary Barry / paint, canvas, shapewear / 2013 / www.hilarybarry.net

Apple and Pear

Abbie Norris / Apple and Pear / shapewear filled with tights / 2013 / dropframe.co.uk

Spandex slugs

Victoria Harwood / spandex slugs / 2013

Jackie Parsons

Jackie Parsons wears inverted shapewear / 2013 / http://bit.ly/1hkiGR0

Ingrid Berthon Moine / Anti-shame wear / 2013 / www.ingridberthonmoine.com

Ingrid Berthon Moine / Anti-shame wear / 2013 / www.ingridberthonmoine.com

Ingrid Berthon Moine / Anti-shame wear / 2013

Ingrid Berthon Moine / Anti-shame wear / 2013

Cecilie Telle / crochet plant holders / 2013

Cecilie Telle / crochet plant holders / 2013

Vanda Battye and Tim Copsey / Buoy Meets Girl / 2013 / empty.co.uk/

Vanda Battye and Tim Copsey / Buoy Meets Girl / 2013 / empty.co.uk/

Jessica Mallock / Frozen shapewear, back and front views / 2013

Jessica Mallock / Frozen shapewear, back and front views / 2013

Lucy Newman / Sausages! / Shapewear, quilt padding / 2013 / luce.co.uk

Lucy Newman / Sausages! / Shapewear, quilt padding / 2013 / luce.co.uk

Charlotte Raven burns shapewear / Don't try this at home! / 2013

Charlotte Raven burns shapewear / Don’t try this at home! / 2013

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Radical Agony Aunts: “too much of a turnoff”?

Dear Radical Agony Aunts,

I’m single and haven’t had the courage to attempt a relationship since I had breast cancer some years ago. A couple of years after the cancer I had plastic surgery and I think they did a rubbish job; I think it’s unsightly and I have no sensation in either breast. They did another operation to try to fix it with only slight improvement. I was worn out by surgery and refused to let them try again. So now I have what I think is a body that no person could ever feel aroused by. And a relationship has to have a sexual element, doesn’t it? Well, I want sex! I keep thinking through scenarios where I meet someone who’s attracted to my personality but when we try to go to bed they just can’t get aroused by my body and say “no, it’s just too much of a turnoff”.

I hope this isn’t taken as in any way insulting other women whose bodies have been damaged by breast cancer. Lots of women are already with a partner when cancer strikes and their partner simply continues to love them. But there are probably also lots of women like me who weren’t in a relationship at the time and who now don’t have to confidence to attempt it.

I doubt that more surgery would help and in any case the NHS (can’t afford private) might not be willing to do it now so many years have passed. I’m 46 and hetero. It was many years ago that I had the cancer. It’s been a long time.

Duh that reads back as very depressing. On the other hand I’ve always been a FEMINIST and that’s something to feel good about. Yes!

Personal agony aunt

Personal agony aunt

The Personal’s response:

Dear Feminist,

You’re right, it IS something to feel good about – and you’re here and you’re well and you want something new. Congratulations!

I started down the wrong road when I first read your email. I spoke to a breast cancer survivor friend about her experience, I searched the Breast Cancer Care website for answers, I thought about conversations you might have with your doctor. Wrong approach.

Because as you say, confidence is what you’re missing. If you had your version of “perfect” boobs, I’m guessing you’d still feel nervous about a new relationship. I can’t deny body image has a huge impact on our confidence. We’re constantly under pressure to conform to some notional ideal and force-fed images of “perfection”. We all feel that pressure all the time, but it’s all a lie. There’s the actual lie of airbrushing and other digital manipulation. There’s also the lack of truth and the artificiality of us plucking every hair, whitening every tooth, whittling our bodies down so we can be the pocket-size dolls these images say we should be. But you and I are feminists, so let’s not breathe life into that lie by believing it. We know there is no perfect woman. There’s only you and me, and our friends, sisters and mothers with the various pesky body parts that we love or hate, but which are never going to add up to the perfect ten. There’s only our beautiful individuality.

But exposing that individuality needs confidence. I once dated a few people through a phone-based singles service. The initial phone chats were great – we were witty and flirty and could be anyone we wanted. But then the “So… shall we meet up?” question would arise, and suddenly everything seemed scarily serious. But how do we get what we want if we can’t open ourelves up to it?

All I wanted to be when I grew up was a fiction writer. I dabbled but never took it seriously enough or worked hard enough to make it happen. I read a lot of “how to write” books, I joined a number of writing groups, I went to conferences. I made time for all of that but never put the hours into writing. And now in my day job away from agony aunting, I do write for a living – fundraising and communication for a charity whose aims I respect. So I kinda like my job, and it’s kinda got a creativity to it, and a regular salary is nice – but I know I haven’t achieved my ambitions. And that’s because I haven’t taken risks. Sound familiar?

I don’t want to play down your issues with your breasts, especially the lack of sensation. Medical knowledge and response to breast cancer is increasing all the time. If you can bear the thought of putting yourself through it, maybe there are more up-to-date approaches that can help, even in the NHS.

But whether or not you decide on more medical intervention, exposing your body is a big deal. Exposing yourself to the possibility of something new feels even huger. You might be disappointed. You may meet some fools. It’s going to be hard to start with, but you have to risk it.

You survived cancer, lady. Don’t be afraid that dating will be too big a challenge. We can spend a lifetime waiting to feel brave. Or we can just be brave.

Political agony aunt

Political agony aunt

The Political’s response:

Dear Feminist,

In search of the conceptual key to your problem, I returned to Deleuze and Guattari‘s notion of the body without organs (in A Thousand Plateaus). Basically, the concept of the “Body without Organs” is a critique of the notion of the “body as such”, the natural body. The “body as such” is for Deleuze and Guattari the “organised” body, the body that has been defined by utility, by its separation into distinct, zoned, functioning and comprehended elements (a breast is for sucking, etc.). That process of definition/organisation is always repressive.

For Deleuze and Guattari, almost every imaginative activity of men and women – including sexual activity – is evidence of the fact that we cannot be reduced to the fact of our merely organic existence. Insofar as we see the breast as a “normal” part of the female body, as having a beautiful (that is to say, natural) form, and as necessary for the attraction of a sexual partner, we are existing in a highly normative and repressive system of the body, the ultimate logic of which is theological.

For Deleuze and Guattari, the only body worth talking about is not the organized body (the medicalised, zoned body reduced to its functions, the “body as such”), but the Body without Organs: a body that is always in the process of being produced. For in fact, there is nothing natural or given about the “natural” or “organic” body:

“The BwO is not opposed to the organs; rather, the BwO and its ‘true organs’, which must be composed and positioned, are opposed to the organism, the organic organization of the organs”.

Even the organism is produced: “The organism is not at all the body, the BwO; rather it is a stratum on the BwO, in other words, a phenomenon of accumulation, coagulation, and sedimentation that, in order to extract useful labor from the BwO, imposes upon it forms, functions, bonds, dominant and hierarchized organizations, organized transcendences.”

Desire, for Deleuze and Guattari, is a force that cannot be contained by these processes of organization (“sedimentation and coagulation,”), which are for Deleuze and Guattari counter-productive forces: ways in which the dominant society (for want of a better term) attempts to discipline and regulate the productive forces, which are desiring forces. Desire, for D&G, has nothing to do with fulfilling a primary “lack”; nor does it have anything to do with pleasure (Freud’s “pleasure principle”); nor is desire about fantasy.

In fact, all these “explanations” are for Deleuze and Guattari ways in which the BwO is regulated and normalized. For D&G, desire has everything to do with production, i.e. with the project of creating the BwO. Desire is creative: it’s a wholly positive force; so masochism, for example, is not a “symptom” of a childhood trauma (as it was for Freud), but an example of the project to produce the BwO that is entirely of a kind with the projects of painters or writers: none of these activities should be subjected to interpretation, but should instead be considered as experiments, “programs,” undertaken in the cause of the BwO.

The other D and G would advise you to be more perverse, to denormativize the breast, indeed, to see the very normalisation of the breast as the perversion of a repressive society founded on the fascism of the normative body.

For what it’s worth, D&G would fancy you more than before. Hope this helps.

Further reading: Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, “How Do You Make Yourself a Body without Organs?” A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi, Minneapolis: University of Minnosota Press 1987, pp. 149-66.

Email your questions and dilemmas to agony@feministtimes.com

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